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  • The Soviet Union's fall led to an alarming nuclear failure that informs today's nuclear crisis
    (Politics - May 27 2015 - 12:30 AM:)

    Soviet R 12 nuclear ballistic_missile

    The collapse of the Soviet Union created one of the biggest security challenges of recent decades: The task of securing fissile material left unguarded after the empire's rapid collapse and transferring thousands of forward-deployed Soviet nuclear warheads to places where they would stay out of the wrong hands.

    The international community could count a number of successes in the effort to contain the former Soviet Union's nuclear materials.

    The 1994 Budapest Memorandum transferred the Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Kazakh nuclear arsenals to Russia, while the contemporaneous "Megatons to Megawatts" program enabled the US to use material from disassembled Russian warheads in order to fuel American civilian reactors.

    But there were still some gaps in the anti-proliferation efforts after the Soviet Union's fall, as David Hoffman reported in "The Dead Hand," his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 book about the end of the Cold War arms race.

    "The Dead Hand"And one of the more alarming failures relates back to the most pressing nuclear proliferation issue of the present day.

    As Hoffman reports, Iran immediately positioned itself to take advantage of the loose material, idle weapons scientists, and general chaos left in the Soviet Union's wake.

    In the years after the empire's disintegration, Tehran recruited Russian rocket scientists, attempted to get ahold of nuclear weapons material, and solicited cooperation from Soviet bloc experts on a possible biological weapons program.

    Hoffman's book shows that Iran began positioning itself for a nuclear weapons capability long before the country's program became a focus of international attention.

    And it shows that there's a human element to nonproliferation that sanctions, inspection and export control regimes can't always account for.

    The activities Hoffman describes would have been hard to detect through traditional trade monitoring and impossible to find through aerial surveillance. Iran's activities largely evaded the world's attention — and fed into a nuclear program that's now the subject of urgent international diplomacy.

    As Hoffman reports, several countries, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq, scoured the post-collapse Soviet Union for whatever fissile materials or weapons scientists they could pinpoint. But "Iran was especially active," opening "a special office ... in Tehran's embassy in Moscow to search for and acquire weapons technology."

    'More scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union than they knew what to do with'

    In the mid-1990s Iranians made a concerted effort to attract rocket scientists and their agents in Moscow "approached the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute, a school for missile and rocket technology."

    Vadim Vorobei, a Russian expert on the construction of liquid-fueled rocket engines at the institute, noticed that "graduate students from Iran started to appear. They enrolled to study rocket engineering." Vorobei then agreed to lecture in Iran, becoming part of what Hoffman calls "a larger underground railroad of Russian rocket scientists," according to the book.


    Tehran was soon awash in experts from the former Soviet Union: "Although the Iranians made a show of keeping the scientists apart, Vorobei said, they frequently bumped into each other at hotels and restaurants. One day, he would spot a leading Russian missile guidance specialist; the next, a well known missile engineer from Ukraine. All had been brought to Tehran on the pretext of giving lectures on rocket technology."

    Vorobei said the effort was "a bit of a circus," since, in Hoffman's words, "The Iranians brought more scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union than they knew what to do with."

    Long-range missiles

    There is virtually only one reason to build long-range ballistic missiles, and that's to launch strategic weapons capable of taking out entire cities or military bases in a single shot.

    A ballistic missile is an awkward and expensive way to deliver a conventional payload, and there's no modern precedent for a country launching conventional warheads 1,553 miles (2,500 kilometers) from their border. All nuclear-armed states possess missiles capable of traveling more than 1,500 miles, but only two non-nuclear states have weapons that can operate at that range: Iran, which likely had an active nuclear weapons program as recently as 2003, and Saudi Arabia, which is certainly keeping its options open.

    russian nuke nuclear weapons

    Iran was actively developing a long-range nuclear delivery system in the early 1990s. But it was also scouring the former Soviet Union for actual bomb material. 

    "We knew that Iran was all over Central Asia and the Caucasus with their purchasing agents," said Jeff Starr, a former high-ranking Pentagon disarmament official, according to Hoffman. 

    "The Dead Hand" reports one particularly worrying close call in 1994: In a warehouse in Kazakhstan where the US helped remove an unguarded stockpile of weapons-grade uranium, a US diplomat noticed "a shipment of beryllium, which is used as a neutral reflector in an atomic bomb, packed in crates.

    "Stenciled on the side was an address: Tehran, Iran. Apparently a paperwork glitch was the only thing that had kept the shipment from being sent."

    Iran nuclearIran has indigenous sources of uranium, and material proved to be less important to its weapons programs than expertise.

    Today, Iran's nuclear development is couched in a series of civilian pretexts. Iran claims it needs nuclear reactors for medical isotopes and electricity, even though those isotopes can be easily purchased on the international market, and Iran is a leading oil producer. 

    Meanwhile, the US has sanctioned dozens of government-linked Iranian entities, including banks, telecoms, and oil companies, for providing civilian cover for various aspects of the country's nuclear program.

    Biological weapons

    "The Dead Hand" also describes how the Iranians used government-sanctioned front companies to import materials that could be used for the development of biological weapons. 

    As Hoffman recounts, Andy Weber, a US State Department official who took the lead on securing weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, learned from Russian biological weapons scientists that Iran was searching out experts from Russia's recently-shuttered program.

    From "Dead Hand":

    What really alarmed [Weber] was a discussions with a senior scientist at Obolensk who had been on the trip to Tehran.  "'They talk about pharmaceuticals,'  the scientist said, 'but it's clear their interest is in dual use equipment that can be used for biological weapons.'"

    The scientists said the Iranians had offered him thousands of dollars to teach in Tehran. And then the scientist took a business card from his wallet, which had been given to him by the Iranians. He showed it to Weber, who immediately recognized the name and the office: a front for the military and intelligence services in their drive to procure Russia's weapons.

    It's widely believed that Iran had some kind of nuclear weaponization program in the early 2000s and that the country suspended research under international pressure.

    But the history of Iran's procurement efforts leaves little doubt that the country was working towards a weapons capability as soon as Soviet material and expertise became available — even if this decades-old quest for a bomb may have been frozen as Iran and a US-led group of nations work towards a nuclear agreement.


    This history also shows just how hard it can be to stop a country that's committed to developing a strategic weapons program. Iran used academic exchanges, civilian front companies, and clandestine procurement to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. These are discrete activities with a convincing veneer of legality to them.

    With enough patience, and enough time — and without a highly invasive and perhaps unrealistic level of international regulatory scrutiny — a country can gradually build a weapons program, one scientific exchange or illicit shipment at a time.

    The methods that Hoffman describes shows just how long Iran has coveted advanced weapons capabilities. And it's a reminder that plenty of other countries could work towards those capabilities in ways that might take years to finally detect.

    SEE ALSO: Obama just hinted at something that could unravel his entire Iran policy

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  • Hillary Clinton has an official rap nickname
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 6:42 PM:)

    Screen Shot 2015 05 26 at 2.12.04 PM

    Who's down with HRC? 

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is getting tons of endorsements from rap stars and her campaign is clearly enjoying the love.

    Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has recently earned the support of rappers 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Ja Rule, and Waka Flocka Flame.

    So many rap endorsements piled up that comedian Jimmy Fallon gave Clinton a new nickname at the end of last week.

    "Thank you Hillary Clinton for getting endorsed for president by several rappers. Which explains your new nickname: 'Ghostface Hill,'" Fallon quipped on "The Tonight Show."

    Clinton's campaign responded to the segment Tuesday with a nickname of their own, "Run HRC," which is based on the Queens hip-hop group Run DMC, As The New York Times recently noted, the Clinton campaign is attempting to rebrand its candidate with a cooler image. 

    Here's the tweet:

    Thanks, @jimmyfallon—but we actually prefer this. http://t.co/WAlkyO08Uy pic.twitter.com/T1Dwl4si7q

    — Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) May 26, 2015

    And the Fallon segment can be viewed below:

    SEE ALSO: 50 Cent is a huge Hillary Clinton fan

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  • The US-led air war against ISIS is failing
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 5:15 PM:)

    isis syria iraq air strike

    The US campaign to defeat the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria has hinged mostly on air strikes and training Iraqi troops, which doesn't seem to be going well.

    A new report in The New York Times exposes one critical flaw in the strategy — the US says it is holding back on bombing some Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) targets over fears that they might hit civilians as well as militants. So the air war is decidedly restrained. 

    "The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar," Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar Province, told the Times. "The US airstrikes in Anbar didn’t enable our security forces to resist and confront the ISIS attacks. We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiency of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes."

    ISIS militants have caught on to this, fighting from within civilian populations to prevent getting hit with air strikes, according to the Times.

    The group also holds prisoners in some of their buildings — including its main buildings in Raqqa, Syria — to deter air strikes. If the US were to kill a Western hostage in an air strike against ISIS militants, for example, ISIS could then use that in its propaganda materials to turn locals against the West and recruit them into the terror group.

    US caution in the air war highlights a larger problem with the US strategy — without a capable allied ground force, it's difficult to counter the increasingly sophisticated tactics ISIS is employing as it tears through Iraq and Syria.

    ISIS Islamic State Iraq Syria map

    The US has been training Iraqi security forces and supplying weapons in addition to carrying out air strikes against ISIS, but the ground troops the US is backing haven't been able to prevent ISIS from advancing in some key areas.

    And because the US doesn't have a very big footprint on the ground, it's also hard to gather intelligence on possible air strike targets. The Times pointed out that the White House won't let US troops "act as spotters on the battlefield, designating targets for allied bombing attacks."

    Barack Obama

    President Obama has been criticized for not having a viable long-term strategy for defeating ISIS.

    Yaroslav Trofimov wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week that the US now has three options in the fight against ISIS: carry on with what they're already doing, escalate the fight, or give up. None of those options are particularly appealing.

    Despite the problems with the air war, Obama doesn't want to commit US troops to the fight. And supporting the strongest fighting force in Iraq, the Shia militias supported by Iran, could worsen sectarian tensions if they're allowed to run the fight against ISIS in Sunni areas like Ramadi. ISIS seized the city, the provincial capital of Anbar province near Baghdad, last week.

    On Tuesday, the Shia militias organized under the Popular Mobilization Committee — led by a US-designated terrorist — announced that they are taking the lead in the fight against ISIS in Ramadi and greater Anbar. 

    In any case, the Iraqi army fight isn't capable of fighting on its own as troops have seemingly lost the will to fight.

    Nevertheless, Obama has implied that he wants countries in the Middle East to have more of a role in fighting their own battles.

    In an interview with The Atlantic last week, Obama insisted that the US is not losing the fights against ISIS and said that "if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them."

     Iraqi Special Operations Forces ramadi

    There are other regional politics at play as well — Iran appears to be extending its influence in the Middle East through its support of Shiite forces in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; furthermore, a Kurdish commander in the Iraqi armed forces has accused some of the country's elite special forces of abandoning Ramadi to make current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi look bad. The commander said that the forces were loyal to deposed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is allied with Iran.

    Meanwhile, as ground forces in Iraq struggle, ISIS gets more sophisticated. The Wall Street Journal reports that ISIS commanders "executed a complex battle plan that outwitted a greater force of Iraqi troops as well as the much-lauded, US-trained special-operations force known as the Golden Division" when it took Ramadi.

    SEE ALSO: The US now faces a dilemma in the ISIS fight

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  • Putin isn't reviving the USSR — he's creating a fascist state
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 4:14 PM:)


    Russian President Vladimir Putin has memorably called the breakup of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics a tragedy, and that has led many to believe that he is hoping to restore the old USSR as he consolidates control within Russia and projects military power outward into Ukraine and beyond.

    However, the government Putin is building in Moscow bears little resemblance to Socialism, Communism, or anything that Karl Marx would have endorsed based on his thinking. Surely, the man who described religion as the “opium of the people” wouldn’t likely associate himself with a regime that has rehabilitated the Russian Orthodox Church as a key element of Russians’ patriotic identity.

    No, the new Russia looks more like a copy of a totalitarian state from Europe’s dark past, dressed in 21st century clothing.

    “When you hear the word Fascism you always have to ask yourself: what are they talking about, how are they using the word?” Oxford University Professor Roger Griffin, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Fascism, once warned in a 2012 interview. “The word ‘Fascist’ can be a simple way of insulting somebody, of saying that they are horrible, nasty, that they should go away.”

    Indeed, it’s a favorite epithet of none other than Vladimir Putin, whose surrogates in the Russian leadership alternately accuse the government in Ukraine of either associating with Fascists or actually being Fascist.

    What we have here, though, may be an example of what mental health professionals call projection.

    A more precise definition of Fascism, according to Griffin, is a political ideology with three broad elements: populist ultra-nationalism, the claim that the country has become soft or ‘decadent,’ and a “rebirth myth.” The third is the promise, typically made by Fascist leaders, to restore a country to some sort of former greatness, usually taken from it treacherously by its enemies, either external or internal.

    American scholar Robert Paxton has identified other elements of Fascism, including an obsession with reversing national decline, usually blamed on betrayal, through restriction of civil liberties, purification of the people, military strength, and national expansion. Violence, Paxton notes, is not seen as inherently bad in a Fascist system, and its use to eliminate challenges to the state is glorified.

    Given the massive changes imposed on Russian society in the past several years, it’s easy to argue that, under Putin, the country is turning into at least a quasi-Fascist state.

    Rose Monday parade Putin

    The rebirth myth is a near-constant theme for Putin, who has for years now been feeding the Russian people a steady narrative about the global conspiracy to weaken Russia, and the need to rise to greatness again.

    The erosion of civil liberties and the rise of ultra-nationalism are, likewise, obvious features of Russia in 2015. Over the past few months, Putin accused “the West” of being responsible for Russia’s economic ills. Then he piled on, alleging that Ukrainian troops were in league with NATO against the rebels and Russia. Putin’s propaganda war against the West finally hit home.

    Last week, for example, Putin signed into law a new measure that allows government prosecutors to declare certain foreign organizations “undesirable” without trial or other approval by a judge, making it possible for Russian citizens to be punished for associating with them. The justification is that outside forces, mainly the United States and its NATO allies, are allegedly seeking to undermine Russia, and must be stopped.

    Two weeks ago, one of the remaining English-language newspapers in Russia reported on the development of the “Safe Capital” project, in which vigilante squads made up of men drawn from military associations and groups like the ultra-nationalist Cossacks, would patrol Moscow to enforce public order. The squads, which will be uniformed, will be organized by United Russia – the party of Vladimir Putin, which controls the Russian parliament.


    The government, meanwhile, has gradually consolidated control over the press by forcing foreign owners to reduce their holdings in Russian media companies while at the same time funding a growing network of government-run media outlets to feed Kremlin-friendly stories to both the Russian people and the rest of the world.

    As for increased militarism and expansionist tendencies, the Russian government has greatly accelerated its spending on the military, even as its economy slides into recession. At the same time, it is occupying Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, continuing to support armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, and regularly mounting threatening military patrols either inside or close to the territory of its neighbors.

    Russians have also witnessed ongoing moves to purge the country of people seen as weak or threatening to the regime, from legislation targeting homosexuals, to the murder of prominent dissident journalists and politicians, most recently noted Putin critic Boris Nemtsov.

    Another characteristic typical of Fascist states is the conflict of interest between the business community and the ruling political party. Enterprise and private profit are typically encouraged  within the context of service to the state. It has been well established that many of the country’s top business leaders have close ties to Putin, and earlier this year, the Kremlin announced that members of Putin’s cabinet would begin to serve on the boards of directors of ostensibly private companies.

    Finally, there is Putin himself.

    Vladimir Putin shooting

    Historically, Fascist governments have relied on strong, charismatic individual leaders in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini, while at the same time encouraging a sort of masculine ideal for the population at large – Hitler’s idealized Aryan, or Mussolini’s “new Man.” In today’s Russia, Putin seems to play both roles.

    The Russian media routinely idolizes Putin as a model of masculinity, whether he is pictured toting a hunting rifle while bare-chested, practicing judo, or playing hockey. (Putin, who took up hockey in late middle age, scored an improbable eight goals last week, in a game with former professional hockey stars.)

    In the end, whether Russia in 2015 really has transformed into a Fascist state, or is breaking new ground in the area of oppressive totalitarianism is a question for academics. Regardless of how the system is eventually labeled, the newly aggressive power on Europe’s Eastern doorstep is exhibiting many of the traits of past regimes that have caused untold human suffering. Today, the world should be paying close attention.

    SEE ALSO: Putin is going to extreme lengths to hide Russian soldiers who are dying while fighting in Ukraine

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  • This horrifying story will make you question whether Andrew Jackson should be on the $20 bill
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 4:10 PM:)

    I still remember my first $20 bill.

    It was a gift from an uncle on my 8th birthday. I’ll never forget the crisp feel of the paper, the distinctive shape of the letters and the portrait of our wild-haired seventh president Andrew Jackson. Even for our dull green US currency, it stood out next to the boring $1, $5, and $10 bills I'd seen. (I didn’t come across any Ben Franklins for a long time.) 

    And based on my 3rd grade introduction to American history, “Old Hickory” Jackson seemed like a cool president. He was down to earth, proud, feisty, and full of vigor. He had an amazing life story: Jackson grew up poor, toiled as a saddle-maker, almost starved to death in captivity during the Revolutionary War, and had his face slashed by a British soldier when he refused to polish his boots. Later, he fought like a hero in the War of 1812. Jackson, who hated the big banks, took on corruption in government as president.

    For a young boy who barely understands the world, what’s not to like?

    $20 billPlenty, actually. Jackson was a deeply flawed person who owned hundreds of slaves, executed American soldiers for desertion, and forcibly relocated many native American tribes from lands they had been promised in previous treaties and which they had inhabited for centuries.

    As a result, a grassroots campaign is pushing to replace Jackson with a famous woman in US history. In an online poll conducted last week, escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman won the most votes to become the new face of the $20 bill. The group, Women on 20s, has sent the results to the White House, requesting that President Barack Obama authorize the redesign in time for 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

    Harriet Tubman, Women on 20s

    After reading the new biography, “Jacksonland,” by Steve Inskeep, I think Obama should seriously consider their request to remove Jackson.

    The two-term president and founder of the Democratic party was infamous for his removal of Indian tribes — over 45,000 during his administration. But the book reveals new details about Jackson’s massive land grab both as a private businessman, military general, and president.

    As a 27-year-old lawyer, Jackson teamed up with a friend in 1794 to start a real-estate business that made money by profiting off the illegal white settlement of native American territory. They bought and sold lands that had been granted by treaty to the Chickasaw and Cherokee Indians.

    Twenty years later, as a military general, Jackson led a squad of soldiers who killed 800 Red Stick Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. He almost reveled in the death of a Creek spiritual leader “who had been shot in the mouth by a grapeshot, as if heaven designed to chastise his impostures by an appropriate punishment,” Inskeep writes.

    To be fair, Jackson could also be kind to Native Americans, adopting a Creek Indian boy orphaned in the battle. He made sure the boy, named Lyncoya, got an education and later tried to get him into West Point, even writing to President James Monroe to no avail.

    Jackson forced harsh terms on the tribes, tearing up the original surrender treaty and demanding they give up 23 million acres of land in what is now Georgia and Alabama. He threatened them with removal to Florida if they didn’t sign. 

    Andrew Jackson and William WeatherfordWhen then-president James Madison divided up the newly seized land into plots to sell to the public, Jackson and his pals set out to snap up thousands of the acres as private citizens. The ethical lines were blurred since General Jackson was responsible for defending the area and often "managed national security affairs in a way that matched his interest in land development,” Inskeep writes.

    The next year, Jackson and his allies tried to grab the entire Tennessee Valley in a complex and illegal scheme. Even though the federal government thwarted them, they succeeded the next year in taking 45,000 acres near Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

    In 1818, Jackson almost risked a war with Spain for the purposes of real-estate speculation. The general and his army crossed the border into Spanish-ruled West Florida, captured Pensacola, and started collecting taxes. Monroe worried the move would incite a war with Spain, so he ordered Jackson to withdraw, Inskeep writes. Congress investigated Jackson for usurping the Constitution. Later, Congress determined that many of his associates bought up plenty of land in Penascola just before Jackson invaded the city, betting that prices would soar in the wake of an American conquest.

    Jackson was responsible for one of the most ignoble chapters in American history — the infamous “Trail of Tears,” in which the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, Seminole, and other tribes were forcibly removed from lands in the deep South where they had lived for centuries. 

    It was all due to white settlers in Georgia and Alabama who moved in and settled native American land. When the tribes appealed to Jackson, he ignored their pleas and eventually signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced the Indians to relocate west of the Mississippi River. 

    Trail of TearsWhen mixed-race Cherokee lawyer John Ross, the hero of Inskeep’s book, sued to stop the relocation, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled against the tribe. Asked about the court’s decision, Jackson bluntly replied: 

    “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it! ... Build a fire under them. When it gets hot enough, they'll go.”

    Not all the Native Americans agreed to move and thousands remained behind by the May 1838 deadline. Although Jackson left office at the end of that year, the treaty was enforced by his vice president Martin Van Buren, who succeeded him and often relied on Jackson for guidance. The Native Americans left in those states were still planting their corn crops, probably not really believing they would be forced to leave their homes. 

    They would be the unlucky ones and for them “the journey would be harder, physically and spiritually,” writes Inskeep. 

    Federal commissioners circulated handbills in the Cherokee Nation warning:

    “We will not attempt to describe the evils that may fall upon you, if you are still obstinate, and refuse.”  

    In other words, they were being threatened with violence if they did not leave the lands they had called home for centuries. 

    “Reality was about to arrive on the point of a bayonet,” Inskeep writes.

    Louisiana_Indians_Walking_Along_a_BayouOn May 26, troops began rounding up Cherokees from their homes: “Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail…” wrote on ethnographer who lived among the tribe.

    Sometimes, civilians followed the soldiers, plundering and then burning the empty homes and even digging up empty graves to “rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead.”

    For hundreds of miles, the tribe was forced to walk on foot to several detention camps during a summer drought. They remained there for months since it became too difficult to keep moving in the heat. 

    “Rather than send them back to their homes to die, or send them out on the road to die, the Cherokees were left in their camps to die,” Inskeep writes. One missionary estimated that 2,000 native Americans eventually died of disease and starvation.

    When the forced migration resumed in the fall and winter, hundreds died during a journey that required them at one point to wait for weeks to cross the frozen Mississippi River.

    Years later, a soldier who took part in the removal expressed his regrets, saying: “I fought through the Civil War and I have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest I ever saw.

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  • What Obama gets wrong about ISIS' strategy
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 3:52 PM:)

    Barack Obama

    The Islamic State terrorist group is still charging across Iraq and Syria, and President Barack Obama's arguments that the militants don't have much of a long-term strategy is not aging well.

    J.M. Berger, who recently coauthored a book on the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), wrote on Politico last week that Obama still seems to underestimate the terrorist group since calling them a "jayvee" squad in September.

    Berger pointed to Obama's repeated references to "tactical" setbacks for US-supported Iraqi forces and lucky breaks for the Islamic State in capturing territory in Iraq and Syria over the past week.

    Berger noted: "For those who do not speak Wonkese, making reference to an enemy’s 'tactical' success is code for saying that the enemy is not 'strategic' ... Tactics are short-term ploys, easy to dismiss. Strategy is for winners."

    Berger disputes the notion that ISIS doesn't have a strategy. Middle East experts have pointed out that ISIS is using religion and Islamic law to establish a social contract with the Muslims living in its territory, demanding taxes and adherence to its strict version of Sharia law in exchange for goods and services.

    These policies indicate that ISIS' strategy is rooted in long-term dominance rather than short-term gains.

    ISIS is also strategic about which territory it seizes and when, as the below map illustrates. The map depicts the network of ISIS-controlled towns linking the group's territory near Aleppo, which is Syria's largest city, to its territory near Baghdad, which is Iraq's largest.

    ISIS also recently seized Palmyra in Syria, which sits at a crossroads between Damascus, the capital of Syria, Homs, a supply center for the Syrian army, and Deir al-Zor, a government stronghold.


    ISIS exploits existing tensions in the areas it wants to take over, creates further divisions in these areas, and then seizes control of the territory when it can, Berger noted.

    The group then uses whatever resources exist in that area — oil, artifacts, people's money and personal property — to fund more expansion. ISIS is also very media-savvy, using propaganda to recruit new fighters the group can radicalize for its mission.

    We have yet to find out whether ISIS's strategy is sustainable long-term, Berger argues, and failing to acknowledge that ISIS has a long-term strategy could hamper efforts to extinguish the terror group.

    The US strategy, which includes supplying weapons, carrying out air strikes, and training Iraqi forces, hasn't succeeded in preventing ISIS from making gains in Iraq and Syria.


    Berger wrote: "Perversely, the United States is itself sorely lacking in strategy, whether in its pedestrian or mythical definitions, with regard to the problem of ISIL. We have deployed a fairly limited collection of tactics, with an increasingly baseless confidence that these will 'buy time' for improbable political resolutions in Iraq and Syria. Buying time is inherently tactical, or in this case, magical."

    Obama's downplaying of ISIS's strategy makes its victories look more dramatic and consequential, Berger argued.

    He concluded: "ISIL’s approach may be fraught with risk. It may be doomed to fail. It is without a doubt morally abhorrent. But ISIL has a strategy. We should ask ourselves if we can say the same."

    Read Berger's full analysis at Politico >>

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  • How Israel's forgotten war in southern Lebanon marked the birth of today's Middle East
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 2:50 PM:)

    Israeli Soldier Hezbollah Lebanon

    Standing before the microphone, looking like he was delivering a eulogy, Shaul Mofaz, the commander of the Israeli army on May 24, 2000, told the citizens of Israel that after 15 years in the Security Zone in South Lebanon, the IDF had withdrawn. He called the move “historic.” He said the “boys had been brought back home.” There was no mention of victory.

    After the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, Israel had departed in January 1985 from most of the country, leaving some 10 percent of Lebanon in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces. It was called the Security Zone. The thinking was that the territory would serve as a buffer against the sort of terror attacks that plagued the civilians of the Galilee in the 80s.

    The 15-year-long war of attrition still has no name. There is no national monument, nor a ribbon given to soldiers who served there. In many ways, it has been forgotten amid the two wars Israel has fought in Lebanon. 

    Instead, it birthed a different sort of conflict. Israeli troops, deployed along a string of forts, battled Hezbollah guerrillas night after night in the hill country of South Lebanon.

    But its significance for the Middle East today is considerable. 

    Looking back 15 years in time, at the climax of the war, a comet’s tail of question marks remain: Was the withdrawal a failure? Was it long overdue? Did it merely whet the appetite of jihadist groups, cementing in their minds the notion that violence, and only violence, pushes Israel from territory?

    Or was it a sensible, feminist victory, led by a group of women known as the Four Mothers, finally staunching the drip of blood from a campaign that no longer provided the residents of the Galilee with an appropriate form of security?

    The short answer, of course, is that it was both. But the details are important in that the Security Zone war, for want of a better name, has, more than many other campaigns, shaped Israel’s thinking about the Middle East of today.

    RTX1EDEOMatti Friedman, a prize-winning author who served in South Lebanon and has recently completed a forthcoming book about the forgotten war there, was picking roses at a farm in the Galilee on the morning of the withdrawal, not long after his discharge. The withdrawal had come early and had surprised him. “Just like that, this entire world, this entire universe for guys my age, vanished,” he said. [Full disclosure: Friedman is a close friend.]

    He said that at the time there seemed to be a problem — that the war was killing more Israelis than it was saving, roughly two dozen soldiers per year on average — and it seemed that the problem could be solved by retreating. “People had the idea that we could withdraw our way out of our predicament,” Friedman said.

    Prime minister Ehud Barak, on the afternoon of the withdrawal, described the defense concept of occupying a security zone in South Lebanon as “having run its course.” The forts were stationary, the soldiers’ behavior predictable, the roads perilous.

    Friedman agreed, and believes the withdrawal was justified. But he said that the solution of withdrawal “not only failed to placate Hezbollah, but was interpreted as weakness and emboldened it and all of its allies.” He called the retreat from Lebanon a “tipping point” for jihadist group across the Middle East.

    Above: newly-released video of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

    Brig. Gen. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser, today a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, saw the effects in real time. He was, in May 2000, the chief intelligence officer of the IDF Central Command. Hezbollah’s ability to oust Israel from Lebanon, he said, was “wind in the sails” of the Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank, which, four months later, launched the bloody Second Intifada.

    Palestinians, he said, would tell him often that two dozen dead soldiers a year for several years in a row was an attainable goal for the Palestinian groups if it proved sufficient to pry Israel off certain parcels of land. He said he would always tell his Palestinian peers that there was a big difference between the West Bank — the land of the Bible and a strip of land in which Israel had built civilian settlements — and Lebanon, which was neither settled nor part of the Promised Land. “But they would say to me: 25 soldiers a year? We are easily capable of that.”

    The 1,000-square-kilometer buffer zone, along the length of South Lebanon and no more than 20 kilometers deep, was, Friedman said, “the laboratory for 21st-century warfare.”

     In his book, “Pumpkinflowers: A War Story,” to be published in 2016, Friedman makes the case that many aspects of modern warfare — roadside bombs, hit-and-run strikes, and the filming and broadcasting of attacks — were born there. A Hezbollah squad attacking the outpost of Dla’at, which he focused on, was hardly news; a video of that 1994 attack, including the hoisting of a Hezbollah flag on the Israeli-held hill, was sensational and carried across the world.

    Today Hezbollah is considered by many to be the strongest non-state actor in the world. It has upward of 100,000 rockets in its possession and a veto vote in Lebanon’s national government. Would it have reached this position without an Israeli withdrawal? Would the Second Lebanon War have been necessary? 

    Hezbollah 2000Friedman said it is impossible to tell. The 15 years since the withdrawal have taught only that nothing can be predicted in the Middle East. At the time, he said, withdrawal from the Golan Heights seemed like a good idea. The same for East Jerusalem. “Any observer who has not been humbled by the events in the region has not been paying attention,” he stated.

    Two years after the withdrawal, Friedman shed his Israeli clothes and passport and traveled to Lebanon. He thought he might go to Beirut and from there to the battle grounds of South Lebanon and find that he had come full circle. Perhaps, he thought, he’d find people who, like him, were interested in reconciliation — “to find a sort of [WWI] Christmas truce.”

    Instead, “What I saw from there — what I thought might mark an end — was only just a beginning.”

    He had thought that the war against Hezbollah was just a marginal event amid the larger tide of land-for-peace deals. “It turns out it was the opposite,” he said. “What we saw in Lebanon in the 1990s was the Middle East of today being born.”

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  • Bernie Sanders: Hillary Clinton's money 'hustle' could isolate her from reality
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 2:24 PM:)


    Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) thinks there's a chance that money has affected how his main rival sees the world. 

    In a CNBC interview published Tuesday, Sanders said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's money "hustle" makes her out of touch with the average American. 

    "Theoretically you could be a multibillionaire and, in fact, be very concerned about the issues of working people," Sanders reflected. "Theoretically that's true."

    Sanders was responding to a question on the latest revelation about the wealth obtained by Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Newly-revealed documents showed the two earned more than $25 million in speeches alone since 2014. In total, the Clintons have reportedly earned more than $130 million in speaking fees since Bill Clinton left the White House.

    The Vermont senator went on to directly question whether Hillary Clinton would in fact be "very concerned" about issues affecting the poor. Speaking at a Capitol Hill bistro, Sanders noted to CNBC's John Harwood that the Clintons would probably not eat dinner at the establishment where the interview took place.

    "When you hustle money like that, you don't sit in restaurants like this. You sit in restaurants where you spend — I don't know what they spend — hundreds of dollars for dinner and so forth. That's the world that you are accustomed to. And that's the worldview that you adopt," he said. 

    The Clintons' wealth has drawn a heavy amount of scrutiny from both their political foes and the press amid Hillary Clinton's White House bid. Conservatives have tried to link the speech payments and donations to the Clinton Foundation to alleged favors doled out by the State Department while she was secretary of state. Both of the Clintons have fiercely denied any such exchanges. 

    For his part, Sanders said, "I'm not going to condemn Hillary and Bill Clinton because they've made a lot of money. [But] that type of wealth has the potential to isolate you from the reality of the world."

    The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider on Sanders' remarks. However, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly stressed her record of fighting for issues important to working-class families since launching her campaign last month. Perhaps to counter allegations of elitism, Clinton's presence on the presidential campaign trail has been largely limited to events with "everyday Americans." 

    "She's not out of touch, and she advocated and worked as a senator for things that were good for ordinary people," Bill Clinton said last year, according to PBS. "And before that all her life — I remember when we were in law school, she was out trying to get legal assistance for poor people."

    Sanders is Clinton's only announced rival for the 2016 Democratic nomination, though other contenders are expected to announce soon.

    Watch Sanders' full CNBC interview below: 

    SEE ALSO: The billionaire linked to the 'Clinton Cash' scandals once said something amazing about doing business with Bill Clinton

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  • REPORTS: Russia abandons its Mistral warship deal with France
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 2:19 PM:)

    French Mistral Carrier For Russia

    Russia has given up on its €1.2 billion deal for two Mistral-class helicopter carriers with France, according to a report on Sputnik, the Russian news service.

    Now France has two giant warships on its hands that no one wants.

    Following Russia's alleged role in supporting separatist militia in eastern Ukraine, French President François Hollande had imposed two conditions necessary for the sale. These were:

    1. That a cease-fire that was being observed by all sides.

    2. Tangible evidence of progress toward a political settlement over Ukraine's future.

    Neither of those conditions were deemed to have been sufficiently met in order to complete the transfer of the Mistral ships.

    All that remains now is for the two sides to agree on a compensation package for Moscow.

    In recent weeks Moscow has taken a firm, if conciliatory, stance on the Mistral deal. Last month President Vladimir Putin announced that his officials did not intend to seek any penalties or fines from France over the postponed sale but instead would seek only repayment of the costs incurred on the Russian side if the sale were to fall through.

    Russian state-owned Sputnik News quotes Oleg Bochkaryov, a deputy chairman of the Russian military industrial complex, as saying: "We're now discussing just one thing — the exact sum of money France owes Russia."

    However, that would still leave France with the problem of who to sell the ships to. Both the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol, which are currently stuck in the port of Saint-Nazaire, have been built to Russia's specifications and could cost millions to convert.

    Earlier this month Chinese media latched onto reports that the Dixmude landing vessel — the first Mistral-class ship to visit a Chinese port— was among a group of French vessels that was visiting Shanghai. This sent the rumour mill into overdrive, with claims that France is using the trip as a way to show off the vessel ahead of a possible sale.

    The evidence for this theory, however, remains weak and there would be concerns that such a sale could risk the ships falling into Russian hands — a scenario that could embarrass Paris. Nevertheless, if the reports are true the saga of the Mistral ships is far from over.

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  • Hillary Clinton is mocking herself with these 'Everyday Pantsuit' campaign T-shirts
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 12:16 PM:)

    HFA Apparel Pantsuit_Tee front_grande

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign is now selling some unconventional products.

    In a campaign store unveiled Tuesday, supporters can buy a range of items including "The Everyday Pantsuit Tee."

    "Bringing a whole new meaning to casual Friday," the item's description reads. "Pantsuit bottoms not included."

    The former secretary of state is known to frequently poke fun at her reputation for wearing pantsuits.

    Other 2016 presidential candidates are also hawking some rather unusual items. Notably, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is selling bag-toss games, purported NSA spy-cam blockers, giant birthday cards, and more.

    Here is some of Clinton's other campaign swag:

    'Future Voter Onesie'

    HFA Apparel 02 Future_Voter_Onesie A_grande (1)

    'Stitch by Stitch Throw Pillow'

    10 Pillow_grande 

    'Pant Suit Lapel Pin'

    05 Lapel_Pin2_grande

    'Progress Pint Glass' — 'Made from 100% shattered glass ceiling'

    09 Pint_Glass_grande

    SEE ALSO: Rand Paul has the most amazing campaign store with giant birthday cards, beer mugs, and so much more

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  • Putin's dream of reuniting the Russian empire is falling apart
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 9:39 AM:)

    Putin Alexei Miller

    Russian President Vladimir Putin's dream of uniting the self-declared separatist republics in eastern Ukraine under the banner of Novorossiya, or New Russia, was put on hold indefinitely last week as Moscow moved to abide by the terms of February's cease-fire deal.

    Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian state-owned newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that "we say that we want [these republics] to become part of Ukraine."

    His comments echo those of Alexander Kofman, the defence minister of the separatist-run Donetsk People's Republic, who told the Vechernyaya Makeevka newspaper: "The Novorossiya project is frozen until a new political elite emerges in all these regions that will be able to head the movement. We don't have the right to impose our opinion on [the Ukrainian cities of] Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and Odessa."

    The move is most likely aimed to ensure the Russian side lives up to the commitments made in the second Minsk cease-fire agreement signed with Germany and France earlier this year. The deal called for local elections to be held in each of the separatist-held regions of Lugansk and Donetsk under Ukrainian law to decide on "local self-government" — a condition that could have been put under threat by the Novorossiya project.

    Lugansk and Donetsk

    Since the onset of fighting in eastern Ukraine following the collapse of President Viktor Yanukovych's government, suspicions of Russian involvement both militarily and politically have been repeatedly raised. NATO command has openly accused Moscow of sending troops and equipment (including tanks and heavy artillery) across the border to support the Russian-speaking rebels against the government in Kiev.

    Yet the end goal for many in the Kremlin has always been grander: the reformation of a large part of the former Russian empire through the unification of Russian-speaking people across the region.

    Putin said as much in his annual televised Q&A session last year, recalling that the breakaway territories in Ukraine had a long, shared history with Russia:

    I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the tsarist days — Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa — were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. They were won by Potyomkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The centre of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained.

    At the time, effectively laying claim to regions that are formally part of Ukraine was seen as a quite extraordinary statement to make. But it is in keeping with the Kremlin's broader strategic positioning over recent years.

    Moscow has spent the past decade trying to rebuild economic and political ties with its former Soviet neighbours under the auspices of the Eurasian Union. Yet international sanctions against Russia and the collapse in the oil price over the past year have put serious strains on its ambitions.

    In March, Putin attended a Eurasian Union conference with his Kazakh and Belorussian counterparts in Astana, the Kazakh capital. Tensions were higher than usual, with the government in Astana having to dip into its gold and foreign-currency reserves to defend its currency and rein in rampant inflation over recent months.

    In July last year, the Kazakh government passed a new law increasing the sentence for separatist activity in a possible hint that the Kazakh authorities were becoming concerned about a possible Russian landgrab, not dissimilar to what has been seen in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine. The government had previously refused to sign up to Moscow's tit-for-tat sanctions imposed on Western goods imports, making clear that it viewed the Eurasian Union as a purely economic undertaking and not political.

    The apparent success of the Novorossiya project in Ukraine provided some welcome relief from these setbacks.

    Ukraine Debaltseve

    In August, Putin directly addressed the "Novorossiya militia" in Ukraine following the establishment of a so-called Union of People's Republics between the rebel administrations in Lugansk and Donetsk. In effect, the Russian president appeared to be recognising the separatist republics as a unified political bloc — something Kiev's western allies have long refused to do.

    Moreover, in February of this year the Russian TV station Channel 1 filmed the flag of Novorossiya flying over the key railway town of Debaltseve a day after rebels claimed to have captured the town after weeks of fierce fighting between the two sides.

    The decision by separatist forces to raise the Novorossiya flag rather than that of their own Donetsk People's Republic flag is itself interesting and potentially highly symbolic. Raising the flag could be seen as playing into the Kremlin's narrative of the crisis, which is that the government in Kiev is trying to undermine the right of ethnic Russians in the east of the country to self-determination — albeit within Moscow's sphere of influence.

    That dream, however, has now been paused indefinitely. Russia's domestic economy has suffered from a combination of international sanctions and the collapse in global oil prices and, it seems, there now seems to be little appetite left to further the standoff over Ukraine.

    How that will play with separatist leaders is an open question.

    Last year, separatist leader Oleg Tsarov ruled out the possibility that the rebel-held regions could find a mutually acceptable compromise with Kiev, saying "the reattachment of Novorossiya to Ukraine is not possible ... it is not possible given the current government in Kiev." He said those who had "experienced artillery bombardments, and who have lost comrades, who have lost relatives, whose homes have been destroyed," would never accept the current administration.

    The two sides remain a long way apart, but without Moscow's backing the People's Republics would struggle to continue as independent entities. It seems the first step toward a dialogue on the future of Ukraine might just have been taken.

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  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just sent a Twitter DM about his first year in office to 12.5 million people
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 7:47 AM:)

    Narendra Modi

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just wrapped up his first year in office — the Hindu nationalist won a landslide and came into government on May 26 last year.

    Despite the fact that he's running a country where only about a fifth of the people are internet users, he's one of the most forward-thinking world leaders on the use of social media for political campaigning.

    To keep people up to date with what he's doing, Modi used a method that's not familiar to pretty much any other President or Prime Minister around the world — a direct message on Twitter. 

    To all of his 12.5 million followers.

    The DM sent Tuesday reads "My message on completion of One Year of Our Government," along with a link to his own site

    Here's how that looks:

    Modi one year

    Some of his Twitter followers enjoying the occasion: 

    Today I received DM from @PMOIndia @narendramodi in my inbox, and I easily replied him too. Only Modi can do this pic.twitter.com/42ZnTVSQ93

    — Harsh Kumar (@harshkumarsays) May 26, 2015

    Modi also sent out DMs en masse to publicise his manifesto pledges during the 2014 election. 

    For a slightly more even-handed look at Modi's record after a year in office, the Economist has a wide-ranging special report out this week too.

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  • REPORT: Germany's 2 most important politicians are split over Grexit
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 6:56 AM:)

    merkel schaueble

    When Greece is locked in bailout talks with its international creditors, there are only two German politicians whom markets seem to pay attention to: finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and, of course, Chancellor Angela Merkel.

    But there seems to be a split between the two on the best approach to the Greek situation. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, Merkel is still unwilling to really consider the idea of a Grexit (Greek exit from the eurozone).

    Schaeuble, on the other hand, sees acceptance of a possible Grexit as an important bargaining tool for Germany and the rest of the eurozone.

    According to the report, that's one of the reasons Schaeuble sees the inclusion of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in negotiations as important. The Fund is more used to taking a tough line against its borrowers, whereas the European Commission is thought to be more preoccupied with keeping Greece in the euro and willing to give away a more generous deal.

    The leaked deal proposals that we saw nearly two weeks ago would tend to reinforce that line — the proposals that reportedly came from the European Commission were relatively vague and noncommittal on reforms, unlike what Schaeuble and the IMF would want.

    Merkel also has to deal with her own restless political party, with many members who favour Schaeuble's stern stance. Reports at the time of the tentative February agreement that Greece would continue its bailout suggested there was very strong opposition against it within Merkel's Christian Democrats. Though the Chancellor has managed to get them to toe the line so far, that's not guaranteed forever.

    Die Welt reports that Merkel is backed by the German foreign ministry, which aligns with reports that Merkel will paint any deal with Greece as necessary for European security. A May 19 Bloomberg article suggests she will make the geopolitical instability of a southern part of Europe splitting off from the bloc a major part of her argument for an agreement. Here's a snippet from that report:

    Merkel would hold the speech after Greece and its creditors agree on a deal with conditions she deems strong enough to sell to parliament and the German public, according to two government officials. She would argue that a Greek exit from the euro area would risk causing geopolitical instability in the region, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.

    That approach may be more convincing to sceptical German conservatives than appeals to pan-European solidarity. But to get to that point, either Athens or the international institutions still need to make major compromises on issues like pension reform. If that doesn't happen, Grexit could occur no matter who wants it.

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  • Britain poised for 'Brexit' as David Cameron is left out of EU treaty talks
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 6:44 AM:)

    David Cameron looks frustrated

    The possibility of Britain leaving the European Union when the Conservative government presents the country with an in/out referendum increased in the last few days, as Prime Minister David Cameron is already failing to negotiate "a better deal" for the UK within the 28 member bloc.

    Cameron was in Brussels to try and start negotiating the terms of membership within the EU. However, according to France's Le Monde newspaper (as reported by the Guardian), Germany and France sidestepped Cameron's demands to renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty and instead sealed a pact to "integrate the eurozone without reopening the EU’s treaties." The Lisbon Treaty is the successor to the European Union Constitution, which became law in 2009. It includes heightened powers for the European Commission, European Parliament and European Court of Justice. It also opened the doors for more freedom of movement between EU members and greater control from Brussels over the final say on asylum applications. 

    Le Monde says that the French and German proposals will be presented at the EU summit in Brussels in June, while Cameron will unveil the list of changes he is demanding on behalf of Britain, if the country is to stay within the bloc. 

    Though the Tories intend to deliver a referendum, the party is largely against leaving the EU.

    In January last year, UK Chancellor George Osborne said the Tories were determined to deliver on the promise of a referendum but they would prefer to stay within the EU and negotiate "a better deal."

    "Our determination is clear: to deliver the reform and then let the people decide," Osborne said in a speech at a Tory party conference on January 14. "It is the status quo which condemns the people of Europe to an ongoing economic crisis and continuing decline. And so there is a simple choice for Europe: reform or decline."

    Senior Brussels officials have repeatedly said they were not keen to reopen the Lisbon Treaty. However, Le Monde says the French and German proposal to strengthen the integration of EU member states without reopening the treaties will shut the door on Britain renegotiating its terms of its membership.

    This could be a huge blow to Cameron's Conservative party to drum up support for Britain to stay within the EU. 

    Only four days after Britain's General Election this month, ING's senior economist James Knightley warned that the UK's status as an EU member is on a knife edge. 

    ING warned that the 3.8 million people who voted for the UK Independence Party, which is opposed to staying in the union, could be a massive threat to Britain's membership. The amount of people who voted for UKIP was larger than the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party combined.

    The latest Eurobarometer public opinion survey shows just 23% of Britons have a “generally positive” view of the EU, with only Greece having a lower rating (22%), highlighted ING. Furthermore, immigration topped the monthly Economist/Ipsos MORI poll when people were asked: “What do you see as the most important issue facing Britain today?”

    Immigration/immigrants was the top answer at 37%, with the economy on 33%.

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  • The 10 most important things in the world right now
    (Politics - May 26 2015 - 5:24 AM:)

    Mexico tornado

    Hello! Here's what you need to know for Tuesday.

    1. Iraqi forces on Saturday launched a counterattack against Islamic State militants near the city of Ramadi, a week after it was seized by insurgents.

    2. At least 13 people have been killed and thousands of homes damaged by a tornado that hit northern Mexico.

    3. States of emergency have been declared throughout Texas after at least three people died from flash floods.

    4. Spain's ruling People's Party on Sunday suffered its worst results in municipal elections in more than two decades, ahead of the general election in November.

    5. British Prime Minister David Cameron met with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Monday night over reforms to the European bloc.

    6. One of the biggest fighter jet exercises in Europe, involving NATO member nations as well as Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland, has begun near Russia's borders to test cooperation among countries.

    7. Japan will for the first time join the US and Australia in military exercises this summer amid growing concerns over China's actions in the South China Sea.

    8. The daughters of blues legend BB King allege that his business manager and personal assistant poisoned their father, which hastened his death earlier this month.

    9. Greece is still locked in talks with its international lenders for the release of a €7.2 billion (£5.10 billion, $7.90 billion) bailout instalment, while a poll suggests Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is loosing public support for his negotiating power. 

    10. Malaysia Airlines in undergoing a complete overhaul, which includes plans to lay-off about one-third of its workforce, after two aviation disasters last year.

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  • Michelle Obama's advice to Oberlin graduates cuts to the heart of one of America's biggest problems
    (Politics - May 25 2015 - 8:29 PM:)

    michelle obama

    In a commencement speech at Ohio's Oberlin College on Monday, First Lady Michelle Obama urged graduates not to surround themselves completely with like-minded people.

    “You might be tempted to recreate what you had here at Oberlin, to seek out like-minded individuals,” Obama told graduates of the famously liberal college, according to a local Fox affiliate.

    Instead, Obama said, the new graduates should actively seek out conflict and not be afraid to coexist with people who have vastly different opinions. From her speech, courtesy of the Huffington Post:

    Here at Oberlin, most of the time you’re probably surrounded by folks who share your beliefs. But out in the real world, there are plenty of people who think very differently than you do, and they hold their opinions just as passionately. So if you want to change their minds, if you want to work with them to move this country forward, you can’t just shut them out. You have to persuade them, and you have to compromise with them.

    The first lady's remarks come at time when America is deeply divided, politically. Last year, the Pew Research Center polled 10,000 adults and found that "Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history."

    Americans these days are more likely to express consistently liberal or conservative views, and they're more likely to exist in "ideological silos," the study found. Roughly 60% of consistent conservatives said most of their close friends shared their political views, as did 49% of consistent liberals.

    It is possible these "silos" reinforce people's views and makes them more staunchly conservative or liberal than they'd otherwise be, as The New York Times' Nate Cohn pointed out last year.

    "The tendency for liberals and conservatives to self-segregate most likely reinforces the ideological and partisan divide, as voters silo themselves into echo chambers where dissenting opinions are rare," Cohn wrote. 

    Of course, engaging in political discourse with people from across the aisle can be uncomfortable. Obama acknowledged that in her speech Monday.

    "Today I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to and not away from the noise," she said, according to CBS News. "Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find because so often throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens." 

    Watch the video below:

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  • Putin is risking a clash with the IMF over Russia's $3 billion loan to Ukraine
    (Politics - May 25 2015 - 12:30 PM:)

    Vladimir Putin

    President Vladimir Putin is warning that he could call in Russia's $3 billion loan to Ukraine at any time, a move that would spark a stand-off with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

    Under the terms of the original 2013 deal, negotiated with then President Viktor Yanukoych who fled the country last year following massive anti-government protests, Ukraine had to keep its national debt below 60% of GDP. That condition has now been clearly breached allowing Moscow to recall the loan at any time.

    On Wednesday Putin explained the reasons why his government is yet to do so: "However, by the request of our Ukrainian partners and the IMF, we do not use this right. We do not want to aggravate further the difficult economic situation of our partners and neighbours."

    Yet the recent passing of a bill by the Ukrainian government that would allow the country to impose a moratorium on foreign debt payments may force the Kremlin to rethink this position.

    That puts the IMF into something of a bind. It is both asking Russia not to call in its loan while also pushing Kiev to renegotiate it.

    In March, the IMF released details of its $17.5 billion rescue package, including an economic reform programme. It included what they are calling "debt operations", but what most of the outside world would call debt restructuring whereby the country either imposes losses on bondholders or extends the repayment deadline.

    Except here's the problem — one of the biggest payments due in 2015 is a $3 billion loan from Moscow:

    Ukraine Capital Economics

    Anna Gelpern, a law professor at Georgetown University and expert in the subject, calculates that Russia's debt will have to be included if the Ukrainian government is going to hit the IMF's target of $5.2 billion worth of restructuring in 2015, according to the Financial Times.

    And that, in turn, could become a huge problem for the IMF. Under IMF rules, it is unable to lend to countries that have defaulted on "official debt" meaning any attempt by the authorities in Kiev to force restructuring on Russia could threaten its $17.5 billion rescue package.

    Kiev is claiming that the Russian deal is a private loan that would be subject to its moratorium bill. Moreover, the wording of the moratorium bill leaves little doubt over how it views debts taken on by the previous administration: "The government has the right… not to return loans borrowed by the Yanukovich kleptocratic regime."

    That, however, does not appear to be the view of its partners.

    IMF spokesman William Murray told the press in March that "if I'm not mistaken, the $3 billion Eurobond comes from the Russian sovereign wealth fund, so it's official debt". However, the Fund later clarified those comments to state that "no determination has been made by the Fund as to the status of this claim."

    So that's as clear as mud then.

    Unsurprisingly, Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov believes that the Russian loan should indeed be classified as "official debt" and said that the country was still not ready to restructure the debt "because [Russia] itself is in a difficult situation."

    As Putin made clear today, that is still the case as far as Russia is concerned.

    So what can Kiev do?

    FT Alphaville's Joseph Cotterill points to one possible loop-hole. In the small print of the loan agreement, the wording surrounding which "fiscal or other laws and regulations" the contract falls under leaves out a crucial line regarding "the place of payment".

    Russia’s claims are two-year bonds issued in December 2013 and governed under English law, but that's not clearly stated in the document itself. This means that the Ukrainian government could attempt to claim that the loan falls under the country's own "laws and regulations" and adjust those accordingly in order to allow for a restructuring of the debt (or at least, it provides sufficient ambiguity for them to make the case).

    There is even a question as to whether the loan itself broke guidelines governing what Russia's sovereign wealth funds can invest in.

    But that avenue is only credible insofar as the IMF views the Russian loan as private, not official debt. And that's not been a clear message coming from them to date.

    Any reversal of its position could seriously jeopardise its relationship with Moscow, which has held off calling in the loan to date at the Fund's request.

    In other words, the IMF has dug itself a hole and it's not at all clear how it gets itself out of it from here unless Moscow unilaterally decides to back down on its demand for repayment in full and on time. Putin's intervention today suggests they are nowhere near that point just yet.

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  • One thing veterans want you to know about Memorial Day
    (Politics - May 25 2015 - 11:15 AM:)

    Arlington Cemetery soldier kissing grave

    Do not thank me for my service because today is not about me at all.

    That's what a number of fellow military veterans said, when I asked what they wanted people to know about Memorial Day.

    "It's not about us," said Staff Sgt. Jay Arnold, a soldier with the Illinois Army National Guard. "It's about those who went before us."

    While often seen as just a day off work or great time to barbeque, Memorial Day — not to be confused with Veterans Day — is a day of remembrance for approximately 1 million men and women who have died in defense of the United States since 1775.

    "Memorial Day isn't about romanticizing war or worshiping military veterans. It's a day to recognize personal sacrifices of veterans and active military alike, regardless of their inclinations toward war," said Tech Sgt. Bill Monahan, an airman serving at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. "Too often today, ones political beliefs skew opinions on what constitutes honorable service so it is important to have a day where we can look back at who laid it all on the line."

    The day has its roots in the Civil War, with a "Decoration Day" taking place three years after the war's end to decorate Union graves with flowers. Similar observances happened around the same time in the south. But it was Maj. Gen. John A. Logan who declared the day should be observed on May 30.

    With an act of Congress in 1971, the day was proclaimed a national holiday for the last Monday in May and expanded to honor all who have died in American wars.

    So you should definitely enjoy your day off, grill some steaks, and spend time with family and friends. But I challenge you — if you don't have any connection to the military — to really learn about just one fallen service member.

    They didn't join the military for fame or reward, ambition or status. "In simple obedience to duty as they understood it," reads the inscription at Arlington's Confederate Memorial. "These men suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all — and died."

    Former Army Maj. Matthew Burden, a military blogger who often shares stories of the fallen, shared this:

    "It is important to remember them, and it is just as important to enjoy yourself this weekend. To spend time with your family and friends," he told BI. "What better assurance to them that they did not die in vain? Enjoying your freedom and understanding it's value is the best way to honor the sacrifices of my friends. That's the way they'd want you to spend Memorial Day.

    Remembering them, and being a good friend, father, and an American is the best way that I can honor their memory."

    I wholeheartedly agree.

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  • This border post shows how Turkey's ISIS problem keeps getting worse
    (Politics - May 25 2015 - 11:05 AM:)


    Pipes, ammonium nitrate, and other bomb-making materials are being transported across Turkey's border into Syria by agents of ISIS while Turkish border guards look the other way, Jamie Dettmer of The Daily Beast reports.

    And Ankara doesn't seem like it's willing to do much about it.

    The relaxed border policies Turkey adopted between 2011-2014 enabled extremists who wished to travel to Syria and join the rebels in their fight against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

    Turkey officially ended its open border policy last year, but not before its southern frontier became a transit point for cheap oil, weapons, foreign fighters, and pillaged antiquities. Smuggling networks all along the nation's 565-mile border with Syria managed to emerge and flourish while the policy was in place.

    “That policy has ended now — but it’s very hard to go back to a nonporous border because you have already allowed all these smuggling networks to be established," Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Wall Street Journal in February.

    The Turkish town of Akcakale is a quintessential example of Turkey's still-inconsistent border policies. While some frontier cities have established a marked security presence to address the smuggling problem, with paramilitary forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints in armored vehicles, the town of Akcakale — separated from the ISIS-controlled Syrian town of Tel Abyad by a railway and a fence — is not one of them.

    "Turkey is trapped now — it created a monster and doesn’t know how to deal with it,” one Western diplomat told WSJ.

    Raqqah MapJonathan Schanzer, a former counterterrorism analyst for the US Treasury Department and vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explained that Turkey's fear of attack from ISIS is a big reason the militants have been able to freely use a Turkish border crossing like Akcakale.

    "Absolutely [fear of blowback] is part of the problem," Schanzer, who warned about this problem in November, told Business Insider on Friday. "Initially the Turks allowed for ISIS to set up shop on the Turkish side of the border and my sense is … the longer this has persisted, the more difficult it is for the Turks to crack down because there is the risk of a counter strike, of blowback."

    isis turkey borderThe New York Times reported earlier this month that large carts of ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer that can be used to make deadly explosives) were being transported at regular intervals from Akcakale to Tel Abyad — a problem that hasn't seemed to phase the few policemen patrolling Akcakale's streets, at least according to Dettmer.

    "On the day I entered town," Dettmer writes, "there was one police car at a roundabout as you entered the main drag and a policeman sitting on the ground with his back to the road drinking tea with a local."

    A Turkish smuggler, calling himself Ahmed for the purposes of the article, confirmed to Dettmer that this kind of behavior was fairly common.

    "They [Turkish border guards] are very tough with the Kurds and the areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, but with areas across from ISIS not so much," he said. "It isn't hard to cross into the Caliphate," he said.

    As a result, bomb-making materials are still flowing into Syria from its northern neighbor.

    "Smugglers say the piping can sustain high pressure and will be used by jihadists in Syria to manufacture pipe bombs, improvised explosive devices and launch-tubes for mortars," Dettmer writes.


    While fear of retribution may be one factor for lax border controls, the potential for income is another. While Ankara has officially banned trade and support for ISIS, many border town residents have come to depend on the cross-border trade for their livelihood.

    As Dettmer points out, "new office and residential buildings are springing up" in Akcakale, and there are "obvious signs" that some are clearly "profiteering" from the war.

    Moreover, many Turks are either directly related to or have come to identify with those living across the border, further complicating Ankara's goal of severing these illicit pipelines.

    "For us Akcakale doesn't exist," Ahmed said. "Locals call this town Tel Abyad, too, just like over the border. We are the same town, the same family separated by a railway line and a little fence."

    Tel Abyad

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  • The new Greek government's honeymoon is over — and default is just round the corner
    (Politics - May 25 2015 - 8:09 AM:)

    Alexis Tsipras Syriza

    It looks like the honeymoon is definitely over for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

    The government is losing political support both internally and externally, its ministers are admitting that it won't be able to make its upcoming International Monetary Fund (IMF) payments, and opposition politicians fear capital controls will be brought in the upcoming bank holiday weekend.

    The country is still locked in talks with its international lenders for the release of a €7.2 billion (£5.10 billion, $7.90 billion) bailout instalment, but despite positive signals from Athens, there seem to still be major areas of policy on which the teams can't agree.

    Tsipras managed to halt an internal political challenge from his own Syriza party over the weekend — but only just. Here's everything you need to know as a new week of negotiations gets underway.

    Public and political support is dwindling

    Two particularly grim political developments for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have unfolded in the last week. Firstly, there's been a tremendous decline in public support for his negotiating position.

    According to a University of Macedonia poll conducted through the middle of May, barely a third of people now think Athens' negotiating strategy is the right one. 

    That's a pretty astonishing fall from the 72% that supported it in February, just after the new government was elected.

    Greek polls

    That reinforces Bank of America Merill Lynch's FX strategist Athanasios Vamvakidis, who argues that "internal opposition to a compromise is the key reason for the inability to have a deal on the review so far." The Left Platform grouping particularly are willing to leave the euro to see an end to austerity.

    Though Tsipras' political position is getting weaker, he's still got one thing going for him: A lack of credible external opposition.

    Polls continue to suggest that Syriza would win a very solid majority if another election were held, and little appetite for the centre-right New Democracy party that previously held office has re-emerged.

    How close is a deal?

    Speaking on the UK's Andrew Marr show on Sunday, Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said that Greece had compromised three quarters of the way towards a deal already, and that the creditors must must make the final quarter of effort to reach an agreement.

    That's certainly not everyone's opinion. A recent note from Barclays' European analysts lays out what's still causing disagreements (emphasis ours):

    While progress has been acknowledged by both parties over the last two weeks, there are still several key issues pending agreement. Labour market (eg, collective agreements, strike rules, minimum wage, etc) and social security (eg, 13-month pension, zero deficit clause, etc) reforms have been declared red lines in the past by government officials, including PM Tsipras. Greece and its creditors will also have to agree on a revised 2015 fiscal target and fiscal policies, given the deteriorating economic environment and sudden reversal in tax revenues since end-2014

    Pension and labour market disagreements have proved to be more contentious and less flexible than issues like privatisation. But there's really very little time left to make agreements on these issues.

    The finance ministers that make up the Eurogroup will have to get approval from their own national parliaments for any deal, and politicians in the rest of Europe seem less inclined than ever to be lenient. 

    A default could be less than two weeks away now

    Athens Greece IMF protest go homeGreece's interior minister also said on Sunday what has been repeatedly suggested in the last week or two — that the country does not have the cash to make its June 5 payment to the IMF. There are another three payments due in the two weeks after that too.

    Veteran IMF reporter Michael Ignatiou reported over the weekend that Tsipras has pleaded with US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to help negotiate a brief pause in the payments while a deal is reach. But the IMF isn't so easily shaken off.

    According to Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Dora Bakoyannis, a New Democracy MP and former foreign minister made an ominous suggestion that the long weekend coming in Greece could be used to implement capital controls. 

    It's a three day weekend, and would be the last opportunity to do so before June 5.

    At the moment, the only important things to look out for are major concessions on pensions and labour market issues — those are currently what's standing in the way of a deal, and any sign that either side is backing down will be the first step in an agreement. If that doesn't come, Greece's default scenario could be less than two weeks away.

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