Saturday, May 31, 2014
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday, leaving President Obama a paper detailing the systemic malfunctioning in the VA and trying to open the door to the corrections needed to bring the agency back to working order. The 71-year-old Shinseki, a disabled Vietnam veteran who rose to General rank and served as Army chief of staff, was forced out amid investigators' troubling findings and the extreme Washington political focus on Shinseki's status, making him a sort of scapegoat for the President's inaction. Obama did not fire Shinseki, giving him the opportunity to submit his own report to the White House, set in motion a series of firings in the agency, and speak to veterans at a long-planned appearance Friday morning. ~~~~~ But the loss of General Shinseki is not the real problem. CNN's John King on Sunday's "Inside Politics," noted that : "More and more Democrats in key 2014 races are calling for the President to get a spine, they say, and more and more Democrats are privately calling the President and his team detached, flat-footed, even incompetent." King, CNN's chief national correspondent, said that Democrats have been saying privately since the HealthCare.gov opening debacle that "they see a President who doesn't want to take command, doesn't want to act fast." King also cited an Obama meeting with senators on foreign policy last week that he did not show up for. ~~~~~ The examples of Obama delays and inaction reach deep into domestic American policy, beyond the red flag that is Obamacare and its correlary in the VA medical service crisis. One example is Obama's holding up of approval of applications for liquefied natural gas exports that could total nearly 30 billion cubic feet per day. Some of the more than two dozen applications were filed as long ago as 2011 and early 2012. But Obama's Energy Department has consistently favored renewable energy sources over carbon-based fuels. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former chief economist of the US Department of Labor, told the media that : "America could sell natural gas to Europe and Asia, undercutting Russia's market, at no additional cost to the federal government." And, increased production would produce additional tax revenue for federal and state governments. Liquefied natural gas (LNG), mostly methane, is natural gas converted to liquid for ease of storage and transport. The companies that have filed applications for export permits could potentially export 29 billion cubic feet of LNG daily, and if the export process were not so difficult, more companies would likely invest in LNG exporting and apply for permits. The earliest application was filed in October 2011, and eight were filed in 2012. The United States has massive natural gas deposits that can now be accessed thanks to fracking and horizontal drilling techniques. In North Dakota, the average amount of “non-marketed” natural gas that is wasted was 0.31 billion cubic feet a day through the end of 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration. Furchtgott-Roth wrote for the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch that : "Most non-marketed natural gas is flared into the atmosphere like an open burner on a gas stove. Flaring gas releases CO2 as a byproduct of combustion, so it would be environmentally preferable for the gas to be sold." One-third of North Dakota's total production is flared. Allowing more exports would help the state's economy and increase America's gross domestic product. ~~~~~ Refusing to grant LNG export permits is just one Obama wrench in the US domestic economy. And, the attitude Obama represents is also found working its way through state governments led by Democrats. The 2014 edition of "Rich States, Poor States" - the ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index - is now available, and Utah is once again the state with the best economic outlook. The report was compiled by noted economist Arthur Laffer, along with economist Stephen Moore and Jonathan Williams, director of the Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The Economic Outlook rankings are compiled using 15 factors "that have a proven impact on the migration of capital - both investment and human - into and out of states," the authors noted. "Each of these factors is influenced directly by state lawmakers through the legislative process." The 15 factors include the top marginal personal income tax rate, the top marginal corporate income tax rate, personal income tax progressivity, property tax burden, sales tax burden, and overall tax burden. Also considered are debt service as a share of tax revenue, public employees per 10,000 population, state minimum wage, average workers' compensation costs, number of tax expenditure limits, quality of the state's legal system, recently legislated tax changes, whether a state has an estate/inheritance tax and whether it is a right-to-work state. Utah ranks No. 1 for economic outlook, as it has every year since 2008. South Dakota is No. 2, followed by Indiana, North Dakota, Idaho, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Wyoming. In last place at No. 50 is New York, which has finished in that slot or at No. 49 every year since 2008. Vermont has the second-lowest ranking, followed by Illinois, California, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut, Montana, Oregon, and Rhode Island. "Generally speaking, states that spend less - especially on income transfer programs - and states that tax less, particularly on productive activities such as working or investing, experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more," according to the report, which also offers Economic Performance Rankings, ranking the states over the past 10 years on three variables : Gross Domestic Product, Absolute Domestic Migration, and Non-Farm Payroll Employment. Texas ranks at the top of the list, leading the nation in Absolute Domestic Migration and finishing in the top five in the other two variables. Utah is No. 2, followed by Wyoming. North Dakota is ranked No. 4 thanks to its top rankings in the Gross Domestic Product and Non-Farm Payroll Employment categories. Rounding out the top 10 are Montana, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Idaho. Michigan is at the bottom of the list, ranking No. 50 in the Gross Domestic Product and Non-Farm Payroll Employment categories and No. 50 overall. Ohio is No. 49, followed by New Jersey, Rhode Island, Illinois, Connecticut, Wisconsin, California, Maine, and Massachusetts. ALEC is a nonpartisan organization of state legislators, made up of nearly one-third of America's state elected officials. ~~~~~ Dear readers, in the ALEC economic success rankings, Republican states are largely at the top and Democratic states generally at the bottom. It is not too difficult to see that the same Obama tax-and-spend-and-overregulate mentality that is keeping America from fully recovering from the great recession and regaining its normal level of economic activity is also at work in tax-and-spend-and-overregulate Democrat-led states. General Shinseki paid the price for agreeing to remain in service under such a non-functioning President. Americans who elect Democrats to governorships and legislatures pay the same economic price. Those who voted for Obama and his Democratic followers in the US Senate and House are forcing all Americans to pay the same economic price. There is a clear and directly useful solution. Vote Republican in November.
Friday, May 30, 2014
The 25-year-old Pakistani woman, Farzana Parveen, who was bludgeoned to death outside the Lahore High Court by her family for marrying a man of her own choice, was dead by the time police were able to intervene. Parveen's husband, Muhammad Iqbal, has maintained that officers stood by as the attack took place. Meanwhile, Iqbal himself has admitted killing his first wife six years ago in order to marry Parveen. And allegedly, the dead woman's family killed her older sister by poisoning her some years ago in another "honor killing." Parveen, who was three months pregnant, was waiting outside the Court to answer questions in a case brought by her family, alleging that her marriage was a ruse because she had been kidnapped, a lie according to her and her husband. She was pelted with bricks and bludgeoned by relatives furious because she married against their wishes. In a report given to the chief minister of Punjab state on Friday, police say one of Parveen's relatives accosted her "several hundred feet" from the court premises and shot her in the shin. There was no police deployment in that area, the report says, but a police inspector happened to be nearby and managed to snatch away the gun. However, according to the police, a scuffle ensued between about 20 members of Parveen's family and 10 to 15 of Iqbal's, during which one of Parveen's brothers struck her with a brick three times, wounding her fatally. Police say one of Parveen's uncles, two of her cousins, and the driver who brought them to Lahore were arrested on Friday. Her father surrendered to police shortly after the killing. ~~~~~ Unfolding events since Farzana Parveen's murder on Tuesday have transformed a case of "honour killing" into a tale of love, greed and murder. There is the man who admits to having killed an earlier wife. Iqbal himself has admitted that he killed his first wife six years ago in order to be able to marry Parveen. Iqbal's son by his first marriage, Aurangzeb, told the BBC that relatives persuaded him to forgive Iqbal, enabling his release from prison under Pakistani law. "They said that my mother was gone anyway and would never return, and that I had two younger brothers to take care of," Aurangzeb said. "So if my father came back, our life would be much better. And he was my father after all. So I agreed," the son added. In addition, we have a dead woman who the police claim was already someone else's legally wedded wife - which would make her an adulteress under Pakistani law. This has not been confirmed. And, the father, brothers and cousins who are accused of murdering Parveen are also said to have killed a woman of the family before. Parveen's stepson says she had told him that her older sister had also been killed by the family. In that case the sister had reportedly refused to leave her husband. A police spokesman told the BBC they could not confirm this allegation, and there has been no comment from Parveen's family. ~~~~~ All of this reflects a deeply conservative society which tends to condone such crimes, and is helped by a set of Islamic laws dating from the 1980s that "privatise" murder as a crime against the individual instead of the state, and give the heirs of the victim the right to pardon the killer or accept "blood money" instead of legal action. There is also a Lahore High Court decision ruling that "honor killings" are not murder, in a 1980s case in which a murder conviction was overturned. So there is often minimal police interest in such cases and few successful prosecutions. This atmosphere of impunity probably encouraged Parveen's relatives to kill her in broad daylight. ~~~~~ There are hundreds of so-called "honour killings" in Pakistan each year. In 2013 alone, 869 women were murdered in so called "honour killings." Campaigners say the real number is likely to be much higher, with many such killings believed to be disguised as accidents, or not reported at all. Of the 2013 killings, 359 were so-called "Karo Kari" cases, whereby family members consider themselves authorised to kill offending relatives to restore honour. Rights groups say the conviction rate in cases of sexual and other violence against women is "critically low." The latest Parveen incident has prompted particular outrage, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif describing it as "totally unacceptable." Arranged marriages are the norm in Pakistan, and to marry against the wishes of the family is unthinkable in many deeply conservative communities. After an urgent appeal for action from the prime minister, the police on Thursday night arrested Parveen’s uncle, two cousins and a driver employed by her family. They are accused of participating in a crowd of about 30 men, said to have been led by her father and two brothers, who surrounded Parveen, 25, as she was bludgeoned to death. Her father turned himself in - or was arrested - the same day the killing took place. Meanwhile, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday strongly deplored the incident, urging the Pakistan government to do much more to prevent such killings : “I am deeply shocked by the death of Farzana Parveen, who, as in the case of so many other women in Pakistan, was brutally murdered by members of her own family simply because she married a man of her own choice. I do not even wish to use the phrase ‘honour killing’ : there is not the faintest vestige of honour in killing a woman in this way,” she added in a news release, which also noted that Pakistan has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. “Every year, hundreds of women are killed in Pakistan as a punishment for marrying a man their families have not chosen or for refusing an arranged marriage....The Pakistani Government must take urgent and strong measures to put an end to the continuous stream of so-called ‘honour killings’ and other forms of violence against women,” said Ms. Pillay. “They must also make a much greater effort to protect women like Farzana Parveen. The fact that she was killed on her way to court, shows a serious failure by the State to provide security for someone who - given how common such killings are in Pakistan - was obviously at risk.” The UN General Assembly, in three separate resolutions in 2001, 2003 and 2005, called on Member States to intensify legislative, educational, social and other efforts to prevent and eliminate “honour”-based crimes and to bring the perpetrators to justice. ~~~~~ Dear readers, this terrible story has reverberated around the world. One Pakistani minister described it as 'the government trying to pull Pakistan into the 21st century while others are trying to drag it back into the 8th century.' It is easy to say that this is just one more example of the violence against women prevalent in Moslem societies. But it is more. It is the preying upon ignorant and superstitious villagers by islamist extremists, such as the Taliban, who use ignorance as a tool to ensnare and subdue whole areas. It is also the result of Pakistan's government turning a blind eye to violence against women -- "honor killings," acid attacks, death or maiming by kerosene dousing and burning of brides and young wives whom husbands and their families don't like or whose families cannot pay the extra dowries demanded and who won't take their daughters back - again a matter of "honor." And so the young women are left to be burned alive. It is a gruesome culture that finds no value in women. Pakistan alone can turn the page on it. And today, a small step may have been taken. The Punjab State Prime Minister ordered the arrested family members to be tried in an anti-terrorist court with maximum possible penalties to be sought. Fear of the law is part of the equation. Educating girls and teaching young boys to respect women is another part. And a word to my American readers - it is also why an American presence in Afghanistan is so important. Without it, not only will the Taliban plot and carry out terrorist attacks. They will barbarically brutalize women and girls.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
In a move that would significantly boost US support to Syrian rebels who have long sought military help in their quest to oust President Bashar al-Assad, the White House may soon sign off on a project to train and equip 'moderate' rebel forces. President Barack Obama is weighing sending a limited number of American troops to Jordan to be part of a regional tactical and counterterrorism operations training mission that would instruct carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army, according to administration officials, who say that Obama has not yet given final approval for the initiative and said there is still internal discussion about its merits and potential risks. However, the State Department, Pentagon and US intelligence community, and many in Congress who back the move, have concluded al-Assad will not budge without a change in the military situation on the ground, according to the officials. In addition, there are growing fears about the threat posed by al-Qaida-linked and-inspired extremists fighting in Syria, the officials said. The Senate Armed Services Committee last week passed a defense bill that authorizes the Defense Department to provide training and equipment to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition. The US already has covert aid in place and has spent $287 million so far in nonlethal aid on the civil war, now in its fourth year. For three years, rebel commanders have been asking the US for lethal assistance as they've watched their gains being wiped out one after another, but the US has been reluctant to move to that kind of aid for fear weapons could end up in the hands of extremist rebels who might then turn on neighboring Israel or against US interests. State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki told reporters that an array of options to support moderate al-Assad foes remained under consideration, saying that the US views Syria as a counterterrorism situation. If Obama okays the training program, America would lead the effort but would be joined by regional countries already active in assisting the rebels, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi cooperation is critical and has been a topic of conversation between Washington and Riyadh, including Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, in recent weeks, the officials said. High-level discussions are ongoing between the United States and Jordan, including King Abdullah's meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's meeting with the King in Amman. Over the weekend, Jordan expelled the Syrian ambassador as part of what is planned to be an escalation in the effort to isolate al-Assad, who is running for re-election in a June vote that the US and its allies have condemned as a farce. The US currently has roughly 1,500 military troops in Jordan, in addition to the approximately 6,000 that recently arrived there for a limited time to participate in the annual Eager Lion military exercise. Eager Lion 2014 includes members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, as well as US ships and aircraft. The exercise started this past weekend. Last year, after Eager Lion 2013 finished, the US left a detachment of F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot missile battery there and about 1,000 personnel associated with the aircraft and the missile system. There also is a staff of about 400 US military in Jordan and there were troops there to assist the Jordanians with chemical weapons training. The last session was in April and another is scheduled for June. ~~~~~ But the official State and Defense Department remarks may not tell the entire story because an American PBS documentary features interviews by journalist Muhammad Ali with Syrian rebels presented as members of a “moderate faction” who describe a clandestine meeting with their “American handlers” in Turkey, along with the receiving of weapons and ammunition and their subsequent travel to Qatar for training at a Qatar base, said to be on the border with Saudi Arabia. The rebels allegedly received three weeks of training in the use of sophisticated weapons and fighting techniques, and also received new uniforms and boots. “They trained us to ambush regime or enemy vehicles and cut off the road,” a fighter identified only as 'Hussein' told Ali. “They also trained us on how to attack a vehicle, raid it, retrieve information or weapons and munitions, and how to finish off soldiers still alive after an ambush,” masked rebel said. ~~~~~ And in the run-up to the farcical "re-election" of Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria, those Syrians living in Lebanon have descended on Beirut in the thousands, blocking roads and causing massive disturbznces. We might think they are protesting the election - but, no, they are voting for al-Assad, in part so that if al-Assad wins the civil war, their names will be recorded on his side - just one of the al-Assad regime's terrotist tactics. On Tuesday, Lebanese troops subdued a crowd of frenzied Syrian voters who tried to storm their embassy in Beirut to vote for President Bashar al-Assad, as non-resident balloting started. Lebanese troops beat back the crowd of Syrians and brought the situation under control on Wednesday. Anti-al-Assad rebels and their Western allies have labeled the election on June 5 a sham meant to bolster Bashar al-Assad's fake position of legitimacy. ~~~~~ Since the bad news about Syria never stops, we must also report that amud accusations that the al-Assad regime recently used chlorine gas against a rebel-held location, members of an international fact-finding mission into the alleged chlorine attacks in Syria were ambushed on Tuesday and briefly held by gunmen in rebel-held territory, the global chemical weapons watchdog said Wednesday. Releasing details of the violent attack on its inspectors a day earlier, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said a joint OPCW-United Nations convoy was first hit by a roadside bomb and then sprayed by automatic gunfire as it headed toward Kfar Zeita, a rebel-held village in Hama province 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Damascus. The attack came despite careful preparations for the trip with both the al-Assad regime and regional rebels, according to the OPCW. The group was allowed to return to Damascus, saying it would continue its work by closely monitoring the situation in Syria and using all possible means to collect information and data needed to establish the facts surrounding allegations that chlorine gas has been used in Syria," the OPCW said. Spokesmen for the Peace Prize-winning OPCW said the attack will not prevent it from "raising its voice against the cruelty of use of toxic chemicals to kill and harm indiscriminately." ~~~~~ Dear readers, 18 months ago it was already very late to provide what is now being called "lethal" aid to the Syrian rebels. Since the beginning of 2013, the rebel ranks have been infiltrated and taken over by jihadist-extremists. Further, the rebels, desperate for military material, originally welcomed the jihadists, who were their only source of help. Now, with the Syria Free Army driven out of Homs and back toward the Syrian northern borders, Barack Obama has apparently decided it is time to help the SFA and the rebel units on the ground by training them in counterterrorism operations and tactics. If Obama had acted promptly, counterterrorism would never have been an issue in Syria. But, having fiddled while Syria burned, Barack "Nero" Obama is now attempting to counter the terrorists that his inaction permitted to invade Syria. President Obama may tell West Point cadets that his foreign policy has been a perfect success -- but the horrific truth on the ground in Syria is Exhibit 'A' in the case against Barack Obama and his almost complete mismanagement of his responsibilities to protect the Middle East and the world. If having the best military in the world, as the President put it at West Point, is "a hammer," Barack Obama has failed miserably in not using it to hit al-Assad and save Syria.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Maya Angelou is dead. She was bigger than life. Her deep voice, her imposing presence and personality, her fearless words. Gone. She was perhaps the last authentic American literary figure. I met her once at a poetry reading she gave. If you ever heard Angelou's voice in person, you never forgot it. But it was her eyes, her intense gaze, whether in person or on television, that anchored your soul. She was Honesty, Power, Humanity and Love - and she transferred it all in her regard. She was Black...White...Indian. She was American. She will live as long as America. She will not, cannot, be replaced. Rest in Peace. Here is an obituary that gives an idea of Maya Angelou's immense presence. http://news.yahoo.com/university-poet-author-maya-angelou-dies-86-134624581.html?soc_src=mediacontentstory
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
The city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine was in turmoil on Tuesday, a day after government forces stopped pro-Russia separatists from taking over the airport. Dozens were reported killed and the mayor went on television to urge residents to stay indoors. On Monday, the separatists were repelled by government forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships. AP journalists reported that they witnessed intensive gun fire throughout the day and into the night. As rising black smoke marked the fighting, officials shut down Donetsk airport and nearby streets to traffic. The Donetsk mayor said 40 people, including two civilians, were killed in Monday's fighting. Rebel leaders said the deaths could reach 100 in Monday's fighting, adding that many bodies had not been recovered because they were in areas under government control. He said the morgue at Kalinin was too small to hold all the bodies and authorities were searching for refrigerator trucks pending identification of the dead. The separatists also asserted that up to half of the dead could be civilians, the Russian ITAR-Tass news agency reported. Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for Kiev's anti-terrorist operation, wrote on his Facebook account that the military presented an ultimatum early on Monday afternoon to unknown armed men who had occupied the airport to lay down their arms. The airstrikes began when the insurgents did not comply. The battles in Donetsk came just as billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko claimed victory in Sunday's presidential election, and there was speculation that the separatists were attempting to seize the Donetsk airport to prevent the new president ftom visiting eastern Ukraine as he promised to do. ~~~~~ In related news, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Tuesday it had lost contact with a four-person monitoring team last heard from outside Donetsk, the site of fierce battles between Ukrainian troops and insurgents. In April, pro-Russia separatists took a similar OSCE team hostage and held them for a week. And, separatist attacks continued early Tuesday when a group of unidentified men, said to be Russian, stormed Donetsk's main ice-hockey arena - which had been set to host the 2015 world championships - and set it ablaze, according to the mayor's office. In the neighboring Luhansk region, the Ukrainian Border Guards Service said that its officers engaged in a gunbattle with a group of gunmen who were trying to break through the border from Russia. It said one intruder was wounded and the border guards seized several vehicles loaded with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket grenade launchers and explosives. The Border Guard also reported that as many as 40 trucks filled with troops were lined up on the Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine border, ready to enter eastern Ukraine. Speaking at a televised government session on Tuesday, Vitaly Yarema, a deputy prime minister in the interim Ukraine cabinet said the "anti-terrorist operation" in eastern Ukraine will go on "until all the militants are annihilated." ~~~~~ Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned the newly elected Ukraine President Poroshenko against trying to win a quick military victory before his inauguration, saying that it would be "unlikely to create favorable conditions for a hospitable welcome in the Donetsk region." Lavrov promised that Russia will be Poroshenko's "serious and reliable partner" if he moved to negotiate an end to hostilities. Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow. Upon claiming victory, he said his first step as president would be to visit the troubled east. He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to establish stability and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow. Lavrov welcomed Poroshenko's promise to negotiate with people in the east and said Moscow was ready for direct talks with Poroshenko - without the United States or the European Union as mediators. But Ukraine's acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine has no intention of talking to Russia directly : "Bilateral talks without the presence of the United States and the European Union do not seem possible under current conditions," he said. Moscow has denied accusations by the authorities in Kiev and the West that it has fomented the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. While Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, he has stonewalled the eastern separatists' appeal to join Russia. Russia, however, has kept pushing Ukraine to decentralize its government, which would give more power to the regions and allow Moscow to keep eastern Ukraine in its sphere of influence. Putin said before Sunday's presidential election that Moscow would accept the election results and engage in dialogue with the winner. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday: "The question of a visit to Russia by Poroshenko is not being considered and is not being discussed through diplomatic or any other channels." He again called on Poroshenko to stop military operations in eastern Ukraine mmediately and implement the roadmap for peace negotiated in Geneva on 17 April. Speaking at a news conference in Moscow, he said a "real war" was under way in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The regions declared independence after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in the wake of the removal of Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich. ~~~~~ Dear readers, Vladimir Putin has wasted no time after Sunday's election in calling for the Ukrainian army to immediately end its operation against pro-Russian separatists, after dozens were killed in bloody clashes Monday on the order of the new Ukraine president. Since Sunday's presidential election, the Russian President also has increased pressure on Kiev to start a dialogue with separatist leaders as fighting continues. The Kremlin said President Putin had spoken to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (Renzi will assume the 6-month rotating presidency of the EU in June) by telephone and “underscored the need for an immediate halt to the punitive military operation in the southeastern regions and the establishment of peaceful dialogue between Kiev and representatives of the regions." Russia said it started to withdraw troops stationed along its border with Ukraine since the start of the crisis but Nato and Ukraine Border Guard units say many remain. The only 'given' in the Ukraine crisis is that it will not be settled without the agreement of Vladimir Putin. Even the Swedish foreign minister told CNN on Monday that there is no way to take Crimea back from Putin. So, we are faced with a new Ukraine president who is able to be more aggressive than the interim government. But he is saddled with an army much too small to successfully take on Russia's. And he has as allies a Europe and America whose only agreed tactic is economic sanctions against Russia. Putin has already turned this into a new long-term gas supply contract with China. So, not only has Vladimir Putin frozen the West into inaction in Ukraine, he has parried his position into a lucrative deal with China, and perhaps he has thus opened the door for a new Russia-China strategic alliance. But, it may be that the election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine's president will have an unintended positive effect - Vladimir Putin is used to dealing with billionaires - he created some when he turned loose the Russian oligarchs to strip Russian industry bare and re-form it for their and his benefit. Petro Poroshenko is a billionaire. Perhaps he and Putin speak a common language - money.
Monday, May 26, 2014
After Sunday's European Parliament elections - the assembly that is the legislative arm of the European Union - there are now 145 Euroskeptic, that is, anti-EU, members of the 710-member European Parliament, an historic high. In simple terms, 20% of the EU Parliament wants to disband and eliminate the EU. ~~~~~ The anti-EU results were evident all over the EU -- Hungary 15%, Austria 20%, Greece 35%, UK 29% (the outright winner over the Tories and Labor, the first time a third party has beat the UK's major parties in a national election), Denmark 27% (the winner over Denmark's major parties), The Netherlands 15%, Germany 6% (an anti-Euro currency party), but German Chancellor Merkel's conservative coalition won the election, as did the center-left coalition of Matteo Renzi, the new Italian prime minister, winning at 44%. The Italian anti-EU party won 20% of the vote. ~~~~~ But, the real shock came in France, where the Front National, considered an extreme right wing party, was the outright winner of the European Parliament elections, taking 25% of the vote. The FN went from 3 to 24 European Parliament seats in the French delegation - ahead of the conservative UMP Party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, at 20%, and the Socialist Party of current French President François Hollande, at 13.9%. This is the first time a third party has beat both major parties in a French national election. The FN did well in the March municipal elections, taking control of 6 cities, and now is the leader in the French EU parlianentary delegation. This is French President Hollande's second big electoral loss in two months. In March his Socialist Party suffered an historic loss of mayoral elections. The French Socialist Party is in crisis meetings today. The FN has called for Hollande - whose personal positive polls hover around 20%, the lowest ever for any French president - to dissolve the Assemblée Nationale and hold new French legislative elections. The UMP is talking about trying to pull back into the conservative fold those centrist break-off parties formed around failed conservative presidential candidates. ~~~~~ What is the problem in France? The French are fed up with the Socialist government's inability to address two major problems - high taxes and high unemployment. The French pay an average of 45.9% of their income in taxes of various types, with the richest French paying 100% and more of their income in taxes - causing some of them to leave France and even renounce their citizenship. In March 2014, French unemployment reached a new record high : almost 3.35 million out of work in France, a +12% rate. President Hollande's main election pledge was to cut unemployment massively and durably; but under his government, unemployment has increased by about 140,000. The public deficit in 2014 was 4.3% of GNP, meaning that the government missed its target of 4.1%, and seems unlikely to reach the EU-imposed target of 3% in 2015. Public spending in France, among the highest levels in the world, reached 57.1% of GNP in 2013 (Figures from INSEE - the French government statistical office). Payroll taxes are at 43%, the highest in the world by far. All of France is fed up with politicians, whether socialist or conservative, and so 1 in 4 of them voted yesterday for the FN - whose platform is accused of being anti-semitic (FN founder Jean-Marie LePen is by all accounts anti-semitic but today's younger FN leaders seem not to be). The current FN message is twofold : control immigration, and leave the EU and the Euro currency in order to save France economically and to re-establish France's national identity. It is a message that resonates all over France and across most party and social lines. And the FN has captured the French youth vote, largely because they bear the brunt of high unemployment - 30% of FN voters are under 35, compared to 15% for the French conservative and socialist parties. ~~~~~ And it is the FN message that is also resonating all over a Europe alienated from an EU commission and parliament that have changed their lives fundamentally by enacting measures seen as attempts to destroy national identities and replace them with a "European" identity. Added to that is the Euro, seen as raising prices out of proportion to national salary levels and favoring Germany's industrial export-driven economy over other European economic models. The abstention rate across the EU yesterday was 57%, a warning in itself of the general disillusionment with the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker resigned last night as EU Commission president. He may be re-elected, not by EU voters, but by EU heads of state - like many other EU elections, a major disenfranchisement problem. German Chancellor Merkel called the results "regrettable." Other German ministers called the election a "serious warning." The French prime minister called them "an earthquake." Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) told Reuters TV : "The legitimacy of France in Europe is weakened. To function, Europe needs a strong balance between France and Germany. But France is moving the way of Italy or Greece in economic terms and moving the way of Britain in its relationship with Europe." ~~~~~ Dear readers, why spend so much space on EU parliamentary elections and French national politics? Because what is happening in Europe is the direct result of two EU political errors in judgment -- First, that governments can spend and tax forever, with no day of reckoning, as France and other EU countries are doing. Compare - the United States is enroute in 2014 to collect a record high $3 trillion in taxes, but federal expenditures will be €3.6 trillion, leaving a $600 billion hole to fill with borrowing that will raise the national debt. Second, democracies are based on voters who choose what they want from political leaders. French and other EU voters have reached the choke point about how the EU should function in their lives and what they will permit the Euro currency to do short of impoverishing them. So, they voted yesterday. It was a day of reckoning. That day of reckoning will come in November in the US, when Americans vote for their federal legislature - the House and Senate. Voters do have a powerful voice. Use yours.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
In a trip packed with symbolism, Pope Francis arrived in Jordan Saturday to start an intensive three-day trip to the Middle East, bringing hope to the shrinking Christian population and appealing to members of all religions to work together for peace. Patriarch Louis Sako, Iraq's senior Churchman, told reporters on the eve of the visit: "This is not a protocol visit. This pope feels the pain of Christians and his arrival at this time as peoples of this region are going through conflict, killings and destruction is a message of common living. It's an appeal that everyone in this region should have the courage to review their positions, to get out of this suffocating crisis." The shrinking of the Christian population has accelerated because of Arab revolts, the Syria civil war, and the rise of radical Islam. "We are waiting impatiently for a word of peace from the pope that will raise morale. People in the street are asking what message will the pope carry," Sako said. It is the first visit to the region by Francis, who met Jordan's King Abdullah and Queen Rania and their children, thanking the King for "serene" Christian-Moslem relations in Jordan and for Jordan's acceptance of Syrian refugees, which Francis said deserved the world's appreciation and support. Addressing King Abdullah at the start of his visit, Francis praised the Western-backed Kingdom for its efforts : "to seek lasting peace for the entire region. This great goal urgently requires that a peaceful solution be found to the crisis in Syria, as well as a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The pope also said a Mass in an Amman stadium for 25,000 Christians and refugees, where 1,400 children received their first communion, and afterward met refugees from Syria and Iraq in Bethany on the banks of the Jordan River, where tradition says Jesus was baptised. During this meeting Francis left his prepared script : "I ask who is selling arms to them [Syrians] so they can make war?" Christians make up about 5% of Syria's population, but assaults on Christian-majority towns by rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's rule have caused the country's religious minorities to fear the growing role of Islamic extremists in the revolt. Christians believe they are being targeted because of anti-Christian sentiment among Sunni Muslim extremists and as punishment for what is seen as their support for al-Assad, whose regime historically protected them. ~~~~~ On Sunday, Francis flies by helicopter to Bethlehem, for a six-hour visit to what the Vatican's official program calls "the State of Palestine," a term Israel rejects. In 2012, the Vatican angered Israel by supporting a vote in the UN General Assembly that recognized Palestine's de facto statehood, which Israel argues should come through negotiations. The Vatican says the term reflects the General Assembly decision. The pope's visit, and the fact that he is flying directly from Jordan to Bethlehem, bypassing Israel's security barrier from Jerusalem, is seen by Palestinians as a major morale builder. To underscore his conviction that all three great monotheistic faiths can live together in the region and overcome the political stalemate, Francis has enlisted a rabbi and an Islamic leader as part of his travelling papal delegation for the first time. The two - Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, head of the Argentinian Moslem community - are friends dating from Francis' time as Cardinal in his native Argentina, and "an extremely strong and explicit signal" about the importance of inter-religious dialogue in the region, said Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. ~~~~~ Francis flies to Israel on Sunday night for a 32-hour 16-event visit. Threats to Christians have been scrawled by presumed Jewish radicals on Church property in the Holy Land. One read : "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel." Archbishop Fouad Twal, Jerusalem's top Catholic official, said : "Their writings desecrate our religious symbols." Israeli security forces moved to prevent radicals from carrying out a major action against the Christian population or institutions during Francis' visit by issuing restraining orders against several Jewish right-wing activists for the duration of the pope's visit. Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the Vatican No. 2, said Francis, while in Israel, would also emphasize the Vatican's longstanding two-state position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is : "The right of Israel to exist and enjoy peace and security inside its internationally recognized borders, and the right of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign independent homeland, freedom of movement and the right to live in dignity." ~~~~~ Formally, the main reason for the trip is for Francis and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem of Pope Paul VI and the Orthodox Patriarch that ended 900 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That commemoration will come on Sunday when Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I preside over a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Leaders from other churches will also be present. ~~~~~ PAPAL.VISIT HIGHLIGHTS. *The pope insisted on meeting "ordinary people" and so children were chosen from "families with someone who was martyred, injured or jailed - and also some ordinary people as well", to meet the pope at the Palestine Phoenix Centre. Each child will wear a T-shirt with the name of the village the family was originally displaced from. *After negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican, Francis' route through Bethlehem will take him within a few meters of an imposing section of the Israeli separation wall that cuts the old road from Jerusalem to Hebron near Rachel's Tomb. There will be refugees from two camps lining either side of the road. The routing will create a photo opportunity that places Francis against the backdrop of one of the most visible signs of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. *Unlike Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the only large-scale open mass of Francis' visit - for some 9,000 people - will be in Manger Square, Bethlehem. *In Jerusalem, Palestinian residents say that because of security operations surrounding Francis while he is in the Holy City, it is unlikely they will see him. *Francis will meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the presidential compound in Bethlehem, but the pope's official meetings with Israeli political leaders have been arranged to avoid the contentious international status of occupied East Jerusalem. So, he will be officially welcomed to Israel by President Shimon Peres after flying by helicopter to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv from Bethlehem. His private meeting with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wil be at the Notre Dame center, which is Vatican Holy Land sovereign territory. *The most controversial part of the pope's trip will be a visit to the Cenacle – or "the room of the Last Supper" - in Jerusalem. It is located on the second floor of a stone complex on the remains of a Byzantine church in the Old City. Before the Ottoman period, the building was administered by the Catholic Franciscan order until the mid-16th century. The site is also considered sacred by Moslems and by Jews who say it is the site of the Tomb of King David. It has been the focus of two decades of negotiations between the Vatican and Israel over religious access for Christians, who are permitted to visit and pray there but not usually to celebrate mass. *Francis will visit holy sites of the three monotheistic religions : the Western Wall, al-Aqsa mosque and the churches of the Nativity and Holy Sepulchre. Some Christian faithful complain that there is more emphasis on inter-faith relations than on the local faithful. *Francis will visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. *Like all heads of state who visit Israel, Francis will lay a wreath at the grave of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl on Mount Herzl. Rabbi Skorka, Francis' friend,said last week : "That is a meaningful act. He understands the importance of the land of Israel and the state of Israel to the Jewish people." ~~~~~ Dear readers, this will help you follow Francis in the Middle East. We can hope that this straight-speaking pope may be able to do for the region what no one else has done - open hearts to the possibility of peace and brotherhood. While there will be no immediate miracles, we may hope that Francis will remain in contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to temper their relationship. Francis could also lend support to Jordan's King Abdullah as a means to influence the Syrian war. The UN and President Obama have abandoned their posts. Can Pope Francis fill the void?
Friday, May 23, 2014
Controversy in the United States is again emerging over the use of lethal injection drugs, after the botched execution in Oklahoma that left the condemned man writhing on the gurney and dying of a heart attack ten minutes later. But, Tennessee has found a way around the issue: it is bringing back the electric chair -- this is not a bad political film, it is reality. Eight states authorize execution by electrocution, but only at the inmate's discretion. However, Tennessee is the first state to make the use of the electric chair mandatory when lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed the measure into law Thursday after it passed the Tennessee House, 68 to 13, and the Senate, 23 to 3. "This is unusual and might be both cruel and unusual punishment," according to Richard Dieter, president of the Death Penalty Information Center. Thirty-two states have the death penalty and all of them rely at least in part on lethal injection. Fewer than a dozen states regularly carry out executions, among them Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas, which accounts for 40% of those executed in the US. The federal government also uses lethal injection but rarely carries out executions. The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual. It upheld the firing squad in 1879, the electric chair in 1890 and lethal injection in 2008. The Court has made it clear over the years that the Eighth Amendment prohibits inflicting pain merely to torture or punish an inmate, drawing a distinction between a method like electrocution and mediaeval and renaissance European practices such as drawing and quartering. The Constitution prohibits “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” the Court said in 1976. Since then, US states and the federal government have updated execution methods in their efforts to find more humane ways to put condemned criminals to death. First used by New York State in 1890, the electric chair was employed throughout the 20th century to execute hundreds and is still an option in eight states. Since 1976, 158 condemned people have been executed by electrocution. It was considered humane when it was first introduced but has resulted in many horrific executions. In 2000, Florida changed from the electric chair to injection after bungled electrocutions raised concerns that the state’s death penalty would be declared unconstitutional. ~~~~~ America is not in the majority of the world's countries when it comes to the death penalty. China executed more people than any other country last year. Although Chinese authorities treat official execution statistics as a state secret, Amnesty International estimates thousands are killed under the death penalty every year, more than the rest of the world combined. Excluding China, executions rose to at least 778 last year, up from 682 in 2012. Iran was second after China, with at least 369 put to death by the state, followed by Iraq (169), Saudi Arabia (79), and the United States (39). The United States was the only country in the Americas that carried out executions, although use of the death penalty declined last year, to 39 executions from 43 in 2012. In total, 22 countries practiced capital punishment last year, one more than in 2012. Four of those countries - Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vietnam - resumed executions after pauses in the practice. There are now officially 23,000 people on death row somewhere in the world. ~~~~~ According to the prestigious Pew polling organization, since 1996, the margin between Americans who favor the death penalty and those who oppose it has narrowed from a 60-point gap (78% favor vs 18% oppose) to an 18-point difference in 2013 (55% favor vs 37% oppose). Among most large American religious groups, majorities support capital punishment. Roughly six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (67%), white mainline Protestants (64%) and white Catholics (59%) support the death penalty. By contrast, black Protestants are more likely to oppose the death penalty than support it (58% vs 33%), as are Hispanic Catholics (54% vs 37%). The differences among religious groups reflect the overall racial and ethnic picture of support for capital punishment. Twice as many white Americans favor the death penalty as oppose it (63% vs 30%). Among black adults, the balance of opinion is reversed: 55% oppose capital punishment, while 36% support it. The margin is narrower among Hispanics, but more oppose the death penalty (50%) than support it (40%). ~~~~~ Dear readers, you know that I'm opposed to capital punishment. Some ask me why I support war while opposing the death penalty. My answer is that wars are fought by countries or groups with different views of how people should form and regulate their societies. The losing side will be forced into a position not unlike servitude, with their lives and social conventions uprooted. One thinks of western Europe under Nazi occupation. So killing is permitted in wars as one of the means to preserve societies. But, the death penalty is administered to someone who is already captive. They are incarcerated and without power to inflict pain or death to anyone. All that would be required is to install life sentences without possibility of parole to continue their captivity until death. Yes, it's expensive, but it saves the collective American conscience from being torn apart morally. I believe that the United States will finally abolish capital punishment and join the large and growing portion of the world that already has. The death penalty is on the wrong side of ethics, morality and religion, including American protestant Christianity. It puts America on the side of dictators and gulag-enforced totalitarianism. I do not mean that America is either a dictatorship or a totalitarian state -- it is most assuredly not. But its moral authority in the world is needlessly tarnished by state-sanctioned executions. The Italian film director who made Cinema Paradiso has recrntly made a film called Baaria - the story of three generations of Sicilians. In the film, the lead character Peppino says : "A reformist is someone who realizes that, when you bang your head on a wall, it's the head that breaks rather than the wall." That's how I usually feel about opposing capital punishment in America. But the time will come when that wall will break and my head will see the daylight on the other side of the wall.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
China features in today's news, in two events related to terrorism and rebellion. ~~~~~ Attackers threw bombs from two SUVs as they plowed through shoppers at a busy street market in China's restive northwestern region of Xinjiang on Thursday, killing 31 people and wounding more than 90, according to local officials. Eyewitnesses said the cars drove toward each other, tossing explosives as they went, and then plowed into each other head on, causing further explosions. The attack in the city of Urumqi was the bloodiest in a series of violent incidents over recent months that Chinese authorities have blamed on radical separatists from the country's Moslem Uighur minority. Xinjiang Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Moslems. They make up about 45% of the region's population and 40% are ethnic Han Chinese. China re-established control in Xinjiang in 1949 after crushing a short-lived rebellion in the state of East Turkestan. Since then, China has undertaken large-scale immigration of Han Chinese, and Uighurs fear erosion of their traditional culture. Some Uighurs say their traditions are being crushed - a charge that sounds very much like the Tibetan charge that China is sending Han Chinese as immigrants to Tibet in an effort to destroy Tibetan culture and bring Tibet under control. Uighur activists contend that restrictive and discriminatory policies favoring the ethnic Chinese immigrants are fueling the bloodshed. Experts say that the knowledge that Moslems elsewhere are rising up against their governments also contributes to the insurrection. An air flight from Shanghai to Urumqi was diverted Thursday and landed at Nanjing for security reasons, the official Chinese Xinhua news agency reported. In other related Chinese government action, security measures have been announced for key areas of Beijing. Xinjiang lies in China's far west, bordering Central Asia. China says it is pouring money into the region. In 2009, tensions erupted and riots in Urumqi left 200 people dead. Beijing blames the tension between China and the Uighurs on a series of violent incidents by Uighur separatists, including an attack in Beijing, where a car ploughed into pedestrians in Tiananmen Square, killing five people, and attacks at railway stations in Urumqi and Kunming. Earlier this week, Chinese courts jailed 39 people as part of what the authorities called an operation to curb the spread of audio and video materials inciting terrorism. Those jailed included a 25-year old who had incited hatred in comments made in chat rooms and a father who had preached extremism to his son, the Xinjiang Supreme Court said. ~~~~~ Also today, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have referred the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes. The vetoes prompting angry responses from the proposal's supporters who said Russia and China are blocking justice and should be ashamed. This is the fourth time the two countries have used their veto power as permanent Security Council members to prevent action against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Sixty-five countries supported the French-drafted resolution that demanded a path to justice in the conflict, which has entered its fourth year, has cost 160,000 lives and has displaced millions of people since it began in March 2011. France circulated the proposal last month after briefing the Security Council on the photographic evidence of systematic mass killings of detainees, some by starvation, provided by the anonymous "Caesar." The draft resolution called for an ICC mandate to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Syria. Russia's veto was signalled in advance, but supporters of the draft resolution insisted the proposal still had symbolic and moral value. ~~~~~ Dear readers, China always demands that it be treated as a full-partner world power. Yet, China is systematically destroying the Tibetan and Uighur cultures. It has secret gulag prisons where political dissidents are tortured. It is engaged in using naval aggression to force its Asian neighbors to accept China as their regional superpower. It blocks its citizens' free access to the Internet. It sponsors a military-led cyberspying net to steal commercial know-how and technology. It refuses to do anything to try to bring the Syrian civil war to an end, preferring to side with an equally uncivilized Russia. This is not a country that deserves to be treated as a world power or a regional superpower...or any kind of positive and civilized power at all. And no amount of posturing will change this. China, your words are meaningless -- put up or shut up.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The media has been full of stories about the US indictment of Chinese military officers for criminal cybersecurity offenses. Here are excerpts from the US government's posted explanation of the charges. ~~~~~ "A grand jury in the Western District of Pennsylvania (WDPA) indicted five Chinese military hackers for computer hacking, economic espionage and other offenses directed at six American victims in the U.S. nuclear power, metals and solar products industries The indictment alleges that the defendants conspired to hack into American entities, to maintain unauthorized access to their computers and to steal information from those entities that would be useful to their competitors in China, including [Chinese] state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In some cases, it alleges, the conspirators stole trade secrets that would have been particularly beneficial to Chinese companies at the time they were stolen. In other cases, it alleges, the conspirators also stole sensitive, internal communications that would provide a competitor, or an adversary in litigation, with insight into the strategy and vulnerabilities of the American entity. 'This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking,' U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. 'The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response. Success in the global market place should be based solely on a company’s ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government’s ability to spy and steal business secrets. This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market.' 'For too long, the Chinese government has blatantly sought to use cyber espionage to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned industries,' said FBI Director James B. Comey. 'The indictment announced today is an important step. But there are many more victims, and there is much more to be done. With our unique criminal and national security authorities, we will continue to use all legal tools at our disposal to counter cyber espionage from all sources.' 'State actors engaged in cyber espionage for economic advantage are not immune from the law just because they hack under the shadow of their country’s flag,' said John Carlin, Assistant Attorney General for National Security. 'Cyber theft is real theft and we will hold state sponsored cyber thieves accountable as we would any other transnational criminal organization that steals our goods and breaks our laws.' 'This 21st century burglary has to stop," said David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. 'This prosecution vindicates hard working men and women in Western Pennsylvania and around the world who play by the rules and deserve a fair shot and a level playing field.' Summary of the Indictment Defendants : Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui, who were officers in Unit 61398 of the Third Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The indictment alleges that Wang, Sun, and Wen, among others known and unknown to the grand jury, hacked or attempted to hack into U.S. entities named in the indictment, while Huang and Gu supported their conspiracy by, among other things, managing infrastructure (e.g., domain accounts) used for hacking Victims : Westinghouse Electric Co. (Westinghouse), U.S. subsidiaries of SolarWorld AG (SolarWorld), United States Steel Corp. (U.S. Steel), Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI), the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union (USW) and Alcoa Inc. Time period : 2006-2014 Crimes : Thirty-one counts." ~~~~~ US officials listed only one US technology firm among the victims in the indictments of five Chinese military officers for allegedly hacking US companies. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, if the past is a guide, it will be hi-tech companies that figure prominently in China's response. The unexpected US move on Monday adds to the growing battle between Washington and Beijing over cybersecurity issues that are already hampering US companies in the $324 billion Chinese information technology market. Experts say the issue has already hurt sales for companies like Cisco Systems Inc. and International Business Machines. The worry, according to experts, is that the Obama administration's latest move against China over alleged hacking could further sour a large and growing technology market for foreign players. "This is just another straw on the camel's back, which is already overloaded by previous events," David Wolf, managing director, global China practice for consulting firm Allison+Partners, told the WSJ. A number of major tech companies doing business in China have not yet commented on the indictments. China's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it had summoned the US's newly arrived ambassador, former Montana Senator Max Baucus, to express displeasure over the indictments, and both the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry are warning of repercussions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing: "We will take further action," adding that Beijing has already suspended participation in a working group with the US on cybersecurity formed a year ago, and he demanded that Washington scrap the charges. "What the US should do now is to withdraw the indictments," Mr. Hong said. Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, in a separate statement, said the US move runs counter to generally improving relations between the countries militaries and "severely damages trust between the two sides." Both spokesmen said China had been hit by US cyberattacks - Mr. Hong said targets included government agencies, universities and individuals - and both accused the US of hypocrisy. "We urge the US to give us a clear explanation of what it's done and stop all relevant actions," Mr. Hong said. The unprecedented criminal indictment of five Chinese military officers adds strains to a US-China relationship already being tested by Beijing's aggressive efforts to enforce its maritime claims against US allies Japan and the Philippines. The indictments will also undoubtedly impact a busy agenda that diplomats see as giving Beijing ample opportunity to retaliate -- both sides are preparing for an annual meeting of cabinet ministers scheduled for July that is convened to address a broad array of security and economic issues / an annual human rights dialogue has yet to be scheduled / negotiators are hoping to finish work on a treaty to clarify rules for investment and remove barriers to it. ~~~~~ Dear readers, US Steel, Westinghouse and ALCOA are among the oldest and most respected corporations in America and the world. They are mature, conservative companies whose conduct of business is marked by the avoidance of flamboyant public displays or campaigns. So, that these corporations are the named victims in the US indictments can be seen as a serious statement about their loss of business trade secrets and patented or in-development technology. The potential for damage to US technology companies is obvious, and it is a continuation of the negative effects created by the revelations made by Edward Snowden about NSA cyberspying around the world. And attempts by the US government to differentiate between public security and private commercial cyberspying will not convince the Chinese, whose pride and sense of place in the world have been badly damaged. For the US to do this officially and publicly must mean that the charges are supportable and grave. While President Obama's foreign policy record would make us skeptical about the need for such a public slap at China, the decision of US Steel, Westinghouse and ALCOA to pursue this legal action must be seen as serious, lending great weight to the US Justice Department's claims. Stay tuned because this cyber war has just started.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
AP and CNN report that bombs ripped through a busy bus terminal and markets frequented by thousands of people in Nigeria's central city of Jos on Tuesday afternoon. Police could nnot yet give an estimate of casualties,"but news services report at least 4 dead and 90 wounded. The origin of the bombs is not clear, but they are suspected to be the work of Boko Haram, the islamist terrorist group that kidnapped and is threatening to sell into slavery almost 300 schoolgirls from a remote town in northeast Nigeria that is the traditional stronghold of Boko Haram. The group wants to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state under Shariah law. (Half of Nigeria's population of 170 million is Christian.) Boko Haram has increased both the scope and deadliness of its attacks this year. Earlier this year, Boko Haram bombs killed more than 120 people and wounded more than 200 in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. A suicide car bomber killed 25 people in the northern city, Kano, on Monday, but police were able to detonate a second car bomb before it exploded. They said both would have killed many people but the first exploded before it reached its target of restaurants and bars in the Christian quarter of the Moslem city. Kano, known for its mild climate, is in Nigeria's middle belt region in Plateau state, which divides the country into the predominantly Moslem north and Christian south. On Christmas Eve in 2010, bombs allegedly planted by Boko Haram exploded in Jos, killing as many as 80 people. More than 300 people have been killed in assaults on towns and villages in recent weeks, and the extremists also are blamed for an attack on a Chinese camp in neighboring Cameroon in which one Cameroonian soldier was killed and 10 Chinese workers abducted. Militants' attacks are increasing in frequency despite a year-old military state of emergency to curtail the uprising. The Nigerian Senate on Tuesday voted to extend the state of emergency for another six months but only if President Goodluck Jonathan devotes more money to the military campaign and to the living conditions and arming of demoralized soldiers who say Boko Haram is better equiped. National and international outrage has mushroomed over the mass abduction of the schoolgirls and the military's failure to rescue them, forcing Jonathan to accept help from several nations, including Britain, France, Israel and the United States, in the search for the girls. It also has brought massive attention to the extremist islamist group, which is demanding the release of detained insurgents in exchange for the girls - a swap officials say the government will not consider. Diplomats said Nigeria on Tuesday asked the UN Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against al-Qaida to add Boko Haram to the list, with an arms embargo and asset freeze. More than 2,000 people have been killed so far in 2014, compared to 3,600 killed in the period from 2010 to 2013. ~~~~ Meanwhile CNN reports that the US military has doubled the number of aircraft on alert in Italy, ready to evacuate Americans from the US Embassy in Tripoli, Libya. A decision to evacuate as violence in the Libyan capital grows is "minute by minute, hour by hour," a defense official told CNN on Monday. Four additional US V-22 Osprey aircraft "arrived overnight" at the naval base in Sigonella, Italy, to join four V-22s and 200 Marines that had been moved there last week, according to a defense source quoted by CNN. The V-22 Ospreys can take off and land vertically with at least two dozen passengers and can be in the air on six hours' notice, the official said. The additional aircraft give the military the capability to evacuate more than 200 people from the embassy. The aircraft and Marines are part of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response team, stationed in Moron, Spain, formed after the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012 to provide closer standby military capability in a crisis. In Tripoli, fierce fighting broke out on Sunday after armed men stormed the interim Parliament. Sporadic bursts of gunfire and blasts continued Monday evening. The violence may be the worst since the 2011 revolution against Moammar Qaddafi's regime. In response, the speaker of the interim parliament, Nuri Abu Sahmain, who is backed by islamist forces, ordered troops known as the "Central Libya Shield Forces" to deploy to the capital Monday, the Libyan state news agency LANA reported. The forces, mostly from the city of Misrata east of Tripoli, are considered to be among the most powerful islamist-affiliated militias. In other news, the Saudi ambassador to Libya announced that his country's embassy and consulate in Tripoli closed Monday because of the violence, and the staff has left Tripoli, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. The sites will reopen when the situation stabilizes, Ambassador Mohammed Mahmoud Al-Ali said. Turkey took similar measures, shutting down ts consulate in Benghazi, as reported by Turkey's semi-official Anadolu news. Algeria closed its Tripoli embassy and evacuated all personnel late last week. ~~~~~ Dear readers, the situation in Nigeria and Libya should be of great concern to everyone. These two countries in western Africa are becoming battlegrounds between ostrnsibly popularly supported governments and islamist terrorist groups tied to al-Qaida. While Libya has not been stable since the 2011 revolution, with a weak interim central government and parliament and no agreed constitution for moving forward in any firection but chaos, Nigeria has the patina of a democratically elected government, which is in many ways the shell hiding an extremely corrupt governing clique indifferent to itspeople's needs. The Islamist milituas in Libya and Boko Haram and other islamist groups in Nigeria are feeding on the vacuum and dissatisfaction left by non-functioning governments to promise stability under sharia law, not bothering to tell their prey that behind the sharia law lies a radical and violent corruption of Islam that is meant to terrorize local Moslem populations into slaves of their captors. For too long, the West has turned a blind eye to African islamist jihadists. The UN, the EU and the US have thought that the continent was not worth worrying about. This has changed with the arrival of China, smart enough to want to be part of the future of an Africa filled with valuable resources, farmland and workers. But, China will never stop the islamist surge in Africa. The West can if it acts soon. And it should, in the process, bring China into a more reasonable position in Africa in exchange for saving its billions of sunk dollars - money that is meaningless in dealing with the islamists.
Monday, May 19, 2014
Serbian authorities in Belgrade ordered the immediate evacuation of many villages and towns along the raging Sava River today, including Obrenovac, the town where soldiers, police and volunteers have been working around the clock to protect Serbia's main power plant, which is 20 kilometers (16 miles) upstream of the capital, Belgrade. Emergency crews have built high walls of sandbags, but it is far from clear that these dikes will withstand the onslaught of the coming river surge, which has been described as 3 to 4 meter tzunamis sweeping along the Sava River toward Belgrade and on to its juncture with the Danube. Serbia, Croatia and Herzegovina are experiencing the worst floods in southeastern Europe in more than a century. The cities of Orasje and Brcko in northeast Bosnia, where the Sava River forms the natural border with Croatia, were in danger of being overwhelmed. Officials in Brcko ordered six villages to be evacuated. Rescuers urged people to go to the balconies or rooftops of their houses with bright fabric to make themselves visible. The Brcko Mayor said that unless the Bosnian Army is able to reinforce from the air, the city of 70,000 will be flooded completely. According to the Weather Channel, the flooding in Bosnia, Serbia, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Croatia, started last Thursday after a slow-moving system dumped three months worth of rain onto the region in just three days : "A strong disturbance in the jet stream closed off into a swirling, stuck upper-level low near the Balkans, instead of sweeping through," said weather.com senior meteorologist Jon Erdman. "The result is persistent flooding." At least 44 people are thus far confirmed dead. Entire towns and villages are under 2 to 3 meters of water. More than 3,000 hills have collapsed into landslides and tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. Others are marooned in their homes without food, water or electricity, even as bodies are being taken from other flooded homes. The Bosnian prime minister called the flood damage "immense," comparing it to the carnage during the country's 1992 to 1995 war that killed at least 100,000 people and left millions homeless. He said the flooding has so far destroyed about 100,000 houses and 230 schools and hospitals and left a million people without drinking water. Portable incinerators have been brought in to destroy the decaying corpses of drowned farm animals that represent a major health risk. Aside from sweeping away homes and barns, the landslides have carried land mines left over from the Balkan War, along with the warning signs posted to show their location, to entirely new, unknown, locations. ~~~~~ Dear readers, we don't need to dissect what is happening in the Balkans, an area of a quarter million square miles and 60 million people, where farming represents 50% of the economies and unemploynent ranges from 11% to 40%. Many of these often already-poor people, who lag behind the European Union in jobs, healthcare and education, have had everything swept away, including their farm animals and crops. They need everything their governments' calls for international aid can bring in to the rescue and rebuilding effort. One large international aid operation is aleady underway, with rescue helicopters from the European Union, America and Russia evacuating people from affected areas. But, much more help is now needed, particularly deliveries of food, clothing and bottled water. Please give what you can - through the Red Cross and Red Crescent or your local rescue fund effort - watch your local TV channels for fund information. Let us show our solidarity with these, our suffering fellow human brings.
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Republican Senators charged Thursday that National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s public account of the Benghazi terrorist attack has now “absolutely collapsed,” citing inaccuracies in her statements not only on the origin of the attack but the level of security at the US compound. Senators Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte told reporters : "She's frustrated this won't go away. She's frustrated that she appeared on national television and told a story about Benghazi that has absolutely collapsed." The lawmakers' comments came a day after Rice appeared to ridicule a question about whether a congressional select committee probe would reveal new evidence. “Danged if I know,” Rice answered. Rice has long been accused of wrongly linking an anti-Islam video to the Benghazi attack - when U.S. personnel were reporting a direct assault by Ansar al-Sharia within the first 24 hours after it occurred. Now, Rice's statements about US consulate security are also under scrutiny. On three network Sunday shows five days after the Benghazi attack in September 2012, Rice said security was "strong or "significant" at the consulate on the day of the attack. Her statement was incorrect. "Should US security have been tighter at that consulate given the history of terror activity in Benghazi?" Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace asked Rice in September 2012. "Well, we obviously did have a strong security presence. And, unfortunately, two of the four Americans who died in Benghazi were there to provide security," Rice responded, incorrectly linking the presence of former Navy Seals Ty Woods and Glen Doherty to consulate security. Both men were killed in a mortar attack on the CIA annex, eight hours after the consulate was overrun. Graham and Ayotte said the Obama administration - either the White House or State Department - should explain who briefed Rice on the consulate's security status, and that individual or individuals should be fired. And if nobody briefed her on security, Graham said she should resign. "They're completely incompetent, or they were misleading her about the level of security because we were six weeks before an election, or she made it up on her own. And if she just made this up and talked about the level of security without any information and just wanted to portray strong security, then she should resign," Graham added. A letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday, signed by 37 Republican senators, also requested the formation of a Senate select committee ito work with the new House Select Committee in probing allegations that the administration has withheld documents. Repesentative Trey Gowdy, who chairs the House Select Committee on Benghazi, has said he wants to know why the US State Department remained in Benghazi when most other international entities had already left the dangerous city. Gowdy wants to bore in on why the United States was "the last flag flying" in the militant-infested Libyan city may reveal what the CIA was doing there and focus on Hillary Clinton's role in the lax security at the US facility where four Americans died. Ayotte and Graham said the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Democrat-led committees as yet have not issued findings from their Benghazi investigations. Ayotte also said presidential advisor Ben Rhodes should testify, after a September 14, 2012 email from him was released to Judicial Watch in April as the result of a federal lawsuit. Critics charge that Rhodes gave 'talking point' to Rice that advised linking Benghazi to spontaneous protests that were the result of an anti-Islam video and that the advice was given by Rhodes for political purposes. On a political affairs TV show last Sunday, Senator Ayotte asked : "Where did Ben Rhodes get these? Ben's not the intel officer, right?…One of the important reasons he needs to testify is [to explain] what's the source of all these talking points, what happened at that Saturday meeting and who came up with this?" said Ayotte, referencing a White House meeting where the talking points were finalized. Rice told NBC News in 2012 that she appeared on the Sunday talk shows because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "had had an incredibly grueling week dealing with the protests around the Middle East and North Africa." The Senators want to know if that was really true, and if it is, what it says about Clinton's fitness to be President : "So the reason, according to Susan Rice, that Secretary Clinton was not on television was because she had a grueling week. That to me is incredibly important and must be answered," Graham said. A press release on September 11, 2012, at 10:07 pm from Clinton - after foreign service officer Sean Smith's death at the consulate was confirmed - is believed to be the first public reference by the Obama administration linking Benghazi to the anti-Islam video. Ayotte and Graham are also asking whether the former secretary of state issued the release on her own or consulted with the President first, and what intelligence it was based on. ~~~~~ While the new House Select Committee on Benghazi is gearing up to begin its investigation, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has issued a new subpoena demanding that Secretary of State John Kerry testify on the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks before his committee this month. Issa accused the State Department of “backtrack[ing]” on agreements that Kerry would appear for questioning and said “slippery tactics” will not dampen the committee’s investigation into the State Department’s role in responding to the attacks : “Absent an assertion of executive privilege, the State Department has a legal obligation to fully and completely comply,” Issa said in a prepared statement. Issa's previously issued Kerry subpoena for Kerry testimony was May 21, a day the secretary planned to be in Mexico. The new subpoena compels Kerry to testify on May 29. “I lifted the subpoena requiring Secretary Kerry to testify on May 21 because the State Department made reasonable arguments for an accommodation....[b]ut soon after I lifted the subpoena, the State Department backtracked - stating publicly that we should accept ‘a more appropriate witness’ and refusing to commit to making Secretary Kerry available,” Issa said. Kerry was not confirmed as secretary until after the September 11, 2012 attacks. Hillary Clinton was serving as the State Department Secretary at the time. The State Department called Issa’s subpoena timing inappropriate because Kerry is currently traveling in London and was not given advanced warning. ~~~~~ Dear readers, we must now wait for the new House Select Committee on Benghazi to undertake its interviews, data collection and testimony. The probe is just as important for Hillary Clinton as it is for Barack Obama. While Mrs. Clinton has called the Select Committee "an unnecessary use of time and resources," it is clear that her presidential ambitions will rise or fall, based on what the Committee finds. Her husband rushed to her defense Wednesday : “In my opinion, Hillary did what she should have done” in response to the Benghazi assault, Bill Clinton said. The Benghazi issue has simmered for nearly two years, and Hillary Clinton's role is at the heart of it. And another ghost from Mrs. Clinton’s past at the State Department has emerged in the past few days - Mrs. Clinton declined to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist group during her time at the State Department. The organization has sparked worldwide outrage by kidnapping hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls and bragging about plans to sell them into slavery. Hillary Clnton likes to talk about her 25 years of public service, although eight of those years as First Lady are not relevant because she had no direct political position. But since becoming a Senator in January 2001, Hillary Clinton has a record that she will have to defend. That record? -- no major initiatives as Senator, the failed Benghazi security actions that contributed to the death of Ambassador Stevens, the Benghazi cover-up, the failure to declare Boko Haram a terrorist organization, and negative health issues related to her cranial injury and to excuses made by Susan Rice about Clinton's excessive fatigue after one week of heavy activity related to Benghazi - which, in light of her age (she would be 70 if elected president in 2016), are serious matters. Benghazi - Clinton. Clinton - Benghazi. "What difference does it make?" A lot.
Friday, May 16, 2014
America is still trying to understand what happened on 11 September 2012 when US Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered by terrorists who attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, and I'll cover the latest details tomorrow. But, today in Benghazi the breaking news is that fierce clashes killed 24 people and wounded at least 120 others when a paramilitary force led by a former general attacked islamist militias in Benghazi. Local media reported that government troops participated in the attack against the islamists. But acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni condemned the operation as "a coup against the revolution." The attack included dawn air strikes on militia bases and 6,000 troops storming a series of bases and checkpoints around the city. Eyewitnesses told the BBC that Benghazi was in chaos, with jets flying low over rooftops, tanks on the streets, heavy weapons detonations and aggressive fighting. "The fighting is close to my house," said one resident in the Hawari district. There are questions about whether the attacks were officially approved. The government in Tripoli denounced the offensive led by Khalifa Hiftar, a former commander of the 2011 uprising that deposed Muammar Qaddafi. Hitfar announced that the operation was launched to clear Benghazi of islamist militias and restore Libya's dignity. In February, Hiftar called on the army to mount a coup against the government, and he seems to have the support of a significant proportion of Libya's armed forces, even though the depth of the support is unclear. He insisted today's Benghazi operation was sanctioned by army commanders, saying : "All reserve forces are mobilized. If we fail today, the terrorists win." But the Libya government's chief of the general staff, Abdu Salam Jadallah, branding Hiftar a criminal and ordered Benghazi's militias to fight back. Air force planes struck the bases of the Rafalla al-Sahati and Ansar al-Sharia militias. Ansar al-Sharia has been named by Washington as one of the terrorist organizations that led the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. ~~~~~ There are few foreigners in Benghazi now. Most diplomatic missions were evacuated after a 2012 string of attacks and bombings. Britain closed its consulate in the city in 2012 after a rocket attack on the former ambassador wounded two of his bodyguards. The American consulate was the last large diplomatic staff that had not been evacuated from Benghazi when it was attacked in 2012, and the American Congress wants to find out why as part of its new probe. Elsewhere in Libya today there are reports of pro- and anti-government forces mobilizing, as instability in Libya increases, with the national congress split between islamists and their allies and non-islamists, paralyzed by rivalries, and little progress toward full democracy since Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011. The new constitution is still not written. A new prime minister, Ahmed Maiteeg, was elected earlier this month, but opponents labelled his election fraudulent, and Maiteeg has not yet taken office, so the prime minister job stays for the present in the hands of former defense minister Abdullah al-Thinni, himself a replacement for Ali Zeiden who was fired in March. The Algerian embassy staff was evacuated this week by an Algerian special forces team after threats were made to the embassy and staff. Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that a force of 200 Marines, backed by helicopters and vertical takeoff aircraft, has been sent from Spain to Sicily so that they will be poised for faster action if Libya's unrest escalates. The US and Europe are helping build up a regular army but Libya's armed forces and government cannot control the brigades of ex-rebels and militants who once fought Qaddafi. The nation's vital oil export industry has suffered badly, being targeted by armed protesters seeking a greater share of oil wealth. Since last summer, armed protesters have repeatedly closed down ports and oilfields bringing production down to around 200,000 barrels per day from the 1.4 million bpd that the OPEC member state produced before the protests erupted. ~~~~~ Dear readers, the situation in Libya is so fragile that experts are suggesting that it is rapidly becoming a failed state. The militias that have formed fiefdoms in the vacuum caused by a non-functioning national government are uncontrolled and dangerous. They often work with the weak Libyan army, but more often impose their will on pockets of undefended population. The militias are usually either openly islamists or infiltrated by them. They also add to the growing islamist-terrorist threat in northern Africa. Libya is clearly another country recently liberated from a tyrannical regime where tribal and secular interests are standing in the way of creating a sense of nationhood. The UN and the West should try to help before Libya explodes again, as Egypt did, or becomes a rogue area whose oil supplies could become a major financial support for terrorist groups.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
While the world is watching Ukraine, violent street protests are increasing in another hot spot. Yesterday and today, police in Venezuela detained 80 student demonstrators demanding the release of 200 fellow protesters arrested in anti-government marches last week. The current protests began with hundreds of students marching peacefully through the streets of the capital Caracas, but security forces clashed with some of the demonstrators who threw stones and home-made explosives and tried to erect barricades. More than 40 people have been killed during three months of unrest in Venezuela, mostly in Caracas. Officials say that last week the security forces were trying to break up protest camps being used as bases to launch "violent attacks" and to hide "drugs, weapons, explosives and mortars." But a university student at the march told AP : "there was never a problem due to drugs, weapons or alcohol. We are demanding that they show us the reasons why they arrested them." Student leader Juan Requesens told the Efe news agency that they will continue to protest despite the arrests : "The government is trying to suppress us by continuing to detain students. We will not bow down and will continue our protests." ~~~~~ A wave of violent demonstrations triggered by high inflation, rampant crime and food shortages has swept over Caracas. The protesters are demanding that the government do something to alleviate the problems of neighborhood and campus security (Venezuela has the fifth highest murder rate in the world, with rampant crime in urban centers), record inflation (official figures show an annual inflation in December 2013 of 56.2%) and shortages of basic food items, such as cooking oil, flour and toilet paper. But the government of President Nicolas Maduro has labelled the protesters "fascist agitators" and accused them of fomenting a coup against his socialist administration. The protests began in early February in the western states of Tachira and Merida when students demanded increased security after a female student alleged she had been the victim of an attempted rape. The protests in Tachira turned violent, leading to the arrest of several students, which then led to demonstrations in Caracas calling for their release. The Caracas demonstrations started on February 12, and when three people were shot by gunmen following a largely peaceful march, the protests turned violent. Since then, a loose coalition of the original students has formed with political protesters from within the umbrella opposition group Table for Democratic Unity. Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor, and Maria Corina Machado, an MP, are the main political figures in the movement. According to many observers and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the protests are now made up of a middle-class majority, with middle-class concerns.The latest clashes between Caracas protesters and security forces come a day after the Venezuelan political opposition put a hold on ongoing talks with the government. The two sides began meeting last month in an attempt to find a way out of the current crisis. The government accuses the opposition of trying to stage a US-backed coup and has arrested a number of opposition leaders on charges of inciting violence. It has compared the protests to a brief coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002. The opposition has accused pro-government motorcycle gangs, as well as security forces, of shooting live rounds into opposition crowds. The government accuses the "fascists" of instigating the violence and riots and encouraging people to erect barricades. A number of motorcyclists have been decapitated by barbed wire strung across residential streets to hinder the security forces. ~~~~~ Wednesday, Venezuelan security forces arrested 105 people during a Caracas round-up as protests against the government increased in the turmoil of a widening split within the opposition over whether to back possible US sanctions. Political observers say that by halting the talks, moderate opposition leaders were bowing to pressure from their own more radical base, which is furious over the mass arrests and the confusing statements about sanctions by top US diplomat to Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Jacobson testified last week in the US Senate that some members of Venezuela's opposition urged the White House to delay action on a proposal to ban visas and seize the assets of Venezuelan officials who have committed human rights abuses since February. Sanction legislation has cleared a House committee with bipartisan support. And, in a heated exchange with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Jacobson said the delay is needed to avoid endangering the outcome of the government-opposition talks and that opposition politicians at the negotiating table had explicitly asked the State Department for more time before imposing sanctions. On Wednesday, Jacobson retracted her comment, telling reporters in Washington that she misspoke and that nobody participating in the talks had made such a request. But her comments have caused a political rift in the opposition. Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the head of the Democratic Unity alliance, denied any such request was made, while students and hardliners, who are boycotting the talks, used Jacobson's comments, and Aveledo's failure to call for sanctions, as proof of betrayal. Divisions within the opposition have become apparent, with moderates objecting to the timing of street protests in February just two months after the government prevailed in mayoral elections. The strategy of hardline groups is to force Maduro's resignation by rallying international opinion against his government. But in contrast to the US, condemnation has been slow to materialize among Latin American governments. Moderate leaders support talks with the government. Others want sanctions to drive out Madura. ~~~~~ Dear readers, we may add to the growing list of Obama foreign policy blunders - Syria, Israel, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Ukraine and now Venezuela. And this time it was the loose tongue of an American diplomat who should have known better than to expose the Venezuelan opposition as the reason for any Obama sanctions decision in Venezuela. Closed-door briefings to Congress by an administration are commonplace. This approach was not used by Jacobson and her retractions are worse than dangerous - they are corrosive to the trust that must form the basis for any diplomatic activity. Here, it is all of Latin America that now will see the US as diplomatically untrustworthy. This will only add to the impression that the Obama foreign policy sees little value in its southern neighbors. This impression had already sent Russia and China scurrying around South America to fill the void. The Venezuelan gaff will only accelerate their activities. The Monroe Doctrine - respected by the world for almost 200 years - is in tatters and America's southern flank is now exposed to any non-western-hemisphere power that chooses to make use of Obama's latest foreign policy failure.What is particularly disheartening about Obama's latest failure is that Venezuelans are now feeling the full pinch of the socialist-Communist non-market economic programs of Hugo Chavez. Maduro, the handpicked successor of Chavez, has none of his charisma. He has only force. This could make an overthrow of the Venezuela socialists much more likely. Venezuelans have a democratic tradition that could quickly put the country back on its feet. But, the clumsy actions of Obama's diplomatic messenger puts all this in jeopardy. One can only hope it was done in amateur naivety and not by deliberation.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Yet another world problem is about to be subjected to international negotiations. The chances for a successful conclusion are not good. ~~~~~ UKRAINE. The Ukrainian government has agreed to launch discussions about giving more powers to its regions under a peace plan drawn up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a trans-Atlantic security and rights organization that includes Russia and the United States.But Ukraine remains unconvinced of the value of engaging with the pro-Russian insurgents who have declared independence in two eastern regions. The meetings will be a series of round tables that will include national lawmakers, government figures and regional officials in line with proposals drafted by the OSCE. Russia has strongly backed the Swiss-drafted road map, but Ukraine has remained cool to the plan and US officials view its prospects for success skeptically. Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of causing the unrest in eastern Ukraine. Russia denies the Ukrainian charge that Russian soldiers are operating in eastern Ukraine. The OSCE has asked all sides to refrain from violence and urges amnesty for those involved in the unrest, as well as talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. But there has been no mention of inviting rebels because the government has staunchly refused to talk to "separatists." Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis expressed concern that the OSCE deal does not specifically oblige Russia to do anything, and says that Moscow must be urged to stop sponsoring terrorists in order to de-escalate the conflict. Some analysts see signs that Russia has recently taken a more conciliatory stance, reflecting an apparent desire to ease what has become the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War. ~~~~~ IRAN. The Iran-US-UN nuclear talks that got underway in 2013 in Geneva led to an interim ageeement in 2013 under which Iran would stop enriching nuclear materials to the threshhold at which they become useable as nuclear warhead components, in return for which an estimated $20-25 billion in direct and indirect economic sanctions against Iran were lifted. But, US officials have said the Obama administration is concerned about an emerging threat to the talks designed to seal a nuclear deal with Iran. The Russian business daily Kommersant has reported that Russia plans to buy 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day, shattering an export limit defined by the interim nuclear agreement that world powers and Iran reached last November. The oil-for-goods exchange is still far from finalized, the newspaper said, but its potential challenges Western efforts to secure a comprehensive agreement. In an appearance before Congress last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington could impose new economic sanctions if Iran and Russia move forward with the reported contract. The Iran nuclear negotiators continue to meet in Vienna but so far the only verifiable result is the lifting of sanctions against Iran. ~~~~~ NORTH KOREA. The North Korea Six-Party talks were a result of North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty in 2003. Five rounds of talks from 2003 to 2007 produced little progress until the third phase of the fifth round of talks, when North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and steps towards the normalization of relations with the United States and South Korea. Then, North Korea made a failed attempt to launch a "satellite" in 2009 and responded angrily to the United Nations Security Council's Presidential Statement that condemned the failed satellite launch. North Korea declared that it would pull out of thecSix Party Talks and that it would resume its nuclear enrichment program in order to boost its nuclear deterrent. North Korea also expelled all nuclear scientist monitors. Since 2009, North Korea has tested nuclear weapons underground and launched "satellites" that experts say are really intercontinental ballistic missile tests. ~~~~~ SYRIA. The attempt to hold ceasefire talks sponsored by the UN in 2013 were so difficult and the off-site comments so venemous that they failed even before an interim set of negotiating principles could be agreed. Only an evacuation of civilians from Homs was agreed, and that led indirectly to the devastating bombing of the city by al-Assad forces that caused the Syria Free Army to pull out and abandon their northern stronghold. No success here. ~~~~~ But the only negotiated success comes from Syria. Last week, the US State Department top arms control official, Rose Gottemoeller, said Syria, which agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpikes in negotiations with the West and the UN, has moved about 92% of its chemical weapons stocks to port for shipment out of the country. In a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, the Under-secretary of State for arms control said the rest of the weapons are at a single site near Damascus. The head of the United Nations mission charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons had said earlier that the last 16 containers of chemical agents are in a contested area that is currently inaccessible due to fighting. The US has a ship on standby to undertake the destruction of Syria's chemical stockpiles at sea. The MV Cape Ray has on board two huge machines, called field deployable hydrolysis systems which will mix the chemicals with heated water and other chemicals to break them down. ~~~~~ Dear readers, while internationally brokered negotiations can succeed, they require two things. First, the will of the factions to sit and talk until a mutually acceptable solution is created. Second, extremely skillful international negotiators to guide the process. In the latest case, Ukraine's factions seem unable to contain their hatred for each other. And the presence of Russia to bolster the resolve of the eastern region's insurgents makes them much less amenable to compromise. We should hope for the best but accept the idea that these talks, like the Iranian, Syrian and North Korean ones, will simply allow the bad faith players to continue along their destructive paths, putting the world in more and more danger.