25 August 2013

Lucid Haze: What Did You Dream About Yesterday?

What went wrong? Cynically putting politics and polls ahead of economy and prosperity, and slavish obedience to political masters.

When a nation starts to descend into a crisis, the satire and ironic humour of its hapless citizenry begins to blossom. India is at that stage. Quiz questions like “What will hit Rs 100 first, a kg of onions, the dollar or a litre of petrol?” and funnies like “Nowadays, Indian exporters meet at Vivanta and importers at Sukh Sagar” and “If money is the root of all evil, then the rupee is the square root” are doing the rounds in Mumbai, our financial centre. On social media, adverts for engagement rings have replaced diamonds with onions, and jokes abound about the onion being a monetary unit larger than a trillion, and the rupee being replaced by the onion as legal tender. 

The desperation of the citizenry is clearly lost on the pol­i­cy­­makers in Delhi, whose every action is intensifying the country’s financial misery and dark humour. The economic misma­n­agement of the past four years has been exacerbated in the last month by the raising of short-term interest rates, the bond market sell-off, mounting debts absorbed by the public sector banks, the food security bill, capital controls, gold import restrictions and the absurd taxes on imported television sets, among other actions.

Can this be reversed? Not if the so-called ‘dream team’ at the helm of India’s economics continues in its misplaced labours. The team currently comprises Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia of the Planning Commission, finance minister P. Chidambaram, economic advisor and former RBI governor C. Rangarajan and the new RBI governor and IMF economist Raghuram Rajan. While Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram have a record of reform, that is firmly in the past, and their good habits have not carried over into the present. Over the past decade, none of the current caretakers of India’s economy have a landmark reform marked to their name; in the last year, this condition has become especially acute as the economic crisis has deepened.

What has gone wrong? Cynically putting politics and electoral logic ahead of the economy and prosperity, and slavish obedience to political masters, for sure. But also plain poor leadership—and survival through a round robin of blame. The Planning Commission chair blames the finance minister, who faults the US Federal Reserve and our own Reserve Bank, which cites the limitations of its mandate, and looks to the prime minister who speaks so softly that he is inaudible even to his economic advisors whose counsel is contrary to their own previously proffered knowledge.

Tarred ’N Feathered

Key Coalgate files are missing, Manmohan Singh’s image is at its nadir. Who cares if it’s a self-goal or sabotage...or just bad weather?

Singh’s No King
Slump in economy undercuts prime minister’s USP as original reformer
Barrage of scams under his watch leaves his image of integrity in a total shambles
Urban middle class, a key driver in Congress’s 2009 showing, drifting away in droves
Roadblocks in path of food bill, direct benefits transfer et al ties up Cong poll hands
Narendra Bisht
By now we can only presume that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is used to staring at the abyss. Blase enough, in fact, for a spot of gallows humour. Some of that is surely in order, what with the spooky comedy of errors unfolding around him. Nothing, of course, can relieve his sense of a bad ending. Embers of coal line his metaphoric hell, clouds of despair block the sun. No solutions appear nigh, only a counting of the days, where each new one seems to bring with it a new defeat. Mercifully, an end is in sight to this sorry tale: it can only be dragged on till mid-2014, presuming the shaky regime lasts the course.

Yet, going by form, it will not manage that without a fresh set of woes each month. This month’s quota is among the stran­gest. Quite mysteriously, files linked to the most serious scam to dog Manmohan’s sec­ond innings—Coalgate—have vani­shed. And worse, the matter has come to light during a critical session of Parlia­ment when significant legislation could have been passed. “Strange forces are at work,” says a sou­rce in the PMO. 

Even the PM’s biggest critics maintain that “it would be insanity for him to order the disappearance of files, and also quite out of character”. A veteran Congress leader, therefore, offers this analysis, “Don’t underestimate the clout of the coal mafia, they’ve been around from the days of the British Raj. They can get anything done....” A key BJP leader is flu­m­moxed: “The files have vanished like how witnesses ‘dis­appear’ in the district courts and the case is dismissed.”

So whodunit? No one really knows although the needle of suspicion points to the Congress politicians who benefited from the coal allotments. Others talk of bureaucratic duplicity and sabotage, especially as there are reports that copies of the files are with the CAG. What is known is that the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the investigation, will come down like a ton of bricks on the government if the files are not redi­scovered, and soon. PMO sources are at pains to say that “none of the files pertaining to the period when the PM was in charge of the coal ministry are missing”. That is small consolation, for there is no denying the coal scam has reduced to ashes whatever was left of his reputation. (Some months ago, the SC came down on former law minister Ashwani Kumar for trying to manipulate the said investigation; another tongue-lashing is likely if the files do not reappear before the next court date of August 27).

Year Of Despair

It’s a crisis alright...but it’s not a blowout. Professional doomsaying is booming too.

By Pragya Singh, Arindam Mukherjee

“It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” That statement from investment guru Warren Buffett aptly describes the current state of the Indian economy. Even if one separates politics and emotions from this trying economic moment—and believe us, there’s a lot of both going around—the rupee’s free fall tells us something of an eternal law. A flailing government on its last legs does not command the market’s confidence. That’s why you have uncertainty, anger, even fear about the future.

“Don’t panic.” That would be an obvious signal to emerge from an election-bound government. But try as hard as it might, the Manmohan Singh-Palaniappan Chidam­baram team is finding it tough to convince urban Indians that nothing’s too rotten with the state of the Indian economy. For most Indians, rising prices is a constant albatross. Consumer inflation has been in double digits for some time now. The rupee, at a record 65 to a dollar and falling, would add to inflationary pressures. Along with the slipping growth and ruthless cost-cutting in many sectors, the outlook looks bleak.
The Uncertain Life And Times Of The Indian Middle Class Family

Talk of taking a “begging bowl” to the IMF has brought back unpleasant memories of 1991 and the balance of payments crisis. Even emphatic denials, of the sort the finance minister has been putting out, only seem to put it firmly back on the menu. Whatever the government does—tighten imports, discourage gold buyers, encourage FDI in retail—the rupee continues its downward spiral. Never mind that this is something the whole world is going through. The vicious cycle is not sudden, but it has got everybody angry. ‘Everybody’ being a close synonym of the urban, TV-watching middle class.

The reason for their mood is the approaching elections. By attacking the economist prime minister and his ‘dream team’, the BJP is challenging the Congress’s claim to economic wizardry since its authorship of the 1991 reforms. The Opposition is obviously trying to play up the virtues of its mascot Narendra Modi, who touts ‘development’ as his singular achievement. The many calls for immediate elections as a fallout of this ‘economic mismanagement’ play on another big fear: of further instability. “Suppose the Congress doesn’t return to power and neither does the BJP,” says a former senior economic bureaucrat. “That could break the edifice of the republic.”

Cameras Can Lie

An acidulous Bengal media has ignored Mamata’s achievements

To a non-partisan onlooker, West Bengal today is an enigma. Open any newspaper, a depressingly negative picture of the state of things hits you in the eyes. Law and order has reached a terrible depth, the economy is wrapped in inertia, the goons of the ruling party are playing havoc. And over this general state of ruins presides a feminine Nero, as golden Bengal burns. This is the unrelenting image that the media have been projecting almost since the new government took over. Yet the ruling party won the Howrah parliamentary byelection single-handedly in June, with its voteshare practically undiminished. Then they handsomely won the panchayat elections. What do you make out of this?

Obviously, Mamata Banerjee lacks guile, or tact in common parlance. She wears her heart on her sleeves. It is obvious too that she has annoyed the media deeply. It appears that being a streetfighter, she fails to speak the language understood by the media and the civil society of the urban middle class. Therefore, she’s found to be autocratic and temperamental. But the moot question is how to judge a person, particularly, a CM? By words or, by deeds? Unfortunately, Mamata’s penchant for saying what would have been better left unsaid and the media’s obsession with her spoken word has prevented it from turning some of its attention to what has been done by the new government.

Firstly, the record of police actions against these crimes under the Trinamool regime would fare much better than that under Left rule. The point is, it’s perhaps only to a certain limited extent that sexual crime can be prevented by policing. Deterrence surely has an important role, and that is the only realm where the government comes in. Ultimately, it’s with lumpenisation of society that such crimes increase in frequency and raising of social awareness is the real need.

We are ordinary, apolitical citizens with a firm belief in democracy. We find that people’s confidence continues to rest with Mamata, if the byelection and panchayat polls results are any indication. When we look around we see better lit and better paved roads in Calcutta, somewhat cleaner surroundings and better managed traffic and drainage systems. The smooth flow of traffic in Calcutta during the last Puja was a refreshing contrast to past years! Load-shedding too has become an event of the past. Rajarhat, Salt Lake and the banks of the Hooghly have been beautified. Some canals are being cleaned. Many urban development projects, including the Metro and flyovers, are under way. Diverse rebuilding activities in Calcutta and other towns have gathered force. Despite a funds crunch, tourism, water supply, education and health sectors have received investment. Backward sections, minorities,and women and child welfare are getting priority. In fact, expenditure on housing for economically weaker sections has gone up by 238.89 per cent. Work culture in government departments has improved drastically. All this has no doubt ruffled a few feathers, but the public is starting to acknowledge the larger good resulting from them.

The hills in north Bengal were quiet until very recently; Jangalmahal is comparatively quieter too. Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh and Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh have praised the work done by Bengal in Jangalmahal tow­ards tackling Maoism. There has also been a rise of around 50 per cent in est­imated revenue generation by the West Bengal Government—an inc­rease of Rs 10,000 crore over the last year. Planned expenditure in 2012-13 increased by 33.2 per cent over the previous year. Even the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s finances have improved significantly. The industrial scenario too is looking up.

India needs a new foreign policy doctrine - and a new thought leadership

By Rohan Mukherjee
Aug 22, 2013 

Over the last two decades, Indian foreign policy has been subject to various charges of being adrift, reactive and lacking a strategic culture. More recently, some analysts have argued that one can infer strategic calculations and culture from the decisions of India’s foreign policymakers.

While both the charge and its rebuttal carry weight, the primary challenge they point to - a challenge that will be central to India’s external relations in coming decades - is the absence of systematic public reasoning in the foreign policy domain. With the exception of a handful of government reports and doctrinal documents, and a stellar attempt by a group of public intellectuals last year to redefine nonalignment for the 21st century, India has insufficiently deliberated upon some of the core concepts that define contemporary and future world politics.

Three such concepts are central to India’s interests. The first is strategic autonomy, which many analysts consider the abiding value of India’s foreign policy since independence. During the Cold War, it meant nonalignment, the flexible pursuit of national interest without any pre-determined ideological bounds. 

Today, in the absence of global superpower blocs, the concept requires shaping India’s external relations in a way that maximises the space available for domestic economic development. However, although India’s strategic planners may have updated the conceptual underpinnings of strategic autonomy based on the changed global structure of power, they seem to have ignored India’s own rise within that structure. Strategic autonomy may behove lesser powers with pressing domestic needs, but India is in the unique position of being a major power with domestic challenges. 

In these circumstances, the world increasingly calls upon India to make hard choices on key issues such as China’s rise, America’s pivot to Asia and the Arab Spring, while India continues to grapple with its own domestic problems of poverty, insurgency and environmental degradation. This makes for a very different dynamic between internal and external priorities than a straightforward application of strategic autonomy would call for, but we have not explored the potential for a new and uniquely Indian frame of thinking about these problems.

The second concept is state sovereignty. Understood traditionally as the right of states to have exclusive control over their domestic affairs, today this concept has been dramatically transformed by the international community. 

States by and large are no longer absolute sovereigns with regard to external actors. Rather, they retain the right to control their domestic spheres only by respecting the basic human rights of their citizens. In the extreme circumstance where a state turns against its people, the international community has frequently stepped in under the rubric of humanitarian intervention, or ‘the responsibility to protect’. 

India was once in the vanguard of modern humanitarian intervention when it liberated Bangladesh from Pakistan’s campaign of repression and slaughter. 

Prem Bhatia Memorial Lecture 2013 delivered by Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Navigating an Altered Landscape: Finding India’s Place in a Changing World

Mr. Chairman, members of the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust, members of late Shri Bhatia’s family, distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman. I wish to thank the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust for inviting me to deliver the 18th Annual Memorial Lecture. I consider this an honour and a privilege.

Shri Prem Bhatia was one of the towering figures in the history of Indian journalism. He personified the highest professional and ethical standards throughout his distinguished career. The norms that he set and the excellence which he achieved, set a benchmark for the media profession. He was associated with and nurtured several of India’s leading dailies, including the Statesman, the Times of India, the Indian Express and, of course the Tribune, and fully earned his enviable reputation as one of India’s finest journalists and editors. Of course to us in the diplomatic profession, his remarkable contribution as India’s envoy to Kenya and to Singapore, was greatly admired. This was one of a piece with his pioneering contribution to reporting and analysis on issues of foreign policy and national security, a relatively uncharted domain in newly independent India. His success in the relatively brief foray he made into the field of diplomacy earned him the respect of India’s foreign service which is famously sceptical of the ability of those outside the tribe to handle arcane nuances of the diplomatic trade.

I met Shri Prem Bhatia on just a couple of occasions, so I cannot claim to have a personal insight into his personality and character. Nevertheless, in his writings, covering an unusually broad spectrum of subjects, one can discern a personality, possessed of a spirit of fierce objectivity and courage, and, above all, a liberal humanism which he zealously guarded throughout his life. I consider it a privelege to deliver this lecture to honour his memory.

We live in a world which is changing in front of our eyes and changing at an increasingly rapid pace. One may call our era the Age of Acceleration, an age where the only constant seems to be the certainty of even more change. As a child, I used to play the game “joining the dots”. When the dots were joined, one experienced the Eureka moment of having made sense of something that had been hidden, or only hinted at, but now emerging with both definition and clarity. Today, we live in a world where the dots keep shifting even as we try and join them and the challenge before us is to make sense of a slippery dynamic that defies definition.

What explains this constant flux that now rules our lives? It is mainly the acceleration we witness in technological advancement. The computing power of a micro-chip in our mobile phones, is equivalent to several acres of main–frame computers that would have been required a generation ago. The volume of data and the speed with which it can move across vast spaces, is difficult to comprehend. And yet, scientists tells us, we are still far from reaching the limits of this technology. There are other domains where potentially disruptive technologies are in the making. This included nano-technology, advanced materials, bio-sciences and artificial intelligence. These developments are pushing the frontiers of knowledge into largely uncharted territory. We do not know how they will interact with social, political and psychological systems that change only slowly. Human beings are seduced by novelty, but they are reassured by familiarity. Technological change has altered our global landscape. The recent global financial and economic crisis was, in a real sense, caused by the mismatch between the scale of technological change and the adaptability of institutions of both domestic and global governance. What is worth noting is that recovery can never be a return to the pre-crisis terrain. And yet that what we seem to be seeking. Unless we find new instruments of governance, we are doomed to suffer similar crises in the future, perhaps even worse than the last. An altered landscape, which is still in the throes of further change, is no longer amenable to being managed by the tools that were fashioned to deal with an altogether different environment. Yet our predisposition to familiarity and precedent makes us reluctant to down these tools and fashion new ones.

Let me point to some of the characteristics of the emerging landscape. It is, in my view, dominated by three critical domains, a terrestrial domain that is increasingly defined by the maritime space, an extra-terrestrial domain which is space-related and lastly, extending both along the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, cyber space. While there are significant continuities in the area of energy, transportation and production and consumption processes, it is the newer domains that are driving rapid change.

Indian Foreign Policy: Where does “Young India” fit in?

“No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none”. This is the very case of International Relations(IR) and Indian foreign policy in India today. There exists a great IR deficit as an academic discipline and disengagement with foreign policy in general.It is often argued that foreign policy is limited to the elite of a country. This ivory tower approach towards Indian foreign policy is increasingly losing steam because International Relations today affect everyone. In order to understand the intellectual lacuna in Indian foreign policy thinking and International Relations in India we have to shift our focus away from analysing India’s foreign policy and focus our attention on analysing the very incipience of foreign policy thinking in India.

International Relations is an academic discipline that was first taught at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales in 1919 after the First World War as the leaders and intellectuals believed there was a desperate need for states to understand each other so as to avoid tragedies of war. Since then, the discipline has gained immense momentum and is widely taught in the US, UK and most of the European continent, and increasingly in China, Singapore, Australia, and Brazil. In India, the International Relations educational infrastructure is reflective of the disproportionate and dispersed engagement with the discipline at large. Our education system seems to be inadequate for harbouring our global and international aspirations. For instance, for someone like myself who lives in Mumbai, there is no college that offers International Relations as an Undergraduate or Postgraduate course. To pursue IR one has to travel to go to Delhi, Kolkata, or Ahmedabad at the very least. The lack of Indian students engaging with the discipline fuels limited perspectives and does not bring much needed academic nuances and Indian understanding to the Western discipline of IR. This disengagement with the academic discipline permeates onto the international level of the discipline. There are few countries that focus on IR and foreign policy and therefore theories of IR do not represent the entire international system. IR to a large extent is shaped by the hierarchical influence of the power-knowledge relationship that defines the intellectual hegemony of the West. For instance, while Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ highlight similar theories of IR, only the former makes an appearance in IR textbooks. Theories of International Relations born out of western historical experience assume universal application to the entire international system that sometimes do not hold true for India. Having been a student of IR, I learnt that there are more foreigners writing on Indian foreign policy than there are Indians. This is not entirely a negative thing but the conduct of Indian foreign policy would remain incomplete with scarce Indian contribution to its study.

The small number of foreign policy think-tanks across Indian cities mirrors the glaring gaps on the intellectual machinery of this ‘rising power’. We need to develop education in IR but also avenues for the practice and debate of the discipline.Even so, Indian foreign policy thinking remains geographically and intellectually limited to the capital; there is a huge disengagement that we need to battle with. This disengagement is reflected with the lack of foreign policy related debates, talks and events held across cities. For the case of Mumbai, with just one foreign affairs think-tank, the intellectual identity tends to be framed around the spheres of finance, cinema, arts and business – despite the fact that economic diplomacy is a major component of foreign policy.

For a vibrant democracy such as ours, we ought to engage with foreign politics as much as domestic politics since it is increasingly difficult to dissociate the two. The exclusivity towards the discipline restricts the development of the discipline and our foreign policy.Indian foreign policy needs greater engagement at a national level so as to provide in-depth perspectives, to create sense of national identity, develop international perspectives and nurture an international political consciousness. We must encourage larger public debate on substantive foreign policy decisions. There exists a deep and desperate need for the ‘trickle down’ of foreign policy thought, discussion and study in our nation.The current status quo is quite simply inadequate. It is time International Relations and Indian Foreign Policy are considered mainstream academic and career paths.

Foreign Policy: Formulation & Strategy; Interview with Dr. Anindya Jyoti Majumdar

Bio: Graduated from Presidency College, Kolkata, Dr. Anindya Jyoti Majumdar pursued Ph.D. program of studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi where he specialized in Disarmament Studies. He at present teaches in the Department of International Relations, at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He had been a Research Consultant with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, New Delhi. He visited University of South Carolina, USA, under a Fulbright Program and attended various other international schedules including regional Defence and Cooperative Security workshops in Shanghai and Colombo. Apart from contributing to various compendiums, he has authored a book, Lethal Games on India-Pakistan nuclear relations and edited / co-edited a few others on nuclearization, forced migration, global politics and foreign policy issues.

1. How can more youth participation be ensured in matters of foreign policy formulation, keeping the level of expertise intact?

Foreign-policy makers in the Ministry of External Affairs have initiated the Public Diplomacy Division to establish links with the civil society ostensibly for better interactions. The youth may use the PD programs as a platform to express their views, provide feedback and response and influence the decision-making process. However, formulation of foreign policy still remains a domain of the experts. The youth may be encouraged to enter the channels of diplomacy via the Indian Foreign Service and thereby bring in a fresh outlook.

2. How far do ‘think tanks’ contribute to foreign policy making?

Again, foreign policy being the privilege of governmental power, the influence of think-tanks is rather limited. Yes, they do contribute on different issues by providing context and prescriptions, focus on areas of concern and also work on different projects assigned by the MEA. But in terms of such prescriptions to be followed, adequate two-way interaction with the Ministry and bring their opinions to bear upon the latter, there is much to be desired.

3. Do you think the media needs to play a role in the foreign policy making of India?

The media does play a role in highlighting foreign policy issues and its concerns; in the Information Age, the media is playing an increasingly pro-active role in disseminating news, which formerly was the exclusive prerogative of diplomats. But the contours of foreign-policy depend on certain tenets, and these are not vulnerable to the buzzwords of the media. Foreign-policy lies above the nationalistic projections of the media; so in effect, though it can contribute to policy-formulation, it cannot change its considered priorities.

Hydro-Politics with China

The following is an interview with Executive Director of Centre for Development & Peace Studies Mr. Wasbir Hussain

Gaurav-Is Hydro-Politics the new buzzword in international relations?

Wasbir- Yes, you can say Hydro-Politics is the new buzzword in international relations. Water has become a key issue between nations. Securitization of water is an important concept. Many conflicts around the world nowadays can be attributed to water issues. Even in India, we are having water issues with China & Bangladesh.

Gaurav- Your take on the dispute between India-China?

Wasbir-Dispute over the river Brahmaputra has been going on for quite some time now. There are reports of Chinese Government constructing multiple dams over the river Yarlung Tsangpo which can have adverse impacts on downstream states such as India. You have to understand that China is in a dominating position as all the rivers are originating in the Tibetian Autonomous region under the effective control of Beijing. Also there are no binding treaties between the two nations on the issue.That makes all the more difficult for India to resolve the issue.

Gaurav-Just as Various Think Tanks in India are writing about the adverse effect of damming the Brahmaputra, similarly Chinese Think Tanks are taking the opposite stand by stating the benefits of damming the river such as conforming to global carbon emission standards& controlling climate change. Your Views?

Wasbir- Well its true that some of the arguments forwarded by the Chinese authorities are relevant. However ,there can be different perceptions to the issue .Please remember that Chinese authorities have also claimed that they are only building runaway dams not reservoirs thus not obstructing the flow of the river. But the question is can you take all statements given by the Chinese on face value? There are no independent analysis on the issue to certify there statements.

Gaurav- The International Tribunal in its judgement on the case between France and Spain over the sharing of the Carol river had given a principle of Just&Equitable use over complete sovereignty& riverain integrity. China can use this principle in its defence to use the Yarlung Tsangpo for so called development purposes. Don’t you think India is weak in the legal side too?

Wasbir- Well as I said Chinese authorities have been stating that they are only using the dam for development purposes. However there are reports that they are diverting it to feed the growing water needs of its arid north. Now there are no independent reports which state the contrary. So the issue is highly complex. Diversion of rivers by china would be devastating for the North East. Not only will it affect water flow which will be detrimental for our farmers but it will also create ecological crisis, polluting the aquifers &bio-system

Gaurav- Considering the sensitivity of the issue, do you think government should take the matter more seriously ?

Wasbir- Absolutely. The Government has failed to resolve the dispute& hammering out a solution. The matter should not be limited to the ministry of water resources. The Home Ministry, The Prime Minister’s Office& the Ministry of external Affairs should be directly involved in the matter. What is happening now is that the ministry of water resources is sending an officer at the level of Director/Secretary to solve the issue. However the issue has a wider political connotation and has to have the direct intervention of the country’s top leadership.

Gaurav- A Mckinsey Report has recently stated that India will be water stressed by 2025&water scarce by 2050.Also population is expected to rise by another 1 billion. In such a scenario India will face acute water shortage. Considering the frightening statistics, do you Indian leadership should take the matter to the Security Council ?

Wasbir- Look, I guess it will be a bit too early for India to refer the matter to any international tribunals, courts or agencies. No doubt we need to raise awareness about the issue &exert pressure on china. However India should use its other mechanism such as diplomacy,talks &working groups rather than resorting to International institutions.

The Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East


An opponent of Egypt's President Morsi holds up a picture of Barack Obama and the American flag during a rally outside the presidential palace in Cairo on July 7.

In the beginning, the Hebrew Bible tells us, the universe was all "tohu wabohu," chaos and tumult. This month the Middle East seems to be reverting to that primeval state: Iraq continues to unravel, the Syrian War grinds on with violence spreading to Lebanon and allegations of chemical attacks this week, and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war with the generals crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and street mobs torching churches. Turkey's prime minister, once widely hailed as President Obama's best friend in the region, blames Egypt's violence on the Jews; pretty much everyone else blames it on the U.S.

The Obama administration had a grand strategy in the Middle East. It was well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued.

Unfortunately, it failed.

The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey's AK Party and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the 'moderate middle' of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.

President Obama (whom I voted for in 2008) and his team hoped that the success of the new grand strategy would demonstrate once and for all that liberal Democrats were capable stewards of American foreign policy. The bad memories of the Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter presidencies would at last be laid to rest; with the public still unhappy with George W. Bush's foreign policy troubles, Democrats would enjoy a long-term advantage as the party most trusted by voters to steer the country through stormy times.

It is much too early to anticipate history's verdict on the Obama administration's foreign policy; the president has 41 months left in his term, and that is more than enough for the picture in the Middle East to change drastically once again. Nevertheless, to get a better outcome, the president will have to change his approach.

Syrian activists inspect bodies in Damascus on Aug. 21, following an alleged chemical attack. Instability has spread from Syria into neighboring countries.

Can Spring Be So Far Behind?

Army vs Islamists, the Arab Spring will temper the resolve of both

The burns ward Morsi supporters clash with Egyptian security forces in Nasr city, Cairo

Islamism, or political Islam, has been defined as the ideology that employs the precepts and principles of Islam as a tool for political action to realise an Islamic society and a state. The Muslim Brotherhood, set up in Egypt in 1928 with branches in several Arab countries, is the pioneering movement promoting this ideology. Later, in the 1970s and ’80s, the Islamist movements in several Arab countries were the principal source of opposition to the despotic political order. State authorities, however, struck fierc­ely aga­inst them, subjecting their adherents to execution, prolonged incarceration and exile. Confrontation between the Isl­amists and the armed forces has been the leitmotif of politics in several parts of the Arab world in the last 60 years.

With the advent of the Arab Spring, the Brotherhood and its affiliates, so far confined to opposition and conflict, set up political parties and came to power through the ballot box in Tunisia and Egypt, replacing tyrannies that had flourished for several decades. And in the post-Spring elections, they voted for Islamist parties not for the enforcement of Sharia but, as Olivier Roy has noted, for their adh­erence to moral politics, opposition to corruption and economic and social justice. In government, the Brotherhood’s lack of experience was apparent from the beginning. Though in its election campaign it had promised an accommodative appr­oach and a focus on national renaissance, in power President Mohammed Morsi, elec­ted with a razor-thin majority, just could not respond effectively to his people’s aspirations for economic and social change.

So, after just a year in office, it was not difficult for elements hostile to him to come together on the streets and, in signature cam­paigns, pro­ject a dramatic spectacle of a deeply divided nation. This gave the armed forces reason to effect a coup by ass­erting their national responsibility of ensuring that the country was “its own master (and able to) determine its own destiny”, as Nas­ser had proclaimed in 1952. A government made up of non-Islamists was set up, with promise of economic and political reform under the benign guardianship of military rule.

However, the military takeover has been marked by large-scale street violence, leaving hundreds dead and the country even more polarised. The non-Brotherhood alliance of support that General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had projected at the time of the takeover—bringing together liberals, Copts, Sala­fis and Al Azhar (Egypt’s top Islamic institution)—has broken down. The regime anyway has stigmatised the agitators as extremists and has justified its harsh actions in the “war on terror”.

The Tunisian experience of Islamists in power has been different since the Al Nahda supported a liberal pre­sident and set up a coalition government which included moderates. However, people there are impatient for change as well, even as the assassination of two popular liberal leaders leads some sections to clamour for a repeat of the Egyptian coup in their country.

U.S. Options in Syria: Obama’s Delays and the Dempsey Warnings

Aug 23, 2013

It is important to define one’s red lines. It is far more important to define the impact of crossing them and have clear options for doing so. At this point, no one can ignore the warning that the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey gave in a letter to Congressman Eliot Engel on August 19th, -- written just days before the August 21st reports that Assad might have used chemical weapons to produce serious casualties.

In his latest letter to Congress, General Dempsey stated that:

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides, but rather about choosing between one among many sides choosing. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not… It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends…We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context…”

Choosing the Least Bad Option? King Log versus King Stork

This new letter built on warnings that General Dempsey had given in an earlier letter to Senator Levin on July 19, 2013 –although Dempsey’s August letter did close with a new set of options that many media reports ignored.

Chairman Dempsey again highlighted the fact that there are no guarantees that the U.S. can find a side in Syria that will move the country towards moderation and unity, and give its people stability and security. There are certainly many Syrians and factions that might do so, but Assad’s forces seem too strong for the rebels to be sure of defeating them, the rebels are deeply divided and might see a faction of Sunni Islamists extremist gain power if Assad falls. 

If the U.S. does not work with its allies, however, Syria may well be become a divided nation with Sunni Arab rebels in one area, Syrian Kurds in another and a mix of Alawites and Sunni supporters of Assad in another – leaving the nation without a functioning economy, millions of impoverished refugees inside and outside Syria, and in a constant state of low level civil war that could become another round of major fighting at any moment.

It is also possible that Assad may win decisively enough to control most of the country and rule its Sunni majority and Kurdish minority through a far worse pattern of repression that Syria has known since it gained independence. One way or another, it is all too likely that a failure to act will mean the civil war keeps escalating, the human impact grows, and it does more and more to impact on the region, divide Lebanon and Iraq, empower Iran in both states, and leave Israel, Jordan, and Turkey with growing problems.

These risks are not a valid argument for action for action’s sake. Regardless of whether the U.S. finds Assad has used chemical weapons to commit a major atrocity, it should not act alone or without full support from key allies, it should not act without the President going to Congress and making a case to the American people. It should not act on the basis of optimism and hope and the illusion that the political future of Syrian can be shaped from the outside – anymore than the U.S. could shape Afghanistan and Iraq or the future of the revolution in Egypt.

The best of bad options is still going to be a bad option. The last three years have left Syria a shattered mess. Quite aside from its dead and wounded, some 20% of its population is now displaced, its economy ruined, religious divisions will last for years of anger and violence, and the best mix of U.S., European, and Arab efforts cannot guarantee a stable outcome or some lasting form of moderate governance and negotiated compromise between Arab Sunni, Arab Alawite, Kurd, Druze and Christian minorities. The near term outcome is far more likely to be the worse for Lebanon rather than the best for Jordan or Turkey,

Question of the Day






The successful launch of India's first indigenously built aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, and the tragic accident of an Indian navy Kilo-class submarine that killed 18 sailors created fodder for Chinese state media to use in ridiculing its neighbor.

"Paper tiger" was the term used by the Communist Party-run newspaper, the Global Times, to describe the Indian navy, which has been locked in a fierce buildup race with the Chinese navy.

The newspaper challenged India's claim that the INS Vikrant is "indigenous," calling it a "brand of 10,000 nations" because the ship is said to have used French blueprints, Russian air wings and U.S.-made engines.

"[The submarine's explosion] seems to have provided a footnote to India's real naval prowess," the Global Times reported Monday in language that clearly gloated about the mishap.

India has operated aircraft carriers since the 1950s, with long experience in managing the giant ships. It also has a seasoned air wing component. Yet so far, all of the aircraft carriers India acquired were foreign-made and decommissioned or refurbished vessels from either Western or Russian navies. Russia is refurbishing a Soviet-era aircraft carrier to be delivered next year.

In comparison, China has no prior experience operating a carrier and lacks any meaningful carrier-based air operations know-how. Last September, in a big hurry, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a 60,000-ton refurbished Soviet vessel once called the Varyag.

China bought it from Ukraine for $20 million when the Varyag was half finished in the early 1990s shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But at the time of its commissioning, the Liaoning was not a functional carrier in any real sense. It needed a multitude of further construction and tests.

Nearly a year later, the Liaoning is still going through vigorous testing without an operational air wing.

China warns Taiwan's leader

Democratically elected Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, known for his soft line toward China, will be blocked from attending next year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to be hosted by China as long as Mr. Ma insists that he attend the summit as president of the Republic of China, Taiwan's official name, a high-level Chinese official announced Monday.

Welsh Set to Unveil ‘Air Force 2023′ Strategy

August 23rd, 2013 

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III will soon release a new service strategy paper designed to pave the way for the next ten years and prepare for continued budget uncertainties, service officials explained.

The paper addresses the central predicament now facing all the services; namely planning programs, advancing a budget and determining developmental priorities with the lingering prospect of a $500 billion budget cut over the next decade.

Top Air Force Acquisition Executive William LaPlante has worked closely with Welsh to develop what the service is calling “Air Force 2023.” He said in an interview with Military​.com that the Air Force chief is focused on what decisions the service can make in the near term to protect future programs and readiness.

The Air Force has set the Long Range Strike Bomber, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and KC-46 Tanker Aircraft as its top modernization priorities. Service officials are drafting contingency plans to protect these programs in the next major planning cycle, the 2015 to 2019 Program Objective Memorandum (POM) five year budget plan.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request reflects these priorities for the Air Force: $8.4 billion is requested for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, $1.5 billion for the KC-46 Tanker and about $400 million is requested for LRS-B development, slated to be operational sometime in the 2020’s.

“There are multiple scenarios that are being planned. Anybody who has been involved in something like this recognizes the difficulty of the funding — so it is that back and forth between strategy and the math that is going on. Given the various planning scenarios, there are very few things that have not been put on the table,” LaPlante added.

Simply protect those top three priorities will not be easy should the Air Force want to also continue to develop the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and cyber defenses that service leaders have said remain vital to the Air Force’s future.

Along these lines, the budget request includes $893 million for the Global Hawk surveillance plane, $506 million for the MQ-9 Reaper and $662 million for the Predator.

Added to the equation are keeping legacy platforms such as the C-5 and B-52 viable. Air Force leaders have said the budget environment will force them to delay modernization programs putting further pressure on aircraft that have been operating for, in some cases, more than four decades.

The service is also hoping to finalize a new multi-year procurement deal for its C-130J aircraft, something more difficult to do in an unclear budget environment, LaPlante explained. The 2014 budget request includes $2 billion for the C-130J program.

Inside China: China ridicules Indian navy

 August 22, 2013

 Indians cheer during the launch of the Indian Navy’s anti-submarine warfare ... more >

Making Money On Terror

Five companies that make money by keeping Americans terrified of terror attacks

Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, has invaded America’s television sets in recent weeks to warn about Edward Snowden’s leaks and the continuing terrorist threat to America.

But what often goes unmentioned, as the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald pointed out, is that Hayden has a financial stake in keeping Americans scared and on a permanent war footing against Islamist militants. And the private firm he works for, called the Chertoff Group, is not the only one making money by scaring Americans.

Post-9/11 America has witnessed a boom in private firms dedicated to the hyped-up threat of terrorism. The drive to privatize America's national security apparatus accelerated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and it’s gotten to the point where 70 percent of the national intelligence budget is now spent on private contractors, as author Tim Shorrock reported. The private intelligence contractors have profited to the tune of at least $6 billion a year. In 2010, the Washington Post revealed that there are 1,931 private firms across the country dedicated to fighting terrorism.

What it all adds up to is a massive industry profiting off government-induced fear of terrorism, even though Americans are more likely to be killed by a car crash or their own furniture than a terror attack.

Here are five private companies cashing in on keeping you afraid.

1. The Chertoff Group

On August 11, former NSA head Michael Hayden, the man at the center of the Bush administration's 2005 surveillance scandal, was defending his former agency on CBS News in the wake of the latest NSA spying scandal. Commenting on President Obama's half-hearted promises to reform some NSA practices, Hayden told host Bob Schieffer that “the President is trying to take some steps to make the American people more comfortable about what it is we're doing. That's going to be hard because, frankly, Bob, some steps to make Americans more comfortable will actually make Americans less safe.”

Former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff had a similar message when he appeared on ABC News August 4. Speaking about the purported threat from an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen that led to the closure of 19 U.S. embassies, Chertoff said that “the collection of this warning information [about Al Qaeda] came from the kinds of programs we've been discussing about, the ability to capture communications overseas.”

CBS and ABC did not see fit to inform viewers that both Hayden and Chertoff are employees of the Chertoff Group, a private firm created in 2009 that companies hire to consult on best practices for security and combatting terrorism. Some of the companies the firm advises go on to win government contracts. Chertoff is the founder and chairman of the group, while Hayden serves as a principal. So they profit off a war on terror they say is crucial to keeping Americans safe.

Though it's unclear how much in total exactly the firm makes, there are some known numbers. After the failed attempt in 2010 to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day with a bomb hidden in underwear, Chertoff pushed for better airport security procedures. One of the suggestions Chertoff made was for the Transportation Security Agency to use full-body scanners like the ones Rapiscan, one of the Chertoff Group's clients, made. And sure enough, after the Christmas Day plot, the TSA ordered 300 Rapiscan machines. The Huffington Post reported that Rapiscan made $118 million from the government between 2009-2010.