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Economy on Edge

The BRIC and How it Changes the Global Economic League

March 25th 2012

BRIC flags

China’s anticipated overtaking of the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy has become the focus of much comment of late. Equally important, however, are the changes already happening and likely to accelerate regarding the rising challenge of other BRIC nations in the world economic league. Earlier this month, Brazil replaced the U.K. as the sixth largest economy. This was a moment of some symbolism: Brazil used to be part of what historians have called Britain’s "informal empire," being under the sway of British trade, capital, and inward investment in the nineteenth century.

In the last decade, Brazil has consolidated its status as an agricultural and processed foodstuffs superpower, commodities that now account for a quarter of GDP and 36 percent of exports. It has become the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, coffee, tropical fruits, and commercial cattle (whose number is 50 percent larger than in the United States.). Brazil has also discovered massive oil reserves in the Atlantic, which have helped make it the world’s ninth-largest oil producer and raised the prospect of it eventually becoming the fifth-largest. The country is currently engaged in a massive program of infrastructure improvement to enhance growth, funded by the proceeds of its recent wealth creation. Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

Afghanistan: Pass the $1 Billion Per Week Baton to Russia?

March 24th 2012

US Military In Afghanistan
American soldiers of 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan

In early September 2002, one year after American troops entered Afghanistan, I reported newspaper stories from Kandahar, the main city of the Pashto-speaking southern part of Afghanistan.

I drove in from Quetta, Pakistan, and stayed 10 days at the “best” hotel on Kandahar’s main street.

For one report, I spent a morning walking the street with a Pashto-English interpreter. I talked to the video rental man, poked around the bazaar, and sipped tea with the used car dealer and his brothers. As a Westerner, I was a bit of an attraction. People were curious. Some were reserved. Some were friendly. For most of my stay, I’m sure the Taliban knew where I was.

This was back when the war’s goal was to destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. From the ruins I saw of Tarnak Farms, the Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar airport, it was clear that the American and allied soldiers had done fine job of that.

Then, two Washington syndromes descended on Afghanistan. With mission creep, getting rid of al-Qaida morphed into democratizing Afghanistan. Without a sunset clause, the war went on and on and on. As George Friedman, CEO of the Stratfor analytical group, wrote, Afghanistan has become the longest multi-divisional war fought in American history. Read more ..


Oil Addiction

Conservative Nonprofit Group gets Obama Administration Energy Policy Facts Wrong

March 23rd 2012

Crossroads GPS

Crossroads GPS is accusing the Obama administration of “bad energy policies” causing “prices we can’t afford.” But the Republican-leaning group makes some false and exaggerated claims.

  • It says the president “limited development of American oil shale.” Actually, production of petroleum from shale formations is booming. What the administration slowed down were plans for experimental development of ways to produce oil by heating kerogen-rich rocks, something that is years away from becoming commercially feasible.
  • The ad claims Obama lobbied to “kill” the Keystone XL pipeline. Not true. So far he has delayed a decision on some of it — while endorsing construction of a portion that will carry more low-cost oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
  • The ad correctly notes that there was a 17 percent decline in oil production in the Gulf of Mexico last year. But not all of that is because of the administration’s temporary drilling moratorium there.

The ad started running March 21. Crossroads said it is spending $650,000 to run the 30-second spot on national cable TV and in TV markets in Ohio, New Mexico and Nevada, where the president was pitching his energy policies this week. Read more ..


The Euro Crisis

Angela Merkel Faces Political Test as Elections and Austerity Measures Approach

March 22nd 2012

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Among the core economies of the eurozone, Germany is the most important member, but it (as well as France and the Netherlands, the other core countries) will face strong political challenges in the coming months.

The signing of the European Union's fiscal compact and a decision on an increase of the bailout funds are of wider European importance and will show how strong Germany's coalition government is. While Berlin demands greater fiscal responsibility from other countries, support for such measures within Germany will be tested in regional elections.

Germany is the eurozone's largest economy and the most important to the stability of the euro. Germany is one of the four remaining AAA-rated countries in the eurozone (the others being the Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) and the largest guarantor in the two European bailout funds. In the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), Germany guarantees nearly 30 percent of the total 726 billion euros ($957 billion). Berlin will guarantee 27 percent of the paid-in capital (80 billion euros) and guarantees (620 billion euros) in the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM). By spreading its economic influence across the rest of Europe through the common market and common currency, Germany creates more domestic wealth and weakens less-competitive European economies. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Why Turkey Hasn't Intervened in Syria

March 22nd 2012

Erdogan

Turkey's boldest response to the crisis in Syria came last week, when Prime Minister Erdogan called for the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors to help civilians there. But those hoping that Ankara's aggressive rhetoric will soon be matched by equally assertive action will be sorely disappointed. If Turkey has one priority these days, it's maintaining its soft power and popularity within the Middle East -- and any sort of military intervention involving Turkish boots on the ground in Syria would directly undermine that.

A recent survey by TESEV, an Istanbul-based think tank that measures perceptions of Turkey in the Middle East, encapsulates Ankara's dilemma in Syria. According to the poll, Turkey is the Middle East's favorite country: A whopping 78 percent of the people across the region say they like Turkey more than any other country. Iran, Ankara's only political and military competitor in the region, gets 45 percent, while the United States receives a mere 33 percent.

What explains Ankara's rise in popularity? It stems from Turkey's successful projection of soft power across the Middle East over the past decade. Turkish products, which dominate shops across the region, have brought Turkey clout the way Japanese cars ushered in global respect for Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. And Turkish soap operas depicting emancipated women against the background of a modern and functioning society have likewise appealed to the region's population, suggesting an appealing social model that is within reach. "Most people in the Middle East view Turkey's accomplishments as being replicable," an Arab friend of mine suggested to me. "Turkey was once like us, and that is why we like it, for it suggests a way forward." Read more ..


Egyptian Democracy on Edge

Caught in Egypt’s Political Cross-Fire

March 21st 2012

Democracy advocates jailed in Egypt

The Egyptian government’s prosecution this winter of seven American democracy workers catalyzed a two-month crisis in American-Egyptian relations. But after Washington threatened to withhold $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, the standoff swiftly subsided. The presiding judge resigned from the case, travel bans on the Americans were lifted, and most of the Americans were on their way home by the beginning of March.

This rapid turn of events surprised many Americans, but it shouldn’t have. The prosecutions targeted the Americans, but they weren’t really about them. The democracy workers had merely become pawns in a bitter domestic power struggle over Egypt’s future, in which rival groups competed by appealing to anti-Americanism.

For that reason, the crisis didn’t change America’s core interests in Egypt. But it should prompt Washington to develop a strategy for persuading the various political forces in Egypt to cooperate in pursuit of those interests rather than allowing American-sponsored efforts to become political footballs there. Read more ..


Oil Addiction

Soaring Gas Prices Threaten Obama Re-election

March 20th 2012

Obama calling

2012 is a presidential election year in the United States, and so far, much of the focus has been on the lengthy and divisive race for the Republican Party nomination between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. But President Obama has plenty of challenges of his own as he prepares for a re-election contest in November. Mitt Romney leads the Republican race over Rick Santorum and would like to shift his focus to President Obama as soon as possible. “He said if he couldn’t turn it around in three years that he would be looking at a one term proposition. We are here to collect, alright? We are here to collect," he said.

The Republican race has turned into a drawn-out slog for delegates and is likely to go on indefinitely, something experts say should help the president. But rising gas prices in the U.S. are driving down Mr. Obama’s approval ratings and pose a major challenge for his re-election. Outside the White House, tourists from around the country worry about soaring prices but differ on who is to blame. “They are a little high right now being that I drove all the way up here, so it’s hit me in the pocketbook a little bit," said one man. “But I would think as president there is something he can do. I mean there has got to be something he can do to help with the gas," said another man. Read more ..


Low Doses of Some Chemicals Tied to Health Effects

March 19th 2012

emergency room

Small doses can have big health effects.

That is a main finding of a report, three years in the making, published Wednesday by a team of 12 scientists who study hormone-altering chemicals. Dozens of substances that can mimic or block estrogen, testosterone and other hormones are found in the environment, the food supply and consumer products, including plastics, pesticides and cosmetics. One of the biggest, longest-lasting controversies about these chemicals is whether the tiny doses that most people are exposed to are harmful. In the new report, researchers led by Tufts University’s Laura Vandenberg concluded after examining hundreds of studies that health effects “are remarkably common” when people or animals are exposed to low doses of endocrine-disrupting compounds. As examples, they provide evidence for several controversial chemicals, including bisphenol A, found in polycarbonate plastic, canned foods and paper receipts, and the pesticide atrazine, used in large volumes mainly on corn.

The scientists concluded that scientific evidence “clearly indicates that low doses cannot be ignored.” They cited evidence of a wide range of health effects in people — from fetuses to aging adults — including links to infertility, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and other disorders.

Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

Confusion and Contradiction Reign within Hamas over support for Iran

March 19th 2012

Salah al-Bardawil  of Hamas
Salah al-Bardawil

This week, leading Gaza- Hamas activist Salah al-Bardawil told The Guardian newspaper that in the event of a war between Iran and Israel, Hamas would not back Teheran. Hamas Foreign Minister in Gaza Mahmoud Zahar later appeared to refute Bardawil’s stance, saying that Hamas would respond “with utmost power” to any “Zionist war on Iran.”

These statements reflect confusion and divisions in the main Palestinian- Islamist movement. The confusion derives from the variety of options which the Arab upheavals of 2011 have placed before Hamas. The divisions also reflect the resultant opening of separate and competing power structures in the movement, with the leaders of the Gaza statelet opposing the overall leadership, and also quarreling among themselves.

The Teheran-led “resistance axis,” with which Hamas was aligned, is one of the main victims of the Arab upheavals of the last year. Meanwhile, the clear winner from the upheavals so far is the ideological trend of which Hamas is a representative – namely, Sunni Islamism. Revolt in Iran-aligned Syria has left the Iranians exposed as a narrow, sectarian force. Their claim to represent a general Muslim interest against the West and Israel is in disarray. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Sunni Islamist elements are moving to benefit from the fall of authoritarian leaders. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Grading the Nation: How Accountable is Your State?

March 19th 2012

US Capital Day

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. Tennessee established its ethics commission six years ago, but has yet to issue a single ethics penalty. It’s almost impossible to know whether the oversight is effectively working, because complaints are not made available to the public.

A West Virginia governor borrowed a car from his local dealership to take it for a “test drive.” He kept the car for four years, during which the dealership won millions in state contracts. When representatives of a biotech company took Montana legislators out to dinner, they neither registered as lobbyists nor reported the fact that they picked up the bill. They didn’t have to — the law only requires registration upon spending $2,400 during a legislative session. And in Maine, one state senator did not disclose $98 million in state contracts that went to an organization for which he served as executive director. The lack of disclosure was not an oversight; due to a loophole in state law, he was under no obligation to do so. Read more ..


China and the US

What China’s Leadership Turmoil Means for the United States

March 18th 2012

Chinese soldier at Tienamen Square

While most sessions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) have been little-noticed affairs, the same will not be said of the 2012 session. As this year’s session came to a close, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao warned of the potential for chaos and cited the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. A day later, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who had missed at least one session of the NPC, was ousted from his position.

The turmoil in China’s political succession should temper expectations for the U.S.–China relationship and lessen the leverage the Administration has allowed the Chinese by virtue of its extensive schedule of bilateral consultations. The story surrounding Bo’s downfall is also an opportunity for the Administration to examine its policy on Chinese defectors so as to be prepared when it is presented with access to high-level sources of intelligence. Read more ..


Inside South America

Politics in Ecuador is All in the Family

March 18th 2012

Fabricio Correa of Ecuador
Fabricio Correa

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is a very busy man these days. He recently emerged as victor in a libel suit that he brought against two journalists from the Ecuadorian paper El Universo at the National Court of Justice in Quito. He sued the journalists for USD 5 million apiece, and was awarded USD 1 million from each of the defendants, although he later pardoned both editors.  His litigious victory is among the few positive developments for Correa of late, as he faces a number of newly-emerging challenges as Ecuador’s president.

In one such instance, he is being forced to defend his decision to award mining contracts in Ecuador’s jungle without first conferring with the directly-affected communities that live on the land. His hasty decision has incited massive protests among Amazonian indigenous communities. To make matters worse, President Correa is also facing a challenge for his job from none other than his very own brother. In an interview published on March 13, 2012 in Uruguayan newspaper El Pais, Fabricio Correa, President Rafael Correa’s older brother, explained his motivations for running for trying to unseat his own kin. Speaking from Montevideo, Fabricio Correa lamented the rampant corruption and increasing insecurity due to the activities of drug cartels, while also accusing his brother of clamping down too hard on press freedoms. “We are constantly living in fear [in Ecuador],” he maintained. Read more ..


European Economy on Edge

Portugal May be Immune for Now as Greek Economy Falters

March 15th 2012

Coelho of portugal
Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho

While some comparisons can be drawn between Portugal and Greece, the two countries differ markedly. In Greece, economic disrepair, political upheaval and social unrest collectively fomented a national crisis, unique in its potential to spread to other vulnerable European countries. The Portuguese economy likewise is shaky, but socially the country has been less volatile than Greece. Protests occur infrequently, and those that have occurred were fairly peaceful.

Portugal also enjoys political support at home and abroad. While a technocratic government was installed in Athens, the Portuguese democratically elected a new government that so far has complied with bailout directives. The troika has touted Portugal as an example of discipline and responsibility -- at least for a country that received a bailout. Read more ..


History on Edge

2011: For Arab Countries it was the Year that Wasn't

March 15th 2012

Muslim Brotherhood Marching

1848 in Europe was the year that wasn't. In the spring and summer of that year, bourgeois intellectuals and working-class radicals staged upheavals from France to the Balkans, shaking ancient regimes and vowing to create new liberal democratic orders. The Arab Spring has periodically been compared to the stirrings of 1848. But with the exception of the toppling of the Orleans monarchy in France, the 1848 revolutions ultimately failed.

Dynastic governments reasserted themselves. They did so for a reason that has troubling implications for the Middle East: Conservative regimes in mid-19th century Europe had not only the institutional advantage over their liberal and socialist adversaries but also the moral advantage. Read more ..


Palestine on Edge

UNRWA and Israel: Catch 22

March 15th 2012

UNRWA Relief

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently challenged a long-standing Israeli policy towards UNRWA as part of his ongoing social media "hasbara" campaign intended to cast Israel in a positive light. In conjunction with the grass-roots Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, Ayalon (a former ambassador to the United States and a Knesset member representing Yisrael Beiteinu) focused attention on UNRWA and its role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee morass.

The matter of UNRWA — perhaps above all others — highlights the systemic oxymoron of the Israeli position on the United Nations. Israeli officials have claimed that absent UNRWA's role in providing for the needs of the Palestinian refugees, Israel would be held responsible. Thus — because Israeli governments prefer not to bear this burden and despite UNRWA's well documented co-optation by terrorist elements — UNRWA continues to remain central to the administration of the Palestinian refugees within Palestinian Authority areas.

This position produces a perversity in which Israel itself ends up reinforcing the very organization whose institutional and ideological role is to perpetuate a central tenet in the Palestinian national narrative and which is cause for Palestinian intransigence in any peace negotiations. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

How Will Iran Choose its Next Supreme Leader?

March 13th 2012

Iranian clerics

This is part two of “Supreme Succession: Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran?”; read part one here.

The formal succession process may not matter much. Iran’s constitution lays down a clear procedure for designating a Supreme Leader’s successor. Yet in all likelihood, the officials charged with this responsibility under the law will not be the ones making the key decisions. In fact, the regime may bypass the constitutional procedure altogether.

The previous succession did not follow the constitutional requirements. As mentioned before, Khomeini appointed a council to revise the constitution shortly before his death. Before the council had the opportunity to vote on a final amended version of the charter, however, Khomeini died.

The changes were intended to separate religious authority from political authority, perhaps totally. In particular, they allowed an ordinary ayatollah or mujtahid—not just a marja-e taqlid (grand ayatollah)—to become Supreme Leader. Indeed, immediately after Khomeini’s death, Khamenei was selected as Supreme Leader even though he was not a mujtahid, let alone a marja-e taqlid. Read more ..


Bahrain on Edge

In Bahrain, Effective Diplomacy Must Meld Interests and Principles

March 12th 2012

Protests Mar 2011

Effective American diplomacy toward Bahrain can blend interest and principle. Doing so requires acknowledging that our base is critical; understanding the Island’s communal divisions; and recognizing how support for the monarchy can coincide with reform.

Bahrain’s repeated demonstrations are more complex than just another Arab uprising. Bahraini King Hamad’s democratic reforms of 2001 created a true elected parliament but with the monarchy controlling an appointed upper house. The Shia community that claims 70 percent of the population was certainly underrepresented (how much is uncertain without a census; the Sunni contend that the balance is closer to 60–40). Demands for government accountability and equitable representation eventually overflowed into demonstrations and two radically different narratives of events.

The Shia opposition sees government refusal and brutal suppression of calls for reform.

The government says concessions including release of prisoners and removal of troops from the streets led only to demands that the government yield on most major points before beginning negotiations. Read more ..


The Arab Winter in Palestine

The Palestinian 'Spring' and Prospects for Peace

March 11th 2012

hamas demo

It has been one year since the "Arab Spring" spread like wildfire throughout the Arab Muslim World under the banner of change and supposed reform for a better future.

In Tunisia, after 23 years of power, the corrupt Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime was overturned, the protests against him sparked by a fed-up Tunisian man setting himself on fire. And then in Egypt, the world watched as thousands of people streamed into Tahrir Square, eventually bursting through a human chain of officers to seize the Square under the same slogan of change. The crescendo came about when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February after a mere 18 days of protests. Since then, "Arab Spring" demonstrations spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria, where the Bashar al-Asad regime has murdered thousands of innocent civilians in an effort to keep its hold on power.

The Arab uprisings are affecting the Palestinian people, too, though they staged few protests. Specifically, the uprisings removed international focus from the Palestinian "cause" against Israel and put pressure on the leadership in numerous ways. The result is a changing Palestinian situation only surpassed by the signing of the Oslo Accords nearly two decades ago. Unlike the Oslo Accords, however, the prospect for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to occur in light of these changes is slim to none. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Iranian Succession--Who Will be the Next Leader?

March 10th 2012

Khameni and Khomeini

Over the past two decades, and in the wake of the controversial 2009 presidential election, real power in Iran has been consolidated in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei more than with anyone else, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As head of the government and, more significantly, commander-in- chief of the armed forces, Khamenei has either sidelined or suppressed all of his domestic rivals, allowing him to abandon consensual governance by relying on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The succession process that will follow his eventual departure is therefore much more important than the next presidential election, assuming there even is one.

To be sure, there is little reason to believe that Khamenei will soon pass from the scene. Besides the IRGC, Iran has no real power center capable of forcing him to abdicate. And even the IRGC shows no evidence of potentially disobeying his orders or developing a circle of leadership independent from him. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Israeli Attack on Iraqi Reactor Offers History Lesson for Obama

March 10th 2012

Israeli Jet Diving

The Obama Administration is blustering that more drastic sanctions will be imposed on Iran if it does not stop enriching uranium, but Russia and China have undermined the threat by saying they will not support such sanctions.

Meanwhile, Israel watches from the sideline and makes its own calculations of its national interest and stirring memories of 1981. On June 7, 1981, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis was delivering a briefing before dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv when he was told Prime Minister Menachem Begin was on the phone. Lewis picked up the phone and Begin told him, "Sam, I would like you to convey urgently a message from me to President Reagan. About one hour ago, our Air Force destroyed the nuclear reactor near Baghdad; all the planes have returned safely." Read more ..


Russia on Edge

After Electoral Victory, Putin Shifts towards Making a Strong Impression

March 7th 2012

putin

With the final votes counted, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's presidential victory was confirmed on March 5. It was not much of a surprise that Putin won a third presidential term. Still, the reaction in Russia -- and in the world -- has been important to watch because it is directly related to how strong of a leader Putin is expected to be.

Coming out of the December 2011 parliamentary elections and leading up to the presidential elections Sunday, the mood in Russia seemed split, with the country experiencing its first mass political protests in decades. Hundreds of thousands protested Putin's running for president as well as what they believed were unfair parliamentary elections, though the anti-Kremlin protest groups never coalesced into an actual movement that could threaten the current Kremlin regime or Putin's re-election. After yesterday's elections there were plans to protest Putin's victory, but the demonstrations seemed to fizzle out, with only a fraction of those previously seen coming out onto the streets. Read more ..


Edge of China

The Three Core Strategic Interests of China

March 6th 2012

The East is Red

Simply put, China has three core strategic interests.
 
Paramount among them is the maintenance of domestic security. Historically, when China involves itself in global trade, as it did in the 19th and early 20th century, the coastal region prospers, while the interior of China -- which begins about 100 miles from the coast and runs about 1,000 miles to the west -- languishes. Roughly 80 percent of all Chinese citizens currently have household incomes lower than the average household income in Bolivia.

Most of China's poor are located west of the richer coastal region; this disparity of wealth time and again has exposed tensions between the interests of the coast and those of the interior. After a failed rising in Shanghai in 1927, Mao Zedong exploited these tensions by undertaking the Long March into the interior, raising a peasant army and ultimately conquering the coastal region. He shut China off from the international trading system, leaving China more united and equal, but extremely poor. Read more ..


Middle East on Edge

The Middle East’s Biggest Challenges Yields AIPAC’s Biggest Conference

March 4th 2012

Obama and flags

Happening right now in Washington, D.C. is the largest AIPAC (American Israel Political Action Committee) Policy Conference of all time, with more than 13,000 people in attendance.

While the annual AIPAC conference has traditionally brought Jews from all across the United States to the nation’s capital, this particular one draw a bigger, more diverse crowd.  A larger group of Christian evangelical supporters of Israel have come this year, and organized groups of African-Americans and Latinos have made it a point to come out for Israel this year as well.

Over the past 12 months or so, troubles within Arab countries have put more pressure on Israel.  The rise of the Moslem Brotherhood in the wake of the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt has threatened the tentative peace between the two countries, and the amassing unrest in Syria has put Israel’s military on high alert as it watches uncomfortably as its president, Bashar al-Assad continues the slaughter of his own people. Read more ..


Edge of Geopolitics

America's Ad Hoc Foreign Policy May Not be Enough in an Unstable World

February 28th 2012

Stennis B

The fall of the Soviet Union ended the European epoch, the period in which European power dominated the world. It left the United States as the only global power, something for which it was culturally and institutionally unprepared. Since the end of World War II, the United States had defined its foreign policy in terms of its confrontation with the Soviet Union. Virtually everything it did around the world in some fashion related to this confrontation. The fall of the Soviet Union simultaneously freed the United States from a dangerous confrontation and eliminated the focus of its foreign policy.
 
In the course of a century, the United States had gone from marginal to world power. It had waged war or Cold War from 1917 until 1991, with roughly 20 years of peace between the two wars dominated by the Great Depression and numerous interventions in Latin America. Accordingly, the 20th century was a time of conflict and crisis for the United States. It entered the century without well-developed governmental institutions for managing its foreign policy. It built its foreign policy apparatus to deal with war and the threat of war; the sudden absence of an adversary inevitably left the United States off balance. Read more ..


The Arab Fall

Homs and Khan Yunis

February 28th 2012

arab league observers

Cries erupted from the city residents against the relentless bombardments. There was no place to hide from the constant assaults on the ground or from the bombs raining down from the air. People were said to be starving and denied access to doctors and medicines. Officials at schools, religious sites, and hospitals said their structures could offer no sanctuary from the dangers coming from above or from nearby streets. Journalists were not permitted full access to the battlegrounds so had to rely on the testimony of the people living under the shadow of death and destruction. This narrative of unremitting violence meted out on a largely peaceful population was spun when the first shots were fired by Israel in its three-week attack on Gaza; but it is actually the story of Homs, a city besieged by the Syrian regime because its citizens want freedom and are demanding that the dictatorship end its mighty grip on power. What proved less than accurate in Gaza has become the literal description of events in cities and towns across Syria as ordinary people offer the only resources they possess — their lives — for the right to choose their rulers. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

WikiLeaks Partnership With Anonymous May Indicate Shift In Tactics

February 28th 2012

Anonymous Logo

WikiLeaks is back in the news with the release of millions of e-mails from Stratfor, a global security firm. The latest trawl -- 167 of more than 5.5 million corporate e-mails -- was obtained after the hacktivist collective Anonymous hacked into Stratfor servers in December 2011. It's no surprise that WikiLeaks is partnering with Anonymous. After companies, including Amazon and PayPal, withdrew their support for WikiLeaks after the release of U.S. State Department cables in December 2010, Anonymous launched distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) against PayPal and a Swiss bank. Anonymous activists have been strong supporters of the Free Bradley Manning campaign. Manning is the U.S. Army private who is alleged to have leaked the cables to WikiLeaks.

For Anonymous -- a loose and decentralized collection of activists sometimes united but often divided into various factions -- it makes sense to partner with WikiLeaks. One activist told Wired that: "WikiLeaks has great means to publish and disclose,” the anon told Wired. "Also, they work together with media in a way we don’t." "Basically, WL is the ideal partner for such stuff," the anon continued. "Antisec acquires the shit, WL gets it released in a proper manner." Antisec is the arm of Anonymous that is known for hacking into servers. Read more ..

Edge of the Americas

Organization of American States fights for Relevance as Other Regional Groupings Compete

February 27th 2012

Hugo Chavez somber
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

With the second anniversary of the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) fast approaching, the formation of additional regional groupings that feature the exclusion of the United States and Canada from their rosters is becoming a permanent part of the hemisphere’s socio-political landscape.

Developing countries around the world are speeding up the tempo of their inter-American diplomatic relationships with these new regional bodies, while the Organization of American States (OAS) – the one institution in which all hemispheric countries hold membership (Cuba has not reactivated its former suspended status) – appears to have restored a role for itself when it comes to dealing with all of the Latin American countries. Read more ..


Edge of Sustainable Water

Commodification of Water and Water Shortages Demand International Action

February 27th 2012

Unsustainable water

From the Texas Oil Boom to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, petroleum was undoubtedly the most notorious liquid of the last one hundred years.  While some in the international marketplace still fixate on oil, recent political and environmental developments have helped nominate a stunning rival to oil’s supposed predominance: water!  It’s a substance to which Plato gave highest praise: “Only what is rare is valuable, and water, which is the best of all things…is the cheapest.” However, in our time, water has become much rarer, or, in economic terms, more scarce than oil.  In the words of James Bond’s latest nemesis, Dominic Greene, “This [water] is the most valuable resource in the world and we need to control as much of it as we can.” Global water resources have begun to dry up, even as water trading profitability increases.  Although this situation may seem irrelevant for those with adequate water access, it truly could presage a global water catastrophe.
 
This predicament has not gone unrecognized by international bodies like the United Nations.  In July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292, which “Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights…”.  This document is legally binding, and could serve as a key precedent for multilateral water management.  Furthermore, most observers have interpreted the resolution as supporting public water rights.  On the other side of the spectrum, litigation like Sunbelt Water’s Chapter 11 NAFTA claim  and Canada’s parliamentary Bill S-11 have raised concerns that potential water privatization will result in irreversible water commodification, confirming the private sector’s primacy over the public. Read more ..


Inside Spain

92 Percent of Spanish Families With Adopted Children Are Satisfied With Their Decision

February 26th 2012

Premature Baby

Two separate surveys six years apart have been used to analyse the level of satisfaction with adoptions in Andalucía. The study shows that 77.7 percent of families are happier after the process and variables that make it more difficult have been identified, such as the age of the children when arriving, multiple adoption and previous experiences of abuse. There is a significant link between the parents' assessment and that of the children.

"We wanted to know to what extent adoptions in Spain are providing children who need it with a healthy family environment that promotes their development" Yolanda Sánchez-Sandoval, a researcher from the University of Cádiz (UCA) states. In order to assess that, a comprehensive questionnaire was sent to families with adopted children in Andalucía, which was employed, amongst other uses, to assess family's satisfaction with the decision as a measurement of success. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Lure of Lobbying Still Strong for House Staffers

February 24th 2012

US Capital Day

A new study finds that nearly 400 House staffers have moved from Capitol Hill to K Street in recent years, suggesting that recent efforts to curb the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying are having limited effect. At least 378 of the 5,710 staffers working on the House side of the Hill at the end of 2009 have since left to become registered lobbyists, according to a report from the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability group. Corporate America was the biggest beneficiary of this exodus, Sunlight found. Fully 80 percent of the 378 House staffers-turned-lobbyists are working for corporations, industry groups, or Washington lobbying firms with mostly business clients. On the other hand, nonprofits advocacy groups are only represented by 37 of these recent ex-staffers, the report noted. Only one works directly for a union group, although on K Street some lobbyists have labor clients. Regardless of which special interest is signing their checks, Sunlight thinks this steady migration from public to private pay is a cause for concern. “Congress continues to act as a farm team for future lobbyists,” said Lee Drutman, the senior fellow who authored the report released Wednesday. “Staff build up contacts and policy and political experience. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

An Iranian Knockout Blow—via SWIFT

February 23rd 2012

iran bank notes

One of the most important international banking organizations recently stated that it was preparing to ban blacklisted Iranian banks for their role in facilitating illicit financial transactions. Although existing international sanctions have placed significant pressure on Tehran, the United States and the European Union have the ability to render a knockout blow that would significantly curtail Iran’s access to the international financial sector.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), is a banking cooperative owned by its member financial institutions. It is used by banks around the world to debit and credit money. The vast majority of global interbank transfers are routed through the SWIFT network, and nearly every bank in the world uses SWIFT to move funds globally. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Super PACs Out-Raise Candidates, Thanks to Super Donors

February 22nd 2012

C Pac Convention 2012

Thanks to a small number of wealthy individuals, the outside spending groups known as “super PACs” that are working to put the four leading GOP candidates in the White House collectively raised more than the candidates themselves in January. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul raised a combined $21.1 million for the month, according to Federal Election Commission records, while the four primary super PACs backing them raised $22.1 million. Donors to candidates number in the thousands, but they may only give $2,500 per candidate, per election. Super PAC donors, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a lower-cour ruling, can give unlimited amounts. The funds can come from billionaires, corporations and labor unions. So far this election, the funds have been spent overwhelmingly on advertising disparaging competing candidates. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their activities with the candidates.

The average donation to a super PAC filing in January was $63,000. Two of the super PACs — “Winning Our Future,” supporting Newt Gingrich and “Endorse Liberty,” supporting Ron Paul — are dominated by a single donor. Of the $11 million Winning Our Future raised in January, $10 million — more than three-quarters of the group's total haul — came from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife. That’s in addition to $1 million given by other Adelson family members to the PAC last year. Of the $2.4 million raised by the pro-Ron Paul super PAC "Endorse Liberty," $1.7 million — more than 70 percent — came from Peter Thiel, hedge fund manager, co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor. That’s on top of the $900,000 he gave last year. Read more ..


World on Edge

A Framework for the State of the World and Regaining America's Lustre

February 21st 2012

Obama and G20 flags

The evolution of geopolitics is cyclical. Powers rise, fall and shift. Changes occur in every generation in an unending ballet. However, the period between 1989 and 1991 was unique in that a long cycle of human history spanning hundreds of years ended, and with it a shorter cycle also came to a close. The world is still reverberating from the events of that period.

On Dec. 25, 1991, an epoch ended. On that day the Soviet Union collapsed, and for the first time in almost 500 years no European power was a global power, meaning no European state integrated economic, military and political power on a global scale. What began in 1492 with Europe smashing its way into the world and creating a global imperial system had ended. For five centuries, one European power or another had dominated the world, whether Portugal, Spain, France, England or the Soviet Union. Even the lesser European powers at the time had some degree of global influence. Read more ..


Venezuela on Edge

Chavez Will Hold on Regardless of Democratic Process

February 21st 2012

Hugo Chavez infirm

As Vilma Petrash has noted, some Venezuelans have hope that the upcoming October 7th elections could put an end to Chávez’s pseudo-democratic, authoritarian rule. However, there has been a long history of electoral fraud during the last thirteen years of the Chávez regime.

Through control of most media and almost all institutions of government, Chávez has the upper hand. The question is, will this election be any different in terms of its ultimate outcome?

Petrash speculates at the end of her article that after October 7th, the situation in Venezuela may escalate into civil war and violence. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Payroll Tax Cut Agreement Pushes Nation Closer to Hitting Debt Ceiling

February 20th 2012

One Million Dollars

The payroll tax package that Congress passed on Friday accelerated the timeline for another battle over the debt ceiling. Last summer’s bitter clash over the debt limit took the nation to the brink of default, resulting in the first-ever downgrade of U.S. securities. The debt-ceiling agreement lawmakers approved in August established a cooling-off period, with enough borrowing to see the country through until after the November election. But a sequel to the debt-ceiling drama could be coming to Washington sooner than planned, thanks to the billions of dollars in deficit spending in the payroll tax agreement. “There has been this sort of confidence that the existing debt limit would get us through the election. … It may turn out the timing is trickier than people had anticipated,” said Maya McGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Anything that adds to the debt means that it moves the deadline up.”

The latest package extended the payroll tax cut for the rest of 2012, along with unemployment benefits and the current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that in the short term, the payroll package will add $101 billion to the deficit, which effectively erases a month of wiggle room under the $16.394 trillion debt cap. Read more ..


Russia on Edge

The Paradox Of Russia’s Left

February 20th 2012

Uldatsov
Sergei Udaltsov

Marching in protest under a sea of red flags swirling in the frosty air at a recent demonstration, 31-year-old Yevgeny can't help but feel that a new generation of Russian socialists is on the rise. And he could be right -- if it weren’t for all the stumbling blocks. In the 1990s, Yevgeny supported the Communist Party but eventually became disillusioned with its colorless and charisma-challenged leader, Gennady Zyuganov, a fixture in Russian politics for decades. Zyuganov is making his fourth run for the presidency in March. Today, Yevgeny says his affinities lie more with the “Left Front,” a loose coalition of leftist groups that are not permitted to field candidates in Russia's tightly managed political system. But even if they were, he confesses he would be reluctant to vote for the Left Front's macho leader Sergei Udaltsov whose firebrand style of street protesting may have wounded his political credibility. "I just don’t know, I cannot say for sure. He just doesn't seem to be the kind of leader that I could go and vote for,” said Yevgeny, who did not want to give his last name.
 
Yevgeny’s predicament encapsulates the quandaries of Russia's left-leaning electorate, which sociologists say comprise the lion's share of the country's voters. Analysts say there is a glaring disconnect between the country's socialist-leaning electorate, which favors heavy state intervention in the economy and a strong social safety net, and the dearth of attractive options for them to support at the ballot box. Zyuganov, the Russian left's most visible personality, is largely viewed as a political dinosaur more concerned with maintaining his comfortable position as a permanent opposition figure acceptable to the authorities, than actually winning power. Sergei Mironov's center-left A Just Russia is tainted by the party's reputation as a "pocket opposition" party established to do the Kremlin's bidding. And Udaltsov's Left Front is unregistered and seen as too unwieldy and radical to be viable electorally.
Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Humanitarian Safe Havens: Bosnia's Lessons for Syria

February 19th 2012

syrian-uprising

The uprising in Syria has reached a critical stage. As the brutality of the regime has increased, defectors from the military and local groups akin to civilian defense are "liberating," but not permanently securing, parts of the country. This new dynamic offers a potential opportunity for increased international engagement in Syria that can be informed by the experience in Bosnia in the 1990s. In Bosnia, the international community designated areas of the country liberated by Bosnian civilian defense as safe havens, vowing to protect them against the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitary forces. The JNA, however, overran some of these areas, including Srebrenica in 1995, killing many civilians. Such actions precipitated deeper international engagement in Bosnia, with NATO eventually intervening against the JNA to bring an end to the Bosnian War. The Bosnian trajectory from internationally designated safe havens to intervention offers lessons for any international engagement in Syria, as well as pitfalls to be avoided. Read more ..


The Toxic Edge

Endless Review for Risky Chemical

February 19th 2012

Rios Building EPA HQ

About 21 months ago, a proposed list of widely used chemicals that may pose health risks landed at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review. It’s still there. An attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to create a “chemicals of concern” list—part of the agency’s larger plans to improve what administrator Lisa Jackson has called an outdated and dysfunctional system for regulating toxic substances—remains stuck in the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The proposal has sparked heavy resistance among industry groups, some of which have met with White House officials and argued that releasing the list could harm the economy. By executive order, OIRA should finish such reviews within 90 days—or, in some cases, 120. Instead, it’s had the EPA list for 638 days—and counting. “The reason is political pandering,” said Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Reform. “OIRA is a politicized place where rules go to die.” Read more ..


Edge of Terrorism

End of the Monsoon Season Emboldens Somali Piracy

February 18th 2012

Somali Pirates Land

Monsoon season in the Indian Ocean is set to end sometime in late February. Somali pirates will take advantage of the calmer waters to enlarge their presence in the area. But several factors -- including armed contractors on commercial vessels, land-based security clampdowns and a more sophisticated international military response -- may limit the pirates' success.

An article from Somalia Report, a news agency specializing in Somali affairs, has suggested that Somali pirates are readying their boats for the end of monsoon season around Feb. 20, nearly coinciding with an international conference to be held Feb. 23 in the United Kingdom on Somalia and counterpiracy efforts. Indeed, calmer seas present greater opportunity for hijackings and other piratic activities. Of course, Feb. 20 is merely an approximation, and meteorological phenomena like monsoons may continue for weeks after this date. But soon the weather will clear, and Somali pirates will embark on a new season of activity. Read more ..


Inside Latin America

El Salvador Re-Militarizes to Address Rising Crime Rate

February 18th 2012

El Salvador soldier awaiting Obama
Salvadoran soldier guarding President Obama's visit route, 2011

The appointment of retired military officers to public security leadership positions over the past three months is being seen by many as a serious challenge to democracy in El Salvador.  President Mauricio Funes argues that these appointments are legal, that they have not been done under either internal or external pressure, and that they constitute an appropriate response to public insecurity. There is indeed a genuine and intense preoccupation regarding security in El Salvador.

A November 2011 poll by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUOP) found that 76.4% of respondents believe that crime increased in 2011, as compared to 2010. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (4,085 homicides, 66 per 100,000 persons in 2010). Gang violence and transnational organized crime threaten both public security, such as the ability to conduct commerce and provide transportation services, as well as citizen security, such as the ability of individuals to exercise their civil rights. Since the exercise of civil rights is a condition of democratic governance, this level of crime is in itself a threat to democracy in El Salvador. Read more ..



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