28 December 2014

Armed forces: They defend us but there’s no one to defend their rights

December 27, 2014

Fifteen months after Mr Modi demanded One Rank One Pension, 10 months after the UPA granted it, five months after Arun Jaitley reconfirmed it and two months after the PM boasted in Siachen that “One Rank One Pension has been fulfilled,” why is this promise still not implemented? And why are ex-servicemen still in doubt about when and even whether it will happen?

The truth is this is a promise Mr Modi’s government intends to break. It’s already late in fulfilling it but now it’s indicated it will also renege.

At a recent Aaj Tak conclave, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said ex-servicemen would get 80% of OROP and then added “100% satisfaction to everyone is never given in real life”. Why then did Messrs Modi and Jaitley promise the full whack and on what basis did the former claim it had been fulfilled?

Were they misleading the armed forces with pre-election promises that were beguiling and likely to win support, but which they had not thought through? Today, doesn’t it seem like that? And if approximately two million ex-servicemen and 400,000 widows feel cheated aren’t they justified?

I’m told it’s the cost of OROP that’s made the government reconsider. The Comptroller of Defence Accounts has estimated it could be Rs. 9,300 crore. But three years ago the Cabinet Secretary estimated the cost at Rs. 8,000-9,000 crore. So if it’s gone up to Rs. 9,300 crore, surely inflation accounts for the increase?

More importantly, did Mr Chidambaram in February, when he made the commitment, and Mr Jaitley in July, when he reconfirmed it, not take this into account? If they didn’t it would amount to more than negligence; it would be rank irresponsibility.

Now consider what Mr Parrikar’s reduction of OROP to 80% would save. A paltry Rs. 1,860 crore. As Defence Minister is he seriously saying this is too much to give the armed forces, who are prepared to lay down their lives for our security?

There are good reasons why the armed forces deserve OROP. First, the majority of officers retire at 54 whilst 85% of jawans before they are 40. Civil servants continue till they are 60. Politicians, frequently, into their 80s.

Under jihadi rule, people don't even have water, medicine

Dec 28, 2014

Videos filmed in secret by an activist group show desperate women and children clamouring for handouts of food, while photographs posted on the internet portray foreign jihadis eating lavish spreads, a disparity that is starting to stir resentment.

ISIS's vaunted exercise in state-building appears to be crumbling, as living conditions deteriorate across the territories under its control, exposing shortcomings of a group that devotes most of its energies to fighting battles and enforcing strict rules. 

Residents say services are collapsing, prices are soaring and medicines are scarce in towns and cities across the "caliphate" that ISIS proclaimed in Iraq and Syria, belying the group's boasts that it is delivering a model form of governance for Muslims. 

Slick videos depicting functioning governing offices and the distribution of aid fail to match the reality of growing deprivation and disorganized, erratic leadership, the residents say. A trumpeted ISIS currency has not materialized, nor have the passports the group promised. Schools barely function, doctors are few and disease is on the rise. 

Water has become undrinkable in the Iraqi city of Mosul because supplies of chlorine have dried up, according to a journalist living there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Hepatitis was spreading and flour for bread was becoming increasingly scarce, he said. "Life in the city is nearly dead, and it is as though we are living in a giant prison," he said. In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group's self-styled capital, water and electricity are available for no more than three or four hours a day, rubbish piles up uncollected and the city's poor scavenge for scraps on streets crowded with people hawking anything they can find to sell, residents say. 

Videos filmed in secret by an activist group show desperate women and children clamouring for handouts of food, while photographs posted on the internet portray foreign jihadis eating lavish spreads, a disparity that is starting to stir resentment. 

Much of the assistance that is being provided comes from Western aid agencies, who discreetly continue to help areas of Syria under ISIS control. The US funds healthcare clinics and provides blankets, plastic sheeting to enable the neediest citizens to weather the winter, according to US officials. 

The government workers who help sustain what is left of the crumbling infrastructure, in Syrian as well as Iraqi cities, continue to be paid by the Syrian government, travelling each month to collect their pay from offices in government-controlled areas. 

"ISIS doesn't know how to do this stuff," the US official said. "When stuff breaks down they get desperate. It doesn't have a whole lot of engineers and staff to run the cities, so things are breaking down." There are also signs of falling morale among at least some of the fighters whose expectations of quick and easy victories have been squashed by US-led air strikes. A notice distributed in Raqqa this month called on fighters who were shirking their duties to report to the front lines, and a new police force was created to go house-to-house to root them out. 

A template for teacher education

December 27, 2014 

None of our Teacher Education programmes has ever seriously tried to achieve a clear and convincing enough understanding of what one tries to achieve through education. It always has been a rhetoric of larger aims and working for myopically understood parental and market aspirations

All curricula are situated in contexts and are simultaneously guided by ideals. Therefore, an understanding of and a balance between the two is essential.

We have succeeded in creating an education system that discourages good education in every possible way. It is largely apathetic to the quality of education and the fate of children. The mindset that governs thinking and the actions of the functionaries of education in the government are to somehow manage the naukari and to reap the benefits of the job on the basis of seniority. The thought of doing a good job rarely comes to mind if it ever does. The idea of reform and improvement remain at the level of rhetoric. In this system, any teacher who wants to work for good education has to work on his or her own and without much support. He or she also has to overcome varied forms of resistance.

Obstacles before the teacher

In schools, the quality of education revolves around issues such as a school uniform, heavy school bags, mark sheets and some semblance of having the English language and infrastructure in place. Parents are conscious of the need for quality education, with upward mobility in the form of well-paying jobs being uppermost in their minds. This is a legitimate expectation, but parents and schools see the path to well-paying jobs through so-called English medium and high-fee charging schools. From there it moves on to children studying in private universities, now a dime a dozen, and which all proclaim to produce leaders.

Children’s lives, even in the rural areas, now revolve around television and in various activities on the mobile phone. Hence, the motivation to ensure that a child has a worthwhile education enabled by a wholesome learning experience has to be created by the teacher. Even if the child is a natural and enthusiastic ‘learner’, that all learning is equally worthwhile is an unexamined assumption. Therefore, the teacher has to direct the efforts of the child towards this goal. This is a difficult job.

Let’s focus on the teacher. In the general atmosphere of economic competition and consumerism, a teacher legitimately desires leading a good economic and social life. The teacher has to constantly fight with her visibly low status in society, which saps her enthusiasm for good teaching.

Education is increasingly becoming centric to the government’s thinking in order to realise the desire for India’s economic competitiveness in a globalised world. Thus, the purpose of education can be well served by having a layered education system. One part of that system can take the responsibility of mass producing “narrowly skilled” people with a limited vision of life and completely sold out on shining promises of consumerist hedonism. Another part could produce a limited number of people who can think relatively better regarding skills and theoretical knowledge, but still remain wedded to promises of economic growth.

Obviously, in each point mentioned in the system, namely the parent, the child, a teacher’s ambitions and the government, there exists many alternative ideas and serious efforts as well. I have painted this grim picture in order to claim that this is the dominant mood and in spite of there being many people who want to do something better. The purpose of citing these instances is not to deny the positive aspect, but to make the point that a teacher has to work in an adverse scenario and be on the lookout to identify genuine elements in the system to collaborate and work with.

The ideals

The Top Ten Stories in South Asia, 2014

By Alyssa Ayres
December 27, 2014

A look at the events in 2014 likely to have the most lasting impact on the region and beyond.

It was a busy news year in South Asia, with events that will have far-reaching consequences for the region. Between India’s historic election, a hard-won unity government in Afghanistan, and ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan combined with shocking terrorist attacks, South Asia made the front pages around the world for many different reasons. Like last year, I’ve tried to sift through the year’s developments and assess which will have lasting effects on the countries in the region and beyond. Herewith my personal selection of 2014’s most consequential stories in South Asia:

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins single-party majority in India, Narendra Modi becomes prime minister: Every general election in India is the world’s largest, and the 2014 elections to India’s Lok Sabha (House of the People) broke previous records. More than 550 million citizens turned out to vote in a nine-phase election stretching across six weeks. Narendra Modi took campaigning to a new level, criss-crossing the country to campaign, even appearing as a hologram before crowds he could not reach in person to stump for economic growth and good governance. And the BJP triumphed, coming out of a decade in opposition to secure a single-party majority, a feat not seen in India in thirty years. Markets responded positively to the news of a clear political mandate, with the Bombay Stock Exchange index reaching a then-record high the day the results were announced. 

While Modi placed great emphasis on economic growth during the campaign, his government’s reform efforts once in office have been less dramatic than expected; observers are now looking to his first full-year budget, due in February.

Following protracted disputes, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah agree on power-sharing unity government in Afghanistan: The 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan unfolded over a lengthy five months, with an April first round, a June runoff, and ongoing accusations of election tampering thereafter. Intensive U.S. diplomacy through September helped achieve a power-sharing agreement for a “unity government,” allowing the country to move forward at a delicate time with international forces in the process of drawing down—and questions about regional stability increasingly voiced.

With major high-level visits, China further cements development, economic, and strategic ties with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka: 2014 was the year that the People’s Republic of China unveiled its Silk Route and Maritime Silk Route connectivity strategies for the larger Asia region, complete with maps and major bilateral visits with South Asian countries. India has long worried about Chinese “encirclement” through what some analysts have termed a “string of pearls” presence throughout South Asia; in 2014 senior official bilateral visits at the head of government/head of state level took place between China and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka,Maldives, and Bangladesh, plus a foreign minister-level visit to Nepal (a 2014 visit of Nepal’s prime minister to China for an expo did not involve a Beijing stop).

Rearranging the Subcontinent

December 25, 2014

The division of the Indian subcontinent between two major states, India and Pakistan (as well as a minor one, Bangladesh), may not be history's last word in political geography there. For, as I have previously observed, history is a record of many different spatial arrangements between the Central Asian plateau and the Burmese jungles.

For example, Pakistan can only be considered artificial if one is ignorant of the past in the region. Pakistan is merely the latest of various states and civilizations anchored either in the Indus River valley or in that of the Ganges. For example, the chieftaincies of the late fourth to mid-second millennium B.C., comprising the Harappan civilization, stretched from Balochistan northeast up to Kashmir and southeast almost to Delhi and Mumbai - that is, greatly overlapping both present-day Pakistan and India. From the fourth to the second century B.C., large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India all fell under Mauryan rule. There was, too, the Kushan Empire, whose Indo-European rulers governed at times from what used to be Soviet Central Asia all the way to Bihar in northeastern India. And so it goes: For so much of history, there was simply no border between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the northern third of India - the heart of the Gangetic state.

And whereas the geography between Afghanistan and northern India was often politically united, the geography between today's northern India and southern India was often divided. The point is, nothing we see on the current map should be taken for granted or, for that matter, is particularly anchored in history.

It was the British who actually created what in logistical terms is the subcontinent, uniting what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the late 19th century through a massive railway grid that stretched from the Afghan border in the northwest to the Palk Strait near Sri Lanka in the deep south, and from Karachi in Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh. (The Mughals and the Delhi sultanate also unified many of these areas, but through a looser system of control.) Because Afghanistan was ultimately unconquerable by British forces in the 19th century and also had a difficult terrain, it was left out of this modern railway civilization. But don't assume that this particular British paradigm will last forever.

In fact, it has been crumbling for decades already. Pakistan's de facto separation from Afghanistan began to end somewhat with the Soviet invasion of the latter country in December 1979, which ignited a refugee exodus down the Khyber and other passes that disrupted Pakistani politics and worked to further erode the frontier between the Pashtuns in southern and eastern Afghanistan and the Pashtuns in western Pakistan. By serving as a rear base for the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets during that decadelong war, which I covered first hand, the Soviet-Afghan war helped radicalize politics inside Pakistan itself. Johns Hopkins University Professor Jakub Grygiel observes that when states involve themselves for years on end in irregular, decentralized warfare, central control weakens. For a concentrated and conventional threat creates the need to match it with a central authority of its own. But the opposite kind of threat can lead to the opposite kind of result. And because of the anarchy in Afghanistan in the 1990s following the Soviet departure and the continuation of fighting and chaos in the decade following 9/11, Pakistan has had to deal with irregular, decentralizing warfare across a very porous border for more than a third of a century now. Moreover, with American troops reducing their footprint in Afghanistan, the viability of Afghanistan could possibly weaken further, with a deleterious effect on Pakistan.

As the Year Ends, South Koreans Have Plenty to Talk About

December 26, 2014

With all the scandals going on, small talk should be exciting at South Korean parties this winter.

One thing South Koreans can’t complain about this winter is a lack of conversation topics. Four high-profile scandals have been the talk of end-of-year parties for students and office workers.

When Korean politicians decide to run for office, they know they will face allegations, often fueled by opposition attacks. Revealing news discrediting the ruling party or president is a tactic often used by the opposition in Korea as elsewhere. After a period of relative calm for the two years following her election, President Park Geun-hye, whom some suggest is already a lame duck, is now facing two scandals simultaneously.

In October, a National Assembly audit revealed that Park had appointed star fitness trainer Yoon Jeon-choo to a director level position at the Blue House, Korea’s presidential office. For many countries, that may not seem like a big deal, but it certainly is in South Korea. Public servants in the country have to go through gruesome examinations with an 87:1 competition rate to enjoy rather modest promotions, and need to work hard for years before they can reach director-level positions. As such, appointing a fitness trainer to a director position has caused some to question Yoon’s credentials, leading to allegations of nepotism, which were denied by the Blue House.

More recently, a scandal known as “Memogate” has hit the president. The scandal involved allegations that Park’s brother and a former aide were fighting for political power. Sensitive information from Park’s office was leaked, prompting questions as to whether there are power struggles going on at the Blue House and potentially tarnishing her credibility. Politicians, both from the opposition and Park’s own party, have asked whether it is acceptable for the president to be so secretive or to be working with an entourage that seems to prone to infighting.

Another scandal, known as the “nut-rage scandal” involved Heather Cho (Korean: Cho Hyun-ah), former Senior Vice-President of Korean Air, whose outburst on Korean Air flight 86 from JFK Airport to Incheon Airport on December 5, has caught international attention. In the flight, Cho, who claimed she had been drinking winebefore boarding, got upset at the flight attendant for serving macadamia nuts in an unopened bag. Cho yelled at the flight attendant, saying the nuts should have been served in a bowl. She then ordered the chief flight attendant off the plane, causing the plane to taxi back to the terminal so the flight attendant could get off.

The scandal was revealed three days later, and has been at the center of many conversations in Korea. Macadamia nuts sales rose dramatically in Korea after news of Cho’s outburst shot the nut, which had hitherto only accounted for 5% of nut sales in South Korea, into the spotlight. The scandal reflects South Korean dissatisfaction with the behavior of heirs to Korean conglomerates known as chaebols, as Cho herself is the daughter of the owner of Korean Air. Cho is being investigated for violating airline safety regulations.

A Holiday Primer on Salami Slicing

December 26, 2014

How to approach the complex problem of “salami slicing” in the South and East China Seas.

How do we know when we’re faced with a salami slicing strategy? Ryan Martinson has recently reviewed Linda Jakobson’s work on the bewildering complexity of China’s maritime complex. Similarly, Jon Solomon has discussed some solutions of the problems associated with a salami slicing strategy. Solving the complex problem of salami slicing depends, to great extent, on our ability to recognize such a strategy.

Salami slicing works best against a coalition of states with uncertain levels of commitment. It identifies extended deterrence commitments as the vulnerable ligaments that hold a coalition together, and tries to place stress on those connections. Salami “slices” have greater strategic than intrinsic value, although the “slicer” can take advantage of differences in how the opposing coalition values particular objects.

Salami slicing requires long range planning, careful assessment of the commitment of an opponent. If an opponent is more interested in an excuse for aggression than in deterrence, then slicing can result in catastrophe. If the slices are too large, the effort can produce counter-balancing.

While the term “salami slicing” can refer to any effort to undermine conventional deterrence, it’s most commonly been used in reference to the attempts of authoritarian states to undermine the coherence of a coalition. The classic salami slicing moment came between 1933 and 1939, when Nazi regime undertook a series of small steps geared toward breaking the cage created by the Entente at Versailles. Thomas Schelling warned that the Soviets might try a similar strategy to break the unity of NATO in Europe.

China's Foreign Policy in 2014: A Year of 'Big Strokes'

By Xie Tao
December 27, 2014

A look at China’s foreign policy moves in 2014, and what’s in store for 2015.

The Chinese have a phrase to describe plans or actions that are eye-catching or have far-reaching impact. It is “da shou bi,” which may be translated into English as “big strokes.” The past year was undoubtedly a year of “big strokes” for Chinese foreign policy.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited 18 countries across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Oceania. He also hosted the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai and the APEC summit in Beijing. The former was attended by 11 heads of state, two heads of government, and ten leaders of international organizations, and the latter by 20 heads of state or government. Whether a home game or a road game, China’s top leader apparently managed to make it a big stroke game.

Frequent travels abroad and high-profile summits at home certainly add to China’s international influence, but the real big strokes lie in monetary terms. The Chinese government pledged $10 billion and $41 billion for the BRICS Development Bank and the BRICS Emergency Fund respectively. It also founded the 21-member Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and made an initial contribution of $50 billion. Last but not least, China contributed $40 billion to establish the Silk Road Fund. As many governments around the world are struggling with severe fiscal shortfalls, the Chinese government’s largesse is all the more eye-catching.

All these events and initiatives amply demonstrate the growing confidence of China as a major country, a term that perhaps seems less threatening than major power. Indeed, since 2012 one of the most important foreign policy messages promoted by China’s new leadership has been that China is and should be treated as a major country. From “a new model of major-country relations” to “major country foreign policy with Chinese characteristics,” the common theme is China’s major country status. This emphasis on China’s major country status represents a clear departure from the dominant discourse of peace and harmony during Hu Jintao’s tenure: peaceful development, harmonious world, and diversity in harmony.

Unsurprisingly, many western (particularly American) observers tend to view China’s foreign policy behavior as increasingly assertive. They seem to believe that China is actively seeking to weaken the America-dominated regional and international order, and to ultimately replace the American order with a China-dominated order. They often point to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, CICA, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), and the various mega banks and foundations founded or dominated by China — to name just a few of the big strokes — as evidence of a grand Chinese design for a Pax Sinica. “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for the two large countries of China and the United States,” President Xi once said, but both countries want to increase their share of influence in the Asia-Pacific region (and beyond).

No matter how many big strokes Chinese leaders have painted over the past year, China still faces many challenges in becoming the dominant power in East Asia. First and foremost, ongoing maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea have significantly strained China’s relations with several of its neighbors. A major power surrounded by unfriendly neighbors can hardly be called a major power.

U.S. slow to support Iraqi tribes in the fight against the Islamic State

By David Ignatius Opinion writer 
December 25 

Watching events unfold in Iraq this year has been like viewing a slow-motion train wreck. Iraqi tribal leaders have been warning since spring about the rise of the terrorist Islamic State and pleading for American help. But after months of slaughter, the United States is only now beginning to build an effective tribal-assistance program. 

The Albu Nimr tribe has been savaged especially, in part because it supported what became the U.S.-led “Awakening” movement in Anbar province. In 2004, members of the Albu Nimr made early contacts with U.S. Marine officers in Amman, Jordan, that helped foster the later, broader Awakening campaign against al-Qaeda. 

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. 

Back in October, I wrote about the plight of the Albu Nimr as Islamic State fighters advanced on the tribe’s ancestral home near Hit, along the Euphrates River. Pleas to Centcom and the Iraqi military on the night of Oct. 23 brought no aid, and the tribal fighters surrendered; over the next few weeks, several hundred tribesmen were killed

“What happened to the Nimrs was an unmitigated tragedy,” says one top U.S. official. U.S. commanders say they lacked systems for quick response. Centcom is now said to have a hotline for the tribes, but material assistance has been limited. 

The Albu Nimr catastrophe happened partly because of crossed wires. Many of the tribe’s leaders were based in Amman, but U.S. policy at the time was seeking to draw Sunni fighters toward Baghdad and the new, less-polarizing prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. In effect, Baghdad trumped Amman, and the Albu Nimr were caught in the middle. 

A step toward needed Jordanian-Iraqi cooperation came this week, as Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi announced that Jordan would train and arm Sunni tribal units. This unusual Amman-Baghdad project followed a visit by Abadi to the United Arab Emirates, which pledged support for arming and training Anbar’s sheiks. The Kuwaitis have also pledged weapons and ammunition for this Sunni “national guard.” 

The plight of the Albu Nimr and other tribes is suggested by e-mails sent over the past few months as the Islamic State terrorized Anbar. 

“Today, we have a small window of opportunity to recruit fighters from Sunni tribes because they are mad about losing their livelihoods and their relatives have been killed,” wrote one Albu Nimr leader in a Nov. 18 e-mail, after the Hit massacre, to a retired Marine major who had served in Anbar. 

Iran, Evolving Threats, and Strategic Partnerships in the Gulf

DEC 22, 2014 

The U.S. and its Arab partners in the Gulf face a wide range of threats. These include the Islamic State and other Jihadist elements, civil war, instability, and divisions in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It is Iran, however, which poses the most severe military challenge, and one that goes far beyond its search for nuclear capability.

Iran has been able to greatly increase its military influence in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria – as well as in some southern Gulf states. Iran has built up a major sea-air-missile force that can conduct asymmetric warfare throughout the Gulf, at the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Gulf of Oman.

It has also built up a major missile force that currently has serious accuracy and reliability problems, but which can become far more lethal even if Iran is unsuccessful in acquiring nuclear weapons. Precision-guided conventionally armed missiles could radically change the regional balance, replacing weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass effectiveness.

Four EU countries in top 10 world economies

Christmas market in Munich, Germany, still the EU's largest economy (Photo: Mia Martins) 

BRUSSELS - Four European countries are in the world’s 10 largest economies, according to research by the Centre for Economic and Business Research.

The annual World Economic League Table 2015 published on Friday (26 December) by the London-based think tank puts the US as the world’s main economic powerhouse, followed by China and Japan.

Germany, the UK and France take the fourth, fifth and sixth spots, respectively, with Italy, in the eighth place, the only other EU country in the top 10.

The UK has edged ahead of France into fifth place in this year's rankings, although the Cebr comments that the $1 billion (€850 million) gap in output between the two countries is “well within the margin of error” and would likely be extinguished if France's markets in drugs and prostitution, which “may prove to be 'larger than their British counterparts”, were included.

In June, the UK economy received a statistical boost of £65 billion (€80 billion) following the introduction of new EU accounting rules allowing the so-called ‘grey economy’, which includes proceeds from drug trafficking and prostitution, to be recorded.

Meanwhile, Russia is the main loser in the new list, dropping from eighth place to tenth in the rankings, with Cebr chief executive Douglas McWilliams suggesting that Moscow’s role in the ongoing Ukraine conflict was a factor in the country’s economic decline.

“The fun of the world economic league table is that it brings things back to hard figures,” said McWilliams.

Are the Saudis Really Fine With $20 Oil?

The Saudis struck a defiant tone this week, insisting they’d be just fine with $20 per barrel oil. The FT reports:

“As a policy for Opec — and I convinced Opec of this — even Mr al Badri [Opec secretary-general] is now convinced, it is not in the interest of Opec producers to cut their production,” [Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi] told the Middle East Economic Survey.

“Whether it [the price] goes down to $20 a barrel, $40 a barrel, $50 a barrel, $60 a barrel, it is irrelevant,” he said. This was a strategy not just in response to the current oil price rout, but also for the future, he added.

In terms of the ability to pump oil out of the ground at $20 per barrel, the Saudi oil minister isn’t fudging facts. Saudi Arabia contains some of the world’s last reserves of conventional crude that’s relatively cheap and easy to extract. Contrast that with the U.S., whose energy renaissance has relied on more complicated techniques and, as a result, requires a higher price to remain profitable (American shale formations have widely variable breakeven prices).

But as a petrostate, the calculus isn’t as simple as whether or not the Saudis can profitably drill. Like the rest of OPEC’s members, Saudi Arabia’s government relies heavily on crude revenues—it needs oil prices of at least $93 per barrel to stay in the black. It can withstand a bear market for a time, but those budget deficits could eventually induce the Saudis to cut production to stabilize prices.

The Saudis decision not to cut production likely has two aims. First, it hurts their regional rival Iran more than it hurts themselves: Iran has a breakeven price north of $140 per barrel. Second, it hurts their new, out-of-the-blue competitors: American shale producers. Unfortunately for Riyadh, that second aim may be more difficult to achieve, as American frackers continue to improve drilling techniques and get more oil out of shale for less money and time.

Posted: Dec 25, 2014 - 11:00 am - JH

Is Turkey Holding Up a Resolution in Syria?

December 22, 2014. 

The pieces for a political deal to end the Syrian civil war are coming together — if Ankara will let them. 

The pieces for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war are finally coming together.

But the situation is extremely fragile, which is not good news in a region where sabotaging agreements and derailing initiatives comes easier than sober compromise. While many of the key players have already begun backing away from their previous “red lines,” there remains one major obstacle: Turkey.

Back in August, Abbas Habib, coordinator of the Council of Syrian Tribes, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to explore the possibility of a “preliminary conference” of the antagonists — first in Moscow, then in Syria. In November, the Russians also met with Qadri Jamil, a leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, an in-house opposition party that functions inside Syria. The outcome of the November talks was an agreement to “promote the launch of an inclusive intra-Syrian negotiation process on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012.”

The 2012 Geneva agreement called for “the establishment of a transitional governing body, which would include members of the present government and the opposition, an inclusive National Dialogue process, and a review of the constitutional order and the legal system.” Implementation dissolved in the face of intransigence on all sides, and stepped up support for the armed opposition by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, plus the United States, Turkey, and France.

But two more years of brutal warfare has accomplished very little except generating millions of refugees, close to 200,000 deaths, and widening instability in neighboring countries. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad now admits there is no military solution to the war, and the U.S. government has backed away from its “Assad must go” demand. According to David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, most of the rebels and their backers have also concluded that “Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for talks.”

In essence, most of the players fear the Islamic State (or ISIS) more than they do the repressive Assad regime. As Harland puts it, “Better to have a regime and a state than not have a state.”

Regime Change Dead Enders

Claude Smadja: Six lessons from a fateful 2014

December 24, 2014 

The six big global trends the past year crystallised

What a fateful year! In addition to bringing a new government – and restoring hope in and about India – 2014 should be remembered as the year during which six realities and trends which, while not necessarily new, have been crystallised or magnified. The realities thus starkly exposed have forced political and business decision-makers to make adjustments.

To start with, 2014 confirmed that the US is fully back economically speaking. Its recovery has been gathering momentum; a new dynamism can be felt in almost every sector. It is not too optimistic to consider that GDP growthwill get in the 3-per-cent-plus range in 2015 — with wages having started to rise and expected to continue to d so next year, and the improvement of household income being accelerated by the sharp decline of gasoline prices. Expected higher consumer demand should lead to an increase of production capacity — an element of economic stimulus that was quasi-absent in the last few years. 

By contrast, 2014 is the year that revealed the intractability of the euro zone economic woes — which derives from the fact that the real issue political in nature. There are strict limits to what monetary policy can do as long as fiscal policies remain harshly tight and it will take time before the big infrastructure plan that the new European Commission wants to launch has any impact — if it is really implemented.

The problem is that Germany is not budging from the goal of imposing the Berlin consensus on the euro zone. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s and her finance minister’s obsession with austerity for the euro zone is intact. Their zero budget deficit policy for Germany not only means the continuous degradation of the country’s infrastructure and of its education system, but the continuation of a huge current account surplus harming the prospects for other, crisis-hit, euro-zone countries.

Restoring Europe’s ability to grow will not be feasible as long as a genuine accommodation is not found between Berlin’s will to impose what is, de facto, a German Europe, and the resistance of the people in other countries – starting with France and Italy – to what a German Europe means for their daily lives.

The third element 2014 crystallised is the long-term structural impact of the shale oil and gas revolution in the US on the global energy landscape. This year has brought home the reality that – for the foreseeable future – nothing will be the same in the energy domain. In November, Saudi Arabia and the UAE led OPEC to leave levels of production unchanged, sending the barrel of Brent to hover around $60 — making a number of US and Canadian shale oil producers unprofitable, and thus forcing a production cut on shale in the hope of bringing prices back at a higher level.

The gamble will probably have an impact. It would not be unreasonable to expect the barrel to get back to $80 or $90 by the last part of 2015. However, this will presumably be as far as high prices go as this will lead to an increase of US shale oil and gas production – especially as fracking technology is improving relatively fast, thus lowering the profitability level for US shale producers. So 2014 has sealed the era of OPEC control on the market, and of oil prices above the $100 mark. We will have to see in 2015 and beyond what this means for the development of non-fossil energies.

In China the last 12 months have crystallised three trends already at play in 2013. First is the shift from what had been so far a form of collective leadership to the one-man leadership of President Xi Jinping who has continued his drive to eliminate all potential competing centres of power — thus breaking the unwritten rules that Chinese leaders did not go after other members of the top leadership strata. The fight against corruption has proved a perfect tool for President Xi to achieve his goal, allowing him to show to a frustrated public that he is addressing the gravest source of social unrest and the most lethal threat to the hold on power of the Communist Party. Second has been the affirmation by President Xi that – from now on – Beijing as the rising economic and geopolitical player will be dealing on an equal footing with the US. This is the end of the Deng Xiaoping dogma (bid your time and lie low) which had shaped China’s international policy over the last 30 years. The third trend is China’s shift towards a new development model based more on domestic consumption, which could deliver higher quality growth, but is fraught with political uncertainties as it means a reduction of the privileges of state-owned enterprises and of the “princelings”.

Turkey’s Two Thugs

23 December 2014

Erdoğan and Gülen are both dangerous—but only one of them lives in the Poconos.​

Until recently, I lived in Turkey. It seemed to me then unfathomable that most Americans did not recognize the name Fethullah Gülen. Even those vaguely aware of him did not find it perplexing that a Turkish preacher, billionaire, and head of a multinational media and business empire—a man of immense power in Turkey and sinister repute—had set up shop inPennsylvania and become a big player in the American charter school scene. Now that I’ve been out of Turkey a while, I’ve realized how normal it is that Americans are indifferent to Gülen. America is full of rich, powerful, and sinister weirdoes. What’s one more?

It’s normal, too, that Americans view news from Turkey as less important than other stories in the headlines. After all, Turks aren’t doing anything quite so attention-grabbing as hacking Sony, destabilizing the postwar European order, or rampaging through the Middle East as they behead, rape, crucify, and enslave everything in their path. Thus, the reader whohas noticed the news from Turkey might believe the story goes something like this: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian thug running Turkey, has been rounding up journalists who bravely exposed his corruption.

That American readers now understand that Erdoğan is a corrupt authoritarian is an improvement. (They may vaguely recall that not long ago, he was viewed by the large parts of the Western intelligentsia—and by the very same news organs reporting the latest developments—as a liberal-minded reformer.) But this is actually a story about two thugs. The details may be hard to follow, but the devil is in the details. The journalists recently arrested by Erdoğan are loyal to Gülen, who has made himself quite cozy in the United States. The phrase commonly used to describe this state of affairs—“self-imposed exile”—should not leave the reader nodding pleasantly. It should leave him wondering, “What does that mean? Why have we offered him exile?”

In failing to stress the double-thugged nature of this situation, American officials have unwisely conveyed to the world that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan. So does the commentary oozing from think tanks, journalists,soi-disant experts, and European luminaries. We’d be better-advised at least to pretend to be against all corrupt authoritarians. We might even be wise to suggest, if only by means of a hint, that yes, we do understand that this has been a long decade of Turkish crackdowns, many inspired and executed by Gülen’s thugs. We might even indicate—in some subtle way—that while authoritarian crackdowns are not to our taste, there is at least some dark and cosmic justice in the world when the authors of crackdowns get a smackdown of their own.

The Killing of Jennifer Laude and US-Philippines Relations

By Christopher Capozzola
December 26, 2014

The Obama pivot doesn’t have to come at the expense of bilateral relations. 

News reports last week that Philippine prosecutors will charge U.S. Marine Private First Class Joseph Pemberton for the murder of Jennifer Laude come at a critical moment. As the U.S. and Philippine militaries edge closer together following the adoption of an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement this April, Filipinos fear a return to the violent crimes and diplomatic high-handedness that accompanied the massive U.S. military presence during the Cold War. Laude’s killing – and America’s initial handling of the case – suggest that history is repeating itself. It doesn’t have to, although it is up to U.S. officials to make sure that it doesn’t.

On Saturday, October 11, the 19-year-old Pemberton checked into an Olongapo hotel with 26-year-old Laude, whom he had met in one of the nightclubs that line Magsaysay Street in Olongapo, 120 kilometers from Manila and adjacent to the former U.S. naval station at Subic Bay. Pemberton exited the hotel less than an hour later; staff soon found Laude’s body, strangled and left in a bathroom. The marine told a friend that he had attacked Laude after discovering she was a transwoman: “I think I killed a he/she,” he admitted. Pemberton was immediately taken into custody – not by Philippine civilian police but by the U.S. military. And that’s where the diplomatic problems began.

Pemberton – who is reportedly in U.S. custody and slated for transferal to the American embassy – is hardly the first U.S. Marine to make headlines in Manila. In 1947, one year after the U.S. granted independence to the Philippines, the two countries signed a Military Bases Agreement (MBA) that gave U.S. soldiers near-total exemption from Philippine criminal jurisdiction. As wars in Korea and Vietnam brought tens of thousands of Americans to military bases in Asia, soldiers’ crimes ranged from theft and extortion to traffic accidents, shootings, and rapes. Before the accused could face what one American journalist dismissed in 1957 as “Asian justice,” military officers routinely shuttled them out of the country and beyond the reach of Philippine authorities. The systematic exploitation of Filipina women in the euphemistically named “rest and recreation” industries in offbase communities added fuel to the fire. Violations of sovereignty and dignity brewed resentment and anti-Americanism. In 1991, in the wake of the People Power revolution that overthrew the Marcos regime, the Philippine Senate voted not to renew the MBA.

The U.S. Intelligence Community’s Predictions for 2015

Kedar Pavgi
December 23, 2014

What the Intelligence Community Thought Would Happen in 2015 - in 2000

After a year filled with non-stop national security crises, the question is: Can anyone predict chaos in the future? The answer is, sort of.

Every four years, the National Intelligence Council - the arm of the Intelligence Community tasked with developing long-term outlooks - releases its Global Trends report. It’s an unclassified publication that uses open source information gathering techniques to plot out the world 15 to 20 years out.

In 2000, the NIC released the Global Trends 2015 report to figure out how major technological, geopolitical and demographic trends at the turn of the millennium would shape the years to come. The next one is expected to come out in 2016 and will predict the world of 2035.

David Gordon, former policy planning director for the State Department and one of the main authors of the Global Trends 2015 report, emphasized that it wasn’t meant to be a set of predictions, or even a model, but rather “explorations, likely and potential changes” in the world of the future.

“We knew that all sorts of stuff was going to happen, and then what you were trying to do is, understand beneath all of that, what are some of the big things going on. Obviously, once something very big like [like the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan] happens, the world changes,” Gordon told Defense One.

Of course, the world circa-2000 was a very different place. This was before the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While cyber-security is now a major threat, many people were just getting over the preparations for the Y2K computer bug.

The whole Global Trends 2015 report is worth reading, but Defense One decided to look at some of the things that the report got right – and wrong – about conflict in 2015.


“The fundamental thing that we got right was the notion that China was going to become a ‘big Kahuna’ in terms of global change,” Gordon said. “That is something that everybody now takes for granted, but in 2000, that was not what was out there.”

Global Trends 2015 suggested that the rise of China’s military would start disrupting U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific and warned of a potential for a war over Taiwan and territories in the South China Sea. But it also made many other calls:

“China will be exploiting advanced weapons and production technologies acquired from abroad—Russia, Israel, Europe, Japan and the United States—that will enable it to integrate naval and air capabilities against Taiwan and potential adversaries in the South China Sea.”

Indeed, that has been the case. A 2010 report published by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency detailed the ways in which China has been acquiring those types of weapons technologies. There’s also this:

Julian Assange: Why I Founded Wikileaks


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange waves from a window with Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino at Ecuador's embassy in central London June 16, 2013. 

Julian Assange explains the radical thinking that led him to create Wikileaks inWhen Google Met Wikileaks, published by OR Books.

Assange’s account of his encounter with the head of Google, Eric Schmidt, can be found here

I looked at something that I had seen going on with the world, which is that I thought there were too many unjust acts. And I wanted there to be more just acts, and fewer unjust acts.

And one can ask, “What are your philosophical axioms for this?” And I say, “I do not need to consider them. This is simply my temperament. And it is an axiom because it is that way.” That avoids getting into further unhelpful philosophical discussion about why I want to do something. It is enough that I do.

In considering how unjust acts are caused, and what tends to promote them, and what promotes just acts, I saw that human beings are basically invariant. That is, their inclinations and biological temperament haven’t changed much over thousands of years. Therefore the only playing field left is: what do they have and what do they know?

What they have—that is, what resources they have at their disposal, how much energy they can harness, what food supplies they have and so on—is something that is fairly hard to influence. But what they know can be affected in a nonlinear way because when one person conveys information to another they can convey it on to another, and another, in a way that is nonlinear[i].

So you can affect a lot of people with a small amount of information. Therefore, you can change the behavior of many people with a small amount of information. The question then arises as to what kinds of information will produce behavior which is just and disincentivize behavior which is unjust?

All around the world there are people observing different parts of what is happening to them locally. And there are other people that are receiving information that they haven’t observed firsthand. In the middle there are people who are involved in moving information from the observers to the people who will act on information. These are three separate problems that are all tied together.

Diplomatic Shock and Awe: Obama Elates Cubans

I had the very good fortune to be participating in a conference on U.S.-Cuba relations at the Cuban diplomatic academy when this past Wednesday Presidents Barack Obama and Ra­úl Castro announced—in simultaneous televised speeches—the historic shift toward normalizing relations.

Rumors had been circulating of a possible spy swap—jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross for three Cuban spies languishing in U.S. jails. At the conference, U.S. experts split between “pessimists” who doubted the rumors and “optimists” who predicted a Christmas surprise. A few even suggested that Obama might accompany the spy swap with a package of economic measures poking holes in the comprehensive U.S. economic embargo.

But none predicted the imminent establishment of diplomatic ties, the mutual opening of embassies, the full-throated reframing of relations replacing decades of mutual hostility with positive engagement. Obama announced that U.S. citizens will be able to travel to Cuba with far fewer restrictions and return with up to $400 in purchases—including up to $100 in Cuban cigars and rum! U.S. firms will supply Cuba with telecommunications and Internet capabilities, and engage in commerce with Cuba’s emerging private sector.

The White House had managed a very close hold on the policy shift. State Department bureaucrats had been kept in the dark, fearing leaks. At the Havana conference, the lead Cuban diplomat appeared unusually cheery—in retrospect, a tip-off of the impending policy shift—but did not show her hand.
Assessing the Reaction in Cuba

When Castro’s remarks were aired live at the conference, the Cubans gasped and applauded twice—first when their president, attired in his five-star military uniform, revealed the release of the three “hero” spies, and then cheered even louder when he announced the establishment of diplomatic relations. At the conclusion of the speech, the entire audience, their eyes wet with joyful tears, spontaneously stood and sang the national anthem.

One scholar reacted, “Finally, the long nightmare is over. A new chapter of history has opened.”

The streets of Havana quickly filled with crowds of celebrating students, marching loudly with Cuban flags. Ordinary Cubans walked with smiles on their faces, gathering in small groups to share the surprising news.

Since then, Cubans have been intensely debating the meaning of the policy shift. The vast majority praised the “bravery”—la valentía—of the two presidents—and wondered whether Obama would personally visit the island, where he would no doubt receive a hero’s welcome. Most Cubans assume that the relaxation of the embargo will result in a tangible improvement in their living standards.

As several economists quickly concluded, “Now we understand why the government has projected a robust growth rate for 2015!” In Havana, housing prices suddenly spiked. People speculated as to whether relaxed diplomatic relations would result in a rush of badly-needed foreign investment, in everything from energy to agriculture to consumer goods. Could Cuban hotels accommodate the surge in tourism?

A Power Shift Looms for Thai Monarchy

December 25, 2014

Thailand's Crown Prince is divorcing his wife shortly after several of her relatives were arrested in a corruption scandal. The move is seen as a power shift within the palace amid anxiety before the succession of the 87-year-old ailing monarch, King Bhumibol.

Thailand had been awash with rumours since several high-ranking officials directly related to Princess Srirasmi, the third wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, were arrested recently in a high-profile corruption probe that sent shockwaves through Thai elites.

Srirasmi's uncle Pongpat Chayapan, former head of the Central Investigation Bureau, was first detained on charges of bribery and corruption. Later three of her brothers were accused of "insulting the monarchy", charges that under Thailand's strict lèse-majesté laws carries up to 15 years in prison.

Shortly after the arrests, the Crown Prince requested to strip his wife's family of their royal titles, followed by the Crown Princess renouncing her title and resigning from her role in the family. The couple was already estranged, and the move is expected to be the first step in a divorce for Vajiralongkorn.

Why is Vajiralongkorn important?

The issue of the royal succession is highly contentious in Thailand. 87-year old King Bhumibol, the world's longest-serving monarch, is widely popular among the public and has been a stabilizing factor throughout countless crises in Thai politics. By contrast, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is remarkably unpopular. His personal life has been a source of public gossip for decades, although any mention of this is strictly prohibited under Thai laws.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the King enjoys little official power, but his role in the political sphere is, nevertheless, important. The royal family is also among the world's richest royalties, estimated by Forbes to be worth at least $30 billion.

Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, whose book on the monarchy was banned by Thai authorities, argues that this wealth has helped maintain harmony among the ruling elites: "During the current king's reign, this money has been spread around through the Crown Property Bureau to the old elite, and everybody takes a piece of it". For the ruling elites in Bangkok, the upcoming succession of the throne is anything but symbolic.

"Grave misgivings" over his fitness as King