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The Obama Edge

How the World Views Obama and the U.S. Following the Mid-Term Elections

November 8th 2010

Obama Admin Topics - Obama at Cairo

The 2010 U.S. midterm elections were held, and the results were as expected: The Republicans took the House but did not take the Senate. The Democrats have such a small margin in the Senate, however, that they cannot impose cloture, which means the Republicans can block Obama administration initiatives in both houses of Congress. At the same time, the Republicans cannot override presidential vetoes alone, so they cannot legislate, either. The possible legislative outcomes are thus gridlock or significant compromises. Read more ..

Inside South America

Bolivia Gains Long-Sought Access to the Pacific

November 8th 2010

Latin American Topics - Chilean actors portray War of the Pacific
Film re-enactors of the War of the Pacific

On October 19th, Peruvian President Alan García and Bolivian President Evo Morales signed an accord granting Bolivia access to a small stretch of coastline in southern Peru. The deal confirms the “Bolivamar” agreement initially signed in 1992, allowing Bolivia a 99-year lease of the port of Ilo. Consequently, Bolivia will have access to the Pacific Ocean for the first time since it lost its entire coastal region to Chile in the “War of the Pacific” over a century ago. Read more ..

Argentina on Edge

Argentina in Mourning As it Faces Political Uncertainty

November 1st 2010

Latin American Topics - Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

Argentina shows great uncertainty and heightened emotion following the death of former president Néstor Kirchner on October 27. Analysts in the South American republic opine that the country may now be facing a new chapter in politics. Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, followed him as president. But even while the Peronists are now in possession of the presidential palace, and the Kirchner legacy will last at least until the national elections in 2011, the question remains: Who will be the incumbent party’s candidate for the next term in office? Read more ..

Mexico's on the Borderline

Mexico's Centrist Political Leader Faces a “Failed State” and a Cloudy Future

November 1st 2010

Mexican Topics - Mexican crime scene

Fourteen youths massacred at a house party in Ciudad Juarez. Fourteen men gunned down in a Tijuana drug rehab center. Bodies tossed about the suburbs of Acapulco. Indigenous leader Catarino Torres Pereda assassinated in Oaxaca. Secretly-taped audiotapes and anonymously-posted videos on the Internet stir the sordid pot of a political drama that seems to have a bizarre new twist every day. Such are the headlines from Mexico in recent days. Read more ..

Successions and the Balance

Ras Al-Khaimah’s Succession Struggle: The Iran Angle

November 1st 2010

Islamic Topics - Ras al-Khaima -- Sheik and Map
Sheiks Saqr bin Muhammad and
Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi

The October 27 death of a long-serving Arab ruler in an obscure Persian Gulf sheikdom has the potential to alter the tense relationship between the region’s Arab states and Iran, while also testing the ruling style and adaptability of hereditary, quasimonarchical Arab states. Tiny but strategically situated Ras al-Khaimah, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has a long-standing territorial dispute with Tehran: the 1971 loss of two islands to Iranian control was keenly felt by the late Sheikh Saqr bin Muhammad al-Qasimi. Now two of his sons are at odds over who should replace him.

Elder son Sheikh Khaled bin Saqr is effectively under “palace arrest,” with newly installed concertina wire encircling his compound and UAE federal security forces with armored troop carriers serving as guards, preventing him from attending his father’s funeral. The situation is reminiscent of a weekend of turmoil in 2003, when the late Sheikh Saqr switched the title of crown prince from Khaled to a younger son—Saud, Khaled’s half-brother. Back then, shots were fired, and Khaled’s supporters protested in the streets and forced members of the local guard to retreat behind the high walls of the ruler’s palace before UAE forces intervened.

Since then Khaled has waged a public relations battle reaching as far as the United States, from lobbying the halls of power to placing advertisements on the sides of Washington, D.C., buses. His tactics have also included depicting the governing style of Saud—who has served as de facto ruler since 2003 given their father’s increasing age and ill health—as being pro-Iranian. Read more ..

Travel Safe

Safety Board Less Aggressive in Last Decade

October 27th 2010

Social Topics - train on fire

The National Transportation Safety Board issued significantly fewer recommendations for improvements in travel safety during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration than during any other presidency in its 36-year history.

An analysis of NTSB data shows that for most of its history the board has been fairly consistent, issuing an average of 300 to 450 safety recommendations a year. But after Bush took office in 2000, the agency’s activity dropped to the lowest level in its history. In 2005, the board issued just 110 recommendations—by far the fewest of any year since the NTSB was established as an independent voice for transportation safety in 1974. Read more ..

Edge on the Mideast

Saudi Diplomat Bandar bin Sultan has Returned to the Fore as the Oil Kingdom Mastermind

October 27th 2010

Arab Topics - Bush and Bandar
President George W Bush confers with Prince Bandar

For a generation, Prince Bandar bin Sultan was Riyadh's man in Washington. As the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, he was even dubbed "Bandar Bush" for his close ties to that powerful American political dynasty. After leaving Washington, apparently burned out, he returned to Saudi Arabia to head the newly established Saudi National Security Council, the function of which was not, and still is not, clear. However, he continued to sneak back into the United States periodically because the king quickly decided he preferred Bandar over his successor, Prince Turki al-Faisal, as his channel to the White House -- a situation that eventually led Turki to resign in protest. Read more ..

Deficit on the Edge

Congress Cannot Rein In Galloping Medicare Costs

October 27th 2010

Health/Medicine - StethoscopeAndKeyboard

If Congress had known in 1965 how expensive Medicare would become, it might not have approved the program in the first place. So Lyndon Johnson made sure it didn’t know.

He railed against his budget advisers for trying to predict the long-term costs. “The fools had to go projecting it down the road five or six years,” he complained to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at the time. Johnson’s allies were getting nervous, according to historians David Blumenthal and James Morone, so Johnson had to hide the price tag. Read more ..

NATO on Edge

NATO: Must All Good Things Come to an End?

October 18th 2010

Military - NATO meeting

Twenty-eight heads of state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet in Lisbon on Nov. 20 to approve a new “Strategic Concept,” the alliance’s mission statement for the next decade. This will be NATO’s third Strategic Concept since the Cold War ended. The last two came in 1991 — as the Soviet Union was collapsing — and 1999 — as NATO intervened in Yugoslavia, undertaking its first serious military engagement.

During the Cold War, the presence of 50 Soviet and Warsaw Pact armored divisions and nearly 2 million troops west of the Urals spoke far louder than mission statements. While Strategic Concepts were put out in 1949, 1952, 1957 and 1968, they merely served to reinforce NATO’s mission, namely, to keep the Soviets at bay. Today, the debate surrounding NATO’s Strategic Concept itself highlights the alliance’s existential crisis. Read more ..

The Terrorism Edge

Terrorism, Vigilance, and the Limits of the War on Terror

October 11th 2010

India Topics - Mumbai terror2

The U.S. government issued a warning on October 3 advising Americans traveling to Europe to be “vigilant.” U.S. intelligence apparently has acquired information indicating that al Qaeda is planning to carry out attacks in European cities similar to those carried out in Mumbai, India, in November 2008. In Mumbai, attackers armed with firearms, grenades and small, timed explosive devices targeted hotels frequented by Western tourists and other buildings in an attack that took three days to put down.

European security forces are far better trained and prepared than their Indian counterparts, and such an attack would be unlikely to last for hours, much less days, in a European country. Still, armed assaults conducted by suicide operatives could be expected to cause many casualties and certainly create a dramatic disruption to economic and social life. Read more ..

Book Excerpt

'The Arab Lobby': the Insidious Influence of Big Oil

October 8th 2010

Book Covers - The Arab Lobby

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made clear that one component of his agenda would be to give a high priority to pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. Many Jews had some concerns about Obama, but his pro-Israel statements reassured them, and ultimately nearly 80% voted for him. Obama's appearance before the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and recitation of talking points from the Israeli lobby playbook were consistent with the popular view of a powerful lobby that demands the fealty of elected officials.

Within a few weeks of taking office as the nation's 44th president, however, Obama seemed to pick a fight with the Israeli government over its settlements policy. He began to publicly demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity. When Israeli officials brought up the fact that certain understandings had been reached with Obama's predecessor regarding what the United States considered to be acceptable construction, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied any such agreements had been made.

In July 2009, Obama invited a group of Jewish leaders to the White House who were content to hear the President's views and asked only that he refrain from public criticism. Obama made clear he would do no such thing.

Israelis tried to steer the administration away from the settlement issue toward what they believed was the most urgent threat to their nation and the stability of the region, namely, the Iranian nuclear program. Obama's [former] chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, coincidentally a Jew whose father is Israeli, said that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was the crux of solving the Iranian threat. Administration officials argued that the only way they could get Arab states to co-operate in the effort to stop the Iranian program was to solve the Palestinian issue. Read more ..

Edge on Mideast Peace

Obama's Efforts to Keep the Israel-Palestine Peace Process on Track

October 4th 2010

Israel Topics - Obama Netanyahu Abbas1

With Israel's ten-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction now expired, Arab League foreign ministers are expected to convene on October 4 to discuss whether the Palestinian Authority (PA) should continue the peace talks. These developments have created a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity in a bid to keep the process alive. For the moment, the settlements issue is central, with challenges related to refugees, Jerusalem, and Gaza set aside. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama's Wars and America's Security

October 4th 2010

Obama Admin Topics - Obama at Baghdad
President Obama at Camp Victory, Iraq.

Bob Woodward has released another book, this one on the debate over Afghanistan strategy in the Obama administration. As all his books do, the book has riveted Washington. It reveals that intense debate occurred over what course to take, that the president sought alternative strategies and that compromises were reached. But while knowing the details of these things is interesting, what would have been shocking is if they Haydn’t taken place.

It is interesting to reflect on the institutional inevitability of these disagreements. The military is involved in a war. It is institutionally and emotionally committed to victory in the theater of combat. It will demand all available resources for executing the war under way. For a soldier who has bled in that war, questioning the importance of the war is obscene. A war must be fought relentlessly and with all available means. Read more ..

Venezuela on Edge

The Electoral Illusions of Venezuela's Totalitarian Regime

September 27th 2010

Latin American Topics - Los Dos Amigos
Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro

On September 26, Venezuela  held parliamentary elections. Since Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency in 1998, Venezuela has been transformed from a country with democratic institutions to one where the president controls all branches of government. The elections serve the purpose of making Chavez look like he is presiding over a free society but in reality provide no real chance for change. In this context, it is important to understand the true nature of the present Venezuelan political reality. Read more ..

The Financial Edge

New Debit Cards May Revolutionize the Card Industry

September 20th 2010

Economy - credit cards

Imagine strolling into Bob’s Sandwich Emporium to discover that the chalkboard behind the counter lists both lunch specials and financing specials.

That pastrami on rye with extra pickles, the board explains, will cost $10 if paying with a debit card, $10.16 if paying with a Visa credit card, and $10.25 if paying with an American Express card.

Quick: which card do you pull out of your wallet?

This scenario is anathema to the card companies and card-issuing banks that reap massive profits on the so-called interchange fees that merchants pay every time a consumer swipes a card. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama Faces Elections and Foreign Policy Choices

September 20th 2010

Obama Admin Topics - Barack Obama with Flag

We are now nine weeks away from the midterm elections in the United States. Much can happen in nine weeks, but if the current polls are to be believed, U.S. President Barack Obama is about to suffer a substantial political reversal.

To begin thinking about this, we must bear three things in mind. First, while Obama won a major victory in the Electoral College, he did not come anywhere near a landslide in the popular vote. About 48 percent of the voters selected someone else. In spite of the Democrats’ strength in Congress and the inevitable bump in popularity Obama received after he was elected, his personal political strength was not overwhelming. Over the past year, poll numbers indicating support for his presidency have deteriorated to the low 40 percent range, numbers from which it is difficult, but not impossible, to govern.

Second, he entered the presidency off balance. His early focus in the campaign was to argue that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to fight but that the war in Afghanistan was the right one. This positioned him as a powerful critic of George W. Bush without positioning him as an anti-war candidate. Politically shrewd, he came into office with an improving Iraq situation, a deteriorating Afghanistan situation and a commitment to fighting the latter war. But Obama did not expect the global financial crisis. When it hit full blast in September 2008, he had no campaign strategy to deal with it and was saved by the fact that John McCain was as much at a loss as he was. The Obama presidency has therefore been that of a moderately popular president struggling between campaign promises and strategic realities as well as a massive economic crisis to which he crafted solutions that were a mixture of the New Deal and what the Bush administration had already done. It was a tough time to be president. Read more ..

A Failing Financial Recovery

Documentation Shows that Executives with Criminal Records Elude an FHA Crackdown

September 13th 2010

Economy - Foreclosure

A crackdown on reckless mortgage lenders by the Federal Housing Administration has failed to root out several executives with criminal records whose firms continue to do business with the agency in violation of federal law, according to government documents, court records and interviews.

The get-tough campaign has also been hamstrung because, even when the FHA can ban mortgage companies for wrongdoing or an excessive default rate, the agency does not have the legal power to stop their executives from landing jobs at other lenders, or open new firms. Read more ..

Chavez on the Edge

Hugo Chavez's Anti-Imperialist Rhetoric Soars as Relations with the U.S. Decline

September 6th 2010

Latin American Topics - Hugo Chavez red

Since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Caracas has maintained a testy relationship with the United States, a nation which Chávez views as the primary threat to his dream of reproducing the Bolivarian Revolution. Although the U.S. and Venezuela experienced a very brief honeymoon once President Barack Obama assumed office, the two countries’ relationship has quickly begun to sour.

Responding in kind, Chávez has vamped up his anti-imperialist rhetoric in recent months, repeatedly taking stabs at the U.S. government for meddling in Latin American affairs. In addition to chiding the Obama administration for its claims that the Venezuelan government may be supporting terrorist organizations and for the U.S. increased military presence in Latin America, Chávez has slammed Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to Venezuela. Larry Palmer, an experienced if somewhat back-slapping, Foreign Service officer who served as Ambassador to Honduras from 2002-2005, drew heavy criticism from Chávez and other Venezuelan officials because of a series of scathing remarks he had made regarding the Caracas regime during a fast-pace hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 27. Read more ..

The Edge of Peace

Peace within a Year? Israeli–Palestinian Direct Talks Resume

August 30th 2010

Israel Topics - Jerusalem-Temple and Wall

On Friday, August 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the resumption of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, to be launched in Washington next week. On September 1, President Obama will welcome Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas are scheduled to begin the next day, with the objective of reaching agreement on the permanent-status issues of borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees within a year. The meeting will mark the first time that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have discussed these issues directly during the Obama administration.

Road to the Announcement

A number of turning points led to Clinton’s announcement. The first was President Obama’s July 6 meeting with Netanyahu at the White House. In sharp contrast to past encounters, which were often strained, Obama called the meeting “excellent” and went out of his way to vouch for Netanyahu’s sincerity: “We had an extensive discussion about the prospects for Middle East peace. I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he’s willing to take risks for peace.” Read more ..

Edge on Green Politics

Obama Disappoints Environmental Activists who are Seeing Red, Not Green

August 30th 2010

Obama Admin Topics - Barack Obama with Flag

The environmental groups that helped propel Barack Obama to the White House are feeling betrayed during a summer of discontent and climate inaction.

The latest blows to the environmental movement came this week when the administration decided to side with major polluters, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that would have permitted “nuisance” suits against major greenhouse gas emitters. In a separate decision, the administration also approved loan guarantees for a U.S. maker of coal mining equipment to sell to India,

The Justice Department’s friend-of-the-court filing in the case involving giant utility American Electric Power Co. came as a complete surprise to the green lobby, and had many in the movement turning red.

“What the heck is happening at the White House on climate?” Clean Air Watch asked on its website.

“Some believe the Obama White House, having failed to enact climate change legislation, has adopted the old maxim when it comes to polluters: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the advocacy group wrote in frustration, opining the administration might be gun-shy heading into the fall elections. Read more ..

Brazil on the Edge

Why The Quixotic Presidential Campaign of Marina Silva Matters for Brazil and the World

August 30th 2010

Latin American Topics - Marina Silva

When Marina Silva was still Brazil’s environment minister, she took a trip to the Xingu River in the Amazon. On the day she began her travels, José Dirceu, President Lula’s incorrigible former chief of staff, invited Germano Rigotto, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul, to fly to Brasilia. The governor has strong ties with agribusiness, and his political clout would be useful in lobbying for transgenic crops. Dirceu’s invitation was strategic– he wanted to make the most of Marina’s absence. The event shows how far Marina, the Green Party’s (PV) presidential candidate in the October 3rd elections, has taken the environmental debate in Brazilian politics. Although her cause – the environment – has gained momentum due to its urgency, Marina has no prospect for winning the presidency. Her voter base is composed of a number of small, disparate interest groups, who gravitate towards her for different reasons, a concern with the environment being only one of them. Read more ..

Mexico's Drug Wars

Los Zetas and the Gun Laws that Help Them Thrive

August 23rd 2010

Mexican Topics - Mexican Drug Violence

It is possible for terror to originate from a recognized symbol of power, safety, and strength. When a manifestation of all that is good betrays the trust bestowed upon it and becomes instead an agent of destruction, ruthlessness, and brutality, the fear it generates is far greater than if it had been regarded as evil all along. Unfortunately, one of the ultimate examples of this form of deception thrives in the chaos of the drug world. In Mexico, this terror is known by a name rarely spoken above a chilling whisper: Los Zetas.

Emerging as one of the most dangerous byproducts of the drug trade, Los Zetas’ existence represents a profound threat to the U.S. as well as to their country of origin. Not only does the U.S. keep Los Zetas in business with its insatiable appetite for drugs, but it also blindly puts guns in the hands of these killers. Since 2006, 28,000 individuals have lost their lives to this hemispheric catastrophe, a huge jump from the 23,000 reported in June of this year. With such an astronomically increasing death toll, drastic action needs be taken – and fast. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has taken the recent step of proposing a debate to consider the pros and cons of drug legalization. As for the U.S., it is critical that it finally takes responsibility for its role as a gun supplier to the drug trafficking industry. Of the tens thousands who have died at the hands of drug violence, many of these victims’ last visions were of a U.S.-made or U.S.-imported semi-automatic assault rifle. Read more ..

Mendoza Against the Deaf

Mendoza Eugenics Bill Creates Legal and Ethical Issues

August 16th 2010

Eugenics - Twins-Height-Verschuer

California bill AB 2072, sponsored by Assemblymember Tony Mendoza will be on the Senate floor for a vote this week with amendments which will create legal and ethical issues. The Deaf community which uses American Sign Language believes that this bill is bad public policy designed to enrich special interests who have reported record profits and will jeopardize the human rights of Deaf children to use American Sign Language.  

If the bill becomes law, it will put special interests such as audiologists, physicians, and those who promote the auditory/oral education methods in a position which they have the majority of influence over the contents of brochures which will be provided to parents of Deaf children by an audiologist and again by an Early Start provider. There is no language in the bill currently which guarantees members of the American Sign Language community a seat on the advisory panel. Rather, it vaguely identifies that there must be representatives from "visual language, including, but not limited to, [American Sign Language]".  According to Assemblymember Mendoza, it could include representatives from visual communication methods such as Cued Speech, Signed English, and others which the Deaf community believes have historically been tools used to oppress American Sign Language.

Deaf Studies/American Sign Language professor Kevin Clark expressed outrage saying, "When writing a bill about Deaf people, it is important to include a majority of Deaf people.  They have lived and breathed every moment as a Deaf person. These audiologists and physicians do not know what it is like to be Deaf. They put a price tag on our ears and want to continue to make record profits on our bodies." Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

The East Asian Loophole in Iran Sanctions: Encouraging Compliance by Our Allies and China

August 16th 2010

Iran - Iran Nuclear Equipment

Starting in August, U.S. officials are visiting East Asia, Latin America, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to garner support for tightening Iran sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 1929. Robert Einhorn, the U.S. State Department's special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, and Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for terrorist financing and financial crime, started with a trip to Japan and South Korea and are planning a trip to China in late August. On July 29, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing entitled "Implementation of Iran Sanctions" in which both Einhorn and Glaser expressed concern over China's compliance, with Einhorn emphasizing the "need for [China] not to 'backfill' when responsible countries have distanced themselves from Iran."

Mutual Dependence on Oil

East Asian countries are heavily dependent on crude oil imports from the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia is the largest provider, but Iran usually places second, ahead of the UAE, Kuwait, and Iraq. In early 2009, Iran was China's second-largest supplier after Saudi Arabia, though it is reported to have slipped to third place this year. In 2007, the Islamic Republic was Japan's third-largest supplier, after Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Read more ..

Inside Latin America

Fearing the Worst of Nicaragua's Sandinista President and his Oil Deal with Chavez of Venezuela

August 16th 2010

Latin American Topics - Daniel Ortega
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

After Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega took office for his second presidential term in 2007, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez announced his plan to meet Nicaragua’s oil needs. The leaders’ ideological ties led Ortega to push for Nicaragua’s membership in the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA). The Venezuelan President established this political bloc with the intention of countering the U.S. ambition for a Free Trade Area of the Americas or Acuerdo de Libre Comercio de las Américas (ALCA). Comprising leftist nations such as Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador, ALBA seeks to promote an ideology of solidarity that emphasizes social welfare policies rather than the kind of competitive capitalist agreements that have pervaded throughout the hemisphere in its recent history.

While ALBA serves as a symbolic opposition to the free trade agreements that the U.S. has negotiated with desperate Latin American regimes in the past, many skeptics have debated its practical impact due to a lack of concrete results produced by the Chávez-led body. Nicaragua’s simultaneous membership in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) suggests that ALBA does not quite play the revolutionary role to which its proponents initially aspired.

ALBA has proved a destabilizing force in an already polarized political environment. In Nicaragua, Venezuelan cooperation through ALBA led to the creation of a private company called ALBANISA (ALBA de Nicaragua, S.A) to manage the anticipated investment funds. The company has come under a great deal of heat: as a privately held company, ALBANISA is not required to disclose its funds to the public. However, it has turned out that the government has used its funds for state expenses. The secrecy enveloping ALBANISA expenditures has led some to fear the worst. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Ahmadinezhad's Bomb Rhetoric: Opportunities for U.S. Policy

August 8th 2010

Iran - Iran Long-Range Missile

On July 31, according to Iran's semiofficial Mehr News Agency, presidential chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashai claimed that the West had raised no objections to President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's open proclamation that the Islamic Republic could build a nuclear bomb. How should this surprising claim be interpreted? And what implications might it hold for Iran's domestic politics, especially when viewed alongside Ahmadinezhad's history of confrontational rhetoric? Read more ..

Inside Latin America

Argentina-China Trade Relations Reveals the Power of Soy

August 2nd 2010

Farming - Soybeans
President Fernandez de Kirchner and President Hun Jintao

After months of delay, President Cristina Fernández Kirchner of Argentina traveled to China on July 11th to discuss economic issues affecting the two countries. China is Argentina’s largest commercial partner after Brazil. The primary purpose of this meeting was to convince China to lift the now two-month blockade against Argentine soy oil. However, the most significant occurrence of the meeting was the signing of an investment agreement that will boost mining and railroad infrastructure in Argentina through the import of Chinese goods. Though this is seen as a successful agreement in terms of Argentine interests, both countries, but especially Argentina, are suffering from the ongoing soy oil dispute. Read more ..

Iranian Politics

The Iranian Clergy’s Silence

July 26th 2010

Iranian clerics

On June 13, 2010, when Mehdi Karrobi, the reformist candidate in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, paid a personal visit to the home of Ayatollah Yousef Sanei in the Shiite holy city of Qom, dozens of militants also descended on Sanei’s residence to disrupt the get-together. The militants were members of the Imam Sadeq Brigade 83, a paramilitary unit consisting of young radical clerics that is under the direct command of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These days, the brigade functions as one of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s main instruments of suppression against clerics and others that oppose the regime. In the early morning hours after ransacking Sanei’s office, the brigade stormed adjoining offices that belonged to the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, causing a great deal of property damage. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Yemen’s Forever War: The Houthi Rebellion

July 26th 2010

Arab Topics - Yemen Map

The Yemeni government’s adoption of a February 2010 ceasefire indicates that its scorched-earth policy in the sixth phase of the war was unsuccessful. For their part, the Houthis sought to avoid a two-front war involving Saudi Arabia, whose military had begun to directly confront them prior to the truce. It is unclear whether ground forces were involved in these confrontations, but Saudi airstrikes on Houthi targets have been confirmed. The ceasefire also came at a time when the threats posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and southern secessionists were on the rise, overstretching government security forces.

Among the reported ceasefire conditions were items such as the removal of roadblocks and landmines; an end to fortification of Houthi areas; the return of captured Saudi weapons and civilian goods; the release of Saudi and Yemeni civilian and military detainees; and an end to aggressive acts in Saudi territory. These conditions are tough to measure objectively, however, and may prove difficult to implement, given the north’s views on territory. Cultural norms—particularly the longstanding custom of males possessing weapons—will also likely preempt any attempt at disarmament. Similarly, the cultural need for both sides to be viewed as equals in negotiations tends to conflict with modern concepts of state sovereignty. As a result, the ceasefire is likely to collapse like others before it; one can already find signs that a seventh phase of conflict is drawing close. Read more ..

Inside Africa

Who Benefits from African Bank Protectionism?

July 19th 2010

Africa Topics - Wen Jiabao in Ghana
Chinese premier Wen Jiabao greets a Ghana chieftain

The Ghana Investment Protection Council (GIPC) recently revived a regulation that requires foreign-owned businesses based in Ghana to raise at least $300,000 before they are allowed to operate. These measures are imposed to shield indigenous business owners from foreign competitors. This is hinged on the belief that there is a need to curtail the influx of neighbouring countries‘ nationals from crowding out local business interests and creating job loss for Ghanaians.

Although the argument that the policy is designed to witch-hunt the nationals of any country has been debunked by the Ghanaian authorities, industry watchers and experts are not convinced. What is evident in view of the investment pattern is that the regulation is directly aimed at local entrepreneurs from West African countries who want to invest in Ghana and not against Chinese or Indian entrepreneurs whose chunk of foreign investments‘ loans are guaranteed by their governments.

Thus, raising the specified amount won’t be a problem for the Chinese and the Indians. By and large the policy will have more direct bearing on small and medium, scale businesses owned by nationals of West African countries as they do not enjoy the protection offered by their Chinese and Indian counterparts. Read more ..

Venezuela on the Edge

Venezuelan Currency Reform: Pragmatic Policy or Misguided Gamble?

July 12th 2010

Latin American Topics - Chavez PDVSA
Hugo Chávez

Predictions about Venezuela’s economy spawn prolifically. In light of Venezuela’s major oil reserves and president who is increasingly outspoken against the U.S., many wait impatiently to see how the country will fare in the wake of its ongoing recession.  Will Chávez lead the economy downward to disaster, or will he surprise all with economic resilience?

On Wednesday, June 9, Venezuela’s bond market reopened after President Hugo Chávez had shut it down on May 19. Chávez blamed the bolívar’s fall to almost half its previous value on currency speculation in the parallel market for dollar bonds, which he proceeded to suspend until a new market system could be put into place. Newly reopening with a devalued bolívar, the new bond trading market will give the government full control of the exchange rate by requiring that companies buy dollar-denominated bonds rather than conduct direct sales of bolívars for foreign currency. This system follows the trend of Chávez’ leftist recession-fighting policies such as nationalization of industries, controls on prices, and high rates of government spending on social programs. Lauded by some and assailed by others, Chávez’ policies are often seen as indicative of a worldwide trend against the 1990s’ globalization, market economics, and neo-liberalism. The question that now remains to be answered is: what does this new policy portend for Venezuela’s economy?


Caucasus on the Edge

The Caucasus Cauldron

July 12th 2010

Eurasian Topics - Azeri_tanks_in_Nagorno-Karabakh
Azeri tanks in Nagorno-Karabakh

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited some interesting spots over the July 4 weekend. Her itinerary included Poland and Ukraine, both intriguing choices in light of the recent Obama-Medvedev talks in Washington. But she also traveled to a region that has not been on the American radar screen much in the last two years — namely, the Caucasus — visiting Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The stop in Poland coincided with the signing of a new agreement on ballistic missile defense and was designed to sustain U.S.-Polish relations in the face of the German-Russian discussions we have discussed. The stop in Ukraine was meant simply to show the flag in a country rapidly moving into the Russian orbit. In both cases, the trip was about the Russians. Regardless of how warm the atmospherics are between the United States and Russia, the fact is that the Russians are continuing to rebuild their regional influence and are taking advantage of European disequilibrium to build new relationships there, too. Read more ..

Venezuela on the Edge

Venezuela’s Media War: Is the Internet the Next Battleground?

July 5th 2010

Latin American Topics - Chavez PDVSA
Hugo Chávez

On March 1st, 2009, Hugo Chávez announced on his popular Sunday television show, Aló Presidente, that he would commence a kind of “media war” to determine which news bodies were controlled by the oligarchy. Chávez further maintained, “If it weren’t for the attack, the lies, manipulation and exaggeration of the private networks, the Venezuelan government would have the support of at least 80 percent of the population.”

Since this date, Chávez, who has clashed with the media in the past, has fully committed himself to fighting nearly all forms of opposition media. In August of 2009, Chávez withdrew the licenses of 34 radio and TV stations he deemed oppositional. That same month, he launched his new national newspaper Correo del Orinoco, which prints daily and claims to provide unbiased coverage of government actions in the country.

In January of 2010, six broadcast television channels, including the controversial Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) were suspended for refusing to broadcast the president’s long-winded speeches, known as “cadenas.” Previously, Article 10 of the 2004 Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television (Resorte law) only required terrestrial networks to broadcast the speeches. But on December 22, 2009, the national telecommunications commission decreed that the law would now apply to cable stations as well. Read more ..

The Bear is Back

Are Germany and Russia Getting Cozy?

June 28th 2010

Russian Topics - Merkel and Putin
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will brief French and Polish officials on a joint proposal for Russian-European “cooperation on security,” according to a statement from Westerwelle’s spokesman. The proposal emerged out of talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev earlier in June and is based on a draft Russia drew up in 2008. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be present at the meeting. Peschke said, “We want to further elaborate and discuss it within the triangle [i.e., France, Germany and Poland] in the presence of the Russian foreign minister.”

On the surface, the proposal developed by Merkel and Medvedev appears primarily structural. It raises security discussions about specific trouble spots to the ministerial level rather than the ambassadorial level, with a committee being formed consisting of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Russia’s foreign minister. Read more ..

The Obama Edge

Obama's Speech at Cairo: One Year Later

June 28th 2010

Obama Admin Topics - Obama Cairo Speech

Although likely eclipsed in the media by recent Israeli naval action against blockade runners, the first anniversary of President Obama's much-quoted address in Cairo occurred on June 4, earlier this month. In his remarks, described as a "new beginning," he identified seven issues at the heart of tensions between the United States and the world's 1.2 billion Muslims: the need to confront violent extremism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran's drive to obtain nuclear weapons, democracy, religious freedom, women's rights, and economic development. For each issue, the president indicated where American action was required.

On violent extremism, for instance, he highlighted his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within the year. Given that two issues -- the Arab-Israeli peace process and Iranian nuclear issue -- have garnered the lion's share of attention over the past year, it is timely and useful to assess progress on the other five. Read more ..

Inside Islam

Egypt's Future Hinges on Flawed Islamic Council Elections

June 21st 2010

Iraq - Iraq Election 2010

Amid the diplomatic and media frenzy over the Gaza flotilla incident, Egypt's upper house elections were largely overlooked last week, even though the voting for the consultative Shura Council was marred by low turnout, concerted fraud, and violence. These are disturbing indicators of what the international community and Obama administration should anticipate during the much more important parliamentary elections in November.

Why the Elections Matter

The two rounds of voting for the Shura Council, on June 1 and June 8, were the first in a series of warm-ups before next year's critical presidential election, when eighty-two-year-old Hosni Mubarak, who recently had major surgery, might stand for a sixth consecutive term. Established in 1980 through a constitutional amendment, Egypt's upper house wields little power and is purely consultative. A third of its 264 members are appointed by the president, and only half of the rest stand for election every three years for six-year terms.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has dominated the body throughout its history. No opposition party has ever managed to establish a substantial presence on the council, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has never won a seat. Last week's elections proved no exception, as the NDP swept eighty-four out of a possible eighty-eight seats. Although four opposition parties won one seat each, other parties such as the Democratic Front boycotted the elections, declaring them illegitimate. Read more ..

Turkey and Israel

Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Public Opinion

June 21st 2010

Turkish Topics - Turkish Flags

Events on May 31 off the coast of Israel continue to resonate. Turkish-Israeli relations have not quite collapsed since then but are at their lowest level since Israel’s founding. U.S.-Israeli tensions have emerged, and European hostility toward Israel continues to intensify. The question has now become whether substantial consequences will follow from the incident. Put differently, the question is whether and how it will be exploited beyond the arena of public opinion.

The most significant threat to Israel would, of course, be military. International criticism is not without significance, but nations do not change direction absent direct threats to their interests. But powers outside the region are unlikely to exert military power against Israel, and even significant economic or political sanctions are unlikely to happen. Apart from the desire of outside powers to limit their involvement, this is rooted in the fact that significant actions are unlikely from inside the region either. Read more ..

Edge on Politics

Automated Election Fraud in the Philippines: A Harbringer for the US?

June 14th 2010

Politics - Voting

United States voters worried about electronic voting should pay close attention to the recent Philippines elections.

When the Philippines government decided to embrace computerized voting for the 2010 presidential, congressional and local elections the international community looked on with considerable interest. Would May 10 mark a turning point in the struggling Asian democracy and produce, for once, undisputed results?

Authoritative and stable government is essential to Philippians's struggle to attract foreign investment, develop economically and lift a large number of citizens out of poverty.

But an electronic revolution in one giant stride? For a population of 50 million voters spread over 7100 islands where radio communication is often unreliable? It was always going to be a big ask. As a risk assessment carried out by Pacific Strategies and Assessment late last year warned, “there is no official record of any country in the world transitioning from a pure manual to a full automated elections system in one electoral exercise.”

Quite the contrary. Electronic voting has been plagued with problems even in the most developed countries of the world, and just a week before the Philippines elections the government appointed Commission on Elections, or Comelec, was frantically installing new memory cards in every one of more than 70,000 counting machines at polling stations because of an alleged glitch. Read more ..

The Hamas Flotilla

Was The Flotilla Bound For Gaza On a Humanitarian Mission?

June 7th 2010

Israeli Military - Israeli naval vessel

Israel and Egypt have imposed an embargo on the importation of weapons and certain dual-use items into the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israel has allowed regular convoys of humanitarian supplies into Gaza, provided Palestinians access to medical care, continued to provide most of Gaza’s electricity, and transferred funds for the ongoing activity of international organizations and to pay the salaries of Palestinian Authority workers. Photos that appeared in a Palestinian newspaper showed bustling marketplaces full of consumer goods and fruits and vegetables.

Hamas has nevertheless allied with various critics of Israel to promote the idea of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza for the purpose of embarrassing Israel and stimulating international pressure on Jerusalem to end its blockade. The latest provocation involved the mobilization of a flotilla of ships, which was advertised as an aid mission, but behaved in a manner that showed their true interest was to achieve a propaganda victory through a public confrontation with Israeli forces. Read more ..

Iran Nuke's

Brazil's President Lula Out of his Depth in Iran

June 7th 2010

Iran - Lula and Ahmadinejad

On May 15th, 2010, President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva of Brazil met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. The result was a startling announcement by the three countries regarding a proposed nuclear material trade deal between Iran, Turkey, and the Vienna Group (Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China).The tri-partite talks have since received both praise and criticism, much of it directed at Brazil and President Lula. Read more ..

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