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The Battle for Syria

Kurdish Independence Now

October 1st 2013

Syrian Kurdish protesters

The civil war in Syria and the increasing fragility of Iraq have thrown the long-term future of these states into question. For years, they were ruled by brutal regimes that held power in the name of Arab nationalism; as a result, they failed to knit together the populations they ruled into a coherent national identity. With the decline of repressive centralized authority in Syria and Iraq, however, older nationalities and identities are reemerging. Chief among them are the Kurds. Indeed, current regional developments make Kurdish statehood a realistic possibility for the first time in living memory.

I have reported on a number of occasions from both Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. I last visited these areas four months ago, and have an extensive network of friends and contacts there and in the wider Kurdish world. And it has become overwhelmingly clear to me that Kurdish sovereignty would be of benefit to the Kurds, the region as a whole, and Western interests in the Middle East. I find it unfortunate that the emerging Kurdish success story receives so little attention in the West—both among policymakers and the general public. Kurdish statehood is good for the Kurds. It’s also good for the West. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Our Outlaw President? Obama Should Ignore the Debt Ceiling

September 30th 2013


The United States government is likely to shut down nonessential services tomorrow, after House Republicans voted before dawn yesterday to attach a one-year delay of President Obama’s health care law (and a repeal of a tax to pay for it) to legislation to keep the government running. The Democratic-led Senate is expected to refuse.

House Republicans also said last week that they would not agree to lift the debt ceiling unless implementation of the health law was delayed by one year. So the government is also headed toward a mid-October default on its debts — and a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Failure to raise the debt will force the president to break a law — the only question is which one. The Constitution requires the president to spend what Congress has instructed him to spend, to raise only those taxes Congress has authorized him to impose and to borrow no more than Congress authorizes. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Hezbollah's Military and Politics: Any Difference?

September 29th 2013

Hezbollah Troops

Is Hezbollah a social welfare organization with a military wing, or a terrorist organization that takes care of the social welfare of its people?

The European Union’s recent decision to include Hezbollah’s military wing on its terrorist list raises questions regarding the nature of a terrorist organization and international politics. Even if one agrees with the dichotomy between a military and political wing, the fact that the EU did not blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing until July 2013 itself is telling; Bahrain, the first Arab country to blacklist Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, did so in April 2013.  Read more ..

Broken Government

Opposing Obamacare Isn't Anarchy

September 28th 2013


‘It’s the law of the land.”

This is rapidly becoming the preferred shorthand argument for why criticism of Obamacare is just so, so wrong. It also serves as the lead sentence of a larger claim that all attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act are really symptoms of a kind of extremist right-wing lunacy.

For instance, here’s Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who walked out of the painting American Gothic to deliver this homespun wisdom: “We’re not going to bow to tea-party anarchists who deny the mere fact that Obamacare is the law. We will not bow to tea-party anarchists who refuse to accept that the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare is constitutional.”

Where to begin? For starters, I know a great many self-described members of the Tea Party, and I’ve yet to meet one who would not acknowledge — admittedly with dismay — that Obamacare is the law. Nor have I met one unwilling to concede that the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare is constitutional. Though from my informal polling, I can report that most think the Court’s reasoning left much to be desired (logic, persuasiveness, consistency, etc.). Read more ..

Latin America on Edge

Suriname and the Nefarious Case of the Union of South American Nations (NASUR)

September 27th 2013

biblioteca nacional brasilia

Suriname is the smallest country in South America. With a territory of 64,000 square miles and a population slightly larger than half a million residents, whose official language is Dutch, Surinam is a country mostly ignored by students of Latin America and observers in general. Though considered politically inconsequential and rarely mentioned, Suriname is now playing a big role involving many of the countries of the hemisphere.

Most recently Suriname served as the host country for the annual conference of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).  UNASUR is an organization founded with the objective of promoting regional integration, the development of a single Latin American market and cooperation on military matters between the different countries. Read more ..

Broken Government

Banana Republicans 2013

September 26th 2013


Americans recently witnessed two contrasting images of our political parties that represent why GOP dysfunction in Washington will be a powerful weapon for House and Senate Democrats in 2014.

At the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama (44), President Clinton (42) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (45?) joined business leaders and globally respected luminaries to discuss the world economy and healthcare. They offered the nation a portrait of serious leaders, discussing serious matters, addressing serious citizens.

By contrast, voters witnessed a portrait of a Republican fiasco led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that threatens another government shutdown, which is deplored by 80 percent of Americans in a new New York Times/CBS poll. Republicans lack any credible or coherent national leader. They are dominated by extreme factions pursuing banana republic tactics. They threaten a government shutdown and U.S. default that could trigger a new financial crash. Read more ..

Broken Government

Shutdown Threat a Bad Idea - Again

September 25th 2013

US Capitol through trees

Republicans are once again careening toward shutting down the U.S. government.
I feel a bit lame adding my voice to the mix of those decrying the insanity of this move, with GOP pollsters and Karl Rove already having led the way. You can hardly find a professional political operative who thinks this will be good for the GOP — and they’re sacrificing their professional advice on the altar of ideology.

However, on the theory that everything has been said but not everyone has said it, I’ll add my two cents. To quote Mel Brooks’s immortal paraphrase of the Roman philosophers in his 1981 “History of the World: Part 1” comedy, “It’s N-V-T-S, nuts.” Few Americans think this is a good idea.

The latest CNBC poll addressed the issue head on and found only 19 percent who favor defunding ObamaCare if it means shutting down the government. A somewhat earlier ABC/Washington Post poll posed a more circumscribed question and found just 27 percent in support of “shutting down major activities of the federal government in order to try to prevent implementation of the health care law.” Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Will Obama Fall for Rowhani's Deception

September 24th 2013


He’s been portrayed by the mainstream media as the anti-Ahmadenijad—a pragmatic moderate who’s set to strike a grand bargain with the United States and save the world from a looming military showdown over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

But as Iranian president Hassan Rowhani takes center stage at the U.N. General Assembly this week, full of reassuring smiles and promises of peace, the Obama administration would be wise to keep a peculiar-sounding Arabic word in mind. That word is taqiyya (pronounced ta-kee-ah). Translated into English, it means “deception.”

Taqiyya has long been a favorite tactic utilized by radical Shia Islamists—like those that comprise the current Iranian regime—to confound their enemies and lull them into a false sense of security, even complacency. If President Obama ends up meeting with Rowhani on Tuesday when both men speak before the General Assembly, expect nothing less than a full-on taqiyya-fest. Read more ..

Broken Goverment

Defunders Are Playing Russian Roulette with GOP

September 23rd 2013


Most Americans these days are simply ignoring Republicans. And they should.
The self-promotional babble of a few has become the mainstream of Republican political thought. It has marginalized the influence of the party to an appalling degree.

An approach to the debt ceiling that says one will not vote for its extension unless ObamaCare is defunded is the political equivalent of playing Russian roulette with all the chambers of the gun loaded. It is the ultimate no-win strategy. You cannot in politics take a hostage you cannot shoot. That is what the debt ceiling is. At some point, the debt ceiling will have to be increased not because it is a good idea but because it is the only idea.

Defaulting on the nation’s obligations, which is the alternative to not increasing the debt ceiling, is not an option either substantively or politically. A default would lead to some level of chaos in the debt markets, which would lead to a significant contraction in economic activity, which would lead to job losses, which would lead to higher spending by the federal government and lower tax revenues, which would lead to more debt. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Jews, Germans, Poison Gas and More

September 23rd 2013

Dead Syrians

Jewish organizational support for President Obama's temporary determination to enforce international norms and his own red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons brought out the nasty legions. DavidDuke.com and Blacklistednews.com, among others, were vociferous in their condemnation of Jewish "warmongering." Even Jewish media outlets -- Tablet Magazine, The Forward and JPost.com -- seemed surprised that the left, right, and center of the Jewish political spectrum gave the president support. They shouldn't have been. Visceral horror of poison gas is part of the collective Jewish psyche; also dead children. An estimated 1 million Jewish children died at the hands of the Nazis, along with half a million other children, including Roma and the mentally and physically disabled. In all, 2,700,000 Jews of the 6 million total are believed to have been killed either by poison gas in trucks, gas chambers, or by shooting.  Read more ..


Truth and Consequences for Benghazi

September 22nd 2013

Libyan riot at US consulate Sep 2012 #3

The only real accountability for the Benghazi scandal will have to come in 2016.

Reading through the competing partisan reports and listening to the congressional testimony of various officials this week, it seems fair to say that no actual crimes were committed (though you never know what you don’t know).

There were, in at least a figurative sense, criminal lapses in judgment by senior officials. Many of those lapses are recounted in the Accountability Review Board report. It found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department” that “resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Iran Stalemate End?

September 21st 2013

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

The moment of truth is coming. All the optics from Tehran -- even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal. If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.

And yet skepticism about the ability of Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, to cut a deal is certainly warranted. Iranian presidents have much less power -- especially on foreign and security affairs -- than the supreme leader. And yes, Khamenei's recent public statements remain full of suspicion and enmity toward the West. But even Khamenei seems to be signaling his desire to find an end to the nuclear stalemate. On Sept. 17, in a meeting with senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, he addressed them on the question of "flexibility": "A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who his rival is and what his main goal is." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Why Syria's Chemical Weapons Agreement Will Succeed

September 20th 2013

Syria fighting injured baby

Much of the current debate on Syria of the current debate on Syria centers on whether Assad will in fact give up his chemical weapons. Not to worry. The chemical weapons agreement will be a resounding success. This is not because all or most of the weapons themselves will be found and destroyed. The odds are high that critics are right in suspecting Assad will lead inspectors on a dance similar to that pioneered by Saddam Hussein. It will be a success because it is in the interest of all parties to the agreement to pretend that it is.

Obviously it is in Russia's interest, since Putin presides over the entire scheme, at the center of the world stage like Jimmy Carter who knocked heads together to cobble together the Camp David agreement. It is in Assad's interest to appear compliant because while the U.S. focuses on chemical weapons, he is free to pursue the war (with growing Iranian help on the ground) by conventional means. Read more ..

The Race for Natural Gas

Study Unmasks Politics of Anti-Fracking Cornell Scientists

September 19th 2013


A University of Texas-Austin study released Monday found that methane emissions from new wells being prepared for production, a process known as completion, captured 99 percent of the escaping methane—on average 97 percent lower than estimates released in 2011 by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is the most comprehensive shale gas emissions study ever undertaken on methane leakage, covering 190 well pads around the United States. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, so leaks could theoretically wipe out the documented climate benefits with respect to reduced carbon emissions of natural gas, a comparatively clean fossil fuel.

Energy experts and environmentalists celebrated the finding that almost all the escaping methane could be captured by state of the art equipment. “Can we control it? Thanks to new EPA regulations coming online, the answer to that is good news,” Eric Pooley, a senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the New York Times. Read more ..

The Media on Edge

Manufacturing and Exploiting Compassion: Abuse of the Media by Palestinian Propaganda

September 18th 2013

Israel border crossing Eilat

Israel, a liberal democracy caught between tyrannies and sectarian violence, is increasingly perceived as uniquely evil.

In the struggle for hearts and minds, feelings trump facts. Imagery and accusations that automatically trigger public compassion are incomparably more compelling than dry, defensive argumentation. We are “wired” by evolution to support those we perceive as innocent victims in distress, even when the facts do not mandate such support.

The portrayal of Palestinians as innocent victims in distress has been the key to Palestinian propaganda’s popular success. Through the mass-production of heartrending imagery centered on children, staged “news,” manipulative rhetoric, and rigid censorship, Palestinian propaganda has successfully used the media to recast Palestinians as entirely blameless victims. Read more ..

Broken Economy

The Next Fed Chairman’s Global Clout

September 17th 2013

Federal Reserve

The U.S. Federal Reserve remains the most powerful central bank in the world. Its policy actions reverberate in every corner of the globe, something no other central bank can claim. Even the hint of a “taper” — the withdrawal of easy money policies — has roiled emerging markets. The prospect of rising interest rates in the United States has led investors to pull back from riskier investments in those countries. Emerging markets like Brazil, India and Indonesia are facing plunging currencies and declining stock markets.

Low interest rates in the United States had led investors to look to emerging markets for better returns on their money, fueling booms in equity and real estate markets as well as higher inflation in some countries. For the previous two years, emerging markets had been complaining about how these inflows fueled by cheap money in the United States caused their currencies to appreciate too rapidly, hurting their export competitiveness. The fact that those same currencies are now tumbling has led to the opposite complaint — that the Fed should back off more slowly from its earlier policies and better communicate its intentions to financial markets. Read more ..

Obama and Putin

Putin’s Russia Now a Force in the Middle East

September 17th 2013


President Obama’s abysmal failure to provide leadership during the Syrian crisis represents a turning point in the Middle East and has paved the way for President Putin’s Russia to emerge as the dominant regional force, a position it had surrendered after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

To avert abject humiliation, Obama has absurdly spun the situation into a victory achieved by the American threat of military force. Instead, it was Putin who played the role of international statesman and masterminded a watershed moment for the Middle East, in which Russia effectively supplanted the US as world leader.

Were Assad to actually dismantle his chemical stockpiles, Putin would have made an important contribution to regional peace and stability. Alas, the likelihood of this happening is exceedingly remote. Given the barbaric civil war raging throughout Syria, and the history of Syrian lies and deceit, it is virtually impossible to establish any meaningful form of surveillance or control. Nonetheless, Putin has established a significant role for himself in the Mideast region.


Broken Government

Remember "Lehman Weekend:" Don't Let Up on Financial Reforms

September 16th 2013

Financial reform now protest

The "Lehman weekend" five years ago has taken on symbolic importance as the fulcrum of the financial crisis, but the roots of the crisis were broad and deep—planted in years of unconstrained excess on Wall Street and prolonged complacency in Washington and financial capitals worldwide.

"Shadow banking" permitted the financial sector to engage in highly leveraged, short-funded maturity transformation with too little transparency, not enough capital and little restraint. Large firms became more interconnected and became increasingly reliant on short-term funding from repo transactions, derivatives, money market funds, securities lenders and prime brokerage business. Huge amounts of risk moved outside the more regulated parts of the banking system to where it was easier to increase leverage.

Legal loopholes and regulatory gaps allowed firms to evade oversight. Investment banks, insurance conglomerates and other entities performing the same market functions as banks escaped meaningful regulation on the basis of their corporate form, and banks could move activities off balance sheet and outside the reach of more stringent regulation. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

A Plot for a Comedy or Tragedy?

September 15th 2013

Medvedev and Assad

Of course, whatever the President had planned previously was scuttled when Assad said "yes" to Russia's reformatted version of Secretary Kerry's off-hand suggestion in London that we would not attack Syria if it transferred its chemical weapons to an appropriate international authority. The next shoe to drop was Russia's condition that this agreement could be concluded only if the U.S. formally agreed not to attack Syria. And now, the President and others seeking to make the best of the current situation claim that it was the President's tough policy and his promise of an "unbelievably small" and "limited" attack so threatened Assad that he immediately agreed, giving us the possibility for a diplomatic solution justifying an indefinite delay of his request that congress approve striking Syria. (Oh, by the way, Assad has since added that, for him to follow through on his part of the deal, we must stop supporting the rebels, too ... surprise!) Read more ..

Broken Government

The Incoherence of Washington's Tax Haven Policy

September 14th 2013

The 2008 financial crisis intensified critical discourse on tax havens, which were charged with introducing risky products (such as Credit Default Swap or Asset Backed Securities) and spurring turmoil in international markets. The Obama Administration has demonstrated a clear intention to curb use of the tax havens, which wealthy U.S. companies and households use to avoid paying about $103.1 billion USD per year in tax income to the U.S. government. 

Tax havens are countries and territories, mostly in the Caribbean, that offer financial benefits to foreign investors. The two main pillars of tax havens are a low (or nonexistent) tax rate and secrecy; that is to say, information on the identity of the client and on his or her activities may not be disclosed to foreign authorities. Using tax havens’ services is considered by non-tax haven countries, such as the United States, to be tax evasion.

The Edge of Health

Will Businesses Drop Health Coverage Because of Obamacare?

September 13th 2013

File folders

Will 2014 mark the beginning of the end for employer-sponsored health insurance as we know it?

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, policy experts have debated that very question. Thomas Buchmueller, a business economics professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School, and colleagues looked at theoretical and empirical evidence to put that question in context in a paper published today in the September issue of Health Affairs.

Buchmueller and co-authors Colleen Carey, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Public Health, and Helen Levy, a professor with the Institute for Social Research and the Ford School of Public Policy, say the models they studied point to a relatively small decline in employer-sponsored coverage as a result of health reform. That's despite Obamacare being cited last month as part of the reason United Parcel Service announced that it would end health care coverage for the spouses of white-collar workers who could obtain coverage through their own employers. The move affects 15,000 spouses. Read more ..

Broken Government

How to Create Another Housing Crisis

September 13th 2013

Home Foreclosure

Government policies to promote homeownership should aim to decrease mortgage defaults, not increase them. They can do so by requiring the lender to bear some of the risk of loss, by requiring the borrower to make a substantial down payment, or both. Yet late last month federal regulators proposed rules that would gut both requirements.

Before the financial crisis, banks or brokers would often originate home mortgages and immediately sell them to a large financial institution, which would package them as mortgage-backed securities for investors. With "no skin in the game," the originators had little incentive to determine whether the borrower was likely to default.

In response, the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, generally requires mortgage originators to retain 5 percent of the risk of loss on the mortgages they sell. However, exemptions built into the law—as interpreted by rules proposed on Aug. 28—would eliminate this requirement for most home mortgages. The proposed rules would also allow low down payments, although they are the best predictors of mortgage defaults. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Some Guidance for Obama

September 12th 2013

Obama with baseball bat

Editor's note: Periodically, Stratfor publishes guidance produced for its analysis team and shares it with readers. This guidance sets the parameters used in our own ongoing examination and assessment of events surrounding Syria's use of chemical weapons as the crisis evolves into a confrontation between the United States and Russia. Given the importance we ascribe to this fast-evolving standoff, we believe it important that readers have access to this additional insight.

In the wake of President Barack Obama's change of tack from a strike on Syria, the threat of war has not dissolved. It has, however, been pushed off beyond this round of negotiations. The president's minimalist claims are in place, but they are under serious debate. There is no chance of an attack on chemical weapons stockpiles. Therefore, the attack, if any, will be on command and control and political targets. Obama has options on the table and there will be force in place for any contingency he selects. Nothing is locked in despite public statements and rhetoric in Washington, London, Paris or Moscow. Read more ..

Divine Tragedies

Is Divine Providence the Easy Answer for Global Tragedy

September 11th 2013

Twin towers burning

The horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred just seven days before the start of the new Jewish year of 5762 and only three days after the penitential season began for Ashkenazim with the first recitation of the penitential prayer service known as S’lichot.

Perhaps because the 9/11 attacks took place during this period, when tradition teaches us that “who shall live and who shall die” is decided, we were treated to many stories of people who “miraculously” were kept away from the Twin Towers that day. In what has become known as some kind of divine providence — in Hebrew, hashgachah p’ratit — people claimed they would have been in the World Trade Center at that time, but for a flat tire, a delayed subway, a family emergency, etc. Divine providence saved them from disaster.

In reflecting on the meaning of 9/11, I considered writing about the hashgachah p’ratit phenomenon. I thought long and hard about it, but another thought kept intruding: the thought of those who died — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists and some who fit no religious category. Read more ..

Obama and Latin America

Focus on Central America is Crucial to Our Security

September 11th 2013

Honduras police firing line

Central America constitutes an important strategic area for the United States.  As discussed in my recent book “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security”, legal and institutional collapse in Central America could have very serious consequences for regional and U.S security. Central America has been victim to increasing drug cartel activity as the situation in Colombia and Mexico has turned more complicated for the drug lords. In addition, Central America is an important area of transit for drug shipments. Several countries in Central America have fallen into a situation of anarchy.

Anarchy invites the proliferation of gangs, terrorist groups and foreign powers as the situation in Afghanistan clearly demonstrates.  The presence of terrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Middle Eastern groups such as Hezbollah, and the growing presence of Iran in Latin America, as part of its alliance with the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian revolution, makes Central America into a key geo-political challenge. Read more ..

America and Israel

America’s Isolationism and its Implications for Israel

September 11th 2013


There is currently a remote possibility that the Russian strategy will succeed in averting US military action by persuading Assad to hand over his chemical weapons of mass destruction for demolition by the international community. But even if that happens, President Obama’s vacillating response to the horrors in Syria will still be considered another manifestation of America’s ongoing erosion of its superpower role as guardian of the free world against the burgeoning forces of Islamic terrorism.

In the absence of effective presidential leadership, the American people have grown weary of shouldering the burden of policing the world and sending their youngsters to battle extremists in faraway places. Obama’s policies have dramatically revived America’s dormant isolationist inclinations. Read more ..

Inside America

The Next Chapter: Las Vegas Becomes a Global City

September 10th 2013

Roulette Wheel

As Las Vegas and Southern Nevada continue to emerge from the Great Recession, our regional leaders are engaging in a concerted effort to acquire the basic urban infrastructure needs essential for our growth. The opportunity is here to promote economic diversification while gauging infrastructure assets and deficits. On the plus side, Las Vegas possesses a high-capacity and globally connected airport and a world-class performing arts center, and a major downtown redevelopment effort is underway. Our region is, of course, home to the largest convention and hotel complex in the U.S.

Most importantly, Southern Nevada has a habit of getting things done on its own. For example, with virtually no help from our state and federal governments, we constructed the $1.7 billion 215 Beltway.

So what is Southern Nevada missing? Here is a preliminary list of four assets we can and should secure (or at least begin constructing) by the end of this decade. Funding for these projects assumes a mixture of public-private partnerships, tax increment financing and local bond money. Limited federal resources are also available in the form of grants, tax credits and direct investment. Our state government can also provide partial funding, especially if the Southern Nevada delegation to the Legislature is able to rally around the projects and direct a fair share of state spending to our region. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Americans are War-Wary, not Weary

September 9th 2013

Barack Obama in Thought

President Obama and supporters of an American strike on Syria have characterized negative American public opinion as "war-weariness."  They are trying to overcome it with exhortations about America's special responsibility, or America's credibility, or the president's credibility, or the terribleness of the fighting there.  The public isn't buying it, and thus far, neither is much of Congress.

Americans are not "war-weary" because most are neither at war nor related to people at war.  They are, however, wary of war in Syria because a) Syria, although a rotten dictatorship, has not attacked the United States; b) the Obama administration has not laid out a military plan with achievable objectives; c) they don't trust the government to carry out a strike that will have a salutary effect on the situation; and d) they believe a strike may carry consequences to the U.S. that would require further military action and further potential casualties. In all these, they are correct. Read more ..

The UN on Edge

Why I Sometimes Don’t Fully Hate the UN

September 8th 2013

UN peacekeepers

When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited Jerusalem this August, he made a remarkable confession to a group of students. Describing the UN’s treatment of Israel, Ban reportedly said, “Unfortunately, because of the conflict, Israel has been weighed down by criticism and suffered from bias—sometimes even discrimination.”

It’s hard to recall another senior UN official, let alone a Secretary-General, being so candid about the Jewish state’s unhappy experience of virulent criticism, endemic bias, and structured discrimination at the international organization. In fact, Ban may have been a bit too frank for a man in his position. After he returned to New York, an Israeli reporter quizzed him over his admission. Ban responded with an awkward about-turn.

“I don’t think there is discrimination against Israel at the United Nations,” Ban said. His meaning was clear enough, but his subsequent explanation blurred the distinction between is and ought in a rather intriguing manner. “The Israeli government maybe raised this issue that there’s some bias against Israel, but Israel is one of the 193 member states,” Ban continued. “Thus, Israel should have equal rights and opportunities without having any bias, any discrimination. That’s a fundamental principle of the United Nations charter. And thus, Israel should be fully given such rights” (my emphasis). Read more ..

Inside Politics

For a Better GOP, Start with Better Storytellers

September 7th 2013

McConnell Mitch

It's no secret that the right is going through what some call a healthy debate and what others see as an identity crisis.

For some, the solution to what ails it requires a sudden philosophical shift leftward to win back the last Rockefeller Republicans, presumably hanging on in nursing homes like stranded Japanese fighters who haven't heard World War II is over. Others argue that Republicans must shake off the heresies of moderation and compromise and accept the unalloyed true faith of 100 percent conservatism.

Those are hardly the only choices, of course. Some make a very good case for fighting fire with better fire and offering a slew of better policies and reforms than what the Democrats have tacked up on the wall in recent years.

While I have my sympathies and positions in all of these fights, I've long argued that regardless of what policies Republicans should offer or what philosophical North Star they might follow, one thing the GOP could definitely use is better politicians.

Ronald Reagan's cult of personality remains strong and deep on the right, and I count myself a member of it. But what often gets lost in all the talk of the Gipper's adamantine convictions and timeless principles is the simple fact that he was also a really good politician. Barry Goldwater was every bit as principled as Reagan, but Reagan was by far a better politician. That's at least partly why Goldwater lost in a stunning landslide in 1964 and why Reagan was a two-term political juggernaut. Reagan won votes from moderates, independents and lots of Democrats. Read more ..

Defense on Edge

U.S.-Russian Arms Control in the Absence of a Summit

September 6th 2013

Darkly ominous missiles

On August 7, the White House announced cancellation of the planned bilateral summit in early September between Presidents Obama and Putin. U.S. officials publicly and privately attributed the decision to a lack of prospects for significant progress, including on further nuclear arms reductions and missile defense. They said the Kremlin had not engaged on Obama’s June proposal for further cuts in strategic nuclear forces or responded seriously to U.S. overtures on missile defense. While leaving the door open, Washington now sees the ball in Moscow’s court on these questions.

Following the brief—and evidently cool—meeting between Obama and Putin on the margins of the June G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the White House turned its attention to preparing for the September summit. Administration officials indicated that, on the arms control front, they hoped the summit might produce agreed principles to guide negotiations of further nuclear arms cuts and a settlement on missile defense. U.S. officials met with their Russian counterparts in June and July to discuss these possibilities. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Obama's Chance to Lead

September 5th 2013

Standard Missile 3

No matter what leadership style President Obama has chosen, his responsibility lies not with removing Bashar Assad, but in securing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. But Obama seems more concerned with his image and Washington politics than preventing an imminent global chemical disaster. Because he dislikes the leadership responsibilities that come with the job he was elected to do, he has passed the ball to Congress. Thus no one could blame him if Congress authorizes a "limited" attack and it boomerangs. Not surprisingly, a jubilant David Axelrod tweeted that "Congress is now the dog that caught the car."

Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry hinted on CNN that the administration intends to stall when he trotted out that military action against Syria doesn't have to happen as soon as possible, "like previous situations." Kerry added that the situation in Syria is different than Libya, which was "an overnight emergency ... where people were about to be slaughtered."

What about more than 110,000 Syrians who have been slaughtered already, including those killed since Kerry made this astute comparison? And what about those who are being killed now and more who will lose their lives tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after next? Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Shape-Shifting on Syria

September 4th 2013

Obama and Flag

The United States has not made the case that the national security interest of the United States requires the use of military force in Syria. Others have made the case for regime change, punishment, and deterrence against future use of non-conventional weapons by Syria, Iran or North Korea; and some of those cases are compelling. But the Administration has articulated no outcome toward which it is willing to commit substantial military resources and political capital.

The Administration has cast its goals primarily in the negative: no regime change, no tip toward the rebels, and no boots on the ground. In the affirmative: a shot across the bow and an exercise in American credibility presumably to influence both Syria and Iran. President Obama asserted that he would decide -- with or without Great Britain (now without), with or in defiance of the UN (now in defiance of), with or without Congress (now with) -- what he thinks is best. In fact, the Administration has been clearer, more definitive and more adamant about its prerogatives as than it has been about what outcome it seeks. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Replaying History, Both Political Parties Debate Acting Against Syria

September 3rd 2013

F-22s at Sunset

President Obama’s surprising decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike on Syria has set off an historically resonant debate in both political parties, the outcome of which will affect American politics and policy for years to come.

Since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, a muscular internationalism (often with democratic overtones) has been the default position within the Republican Party.  But disappointments with George W. Bush’s handling of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have combined with public war weariness to spark a resurgence of quasi-isolationist sentiment in conservative ranks.  In the House, Speaker John Boehner has endorsed Obama’s call for action against Syria even as many rank-and-file Republicans have come out in opposition to it.  In the Senate, Republicans led by Rand Paul (R-KY) have reminded their colleagues that limited government at home and restraint overseas go together.  Heirs of Reagan such as John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have pushed back vigorously and may well end up supporting a modified version of the authorizing resolution the Obama administration has proposed.   Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

Obama, the Syrian Crisis and Our Historic Retreat

September 2nd 2013

Obama Bowed Head

Pres. Barack Obama's sudden volte-face on a strike against the Syrian regime of Pres. Bashar al Assad has only put on hold the enormous stakes in the crisis' ultimate outcome. In one of those curious turns of history, an ugly, bloody, little conflict in an always fragile, volatile, artificial nation-state created in the last gasps of European colonialism now is determining the world's immediate fortunes:

For whatever the immediate effects of Obama's decision to go to the Congress for approval of a strike against Assad, the longer term importance of this contest in a corner of the chaotic Mideast has intensified. These concerns go far beyond the fortunes of Assad--or, for that matter, of Obama and his now crippled lame duck presidency.

* The pursuit of regional hegemony by Iran's mullahs is now (as it has been for some time) tied to Assad's continued survival, dependent as he is increasingly on their support.

* Russia's Vladimir Putin's attempt to regain a measure of the former Soviet Union's superpower status--with a threatening domestic economic crisis--is bound up in his commitment to Assad as a symbol of his growing antagonism to the U.S.

* The Arab elites' half-century jihad against Israel--if not its rhetoric--has abated in the interest of their now common fight against the new threat of nihilistic religious fanaticism, occasionally linked with Tehran's fanatics.

* Britain's political paralysis, thereby abandoning its traditional commitment to play Greece to America's Rome, plus Germany's ambivalence, is writing the death notice for NATO's short-lived "outside the theater" role. Read more ..

Broken Education

Liberal Colleges in Authoritarian Places

September 1st 2013

Yale University

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake performed the diplomatic equivalent of gold-medal figure skating last April in a meeting at the authoritarian central Asian nation of Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University when a student asked him about warnings by American critics and human-rights monitors that “a democracy cannot have its universities making partnerships with authoritarian governments,” as the questioner put it.

How could Blake justify his enthusiasm for American universities’ extensive contracts in Kazakhstan, when his own department had reported that country’s “rampant and diverse” human-rights violations and “pervasive corruption.”? Similar assessments have been offered Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House, and also by The Economist magazine’s yearly Democracy Index for 2012, which ranked Kazakhstan 143rd among 167 nations (behind Iraq, Belarus, and Angola) in protecting civil liberties, press freedoms and other elements of liberal democracy. Read more ..

The Drug Wars

Narco-Politics: How Mexico Got There and How It Can Get Out

September 1st 2013

Mexico memorial

The arrest on August 17 of the leader of Cártel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel), Mario Ramirez Treviño, better known as X-20 as well as the capture this past July of the leader of Los Zetas (The Zetas), Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Z-40, are nothing more than superficial achievements for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s eight-month-old administration. As much as the U.S. and Mexican governments celebrate what is described as a successful blow to organized crime, in reality, the arrest will not significantly change Mexico’s current security problems.

The narco-business in the country is much more complex, unlike Colombia, where the 1993 elimination of Pablo Escobar meant the beginning of the disappearance of the power of the Medellin cartel; according to British journalist Ioan Grillo, in Mexico the problem is far more ingrained. Mexico is a dangerously fragmented country—one where a series of illegal networks have been historically intertwined with the government; where federal and military authorities are not always on the same side; and where drug traffic organizations (DTO’s) have been gaining more territory and becoming more powerful, particularly recent decades. Mexico’s geography has become its own curse due to its fertile land, where it is ideal to grow illegal substances and traffic them to U.S. consumers. Read more ..

Security Edge

Obama's Relations with Russia Need a 'Reset'

August 31st 2013

Click to select Image

From the first day he entered the White House, President Barack Obama has tried to make better relations with Russia a cornerstone of his foreign policy. That worked for a while, but relations with Moscow have been on a downward spiral lately and sharp disagreements over Syria could make matters even worse.

Foreign policy in Obama’s first administration was dominated by what his advisers called the “reset” – a program designed to improve relations between the Washington and Moscow that had reached a low point during the last few years of George W. Bush’s administration.

The “reset” did bring some concrete results, however, such as a major strategic arms control treaty. Moscow also allowed U.S. forces to transit through Russia to get in and out of Afghanistan. And Russia even voted along with Washington at the United Nations to impose tougher sanctions on Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. In addition, Washington played a key role in getting Russia admitted to the World Trade Organization. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

No Simple Fix for the Horrors of Syria

August 30th 2013

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There are no simple solutions to the horrors unfolding in Syria. Had the West responded sooner, there might have been a remote chance for moderates within the rebel camp to form a functional political authority. Today, that possibility is inconceivable.

Now the forces of darkness and evil dominate the behavior of the government and rebels alike. The depths of unimaginable barbarism to which both parties have descended exceed the worst horror films.

Merely a few kilometers from Israel’s border in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad has been butchering and massacring his own people for two years. He has now added chemical weapons to his arsenal. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who, until recently considered Assad a “reformer,” has condemned Assad’s chemical weapons attack as defying “any code of morality” and representing a “moral obscenity.” Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Pakistan, Taliban and the Afghan Quagmire

August 29th 2013

Taliban soldiers

With American and NATO combat troops scheduled to depart Afghanistan next year, the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan has become more important than ever. It is a complex and complicated nexus. Without doubt, Pakistan and its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate of the army (ISI), have more influence over the Taliban than any other country or intelligence service. It provides critical safe haven and sanctuary to the groups’ leadership, advice on military and diplomatic issues, and assistance with fund raising. But its influence is not complete, and whether it could persuade the Taliban to settle for a political settlement in Afghanistan, is unclear at best.

Pakistan’s Support for Survival and Revival of the Taliban
Pakistan has been intimately associated with the Taliban since its birth in the mid-1990s. The ISI provided support to Mullah Omar when he founded the organisation in Kandahar. It had trained Omar even earlier in the 1980s at one of its training camps for the mujahedin that fought the Soviet occupation of the country. Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognised the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in the late 1990s (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the other two). Read more ..

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