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Mideast Peace

Hamas and the Peace Process--Internal Palestinian Tensions Roil

September 20th 2010

Palestine Topics - Hamas at Press Conference
Hamas leader Khaled Mashal

Unsurprisingly, the Hamas leadership—both in Gaza and Damascus, and less so in the West Bank—has greeted the resumption of direct Israeli–Palestinian talks with a flood of contrarian rhetoric. Characterizing the process as a “sellout” of the Palestinian “cause,” the movement argues that President Mahmoud Abbas lacks the necessary “mandate” to represent his people. Hamas leader Khaled Mashal went so far as to call Abbas “a zero,” amid accusations of “treason” and “betrayal.” The group has also issued fiery denunciations of the growing cooperation between Palestinian Authority (PA) security agencies and their Israeli counterparts. Read more ..

Edge on Terror

Electromagnetic Pulse Attack Debated--But Looms as Real Threat

September 13th 2010

Military - EMP

Over the past decade there has been an ongoing debate over the threat posed by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to modern civilization. This debate has been the most heated perhaps in the United States, where the commission appointed by Congress to assess the threat to the United States warned of the dangers posed by EMP in reports released in 2004 and 2008. The commission also called for a national commitment to address the EMP threat by hardening the national infrastructure.

There is little doubt that efforts by the United States to harden infrastructure against EMP — and its ability to manage critical infrastructure manually in the event of an EMP attack — have been eroded in recent decades as the Cold War ended and the threat of nuclear conflict with Russia lessened. This is also true of the U.S. military, which has spent little time contemplating such scenarios in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Read more ..

The War in Afghanistan

The Struggle to Monitor Iraqi and Afghani Subcontractors

September 6th 2010

Afghan Topics - Brit with Afghani Soldier

To win hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Iraq, military experts want U.S. companies to contract with local firms for a variety of tasks like trucking, feeding troops, and providing security. The U.S. government’s “Afghan First” and “Iraqi First” initiatives increasingly seek to rely on local contractors, often through subcontracts, in part to stimulate their local economies. But a host of investigations underscore the perils in the murky world of subcontracting with foreign firms, and the difficulties in making sure taxpayer dollars are well spent. Read more ..

Persian Gulf on the Edge

Iran Casts Dark and Threatening Shadows over Bahrain

August 30th 2010

Arab Topics - Bahrain riot

For nearly two weeks, the Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain has experienced near-daily disturbances following government arrests of opposition activists from the majority Shiite community. The timing of the arrests seemed geared toward preempting trouble in advance of the scheduled October 23 parliamentary and municipal elections, which minority Sunni parties and candidates are currently projected to win. The street violence and other incidents are of particular concern to the United States because Bahrain hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and Naval Forces Central Command, whose mission is to "deter and counter disruptive countries" -- a wording likely aimed at Iran, which claimed the island as its territory prior to 1970.

Recent Violence

The most serious incident reported so far was an August 20 attack on an electric power installation. According to an official statement, the resultant outage "affected large areas," although power was reportedly restored within two hours. Other incidents have involved individuals setting tires alight, throwing Molotov cocktails, and attacking a pro-government newspaper editor. Read more ..

The Mortgage Meltdown

Some Foreclosure Rescue Scams Involve Lawyers, Mortgage Pros

August 23rd 2010

Economy - Foreclosure

Desperate U.S. homeowners facing foreclosure are being duped by con artists. The scammers employ a variety of schemes such as a “forensic mortgage loan audit” that promises to find errors in loan origination terms that will help the homeowner negotiate a loan modification or even cancel the loan, according to the Government Accountability Office. Many of the rescue schemes use telemarketing techniques and operate across state lines, making it difficult for local or state officials to prosecute. Some schemes were organized by former mortgage industry professionals or use the names of attorneys to add credibility or help them skirt state laws. California, for example, prohibits companies from charging advance fees but exempts licensed attorneys.

Other mortgage rescue schemes highlighted by the GAO:

  • Offers to negotiate new mortgage terms on behalf of a distressed homeowner for an up-front fee averaging around $3,000, then providing little or no help.
  • Convincing homeowners to transfer the deed of their home to save it from foreclosure. The scam artist, who promises to sell it back to the homeowner in the future, then has control of the property and can make money by either taking out a second loan on the home or selling it to someone else.

The Nuclear Edge

What Would Happen in an All-Out Nuclear War?

August 16th 2010

Military - Atomic Mushroom Cloud

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and on August 9, 1945, dropped another on Nagasaki. Since then, neither the United States nor any other nation has ever used nuclear weapons in anger. The threat of nuclear war, however, has been omnipresent, and many scholars, government officials, and civilians discussed and thought about scenarios for a possible nuclear war during the Cold War.

The U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published The Effects of War in 1979, which predicted the horrendous effects of a nuclear strike between the Soviet Union and the United States. Of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists, but the threat of a “limited” nuclear war breaking out somewhere in the world remains, between India and Pakistan for example. Read more ..

The New Iraq

How to Form a New Iraqi Government while U.S. Combat Forces Withdraw

August 9th 2010

Iraq - Iraqi Forces
Iraqi forces may soon be only forces on the ground

In an August 2 speech, President Obama confirmed that regardless of the status of government formation in Iraq, the U.S. military remained committed to the withdrawal of all combat forces by the month's end. Meanwhile, Iraq is still struggling to form a government in the long wake of the March elections, and the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan -- when much political and business life slows almost to a standstill -- begins next week. If an Iraqi government does not form fairly quickly after Ramadan ends in mid-September, Iraq's political scene may worsen, including an increased risk for violence. Ramadan has always existed in Iraqi and U.S. minds as a break point, when a new government may finally come together. Failure to make progress during the month is thus likely to elicit at least mild panic amongst politicians and the public. So how might the deadlock be broken?

Government Formation and Ramadan

The process of Iraqi government formation is stuck at its earliest stage. The first session of the new parliament opened on June 14 but failed to yield the election of a permanent speaker and deputies. In addition, a new president was not elected within one month of the parliament's first meeting (i.e., by July 14), amounting to a breach of a constitutional requirement. Once the president is finally elected by the parliament, he will be required, within the next fifteen days, to call upon the leader of the largest Iraqi political bloc (probably the largest postelectoral conglomeration of lists) to form and ratify a Council of Ministers by parliamentary majority in thirty days or fewer. Read more ..

The Edge of Justice

Rubashkin Judge Accused of Massive Conflict of Interest—Acted as Both Judge and Involved with Prosecutors, Attorneys Say

August 5th 2010

Jewish Topics - Sholom Rubashkin
Sholom Rubashkin

Chief District Judge Linda Reade both coordinated with prosecutors and acted as judge in the contentious conviction of Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse operator Sholom Rubashkin, according to internal federal documents and court filings obtained by this reporter. According to the documents, Judge Reade personally participated in many aspects of the raid and prosecution “game plan” nearly from its planning inception in October, 2007 some six months before the raid and long before the ultimate trial of Rubashkin before her. Her continuous week-to-week involvement in the organization of the raid and ultimate prosecution was not disclosed to defense counsel or a House Judiciary Sub-Committee during hearings on the matter. Ultimately, Judge Reade sentenced Rubashkin to 27 years imprisonment for financial crimes related to the original immigration case. That sentence was two years longer than requested by prosecutors and startled many legal experts as inexplicably harsh.

The revelations have caused Rubashkin’s attorneys, Nathan Lewin and Alyza Lewin of Washington D.C. and Guy Cook of Des Moines, to file emergency court papers this morning demanding a new trial and the immediate recusal of Judge Reade. While the motions have been filed in Judge Reade’s court, they ask her not even to rule on the motion and instead “to transfer this motion to another judge for determination” in order “to preserve public confidence in the impartiality of the judicial system.” Read more ..

Iran on the Edge

Iranian Re-Revolution--How the Green Movement Is Repeating Iranian History

August 2nd 2010

Iran - Iran Election Protest

On June 10, when the Iranian opposition movement cancelled its planned commemoration of the anniversary of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection, commentators assumed that the Green Movement was finally finished. For months, it had been criticized as lacking strong leadership and for being unable to seriously challenge Iran's entrenched regime.

But the history of political turmoil in twentieth-century Iran suggests that the movement may yet survive. After all, movements propelled by similar social currents have succeeded in dramatically changing Iran in the past.

Three periods of domestic political turbulence shook Iran in the last century -- the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, which for a time curbed royal power and led to the development of Iran's constitution; the Muhammed Mossadeq era of 1951-3, which temporarily ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi; and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which replaced the monarchy with clerical rule. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Exporting an Epidemic: A Global Asbestos Crisis

July 26th 2010

Health/Medicine - asbestos hazard

In Osasco, Brazil, an industrial city on the western flank of Sao Paulo, the past is buried beneath a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Sam's Club at the intersection of Avenida MariaCampos and Avenida dos Autonomistas. Here the Eternit asbestos cement factory was shuttered in 1993 and demolished in 1995 after 54 years of operation. Here three generations of workers—pouring asbestos into giant mixers with cement, cellulose and water, emptying bags, cleaning machinery—were immersed in fiber-rich white dust, setting themselves up for diseases that would debilitate many of them in retirement and kill some of them in an excruciating fashion. Scores have died since the mid-1990s, at least 10 of mesothelioma, a rare malignancy that eats into the chest wall and dispatches its victims swiftly. Aldo Vincentin succumbed at age 66 in July 2008, only three months after his diagnosis. “They knew about the dangers of the materials and they didn’t protect my husband,” his widow, Giselia Gomes Vincentin, says of Eternit. “I think many people will still die.” Read more ..

After the BP Spill

Libya Positioned to Buy Major Stake in BP

July 19th 2010

Arab Topics - Muammar Qaddafi
Muammar al-Gaddafi

Just as the news for British Petroleum was getting brighter, with stocks soaring 6 percent higher after the temporary cap fell into place and sealed the leak into the Gulf of Mexico, news sources reported on a possible deal between the oil giant and the Libyan government that could end up in Libya’s owning a considerable stake in the oil company.

However, the story became even stickier for BP as the week ended. While its prices were at their disaster mode low, wealthy Libyan oil moguls were vying for a controlling stake in BP. Shokri Ghanem, chairman of Libya’s Nation Oil Co., with which BP is now doing business with, told Dow Jones Newswires that he will recommend investing in BP to the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Ghanem said in an interview, “BP is interesting now with the price lower by half and I still have trust in BP, I will recommend it to the [Libyan Investment Authority] … It’s a good opportunity for bargain hunters.” BP shares jumped 5 percent on the news out of Libya.

In addition, news on the street is that BP is now seeking increased Middle East investment as it guards against takeovers. European newspapers have reported that BP and the Kuwaiti Investment Authority are discussing increasing the Kuwaits’ existing 1.77 percent share in the company. BP CEO Tony Hayward recently flew to Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Mohammed is also the chairman of Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi government. Read more ..

The Political Edge

2010 Midterms Will Be Most Expensive In History With More Than $1 Billion In Play

July 12th 2010

Economy - Money Money Money

More than $1 billion has already been spent on the 2010 battle for Congress, which is expected to be the most expensive midterm election in history.

Interest groups riled up by the Obama administration's far-reaching legislative agenda of healthcare and Wall Street reform are pledging massive expenditures. Democratic strategists have been circulating a four-page memo that chronicles how Republican-leaning independent groups are set to spent $301.5 million this cycle.

Rich candidates are also fueling the political spending spree. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R) has already funneled $5.5 million from her personal fortune into her Senate campaign and in Florida billionaire Jeff Greene (D) is expected to do the same in his race for the Democratic Senate nomination.

“We fully expect this will be the most expensive midterm election ever in U.S. history,” said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). “Not only do we expect it to exceed the high water mark set in 2006, but this could very well obliterate that number when all is said and done.” Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

UAE Ambassador Endorses Preemptive Bombing of Iran

July 7th 2010

Arab Topics - Youssef al Otaiba
Yousef al-Otaiba

In an extraordinary exchange, the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba explained his views – and fears – of a nuclear Iran.  Speaking on July 6, 2010 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Ambassador expressed openly to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and The  Washington Times’ Eli Lake what other Arab diplomats usually say privately.

When Goldberg asked the Ambassador, “Do you want the U.S. to stop the Iranian nuclear program by force?” he responded candidly, "Absolutely, absolutely. I think we are at risk of an Iranian nuclear program far more than you are at risk. At 7,000 miles away, and with two oceans bordering you, an Iranian nuclear threat does not threaten the continental United States. It may threaten your assets in the region, it will threaten the peace process, it will threaten balance of power, it will threaten everything else, but it will not threaten you." Read more ..

The Edge of Economic Recovery

Democrats Now Warn of Double Dip after Downplaying Recession Threat

July 5th 2010

Economy - Out of Business

Democrats are starting to warn of major risks to the economy after months of downplaying the threat of a double-dip recession. In letters, interviews, and public statements, President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other senior Democrats are now raising red flags that the economy could falter without additional stimulus efforts.

Obama urged congressional leaders in mid-June to pass an extension of tax breaks and unemployment benefits, and up to $50 billion in aid for states and local governments. Without Congress acting, Obama said the economy could “slide backwards.” Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Targeting Re-Export Loopholes Give Teeth to Iranian Sanctions

June 28th 2010

Iran - Ahmadinejad at Iranian nuclear plant

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, Undersecretary of State William Burns and Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey laid out the administration's game plan for leveraging the sanctions mandate created by UN Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted earlier this month. Central to this strategy is "vigorous" implementation, in part through a monitoring committee. The resolution, Burns noted, includes "new platforms" and "new tools," including a tough cargo inspection regime to detect and prevent Iranian smuggling efforts aimed at circumventing the sanctions. Now that these measures have been passed, he emphasized, we "need to make the maximum use of them." One key area that would benefit from greater attention and enforcement is closing the re-export loopholes through which Iran has successfully evaded sanctions in the past.

Deceptive Trade Practices

Mirroring the Iranian banking sector's deceptive financial practices -- which the Treasury Department has studiously exposed over the past few years -- procurement agents, businesses, and transporters in Iran have developed a network of front companies and willing partners as a means of procuring controlled military and dual-use technologies. Some of these fronts are aware of the deception, while others are not. Read more ..

The Hamas Flotillas

Next Flotilla Crisis Sails from Lebanon with Hezbollah Woman's Brigade--Israel to Intercept

June 21st 2010

Israeli Military - Israeli Sub

The next flotilla crisis has set sail from Lebanon intent on confronting the Israeli Defense Forces and running the Gaza blockade. The ship, re-named ‘Mariam’ – the Arabic version of Mary, has been authorized to depart from a port in Lebanon. Originally called The Julia, the ship was renamed for this episode. The stated purpose of the organizers is to embarrass the Israelis by a confrontation with women sailing with large images of the Virgin Mary. The group's backers say they want to help expel "thieving Israelis" and "Jewish garbage" back to Europe.

Permission to sail was originally held up because Lebanese law prevents direct passage to Israeli waters; however, the ship pledged to sail first to Cyprus, so the trip was authorized by Beirut officials.

The group is comprised of Christian and Muslim women under purported Hezbollah aegis, funded by a major Hezbollah financier. Hezbollah banned Lebanese model and pop star Haifa Wehbe from boarding the female-only ship headed for Gaza, according to Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah on Friday. Hezbollah sources asserted, her “nudity … and immodest dress will harm the reputation of all women participating in the trip.” Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Saudis Reportedly Grant Israel a Narrow Corridor to Bomb Iran's Nuclear Facilities

June 14th 2010

Israeli Military - Israeli Jet

Saudi Arabia has made preparations to allow the over-flight of the Israeli air force in the case of an eventual bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

According to media reports, just days after the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, the oil kingdom of Saudi Arabia has agreed to allow Israel to utilize an essential corridor in its air space and thereby shorten the route for a raid on Iran. 

In order to allow the Israeli raid, Riyadh has carried out tests to make certain its own jets are not scrambled and missile defense systems not activated. Once the Israelis are through, the kingdom’s air defenses will return to full alert.

The Saudis have given their permission for the Israelis to pass over and they will look the other way, according to US Defense Department sources, which averred that Saudi jets will not be scrambled and Israel’s will not be shot down. The US State Department is apparently in agreement, according to the Times of London, which covered the story in its weekend papers. Read more ..

Inside Iraq

Iraq Heads toward a Unity Government for Everyone and No One

June 7th 2010

Iraq - Iraqi Soldiers voting

Eleven weeks after the March 7, 2010, elections, Iraq appears to be headed toward a sprawling "unity" government that values stability and inclusiveness over efficiency or decisiveness. Despite being an arguably safer bet for Iraq at a delicate and dangerous moment, this approach will pose several challenges for U.S. policy in both the country and the region.

In the broad-based government currently emerging, almost everyone is a participant to some extent, but no one has signed onto an agreed manifesto that outlines how the government will operate. If the situation continues on this course, the new government will not be a meeting of equals. Rather, a subset of three political coalitions would form the government's core and hold the balance of votes in the cabinet. Read more ..

The BP Spill

Obama Administration Should Take Over BP in Gulf—A Company with a History of War and Government Intervention

May 31st 2010

Energy / Environment - Anglo-Oil BP Sign Change

This article is based research originally done for Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Dialog Press). Buy it here

America’s unrelenting addiction to oil has compelled it to recklessly drill off its most pristine shores without an emergency plan. Now, the country’s territorial integrity is increasingly threatened while the Obama administration is essentially powerless to control the outcome and prioritize the response. This country’s government—state, local and federal--fights its own community fires, responds to its own natural disasters, and maintains its coastal defenses against all comers.

However, although oil spills incrementally equaling the Exxon Valdez spill occur annually--and have for decades--our nation has never developed its own response capability. By necessity, the legacy of neglect to this addictive oil supply means consigning those governmental responsibilities in the Gulf to a foreign company — BP.

Hence, the panoply of stoppage efforts are under the control BP, the video feeds are under the control of BP, the dispersants deployed are under the control BP, the clean-up efforts are under the control of BP, the estimates, progress, operational facts and figures are under the control of BP, and the communities are at the mercy of BP. Read more ..

The Edge of Lobbying

Five Lobbyists for Each Member of Congress on Financial Reforms

May 24th 2010

Economy - Financial reform now protest

More than 850 banks, hedge funds, companies, associations, and other organizations hired 3,000-plus lobbyists to work on the reform bills, according to an examination of lobbying disclosure data for all of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010. However, public outrage over Wall Street’s role in the 2007-09 financial meltdown blunted industry attempts to win loopholes in the measure now before the U.S. Senate.

Most of the big players in American business lobbying were active as regulatory reform proposals worked their way through Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce deployed 85 lobbyists, including 49 hired from outside lobbying firms. Among financial services groups, the Securities Industry and Financial Market Association employed 54 lobbyists, including 37 from outside firms. The American Bankers Association deployed 53 lobbyists, the Business Roundtable 42, and the Mortgage Bankers Association 29, according to Center data.

In the financial services industry, some 175 companies and groups—ranging from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to CME Group Inc. to the Private Equity Council—hired lobbyists to try to weaken or eliminate reform proposals aimed at banks and the capital markets. A distant second was the energy and utilities sector, with 91 companies and organizations, followed by manufacturing with 66 firms. Read more ..

The BP Spill

Training Exercises Showed Gaps in Government Preparedness Before BP Oil Spill

May 17th 2010

Energy / Environment - Oil Spill Cleanup Crew

Over the last eight years, the U.S. government has conducted four major drills to prepare for a massive oil spill, the results of which foreshadowed many of the weaknesses in coordination, communication, expertise, and technology that have plagued the federal response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to interviews and after-action reports, the training exercises conducted in 2002, 2004, 2007, and just this past March caused federal officials to express concern about a host of issues. Most prominent among them:

  • coordination and communication between the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, especially involving the process for naming a National Incident Commander (NIC) to take charge of the crisis;
  • a slow or inaccurate flow of information from the industry, particularly caused by companies' desire to protect proprietary information and officials' tendency to exclude industry representatives from the government's command center; and
  • a lack of expertise and modern technology for closing a spewing oil well leak and containing a slick through controlled burns and dispersants.

Since then, the government has faced questions about why it took so long to declare the spill an emergency, why it didn’t use Pentagon planes sooner to spray dispersants and why it lacked a ready supply of specialized booms to contain and burn the growing oil slick. Read more ..

The Edge of Oil

Democrats Propose Massive Increase in Oil Company Liability

May 10th 2010

Energy Topics - Gulf oil spill

Congressional Democrats are pushing their first legislative response to the Gulf Coast oil spill, proposing to vastly raise the liability cap on companies that are responsible for offshore disasters.

With anger at BP mounting by the day, the legislation has clear populist inspiration and could win expedited passage in Congress, officials say. The bill swiftly earned the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a day after the White House said it “strongly supports” efforts to significantly increase the oil pollution liability cap.

The measure, introduced in both the House and Senate, would raise the cap on economic damages for oil spills from $75 million to $10 billion, meaning companies like BP would be forced to pay more than 133 times what they are now required to. That money would be in addition to the direct costs of cleanup, which the responsible party already must pay.

Seizing on voters’ weariness of financial bailouts, lawmakers cast the bill as a way to save taxpayers money, in that the companies themselves would have to pay significantly more. They titled it the “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act.” Read more ..

The Edge of Lobbying

“Road Gang” Highway Lobby Wary as "Livability" Advocates Gain Momentum

May 3rd 2010

Transportation Topics - Broken Road

Bob Schafer just laid off another worker.

Schafer is a manager at Ranger Construction, a Florida-based company that builds roads in a state famously fueled by its own growth. For more than three decades, Ranger Construction helped connect all that development, but the economic recession has forced the company to cut more than one-third of its staff, which has dwindled to under a thousand.

Looking ahead, Schafer worries whether state funding cuts might eventually mean laying off even more workers. “It could shut the lights out,” Schafer says. At more than six feet tall, Schafer makes an imposing figure at construction sites. He appears as focused as he is bald — which is to say completely. Read more ..

The Next Mideast War

Iran’s “Great Prophet” War Games Rattle the Strategic Strait of Hormuz

April 26th 2010

Iran - IRan war games
Iran’s “Great Prophet” naval exercise at the Strait of Hormuz

Iranian military exercises commenced on April 22 in the Strait of Hormuz with more than 300 boats and ships equipped with torpedo and guided-missiles participating. The war games were dubbed “The Great Prophet” by Iran. Contact was made with foreign vessels—making these more than war games.

The Iranian Revoutionary Guard marine patrol searched a French and Italian vessel during the massive naval exercises on April 23rd to determine “whether the two were following environmental regulations during the war games conducted by Iran in the vital Strait of Hormuz,” according to official Iranian sources. The French and Italian ships were allowed to continue their course following the Iranian interdiction. US warships, also present in the Persian Gulf, were not similarly searched or harassed. But the message of Iranian naval power in the Strait of Hormuz was not lost.

In 2008, Iranian patrol vessels approached a U.S. warship the Persian Gulf in a threantening manner but did not engage in hostile action. The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the larger Indian Ocean and is a strategic chokepoint through which forty percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes. Read more ..

Edge on the Middle East

Iranian-Syrian Missile Transfer to Hezbollah Threatens New War in Mideast

April 19th 2010

Israeli Military - Israeli Jets Parked

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent officials in Damascus and Washington scrambling when he claimed on April 13 that Syria is providing the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah with Scud missiles whose accuracy and range threaten more Israeli cities than ever before. His unexpected announcement, though vehemently denied by the Syrian regime, threatens to spark a new war between Israel and its antagonists in the region while further undermining U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts at engagement with Syria.

The alleged missile transfer now looms over the Senate confirmation of Obama's ambassador-designate to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who is slated to be Washington's first emissary to Damascus in more than five years. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's apparent decision to transfer more accurate and longer-range weapons to Hezbollah is a disheartening development for U.S. officials, who had hoped Obama's diplomatic opening would lead the Syrian regime to moderate its behavior. As Damascus arms its Lebanese ally with an increasingly lethal array of weaponry, Syria's credibility as a peace partner for Israel is increasingly in doubt. Read more ..

Edge on Wikipedia

Wikipedia—The Dumbing Down of World Knowledge

April 12th 2010

Corporate Logos - Wikipedia logo

Jay Leno probably said it best a few weeks ago when he joked that when Wikipedia's servers briefly went down for some three hours, it left the world without a source for false and erroneous information. But many in our information-driven society believe it is no joke. A growing community of the informed believes that Wikipedia, the constantly-changing knowledge base created by a global free-for-all of anonymous users, now stands as the leading force for the dumbing down of world knowledge. If Wikipedia's almost unstoppable momentum continues, critics say, it threatens to quickly reverse centuries of progress in the sharing of verifiable knowledge with its highest aspiration being genuine fact. In its place would be a constant cacophony of fact and falsity that Wikipedia's critics call a “law of the jungle.”

By way of background, Wikipedia's 2.3 million-plus unvetted entries are contributed by anonymous users known only by colorful and sometimes bizarre and shadowy pseudonyms, often in a sort of “anything goes” perpetual intellectual wrestling match. In the 2008–2009 period, an estimated 132 million edits were logged and viewed by 342 million unique visitors worldwide. A pillar of Wikipedia doublespeak establishes this rule: “Wikipedia has no firm rules.” But actually, there are rules—and many of them. Original research is forbidden. For example, the world's leading experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, sea turtles or methanol could not contribute their knowledge based on their peer-reviewed findings. But anyone with an ax to grind on either topic could. Read more ..

Edge of Terrorism

How Safe are America's Subways?

April 5th 2010

Transportation Topics - Washington Metro
Washington D.C. Metro

A sarin gas attack on Japan's subway system in 1995. A foiled subway terror plot in New York City. Attacks on underground trains in London in 2005. The twin suicide bombings in Moscow.

Terrorists have repeatedly made underground transit systems a target of their planned attacks. But the fortification of U.S. subway systems remains an open question. Despite more than $1 billion spent by Washington to protect public transit in recent years, U.S. subway systems are only now starting to address threats that have been known for years. The recent bombings of two Moscow commuter trains, killing more than three dozen, may add urgency to a problem that security experts say has taken a back seat to airline safety.

New York City’s subway system, the country’s largest, remains “behind schedule and over budget” on many of its security upgrades and has run out of money to fully deploy its much ballyhooed project—begun nearly five years ago—to create an electronic anti-terrorism surveillance system, according to a little-noticed audit released two months ago by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. Napoli. Read more ..

The Lobby Edge

Lobbyists for Big Business Reap Rewards of Healthcare Debate

March 29th 2010

Politics - K Street NW

While patients, taxpayers and lawmakers debate the impact of the health care reform law President Obama signed on Tuesday, one result of the epic battle is clear: a bonanza for K Street.

And among lobby firms that worked the issue, the richest Ranking of the top dozen with the most clients involved in health care last year reveals a host of high-profile Washington concerns — companies like Patton Boggs LLP, Alston & Bird, LLP, Holland & Knight LLP and the Podesta Group. About 1,750 businesses and organizations spent at least $1.2 billion in 2009 on lobbying teams to work on health reform and other issues, according to an analysis of Senate lobby disclosure documents. Since lobbyists are not required to itemize the amount spent on each issue, the precise amount that went to health reform remains unknown. But if only 10 percent of that lobby spending went toward health reform, the amount would total $120 million – and that’s likely a record for a single year’s spending on a particular issue, experts say. Read more ..

Religious Freedom

Churches Under Attack in Muslim Lands as Mosques Flourish in the West

March 22nd 2010

Islamic Topics - Islam vs Copts

On March 12, 2010, a group of some 2,000 Muslims, whipped up by a local Imam in Mersa Matruh, a Mediterranean port city in Egypt, attacked a group of some 400 Coptic Christians.

The supposed reason for swarming the oft-persecuted Copts was a rumor that they were building a church. The sad thing was that they were only building a hospice. Worse was that Egyptian Security authorities, according to reports, arrested 13 Copts, including four minors between 13 and 17. Only a dozen of the 2,000 Muslims rioters were arrested.

The Imam preached against the Copts, calling for Jihad against the Coptic “Infidels.” Soon, Muslims swarmed around the Copts, forcing them into the building to protect themselves only to see some twenty-three wounded, two of them seriously. Following their escape into the hospice, the crowd proceeded to vandalize and burn their cars, Coptic shops, and even private homes, causing untold damage to that persecuted community's lives.

The Coptic Church has existed in Egypt for 1900 years. According to the website, TourEgypt.net, “Today, Copts form almost 13 to 15 percent of Egypt's population, though they are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians as they are fully integrated into the body of the modern Egyptian nation.” If being “fully integrated” means enduring constant persecution by the authorities and harassment and sectarian murders by their Muslim neighbors, then perhaps the meaning of the term has changed. Read more ..

India on the Edge

Is India's Economy Weakening?

March 15th 2010

Asia Topics - India Highway congestion

The conventional wisdom concerning the Indian economy has two tenets: 1) India has weathered the financial crisis exceptionally well; and 2) India is still undergoing liberalizing reform. Both of those tenets, though, can reasonably be questioned. Reported Indian GDP growth fell to 6.0 percent in the October-December quarter of 2009, lower than the 6.2 percent in the same quarter of 2008. By itself this decrease is not important, but it comes at a time of high inflation and a dangerously large budget deficit. Under such circumstances, 6 percent growth is not much of an accomplishment. More telling for the long term, this year's budget means the current Congress Party government has further cemented its legacy as reformers in name only.

America's ability to alter this legacy is limited. However, the emerging U.S.-India partnership requires each nation to be direct. Economic negotiations with India should be regarded in part as a means to encourage market reform.

Indian Growth in Context

Three years ago, an economy exhibiting 6 percent real growth, nearly 9 percent inflation, and a consolidated national budget deficit exceeding 12 percent of GDP would have been rightly deemed as heading for serious difficulties. The obvious response is that India should be judged in the context of the financial crisis. However, it is not clear that the economy has actually improved as the global crisis has eased.

Arab World Elections

After Iraq's Elections: A New Government by September?

March 8th 2010

Iraq - Iraq Election 2010

Iraq's parliamentary elections have proven to be the most competitive in recent Iraqi history. Hundreds of parties and other entities fielded thousands of candidates for 325 seats. The contest has been heated, vibrant, and, at times, controversial and violent. Yet the ups and downs associated with the campaign season will pale in comparison to the immediate postelection period. Following the December 2005 elections, the new government took six months to form, and the process will likely take longer this time. As the Obama administration continues to draw down U.S. forces to 50,000 troops by August, it will need to remain patient with a process that will have a tremendous impact on the future of bilateral relations and Iraq's democratic consolidation.

Constitutional Factors

Iraq's constitution contains no provisions for how the country is to be governed in the period between elections and government formation. Determining the status of the transitional government—and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's role in it—will therefore be the first challenge. If a new government is not formed quickly, the only way to avoid a constitutional crisis will be for the federal supreme court to issue a decision on the issue. Unfortunately, Iraq is unlikely to take such a step until a crisis has already developed. In short, resolving the transitional issue alone could cause a substantial delay in government formation if the political wrangling is heated enough. Read more ..

Sexual Assault on Campus

'Undetected Rapists' on Campus: A Troubling Plague of Repeat Offenders

March 1st 2010

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

Elton Yarbrough was a young man seemingly on his way up: An economics major at Texas A&M University; a member of the university’s military cadet corps; a musician in the marching band; the pride of little Palestine, Texas; and soon to be an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

But police say he was also one other thing: A serial rapist.

The one-time Texas A&M senior is now sitting in a Texas prison until at least 2015 for felony sexual assault. Five women, including four female A&M students, testified Yarbrough raped or sexually assaulted them between 2003 and 2006, although he was only tried on one assault charge. Yarbrough says he is innocent.

Yarbrough is one of six alleged serial offenders at colleges across the country found during a year-long investigation of sexual assault on college campuses. The six were accused of assaulting multiple women in court records, campus records or other public documents.

However, students who reported being raped by fellow students told of at least five other men whom they suspected of, or had heard of, assaulting other women. Those men probably look a lot like Yarbrough did to Texas A&M administrators and to his fellow students: A promising young student with an outstanding resume of achievements. As one of his accusers would later write in a statement read at a university judicial proceeding, “If you cannot trust another student with a record which appears as impeccable as Elton’s, then who can we really trust in life?”

Edge of Homeland Security

Homeland Security Bets Billions on Better Communications-- But Are First Responders Better Off?

February 22nd 2010

Transportation Topics - Fire Engine

When a cop or a fire fighter pulls out a radio in a television police drama, his message goes through, whether he’s in the basement of a building or deep in a forest. In the real world, clear communication is rarely so easy, particularly among first responders from different disciplines and jurisdictions. This reality was dramatically brought home at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when crucial observations from the police department’s helicopters did not reach fire chiefs, commanders lost radio contact with responders who ascended the towers, and brigades in the north tower did not hear calls to evacuate.

Since then, an unprecedented amount of federal money has been spent on communications gear and technology, expenses traditionally borne by state and local governments. The goal is to fix the communication problems faced on 9/11 — to create “interoperability” that allows first responders from different disciplines and jurisdictions to communicate. From 2004 to 2008, the only years for which detailed figures are available, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approved more than $4.3 billion in grant money to improve interoperability among first responders nationwide. DHS officials have said that more grant money has gone to interoperability than to any other initiative, and it continues to be a major focus for DHS grant programs, while also drawing funding from the economic stimulus package.

Iran's Nukes

Setback for Iran's Opposition as Khamenei's Hardline Reinforced

February 15th 2010

Iran - Ali Khameini2
Ali Khameini

A few hours after the official demonstration marking the February 11 anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated, "Was the presence of tens of millions of motivated and aware people in the festival of the thirty-first anniversary of revolution enough to awaken [to their mistakes] the internal enemies and deceived individuals who sometimes hypocritically speak of 'the people'?" Khamenei had spent months worrying that the opposition Green Movement would hijack the anniversary. Yesterday, he seemed to regain his self-confidence by proving that he could manage Tehran's streets. In light of this development, how will the Supreme Leader deal with both Iran's political crisis and the nuclear dossier?

What Happened on February 11

By controlling a huge city like Tehran on such a sensitive day, Khamenei proved his operational capabilities as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A few days before the anniversary, the regime clamped down on all communication channels, from internet to cell phones to satellite television, interrupting them or placing them under surveillance in order to diminish the opposition's ability to organize protests. It also raised the level of intimidation, making daily arrests of political and student activists as well as ordinary people and publishing wanted posters of individuals who had participated in the December 2009 Ashura demonstration. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Serious Play: Think Tank War Games Explore Options on Iran

February 8th 2010

Israeli Military - Israeli Jets Parked

What if Iran's hardline leadership emerges from the current confrontations at home strengthened and emboldened? If so, the nuclear issue will be back with a vengeance. And three recent war games focused on the Iranian nuclear weapons issue suggest that the prospects for halting the regime's progress toward nuclear weapons are not good.

The games -- conducted by highly respected Western think tanks -- explored various strategies for preventing the Iranian nuclear threat from becoming real. The results, unfortunately, were uniformly negative. Given that these were serious games played by serious people, officials who deal with the nuclear problem as a matter of real policy would be wise to seriously consider their implications.

Purpose and Utility of War Games

Games are strategic planning tools that have proven especially useful in international conflict situations. A war game begins with a defined scenario and evolves through a series of actions to a final situation or outcome. Individuals or teams simulate key decisions by national leaders in a role-playing environment. Meanwhile, an objective, independent team acts as a referee, setting up the initial scenario and adjudicating the play turn by turn. The result is not a prediction of the future but rather a plausible, perhaps even likely, outcome that can be of great value in planning and forecasting. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

America Deploys Weapons in Gulf as Iran Sanctions Near and Tensions Mount

February 1st 2010

Military - Patriot Missile

Washington has ordered the Pentagon to rapidly ramp up its approach to defending its Persian Gulf allies against potential Iranian missile strikes, increasing the capability of 8 land-based Patriot defensive missile batteries in four Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. These four are: Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar.  In addition, the U.S. Navy is increasing its presence in the region and now says it has the capacity of shoot down hostile missiles in mid-air as effectively as Patriot batteries do.

At the same time, the U.S. Air Force is continuing to fast-track modifications of a Super Bunker Buster--formally known as the GBU-57A/B at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Modifications would allow it to be carried in the bay of a radar-evading B2a Stealth Bomber, according to Eglin base sources. The B2a is one of only two airplanes that can carry the 30,000 pound bomb which is designed to cause massive concussions more than 200 feet below the earth where Iran is thought to have burrowed its nuclear program. Details of the accelerated project were reported by The Cutting Edge News last September. Read more ..

The Edge of Lobbying

Why 650 Local Governments Use Lobbyists To Get Cash for Buses, Trains, and Roads

January 25th 2010

Transportation Topics - Broken Road

Last September, city fathers in Dubuque, Iowa, lured three members of the White House cabinet to the banks of the Mississippi River on the same day they welcomed officials from one the world’s biggest corporations, IBM. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, accompanied by a host of aides, all climbed aboard the city’s green trolley car. Among their stops: Dubuque’s renovated harbor area, and then the historic millwork district — once the nation’s largest — and the nearby Roshek building, a depression-era department store undergoing a grand remodel.

Meanwhile, Dubuque’s private sector guest, IBM, was over at the convention center announcing plans to make the city a living laboratory for its Smarter Planet program. Up to 1,300 new IBM employees will begin fielding tech service calls later this year at the Roshek building, and the company hopes those workers will also be able to enjoy the fruits of a sweeping partnership between IBM and its host city — a partnership aimed at creating an integrated transportation system involving smart new bus routes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and arterial roads to take trucks out of neighborhoods. Read more ..

Edge of Terrorism

Fighting al-Qaeda: The Role of Yemen's President Saleh

January 18th 2010

Yemen Topics - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh3
Yemini President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen's reemergence in the headlines as a crucial player in the fight against al-Qaeda raises questions about Washington's next steps. What sort of relationship will the Obama administration have with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime leader of what could be the world's next failed state? Saleh spoke with President Barack Obama by telephone on December 17, 2009, and later met in Sana with General David Petreaus, the head of U.S. Central Command, on January 2. But the lessons of Saleh's relationship with the Bush administration suggest that close ties can be matched by sharp policy differences.

Saleh's Bloody Background

Apart from Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, Saleh is the Middle East's longest-serving leader. Now a field marshal by rank, he first came to prominence in 1977 as a thirty-one-year-old major during political turmoil in what was then North Yemen (which united with South Yemen in 1990.) The country's military leader at the time, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, was assassinated, as was his brother, by unidentified gunmen who riddled their bodies with bullets. An Arab newspaper described it at the time as a well-planned coup, naming Saleh as a conspirator along with his mentor, Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Ghashmi, the deputy commander-in-chief of the army who became North Yemen's new leader. Al-Ghashmi himself survived an assassination attempt five days after taking power but was subsequently killed in June 1978 when the briefcase of a special envoy from South Yemen exploded in his office. A month later, Saleh was voted into office by the quasi-parliament as president and commander-in-chief; he survived yet another assassination attempt only months later. Read more ..

Inside Latin America

Nuclear Security Issues in Latin America and the Caribbean Under the Radar

January 11th 2010

Latin American Topics - Peru Mining

Globally, nuclear power has become an increasingly important source of energy, accounting for about 15 percent of the world’s electricity supply. When it comes to Latin America, 3.1 percent of electricity comes from this source. However, the nettlesome security issues resulting from utilizing nuclear energy sources largely have been ignored.

On March 2008, Colombian authorities discovered that the FARC insurgent movement managed to obtain (it was never clarified from where) 9 kilograms of depleted uranium. Then, in early 2009, the Argentine media reported that an employee of the Baker Atlas Company oil-drilling operation in Neuquén had stolen a canister of nuclear substance Caesium-137, demanding up to $500,000 in ransom payments from Baker Atlas.

Meanwhile, if Brazil successfully completes the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine — a national security goal since the era of the country’s brutal military junta (1964-85) — the repercussions for regional geo-security could be profound. Reports suggest that countries such as Venezuela and Chile are also currently assessing the benefits of nuclear energy. One can add to this growing list of nuclear issues the ongoing transshipment of nuclear waste from Europe to Japan via the Caribbean and Panama Canal.

Edge of Economic Recovery

2010—Grim Economic Predictions For What May Be the Tipping Point Year

January 4th 2010

Economy - Out of Business

For the last week or two “experts” and pundits have been making their forecasts for 2010. I always take these forecasts with a grain of salt. The people making the forecasts generally have some skin in the game and will tailor their forecast to benefit their particular agenda or investment portfolio. I pride myself on dishing out punishment to both political parties and most investment shills. I will take on the thankless task of predicting the future. Below are my prognostications in the areas of the economy, domestic politics, global geopolitics, and the investment markets.

To date, the Federal Reserve has printed well over a trillion dollars in an attempt to evade a deflationary collapse, including a $700 billion bank bailout and a $787 billion stimulus package. And then there was $3 billion wasted on Cash for Clunkers ($24,000 per vehicle), $28 billion squandered on the $8,500 homebuyer tax credit, and an artificial suppressing of interest rates to 0 percent with $300 billion of mortgage-backed securities purchased by the Federal Reserve and Treasury. And all we’ve received is a 2.2 percent increase in GDP? The fourth quarter of 2009 will show a positive GDP as government spending and Federal Reserve quantitative easing have continued at a rapid clip. As the government stimulus winds down in the first half of 2010, the true weakness of the economy will reveal itself. I expect a double dip recession commencing by June of 2010. Read more ..

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