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Iran's Nukes

What Iran Might Gain from a Nuclear Deal

April 12th 2012

Iranian nuclear facility

If Iran decides to seriously negotiate during upcoming nuclear talks -- currently scheduled to begin this weekend in Istanbul -- what might it expect to gain from the resultant deal? Probably not much, because even a comprehensive agreement on nuclear issues would not close the profound geostrategic split between Washington and Tehran.


Most of the U.S. sanctions on Iran were enacted for reasons that extend beyond proliferation, such as state support for terrorism and human rights violations. When Washington imposed restrictions on Iran's Central Bank in February after prolonged internal debate, the reasons cited in President Obama's executive order were not the nuclear program, but instead "the deceptive practices of the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian banks to conceal transactions of sanctioned parties, the deficiencies in Iran's anti-money laundering regime and the weaknesses in its implementation, and the continuing and unacceptable risk posed to the international financial system by Iran's activities." None of these problems would be dispelled by a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Read more ..

Economic Policy on Edge

Mass Privatization Put Former Communist Countries on Road to Bankruptcy, Corruption

April 11th 2012

Bulgarian CP HQ, left to decay
Bulgarian Communist Party HQ, decaying and defaced

A new analysis showing how policies advocated by western economists helped to bankrupt Russia and other former Soviet countries after the Cold War has been released by researchers. Authored by sociologists at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University, the study, which appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, is the first to trace a direct link between the mass privatization programs adopted by several former Soviet states, and the economic failure and corruption that followed.

Devised principally by western economists, mass privatization was a radical policy to rapidly privatize large parts of the economies of countries such as Russia during the early 1990s. The policy was pushed heavily by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Its aim was to guarantee a swift transition to capitalism, before Soviet sympathizers could seize back the reins of power. Instead of the predicted economic boom, what followed in many ex-Communist countries was a severe recession, on par with the Great Depression of the United States and Europe in the 1930s.

The reasons for the economic collapse and skyrocketing poverty in eastern Europe, however, have never been fully understood. Nor have researchers been able to explain why this happened in some countries, like Russia, but not in others, such as Estonia. Read more ..

Inside Africa

Africa's Dilemma Over Its 'Blue Men': The Tuareg

April 11th 2012

Tuareg warriors

Some years back, when I left Niamey, the capital of Niger, and headed north on a rutted, dirt track it was as if the country disappeared on me. There was no police, no sign of authority, nothing. Flash floods had left the road completely washed out in places, with the wheels of large trucks half-sunk in mud, drivers stuck for days on the side of the road. Here there were only Tuaregs, the "blue men" as they were called, on account of the color of their dazzling robes and the blue vegetable dye ("nila") they smeared on their bodies. The Tuaregs, a pastoral Berber people, were lords of the Sahara; it's better to have a Tuareg with you than a GPS device, went the saying of U. S. Army Special Forces with whom I was embedded.

My experience heading north from Timbuktu in Mali was even more extreme. Though it connotes the back of beyond, Timbuktu was actually a cosmopolitan locale -- complete with a museum of medieval Islamic manuscripts, a few decent restaurants and satellite dishes -- compared to where I was going. I was off to Araouane, 240 kilometers (150 miles) north from Timbuktu into the desert. Araouane was a name on a map, as though it were Cleveland or some place. But nobody in Timbuktu -- and certainly not in Bamako, the Malian capital very far away to the southwest -- knew anything about Araouane, and if anyone still lived there. It took 14 hours and numerous breakdowns in the fine sand to reach Araouane, a huddle of ruins on a cosmic emptiness where only women, children and old men lived -- the Tuareg men were out conducting raids and commerce on caravan routes throughout the desert. Here the Malian state did not exist. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Moral Equivalence Over Islamist Terror Is the Trojan Horse in Europe

April 10th 2012

French muslim woman

The place of Islam in democratic societies should be examined honestly, without prejudice either way. It was a false moral equivalency of Catherine Ashton, the European Union's High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs to equate the murders in Toulouse with "what is happening in Gaza." Moral relativism of that kind could well become the new Trojan Horse for democracies.

The United States and the democratic European countries both face a challenge: to respond to terrorism, particularly from home-grown terrorists, without violating individual and group civil rights. Britain faced this as a result of the events of July 7, 2005 when four Islamic suicide bombers, most of whom were born and raised in Britain, denoted bombs in London's transport system, killing 52 and injuring over 700. France has now. in March 2012, experienced the brutality of its home–grown terrorist. This incident is the canary's warning of future danger. International problems in the Middle East and in Afghanistan have coalesced with European national and local problems, particularly the alienation of minority groups, the failure to integrate into the larger society, and the continued immigration from Arab and Muslim countries have made the task of the Western countries difficult.

The West might remember the warning of Laocoön: Do not accept the Trojan Horse from the Greeks, it is a "deadly fraud." The place of Islam in democratic societies must be examined honestly, without prejudice either way. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Iran Seeks Increased Regional Role with Threats and Diversions

April 10th 2012

Iranian Revolutionary Guard

For centuries, the dilemma facing Iran (and before it, Persia) has been guaranteeing national survival and autonomy in the face of stronger regional powers like Ottoman Turkey and the Russian Empire. Though always weaker than these larger empires, Iran survived for three reasons: geography, resources and diplomacy. Iran's size and mountainous terrain made military forays into the country difficult and dangerous. Iran also was able to field sufficient force to deter attacks while permitting occasional assertions of power. At the same time, Tehran engaged in clever diplomatic efforts, playing threatening powers off each other.

The intrusion of European imperial powers into the region compounded Iran's difficulties in the 19th century, along with the lodging of British power to Iran's west in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula following the end of World War I. This coincided with a transformation of the global economy to an oil-based system. Then as now, the region was a major source of global oil. Where the British once had interests in the region, the emergence of oil as the foundation of industrial and military power made these interests urgent. Following World War II, the Americans and the Soviets became the outside powers with the ability and desire to influence the region, but Tehran's basic strategic reality persisted. Iran faced both regional and global threats that it had to deflect or align with. And because of oil, the global power could not lose interest while the regional powers did not have the option of losing interest. Read more ..

Israel and Azerbaijan

Israel’s Friend on Iran’s Border

April 9th 2012

Israeli Jet

According to a recent report in Foreign Policy magazine, Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its southern airbases on Iran’s northern border from which it could potentially launch airstrikes against Iran. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” a senior administration official reportedly said in early February, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan quickly denied the claims, and a senior official said that the allegations were “aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.” Azeri-Iranian ties have been strained in recent months over the former’s relations with Israel. At the end of February, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi called a meeting with the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Tehran and warned him not to let Israel use Azerbaijan to stage an attack. In a later meeting, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev confirmed that his country would not do so.

But, according to Foreign Policy, Baku could keep its word and still provide Israel with essential support, such as allowing search-and-rescue units inside Azerbaijan or permittig Israeli bombers to land there after a strike, eliminating Israel’s problem of refueling its jets midflight to ensure a safe return home. According to the report, an intelligence officer noted that Washington is “not happy about” Israel’s alleged colluding with Azerbaijan. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Can U.S. Bounty Bring In Pakistani Militant Leader?

April 8th 2012

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed
Hafiz Mohammad Saeed

Usually when governments offer bounties, it means a wanted man is in hiding and the public's help is needed to find him. But Washington's announcement on April 2 of a $10 million bounty for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed breaks that mold. Saeed may be wanted by Washington and by New Delhi, which has charged him in absentia with masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. But he is not wanted in Pakistan, where he lives.

The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered Saeed freed in 2009 after he challenged Islamabad's grounds for keeping him under house arrest over implications his organization was involved in the attacks. He is the founder of Lashkar-e Taiba, an armed militant group that fought against Indian control in Kashmir and was banned in 2002 after being linked to an attack on India's parliament. He then set up the religious charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which Indian and U.S. officials say serves as a front for the banned militant wing. Just hours after the U.S. State Department announced the bounty on April 2, Saeed appeared on Pakistan's Geo TV. He said he was a free man and was ready to speak with U.S. officials at any time. Read more ..

The Edge of Genocide

For Journalists, Sarajevo was The Story Of Their Lives

April 7th 2012

Sarajevo Destroyed

Between them, the journalists gathering this week in the Bosnian capital for the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege have covered dozens of conflicts: Afghanistan. Beirut. Chechnya. Iraq.

But amid the drinks and chatter of a correspondents’ reunion at the city’s Holiday Inn -- which served as the main base for foreign journalists covering the war -- it soon becomes clear that there is only one Sarajevo. It’s a war that schooled an entire generation of reporters on the best and worst that humanity had to offer, the power of laughter over tears -- and ultimately, the fact that there is only so much journalists can do to change history.

“We were reporting, reporting, reporting. And it took so long for anyone to react,” says Emma Daly, who covered the 44-month siege for Britain’s “Independent” and who now works as communications director for Human Rights Watch. “It was very frustrating. We said at the time that the best we could hope for is that [former British Prime Minister] John Major would never be able to claim later on that he didn’t know what was happening.” Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Russia's Show of Syrian Force

April 5th 2012

Syrian protests 2011

While Western and Arab countries struggle to find a way to assist the Syrian people, Moscow is continuing to do all it can to save the Assad regime of Syria. Speaking on a trip to Azerbaijan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Syrian opposition wouldn't be able to overwhelm government forces even if it was supplied with weapons from abroad. He warned that a foreign military intervention would lead to even more disastrous consequences for Syria and further urged other nations not to arm the Syrian opposition. Lavrov's statements came just days after Russia and China boycotted the latest "Friends of Syria" gathering in Istanbul -- a weak diplomatic effort aimed at assisting the Syrian opposition.

That the U.S. and most Western nations are at odds with Russian policy should not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, the manner in which Moscow is shamelessly pushing its case demonstrates the seriousness with which they view the Syrian issue. Take, for instance, the Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday afternoon held by the Russian embassy and hosted by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL). Led by embassy officials Anton Vushkarnik and Sergey Kuznetsov, they refused to even acknowledge that Bashar al-Assad was killing his own people. Read more ..

The Edge of Terror

Is Al-Qaeda Making a Run for Africa?

April 5th 2012

Al-Shahab in Somalia

Analysts are growing concerned that al-Qaeda—under pressure in its long-time hideouts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq—is looking towards Africa, seeking to capitalize on the instability there to regroup and reorganize. According to a recent study by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “Africa represents a fertile ground for a diminished ‘Al-Qa’ida-core’ to ... re-launch its mission of global jihad.”

The release of the report is particularly timely, given recent events in Mali. On March 22, rebel soldiers mounted a political coup in the capital, Bamako, ousting elected President Amadou Toumani Toure for his inability to equip the army to suppress the growing Tuareg insurgency in the north. The insurgents, fighting to carve out a new country in the region, were recently energized by the return of some 2,000 Tuareg fighters from Libya where they had worked as mercenaries for Moammar Qaddafi. Since the ouster of Mali’s president, however, the Tuareg rebels have taken control over several large towns, including the ancient town of Timbuktu. Read more ..

Iraq on Edge

The Future of the Marjayia

April 5th 2012


The current form of religious leadership over the Shi'ite community, marjayia, was founded in the 1830s when Mohammed Hassan Najafi became the first transnational Shi'ite religious authority (marja) in Najaf, Iraq. Najafi created a universal patronage network through which he received religious taxes and endowment incomes, and appointed religious representatives from Shi'ite cities in Iraq to India.

In the 16th Century, Shi'ite jurists (mujtahids) had established a new conceptual theory describing the relationship between community leaders and Shi'ite worshipers. According to the theory, each worshiper should either reach the highest educational level in Shi'ite jurisprudence (ijtihad) or follow a living person who has attained such a level. The theory of 'following' (taqlid) was intertwined with another significant theory, which permitted Shi'ite jurists to receive religious taxes on behalf of the infallible and hidden twelfth Shi'ite Imam. It is believed that this Imam will return at the end of time to establish a just global government. Thereafter, a new form of Shi'ite leadership emerged that both provided the monarchy with legitimacy and was protected by it, but was also financially independent from it. Read more ..

America on Edge

Lethal Injection Drug Issues Could Put Executions on Hold

April 4th 2012

execution gurney

A federal judge’s decision to block imports of a drug used in executions will leave states to rely more on a substitute drug that could itself be getting scarce—developments that raise questions about both how these drugs are regulated and whether states will have the drugs they need to continue capital punishment by lethal injection.

Over the past three decades, lethal injection has become the primary method of execution in the United States because it is widely viewed as the most humane alternative. Thirty-five states and the federal government use this method and more than 1,100 inmates have been put to death by lethal injection.

State justice or corrections departments have conducted these executions by administering the anesthetic sodium thiopental in a lethal dosage on its own, or as part of a three-step “cocktail” in which sodium thiopental is followed by pancuronium bromide, a paralytic agent, then potassium chloride, which stops the heart and causes death.

But in late March, a federal judge blocked importation of sodium thiopental, ruling that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ignored the law by allowing it to be imported into the country without following regulatory protocol. The drugs were slated for executions, a purpose unapproved by the agency—and unlikely to ever be approved by the agency. Sodium thiopental is only available from overseas, because its U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc., stopped making it 2011, as a result of controversies over its use in executions. Read more ..

Israel on Edge

Israel’s New Strategic Environment

April 4th 2012

Israeli Jets Parked

Israel is now entering its third strategic environment. The constant threat of state-on-state war defined the first, which lasted from the founding of the Jewish state until its peace treaty with Egypt. A secure periphery defined the second, which lasted until recently and focused on the Palestinian issue, Lebanon and the rise of radical Sunni Islamists. The rise of Iran as a regional power and the need to build international coalitions to contain it define the third.

Israel’s fundamental strategic problem is that its national security interests outstrip its national resources, whether industrial, geographic, demographic, or economic. During the first phase, it was highly dependent on outside powers—first the Soviet Union, then France and finally the United States—in whose interest it was to provide material support to Israel. In the second phase, the threat lessened, leaving Israel relatively free to define its major issues, such as containing the Palestinians and attempting to pacify Lebanon. Its dependence on outside powers decreased, meaning it could disregard those powers from time to time. In the third phase, Israel’s dependence on outside powers, particularly the United States, began increasing. With this increase, Israel’s freedom for maneuver began declining. Read more ..

The Drug Wars

U.S. Facing Bold New Calls for “Drug War” Alternatives

April 3rd 2012

Click to select Image

At a poorly attended summit of Central American leaders, the host President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala reiterated calls for the decriminalization of recreational drug use. Although some regional former heads of state have called for such a solution, President Molina became the first sitting head of state to openly advocate for such a controversial stance when speaking at the Central American Security Summit in Antigua, Guatemala. Billed initially as a groundbreaking summit during which “alternative solutions” to the War on Drugs were to be discussed, the conference’s emphasis on how to manage the War on Drugs, as well as talk of decriminalization, were sidelined before the conference even began.

After accepting invitations to the conference, three heads of state, representing fully half of the countries in the region, pulled out of the conference on short notice. This was likely the result of pressure from Washington, which has long opposed legalization, and the reluctance of the Organization of American States, the (OAS) to face up to the issue of drug trafficking and related violence.

President Molina declared that the War on Drugs had failed, asserting that it was time to reconsider drug policy in the region. The summit, he hoped, would put an end to the stigma surrounding the discussion of decriminalization as a serious policy alternative to outright prohibition. He added that the conflicts surrounding their countries have cost Central American countries hundreds of millions of dollars annually and tens of thousands of lives. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Opposition Seeks to Show Alternative to Assad

April 1st 2012


Syria’s fractious opposition groups began reconciliation talks in Istanbul aimed at demonstrating they can provide a coherent and effective alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar, which hold the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland is convulsed by a year-old uprising that Assad is trying to crush. About 300 dissidents attended the welcome dinner at a seaside hotel in Pendik, a distant suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul, and more were expected to join what the Turkish hosts call an “open house” meeting.

Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has sought support for the meeting to end with a “national oath,” committing all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed. “Based on the national responsibility on all the political powers in the Syrian revolution and the efforts to unite the opposition and its vision, we declare the basic principles that the new state will be based upon,” a draft declaration said. Read more ..

Foes McCain and Abramoff Establish Truce on Campaign Reform

April 1st 2012

Click to select Image
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Abramoff appear to have a truce.

In 2005, McCain earned a badge of ethical pride as the head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who dragged Abramoff's backroom dealings through the public spotlight in a crusade to reveal public corruption on Capitol Hill. Now, nearly 7 years later, the former Republican presidential nominee is lauding the disgraced lobbyists efforts to reform campaign finance rules. “He paid his debt, which was decided by a jury of his peers, and since he paid his debt to society I can’t hold anything against him,” said McCain in an interview. “So if he wants to take on efforts to improve government then I applaud it.”

McCain’s investigation of Abramoff helped land the former lobbyist three and a half years in prison for defrauding Native American tribes of more than $80 million in lobbying fees. “By the way, he’s not very happy with me, as you can imagine,” said McCain.

But Abramoff begs to differ.

Since his release from prison in 2010, Abramoff has partnered with good government groups in an attempt to shed light on the corrupting influence money plays in politics. He said he hopes to work with the senator someday. “I appreciate Senator McCain’s comments and approach and hope one day we might even find ourselves on the same side fighting to reform our political system,” said Abramoff in an email.

McCain's signature campaign finance reform law, co-sponsored with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), has been largely dismantled by recent court rulings, notably the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. The civil tone between McCain and Abramoff is a stark juxtaposition to years past, when the Arizona Republican has frequently invoked his investigation of the lobbying scandal as proof that he is not corrupted by K Street. The issue came up repeatedly during his bid for the presidency in 2008. “Ask Jack Abramoff if I’m an insider in Washington,” said McCain during a debate. “You would probably have to go during visiting hours in the prison, and he will tell you, and his lobbyist cronies, of the change I made there.” Read more ..

Mali on Edge

Mali Coup Opponents Lament Attacks

March 31st 2012

Amadou Haya Sanogo
Coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo (credit: Martin Vogl)

A week after the coup in Mali, some people are worried that freedom of expression is being trampled, after opponents of the military government were attacked while holding a meeting on Thursday in the capital Bamako. Amnesty International has called on the military government to investigate the incident.

On Thursday evening, charred patches on the ground near the Bamako labor offices marked spots where motorcycles and a car were burned during the unrest. People who were at the meeting said that what appeared to be pro-junta youth suddenly began hurling stones into the yard where people were gathered. They said those who were attacked then went after the stone-throwers and fighting broke out.

One man, who said his hand was injured in the scuffle, did not want to be identified, fearing for his security. He says the country is in danger; he fears that civil strife is likely to become worse in the days and weeks to come. “If people no longer have the right to assemble and express themselves without worrying about being attacked,imagine that level of attack on human dignity and human rights,” he said. He continued: as I see it we’ve got two options: remain silent, or speak out and face the violence like that we saw on Thursday. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Lebanon’s Security Concerns over Syria

March 31st 2012

Lebanese protesters

Since the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began a year ago, Lebanon has lived in fear that the worsening violence will spill across the border. In recent days, that fear has come close to being realized with reports that Syrian troops fired into Lebanon during clashes with rebels. The reports were mixed, with some stating that Syria staged an incursion across the frontier to destroy a house that allegedly harbored members of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), while others claimed that a few machine gun rounds strayed across the border during fighting on the Syrian side. The Lebanese government, which is backed by Damascus, denied that any incursions occurred, but opposition supporters accused Syrian troops of burning homes belonging to Lebanese who sympathize with the rebels next door.

The rival views neatly reflect a deep political division in Lebanon. The poles are represented by the Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri and openly champions the Syrian revolutionaries and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hizballah, which continues to support its ally in Damascus. Prime Minister Najib Mikati has adopted a policy of noninterference on Syria, placing it at odds with the consensus view of the twenty-two-member Arab League. Lebanon was one of only two countries to voice reservations over the league's February decision to formally recognize the Syrian opposition and ask the UN Security Council to deploy a peacekeeping force. Read more ..

The Caribbean on Edge

China vs. Taiwan: The Battle for Influence in the Caribbean

March 29th 2012

vice premier Wang Qishan
Vice Premier Wang Qishan (credit Republic of Trinidad & Tobago)

China’s projection of influence in some previously unfamiliar regions of the world continues to grow, that much is clear. When it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean, Beijing has strengthened its ties, particularly by means of comprehensive trade relations, with countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela. This has been done not only to secure non-traditional trading partners and commodity sources like oil and soybeans, but also to corner established markets for its many traditional exports.

China’s relationship with the Caribbean is complex, as this region is particularly important to Beijing’s foreign policy goals regarding Taiwan, which has some of its greatest supporters there. Several Caribbean states currently recognize Taiwan as an independent republic, instead of maintaining the “one-China” position that has been endorsed by the mainland government.

Investment and Development

Unsurprisingly, China has been able to establish strong economic ties abroad, particularly in the developing world, by means of a series of investment deals. These include some major initiatives in the Caribbean in recent years. In September 2011, Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu visited Jamaica to meet with Governor-General Patrick Allen and Prime Minister Bruce Golding. While there, Hui put forward a five-point proposal for intensifying bilateral relations. The goals outlined by both sides included: promoting high-level exchanges to deepen mutual political trust, strengthening economic and trade cooperation, improving agricultural cooperation, expanding people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and promoting coordination in international affairs. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Turkey's Pivot Toward the USA

March 28th 2012

Turk flags

Turkey's foreign policy has come full circle in the last year. Far from confronting Washington on a range of issues, Ankara is embracing its membership in NATO while working closely with Washington on Middle East issues, including Iran and coordinating Syria policy. What has changed?

First and foremost, Ankara has come to appreciate a constant in the value of its foreign policy: Turkey is east if you view it from the perspective of the West, and west if you view it from the perspective of the East.

In the 2000s, Ankara's pivot away from the West almost upset Turkey's unique identity. The nation entered a period of increasingly cold relations with the United States and turned its interest to the Middle East in hopes of becoming a regional power. This strategy, however, did not exactly make Ankara a formidable power in the Middle East. Take, for instance, the Saudis' and other Persian Gulf countries' yearning for a regional counterbalance against Iran. For them the Turkey of the 2000s, isolated from NATO and Washington, began to resemble a "wealthy Yemen," i.e., a prosperous, large Muslim nation with no real value added to regional security. Ankara's strategy even started to erode its national prestige, although it initially was popular with the people.


The Nortyh Korean Threat

The United States in Korea: A Strategy of Inertia

March 27th 2012

obama bugeyes

After U.S. President Barack Obama visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone on March 25 during his trip to South Korea for a nuclear security summit, he made the obligatory presidential remarks warning North Korea against continued provocations. He also praised the strength of U.S.-South Korean relations and commended the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there. Obama's visit itself is of little importance, but it is an opportunity to ask just what Washington's strategy is in Korea and how the countries around North Korea (China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan) view the region. As always, any understanding of current strategy requires a consideration of the history of that strategy. Korea became a key part of U.S. Cold War-era containment strategy almost by accident. Washington, having deployed forces in China during World War II and thus aware of the demographic and geographic problems of operating on the Asian mainland, envisioned a maritime strategy based on the island chains running from the Aleutians to Java. The Americans would use the islands and the 7th Fleet to contain both the Soviets and the Chinese on the mainland. Read more ..

America on Edge

NRA Pushed 'Stand your Ground' Laws Across the Nation

March 27th 2012


In 2004, the National Rifle Association honored Republican Florida state legislator Dennis Baxley with a plum endorsement: Its Defender of Freedom award.

The following year, Baxley, a state representative, worked closely with the NRA to push through Florida’s unprecedented “stand your ground” law, which allows citizens to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” their safety is threatened in a public setting, like a park or a street.

People would no longer be restrained by a “duty to retreat” from a threat while out in public, and would be free from prosecution or civil liability if they acted in self-defense.

Florida’s law is now under a cloud as a result of the controversial February shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla. The 28-year-old shooter, George Zimmerman, who was licensed to carry a gun—and once had a brush with police—claims he acted in self-defense after a confrontation with Martin, and some legal experts say Florida’s law could protect Zimmerman, who has not been charged. The case has inflamed passions nationwide in part because Zimmerman is Hispanic and Martin was African-American. Baxley, whose state party has benefited from large NRA donations, contends his law shouldn’t shield Zimmerman at all because he pursued Martin. Read more ..

Media Freedoms

Macedonia’s Plan To Regulate Media Comes Under Fire

March 26th 2012

Newsstand in Skopje
Newsstand in Skopje (credit: RFE/RL)

The Macedonian government’s plan to regulate the work of foreign media and distribution of foreign press and information has come under strong criticism both at home and abroad.

The EU hopeful’s Social Democratic opposition and the Association of Journalists have accused populist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government of trying to limit media freedom.

The most controversial parts of the law on the import and the distribution of foreign press and dissemination of information, which was discussed in the first reading in the parliament last week, are the foreign minister’s discretionary right to revoke foreign press accreditation and a provision about the polls that is ambiguously explained in the draft law.

Some of those who have read the law say the polling clause could be interpreted as referring to a journalist conducting a simple “vox pop” on the street—asking ordinary people about their opinion on current affairs.

Justice Minister Blerim Bedzeti said the updated draft of the law—under which the authority for foreign press would move from the cabinet’s secretariat to the Foreign Ministry—would address all “technicalities” that were unclear.

“We have followed the discussion closely even in the part about the polls, and I think we will overcome this. Deputies have submitted amendments that will probably be acceptable for us,” Bedzeti said. Read more ..

Religious Tolerance

Scholarship and Anti-Semitism at Yale

March 26th 2012

Yale Logo Hebrew

Almost a year has passed since Yale University shuttered the five-year-old Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism, known by the unwieldy acronym "YIISA," and replaced it with the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, or "YPSA."  The organizational shuffle produced a torrent of criticism in the Jewish and general press.  But nine months later, there is virtual radio silence about the new YPSA program.  So, how is it doing? And how does its approach differ from that of YIISA?

Yale asserted that it closed the old YIISA because the program paid too much attention to political advocacy and not enough to rigorous scholarship.  Yet, as Alex Joffe noted in these pages at the time, YIISA's scholarly product differed little from the output of other Yale programs that continue to flourish.

Others said that YIISA signed its own death warrant by staging a 2010 conference focused on Muslim anti-Semitism. James Kirchick related an anecdote told to him by YIISA's director, Charles Small, who delivered the keynote. Small's mother was there, beaming with pride. As Small left his seat for the podium, he whispered to her, "Ma, this is the beginning of the end."

Sure enough, the PLO's Washington representative complained about the conference's depiction of Palestinian anti-Semitism. The PLO protest was widely viewed as a factor in YIISA's demise. Critics also linked Yale's anxieties about YIISA to its efforts to raise its profile in the Middle East, and its regret at losing out to Harvard and Georgetown on a $20 million gift from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal for an Islamic studies center. Against this background, dead Jews—victims of crusades, pogroms, the Shoah—were safer objects of study than live ones. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Russia 2012: Increased Repression, Rampant Corruption, Assisting Rogue Regimes

March 25th 2012

Among the very top priorities of U.S. foreign and security policies, I doubt there are many – if any – objectives more important than a free, democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia, at peace, in the long last, with its own people, its neighbors and the world. Assisting the emergence of such a Russia is, or should be, among the top U.S. geostrategic goals to which shorter-term policies should be attuned and adjusted.

Always a hard job, requiring skill, patience, perseverance and a great deal of expertise, of late this task has gotten even more complicated. On the one hand, we have seen— and will continue to see in the coming months and perhaps years—a brilliant outburst of civic activity, a quest for democratic citizenship by the tens of thousands of Russians who demonstrated in the country’s largest cities and by the millions who think like them. This civil rights movement will eventually crystallize politically and effect another attempt at a democratic breakthrough following the Revolution of August 1991. Read more ..

Economy on Edge

The BRIC and How it Changes the Global Economic League

March 25th 2012

BRIC flags

China’s anticipated overtaking of the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy has become the focus of much comment of late. Equally important, however, are the changes already happening and likely to accelerate regarding the rising challenge of other BRIC nations in the world economic league. Earlier this month, Brazil replaced the U.K. as the sixth largest economy. This was a moment of some symbolism: Brazil used to be part of what historians have called Britain’s "informal empire," being under the sway of British trade, capital, and inward investment in the nineteenth century.

In the last decade, Brazil has consolidated its status as an agricultural and processed foodstuffs superpower, commodities that now account for a quarter of GDP and 36 percent of exports. It has become the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, coffee, tropical fruits, and commercial cattle (whose number is 50 percent larger than in the United States.). Brazil has also discovered massive oil reserves in the Atlantic, which have helped make it the world’s ninth-largest oil producer and raised the prospect of it eventually becoming the fifth-largest. The country is currently engaged in a massive program of infrastructure improvement to enhance growth, funded by the proceeds of its recent wealth creation. Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Afghanistan: Pass the $1 Billion Per Week Baton to Russia?

March 24th 2012

US Military In Afghanistan
American soldiers of 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan

In early September 2002, one year after American troops entered Afghanistan, I reported newspaper stories from Kandahar, the main city of the Pashto-speaking southern part of Afghanistan.

I drove in from Quetta, Pakistan, and stayed 10 days at the “best” hotel on Kandahar’s main street.

For one report, I spent a morning walking the street with a Pashto-English interpreter. I talked to the video rental man, poked around the bazaar, and sipped tea with the used car dealer and his brothers. As a Westerner, I was a bit of an attraction. People were curious. Some were reserved. Some were friendly. For most of my stay, I’m sure the Taliban knew where I was.

This was back when the war’s goal was to destroy al-Qaida in Afghanistan. From the ruins I saw of Tarnak Farms, the Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar airport, it was clear that the American and allied soldiers had done fine job of that.

Then, two Washington syndromes descended on Afghanistan. With mission creep, getting rid of al-Qaida morphed into democratizing Afghanistan. Without a sunset clause, the war went on and on and on. As George Friedman, CEO of the Stratfor analytical group, wrote, Afghanistan has become the longest multi-divisional war fought in American history. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Conservative Nonprofit Group gets Obama Administration Energy Policy Facts Wrong

March 23rd 2012

Crossroads GPS

Crossroads GPS is accusing the Obama administration of “bad energy policies” causing “prices we can’t afford.” But the Republican-leaning group makes some false and exaggerated claims.

  • It says the president “limited development of American oil shale.” Actually, production of petroleum from shale formations is booming. What the administration slowed down were plans for experimental development of ways to produce oil by heating kerogen-rich rocks, something that is years away from becoming commercially feasible.
  • The ad claims Obama lobbied to “kill” the Keystone XL pipeline. Not true. So far he has delayed a decision on some of it — while endorsing construction of a portion that will carry more low-cost oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
  • The ad correctly notes that there was a 17 percent decline in oil production in the Gulf of Mexico last year. But not all of that is because of the administration’s temporary drilling moratorium there.

The ad started running March 21. Crossroads said it is spending $650,000 to run the 30-second spot on national cable TV and in TV markets in Ohio, New Mexico and Nevada, where the president was pitching his energy policies this week. Read more ..

The Euro Crisis

Angela Merkel Faces Political Test as Elections and Austerity Measures Approach

March 22nd 2012

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Among the core economies of the eurozone, Germany is the most important member, but it (as well as France and the Netherlands, the other core countries) will face strong political challenges in the coming months.

The signing of the European Union's fiscal compact and a decision on an increase of the bailout funds are of wider European importance and will show how strong Germany's coalition government is. While Berlin demands greater fiscal responsibility from other countries, support for such measures within Germany will be tested in regional elections.

Germany is the eurozone's largest economy and the most important to the stability of the euro. Germany is one of the four remaining AAA-rated countries in the eurozone (the others being the Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) and the largest guarantor in the two European bailout funds. In the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), Germany guarantees nearly 30 percent of the total 726 billion euros ($957 billion). Berlin will guarantee 27 percent of the paid-in capital (80 billion euros) and guarantees (620 billion euros) in the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM). By spreading its economic influence across the rest of Europe through the common market and common currency, Germany creates more domestic wealth and weakens less-competitive European economies. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Why Turkey Hasn't Intervened in Syria

March 22nd 2012


Turkey's boldest response to the crisis in Syria came last week, when Prime Minister Erdogan called for the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors to help civilians there. But those hoping that Ankara's aggressive rhetoric will soon be matched by equally assertive action will be sorely disappointed. If Turkey has one priority these days, it's maintaining its soft power and popularity within the Middle East -- and any sort of military intervention involving Turkish boots on the ground in Syria would directly undermine that.

A recent survey by TESEV, an Istanbul-based think tank that measures perceptions of Turkey in the Middle East, encapsulates Ankara's dilemma in Syria. According to the poll, Turkey is the Middle East's favorite country: A whopping 78 percent of the people across the region say they like Turkey more than any other country. Iran, Ankara's only political and military competitor in the region, gets 45 percent, while the United States receives a mere 33 percent.

What explains Ankara's rise in popularity? It stems from Turkey's successful projection of soft power across the Middle East over the past decade. Turkish products, which dominate shops across the region, have brought Turkey clout the way Japanese cars ushered in global respect for Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. And Turkish soap operas depicting emancipated women against the background of a modern and functioning society have likewise appealed to the region's population, suggesting an appealing social model that is within reach. "Most people in the Middle East view Turkey's accomplishments as being replicable," an Arab friend of mine suggested to me. "Turkey was once like us, and that is why we like it, for it suggests a way forward." Read more ..

Egyptian Democracy on Edge

Caught in Egypt’s Political Cross-Fire

March 21st 2012

Democracy advocates jailed in Egypt

The Egyptian government’s prosecution this winter of seven American democracy workers catalyzed a two-month crisis in American-Egyptian relations. But after Washington threatened to withhold $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt, the standoff swiftly subsided. The presiding judge resigned from the case, travel bans on the Americans were lifted, and most of the Americans were on their way home by the beginning of March.

This rapid turn of events surprised many Americans, but it shouldn’t have. The prosecutions targeted the Americans, but they weren’t really about them. The democracy workers had merely become pawns in a bitter domestic power struggle over Egypt’s future, in which rival groups competed by appealing to anti-Americanism.

For that reason, the crisis didn’t change America’s core interests in Egypt. But it should prompt Washington to develop a strategy for persuading the various political forces in Egypt to cooperate in pursuit of those interests rather than allowing American-sponsored efforts to become political footballs there. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Soaring Gas Prices Threaten Obama Re-election

March 20th 2012

Obama calling

2012 is a presidential election year in the United States, and so far, much of the focus has been on the lengthy and divisive race for the Republican Party nomination between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. But President Obama has plenty of challenges of his own as he prepares for a re-election contest in November. Mitt Romney leads the Republican race over Rick Santorum and would like to shift his focus to President Obama as soon as possible. “He said if he couldn’t turn it around in three years that he would be looking at a one term proposition. We are here to collect, alright? We are here to collect," he said.

The Republican race has turned into a drawn-out slog for delegates and is likely to go on indefinitely, something experts say should help the president. But rising gas prices in the U.S. are driving down Mr. Obama’s approval ratings and pose a major challenge for his re-election. Outside the White House, tourists from around the country worry about soaring prices but differ on who is to blame. “They are a little high right now being that I drove all the way up here, so it’s hit me in the pocketbook a little bit," said one man. “But I would think as president there is something he can do. I mean there has got to be something he can do to help with the gas," said another man. Read more ..

Low Doses of Some Chemicals Tied to Health Effects

March 19th 2012

emergency room

Small doses can have big health effects.

That is a main finding of a report, three years in the making, published Wednesday by a team of 12 scientists who study hormone-altering chemicals. Dozens of substances that can mimic or block estrogen, testosterone and other hormones are found in the environment, the food supply and consumer products, including plastics, pesticides and cosmetics. One of the biggest, longest-lasting controversies about these chemicals is whether the tiny doses that most people are exposed to are harmful. In the new report, researchers led by Tufts University’s Laura Vandenberg concluded after examining hundreds of studies that health effects “are remarkably common” when people or animals are exposed to low doses of endocrine-disrupting compounds. As examples, they provide evidence for several controversial chemicals, including bisphenol A, found in polycarbonate plastic, canned foods and paper receipts, and the pesticide atrazine, used in large volumes mainly on corn.

The scientists concluded that scientific evidence “clearly indicates that low doses cannot be ignored.” They cited evidence of a wide range of health effects in people — from fetuses to aging adults — including links to infertility, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and other disorders.


Israel and Palestine

Confusion and Contradiction Reign within Hamas over support for Iran

March 19th 2012

Salah al-Bardawil  of Hamas
Salah al-Bardawil

This week, leading Gaza- Hamas activist Salah al-Bardawil told The Guardian newspaper that in the event of a war between Iran and Israel, Hamas would not back Teheran. Hamas Foreign Minister in Gaza Mahmoud Zahar later appeared to refute Bardawil’s stance, saying that Hamas would respond “with utmost power” to any “Zionist war on Iran.”

These statements reflect confusion and divisions in the main Palestinian- Islamist movement. The confusion derives from the variety of options which the Arab upheavals of 2011 have placed before Hamas. The divisions also reflect the resultant opening of separate and competing power structures in the movement, with the leaders of the Gaza statelet opposing the overall leadership, and also quarreling among themselves.

The Teheran-led “resistance axis,” with which Hamas was aligned, is one of the main victims of the Arab upheavals of the last year. Meanwhile, the clear winner from the upheavals so far is the ideological trend of which Hamas is a representative – namely, Sunni Islamism. Revolt in Iran-aligned Syria has left the Iranians exposed as a narrow, sectarian force. Their claim to represent a general Muslim interest against the West and Israel is in disarray. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Sunni Islamist elements are moving to benefit from the fall of authoritarian leaders. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Grading the Nation: How Accountable is Your State?

March 19th 2012

US Capital Day

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. Tennessee established its ethics commission six years ago, but has yet to issue a single ethics penalty. It’s almost impossible to know whether the oversight is effectively working, because complaints are not made available to the public.

A West Virginia governor borrowed a car from his local dealership to take it for a “test drive.” He kept the car for four years, during which the dealership won millions in state contracts. When representatives of a biotech company took Montana legislators out to dinner, they neither registered as lobbyists nor reported the fact that they picked up the bill. They didn’t have to — the law only requires registration upon spending $2,400 during a legislative session. And in Maine, one state senator did not disclose $98 million in state contracts that went to an organization for which he served as executive director. The lack of disclosure was not an oversight; due to a loophole in state law, he was under no obligation to do so. Read more ..

China and the US

What China’s Leadership Turmoil Means for the United States

March 18th 2012

Chinese soldier at Tienamen Square

While most sessions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) have been little-noticed affairs, the same will not be said of the 2012 session. As this year’s session came to a close, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao warned of the potential for chaos and cited the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. A day later, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who had missed at least one session of the NPC, was ousted from his position.

The turmoil in China’s political succession should temper expectations for the U.S.–China relationship and lessen the leverage the Administration has allowed the Chinese by virtue of its extensive schedule of bilateral consultations. The story surrounding Bo’s downfall is also an opportunity for the Administration to examine its policy on Chinese defectors so as to be prepared when it is presented with access to high-level sources of intelligence. Read more ..

Inside South America

Politics in Ecuador is All in the Family

March 18th 2012

Fabricio Correa of Ecuador
Fabricio Correa

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is a very busy man these days. He recently emerged as victor in a libel suit that he brought against two journalists from the Ecuadorian paper El Universo at the National Court of Justice in Quito. He sued the journalists for USD 5 million apiece, and was awarded USD 1 million from each of the defendants, although he later pardoned both editors.  His litigious victory is among the few positive developments for Correa of late, as he faces a number of newly-emerging challenges as Ecuador’s president.

In one such instance, he is being forced to defend his decision to award mining contracts in Ecuador’s jungle without first conferring with the directly-affected communities that live on the land. His hasty decision has incited massive protests among Amazonian indigenous communities. To make matters worse, President Correa is also facing a challenge for his job from none other than his very own brother. In an interview published on March 13, 2012 in Uruguayan newspaper El Pais, Fabricio Correa, President Rafael Correa’s older brother, explained his motivations for running for trying to unseat his own kin. Speaking from Montevideo, Fabricio Correa lamented the rampant corruption and increasing insecurity due to the activities of drug cartels, while also accusing his brother of clamping down too hard on press freedoms. “We are constantly living in fear [in Ecuador],” he maintained. Read more ..

European Economy on Edge

Portugal May be Immune for Now as Greek Economy Falters

March 15th 2012

Coelho of portugal
Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho

While some comparisons can be drawn between Portugal and Greece, the two countries differ markedly. In Greece, economic disrepair, political upheaval and social unrest collectively fomented a national crisis, unique in its potential to spread to other vulnerable European countries. The Portuguese economy likewise is shaky, but socially the country has been less volatile than Greece. Protests occur infrequently, and those that have occurred were fairly peaceful.

Portugal also enjoys political support at home and abroad. While a technocratic government was installed in Athens, the Portuguese democratically elected a new government that so far has complied with bailout directives. The troika has touted Portugal as an example of discipline and responsibility -- at least for a country that received a bailout. Read more ..

History on Edge

2011: For Arab Countries it was the Year that Wasn't

March 15th 2012

Muslim Brotherhood Marching

1848 in Europe was the year that wasn't. In the spring and summer of that year, bourgeois intellectuals and working-class radicals staged upheavals from France to the Balkans, shaking ancient regimes and vowing to create new liberal democratic orders. The Arab Spring has periodically been compared to the stirrings of 1848. But with the exception of the toppling of the Orleans monarchy in France, the 1848 revolutions ultimately failed.

Dynastic governments reasserted themselves. They did so for a reason that has troubling implications for the Middle East: Conservative regimes in mid-19th century Europe had not only the institutional advantage over their liberal and socialist adversaries but also the moral advantage. Read more ..

Palestine on Edge

UNRWA and Israel: Catch 22

March 15th 2012

UNRWA Relief

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently challenged a long-standing Israeli policy towards UNRWA as part of his ongoing social media "hasbara" campaign intended to cast Israel in a positive light. In conjunction with the grass-roots Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, Ayalon (a former ambassador to the United States and a Knesset member representing Yisrael Beiteinu) focused attention on UNRWA and its role in perpetuating the Palestinian refugee morass.

The matter of UNRWA — perhaps above all others — highlights the systemic oxymoron of the Israeli position on the United Nations. Israeli officials have claimed that absent UNRWA's role in providing for the needs of the Palestinian refugees, Israel would be held responsible. Thus — because Israeli governments prefer not to bear this burden and despite UNRWA's well documented co-optation by terrorist elements — UNRWA continues to remain central to the administration of the Palestinian refugees within Palestinian Authority areas.

This position produces a perversity in which Israel itself ends up reinforcing the very organization whose institutional and ideological role is to perpetuate a central tenet in the Palestinian national narrative and which is cause for Palestinian intransigence in any peace negotiations. Read more ..

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