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Obama's Second Term

Gates at War

January 11th 2014

Robert Gates better headshot

The memoir of former defense secretary Robert M. Gates has landed with a bang. Gates has harsh words for President Barack Obama’s wartime decision-making and quotes Hillary Clinton saying that her opposition to the surge in 2007 was political. There is more than enough to outrage partisans—and even non-partisans—on both sides of the political spectrum. But outrage about the book will only further the very problem Gates was trying to highlight. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War is a lengthy lament that far too few leaders in Washington, civilian or military, Democratic or Republican, understand that the United States was—and is—at war. Even fewer understand what that means. This critique is right and important, and it highlights a great peril to the nation in a dangerous time.

America is still at war. Tens of thousands of American soldiers are fighting and occasionally dying in Afghanistan. If President Obama heeds the advice of his military and considers the long-term interests of the United States, there will still be thousands of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Changing the name of their mission and declaring “combat operations” to be over will not change the reality. When soldiers go into the field against enemies trying to kill them, they are at war. When they are at war, we as a nation are at war, or should be. That is the central point Gates was trying to get across. Read more ..


Bangladesh on Edge

Combating Islamism and Supporting Democracy in Bangladesh

January 10th 2014

Parliament Building Dhaka Bangladesh

Bangladesh has experienced significant political tumult in the past year, including during and after the January 2014 parliamentary election. While the threat from terrorism had diminished to some extent under the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the recent execution of an Islamist politician and the sentencing to death of other opposition leaders accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 have unleashed furor among Islamists. The war crimes verdicts led to violent protests earlier this year that left over 150 dead. Following the December 12 execution of Islamist leader Abdul Qader Mollah, rioting broke out, killing at least five Bangladeshis in a 24-hour period. The international community urged the Bangladeshi Prime Minister to stay Mollah’s execution, to no avail.

The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and several smaller parties have said they will boycott the election if the government does not agree to install a neutral, non-party caretaker regime to conduct elections. If the Hasina government and the BNP are unable to come to agreement on how the polls should be conducted, there is a likelihood of political destabilization, similar to what unfolded in 2006 and 2007 when the military took the reins of power. Read more ..


The Diplomatic Edge

If You Need To Talk To Europe, Call Ashton

January 9th 2014

euro flags

A few weeks after Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi was deposed in a military coup in July, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was taken, without bodyguards or aides, first in a helicopter and then in a car with its windows blacked out, to the unknown location where he was being held.

To date, she is the only Western official who has spoken to Morsi since his ouster. "Can you imagine this happening to anyone else, say [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry or the foreign minister of France or Britain," an EU official who asked not to be named said. "In a sense, this shows her status both in a positive and a negative way."

Appointed as the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy in 2009, Ashton has often found herself in the spotlight in 2013, signaling the bloc's emergence from the economic and consequent political crises of 2008 as an essential foreign-policy player. Read more ..


Chile’s Leading Edge

Chile: The Unrecognized Role Model of Latin America

January 8th 2014

Education-Protest

In a run-off election on December 15th, presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet, who was Chile’s president from 2006 to 2010, was again voted into office. The victory was overwhelming as Bachelet took more than 60 percent of the vote against her opponent Evelyn Mathei of the conservative Independent Democratic Union party, who is also a childhood friend of Bachelet.

Bachelet ran on a platform that responded directly to the student protests and other strikes that the country experienced in the last several years. Indeed, popular protests that brought tens of thousands of protestors to the streets demanded lowers costs for higher education along with improvement in the quality of education. These demonstrations caught fire as they expanded to other social sectors. In a remote area of Chilean Patagonia, protestors blocked roads demanding cheaper petrol. Likewise, there were demonstrations in opposition to a new fishing law. Previously there were strikes by copper miners demanding a fairer share of the production profits. Port workers also participated in strikes, demanding better working conditions. There were also hunger strikes by imprisoned indigenous activists. Environmentalists protested a hydroelectric project. There were also protests over high levels of inequality despite the considerable reduction of poverty Chile experienced in the last quarter of a century. Read more ..


Iran on Edge

Is Iran's Conservative Camp Muscling In On Nuclear Talks?

January 8th 2014

Iran Nuclear Equipment centrifuges

Is Iran's conservative camp muscling in on Tehran's nuclear negotiations with six world powers?

Yes, if you listen to some hard-line lawmakers and media who are reporting that two conservatives have been added to a mysterious panel said to monitor the work of Tehran's negotiating team.

Not really, if you go by the word of those participating in the negotiations and media close to the government. In fact, they question the existence of any such panel at all.

One thing appears clear amid the murk: there are stark internal differences in Iran when it comes to the country's approach in talks with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, plus Germany).

Officially, the country's president and former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, has been granted the authority to shape Iran's negotiating position. And with the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president's team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has worked out an interim deal in which some international sanctions would be relaxed in exchange for more Iranian transparency and concessions when it comes to its controversial nuclear program. Read more ..


Geopolitical Edge

The North American Free Trade Agreement: The Future for the USA, Canada and Mexico

January 7th 2014

Click to select Image

The 20th anniversary of NAFTA's implementation on Jan. 1 has revived some of the perennial arguments that have surrounded the bloc since its inception. The general consensus has been that the trade deal was a mixed bag, a generally positive yet disappointing economic experiment.

That consensus may not be wrong. The history of the North American Free Trade Agreement as an institution has been one of piecemeal, often reluctant, integration of three countries with a long tradition of protectionism and fierce defense of economic national sovereignty. While NAFTA was a boon for certain sectors of the economy, particularly the U.S. agriculture industry, the net effect of the world's second-largest trade bloc remains somewhat unknown.

The debate over NAFTA can, however, obscure some fundamental realities about the future of North America and its three major countries. While the formation of the trading bloc represented a remarkable political achievement, NAFTA has remained a facilitating institution whose success has mirrored the ebb and flow in the slow but inevitable economic integration of the United States, Mexico and Canada. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

The Syrian Regime's Military Solution to the War

January 5th 2014

al-Assad and Generals

It has become commonplace to say that "there is no military solution" to the conflict in Syria. That claim, invoked by Western officials including the U.S. secretary of state, is used to justify an emphasis on diplomacy (the Geneva II process) and limitations on assistance to the armed opposition.

The war could indeed have a military outcome, and in light of current trends, that outcome could be a regime victory. The outlines of a regime strategy for winning the war are visible. This strategy hinges on the staying power of the regime and its allies, the generation of adequate forces, operational success, and continued divisions within rebel forces. It is subject to serious constraints, especially limitations on the size and effectiveness of regime and associated forces, and "game changers" could alter its course. But a regime victory is possible -- and that is what the regime is counting on.

Strategic Principles

The regime fights its war under three broad strategic principles. The first entails using whatever level of violence it believes is necessary to defeat the armed opposition and break the will of its civilian supporters. No doubt, this process has involved incremental but continuous escalation to higher levels of violence in the face of increasing armed opposition. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Rocky Road to Nuclear Deal

January 4th 2014

Rowhani

Since the October start of nuclear talks in Geneva, two distinct trends have marked the periphery: (1) a premature push for political and economic outreach to the Iranian government by European countries, particularly Italy; and (2) efforts by the Majlis to regulate the content of a nuclear deal -- through legislation that could upend the final accord if it fails to guarantee specific “rights,” including set levels of uranium enrichment, and safeguard the continued construction and operation of key facilities including those at Fordow, Natanz, and Arak. Most recently, this has been manifested in a January 2 report of the addition of two Majlis deputies (or parliamentarians) to the negotiating team.

Rouhani: Italy “Gateway to Iran's Interaction with Europe”

From December 21 to 23 -- in the company of twenty journalists -- Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino became the first European foreign minister in a decade to pay a state visit to Tehran. The trip followed a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, including the visit of an Italian deputy foreign minister to Iran only three days after Hassan Rouhani's inauguration as president; a November stopover in Rome by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; and, only a week before Bonino's arrival, a Tehran visit by former Italian prime minister -- and former foreign minister -- Massimo D'Alema. Read more ..


Russia on Edge

Whither Vladimir Putin in 2014?

January 4th 2014

At a press conference back in September 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a seemingly throwaway remark that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid outside military intervention by giving up all his chemical weapons.

The same day, Russia's President Vladimir Putin seized the diplomatic initiative by calling on his longtime ally to do just that, paving the way for a deal that may have prevented major military action and unpredictable instability in the Middle East.

"Putin Takes Advantage Of Kerry Blunder," the headlines blared. Purely in terms of visuals, Putin came out looking like a global peacemaker against the background of a bellicose United States.

And it wasn't just in the Syria crisis that Putin looked like a foreign-policy maestro. From the ongoing story of whistle-blowing former U.S. National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden to Armenia and Ukraine's abrupt U-turns on their European-integration ambitions in favor of closer ties with Moscow, 2013 seemed to be a gift bag of victories for the Russian president. Read more ..


Iraq on Edge

The Resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq

January 4th 2014

Oil fields near Ramadi

I have paid close attantion to the subject of Al-Qaeda in Iraq throughout the last decade. Like others, I was disheartened to watch the group grow from 2003-2006 and relieved to see it crash and burn in 2006-2009. I was saddened but not surprised to watch it rebound strongly from 2010 onwards. Indeed since the autumn of 2010 I have been warning all who would listen that the group was poised to make a comeback.

Since 2004, I have worked in all the Iraqi provinces and most of the country’s hundred districts, including some of those where Al-Qaeda is strongest. I have worked alongside the Iraqi security forces, the U.S. military and the reconstruction community as they battled Al-Qaeda. It is my firm belief that Al-Qaeda’s resurgence was both predictable and preventable. I believe just as firmly that the counter-terrorism situation in Iraq is still recoverable. We defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq just five years ago, comprehensively dismantling their networks and propaganda campaigns. In the coming years the United States can help Iraq to do it again. Read more ..


Iraq on Edge

What's Behind The Fighting In Iraq?

January 3rd 2014

Iraqi Forces

Iraqi security forces have been waging a fierce battle with Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the lawless west of the country.

Militants have seized control of large parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, two Sunni cities in Anbar Province that were once strongholds for militants fighting against U.S. forces. Sunni tribesmen in the region have taken up arms and have been fighting on both sides.

Militants have overrun police stations, seized military posts, freed prisoners, and swept through the streets of the two cities. Government forces have pounded militant positions, but have met stiff resistance.

The heavy fighting, which has left dozens dead, comes amid mounting sectarian tensions between minority Sunnis and the Shi'ite-led government. Violence in the country has surged to levels not witnessed since 2007, during the height of sectarian fighting.

Who are the main actors in the fighting?
Several players are involved in the current fighting in Anbar Province. The Iraqi national security forces are clearly on one side, while the local Al-Qaeda branch -- known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant -- and its allies are on the other. Read more ..


The US and China

US-China Tensions Overshadow 2013 Bid for ‘New Model’ Relations

January 2nd 2014

The Pentagon

China and the United States faced several major sources of tension in their relations in 2013, overshadowing their efforts to build what they called a "new model" of ties between two major powers.

The Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based research institute, examined those tensions this month as part of a panel discussion reviewing key developments in the U.S.-China relationship over the past year.

One prominent development was the inauguration of Chinese President Xi Jinping in March.

Assessing China’s new leader
President Barack Obama hosted Mr. Xi at California’s Sunnylands resort for an informal summit in June. It was their first meeting as the leaders of their countries. U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California Wilson Center panelist. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Geopolitics and the Gregorian Calendar: Time for a Change

January 2nd 2014

Click to select Image

When England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, some 170 years after it was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on Sept. 2, and not have to get up until Sept. 14." Indeed, nearly two weeks evaporated into thin air in England when it transitioned from the Julian calendar, which had left the country 11 days behind much of Europe. Such calendrical acrobatics are not unusual. The year 46 B.C., a year before Julius Caesar implemented his namesake system, lasted 445 days and later became known as the "final year of confusion."

In other words, the systems used by mankind to track, organize and manipulate time have often been arbitrary, uneven and disruptive, especially when designed poorly or foisted upon an unwilling society. The history of calendrical reform has been shaped by the egos of emperors, disputes among churches, the insights of astronomers and mathematicians, and immutable geopolitical realities. Attempts at improvements have sparked political turmoil and commercial chaos, and seemingly rational changes have consistently failed to take root. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Novice Teen Drivers Easily Distracted Causing Accidents

January 1st 2014

family with teenagers

Teens may begin their driving habits with great caution, but as months behind the wheel pass, they begin to multi-task at higher frequency rates – dialing cell phones, eating, and talking to passengers, etc. – and therefore greatly raise their risk of crashes and/or near-crash incidents.

These are the findings from a study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development  "Novice drivers are more likely to engage in high-risk secondary tasks more frequently over time as they became more comfortable with driving," said Charlie Klauer. "The increasingly high rates of secondary task engagement among newly licensed novice drivers in our study are worrisome as this appears to be an important contributing factor to crashes or near-crashes." Read more ..


The Pentagon on Edge

5 Lessons for the Pentagon from 2013

December 31st 2013

Pentagon aerial shot

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey asked Congress this year: "What do you want your military to do?"

The takeaway for defense leaders is that policymakers want to fund a defense budget that does less but a military that is just as engaged around the world, ready to act when needed and fully capable when ordered to fight and win.

1. Sequestration's slow burn will continue, even with the recent budget deal

While the recent budget deal signed into law will soften the blow of sequestration's steep cuts in fiscal year 2014, it does not do away with them altogether. As predicted, policymakers opted for defense cuts that decline in a graduated, staircase manner rather than off a cliff. But the defense budget will still fall over the next decade. The budget simply gives Pentagon leaders more time to make judicious decisions about tradeoffs. Read more ..


Counting Palestinians

Correcting the Facts about Palestinian Refugees

December 29th 2013

UNRWA Refugee Camp

The Palestinian refugee issue has been dramatically misrepresented, distorting circumstances and numbers, in order to delegitimize the Jewish state.

According to the German Middle East expert, Fritz Grobba (Men and Powers in the Orient, pp. 194-7, 207-8, Berlin, 1957), the 1948 Palestinian leadership, headed by the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, wanted to apply Nazi methods to massacre Jews throughout the Middle East. In1941,the Mufti drafted a proposal requesting that Germany and Italy acknowledge the Arab right to settle “the Jewish problem” in Palestine and the Arab countries in accordance with national and racial Arab interests, similar to the practice employed to solve “the Jewish problem” in Germany and Italy. On Nov. 24, 1947, Acting Chairman of the (Palestinian) Arab Higher Committee, Jamal Al-Husseini, threatened: "Palestine shall be consumed with fire and blood," if the Jews get any part of it.  On April 16, 1948 Jamal Husseini told the UN Security Council: “The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight.” Read more ..


Israel on Edge

Morocco Plays with Anti-Normalization

December 29th 2013

Dome-of-the-Rock

Last weekend, the Moroccan parliament put forth a bill to outlaw "normalization" with Israel. If passed, it would ban trade and criminalize official or business interactions between the two countries, banish Israeli firms from Morocco, and bar individuals with Israeli passports from entering the kingdom. Further restrictions would cover culture, politics, sports, and the economy, with violations punishable by fines and up to two years in prison.

Although Morocco projects itself as a moderate bridge between East and West, including between Israelis and Palestinians, its domestic politics have long shown a streak of opposition to the “maverick” slant of royal policies toward Israel. Yet the latest anti-normalization bill is unusual in that it was originally sponsored by a broad coalition that included two parties in the governing bloc -- the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and the leftist Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS) -- along with monarchist factions such as the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), generally recognized as the party of the "king's men." At present, parliamentary support for the bill appears to be waning and final approval is highly unlikely. Yet the fact that it progressed as far as it did with the support of parties so close to the throne raises questions about the initiative's motivations. Read more ..


Palestinians on Edge

The Unique Tragedy of the Palestinian Refugees

December 29th 2013

Palstinian refugee camp

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees. The films, pictures, slides and prints the organization has collected on the refugees' plight will now be displayed in Jerusalem's Old City in an exhibit entitled "The Long Journey," which will then tour Europe and North America. The images, available online, are heartbreakingly powerful and emotive.

Like all refugee stories, Palestinian stories of displacement and loss needs to be told. The question is what lessons one takes out of it. For Israel, as many prominent Israeli intellectuals, historians and politicians have argued for decades, the Palestinian plight is one that must be confronted and acknowledged with honesty. What about the rest of the world, and particularly Muslims, Arabs and the Palestinians themselves? Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Was the West Duped in the Iran Nukes Deal?

December 28th 2013

Click to select Image

The nuclear-related agreement signed between the P5+1 and the Iranian government is, on its face, one-sided. In essence, according to Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), they get: billions in sanctions relief, 3,000 new centrifuges, a plutonium reactor and enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb. We get, essentially, nothing: no centrifuges dismantled; no uranium shipped out of the country; no facilities closed; no delay at the Arak plutonium plant; and no stop to missile testing, terrorism or human rights abuses. But it is, actually, worse than that.

The administration's position is that the nuclear deal is separate from any other conversation with Iran, including the fate of Americans imprisoned there. Asked whether retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini were discussed in Geneva, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "The P5+1 talks focused exclusively on nuclear issues, but we have raised – repeatedly raised [these cases] in our bilateral discussions with Iran." Read more ..


Israel on Edge

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee says Israel has 'License' to Act on Iran

December 28th 2013

Now that the U.S. and other P5+1 powers made an interim nuclear deal with Iran without Israel’s involvement, the Jewish state is free to act as it sees fit on the Iranian issue without consulting America, former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in an exclusive interview with JNS.org.

The U.S. “has indicated that they are going to act independently of Israel as it relates to Iran,” Huckabee said, calling that a “very foolish policy.”

“I think now [the Israelis] have really a license to act without having to be scolded for not having consulted the U.S. for their plans,” he said.

When asked about the possibility of making another presidential run in 2016, Huckabee, the runner-up to U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the 2008 Republican primary, said, “I’m looking at it very seriously.” Huckabee—an ordained Southern Baptist minister who currently hosts the talk show “Huckabee” on Fox News—said he is having exploratory meetings to determine “whether people who I trust, and people whose views I have confidence in, believe that there is a pathway forward for me through the primary.” Read more ..


Israel on Edge

Israel's Water Challenge

December 28th 2013

tap water

While Israel enjoys relative national security compared to its neighbors, which are struggling with internal fragmentation, this will probably change eventually. Because concerted military efforts have been required in the past to secure water resources, Israel has had a strong incentive to develop technological solutions to improve water security. Additional domestic water resources -- including increasing desalination capacity and continued efforts to recycle water -- allow Israel to mitigate one of its inherent geographic constraints.

Israel has substantially increased its capacity to desalinize water over the last decade. The arid country of roughly 8 million already has a number of desalination plants -- including the Sorek plant, the world's largest desalination plant of its kind, which became fully operational in October. Israel has plans to increase total desalination capacity through 2020 such that it approaches the estimated annual amount of internally generated natural water resources. Read more ..


America's Darkest Edge

“Nonpartisan” Gun Rights Group Boosted by Democratic-aligned America Votes

December 27th 2013

Gun collection

Amid Capitol Hill’s gun control debates this year, the Denver-based Bull Moose Sportsmen ranked among the few advocacy groups to chart a centrist course when working with lawmakers and the White House to craft firearm laws.

Its funding, however, is anything but middle of the road. The Democratic-aligned nonprofit America Votes provided the self-described “nonpartisan” Bull Moose Sportsmen with the overwhelming majority of its funding in 2012, according to a review of documents recently filed with the Internal Revenue Service. In all, contributions from America Votes represent at least 95 percent of the $963,000 raised by the Bull Moose Sportsmen from its launch in 2010 through the end 2012, IRS records show.

Washington, D.C.-based America Votes -- which has spent millions of dollars promoting Democrats and attempting to defeat Republicans such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- was created in 2004 by a group of liberal political operatives. Among them: EMILY’s List founder Ellen Malcolm, former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, and Harold Ickes, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Read more ..


Korea on Edge

North Korea: Dangerous, Weak and Crazy

December 24th 2013

North Korea's state-run media reported last December that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the country's top security officials to take "substantial and high-profile important state measures," which has been widely interpreted to mean that North Korea is planning its third nuclear test. Kim said the orders were retaliation for the U.S.-led push to tighten U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang following North Korea's missile test in October. A few days before Kim's statement emerged, the North Koreans said future tests would target the United States, which North Korea regards as its key adversary along with Washington's tool, South Korea.

North Korea has been using the threat of tests and the tests themselves as weapons against its neighbors and the United States for years. On the surface, threatening to test weapons does not appear particularly sensible. If the test fails, you look weak. If it succeeds, you look dangerous without actually having a deliverable weapon. And the closer you come to having a weapon, the more likely someone is to attack you so you don't succeed in actually getting one. Developing a weapon in absolute secret would seem to make more sense. When the weapon is ready, you display it, and you have something solid to threaten enemies with. Read more ..


Economic Jihad

Dozens of Universities Reject ASA Boycott of Israeli Academics; None Known to Support It

December 24th 2013

Graduates

Dozens of universities have rejected a decision by the American Studies Association last week to boycott Israeli academics, according to William Jacobson, a legal scholar who authors the Legal Insurrection blog. In fact, not one university or American studies department is known to support the ASA boycott. The ASA did not respond to The Algemeiner’s request for further comment on Monday. Last Wednesday, Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg were the first to reject the boycott, going as far as withdrawing their ASA memberships.

Since then, the Association of American Universities, the umbrella organization for 62 major universities and university-systems, rejected the boycott, along with the presidents of the following major universities: Read more ..


Africa on Edge

Save South Sudan Now, or Lose Africa

December 23rd 2013

South Sudan soldier

South Sudan is the newest country in the world and unfortunately seems to be on the edge of the newest civil war in the region. For the past week, clashes and killings have ravaged the capital and other areas of that young African country, yet all that comes from Washington is a heavy silence. Some observers believe that the U.S. administration is silent on purpose, allowing the confrontation to spread until the country no longer able to govern itself, ultimately leading the northern Jihadi regime to recapture influence over the south and restore itself as an Islamist power in the region after the loss of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo. While there is no hard evidence to directly blame the Obama administration for this looming new disaster, we certainly can see that the protracted U.S. absence from the scene as indirect proof that pressure groups within the Beltway might want to see free South Sudan go down in flames. But is the drama only due to U.S. policies, or are there also local disastrous politics to indict? A full review is warranted to see clearer through the fog of war.
Read more ..

Inside Politics

Are Reports of the Death of the Tea Party Greatly Exaggerated?

December 22nd 2013

Tea Party demonstator at Supreme Court

Start with the fact that 2013 has not been a great year for the movement.  It ended with the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, finally lashing out at the Tea Party for the tactics that led to the government shutdown.

That uncharacteristic outburst was preceded by a lackluster November.  Dean Young, a tea party candidate for Congress from Alabama’s first congressional district lost a primary to a more moderate Republican, Bradley Byrne, who was heavily backed by traditional big business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Tea Party conservative Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia Governor’s race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe and mainstream Republican Chris Christie sailed to victory in the New Jersey Governor’s race. Read more ..


China on Edge

The Chinese Dream: Will China Become A Land of Opportunity?

December 21st 2013

Industrial and Commericial Bank of China

Living in China for the past nine years, my sense was that it was a nation with limited social mobility. Now I’ve seen data that confirms my impression.

If one father earns 100 percent more than another, then how much more on average will his children earn relative to the other father’s children?  Miles Corak answers this question by calculating the elasticity of inter-generational income.  In Denmark the answer is 15 percent: there’s an advantage to being born into a high-income family, but it’s pretty small.  The U.S. sustains a myth that anyone can get ahead, but in fact the U.S. has low social mobility among developed countries: here, the children of the higher-income dad will earn 47 percent more. In China the figure is 60 percent.  Read more ..


The Way We Are

Americans Sicker than Citizens of Other Developed Countries

December 20th 2013

MRI Machine

Americans have the most expensive health care system in the world, although they don't have the most efficient one. Additionally, they don't get the most for their money. That's the assessment of two recent studies of health care in the U.S. Now, researchers paying more attention to where the money goes and what changes can be made to improve health care.
 
U.S. health care costs have doubled in the last 30 years, but Americans are not necessarily healthier than they were in the 1980's. Hamilton Moses analyzed the changes and trends and published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “All of our information comes from publicly available sources. That’s a very important point. This is freely available information, although the challenge was to compile it in a way that was interpretable,” said Moses.
Read more ..

Broken Economy

A Failed Economic Recovery: Don’t Blame Consumers

December 19th 2013

Home Foreclosure

The U.S. economy is mired in the doldrums. Five years after the declared end of the recession, the economy is operating well below capacity and has made virtually no progress in narrowing the gap between actually and potential GDP. Given that household consumption accounts for more than two-thirds of total output, it is only naturally that measures of consumer spending are among the most closely watched economic indicators. But the problems of a weak recovery are not rooted in consumers’ behavior or their unwillingness to spend as in the past. The United States leads the world in the share of its GDP that is devoted to personal consumption -- it is, after all, a consumption-based society -- and the share continues to rise, even above the boom years of the mid-2000s. Consumer spending is not growing as rapidly as in the years prior to the Great Recession, but the explanation lies with the lack of growth in jobs and incomes. Read more ..


The Way We Are

The Economic Outlook for 2014

December 17th 2013

Wall Street Bull

The peak season for economic forecasting is here and the consensus outlook has been pretty upbeat. To judge from forecasts coming out of the financial sector, the consensus is for about 2.5 percent real GDP growth during 2014, compared with an average of 2 percent over the past three years. Three to 3.5 percent growth is an optimistic forecast at this point, and 4 percent is the outer fringe. So what would it take to reach these outcomes?

Somewhat faster growth should be expected just from the improved policy environment. A year ago the political stalemate in Washington threatened a severe and abrupt tightening of fiscal policy. A last-minute compromise avoided the worst case scenario, but fiscal policy still tightened sharply in the winter months and the expansion slowed. Today the budget stalemate has been moved to the back burner. The recent agreement to undo some of last year’s sequestration is itself a plus for the economy. And it also makes it less likely that the debt ceiling will be used to create a new fiscal crisis any time soon. These fiscal changes alone should be enough to achieve 2.5 percent growth during 2014. Read more ..


Inside Politics

ALEC & State Legislation: Who, What & Where

December 16th 2013

south carolina state capitol

Last week, I wrote an article describing new data that I collected on ALEC bills introduced in the U.S. states during the 2011-2012 legislative session.  The release of these data came on the heels of the ALEC policy summit in Washington, DC, where journalists caught a glimpse of the process by which corporations and state legislators collaborate to write ALEC model bills that can then be introduced in the states.  My data shed some light on just how much influence those model bills have on state policy.

Over the next few months, I look forward to digging deeper into these new data to answer the variety of questions that they raise – some of which have already been brought to my attention through email and social media.  Today, I’ll start by addressing one posed by Alexander Furnas of the Sunlight Foundation via Twitter.  One of the findings I reported was that 10% of the bills in my sample were sponsored by Democrats – a surprising result given ALEC’s strongly conservative ideology.  Mr. Furnas asked me to describe the subjects of those bills. Read more ..


Broken Government

Cutting the Federal Budget May Benefit the Economy

December 14th 2013

As the House and Senate budget conference meets to decide the fiscal course of the United States, lawmakers should focus on reducing federal spending. Federal spending is growing rapidly and will accelerate outside the 10-year budget window. Even though tax revenues are projected to grow faster than spending over the next decade, the nation faces chronic and increasing deficits. Research finds that high spending, high debt, and tax increases are harming economic growth and prosperity.

Putting the budget on a path to balance with spending cuts would spur economic growth by reducing uncertainty and freeing up resources for investment and job creation. As the European crisis demonstrates, the option of making gradual changes will expire, and Americans and the U.S. economy will suffer a self-inflicted wound from unavoidable austerity measures if lawmakers continue to procrastinate the inevitable. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Assad’s North Korean Connection

December 13th 2013

Soldiers-marching

Reports have emerged this week indicating the presence of North Korean military personnel in Syria. They note that 15 North Korean helicopter pilots are operating on behalf of the Assad regime within the country.

The reports have been validated by the pro-rebel but usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights . They are also not the first evidence that Pyongyang is actively involved on the ground in the Assad regime’s war effort.

Earlier this year, the Saudi-based regional newspaper Sharq al-Awsat carried eyewitness reports revealing the presence of North Korean officers among the Syrian regime’s ground forces in the city of Aleppo. On this occasion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was itself the source of the report. Read more ..


The Palestinian Refugees – a Reality Check

December 13th 2013

Palstinian refugee camp

Western policy makers and media have misconstrued/misrepresented the Palestinian refugee issue, ignoring its global context and core data. Moreover, the Palestinian claim of dispossession – which impacts the US financial aid to UNRWA, and is defined as a key issue in the peace process - fails the reality test.

The Global Context

At the end of 2012, the UN High Commissioner of Refugees documented 15.4 million refugees worldwide - excluding Palestinian refugees who are administered by UNRWA - and 28.8 million internally displaced persons.  Four million of the refugees are from Afghanistan.  One of the results of the civil war in Sudan was five and a half million refugees. Fifteen million refugees (Hindu, Muslim and Sikh) were created by the 1947 partition of India, which created Pakistan. The Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 involved a forced population exchange of two million people. Read more ..


Brazil on Edge

Can Brazil Afford Economic Growth Without Foreign Infrastructure Investment?

December 12th 2013

As Brazil prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the South American poster child is under pressure to conduct immense infrastructural reforms, an ambitious undertaking that will require a reversal of the economic stagnation that has plagued the nation since former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva left office in 2011.

Growth in Brazil, the world’s sixth-largest economy which had been seeing prosperity along with increases in the prices of the nation’s most important exports, slowed from 7.5 percent in 2010 to 2.9 percent in 2011, and finally to a startling 0.9 percent in 2012, with only 2.5 percent expected this year.

According to an unnamed Brazilian diplomat, the South American nation’s central government recognizes that it has the potential to become a highly developed nation, and is now taking the initiative to reach its potential. However, it will have to overcome significant obstacles before it can succeed. Read more ..


Book Review

Paying for Conflict -- Not Peace

December 11th 2013

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames: How Tax-exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel. Edwin Black. Dialog Press, 2013. 288 pp.

Americans tend to think of a 501(c)(3) tax exemption as a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" from the U.S. Government, indicating that the organization does work of which the government approves. Not necessarily.

In Financing the Flames, Edwin Black reveals his meticulous research on "human rights" organizations that use charitable funds for distinctly non-charitable purposes. Incitement, promotion of boycotts, lobbying, and the delegitimization of the IDF and the state of Israel among both Israelis and the international community are their common characteristics. B'Tselem and the New Israel Fund (NIF) are thoroughly dissected financially and ideologically; NIF's open political lobbying in the U.S. is particularly well documented and should call its tax-exempt status into question.

At bottom, these organizations are part of a broader effort to undermine Israel. The most fascinating types of cases in Financing the Flames are frequently reported without elaboration in the Western press: the uprooting of "Palestinian" olive trees and the apparent abuse of Palestinian women and children, both by the IDF.

There is a Talmudic prohibition against destroying fruit trees during war, based on a verse in Deuteronomy, so images of the IDF uprooting hundreds, of not thousands, of trees make people who are otherwise sympathetic to Israel just a little bit uncomfortable -- actually, a lot uncomfortable. The violation of a Talmudic principle is enough to nurture seeds of doubt about the IDF even in non-religious Jews.

But from "Rami," a Palestinian in Deir Istiya, Black discovers the image manipulation of left-wing foreign organizations who are planting olive trees in a nature preserve, "which is not allowed just because it is a nature reserve. So these trees would have to be taken out -- uprooted by the Israelis … So why do they do it? They are encouraged to make trouble." Read more ..


Inside Politics

Shining a Light on ALEC's Power to Shape Victory

December 10th 2013

$1B US Currency

It’s amazing how a little sunlight will change the behavior of some of the biggest names in corporate America — sunlight here meaning greater transparency and accountability.

It’s also amazing how the U.K.’s The Guardian is covering this changed behavior — and its potential consequences for every American — without much competition from U.S.-based media. It seems that reporters in Washington in particular can’t be bothered.

Over the past several decades, one of the country’s most influential political organizations — the 40-year-old American Legislative Exchange Council — was able to operate largely under the radar. Never heard of it? That’s by design. Founded in 1973 by conservative political operatives, ALEC has been successful in shaping  public policy to benefit its corporate patrons in part because few people — including reporters — knew anything about the organization, much less how it went about getting virtually identical laws passed in a multitude of states. Read more ..


Anatolia on Edge

A Letter from Kurdistan: the Land at the Edge of Empires

December 10th 2013

At the edge of empires lies Kurdistan, the land of the Kurds. The jagged landscape has long been the scene of imperial aggression. For centuries, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Russians and Europeans looked to the mountains to buffer their territorial prizes farther afield, depriving the local mountain dwellers a say in whose throne they would ultimately bow to.

The hot temperament of this borderland was evident in an exchange of letters between Ottoman Sultan Selim I and Safavid Shah Ismail I shortly before the rival Turkic and Persian empires came to blows at the 1514 Battle of Chaldiran in northern Kurdistan. The Ottoman sultan, brimming with confidence that his artillery-equipped janissaries would hold the technological advantage on the battlefield, elegantly denigrated his Persian foes:

Ask of the sun about the dazzle of my reign;

Inquire of Mars about the brilliance of my arms.

Although you wear a Sufi crown, I bear a trenchant sword,

And he who holds the sword will soon possess the crown. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

The Real Statin Controversy

December 9th 2013

Pills

Twice as many Americans are likely to be eligible for cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, if doctors follow new heart guidelines issued by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. Statins are widely prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attacks, but the new guidelines recommend that they also be considered for people at high risk of stroke.

Mariell Jessup, President of the American Heart Association, acknowledged that the recommendations "may be very controversial-which is fine. Controversy means discussion." And they have indeed caused a stir in the health community, more so because the calculations may be flawed. But whatever the actual recommendations should be, there is a deeper and more pervasive controversy that no one is discussing: the quality of the statins Americans are already ingesting.

It's far from common knowledge, but many cardiologists will tell you in confidence that they routinely switch patients from a generic statin back to the brand original or to another generic because of clinical problems. As one cardiologist put it to me in view of the new guidelines, "the new heart recommendation may put tens of millions of more US patients on statins, and this may be the correct advice, but only if the statins work properly." But doctors are skittish about saying these things on the record for at least three reasons. Read more ..


The Economy on Edge

What Do Today’s Jobs Numbers Tell Us? (Hint: It’s Not What You Think.)

December 8th 2013

Unemployed Claimants

Friday’s jobs numbers provide a reminder of the continued challenges facing Americans seeking work in today’s bi-polar recovery. While the Dow hit an all-time high last month, over 10 million Americans remain out of work – and 37 percent of them have been looking for a job for six or more months. One obvious policy implication is to extend federal unemployment benefits, which are scheduled to expire for 1.3 million jobless workers a few days after Christmas. Amongst the less obvious implications of the continued challenges facing the labor market is the need to get serious about job training policy, an area where federal policy remains outdated and ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the contemporary economic climate.

Joblessness remains too high because there (still) simply aren’t enough jobs for all of the folks looking for work. But many of those folks looking for work could be profitably using their time to upgrade their skills in order to better meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy. The skills gap isn’t a new problem. The absence of a coherent national strategy for developing human capital means that American workers – particularly low-income, minority, and other disadvantaged groups – have long struggled to obtain the skills necessary for economic security and upward career mobility. Funding for existing workforce development programs has never been sufficient to meet demand, even in the best of times, and demand today is way up. The current economic climate has laid bare some long-persisting problems, and opened up an opportunity to actually come up with some solutions. Read more ..



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