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Economy on Edge

Employment Gains, But Job Deficit Unchanged

August 3rd 2012

Unemployment Line in California

Employer payrolls climbed faster in July than in any month since February, but households reported that fewer members were at work in July than in June. The mixed employment report reinforces the message from earlier reports that the economy continues to grow modestly. Since January labor market gains have been fast enough to keep pace with population growth, but not fast enough to put a dent in the nation’s unemployment rate. The number of unemployed and the unemployment rate were essentially the same in July as they were in January.

The employer survey offers a brighter picture of job gains than the household survey. Private sector employment grew for the 29th straight month in June. It increased 172,000, far faster than the rate of growth in the previous three months. Since January private payrolls have climbed 141,000 a month. A wide variety of industries saw job gains in July, including manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, finance, professional and business services, and education and health. The temporary help services industry continued to add to payrolls in July. Since the start of the year, employment in the temporary help industry has climbed 6 percent. Read more ..

Broken Borders

U.S. Must Evaluate Mexican Border Tactics

August 2nd 2012

US Border Patrol arrest

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's recent visit to the U.S.-Mexican border was less than admirable when she accused local officials and others of exaggerating the danger and violence within border states such as Arizona, California and New Mexico, according to several lawmakers and enforcement officials on Monday.

Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL) responded to Napolitano's comments with outrage, calling for an all-encompassing strategy to provide for U.S. national security through what he termed "bold steps and bold solutions." Mack believes that U.S. foreign policy has neglected this reality and now must reestablish its authority of the United States over illegal organizations which threaten U.S. security at the Mexican border.

Mack stated, "A counterinsurgency strategy from our government that includes civil society, law enforcement, civil authorities and military personnel at the U.S. border is urgently needed. Repeated calls on the Administration have not gotten ahead of this plague and the lives of more U.S. citizens have been taken in the meantime, adding to the tens of thousands of people who have been killed in a drug war, [while]expanding the influence of terrorists." Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

The Election, the Presidency and Foreign Policy

August 1st 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

The American presidency is designed to disappoint. Each candidate must promise things that are beyond his power to deliver. No candidate could expect to be elected by emphasizing how little power the office actually has and how voters should therefore expect little from him. So candidates promise great, transformative programs. What the winner actually can deliver depends upon what other institutions, nations and reality will allow him. Though the gap between promises and realities destroys immodest candidates, from the founding fathers' point of view, it protects the republic. They distrusted government in general and the office of the president in particular.

Congress, the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Board all circumscribe the president's power over domestic life. This and the authority of the states greatly limit the president's power, just as the country's founders intended. To achieve anything substantial, the president must create a coalition of political interests to shape decision-making in other branches of the government. Yet at the same time -- and this is the main paradox of American political culture -- the presidency is seen as a decisive institution and the person holding that office is seen as being of overriding importance. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

Reinvigorating the Discussion of Israel’s Rights in the West Bank

August 1st 2012

West Bank Construction

The Commission to Examine the Status of Building in Judea and Samaria (the "Levy report") has drawn a flurry of overwrought criticism due to its inclusion of a section concerning the lawfulness of Israeli settlement activity. But the report’s argument is surprisingly modest in substance; it does little more than endorse the traditional official Israeli position that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply de jure to the West Bank, and in any event does not bar Israeli settlements. Some have argued that the Levy report is foolish politically, arguing that by asserting its legal rights, Israel will signal that it is unwilling to entertain "land for peace" compromises. This seems a doubtful thesis. Israel has asserted its legal rights to Jerusalem for decades, but yet repeatedly offered compromises on its rights in the city. What the Levy report has done is to reinvigorate the discussion of the legitimacy of Israel’s position under international law after many years in which Israel has been silent about its legal rights. That is a welcome development.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was presented with the report of the Commission to Examine the Status of Building in Judea and Samaria, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy (the "Levy report"). The report has drawn a flurry of overwrought criticism due to its inclusion of a section concerning the lawfulness of Israeli settlement activity.

The Battle for Syria

Is The War in Syria Undermining Palestinian Claim to Right of Return?

August 1st 2012

Palestinian Refugee Camp
Palestinian Refugee Camp

The fate of the Assad regime in Syria has been the main focus of media attention in recent months. Yet, another crisis has quietly developed on the sidelines of the Syrian calamity which may greatly affect the Palestinian refugees and the coveted “right of return”.

Over the past year, the Palestinians have challenged Israel by organizing mass marches of refugees to the Jewish state’s northern borders in order to breach its defenses and “return” to their homes. These attempts ended in a debacle, prompting the angry marchers, who felt betrayed by PLO organizers, to storm and set fire to the headquarters of Ahmad Jibril – one of the founders of the PLO – located in the Syrian Palestinian capital refugee camp of al-Yarmuk, situated in Damascus. The collapse of the "return marches" became the precursor of a process accelerated by the Syrian crisis, whereby the destruction of the refugee camps is leading to the dissolution of the right of return.

Reports indicate that the Yarmuk camp lies in ruins and its Palestinian inhabitants have joined the convoy of an estimated one million Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, no longer concerned with forcing their way to Israel. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

A Battle for Two Cities

August 1st 2012

Syrian security forces

The Syrian regime is pouring all available resources into its defense of the two main cities of Syria: Damascus and Aleppo.

While simultaneously constructing an Alawi enclave in the northwest, the Assads understand that maintaining control of these central urban areas is vital to maintain their claim to constitute the government of Syria. Lose the cities, and Bashar Assad’s regime will come to constitute just another sectarian force in a Syrian civil war.

As of now, the dictator’s forces appear to have largely succeeded in their mission in Damascus. In Aleppo, the battle is still on. Those who began last week to prepare eulogies for the Assad regime have once again spoken too soon. This is because while the balance of power in Syria is slowly shifting in the rebels’ favor, the essential cause of the stalemate between the sides remains.

The rebels are now far too numerous and powerful for the regime to entertain hopes of re-imposing its authority throughout the entirety of the country in the foreseeable future. Assad simply does not have sufficient manpower to carry out an effective campaign of counter-insurgency throughout the country. Read more ..

Afganistan on Edge

Millions of Dollars in U.S. Aid Wasted in Afghanistan

July 31st 2012

Afganistan construction

In the Nangarhar province near Afghanistan’s eastern border sits an abandoned police base, built with $4.5 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars and completed just 13 months ago. The base, known as Lal Por 2, is badly needed but remains empty because it lacks any viable water supply. No efforts are underway to add one.

A neighboring base on the border, also built with U.S. funds, has some Afghan police, but lacks a fully-functioning septic system or air conditioning. Those shortcomings, along with drainage problems in the main buildings, put the base at risk for abandonment as well, according to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

John Sopko, a former deputy director at Homeland Security and prosecutor who just filled the inspector general role July 2, says in his quarterly report published Monday that these two bases are prime examples of rampant waste throughout the Afghan reconstruction effort. Costing a total of $19 million, the bases, along with two others in the Nangahar province facing their own problems, are meant to give Afghan police a watchful eye along the nation’s militarily-significant border with Pakistan. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Swing States Give Obama the Edge

July 30th 2012

Obama Campaign 2012

President Obama has an overall edge in the 12 decisive battleground states that is measurably greater than his advantage in national polling. The dynamic, which may reflect a combination of lower swing-state unemployment rates and demographic advantages for the president, is causing stirrings of unease among Republicans, even as they emphasize that it is important not to read too much into the state of the race right now.

“Obama is concentrating his considerable early resources and messaging in the swing states, and it’s had an impact,” said Mark McKinnon, who served as a media adviser for President George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

But McKinnon added that Republican candidate Mitt Romney was “raising and saving his money to ensure he won’t be out-punched in the final rounds.” The crucial battleground states number about a dozen: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. Read more ..

Europe on Edge

The Radical Right in Europe

July 29th 2012

french riot police toulouse mar 2012

The rise in radical-right social and populist movements over the past ten years has been remarkable. While once these were on the political fringes, they now carry political weight in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Latvia, and Slovakia among others, as well as in the European Parliament.

These groups oppose ethnic and cultural diversity. They foment public disorder with marches and rallies to harass and intimidate Muslims and other migrants, and there is growing liaison and even coordination among them. Their street violence provokes reactions from Muslims, especially Islamists, and an escalating spiral of action and counteraction is emerging.

The radicals do not target Jews, and several even profess to be pro-Israel. The reality, though, is that their members are sometimes former neo-Nazis. It is important not to exaggerate these groups’ successes. So far, the radical right is represented in only a minority of national parliaments, and some researchers believe that their share of the vote may even have peaked in some countries. Read more ..

Broken Taxes

Two Steps Toward Reforming the Tax Code

July 28th 2012

Tax Haven Protesters

State governors are eyeing the federal tax reform debate closely, as potential reforms to broaden the income tax base could curtail a set of subsidies they currently enjoy -- the deductibility of state and local taxes. But there is another policy debate underway that would have the opposite effect for states -- permitting the collection of sales tax on out-of-state Internet and catalog sales just as they are collected on goods from brick-and-mortar retailers. Combining these two ideas could improve the U.S. tax system on both the state and federal level by creating a level playing field for state and local governments, businesses and taxpayers.

Under current law, taxpayers who itemize their deductions can deduct their state and local income taxes and property taxes. (A temporary provision set to expire this year permits taxpayers to deduct their sales taxes instead of their income taxes if they choose.) The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the "deduction for state and local taxes is effectively a federal subsidy to state and local governments. As such, it indirectly finances spending by those governments at the expense of other uses of federal revenues."

But the policy is worse than just a subsidy to states; it also distorts decision-making by state governments by inducing states to finance activities through higher income-tax rates on high-income individuals (those most likely to itemize). As CBO notes, "The deductibility of taxes could deter states and localities from financing services with nondeductible fees, which could be more efficient." Read more ..

Economy on Edge

Long-Term Unemployment: Anatomy of the Scourge

July 28th 2012

Unemployment Line in California

When unemployment rose during the Great Recession, so did long-term unemployment – defined here as joblessness lasting at least six months. This is the norm in recessions, but the gravity of the problem after 2008 was unprecedented.

In the 11 recessions since World War II, unemployment reached 9 percent in just three (1974-75, 1981-82, 2008-9). Only in the most recent slump, though, did the rate of longterm unemployment exceed 3 percent. Indeed, it reached 4.5 percent in April 2010, almost two percentage points higher than the peak in any previous postwar business cycle. And the problem is worryingly persistent: by April 2012, the long-term rate had exceeded 3 percent of the labor force for 34 successive months.

Between 2007 and 2011, the fraction of the nation's unemployed who were unemployed six months or longer increased from 18 percent to 44 percent. What’s going on here – and what can we do about it? Read more ..

Broken Elections

Million-dollar Donation in Indiana Race May Skirt Limits on Corporate Giving

July 27th 2012

Bundles of Cash

The RGA Right Direction PAC is a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC, registered with federal regulators to make independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates. So what is it doing giving $1 million directly to the Republican running for governor of Indiana?

The donation to Mike Pence, the largest to his campaign, appears to be a way around state laws limiting corporate contributions to candidates. “In one way, it’s legal,” said Andrew Downs of the Center for Indiana Politics, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “But if you say this is a way to give in excess of corporate limits, that’s also absolutely true.”

Right Direction is funded entirely by the Republican Governors Association, a so-called 527 organization dedicated to electing as many Republicans to governorships as possible—a mission fueled by contributions from some of the largest corporations in the country. In Indiana, candidates can accept unlimited donations from individuals and political action committees but only $5,000 from corporations and unions. Corporations and unions can also give to PACs, but only in small sums. Whether the check to Pence was drawn on a bank account that contained corporate money is not a matter of public record. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Israel’s Channel 10: U.S. Officials Believe Israel Will Strike Iran at End of Summer

July 27th 2012

Israeli Jets Parked

According to Israel’s channel 10 news, “many U.S. officials” believe that Israel is tired of diplomacy with Iran, and in the estimation of the officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already decided on an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the fall, right at the conclusion of the summer.

The report, by journalists Emmanuel Rosen, Or Heller and Omri Nehemias adds that Israel’s ‘Octet’ -the name given to the Prime Minister’s inner cabinet that would be responsible for the initial decision over an Iran strike – has not met in two months, which they say raises the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak are working alone, and will adopt a decision on the matter with limited consultation.

According to the report, it is still unclear whether the talk of action in the near future will materialize or whether Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating such an impression. “Only the future will tell whether this is a diplomatic game or a real option,” they conclude. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Big Business Prefers GOPs’ Super PACs to Democrats’

July 26th 2012

Mitt Romney expansive

Republican-aligned super PACs have benefited from far more corporate cash than their Democratic counterpartsca revenue stream created in the wake of the controversial Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago.

The top two super PACs—the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads—have raised nearly $24 million in contributions from companies so far this election cycle, an analysis has found. Donors include hedge funds, energy companies, dietary supplement makers, and even a popcorn manufacturer.

The list includes a handful of Fortune 500 and other publicly traded corporations, but donors are more likely to be privately held businesses, often organized as limited partnerships or limited liability companies. Read more ..

Saudi Arabia on Edge

The Prince and the Revolution

July 25th 2012

Bandar bin Sultan

Saudi Arabia is bringing back its most talented operator to manage the Arab Spring. But can Bandar stem the rot in Riyadh?

On July 19, the eve of the Saudi weekend and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi government orchestrated its equivalent of Washington's Friday afternoon news dump: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late crown prince and defense minister, Sultan, was appointed the new intelligence chief.

The kingdom may want minimal coverage and analysis of Bandar's appointment, but it is bound to be disappointed. Bandar used to be one of Saudi Arabia's flashiest diplomats, a longtime ambassador to the United States renowned for manipulating people and policy in the kingdom's favor, and sometimes also in favor of the U.S. government. At the very least, his appointment is a reflection of King Abdullah's concerns about developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and the limited talent pool in the House of Saud to meet the challenges. Frankly, it suggests panic in Riyadh. Read more ..

Middle East on Edge

Democracy, Salafi Style

July 25th 2012

Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, Salafi Cleric

One of Saudi Arabia's most popular hardline clerics has embraced democracy. Should we worry, or applaud?

The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have each won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood isn't the only movement mixing faith and politics in the new Middle East: Salafis—hardline conservatives who model their lives on Prophet Mohamed and the first three generation of Muslim leaders following his death—are setting aside years of theological opposition to democracy to participate in the political game.

This sea change was driven home earlier this week when Saudi Salafi heavyweight Sheikh Salman al-Awdah took to his Twitter feed and Facebook page to proclaim: “Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances.” Although Awdah notably made his announcement on his English—not Arabic—social media platforms, where his audience numbers in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, the sentiment is still positively Churchillian—echoing as it does the late British prime minister's maxim: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Displacement: The Human Consequence of the Continuing War

July 25th 2012

Bombing Hits Syria March 18 2012

An estimated 19,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011. But well over a million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes and the number is increasing. In fact, people are reportedly being displaced multiple times within Syria as they search for safety. If history is any guide, the displacement crisis in Syria is likely to create further tensions and to last much longer than anyone now anticipates.

The United Nations refugee agency reports that it has registered over 117,000 Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. These numbers probably underestimate the number of Syrian refugees in the region as many are staying with family or friends and simply do not register. While the largest number of registered refugees are in Turkey, it is telling that over 7,000 Syrians have sought safety in Iraq; the two countries only normalized relations in early 2011 and it wasn’t that long ago that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis sought protection from their country’s violence by moving to Syria. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

The Mandate For Palestine Still Matters 90 Years Later

July 24th 2012

British Mandate

Israelis and friends of the Jewish State alike are accustomed to the never-ending scorn the United Nations heaps on the Middle East's only free democracy, never mind its desire for peace with all of its Arab neighbors. It may seem unfathomable that the very same institution was ultimately responsible for the creation of Israel nearly 65 years ago.

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN, that published the legally binding document the "Mandate for Palestine." The Mandate's roots can be traced to the founding of modern Zionism in August 1897 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.

After witnessing the spread of anti-Semitism around the world, Theodor Herzl felt compelled to create a political movement with the goal of establishing a Jewish National Home in historic Palestine, and assembled the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. During World War I, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour simply expressed Great Britain's view with favor for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syria After the Fall: A World without Bashar Al-Assad

July 24th 2012

Anti Assad insurgents

We have entered the endgame in Syria. That doesn't mean that we have reached the end by any means, but it does mean that the precondition has been met for the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. We have argued that so long as the military and security apparatus remain intact and effective, the regime could endure. Although they continue to function, neither appears intact any longer; their control of key areas such as Damascus and Aleppo is in doubt, and the reliability of their personnel, given defections, is no longer certain. We had thought that there was a reasonable chance of the al Assad regime surviving completely. That is no longer the case. At a certain point -- in our view, after the defection of a Syrian pilot June 21 and then the defection of the Tlass clan -- key members of the regime began to recalculate the probability of survival and their interests. The regime has not unraveled, but it is unraveling.

The speculation over al Assad's whereabouts and heavy fighting in Damascus is simply part of the regime's problems. Rumors, whether true or not, create uncertainty that the regime cannot afford right now. The outcome is unclear. On the one hand, a new regime might emerge that could exercise control. On the other hand, Syria could collapse into a Lebanon situation in which it disintegrates into regions held by various factions, with no effective central government. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Civil War Enters New Phase

July 23rd 2012

Free Syrian Army fighters

For most of the past 16 months, the insurgency against the regime of President Bashar Assad has been confined to certain specific areas of the country. Assad has also managed to keep the top levels of his own elite intact, and largely loyal.

The regime has done its utmost to preserve this situation, and above all to maintain quiet in the two largest cities of the country, the capital Damascus, and Aleppo.

But the regime has failed.

The clashes in Damascus this week, the growing stream of defections and yesterday’s bomb attack on the National Security Building in the capital, set the seal on the failure. The deaths of Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, Assad’s brother-in- law Assef Shawkat and former chief of staff Hassan Turkmani in a bomb attack on a meeting of senior officials in Damascus exemplify the sharp erosion in the regime’s position in recent weeks.

The intelligence required for such an operation indicates that individuals close to the Assad regime’s inner sanctum are now providing information to its enemies. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Booming North Dakota City

July 23rd 2012

Keystone Pipeline

This is a tale of two cities. No, not Dickens' phlegmatic London and passionate Paris. Nor the two neighborhoods Charles Murray contrasted in his recent best-seller "Coming Apart," prosperous but isolated Belmont (actually, Mitt Romney's home for decades) and needy and disorganized Fishtown.

These two cities have names you may not recognize but which you have probably read about in the last few years: Fremont and Williston. Fremont is the southernmost city in California's East Bay, just around the corner from (well, a few freeway exits from) Silicon Valley.

It's not as upscale as Palo Alto or Cupertino but has its own distinctions. It was the site of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant where General Motors and Toyota collaborated for years but which closed in April 2010. It's the site of the California School for the Deaf. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

The Levy Report and the 'Occupation' Narrative

July 22nd 2012

Arafat, Rabin, and Peres Peace Prizes

Looking back over the last two weeks, what appeared to hit a raw nerve with critics of the report of Justice Edmond Levy's committee was not what it had to say about the specific issues for which it was appointed, like zoning and planning in the West Bank, but rather with how it dealt with the broader narrative for describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This became evident in how the reaction focused on the report's conclusion that "the classical laws of 'occupation' as set out in the relevant international conventions cannot be considered applicable to … Israel's presence in Judea and Samaria."

How did Justice Levy, who recently retired from Israel's Supreme Court, reach this conclusion along with his two colleagues? They argued that the Israeli presence in the West Bank was unique, sui generis, because there was no previously recognized sovereign there when it was captured by the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War in 1967. The Jordanian declaration of sovereignty in 1950 had been rejected by the Arab states and the international community, as a whole, except for Britain and Pakistan.


The Battle for Syria

With Assad Future in Question, Lebanon on Edge

July 22nd 2012

Lebanese protesters

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power becomes increasingly tenuous, a sense of unease is growing among some of his staunchest regional allies. And even though they have dwindled in number since the start of the anti-government uprising in Syria 16 months ago, some are still betting on his survival. In Lebanon, regime loyalists are digging in and if Assad were to fall, the political landscape here could be altered dramatically.
Hours after a suspected bomb attack purportedly killed four of Assad's top security officials, including his brother-in-law, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech marking the 2006 war with Israel, "These martyr leaders were comrades-in-arms on the path of the conflict with the Israeli enemy." He added, "We are confident that the Arab Syrian Army, which managed to overcome the unbearable, has enough resolve to be able to go on and crush the hopes of the enemies."

Iran on Edge

Iran’s Latest Missile Exercise: A Message of Force Projection

July 21st 2012

Iran Missiles

On July 2-4, 2012, the Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted a missile exercise, dubbed Great Prophet 7, which involved firing dozens of missiles at a target that resembled a U.S. airbase situated in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia.

Iran is signaling that it is prepared for a military clash with the West and Israel, and possesses a devastating “second-strike” response capability against any attack on its nuclear sites. IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh claimed Iran had already amassed information on 35 U.S. bases in the region and had deployed missiles to destroy them within minutes of an attack on its soil.

Hand-in-hand with continued progress toward advancing its nuclear program amid the recently renewed nuclear talks, Iran is well into the process of developing a deterrence doctrine toward its main adversaries in the region, namely Israel and the United States, while upgrading R&D for its missiles in a way that could eventually enable it to mount a nuclear bomb on a ballistic missile. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Moment of Truth Approaching in Damascus

July 21st 2012

Nakba Protests

The Free Syrian Army has shifted to an offensive in Damascus and Aleppo.          

 Over the last three days the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella body of the rebel forces, has changed its approach in fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. From a campaign of attrition—aimed at siphoning off troops from the Syrian army, eroding its power by attacking its armored forces, and taking over positions and bases while damaging morale—the Free Syrian Army has shifted to an offensive whose aim is no less than a military victory. 

In his instructions to the rebel forces, Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Asaad outlined the main points of his battle plan. In a video uploaded to YouTube on Monday, Asaad ordered the rebel forces in southern Syria and in the rural part of Damascus to make their way to the neighborhoods of Damascus and wage the final battle against Assad’s forces there. As for the rebel forces in the northern and eastern parts of the country, Asaad told them to go to Aleppo, the economic capital of Syria, in an effort to defeat the Syrian army in that city.


Egypt on Edge

Morsi’s Victory and Egypt’s Second Republic

July 20th 2012

Mohammed Morsi

In an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, the son of a peasant farmer from the Nile Delta, an Islamist jailed several times by Hosni Mubarak, has succeeded him as president of the largest Arab nation in a victory at the ballot box – thus inaugurating Egypt’s Second Republic.

U.S.-trained engineer Mohamed Morsi’s victory breaks a tradition of domination by men from the armed forces, which have provided every Egyptian leader since 1952, and instead installs the Muslim Brotherhood – a group that drew on eighty-four years of grassroots activism to propel Morsi into the presidency.

That Egypt will evolve into something resembling today’s Turkey is hardly guaranteed. To do so, the Brotherhood must give up its longtime dream of imposing shari’a and instead strike a moderate course. Protecting the rights of women and religious minorities in the new state will require a constant struggle.  Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Decision Time in the United States

July 20th 2012

Obama and Romney

On Tuesday November 6, a highly divided U.S. electorate will go to the polls to choose a president and a new Congress. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this election for both the U.S. and the global economic outlook. Since two very different visions are being offered to the electorate as to how the United States should address the very difficult economic challenges with which the country is now confronted. And these different visions are being offered at a time of renewed economic weakness at home and of mounting electorate concern about the impact of globalization on U.S. job creation. Read more ..

Broken Energy Policy

Are Pollution Controls Worth Their Costs?

July 20th 2012

Autogas refueling

A recent wave of government regulations mandates the energy efficiency levels of a wide range of consumer and business products, including passenger cars and commercial vehicles, clothes dryers, air conditioners, and light bulbs. The ostensible purpose of these regulations is to reduce pollution, notably greenhouse-gas emissions. But our recent examination of a number of these regulations reveals that, by the agencies’ own analyses, the regulations have only a negligible effect on greenhouse gases, and the environmental benefits are vastly outweighed by the costs of compliance.

The agencies attempt to mask this finding by claiming that the regulations save consumers and firms money, by forcing them to buy more expensive energy-efficient products. By asserting, with little to no supporting evidence, that consumers and firms are making irrational decisions in their purchases of energy-intensive products, the agencies can then claim that energy-efficiency regulations provide private benefits by correcting for this irrationality, and they then use these benefits to justify the expensive regulations that yield minimal environmental gains. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Pipelines are Slowly Making the Strait of Hormuz Less Relevant

July 20th 2012

Oil Pipes2

One hundred years ago this week, five Italian torpedo boats conducted a raid in the Straits of Dardanelles, a long, narrow body of water connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara -- then the world's most important shipping passage. It was the height of the Italo-Turkish War, a precursor to World War I, and the Young Turks in Constantinople responded by playing their trump card: They closed the strait to international shipping intermittently for a few weeks by deploying their warships. But instead of aiding the war effort -- the Turks eventually lost control of their Libyan provinces -- the closure had disastrous consequences for the Ottoman Empire.

At the time, the Russians sent 90 percent of their grain exports through the Turkish Straits out into the Mediterranean. Closure of the Dardanelles thus meant that millions of tons of grain were spoiled, bringing ruin to Russia's agricultural economy and reducing its export revenues for the year by 30 percent. The lesson for Tsar Nicholas II: never allow a foreign power to hold the key to your prosperity. From that point onward, Russia's foreign policy in the lead-up to World War I was laser-focused on one objective: accelerating the demise of the Ottoman Empire and inheriting control over Constantinople and the Straits. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

After the Damascus Assassinations: A New Phase for U.S. Syria Policy

July 19th 2012

President Bashir al-Assad of Syria

The apparent assassination of top military officials in Syria marks a new and possibly decisive phase in the civil war between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the broad, loosely coordinated, but clearly potent opposition. For the United States, this turn of events should shift the policy discussion from a UN debate over renewal of the ineffectual Annan peacekeeping mission to ways of exploiting the disarray, namely by pressing Assad to leave power while avoiding outcomes such as chaos, ethnic bloodbath, or jihadist takeover.

With at least three of the eight targeted military leaders apparently dead, the Damascus bombing will almost certainly be a major blow to the regime’s ability to conduct its war against the Syrian people. The impact will be felt both operationally and psychologically, with the potential for cascading problems in conducting military actions across the country.

The surviving leadership will have to rebuild a command structure in an environment where increasing numbers of military officers and civilian supporters are likely to see the assassinations as the writing on the wall for the regime and begin to seek alternatives for their own survival. Depending on whether the regime is able to steady itself quickly, the incident could also provide an opportunity for opposition forces to press ahead with creating safe zones in various parts of the country, or even to take decisive action against Assad. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Will the Rebels Win Syria’s Civil War and What That Means

July 18th 2012

Free Syrian Army

The tide seems to be turning in Syria. While the civil war is far from over, the regime is clearly weakening; the rebels are expanding their operations and effectiveness. There have also been more high-level defections. What does this mean and why is this happening There are three main factors that are making a rebel victory seem more likely.

First, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Turkey’s facilitation and U.S. coordination, are sending arms to the opposition.

Second, the regime has been rushing the same trusted units around the country to put down upsurges and these forces are getting tired and stretched thin.

Third, President Bashar al-Assad really has nothing to offer the opposition. He won’t leave and he can’t share power. His strategy of brutal suppression and large-scale killing can neither make the opposition surrender nor wipe it out. Even if he kills civilians and demonstrators, the rebel military forces can pull back to attack another day. Even though the fighting may go on for months, then, it is time to start assessing what outcomes might look like. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Inside Iran: War by Other Means

July 17th 2012

Iran's Revolutionary Guard

Iran announced in July that it is set to transfer responsibility for part of its oil sales to three newly established private consortiums. This move is intended to counter an EU ban on importation, shipping and purchase of Iranian oil, which went into effect on July 1.

The ban is the latest element in the sanctions program intended to force Iran to abandon its push for a nuclear weapons capability. It looks set to cost Tehran a decline in revenue from oil exports of billions of dollars per month. The EU move came together with tightened US penalties on countries that do business with Iran’s Central Bank.

The announcement by Iranian Oil Exporters’ head Hassan Khosrojerdi regarding the establishment of private consortiums to circumvent the sanctions, meanwhile, is the newest example of the creative campaign being waged by Iran to reduce the impact of international moves.

This campaign is being coordinated by the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the commanding heights of the Iranian energy industry. Read more ..

Palestine History on Edge

The Battle over Silwan's Fabricatied Palestinian History

July 16th 2012


On August 26, 2010, a violent clash broke out between Jewish and Arab residents of Silwan, a predominantly Muslim village outside the southern end of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The name derives from the biblical "Shiloah" and its subsequently Graecized "Siloam."

On the face of it, the sparring that erupted over a gate built illegally by Arab residents may seem like a miniature version of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over who controls the Holy Land. But reducing the struggle to a mere real estate dispute misses a critical point in understanding the persistence of the larger conflict. For the battle of Silwan is a microcosm of a larger fight, one in which one side, the Palestinian, seeks to erase the existence of the other—not merely through traditional armed conflict but also by rewriting history.

Erasing the Past

The tactic of denying a Jewish past to sites and holy places in the Land of Israel is of relatively recent vintage in the Arab-Israeli conflict but one that has increased dramatically in the past few years. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Labor Dept. Assembling Expert Team On Mine Dust Enforcement

July 16th 2012


Federal regulators are assembling a team of lawyers and other experts to consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given systemic weaknesses revealed by an investigation into the resurgence of black lung, according to an internal Labor Department communication.

The effort, involving officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and other offices within the Labor Department, includes discussion of how regulators might be more aggressive in filing civil and criminal cases against mining companies that violate dust standards, the communication says. Investigation have documented a recent increase in cases of deadly coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung. It highlighted rampant cheating on dust sampling by coal companies, rules riddled with loopholes and weak enforcement. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Can It Get Worse in Syria? It Is

July 16th 2012

Assad Poster on Fire

Syria's descent into ever-greater violence steepened this week. Driven by the regime's desperate attempt to stay in power, an already ugly conflict took an ominous turn with the reported movement of chemical munitions and what appears to be the worst massacre of civilians yet.

Chemical Weapons Movement

Although details are lacking on the news that the regime is moving some of its chemical weapons (CW), the development signals that something important may have changed in Syria. The regime's CW infrastructure has been well established for years, and sudden movement within it suggests a major decision may be in the making. After all, the very act of moving them puts them at risk. The opposition Free Syrian Army has been widely attacking the road system, including military convoys—if CW transports come under attack, the weapons could be damaged, chemical agents could be released, or munitions could fall into the hands of FSA elements.

The regime's decision could be based on one of several factors. If the munitions are being concentrated at a smaller number of secure facilities, that would suggest the regime is worried about losing control of its CW as a result of combat or defections. It would also be another indication that the regime's position is deteriorating. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Iran’s Central Demand in Negotiations

July 15th 2012

Mahmoud Reza Khavari

The main theme raised by Iranian negotiators during the talks with the P5+1 in Moscow last month was their claim that they have a legal right to enrich uranium under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. David Ignatius, The Washington Post’s commentator for Middle Eastern affairs, obtained a copy of the Power Point that the Iranians used in the negotiations and he noticed that this argument appeared in the first third of the 48 page Iranian document. Ignatius understood through his contacts that for the Iranians any diplomatic compromise must include the West conceding to this Iranian demand.

Do the Iranians have any basis for making this argument? According to The New York Times, the P5+1 have responded to the Iranian legal claim by saying that the NPT makes no explicit reference to a “right to enrich” uranium. A senior U.S. official said that the West was not willing to recognize such a right either. True, Article IV of the NPT acknowledges the “right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…” But the U.S. has been reluctant to interpret this clause to justify the spread of enrichment facilities around the world. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Congressmen Unmoved By Russian Visit To Protest Magnitsky Bill

July 14th 2012

US Capital Day

Congressmen appear to be unmoved following the visit of a Russian delegation to Washington this week aimed at protesting pending U.S. sanctions over the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Describing the Russian initiative as "too late," the congressmen said that they expected the legislation to be signed into law. The move would deny visas to dozens of Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky's death and also freeze their assets.

Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) is a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where the Magnitsky legislation was first initiated. "The reports about this tragedy are not isolated," he said. "There have been two independent reports inside Russia that indicated this was a violation of Mr. Magnitsky's rights and an abusive process. "So it's going to be very difficult, I think, for one packet of information provided by a group of Russian [lawmakers] to overcome the huge body of information." Read more ..

Palestine on Edge

Is Mahmoud Abbas Facing a Revolution?

July 13th 2012

Mahmoud Abbas at parliament

In one of the lesser-reported stories from the Middle East, Palestinians are out in the streets ostensibly to protest the Palestinian Authority's plan to meet with Israeli Minister Shaul Mofaz. However, Palestinian complaints are primarily focused on the PA's increasingly authoritarian crackdown on internal Palestinian dissent, specifically on the internet and by journalists. Even the website Electronic Intifada (not typically a source of criticism of the PA) reported that police brutality began before the demonstration started.

Across the Arab world, corrupt security services and police have amassed power, money, and influence; the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) under the dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas is no different (Abbas has unilaterally extended his term in office since 2009.) A few months ago, an Arab poll listed the top concern of young Palestinians as PA corruption, rather like the original complaints of revolutionalry Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt. Palestinian bloggers and journalists have been reflecting unhappiness among the people for some time, and PA authorities have predictably responded with force. Read more ..

The New Egypt

Don't Ask Egyptians about What is Going On in Egypt

July 13th 2012

Egyptian bannerman

One of the more charming aspects of post-Mubarak Egypt is the frequency with which political debate erupts spontaneously between ordinary pedestrians, who are then quickly surrounded by dozens of on-listeners eager to hear competing points and, more often than not, interject their own. These deliberative blobs are the best indication that Egypt's suddenly competitive political life is trickling down to the masses. But if you listen to the substance of the debates, you'll discover that Egyptians are -- quite understandably -- disoriented by the rapidity and ambiguity of the latest political developments.

Thus, on the morning after President Mohamed Morsi reinstated Egypt's parliament, thereby bucking the military junta that dissolved it last month on the basis of a court order that invalidated last winter's legislative elections (see why people are confused?), Cairo's sidewalk speakers struggled for context. "The decision is like when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal," said one man at the center of the fray, viewing Morsi's initiative as an act of strength. But not everyone was convinced. "This decision was made as if he was buying a kilo of dates," yelled another over the debate's din. "He made it too easily." Read more ..

The New Egypt

Egypt's Real Ruler: Mohamed Tantawi

July 13th 2012

Mohammed Morsi
Mohamed Morsi

What does it mean that Mohamed Morsi is president of Egypt? Speaking for the American consensus, Bret Stephens recently argued in the Wall Street Journal against the consolation that the Muslim Brotherhood's victory "is merely symbolic, since the army still has the guns." He concluded that "Egypt is lost." We shall argue to the contrary: the election was not just symbolic but illusory, and Egypt's future remains very much in play. Morsi is not the most powerful politician in Egypt or the commander in chief. Arguably, he does not even run the Muslim Brotherhood. His job is undefined. The military could brush him aside. For the first time since 1954, Egypt's president is a secondary figure, assigned the functionary role long associated with its prime ministers.

Mohamed Tantawi is the real ruler of Egypt. Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall, and Minister of Defense, he serves not only as the commander in chief but also as effective head of all three Egypt's governmental branches. Tantawi is an autocrat with near-absolute powers. Read more ..

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