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America and Venuzuela

Hugo Chavez and the Skewed Future Direction of U.S. Relations with Latin America

March 23rd 2013

Viva Chavez poster

The spirit of Hugo Chávez, in death as in life, has inspired a region-wide movement to overcome five centuries of rampant inequality and eliminate crippling poverty. At the same time, much of Latin America has witnessed an upturn of experiments in more participatory forms of democracy that extend the concept of human rights to include intrinsic social and economic benefits. There is a clear call for further equality as a greater good derived from public accessibility, rather than from private property.

Instead of seeking to subvert such rare periods of enlightenment, the Obama administration, which might have displayed an act of grandeur and generosity, ought to have engaged in an act of bonafide change and in a spirit of mutual respect. It is time to abandon a long history of ill-serving hemispheric policy driven by what has been called the Washington Consensus. Now is the moment to put aside the strategy of containment and subversion of democratic revolutions. Such an approach has fewer and fewer converts and belongs with the rubble the Berlin wall. Read more ..


Broken Healthcare

'Obamacare' May Make Coverage More Affordable For All

March 22nd 2013

Medical bag

Recently I was one of three witnesses to testify before a House committee hearing on whether the cost of health insurance will be higher or lower for people who cannot obtain it through their employer when important provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect in a few months.

I cited studies that indicate the overall cost of coverage — premiums plus out-of-pocket obligations — will be lower. The others on the panel — Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was director of the Congressional Budget Office during the Bush Administration, and Christopher Carlson of the actuarial firm Oliver Wyman, cited their own studies that indicate costs could be higher for some young adults who have benefited over the years from the prevalent insurance industry practice of charging older people up to 10 times as much as they charge younger folks. Read more ..


Jordan on Edge

Saving Jordan's King Abdullah Must Be a U.S. Priority

March 22nd 2013

King Abdullah

When President Obama meets Jordan's King Abdullah on Friday, the agenda is likely to focus on the spillover from Syria's civil war (including 400,000 refugees on Jordanian soil) and efforts to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Given recent developments in the kingdom, however, Mr. Obama would do well to make Jordanian domestic politics the centerpiece of the discussion.

Until recently, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan -- perhaps Washington's best Arab ally and Israel's last remaining reliable peace partner -- had weathered the region's political turbulence. Lately the tense calm has given way to what could be a prolonged period of unrest.

For decades, analysts have predicted the imminent demise of the insolvent monarchy. When the Arab Spring began in 2011 Jordanians warily joined the movement, launching limited but persistent protests over corruption, political reform and economic stagnation. Then demonstrations spiked last year, spurred by a government decision to decrease oil and food subsidies. Read more ..


Cyprus on Edge

Moscow by the Sea

March 22nd 2013

Euro Bills

Cyprus's crisis may have been prevented had the Cypriot banks used the billions of dollars they laundered for the Russians to buy assets other than Greek sovereign bonds.

Good thing Cyprus Central Bank governor Panicos Demetriades did not lose his sense of humor; "In an interview with Russian business daily Vedomosti, [he] said the amount of Russian deposits in Cyprus was lower than previously thought, putting the figure at between €5bn and €10bn - "depending on how you count it".

The levy on Cyprus's depositors scheme was bound to fail as it has. The plan would have taken 9.9 percent of the deposits over 100,000 euros and 6.5 percent of lesser deposits.Cyprus's parliament has rejected the idea. The scheme was odious in that it would have allowed Cyprus to maintain its ability to attract offshore money it can't back if put in banks, Russia would continue to have a Cypriot laundromat. Read more ..


Broken Government

A Look at Cordray

March 21st 2013

richard cordray, cfpb-designate

Senate Republicans are on the brink of launching a filibuster against the nomination of Richard Cordray to lead the new consumer agency that will rouse the progressive base of America, inspire a chorus of demands to reform Senate filibuster rules and propel Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to a national stature from the Senate reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy.

Since his recess appointment to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it is universally agreed that Cordray has served beyond the call of duty by acting fairly, thoughtfully and honorably to protect consumers in ways respectful to business. But that is not enough for Republicans, who are punch-drunk by the power of obstructing presidential nominees to agencies and courts by abusing the rules of the Senate.

The GOP attack against consumer protection that would be embodied by a filibuster against Cordray is one more example of the abuse of democratic values and practices I wrote about in my column last week: “Scalia: Recuse or resign."

In the case of Cordray, the consumer agency was created after passing both houses of Congress and being signed by the president and enacted into law in the same manner as the Voting Rights Act and the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. The Republican agenda in a Cordray filibuster would be to destroy the consumer agency itself and attack the financial well-being of consumers it protects by seeking to blackmail the Senate into rewriting the law by threatening — again — to abuse the filibuster rules. Read more ..


Obama and Israel

Five Things President Obama Can Do to Win Israel

March 21st 2013

Obama pointing finger at Netanyahu

As President Barack Obama begins his first official visit to Israel, here are five things he can do to make his trip worthwhile.

1. Reintroduce himself to the Israeli public.
This is the most important thing Obama needs to do during this trip. It will be a central aspect of this visit because the Israeli public has the impression that he doesn’t like them very much. In his first term they felt his coolness—he didn’t talk to them, he didn’t visit them, and he seemed to them to want to distance the United States from Israel in order to curry favor with the Arab world.

This is an unfair perception of him, but it is one that persists in Israel. Last Friday, a reputable poll in Ma'ariv (an Israeli Hebrew daily) showed that Obama has a 10 percent approval rating among the Israeli public. He doesn’t deserve that. And with such a low approval rating, he loses leverage on Bibi Netanyahu. An Israeli prime minister who confronts a popular American president will be punished politically by the Israeli public—but one who stands up to a president who is unpopular will actually go up in the polls, and that is precisely what has happened in the past four years. Read more ..


Obama and Israel

Peace Maker or Peace Breaker?

March 19th 2013

Obama pensive with flag

As President Barack Obama prepares for his first trip to Israel as president, no one doubts we will see a strong push to get both Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. Yet, doves on both sides acknowledge it would take nothing short of a miracle to get down to the business of building a real peace.

Understanding the true barriers are key to predicting where the pressure to compromise will be coming from. Counter to popular belief, despite the significant demands put on Jerusalem by Washington over the past five years which resulted in a 10-month moratorium on settlement building, the core of the conflict is neither the settlements nor Jerusalem. A closer look at the situation on the ground will allow Obama to understand two major realities before he attempts to jump-start any peace process. The first is that the two-state model today is only applicable to Israel and the West Bank; there can be no contiguous Palestine State in West Bank and Gaza with Hamas in power in the latter territory. Read more ..


Broken Economy

A Weaker America Faces the Next Financial Crisis

March 18th 2013

Home Foreclosure

Earth got a taste of its planetary mortality last month, when the largest meteorite to strike in a century plowed into central Russia with the force of 33 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The celestial pyrotechnics showed that stuff happens, and you may be helpless even when you know it's coming.

Something similar can be said about economic crises. We can expect one roughly every 10 years. The S&L scandal came in the late 1980s, the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, and of course the Great Recession starting in 2007-08. If such history is any guide, we're now just five years away from the next financial and/or equities crisis at most. It could come from the eurozone, from China's property asset bubble, or from America's own overheated stock market. Even if we dodge those bullets, the global economic track record is pretty good in pinpointing 2018 or so as a year to fear. Read more ..


America on Edge

The Cloudy Sunshine Week

March 17th 2013

File Folders

Announcing "Sunshine Week: In Celebration of Open Government," the administration's effort to highlight progress in improving the administration openness, particularly regading the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

The announcement reads:
"In our democracy, FOIA, which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government."

It should be. Yet Americans requesting documents under FOIA are getting less information because of an executive order issued by the president on December 29, 2009. It allows the government to classify certain types of information related to national security after it has been requested. Presumably, since then anything-old or new-the government doesn't want out there can be made non-FOIAble.

It seems that this Sunshine Week was for Chinese, Russian and Iranian hackers to celebrate the open windows to our national secrets. The General Services Administration (GSA) warned U.S. government vendors earlier today that it has "recently identified a security vulnerability in the System for Award Management (SAM), which is part of the cross-government Integrated Award Environment (IAE) managed by GSA."   Read more ..


Broken Government

Scalia: Recuse or Resign

March 16th 2013

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Nothing is more important to “equal justice under law” than an unelected, life-tenured judiciary respecting the fact and appearance of impartiality in a system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and one person, one vote. With important electoral decisions involving repeat offenders against fair elections in Alabama and Texas pending before the Supreme Court, the court stands on the brink of a historic usurpation of power against the elected branches, while one justice, Antonin Scalia, conducts himself in a manner appropriate to a political speaker at a conservative meeting but not an impartial adjudicator of law.

In the 2010 Citizens United case, the Supreme Court virtually legalized the buying of elections by wealthy factions that the Founding Fathers warned us against in the Federalist Papers. Two justices voting with the majority — Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas — engaged in discussions with interested conservative parties that, regardless of the topic of discussion, raise profound questions among large numbers of Americans about their impartiality. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Forget the Fatwa

March 16th 2013

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian experts are set to meet their P5+1 counterparts in Istanbul next week to discuss the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. They are likely to reprise a long-standing claim: Iran will never build nuclear weapons, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa banning "the bomb." (In fact, Khamenei restated his position on this matter just a few weeks ago.) They will explain that this fatwa is an important confidence-building measure that the P5+1 have yet to adequately acknowledge. But there is more to consider than what will likely be conveyed during these expert-level talks.

Khamenei has spoken on this topic numerous times in the past decade, and such oral pronouncements do indeed have the same legal standing as a written fatwa. Khamenei's precise formulation, however, has varied. He has at times appeared to tacitly permit the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, but not their use. On other occasions, he has categorically forbidden stockpiling and development, as well as the use of nuclear weapons. Read more ..


Obama and Israel

Israel has a Government, Mr. President

March 15th 2013

Obama

That's something to remember when you arrive there next week. Israel has a government, elected by its people in a free, fair, open and democratic election. Multiple parties representing widely divergent points of view met a wildly diverse electorate through free media and open debate. This is no stultified two-party affair with a libertarian insurgency.

Israel will be the only country you visit in the region, this time or any other, that has a fully democratic system. Do not be swayed by the "apartheid" slander. Citizens of Israel are Jews, Moslems, Christians, and Druze, each with religious and non-religious elements. Their background is Ethiopian, Russian, North and South American, European, and derived from every country of the Arab world plus Persia; watch Rita before you go. There are left and right-wingers, socialists and capitalists. (Surprise: some of the socialists are right wing and some of the capitalists are left wing, since left and right in Israel are not only economic values, but relate to land and security. Some of the security hawks are economic leftists.) Every single one of them has a vote -- and they use it. Read more ..


Broken Government

What Rand Paul Got Right

March 14th 2013

Rand Paul

I hope I'm not too late to the fight. Last week, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held an old-fashioned filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Paul's stated reason for taking to the floor and talking for 13 hours was that the Obama administration wouldn't give him a straight answer on the question of whether the president can unilaterally order the killing of American citizens on American soil with "lethal force, such as a drone strike … and without trial."

In other words, if an American member of Al Qaeda is sitting at a cafe, can the president sic one of his death-dealing robots on him?

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. had replied with a muddled yes and no in a letter to Paul: The White House "has no intention of doing so," but it would not rule it out if it was deemed necessary by the administration.

That response gave Paul the opening he needed for his filibuster. "When the president responds that 'I haven't killed any Americans yet at home and that I don't intend to do so, but I might,' it's incredibly alarming and really goes against his oath of office."

But here's the interesting part. A Democratic president, who made his bones as a holier-than-thou antiwar candidate, clings to his constitutional right to rain death from the sky on American citizens drinking Frappuccinos, and conservatives attack the Republican senator who complains about it.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-Ky.) have all but declared war on Paul. The Wall Street Journal poured sovereign contempt on him: "If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids." The Weekly Standard, in an editorial written by William Kristol, suggested that Paul was "semi-hysterical" and the "spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican Party." National Review (where I am a contributing editor), Charles Krauthammer and others on the right were less scornful but still very critical. While I agree with much of the substance of Paul's critics, I'm at a loss as to understand all the outrage. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It

March 13th 2013

Man With Ring

At the heart of the current debates about same-sex marriage are three crucial questions: What is marriage, why does marriage matter for public policy, and what would be the consequences of redefining marriage to exclude sexual complementarity?

Marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. It is based on the anthropological truth that men and women are different and complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children need both a mother and a father. Marriage predates government. It is the fundamental building block of all human civilization. Marriage has public purposes that transcend its private purposes. This is why 41 states, with good reason, affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Training Syrian Rebels to Conquer the Golan Heights and Shoot Down Israeli Aircraft

March 13th 2013

Syrian Rebels

No, they don't say it quite like that. But after years of hypocrisy, the Obama administration has admitted that while it declined to arm Syrian rebels directly for fear that weapons would end up in the hands of al-Qaeda forces, it has been quietly vetting and training anti-Assad forces while others provided weapons all around. Now the training is out in the open, and Secretary of State Kerry has pledged $60 million in "non-lethal aid" to the rebels. (Plus $250 million to Egypt, while Israel may take a hit of $150 million from sequestration -- makes you wonder.)

American assistance is supposed to go only to "moderate" rebels, but arms have been flowing freely, paid for by American "allies" Qatar and Saudi Arabia and moving through Turkey. Recently, a source with ties to Israeli intelligence claimed that a supply line has been running from Bosnian extremist groups, outside the control, influence, or even vision of the U.S. and its allies. Libya and al-Qaeda in Iraq have also been conduits for weapons to rebel militias, and last week, 48 Syrian government soldiers and officials were killed in Anbar Province, an al-Qaeda stronghold. Israel expects to see any and all weapons, including some of the estimated 15,000 surface-to-air missiles the U.S. admits "disappeared" from Libya, aimed in its direction. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Getting Carrier Out of the Gulf Good for U.S. Iran Policy

March 12th 2013

USS Harry S Truman

Unlikely as it may seem, one of the possible unintended benefits of sequestration may be the decision to cancel the departure of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman to the Arabian Gulf. The U.S. Navy has had a carrier in the gulf, on and off, for more than 20 years now, and it has maintained a nearly continuous presence there since 2010, while a second carrier in the Gulf of Oman supports operations in Afghanistan.

Conventional wisdom says the presence of an American aircraft carrier in the gulf deters Iranian adventurism or aggression. But consider the fact that a U.S. carrier has never once launched aircraft against Iran in anger, despite Tehran's role in the death of 19 U.S. airmen in the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; its support for Shiite "special groups" that killed hundreds of U.S. service members in Iraq during the past decade; and Tehran's plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington in 2011. Read more ..


The North Korean Threat

Ferocious, Weak and Crazy: The North Korean Strategy

March 12th 2013

North Korean rocket Apr 2012

North Korea's state-run media reported Sunday 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 ..


Inside Washington

In Taking a Drone Stand, Paul Showed Use, Abuse of Filibuster

March 11th 2013

Juan Williams 02

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) created an Internet sensation last week with his 13-hour filibuster. In a rare alliance, anti-big government types in the Tea Party and left-wing, anti-authoritarians in Code Pink celebrated him as a principled hero daring to demand answers from the president on his controversial use of drones to kill people. What a misguided view. In fact, Sen. Paul’s grandstanding is the latest illustration of how the GOP’s abuse of filibusters is crippling the Senate.

The real hero in the Senate these days is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) who is leading the fight to get the institution back on track by limiting the use of the filibuster. He is pressing for reform to once again allow 51 votes, a simple majority, to pass bills and confirm nominees.

The real problem with filibusters — and the one Sen. Merkley is fighting against — was on display last week when Senate Republicans silently filibustered the nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Halligan won 51 votes in support of allowing a simple, “majority wins” vote on her nomination. But it takes a super-majority of 60 votes to end a filibuster.

Halligan’s story is just one sad episode in a larger tragedy. The GOP minority in the Senate has used a quarter of all filibusters in history to block votes on President Obama’s nominees. Thirty-two judicial nominees are in the same limbo as Halligan due to abuse of filibuster rules.

In addition, several major agencies including Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, are being denied leadership as a result of the GOP blocking votes on nominees. And in recent weeks, the filibuster has been twisted to weaken Chuck Hagel, who survived a weeklong filibuster before winning confirmation as Defense secretary. The same threat was used against Jack Lew, the new secretary of the Treasury. Read more ..


Oil Addiction

Building Keystone Pipeline Will Cement US-Canada Relations

March 11th 2013

Energy

Canada and the United States are each other’s most important trading partners, sharing a 5,500-mile border and close ties in culture, language and values. We are vital allies and friends.

In 2010, our bilateral trade was close to $645 billion, which means more than $1.7 billion worth of goods and services cross the Canada-U.S. border every single day. Canada is the United States’s largest supplier of crude oil and refined products, natural gas, electricity and uranium. It is especially important to the U.S. that Canada has always been a reliable and secure energy supplier.

Today the Keystone XL oil pipeline offers a unique and promising opportunity for our two countries to deepen our partnership. The pipeline would carry heavy crude oil from oil sands formations in Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Last year, a bill I sponsored, the Protecting Investment in Oil Shale the Next Generation of Environmental, Energy, and Resource Security (Pioneers) Act, passed the House of Representatives. It would have required the president to greenlight the extension of the pipeline into the U.S. 

Just last week, the U.S. State Department released an environmental impact study finding that big-picture environmental concerns, such as those related to greenhouse gases and global warming, are irrelevant on grounds that Canada’s oil sands will eventually be developed and made into burnable fuel —not to mention the fact that transporting the oil sands by truck, rail or ship leaves a larger carbon footprint than a pipeline route. Read more ..


Over the Cliff

Payments to Elders Are Harming Our Future

March 10th 2013

People lined up for jobs

Foolish, indiscriminate and badly timed cuts in the federal budget have begun. The primary reason is that Republicans have refused to budge any further on taxes. Still, Democrats must share some of the blame. By failing to propose more specific cuts to entitlement spending, they have forfeited the high ground and allowed a small but critical set of programs to absorb all of the pain.

The “sequester” is just the latest chapter in the muddled thinking that has characterized the story of the federal budget for the past several years. Alarmists who call for immediate spending cuts and immediate reductions in our debt-to-GDP ratio (now at 73 percent) overstate the dangers of current levels of spending and debt, and they understate the damage to employment and economic growth that results from recently enacted belt-tightening. That tightening, including the effects of provisions enacted in both 2011 and 2013, is expected to halve the growth rate in the gross domestic product this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Read more ..


Broken Government

Droning on: Thoughts on the Rand Paul “Talking Filibuster”

March 10th 2013

Rand Paul

Sen. Rand Paul has just completed his nearly thirteen hour filibuster against John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA. Breaking off his filibuster (because, he inferred, he had to pee), Rand was heralded for bringing back the "talking filibuster." There was much written (and tweeted) about his filibuster, which began with Paul’s dramatic:

"I will speak until I can no longer speak…I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court."

I thought I would add a few late-night thoughts in honor of this day spent with C-Span 2 humming in my ear.

First, I think Jon Bernstein’s reaction to the filibuster was right on the mark.  There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for the talking filibuster today, from Ezra Klein's "If more filibusters went like this, there’d be no reason to demand reform," to Josh Marshall’s, "This is a good example of why we should have the talking filibuster and just the talking filibuster." But Bernstein raises a critical point: "Today’s live filibuster shows again just how easy it is to hold the Senate floor for an extended period." The motivation of recent reformers has been to reduce filibustering by raising the costs of obstruction for the minority. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

US Captures Al-Qaeda Senior Figure, But His Successors Roam Planet

March 9th 2013

Osama bin Laden

Earlier this week, Americans learned about the arrest and extradition to the US of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a former al-Qaeda during the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. Abu Ghaith is also a son-in-law to the terrorist group’s late leader, Osama bin Laden. His arraignment on a series of counter-terrorism charges took place at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. The indictment charged Abu Ghaith as an “associate of Bin Laden,” with participating in “a conspiracy to kill United States nationals, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 2332(b).”

Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, George Venizelos lauded the arrest thus: "Suleiman Abu Ghaith held a key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime.” One might think Abu Ghaith was a postmodern Joseph Goebbels or Saddam Hussein’s “Baghdad Bob.” Read more ..


Iraq on Edge

America's Sectarian Problem

March 9th 2013

Car bomb and kid Baghdad 2012

February was a bloody month for Iraq. A wave of bombings directed at Iraqi Shi‘ites killed 200 and wounded more than 550. The attacks come against the backdrop of political stalemate and increasingly violent protests which many journalists and diplomats date to the arrest of (former Deputy Prime Minister) Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges.

Rather than blame the terrorists, too many American and regional figures blame the Iraqi government. Writing in Commentary Magazine, for example, one civilian advisor to General David Petraeus’ inner circle wrote, “the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.”  And in The Washington Post on February 8, two other military analysts placed blame solely on Iraq’s prime minister. Such aspersions are unjust, unfair, and unwise.

It is ironic that when it comes to the schism between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, the United States has become as sectarian as Saudi Arabia or Turkey. America’s sectarian approach to the Middle East, however, is bad for both the region and bad for the United States. Read more ..


Israel On Edge

Netanyahu Forced to Rethink His Coalition

March 8th 2013

Bibi Netanyahu with Glasses

Israel's next government will likely come together on a platform of increasing ultraorthodox burden sharing and, perhaps, more short-term flexibility on Palestinian negotiations, but tensions regarding final disposition of the West Bank could tear it apart down the road.

For the first time since Israel's January 22 election, the probable contours of a new government led by incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu are finally coming into view. This weekend, President Shimon Peres granted him the maximal two-week extension to shape a new coalition, moving the legal deadline to March 16. It now seems increasingly likely that Netanyahu's Likud Party will form a coalition with the election's two most significant success stories: the center-left Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future") Party of journalist Yair Lapid and the far-right Jewish Home Party of Naftali Bennett. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Obama Must Lead

March 8th 2013

Obama and Flag

With the jobless rate at nearly 8 percent and the real jobless rate nearly double that; with our national GDP between zero percent and 2 percent over the last two quarters; with Europe continuing its painful recession while continuing on a grotesquely ill-advised austerity push; with child homelessness and poverty at crushing levels, it was economic malpractice and financial stupidity for the president and Congress to raise payroll taxes and enact the sequester.

Tomorrow, new jobless numbers will be announced. If the headline number hits 8 percent, there will be an intense and sustained public reaction. If it doesn’t happen this Friday, it will soon. Harsh economic austerity at a time of slow growth and allowing wages to fall and high unemployment ignores every lesson of history and promises to continue the war against workers and further punish the lost generation of laborers. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Home Grown Terrorists Living Amongst Us

March 7th 2013

Armstrong_Williams

New reports are released every single day in Washington, but one that could prove to be of life or death importance was recently unveiled by The Henry Jackson Society, a bipartisan think tank headquartered in London.  Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorism Offenses holds up a mirror to America and provides us with a clear but terrifying image.
 
The report itself is more than 700 pages, and is a painstaking and meticulous review of all 171 al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda inspired terrorists who were either killed during their attacks or convicted in court here in the United States. Authored by Research Fellow Robin Simcox, the value of the data as a means of protecting Americans is underscored by the fact that the foreword was penned by General Michael Hayden, who previously led both the CIA and the NSA. The excellent report challenges the post September 11 conventional wisdom of who we thought al-Qaeda terrorists were—and are. It reveals that the bulk of the terrorists here are not highly trained foreign nationals infiltrating our borders to attack us, but our neighbors next door.

More than half of the terrorists were American citizens. A shocking 82% of the terrorists killed or convicted were U.S. residents. Ninety-five percent were men and they lived in states from coast to coast and all across the heartland. The highest numbers came from New York, Florida, New Jersey, Virginia, Minnesota and California. Another remarkable data point is that 52% of the attackers were college educated and nearly 60% were either pursing their education or employed at the time of their arrest. These facts punch gaping holes in the false and self-defeating assertion that those who hate America are driven to do so because they are ignorant or downtrodden. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

U.S. & FATF's Impotence Cultivates Terrorist Financing

March 7th 2013

International Currency 3

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) meeting on
February 20-22 in Paris, that had approved the new money laundering and terror financing legislations and enforcement mechanisms of Turkey, Ghana and Venezuela, to name a few, demonstrates how ineffectual and biased are such decision. Turkey continues to trade with Iran and fund Hamas, Ghana is not about to stop its gold smuggling to Iran, and Venezuela's assistance to Iran and Hezbollah are unlikely to diminish.

In 1986 the U.S, government The U.S established money laundering as a federal crime, as an effort to control the revenues from the burgeoning illegal drug trade. Additional amendments in 1988, 1992, 1994 and 1998 have expanded the definitions of the crime, increasing monitoring and reporting and required government agencies to develop a national money laundering strategy.

But why are these called "money laundering strategies"? And why when calling any government agency that handles the problem, the response on the phone is always: "Money Laundering"...!? After all, the legislation is aimed at ANTI MONEY LAUNDERNIG and ANTI TERROR FINANCING, and that's how the offices that are mandated to monitor the implementation of the legislation should be identified. Perhaps then they'll do better enforcing their mandate to curb such crimes. Not surprisingly, the U.S. relaxed attitude is reflected in FATF's decisions. Read more ..


The Edge of Poverty

The Saudi-Chinese Shopping Spree that Leaves the Poor in the Dust

March 7th 2013

Chinese smoker

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia's GDP more than tripled. China's increased by a factor of 6. In the same time frame, both countries reported between 3 and 5 percent unemployment annually. Or so they (and the World Bank) tell us.

These two countries are vested with incredible wealth, which they use not to invest in their subjects (known in the West as citizens), but mostly to buy financial and media institutions, sensitive technologies, natural resources, land and influence around the world. If the GDP numbers above are more or less accurate, the unemployment figures are a total deception.

Some Chinese economists claim the unemployment is at least double the official figure. But in October 2012, when China's population was estimated at 1.354.04 billion people, former International Monetary Fund economist Eswar Parsad stated that China's official unemployment rate "has no credibility at all." Read more ..


Venezuela on Edge

Death of Another Tyrant

March 6th 2013

Hugo Chavez

Finally, after weeks of speculation, the news is official: Hugo Chavez is dead. Venezuela’s Comandante, who kept an iron grip on power for 14 years, left this world, appropriately enough, on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death.

The similarities between the two dictators are compelling. Both Stalin and Chavez profoundly believed in a new, revolutionary morality that dispensed with such trifles as a free press and an independent judiciary. Even more pertinently, just as Stalin was, in his final months, obsessive to the point of paranoia about doctors in the pay of Zionism and Western imperialism poisoning him and his closest colleagues, so are Chavez’s cohorts. His appointed successor and vice president, Nicolas Maduro, ventured earlier today that the cancer which afflicted Chavez was somehow planted in his body–a suggestion the American government has already dismissed as “absurd.” Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

U.S. Aid Could End Up in the Hands of Syria's Jihadis

March 5th 2013

Rebel fighters

The new Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed $60 million in aid to the Syrian Opposition Council in order to provide basic services in areas they control as well as medical and food supplies for their military. This announcement was met with skepticism by some backers of the Syrian opposition affiliated with the secular forces and also by a number of military and Middle East experts.

Farid Ghadri, leader of the Syria Reform Party and a secular supporter of the Syrian opposition, has been arguing that "since the bulk of the opposition, the one recognized by the United States, is dominated by the Islamists the funds will be used by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists to ensure a political influence in the zones controlled by the rebels." Over the past few months, other opposition leaders, including former MP Ma'moun Homsi, who attended the opposition conferences in Turkey and Egypt and worked with the Muslim Brotherhood, told us "if Washington earmarks financial help strictly to the Brotherhood, they will get a Brotherhood dominated Syria after Assad." Read more ..


The New Egypt

Politicizing Security Sector Reform in Egypt

March 4th 2013

Cairo Violence Dec 2012

A couple of weeks ago, Egypt’s renowned intellectual Dr. Fahmy Howeidy summarized a study I conducted earlier on security sector reform (SSR) in Egypt. Howeidy was trying to highlight an important fact: the availability of the SSR “know-how” in Egypt, whether in this study or in others. What Dr. Howeidy probably did not know was that the study and other related initiatives were earlier submitted to several Egyptian officials. Interest in such studies/initiative was definitely there. Capacity to implement them is another story.

It is well-established by now that tourism, foreign direct investments, political stability, social justice, and probably the success of Egypt’s democratic transition, rest on the security conditions in the country. The two questions usually asked: is the security sector effective in containing real threats? And is that sector accountable to the people, represented by their elected civilians? So far, the answer in Egypt is probably a “no” to both questions. Read more ..


Broken Economy

The Ongoing and Hugely Risky Bailout of the Housing Market

March 3rd 2013

Home Foreclosure

After a long and wrenching plunge, the housing sector has finally bottomed out and seems to be recovering. According to the latest S&P/Case-Shiller index, home prices rose in nearly every metropolitan area during 2012 and turned in a solid gain of 7 percent nationally. Celebration would be premature, however. The human cost of the housing crash has been fearful. Trillions of dollars of household wealth have evaporated, 5 million people have lost their homes, and 22 percent of the remaining homeowners still have mortgages exceeding the value of their properties. With housing prices still 30 percent below their (admittedly unrealistic) 2006 peak, it will take average homeowners many years to rebuild the savings that their home equity once represented.

Even worse, the federal government’s response to the housing crisis is now becoming part of the problem. When the sector crashed, destroying the balance sheets of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government had no choice but to take them over, at a net cost to the taxpayer (so far) of $141 billion—by far the costliest bailout in the Great Recession. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Hezbollah's Next Move

March 2nd 2013

Hezbollah rally

The escalating war between Assad's and the rebels' forces in Syria have dramatically increased the number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah martyrs.  Dismayed, the Party of God's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, expressing his sorrow last week over the killing of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force's senior representative in Lebanon, Gen. Hassan Shateri. Nasrallah noted that Shateri was not the first Iranian to be killed in Syria while on a mission with Hezbollah. Their fighting along Assad's forces was noted last December, in the U.N. report on human rights violations committed by the groups fighting in Syria. Even the New Yorker magazine reported last week:"Hezbollah's direct involvement [in Syria] has led to new martyrs, who are buried privately and quickly." However, the scope and the exact number of Hezbollah casualties in Syriais unknown to outsiders. Read more ..


Catholicism on Edge

Will the Next Pope be an Anti-Semite?

March 1st 2013

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga

Among those being considered to succeed Pope Benedict XVI is a notorious anti-Semite, Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. His name has appeared on various media short lists and his photograph was featured, along with other possible candidates, on the front page of the Miami Herald. He was also under consideration the last time around, and his Latin American heritage is considered a plus this time. He is very charismatic and popular in his home country and was recently invited to speak to Latino Catholics in the United States.

To put it most simply, Rodriguez Maradiaga is an out and out Jew-hater. He has said that "the Jews" are to blame for the scandal surrounding the sexual misconduct of priests toward young parishioners! The Jews? How did Rodriguez Maradiaga ever come up with this hair-brained idea? Here is his "logic." He begins by asserting that the Vatican is anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian (as he says it should be). It follows, therefore, that "the Jews" had to get even with the Catholic Church, while at the same time deflecting attention away from Israeli injustices against the Palestinians. The Jews managed to do this by arranging for the media—which he says they control—to give disproportionate attention on the Vatican sex scandal. Read more ..


Edge of the Cliff

Sequestration's Devastating Effects Will Be Felt at Home and Abroad

February 28th 2013

Tank

Unless Congress and President Obama agree to change the current law, $42 billion in mandatory cuts to the U.S. defense budget will go into effect immediately. On March 27, an additional $6 billion in defense cuts from the Administration’s budget request will also go into effect. These reductions, which will be applied retroactively to this year's defense budget, do not apply to military personnel and overseas operations; therefore, they are to be taken out of only a portion of the defense budget including readiness funding and equipment acquisition. This will have devastating effects on current military operations. These cuts come in addition to the unprecedented $487 billion in defense cuts to be carried out over the next ten years as required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called this budget sequestration, a "meat ax" approach to budget cutting that will force the Administration to reexamine its entire national defense strategy, announced only one year ago. Not only would the half a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade "hollow out the force," it would reduce the United States to a "second-rate power," Panetta said. Read more ..


Inside Judaism

The Pope is not the Only Cleric to Watch: Pay Attention to the Rabbinate, for it is the Heart of Israel’s Existence

February 27th 2013

Dovid Stav
Chief Rabbi Candidate Dovid Stav

Anyone following politics in Israel over the past few months, and especially the campaigns for Knesset mandates, saw the true face of Israel’s complicated internal predicament. To those outside of Israel’s daily life, its story is one of existentialism because of an ever-looming threat from seemingly trigger-happy neighbors. And not just Hamas in the south and Hizbullah in the north. There also is the nuclear threat posed by Iran, and whether Syria will launch attacks on Israel as a way of giving its rebellious citizens a different outlet for their anger.

If we accept the current world view of events, Israel is a country mired in a muck of its own making: an unwillingness to come to a peaceful coexistence with the hundreds of millions Arabs living alongside and within missile-shot of the small state. This is an absurd view, of course, but that is for another column to address. Read more ..


Russia and America

U.S. Policy on Russia for Obama’s Second Term

February 27th 2013

Putin

Since Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration as Russian president last May, U.S.–Russian relations have deteriorated sharply. Officials on both sides have moved past the “reset” honeymoon as disagreements over geopolitics and human rights abound.

Spanning two continents and with a veto on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Russia is uniquely positioned to play a prominent role in U.S. foreign policy. However, the United States needs a new course of action for the next four years to prevent Russia from negatively affecting U.S. interests across the globe.

Anti-Americanism
The current Russian ruling elite has not overcome the anti-Americanism imbued in their Soviet upbringing. State-controlled media and government officials openly perpetuate it. Russian politicians have sought a ban on American English “foreign words” in the media, have forbidden Russian nongovernmental organizations from taking U.S. donations, and banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Anti-Americanism is part of a concerted effort to secure the regime against dissent, counter Western influence, and undermine already brittle U.S.–Russian relations.

Strategic Disagreements
Differences over Syria and Iran continue to prevent strategic action on two of the world’s most pressing issues. Russia has not wavered in its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, vetoing any meaningful sanctions at the UNSC. While Russian officials do not support an Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, their selective commitment to the principle of noninterference in internal affairs of state causes resistance to potent sanctions and opposition to the potential use of force. High-level talks have not solved these issues, and as each one moves to a breaking point, Russia only hardens its resolve. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Why Bulgaria? Why Now?

February 27th 2013

Hezbollah

The announcement by Bulgaria that the airport bus bombing there last July was likely the handiwork of Hezbollah operatives now has European officials scrambling to decide what, if anything, to do about the fact that the group has now resumed executing attacks on European soil.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah carried out attacks across the continent, and since then it has used Europe as a near-abroad where it could conveniently raise money, procure weapons and provide logistical support for attacks to be carried out elsewhere. But the Bulgarian investigation raises as many questions as it answers. In particular, why would Hezbollah specifically choose to carry out an attack there? And why now?

While it kept up its relentless campaign of military and terrorist activities targeting Israel, and despite unabated tensions with the West, Hezbollah had not carried out a successful spectacular attack targeting Western interests beyond Israel since the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. Read more ..


Broken Government

A Bad Sequester Is Worlds Better Than No Budget Deal At All

February 26th 2013

US Capital Day

Barring an unexpected breakthrough agreement between the Democratic Senate and the Republican House, the federal budget will be subjected to a sequester which will reduce discretionary spending by about $86 billion in calendar 2013.

That $86 billion is only a bit more than 10 percent of the “fiscal cliff” that faced the country at the end of the year. It’s a painful cliff, but not a large one. The American Taxpayer Relief Act resolved most the cliff problem, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the sequester will reduce short-term growth in an already slow economy. On the other hand, no sequester at all would mean an even greater reduction in long-term growth. 

The worst feature of the sequester is that it is the wrong way to reduce spending. The cuts are mandated across-the-board in most discretionary spending areas. The good programs will be cut along with the bad. The most hard-hit casualty will be the Defense Department (DOD). It can stand cuts, but they need to be carefully selected. The sequester does not select. The sequester meat-axe slices muscle along with the fat. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Iran Can't Agree to a Damn Thing

February 25th 2013

Iran centrifuges

During the chaotic days of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the country's emerging "supreme leader," assured Iranians that their supposed oppressor, the United States, would not be able to put the hated shah back on his throne. "America can't do a damn thing against us," he inveighed, a winning line that became the uprising's unofficial slogan. It's a catchphrase Iran has deployed time and again since, most recently in a taunting billboard along the Iran-Iraq border and in a banner hung in front of a captured American drone (though hilariously, in the latter case, the hapless banner-makers mistranslated the phrase as "America Can Do No Wrong").

Khomeini's slogan was true enough at the time: There wasn't much U.S. President Jimmy Carter could do to intervene in one of the most stunning uprisings in history. But today, when it comes to Iran's endless nuclear impasse with the West, one might turn the phrase back on the Iranians: The problem, in a nutshell, is that Iran can't agree to a damn thing. Read more ..



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