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Russia on Edge

Russia's Intrusion into the Americas is a Wake-Up call for the United States

May 9th 2012

Putin and Chavez
Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez

Russian – Latin American relations are relatively warm these days, especially when it comes to a number of seemingly left-leaning countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Nonetheless, Washington’s indifference to these countries may have pushed these governments further into Moscow’s diplomatic embrace. The United States appears to have calculatedly severed any sort of close relations with these left-leaning nations, and has been prone to criticize them with the same degree of careless indifference as it has of Russia itself.

In addition, these resident dynamics have provided the region with a growing autonomy; as Argentinean president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner aptly stated, “the world has changed, Latin America is nobody’s backyard.” This represents a full shift from Cold War politics, when the U.S. supported authoritarian regimes throughout the region in order to act as a firewall to contain Soviet influence within the hemisphere. In fact, much of the ever-growing presence of Russia in Latin America is due to Moscow’s aspirations to return to global preeminence, coinciding with Washington’s increasingly unsympathetic view toward a number of these left-leaning Latin American countries.

Notably, Russia has been able to exert its influence on an expanding agenda of mostly military and energy issues through a series of existing ties, as well as through allying itself with Central American nations to fight ever-changing drug trafficking trends. As the U.S. has curtailed military and economic assistance to some emerging countries in Latin America, Russia emerged as a pivotal ally for some and a preferred alternative for others. Read more ..

France After Sarkozy

What Francois Hollande Means for French Jews

May 8th 2012

Francois Hollande and Jewish leader Richard Prasquier-President of CRIF
Francois Hollande and Jewish leader Richard Prasquier

In France, the election results are in—but what do they mean for the local Jewish community?

Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement on Sunday with about 52 percent of the vote. Although Sarkozy attempted to destabilize the Socialist candidate in a televised three-hour debate just days before the final election, he was unable to overcome the comfortable lead Hollande had maintained since he became the Socialist nominee in October 2011.

According to the European Jewish Congress, Hollande has said that he will be “uncompromising in the fight against anti-Semitism,” and he will oppose anything that “could contribute to a climate that would isolate the Jews within their own country.” With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hollande supports two neighboring and sovereign states for Jews and for Palestinians. “Even beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we must be very firm with respect to Iran, whose nuclear program is a vital danger for Israel and for world peace,” he said. Read more ..

America and India

US Secretary of State Meets Key Regional Figure In Indian Politics

May 7th 2012

Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the Indian capital, where she is scheduled to meet the country's highest officials. Clinton is pressing energy-starved India to continue weaning itself off oil imports from Iran.

Before arriving in the Indian capital Monday, Secretary Clinton met in Kolkata with one of India's most influential regional officials - West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

It was her first major meeting since arriving in India from Bangladesh - but Banerjee says two widely anticipated topics were not on the agenda. In response to a reporter's question, Banerjee says she and Clinton did not discuss the issue of foreign direct investment or a stalled agreement to share water from the Teesta river along the West Bengal/Bangladesh border. Last year, an Indian government order would have permitted foreign ownership stakes in multi-brand retail operations in major cities. It would have effectively allowed American corporate giants like Wal-mart to control supply chains for food and agriculture. Banerjee opposed the order, and forced the government to roll it back by threatening to withdraw her party from the ruling coalition. Read more ..

Israel on Edge

Netanyahu Calls for Early Parliamentary Elections

May 7th 2012

Bibi arguing

Several weeks of rumor and speculation were brought to an end on May 6 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement to the Likud central committee that he will call for early parliamentary elections.

Netanyahu stated that "With the start of the fourth year of this government, the stability of the government started to erode, and this lack of political stability leads to blackmail and populism," which is most likely a reference to recent infighting between secular party Yisrael Beteinu and the religious parties. As a result of this instability, Netanyahu said, it was necessary to hold elections as soon as possible, "I will not lend a hand to an elections campaign of a year and a half that would destabilize the government. I prefer short elections of four months that could quickly bring back the stability to the political system." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Embattled Syria Prepares for Election

May 6th 2012

Bashar al Assad Stop Killing

Syria is making final preparations for a parliamentary election on Monday, with authorities praising it as a major reform, while opposition activists ridicule it as a farce for coinciding with a violent government crackdown on an opposition uprising. Syrian election officials have said at least seven new political parties will participate in Monday's vote for the 250-seat assembly, dominated for decades by the ruling Baath party of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A new constitution approved in a February referendum allowed the creation of opposition parties to compete with the Baath-led National Progressive Front. A spokeswoman for Syria's main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told VOA that the parliamentary election is an "insult to democracy." Speaking by phone from France, Bassma Kodmani said the government is "killing (people) every day" in centers of the 14-month rebellion against Mr. Assad's autocratic rule. She said the only people who will vote in such an environment are those who are "forced" to do so. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

How Does the New Turkey Think?

May 5th 2012

Turkish Military

Turkey has changed so drastically in the past decade that it has become largely unrecognizable. For starters, the country has experienced a sort of economic miracle, nearly tripling its economic output in the past decade and subsequently joining the ranks of the elite G-20 club. Politically, too, Turkey has undergone a complete transformation: The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won three consecutive elections since 2002, with increasing majorities. The AKP, representing a brand of Islam-based social conservativism, has since replaced Turkey’s former secularist elites.

Secularist Kemalism is out and the AKP is in, and Turkey no longer suffers from a weak economy as it did in the 1990s. How does this change the way Turks see the world? The answer is: something “old,” something “new,” and something “borrowed” shapes Turkey’s foreign policy today. Let’s start with the “old”: Kemalism is out, but the old nationalist mindset is not. Take, for instance, the secularist Turkish stance on Cyprus, which has defended Turkish Cypriot sovereignty whatever the political cost. Today, Ankara is as much committed to this goal as the secularist Turkish parties were before they were replaced by the AKP. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Civil War in Syria Highlights Ethnic and Sectarian Divides

May 4th 2012

Syrians by VOA photog Elizabeth Arrot

Unrest picked up again on May 4 in Syria, with large opposition demonstrations reported in Homs, Hama and other opposition strongholds, as well as by ethnic Kurdish protesters in Qamishli.

Rights activists said government forces killed at least 10 people across the country. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least three of the deaths occurred in the Hama region after forces opened fire on a vehicle.The year-long crisis has exposed some of the fundamental fault lines in the country, including ethnicity and sectarianism. Syrian Kurds gathered in Qamishli Friday for an anti-government demonstration, part of what appears to be a continuing movement of Kurds into the opposition fold. While the extent of the ethnic group's participation is debated - limited access to the region makes popular sentiment too hard to assess - protests like Friday's in the northeastern city highlight long-standing resentments of groups across the nation. Read more ..

The Bear is Back

Russian Foreign Policy after Putin's Return

May 3rd 2012

Vlad the Action Figure winks

Contrary to expectations, Russia's positions on Iran and Syria are unlikely to harden during Putin's third presidential term, which starts next week.

Some analysts believe that Vladimir Putin's May 7 return to the presidency will inevitably lead to a toughening of Moscow's position on two key issues: the Iranian nuclear program and potential intervention in Syria. The worst scenario put forth so far implies an unholy alliance with Tehran and complete moral, military, and political support to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus. Such speculations are rooted in the popular perception of Putin as a hardliner whose tense relations with the West are supposedly the product of an ex-KGB officer still seeking revanche for the Soviet defeat in the Cold War. Yet these negative expectations seem exaggerated. On March 7, journalists asked Putin whether his accession will change Moscow's approach to Iran and Syria. The answer, delivered in his typically curt style, was a short, promising "no." Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Foiled Anarchist Plot Shows Why All-Threats Approach Is Needed

May 2nd 2012

Cuyahoga Valley National Park Bridge

Cuyahoga Valley National Park Bridge

On Monday, the FBI arrested five individuals in a planned attack to blow up a Cleveland-area bridge. Unlike many of the foiled terror attacks seen in recent years, this recent plot seems to have no connection to Islamist extremism. Instead, three of the suspects are said to be self-proclaimed anarchists. The inspiration for this week’s thwarted anarchist plot, however, is largely where the disparity ends. Not surprisingly, this recent plot was foiled in the same manner as the majority of the 50 thwarted Islamist-inspired plots since 9/11: through the concerted efforts of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. Thus, while the threat of transnational Islamist terrorism remains front and center, efforts to counter Islamist extremism serve to protect the nation against all manners of threats. The U.S. should continue to build its capabilities to combat all terrorist threats and thwart plots long before the public is in danger.

All-Threats Approach to Counterterrorism

According to the FBI, between 1980 and 2001, approximately two-thirds of terrorism in the U.S. was carried out by non-Islamist extremists. From 2002 to 2005, this number jumped up to 95 percent. Examples of this threat include the 2011 Tuscon, Arizona, shooting that nearly took the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D–AZ) and the 2009 shootings at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and a Los Angeles–area synagogue. Read more ..

Great Britain on Edge

Britain Watches and Waits as the Geopolitical Game Passes by

May 1st 2012

Prince Charles and troops
Prince Charles and British troops.

Britain controlled about one-fourth of the Earth's land surface and one-fifth of the world's population in 1939. Fifty years later, its holdings outside the British Isles had become trivial, and it even faced an insurgency in Northern Ireland.

Britain spent the intervening years developing strategies to cope with what poet Rudyard Kipling called its "recessional," or the transient nature of Britain's imperial power. It has spent the last 20 years defining its place not in the world in general but between continental Europe and the United States in particular.

Britain's rise to its once-extraordinary power represented an unintended gift from Napoleon. It had global ambitions before the Napoleonic Wars, but its defeat in North America and competition with other European navies meant Britain was by no means assured pre-eminence. In Napoleon's first phase, France eliminated navies that could have challenged the British navy. The defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar and the ultimate French defeat at Waterloo then eliminated France as a significant naval challenger to Britain for several generations. Read more ..

Obama and Latin America

The Failure of Obama's Foreign Policy towards Latin America

April 30th 2012

Obama at Cartagena summit
President Obama and Latin American heads of state.

On the weekend of April 14th and 15th, Colombia hosted the Sixth Summit of the Americas, as 33 inter-American governments convened in Cartagena to discuss a broad host of topics. Dominating the agenda were scheduled discussions of the ongoing War on Drugs and the prospects of debating the legalizing of cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs in an effort to reduce criminal drug trafficking and the rampant violence it has brought to Latin America. Other notable discussions included the newly-inflamed Falklands/Malvinas Islands conflict and new sovereignty claims over the territory by Argentina, as well as Latin American criticism of the United States’ expansionary monetary policy as a response to the ongoing European debt crisis.

The most contentious and prominent of discussion topics, however, was the continuing exclusion of Cuba from OAS-sponsored gatherings, including the previous five Summits of the Americas, and this newest meeting in Cartagena. The issue dominated news coverage leading up to the Summit, and despite hopes by many that the U.S. would relent in its unilateral opposition to Cuba’s participation in OAS activities, President Barack Obama instead reaffirmed the U.S.’ long-held default stance on the matter. To this end, he stated that Cuban authorities have “shown no interest in changing their relationship with the United States, nor any willingness to respect the democratic and human rights of the Cuban people.” Read more ..

Pakistan on Edge

Islam in Post-9/11 Pakistan: Education and Security

April 29th 2012

Red Minaret, Hyderabad
Red Minaret, Hyderabad

In 1984, while reflecting on Pakistan’s political history, Lawrence Ziring, a leading scholar on South Asia, noted how the country had changed from an Islamic Republic to an Islamic State. Ziring observed that under the former, Islam played a moderating role and encouraged liberal discourse and a separation of religion, while under the latter, Islam was a central, official, and pervasive feature within the state, affecting and dominating every facet of society. Since 1979, the relationship between Islam and the Pakistani state has become closer, as seen with the adoption of the Hudood Ordinance as well as the willingness of non-religious political parties and actors to work with the religious parties. Thus, the shift toward a more Islamic society has been supported, if not led, by consecutive Pakistani governments.

This heightened sense of religiosity has increasingly been viewed as a cause for concern in the international arena because of the type of intolerant and violent Islam that appears to be in the ascendency there. This concern is also a product of a neoliberal prejudice that is inherently uncomfortable with religious states, as in such societies authority is derived from the divine, as opposed from the people. Thus, it is argued that unless Pakistan ceases its close association with religion, which in effect means to move against Islamic education, the threat posed by radical Islamism to international peace and security will become even greater. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria

April 29th 2012

Bashar al Assad Stop Killing

The Assad regime's continued suppression of the Syrian opposition continues, and has claimed upwards of 10,000 lives thus far. Thousands more have been arrested or displaced, including those that have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Recently, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution backing a six-point plan developed by special envoy Kofi Annan intended to bring about a cessation of hostilities and a process to facilitate a "Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system." Despite agreeing to the plan, the Assad regime has failed to meet agreed deadlines to cease use of live fire and heavy weapons, as well as its commitments to withdraw its forces from population centers. The UN has also approved a plan to place up to 300 monitors in Syria for up to three months to observe implementation of the plan. Given the regime's failure to observe the agreement thus far, it is unclear if the monitors will be able to do their jobs. What the regime's failure to implement the agreement thus far shows, however, is that what has become known as the "Annan plan" may be able to deal with some of the symptoms of the crisis in Syria, including introduction of monitors and delivery of humanitarian assistance, but it has little hope of dealing with the disease itself -- a minority-dominated regime with a forty-two-year track record of being unable to reform, and now brutally suppressing an opposition carved out of one of the youngest populations in the Middle East. Read more ..

The Americas on Edge

Latin America's Growing Scourge: Child-Soldiers

April 29th 2012

El Salvadoran Child Soldier

Approximately 300,000 children around the globe have been recruited as child soldiers. These children are forced to enter “various armed groups, civil militia, paramilitaries and government armed forces.” According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, any person under the age of 18 years unless under specific law is considered a child. In accordance with international law, it is illegal for a child under the age of 18 to actively participate in the armed forces of their country, and the recruitment of a child under the age of 15 is deemed a “war crime.”

A child soldier is deemed as anyone “under eighteen years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force, any group serving in any military capacity, including, but not necessarily limited to: cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members.” Young girls and boys are also noted to be recruited “for forced sexual purposes and/or forced marriage,” and are often times trafficked.

Although this age limit is moderately new (created in 2002 by the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of a Child), this decadent practice stills occurs in different parts of the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is important to highlight the fact that prior to the above-cited protocol passed in 2002, the minimum age for participating in the armed conflict was fifteen, according to the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1977 additional protocols. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Bundler for Obama Named to Ambassadorship in Netherlands

April 28th 2012

Barack Obama with Flag

As President Barack Obama ramps up his campaign for a second term, many of his top fundraisers are showing how money helps win influence and access to power in Washington. Timothy Broas, a top fundraiser for President Barack Obama, is now the nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

Broas, a partner at the D.C. law firm Winston and Strawn, has raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s re-election efforts as a bundler, meaning he has been credited for raising money from friends, family or business associates. He is one of only 117 bundlers who have raised at least half-a-million dollars for Obama, the Democratic National Committee and Democratic parties in battleground states. During Obama’s presidential bid four years ago, he also bundled between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama’s campaign.

Individuals are capped in how much they can contribute to politicians, but there’s no limit on how many other people they can turn to and ask for money. Those who help candidates collect large sums are often rewarded with perks such as access, appointments or government contracts, as previously reported.

More than two dozen of Obama’s elite fundraisers have been appointed ambassadors, including to the Bahamas, Finland, United Kingdom, Japan and South Africa. In addition to bundling money for Obama, Broas has been a generous financial supporter of politicians – almost exclusively Democrats. Broas has personally donated more than $230,000 to federal candidates, parties and political committees since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and only two Republicans have benefited from his financial largess.

Broas donated $500 to GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole during his 1996 bid, and he gave $2,000 to President George W. Bush in 2004 —a year he also backed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and gave $25,000 to the DNC. Notably, this isn’t Broas’ first presidential appointment from Obama: In December 2010, Obama nominated Broas to be on the board of trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington, D.C.-based, think tank created by Congress in 1968. The D.C. lawyer has also been a frequent guest to the White House. Read more ..

The Arab Winter in Egypt

The Islamist Political Fixer Who Could Be Egypt’s Next President

April 28th 2012

Mohammed Morsi
Mohammed Morsi (credit: A. Hesseney)

When Egypt’s Presidential Elections Commission disqualified Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater—among others—from the upcoming elections, the Brotherhood was angered, but not surprised. Egyptian law bans criminal convicts from running for president, and though al-Shater’s 2007 conviction for belonging to an “illegal organization”—namely, the Brotherhood—was highly politicized, the Brotherhood knew that it could sink al-Shater’s candidacy nonetheless. It thus nominated a last-minute backup: former parliamentarian Mohamed Morsi, who has now replaced al-Shater as the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

Morsi’s sudden emergence as the Muslim Brotherhood’s standard-bearer represents a tremendous change in his role within the organization. For much of the past decade, Morsi has been a behind-the-scenes player, performing two key functions that were vital to the Brotherhood’s external security and internal discipline. Read more ..

Brazil on Edge

Brazilian Congress Adopts Relaxed Land Usage Rules

April 27th 2012

Brazil Sugar Cane

Brazilian lawmakers have approved legislation that eases restrictions on the amount of forestland that farmers must preserve, a move critics say threatens the Amazon and other environmentally sensitive lands. The bill, approved late Wednesday night by the lower house of Congress by a vote of 274-184, revises Brazil's four-decade old Forest Code.  The new rules allows farming and other activities alongside fragile river banks and on hilltops, while giving individual states the authority to determine how much land to preserve. The changes were sought by the powerful agricultural lobby, which insisted the changes were needed to clarify what the farmers could do on their land and to ensure the emerging nation's food security - a position echoed by Paulo Piau, the bill's chief sponsor in the Chamber of Deputies.

"The new forestation code was approved and represents, first and foremost, the commitment of rural producers," said Piau. "They will have more stability and more political support. The production and the environment will only benefit from that. With a confused law there is no benefit.'' Read more ..

Turkey and Russia on Edge

Russo-Turkish Divergence: the Security Dimension

April 27th 2012

Medvedev and Erdogan
President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia and PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey
(credit: Kremlin PPIO)

Russo-Turkish relations encompass a multi-regional agenda from the Balkans to Central Asia, including the Caucasus and the Middle East and their bilateral energy relations. Much has been written about the strategic convergence of Russo-Turkish relations and contributing factors behind it. In contrast to Turkey’s strained relations with its traditional Western partners, Ankara’s ties with Moscow have noticeably strengthened in recent years. Turkey’s reorientation eastward in the past decade is attributable to three factors: the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the derailment of Turkish accession talks to join the EU, and Turkey’s dependence on Russia for its natural gas imports.

Turkish and Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus during 1992–2008 converged more than they differed. In 2009 and 2010, Turkish officials and experts described their relations with Russia as being the best ever and said that bilateral harmony featured prominently in the past decade’s international relations. Yet Russia and Turkey had already begun to diverge after the Georgian war in August 2008. The fighting between Russia and Georgia disrupted transportation, energy, and other infrastructure networks in the region, adversely affecting the interests of Turkey. In regard to Turkey’s relations with Russia, 2011 was a difficult year, and 2012 has not been much better. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Rubio Auditions for VP Slot with Call for Hawkish Foreign Policy

April 26th 2012

Sen Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (credit: Gage Skidmore)

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) new proposals on foreign policy and immigration have raised his national profile and represent a very public audition to become Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Rubio has repeatedly said he will not be on the presidential ticket this fall, but political insiders say the freshman senator is clearly attempting to show his skills on the national stage. Rubio, 40, delivered a major foreign-policy speech April 25th at the Brookings Institution. He touted former President Reagan’s foreign-policy legacy in the Republican Party, outlining a hawkish view of America’s role in world affairs and chiding some Republicans for adopting a softer approach. The Florida senator is also drafting an immigration reform plan that could serve as the GOP’s official policy on the controversial issue. Rubio has said he has briefed Romney’s team on the proposal, and Romney said this week he is interested in reviewing it. While the plan has not been released, Rubio has recently shared some details of what is in it. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Top Ten Donors Make up One Third of Super PAC Donations

April 26th 2012

money changing hands

Contrary to expectations, the much-criticized court decisions that gave us super PACs have not led to a tsunami of contributions flowing from the treasuries of Fortune 500 corporations—at least not yet.

What the Citizens United decision and a lower court ruling have done is make household names out of a bunch of relatively unknown, very wealthy conservatives. Of the top 10 donors to super PACs so far in the 2012 election cycle, seven are individuals—not corporations—and four of those individuals are billionaires.

The top 10 contributors gave more than a third, or $68 million of the nearly $202 million reported by the outside spending groups this election, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records. Rounding out the top 10 are two labor unions and a physicians’ medical malpractice insurance group.

The top donor list is mostly Republican, which is not surprising given the competitive GOP presidential primary season. Even so, Democrats have had less success in raising money for super PACs so far. Read more ..

Geopolitical Edge

How the U.S. can Exploit the China-India Rivalry

April 25th 2012

Chinese swearing in

As the world moves into the second decade of the 21st century, a new power rivalry is taking shape between India and China, Asia's two behemoths in terms of territory, population and richness of civilization. India's recent successful launch of a long-range missile able to hit Beijing and Shanghai with nuclear weapons is the latest sign of this development.

This is a rivalry borne completely of high-tech geopolitics, creating a core dichotomy between two powers whose own geographical expansion patterns throughout history have rarely overlapped or interacted with each other. Despite the limited war fought between the two countries on their Himalayan border 50 years ago, this competition has relatively little long-standing historical or ethnic animosity behind it.

The signal geographical fact about Indians and Chinese is that the impassable wall of the Himalayas separates them. Buddhism spread in varying forms from India, via Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to Yunnan in southern China in the third century B.C., but this kind of profound cultural interaction was the exception more than the rule.

Moreover, the dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, while a source of serious tension in its own right, is not especially the cause of the new rivalry. The cause of the new rivalry is the collapse of distance brought about by the advance of military technology. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Obama Faces Tough Choices in Syria

April 24th 2012

PBObama contemplative

As the international peace plan in Syria faltered this week amid continued violence, the Obama administration faces difficult choices as it plots a path forward there. The administration does not want to get into a military conflict in Syria or spark a larger civil war, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown little intention of abiding by the peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Administration officials called for tougher action in Syria this week, including hints at the use of force if Assad does not stop and steeper sanctions to further isolate Assad. But the White House says it still is opposed to any military action or arming the Syrian opposition as it weighs its options.

Defense hawks are clamoring for military action in Syria, and others in the Senate are also suggesting the United States must consider establishing safe havens and arming the opposition.

There are numerous obstacles no matter which route the administration chooses, from Russia’s thwarting of further UN Security Council action to the divided opposition movement and the larger regional issues concerning Iran. The Syrian conflict, which has lasted more than a year and seen more than 9,000 Syrians killed, is now reaching a critical juncture with the peace plan teetering, analysts say. The Obama administration has said that Assad must go, but it has not yet made clear how far it will go to make sure that happens, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The administration needs to make a decision about what it wants,” Rubin said. “Because you can’t keep giving last chances and maintaining credibility. If you keep delaying, all you’re doing is allowing Assad to kill.” Read more ..

The Arab Winter

Arab AKPs in the Making?

April 24th 2012

Syrian Protests March 2011

Can Turkey's experience in the past decade under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government -- blending democracy, close ties with the West, a "Muslim" foreign policy, capitalism and Islamism -- be copied by Arabs, as many claim? Probably not -- except for Tunisia.

Although rooted in Turkey's Islamist movement, the AKP moderated in order to come to power in 2002. And once in power, the party pursued a policy that delivered phenomenal economic growth. It thereby became so popular that it was able to reshape Turkey, bringing the once-dominant military under its control and the Turkish elites -- including the staunchly secular courts, business community and the media -- into its camp.

Yet the AKP has done a near full circle in foreign policy. Initially, the party took issue with the United States on key issues, including the Iraq War, Israel, and Iran's nuclear program, in the hope of casting Turkey as a "Muslim power." But lately, the party has shifted, moving closer to U.S. positions on Iran and also cooperating with Washington in Libya and now Syria. The AKP came to realize that its strategic value is as a Muslim power with strong ties to the U.S. and access to NATO technology and muscle. Accordingly, in September 2011, Turkey made its most strategic decision of the past decade, joining NATO's 21st century missile defense project. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Nonprofit Hauls in More than Super PAC

April 22nd 2012

Karl Rove

Sixty-two percent of funds raised by two conservative groups associated with former Bush adviser Karl Rove have come from mystery donors, a statistic that shows the increasingly important role being played by nonprofits in a post-Citizens United political world.

American Crossroads , a super PAC, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a nonprofit, were founded in 2010 by Rove and another former Bush adviser, Ed Gillespie. Together, they raised $123 million through the end of 2011, according to a review of Federal Election Commission data and Internal Revenue Service filings.

Of that sum, $76.8 million, or 62 percent, went to Crossroads GPS, which is a nonprofit, “social welfare” group organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. Like American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS can pay for advertising that attacks political opponents by name and urges viewers to vote against them. But unlike the super PAC, GPS is prohibited from making politics its “primary purpose,” according to the IRS, a rule that these politically active nonprofits have interpreted to mean they can spend up to 49 percent of their funds on such advertising. Read more ..

Germany and France

French Election To Determine Future of 'Merkozy' Alliance

April 21st 2012

Click to select Image
Merkel and Sarkozy

France on April 22 holds the first round of voting in a presidential election that could see Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande take the lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande, who cuts a bland public figure and Sarkozy, the impulsive incumbent, are the top contenders out of 10 candidates. Neither is expected to get 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright. But polls suggest Hollande would win a second-round runoff against Sarkozy on May 6. Political and financial analysts say a victory for Hollande would have implications beyond France because it would bring an end to the so-called "Merkozy" alliance between Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that has guided European policy in recent years.

And potential discord over policy between Europe's two largest economies could have a significant impact on the stability of the euro currency at a fragile time for the continent. A key difference between Hollande and Merkel is how they believe the European Central Bank should operate. Hollande wants new rules that would make it a lender of last resort to debt-burdened eurozone governments. In fact, that had been a traditional French policy goal for the European Central Bank since the 1990s. But Sarkozy has backed down from those ambitions as Europe's debt crisis has unfolded, bringing his position more in line with that of Merkel's. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

Tax on Salt Could Reduce Cardiovascular Disease Deaths by 3 Percent

April 21st 2012


Voluntary industry reductions in salt content and taxation on products containing salt in 19 developing countries could reduce the number of deaths each year from cardiovascular disease (CVD) by 2-3 per cent in these countries. The preliminary data presented today at the World Congress of Cardiology are the first findings from a new report from Harvard that will be published later this year.

The study set out to assess the cost-effectiveness of two interventions - voluntary salt reduction by industry, and taxation on salt - in 19 developing countries, that represent more than half of the world's population. The required salt reduction levels were modeled on the UK Food Standards Agency experience which set a series of targets for individual food products that have led to a net intake reduction, so far, of 9.5 per cent overall in the country. While a taxation increase of 40 per cent on industry prices (similar to tobacco), determined by previous work to lead to a 6 per cent reduction in consumption, was also evaluated. Read more ..

Syria on Edge

How Bashar al-Assad Built Minority Alliances and Countered Minority Foes

April 20th 2012

pro-Assad Rally Damascus

Our way of government is not identical with that which is pursued with such conspicuous success in highly civilised and settled countries like your own. We leave the various communities and tribes alone to settle their internal differences. It is only where tribe wars on tribe, religion on religion, or their quarrels stop the traffic on the Sultan’s highway that we interfere. What would you have, mon ami? We are here in Asia!”
– An Ottoman governor in Syria to author Marmaduke Pickthall, late in the nineteenth century.

Minority alliances in the Middle East have been a constant reality for groups under threat from perceived “majority” interests. Most of these alliances were military in nature and often covert. Israel has reached out to Christians in Lebanon and Kurds in Iraq. Berbers in Morocco have also engaged Israel. In their shared effort to fight Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) entered into an alliance with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). Yet in Syria, where minority Alawites dominate the government and find themselves in conflict with not only the Sunni majority but other minority groups, minority alliances take on a new precedence in their efforts to control the country. Read more ..

El Salvador on Edge

The Leftists Debate as El Salvador Looks Forward to 2014 Presidential Election

April 20th 2012

Mauricio Funes  El Salvador
President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador

The 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador will decide whether the country continues down the path of social investment and economic reform begun in 2009, or whether the country inexorably returns to the neo-liberal model of governance. The presidential campaigns hardly have begun, and already an astute electorate, regardless of party affiliation, is seeking to participate in more democratic methods of choosing candidates. The San Salvador daily, La Prensa Grafica, noted in its survey of the electorate taken at polling places during the March 11, 2012 election of mayors and deputies, that 52% of respondents favored the selection of presidential candidates by the members of each party. Only 22% favored the selection of candidates by the party leadership. This desire of the electorate for political equality is an expression of more than a century of struggle for freedom and democracy.

From now on, the stakes are high. Given recent voting patterns across El Salvador, including a relatively low voter turnout, it is likely that political parties that fail to reflect the views and values of their constituents will be unable to address the authentic concerns of their base and risk losing at the ballot box in the big presidential campaign of 2014. This essay will focus on the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the breach that has opened between the party leadership and a significant segment of its base since 2006, when the party moved from electoral primaries to a more closed candidate selection process. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Mystery Ship to Syria Raises Questions

April 19th 2012

The Atlantc Cruiser Ship

The weekend report of a German-owned, Ukrainian-chartered ship carrying weapons to Syria should raise questions and alarm bells.  Der Spiegel reported that the Atlantic Cruiser, owned by the German company Bockstiegel, had been chartered by the Ukrainian White Whale company to pick up Iranian-origin cargo in Djibouti.  White Whale said the cargo was "mainly pumps and similar things," according to the German shipping agent.  However, the ship was refused entry for refueling at the port of Limassol, Cyprus after the crew told the Cypriots that the cargo was "weapons and munitions."  The Cruiser tried then to sail for Tartus, Syria, but it is currently sitting at sea.

Three questions:

Is the regime running out of bullets?  This would account for Bashar al-Asad's agreement to Kofi Annan's ceasefire proposal.  The proposal worked to the government's advantage in several ways, not least of which was leaving the al-Asad government in place.  But clearly it has taken al-Asad more firepower and more time than he had planned to put down the insurrection.  A few days or a week of respite would have permitted the regime to conserve ammunition until new supplies arrived.  The last known ammunition shipment was from the Russians in January on a ship called The Chariot. Read more ..

Israel and Turkey

Turkish-Israeli Relations in the Shadow of the Arab Spring

April 19th 2012

netanuyahu and erdogan

In order to understand the initial reasons behind the creation of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, one must also recognize why that alignment came to an end. The cause was not within the partnership itself nor was it due to the 2008/2009 Gaza War or the 2010 flotilla events; rather this resulted from the Turkish government’s changing goals and identity. The “Arab Spring” has pushed forward this transformation in Turkey’s rulers while also showing that the new strategy does not work.

What factors brought the two countries together? There were many, and they were well-rooted in the Kemalist republic, which began in the 1920s and is perhaps now coming to an end. The list below explains the factors that created close cooperation and how they changed, leading to a collapse in the relationship. Read more ..

The Middle East on Edge

Much of the Violence in the Middle East is a European Legacy

April 19th 2012

Lawrence, Churchill, and Abdullah
Faisal Attending a Diplomat Meeting

Unlike nation-states in Europe , modern Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi nationalities did not evolve. They were arbitrarily created by colonial powers.

In 1919, in the wake of World War I , England and France carved up the former Ottoman Empire into geographic spheres of influence, dividing the Mideast into new political entities with new names and frontiers. Some of the newly created states' names came from classical antiquity, such as Syria and Palestine, while others were based on geographic designations, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Iraq , for example, was a medieval province with borders very different from those of the modern state, which excluded Mesopotamia in the north and included part of what is now western Iran. Territory was divided along map meridians without regard for traditional frontiers (i.e., geographic logic and sustainability) or the ethnic composition of indigenous populations. The prevailing rationale behind these artificially created states was how they served the imperial and commercial needs of their colonial masters. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Will Syria’s Sectarian Divisions Spill Over into Turkey?

April 18th 2012

pro-assad rally ankara dec 2011
Pro-Assad Rally in Ankara, December 2011

Observers of the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria are increasingly worried that the conflict will turn into sectarian struggle, and with good reason: the Assad regime has enjoyed overwhelming support among Syria’s minority Alawite population, while the country’s Sunni majority is leading the anti-Assad rebellion. But the conflict poses another risk. It may stir sectarian tensions in Turkey, which could, in turn, complicate any international intervention against Assad’s regime.

The major sticking point is the Alevi group, a syncretic and highly secularized Muslim offshoot based in Turkey that has often defined itself as a minority persecuted by the country’s Sunni majority. Should the conflict in Syria turn Sunni on Alawite, Turkish Alevis may find themselves empathizing with the minority Alawites in Syria and, by extension, with the Assad regime. More than that: they could actively oppose any intervention organized by their own government.

Some of this is rooted in contemporary Turkish politics. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has moved away from its hardline Islamist roots and made inroads across most sectors of Turkish society, has, thus far, failed to win much support from the Alevis, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of Turkey’s 75 million citizens. Unlike the AKP, the Alevis tend to align with the secularist views of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, favoring a strict separation of religion and politics. And sectarian conflict in the 1970s, including attacks by Sunnis on Alevi communities, has left behind a legacy of distrust between Alevis and Sunnis. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Turkey's Emergence as Significant Regional Power Continues Apace

April 17th 2012

Turk flags

Turkey is re-emerging as a significant regional power. In some sense, it is in the process of returning to its position prior to World War I when it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. But while the Ottoman parallel has superficial value in understanding the situation, it fails to take into account changes in how the global system and the region work. Therefore, to understand Turkish strategy, we need to understand the circumstances it finds itself in today.

The end of World War I brought with it the end of the Ottoman Empire and the contraction of Turkish sovereignty to Asia Minor and a strip of land on the European side of the Bosporus. That contraction relieved Turkey of the overextended position it had tried to maintain as an empire stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to the Balkans. In a practical sense, defeat solved the problem of Turkey's strategic interests having come to outstrip its power. After World War I, Turkey realigned its interests to its power. Though the country was much smaller, it was also much less vulnerable than the Ottoman Empire had been. Read more ..

Broken Government

Grading Each of the 50 States for Accountability

April 17th 2012

money changing hands

The State Integrity Investigation is an unprecedented, data-driven analysis of transparency and accountability in all 50 state governments. The Center has partnered with Global Integrity and Public Radio International to assign each state a letter grade — based on 300 government integrity indicators. No state received an A, and eight states failed.

The tales are sadly familiar to even the most casual observer of state politics.

In Georgia, more than 650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state in 2007 and 2008, clearly violating state ethics law. The last time the state issued a penalty on a vendor was 1999. A North Carolina legislator sponsored and voted on a bill to loosen regulations on billboard construction, even though he co-owned five billboards in the state. When the ethics commission reviewed the case, it found no conflict; after all, the panel reasoned, the legislation would benefit all billboard owners in the state — not just the lawmaker who pushed for the bill. Read more ..

Tunisia on Edge

Understanding the “Islamist Wave” in Tunisia

April 16th 2012

New Tunisian Assembly

On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held the first free and democratic elections in the country’s history. Nine months after the popular uprising, known as the Jasmine Revolution, which toppled a decades-long dictatorial regime, Tunisians were able to experience one of the most basic facets of democracy: the right to vote. Thus, Tunisians headed to the polls to elect members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) with a sense of renewed hope. For nearly all of the voters, it was in fact their first time participating in an election. It was also the first time voters could go to the polling station without prior instructions or injunctions.

Voters were called upon to elect 217 members of the NCA, whose task is to appoint an interim government and to draft a new constitution within one year, and to prepare the country for general elections. The final results of the elections were announced on November 14, 2011. The Islamist party Ennahda won a relative majority, obtaining 89 seats. Ennahda was then declared the winner of the election. Tunisians in the cities, in rural areas of the interior, and especially in Europe reportedly voted for Ennahda. Having, however, won a relative majority and not an absolute one, Ennahda was compelled to form a coalition with the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, both secular center-left parties. Read more ..

The Edge of Terror

Hizballah and the Arab Revolutions: The Contradiction Made Apparent?

April 15th 2012

Hezbollah waving flag

Since the 1990s, Hizballah has defined itself along a number of parallel lines, each of which prior to 2011 appeared to support the other. The movement was simultaneously a sectarian representative of the Lebanese Shi’a, a regional ally of Iran and Syria, a defender of the Lebanese against the supposed aggressive intentions of Israel, and a leader of a more generically defined Arab and Muslim “resistance” against Israel and the West. As a result of the events of 2011, most important the revolt against the Assad regime in Syria, these various lines, which seemed mutually supportive, began to contradict one another. This has diminished Hizballah’s position, though it remains physically unassailable for as long as the Assad regime in Syria survives.

The year 2011 witnessed a series of upheavals and revolutions, which launched a long-awaited process of change in some of the stagnant polities of the Arab-speaking world. It is too soon to draw any definitive conclusions regarding where these changes may lead or what the Arab world will look like when the storm has passed. Nevertheless, the transformations that have already taken place are presenting established political players across the Middle East with new and unfamiliar questions and dilemmas. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

On Nuclear Talks, One Step Sideways, Two Steps Back

April 15th 2012

Ahmadinejad at Iranian nuclear plant

On nuclear talks, one step sideways, two steps back
Iran and the P5+1 are presenting the world with a new approach – succeeding in negotiations without making progress • The six powers delighted in "new initiatives" •

The problem is that Iran rejected the same initiatives two years ago.
A strange meeting took place in Istanbul on Saturday. Both sides to the renewed nuclear talks between Iran and the major world powers tried to present a new concept: succeeding in negotiations without making any progress. Under these circumstances, it came as no real shock to anyone that the big achievement coming out of the talks was the general agreement that there is even an issue to discuss, and there is also a date and a venue for the next round: May 23, in Baghdad. The talks between Iran and the five world powers (Russia, China, the U.S., Britain, France plus Germany), were "constructive and useful," E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced on Saturday.


The Battle for Bahrain

Bahrain on the Brink Jeopardizes U.S. Interests in the Gulf

April 14th 2012

Shiite protest in Bahrain

The ethnic strife between majority Shiites and the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family in Bahrain is worsening, with a growing risk that the U.S. naval base there could become contentious.

A near perfect political storm has been developing in Bahrain in recent days. In one incident on April 9, seven policeman were injured, three seriously, when their checkpoint was devastated by an improvised explosive device attached to a container of gasoline. As an apparent consequence of this, a mob of Sunnis armed with iron rods and sticks ransacked a supermarket owned by a major Shiite-owned business group. The U.S. embassy in the capital, Manama, which has issued ten alerts to U.S. nationals since the start of the month, warned today that "demonstrations, coupled with instances of possible sectarian clashes, are possible throughout the weekend."

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Formula One motor race, due to be held on the island April 20-22, are under pressure to cancel the event, as it was last year because of Bahraini violence that did not abate until after the imposition of emergency law and the arrival of Saudi paramilitary forces trained in riot control. Hosting the race is a matter of prestige for Bahrain, but the participating teams are reportedly concerned about security. They also do not want to be associated with a regime being criticized for violating human rights. An imprisoned Shiite activist leader has been on hunger strike for more than two months, and Amnesty International is due to release a damning report about flawed reforms on April 17. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

The Challenge of Containing Iran's Enrichment Activities

April 13th 2012

Iran Nuclear Equipment

With talks between the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran set to resume in Istanbul on April 13, officials are discussing possible compromises that might persuade Tehran to give up any ambition of developing nuclear weapons. Apparently, one of the principal components of these proposals is acceptance of Iran's right to enrich uranium to around 3.5%, a level suitable for civilian power reactors. But this could turn out to be a fatal bargain: centrifuge technology is easy to hide, and there are few barriers to continuing enrichment up to 90%, the level needed for an atomic bomb.

Natural uranium contains just 0.7% of the fissile isotope U-235, which is the key to both controlled chain reactions in nuclear power plants and uncontrolled, explosive chain reactions in atomic bombs. Enriching this material is a progressively easier process. For example, if the aim is to produce 90% enriched uranium, reaching the 3.5% level requires some 75% of the work. By the time 20% enrichment is reached -- the level Iran currently achieves -- 90% of the work has been done. Therefore, cutting a deal in which Iran gives up enriching to 20% but continues enriching to 3.5% would buy relatively little time. Worse, it would not solve the more fundamental problem: the unknown scope and nature of Iran's nuclear program. Read more ..

Jordan on Edge

Jordan Facing Instability and Pressures

April 12th 2012

King Abdullah of Jordan
King Abdullah II

For the first time in decades, the compact that has maintained stability in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is coming under intense pressure. On one end of the spectrum, influential elements within the regime’s traditional powerbase—East Bank tribes—are protesting Amman’s perceived inattention to their dire economic straits, its perceived preference for accommodating Palestinian economic interests, and its perceived laxity on corruption. At the other end of the spectrum is a dangerous evolution of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

Traditionally, the group has had an ambivalent relationship with the government. At present, the accommodating East Bank-led generation of MB leaders is in decline, with a more radical, Palestinian Hamas wing in ascendance, riding the regional trend. The combination of both developments—disaffection among the traditional East Bankers and heightened demands for political representation by a more assertive MB—poses a serious challenge to the regime, particularly at a time when Jordan’s economic prospects do not appear bright. The East Bank problem is real and severe, but with resources and flexibility, it can be solved. The MB problem, however, may be beyond the regime’s ability to control because it is fed by regional events, such as the Brotherhood’s demonstrated success in Egypt and the potential Islamization of the political opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Read more ..

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