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Broken Taxes

Two Steps Toward Reforming the Tax Code

July 28th 2012

Tax Haven Protesters

State governors are eyeing the federal tax reform debate closely, as potential reforms to broaden the income tax base could curtail a set of subsidies they currently enjoy -- the deductibility of state and local taxes. But there is another policy debate underway that would have the opposite effect for states -- permitting the collection of sales tax on out-of-state Internet and catalog sales just as they are collected on goods from brick-and-mortar retailers. Combining these two ideas could improve the U.S. tax system on both the state and federal level by creating a level playing field for state and local governments, businesses and taxpayers.

Under current law, taxpayers who itemize their deductions can deduct their state and local income taxes and property taxes. (A temporary provision set to expire this year permits taxpayers to deduct their sales taxes instead of their income taxes if they choose.) The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the "deduction for state and local taxes is effectively a federal subsidy to state and local governments. As such, it indirectly finances spending by those governments at the expense of other uses of federal revenues."

But the policy is worse than just a subsidy to states; it also distorts decision-making by state governments by inducing states to finance activities through higher income-tax rates on high-income individuals (those most likely to itemize). As CBO notes, "The deductibility of taxes could deter states and localities from financing services with nondeductible fees, which could be more efficient." Read more ..

Economy on Edge

Long-Term Unemployment: Anatomy of the Scourge

July 28th 2012

Unemployment Line in California

When unemployment rose during the Great Recession, so did long-term unemployment – defined here as joblessness lasting at least six months. This is the norm in recessions, but the gravity of the problem after 2008 was unprecedented.

In the 11 recessions since World War II, unemployment reached 9 percent in just three (1974-75, 1981-82, 2008-9). Only in the most recent slump, though, did the rate of longterm unemployment exceed 3 percent. Indeed, it reached 4.5 percent in April 2010, almost two percentage points higher than the peak in any previous postwar business cycle. And the problem is worryingly persistent: by April 2012, the long-term rate had exceeded 3 percent of the labor force for 34 successive months.

Between 2007 and 2011, the fraction of the nation's unemployed who were unemployed six months or longer increased from 18 percent to 44 percent. What’s going on here – and what can we do about it? Read more ..

Broken Elections

Million-dollar Donation in Indiana Race May Skirt Limits on Corporate Giving

July 27th 2012

Bundles of Cash

The RGA Right Direction PAC is a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC, registered with federal regulators to make independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates. So what is it doing giving $1 million directly to the Republican running for governor of Indiana?

The donation to Mike Pence, the largest to his campaign, appears to be a way around state laws limiting corporate contributions to candidates. “In one way, it’s legal,” said Andrew Downs of the Center for Indiana Politics, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “But if you say this is a way to give in excess of corporate limits, that’s also absolutely true.”

Right Direction is funded entirely by the Republican Governors Association, a so-called 527 organization dedicated to electing as many Republicans to governorships as possible—a mission fueled by contributions from some of the largest corporations in the country. In Indiana, candidates can accept unlimited donations from individuals and political action committees but only $5,000 from corporations and unions. Corporations and unions can also give to PACs, but only in small sums. Whether the check to Pence was drawn on a bank account that contained corporate money is not a matter of public record. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Israel’s Channel 10: U.S. Officials Believe Israel Will Strike Iran at End of Summer

July 27th 2012

Israeli Jets Parked

According to Israel’s channel 10 news, “many U.S. officials” believe that Israel is tired of diplomacy with Iran, and in the estimation of the officials, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already decided on an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the fall, right at the conclusion of the summer.

The report, by journalists Emmanuel Rosen, Or Heller and Omri Nehemias adds that Israel’s ‘Octet’ -the name given to the Prime Minister’s inner cabinet that would be responsible for the initial decision over an Iran strike – has not met in two months, which they say raises the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak are working alone, and will adopt a decision on the matter with limited consultation.

According to the report, it is still unclear whether the talk of action in the near future will materialize or whether Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating such an impression. “Only the future will tell whether this is a diplomatic game or a real option,” they conclude. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Big Business Prefers GOPs’ Super PACs to Democrats’

July 26th 2012

Mitt Romney expansive

Republican-aligned super PACs have benefited from far more corporate cash than their Democratic counterpartsca revenue stream created in the wake of the controversial Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago.

The top two super PACs—the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads—have raised nearly $24 million in contributions from companies so far this election cycle, an analysis has found. Donors include hedge funds, energy companies, dietary supplement makers, and even a popcorn manufacturer.

The list includes a handful of Fortune 500 and other publicly traded corporations, but donors are more likely to be privately held businesses, often organized as limited partnerships or limited liability companies. Read more ..

Saudi Arabia on Edge

The Prince and the Revolution

July 25th 2012

Bandar bin Sultan

Saudi Arabia is bringing back its most talented operator to manage the Arab Spring. But can Bandar stem the rot in Riyadh?

On July 19, the eve of the Saudi weekend and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi government orchestrated its equivalent of Washington's Friday afternoon news dump: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late crown prince and defense minister, Sultan, was appointed the new intelligence chief.

The kingdom may want minimal coverage and analysis of Bandar's appointment, but it is bound to be disappointed. Bandar used to be one of Saudi Arabia's flashiest diplomats, a longtime ambassador to the United States renowned for manipulating people and policy in the kingdom's favor, and sometimes also in favor of the U.S. government. At the very least, his appointment is a reflection of King Abdullah's concerns about developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and the limited talent pool in the House of Saud to meet the challenges. Frankly, it suggests panic in Riyadh. Read more ..

Middle East on Edge

Democracy, Salafi Style

July 25th 2012

Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, Salafi Cleric

One of Saudi Arabia's most popular hardline clerics has embraced democracy. Should we worry, or applaud?

The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have each won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood isn't the only movement mixing faith and politics in the new Middle East: Salafis—hardline conservatives who model their lives on Prophet Mohamed and the first three generation of Muslim leaders following his death—are setting aside years of theological opposition to democracy to participate in the political game.

This sea change was driven home earlier this week when Saudi Salafi heavyweight Sheikh Salman al-Awdah took to his Twitter feed and Facebook page to proclaim: “Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances.” Although Awdah notably made his announcement on his English—not Arabic—social media platforms, where his audience numbers in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, the sentiment is still positively Churchillian—echoing as it does the late British prime minister's maxim: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Displacement: The Human Consequence of the Continuing War

July 25th 2012

Bombing Hits Syria March 18 2012

An estimated 19,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011. But well over a million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes and the number is increasing. In fact, people are reportedly being displaced multiple times within Syria as they search for safety. If history is any guide, the displacement crisis in Syria is likely to create further tensions and to last much longer than anyone now anticipates.

The United Nations refugee agency reports that it has registered over 117,000 Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. These numbers probably underestimate the number of Syrian refugees in the region as many are staying with family or friends and simply do not register. While the largest number of registered refugees are in Turkey, it is telling that over 7,000 Syrians have sought safety in Iraq; the two countries only normalized relations in early 2011 and it wasn’t that long ago that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis sought protection from their country’s violence by moving to Syria. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

The Mandate For Palestine Still Matters 90 Years Later

July 24th 2012

British Mandate

Israelis and friends of the Jewish State alike are accustomed to the never-ending scorn the United Nations heaps on the Middle East's only free democracy, never mind its desire for peace with all of its Arab neighbors. It may seem unfathomable that the very same institution was ultimately responsible for the creation of Israel nearly 65 years ago.

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN, that published the legally binding document the "Mandate for Palestine." The Mandate's roots can be traced to the founding of modern Zionism in August 1897 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.

After witnessing the spread of anti-Semitism around the world, Theodor Herzl felt compelled to create a political movement with the goal of establishing a Jewish National Home in historic Palestine, and assembled the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. During World War I, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour simply expressed Great Britain's view with favor for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syria After the Fall: A World without Bashar Al-Assad

July 24th 2012

Anti Assad insurgents

We have entered the endgame in Syria. That doesn't mean that we have reached the end by any means, but it does mean that the precondition has been met for the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. We have argued that so long as the military and security apparatus remain intact and effective, the regime could endure. Although they continue to function, neither appears intact any longer; their control of key areas such as Damascus and Aleppo is in doubt, and the reliability of their personnel, given defections, is no longer certain. We had thought that there was a reasonable chance of the al Assad regime surviving completely. That is no longer the case. At a certain point -- in our view, after the defection of a Syrian pilot June 21 and then the defection of the Tlass clan -- key members of the regime began to recalculate the probability of survival and their interests. The regime has not unraveled, but it is unraveling.

The speculation over al Assad's whereabouts and heavy fighting in Damascus is simply part of the regime's problems. Rumors, whether true or not, create uncertainty that the regime cannot afford right now. The outcome is unclear. On the one hand, a new regime might emerge that could exercise control. On the other hand, Syria could collapse into a Lebanon situation in which it disintegrates into regions held by various factions, with no effective central government. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Civil War Enters New Phase

July 23rd 2012

Free Syrian Army fighters

For most of the past 16 months, the insurgency against the regime of President Bashar Assad has been confined to certain specific areas of the country. Assad has also managed to keep the top levels of his own elite intact, and largely loyal.

The regime has done its utmost to preserve this situation, and above all to maintain quiet in the two largest cities of the country, the capital Damascus, and Aleppo.

But the regime has failed.

The clashes in Damascus this week, the growing stream of defections and yesterday’s bomb attack on the National Security Building in the capital, set the seal on the failure. The deaths of Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, Assad’s brother-in- law Assef Shawkat and former chief of staff Hassan Turkmani in a bomb attack on a meeting of senior officials in Damascus exemplify the sharp erosion in the regime’s position in recent weeks.

The intelligence required for such an operation indicates that individuals close to the Assad regime’s inner sanctum are now providing information to its enemies. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Booming North Dakota City

July 23rd 2012

Keystone Pipeline

This is a tale of two cities. No, not Dickens' phlegmatic London and passionate Paris. Nor the two neighborhoods Charles Murray contrasted in his recent best-seller "Coming Apart," prosperous but isolated Belmont (actually, Mitt Romney's home for decades) and needy and disorganized Fishtown.

These two cities have names you may not recognize but which you have probably read about in the last few years: Fremont and Williston. Fremont is the southernmost city in California's East Bay, just around the corner from (well, a few freeway exits from) Silicon Valley.

It's not as upscale as Palo Alto or Cupertino but has its own distinctions. It was the site of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant where General Motors and Toyota collaborated for years but which closed in April 2010. It's the site of the California School for the Deaf. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

The Levy Report and the 'Occupation' Narrative

July 22nd 2012

Arafat, Rabin, and Peres Peace Prizes

Looking back over the last two weeks, what appeared to hit a raw nerve with critics of the report of Justice Edmond Levy's committee was not what it had to say about the specific issues for which it was appointed, like zoning and planning in the West Bank, but rather with how it dealt with the broader narrative for describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This became evident in how the reaction focused on the report's conclusion that "the classical laws of 'occupation' as set out in the relevant international conventions cannot be considered applicable to … Israel's presence in Judea and Samaria."

How did Justice Levy, who recently retired from Israel's Supreme Court, reach this conclusion along with his two colleagues? They argued that the Israeli presence in the West Bank was unique, sui generis, because there was no previously recognized sovereign there when it was captured by the Israel Defense Forces during the Six-Day War in 1967. The Jordanian declaration of sovereignty in 1950 had been rejected by the Arab states and the international community, as a whole, except for Britain and Pakistan.


The Battle for Syria

With Assad Future in Question, Lebanon on Edge

July 22nd 2012

Lebanese protesters

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power becomes increasingly tenuous, a sense of unease is growing among some of his staunchest regional allies. And even though they have dwindled in number since the start of the anti-government uprising in Syria 16 months ago, some are still betting on his survival. In Lebanon, regime loyalists are digging in and if Assad were to fall, the political landscape here could be altered dramatically.
Hours after a suspected bomb attack purportedly killed four of Assad's top security officials, including his brother-in-law, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech marking the 2006 war with Israel, "These martyr leaders were comrades-in-arms on the path of the conflict with the Israeli enemy." He added, "We are confident that the Arab Syrian Army, which managed to overcome the unbearable, has enough resolve to be able to go on and crush the hopes of the enemies."

Iran on Edge

Iran’s Latest Missile Exercise: A Message of Force Projection

July 21st 2012

Iran Missiles

On July 2-4, 2012, the Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted a missile exercise, dubbed Great Prophet 7, which involved firing dozens of missiles at a target that resembled a U.S. airbase situated in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia.

Iran is signaling that it is prepared for a military clash with the West and Israel, and possesses a devastating “second-strike” response capability against any attack on its nuclear sites. IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh claimed Iran had already amassed information on 35 U.S. bases in the region and had deployed missiles to destroy them within minutes of an attack on its soil.

Hand-in-hand with continued progress toward advancing its nuclear program amid the recently renewed nuclear talks, Iran is well into the process of developing a deterrence doctrine toward its main adversaries in the region, namely Israel and the United States, while upgrading R&D for its missiles in a way that could eventually enable it to mount a nuclear bomb on a ballistic missile. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Moment of Truth Approaching in Damascus

July 21st 2012

Nakba Protests

The Free Syrian Army has shifted to an offensive in Damascus and Aleppo.          

 Over the last three days the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella body of the rebel forces, has changed its approach in fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. From a campaign of attrition—aimed at siphoning off troops from the Syrian army, eroding its power by attacking its armored forces, and taking over positions and bases while damaging morale—the Free Syrian Army has shifted to an offensive whose aim is no less than a military victory. 

In his instructions to the rebel forces, Free Syrian Army commander Riad al-Asaad outlined the main points of his battle plan. In a video uploaded to YouTube on Monday, Asaad ordered the rebel forces in southern Syria and in the rural part of Damascus to make their way to the neighborhoods of Damascus and wage the final battle against Assad’s forces there. As for the rebel forces in the northern and eastern parts of the country, Asaad told them to go to Aleppo, the economic capital of Syria, in an effort to defeat the Syrian army in that city.


Egypt on Edge

Morsi’s Victory and Egypt’s Second Republic

July 20th 2012

Mohammed Morsi

In an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, the son of a peasant farmer from the Nile Delta, an Islamist jailed several times by Hosni Mubarak, has succeeded him as president of the largest Arab nation in a victory at the ballot box – thus inaugurating Egypt’s Second Republic.

U.S.-trained engineer Mohamed Morsi’s victory breaks a tradition of domination by men from the armed forces, which have provided every Egyptian leader since 1952, and instead installs the Muslim Brotherhood – a group that drew on eighty-four years of grassroots activism to propel Morsi into the presidency.

That Egypt will evolve into something resembling today’s Turkey is hardly guaranteed. To do so, the Brotherhood must give up its longtime dream of imposing shari’a and instead strike a moderate course. Protecting the rights of women and religious minorities in the new state will require a constant struggle.  Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Decision Time in the United States

July 20th 2012

Obama and Romney

On Tuesday November 6, a highly divided U.S. electorate will go to the polls to choose a president and a new Congress. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this election for both the U.S. and the global economic outlook. Since two very different visions are being offered to the electorate as to how the United States should address the very difficult economic challenges with which the country is now confronted. And these different visions are being offered at a time of renewed economic weakness at home and of mounting electorate concern about the impact of globalization on U.S. job creation. Read more ..

Broken Energy Policy

Are Pollution Controls Worth Their Costs?

July 20th 2012

Autogas refueling

A recent wave of government regulations mandates the energy efficiency levels of a wide range of consumer and business products, including passenger cars and commercial vehicles, clothes dryers, air conditioners, and light bulbs. The ostensible purpose of these regulations is to reduce pollution, notably greenhouse-gas emissions. But our recent examination of a number of these regulations reveals that, by the agencies’ own analyses, the regulations have only a negligible effect on greenhouse gases, and the environmental benefits are vastly outweighed by the costs of compliance.

The agencies attempt to mask this finding by claiming that the regulations save consumers and firms money, by forcing them to buy more expensive energy-efficient products. By asserting, with little to no supporting evidence, that consumers and firms are making irrational decisions in their purchases of energy-intensive products, the agencies can then claim that energy-efficiency regulations provide private benefits by correcting for this irrationality, and they then use these benefits to justify the expensive regulations that yield minimal environmental gains. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Pipelines are Slowly Making the Strait of Hormuz Less Relevant

July 20th 2012

Oil Pipes2

One hundred years ago this week, five Italian torpedo boats conducted a raid in the Straits of Dardanelles, a long, narrow body of water connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara -- then the world's most important shipping passage. It was the height of the Italo-Turkish War, a precursor to World War I, and the Young Turks in Constantinople responded by playing their trump card: They closed the strait to international shipping intermittently for a few weeks by deploying their warships. But instead of aiding the war effort -- the Turks eventually lost control of their Libyan provinces -- the closure had disastrous consequences for the Ottoman Empire.

At the time, the Russians sent 90 percent of their grain exports through the Turkish Straits out into the Mediterranean. Closure of the Dardanelles thus meant that millions of tons of grain were spoiled, bringing ruin to Russia's agricultural economy and reducing its export revenues for the year by 30 percent. The lesson for Tsar Nicholas II: never allow a foreign power to hold the key to your prosperity. From that point onward, Russia's foreign policy in the lead-up to World War I was laser-focused on one objective: accelerating the demise of the Ottoman Empire and inheriting control over Constantinople and the Straits. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

After the Damascus Assassinations: A New Phase for U.S. Syria Policy

July 19th 2012

President Bashir al-Assad of Syria

The apparent assassination of top military officials in Syria marks a new and possibly decisive phase in the civil war between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the broad, loosely coordinated, but clearly potent opposition. For the United States, this turn of events should shift the policy discussion from a UN debate over renewal of the ineffectual Annan peacekeeping mission to ways of exploiting the disarray, namely by pressing Assad to leave power while avoiding outcomes such as chaos, ethnic bloodbath, or jihadist takeover.

With at least three of the eight targeted military leaders apparently dead, the Damascus bombing will almost certainly be a major blow to the regime’s ability to conduct its war against the Syrian people. The impact will be felt both operationally and psychologically, with the potential for cascading problems in conducting military actions across the country.

The surviving leadership will have to rebuild a command structure in an environment where increasing numbers of military officers and civilian supporters are likely to see the assassinations as the writing on the wall for the regime and begin to seek alternatives for their own survival. Depending on whether the regime is able to steady itself quickly, the incident could also provide an opportunity for opposition forces to press ahead with creating safe zones in various parts of the country, or even to take decisive action against Assad. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Will the Rebels Win Syria’s Civil War and What That Means

July 18th 2012

Free Syrian Army

The tide seems to be turning in Syria. While the civil war is far from over, the regime is clearly weakening; the rebels are expanding their operations and effectiveness. There have also been more high-level defections. What does this mean and why is this happening There are three main factors that are making a rebel victory seem more likely.

First, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Turkey’s facilitation and U.S. coordination, are sending arms to the opposition.

Second, the regime has been rushing the same trusted units around the country to put down upsurges and these forces are getting tired and stretched thin.

Third, President Bashar al-Assad really has nothing to offer the opposition. He won’t leave and he can’t share power. His strategy of brutal suppression and large-scale killing can neither make the opposition surrender nor wipe it out. Even if he kills civilians and demonstrators, the rebel military forces can pull back to attack another day. Even though the fighting may go on for months, then, it is time to start assessing what outcomes might look like. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Inside Iran: War by Other Means

July 17th 2012

Iran's Revolutionary Guard

Iran announced in July that it is set to transfer responsibility for part of its oil sales to three newly established private consortiums. This move is intended to counter an EU ban on importation, shipping and purchase of Iranian oil, which went into effect on July 1.

The ban is the latest element in the sanctions program intended to force Iran to abandon its push for a nuclear weapons capability. It looks set to cost Tehran a decline in revenue from oil exports of billions of dollars per month. The EU move came together with tightened US penalties on countries that do business with Iran’s Central Bank.

The announcement by Iranian Oil Exporters’ head Hassan Khosrojerdi regarding the establishment of private consortiums to circumvent the sanctions, meanwhile, is the newest example of the creative campaign being waged by Iran to reduce the impact of international moves.

This campaign is being coordinated by the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the commanding heights of the Iranian energy industry. Read more ..

Palestine History on Edge

The Battle over Silwan's Fabricatied Palestinian History

July 16th 2012


On August 26, 2010, a violent clash broke out between Jewish and Arab residents of Silwan, a predominantly Muslim village outside the southern end of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. The name derives from the biblical "Shiloah" and its subsequently Graecized "Siloam."

On the face of it, the sparring that erupted over a gate built illegally by Arab residents may seem like a miniature version of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over who controls the Holy Land. But reducing the struggle to a mere real estate dispute misses a critical point in understanding the persistence of the larger conflict. For the battle of Silwan is a microcosm of a larger fight, one in which one side, the Palestinian, seeks to erase the existence of the other—not merely through traditional armed conflict but also by rewriting history.

Erasing the Past

The tactic of denying a Jewish past to sites and holy places in the Land of Israel is of relatively recent vintage in the Arab-Israeli conflict but one that has increased dramatically in the past few years. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Labor Dept. Assembling Expert Team On Mine Dust Enforcement

July 16th 2012


Federal regulators are assembling a team of lawyers and other experts to consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given systemic weaknesses revealed by an investigation into the resurgence of black lung, according to an internal Labor Department communication.

The effort, involving officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and other offices within the Labor Department, includes discussion of how regulators might be more aggressive in filing civil and criminal cases against mining companies that violate dust standards, the communication says. Investigation have documented a recent increase in cases of deadly coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung. It highlighted rampant cheating on dust sampling by coal companies, rules riddled with loopholes and weak enforcement. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Can It Get Worse in Syria? It Is

July 16th 2012

Assad Poster on Fire

Syria's descent into ever-greater violence steepened this week. Driven by the regime's desperate attempt to stay in power, an already ugly conflict took an ominous turn with the reported movement of chemical munitions and what appears to be the worst massacre of civilians yet.

Chemical Weapons Movement

Although details are lacking on the news that the regime is moving some of its chemical weapons (CW), the development signals that something important may have changed in Syria. The regime's CW infrastructure has been well established for years, and sudden movement within it suggests a major decision may be in the making. After all, the very act of moving them puts them at risk. The opposition Free Syrian Army has been widely attacking the road system, including military convoys—if CW transports come under attack, the weapons could be damaged, chemical agents could be released, or munitions could fall into the hands of FSA elements.

The regime's decision could be based on one of several factors. If the munitions are being concentrated at a smaller number of secure facilities, that would suggest the regime is worried about losing control of its CW as a result of combat or defections. It would also be another indication that the regime's position is deteriorating. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Iran’s Central Demand in Negotiations

July 15th 2012

Mahmoud Reza Khavari

The main theme raised by Iranian negotiators during the talks with the P5+1 in Moscow last month was their claim that they have a legal right to enrich uranium under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. David Ignatius, The Washington Post’s commentator for Middle Eastern affairs, obtained a copy of the Power Point that the Iranians used in the negotiations and he noticed that this argument appeared in the first third of the 48 page Iranian document. Ignatius understood through his contacts that for the Iranians any diplomatic compromise must include the West conceding to this Iranian demand.

Do the Iranians have any basis for making this argument? According to The New York Times, the P5+1 have responded to the Iranian legal claim by saying that the NPT makes no explicit reference to a “right to enrich” uranium. A senior U.S. official said that the West was not willing to recognize such a right either. True, Article IV of the NPT acknowledges the “right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…” But the U.S. has been reluctant to interpret this clause to justify the spread of enrichment facilities around the world. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Congressmen Unmoved By Russian Visit To Protest Magnitsky Bill

July 14th 2012

US Capital Day

Congressmen appear to be unmoved following the visit of a Russian delegation to Washington this week aimed at protesting pending U.S. sanctions over the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Describing the Russian initiative as "too late," the congressmen said that they expected the legislation to be signed into law. The move would deny visas to dozens of Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky's death and also freeze their assets.

Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) is a member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where the Magnitsky legislation was first initiated. "The reports about this tragedy are not isolated," he said. "There have been two independent reports inside Russia that indicated this was a violation of Mr. Magnitsky's rights and an abusive process. "So it's going to be very difficult, I think, for one packet of information provided by a group of Russian [lawmakers] to overcome the huge body of information." Read more ..

Palestine on Edge

Is Mahmoud Abbas Facing a Revolution?

July 13th 2012

Mahmoud Abbas at parliament

In one of the lesser-reported stories from the Middle East, Palestinians are out in the streets ostensibly to protest the Palestinian Authority's plan to meet with Israeli Minister Shaul Mofaz. However, Palestinian complaints are primarily focused on the PA's increasingly authoritarian crackdown on internal Palestinian dissent, specifically on the internet and by journalists. Even the website Electronic Intifada (not typically a source of criticism of the PA) reported that police brutality began before the demonstration started.

Across the Arab world, corrupt security services and police have amassed power, money, and influence; the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) under the dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas is no different (Abbas has unilaterally extended his term in office since 2009.) A few months ago, an Arab poll listed the top concern of young Palestinians as PA corruption, rather like the original complaints of revolutionalry Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt. Palestinian bloggers and journalists have been reflecting unhappiness among the people for some time, and PA authorities have predictably responded with force. Read more ..

The New Egypt

Don't Ask Egyptians about What is Going On in Egypt

July 13th 2012

Egyptian bannerman

One of the more charming aspects of post-Mubarak Egypt is the frequency with which political debate erupts spontaneously between ordinary pedestrians, who are then quickly surrounded by dozens of on-listeners eager to hear competing points and, more often than not, interject their own. These deliberative blobs are the best indication that Egypt's suddenly competitive political life is trickling down to the masses. But if you listen to the substance of the debates, you'll discover that Egyptians are -- quite understandably -- disoriented by the rapidity and ambiguity of the latest political developments.

Thus, on the morning after President Mohamed Morsi reinstated Egypt's parliament, thereby bucking the military junta that dissolved it last month on the basis of a court order that invalidated last winter's legislative elections (see why people are confused?), Cairo's sidewalk speakers struggled for context. "The decision is like when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal," said one man at the center of the fray, viewing Morsi's initiative as an act of strength. But not everyone was convinced. "This decision was made as if he was buying a kilo of dates," yelled another over the debate's din. "He made it too easily." Read more ..

The New Egypt

Egypt's Real Ruler: Mohamed Tantawi

July 13th 2012

Mohammed Morsi
Mohamed Morsi

What does it mean that Mohamed Morsi is president of Egypt? Speaking for the American consensus, Bret Stephens recently argued in the Wall Street Journal against the consolation that the Muslim Brotherhood's victory "is merely symbolic, since the army still has the guns." He concluded that "Egypt is lost." We shall argue to the contrary: the election was not just symbolic but illusory, and Egypt's future remains very much in play. Morsi is not the most powerful politician in Egypt or the commander in chief. Arguably, he does not even run the Muslim Brotherhood. His job is undefined. The military could brush him aside. For the first time since 1954, Egypt's president is a secondary figure, assigned the functionary role long associated with its prime ministers.

Mohamed Tantawi is the real ruler of Egypt. Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall, and Minister of Defense, he serves not only as the commander in chief but also as effective head of all three Egypt's governmental branches. Tantawi is an autocrat with near-absolute powers. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama Expected to Sign Global Gun Control Treaty

July 12th 2012

Obama and Flag

While most of the news outlets in the United States have engulfed Americans in news coverage regarding the economy and the 2012 presidential elections, little if any news coverage exists about major actions being considered by President Barack Obama and progressive lawmakers, including the signing of a United Nations gun control treaty on July 27, according to Dick Morris, a former Bill Clinton political advisor.

Apparently the United States will sign-on to an International Gun Control Plan pushed by the United Nations that's already received the blessings of Secretary Hillary Clinton, according to the State Department.

Secretary Clinton has been pushing for the United States to become a party to a global gun control treaty since she began heading the State Department. And President Obama appears to be overly sympathetic to such an international power-grab, according to gun rights groups, according to gun rights activists such as John Snyder and Larry Pratt. Read more ..

Israel and Palestine

The Growing Power of Hamas’s Gaza Leadership

July 12th 2012

Hamas leader Khaled Meshal

The upheavals in a number of Arab countries that began in the spring of 2011 have presented the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement with both dilemmas and opportunities. On the one hand, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and various branches of this trans-national movement have emerged as winners as a result of the upheavals. In Egypt, Tunisia, and in a more complex way also in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has vastly increased its power and influence as a result of the decline and/or collapse of the secular, nationalist military regimes in those countries. Most importantly, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood now dominates the parliament, and is contending for the presidency.

For Hamas, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is of central significance. Since July 2007, Hamas has maintained exclusive control over the Gaza Strip area, which borders Egyptian-controlled Sinai. The prospect of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt is thus of strategic importance for the movement. Yet the Arab upheavals have also presented a challenge to Hamas. In the mid-1990s, the movement began building a close alliance with Iran and its so-called “resistance axis,” which includes the Shi’i Hizballah organization and the Asad regime in Syria. Hamas’s overall leadership was based in Damascus. The Gaza enclave, meanwhile, was heavily dependent on Iranian arms and money. Read more ..

Justice on Edge

Restorative Justice Techniques Enter Education Mainstream

July 11th 2012

Clenched Fists

Jacob Mathis was a classic underachiever and troubled child.

The 15-year-old’s grade point average was just 0.77 and by his own accord, he had “extreme anger problems” stemming from his relationship with his stepdad. His emotional turmoil often spilled over into school and affected his conduct in the classroom. After an incident in which he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and making criminal threats, he was sentenced to probation.

Mathis’ life changed for the better after his probation officer recommended he enroll in a summer program at East Oakland teen and young adult center Youth Uprising — it utilized restorative justice, a community-focused, therapeutic process that addresses youth violence by helping perpetrators understand the roots of their anger and grasp how they have done others harm.

Restorative justice attempts to break the cycle of violence by addressing the underlying cause — often, a traumatic experience, such as physical or verbal abuse or witnessing a violent crime — and acknowledging the emotional impact of such trauma on young people. Through active communication, young people in restorative justice programs have been able to overcome their violent impulses.

By participating in Youth Uprising’s programs, Mathis said, “I learned how to sit down and talk to people about my issues. Now, it’s all good.” Mathis said he’s even applied the restorative justice principles he’s learned to his own family dynamics. It’s allowed him to break a cycle of acting out and blaming others that could have easily led to jail. His grade point average is now up to 3.27 and not only has he not re-offended, but he now envisions going to college and studying marine biology at the University of Florida. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syria's Kurds in Play as Turkey Ponders Options

July 10th 2012

Turkish Military

The startling news about Syria's downing of a Turkish aircraft last Friday has overshadowed the reality of a larger, longer-term pattern of Syrian-supported lethal attacks against Turkey: the rising number of assaults inside Turkish territory by the militant nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime supports the PKK, which the United States officially considers a terrorist organization, both directly and indirectly through its Syrian Kurdish affiliate, the PYD. In recent weeks, skirmishes between Turkish troops and PKK irregulars inside Turkey have greatly intensified, taking dozens of lives on both sides. And armed confrontations inside Syria between the PYD and local Kurdish groups opposed to Assad's regime have also accelerated sharply. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Considering a Sunni Regime in Fractious Syria

July 9th 2012

Bashar al Assad Stop Killing

Last week's publicized defection of the Tlass family marked a potential turning point for Syria's al Assad regime.

The Tlass family formed the main pillar of Sunni support for the minority Alawite regime. The patriarch of the family, former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, had a strategic, brotherly bond with late Syrian President Hafez al Assad. The two military men served as members of the ruling Baath Party in Cairo from 1958 to 1961 when Syria and Egypt existed under the Nasserite vision of the United Arab Republic. The failure of that project brought them back home, where together they helped bring the Baath Party to power in 1963 and sustained a violent period of coups, purges and countercoups through the 1960s.

With Tlass standing quietly by his side, Hafez mounted a bloodless coup and appointed Tlass as his defense minister in 1970. Since then, Tlass has been the symbol of Syria's old guard regime. Without Tlass' godfather-like backing, it is questionable whether Bashar al Assad, then a political novice, would have been able to consolidate his grip over the regime in 2000 when his father passed away. Through the Tlass family's extensive military and business connections, the Sunni-Alawite bond endured for decades at the highest echelons of the regime. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Economic Sanctions Against Iran are a Mere Side-Show

July 8th 2012

Ahmadinejad hipster
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Over the past week, the latest phase of U.S.-led sanctions against Iran has dominated the media. For months, the United States has pressured countries to curtail their imports of Iranian crude oil and is now threatening to penalize banks that participate in oil deals with Iran. In keeping with the U.S. sanctions campaign, the European Union on July 1 implemented an oil embargo against Iran. The bloc already has begun banning European countries from reinsuring tankers carrying Iranian oil.

On the surface, the sanctions appear tantamount to the United States and its allies serving an economic death sentence to the Iranian regime. Indeed, sanctions lobbyists and journalists have painted a dire picture of hyperinflation and plummeting oil revenues. They argue that sanctions are depriving Tehran of resources that otherwise would be allocated to Iran's nuclear weapons program. This narrative also tells of the Iranian regime's fear of economically frustrated youths daring to revive the Green Movement to pressure the regime at its weakest point. Read more ..

Inside Kurdistan

The Arab Spring and the Kurds

July 7th 2012

Ciwan and son, Syrian Kurdish refugees

The Kurds, an Iranian ethno-linguistic group, living in the area where the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria converge, are the largest ethnic group without a state. Since the Justice and Development Party (JDP) or Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey has embraced a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy approach. This has coincided with a shift from confrontation to collaboration among Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq on the Kurdish issue. Yet the Arab Spring and the ensuing developments in the region have led to a deterioration in Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iran, bringing the validity of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy into question.

Turkey’s increasing pressure on the Syrian regime, its decision to host a NATO missile defense system, and Turkey’s “rising-star” status in the region have led to competition between Iran and Turkey and an exacerbation of both Turkish-Iranian and Turkish-Syrian relations. In addition, Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq in response to intensified PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) attacks since August to November 2011 have strained Turkish-Iraqi relations, since such attacks could potentially be perceived as a threat to Iraqi territorial integrity. Read more ..

Inside Russia

The Putin Visit in Retrospect

July 6th 2012

Isi Leibler

The recent visit to Israel by Russian President Putin represents yet another example of the extraordinary and unpredictable events continuously impacting on Israel and the Jewish people.

Putin’s presence in the Jewish state revived memories of my involvement in the Soviet Jewry struggle, which was the central focus of my public life for many years. Recruited as a young man by Shaul Avigur, the Israeli Prime Minister’s coordinator of the Soviet Jewry campaign, I was engaged in activities ranging from persuading the Australian government to become the first country in the world to raise the plight of Soviet Jewry at the UN to writing a book based on Soviet sources exposing state-sponsored anti-Semitism which led to divisions amongst Western communists.

The climax of my involvement was during 1978 to 1980 – when my company was designated to handle travel arrangements for the Australian team at the Moscow Olympics, thus obliging the Soviets to provide me with entry visas – until then denied. Thanks to the personal interventions of the Australian Prime Minister, in between official Soviet meetings, I was ferried in embassy cars to the homes of the key Jewish dissidents and refuseniks and engaged them in regular intensive discussions. This terminated abruptly when Australia joined the Olympic boycott. I was arrested and charged with espionage for liaising with refuseniks who allegedly “had access to state security secrets”. I was ultimately expelled and threatened with imprisonment should I ever set foot again on Soviet soil.

Yet in 1987, seven years later, I was invited by the KGB-controlled Moscow Arkhipova Synagogue, to be their guest over Rosh Hashanah and permitted to give Zionist addresses in my faltering Yiddish from the pulpit.

This subsequently led to the establishment of the first Jewish cultural center since the revolution named after Solomon Mykhoels, the renowned Yiddish poet murdered by Stalin in 1948, and the first Hebrew song festivals in municipal theaters in both Moscow and Leningrad. The sight of theaters, packed with of Jews of all ages, tears streaming down their eyes as they heard Yaffa Yarkoni and Dudu Fisher singing Israeli songs remains permanently seared into my memory. Read more ..

The New Egypt

Egypt’s Islamist Future

July 6th 2012

Mohamed Morsi - Vivat Rex

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president temporarily puts to rest the debate about whether the nation will be secular or Islamist.

Egypt is an Islamist state.

Not only does a member of the Muslim Brotherhood hold the nation’s highest post, nearly 75 percent of the legislature’s seats are held by Brotherhood members or by their harder-line Salafi cousins—or at least they were held by the Islamists before the dissolution of the People’s Assembly by the ruling military council last month. Though headlines will remain focused on the struggle for supremacy between the Islamists and the military, the more important political battle in Cairo will be over what kind of Islamic state Egypt will become. Within this new competitive theocracy, many of the differences are in degree and not in kind. Both the Salafis and the Brotherhood, for example, support the imposition of the hudud: the Islamic prescription to cut off hands of recidivist thieves. The disagreement is over how soon the penalty should be imposed. Read more ..

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