Inter Press Service » Jim Lobe Journalism and Communication for Global Change Fri, 25 Jul 2014 01:34:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 U.S., Obama’s Image Remains Positive Worldwide Mon, 14 Jul 2014 23:53:43 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

While Republicans and other right-wingers claim that President Barack Obama has inflicted unprecedented damage on Washington’s global reputation, a major new global survey suggests that the image of the U.S. remains generally positive.

The survey, which was based on nearly 50,000 interviews of respondents in 44 countries, found that the U.S. remains substantially more popular than China, widely considered Washington nearest geopolitical rival, in every major region except the Middle East.

A global median of 65 percent respondents said they held a positive view about the U.S., with majorities in 30 of 43 nations (not including the U.S. itself) expressing a favourable opinion.

By contrast, a median of 49 percent said they felt positively about China, while 55 percent said they had an unfavourable view of the Asian giant. The most negative opinions were expressed in Europe and among some of Asia’s closest neighbours, particularly those which are contesting Beijing’s increasingly assertive territorial claims.

As for Obama himself, the first U.S. African-American president remains broadly popular, with a median approval rating of 56 percent – about 15 percentage points higher than in the U.S. itself — with half or more of the public in 28 of the 44 countries expressing confidence that he will “do the right thing” in world affairs.

But, like the U.S. itself, Obama’s image remains poorest in Arab countries, Turkey, and Pakistan. By contrast, Obama’s approval ratings climbed some 10 percentage points (to 71 percent) in Israel between 2013 and 2014.

Indeed, Israel was the only country of 21 nations surveyed in 2009, when he became president and expectations for his tenure were highest around the world, where Obama’s approval ratings improved over the five-year period.

The latest survey, however, also found major plunges in his popularity in Germany and Brazil, compared to 2013, which Pew analysts attributed to revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been conducting major spying operations on the phone conversations of the two countries’ leaders.

It also found a sharp drop in positive assessments of Obama in Russia – down to only 15 percent of respondents – which Pew said was most likely related to the sharp uptick in bilateral tensions over ongoing crisis over Ukraine and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

The Pew poll, which was conducted between mid-March and early June, is the latest in an annual series that the organisation’s “Global Attitudes Project” has carried out since 2002. The surveys have covered public opinion on a broad range of international issues in as few as nine and as many as 47 each year over that period.

The survey is quite comprehensive in scope, and its results are released in instalments over the summer. Last week, for example, Pew released findings regarding Russia’s global image, which, according to the survey, had suffered in every region of the world over the past year, particularly in Europe and the U.S. where nearly three in four respondents reported unfavourable views of Moscow.

The 44 countries polled in the latest survey, for which full results will be released in stages over the coming weeks and months, included nine European countries – France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, the UK, and Ukraine; seven countries in the Greater Middle East – Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, and Turkey; and 11 Asian nations – Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In Latin America, the survey included Argentina, Brazil. Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela; while seven sub-Saharan countries were surveyed – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. The U.S. itself was included in the survey.

In addition to comparing perceptions and images of the U.S. and China, the latest showed focused on international reaction to disclosures by former NSA employee Edward Snowden about Washington’s use of electronic surveillance of foreign leaders and citizens, as well as Washington’s reliance on drone aircraft to kill alleged terrorists in foreign countries.

The survey found strong opposition nearly across the board – except in the U.S. itself — to both activities, although it also found little evidence in most countries that they had significantly harmed Washington’s image.

In 37 of the 44 countries, half or more of respondents said they disapproved of drones strikes against suspected terrorists. In 26 countries, more than seven of 10 respondents said they opposed the practice.

As important, perhaps, the survey found that opposition to drones strikes has grown steadily – and significantly in a number of countries, particularly Senegal, Uganda, France, Germany, the Philippines, Mexico, Japan, and even within the U.S. itself – compared to 2013, when Pew asked the same question.

Overall, opposition was found to be strongest in Latin America, the Greater Middle East, Greece, Senegal, Spain, and Japan. On the other hand, pluralities and majorities in Israel, the U.S., Nigeria, and Kenya said they approved of Washington’s use of drone strikes.

As to the NSA’s monitoring activities, majorities in most countries said they approved of efforts to spy on terrorists. At the same time, majorities in nearly all of the countries said they opposed U.S. monitoring of emails and phone calls of foreign leaders, and particularly average citizens. That latter sentiment was particularly strong in Greece, Brazil, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, according to the survey.

On China’s image, pluralities or majorities in all Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries covered by the survey held positive views. In other regions, however, impressions were far more mixed.

Majorities in the U.S., France, Spain, Poland, Germany, and Italy held said their overall views were negative, while in Ukraine and Russia, nearly two thirds of respondents said they had a positive image of China. The Greater Middle East was similarly split, with the most positive views found in Tunisia and Palestine, while Jordan and Turkey were strongly negative.

Majorities in six of the 10 Asian countries (not including China itself) of up to 78 percent (Pakistan) expressed favourable views, while respondents in the three countries with which China has ongoing maritime disputes – Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan – were strongly negative. In India, where the land border with China remains in contention, a plurality of respondents voiced negative view of their northern neighbour.

The survey found a growing belief — compared to 2008 when Pew asked the same question — that China will eventually replace the U.S. as the world’s greatest superpower or has already done so.

A global median of 49 percent of respondents agreed with that proposition, compared to 32 percent who disagreed. In 2008, just before the global financial crisis that broke out with the collapse of the U.S. investment firm Lehman Brothers, the split was 41 percent who agreed that China would surpass the U.S. and 39 percent who disagreed.

The latest poll found that the view that Beijing will indeed replace Washington as the pre-eminent global power was strongest in Europe (60 percent) and weakest in Asia (42 percent).

The poll also found significant generation gaps on several issues. Younger respondents were found to hold significantly more favourable views of the U.S. than their older fellow-citizens in more than half of the countries, particularly in Asia (including China), Latin America, and Africa.

Similarly, younger respondents also held significantly more favourable views of China than their older counterparts, particularly in Western Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

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

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Bahrain’s Expulsion of U.S. Official Sets Back Ties, Reform Hopes Tue, 08 Jul 2014 01:55:35 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Monday’s expulsion order by Bahrain against a visiting senior U.S. official has set back tentative hopes for internal reforms that could reconcile the kingdom’s Sunni-led government with its majority Shia community and drawn a sharp protest from Washington.

The surprise declaration that Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski was persona non grata (PNG) was greeted with calls by rights groups here and in Bahrain for a strong reaction on Washington’s part.Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority.

For its part, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the expulsion order and denounced the action as “not consistent with the strong partnership between the United States and Bahrain.”

Moreover, the fact that the expulsion order came just two weeks after the widely welcomed acquittal on terrorism charges of a top leader, Khalil al-Marzouq, of the Shi’ite-led al-Wefaq opposition party has created consternation among officials and other observers regarding the kingdom’s intentions.

“This is really an alarm that the U.S. should’ve been hearing for some time now — that it needs to reassess its relationship with the Bahrain government,” said Brian Dooley, a Gulf expert at Human Rights First (HRF).

“It’s an unreliable government with an increasingly erratic ruling family that, on the one hand, is quite happy with U.S. military support, but, on the other, also vilifies U.S. diplomats,” he told IPS in a telephone interview.

Malinowski, an outspoken critic of Bahrain as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch until his nomination as assistant secretary last year, was accused of having “intervened flagrantly in Bahrain’s internal affairs and held meetings with a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors, thus discriminating between one people, contravening diplomatic norms, and flouting normal interstate relations.”

The charge was apparently related to his attendance without the presence of a Foreign Ministry official at a Sunday night Ramadan gathering hosted by al-Wefaq, according to Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While the declaration said Malinowski should leave the country “immediately”, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki told reporters Monday afternoon that he “remains on the ground” in Bahrain and that U.S. officials were in “close touch” with their counterparts in Manama.

Some seven hours later, she issued a stronger written statement noting that Malinowski’s visit to the kingdom “had been coordinated far in advance and warmly welcomed and encouraged by the government of Bahrain, which is well-aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially-recognized political societies.”

As noted by Henderson, “Being PNG’ed is rare and typically seems to occur when an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover is discovered by the host government. For it to happen between allies – and to be publicly revealed – is quite unusual.”

Rarer still is the PNG’ing of a senior official who is not stationed in the host country, according to administration sources who noted that Malinowski’s immediate predecessor as assistant secretary, former HRF director Michael Posner, had visited Bahrain half a dozen times without incident despite well-publicised meetings with opposition and civil-society leaders.

Home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain occupies a strategic position in the Gulf that the Pentagon. Tied to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a causeway, it faces Iran across the Gulf.

Like the other Gulf monarchies, Bahrain’s royal family, the al-Khalifas, are Sunni. But, unlike other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), they rule over a majority Shia population which has long pressed for democratic reform.

During the so-called “Arab Spring” of early 2011, popular pressure for reform featured major demonstrations by opposition and civil-society groups, both Shia and Sunni.

These protests, however, were met with a crackdown by the regime – reinforced by troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — in which several dozen people were killed, several thousand more arrested, hundreds tortured by security forces and in many cases forced to sign confessions, among other abuses, according to an exhaustive report released in November, 2011, by an independent international commission headed by an Egyptian-American jurist, Cherif Bassiouni.

While King Hamad pledged to implement reforms recommended by the commission, virtually no progress has been made to date, according to independent human-rights groups who have noted that, if anything, sectarian tensions have only become worse, often flaring into violence and street battles between Shia youths and security forces.

While Washington, including President Barack Obama himself, has admonished Manama about its human-rights record, called for full implementation of the Bassiouni recommendations, and encouraged reconciliation, it has taken no concrete actions against the government beyond suspending delivery of those parts of a 53-million-dollar arms deal that could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority, although the charges against Marzouq came a day after Vice President Joseph Biden spoke by phone with King Hamad and assured him of “America’s enduring and overlapping interests in Bahrain’s security, stability, and reform.”

Malinowski’s visit was a follow-up to Posner’s periodic visits to demonstrate Washington’s continuing concerns.

“The Bahraini government’s decision to expel Mr. Malinowski for meeting with Al-Wefaq mainstream Shia opposition party belies the government’s recent public relations claims that it was encouraging the opposition to participate in the upcoming elections,” according to Emile Nakhleh, an expert on Bahrain and a former senior regional analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who was himself threatened with expulsion by the Bahraini government when he was a Fulbright Scholar there in 1972.

“Declaring Mr. Malinowski persona non grata should be viewed as part and parcel of Al Khalifa’s incendiary policy of continued massive human rights violations against the Shia majority and the stoking of sectarianism.”

Henderson also warned that Malinowski’s expulsion could derail plans to hold elections in Bahrain this fall, as well as other confidence-building measures “intended to encourage al-Wefaq’s participation.”

“If so, that could please some factions in Bahrain, including the minority Sunnis who regard their Shiite countrymen with suspicion.” The expulsion, he said, “represents a hugely convenient nadir in bilateral relations, which both countries will need to rebuild quickly before the negative consequences spread.”

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


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U.S.: What Is the Greatest Threat of Them All? Sat, 28 Jun 2014 02:02:42 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 28 2014 (IPS)

This month’s stunning campaign by Sunni insurgents led by the radical Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) against the mainly Shi’a government of Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki is stoking a growing debate here about the hierarchy of threats facing the United States in the Middle East and beyond.

On one side, many foreign policy “realists” have argued that the greatest threat is precisely the kind of violent Sunni jihadism associated with Al Qaeda, whose prominence, however, now appears to have been eclipsed by the even more violent ISIL.Obama, who has vowed to keep the U.S. out of a regional Sunni-Shi’a civil war, is eager to reassure allies that he has no intention of partnering with Iran to save Maliki.

In their view, Washington should be ready, if not eager, to cooperate with Iran, which, like the U.S., has rushed military advisers, weapons, and even drone aircraft to Baghdad, in order to protect the Iraqi government and help organise a counter-offensive to regain lost territory.

Some voices in this camp even favour working with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose air force reportedly bombed ISIL positions inside Iraq Wednesday, to help repel the threat.

“There’s only one strategy with a decent chance of winning: forge a military and political coalition with the power to stifle the jihadis in both Iraq and Syria,” according to the former president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb.

“This means partnering with Iran, Russia, and President Assad of Syria. This would be a very tricky arrangement among unfriendly and non-trusting partners, but the overriding point is that they all have common interests,” he wrote in The Daily Beast.

On the other side, pro-Israel neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists, who maintain their hold — if increasingly shakily — on the Republican Party, vehemently oppose any such cooperation, insisting that Tehran poses Washington’s greatest strategic threat, especially if it succeeds in what they depict as its determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

For them, talk of any cooperation with either Syria or Iran, which they accuse of having supported Al Qaeda and other Sunni jihadist groups in the past, is anathema.

“(W)e should not aid our stronger adversary power against our weaker adversary power in the struggle underway in Iraq,” according to George W. Bush’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, now with the American Enterprise Institute.

“U.S. strategy must rather be to prevent Tehran from re-establishing its scimitar of power stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon,” he wrote for FoxNews in an op-ed that called for renewed U.S. efforts to overthrow “the ayatollahs”.

The hawks have instead urged, among other things, Washington to deploy special operations forces and airpower to attack ISIL in both Iraq and Syria while substantially boosting military aid to “moderate” rebel factions fighting to oust Assad.

Yet a third camp argues that the current fixation on ISIL — not to say, the 13-year-old pre-occupation with the Middle East more generally — is overdrawn and misplaced and that Washington needs to engage a serious threat re-assessment and prioritise accordingly.

Noting disappointingly that Obama himself had identified “terrorism” as the greatest threat to the U.S. in a major foreign policy speech last month, political theorist Francis Fukuyama cited Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and increased tensions over maritime claims between China and its U.S.-allied neighbours as greater causes for concern.

“He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China,” Fukuyama wrote in a Financial Times column entitled “ISIS risks distracting us from more menacing foes.”

In the face of ISIL’s advance, the administration appears to lean toward the “realist” camp, but, for a variety of reasons feels constrained in moving more decisively in its direction.

Indeed, at the outset of the crisis, both Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, made clear that they were open to at least consulting, if not cooperating with Tehran in dealing with the ISIL threat.

Kerry even sent his top deputy, William Burns, to explore those possibilities in a meeting with senior Iranian officials on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations in Vienna – the highest-level bilateral talks about regional-security issues the two governments have held in memory.

But the sudden emergence of a possible de facto U.S.-Iranian partnership propelled its many foes into action.

These included not only neo-conservatives and other anti-Iran hawks, including the powerful Israel lobby here, but also Washington’s traditional regional allies, including Israel itself, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

They have long feared a return to the pre-1979 era when Washington recognised Tehran as the Gulf’s pre-eminent power and, in any case, have repeatedly ignored U.S. appeals in the past to reconcile themselves to a new Iraq in which the majority Shi’a community will no longer accept Sunni predominance.

“Some [U.S. allies] worry that the U.S. is seeking a new alliance with Iran to supplant its old alliance system in the region,” wrote Michael Singh, a former Bush Middle East aide now with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near Policy (WINEP), on the same day of the Vienna meeting.

“As misplaced as these worries may be, an American embrace of an Iranian security role in Iraq – or even bilateral talks with Iran on regional security that exclude other stakeholders – will only exacerbate them,” he warned in the neo-conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal which has published a flood of op-eds and editorials over the past two weeks opposing any cooperation with Iran on Iraq.

Faced with these pressures, Obama, who has vowed to keep the U.S. out of a regional Sunni-Shi’a civil war, is eager to reassure those allies that he has no intention of partnering with Iran to save Maliki himself (to whom the Iranians appear to remain committed, at least for now).

U.S. officials have made no secret of their preference for a less-sectarian leader who is capable of reaching out to the Sunni community in Iraq in ways that could prise it loose from ISIL’s grip or influence.

That no doubt was a major part of the message conveyed by Kerry – along with the dangers posed by ISIL, even to Saudi Arabia itself — in his meeting in Jeddah Friday with King Abdullah, who until now has clearly viewed Tehran as the greater threat.

Similarly, the White House announcement Thursday that it will ask Congress to approve a whopping 500 million dollars in military and other assistance to “moderate” rebel groups in Syria to fight both Assad and ISIL also appeared designed to reassure the Saudis and its Gulf allies that Washington remains responsive to their interests, even if the aid is unlikely to materialise before some time next year.

While that announcement may please U.S. hawks and Washington’s traditional allies in the region, it is unlikely to strengthen those in Tehran who favour cooperating with the U.S. on regional security issues. Indeed, it risks bolstering hard-liners who see the conflict in both Iraq and Syria in sectarian terms and accuse Washington of siding with their Sunni rivals in the Gulf.

That the announcement was made on the same day that Baghdad thanked Damascus for bombing ISIL positions in Iraq, however, illustrates the complexities of the tangled alliances at play and the urgent questions for U.S. policy-makers: whom is the greatest threat and whom best to work with in defeating it?

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

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In Latest Republican Split, Tea Party Takes on Export-Import Bank Thu, 26 Jun 2014 01:23:16 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 26 2014 (IPS)

U.S. Big Business is going all out to protect a favoured government agency, the 80-year-old Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im), from a full-fledged assault by the populist “Tea Party” wing of the Republican Party.

At stake is Congressional re-authorisation of the Bank, which provides loans, guarantees, and credit insurance to foreign buyers of U.S. exports. Last year, it approved nearly 4,000 such transactions with a record estimated value of 37.4 billion dollars in exports.“I think the business community is getting a little bit of a wake-up call because they’ve been thinking that Republicans are their friends on everything, and it just turns out that ideology is trumping pragmatism.” -- Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen

While the re-authorisation should easily pass the Senate, where it is supported by the majority Democrats and many, if not most, Republicans, the problem lies in the Republican-led House of Representatives, which has increasingly become a Tea Party stronghold.

Business groups were stunned over the weekend when the incoming House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, announced he would oppose re-authorisation despite his two-decade-long record of supporting it.

When House Speaker John Boehner declined to take a position either pro or con, top executives of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) went into overdrive on Capitol Hill.

“With Americans overwhelmingly focused on the need to create jobs and grow our economy, business owners are understandably perplexed by the inside-the-(Washington-)Beltway campaign against the Ex-Im Bank,” said Chamber president Thomas Donohue, in releasing a letter signed by more than 800 companies and industry associations in support of the re-authorisation.

Still, Tea Party advocates and lawmakers are not giving any ground. At a hearing on the Bank Wednesday, the chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, charged that its programmes amounted to “corporate welfare” designed to benefit “some of the largest, richest, most politically connected corporations in the world.”

The battle has emerged as the latest focus of a persistent – and some say growing — split within the party between what is often referred to as “Wall Street” and “Main Street.”

Indeed, the Tea Party was born and energised by what its constituents viewed as the government’s giants “bail-outs” – under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — of Wall Street banks and other huge corporations following the Sep 2008 financial crisis.

The more-establishment and populist wing of the Republican Party have also clashed over immigration, fiscal, trade, and education policies. Consisting of both social conservatives and anti-government libertarians, the Tea Party – to the degree it has maintained any ideological coherence — has generally tried to move the Republican leadership to the far right.

While its forces have suffered a number of setbacks this spring during Republican primary elections for Congress, the surprise defeat earlier this month of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who favoured slightly more-mainstream immigration and fiscal policies – by an obscure and poorly financed Tea Party challenger shocked Washington insiders.

The insurgent candidate, a college economics professor named Dave Brat, campaigned on an anti-government platform that strongly opposed liberalising immigration laws and what he called “crony capitalist programmes that benefit the rich and powerful.”

So strengthened were Tea Party forces within the House Republican caucus by Brat’s victory that many Capitol Hill observers credited it with McCarthy’s surprising reversal on Ex-Im funding. His change of heart appears to have been a condition for his election by key caucus members to succeed Cantor as Majority Leader.

Created in the early days of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, Ex-Im has survived and prospered under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. This, despite complaints from the right that its operations amounted to government interference in the free market and, from the left, that the Bank’s support for exporters amount to “corporate welfare”, a phrase ironically adopted by then-Sen. Barack Obama to describe the Bank when he ran for president in 2008.

As originally conceived, its mission has been to create jobs at home by financing sales of U.S. exports to buyers overseas. Over the years, it has become a model for similar institutions, called export credit agencies (ECAs), established by dozens of other major exporting nations.

In recent decades, its single biggest beneficiary by far has been the Boeing Co., the giant Chicago-based aerospace firm, which has long depended on Ex-Im’s support in its competition with Europe’s Aerobus Industries. Other major beneficiaries include Caterpillar, General Electric, and Bechtel.

While much of the Bank’s opposition in the past has come from Democrats who, like Obama in 2008, described it as a corporate giveaway, the party’s lawmakers voted for it unanimously two years ago and still support it, as does the Obama administration which has made boosting U.S. exports a top priority since taking office.

The country’s biggest labour union federation, the AFL-CIO, has also strongly supported re-authorisation.

While left-wing criticism is now virtually non-existent, the Bank has long been a target for Tea Party adherents, whose mobilisation played a critical role in giving Republicans their majority in the House since the 2010 Congressional elections.

In 2012, they tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to kill the agency, arguing that the subsidies and other help provided by the Bank to U.S. exporters makes them “less and less competitive in the global market,” as their then-champion in the Senate, Jim DeMint, contended at the time.

DeMint, now head of the far-right Heritage Foundation, has, along with the Club for Growth, spearheaded the current campaign against re-authorisation.

The campaign gained more traction this week with the revelation by the Wall Street Journal that four Bank staff members have been suspended or removed amidst investigations into reported kickbacks.

But the major business groups are fighting back hard, arguing that U.S. companies would be placed at a severe disadvantage in competing for business abroad if the re-authorisation wasn’t approved.

“Failure to reauthorize Ex-Im would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of other governments’ far more aggressive export credit programs, which have provided their own exporters with an estimated one trillion dollars in financing support in recent years,” according to the letter signed by the business organisations.

“Export credit agencies in China, France, Germany, Brazil, and Korea have provided significantly more support for their exporters than Ex-Im has provided to U.S. exporters – in some cases, more than seven times what Ex-Im Bank has provided on an annual basis.”

Most observers here believe that the Bank will be eventually be re-authorised, as the Chamber and NAM mobilise endorsements from small and medium-sized companies which have benefited from its largesse. That could include reducing the amounts Ex-Im can lend to foreign companies and limiting its authority to aid companies owned by foreign governments.

Democrats, meanwhile, are clearly enjoying this latest battle between the Tea Party and the business community.

“This is a perfect example of ideology run amok,” noted Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a rising star in the party, said Wednesday of the Tea Party’s campaign against the Bank. “I think the business community is getting a little bit of a wake-up call because they’ve been thinking that Republicans are their friends on everything, and it just turns out that ideology is trumping pragmatism.”

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Obama, Rights Groups Protest Egypt Sentencing Mon, 23 Jun 2014 23:47:15 +0000 Jim Lobe Rights groups say the sentences are evidence of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

Rights groups say the sentences are evidence of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 23 2014 (IPS)

The administration of President Barack Obama joined international human rights groups around the world in “strongly condemn(ing)” Monday’s conviction and sentencing by an Egyptian court of three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others for their alleged association with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The White House, however, did not indicate what actions it was prepared to take, if any, in response to the verdicts, which it said “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt.”We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.” -- Emile Nakhleh

In a statement, it appealed instead to the new government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general, Egypt’s strongman since the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi almost exactly one year ago, to commute the sentences or pardon the defendants, as well as others who have been convicted for political reasons.

“Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance,” according to the White House statement.

“These include the prosecution of peaceful protesters and critics of the government, and a series of summary death sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process.”

Monday’s verdicts, which were also strongly denounced by a number of Western governments and press watchdog groups, immediately followed Sunday’s visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo where he met with both Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during which he reportedly appealed for a more conciliatory approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the eve of his arrival, however, an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, and 182 supporters in a mass trial that has also been broadly condemned by rights groups and Western governments.

Kerry’s visit, which was billed as an attempt to rebuild ties after a partial freeze on U.S. military aid following the coup and the subsequent killings of hundreds of Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, marked the highest-level meeting Sisi has held with a U.S. official since his election to the presidency last month.

Officials accompanying Kerry on the trip told reporters before his arrival that Washington had quietly restored all but about 78 million dollars of the 650 million dollars earlier this month. It was the first of two tranches of military aid earmarked for Egypt this year.

Washington has provided Cairo with an average of about 1.3 billion dollars in military aid annually over the past two decades.

Despite the death sentences confirmed Saturday, Kerry told reporters in Cairo after meeting Sisi that he was “absolutely confident” that all of the aid would soon be restored, although the State Department said later Monday it was “constantly reviewing” what aid should be provided.

Analysts here said the timing of Kerry’s announcement – coming so soon after the latest death sentences and on the eve of the reporters’ sentencing — was particularly unfortunate and effectively reduced what leverage Washington enjoys over the new government.

“He should’ve at least waited to make the announcement until the verdict [in the reporters’ trial] came out, because he knew it was scheduled today,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former senior analyst on the Middle East and political Islam for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“Frankly, it’s pathetic for the United States to be in the position where we see clear violations of human rights and the most elementary principles of judicial practice hiding under the pretence that this is an independent judiciary,” he told IPS.

“We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.”

The three Al-Jazeera journalists, all of whom had previously worked for mainstream international news media, include Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste; and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.

Detained since a raid on their studio in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo last December and charged with membership in the Brotherhood and fabricating video footage to “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” the three were sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison, with an additional three years for Mohamed for possessing a spent shell he kept as a souvenir.

The other defendants, mostly students, were accused of aiding the reporters in allegedly fabricating the footage. While two were acquitted, most were sentenced to seven years in prison; those tried in absentia were sentenced to 10 years.

“The trial was a complete sham,” according to Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when jouirnalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job.”

He was joined by Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, who complained that the prosecution had offered “zero evidence of wrongdoing” and noted that current U.S. law requires that military aid be withheld pending real progress on the human rights situation in Egypt.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also denounced the verdicts as “shocking and an extremely disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press,” while Reporters Without Borders in Paris said they offered evidence of the “Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature.”

Kerry issued his own condemnation of the verdicts in between urgent meetings with Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad Monday. He called the conviction and sentences “chilling” and “draconian” and “a deeply disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition.”

He said he had phoned Shoukry Monday “to make very clear our deep concerns” and appealed for Sisi’s government “to review all of the political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.”

But Nakhleh said Washington’s appeals are unlikely to have the desired effect. “The appeal by the White House for clemency isn’t going to carry any weight with the Sisi government,” he told IPS. “We’ve really lost all credibility.” He called for Congress to re-impose the aid freeze.

Indeed, the powerful chairman Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, suggested late Monday that he would work for such a freeze in light of the latest verdicts.

“The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism,” he said in a statement. “Through discussions with Secretary Kerry and others over recent weeks, I agreed to the release of the bulk of these funds for sustainment purposes, but further aid should be withheld until they demonstrate a basic commitment to justice and human rights.”

CPJ’s director, Joel Simon, said the Al-Jazeera journalists have become “pawns” in a conflict between the Egypt and Qatar, which supported the Brotherhood and Morsi’s government, in particular. Since Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have replaced Doha has Cairo’s main financial supporter.

Riyadh has even vowed to provide the government with any military aid withheld by the U.S.

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Neo-Cons, Hawks Can’t Get No Iraq Traction Sat, 21 Jun 2014 16:28:12 +0000 Jim Lobe U.S. soldiers in Basra, Iraq. Credit: PEOSoldier/CC-BY-2.0

U.S. soldiers in Basra, Iraq. Credit: PEOSoldier/CC-BY-2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 21 2014 (IPS)

Despite their ubiquity on television talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages, neo-conservatives and other hawks who propelled the U.S. into war in Iraq 11 years ago are falling short in their efforts to persuade the public and Congress that Washington needs to return.

Indeed, in contrast to the uncritical position taken by virtually all of the country’s media in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, a number of mainstream outlets are openly questioning the advice now being dispensed by the hawks about what to do about the dramatic advances by radical Sunni Islamists across northern and central Iraq over the last ten days.

The most stunning example – if, for no other reason that it took place on the hawks’ favourite news channel – came this week when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly introduced former Vice President Dick Cheney as “the man who helped lead us into Iraq in the first place.”

“It’s a lonely job being an interventionist these days.” -- Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank
“You said (former Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” she said. “You said we would be greeted as liberators. You said the (Sunni) insurgency was in the last throes, back in 2005. And you said after our intervention that extremists would have to ‘rethink their strategy of jihad.’ Now, with almost one trillion dollars spend there, with 4,500 American lives lost there, what do you say to those who say, ‘You were so wrong about so much at the expense of so many’?”

“Well,” Cheney, who had just co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with his daughter, Liz Cheney, in which they had used the same phrase to describe President Barack Obama’s policy, replied. “I just fundamentally disagree, Reagan – uh, Megyn.”

Similarly, the normally staid and respectful New York Times published what could only be described as a mocking profile of Bush’s former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, for his tirades against Obama’s policies. The article referred to the “homecoming week for the Bush administration” featuring a “cavalcade of neoconservatives newly emerged on cable television and in hawkish policy seminars to say ‘We told you so’ on Iraq.”

And when Republican Sen. John McCain, perhaps the strongest voice in Congress for intervention in Syria, called on the Senate floor for “immediate action” against the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to prevent their further advance toward Baghdad, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank asked simply, “When John McCain makes a case for war, does anyone hear him?”

Indeed, the scepticism that has greeted the Iraq war hawks over the past week has been so strong that Michael Rubin, a colleague of Bolton’s at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – the neo-conservative think tank that played a leading role in both planning and cheerleading the 2003 invasion — felt compelled to complain about “Media McCarthyites” who are allegedly stifling legitimate policy debate.

But, as Milbank pointed out, “It’s a lonely job being an interventionist these days.” Polls over the past several years have consistently shown a public that is more than war-weary. Disillusionment has grown not only with Washington’s military interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but also with the effectiveness of U.S. military power in general.

A poll conducted by Ipsos/Reuters last week found that 55 percent of respondents opposed U.S. military intervention of any kind, while only 20 percent supported it, and that there was little difference between self-identified Republicans and Democrats.

Those trends have clearly damaged the political standing and credibility of the hawks, especially those – such as Cheney, Bolton, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol – who played such prominent roles in promoting the Iraq war and are now calling for renewed intervention, at least in the form of air strikes, if not re-introducing U.S. combat forces.

Their diminished influence was made clear already nine months ago when they failed to rally lawmakers – even most Republicans – behind air strikes against military and other government targets in Syria after Obama accused Damascus of carrying out a chemical-weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians.

The hawks now face a similar problem on Iraq. Thus far, even the Republican leadership in Congress appears satisfied with the steps announced by Obama Thursday – enhanced aerial surveillance by U.S. drones and aircraft and the dispatch of up to 300 military advisers to help reverse ISIL’s advance, possibly in preparation for air strikes against targets deemed threatening to U.S. national-security interests.

Washington is also pressing Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, whom virtually all observers here blame for systematically alienating Iraq’s Sunni population, to renounce a third term or agree to share power in a way that can swing major sectors in the Sunni opposition to the government’s side.

While most Iraq specialists here have insisted that air strikes or any additional U.S. military commitment be conditioned on Maliki’s agreement to these terms, as well as a major diplomatic effort designed to enlist the help of Iraq’s neighbours – most importantly Iran and Saudi Arabia – in stabilising the country, the hawks have argued that Washington lacks the military leverage (meaning tens of thousands of U.S. troops) to bring about such a solution.

For this, they blame Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops in 2011 after the Iraqi parliament declined to act on a deeply unpopular Status of Forces agreement (SOFA) that would have provided legal immunity to any remaining U.S. forces.

Indeed, consistent with their more general efforts at depicting Obama’s foreign policy as one of weakness and retreat, the hawks have focused most of their commentary on the withdrawal decision as the cause of the current crisis – as opposed to their own responsibility for the 2003 invasion and its consequences, including the destruction of the Iraqi state and the rise of sectarianism – than on what the U.S. should do now in the face of ISIL’s offensive.

Israel-centred neo-conservatives are especially worried about the administration’s interest in engaging Iran on Iraq, a development that began last week with a high-level – albeit brief – meeting alongside ongoing international talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

When a prominent Republican hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham, endorsed the notion that Tehran, which, like Washington, has supported the Maliki government, could play a key role in dealing with ISIL – thus giving the administration political cover for pursuing the option – neo-conservatives objected vehemently.

“The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability, shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful a notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe,” wrote neo-conservatives Michael Doran, a top Bush Middle East aide, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in the Washington Post.

That theme was picked up by the Cheneys who wrote that “only a fool” would engage Iran on Iraq, ignoring the “reality” – as former Secretary of State James Baker (and Dick Cheney’s colleague in the Bush I administration) – put it, “that Iran is already the most influential external player in Iraq and so any effort without Iranian participation will likely fail.”

Of course, one of the many unintended consequences of the 2003 invasion and the Shi’a ascendancy during the U.S. occupation was to move Iraq much closer to Iran.


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International Cooperation on Key Issues Fell in 2013 Fri, 06 Jun 2014 23:43:37 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 6 2014 (IPS)

International cooperation on key global challenges declined in 2013, according to a new “report card” released here Friday by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Particularly disappointing were international efforts in dealing with terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and global finance, according to the report which, however, found some gains in two areas – dealing with or preventing armed conflict and improving global health.

The report also found that cooperation on climate change, which last year’s report card found to be worth the lowest grade – a “D” – of all the major issues on which the report card focused, was neither better nor worse than the previous four years assessed by the 50-some experts who constituted the jury.

“The report card confirms a clear trend,” said Stewart Patrick, director of CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) programme, which issued the report. “Around the world, leaders are less willing to compromise and cooperate in global institutions – even when their interests align.”

U.S. leadership in mobilising other governments and international institutions to address these critical issues also seemed to falter during 2013, he added.

“The United States appears to be losing interest or capacity to marshal collective action to fight trans-national threats and or promote global goods,” according to Patrick.

The new report used last year’s inaugural report, which assessed progress in global governance in the six critical trans-national challenges over the period 2008 through 2012, as a benchmark.

It awarded grades based on the assessments of more than 50 experts – almost all of them from Washington- or New York-based academic institutions and think tanks, including CFR itself, as well as other mainstream organisations, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Brookings Institution. In that respect, the assessments appear to reflect very much a U.S.-centred perspective.

In addition to the “D” on climate change, last year’s edition awarded “Bs” to global cooperation in combating terrorism and global finance, a “C+” on dealing with armed conflict, a “C” on non-proliferation and global health. To the extent the grades either rose or fell in this year’s report, they did so only fractionally; for global finance, for example, the grade fell from “B” to “B-“.

Nonetheless, the overall assessment was negative. “Despite a steady if uneven global economic recovery, multilateral efforts to mitigate global risks and threats were at best lackluster,” according to the report. “In virtually every issue area, the dearth of effective global leadership proved a major stumbling block to more effective international cooperation.”

In addition to assigning grades, the report card, consistent with its schooling metaphor, identified class “leaders”, “laggards”, “truants,” and “detentions”, and awarded stand-outs with “gold stars” and “most improved” prizes in each issue area.

On climate change, for example, it named the European Union (EU) and the Pacific Islands as the class “leaders” in 2013.

This was due to the former’s advocacy for a strong successor to the Kyoto agreement and commitment to spend as much as 180 billion euros on climate-related projects in both the EU and developing countries over seven years. And the Islands were recognised for the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership that commits member states to a speedy transition to low-carbon economies.

China and the U.S., on the other hand, were given the “laggard” label for their failure, despite their status as the world’s top two emitters of carbon dioxide, to produce ambitious plans to curb their emissions. And Australia and Russia were deemed “truants” for repealing anti-pollution taxes and stymieing negotiations for a Kyoto successor, respectively.

At the same time, Canada was placed in “detention” for its government’s continuing reversals on its goals for reducing emissions.

While levels of cooperation on global finance were deemed “respectable” in 2013, some collaborative efforts faded, according to the report. It praised the leadership of the new Financial Stability Board (FSB) and the U.S. Federal Reserve, but noted how little progress has been made in strengthening the EU’s financial governance and the failure of the Group of 20 (G20) to coordinate policy more closely.

It also assessed as “poor” the progress – or lack of progress – in reforming the governance of international financial institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to give a stronger voice to emerging economies. It blamed the U.S. Congress – named as “truant” – for failing to approve the pending reforms.

On nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, the report card cited little or no progress on key issues, including ratifications by major players of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the reduction of existing nuclear arsenals.

On the plus side, the report praised the agreement reached last November between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) on curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Significantly, the report failed to name any “leader” and awarded a gold star to the P5+1 and “most improved” to Iran and Myanmar. Pakistan and Russia, on the other hand, were deemed “laggards” for their “obstinate positions” on disarmament and “worrying modernisation activities.”

Israel and India were identified as “truants” for failing to take steps to join the NPT, while detention was given to North Korea for testing another nuclear device and explicitly incorporating nuclear weapons into its national security strategy.

On dealing with armed conflict, the report card noted that U.N. and regional peacekeeping efforts improved markedly in 2013, in part due to the strong mandates given operations in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

But these improvements could not overcome the pall cast by the ongoing civil war in Syria and the flare-up of armed conflicts in several African states, notably in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

The report also complained that the international community needed to focus more on preventive measures, such as mediation, peace-building and state-building.

It praised France and the U.N. Department for Peacekeeping Operations as class “leaders” and awarded a gold star to the U.N. Department of Political Affairs.

The Economic Community of West African States and the African Union were deemed “most improved,” while laggards included the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has failed to address impunity in other regions besides Africa, the U.N. Peace-building Commission, and the U.N. Security Council due primarily to its failure to approve meaningful resolutions to halt the violence in Syria.

On global health, the report card praised the cooperation by both state and non-state actors in dealing with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and in expanding vaccinations for other infectious diseases. On the other hand, the report said the international community has fallen short on dealing with non-communicable diseases and in strengthening national health systems.

The U.S. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest source of non-governmental funding to global health initiatives by far, continue to be class “leaders”, according to the report which awarded gold stars to the World Bank for a new focus on health; India for its successful eradication of polio; and Rwanda for achieving the steepest drop in child mortality in recorded history.

“Most improved” was given to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria for major reforms that it carried out in its management.

Pakistan, however, was deemed truant due to the sharp rise in the number of polio cases and the government’s failure to protect vaccination officials from attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, the report card also suggested that the U.S. effort to track Osama bin Laden by mounting a fake vaccination campaign contributed to that failure.

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Arab Publics Prefer Light U.S. Footprint, Even in Syria Tue, 03 Jun 2014 23:47:05 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON , Jun 3 2014 (IPS)

In contrast to some of their leaders, people across the Arab world prefer President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce Washington’s military footprint in the Middle East to the approach favoured by neo-conservatives and other U.S. hawks, according to the latest in a series of surveys of Arab public opinion released here Tuesday.

While the popular perception of U.S. policies in the region remains largely negative, the survey, which included six Arab countries and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, found a notable increase in Arab support for Obama compared to three years ago, as well as strong majorities who said that having “good relations with the United States” was important to their country.

Overall, Arab attitudes toward the U.S. are back roughly to where they were in 2009 shortly after Obama took office, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI) and director of Zogby Research Services, which conducted the poll.

Obama’s accession ended the eight-year reign of President George W. Bush (2001-2009), whose military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and nearly unconditional support for Israel brought U.S. favourability ratings in the region down to the single digits in most countries.

Among other findings, the poll found that Bush evoked the most negative views by far of the last four U.S. presidents in six of the seven countries covered by the survey.

“Overall, my takeaway is an uptick [for Obama and the United States],” Zogby told a forum at the Middle East Institute (MEI) where the survey results and an accompanying analysis, ‘Five Years After the Cairo Speech: How Arabs View President Obama and America’, were released.

The main lesson to be learned from the increase in positive sentiment toward Obama and the U.S., he suggested, was “the less damage you do, the better off you are.”

He cited the fact that Washington’s withdrawal from Iraq and its negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear programme were considered by respondents in all of the countries except Lebanon to be the two “most effective” efforts by the administration to address the challenges it faces in the Arab world.

The survey, which was based on interviews last month of representative samples (800-1,000 in each country) of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Palestine, produced a number of notable findings on a variety of other issues, several of which appeared to support Zogby’s observation.

Despite the repeated insistence by a number of Arab leaders – as well as Obama’s hawkish critics here – that the U.S. should do more militarily to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, significant majorities in all surveyed countries opposed any form of U.S. military engagement, including establishing “no-fly zones,” carrying out air strikes, or even supplying more advanced weapons to rebel forces.

Given a menu of six policy options for the U.S. to pursue in the three-year-old civil war in Syria from which they were asked to choose two, majorities ranging from 51 percent (UAE) to 82 percent (Morocco) in all seven countries opted for providing humanitarian relief to refugees.

Seven in ten Moroccan and Lebanese respondents chose “leave Syria alone”, as did 54 percent of Jordanians. The next most-popular option in the remaining countries – but most popular in Egypt – was “pressing the parties” to negotiate a transitional government.

The new survey found virtually no support for direct U.S. military intervention in any country, despite the fact that a just-released poll by the Pew Research Center showed that between six and seven out of ten respondents in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia hold a “very negative view” of Assad.

Nonetheless, the anti-Assad sentiment “doesn’t translate into Arabs wanting the United States to intervene directly or even provide aid to [the rebels],” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here. “If I were an Obama adviser, I would use this poll to say that we [have been] right.”

In another blow to U.S. hawks, especially neo-conservatives who have urged a more muscular policy against Syria and Iran, the new poll found that the civil war in Syria has not displaced the Israel-Palestine conflict as the most pressing concern among Arab publics about U.S. policy.

Asked to choose from seven options that they considered the most important challenges for U.S.-Arab relations, pluralities and majorities ranging from 45 percent (Saudi Arabia) to 76 percent (Morocco) cited Israel-Palestine in six of the seven countries. Only in the UAE was the war in Syria considered by a plurality to be more important.

Remarkably, ending Iran’s nuclear programme was among the least-chosen options, even in Saudi Arabia and the UAE whose governments have been the most hawkish toward Tehran.

Similarly, asked to choose the single greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East among six options, pluralities and majorities in all but the UAE cited the “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands”.

The next most-frequently chosen option was “U.S. interference in the Arab world” – far ahead of the least-chosen option in six of the seven countries, “Iran’s interference in Arab affairs”. The UAE was again the only exception: 16 percent of respondents there cited Iran’s interference; that was still six percent fewer respondents than those who cited “U.S. interference”.

While Iran and its nuclear programme were not seen as particularly threatening by majorities in the seven Arab countries, Tehran’s favourability ratings continued their sharp decline since 2006, when its support for Hezbollah during the war with Israel and defiance of the U.S. gained it strong backing throughout the Arab world.

While a majority in Lebanon (81 percent) and a 50-percent plurality in Palestine view Iran favourably today, fewer than a quarter of respondents in the other five countries said they saw Iran in a generally positive light. Only one percent of Saudi respondents said so.

Muasher suggested two main factors appeared to contribute to the disillusionment; the repression that followed the disputed 2009 presidential elections and, more important, Iran’s backing for Assad in Syria.

One of the new survey’s most notable findings dealt with U.S. policy toward Egypt and the changes of government there over the past three years, according to Zogby. Asked whether the U.S. was “too supportive, not supportive enough, or just right” toward each government, majorities in all countries except Palestine said Washington was “too supportive” of Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps more surprising, pluralities and majorities in five of the seven countries – including 61 percent in Egypt itself – said Washington was “not supportive enough” of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency.

The exceptions were Lebanon and UAE, which, along with Saudi Arabia, has been the interim government’s biggest financial supporter since the military coup that ousted Morsi. Even in Saudi Arabia, which has led the counter-revolution against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood across the region, a 44-percent plurality said Washington had not given Morsi enough support.

While Arabs remain highly critical of U.S. policies in the region, there has been an increase in Arab support for Obama in all seven countries since 2011, the year when he ceased insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and when the hopes raised by his inauguration and subsequent speech in Cairo in which he pledged improved relations with the Arab world collapsed across the region.

At that time, ten percent or fewer of respondents in each country said they supported Obama’s policies. In 2014, that support increased ten-fold in Egypt (to 34 percent), eight-fold in Jordan (to 25 percent), nearly five-fold in UAE (to 38 percent), about three-fold in Morocco and Saudi Arabia (to 28 percent and 34 percent, respectively).

Favourability ratings for the United States have also improved over the last three years, although they have lagged behind Obama’s, according to the survey.

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Obama Stresses Multilateralism over Militarism at West Point Wed, 28 May 2014 22:15:43 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON , May 28 2014 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday stressed multilateralism over militarism in what was billed as a major foreign policy address and a rebuttal to an ever-louder chorus of criticism, mostly by Republicans and neo-conservatives, that his tenure has been marked by weakness and retreat.

Speaking at the graduation ceremonies of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York – the same forum at which his predecessor, George W. Bush, set forth his doctrine of military pre-emption nine months before invading Iraq – Obama insisted that the United States remains the world’s “indispensable nation” but emphasised that military force should be used only under very limited circumstances.

“Here’s my bottom line,” he told the cadets, some of whom may soon be deployed to Afghanistan from which Obama announced Tuesday he intends to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2016. “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership.

“But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he declared.

“…I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak,” he said.

Citing terrorism as the “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad …for the foreseeable future,” he argued that “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

In that context, he stressed the importance of building the capacity of local security forces and announced he will ask Congress to provide five billion dollars to a proposed Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund (CTPF).

And he devoted much of his speech to the importance of bolstering and relying on international institutions in dealing with geo-political crises and global challenges, including global warming.

“Sceptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong,” he said, citing what he depicted as Washington’s successes in isolating Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and in building a great-power coalition that is negotiating curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“This is American leadership. This is American strength,” he declared, adding that Washington must also strengthen institutions, notably NATO and the U.N., that can anticipate and prevent crises.

He also stressed that Washington’s influence in the world “is always stronger when we lead by example.”

While he insisted that he believed in “American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being,” he said “[w]e cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else…[W]hat makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions,” he said, adding that he will continue his efforts to close the Guantanamo detention facility.

Wednesday’s speech came amidst what has appeared to be a growing number of international crises – ranging from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and growing tensions between China and its U.S.-backed neighbours in the South and East China seas to the ongoing civil war in Syria and the proliferation of local Al Qaeda affiliates, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram, across the Middle East and North Africa.

Obama’s domestic critics and some foreign allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and France, have argued that Washington has been too passive in reacting to these events.

That criticism was repeated Wednesday after Obama’s speech by Sen. John McCain who accused the president of “attacking strawmen” by “suggesting that the only alternative to his policies is the unilateral use of military force everywhere.”

“The real choice is how to combine our tools of soft power and hard power in order to avoid conflict, secure our interests and ideals, and meet our challenges through effective deterrence and diplomacy,” Obama’s 2008 Republican rival said, listing the various crises of the last few months. “None of these challenges are the fault of our President, but nothing he has done has been sufficient to address them.

“There is a growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead. Our nation’s capacity is not in question, but our resolve and judgement are. Speeches alone did not cause this dangerous development, and more speeches will not correct it,” McCain said.

Analysts who have generally been more sympathetic to Obama’s approach also expressed some disappointment with the speech.

“The speech was strongest on what our foreign policy should not be. It should not be isolationist and it should not be military driven,” said Bruce Jentleson, a former senior State Department official under both Obama and Bill Clinton (1993-2001), who teaches at Duke University.

“At a time in which the world is in flux, we really need to think in terms of core strategic constructs like how to adapt deterrence, what are the requisites of coercive diplomacy and what does it really take to build partnerships not just on our part but on the part of others,” he said. “In these and other respects it dodges the really tough questions.”

Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor and one of the deans of the realism school of international relations, said the speech’s focus on terrorism suggested that the administration remains a prisoner of Bush’s paradigm.

“More than anything else, I thought the speech unwittingly underscored the degree to which the war on terror, the continued reliance on Special Forces, drones, etc., and the preoccupation with lesser but vivid dangers as opposed to more serious long-term problems, continue to drive the administration’s approach to national security policy,” he told IPS.

“Apart from the distinct threat of nuclear terrorism, the conventional terrorism danger to Americans is trivial… Yet he felt compelled to talk about it and to pony up another five billion dollars to train militaries in places we don’t understand.”

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), who served as former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s long-time chief of staff and now teaches at William & Mary University, largely agreed with Walt.

“This concentration on a less-then-existential threat at the expense of more concrete and possibly formidable threats is wrong-headed and, at least in part, a product of the terrorism-industrial complex we have constructed and that Obama seems unable to escape,” he told IPS in an email exchange.

“What passes for counter-terrorism help today seems a lot like what used to pass for assistance to fight communism during the Cold War,” he noted. “All manner of leaders, dictators prominent among them, used to pay lip service to anti-communist efforts while enriching themselves, staying in power, and oppressing their own people with our assistance as their main support for doing so.”

Indeed, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, while praising Obama’s renewed commitment to close Guantanamo and respect international law, expressed concern that the proposed CPTF could benefit abusive governments and security forces.

Obama addressed some of those concerns in reference to U.S. drone strikes against alleged high-value Al Qaeda targets and efforts to prevent civilian casualties. “We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield,” he said.

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Obama Announces Final Afghanistan Withdrawal by End-2016 Wed, 28 May 2014 00:03:56 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, May 28 2014 (IPS)

U.S. President Barack Obama announced Tuesday his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

In a statement from the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he expects to reduce U.S. troops levels from the roughly 32,000 which remain there now to 9,800 by the end of this year, and to cut that number by about half by the end of 2015.

After this year, U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan will be used only for training and counter-terrorism operations against Al Qaeda, he said.

The withdrawal plan will depend, however, on the signing of a pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and the next president of Afghanistan, who is expected to take office by the end of the summer after presidential elections that are set to take place next month.

Without the BSA, according to senior administration officials who briefed reports, the U.S. would resort to the so-called “zero option” – or withdrawing all of its troops at the end of the year.

President Hamid Karzai, whose relations with Washington have become increasingly rocky during Obama’s tenure, has refused to sign the BSA, insisting that the decision be left to his successor. The two candidates in next month’s run-off election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have publicly supported the agreement.

In his statement, Obama, who will deliver a major foreign policy address at the U.S. Military Academy Wednesday, put the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the context of what he depicted as a larger transition in Washington’s global military strategy, including its ongoing struggle against radical Islamists linked to Al Qaeda.

“The bottom line is, it’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “When I took office, we had nearly 180,000 troops in harm’s way.”

“By the end of this year, we will have less than 10,000. In addition to bringing our troops home, this new chapter in American foreign policy will allow us to redirect some of the resources saved by ending these wars to respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe,” he declared.

Obama was making an implicit reference to his administration’s promised “rebalancing” of U.S. strategic assets toward the Asia-Pacific region, as well as more recent concerns about Russian intentions toward its closest neighbours.

He also suggested that Washington will not leave Afghanistan having accomplished all of the objectives for which it first sent troops under George W. Bush in October 2001, in the weeks that followed the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” he said. “…We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one. The future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.”

Obama’s announcement came under immediate attack from neo-conservatives and other right-wing hawks who have long insisted that Kabul will need more trainers to protect and stabilise the country after the end of 2014, the date on which the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries had previously agreed would mark the transfer of all combat responsibilities to Afghan government forces.

They were particularly angry about Obama’s promise to remove all U.S. troops by the end of 2016.

“The President came into office wanting to end the wars he inherited,” said Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte in a joint statement. “[He] appears to have learned nothing from the damage done by his previous withdrawal announcements in Afghanistan and his disastrous decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq.”

“Today’s announcement will embolden our enemies and discourage our partners in Afghanistan and the region. And regardless of anything the President says tomorrow at West Point, his decision on Afghanistan will fuel the growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted, and unwilling to lead,” the three senators insisted, in what has become a standard theme in Republican and neo-conservative attacks on Obama’s foreign policy.

“Putting aside the fact that [10,000] is the lowest number military advisors estimated was necessary to maintain training and some counter-terrorism capability in country over not just one year but several, the decision to halve and then zero out those forces by 2016 (sic) is a reminder not only of how seriously unserious this president on strategic matters can be but also how cynically partisan he is,” wrote Gary Schmitt, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in the neo-conservative ‘Weekly Standard’ blog.

Similar concerns were voided by Gen. David Barno (ret.), who led U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank influential with the administration.

“While the number [of troops] for next year seems about right, the publicly announced speedy departure plan for those troops will now unquestionably sow doubt among American friends and Afghan supporters,” he noted.

“But here at home, the biggest and – for the President – the most important takeaway …will be the certainty that by the end of 2016, America’s longest war will truly be over. After 13 years and thousands of U.S. casualties, hundreds of billion dollars spent, and wholly inconclusive results, today’s speech marks the end. Few Americans will mourn this war’s passing,” he added.

Tuesday’s announcement also came on the eve of a key NATO meeting at which Washington will seek commitments from its allies to provide around 4,000 additional troops to operate alongside U.S. troops next year and about half that number through 2016, according to administration officials.

Those officials expressed confidence that Afghanistan’s own army and police were sufficiently strong to hold off any major military challenge by the Taliban, and pointed to their performance during the first round of the presidential and provincial elections in April as evidence of major progress in U.S. and NATO training efforts to date.

Continued training of Afghan forces, combined with preventing Al Qaeda from re-establishing a presence in Afghanistan, will remain the two main foci of U.S. troops there once full responsibility for security is transferred to Afghan forces at the end of the year, they stressed.

They also emphasised that the recent developments across the Greater Middle East and North Africa required adjustments to Washington’s counter-terrorism strategy.

“[A]s we have seen Al Qaeda core [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] pushed back and we’ve seen regional affiliates seek to gain a foothold in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa, what makes sense is a strategy that is not designed for the threat that existed in 2001 or 2004,” one official told reporters in a conference call briefing before Obama’s appearance.

“We need a strategy for how it exists in 2014 and 2016, and that is going to involve far more partnership and support across the entire region and less of the type of presence that the United States had in Afghanistan over the last 13 years.”

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Sanctioning Venezuela Unlikely to Defuse Tensions Thu, 22 May 2014 04:48:34 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, May 22 2014 (IPS)

Pending legislation calling for U.S. President Barack Obama to impose sanctions against key Venezuelan officials is unlikely to defuse the ongoing crisis there and could prove counter-productive, according to both the administration and independent experts here.

A bill approved overwhelmingly Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would authorise Obama to freeze any financial assets in U.S. institutions and cancel U.S. visas for Venezuelan officials deemed responsible for “directing significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses against persons associated with the anti-government protests in Venezuela.”

The bill, a similar version of which was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, would also authorise sanctions against anyone who has provided assistance to government security forces and commit 15 million dollars in support for “pro-democracy” groups and independent media in the South American nation.

“Today we took an important step forward to punish human rights abusers in (President) Nicolas Maduro’s regime,” declared Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the bill with the Committee chair, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.

“The U.S. has tried hard not to become the centre of the debate, realising [...] that it would only help the Maduro government point to Washington as the source of the protests [...]." -- John Walsh, Venezuela specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
“(N)ow that thousands of innocent Venezuelans have protested courageously and peacefully against the failure that is this chavista government, we can’t allow the government’s repression, violence and murders to go unpunished,” he said in a statement after the 13-2 vote.

On a visit to Mexico Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry noted Congressional support for sanctions and hinted that the administration may feel compelled to impose them.

“Our hope is that the leaders, that President Maduro and others, will make decisions that will make it unnecessary for them to be implemented. But all options remain on the table at this time, with the hopes that we can move the (dialogue) process forward,” he said.

A number of experts, as well as senior administration officials, however, warned that the legislation, however well-intended, could make matters worse in the deeply polarised oil-rich country.

“I think people are really frustrated about what’s happening in Venezuela,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank here.

“But the U.S. doesn’t have a lot of leverage, and, while sanctions make people feel good, I can’t imagine them accomplishing much except to give Maduro another reason to attack the United States.

“It also risks alienating Latin American governments,” which, with the Vatican and under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), have taken the lead in trying to mediate Venezuela’s divisions through dialogue between Maduro and moderate opposition forces.

“I just can’t imagine any Latin American governments seeing this as a good idea or helpful under present circumstances,” he told IPS.

“The U.S. has tried hard not to become the centre of the debate, realising – correctly, in my opinion – that it would only help the Maduro government point to Washington as the source of the protests and distract attention from the genuine and legitimate grievances that have given rise to the protests,” added John Walsh, a Venezuela specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

“One of the tacks that has been available to (Maduro) to get out of the dialogue and major compromises that it might force him to take is the ability to reframe the protest movement and the opposition as people in thrall to or actually taking orders from the ‘Empire’ as part of an international conspiracy to de-stabilise the government and push Chavismo out of power.”

Indeed, this has been the position taken by the Obama administration throughout the most recent crisis, which began in late February with student demonstrators demanding that Maduro step down.

In hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson stressed Washington’s support for the UNASUR-led initiative.

“This is not a U.S.-Venezuela issue; it is an internal Venezuelan issue,” she told the senators. “…We have strongly resisted attempts to be used as a distraction from Venezuela’s real problems.”

The Senate bill, which is considered almost certain to pass if Majority Leader Harry Reid permits it to go to the floor, comes after the government-opposition dialogue – in which the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have acted as UNASUR’s representatives – broke down last week over, among other issues, opposition demands that all political prisoners be freed.

In a report entitled ‘Venezuela: Tipping Point’ and released Wednesday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that failure to resolve the stand-off could plunge the country into yet more violence, “leaving it unable to address soaring criminality and economic decline and exposing the inability of regional inter-governmental bodies to manage the continent’s conflicts.”

Since February, at least 42 people have died in confrontations between security forces and pro-government gangs known as “colectivos” and opposition forces.

While some opposition sectors have reportedly used violence, independent human rights groups have blamed most of the casualties on the government and its allies. In a harsh report issued earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused security forces of severely beating and, in some cases, shooting at point-blank range, peaceful protesters, subjecting detainees to severe abuse sometimes amounting to torture, and, in some cases collaborating with the colectivos in their attacks on protestors and bystanders.

The increased repression, as well as the impasse in the dialogue, has intensified concern here about the likelihood of further polarisation that will strengthen hard-liners on both sides.

In its report, the ICG called for all sides to consider the appointment of an international facilitator, possibly from the U.N. system, to join the UNASUR-Vatican effort, as well as the deployment of a U.N. technical mission to support it.

While the administration opposes sanctions at this point, one senior State Department official said it hoped to intensify discussions with regional governments, beginning with Kerry’s visit to Mexico, about what more can be done to get the dialogue back on track.

“The real question is for them to sort of compare notes on what they’re hearing out of Venezuela, whether we think the efforts that UNASUR and the Vatican are making are working, and what more can we do from outside that process to either help it along or to be ready to do something more,” the official said.

“(T)he last thing we want to do is torpedo any dialogue that might lead to action, but we’re just as frustrated as the Senate is that nothing has happened yet.”

Kerry reflected that frustration Wednesday, accusing the government of a “total failure …to demonstrate good-faith actions to implement those things that they agreed to do approximately a month ago.”

“I think more high-level consultations with other governments about how they see the situation and to work with them could be helpful,” said IAD’s Shifter.

“But the critical country is Brazil, and, unfortunately, (U.S.) relations with Brazil aren’t good because of the Snowden affair that led to the postponement of (President Dilma) Rousseff’s state visit that was supposed to take place late last year.”


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Pushing Newborn Deaths and Stillbirths Up Global Health Agenda Tue, 20 May 2014 00:01:12 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON , May 20 2014 (IPS)

Delegates to this week’s annual meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva should agree on an ambitious agenda to sharply cut the rate of newborn deaths and stillbirths over the next two decades, according to maternal and infant health experts.

Reducing the rates of newborn deaths and stillbirths has lagged significantly behind the remarkable progress achieved in cutting mortality among children between the ages of one month and five years, according to a new study in the “Every Newborn” Series published by the British medical publication, ‘The Lancet”.

Thanks in major part to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), reductions in mortality for children 1-59 months and maternal mortality have averaged 3.4 percent and 2.6 percent annually, respectively, in recent years. By contrast, the neo-natal mortality and stillbirth rates fell by only two percent and around one percent per year, respectively.

Reducing the rates of newborn deaths and stillbirths has lagged significantly behind the remarkable progress achieved in cutting mortality among children between the ages of one month and five years, according to a new study in the “Every Newborn” Series published by the British medical publication, ‘The Lancet”.

Breast milk is vital for a premature newborn weighing barely 500 grams.
Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

That lag has been caused above all by “disappointing levels of investment in newborn health,” according to the study, which drew on the work of more than 55 experts from 29 institutions in 18 countries.

“So far, investment targeted to newborn health has been miniscule,” noted Joy Lawn of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who led the research on which the study is based along with Zulfiqar Bhutta from the Hospital for Sick Children in Canada and the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

“Nearly half (44 percent) of all deaths in children under five are in the first month of life, yet only four percent of donor funding to child health even mentions the word newborn,” Lawn told IPS.

Indeed, every year, some 2.9 million infants die within 28 days of their birth, and another 2.6 million die in the last three months of pregnancy or during childbirth, according to U.N. estimates. Nearly half of these deaths occur during labour.

Many of those stillbirths have remained invisible, however, on the global health agenda, because nearly all of them go unreported to health authorities, and data collection on both stillbirths and neo-natal deaths is in any case inadequate. This is particularly true in the most-affected countries which include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, as well as Nigeria and a number of other sub-Saharan countries, according to the study. More than 75 percent of newborn deaths occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

This week’s meeting of the WHA, the governing body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), will take up the “Every Newborn Action Plan” (ENAP) aimed at encouraging donors and beneficiary countries to accelerate action aimed at addressing the problem.

“The plan is based on a series of measures that are already proving effective in keeping women and children healthy – from preconception and pregnancy through to childhood and adolescence,” according to Dr. Elizabeth Mason, irector of WHO’s Department for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health. “Our goal is to end preventable newborn deaths within a generation.”

Specifically, the plan envisages reducing national neo-natal mortality to fewer than ten deaths per 1,000 live births and stillbirth rates to fewer than ten per 1,000 by 2035, resulting in global averages of seven and eight, respectively, according to the report.

If successful, that would cut current rates of neo-natal mortality and stillbirths by more than half and by as much as 85 percent in the worst-affected nations.

The study identifies proven interventions, including the promotion of breastfeeding; neo-natal resuscitation; so-called kangaroo mother care, which involves holding pre-term infants close to the mother’s skin for warmth and regulating their heartbeat; and providing corticosteroids that prevent infection resulting from cutting the umbilical cord.

The implementation of these interventions by themselves “could get newborn deaths down substantially in the first couple of years,” Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private source of funding for global health initiatives, told the ‘Wall Street Journal’ in an interview published Monday.

She is scheduled to address the WHA in support of ENAP Tuesday. Along with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), WHO, and various bilateral agencies, the Gates Foundation is expected to be a major source of funding for the plan.

Lawn stressed the importance of having trained personnel available during and immediately after birth. “A critical issue is the need for more midwives and nurses with skills to look after women in labour and small and sick newborns,” she told IPS in an email. Each year, one million babies die on the day of their birth, according to the report.

Indeed, the most common barriers to improving survival rates were related to the dearth of trained health workers, according to studies of eight of the worst-affected countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Uganda.

The study found that those countries that have achieved the most rapid reductions in maternal and newborn mortality – such as Malawi, Nepal, and Peru – have done so in major part by expanding their health workforce, improving care for small and sick newborns, and implementing new programmes designed to reach the poorest families.

Along with trained personnel, the availability of healthcare facilities is also critical.

“The increasing number of women who are giving birth at healthcare facilities presents the most immediate opportunity for action,” according to Bhutta.

“Our analysis shows that by increasing facility births and closing the quality gap at healthcare facilities by 2020, we could prevent an estimated 113,000 maternal deaths, 531,000 stillbirths, and 1,325 million newborn deaths each year. This should clearly be an immediate priority,” she added.

Lily Kak, the senior advisor for Global Partnerships and Newborn Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), praised ENAP, calling its introduction a “historic moment and opportunity” and noting that it is “the first plan to unite the global community around progress toward newborn health outcomes.”

“Although we have seen incredible success in bringing down under-5 deaths, neo-natal mortality rates have declined at a slower pace,” she told IPS in an email. “This is in part because newborn health was not a global priority, investments were minimal, and simple and cost-effective ways of tackling the leading causes of newborn mortality—prematurity, asphyxia and sepsis— are better understood now.”

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Nigeria Abductions Grab the Spotlight Fri, 09 May 2014 00:11:26 +0000 Jim Lobe A moment of silence is held May 6, 2014 in Washington, DC for the 234 missing Nigerian school girls. Credit: Senate Democrats/cc by 2.0

A moment of silence is held May 6, 2014 in Washington, DC for the 234 missing Nigerian school girls. Credit: Senate Democrats/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, May 9 2014 (IPS)

The fate of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by the violent Islamist Boko Haram group from the northern Nigeria town of Chibok in mid-April has become something of a public sensation in the United States since the beginning of the month.

Politicians and activists are calling for strong action by the U.S. to help the Nigerian government locate and rescue the girls, while the main television network have been leading their periodic news summaries and nightly newscasts with the latest information on the kidnappings for the past week.“The question is not so much one of inattention but one of tardiness in recognising that this is a sensational story." -- Andrew Tyndall

And Boko Haram, whose leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened in a widely viewed video earlier this week to sell the girls into slavery, has emerged from a state of almost-total obscurity – despite the growing concern about its violence and links to other radical Islamist groups in North Africa and the Sahel among Africa specialists in and outside the government — to a remarkable notoriety among the general public on this side of the Atlantic.

“The media didn’t pay attention to the story when it first happened,” noted Emira Wood, an Africa specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies here. “Now you have [First Lady] Michelle Obama tweeting a photo of herself displaying the hashtag #BringBackOur Girls and Angelina Jolie speaking out about it.”

“Nigeria is not something on the radar of most American news organisations or the consciousness of most Americans, who, after all, would be quite hard-pressed to even locate Nigeria on a map,” according to Steven Livingston, a political communications expert at George Washington University, who credited Nigeria’s civil society groups and their use of social media for thrusting the story into the global spotlight.

“In this case, the story is easy to understand at an emotional level, especially for parents, and, after all, Boko Haram are not good guys, so you don’t have to understand a lot. You can just sign on and feel good about it,” he told IPS.

In that respect, he noted, the story is similar to the “Kony 2012” phenomenon, a 30-minute internet video seen by tens millions of viewers here and designed to promote stronger U.S. military efforts to capture the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that has terrorised parts of Uganda and central Africa for more than a decade.

Even before the Kony 2012 campaign, the administration of President Barack Obama had deployed some 100 combat-equipped troops to the region in a multi-national campaign to track, disrupt, and ultimately capture Kony and his top lieutenants. Unsurprisingly, he is coming under pressure to take similar action to rescue the kidnapped girls.

Thus far, Obama has authorised dispatching up to 10 U.S. military and intelligence personnel to set up a “coordination cell” to work alongside Nigerian security forces as well as advisers from other countries whose offers of assistance have reportedly been accepted by President Goodluck Johnson.

U.S. officials have also said Washington has deployed surveillance assets to the region where the girls may have been taken, including northern Nigeria and neighbouring areas of Cameroun, Chad, and Niger where Washington maintains a drone base.

Some lawmakers, however, are calling for stronger action. “More can be done by this administration,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins, told CNN Wednesday. “I would like to see Special Forces deployed to rescue these young girls.”

Similarly, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that sending advisory team should be “just the first step” and that she would “support whatever actions are necessary to locate, capture and eliminate the terrorists responsible for this reprehensible act.”

All 20 women senators signed on to a letter calling for tougher actions against Boko Haram. Several of them re-introduced the bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act in the Senate Thursday, a bill that would make gender-based violence prevention and response a top priority for U.S. diplomats and aid programmes.

As noted by Wood, the story was initially ignored by the mass media here and made its first appearance on network news only last Thursday, more than two weeks after the abduction, according to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the ‘Tyndall Report’, which tracks weeknightly news coverage by the three major U.S. television networks.

“The question is not so much one of inattention but one of tardiness in recognising that this is a sensational story,” he told IPS.

“It’s a general rule that sub-Saharan stories — especially those in which Americans are not involved — are under-covered by the mainstream national newscasts. However, in this instance, that general rule should not have applied,” especially given the involvement of a violent Islamist group allegedly tied to Al Qaeda in an action aimed at denying girls their right to an education – the abductees were kidnapped from a boarding school where they were taking exams.

“The issue of girls’ education in Muslim societies has already proved itself as an attention-grabbing story,” he added, noting the lavish media attention received last year by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who led a global campaign for girls’ education after recovering from an attack by the Taliban.

Since last week, however, “the story has absolutely taken off and gotten the intensity of coverage that it should’ve gotten from the word ‘go’,” he told IPS.

Since last Thursday, he said, the story has received 32 minutes of coverage on the three networks – or more than 10 percent of their total coverage. After narrating reports from here, two of the networks sent reporters to Nigeria this week. That compares with 12 minutes total coverage of Kony 2012 in that year.

That total is still just over half the coverage given to the dominant story out of sub-Saharan Africa so far in 2014 – the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the white South African track star accused of murdering his girlfriend.

The Pistorius case also received a total of 51 minutes of U.S. network news coverage last year, making it second-biggest story out of the region in 2013, after coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death and funeral. But, Tyndall noted, the Nigerian story appears poised to continue drawing media attention for the foreseeable future.

Both Livingston and Wood expressed concern that all of the media attention and clamour for stronger action could prove counter-productive, especially if it results in direct U.S. military action. Livingston noted that it could “feed into the Boko Haram narrative that the Nigerian government is just a puppet of the Western oil interests, the U.S., and the British.”

Wood noted that Washington’s decision to add the group to its terrorist list late last year actually helped boost their profile among the disaffected and poor youth in the region. “A more militarised response could make things worse, both in rescuing the girls and in failing to deal with the root causes of the crisis,” she said.

Meanwhile, right-wing forces also sought to take advantage of all of the attention. In a FoxNews column published Wednesday, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton stressed that the kidnapping offered a “grim reminder” of the threat posed by radical Islam, claiming that the administration had ignored its growth across North Africa and the Sahel.

The neo-conservative Weekly Standard assailed former secretary of state (and likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton for allegedly resisting earlier recommendations by lower-level officials to put Boko Haram on the terrorism list.

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

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New Gestures to Opposition Unlikely to Change U.S. Syria Policy Wed, 07 May 2014 23:51:39 +0000 Jim Lobe Women walk past destroyed shops in Al Qusayr, Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS

Women walk past destroyed shops in Al Qusayr, Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, May 7 2014 (IPS)

Despite new gestures of support for the Syrian opposition, the administration of President Barack Obama is unlikely to change its longstanding policy of restraining U.S. involvement in the country’s more than three-year-old civil war, according to experts here.

Instead, Obama appears determined to do the minimum necessary to reduce or co-opt pressure from neo-conservative and liberal hawks here, as well as Washington’s Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to substantially increase military assistance to the fractious rebel forces, let alone take direct military action against President Bashar Al-Assad’s war machine.“It’s clear that the administration wants to show it has a policy even though it doesn’t in the sense of anything comprehensive with well-defined goals." -- Wayne White

In particular, the administration remains strongly opposed to providing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to the rebels for fear that they could eventually fall into the wrong hands, most importantly radical Islamist forces aligned with or sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

SAMs, however, are at the top of the shopping list brought by the leader of the main external opposition coalition, Ahmad Al-Jarba, and the latest head of its military wing, Gen. Abdul-Ilah Al-Bashir, who are meeting with top administration officials, very possibly including Obama himself, key lawmakers, newspaper editorial boards, and think tanks over the next week.

“We do have a problem with the air forces, the air raids and the barrel bombs,” he told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace Wednesday. “(We) need efficient weapons to face these attacks, … so we can change the balance of power on the ground. This would allow for a political solution.”

Jarba’s trip here, coupled with the administration’s announcement Monday that it was according the Washington and New York offices of Jarba’s western-backed Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) official diplomatic status and asking Congress to approve 27 million dollars more in “non-lethal” assistance (bringing the total to 287 million dollars), marks a visible upgrade in U.S. support.

Both moves also followed the recently reported delivery of at least 20 U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles to “moderate” rebels who have been vetted, trained and partially equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in collaboration with its allied intelligence agencies in the region.

More will follow if the rebels can show that they’re being used effectively and kept out of the hands of other factions, according to administration officials.

The latest developments have given heart to the opposition, its regional backers, and Obama’s critics on both the left and the right here who have long complained that he was doing far too little to support the rebels in a vicious and bloody civil war that is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people and displaced as many as eight million others, about 2.5 million of whom have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, notably Jordan and Lebanon, whose own stability is increasingly threatened by the exodus.

They hope it presages a major shift in U.S. policy towards ensuring that the “moderates” among the dozens of rebel factions will receive enough assistance to halt, if not reverse, the momentum the regime has built on the battlefield over recent months and also protect them against assaults by jihadist factions, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front with which the “moderates” have often joined forces, at least for tactical purposes.

But while the latest gestures clearly indicate greater support, such hopes are likely to be misplaced, according to most experts here.

“The opposition is going to be once again very disappointed that, after repeated testing, that you’re still taking only tentative steps rather than giving them a more robust capability, especially when SAMs are clearly not on the table,” according to Wayne White, a former senior Middle East intelligence analyst at the State Department.

“It’s clear that the administration wants to show it has a policy even though it doesn’t in the sense of anything comprehensive with well-defined goals that is in any way realistic in terms of giving the resistance a real leg up on governments,” he told IPS.

“So far as I can tell, Obama isn’t going to change his policy, and [the opposition] isn’t going to get lots of money or arms from Washington,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma and publisher of, a widely read blog.

“I think this is a way for [Secretary of State John] Kerry, who’s been much more aggressive on Syria than Obama, to show he has a policy after the failure of [the] Geneva II [peace talks between the regime and the opposition],” he told IPS.

“It’s possible that Obama has allowed three percent more aggressiveness in the policy to show Assad that he’s not going to reward him, show the opposition that he’s still on their side, and reassure the Saudis who threatened to ‘go it alone’ after September when Obama failed to attack” Syria after it crossed his “red line” by allegedly using chemical weapons.

According to Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and retired career CIA veteran who served as Washington’s top Middle East intelligence analyst from 2000 to 2005, the latest steps by Obama are motivated by several considerations.

“(I)t is not an all-or-nothing proposition in the administration’s eyes, and there are several reasons to make at last modest gestures in the direction of greater involvement and support for the opposition,” he told IPS.

“One of the motives is the domestic political one of having to be seen to do something in response to the incessant charges of the administration being adrift or weak or feckless. Its relationship with its Gulf allies is another one, and this does figure into relations with the Saudis particularly.”

“In addition to that, the administration probably sees some advantage in not letting the Assad regime experience an increasingly one-sided battlefield victory. [Given] how the tide of battle on the ground has been mostly in the regime’s favour in the last few months, it makes policy sense to keep limited pressure on the regime …so it doesn’t get too comfortable and to thus continue to see some necessity for negotiation and political change in Syria that would take greater account of the interests represented by the opposition,” he said.

Both Landis and White agreed that the administration’s concerns about Saudi Arabia, which aggressively promoted Jarba’s candidacy for SOC chief last year and has repeatedly threatened to provide the rebels with SAMs and other advanced weaponry that Washington wanted to curb, have been a major consideration.

Growing tensions between the two nations over Syria and possible détente between the U.S. and Riyadh’s regional arch-rival, Iran, prompted a summit between Obama and King Abdullah in Riyadh at the end of March. Since then, it appears that the two sides have co-operated more closely in support of the opposition.

“In order to keep Saudi Arabia from giving too much to the rebels, we’re okaying the minimum,” according to Landis. “We can’t afford to let them go off the reservation.”

Saudi Arabia was not alone in pressing for stronger support to the rebels, noted White. “The Israelis, speaking more sotto voce, also considered our policy anaemic. And the Turks and Jordan are both beleaguered by the refugees, and we certainly don’t want Jordan destabilised. That is of great concern to both us and the Israelis,” he said.

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

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U.S. Calls Egypt’s Latest Mass Death Sentences “Unconscionable” Tue, 29 Apr 2014 00:05:09 +0000 Jim Lobe Violent demonstrations have followed branding of the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS

Violent demonstrations have followed branding of the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 29 2014 (IPS)

Five days after approving the transfer of 10 Apache helicopters to aid Egypt’s “counter-terrorism” campaign in Sinai, the administration of President Barack Obama denounced as “unconscionable” the latest round of mass death sentences against members of the Muslim Brotherhood handed down by an Egyptian court Monday.

Warning that the decisions “foster the instability, extremism, and radicalization that Egypt’s Interim Government says it seeks to resolve”, the State Department also complained that a ruling by yet another court to ban the April 6 Youth Movement was “troubling.”“This perceived non-action will empower the junta in its bloody crackdown on all kinds of opposition and its continuing massive human rights violations." -- Emile Nakhleh

“Supporters of the movement were at the forefront of the January 25, 2011 revolution that overthrew former president (Hosni) Mubarak, and the Government of Egypt must allow for the peaceful political activist that the group practices if Egypt’s Interim intends to transition to democracy, as it has committed itself to do,” according to a statement issued in the name of the Department’s spokesperson, Jan Psaki.

Human rights groups also harshly criticised the latest court decisions, arguing that the judicial branch of Egypt’s government appears to have lost its independence and become a willing tool of the dominant military whose former chief and defence minister,

Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi is virtually certain to win the presidential election scheduled for May 26-27.

“Egypt’s judiciary risks becoming just another part of the authorities’ repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale,” according to Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International in London.

Independent experts here also took exception to Washington’s reaction, suggesting that until the U.S. takes stronger action, notably a cut-off of all military assistance, its verbal condemnations will not be taken seriously.

Washington provides Egypt with about 1.5 billion dollars a year in aid, 1.3 billion dollars of which has been earmarked for the military.

The new rulings came just as Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to meet Tuesday with visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in what was billed as an effort to improve relations that were strained initially by Washington’s partial suspension of military cooperation and aid following last July’s coup against President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a former Brotherhood leader.

“For many Egyptians and other Arabs, including liberals and Islamists, the U.S. reaction is mere words that will have no effect on Egypt’s ruling junta,” according to Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Programme at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“This perceived non-action will empower the junta in its bloody crackdown on all kinds of opposition and its continuing massive human rights violations,” he told IPS.

Nakhleh added that the delivery of the Apache helicopters, which was announced last week, as well as all military-to-military and intelligence cooperation with Egypt should be suspended “in reaction to the junta’s egregious human rights violations, sham trials, and summary convictions.”

Monday’s court decisions followed the sentencing last month of 529 people to death for a 2013 attack against a police station in Minya in which one officer was killed.

The same court announced Monday that it was commuting the sentences of 492 of those defendants to life imprisonment but was confirming the death penalty for the remaining 37.

The same court, however, proceeded to sentence another 683 people, including the Brotherhood’s top leader, Mohammed Badie, to death in connection with a separate attack in the same area.

Both incidents took place the same day last August after government forces in Cairo opened fire on demonstrators protesting against Morsi’s ouster, killing many hundreds of his supporters. Both trials took place in a matter of a few hours, and most of the defendants were tried in absentia.

“The only shocking thing about this latest sentencing is that they would do this again following the harsh international reaction to the outlandish verdicts from last month,” said Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at the University of Oklahoma.

“It shows essentially a disregard not only for due process and Egyptian law, but also for international opinion,” he told IPS.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the military-backed regime has made clear its desire to crush the Brotherhood. In addition to arresting Morsi and charging the group’s leadership with capital offences, security forces have carried out several massacres of demonstrators, killing more than 1,000 people and detaining as many as 23,000 more, many of them in secret prisons where torture is routinely practiced, according to human rights groups.

They have also declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The regime has also proposed new anti-terrorist legislation that, among other provisions, would make holding a leadership position in the Brotherhood, despite its advocacy of non-violence, a capital crime; expedite procedures for prosecuting defendants accused of terrorism; and significantly broaden the definition of terrorism to include any action that could “obstruct” the work of public officials or various other institutions. It would also criminalise any action that could “harm national unity”.

“By these definitions, anyone who participated in the popular uprisings of 2011 or 2013 could be branded a terrorist,” noted Joe Stork, an Egypt specialist at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Monday’s third court decision – to ban the “pro-democracy” April 6 movement– was based on charges that the group had “tarnished the image” of Egypt and conspired with foreign powers.

Despite the group’s initial support for the military coup, three of its most prominent leaders were sentenced to three years of hard labour last fall for allegedly organising an unauthorised demonstration to protest police repression. Their sentences were upheld by an appeals court earlier this month.

“This reveals the true character of the regime in Egypt,” said Shehata. “It’s not interested in restoring democracy; it is interested in wiping out dissent – initially the Muslim Brotherhood and now liberal democracy activists and NGOs and human rights defenders.”

He expressed frustration with Washington’s reaction, insisting that military aid should be cut off.

“The United States seems not to be genuinely concerned about what is happening,” he complained. “What else would explain the recent Apache helicopters going to Egypt and the photo-op between Nabil Fahmy and Kerry?

“Unfortunately, the administration is behaving as if the Arab uprisings never occurred… and that all we care about is maintaining [the] Camp David [peace treaty between Egypt and Israel], passage through the Suez Canal, and counter-terrorism and forget about democracy and human rights.”

He added that Saudi Arabia, which hosted Obama last month during a key summit last month, and the United Arab Emirates were the main “cheerleaders and check-writers” for the regime and particularly its repression of the Brotherhood.

Along with Kuwait, the two Gulf monarchies have provided billions of dollars in aid. He also noted that Israel and its allies here have also lobbied in favour of continuing U.S. assistance.

CIA veteran analyst Paul Pillar, the government’s top Middle East intelligence officer from 2000 until his retirement in 2005, added that a combination of Israeli preferences and Islamophobia “has produced U.S. policy that has insufficiently recognised the repressive nature of the current Egyptian government.”

“Statements about how troubled we are will have little effect, coming at the same time the United States is partially resuming military aid to Egypt,” he told IPS via email.

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

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U.S. Public Feeling More Multilateral Than Isolationist Thu, 24 Apr 2014 23:54:57 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Amidst a roiling and mostly partisan debate over Washington’s global role, a survey released here Thursday suggests that President Barack Obama’s preference for relative restraint and multilateral – over unilateral – action very much reflects the mood of the voting public.

The survey, which was conducted by prominent pollsters for both major political parties, confirmed a decade-long trend in favour of reducing active U.S. involvement in global affairs and focusing more on domestic issues.“It’s not that ‘leadership’ is seen as a negative term, but what people object to is putting the U.S. out front while others are hanging back.” -- Steven Kull

At the same time, however, it found strong support for working cooperatively with other countries to address international issues, including and especially through the United Nations about which, remarkably, twice as many respondents (59 percent) said they felt favourably than they felt about the U.S. Congress (29 percent).

Indeed, a whopping 86 percent of the 800 voters contacted randomly by the poll said that it was either “very” (61 percent) or “somewhat” (25 percent) important “for the United States to maintain an active role within the United Nations.”

“This not about apathy to foreign policy or assistance – to the contrary, the poll shows voters feel a strong, vested interest in global affairs,” said Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, which commissioned the survey.

The survey, which was conducted in mid-April as the crisis over Crimea and Ukraine dominated the news, comes amidst strong criticism of Obama by neo-conservatives and other hawks over what they allege is his passivity in reacting to Russian aggression, as well as China’s assertion of territorial claims in the East and South China seas and advances by government forces against western- and Gulf Arab-backed rebels in Syria, among other presumed setbacks.

In their view, Obama’s restraint, or what they increasingly call “retreat”, has fed “isolationist” tendencies that have grown steadily stronger as a result of the continuing effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the failure to achieve “victories” – attributed largely to Obama’s lack of political will – in Bush-initiated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the administration has angrily rejected these charges, noting, for example, that it has upheld all of Washington’s treaty commitments; that it is deeply engaged in rallying regional and international opposition to moves by Russia and China; and that it is Republican hawks who, for example, have slashed foreign aid, attacked the U.N. and other multilateral forums, and promoted unilateral military measures that proved ineffective, if not counter-productive, especially during the Bush years.

The hawks have tried to conflate “military restraint with isolationism, but that’s really a ploy to tar people who have a more critical stance because of the experience of the past 13 years,” Carl Conetta, director the Project for Defense Alternatives (PDA), told IPS.

Indeed, recent polls have shown a clear public desire to reduce Washington’s international commitments. Most famously perhaps, a major Pew survey published last December found that 52 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

It was the first time in the nearly 50-year history of the question that a majority agreed with its proposition.

But, according to Conetta and other analysts, that result has much more to do with Washington’s unilateral military adventures – and the disappointments that resulted from those in Iraq and Afghanistan – than other forms of international engagement support for which has been remarkably steady for many years.

“All the polls show that there’s reduced enthusiasm for international engagement, but they also show that that doesn’t apply to all forms of engagement,” Conetta said. “We see that people are quite supportive of cooperative engagement.”

Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), agreed. “Overall, this poll and others show that during a period of economic downturn, there’s a strengthening of a feeling that we need to deal with problems at home. But that doesn’t mean that people want to disengage from the world, but rather that there’s a stronger interest in collaborative approaches where the United States isn’t out front so much.

“As we can see from this (Better World) poll, support for multilateral forms of engagement are just as strong as ever,” he told IPS.

Indeed, asked to choose up to two out of ten different international policy approaches the U.S. should pursue, the single most popular choice (40 percent) was “America working with global partners around the world and letting our partners take more of the lead.”

And while the second-most popular choice (34 percent) was “letting other countries solve their own problems without American involvement,” it was virtually tied with “international cooperation” (33 percent).

Significantly, the least popular choices were “America going it alone in resolving international issues” (2 percent) and “Isolationism” (4 percent), and “America taking the lead in preventing and resolving deadly conflict around the world” (12 percent).

“All of these answers show a cooperative orientation on the part of the public,” noted Kull. “It’s not that ‘leadership’ is seen as a negative term, but what people object to is putting the U.S. out front while others are hanging back.”

As to the U.N. itself, while respondents were split on the actual effectiveness of the world body, 85 percent said it should be made “more effective”; only 13 percent disagreed.

More than 70 percent agreed with the statements that “working through [the U.N.] improves America’s image around the world” and that the “U.S. needs needs the U.N. now more than ever because we cannot bear all the burden and cannot afford to pay to go it alone around the world.”

Two-thirds of respondents – including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents – said Washington should pay its peacekeeping dues to the U.N. on time and in full, while 31 percent opposed payment.

Due to Congressional cuts to requests by the administration, Washington currently owes the U.N. peacekeeping account for 2014 more than 350 million dollars.

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

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Obama Seeks to Reassure Anxious Asians on “Rebalance” Tue, 22 Apr 2014 00:29:07 +0000 Jim Lobe President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden before boarding Air Force One at Pittsburgh International Airport for a domestic trip, April 16, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks with Vice President Joe Biden before boarding Air Force One at Pittsburgh International Airport for a domestic trip, April 16, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

As he embarks Tuesday on a major trip through East Asia, U.S. President Barack Obama will be focused on reassuring anxious – albeit sometimes annoying – allies that Washington remains determined to deepen its commitment to the region.

Just how annoying some allies can be was underlined on the eve of his departure as Japan’s premier, Shinzo Abe, provoked renewed protests from both China and South Korea over his sending a ceremonial offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, the temple which honours Tokyo’s war dead, including senior officers responsible for atrocities committed by Japan in both countries during World War II.There is little question that security concerns, particularly those aroused by China’s recent assertiveness, will loom large.

As for anxiety, Asian commentators have made little secret of their concern that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing tensions with Ukraine could set a precedent for a resurgent China, whose increasingly assertive behaviour in pressing its territorial claims in the East and South China seas has provoked a number of its neighbours to upgrade military ties to the U.S., as well as increase their own military spending.

Moreover, Obama, whose extrication from the deep hole his predecessor dug for him in the Greater Middle East has gone more slowly than had been hoped, has necessarily been distracted by the ongoing Ukraine crisis which, in turn, has prompted the U.S.’s NATO allies – especially the alliance’s newest member along Russia’s western periphery – to seek reassurances of their own.

“Can Mr. Obama afford to invest more time in Asia when he is bogged down with crises in Ukraine and Syria?” asked the New York Times’ “editorial observer”, Carol Giacomo, Monday.

Obama was originally scheduled to make this trip last fall, but he opted instead to stay home to deal with the Republican shutdown of the government – the latest example of the kind of partisan-driven action that has also sown doubts among Asian allies, as well as others, about the ability of Washington to follow through on its foreign commitments.

This week’s tour will begin with a state visit to Japan, during which he will meet with the troublesome Abe, whose personal visit last year to the Yasukeni Shrine drew a harsh public rebuke from Washington.

The main substantive agenda item on that leg of the trip, according to administration officials, will be to try to narrow differences on agricultural and automobile provisions in the pending 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, the main pillar of the administration’s non-military “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward the Asia/Pacific launched in 2010.

From Tokyo, Obama will fly to Seoul where he will take up both trade and security issues, including a visit to the Combined Forces Command to address U.S. troops charged with helping defend South Korea against the nuclear-armed North.

Obama will then become the first U.S. president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson nearly 50 years ago, in part to launch a “Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative” and meet with Malaysia civil society activists.

His last stop will be the Philippines where, among other events, he will attend a state dinner hosted by President Benigno Aquino III and meet U.S. and Filipino soldiers and veterans to underline Washington’s longstanding military relationship.

While Obama and his entourage will emphasise the growing economic links that tie the U.S. to the region – if, for no other reason than to counter the widespread impression that Washington’s “pivot” is primarily aimed at increasing its military presence to “contain” China – there is little question that security concerns, particularly those aroused by China’s recent assertiveness, will loom large.

Indeed, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea conflict with those of both Malaysia and the Philippines with which the U.S. has a 63-year-old mutual defence treaty and which has not been shy about contesting Beijing claims – both through Law of the Sea Convention and most recently by successfully resupplying a long-stranded Filipino naval vessel blockaded by Chinese naval forces.

Nor has Aquino been shy about tightening military links with Washington, inviting it to enhance its military presence in the archipelago and negotiating an “access agreement” that could eventually return U.S. forces to Subic Bay naval base from which they were essentially evicted in 1991 at the end of the Cold War.

Security concerns are likely to play at least as strong a role in the early part of Obama’s tour.

While North Korea’s nuclear arms programme and missile launches remain a major preoccupation for both South Korea and Japan, China’s claims in the East China Sea – and most recently its declaration last fall of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) – increased tensions with both countries, especially Japan which has scrambled warplanes in response to Chinese aircraft that entered the zone near the disputed Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu Islands.

Although Washington responded to Beijing’s declaration with its show of force – an overflight by B-52 bombers – it disappointed Tokyo, with which it signed a mutual-security treaty in 1952, by instructing U.S. commercial airliners to comply with China’s identification requirements.

Some Japanese officials and analysts have publicly criticised what they regard as an insufficiently assertive U.S. response to Russia’s absorption of Crimea despite a 1994 agreement between Washington, Kiev, London, and Moscow guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

They worry that Beijing may now be tempted to make a similar move on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, just as some in Southeast Asia have expressed similar concerns about China’s intentions in the South China Sea.

But most U.S. analysts, including the administration, reject the analogy.

“We have longstanding alliances in Asia with most of the countries where the maritime territorial disputes with China are most severe, and we have stated time and again that we will meet our alliance commitments,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution expert who served as President Bill Clinton’s senior Asia adviser, last week.

“We don’t have any such commitments to Ukraine. We don’t have an alliance. We have never assured Ukraine’s territorial integrity by threatening the use of force…It’s a different situation, and I think the Chinese are very clear about those differences.”

Alan Romberg, a former top State Department expert who now directs the East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre here, agreed. “It’s a totally different situation,” he told IPS.

Besides the lack of any defence agreement, “if you look at the overall importance of East Asia to the U.S. and global peace and security,” he added, “there’s also no comparison.”

Obama, who will travel to China in the fall, has made clear that he nonetheless wants to avoid unnecessarily antagonising Beijing and has tried to tamp down tensions between it and Tokyo, in part by trying to dissuade leaders in both countries from stoking growing nationalist sentiments among their citizens.

Washington has also tried hard in recent months to reconcile Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye – to the extent of personally convening a summit with the two nationalist leaders on the sidelines of a nuclear security conference at The Hague last month.

But Abe’s latest bequest to the notorious shrine, particularly coming on the eve of Obama’s trip, is unlikely to help matters.

“The U.S. can be a leader, a catalyst, and a stabiliser in the region, but it can’t do it all by itself,” noted Romberg. “It’s important that other countries, particularly allies, coordinate and cooperate, and not spend their time nattering at each other all the time.”

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

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CEOs at Big U.S. Companies Paid 331 Times Average Worker Wed, 16 Apr 2014 00:03:37 +0000 Jim Lobe Fast food workers protest for higher wages in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt/cc by 2.0

Fast food workers protest for higher wages in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt/cc by 2.0

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2014 (IPS)

In new data certain to fuel the growing public debate over economic inequality, a survey released Tuesday by the biggest U.S. trade-union federation found that the CEOs of top U.S. corporations were paid 331 times more money than the average U.S. worker in 2013.

According to the AFL-CIO’s 2014 Executive PayWatch database, U.S. CEOs of 350 companies made an average of 11.7 million dollars last year compared to the average worker who earned 35,293 dollars.Of all Western countries, income inequality is greatest in the United States, according to a variety of measures.

The same CEOs averaged an income 774 times greater than U.S. workers who earned the federal hourly minimum wage of 7.25 dollars in 2013, or just over 15,000 dollars a year, according to the database.

A separate survey of the top 100 U.S. corporations released by the New York Times Sunday found that the media compensation of CEOs of those companies last year was yet higher — 13.9 million dollars.

That survey, the Equilar 100 CEO Pay Study, found that those CEOs took home a combined 1.5 billion dollars in 2013, slightly higher than their haul the previous year. As in past years, the biggest earner was Lawrence Ellison, CEO of Oracle, who landed 78.4 million dollars in a combination of cash, stocks, and options.

The two surveys, both released as tens of millions of people filed their annual tax returns, are certain to add to the growing public debate about rising income and wealth inequality.

It is a theme that came to the fore during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and that President Barack Obama has described as the “defining challenge of our time” as the 2014 mid-term election campaign gets underway. He has sought to address it by, among other measures, seeking an increase the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, and expanding overtime pay for federal workers.

Obama’s focus on inequality — and the dangers it poses — has gained some important intellectual and even theological backing in recent months.

In a major revision of its traditional neo-liberal orthodoxy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month released a study raising the alarm about the impact of negative impacts of inequality on both economic growth and political stability, with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warning that it created “an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential” and threatens “the precious fabric that holds our society together.”

Pope Francis has also spoken repeatedly – including in a private meeting with Obama at the Vatican last month – about the dangers posed by economic inequality, while the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, published in January, identified severe income disparity as the biggest risk to global stability over the next decade.

Meanwhile, an epic new study by French economist Thomas Piketty, ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ that compares today’s levels of inequality to those of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, is gaining favourable reviews in virtually every mainstream publication.

Piketty, whose work is based on data from dozens of Western countries dating back two centuries and argues that radical redistribution measures, including a “global tax on capital,” are needed to reverse current trends toward greater inequality, is speaking to standing-room-only audiences in think tanks here this week.

In addition, the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month lifting the aggregate limits that wealthy individuals can contribute to political campaigns and parties has added to fears that, in the words of a number of civic organisations, the U.S. political system is moving increasingly towards a “plutocracy”.

Of all Western countries, income inequality is greatest in the United States, according to a variety of measures. In his book, Pikkety shows that inequality of both wealth and income in the U.S. exceeds that of Europe in 1900.

The 331:1 ratio between the income of the 350 corporate CEOs in the Pay Watch survey and average workers is generally consistent with the pay gap that has prevailed over the past decade.

That ratio contrasts dramatically with the average that prevailed after World War II. In 1950, for example, the differential between the top corporate earners and the average workers was only around 20:1. As recently as 1980 – just before the Reagan administration began implementing its “magic of the marketplace” economic policies – the ratio had climbed only to 42:1, according to Sarah Anderson, a veteran compensation watcher at the Institute for Policy Studies here.

“I don’t think that anyone, except maybe Larry Ellison, would claim that today’s managers are somehow an evolved form of homo sapiens compared to their predecessors 30 or 60 years ago,” said Bart Naylor, Financial Policy Advocate at Public Citizen, a civic accountability group.

“Those who built the pharmaceutical industry and the hi-tech industry …were fine senior executives, and they didn’t drain the economy the way today’s senior executives insist on doing,” he told IPS. “The machinery of awarding senior executive pay is clearly broken.”

What is particularly galling to unions and their allies is that many top companies argue that they can’t afford to raise wages at the same time that they are earning higher profits per employee than they did five years ago. While the average worker earned 35,293 dollars last year, the S&P’s 500 Index companies earned an average of 41,249 dollars in profits per employee – a 38 percent increase.

“Pay Watch calls attention to the insane level of compensation for CEOs, while the workers who create those corporate profits struggle for enough money to take care of the basics,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“Consider that the retirement benefits of the CEO of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has benefits of over 232 million dollars in his company retirement fund, all of which is tax deferred,” said Anderson. “It’s quite obscene when you know it’s a corporation that relies on very low-paid labour.”

Congress is currently considering several measures to address the issue, although most of them are opposed by Republicans who enjoy a majority in the House of Representatives.

Nonetheless, a tax package introduced by the Republican chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee would close one large loophole that permits CEOs to deduct so-called “performance pay” – what they earn when they achieve certain benchmarks set by their board of directors – from their taxes.

“It’s pretty outrageous when the CEOs of some of the biggest companies of the National Restaurant Association are essentially getting heavily subsidised when so many of their workers are relying on public assistance and fighting for an increase in the minimum wage,” Anderson told IPS.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is expected to formally adopt a long-pending rule that would require publicly held corporations to disclose how the pay received by their CEO compares to that of their employees, including full-times, part-time, temporary, seasonal and non-U.S. staff.

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U.S. Blasted on Failure to Ratify IMF Reforms Sat, 12 Apr 2014 00:31:45 +0000 Jim Lobe 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

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U.S.-Colombia Labour Rights Plan Falls Short Wed, 09 Apr 2014 00:18:23 +0000 Jim Lobe 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

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