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Inside the Vatican

Making Sense of Pope Benedict's Relationship with Jews

January 25th 2010

Christian Topics - Pope Meets Jewish leader

By this stage, outsiders trying to make sense of Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to Jewish-Catholic relations might be forgiven for wondering if the pontiff suffers from an undiagnosed case of schizophrenia.

After all, this is the pope who made a point of visiting a Cologne synagogue in 2005 on his first foreign trip, and Auschwitz on his second, only later to revive a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews. More recently, this is the pope who rehabilitated a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop and who announced that Pope Pius XII (whose alleged “silence” during the Holocaust remains a bone of contention between Jews and Catholics) is a step closer to sainthood, only to visit Rome’s Great Synagogue on January 17 to express his “esteem and affection” for Judaism, and to pledge that the “faces, names, tears and desperation” of Holocaust victims must never be forgotten.

So, the obvious question in many Jewish minds likely is: Will the real Benedict XVI please stand up? Read more ..


Diplomacy on the Edge

Turkey-Israel Relations—Straining to a Split

January 18th 2010

Islamic Topics - Turks Protesting Israel

The recent diplomatic spat between Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and the Turkish ambassador Oguz Celikkol was the worst thing that could have happened to the already strained Ankara-Jerusalem ties.

Relations between Turkey and Israel have weakened dramatically since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Ankara in 2002. In the aftermath of the Ayalon-Celikkol incident, bilateral ties between the states face their biggest crisis since they established diplomatic relations in 1949.

To save its ties with Turkey, Israel needs to implement a strategy that tackles the AKP's anti-Israeli policies and rhetoric without simultaneously offending the Turks. As difficult as this balance sounds, it is Israel's only choice. Given the AKP's mostly negative attitude toward Israel, if the proud Turkish public is offended by Israeli actions, it would certainly sound the death knell of Turkish-Israeli ties. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Yemen and the Resurgent Al-Qaeda Threat

January 11th 2010

Islamic Topics - Yemeni Tribesmen

The failed attempt to bomb an American airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day has focused attention on the rising threat posed by the al-Qaeda franchise based in Yemen, long a stronghold for radical Islamist forces.

Yemen offers al-Qaeda many advantages: the protection of friendly tribal leaders opposed to a weak central government, the support of radical Muslim religious leaders, porous borders that facilitate covert movements and offer a back door to Saudi Arabia, and a sympathetic population that has been spoon-fed anti-Western propaganda for decades by militant Islamists and pro-Soviet Marxists. To combat the growing threat of terrorists based in Yemen, the U.S. should work with the beleaguered Yemeni government, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and other threatened countries to attack al-Qaeda's regional leadership, disrupt its operations, and diminish its ability to launch terrorist attacks. Read more ..


Libya on the Edge

Reforming the Rogue: Lessons from the U.S.-Libyan Rapprochement

January 4th 2010

Arab Topics - Muammar Qaddafi

In December 2003, Libya agreed to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, a key precondition for resumed relations with the United States. This decision set the stage for a new U.S.-Libyan rapport, and despite Libya's failure to adequately meet several other conditions, the United States considered the agreement a success.

This lack of complete Libyan compliance was not surprising, for cooperation with Washington runs counter to Muammar Qadhafi's ideological framework. Indeed, despite the U.S. stipulation that Libya end its longstanding support for terrorism, Libya contributed $340,000 to a plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2003. This incident suggests that while Libya's open support for terrorism may have waned, many of its policies and interests remain unchanged.

Washington considers the deal worthwhile, as it resulted in the end of Libyan WMD programs. But Libya also benefited greatly from the agreement. Qadhafi's primary goals were the return of international oil companies, increased domestic stability, and a higher international profile for Libya. The deal provided all these perquisites.

Today, for example, Libya enjoys a seat on the UN Security Council and chaired the last UN General Assembly; Qadhafi is leader of the African Union. While these positions have not provided Libya all the prestige for which it had hoped, the state has derived a kind of crude international legitimacy from these leadership roles. Read more ..


Iran on the Edge

Islam vs. Iran's 'Islamic Republic'

December 28th 2009

Iran - Iran Election Protest

A new opportunity is now emerging for the "Green Movement" in Iran to demonstrate opposition to the Islamic Republic and the manipulated presidential election results earlier this year. Friday, December 18 marked the beginning of the months of Muharram and Safar in the Islamic lunar calendar. For the regime in Tehran, gaining control of the streets has become gradually more difficult since the Green Movement turned all officially sanctioned political ceremonies into opportunities to wage protests against the Islamic Republic. The coming two months, however, represent the first time that a religious opportunity has come up.

Mourning Means Revolting

In Shiite tradition, Hossein, the third imam -- meaning both political leader and spiritual guide -- led a noble but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the unjust rule of the Muslim caliph Yazid. The tenth day of Muharram, or Ashura, marks the bloody end to this revolt in October 680 of the Common Era, when Hossein faced off against Yazid's army at Karbala. Once Hossein's forces had been defeated, he and some seventy of his disciples, along with all the male members of his family, were brutally killed. Since then, Hossein has occupied a special place for Shiites. He gained the title "Master of Martyrs," and in the course of Islamic history his image has been influenced by pre-Islamic mythology as well as Christian scripture. Remembrance of the passion of Hossein and his sacrifice, as well as the suffering of his family and disciples, has served as a locus for sustaining Shiite identity. The events of Ashura are viewed by Shiites as the defining moment when they split from the mainstream Sunni sect and the caliphate. By extension, Shiites have long connected mourning for Hossein, and his divine sacrifice, with the principles of truth and justice as opposed to unjust and cruel leadership. Read more ..


Inside China

Unfriendly Skies: Taiwan’s Exclusion from UN Agency Undermines Air Safety

December 21st 2009

Asia Topics - China airlines

In recent days, the United Nations celebrated International Civil Aviation Day, commemorating the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (also known as the Chicago Convention, after the city where the agreement was hammered out by delegates from 54 countries) which established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), now a specialized agency within the UN system charged with developing international air transport “in a safe and orderly manner…on the basis of equality of opportunity and operated soundly and economically.” Read more ..


Inside Islamic Europe

Growing Concern over Imposition of Violent Islamic Law in Spain

December 14th 2009

Islamic Topics - Muslims praying in Spain
Muslims praying in Lerida, Spain

Sources in Spain’s Ministry of Interior express growing concern over the rise of Islamic law, known as sharia to Muslims, and the increase of Muslim separatism. In Spanish mosques, groups are emerging which promote Islamic judges and policing that have a growing influence over Muslims living in Spain. While this has long been known in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and France, it has now been detected in rural areas of Catalonia and in towns such as Tarragona, Gironés and Segarra.

The mosques in question are almost uniformly in the control of Salafist jihadis. Such jihadis have espoused separatism and violent struggle with the West at least since the 1980s.

Muslim clerics in Catalonia, for example, call upon the faithful to not befriend native Catalonians nor belong to Catalonian civic organizations. The imams demand that Muslims buy only “halal” food (e.g. meat slaughtered according to Muslim ritual), and that they avoid banks since these ostensibly violate Muslim abhorrence of usury. Muslim parents are warned to not allow their daughters to use the gymnasiums in the schools nor on any account should they use swimming pools. Muslims are told to remove their daughters from school upon the first appearance of menstruation. Read more ..


Economic Recovery

Using Bankruptcy and Capital Standards For Financial Institutions "Too Big to Fail"

December 7th 2009

Economy - Wall Street Bull

One of the worst aspects of the financial meltdown of 2008 was watching the government give billions of dollars to distressed financial institutions because, unlike most other types of businesses in the United States, there was no system for the orderly restructuring of a failing large financial institution. Rather than allow the financial system to collapse, firms ranging from AIG to Citibank to Bank of America received hundreds of billions of tax dollars in capital infusions and loans -- much of which has been lost for good. To ensure against a reoccurrence, Congress needs to modernize bankruptcy laws to create an expedited method to restructure and close such large and complex financial firms.

Many experts now feel Congress should also increase capital standards in a way that discourages financial firms from reaching the point that their failure could endanger the entire financial system.

Large, complex firms comprise a significant portion of the world's financial industry. These businesses are so tightly interconnected that the failure of one could cause the others to fail. Of these, a few "too big to fail" firms are so large that one failure could bring down the entire financial system. Normally, large firms that fail can be handled through the bankruptcy process, but the current law is unsuitable for today's large financial services firms because the value of their assets is determined as much by faith in the financial system as by more traditional measures. Their assets can become worthless within minutes or hours, as can similar assets held by other financial entities. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Control

Oil Companies Press Industry-Enviro Group on Refinery Emissions

November 30th 2009

Environment Topics - Smokestacks

An internal document circulating among members of an industry-environmental coalition that favors action on global warming provides a window into the oil industry's fight to scale back mandates in Democratic climate-change bills.

The U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), formed with a huge splash in early 2007, helped provide an early push for cap-and-trade legislation by uniting several big green groups, large utilities, and major oil companies Shell, ConocoPhillips and BP. But the oil industry says current Capitol Hill plans would create costly burdens and companies inside and outside the group are seeking major changes to requirements for refiners. The document circulating within USCAP offers a different approach for addressing emissions from car and truck tailpipes.

Sources inside the group say the document has been circulated by ConocoPhillips and BP, but that it also reflects concerns voiced by other companies in the refining industry. Refiners object to Democratic bills that require them to obtain emissions allowances to cover both their facilities' direct greenhouse gas output and the larger emissions from the use of their products in transportation. Read more ..


Inside Saudi Succession

Succession and the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

November 23rd 2009

Arab Topics - King Abdullah2
King Abdullah

Given Saudi Arabia's strategic position and its leadership roles in both Islam and international energy markets, the close relationship between Riyadh and Washington is crucial to a range of U.S. policy concerns: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East peace process, and energy.

The character of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has often been dictated by the personality and style of the king at the time. King Fahd, who ruled from 1982 to 2005 (thought he was plagued by poor health after a stoke in 1995), was seen as pro-American and cooperated closely, although often discreetly, with Washington on a range of foreign policy concerns, including in Central America, Afghanistan, and on the middle East peace process. King Abdullah, whose rule began in 2005 but who had stood in for Fahd after 1995, has protected the relationship but has been more cautious and at times even confrontational. In 2002, with relations in turmoil because of the involvement of Saudis in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the kingdom, apparently trying to deflect attention away from itself by spotlighting clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, was even prepared to privately threaten a temporary cutoff of oil exports because of U.S. support for Israel. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

Holder Dials Back his Commitment to Pushing Assault Weapons Ban

November 16th 2009

Politics - Assault Weapons

Attorney General Eric Holder is retreating on his commitment to pursue a controversial gun-control measure. Holder's statements, recently delivered to senators in writing, clearly indicate the Obama administration is in no rush to reinstate the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

In response to written questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members, Holder adopted a much different tone on the ban than he did in February, when he said, “As President Obama indicated during the campaign, there are just a few gun-related changes that we would like to make, and among them would be to reinstitute the ban on the sale of assault weapons.” That comment attracted many headlines, but the nation's chief law enforcement officer is now downplaying his earlier remarks. Read more ..


Turkey on the Edge

Germany's New Cabinet Reluctant on Turkey's EU Accession

November 9th 2009

Turkish Topics - Turkish Anger

On October 25, a coalition government in Germany, comprising the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), and Free Democrat Party (FDP), formed a new cabinet. The following statements by prominent representatives of Germany's new coalition partners -- voicing both strong opposition to Turkey's EU accession by the CDU-CSU and a milder but skeptical anti-Turkish stance by FDP -- demonstrate the serious challenges for U.S. policy posed by Turkey's push for EU membership.

German statements strongly against Turkey's EU Membership include:

"Not membership, but privileged partnership," said Angela Merkel (CDU), German chancellor, May 11, 2009. The day before in a conference with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, she said, "Accepting Turkey to the EU is out of question."

"Turkey's accession would overtax the EU," was the position of Wolfgang Schauble (CDU), German minister of finance on October 28, 2009. Schauble on his website has enunciated "Six reasons against Turkey's EU accession:” Read more ..


Turkey on the Edge

Rift between Turkey and West Shakes Middle Eastern Order

November 2nd 2009

Israel Topics - Erdogan and Peres
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Shimon Peres

Turkey has initiated a series of unexpected diplomatic departures from its long time Western allies, the United States, Israel and NATO, creating a potential tectonic shift in the Middle Eastern balance of diplomatic power and indeed global relations.

The first tremors of this movement began when Turkey requested that Israel not participate in a joint NATO military exercise scheduled to begin between October 12 and October 24 in the central Turkish city of Konya. The exercise dubbed “Anatolian Eagle” combined forces from Israel, Italy, the U.S. and NATO. Following Turkey’s request to exclude Israel, the U.S. and Italy all withdrew participation in the exercise. Turkish officials stated, "The feeling is this was not the right time for such an exercise.” The Israeli military reacted by saying the drill was delayed "indefinitely.” Read more ..


Pakistan on Edge

Taliban's War on Pakistan -- Lessons and Options

October 26th 2009

Islamic Topics - Taliban soldiers

The war between the Taliban and Pakistan continues to accelerate. Following a long string of Taliban attacks, Pakistan’s army is still in the midst of a massive ground operation in Waziristan.
 
But through this already-long fight, the press and other observers have only focused on the continuing bloodshed rather than the fact that the Taliban continue to launch suicide bombers and other types of attacks inside Pakistan’s cities against its police and military forces. There was ample warning two years ago that the Taliban’s war on Pakistan’s government and civil society, would widen following the assassination of Prime Minister elect Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. And so it is today. Read more ..


Inside Saudi Succession

The Allegiance Council and the Complex Saudi Succession Question

October 19th 2009

Arab Topics - King Abdullah2
King Abdullah

Since the Saudi announcement of the formation of an Allegiance Council in October 2006, most observers have assumed that it would have a major role in the appointment of a new crown prince and even a new king, but such a conclusion is increasingly far from certain.

The declared role of the council is to help appoint a crown prince after Abdullah dies and Sultan becomes king. As such, it was probably an idea that surprised Sultan, who most likely had assumed that he could choose his own crown prince. Under the new system, his choice would need to be approved by the wider family. And if Sultan's choice were voted down, he would have to accept a compromise pick selected by the other members of the council.

The creation of an Allegiance Council showed the limits of Abdullah's power. Since it would not come into operation until Sultan became king, theoretically, as king, he could simply change the rules of the council or abolish it completely. A further indication of the constraints on Abdullah's authority, or perhaps just another case of slow Saudi administration, was the December 2007 announcement of the council's members more than a year after its creation.

The setting up of the council seems to indicate Abdullah's belief that the arrangement from the time of Fahd's first stoke in 1995 until his death in 2005 was most unsatisfactory. The core aspects of the new council's articles deal with the possibility of either the king or crown prince—or both—being ill, or both dying. In the event that neither the king nor the crown prince is deemed fit to rule, a five-member transitory council would run state affairs for a week at most, choosing a new king and crown prince. But the articles did not truly grasp the challenge of an increasingly aged and decrepit leadership passing power to the next generation. Read more ..


Health Care Reform

Congress's Health Care Reform Bills: The Unknown Costs

October 12th 2009

Social Topics - Medical bag

All five of the congressional committees charged with drafting health care legislation have completed their plans. The congressional leadership will soon consolidate these measures into single pieces of legislation for their respective bodies, and floor votes in both the House and Senate are expected soon.

What is yet unknown is the true cost of these bills. Given the rapid evolution of these measures, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)—Congress’s official scorekeeper—has yet to issue a complete and final cost estimate.

Without such critical information, it is of course impossible to assess key promises made by President Obama and congressional leaders on whether these bills will rein in costs for families, businesses, and government; not add a “dime to the deficit”; and not raise taxes on those making less than $250,000 a year. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Iran Faces a Final Chance on Their Nuclear Program

October 5th 2009

Politics - Evan Bayh
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind)

The United States is now in face-to-face, multilateral negotiations with representatives of Iran’s regime and offer them a final chance to verifiably terminate their illegal nuclear program or face the strongest sanctions in the history of their republic.

The pivotal talks also will help to answer a fundamental question at the heart of Iran’s future: Will the country’s ruling clerics choose to behave as leaders of a rational nation-state and embrace policies based on a cost-benefit analysis of what is in their national interest?

Or will they embrace global confrontation, driven by religious extremism and hatred of Israel, the United States and Western civilization?

Recent events do not inspire optimism. Consider Iran’s provocative missile tests on the eve of negotiations and just days after the disclosure of a secret Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Qom. Consider the smoking-gun revelation of a covert atomic facility unsuitable for civilian energy production — revealed as global leaders gathered in New York to discuss the regime’s behavior — unmasked the true nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Read more ..


Edge of Financial Recovery

Shifts in consumer spending and saving will change economy for years

September 28th 2009

Economy - Wall Street Bull

Consumer spending will lag rather than lead the recovery from the current recession, according to University of Michigan economist Richard Curtin.

"In the coming years, U.S. consumers will save more and spend less," said Curtin, director of the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. "The recovery will be slow and uneven, and it could take a decade or more for consumers to restore their sense of financial security to pre-recession levels."

Although the preliminary, mid-month consumer sentiment index of 70.2 for September signals that consumers think the worst is over, the fundamental changes in how consumers view their economic situation and its impact on their spending will persist for some time.

Conducted by ISR since 1946, the Surveys of Consumers play a unique role in shaping public policies and business decisions, based on its demonstrated ability to provide an accurate gauge of consumer reactions to the changing economic environment. Read more ..


The Drug Wars

Drug War Needs a Debate As Much as a Battle Plan

September 21st 2009

Social Topics - Narcotics

In what was to become a growing trend throughout much of Latin America, the Mexican government unleashed its security forces against the drug cartels several years ago in what ended up being a failed effort at interdiction. The strategy was then to change: On August 23, 2009, Mexico City announced that it would be eliminating jail time for possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. President Felipe Calderón said that the new law would free up law enforcement resources. Now, Mexican officials can focus on the larger and more lethal drug cartels, rather than cluttering Mexico’s criminal justice system with cases dealing with petty drug dealers and small-time addicts.

While many Mexicans were indifferent about the new law, Washington could not conceal its disappointment with its neighbor. In addition to Mexico, both Brazil and Uruguay later announced the elimination of measures harshly penalizing citizens carrying small amounts of drugs. Likewise, Argentina is planning to enact a decree exempting drug users from the criminal justice system. On September 8, 2009, the Mexican president asked his Attorney General, Eduardo Medina Mora, a key figure and hard-liner in the government’s war on drugs, to step down. This occurred after criticism of the government further escalated when drug lords executed 18 people outside a rehab center in Juarez. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

Why Organized Labor Supports Government Health Care

September 14th 2009

Politics - Unions

Unions strongly support President Obama's health care reform, which includes a plan for a government-run "public option" that would crowd out private health insurance. Labor publicly argues that the current health care system serves Americans poorly.

However, unions also have self-interested motives for promoting government-run health care: The legislation includes a $10 billion bailout of union retiree health plans and a nationalized health care plan that would lead to millions of new dues-paying union members as government employees unionize more frequently than private sector workers. National health care would also reduce unionized companies' competitive disadvantage.

Incidentally, unions do not support all health care reform plans. When Senators proposed taxing health benefits to pay for health care reform--a tax that would disproportionately fall on union members--the labor movement threatened to derail the legislation.

Unions Pushing for Government Health Care

Unions strongly support health care reform and have made supporting a "public plan" that would lead to a government-run single-payer system their top priority. In fact, after opponents protested at town hall meetings this summer, the AFL-CIO spent $15 million to stage counter-demonstrations with union members.

Why has organized labor made government-dominated health care such a priority? The AFL-CIO publicly argues that the "real-world toll of soaring health care costs, lack of insurance and systemic flaws in our health care system must come to an end." They further state that their goal "is to win secure, high-quality health care for all." Many union leaders and activists do genuinely believe this. However, the labor movement has not spent such large sums of money campaigning for health care reform out of disinterested concern for the common good: Unions will benefit immensely if the government takes over the health care system. Read more ..


North Korea’s Nukes

North Korea Remains "A Looming Threat"

September 7th 2009

Korea Topics - Kim Jong-IL
Kim Jung II

The U.S. is threatened with a number of challenging military situations: Iran, and its recalcitrant regime; a muted, but not defeated, Hamas; an increasingly hot war in Afghanistan; and, of course, the North Koreans. Though style has certainly changed in the Obama Administration, often the substance of policy has not. In the most difficult case, that of N. Korea, the alternatives are shockingly constant: confrontation or capitulation. They may be dressed up in Six-Power talks or in ‘humanitarian gestures’ (everyone who believes that former Pres. Clinton’s actions - noble though they may be - were not drenched in symbolism [we don‘t negotiate with terrorists] and thereby ‘political’ raise your hand), but there is an unerring constant: either we will stand up to an aggressive, repressive, and brutal regime or we will negotiate and capitulate, at least partly, to its demands. 

Kim Jung II is well aware of the current state of our great nation. He understands that we are spread frightfully thin, that it appears that our social policy is going through a transformation and that we are facing the greatest recession since The Great Depression.

To add, we have a president who seeks to court leaders around the world regardless of their willingness to unleash fear, terror and chaos among their people. To add to this pile, Kim Jung II has always been an eccentric character, who delights in public attention. If there were any time to make a bold move against the US that time would me now. After all, he is not going to live forever. Read more ..


Inside Africa

Despite the West's Good Intentions, Africa Remains Poor and Famished

August 31st 2009

Africa Topics - Kenya Poverty

Winston Churchill called the Ugandan protectorate the “Pearl of Africa” because of the lush vegetation, pretty undulating hills, flora and fauna, bright colours under the equatorial sun, the majesty of the Nile, ever-warm climate and fertile soils. Even hot northern Uganda, where most Ugandans have never ventured because of a twenty-year insurgency that ended two years ago, produces good crops owing to a regular rain pattern. Only the parched north-east, home to the more traditional Karamojong people, sidelined during colonial times, occasionally experiences famine.

But this year, famine has struck most of the east as well as other parts of the country. Eighteen months ago this area, which is generally swampy, had El Nino floods, followed by low rainfall during the rain seasons. People here live by subsistence farming, and, when rainfall is favorable –as is usually the case- sell their cassava, maize, pineapples, bananas and other tropical fruit, in local towns or the capital, Kampala. When rains fail, -which they are not expected to do - there is no safety net, and famine occurs.

In the middle of August, Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, visited the area to see how Uganda can move towards “commercial farming and greater food security.” Although, territorially the smallest of the original three East African countries, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda –to which have recently been added even smaller Rwanda and Burundi- Uganda has 47 percent of all arable land in the region. Yet, the lack of investment and financing, traditional practices and attitudes, and huge areas given over to plantations, have prevented subsistence farming climbing to higher levels. Zoellick repeated what others have said many times before, that Uganda has the potential to be the bread-basket of the region. Read more ..


Inside the Mideast

Our "New Friend" Syria

August 24th 2009

Arab Topics - Bashar Assad headshot
Syrian President Bashir Assad

American relations with Syria have been frosty, if not downright icy for decades. Starting with Syrian involvement in the 1976 Lebanese Civil War along with the subsequent occupation of Lebanon and arming of Hezbollah, the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Syria has been poor.

The list of problems is long: complicity in the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut as well as the Iranian-sponsored rearming of Hezbollah after the 2006 war with Israel; the 1982 destruction of Hama by then president Hafez Assad, killing an estimated 10-25,000 people; the UN finding of Syrian involvement in the car bomb murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others; al Qaeda and related insurgent organizations grouping in eastern Syria and infiltrating Iraq; and the open sponsorship of Hamas and other terrorist groups in Damascus. These are some of the factors intensifying the belligerence between America and Syria.

This list is not complete without the Syrian-North Korean cooperation on missiles and building a nuclear facility (since destroyed by israel), and Syrian-Iranian economic, political and military relations, including public approval by Bashir Assad of the "re-election" of Iranian President Ahmadinejad in June. Read more ..


Iran’s Nukes

More Needed to Effective Sanction Iran’s Nuclear Program

August 17th 2009

Contributors / Staff - Gal Luft

In an effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Congress has set its sights on the Islamic Republic's foreign gasoline dependence. The logic is straightforward: Iran, it has been widely reported, is an oil giant that nonetheless imports 40 percent of its gasoline; internationally coordinated sanctions stopping it from obtaining enough could pain the regime into rethinking its nuclear ambitions. Little wonder the bipartisan Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, introduced in both the Senate and the House, enjoys the support of at least 74 senators and 294 representatives.

There is just one problem: Iran is much less vulnerable to gasoline sanctions than is commonly believed on Capitol Hill, and its foreign gasoline dependence is dropping by the day.

The little-known reason is that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has imposed dramatic measures to eliminate this strategic vulnerability. He has massively expanded the country's refinery infrastructure. Seven of Iran's nine existing refineries are undergoing expansion projects; seven new refineries are on the drawing board or already under construction. In three to five years, these projects will double Iran's refining capacity, putting it on par with Saudi Arabia.

These efforts, in addition to an effective petrol rationing scheme, have slashed Iran's need to import petroleum products. As of this fall, Iran's daily gasoline dependence will stand below 25 percent. This figure is expected to decline even further to roughly 15 percent over the next year as new refining capacity comes online. By 2012 Iran is projected to be gasoline self-sufficient; shortly after that, the Islamic Republic is likely to become a net gasoline exporter. Read more ..


Honduras on the Edge

After a Month Without Zelaya, Honduran Crisis Deepens with No Quick Solutions in Sight

August 10th 2009

Latin American Topics - Manuel Zelaya Rosales
Ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya

Although the de facto Micheletti regime has stated that it supports the San Jose Accord, events on the ground indicate that it is not pushing for the reinstatement of ousted Honduras President Mihurel Zelaya. Zelaya’s return is complicated by an entrenched interim government; a restoration of the deposed leader would only be possible through extreme international pressure. Zelaya’s border spectacle aimed at keeping the deposed president in the headlines, since his visibility is somewhat fading. Indeed, as Honduras marks a month since Zelaya’s removal from power, the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the Honduran crisis further dim.

Although the tiny and very poor nation has managed to capture the world’s attention for a few brief days in late June, both sides have since entrenched their positions, rendering dialogue all but an impossible proposition. Normality has returned in most of the country and, apart from several road closures by Zelaya supporters, there appears to be little of the street violence which marked the days immediately following Zelaya’s ousting. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Economic Sanctions and Other U.S. Policy Options to Deter Iran's Nuclear Surge

August 3rd 2009

Iran - Ahmadinejad at Iranian nuclear plant

Many in Congress question the utility and applicability of targeted financial measures as part of a strategic policy, leveraging all elements of national power, to deal with the threats presented by Iran's nuclear program. As a former deputy assistant secretary of the treasury who participated in the department's outreach to the private sector as early as 2006, I am often asked why I support the use of targeted financial measures-- both formal sanctions and informal outreach to the private sector -- if the use of these tools has not thus far stopped Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. If these efforts have neither altered the decision-making of Iranian leaders nor disrupted Iran's ability to continue developing its nuclear program, are they really effective?

The answer: targeted financial sanctions were never intended to solve the problem of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Sanctions are no silver bullet. On their own, these financial tools can only do so much. But coupled with other tools -- especially robust diplomacy, but also a credible military presence in the region -- financial measures can effectively create leverage for diplomacy. That diplomacy should focus not only on Iran, but on Russia, China, our European and Asian allies, the Gulf States, and others. Read more ..


Arabs and the West

Original Mideast Peace Plan Recognized Jewish State in Return for Arab Nation in Syria

July 27th 2009

Book Covers - Banking on Baghdad

This article is based on the Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press). Buy it here

Every day, politicians and pundits talk of another chance at Mideast peace missed, delayed or subverted. The focus is always on Palestinians and Israelis as the keystone to a global settlement with the West and across the region. But in the original peace arrangement between the Jews, Arabs and the Western powers, it was not settlements and Jerusalem that were at the heart of the problem. In fact, the Arabs originally agreed to a Jewish state complete with massive Jewish immigration. For Arabs, the prize was not Palestine, it was Syria.

This is the story of how the original Middle East Peace Plan crafted among all sides in the aftermath of World War I was subverted—not by Jews or Zionists, but by the French.

It begins at the Paris Peace Conference, on January 1919, in a flag-bedecked, battle-scarred—but victorious—Paris. There, the great top-hatted Allied men of vision and illusion gathered to remake the world and invent the post-Ottoman Middle East. At those fateful meetings, the Arabs and Jews formally agreed to mutually endorse both their national aspirations and live in peace.

This was the deal: The Jews could have an unrestricted Zionist state in Palestine. The British could have Iraq and its fabulous, albeit still undrilled, oil. The Arabs only wanted Syria and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula.

During the first days of the League of Nation’s Paris Peace Conference, Faisal, accompanied by T.E. Lawrence, widely dubbed "Lawrence of Arabia," met in Paris with Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann. Following up on meetings the two leaders had held the previous June in Aqaba, Faisal signed an enlightened and tolerant nine-point agreement endorsing the Balfour Declaration and inviting the Zionists to coexist in Palestine. The text includes great specificity about mutual national aspirations. But the chief goal of the Arabs for an Arab national state at that time was not Palestine—but Syria. The text: Read more ..


America and Iran

How Persian Gulf Naval Action in 1980s Impacts the Current Iranian Military

July 27th 2009

Iran - Iranian Warships

Tehran came away from the confrontations with the United States in the 1980s convinced that Iran’s strategic and tactical approach had been sound, but that its operations had been technologically flawed. In early 1990, Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) leaders met in Tehran and concluded that mining and IRGCN small boats provided an effective counter to the superiority of the U.S. Navy. For Tehran’s naval officials, the disaster of Operation Praying Mantis revealed that they could not contend with the Americans in a conventional engagement, but that their asymmetrical operations had proven successful. Their mining campaign succeeded, with one mine in ten finding a target. The mines stopped the first convoy of the world’s most powerful navy, and a $1,500 SADAF-02 mine inflicted $96 million in damage to the USS Samuel B. Roberts.

Read more ..

Energy Politics

Cap and Trade--False Profits for False Prophets

July 20th 2009

Environment Topics - Smokestacks

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings
A soul from purgatory springs.

So went a mantra from 16th-century Europe, when salvation -- or, so the idea went -- could be purchased by anyone willing to pay the price: sold to the sinner for cold hard cash. Sins were absolved, sinners sanctified, offenses forgotten. Money, not the commitment to a better life, promised that debauchery and divinity could cohabit in the ledgers of the holy treasurer.

By virtue of a self-promoting religiosity, these indulgences, as they were called, purported to place spiritual caps on the consequences of forbidden acts. A weekend of decadent and intemperate living brought no punishment for breaking with accepted piety.

In theory, at least, a person could excuse all the depravity he wanted, as long as those indulgent acts were economically sanctioned by appropriate authorities. Contrary to the hopes of the sinner, however, financial machinations had not the power to sanctify the sinner. The sins remained even when the money did not. Read more ..


America and The Arab World

'Arab Street' Polls Suggest America May be Gaining Traction While Iran Loses Ground

July 13th 2009

Arab Topics - Arab Street USA Friendly

Several new polls suggest that the United States is gaining ground in the Arab street, and that President Barack Obama's latest overtures, specifically his June 4 speech in Cairo, were well received by some important Arab constituencies. Although a great deal of skepticism remains, students of Arab public opinion would regard these numbers as surprisingly encouraging. In contrast, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity has slipped dramatically in the Arab world, with many saying that the outcome of Iran's recent presidential election will hurt the region. Approximately half of the Arabs questioned even agree that "if Iran does not accept new restrictions and more international oversight of its nuclear program, the Arabs should support stronger sanctions against Iran around the end of this year."

Polling Difficulty in the Middle East

If the Middle East were more like the United States or Europe, an overnight phone poll would provide immediate answers to important questions. The reality is that phone polls in the region are notoriously unreliable and that most individual polls, however elaborate or well intended, are inevitably suspect of government interference, social bias, or other distortions. Still, if evidence from several different pollsters can be gathered, evaluated, and compared, some reasonable and even significant judgments can be rendered. This is precisely the case today when comparatively solid (and in great measure previously unpublished) data of this kind are at hand for three key Arab societies: Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The data in question derive from three different sources, all using in-person rather than phone or online interviews: the Washington-based Zogby International, the Ramallah-based Palestinian AWRAD Institute, and the Princeton-based Pechter Middle East Polls. This last is a new entrant on the scene, but one whose fieldwork is conducted by a very experienced, professional, and completely apolitical regional commercial survey firm—and unlike most other polls in the region, without any government sponsorship or supervision. Read more ..


Iran's Voter Revolt

Responding to the Iran Crisis: A Dilemma of Competing Priorities

July 6th 2009

Iran - Iran Election

The questionable outcome of Iran's June 12 presidential election and the regime's harsh suppression of the ensuing popular protests have sparked a global outcry, and would appear to offer a golden opportunity to rally international pressure on Tehran. The international community's response, however, has so far offered little in concrete terms, being diverse -- ranging from U.S. president Barack Obama's caution, to German chancellor Angela Merkel's tough criticism, to Russian and Chinese leaders' embrace of the announced results -- and seemingly uncoordinated. To mount a more tangible response to the Iran crisis, the United States and its allies will have to weigh their options against varying international policy priorities.

The election crisis in Iran is not dissimilar to past events elsewhere around the world. Devising an effective international response, however, is more difficult than in other cases because of the tension between two competing international priorities. First is the U.S. and EU desire to stay out of the way of any internal transformation in Iran. To this end, these countries have avoided inserting themselves into what appears to be a growing challenge to the legitimacy of the autocratic regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The second priority is to demonstrate to Tehran that flagrant disregard of international opinion incurs a cost, a lesson with clear implications for nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Read more ..


Iran's Voter Revolt

Saudi Media Take the Lead Against Iran's Regime

June 29th 2009

Iran - Iran Election Protest

Most commentary on the regional reaction to Iran's postelection strife divides Arabs into pro-Iranian and pro-American camps, a simplistic division that misses a key distinction. At the official or semiofficial level, Arab reaction to Iran's current travail is divided into three, not two, main parts: the usual handful of pro-Iranian-government actors (Syria, Hizballah, and Qatar); the surprisingly strident anti-Iranian-government stance from Saudi Arabia; and the large camp of cautious bystanders, including major actors like Egypt, which harbors a serious grudge against Tehran.

Equally noteworthy is that caution, rather than reflexive support for either Iran or the street demonstrators, is also the watchword among major Arab opposition movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas offshoot. So far, at the popular level, the dominant feature appears to be -- at least from the outside -- a lack of great activity or even interest, rather than the gathering storm of popular mobilization that some commentators expected.

Saudi-Led Media Charge against Tehran

Apart from Iran's friends in Damascus and Doha, Arab governments have generally avoided direct comment on Iran's internal affairs. The kings, emirs, presidents, and their official representatives have mostly kept silent, endorsing neither Iran's official version of the election nor the popular protests against it. But an analysis of the state-controlled or state-influenced media in these countries, which are much more vocal, is revealing. Read more ..


Muslim World Elections

Morocco Proves a Muslim Nation's Elections Can be Free and Fair

June 22nd 2009

Arab Topics - Morocco election

It is 131 degrees Fahrenheit in Marrakesh, Morocco, yet a slow but steady stream of voters--many of whom are women--enter the schoolyard to cast their ballots at the polling stations for the municipal elections.

On June 12, 2009, 1,503 communities chose their representatives in orderly, transparent elections, according to Ahmed Herzenni, chairman of Morocco's human rights watchdog, CCDH. His opinion was shared by more than 150 foreign observers, including the International Strategic Studies Association from Washington, D.C., and the New York-based American Center for Democracy (ACD).

Unlike the Soviet-style election in April that led to the reelection of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, Morocco's eastern neighbor, or the controversial and violent presidential election in Iran, Morocco's election was "fair and free." Read more ..


Muslim World Elections

Cedars Revolution Defeats Hezbollah in Election as "March 14" is Put to the Test

June 15th 2009

Lebanon Topics - Lebanon Election 2009

According to the latest polls, the so-called "March 14" coalition, which was formed in the wake of the Cedars Revolution and the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, has obtained a majority in the Lebanese Parliament, defeating the Hezbollah political and financial machine. This victory, in a very challenging local, regional and international context, is a benchmark with multiple lessons to learn. The following is a first evaluation of the results, although they will most likely be challenged by Hezbollah and their allies.

Under Threat Since 2005

Even though it was seen by the international community as the last straw, the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and his companions wasn’t the final tragedy Lebanon had to experience in 2005. The March 14 majority in parliament and the country’s executive branch were targeted for assassination, intimidation and destabilization by the Syrian-Iranian "axis." As of July of that year, politicians, journalists, MPs and simple citizens were murdered, wounded and kidnapped by the terror networks operating inside the country even after the withdrawal of Assad’s troops. Deputies Jebran Tueni, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, and Pierre Gemayel--who was also a minister in the cabinet--were killed by car bombs and hit teams.

Read more ..

The Obama Edge

After the Applause, Fifteen Hard Questions to Ask About Obama's Cairo Speech

June 8th 2009

Obama Admin Topics - Arab Street Obama Cairo

Perhaps the most challenging task for analysts and commentators to accomplish after having listen to President Obama's speech in Cairo (addressed to the "Muslim World") is to know how to read it, understand the links between the points he made, capture the arguments inserted by his speech writers and thus analyze the text as a major policy change since 9/11.

Readers must establish a "map of the speech" before venturing to its various exotic suggestions and hints. Evidently, each political constituency in America, the region and the international community has its priorities and will jump to the part it deems most pressing, either exciting or depressing. However, jusy look at the very idea of addressing the "Muslim world" or as the President coined it often in his speech, "the Muslims" (two different things), and understand where Obama is coming from and going to. To help in this analytical task -- and to simplify what seems to be complex -- the public must raise the following questions and address them separately in the debate before re-sowing them as a one bloc of ideas. Here are the 15 top questions to ask.

1. Is the equation of mending relations between a nation state, America, and a whole civilization, Islam, rational? Is it academically sound to put one country and fifty two other countries in one framework of relationships? Are all 52 Muslim countries in one basket and America in another? Who framed this equation? Read more ..


Edge of the Environment

Globalization Continues Destruction of the Amazon Rainforest

June 1st 2009

Environment Topics - Amazon rainforest
Amazon Rainforest

Ever since its opening to the double edged sword known as "development," debates over the Amazon rainforest repeatedly have degraded into an international tragi-comedy of hypocrisy and shirked responsibilities. Development’s fate, in reality, has been shaped by two contradictory trends: on the one hand, shrill opposition to ecological destruction from large swathes of the developed conservation-minded world, and on the other, runaway deforestation. This duality has intensified in recent years, with ever greater awareness of the importance of the rainforest failing to hold the line against the prevention of the acceleration of its destruction.

The precarious state of the Amazon rainforest was starkly highlighted by data released in early 2008, which showed a rapid increase in Brazil´s deforestation rate in the second half of 2007. This alarming fact was caused primarily by high demand for such products as beef, soya, and timber, as well as the impact of various developments which had the effect of pushing small landholders deeper into the forest. Read more ..


America and Israel

The Obama-Netanyahu Meeting: The Ripples Are Just Beginning

May 25th 2009

Israel Topics - Obama and Nettanyahu

This week's White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was both uneventful and momentous -- and because of this, its ramifications are likely to ripple throughout U.S. and Middle East politics far into the future.

Unmet Expectations of Conflict

The party most upset by the outcome of the Oval Office tete-a-tete was surely the press corps—both U.S. and Israeli—which had seemed eager to see these two savvy, confident politicians locking horns. In fact, both Obama and Netanyahu were effusively warm toward each other in public, with the former extolling their "extraordinarily productive" 105-minute private discussion and the latter calling his host a "great" leader no fewer than four times (and this, just over 100 days into his presidency!)

Indeed, each leader dismissed, with brief remarks, disputes that existed largely in the imaginations of newspaper columnists and bloggers. By committing himself to "simultaneous and parallel" pursuit of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and efforts to prevent Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu resolved a thorny chicken-and-egg dispute over which comes first.

Read more ..

Caribbean on the Edge

Haiti--A Nearby Collapsed Economy in Need of Help

May 18th 2009

Caribbean - Dirt Biscuits in Haiti
Dirt Bicuits in Haiti

In April, delegates from 28 countries gathered in Washington for the International Donors’ Conference on Haiti and agreed to pledge $324 million in additional aid to Port-au-Prince over the next two years. At the meeting, which was hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), contributors promised $15 million in emergency food assistance, $20 million to improve infrastructure, and $2 million to help fight drug trafficking through the U.S.-backed Merida Initiative. Additionally, the recovery plan will target creating an estimated 150,000 desperately needed jobs in the country—a stimulus scenario that would considerably reduce the country’s dependence on foreign assistance in the years ahead.

Former President Bill Clinton appealed to the donor forum’s participants to alleviate the plight of the stricken nation. “Haiti has a chance. Haiti has good leaders. Haiti has a good plan,” he insisted. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

AIPAC Confronts New Obama Reality

May 11th 2009

Obama Admin Topics - Obama AIPAC

“You’re not going to like my saying this,” Vice President Joe Biden told 6,000 delegates from the podium of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference — a spot that politicians usually vie over vigorously for the privilege of telling the crowd what they want to hear.

But Biden, after sending up his rhetorical warning, used his May 5 keynote speech to the pro-Israel lobby to convey the Obama administration’s insistence on a number of policies directly conflicting with those of the new government in Israel — and some policies held by previous Israeli governments, too.

Other speakers, such as Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, underlined Biden’s points on the need for Israel to stop expanding settlements in the West Bank and accept the necessity of a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Read more ..


Pakistan on the Edge

As Pakistan Teeters on the Brink, American Security Policy Shudders

May 11th 2009

Islamic Topics - Taliban in Pakistan

Both the establishment of sharia (Islamic law) in Pakistan's Swat valley and last month's advance by Taliban militants to within sixty miles of the capital, Islamabad, have raised concerns about increased terrorist threats to the United States as well as the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

It appears that Pakistan, whose president, Asif Ali Zardari, has just met with President Barack Obama in Washington, is becoming the first major foreign policy challenge for the new administration. Intense discussions have already taken place in the White House. Early thinking on the issue suggests that events in Pakistan also affect many aspects of U.S. Middle East policy.

Counterterrorism

The size of the safe havens available to terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistani border has evidently expanded beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region adjacent to Afghanistan where tribal rather than national law applies. Although Pakistan has launched air and artillery strikes to force the retreat of Taliban fighters, FATA and the surrounding region are likely to remain outside full government control. Read more ..



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