Inter Press Service » Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Tue, 15 Apr 2014 07:39:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 U.S. Blasted on Failure to Ratify IMF Reforms http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-blasted-failure-ratify-imf-reforms/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-blasted-failure-ratify-imf-reforms http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-blasted-failure-ratify-imf-reforms/#comments Sat, 12 Apr 2014 00:31:45 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133620 While Republicans complain relentlessly about U.S. President Barack Obama’s alleged failure to exert global leadership on geo-political issues like Syria and Ukraine, they are clearly undermining Washington’s leadership of the world economy. That conclusion became inescapable here during this week’s in-gathering of the world’s finance ministers and central bankers at the annual spring meeting here […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 12 2014 (IPS)

While Republicans complain relentlessly about U.S. President Barack Obama’s alleged failure to exert global leadership on geo-political issues like Syria and Ukraine, they are clearly undermining Washington’s leadership of the world economy.

That conclusion became inescapable here during this week’s in-gathering of the world’s finance ministers and central bankers at the annual spring meeting here of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.The delays are clearly damaging Washington’s global economic and geo-political agenda: persuading other G20 countries to adopt expansionary policies and punish Moscow for its moves against Ukraine.

In the various caucuses which they attended before the formal meeting began Friday, they made clear that they were quickly running out of patience with Congress’s – specifically, the Republican-led House of Representatives – refusal to ratify a 2010 agreement by the Group of 20 (G20) to modestly democratise the IMF and expand its lending resources.

“The implementation of the 2010 reforms remains our highest priority, and we urge the U.S. to ratify these reforms at the earliest opportunity,” exhorted the G20, which represent the world’s biggest economies, in an eight-point communiqué issued here Friday.

“If the 2010 reforms are not ratified by year-end, we will call on the IMF to build on its existing work and develop options for next steps…” the statement asserted in what observers here called an unprecedented warning against the Bretton Woods agencies’ most powerful shareholder.

The message was echoed by the Group of 24 (G24) caucus, which represents developing countries, although, unlike the G20, its communique didn’t mention the U.S. by name.

“We are deeply disappointed that the IMF quota and governance reforms agreed to in 2010 have not yet come into effect due to non-ratification by its major shareholder,” the G24 said.

“This represents a significant impediment to the credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness of the Fund and inhibits the ability to undertake further, necessary reforms and meet forward-looking commitments.”

The reform package, the culmination of a process that began under Obama’s notoriously unilateralist Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, would double contributions to the IMF’s general fund to 733 billion dollars and re-allocate quotas – which determine member-states’ voting power and how much they can borrow – in a way that better reflects the relative size of emerging markets in the global economy.

In addition to enhancing the IMF’s lending resources, the main result of the pending changes would increase the quotas of China, Brazil, Russia, India, and Turkey, for example, at the expense of European members whose collective representation on the Fund’s board is far greater than the relative size of their economies.

Spain, for instance, currently has voting shares similar in size to Brazil’s, despite the fact that the Spanish economy is less than two-thirds the size of Brazil’s. And of the 24 seats on the IMF’s executive board, eight to ten of them are occupied by European governments at any one time.

The reforms would only change the status quo only modestly. While the European Union (EU) members currently hold a 30.2 percent quota collectively, that would be reduced only to 28.5 percent. The biggest gains would be made by the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) – from 11 percent to 14.1 percent — although almost all of the increase would go to Beijing.

Washington’s quota would be marginally reduced – from 16.7 percent to 16.5 percent, preserving its veto power over major institutional changes (which require 85 percent of all quotas). Low-income countries’ share would remain the same at a mere 7.5 percent collectively, although their hope – shared by civil-society groups, such as Jubilee USA and the New Rules for Global Finance Coalition — is that this reform will make future changes in their favour easier.

Thus far, 144 of the IMF’s 188 member-states, including Britain, France, and Germany and other European countries that stand to lose voting share, have ratified the package. But, without the 16.7 percent U.S. quota, the reforms can’t take effect.

The Obama administration has been criticised for not pressing Congress for ratification with sufficient urgency. But, realising that its allies’ patience was running thin, it pushed hard last month to attach the reform package to legislation providing a one-billion-dollar bilateral aid package for Ukraine during the crisis with Russia over Crimea.

While the Democratic-led Senate approved the attachment, the House Republican leadership rejected it, despite the fact that Kiev would have been able to increase its borrowing from the IMF by about 50 percent under the pending reforms.

House Republicans – who, under the Tea Party’s influence, have moved ever-rightwards and become more unilateralist on foreign policy since the Bush administration – have shown great distrust for multilateral institutions of any kind.

Both the far-right Heritage Foundation and the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal have railed against the reforms, arguing variously that they could cost the U.S. taxpayer anywhere from one billion dollars to far more if IMF clients default on loans, and that the changes would reduce Washington’s ability to veto specific loans.

They say the IMF’s standard advice to its borrowers to raise taxes and devalue their currency is counter-productive and could become worse given the Fund’s new emphasis on reducing income inequalities; and that, according to the Journal, the reforms “will increase the clout of countries with different economic and geo-political interests than America’s.”

Encouraged by, among others, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and their Wall Street contributors, some House Republicans have indicated they could support the reforms. But thus far they have insisted that they would only do so in exchange for Obama’s easing new regulations restricting political activities by tax-exempt right-wing groups.

Meanwhile, however, the delays are clearly damaging Washington’s global economic and geo-political agenda – persuading other G20 countries to adopt expansionary policies and punish Moscow for its moves against Ukraine – during the meetings here.

“The proposed IMF reforms are a no-brainer,” according to Molly Elgin-Cossart, a senior fellow for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. “They modernise the IMF and restore American leadership on the global stage at a time when the world desperately needs it, without additional cost for American taxpayers.”

Further delay, especially now that the G20 appear to have set a deadline, could in fact reduce Washington’s influence.

While she stressed she was not prepared to give up on Congress, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde told reporters Thursday the Fund may soon have to resort to a “Plan B” to implement the reforms without Washington’s consent.

While she did not provide details of what are now backroom discussions, two highly respected former senior U.S. Treasury secretaries suggested in a letter published Thursday by the Financial Times that “the Fund should move ahead without the U.S. …by raising funds from others while depriving the U.S. of some or all of its longstanding power to block major Fund actions.”

C. Fred Bergsten and Edwin Truman, who served under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively, suggested that the IMF could make permanent an initiative to arrange temporary bilateral credit lines of nearly 500 billion dollars from 38 countries who could decide on their disposition without the U.S.

More radically, they wrote, the Fund could increase total country quota subscriptions that would remove Washington’s veto power over institutional changes.

“The U.S. deserves to lose influence if it continues to fail to lead,” the two former officials wrote.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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U.S.-Colombia Labour Rights Plan Falls Short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/u-s-colombia-labour-rights-plan-falls-short/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 00:18:23 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133528 Three years after Colombia agreed to U.S. demands to better protect labour rights and activists, a “Labour Plan of Action” (LPA) drawn up by the two nations is showing mixed results at best, according to U.S. officials and union and rights activists from both countries. Pointing to continuing assassinations of union organisers, among other abuses, […]

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Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

Military checkpoint on the Atrato River. Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Three years after Colombia agreed to U.S. demands to better protect labour rights and activists, a “Labour Plan of Action” (LPA) drawn up by the two nations is showing mixed results at best, according to U.S. officials and union and rights activists from both countries.

Pointing to continuing assassinations of union organisers, among other abuses, U.S. lawmakers and union leaders here are calling on President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to do much more to ensure that the LPA achieves its aims.“In spite of numerous new labour laws and decrees... companies still are violating worker rights in Colombia with impunity." -- Richard Trumka

“(V)iolence against trade unionists continues; in the three years since the Labour Action Plan was signed, 73 more trade unionists were murdered in Colombia. That alone is reason enough to say the Labour Action Plan has failed,” said Richard Trumka, the president of the biggest U.S. union confederation, the AFL-CIO, Monday in response to a new report by the Colombia’s National Labour School (ENS).

“In spite of numerous new labour laws and decrees, and hundreds of new labour inspectors not a single company fined by the Ministry of Labour for violating the law and workers’ rights has paid up, and companies still are violating worker rights in Colombia with impunity,” he added.

For years Colombia has been considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists, more than 3,000 of whom have been killed since the mid-1980s.

While Colombia has long been given preferential trade treatment by Washington as part of its broader “war against drugs” in the Andean region, the administration of President George W. Bush negotiated a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in 2006.

But the deal was strongly opposed by the AFL-CIO, labour and human rights-groups, and their allies in Congress who refused to ratify the FTA without provisions designed to substantially improve the country’s labour rights performance.

The pact was essentially put on ice until Obama and Santos signed what is formally known as the United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement in April 2011 to which the Labor Action Plan (LAP) was attached.

The LAP — which, among other provisions, required the Colombian government to protect union leaders; enact legislation to ensure that workers could become direct employees instead of subcontractors; establish a new ministry of labour; and prosecute companies that prevent workers from organising — aimed to bring Colombia’s labour practices up to international standards.

While the original intention was to delay the FTA’s implementation until after the LAP’s conditions had been met, Congress approved the FTA in October 2011.

The activists insisted this week that the approval was premature in that it relieved the pressure on the Santos government to fully carry out the LAP.

“The approval of the FTA by the United States Congress, without verifying full compliance with the LAP, significantly reduced the political will behind the plan and contributed to decisively in turning the LAP into a new frustration for Colombian workers,” according to a joint statement issued Monday by Trumka and the leaders of two of Colombia’s trade union movements, the Confederation of Workers of Colombia (CTC) and the Union of Colombian Workers (CUT).

The statement, which also called for a “serious review” of the FTA’s impact on Colombia’s agricultural and industrial sectors and on its exports to the U.S., was also signed by more than a dozen other trade-union and human rights groups in the U.S. and Colombia.

For its part, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which oversees the implementation of both the LAP and the FTA, gave the record of the past three years a more positive spin in its own report released Monday.

“Three years ago, the Colombian Labor Action Plan gave the United States and Colombia an important new framework, tools and processes to improve safety for union members and protections for labor rights. We have made meaningful progress to date, but this is a long-term effort and there is still work to be done,” USTR Michael Froman said.

The department’s report noted that 671 union members have been placed in a protection programme, which in 2013 had a nearly 200 million dollar budget; that more than 250 vehicles had been assigned assigned to union leaders and labour activists for full-time protection; and that the prosecutor general has assigned over 20 prosecutors to devote full-time to crimes against union members and activists, among other achievements.

It also noted that the number of union members who have been murdered for their organising activities has been reduced to an average of 26 per year since the LAP took effect from an annual average of nearly 100 in the decade before it.

“The action plan has been a good effort, and I know the government [in Bogota] has been taking it seriously,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a hemispheric think tank.

“Of course, the activist groups are right to press harder for compliance and to hold both the U.S. and the Colombian governments to account on this, but the fact is that there has been progress and there should be more,” Shifter, a specialist on the Andean countries, told IPS.

In its report, the ENS concluded that the LAP had overall failed to produce meaningful results in protecting worker rights, including the right to be free from threats and violence or in prosecuting recent and past murders of trade union leaders.

“We would like to emphasize that thousands of workers and their trade union organizations have tried to make use of the new legal provisions that protect them against labor abuses, but mmost have found themselves more vulnerable since judges, prosecutors, and labor inspectors almost always refuse to provide the protection available under the new legal framework,” the ENS report concluded.

In many cases, it said, efforts to gain protection had “only backfired on workers,” particularly those working in ports and palm plantations.

ENS’s conclusions echoed those of a report released last October by U.S. Reps. George Miller and James McGovern, both of whom serve on the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia.

“The ENS report reminds us that we have a very long way to go in successfully implementing the LAP and ensuring that workers can safely and freely exercise their fundamental rights,” the Group said, adding that the new U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, make LAP’s implementation a priority and highlight illegal forms of hiring, the use of collective pacts by companies to thwart union organising, and the problem of impunity for anti-union activity.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Discomfort over Crimea Annexation Among Emerging Powers http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/discomfort-crimea-annexation-among-emerging-powers/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=discomfort-crimea-annexation-among-emerging-powers http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/discomfort-crimea-annexation-among-emerging-powers/#comments Sat, 05 Apr 2014 00:00:17 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133437 Last month’s annexation by Russia of Crimea and the West’s reaction have placed emerging regional powers, which have generally supported Moscow’s position on key geopolitical developments, in a difficult position, according to U.S. analysts. Moscow’s move, which followed its de facto military takeover of the peninsula and a snap referendum on joining Russia of the […]

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Crowds waving Crimean and Russian flags in Simferopol in Crimea after the referendum. Credit: Alexey Yakushechkin/IPS

Crowds waving Crimean and Russian flags in Simferopol in Crimea after the referendum. Credit: Alexey Yakushechkin/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 5 2014 (IPS)

Last month’s annexation by Russia of Crimea and the West’s reaction have placed emerging regional powers, which have generally supported Moscow’s position on key geopolitical developments, in a difficult position, according to U.S. analysts.

Moscow’s move, which followed its de facto military takeover of the peninsula and a snap referendum on joining Russia of the mainly Russian-speaking population there, has also underlined differences within the so-called BRICS bloc, which includes Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, as well as Russia.“They don’t want to be pulled into a fight between the big dogs." -- Rajan Menon

Rather than vote with Moscow, the four non-Russian BRICS members all abstained on last week’s vote at the U.N. General Assembly, which affirmed the world body’s commitment to recognise Crimea as part of Ukraine and declared the snap referendum, which took place in mid-March, invalid.

China abstained on a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council on the eve of the referendum. Russia cast the lone veto.

“I think the Chinese decision to abstain, rather than back Russia, was a very significant decision,” said Bruce Jones, who directs the Brookings Institution’s International Order and Strategy project.

“The Chinese and the Russians have long paired up in their willingness to back each other in vetoes, and, for an issue as important as this, with the Russians putting as much emphasis on this as they did, for the Chinese to abstain was a really significant signal that they were not willing to simply close their eyes to Moscow’s action,” he told IPS.

“Overall this is an event that will sow discord within the BRICS’ grouping and will make the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and others think more carefully about their support for and partnership with Russia,” according to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Moscow’s annexation, which has been countered by a series of still-escalating economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by U.S.-led Western nations, has provoked considerable division among both the non-Russian BRICS, as well as other members of the Non-Aligned Nations.

While only 11 countries – all of them either closely allied to Russia or reflexively anti-U.S. in foreign policy orientation – voted against the resolution, 58 countries, including the four BRICS members, as well as other politically significant countries such as Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan, Uganda, and Vietnam, abstained.

One hundred countries voted in favour, including all European Union (EU) members, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, and most of Latin America and the Gulf Arab states.

Two dozen countries didn’t show up, including several important countries with strong interests in alienating neither Russia nor the West, including several Central Asian nations with large Russian-speaking minorities.

Israel, which habitually aligns itself with Washington, and Iran, which normally opposes it but is now engaged in critical negotiations with the West over its nuclear programme, were both no-shows.

While Western leaders appear resigned to the irreversibility of Russian control of Crimea, they are hoping that what they see as the steadily rising economic and political costs incurred by Moscow – including capital flight and NATO commitments to move military assets further east toward the Russian border — will dissuade President Vladimir Putin from further adventurism either against Ukraine or in Russian-speaking areas of Romania and Moldova. Whether that works remains to be seen.

But the precedent-creating nature of Russia’s takeover – its use of military force (albeit without bloodshed), the violation of territorial integrity of a nation with internationally recognised borders, and its justification that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population faced persecution and discrimination from what Moscow considers a regime that had illegally seized power against an elected president – has clearly troubled many nations, especially those with significant disaffected minorities.

“What is most threatening is that most states in the world are not homogenous,” said Rajan Menon, who teaches international relations at City University of New York (CUNY).

“India is a highly diverse nation, as is China and, in a way, South Africa, too. So the idea of holding a referendum to become separate states is naturally very troubling to them.”

“I think the other BRICS were all in their way quite uncomfortable with Russia’s moves in Crimea, but they’re also quite uncomfortable with the West using sanctions because they’re all quite vulnerable to that political weapon,” noted Jones, author of a just released book on the global order, ‘Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint’.

The latter was demonstrated in the approval by the BRICS foreign ministers March 24 of a statement in which they rejected the reported suggestion by the foreign minister of Australia, which will host the next G20 summit in Brisbane in November, that Russia should be suspended or expelled form the group.

“The escalation of hostile language, sanctions and counter-sanctions, and force does not contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter,” the statement said.

While some commentators interpreted the statement as backing Moscow, Jones noted that the foreign ministers rejected language in support of the annexation that had been sought by Russia.

“That goes to the core issue of the BRICS,” he said. “They’re strategically divided at the same time that they are unified in wanting to resist the West’s using its economic leverage to pressure them.”

Moreover, he added, the idea that Russia is leading anti-Western bloc – a theme raised by more right-wing voices here since the Crimea invasion – is “nonsense.”

Indeed, Kupchan, author of a 2012 book on world order, ‘No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn’, told IPS he thinks the Western powers have gained in the international arena as a result of the Crimea crisis.

“Even though emerging powers are reluctant to align themselves clear with the West on this front, I think that they are for the most part on board with the Western response,” he said. “And the fact that so few countries have recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimes speak for itself.”

According to Menon, the BRICS want above all “a world with multiple centres of power,” a point that applies in particular to the less powerful BRICS members, namely India, Brazil, and South Africa, as well as other emerging powers.

“They don’t want to be pulled into a fight between the big dogs,” he told IPS. “They want maximum flexibility, a kind of strategic ambiguity, if you will.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Supreme Court Further Empowers Wealthy Political Donors http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/supreme-court-empowers-wealthy-political-donors/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=supreme-court-empowers-wealthy-political-donors http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/supreme-court-empowers-wealthy-political-donors/#comments Wed, 02 Apr 2014 22:46:30 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133387 In a decision with major implications for the U.S. political system, a bare majority of the Supreme Wednesday ruled that the government cannot limit total spending by individuals on federal elections. The highly anticipated judgement, rendered by the Court’s five right-wing justices, declared unconstitutional the legal cap on aggregate contributions individual donors can make to […]

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The Supreme Court ruling is almost certain to fuel the growing debate over increasing economic inequality in the U.S. CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:UpstateNYer, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

The Supreme Court ruling is almost certain to fuel the growing debate over increasing economic inequality in the U.S. CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:UpstateNYer, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 2 2014 (IPS)

In a decision with major implications for the U.S. political system, a bare majority of the Supreme Wednesday ruled that the government cannot limit total spending by individuals on federal elections.

The highly anticipated judgement, rendered by the Court’s five right-wing justices, declared unconstitutional the legal cap on aggregate contributions individual donors can make to political candidates and party committees during the two-year election campaign cycle.“If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” -- Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the minority.

That limit, which was 123,200 dollars for the current cycle, was enacted by Congress and signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2002 as part of a larger effort to reform campaign finance laws.

The ruling in the case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), was strongly denounced by civic groups that have argued that the rich already exert far too much influence on elected officials.

“The Supreme Court majority overrode the Legislative and Executive branches to empower a miniscule number of millionaires and billionaires to use their wealth to exercise extraordinary distortive influence over federal officeholders, government decisions and elections,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and a leading voice for taking money out of politics since the 1970s.

“The Supreme Court majority has refused to learn the lessons of history from our past corruption scandals and from decades of actions taken to protect citizens against government corruption,” he noted.

The ruling, which comes just as the 2014 Congressional campaigns are getting underway, is almost certain to fuel the growing debate over increasing economic inequality – ignited two-and-a-half years ago by the Occupy Movement – and its effects on the political system.

In just the past week, for example, op-eds decrying influence of money on government appeared in several of the nation’s most influential newspapers.

In the Washington Post, for example, Stein Ringen, an emeritus professor at Oxford University, compared the current U.S. system to that of ancient Athens where, he noted, “democracy disintegrated when the rich grew super-rich, refused to play by the rules and undermined the established system of government.”

Similar concerns surfaced when four potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (George W.’s brother), trooped to Las Vegas last weekend for a convention of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a right-wing, strongly pro-Israel group chaired by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson contributed nearly 100 million dollars of his 39-billion-dollar fortune to so-called super-PACS (political action committees) during the last political cycle in an ultimately vain effort to defeat President Barack Obama re-election bid in 2012.

Noting that, along with Adelson, two of the world’s other top-10 billionaires, David and Charles Koch, are already “pouring tens of millions [of dollars] into the 2014 midterm elections in an effort to swing the Senate to Republican control,” Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote Wednesday that “These and other wealthy people …are buying the U.S. political system in much the same way Russian oligarchs have acquired theirs.”

The McCutcheon decision, which drew a strong dissent from four of the justices on the nine-member court, complements the equally controversial “Citizens United” decision which the same majority handed down in 2010.

That decision found that limits to political contributions by corporations and unions violated the free speech rights guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment. So long as those contributions were made to an entity that was not directly co-ordinating its advocacy work with a specific candidate’s political campaign or party, they were permissible, according to the majority.

As a substantial result of that decision, the 2012 election was the most expensive in U.S. history by far – most estimates place the amount at well over six billion dollars. In the 1960 election, by contrast, the comparable total was just over 100 million dollars adjusted for inflation.

While Citizens United applied to corporations and unions and permitted the creation of super-PACs to which anyone, such as Adelson and the Koch brothers, could contribute, it did not address the issue of direct donations by individuals to specific candidates or party organisations.

The McCutcheon case, which was based on a wealthy businessman who wanted to exceed the FEC’s 2012 aggregate limit by donating to dozens of Congressional campaigns, essentially fills that gap.

While the majority upheld FEC limits on individual contributions to specific candidates (2,600 dollars) and party organisations (5,000 dollars), it declared that the FEC’s aggregate limit (currently123,200 dollars) on any one individual’s contributions to political campaigns and parties during an election cycle violated the First Amendment.

“There is no right more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion that drew heavily on the four-year-old Citizens United decision to establish precedent for its ruling.

“An aggregate limit on how many candidates and committees an individual may support through contributions is not a modest restraint at all,” Roberts wrote. “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

The majority opinion provoked a strong retort by the four more-liberal justices. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the minority.

“The result… is a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform,” he argued.

His arguments were echoed by democracy advocates. “The First Amendment was intended to facilitate the exchange of ideas and information among all of us and thereby encourage our informed participation in our government,” said J. Gerald Hebert, director of the Legal Center here.

“This decision turns the First Amendment on its head by enabling those with the biggest chequebooks to gain even more influence and access to our elected officials,” he added.

The head of Public Citizen, another Washington-based civic group, called the ruling a victory for “plutocrat rights.” “There are literally only a few hundred people who can and will take advantage of this horrendous ruling. But those are exactly the people our elected officials will now be answering to,” said Robert Weissman.

“That is not democracy. It is plutocracy,” he said.

With the notable exception of Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate who had co-sponsored the 2002 campaign finance reform law, Republicans expressed satisfaction with the ruling.

“What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. “You all have the freedom to write what you want to write. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

For his part, McCain denounced the ruling. “I predict as a result of recent Court decisions, there will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again,” he said in a statement.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Increased Instability Predicted for Egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/increased-instability-predicted-egypt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=increased-instability-predicted-egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/increased-instability-predicted-egypt/#comments Wed, 26 Mar 2014 00:02:50 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133224 International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed. Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as […]

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The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 26 2014 (IPS)

International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed.

Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other dissident forces opposed to the military-backed government, are certain to fuel increased radicalisation in the Arab world’s most populous nation.“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger.” -- Michelle Dunne

“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger,” said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-chair of the Working Group on Egypt, a coalition of neo-conservative and liberal internationalist Middle East analysts who have informally advised the administration of President Barack Obama since the dawn of the Arab spring in late 2010.

“Where these kinds of actions are taking Egypt is very worrisome. …We now have an ally that might be headed toward serious and persistent instability,” according to Dunne, who noted that another court sentenced a group of 17 university students for rioting just a few days ago. Although no one was killed or seriously injured in that incident, each of the students received 14 years in prison.

Indeed, while the administration of President Barack Obama, which Monday described the mass death sentences as “defy(ing) logic,” had hoped to fully normalise military ties that were partially suspended after the July coup against President Mohamed Morsi, the latest court actions – along with the designation by the military-backed government of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation – would appear to make that much less likely.

The death sentences, which Amnesty International and the New York Times described as “grotesque” and “preposterous”, respectively, followed a one-day trial before three judges in Minya in which most of the defendants were absent or had no or very limited legal representation. As noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the prosecution failed to put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant.

“The Minya court’s sentencing more than 500 people to death for the killing of a police officer highlights the fact that no Egyptian court has even questioned a single police officer for the killing of well over 1,000 largely peaceful protesters since Jul. 3 [when the military ousted Morsi],” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

“This trial is just one of dozens of mass trials taking place every day across Egypt, riddled with serious due process violations and resulting in outrageous sentences that represent serious miscarriages of justice,” she noted.

The defendants were all indicted for alleged participation in a riot in Minya, a Brotherhood stronghold in central Egypt, last August, some six weeks after a military coup against the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The riot, which followed two massacres of hundreds of peaceful Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, resulted in the destruction of several churches and police stations and the death of one police officer.

Analysts here said the mass sentencing, the largest in modern Egyptian history, may have been motivated by a desire on the specific court’s part to retaliate against Morsi’s efforts to gain greater control over the judiciary or by its acquiescence to instructions by the police or interior ministry to make an example of the case as part of a broader strategy to intimidate the opposition. Both the verdicts and the sentences are subject to appeal.

If, indeed, the intent of the verdicts and other repressive measures is to restore stability to Egypt, the strategy does not appear to be working, according to Dunne, who Monday released a new report documenting both the growing repression and the rise in violence directed against the government.

“Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi,” according to the report, “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.”

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, the report found that a total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between Jul. 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders – the vast majority associated with the Brotherhood – have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

All of these tallies, according to the report, show that current level of repression actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The report also found, the rate of terrorist incidents – and the deaths they’ve inflicted — in the seven months that followed the Jul. 3 coup have also surpassed the rates reached between 1993 and 1995, when more than 300 people, including police, extremists, civilians and tourists fell victim annually to the war between the security forces and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group) of which the current Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was a top leader.

“(M)ilitants have shown that they are capable of inflicting far more damage should they choose to do so,” according to the Carnegie report, which noted that insurgents have “shown increasing sophistication” in carrying out attacks against police officers, soldiers, and high-level government officials but have not yet shown interest in inflicting mass casualties.

The latest developments appear to have put the Obama administration, which suspended joint exercises with Egypt immediately after the coup and subsequently suspended delivery of some weapons systems, including attack helicopters and tanks, to coax the military into pursuing a less repressive policy toward the Brotherhood, in particular.

Saudi Arabia, with which Obama hopes to patch up relations badly strained by his failure both to support former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the outset of the Arab Spring and to intervene more aggressively on the side of rebels in Syria when he visits Riyadh later this week, has strongly backed the military’s crackdown against the Brotherhood and are expected to press their guest to do likewise.

The Saudis have not only provided billions of dollars in budgetary support for the regime; they have also offered to make up for any weapons withheld by Washington by buying comparable systems from other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

“The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a basic disagreement about what’s going on in Egypt,” according to Dunne. “The Saudis would say whatever heavy-handed measures the authorities are taking is necessary to defeat terrorism. Most U.S. officials says these tactics are causing terrorism and potentially driving Egypt toward persistent instability.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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The Uses of Ukraine http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/uses-ukraine/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=uses-ukraine http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/uses-ukraine/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 23:38:09 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133188 The observation that the Chinese characters for the word “crisis” combine the characters for “danger” and “opportunity” has become a staple of Washington foreign policy discourse for years. So it’s no surprise that the ongoing crisis in Ukraine – and Russia’s de facto absorption of Crimea – provides lots of “opportunities” for various interests to […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 24 2014 (IPS)

The observation that the Chinese characters for the word “crisis” combine the characters for “danger” and “opportunity” has become a staple of Washington foreign policy discourse for years.

So it’s no surprise that the ongoing crisis in Ukraine – and Russia’s de facto absorption of Crimea – provides lots of “opportunities” for various interests to push their favourite causes.The notion of a new Cold War appeared to offer all kinds of opportunities for those interests nostalgic for the financial and bureaucratic benefits which it wrought.

Of course, that begins with Republicans who have used the crisis – and President Barack Obama’s failure to anticipate, prevent or reverse it – as an opportunity to pound away at his alleged naivete, weakness and spinelessness, a theme which the party’s still-dominant neo-conservative faction has been hyping since even before his 2009 inauguration.

“(T)his is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” declared Sen. John McCain, Obama’s Republican rival back in 2008, before an audience of some 14,000 activists of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) earlier this month.

At the same time, the neo-conservative editorial board at the Wall Street Journal has kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism, comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, rendered seemingly helpless in 1979 by the hostage seizure in Iran, the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist, Bret Stephens, suggested that Obama slap tough sanctions on President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and business elite (steps the White House began taking last week) to force the Russian leader to back down.

“Only a president as inept as Barack Obama could fail to seize the opportunity to win, or even wage, the new Cold War all over again,” according to Stephens.

Indeed, the notion of a new Cold War appeared to offer all kinds of opportunities for those interests nostalgic for the financial and bureaucratic benefits which it wrought.

While arms manufacturers have opted to remain in the background – lest their enthusiasm for a return to the golden age of sky-high defence budgets appear too obvious, even vulgar – their representatives in Congress and sympathetic think tanks have not been so constrained.

Thus, Amb. Eric Edelman (ret.), who served as Pentagon undersecretary for policy under George W. Bush, called last week for “a large increase in the defence budget, much like the one Jimmy Carter obtained after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“A jolt to the budget …would signal an end to the relative decline in U.S. military power over the post four years that, in [Defence] Secretary [Chuck] Hagel’s words, has meant that ‘we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted,’” he wrote in The Weekly Standard last week.

Edelman is currently a director of the neo-conservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), the successor organisation to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a letterhead organisation that championed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“That would send a powerful and unwelcome message to those in both Moscow and Beijing who are betting on the end of the unipolar world,” he added.

Writing for the same publication, Thomas Donnelly, a PNAC alumnus based at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that defence increases must include a reversal of the Obama administration’s decision to cut the active-duty from the current 522,000 troops to around 445,000, the smallest number since the eve of Washington’s entry into World War II.

He even decried other hawks, including McCain and neo-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who have ruled out putting “boots on the ground” to counter Russian moves, or for that matter advances by the Syrian army against rebel forces as well.

“Ukraine is still, for the present, a no-man’s-land, neither West nor East. But Ukraine is hardly the only no-man’s-land. The entire Middle East is fast become an especially gruesome. The South China Sea is likewise up for grabs. …Preserving the peace on the Eurasian landmass demands land forces,” he wrote.

In addition to restoring cuts to the army, another long-time and highly lucrative favourite of the military-industrial complex – missile defence – is being promoted as the answer to Russian moves.

“Beyond sanctions and aid to Ukraine, the most important thing we could be doing right now, with respect to Russia, is installing anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a likely 2016 presidential aspirant, told the Washington Post last week shortly after Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney made much the same pitch, deploring Obama’s decision in 2009 to scrap a plan to install missile defences in Poland the Czech Republic as part of a “reset” in relations with Moscow.

Echoing FPI, which, much like its PNAC predecessor used to do, published an entire agenda Friday of actions to counter Moscow signed by dozens of mainly neo-conservative foreign policy analysts, Cheney called for a “joint military exercises with our NATO friends close to the Russian border,” as well as a step-up in military equipment training for Ukraine’s armed forces.

But the military-industrial complex is not the only interest that is jumping on the Crimea crisis to push for major new initiatives from which it stands to benefit financially.

Bemoaning the degree to which Ukraine, other Central European countries, as well as much of western Europe depends on Russian oil and gas, U.S. energy companies and their advocates in Congress and on the op-ed pages are pressing the administration hard to permit them to more freely export their products, especially liquefied natural gas (LNG), for which the U.S. has very few export terminals, around the world.

“Even if, in the short term, most of our LNG exports go to Asia rather than to Europe, expediting and expanding those exports would increase global supply, push down global prices, and signal to Putin that Washington is determined to squeeze his gas revenues and break his energy stranglehold on Eastern Europe,” wrote Texas Sen. John Cornyn Monday in the National Review Online.

That argument was echoed by the Washington Post, which in the past has expressed concerns about the impact on climate change of encouraging fossil fuel consumption.

But, faced with Russian actions, the Post said ramping up U.S. exports now would send an important message. “The more suppliers there are…,” it wrote Sunday, “the less control predatory regimes such as Mr. Putin’s will have over the market.”

While the administration declined to comment on Monday’s announcement by the Department of Energy that it had authorised LNG exports from a terminal in Oregon, the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s lobby group, welcomed the move.

“The economic and strategic benefits of natural gas exports have sparked a bipartisan chorus for action,” said API’s president, Jack Gerard. “Today’s approval is a welcome step toward greater energy security, and our industry stands ready to help the administration strengthen America’s position in the global energy market and provide greater security to our allies around the world,” he said.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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World Bank Clears Congo’s Controversial Dam Project http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/world-bank-clears-congos-controversial-dam-project/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-clears-congos-controversial-dam-project http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/world-bank-clears-congos-controversial-dam-project/#comments Fri, 21 Mar 2014 00:04:19 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133133 The World Bank Thursday approved a 73.1-million-dollar grant in support of a controversial giant dam project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). With another 33.4 million dollars approved by the African Development Bank late last year, the grant, which is being provided by the Bank’s soft-loan affiliate, the International Development Association (IDA), will […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 21 2014 (IPS)

The World Bank Thursday approved a 73.1-million-dollar grant in support of a controversial giant dam project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

With another 33.4 million dollars approved by the African Development Bank late last year, the grant, which is being provided by the Bank’s soft-loan affiliate, the International Development Association (IDA), will be used to help establish the legal framework and state authority that will oversee the dam’s construction and operations.“If leaders of emerging economies are truly interested in the welfare of their citizens, they are better off laying grand visions of mega-dams aside.” -- Atif Ansar

It will also finance a number of environmental and social assessments to shape the development of the multi-billion dollar Inga 3 Basse Chute (BC) dam project.

“By being involved in the development of Inga 3 BC from an early stage we can help ensure that its development is done right so it can be a game changer by providing electricity to millions of people and powering commerce and industry,” said Makhtar Diop, the Bank’s vice president for Africa.

“Supporting transformative projects that expand people’s access to electricity is central to achieving the World Bank Group’s twin goals of helping to end extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity,” he added.

But the Bank’s support for the project drew criticism from some environmental and civil-society groups that have long opposed a project that is expected to cost at least 14 billion dollars.

“By approving Inga 3, the World Bank shows it has not learnt lessons from the bad experience of previous dams on the Congo River despite its claims to the contrary,” according to Rudo Sanyanga, Africa Director of the California-based International Rivers (IR).

“The Bank is turning a blind eye to the DRC’s poor governance and is taking short-cuts to the environmental assessment of the project,” he added.

That view was echoed by Maurice Carney, executive director of the Friends of the Congo, a Washington-based organisation with ties to community and environmental groups in the DRC.

“We see this decision as consistent with past World Bank projects that wind up as white elephants,” he told IPS. “There are a number of other alternatives for developing the DRC’s enormous energy capacity, including solar, wind, smaller-scale hydro and biofuel.

“The project is being presented as if it will help the population, but more often than not, these big dam projects end up serving industry at the expense of local communities many of which will be displaced once Inga 3 is fully developed.”

As currently envisioned, the Inga III dam would be the first in a series of hydroelectric installations along the Congo River, collectively referred to as the Grand Inga project. This would include a single 145-metre dam, which would flood an area known as the BundiValley, home to around 30,000 people.

The full project could provide up to 40,000 megawatts of electricity, a power potential that has been eyed hungrily by the rest of the continent for decades.  The DRC’s total hydropower potential is estimated to be the third largest in the world after China and Russia.

While DRC’s chaotic governance, however, has stymied forward progress on the project for years, the Grand Inga vision received an important boost last year when the South African government agreed to purchase a substantial amount of power produced by Inga III.

The dam is now supposed to be built by 2020 and, according to Congolese government estimates from November, would produce around 4,800 MW of electricity. Of this, 2,500 MW would go to South Africa while another 1,300 MW would be earmarked for use by mines and related industry in the province of Katanga.

Construction is scheduled to begin by 2016. The Bank will rely heavily on its private-arm facility, the International Finance Corporation, to help DRC’s government establish an autonomous Inga Development Authority which will, among other things, be charged with deciding on construction bids and negotiating purchasing deals for the electricity generated by the dam.

According to Peter Bosshard, IR’s director, the selection of the contractor to build the dam could prove problematic.

He told IPS three consortia are currently in the running: SinoHydro and China Three Gorges Corporation from China, a Canadian-Korean consortium, and a third made up primarily of Spanish companies.

But one of the Canadian companies involved has been barred from receiving any support from by the Bank for past corruption, while SinoHydro has been suspended pending the outcome of a corruption investigation by the Bank, according to Bosshart.

“This means that, unless the DRC government picks the Spanish consortium, it won’t be able to get any World Bank Group loans for the actual construction,” he noted.

That could be a problem. According to Bernard Sheahan, the IFC’s director of infrastructure and natural resources, “the level of investment for Inga 3 BC is so high that neither the public sector nor the private sector alone could finance the full cost of development of the project.”

Huge hydro-electric dams have long been a controversial issue at the Bank which, for most of its history, was an enthusiastic supporter.

Protests by local communities and international human rights and environmental groups that documented the massive displacements and environmental damage these mega-dams often caused – not to mention their failure to deliver electricity to those most in need – resulted in a halt in approving new projects in the mid-1990s.

Indeed, while the 50-year-old Inga 1 and 2 dams were supposed to provide power to much of the country, only ten percent of DRC households have electricity.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress passed a landmark new law requiring the U.S. Treasury, which represents Washington on the Bank’s board, to vote against multilateral funding for large-scale hydro-electric projects in developing countries.

The U.S. representative abstained on the vote Thursday, according to knowledgeable sources.

Earlier this month, four researchers at Oxford Unversity Said Business School released a major study based on data from 245 large dams built since 1934 in 65 different countries.

It found that they suffered average cost overruns of more than 90 percent and delays of nearly 50 percent inflicting huge additional costs in inflation and debt service for the mostly public entities that built them.

“Proponents of mega-dams tend to focus on rare stories of success in order to get their pet projects approved,” said Atif Ansar, one of the Oxford researchers. “If leaders of emerging economies are truly interested in the welfare of their citizens, they are better off laying grand visions of mega-dams aside.”

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U.S. Scientists Launch Wake-Up Campaign on Climate Change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-scientists-launch-wake-campaign-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-scientists-launch-wake-campaign-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-scientists-launch-wake-campaign-climate-change/#comments Wed, 19 Mar 2014 00:18:20 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133070 In an unusual intervention in policy debates, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) warned Tuesday that the world was “at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.” In a 29-report entitled “What We Know,” the prestigious group launched a campaign designed to […]

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U.S. Soldiers assigned to the Iowa Army National Guard construct a seven-foot levee to protect an electrical generator from rising floodwaters in Hills, Iowa, Jun. 14, 2008. Credit: National Guard/cc by 2.0

U.S. Soldiers assigned to the Iowa Army National Guard construct a seven-foot levee to protect an electrical generator from rising floodwaters in Hills, Iowa, Jun. 14, 2008. Credit: National Guard/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 19 2014 (IPS)

In an unusual intervention in policy debates, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) warned Tuesday that the world was “at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts.”

In a 29-report entitled “What We Know,” the prestigious group launched a campaign designed to correct the general public’s perception – fuelled by decades-long efforts by fossil-fuel companies – that there was widespread disagreement among scientists about the reality of climate change and its causes.Nearly solid opposition by Republican lawmakers has made it impossible for major climate initiatives to be enacted into law.

“Surveys show that many Americans think climate change is still a topic of significant scientific disagreement,” the report said. “Thus, it is important and increasingly urgent for the public to know there is now a high degree of agreement among climate scientists that human-caused climate change is real.”

“About 97 percent” of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is taking place, according to the report, which was clearly written for a lay audience.

“Moreover, while the public is becoming aware that climate change is increasing the likelihood of local disasters, many people do not yet understand that there is a small, but real chance of abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts on people in the United States and around the world,” according to the report, which also featured four videos to explain the campaign.

The report also uses easy-to understand comparisons regarding the degree of consensus held by climate scientists as to the reality of human-caused climate change, as well as other issues is effects and implications.

For example, it asserts that “(t)he science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases,” noting that the most Americans now accept that link and to a great extent have changed their behaviour accordingly.

The report comes amidst efforts by the administration of President Barack Obama to use the executive branch’s regulatory powers to curb the emission of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change and encourage investment in and exploitation of renewable energy sources.

Nearly solid opposition by Republican lawmakers has made it impossible for major climate initiatives to be enacted into law, especially since 2010 when they gained a majority of the House of Representatives.

According to a Gallup poll released Tuesday, 57 percent of U.S. adults believe that humans are responsible for global warming, while 40 percent say they believe it results from natural causes. The 57 percent is up from a low of 50 percent in 2010 but down from 61 percent that prevailed at the turn of the century and as recently as 2007.

The report, which was produced by a 13-member panel of climate scientists from major U.S. universities, stressed that it did not propose to explain why this “disconnect between scientific knowledge and public perception has occurred.”

However, most analysts who have studied the issue have blamed efforts by the powerful fossil-fuel industry, which, much as the U.S. tobacco industry did during the latter part of the 20th century, has funded studies, ad campaigns, and media that cast doubt on the methodology and findings of the larger scientific community.

Just last week, 28 Democratic senators held an all-night debate in the upper chamber on climate change in an effort to draw more attention to the scientific consensus that exists and to the potentially catastrophic consequences of a failure to act to slow or reverse climate change.

Despite such efforts, the general public still does not consider climate change a major concern in their lives, according to Gallup, which has released a series of polls on the issue over the past week.

When asked to choose among 15 issues that worried them the most, respondents in the Gallup found that climate change ranked 14th, just ahead of race relations. Only 24 percent of respondents said they worried about the issue “a great deal”, compared to 59 percent who worried about “the economy”, the top concern in the poll, 39 percent who cited the possibility of a terrorist attack and 37 percent who cited the availability and affordability of energy.

Unsurprisingly, the same poll found a major partisan gap in concern. Only ten percent of Republicans said they worried about climate change, the lowest percentage among all 15 issues. Thirty-six percent of self-identified Democrats, on the other hand, cited climate change as a major worry, although that still ranked 11th out of the 15.

Gallup found a similar partisan gap regarding the perceived causes of climate change: nearly four out of five Democrats (79 percent) believe that it is human-caused, while a minority of only four of ten Republicans (41 percent) agree.

The report’s authors emphasised that they do not consider it their role to “tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know.”

They also stressed that the “(f)ailure to appreciate the scientific consensus (around the causes and possible consequences of climate change) reduces support for a broad societal response to the challenges and risks that climate change presents.”

Noting the extreme weather events, including heat waves, droughts, sea level rise, and flooding that have taken place in the U.S. and citing polls showing that a growing number of Americans has noticed a worsening of weather conditions in recent years, the report emphasised that climate change is “already happening”.

And in one of its analogies aimed at the lay audience, it compared the way “greenhouse gases have supercharged the climate” with the way “steroids supercharged hitting in the Major League Baseball”.

Similarly, it noted that just as a rise of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Centigrade) – or how much the Earth’s average global temperature has risen since the late 19th century — “would be seen as significant in a child’s body, so a similar change in our Earth’s temperature “is also a concern for human society.

But it stressed that such changes are unprecedented and are certain to accelerate.

“The projected rate of temperature changes for this century is greater than that of any extended global warming period over the past 65 million years.” Among the impacts are a dramatic shrinkage in Arctic sea ice, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets, the acidification of oceans; the migration of plants and animals toward the poles and stepped up extinction rates; the rise in sea levels; and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

While all of these are likely to take place in the coming decades, the report also cited worse-case scenarios – or tail risks, as they are called in the financial world — that are possible, if not probable. Extreme heat events that currently occur only once in every 20 years could well become annual events; sea level rise could reach around two metres by 2100 resulting in storm surges that could extend flooding well beyond those of Superstorm Sandy.

Abrupt climate change that could result in the sudden death of entire ecosystems or feedback loops that intensify and accelerate destructive trends could also take place, the report noted, comparing the possibility to the 2008 financial meltdown in which only a few experts recognised the risks incurred by the intertwining of real estate and financial markets due to the lack of precedents. As with financial bubbles, “things seem stable, until suddenly they are not.”

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U.S. Ukraine Aid Frustrated by IMF Reform Debate http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-ukraine-aid-frustrated-imf-reform-debate/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-ukraine-aid-frustrated-imf-reform-debate http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-ukraine-aid-frustrated-imf-reform-debate/#comments Sat, 15 Mar 2014 00:21:09 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132902 Despite pressure from the Barack Obama administration, Ukraine’s new prime minister, and a veritable who’s who in Washington’s foreign policy and financial establishment, Congress adjourned Friday for a 10-day recess without approving emergency assistance for an increasingly beleaguered and economically bereft Ukraine. The failure to pass a billion-dollar package of loan guarantees – just two […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 15 2014 (IPS)

Despite pressure from the Barack Obama administration, Ukraine’s new prime minister, and a veritable who’s who in Washington’s foreign policy and financial establishment, Congress adjourned Friday for a 10-day recess without approving emergency assistance for an increasingly beleaguered and economically bereft Ukraine.

The failure to pass a billion-dollar package of loan guarantees – just two days before a Moscow-backed plebiscite in Crimea is expected to endorse secession from Ukraine and integration with Russia – resulted largely from Republican opposition to reforming the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Washington-based multilateral agency that is expected to take the lead in any rescue of Kiev’s debt-ridden economy.The reform is part of a larger movement to make the governance of major international institutions more representative by providing a stronger voice for middle-income countries, in particular.

While the Democrat-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee combined both the aid and the IMF reform package, Republican leaders in the House, which passed the aid package as a stand-alone measure last week, said they opposed adding the IMF provisions, which, among other measures, would permit the Fund to lend more money to needy clients, including Ukraine.

“I understand the administration wants the IMF money, but it has nothing at all to do with Ukraine,” said House Speaker John Boehner just as the Senate was poised to pass its version of the emergency bill.

He spoke after Secretary of State John Kerry exhorted lawmakers to approve the Senate package during a hearing Thursday before flying off for his latest – and apparently inconclusive – meeting on the Ukraine crisis with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London Friday.

“We must have IMF reform, we must have the quota,” he said in a reference to the increase in Ukraine’s ability to borrow more from the Fund if the package goes through. “It would be a terrible message to Ukraine for everybody to be standing up talking, appropriately, about what’s at stake and not to be able to follow through.”

He was backed up by a letter sent to the Congressional leadership by more than two dozen former cabinet officials, including former national security advisers Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Condoleezza Rice, and former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Robert Zoellick, among many others.

“The immediate importance of a strong IMF role for countries in crisis is apparent now in Ukraine, which seeks help from the U.S. and IMF to maintain its independence and economic health,” according to the letter. “Implementation of IMF quota reform would mean Ukraine would be able to borrow 60 percent more in rapid IMF financing (from one billion dollars to 1.6 billion dollars) than is possible today.”

Coupled with other aid, the letter, which was coordinated by the Bretton Woods Committee, asserted, the “geopolitical position” of its government in dealing with the current crisis with Russia should be enhanced.

The IMF reform package, which was adopted by the Fund’s governing board in 2010, cannot take formal effect until the U.S. approves it given the effective veto power Washington wields in the agency.

In addition to providing the Fund with additional lending resources, its main effect would be to reallocate countries’ quotas to increase the currently underweighted influence of emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, India, and Turkey, while decreasing the cumulative share of European members whose representation on the board – and whose access to the IMF’s lending facilities, especially in the wake of the eurocrisis — far exceeds their actual share of the global economy.

Spain, for instance, has voting shares similar in size to Brazil’s, despite the fact that the Spanish economy is less than two-thirds of Brazil’s. Of the 24 seats on the IMF’s executive board, at least eight are held by European governments at any one time.

The reform is thus part of a larger movement to make the governance of major international institutions more representative by providing a stronger voice for middle-income countries, in particular.

The Obama administration has played a significant role in this effort, heralding it as the kind of governance reform of global institutions that is essential for the international system of the 21st century, as the legacies of imperialism and colonialism of the previous two centuries fade into history.

Administration officials have applied some of the same reasoning in response to Russia’s de facto occupation of Crimea.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on (a) completely trumped up pretext,” Kerry said earlier this month as the crisis unfolded.

But most Republican lawmakers have resisted Obama’s version of 21st century global governance, particularly when it comes to the reform of international institutions like the IMF, preferring instead to maintain the status quo ante, even if it results in delays at a critical moment in desperately needed financial aid to Ukraine.

Two senators who voted against the bill in the Foreign Relations Committee, including two likely 2016 Republican presidential candidates, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, noted that Russia’s IMF quota would be increased – if only from 2.5 percent to 2.7 percent – if the reform took effect.

“This legislation is supposed to be about assisting Ukraine and punishing Russia, and the IMF measure completely undercuts both of these goals by giving Putin’s Russia something it wants,” Rubio argued. Paul noted that any loans provided to Ukraine would probably be used to repay Moscow for billions of dollars in debts it accumulated by importing Russian gas.

House Republicans have also objected to the reforms because they would double Washington’s contribution quota to 63 billion dollars, although that amount would have no direct budgetary impact because it would be shifted from Washington’s share of an emergency fund created by the IMF to cope with the 2008 financial crisis to the agency’s general fund.

Republicans, however, counter that the U.S. won’t be able to exercise as much influence over loans from the general fund and have expressed concern that some of the U.S. funding could be on the hook if European countries to which the IMF has lent many times their quota default.

But the Bretton Woods letter stressed that Washington’s clout – both in financial and foreign-policy terms – in dealing with Ukraine and other hot spots would be enhanced by approval of the reforms, pointing out that when Russia went to war with George in 2008, the IMF helped prevent an economic collapse in Tbilisi, just as it supported Easter European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“An undeniable fact is that the IMF has been a vital tool in every administration’s foreign policy arsenal since the Fund’s inception,” said the Committee’s director, Randy Rodgers.

In another letter sent to Boehner earlier in the week by the Committee and the activist New Rules for Global Finance Coalition, nearly 200 policy experts, business and academic leaders, and former U.S. officials also called for passage of the IMF reform provisions.

In addition to the New Rules Coalition, officials from a number of anti-poverty groups that have been critical of IMF austerity programmes, such as Oxfam America, a dozen church groups, and Jubilee USA network, signed the letter, calling the quota reform a step toward greater democratisation of the Fund.

“We know we can’t do anything additional in terms of governance reform until this passes,” New Rules’ director Jo Marie Griesgraber told IPS. “This begins to wear down the European over-representation …and enables Ukraine to double its quota.”

Several Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also deplored the failure of their House colleagues to support the bill.

The IMF “can provide stability at a time we need it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the most prominent anti-Moscow hawks in the Senate. Calling it a “strategic tool” for U.S. foreign policy, he said, “We would be short-sighted to not embrace this reform.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Senate Committee, CIA in Brawl over Torture Inquiry http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/senate-committee-cia-brawl-torture-inquity-report/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=senate-committee-cia-brawl-torture-inquity-report http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/senate-committee-cia-brawl-torture-inquity-report/#comments Wed, 12 Mar 2014 01:15:33 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132701 An ongoing battle between the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over reports about the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” practices during the George W. Bush administration has escalated sharply. The widely respected Committee chair, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, took to the Senate floor here Tuesday to accuse the CIA […]

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Sen. Feinstein accused the CIA of trying to intimidate Committee staffers by asking the Justice Department to carry out a criminal investigation into how the staffers obtained an internal CIA report on the “enhanced interrogation” programme which U.S. and international human rights groups say amounted to torture. Credit: Sen. Rockefeller/cc by 2.0

Sen. Feinstein accused the CIA of trying to intimidate Committee staffers by asking the Justice Department to carry out a criminal investigation into how the staffers obtained an internal CIA report on the “enhanced interrogation” programme which U.S. and international human rights groups say amounted to torture. Credit: Sen. Rockefeller/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 12 2014 (IPS)

An ongoing battle between the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) over reports about the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” practices during the George W. Bush administration has escalated sharply.

The widely respected Committee chair, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, took to the Senate floor here Tuesday to accuse the CIA of violating U.S. law and the Constitution by secretly removing documents from computers used by the Committee to investigate the agency’s torture and abuse of detainees during Bush’s “global war on terror.”"This is truly a defining moment, not only for congressional oversight of the intelligence community, but also for President Obama’s legacy on torture." -- Virginia Sloan

She also accused the agency of trying to intimidate Committee staffers by asking the Justice Department to carry out a criminal investigation into how the staffers obtained an internal CIA report on the “enhanced interrogation” programme which U.S. and international human rights groups say amounted to torture.

“(T)here is no legitimate reason to allege to the Justice Department that Senate staff may have committed a crime,” Feinstein declared in a lengthy recounting of her committee’s efforts to investigate the programme and declassify its 6,300-page report to make it available to the public.

“I view the [CIA’s] acting counsel general’s referral [to the Justice Department] as a potential effort to intimidate this staff, and I am not taking this lightly,” she said, noting that the counsel general, whom she did not name, had served as the chief lawyer in the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre which oversaw the controversial interrogation programme until its termination by incoming President Barack Obama in January 2009.

Speaking at a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA Director John Brennan strongly denied Feinstein’s allegations, insisting that “We wouldn’t do that. I mean it’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we would do.”

But a number of groups that have themselves investigated the interrogation programme said they had no reason to doubt Feinstein’s account, particularly given the CIA’s past efforts to impede external investigations and the publication of the Senate committee’s report which Feinstein said she hoped to release by the end of the month.

“We are outraged by Sen. Feinstein’s description of repeated efforts by the CIA to thwart critical and legitimate congressional oversight through delays, attacks, intimidation and attempts to conceal,” said Virginia Sloan, president of the bipartisan legal watchdog group, the Constitution Project, which last year issued its own damning review of the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation practices.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is truly a defining moment, not only for congressional oversight of the intelligence community, but also for President Obama’s legacy on torture. The White House cannot allow the CIA to drive this process any longer,” she said, adding that the president should not only declassify the Senate report “to the fullest extent possible”, but also release the internal CIA report, which is said to confirm the Senate committee’s reportedly harsh conclusions about both the cruelty and ineffectiveness of the interrogation programme.

“Senators who have seen the Intelligence Committee report say it not only documents serious abuses by the CIA but also the agency’s false reporting about the programme’s value,” added Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch. “If the CIA manages to block even a public accounting of these abuses, it suggests either that the Obama administration can’t control its own intelligence agency, or that it doesn’t want to.”

The Senate committee report, which was approved in December 2012 on a mainly party-line vote, took five years and more than 40 million dollars to complete.

While it remains classified, it includes a detailed chronology of the formulation and implementation of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including water-boarding, and other practices used to extract information from “high-value” terrorist suspects who were often subject to “rendition” and held for incommunicado at secret “black sites” in various countries around the world.

Sen. John McCain, one of the handful of Republicans who had campaigned against those techniques, said the report “confirms for me what I have always believed and insisted to be true – that the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is not only wrong in principle and a stain on our country’s conscience, but also an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence.”

Feinstein called the CIA’s programme “terrible mistakes.”

Seven months later, the CIA completed its own classified rebuttal, insisting that the Committee’s methodology was flawed. But the rebuttal reportedly contradicted not only the Committee’s conclusions, but also the findings of another secret internal review that was conducted by then-CIA director Leon Panetta, drafts of which had been obtained by the Committee staff in 2010.

“Unlike the official response [by the CIA], these Panetta review documents were in agreement with the committee’s findings,” Feinstein, who insisted that the documents had been lawfully obtained, stressed Tuesday.

The Panetta documents lie at the heart of the current dispute. Published reports over the past week indicated that the CIA had gained access the Committee’s computer system in order to determine how the documents were obtained and removed other documents pertinent to the investigation.

Feinstein charged that, in so doing, the CIA, which is part of the executive branch of government, was essentially spying on the committee in violation of the Constitution’s doctrine of “separation of powers” doctrine, several federal laws, and a presidential order that bans the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance.

The CIA’s inspector general last week asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the agency had acted unlawfully.

But the Justice Department has also been asked by the CIA’s general counsel to open a criminal investigation into how the Panetta documents were obtained – a move that Feinstein and her supporters charged was aimed at intimidating the Committee staff.

While Obama ended the detention programme on taking office, he has repeatedly rebuffed demands by human rights groups to prosecute the Bush administration officials responsible for authorising the interrogation policies or for carrying them out.

Brennan, a career CIA officer who became Obama’s most influential counter-terrorism adviser until his appointment as the agency’s chief one year ago, also served in a top CIA post during the Bush administration but denied he played any role in the interrogation programme.

While during his confirmation hearings he expressed surprise by the findings of the Senate Committee and denounced the use of torture, he later personally delivered the CIA’s rebuttal of its report.

An 11-member Constitution Project task force, which included a number of prominent Republicans and former policy-makers from both parties, issued its own review of the interrogation and detention programme last April.

Among other findings, it concluded that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” for which there was “no justification” and “no firm or persuasive evidence” that the information obtained by the programme could not have been gained through other means.

Feinstein’s denunciation of the CIA’s action was particularly remarkable because she has long been criticised by rights advocates for being too protective of the intelligence community.

But she was praised by those same groups Tuesday. “After so many years of congress being unable or unwilling to assert its authority over the CIA, Sen. Feinstein today began to reclaim the authority of Congress as a check on the Executive Branch,” said Christopher Anders, senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“Public release of the Senate torture [report] will be the next step reining in a CIA that has tortured, destroyed evidence, spied on Congress, and lied to the American people,” he said.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Chevron Wins Latest Round in Ecuador Pollution Case http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/chevron-wins-latest-round-ecuador-pollution-case/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chevron-wins-latest-round-ecuador-pollution-case http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/chevron-wins-latest-round-ecuador-pollution-case/#comments Wed, 05 Mar 2014 00:46:32 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132455 In the latest twist in a 21-year-old environmental pollution case, a U.S. federal judge Tuesday ruled that the victims of massive oil spillage and their U.S. attorney could not collect on a nine-billion-dollar judgement by Ecuador’s supreme court against the Chevron Corporation. In a racketeering case brought by the U.S. oil giant, the judge found […]

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Outside the New York federal courthouse on Oct 15, 2013, Ecuadorians and their supporters gather to protest the Chevron lawsuit. Credit: Samuel Oakford/IPS

Outside the New York federal courthouse on Oct 15, 2013, Ecuadorians and their supporters gather to protest the Chevron lawsuit. Credit: Samuel Oakford/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 5 2014 (IPS)

In the latest twist in a 21-year-old environmental pollution case, a U.S. federal judge Tuesday ruled that the victims of massive oil spillage and their U.S. attorney could not collect on a nine-billion-dollar judgement by Ecuador’s supreme court against the Chevron Corporation.

In a racketeering case brought by the U.S. oil giant, the judge found that the lawyer, Steven Donziger, and his associates had used bribery and falsified evidence to prevail against Chevron in Ecuador’s courts and thus should not be permitted to collect damages.“Misconduct on the part of a couple of lawyers... is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for a corporation that has committed massive toxic contamination.” -- Marco Simons

“It is distressing that the course of justice was perverted,” the District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan wrote in a nearly 500-page ruling.

“There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct,” he went on. “And the defendants’ ‘this-is-the-way-it-is-done-in-Ecuador’ excuses – actually a remarkable insult to the people of Ecuador – do not help them.”

Chevron applauded the judgement “as a resounding victory,” while Donziger and his attorneys said they would take the ruling to the same appeals court that overturned a similar judgement in the case rendered by Kaplan in 2011. At that time, Chevron appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Kaplan’s original ruling, but the Court rejected the appeal without comment.

Donziger himself called Kaplan’s latest judgement, which followed a six-week trial conducted late last year, “an appalling decision resulting from a deeply flawed proceeding that overturns a unanimous ruling by Ecuador’s Supreme Court. …We are confident we will be fully vindicated in the U.S., as we have been in Ecuador.”

The case was first filed in the U.S. federal court in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 mostly indigenous residents of the Lago Agrio region of the Ecuadorean Amazon where Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001, had operated continuously from the 1960s until 1992. For much of that period, it worked in partnership with Petroecuador, which took over all of Texaco’s operations in the region when the U.S. oil giant left.

The plaintiffs claim that Texaco dumped more than 70 billion litres of toxic liquids, left some 910 waste pits filled with toxic sludge, and flared millions of cubic metres of toxic gases – poisoning the environment in one of the most biologically diverse areas in South America and creating serious health problems, including an unusually high incidence of cancer, for people living in the region.

Apparently concerned that U.S. courts would be more sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ case, Texaco persuaded Judge Jed Rakoff to have the case transferred to Ecuador in 2002 — when it was ruled by a conservative government eager for foreign investment — on condition that the company waive certain defences, such as the expiration of the statute of limitations, and ensure that any judgement would be enforceable in the U.S. The Ecuadorean case was filed the following year.

Chevron has long argued that the damages cited by the plaintiffs are exaggerated and that, in any case, Texaco extinguished its obligations when it carried out a 40-million- dollar environmental remediation project as part of a 1995 agreement with the Ecuadorean government that covered 37.5 percent of the well sites and waste pits in the concession area.

The remaining sites were to be cleaned up by Petroecuador, according to Chevron.

But the plaintiffs, who are backed by a number of local and international green groups, have argued that Chevron, having drilled all of the original sites, also remains responsible for Petroecuador’s portion, as well as for the continuing health and other impacts of its operations that are not covered by the 1995 agreement.

The trial court in Ecuador ruled against Chevron and granted the plaintiffs, who were represented by Donziger and his associates, an 18 billion dollar judgement. The country’s Supreme Court subsequent upheld the judgement but reduced the damages to 9.5 billion dollars.

Chevron, however, has sought to prevent the plaintiffs from collecting any of the money, by, among other steps, withdrawing all of its assets from Ecuador and initiating a racketeering suit against Donziger and his team based on its charges that they used bribery and other corrupt methods to win the case and extort billions of dollars from the company.

To sustain those charges, it subpoenaed tens of thousands of documents, emails, and other materials from Donziger and other lawyers, as well as activist groups that supported the case. It even subpoenaed out-takes from a 2009 documentary produced by film-maker Joe Berlinger, “Crude,” about the case.

In his testimony last November, Donziger himself admitted making mistakes, such as concealing his interactions with and payments to a court-appointed expert witness who produced a report on which the Ecuadorean courts relied for the assessment of damages.

One former Ecuadorean judge testified for Chevron that plaintiffs paid him to ghostwrite opinions for the presiding judge who had been promised half a million dollars by Donziger for a favourable ruling. Both Donziger and the presiding judge, Nicolas Zambrano, vehemently denied those charges.

Nonetheless, Kaplan, who has never questioned the extent of the environmental damage wrought by the oil companies’ operations in the region, ruled in favour of Chevron, noting that “an innocent defendant is no more entitled to submit false evidence, to co-opt and pay off a court-appointed expert or to coerce or bribe a judge or jury than a guilty one.” He also noted that Donziger himself stood to win more than 600 million dollars in contingency fees.

If upheld, Kaplan’s ruling would prevent Donziger and the plaintiffs from collecting any damages from Chevron in U.S. courts. It also requires them to turn over any damages against Chevron they might collect in foreign courts to the company.

The plaintiffs have brought cases in three countries where Chevron has major operations and assets — Canada, Brazil, and Argentina – to enforce the Ecuadorean judgment, and Chevron’s CEO Tuesday told reporters Tuesday that Kaplan’s ruling should bolster the case in those countries.

The judgement, according to Deepak Gupta, who represented Donziger, amounted to “what is in effect a global anti-collection injunction that would preclude enforcement of a judgement from one country in every jurisdiction.” He noted that was one of the main reasons why the appeals court overturned Kaplan’s 2011 decision.

Marco Simons, legal director of EarthRights International, told IPS Tuesday’s judgement was vulnerable on other grounds as well. He said the law over whether the kinds of injunctions issued by Kaplan could be employed under the federal racketeering law remains unsettled.

In addition, he noted, the fact that Kaplan had found that the Ecuadorean judicial system had not provided due process “offers a good basis for re-filing the substantive case against Chevron in U.S. courts.”

“And even if all of what Judge Kaplan said about the fraudulent conduct of the attorneys was true, the answer shouldn’t necessarily be that Chevron gets away with no liability for what it has done in the Ecuadorean Amazon,” he said. “Misconduct on the part of a couple of lawyers, which is what Judge Kaplan suggested, is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for a corporation that has committed massive toxic contamination.”

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U.S. Hawks Take Flight over Ukraine http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-hawks-take-flight-ukraine/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-hawks-take-flight-ukraine http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-hawks-take-flight-ukraine/#comments Tue, 04 Mar 2014 02:33:24 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132410 A familiar clutch of hawks have taken wing over the rapidly developing crisis in Ukraine, as neo-conservatives and other interventionists claim that President Barack Obama’s preference for diplomacy over military action  invited Russian aggression. At stake in the current crisis, according to these right-wing critics, are not only Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)

A familiar clutch of hawks have taken wing over the rapidly developing crisis in Ukraine, as neo-conservatives and other interventionists claim that President Barack Obama’s preference for diplomacy over military action  invited Russian aggression.

At stake in the current crisis, according to these right-wing critics, are not only Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also Washington’s “credibility” as a global superpower and the perpetuation by the U.S. and its western allies of the post-Cold War international order."[It] makes about as much sense as saying that a proper response to a terrorist act by an Afghanistan-based group is to launch a war against Iraq.” -- Paul Pillar

Some right-wing commentators, such as Michael Auslin of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which played a major role in drumming up support for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, have even compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves to occupy the Crimean peninsula to Adolf Hitler’s absorption of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland as a result of the notorious Munich agreement in 1938.

“The toxic brew of negative perceptions of Western/liberal military capability and political will is rapidly undermining the post-1945 order around the world,” he wrote on the Forbes magazine website Monday.

“One can only assume that China, Iran, and North Korea are watching Crimea just as closely as Putin watched Washington’s reactions to East and South China Sea territorial disputes, Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations, and Syria’s civil war,” according to Auslin, echoing a line of attack against Obama that has become a leitmotiv among his fellow interventionists.

“(T)here is more than (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin to think about,” according to Elliott Abrams, a leading neo-conservative who served as George W. Bush’s top Middle East aide, wrote Monday on the National Review website.

“Tyrants in places from Tehran to Beijing will also be wondering about the cost of violating international law and threatening the peace and stability of neighbors. What will China do in neighboring seas, or Iran do in its tiny neighbor Bahrain, if actions like Putin’s go without a response?” he asked.

As yet there have been few voices in favour of taking any military action, although  both the lead editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal and Freedom House President David Kramer called for Obama to deploy ships from the U.S. Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called for reviving Bush-era plans to erect new missile defence systems along Russia’s European periphery.

But the president, who spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin Saturday in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the Russian leaders to send Russian troops in Crimea back to their barracks, is being pressed hard to take a series of tough actions against Moscow.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to travel to Kiev Tuesday in a show of support for its new government that may include one billion dollars in U.S. aid as part of a much larger Western economic package to be led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), listed a number of moves Sunday that Washington has already taken or is actively considering adopting.

In addition to coordinating international – particularly European – condemnation of Putin’s moves against Ukraine, Kerry also said Washington had cancelled upcoming bilateral trade talks and is considering boycotting the G8 summit that Putin is scheduled to host in Sochi in June, if not suspending or formally expelling Russia from that body.

If Russia doesn’t “step back” from its effective takeover of Crimea, he said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes (and) visa bans” against specific individuals and economic enterprises associated with the current crisis. He called Russia’s move “an incredible act of aggression.”

“We are examining a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world.,” Obama himself warned Monday during a joint press appearance with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, however, he stressed that he was still looking for a diplomatic way out of the crisis – possibly with the help of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that reportedly began sending monitors to the Ukraine Monday evening — which could reassure Moscow regarding the protection and welfare of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in whose interests Moscow has justified its actions to date.

The administration and most analysts here agreed that Washington’s freedom of action in reacting to the current crisis must necessarily be coordinated with its European allies, some of which, including the continent’s economic powerhouse, Germany, are strongly disinclined to escalate matters. Germany gets about one-third of its gas supplies from Russia and has long considered a cooperative relationship with Moscow to be critical to maintaining stability in central Europe.

Such constraints clearly frustrate the hawks here, even as some of them, such as Sen. John McCain, acknowledged Monday that Washington had no ready military option and would, in any event, have to coordinate closely with Brussels as the crisis unfolds.

But, speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), McCain also blamed Obama’s alleged timidity – particularly his failure to carry out his threat to take military action against Syria last September – for the situation. “(T)his is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” McCain said to thunderous applause from the hawkish audience whom Netanyahu will address Tuesday.

Indeed, Israel-centred neo-conservatives, for whom Obama’s “weakness” and “appeasement” in dealing with perceived adversaries have become a mantra over the past five years, have been quick to use the Ukraine crisis to argue for toughening Washington’s position in the Middle East, in particular.

“In the brutal world of global power politics, Ukraine is in particular a casualty of Mr. Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ on Syria,” according to the Journal’s editorial writers, who stressed that “(a)dversaries and allies in Asia and the Middle East will be watching President Obama’s response now. …Iran is counting on U.S. weakness in nuclear talks.”

“Like Putin, the ayatollahs likely see our failure to act in Syria … as a sign that they can drive a hard bargain indeed with us over their nuclear weapons program, giving up nearly nothing and getting sanctions relief,” wrote Abrams on his Council on Foreign Relations blog over the weekend.

“And now they see us reacting (so far) to Russian aggression in Ukraine, sending troops across the border into the Crimea, with tut-tutting,” he added in a call for Congress – likely to be echoed by Netanyahu here this week — to pass stalled legislation imposing new sanctions against Tehran.

“That makes about as much sense …as saying that a proper response to a terrorist act by an Afghanistan-based group is to launch a war against Iraq,” replied Paul Pillar, the intelligence community’s top analyst for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, on his nationalinterest.com blog Monday.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Arab NGOs Warn IMF Against Sharp Cuts to Subsidies http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/arab-ngos-warn-imf-sharp-cuts-subsidies/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=arab-ngos-warn-imf-sharp-cuts-subsidies http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/arab-ngos-warn-imf-sharp-cuts-subsidies/#comments Fri, 28 Feb 2014 16:06:56 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132294 Civil society activists from five Arab countries are urging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ease pressure on their governments to reduce food and fuel subsidies until stronger social-protection schemes and other basic reforms are implemented. In a new report, the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Feb 28 2014 (IPS)

Civil society activists from five Arab countries are urging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ease pressure on their governments to reduce food and fuel subsidies until stronger social-protection schemes and other basic reforms are implemented.

In a new report, the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) argue that social safety nets in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen are inadequate – or, in some cases, too corrupt — to compensate for the loss of critical subsidies on which the poor and even the middle class depend."The pressure should be on the global community that is pushing these austerity measures without considering the actual context or impact on low-income people." -- Leila Hilal

Indeed, in the absence of stronger safety nets, even the gradual removal of subsidies for key commodities may contribute to continuing unrest across the region as the three-year-old “Arab Awakening” plays out, according to the 20-page report.

“In the near term, the unwinding of subsidies cannot serve as the panacea for the serious budgetary and fiscal difficulties facing most Arab states,” according to the report, which was released here Thursday by the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation (NAF), a non-partisan think tank.

“By continuing to press Arab governments to remove subsidies, the IMF has inadequately responded to the sweeping social and political changes stemming from the 2011 uprisings and subsequent period of unrest,” it said.

The report also called on the IMF to urge national governments to take other measures, notably instituting progressive tax systems and cutting the military budget, in order to increase revenues and cut spending. Governments must also be encouraged to consult more with civil-society organisation (CSOs), labour unions, and local authorities regarding economic-reform programmes, according to the report.

Jo Marie Griesgraber, who directs New Rules for Global Finance Coalition, welcomed the report, saying it was the latest indication of growing interest by grassroots groups both in the Arab world and in other countries in transition, such as Ukraine and Burma, in the IMF and of their understanding that national economic problems need to be addressed at the global level.

At the same time, she noted that the authors may be overstating the leverage the IMF enjoys over national governments with which it is required under its charter to negotiate agreements.

Bakeries struggled to produce bread in the face of Egypt's 2011 wheat shortage. Credit: Emad Mekay/IPS

Bakeries struggled to produce bread in the face of Egypt’s 2011 wheat shortage. Credit: Emad Mekay/IPS

“I’m sure, if given a choice, the IMF would prefer that reducing subsidies would not be the first policy option they would want to implement to reduce deficits,” she told IPS. “It’s a government policy, and the government is going to agree to cut subsidies to the poor before it agrees to cut military expenditures.”

“The IMF can’t do everything; you need the World Bank; you need regional banks; you need an international court to throw corrupt officials in jail; you need a national political commitment for people to pay taxes,” she said. “The IMF is too limited in what it alone can do, although it serves as a convenient scapegoat for governments.”

Leila Hilal, NAF’s Middle East task force director, agreed that states “are engaging the IMF bilaterally without consulting the affected populations.”

With the recent uprisings, she told IPS in an interview from Jordan, “people feel that their voices are more valuable, that they have more agency, and that there’s much more at stake in terms of policy, and they want to be heard.

“So the idea is that the pressure should be on the global community that is pushing these austerity measures without considering the actual context or impact on low-income people,” she said.

While the mass demonstrations, violence, and political upheavals across the Arab world continue to capture the headlines, relatively little attention has been paid to the underlying economic problems that many analysts believe lie at the root of the continuing regional turbulence.

The Washington-based IMF, which is dominated by the wealthy Western nations, has long been involved in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, particularly in the five low- and middle-income countries that are the subject of the report.

The lender of last resort for failing economies, it provides short-term loans that are subject to recipient governments’ compliance with conditions designed to reduce, if not eliminate their fiscal deficits.

Over much of its history, it acquired a controversial reputation for pushing severe austerity on governments as part of “structural adjustment” programmes which hit the poor and most vulnerable sectors of society the hardest, often as a result of cuts to food and fuel subsidies, as well as social services, including health and education.

The IMF said it was unable to comment before deadline.

Cuts in subsidies have been particularly controversial because of their immediate impact on the population. In 1977, for example, a cut in bread subsidies in Egypt provoked widespread unrest, as did Jordan’s attempts cut subsidies in 1989 and again in 1996. When the IMF sent a mission to Egypt in April last year, it was greeted with protests by civil-society groups, labour unions, and political parties anticipating that the agency would demand similar cuts as a condition for much-needed loans.

In much of the region, food and fuel subsidies make up a large percentage of government spending; in 2012, for example, they accounted for 10 percent of the Egyptian budget.

As the report itself notes, the Fund – as well as its development sister agency, the World Bank — has become increasingly sensitive to these criticisms and sought to persuade governments with which it negotiates the loan conditions to mitigate the impact on the poor by reducing subsidies more gradually and, with the Bank’s help,  strengthening social-safety nets for the most vulnerable.

But the report, which was based on interviews with more than a dozen prominent civil-society activists from the five countries, as well as analyses of IMF staff reports and other IMF documents, argues that these efforts are sometimes based on faulty assumptions.

“Theoretically, the IMF proposes the expansion of social safety nets as a way to offset the negative impact of subsidy removal on the poor,” it said. “In practice, however, social protection schemes are underdeveloped and often nonexistent in Arab countries, and are thus incapable of cushioning the poor against rising prices. In many instances, corruption and the absence of transparency mechanisms further complicate the task of distribution social welfare benefits.”

“Subsidy reform should only occur upon the establishment of sustainable and comprehensive social protection schemes, and can only proceed with broad support from a variety of stakeholders,” according to the report.

“Our analysis highlights the need for the IMF and the G8 countries to adapt their advice to the changing political and socio-economic conditions in the Arab region,” said NAF’s Abdulla Zaid, one of four the report’s co-authors. “The Fund’s one-size-fits-all advice prioritising fiscal austerity measures over social and economic rights fails to account for the harmful impact subsidy removal would have on low and middle-income individuals, and thus, stability.”

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Hagel Urges Less Money for U.S. Army, More for Special Forces http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/hagel-urges-less-funding-u-s-army-special-forces/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=hagel-urges-less-funding-u-s-army-special-forces http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/hagel-urges-less-funding-u-s-army-special-forces/#comments Tue, 25 Feb 2014 01:31:33 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132012 Signalling a somewhat more modest global U.S. military posture, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel Monday called for sharp reductions in the size of the U.S. Army, the service that has borne the brunt of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past dozen years. At the same time, however, he urged an increase in the […]

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, confers with Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel during testimony on U.S. military intervention in Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Credit: public domain

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, confers with Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel during testimony on U.S. military intervention in Syria before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Credit: public domain

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Feb 25 2014 (IPS)

Signalling a somewhat more modest global U.S. military posture, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel Monday called for sharp reductions in the size of the U.S. Army, the service that has borne the brunt of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past dozen years.

At the same time, however, he urged an increase in the size of the Special Operations Forces (SOF), the elite military personnel charged with training foreign counterparts and carrying out often-secret missions, including assassinations and raids such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.The cuts not only reflected the end of U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the aversion to the prolonged commitment of ground troops in foreign countries.

Speaking a week before President Barack Obama is due to unveil his 2015 budget request, Hagel said he will also ask Congress to phase out key weapons systems, including the fabled Cold War-era U-2 spy plane, which will be replaced by drone aircraft, and A-10 “Warthog” jets that have been used for several decades to provide close-air support for ground forces.

“This is a time for reality,” Hagel said told reporters during a press briefing in which he asked Congress to approve 496 billion dollars in military spending for the next fiscal year.

That does not include an additional 26 billion dollars approved for the Pentagon by Congress as part of an “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” budget deal late last year.

“This is a budget that recognises the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world.”

The proposed cuts to the Army captured the national media headlines. Under Hagel’s proposal, which has been endorsed by the chiefs of the four major services, the active-duty Army would be cut from the current 522,000 troops to between 440,000 and 450,000. That would bring the Army to its smallest size since the eve of Washington’s entry into World War II.

The implications of such a cut were not lost on observers who noted that they not only reflected the end of U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the aversion, apparently shared by the Obama administration and the general public alike, to the prolonged commitment of ground troops in foreign countries.

Washington withdrew all of its forces from Iraq in 2011 and plans to withdraw all but a few thousand from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Just three weeks ago, a Pew Research Centre poll found that, for the first time, majorities (52 percent) of U.S. respondents have concluded that Washington had “mostly failed” to achieve its goals in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Fewer than four in 10 agreed with the notion that the U.S. had “mostly succeeded” in both countries.

“Since we are no longer sizing the force for prolonged stability operations,” Hagel, who served in the Army in the Vietnam War, said Wednesday, “an Army of (the current) size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defence strategy.…As we end our combat mission in Afghanistan, this will be the first budget to fully reflect the transition [the Defence Department] is making after 13 years of war – the longest conflict in our nation’s history.”

“In saying that, he was essentially acknowledging the fact that the American public won’t stand for that kind of intervention any time soon,” William Hartung, a veteran defence analyst at the dovish Centre for International Policy (CIP). “A majority of them understand that spending trillions of dollars and losing thousands of lives in those wars have not made anyone safer.”

“The real question is whether we can roll back the ‘go anywhere, fight any battle’ mentality of the Pentagon,” Hartung added in an email exchange. “Whether it’s drones, Special Forces, or precision bombs, war is war, and it’s time to take the United States off of a perpetual war footing and craft a truly defensive military force.”

Indeed, in his remarks, Hagel stressed that Washington’s SOF will continue to grow – from roughly 66,000 today to just shy of 70,000 in 2015 – an increase of almost 300 percent compared to just a decade ago.

Each of the military services and each of the regional commands (SouthCom for Latin America, Africom for Africa, CentCom for the Near East and parts of South and Central Asia, and PaCom for the Asia-Pacific) – have their own elite SOF units.

In addition, a North Carolina-based Special Operations Command (SOCOM), presided over by Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the bin Laden raid, can dispatch troops to virtually anywhere in the world. He also commands the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which works closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in carrying out highly classified operations against specific targets.

McRaven, whose efforts at easing human-rights restrictions on training foreign militaries and circumventing State Department oversight of some aid programmes have proved controversial, has nonetheless been effective in building his “empire” in major part  because of its compatibility with Obama’s desire to lighten the U.S. military’s “footprint” in conflicted regions without reducing its effectiveness and lethality.

“In his State of the Union address, the President declared that our nation must move off a permanent war footing, and Secretary Hagel’s speech today took one major step in that direction.” noted Miriam Pemberton, another defence analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies here. “But, while long-term occupations are off the table now, the expansion of Special Forces means that under-the-radar invasion are not.”

Ironically, Hagel’s budget proposal reflects in many ways the strategic vision of former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who strongly favoured the development of high-tech combat systems, heavy reliance on air power, and small, nimble ground forces who could strike from so-called “lily pads” (or temporary bases) anywhere on the globe within a short period of time. His so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs,” or RMA, however, was side-tracked enormous costs of the Iraq occupation.

The Obama administration has revived that vision, without explicitly admitting it, with the priority it has accorded to cyber-warfare capabilities, SOF, ever-more sophisticated drone technology, its intended retention of all 13 aircraft carriers, and its ongoing efforts to negotiate access agreements to foreign military facilities, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, East African, and Sahelian regions.

Hagel’s proposal will now be taken up by Congress, which is certain to resist a number of its components, including proposed base closures and the phase-out of weapons systems that provide jobs in key legislative districts around the country.

Hagel’s proposal also ignored the across-the-board budget-slashing cuts mandated by law under the so-called “sequester” that took effect in 2013 and continues in force pending further legislative action. They would require the Pentagon to cut an additional 115 billion dollars from its budget over the next five years.

At the height of the Iraq war in 2006, Washington accounted for about half of global military spending. Its budget has since fallen to just over 40 percent, according to Peter Singer of the Brooking Institution. Under the sequester’s limits, it would decline to about 38 percent.

If it remains in effect, the Pentagon would be forced to mothball one aircraft carrier, further reduce the Army’s size to 420,000, and cut into the Marine force as well, among other cost-saving measures.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Floridians Lead U.S. in Favouring Normalisation with Cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/floridians-lead-u-s-favouring-normalisation-cuba/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=floridians-lead-u-s-favouring-normalisation-cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/floridians-lead-u-s-favouring-normalisation-cuba/#comments Wed, 12 Feb 2014 00:48:13 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131476 If President Barack Obama wants to move more quickly to normalise ties with Cuba, it appears he has gained the political space to do so, according to analyses of a major new bipartisan public-opinion poll released here Tuesday by the Atlantic Council. The survey, which was conducted last month, found that 56 percent of U.S. […]

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A rally in Holguín, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A rally in Holguín, Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Feb 12 2014 (IPS)

If President Barack Obama wants to move more quickly to normalise ties with Cuba, it appears he has gained the political space to do so, according to analyses of a major new bipartisan public-opinion poll released here Tuesday by the Atlantic Council.

The survey, which was conducted last month, found that 56 percent of U.S. adults nationwide now support normalising ties or engaging more directly with Havana, while just over a third (35 percent) are opposed.“Not too long ago, voicing opposition to the embargo would have been political suicide in Florida.” -- Marc Hanson

Perhaps more important politically, an even greater majority – 63 percent – of respondents from Florida, home to the greatest concentration of Cuban Americans, including several of the fiercest foes of the Castro government in the U.S. Congress, support normalisation and greater engagement. Only 30 percent of Floridians said they were opposed.

Similarly, 62 percent Latino respondents nationwide favoured normalisation, compared to 30 percent who opposed it.

“Profound changes to U.S.-Cuba policy would be well received by the American people, and even more so, by Floridians and Latinos,” according to an analysis of the poll results by Peter Schechter and Jason Marczak, director and deputy director, respectively, of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

“For decades, Florida’s politics trumped national policy. This is no longer true. While those opposing change have much emotion and determination on their side, it is clear that demography and immigration have changed the equation in Florida politics.”

The survey, which was conducted by experienced pollsters from both major parties, comes as a number of high-profile Floridians have called publicly for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, noted Marc Hanson, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think tank that has long supported normalisation.

Two Democratic candidates for governor, including one, Charlie Crist, who served as the state’s Republican governor as recently as 2011,  have recently come out against the nearly 54-year-old trade embargo.

And just last week Alfonso Fanjul, one of two Cuban-American billionaire brothers who control most of the state’s sugar industry, spoke publicly about his recent visits to Cuba and his interest in doing business on the island.

In addition, another prominent Cuban-American business leader, Jorge Perez, called for stepped-up bilateral exchanges between the two nations and voiced hopes to soon feature Cuban artists – even those with ties to the government – at his new art museum in Miami.

“Not too long ago, voicing opposition to the embargo would have been political suicide in Florida,” according to Hanson. “But the [recent] public announcements show that the political calculus has changed and that supporting normalisation of relations is not longer a political liability.”

Indeed, Obama, who took a somewhat more liberal position on Cuba than his Republican foe, Sen. John McCain, nonetheless won Florida – perhaps the most infamous of “swing” states as a result of the 2000 election – in 2008.

After repealing several measures decreed by President George W. Bush restricting the ability of Cuban Americans to travel to the island and send money to their families there early in his first term, Obama won the state again in 2012, in important part by increasing his percentage of the Cuban-American vote there by 10 points.

Since those early steps were taken, however, Obama has been much more cautious, due primarily to the continued detention of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, Alan Gross, who was arrested in late 2009 and subsequently sentenced to 15 years for distributing communications and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community without a permit.

Most analysts believe that Havana hopes to exchange Gross for  the so-called “Cuban Five” – Cuban intelligence agents convicted of spying and other offences in the late 1990’s – one of whom was released in 2011 and another expected to be released this month.

Nonetheless, Obama has taken some small steps over the last several years, including making travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens for educational, cultural and similar programmes easier and authorising low-level bilateral talks on a range of issues, such as migration, that had been suspended under Bush.

“They’re doing things on the margin of the policy but nothing fundamental,” noted Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a hemispheric think tank here which has urged the administration to take a more forthcoming position on Cuba, in part because normalisation would improve relations with Latin America as a whole.

The survey itself interviewed some 2,000 respondents. In addition to a sample of over 1,000 randomly selected adults, it included additional oversamples from 617 Florida residents and 525 Latinos.

Among other conclusions, the survey found that men were significantly more likely (61-51 percent) to favour engagement with Cuba than women; that more-educated respondents were significantly more likely to support normalisation; and that a 52-percent majority of self-identified Republicans – the party that has historically been most resistant to lifting the embargo – now favour change.

Nationwide, 62 percent favour allowing U.S. companies to do business in Cuba, and 61 percent favour lifting all travel restrictions on U.S. citizens who want to visit the island. For Floridians, the comparable percentages were 63 percent and 67 percent, respectively.

Given the partisan polarisation in the U.S. Congress, few analysts believe that legislation easing the embargo is likely during this election year. But some insisted that the survey results should encourage Obama – whose handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in December evoked little criticism here – to take additional steps through his executive authority.

These include removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and making it easier bureaucratically for Cuban-Americans and other eligible citizens to travel to Cuba.

“The importance of the poll is that it will hopefully feed into the policy discussion over the next year,” Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a heavyweight business lobby group that opposes the embargo, told IPS. “It was really surprising to me that Floridians were more in favour of changing policy than the rest of the country.”

A particular surprise for some were the results in Miami-DadeCounty, long considered a stronghold of pro-embargo sentiment and represented in Congress by perhaps its two most outspoken foes of the Castros’ rule – Republicans Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. Sixty-four percent of respondents in the country said they supported normalising ties or engaging Cuba more directly.

In response, Ros-Lehtinen denounced the poll, charging that it had been “conducted with a political agenda to help justify the disastrous policies toward Cuba by President Obama,” and denouncing the participation in the survey’s release of Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, “Castro’s cheerleader in the Senate who obsessively lobbies to lift sanctions on the dictatorship.”

Flake, who appeared alongside Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy at the survey’s release, noted that on Monday he had attended a reception marking the 20th anniversary of the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam and noted that it was now one of the nations with which Washington hoped to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord. “Why can’t we move forward with Cuba?” he asked.

For his part, Leahy, a senior Democrat who has visited Gross twice in Havana, called the poll a “major, major step forward” and urged Obama to remove Cuba from the terrorism list. He said Gross’ continued detention was a “stumbling block, but let us go forward.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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World Bank Arm Admits Wrongs in Honduras Loan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/world-bank-arm-admits-wrongs-honduras-loan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-arm-admits-wrongs-honduras-loan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/world-bank-arm-admits-wrongs-honduras-loan/#comments Fri, 24 Jan 2014 01:18:03 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130694 In an unusual statement, the World Bank’s private-sector arm has threatened to cancel a controversial investment in a Honduran palm oil company that has been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including numerous killings, over the past five years. The statement came two weeks after the release of a damning report by the Office of […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jan 24 2014 (IPS)

In an unusual statement, the World Bank’s private-sector arm has threatened to cancel a controversial investment in a Honduran palm oil company that has been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including numerous killings, over the past five years.

A member of the Aguan Valley Palm Producers Association holds the fruit from which palm oil is extracted. Credit: USDA/cc by 2.0

A member of the Aguan Valley Palm Producers Association holds the fruit from which palm oil is extracted. Credit: USDA/cc by 2.0

The statement came two weeks after the release of a damning report by the Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) that concluded, among other things, that Bank officials should have raised serious questions about the alleged complicity in those abuses by Corporacion Dinant before approving a 30- million-dollar loan to the company in 2008.

The company, which is owned by Miguel Facusse Barjum, “the wealthiest, most powerful businessman in the country,” according to a State Department cable obtained by Wikileaks, is based in the lower AguanValley, a region populated by hundreds of campesino cooperatives established there as a result of a far-reaching land-reform programme initiated in the 1960s.

Conflicts over Dinant’s efforts to buy up these communities’ lands under a 1992 law designed to favour the country’s burgeoning privately-owned agro-export industry, account for many of the abuses.

Since the 2009 military coup, which ousted a pro-reform president and which was reportedly backed by Facusse, nearly 100 people – mostly campesinos, as well as some Dinant employees – have been killed in the valley, according to press reports, although Rights Action, a Washington-based group that has closely monitored the conflict, estimates the campesino death toll at “well over one hundred.”

“IFC has not disbursed funds to Dinant since 2009, and will not disburse further funding until Dinant fulfills its commitments in the Action Plan (worked out between the IFC and Dinant in light of the ombudsman’s report), including strengthening its community engagement and environmental and social standards, and reviewing its security practices,” the IFC said.

“Should Dinant fail to meet these commitments, IFC stands prepared to exercise all remedies available, including cancelling the loan,” according to the statement, which also promised to “refine” its action plan to take account of recent criticism by international and Honduran civil-society organisations (CSOs) and “reflect on” internal problems that led to mistakes.

While many CSOs welcomed the IFC’s latest statement, comparing it favourably to the agency’s initial, more ambiguous reaction to the CAO report, they said it still fell short of what is required to redress the situation.

“The only real difference from its previous statement is that they explicitly said the possibility of cutting off the loan remains open if the action plan is not complied with,” Annie Bird, who directs Rights Action, told IPS.

“The action plan that the IFC is proposing is completely inadequate. People are going into hiding, afraid of being killed, and entire communities remain in constant fear of being evicted from their land. And the IFC really isn’t doing anything to do about it. It’s just calling on the Dinant Corp to work with the government.”

Her disappointment was echoed by Berta Caceres, co-ordinator of the Honduras-based Indigenous Lenca organisation (COPINH). “There is a risk that the situation of violence and impunity which exists in the Bajo Aguan will repeat itself in the future, if the World Bank does not investigate this company’s activities nor consult indigenous communities, farmers, and Garifunas,” she said.

The original 30-million-dollar loan – part of a 100 million dollar package that included Germany’s development bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration — was signed in April 2009 to fund expansion of Dinant’s snacks and edible-oils processing facilities.

In November 2009 – four months after the military coup that ousted elected President Manuel Zelaya – the IFC disbursed 15 million dollars in support of the project.

One year later, a coalition of CSOs asked the CAO to audit the project and its implementation in light of the human-rights situation in the valley.

The German development bank cancelled its 20 million dollar loan in 2011 after one rights group, Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN), submitted “evidence of the involvement of private security forces hired by Dinant and other companies owned by Miguel Facusse in human rights abuses and, in particular, in the murder of peasants in Bajo Aguan.”

In its 72-page report, the CAO concluded that IFC staff had violated the agency’s own rules by failing to undertake due diligence in assessing and responding to risks of violence and forced evictions and to consult adequately with the agency’s environmental and social specialists on the project.

These deficiencies, it found, were in part due to its culture and incentive system that effectively encouraged staff to “overlook, fail to articulate, or even conceal potential environmental, social, and conflict related risks.”

“IFC has important policies to protect human rights and the environment,” noted Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “But the Dinant case shows that staff treat them as optional. That needs to avoid more tragic outcomes.”

In response, the IFC took issue with some findings but agreed with others and set forth an “Action Plan” which was immediately denounced by most of the CSOs, including HRW, as inadequate. Their reaction, as well as negative international media coverage, reportedly triggered the Bank board’s demand that the agency revise its plan – details of which have not been disclosed — and issue a new statement.

The statement differs mainly from the IFC’s initial reaction in the apologetic tone it assumes, stressing, for example, that it “acknowledges that there were shortcomings in how we implemented our environmental and social policies and procedures…

“As noted in the audit, IFC must take a broad view of the country and sector risks when considering projects. Additionally, we need to pay more attention to a client’s security practices and preparedness in fragile country situations,” it said.

But its contrite tone failed to appease the CSOs or some Honduras experts.

The IFC’s reliance on the Honduran government in resolving the land conflicts and addressing the human-rights situation made little sense, according to Dana Frank, a Honduras specialist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“There’s a reason why the national government is not intervening in the Aguan valley to stop these killings of campesinos and why there’s complete impunity for the security forces and private security guards who have been killing them,” she told IPS. “It’s because Facusse is a formidable power in the national state.”

Indeed, the Facusse family, of which he, at age 90, is considered the partriarch, is widely seen as the most important and influential in what is essentially an oligarchic system.

Rights Action’s Bird also complained about the inadequacy of the response, insisting that the IFC should not only cancel the loan but also work with the affected communities to redress the abuses they have suffered.

She also complained that the IDB, whose own private-sector facility, the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC), had participated in the loans to Dinant, has never audited its own performance. “Instead, the IDB is initiating a 60 million dollar loan to create a police intelligence unit that human rights organisations in Honduras are screaming about because the security forces there are out of control,” she said.

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Top Israel Lobby Group Loses Battle on Iran, But War Not Over http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/top-israel-lobby-group-loses-major-battle-iran-war/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=top-israel-lobby-group-loses-major-battle-iran-war http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/top-israel-lobby-group-loses-major-battle-iran-war/#comments Thu, 23 Jan 2014 01:56:04 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130583 Eight years ago, Stephen Rosen, then a top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and well-known around Washington for his aggressiveness, hawkish views, and political smarts, was asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker magazine whether some recent negative publicity had harmed the lobby group’s legendary clout in Washington. “A half […]

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P5+1 foreign ministers after negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities concluded on Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva. Credit: U.S. Dept of State/CC by 2.0

P5+1 foreign ministers after negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities concluded on Nov. 24, 2013 in Geneva. Credit: U.S. Dept of State/CC by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jan 23 2014 (IPS)

Eight years ago, Stephen Rosen, then a top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and well-known around Washington for his aggressiveness, hawkish views, and political smarts, was asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker magazine whether some recent negative publicity had harmed the lobby group’s legendary clout in Washington.

“A half smile appeared on his face, and he pushed a napkin across the table,” wrote Goldberg about the interview. “’You see this napkin?’ [the official] said. In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”"The neoconservatives were able to push Bush & Co. to invade Iraq in 2003, but their success required an unusual set of circumstances and the American public learned a lot from that disastrous experience." -- Stephen Walt

Eight years later, the same official, Stephen Rosen, who was forced to resign from AIPAC after his indictment – later dismissed — for allegedly spying for Israel, told a Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that AIPAC needed to retreat from its confrontation with President Barack Obama after getting only 59 senators – all but 16 of them Republicans – to co-sponsor a new sanctions bill aimed at derailing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany).

“They don’t want to be seen as backing down… I don’t believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture,” he said.

If AIPAC had succeeded in getting 70 signatures on the bill, which the administration argued would have violated a Nov. 24 interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that essentially freezes Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing some existing sanctions for a renewable six-month period, that would have been three more than needed to overcome a promised Obama veto.

But, after quickly gathering the 59 co-sponsors over the Christmas recess, AIPAC and the bill’s major sponsors, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, appeared to hit a solid wall of resistance led by 10 Democratic Committee chairs and backed by an uncharacteristically determined White House with an uncharacteristically stern message.

“If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.”

Combined with a grassroots lobbying campaign carried out by nearly 70 grassroots religious, anti-war, and civic-action groups that flooded the offices of nervous Democratic senators with thousands of emails, petitions, and phone calls, as well as endorsements of the administration’s position by major national and regional newspapers and virtually all but the neo-conservative faction of the U.S. foreign policy elite, the White House won a clear victory over AIPAC and thus raised anew the question of just how powerful the group really is.

AIPAC’s inability to muster more support among Democrats, in particular, came on top of two other setbacks to its fearsome reputation over the past year.

Although they never took a public position on his nomination a year ago, the group’s leaders were known to have quietly lobbied against former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defence Secretary due his generally critical attitude toward Israel’s influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Several groups and individuals closely aligned with AIPAC, notably the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) – both of which have joined AIPAC in lobbying for the new Iran sanctions bill – questioned or opposed Hagel. Ultimately, however, he won confirmation by a 58-41 margin in which the great majority of Democrats voted for him.

Eight months later, AIPAC and other right-wing Jewish groups lobbied Congress in favour of a resolution to authorise the use of force against Syria – this time, however, at Obama’s request, although clearly also with the approval of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

But the popular groundswell against Washington’s military intervention in yet another Middle Eastern conflict – as well as the reflexive aversion by far-right Republicans to virtually any Obama initiative – doomed the effort.

Neither Hagel nor Syria, however, has approached the importance AIPAC has accorded to Iran and its nuclear programme which have dominated the group’s foreign-policy agenda for more than a decade. During that time, it has become used to marshalling overwhelming  majorities of lawmakers from both parties behind sanctions and other legislation designed to increase tensions – and preclude any rapprochement — between Tehran and Washington.

Last July, for example, the House of Representatives voted by a 400-20 margin in favour of sanctions legislation designed to halt all Iranian oil exports from Iran. The measure was approved just four days before Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration.

Throughout the fall, AIPAC worked hard – but ultimately unsuccessfully – to get the same bill through the Senate.

Now, two months later and unable to muster even a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, AIPAC appears to have shelved the Kirk-Menendez bill, which, among other provisions, would have imposed sanctions if Tehran violated the Nov. 24 agreement or failed to reach a comprehensive accord with the P5+1 on its nuclear programme within a year.

“Clearly, the ground has shifted, dealing a huge defeat to AIPAC and other groups who have been aggressively lobbying for [the new sanctions bill],” wrote Lara Friedman, a lobbyist for Americans for Peace Now in her widely-read weekly Legislative Round-up, while other commentators, including Rosen, warned that overwhelming Republican support for the bill put AIPAC’s carefully cultivated bipartisan image at risk with Democratic lawmakers and key Democratic donors.

“They definitely lost this round and that has cost them a huge amount of political capital with the administration and with a lot of Democrats,” said one veteran Capitol Hill observer who also noted AIPAC faced “an almost perfect storm” of an administration willing to fight for a policy that also enjoyed strong support from the foreign-policy elite and an engaged activist community that could exert grassroots pressure on their elected representatives. “Senate offices were getting a couple of calls in favour [of the bill] and hundreds against. That certainly has to make a difference.”

“AIPAC and other hard-line groups remain a potent force in guaranteeing generous U.S. aid to Israel and hamstringing U.S. efforts to achieve a two-state solution, but their clout declines when they advocate a course of action that could lead to another Middle East war,” Stephen Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” told IPS in an email exchange.

“The neoconservatives were able to push Bush & Co. to invade Iraq in 2003, but their success required an unusual set of circumstances and the American public learned a lot from that disastrous experience,” according to the influential Harvard international relations scholar.

No one, however, believes that AIPAC and its allies have given up. If the P5+1 negotiations should falter, the Kirk-Menendez bill is likely to be quickly re-introduced; indeed, one influential Republican senator said it should be put on the calendar for July, six months from Jan. 20 the date that Nov. 24 interim accord formally went into effect.

“It seems likely that advocates [of the bill] are getting ready to shift to some form of ‘Plan B’ [which], …one can guess, will look a lot like Plan A, but, instead of focusing on derailing negotiations with new sanctions, [it] will likely focus on imposing conditions on any final agreement – conditions that are impossible to meet and will thus kill any possibility of a deal,” according to Friedman.

That could include conditioning the lifting of sanctions on an agreement that includes a ban on any uranium enrichment on Iranian soil – a condition favoured by Netanyahu that Tehran has repeatedly rejected and that most experts believe would be a deal-breaker.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Israel Lobby Thwarted in Iran Sanctions Bid For Now http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/israel-lobby-thwarted-iran-sanctions-bid-now/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=israel-lobby-thwarted-iran-sanctions-bid-now http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/israel-lobby-thwarted-iran-sanctions-bid-now/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 01:50:07 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130294 In what looks to be a clear victory – at least for now – for President Barack Obama, a major effort by the Israel lobby and its most powerful constituent, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to pass a new sanctions bill against Iran has stalled in the U.S. Senate. While the legislation, the […]

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By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jan 16 2014 (IPS)

In what looks to be a clear victory – at least for now – for President Barack Obama, a major effort by the Israel lobby and its most powerful constituent, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to pass a new sanctions bill against Iran has stalled in the U.S. Senate.

While the legislation, the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013,” had gathered 59 co-sponsors in the 100-member upper chambre by last week, opposition to it among Democrats appears to have mounted in recent days.

That opposition apparently prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who controls the floor calendar, to back away from a previous commitment to permit a vote on the measure some time over the next few weeks. As a result, AIPAC is now reportedly hoping to get the bill through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Democratic resistance to the bill, which its critics say is designed to scuttle the Nov. 24 Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and any chances for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, has grown stronger since Sunday’s successful conclusion of an implementation agreement between the two sides and by Obama’s explicit pledge to veto the bill if it comes to his desk.

Even one of the bill’s 16 Democratic co-sponsors, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said this week that he saw no need for a vote “as long as there is progress” in implementing the Nov. 24 accord.

The accord, which formally takes effect Jan. 20, will ease some economic sanctions that have been imposed against Iran and ban any new ones in exchange for Tehran’s freezing and, in some cases, a rolling back key elements of its nuclear programme pending the negotiation within a year of a comprehensive agreement designed to prevent Tehran from achieving a nuclear “breakout capacity”, or the ability to build a bomb within a short period of time.

That goal is widely considered to be the single-most important – and potentially dangerous, both politically and strategically — foreign policy challenge facing Obama in his second term.

While Obama has pledged to use all means necessary, including taking military action, to prevent Tehran from obtaining a bomb, he has made little secret of his strong desire to avoid becoming engaged in yet another war in the Middle East, a desire that appears widely held both within the foreign policy and military elite, as well as the general public, according to recent opinion polls.

For its part, Iran has long said it has no intention of building a bomb. But it has also insisted that any final agreement must recognise its “right” under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium to levels consistent with the needs of a civil nuclear programme.

While the administration and the other P5+1 powers appear inclined to accept a deal that would, among other things, permit limited enrichment under an enhanced inspection regime, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded that any final accord should effectively dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme, including its enrichment capabilities.

Netanyahu’s demands are largely reflected in the pending Senate bill which is named for its co-sponsors, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, each of whom received more campaign money from AIPAC-related political-action committees than any other senatorial candidates during their runs for office – in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

The bill would impose sweeping new sanctions against Tehran if it fails either to comply with the terms of the Nov. 24 accord or reach a comprehensive accord within one year. Such sanctions would also take effect if Iran conducts a test for ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 500 kms or if it is found to have directly or by proxy supported a terrorist attack against U.S. individuals or property.

While the bill’s supporters insist that those provisions will strengthen the administration’s hand in negotiations over a comprehensive agreement, critics, including administration officials, argue that they violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Nov. 24 agreement and would, if passed, open up Washington to charges by its P5+1 partners, as well as Iran, of bad faith.

The bill also requires that any final agreement include, among other things, “dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment  …capabilities” – a condition that Tehran has already declared a deal-breaker.

And it calls for Washington to provide military and other support to Israel if its government “is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program” – a provision that was denounced on the Senate floor by Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, as “let(ting) Israel determine when and where the U.S. goes to war.” In a detailed speech Tuesday, she also described the bill as facilitating a “march to war.”

All of these provisions have lent credibility to the administration’s charge that the main purpose of the legislation is to sabotage the Nov. 24 deal and the negotiations, rather than support to them.

When first introduced nearly a month ago, the bill was co-sponsored by 26 senators, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, apparently in order to give it a bipartisan cast. But all but three of the additional 33 co-sponsors are Republicans, thus making it an increasingly partisan issue.

Eleven Democratic committee chairs, including Feinstein and Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin, have come out against a vote on the bill, as has Reid’s deputy, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who, like Reid, normally defers to AIPAC’s wishes.

In recent days, a number of other influential voices have come out in opposition to the bill. Bill Clinton’s second-term national security adviser, Sandy Berger, warned that a vote on the legislation now raised the “risk of upending the negotiations before they start,” while former Sen. Dick Lugar, until last year the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told a Yale University audience Wednesday that Congress “ought to give diplomacy a chance.”

Similarly, former Pentagon chief Bob Gates, currently touting his memoir of his years under Obama and President George W. Bush, warned Tuesday that enacting new sanctions would be “a terrible mistake” and a “strategic error.”

Several prominent newspapers, including the New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, USA Today, the Denver Post, and the strongly pro-Israel Washington Post, have also editorialised against the bill in recent days.

The bill, moreover, appears to have created dissension within the organised Jewish community, which ordinarily rallies behind AIPAC’s legislative agenda.

While progressive Jewish groups, notably J Street and Americans for Peace Now, joined 60 other grassroots religious, humanitarian, anti-war, and civic-action organisations in actively opposing the bill by flooding Democratic senators with emails, petitions and phone calls over the past few days, more conservative Jewish groups and influential opinion-shapers, such as New York Times columnists Tom Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg, also defended the administration’s opposition.

Rabbi Jack Moline, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), publicly accused AIPAC of using “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they didn’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.”

“The bill before the U.S. Senate …will not achieve the denuclearization of Iran,” Goldberg, a self-described “Iran hawk,” wrote in his Bloomberg column this week. “What it could do is move the U.S. closer to war with Iran and, crucially, make Iran appear – even to many of the U.S.’s allies – to be the victim of American intransigence, even aggression.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Major Parts of World Ignored by U.S. TV News in 2013 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/vote-violence-weather-britain-topped-2012-u-s-tv-news/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=vote-violence-weather-britain-topped-2012-u-s-tv-news http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/vote-violence-weather-britain-topped-2012-u-s-tv-news/#comments Sat, 11 Jan 2014 00:08:38 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130084 If people outside the United States are looking for answers why Americans often seem so clueless about the world outside their borders, they could start with what the three major U.S. television networks offered their viewers in the way of news during 2013. Syria and celebrities dominated foreign coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS – […]

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The 2013 tornado season was in the top six stories. Here, members of the Oklahoma National Guard's 63rd Civil Support Team conduct search and rescue operations in response to the May 20, 2013, EF-5 tornado that ripped through the centre of Moore, Oklahoma. Credit: National Guard/cc by 2.0

The 2013 tornado season was in the top six stories. Here, members of the Oklahoma National Guard's 63rd Civil Support Team conduct search and rescue operations in response to the May 20, 2013, EF-5 tornado that ripped through the centre of Moore, Oklahoma. Credit: National Guard/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jan 11 2014 (IPS)

If people outside the United States are looking for answers why Americans often seem so clueless about the world outside their borders, they could start with what the three major U.S. television networks offered their viewers in the way of news during 2013.

Syria and celebrities dominated foreign coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS – whose combined evening news broadcasts are the single most important media source of information about national and international events for most Americans. Vast portions of the globe went almost entirely ignored, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.“Palestine has virtually disappeared from the news agenda." -- Andrew Tyndall

Latin America, most of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia apart from Afghanistan, and virtually all of East Asia – despite growing tensions between China and Washington’s closest regional ally, Japan – were virtually absent from weeknight news programmes of ABC, NBC, and CBS last year, according to the report, which has tracked the three networks’ evening news coverage continuously since 1988.

Out of nearly 15,000 minutes of Monday-through-Friday evening news coverage by the three networks, the Syrian civil war and the debate over possible U.S. intervention claimed 519 minutes, or about 3.5 percent of total air time, according to the report.

That made the Syrian conflict and the U.S. policy response the year’s single-most-covered event. It was followed by coverage of the terrorist bombing by two Chechnya-born brothers that killed three people at the finish line of last April’s Boston Marathon (432 minutes); the debate over the federal budget (405 minutes); and the flawed rollout of the healthcare reform law, or Obamacare (338 minutes).

The next biggest international story was the death in December of former South African President Nelson Mandela (186 minutes); the July ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its aftermath; the coverage of Pope Francis I (157 minutes, not including an additional 121 minutes devoted to Pope Benedict’s retirement and the Cardinals’ conclave that resulted in Francis’ succession); and the birth of Prince George, the latest addition to the British royal family (131 minutes).

The continued fighting in Afghanistan came in just behind the new prince at 121 minutes for the entire year.

The strong showings by the papal succession, Mandela’s death, and Prince George’s birth all demonstrated the rise of “celebrity journalism” in news coverage, Andrew Tyndall, the report’s publisher, told IPS. He added that “a minor celebrity like Oscar Pistorius (the South African so-called “Bladerunner” track star accused of murdering his girlfriend) attracted more coverage [by the TV networks – 51 minutes] than all the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the [11] months before Mandela’s death.”

Surveys by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press, among other polling and research groups, show that about two-thirds of the general public cite television as their main source for national and international news, more than twice the number of people who rely on newspapers, and about one-third more than the growing number of individuals whose primary source is the internet.

An average of about 21 million U.S. residents watch the network news on any given evening. While the cable news channels – CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC – often get more public attention, their audience is actually many times smaller, according to media-watchers.

“In 2012, more than four times as many people watched the three network newscasts than watched the highest-rated show on the three cable channels during prime time,” Emily Guskin, a research analyst for the Pew Research Centre’s Journalism Project, told IPS.

As in other recent years, news about the weather – especially its extremes and the damage they wrought – received a lot of attention on the network news, although, also consistent with past performance, the possible relationship between extreme weather and climate change was rarely, if ever, drawn by reporters or anchors.

Last year’s tornado season, severe winter weather, drought and wild forest fires in the western states constituted three of the top six stories of the year, according to the report. Along with the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, those four topics reaped nearly 900 minutes of coverage on the three networks, or about six percent of the entire year’s coverage.

“A major flaw in the television news journalism is its inability to translate anecdotes of extreme weather into the overarching concept of climate change,” noted Tyndall. “As long as these events are presented as meteorological and not climatic, then they will be covered as local and domestic, not global.

“An exception in 2013 was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,” he noted. That event captured 83 minutes of coverage among the three networks, making it the single biggest story by far out of Asia for the year.

By comparison, the growing tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea – which many foreign-policy analysts here rate as one of the most alarming events of the past year if, for no other reason, than the U.S. is committed by treaty to militarily defend Japan’s territory – received a mere eight minutes of coverage.

Two other major U.S. foreign policy challenges received more coverage. North Korea and the volatile tenure of its young leader, Kim Jong-un, received a total of 87 minutes, including 10 minutes to visiting basketball veteran Dennis Rodman, of coverage during 2013.

Events in Iran, including the election of President Hassan Rouhani and negotiations over its nuclear programme, received a total of 104 minutes of coverage between the three networks over the course of the year, nearly as much attention as was given the British royals.

Libya received 64 minutes of coverage, but virtually all of it was devoted to the domestic controversy over responsibility for the September 2012 killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other officials there. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the civil war and humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic received no coverage at all.

As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict which Secretary of State John Kerry has made a top priority along with a nuclear deal with Iran, it received only 16 minutes of coverage in 2013. “Palestine has virtually disappeared from the news agenda,” noted Tyndall.

As has Latin America, which received virtually no attention, according to Tyndall who suggested that the lack of coverage may be due to the growth of Spanish-language networks here. “The assumption seems to be that anyone interested in Latin American coverage would likely speak Spanish and find it in that language.”

Altogether, the three networks devoted just under 4,000 minutes, or about 27 percent of total air time, to coverage of overseas stories or U.S. foreign policy. That was somewhat under the average amount of 25-year average. Indeed, the 1,302 minutes’ worth of stories focused on U.S. foreign policy marked a nearly 50-percent reduction from the average.

“In general, foreign policy coverage has risen when the president is bellicose,” according to Tyndall, who noted that such coverage had risen sharply as a result of armed conflicts during the administrations of the two Presidents Bush and fallen under Presidents Clinton and Obama.

But the collection by the National Security Agency (NSA) of “metadata” on U.S. citizens and of private conversations and email of foreign leaders as disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – a story with both domestic and international repercussions – also placed among the top 10 stories of the year with 210 minutes of coverage.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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Fall of Fallujah Refocuses U.S. on Iraq http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/fall-fallujah-refocuses-u-s-iraq/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fall-fallujah-refocuses-u-s-iraq http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/fall-fallujah-refocuses-u-s-iraq/#comments Thu, 09 Jan 2014 01:49:42 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130012 Two years after the last U.S. combat soldiers left Iraq, the past week’s takeover of the western city of Fallujah by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has refocused Washington’s attention on a country that it had hoped to put permanently in its rear-view mirror. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, […]

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Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has been pressing for Apache attack helicopters, as well as F-16 warplanes, since before the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Credit: US Govt/public domain

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has been pressing for Apache attack helicopters, as well as F-16 warplanes, since before the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Credit: US Govt/public domain

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jan 9 2014 (IPS)

Two years after the last U.S. combat soldiers left Iraq, the past week’s takeover of the western city of Fallujah by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has refocused Washington’s attention on a country that it had hoped to put permanently in its rear-view mirror.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has ruled out any direct military intervention, has rushed Hellfire missiles and other military equipment to the Iraqi army, which has reportedly surrounded the city, the second-largest in the Sunni-dominated western Al-Anbar province and the centre of the Sunni insurgency against the eight-year U.S. occupation."We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight." -- Secretary of State John Kerry

It is also pressing at least one key lawmaker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, to release his hold on the delivery of a fleet of Apache attack helicopters sought by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. The Iraqi leader, who heads a Shia coalition, has been pressing for the helicopters, as well as F-16 warplanes, since before the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, most recently during a visit to Washington in November.

But some critics of both Maliki and the Obama administration are urging Washington to condition additional assistance on the Iraqi leader’s firm commitment to show greater flexibility toward demands by the country’s Sunni minority.

“It is important to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, to be sure, but absent political reconciliation with the Sunni population, AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) will have no trouble regenerating its losses,” wrote Max Boot, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who strongly opposed Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq after its parliament declined to offer U.S. soldiers legal immunity for their actions there.

“Indeed the indiscriminate application of firepower by Maliki, while it may play well among the prime minister’s Shiite constituents …, is likely to simply arouse more Sunni opposition,” he wrote on the neo-conservative ‘Commentary’ blog Wednesday.

But others analysts here disagree, insisting that ISIS must be defeated, hopefully with the help of local militias aligned with the Iraqi army, and that blaming Maliki for the current situation “confuses cause and effect.”

“The fundamental problem is that significant numbers of Anbaris have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of power – and the privileges that came with it – after the fall of Saddam Hussein,” according to Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation (NAF) and a key adviser of Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007-08 U.S. “surge” of troops into Al-Anbar and Baghdad that reduced the sectarian killing that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war by 2006.

“This has spawned two results: demonstrations to express demands that are politically impossible outside an authoritarian system and a return to the violence that Al Qaeda has been trying for years to precipitate,” Ollivant wrote on the foreignpolicy.com website.

There were some reports late Wednesday that ISIS was withdrawing its forces from Fallujah under pressure from local leaders who fear precisely the kind of destruction that befell the city during a bloody siege by U.S. forces in 2004. However, the fact that the group was able to gain control over it — as well as parts of the province’s capital, Ramadi, for a brief period late last week – has underscored the threat of civil war similar to that which has wracked Syria over the past nearly three years.

Indeed, ISIS, which, until this week when it came under attack by other rebel factions, had emerged as the dominant insurgent force in neighbouring Syria, has declared its intention to establish a trans-national emirate as part of a larger goal of expelling the influence of Shia-led Iran of which Maliki – as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — is seen as a mere puppet.

Obama himself has made clear that, in his words, he wants to avoid “taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni,” whether in Syria or elsewhere in the region.

That was echoed with regard to Iraq by Secretary of State John Kerry last weekend in Jerusalem. “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” he stressed repeatedly during a news conference, although he also noted that Washington would do “everything possible” to help Baghdad defeat ISIS which he called “the most dangerous players” in the region.

“We are not, obviously, contemplating returning [to Iraq]. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight,” he said.

In addition to Hellfire missiles, which are currently attached by Iraq’s small air force to light fixed-wing aircraft, Washington has promised to speed the delivery of surveillance drones which may require U.S. training of Iraqi personnel, either in the U.S. or in Iraq.

Some officials have reportedly urged the administration to offer armed drones on the condition that they are operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as they have been in Pakistan and Yemen. But Maliki is considered unlikely to agree to such a condition.

Most analysts agree that the Apache helicopters, dozens of which Baghdad has placed on order, would be particularly effective against suspected ISIS units in the open desert in Al-Anbar.

Delivery, however, has been held up by some lawmakers who have expressed concern that they could be used against the legitimate political opposition. Iraqi forces have used lethal force several times against initially peaceful protests, and U.S.-trained counter-terrorist units have also been accused by human rights monitors of serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests and even assassinations, against prominent Sunni leaders and activists over the past year.

The administration has also deplored what is seen as Maliki’s increasingly sectarian agenda and pressed the Iraqi leader to take a more conciliatory stand toward the Sunni community, especially in Al-Anbar where the U.S.-backed “Awakening”, or “Sahwa” militia movement played a decisive role in defeating AQI during the surge in 2007-08. Washington has complained that Maliki largely failed to follow through on commitments to integrate movement members into the Army and security forces.

In an effort to overcome these concerns, Vice President Joe Biden has been in virtually daily consultation with Maliki and key Sunni leaders over the past week.

In a phone call between the two men Wednesday, Biden “encouraged the Prime Minister to continue the Iraqi government’s outreach to local, tribal, and national leaders and welcomed the Council of Ministers’ decision to extend state benefits to tribal forces killed or injured in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS),” according to a statement released by the White House.

Maliki also sent a letter to Menendez, reportedly the remaining holdout against the helicopter sale, outlining steps he intends to take both to engage the Sunni community and ensure that U.S. weapons will be used only for counter-terrorism, according to Wednesday’s Daily Beast.

Meanwhile, the United Nations, the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) Wednesday expressed growing concern about the humanitarian situation inside Fallujah amidst reports that food and water were running short. More than 10,000 residents have reportedly left the city since fighting began Jan 1.

HRW charged that government forces have used indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian neighbourhoods, while ISIS fighters and allied militias have deployed in and carried out attacks from populated areas.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com

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