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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1080552 times)
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« Reply #2955 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:35 AM »

November 8, 2012

On Way Out, China’s Leader Offers Praise for the Status Quo


BEIJING — Capping 10 careful years at the helm of the Communist Party, China’s top leader is stepping into history with a series of rear-guard actions.

The leader, Hu Jintao, 69, is scheduled to step down as the party’s general secretary next week, handing over much of his power to his designated successor, Xi Jinping. But over the past few months, he has made it clear that he has little interest in the bold changes to the status quo that many Chinese now see as long overdue.

“He’s worried about how history will view him,” said Qian Gang, who works with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “On the whole, he is against reform.”

Mr. Hu made a key speech in July that dashed reformers’ hopes for measures to resuscitate the faltering economy and release social pressures by opening the political system. On Thursday, he wrote himself a glowing eulogy: a 100-minute address to the 18th Party Congress that was also meant to serve as a blueprint for Mr. Xi’s term in office.

In a voluminous, 64-page formal document issued at the party congress, Mr. Hu nodded to almost every manner of change — economic, social, political and environmental — and he opened the door to some potentially important measures to limit the dominance of the state in the economy. But he balanced those with warnings to guard against a rise in unrest, a striking admission for a man whose signature slogan was to turn China into a “harmonious society.”

“Social contradictions have clearly increased,” Mr. Hu wrote in the document. “There are many problems concerning the public’s immediate interests in education, employment, social security, health care, housing, the environment, food and drug safety, workplace safety, public security, and law enforcement.”

Mr. Hu also lauded his own contribution to Communist Party ideology: “scientific development.” Most of his predecessors have had their own ideologies enshrined as guiding state doctrines. His repetition in his speech of the phrase, which means that the party should be pragmatic and follow policies that are demonstrably effective, implied that he, too, would be so honored.

The result was a speech that, while ostensibly supporting a new agenda, actually represented an attempt to block much of it.

According to Mr. Qian, a leading expert on textual analysis of Chinese leaders’ speeches, Mr. Hu’s speech hit on almost every antichange phrase used by Chinese Communist leaders.

He referred to Communist China’s founder three times with the phrase “Mao Zedong Thought,” and he said that the party must “resolutely not follow Western political systems,” something not mentioned at the last congress five years ago.

“They don’t say these terms lightly,” Mr. Qian said. “When they mention it, it matters.”

Mr. Hu also coined a new term, pledging that the party will not follow the “wicked way” of changing the party’s course.

Mr. Hu’s speech is thought to have been drawn up in cooperation with his successor, Mr. Xi. While Mr. Xi has been consulting with liberal members of China’s intelligentsia, he either did not oppose Mr. Hu’s direction or was not able to change it.

That is important, observers say, because Mr. Xi will not exercise unrestrained power when he takes over. Besides the other half-dozen members on the Standing Committee of the party’s Politburo, he will also have to listen to the advice of Mr. Hu; Mr. Hu’s own predecessor, Jiang Zemin; and an estimated 20 other “senior leaders.” As if to emphasize their role, these men were seated on the dais next to Mr. Hu. Many of them are in their 70s and 80s and have exercised power for decades.

“Xi Jinping certainly won’t be a Gorbachev,” said Yao Jianfu, a former official and researcher who closely follows Chinese politics and advocates democratic change. “Every aspect of reform has an important precondition — that the Communist Party remains in charge.”

Even though Mr. Hu’s speech was broadcast live on national television and on screens in Beijing subway cars, gauging popular opinion was difficult.

Microbloggers, who mostly live in cities and are fairly well educated, at times cast scorn on the talk. One blogger listed the Marxist terminology that Mr. Hu used and wrote simply “madness.” Others used laughing emoticons, while some delved closely into the speech for clues to new policies. Some noted his fleeting mention of China’s unpopular single-child policy.

Mr. Hu’s tough language on social issues contrasted with his strong reaffirmation of the Communist Party’s commitment to the economic policy mantra of “reform and opening up,” a policy that has produced soaring trade and economic growth over the past three decades.

Many economists have begun to question, however, whether Mr. Hu’s tenure has amounted to a “lost decade” for refashioning China’s investment-driven economy into a broader, more stable system. State-owned enterprises have gradually strengthened their roles in the economy through a combination of monopoly power and access to cheap loans from state-owned banks.

Mr. Hu offered some encouragement for changes along that front by calling for narrowing the government investment in state-owned enterprises to a few industries “that comprise the lifeline of the economy and are vital to national security.” It was one of the strongest hints to date that the government is mulling whether it should play less of a role in managing enterprises in many other industries.

Mr. Hu also paid heed on Thursday to complaints from entrepreneurs that regulators, loan officers of state-owned banks, local zoning officials and other government representatives discriminate against them in favor of state-owned enterprises.

China must “ensure that economic entities under all forms of ownership have equal access to factors of production in accordance with the law, compete on a level playing field and are protected by the law as equals,” he said.

He also endorsed a series of other economic liberalization moves that have been discussed for years, although their progress has sometimes been slow during his tenure.

Mr. Hu endorsed making interest rates and the exchange rate of the renminbi more dependent on markets and less on government fiat. The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has already begun doing this by gradually broadening the range of interest rates that banks can charge based on the credit worthiness of borrowers and by widening the daily range in which the currency can trade against the dollar.

Another frequent complaint of foreign governments and foreign businesses, China’s lax enforcement of copyrights and patents, drew at least an acknowledgment from Mr. Hu, who promised greater protection of intellectual property as a way to foster innovation in China.

There was one perhaps unintentional sign at the party congress that China remains enthusiastic about foreign brands — at least if they are manufactured in China.

A special parking lot for officials on the north side of the Great Hall of the People, across the street from the walled residential compound where the country’s leaders live, was full of German, American and Japanese cars, with no sign of any Chinese models.

The lot held at least a dozen black Audi A8 sedans and several dark-blue Buick GL8 minivans — both are assembled in China — and even a white Toyota Highlander crossover utility vehicle. Sales of Japanese-brand models have plummeted about 40 percent in each of the past two months compared with a year ago after a territorial dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea led to rioting and the destruction of around 100 Japanese-brand cars.
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« Reply #2956 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:36 AM »

November 8, 2012

Iran Fired on Military Drone in First Such Attack, U.S. Says


WASHINGTON — Iranian warplanes shot at an American military surveillance drone flying over the Persian Gulf near Iran last week, Pentagon officials disclosed Thursday. They said that the aircraft, a Predator drone, was flying in international airspace and was not hit and that the episode had prompted a strong protest to the Iranian government.

The shooting, which involved two Russian-made Su-25 jets known as Frogfoots, occurred on Nov. 1 and was the first known instance of Iranian warplanes firing on an American surveillance drone. George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department’s weeklong silence about the episode was a result of restrictions on the discussion of classified surveillance missions. He answered questions about it during a Pentagon news conference on Thursday only after it had been reported by news organizations earlier in the day.

Even so, the failure to disclose a hostile encounter with Iran’s military at a time of increased international tensions over the disputed Iranian nuclear program — and five days before the American presidential election — raises questions for the Obama administration. Had the Iranian attack been disclosed before Election Day, it is likely to have been viewed in a political context — interpreted either as sign of the administration’s weakness or, conversely, as an opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate leadership.

Late last year, an RQ-170 surveillance drone operated by the C.I.A. rather than the military crashed deep inside Iranian territory while on a mission that is believed to have been intended to map suspected nuclear sites. That episode came to light only after Iran bragged that it had electronically attacked the drone and guided it to a landing inside its borders. American officials said the drone had crashed after a technical malfunction.

A senior administration official sought to contain any ripple effects from the episode last week, noting that it should not be viewed as a precursor to a broader military confrontation with Iran and that it should not derail potential diplomatic contacts between the two countries over the nuclear program.

“We view the incident as problematic,” a senior official said, “but we’re wary of the possibility of unintended escalation.”

Mr. Little said that Iranian warplanes “fired multiple rounds” but missed the remotely guided Predator, which has a unique silhouette similar to a giant, upside-down flying spoon and is not easily confused with a piloted jet fighter.

“Our aircraft was never in Iranian airspace,” Mr. Little said. “It was always flying in international airspace.”

Mr. Little said that the protest was delivered to Iran through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which acts on behalf of American interests in Iran, and that the Defense Department would not halt surveillance missions.

“The United States has communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters, over the Arabian Gulf, consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region,” Mr. Little said. “We have a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military, to protect our military assets and our forces in the region and will do so when necessary.”

Officials would not speculate on whether the Iranian jets were trying to shoot down the slow-flying drone or were simply firing warning shots. The two Iranian warplanes carried 30-millimeter cannons that are intended to support ground troops and are not designed for air-to-air combat.

The two planes were under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose activities are routinely more aggressive than those of the conventional Iranian Air Force.

Iran also has two navies: a traditional state force of aging big ships, and a rival one run by the Revolutionary Guards that consists of fast-attack speedboats that employ guerrilla tactics — including sailing perilously close to American warships.

The last significant confrontation between the United States and the Revolutionary Guards occurred in 2008, during another time of tension, when five of its armed speedboats made aggressive maneuvers as they approached three United States Navy warships in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Pentagon officials said the commander of a Navy destroyer had been on the verge of issuing an order to fire on one of the speedboats, but no shots were fired.

American naval officers say the Iranian state navy is for the most part more professional in its interactions with foreign warships.

In the episode last week, the Predator was flying about 16 nautical miles from Iran while conducting a maritime surveillance mission east of Kuwait in the northern Persian Gulf, Mr. Little said. He emphasized that Iran’s territorial limits extend only 12 nautical miles from shore.

Given the critical role of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz in the international shipping of petroleum products, the American military conducts regular seaborne and aerial surveillance there. The Predator’s advanced sensor technology is likely to have allowed it to look toward Iran in great detail even from the distance cited by Pentagon officials.

Political analysts said that the most recent episode underscored the risks that chance  encounters between American  and Iranian forces in the heavily militarized gulf could quickly escalate into confrontation.

 “This appears to be a disturbing incident, especially if it happened over international waters,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at the Washington offices of the RAND Corporation, a research group. “It is in the interests of the United States to act with restraint regarding this incident.”

On Thursday, American officials also announced new sanctions that broadened the blacklist of Iranian individuals and institutions affected by laws freezing or blocking access to property and other assets.

The latest entries on the list include Iran’s communications minister, Reza Taqipour; the head of the Iranian national police; and Esma’il Ahmadi Moghaddam, as well as Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which State and Treasury Department officials accused of jamming satellite broadcasts, disrupting Internet activities, censoring news media and intimidating and detaining journalists.

Two Tehran schools, Imam Hossein University and Baghyatollah Medical Sciences University, are also on the new list. Treasury officials described them as training and research centers created and run by the Revolutionary Guards.

“These actions underscore the administration’s ongoing commitment to hold Iranian government officials and entities responsible for the abuses carried out against their own citizens,” Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The new sanctions coincided with reports by international rights groups that an Iranian blogger, Sattar Beheshti, who was arrested in Tehran last week, might have died during or after an interrogation in prison. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group, said that Mr. Beheshti, 35, had been accused by the authorities of “actions against national security on social networks and Facebook,” and that his family had been ordered to retrieve his body, bury him quickly and not talk about it. The group did not disclose the source of its information, and the details could not be immediately confirmed.

Reporters Without Borders urged the Iranian authorities to explain the death, and it said that other nations should not “allow this crime to go unpunished.”

Thom Shanker reported from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington.
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« Reply #2957 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:40 AM »

November 8, 2012

Missteps by Rebels Erode Their Support Among Syrians


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s rebel fighters — who have long staked claim to the moral high ground for battling dictatorship — are losing crucial support from a public increasingly disgusted by the actions of some rebels, including poorly planned missions, senseless destruction, criminal behavior and the coldblooded killing of prisoners.

The shift in mood presents more than just a public relations problem for the loosely knit militants of the Free Syrian Army, who rely on their supporters to survive the government’s superior firepower. A dampening of that support undermines the rebels’ ability to fight and win what has become a devastating war of attrition, perpetuating the violence that has left nearly 40,000 dead, hundreds of thousands in refugee camps and more than a million forced from their homes.

The rebel shortcomings have been compounded by changes in the opposition, from a force of civilians and defected soldiers who took up arms after the government used lethal force on peaceful protesters to one that is increasingly seeded with extremist jihadis. That radicalization has divided the fighters’ supporters and made Western nations more reluctant to give rebels the arms that might help break the intensifying deadlock. Instead, foreign leaders are struggling to find indirect ways to help oust Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

And now arrogance and missteps are draining enthusiasm from some of the fighters’ core supporters.

“They were supposed to be the people on whom we depend to build a civil society,” lamented a civilian activist in Saraqib, a northern town where rebels were videotaped executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers, an act the United Nations has declared a likely war crime.

An activist in Aleppo, Ahmed, who like some of the others who were interviewed gave only one name for security reasons, said he had begged rebels not to camp in a neighborhood telecommunications office. But they did, and government attacks knocked out phone service.

One fighter shot into the air when customers at a bakery did not let him cut into a long line for bread, Ahmed recalled. Another, he said, was enraged when a man washing his car accidentally splashed him. “He shot at him,” Ahmed said. “But thank God he wasn’t a good shot, so the guy wasn’t hurt.”

Twenty months into what is now a civil war, both supporters and opponents of the government are trapped in a darkening mood of despair, revulsion and fear that neither side can end the conflict. In recent months, both sides adopted more brutal — even desperate — methods to try to break the stalemate, but they achieved merely a new version of deadlock. To many Syrians, the extreme violence seems all the more pointless for the lack of results.

The most significant shift is among the rebels’ supporters, who chant slogans not only condemning the government but also criticizing the rebels.

“The people want the reform of the Free Syrian Army,” crowds have called out. “We love you. Correct your path.”

Small acts of petty humiliation and atrocities like executions have led many more Syrians to believe that some rebels are as depraved as the government they fight. The activist from Saraqib said he saw rebels force government soldiers from a milk factory, then destroy it, even though residents needed the milk and had good relations with the owner.

“They shelled the factory and stole everything,” the activist said. “Those are repulsive acts.”

Even some of the uprising’s staunchest supporters are beginning to fear that Syria’s sufferings — lost lives, fraying social fabric, destroyed heritage — are for naught.

“We thought freedom was so near,” said a fighter calling himself Abu Ahmed, his voice catching with grief as he spoke via Skype last month from Maarat al-Noaman, a strategic town on the Aleppo-Damascus highway. Hours earlier, a rebel victory there ended in disaster, as government airstrikes pulverized civilians returning to what they thought was safety.

“This shows it was a big lie,” Abu Ahmed said of the dream of self-government that he said had inspired him to lead a small rebel fighting group from his nearby village, Sinbol. “We cannot reach it. We can’t even think of democracy — we will be sad for years. We are losing victims from both sides.”

A chain of calamities has fueled disgust and frustration on all sides, dozens of interviews with Syrians show.

In July, a rebel bombing killed four senior officials in a heavily guarded Damascus building, bringing new insecurity to government supporters. The rebels’ growing use of large bombs that kill bystanders spurred concerns on both sides.

Poorly executed rebel offensives brought harsh consequences. In September, rebels launched an offensive in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, an ancient town that stood for centuries as the proud legacy of all Syrians. The fighting failed to achieve the turning point the rebels had promised.

The government, trying to curb soldiers’ defections and reduce the strain on the military, kept more forces on bases and turned to air power and artillery, flattening neighborhoods with abandon. But the change in strategy did not restore control or security.

After seeing a rebel bombing and small-arms attack on a downtown Damascus government building, a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman complained that conspicuous security measures made him “live in fear” — without being effective.

“I want someone from the government to answer me,” he said. “The government cannot protect its key military and security buildings, so how can it protect us and run the country?”

Even within Mr. Assad’s most solid base, his minority Alawite sect, discontent spilled over last month in a clash that began in a coffee shop in the president’s ancestral village, Qardaha. Some were shaken recently by heavy casualties in the disproportionately Alawite military and militias, according to Fadi Saad, who runs a Facebook page called Alawites in the Syrian Revolution.

On the rebel side, the Aleppo battle catalyzed simmering frustrations among civilian activists who feel dominated by gunmen. One Aleppo activist said she met with fighters to suggest ways to cut government supply routes without destroying the city, to no avail. “You risked the lives of the people for what?” the activist asked. “The Free Syrian Army is just cutting the nails of the regime. We want results.”

Nominal leaders of the Free Syrian Army say they embrace ethical standards, contend that the government commits the vast majority of abuses and blame rogue groups for bad rebel behavior.

But that did not ease the disgust after last week’s video. It shows men writhing on the ground, staring up and screaming in terror. Rebels stand over them, shouting a cacophony of orders and insults. They move like a gang, not a military unit, jostling and crowding, kicking prisoners, forcing them into a pile. Suddenly, automatic weapons fire drowns out the noise. Puffs of dust rise from the pile, now still.

“All the ugly stuff the regime practiced, the F.S.A. is copying,” Anna, a finance worker in Damascus, said of recent behavior.

She blamed the government for making society abusive, but she said the rebels were no better. “They are ignorant people with weapons,” she said.

In Maarat al-Noaman after the airstrikes, the disappointed fighter, Abu Ahmed, said Syrians would weep to see destruction in the city of “our famous poet and philosopher,” Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri.

The poet, a skeptic and rationalist born in the 10th century and buried in the town, wrote often of disillusion, and of the fallibility of would-be heroes: “How many times have our feet trodden beneath the dust / A brow of the arrogant, a skull of the debonair?”

Abu Ahmed said he found the town’s mosaic museum looted and littered first by soldiers, then by rebels. “I saw bodies of both rebels and regime forces, I saw beer bottles,” he said. “Honestly, honestly, words are stuck in my mouth.”

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The New York Times from Aleppo and Damascus, Syria.


November 8, 2012

Syrian Opposition Meets to Seek Unity


DOHA, Qatar — The quarrelsome Syrian opposition was locked in extended bartering here in Doha on Thursday over the creation of a more diverse yet unified umbrella organization that its foreign backers hope will become a credible alternative to the Damascus government.

The goal was to create an executive body, including members within Syria and abroad, that could channel aid to nascent local governments in opposition-controlled areas, bolstering their hold over territory wrested from the Syrian government.

If the plan works, supporters say, it will help push back against the chaos in which jihadi organizations thrive and persuade foreign governments — particularly a second Obama administration — to get invested more directly in the opposition’s success.

“We have to find a way out of the cul-de-sac that we are in,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a former confidant of President Bashar al-Assad’s turned opposition activist. “We need to find a solution so that the Syrian opposition can deal with the international community through one executive body, rather than everyone with his own opinion, his own agenda and his own allies.”

The meeting in Doha represented a shift in tactics after expectations were not met that the Syrian National Council would become a sort of government in exile. The change was pushed by the United States and Qatar, which have called for Mr. Assad to step down and pledged material support for the rebels. Without a unified opposition, various foreign supporters — Qataris, Saudis, Turks, French, Americans — have fostered different groups, allowing them to survive but without the critical mass needed to create an effective counterweight to the Syrian government.

If the opposition needed a reminder of the stakes, Mr. Assad provided one in a rare interview on Thursday, telling the satellite channel Russia Today that he was not leaving the country.

“I am not a puppet,” he said in excerpts published on the channel’s Web site. “I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country. I am Syrian, I was made in Syria, I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”

Asked about possible armed intervention, Mr. Assad said he did not expect the West to invade, “but if they do so, nobody can tell what is next.”

The price of an invasion “if it happened is going to be more than the whole world can afford,” he said in an excerpt. The station said the full interview would be broadcast Friday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pronounced the Syrian National Council a failure last month. She said the United States and its partners would help the opposition unite “behind a shared, effective strategy that can resist the regime’s violence and begin to provide for a political transition that can demonstrate, more clearly than has been possible up until now, what the future holds for the Syrian people once the Assad regime is gone.”

Members of the Syrian National Council fought back like a fish on a hook, maneuvering to avoid what members feared would be marginalization. Members gathered in Doha this week to introduce changes — including doubling the group’s membership to more than 400, with about 33 percent of members from inside Syria, up from 15 percent. But some attempts to prove its diversity backfired; for example, not a single woman won in the elections for a 40-member secretariat.

The main criticism of the council, founded last fall, is that it has failed to attract the support needed to shift the balance of power away from Mr. Assad, instead spending months jockeying over internal positions. The council lacks significant support from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect, as well as other minorities, tribal elders, religious figures and business groups.

“We will not have a vehicle for the future of Syria without those,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, which helped lead the process of reshaping the opposition. “They don’t trust it.”

Syrian National Council members argue that they never got the financial or military support needed to attract a wider membership. But the group’s foreign backers calculated that with no end in sight to the fighting that has claimed nearly 40,000 people, by opposition estimates, it was time for a new approach. The longer-term goal is to convince Moscow of a credible alternative to Mr. Assad.

Participants here, meanwhile, made no secret of the fact that they want to get Washington more involved. The Obama administration, extracting itself from long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been adamant that it would not do more than provide nonlethal aid to the Syrians. David Cameron, the British prime minister, said this week that he would work with the administration to make the opposition more effective.

“We are all waiting for Mr. Obama,” Mr. Shaikh said.

While the opposition has reached a certain consensus about the need for more unity, they have been bickering about how to achieve it for months. Prodded on Thursday by various officials, including Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey, and Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, about 60 representatives of various factions started talks that were scheduled to last just a day but were extended by at least another day.

Participants said much of Thursday was spent on flowery speeches about nationalism rather than addressing unity. But after a marathon session that went past midnight, they said they had made progress, spurred not least by the fact that their Qatari hosts told them they must stay in Doha until they reached an agreement.

Mazem Arja, the head of the Revolutionary Council in Idlib, in northern Syria, said that haphazard financing coming from abroad was demoralizing, especially because it was distributed on a political basis rather than for important needs like ambulances. He also noted that the Syrian National Council had appointed a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his 60s as the youth envoy for Idlib.

“The guy had not been there for 32 years,” he said. “If you dropped him at the edge of town, I doubt he could find his old house.”

Hala Droubi contributed reporting.


Assad says only ‘ballot box’ can decide his future

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 9, 2012 7:22 EST

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his future could only be decided through the ballot box, in an interview with Russian television where he warned the country could face a protracted war.

Assad told state-run Russia Today (RT) that whether the president can “stay or leave” is a “popular issue” and “the only way (it) can be done (is) through the ballot boxes”.

“It is not about what we hear. It is about what we can get through that box and that box will tell any president to stay or leave very simply,” said the president, speaking in English.

In the interview with a Russia Today correspondent recorded in Damascus, he also denied Syria was in a state of “civil war” but said the conflict with rebels could be “a long-term war” if they continued to receive support from abroad.

Assad described as “unprecedented” the support which he said the rebels were receiving from abroad in terms of arms, money and political backing.

“So, you have to expect that it is going to be a tough war and a difficult war. You do not expect a small country like Syria to defeat all those countries that have been fighting us through proxies just in days or weeks.”

If the support for rebels from abroad stopped, he said, “I can tell that in weeks we can finish everything.”

“But as long as you have a continuous supply in terrorists, armaments, logistics and everything else, it is going to be a long-term war.”

But Assad denied that the country was in civil war as such conflicts should be “based on ethnic problems or sectarian problems”.

“You have divisions, but division does not mean civil war,” he added.
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« Reply #2958 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:42 AM »

November 9, 2012

Putin Presses Overhaul of Top Military Leaders


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin replaced the head of the Russian military’s general staff and a number of top generals on Friday, continuing an overhaul of military leaders that began with the removal of Russia’s defense minister earlier this week.

Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov will replace Gen. Nikolai Makarov, who has served as chief of the general staff since 2008. The move was not unexpected, since the new defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, has the right to install his own team in top military posts.

His predecessor, Anatoly E. Serdyukov, was dismissed on Tuesday amid a swirling corruption scandal. Many analysts saw those charges as a pretext, though; Mr. Serdyukov had alienated many in the uniformed military by pushing through deep cuts in the ranks of officers, and top generals were eager to see him go.

At a meeting Friday morning, Mr. Putin alluded to another set of tensions building within military circles, this time over relations with defense manufacturers. He told Colonel General Gerasimov that the Defense Department had been frequently changing its orders for weapons and other military hardware.

“The situation in the scientific-technical sphere is changing quickly, and new means of armed warfare are appearing,” Mr. Putin said, according to the Interfax news service. “We should orient ourselves toward optimal means, but still need to maintain a certain stability. I am counting on you and the ministry to establish stable, good collegial work with our leading manufacturers in the defense sector.”

Defense manufacturing dominates large areas of Russia, in many of the places Mr. Putin counted on as a base of support ahead of the presidential election in March. Major government orders buoyed economic prospects in many of those places during Mr. Putin’s campaign, helping him to win around 64 percent of the vote nationwide. Military spending became a tense subject this fall, however, when the government turned its attention to the budget.
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« Reply #2959 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:44 AM »

November 8, 2012

Ukraine’s Ultranationalists Show Surprising Strength at Polls


KIEV, Ukraine — The last time Oleg Tyagnibok was a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, his colleagues kicked him out over a fiery speech in which he described how Ukrainians, during World War II, bravely fought Muscovites, Germans, Jews “and other scum,” and then used slurs to refer to the “Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine.”

Eight years later, Mr. Tyagnibok is preparing to return to Parliament, not as a lone member of a broader coalition, as he was when he was ejected, but as the leader of Svoboda, the ultranationalist, right-wing party that will control 38 of 450 seats, or about 8.5 percent of the national legislature.

Svoboda’s surprising show of strength in the Oct. 29 election — polls had predicted that the party would fail to meet the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament — has stirred alarm, including warnings from Israel about the rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and a place with a firsthand knowledge of ethnic violence and genocide.

But in an interview in the downtown office building that Svoboda shares with an insurance company and a dental clinic named Smile, Mr. Tyagnibok said that fear of his party was misplaced and the accusations of racism and extremism unfounded.

“Svoboda is not an anti-Semitic party,” he said, seated behind a desk, a sport jacket stretched by his barrel-sized chest, his huge hands folded in front of him, speaking slowly and firmly in Ukrainian. “Svoboda is not a xenophobic party. Svoboda is not an anti-Russian party. Svoboda is not an anti-European party. Svoboda is simply and only a pro-Ukrainian party. And that’s it.”

Of course, that was not it.

Mr. Tyagnibok was just beginning to demonstrate the smooth charm that has helped Svoboda, which means “Freedom,” build support beyond its traditional stronghold in the Ukrainian-speaking west.

Tall, with beefy good looks, Mr. Tyagnibok, 44, who is a urological surgeon by training, has used his party’s pro-Ukrainian message to tap into frustration over the country’s stalled economy and growing disillusionment with the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.

From Mr. Tyagnibok’s frequent appearances on television talk shows, emphasizing national sovereignty and warning of encroachment by neighboring Russia, most viewers might never discern that some of his party’s members are unabashed neo-Nazis, while others shun the label but nonetheless espouse virulent hatred of Jews, gays and especially Russians.

Researchers who specialize in extremism say it is a talent shared by other leaders of far-right parties and has helped bring them into the mainstream in many European countries, including Hungary, Poland and Romania.

“This is a common phenomenon within these parties, that they have a front-stage image and a backstage agenda,” said Andreas Umland, an expert at the National University in Kiev. “The internal discourse, from what we can only suspect, is much more radical and xenophobic than what we see.” He added, “This is all much more radical.”

In the interview at his office, Mr. Tyagnibok said Svoboda’s message was only positive. “We do call ourselves nationalists,” he said. “Our view is love. Love of our land. Love of the people who live on this land. This is love to your wife and your home and your family. So, it’s love to your mother. Can this feeling be bad?”

“Our nationalism does not imply hatred to anybody,” he continued. “We formed a political party to protect the rights of Ukrainians, but not to the detriment of representatives of other nation.” He added, “So, if you ask about philosophy to be explained in two words: We are not against anyone. We are for ourselves.”

For a long time, they were for themselves and mostly by themselves. In the previous parliamentary election, in 2007, Svoboda received less than three-quarters of 1 percent of the vote, and that was an improvement. Until 2004, Svoboda was called the Social-Nationalist Party, which critics said was just a word flip of its true ambitions.

Born in Lviv, sometimes called the capital of the western, Europe-oriented Ukraine, Mr. Tyagnibok said he was raised to hate Communists, in part because his paternal grandfather was a victim of oppression under Stalin. He got his start in politics as a student organizer in the late 1980s, attended medical school and has been a member of the nationalist party from its inception in the early 1990s.

He served six years in Parliament, from 1998 until he was ejected in 2004. In 2001, with Ukrainian voters growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo, Svoboda made major gains in local and regional elections. Some voters who supported Svodboda said they believed that the party could present the strongest challenge to President Yanukovich. Many said they did not view the party as extreme.

“Those people who supported Svoboda in these elections, they don’t support racism, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev, who monitors extremism for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. “They support Svoboda because every vote for Svoboda was a vote against the ruling government.”

Still, Mr. Likhachev said, Svoboda’s rise was not a positive development for Ukraine. “It is bad for society,” he said.

In the days before the vote, Mr. Tyagnibok signed an agreement to work with other opposition parties, including the Fatherland party of the jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko. Ms. Tymoshenko, who was barred from the ballot this year, recently began a hunger strike to protest what she said was fraud in the elections.

Mr. Tyagnibok’s ties to Ms. Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yushchenko date to before Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, which Mr. Tyagnibok and other nationalists supported. Critics of the alliance say that it will give Svoboda more power than it would have on its own, and grant it further legitimacy as a mainstream faction.

Although his occasional use of ethnic and religious epithets is well documented — there was the 2004 speech to supporters, and in 2005, his public signing of an open letter to President Yushchenko and others demanding an end to “criminal activities of organized Jewry in Ukraine” — Mr. Tyagnibok called the allegations of hate speech “a fantasy and a serious exaggeration.”

The general prosecutor charged him with inciting ethnic hatred, but the case was dropped after the Orange Revolution. “In 2004, I was accused of anti-Semitism, but I won in all the court cases,” Mr. Tyagnibok said.

Mr. Tyagnibok said nationalist parties were enjoying a renaissance in Europe because of the Continent’s financial problems, as well as conflicts with Muslim immigrants in countries like Italy, France and Spain. “Europe is change,” he said. “Economic failures make people look for reasons.”

But he said it was all for the best. “In our view the ideal is to see Europe as one big flower bed full of different flowers, with Ukraine as one of the most beautiful flowers in it,” Mr. Tyagnibok said. “It has its own scent, its own beauty. It is different from other flowers, but it is in the same flower bed.”

He waved away any thought of nationalist strife. “Just imagine one nationalist talking to another nationalist,” he said. “There should be no problems between them. Everybody respects their interests, and everybody understands we live in one big world.”

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« Reply #2960 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:52 AM »

11/09/2012 01:35 PM

The World from Berlin: Neo-Nazi Case Also Puts Government on Trial

The sole survivor of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell suspected of killing nine people with immigrant backgrounds and a policewoman in Germany has been indicted and will soon face trial. Commentators praise the development but warn that German officials might also face some tough questions about their botched investigation.

In what is expected to be the biggest terrorism trial in Germany since police foiled the Red Army Faction's far-left murder spree of the 1970s and '80s, Germany's Federal Prosecutor's Office issued indictments on Thursday against the sole surviving member of a deadly neo-Nazi terror cell and its supporters. Munich's higher regional court will now consider charges of accessory to murder in the slaying of 10 people and membership in a terrorist organization for Beate Zschäpe, who is believed to have been a key figure in the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

Federal Prosecutor General Harald Range said Zschäpe and the terror cell's two other members had comprised a "unified killing commando" in which all three members were on an equal footing.

One year ago, police uncovered the terror cell after Zschäpe set fire to the apartment where she lived together with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who died earlier in an apparent murder-suicide pact. The group is believed to have murdered nine mostly small business owners of Turkish and Greek descent as well as a policewoman. They are also believed to have committed 15 armed robberies over the years to support their life in the underground. Zschäpe herself has been in investigative custody for a year as charges against her were prepared, but she has so far refused to share her version of events with investigators.

The case has been a source of extreme discomfort for German authorities -- not only because it has drawn international attention to persistent xenophobia in some parts of society here, but even more so because it has underscored the failures of the country's security apparatus, particularly the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), a domestic intelligence organization with branches at the state and federal levels that is tasked with monitoring extremist activity in the country.

The agencies maintain numerous informants in the neo-Nazi scene and had several with close ties to the NSU members. With so many inside sources, many are now asking how the BfV agencies failed to uncover the NSU for more than a decade. Suspicions only increased after it was discovered that the agencies shredded files and sensitive information related to the case, which has already forced a number of senior officials to step down.

The trial comes at an inopportune time for the government in Berlin, which is weighting whether to make a renewed push for a ban on the National Democratic Party (NPD), a xenophobic, anti-Semitic political party that has seats in parliament in two eastern states. A court rejected a previous bid, in 2004, to prohibit the party because of the number of informants the government had placed at the highest levels of the NPD. Today, the proximity of informants to the NSU is creating a similar headache for domestic intelligence and police across the country. Indeed, four committees in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, are currently investigating these and many other failures of law enforcement and domestic intelligence during the NSU investigation.

On the editorial pages on Friday, commentators at a handful of Germany's top newspapers praise the indictment but also warn that Zschäpe will not be the only defendant in the dock. The German government, domestic intelligence and the police, they say, will also be on trial.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"This indictment is more than just a thick list of charges. It is a declaration of resolve -- a serious, strict, clear and decisive legal analysis of the right-wing extremist crimes. The Federal Prosecutor's Office acted in a way one would have hoped the other security authorities might have: with direction, energy and meticulousness."

"One year after the discovery of the (people behind the) murders, there is now an indictment that also serves as a sort of letter of protection. It offers some protection for the people in German society of Turkish origin. It shows them just how seriously the Federal Prosecutor's Office takes their tremendous feelings of insecurity. It is a seriousness that appears to be lacking among other state authorities."

"For an entire year, the public had to stare into the abyss of the failures of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the police, who sought to fill the void with excuses, evasion and dilettantism. For one year, the public has waited for politicians to finally follow through with the announcement made during the repulsive initial period (after the discovery of the NSU) that they would turn over every stone at the security agencies and force them to implement fundamental reforms. But nothing has happened. The chancellor has asked the families of the victims for forgiveness. However, there has been no sign of active remorse on the government's part. It is only the Federal Prosecutor's Office, supported by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), that has done its job. In that sense, the indictment also offers hope: It keeps the hope alive that the other agencies aren't completely hopeless."

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Many questions still remain open: Why were these nine immigrants and a policewoman chosen as victims? Were there further perpetrators or plans? Did they possibly also plan to attack politicians or Muslim or Jewish facilities? Did the NSU have other helpers in the cities where they committed their murders who have yet to be identified? Was there a concrete blueprint or models for the crimes?"

"The investigators with the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the BKA will be able to do even less to redeem the almost incredible failures of the security authorities since 1998. Even imposing the toughest sentence possible against Zschäpe, the suspected right-wing terrorist, cannot distract from just how blind the state has been to the far right. Parliament and the public will still be debating the consequences eminating from this debacle for years to come."

"Additionally, the complete NSU network -- particularly the inner workings of the Zwickau cell -- will only be able to be revealed in its entirety if Zschäpe breaks her silence."

The leftist Berliner Zeitung writes:

"With the indictment, the judicial treatment of the NSU series of murders will begin. The Munich higher regional court will also have to clarify the circumstances that enabled the murder of nine immigrants and a policewoman. That means they will also have to throw light on all the breakdowns, the almost criminal lapses and the destruction of files by the participating domestic intelligence agencies and police in the states, which hindered the arrest of Zschäpe and her accomplices for 14 years."

"Of course, it is also important for the families of the murder victims to find out how and why the right-wing terrorists killed. They also have the right to a fitting sentence for the perpetrators. But the public also has the right to demand clarity on the issue of the role the security agencies played. Were they blind in one eye, blind in both eyes -- or was it a blindness that had been willed, ordered or innate? It's not just the suspected right-wing terrorist who will be in the dock in Munich -- it will also be the security agencies. A not-guilty verdict is unlikely for either party."

-- Daryl Lindsey


November 8, 2012

German Woman Charged in Neo-Nazi Crime Rampage


BERLIN — After a yearlong investigation, prosecutors in Germany on Thursday brought murder charges against the last surviving member of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell, alleging she had a role in a decade of killings, robberies and bombings by the group that has raised troubling questions about the German police and domestic security services.

Prosecutors charged that Beate Zschäpe, 37, arranged financing and logistics for two male confederates, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, in one of the worst crime rampages in postwar German history. Four other men were charged on Thursday with aiding and abetting the group, which prosecutors say was responsible for 10 murders across the country as well as two bomb attacks in Cologne and 15 bank holdups.

The group’s victims included eight men of Turkish background and one Greek man, as well as a female police officer. The series of killings, which took place from 2000 to 2007, was initially known as the “döner murders,” a reference to Turkish kebab stands, which victims’ families found demeaning and even racist.

The existence of a deadly cell of neo-Nazis shocked German society when it came to light a year ago, raising questions about how a violent group of renegades could operate undetected for so long and why the police had persisted in searching for ties to Turkish organized crime instead of violent racists.

The security services and Germany’s interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, have come under heavy criticism. The head of the domestic intelligence agency resigned in July because an official in his office had shredded documents potentially containing evidence from paid informants about members of the group.

The state domestic intelligence chiefs in Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt also stepped down as a result of the case, and the head of the federal criminal police said he would leave office at the end of the year.

“It’s very late and it might be too little,” Mehmet Daimagüler, a lawyer for the families of two of the victims, said of the charges. “What we have learned so far over the past 12 months is that part of the German security forces might be involved in one or the other way. There are many, many, many question marks.”

The group, which called itself the National Socialist Underground and was based in the town of Zwickau in eastern Germany, was discovered only after Mr. Böhnhardt and Mr. Mundlos killed themselves last November rather than face arrest after a bank robbery that went wrong.

“The ‘N.S.U.’ members saw themselves as a unified killing command which carried out its concerted assassinations driven by racist motivations and hostile attitudes towards the state,” the prosecutors’ statement said. The killers used the same Ceska 83 pistol with a silencer for all 10 of the murders they committed, according to prosecutors, because they wanted to terrify the immigrant communities they were targeting, hoping that a growing sense of insecurity would force foreigners to flee the country.

The domestic intelligence apparatus was meant to protect against just such extremist groups. Critics have fastened on the even more troubling possibility that the N.S.U. was inadvertently but indirectly supported through payments to confidential informants in the far-right scene, several of whom had connections to the group over the years.

In the Bundestag on Thursday, Hartfrid Wolff, a member of a parliamentary panel looking into the N.S.U. matter, called the mistakes of the authorities “staggering” and described “a grave loss of trust in the ability of the security agencies” as a result of the document shredding.

“We’re not talking about two pages or even 10 pages, but entire folders full of documents,” said Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the parliamentary committee that oversees the security services. “We don’t want to speculate, but the assumption and the fear is that something was in those files we weren’t supposed to know about.”

In addition to the shootings, prosecutors say that the group was behind two bombings in Cologne, one in January 2001 and the other in June 2004, that were intended to kill “as many people as possible only because of their non-German origin.” Twenty-three people were wounded in the bomb attacks, but no one was killed.

After Mr. Böhnhardt and Mr. Mundlos killed themselves, Ms. Zschäpe set fire to the apartment unit where she lived with the two men to try to cover up evidence of their crimes. The fire led to an enormous explosion that gutted a large part of the building.

In the days that followed, Ms. Zschäpe mailed to the news media and various groups copies of a gruesome video that spliced together bloody photographs of the victims taken at the crime scenes with cartoons of the Pink Panther and his trademark theme song. She then turned herself in to the police and has been in custody, awaiting trial for the past year.

Prosecutors do not accuse Ms. Zschäpe of pulling the trigger in any of the shootings. She has made no statements about the accusations against her.

Wolfgang Heer, one of Ms. Zschäpe’s lawyers, said that he could not comment on the charges themselves, as he has not seen the indictment. The defense “has had to inform itself about the state of the case through television, radio and newspapers from the very beginning,” Mr. Heer said.

The four men charged as accomplices on Thursday were identified only by first name and last initial, as is customary in German justice. Ralf W. and Carsten S. were charged with accessory to murder for acquiring the pistol and silencer. André E. was charged with aiding in a bomb attack and as an accessory in the robberies. Holger G. was accused of supporting a terrorist group.

The police were still investigating eight other suspected accomplices, but it remained unclear whether they had supported the group recently enough to fall within the 10-year statute of limitations for abetting a terrorist group. Prosecutors said that few people knew of the group’s activities. “Their real identity and terrorist aims were only known to a restricted circle of a few backers and assistants,” the statement said.

That contradicts public assertions that a far wider group must have been aware of what was going on, either helping or at least looking the other way.

“No one can hide for 13 or 14 years in an overregulated and over-controlled society like Germany without a network of supporters,” Mr. Daimagüler said. “This just does not reflect the reality of this case.”

Victor Homola and Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.
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« Reply #2961 on: Nov 09, 2012, 07:55 AM »

November 8, 2012

Defections Shake Greek Coalition


ATHENS — The three-party coalition of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was licking its wounds on Thursday, after the defections of several key members in a crucial vote on austerity measures. The proposals, aimed at keeping the country in the euro zone, passed narrowly but the defections, mostly among Socialist Party members, shook the government’s stability.

Amid some of the most violent demonstrations in Greece in months, and after 14 hours of debate, the coalition approved the measures, 153 to 128. Several governing lawmakers broke ranks to oppose them and 18 members voted present, the equivalent of a blank vote, including 15 from the smallest coalition party, Democratic Left, which opposes the package. There was one abstention.

But the Socialists, whose leadership has staked its credibility on supporting the politically toxic austerity program despite opposition from its political base, were hit hardest. On Thursday, a seventh member of the governing coalition’s Socialist Pasok Party defected, after six others were expelled from party for opposing the measures. One from the conservative New Democracy party was also expelled.

The measures — including sharp cuts to pensions, salaries and social services, as well as tax increases and increases in the retirement age to 67 from 65 — are expected, but not guaranteed, to persuade Greece’s foreign creditors to unlock around $40 billion in aid that the country needs to meet expenses.

A vote on the 2013 budget to activate the austerity package is expected late Sunday.

In presenting the austerity measures, which total $23 billion over four years, to Parliament, Mr. Samaras acknowledged that the new cuts to pensions and salaries were “unfair,” but added that Greece was bound by the terms of its agreement with creditors.

“A lot of what we’re voting on today are measures we should have taken a long time ago,” he said, adding that they would be “the last, the last” such cuts. Future “adjustments,” he said, would come from a crackdown on tax evasion and public-sector waste.

Mr. Samaras, however, is the third prime minister to promise the “last cuts” since Greece asked for a foreign bailout in 2010. The deep cuts, which have helped Greece’s economy shrink 25 percent in recent years, are undermining the country’s social and political stability — and the government’s ability to carry out the structural changes.

“You can’t rebuild institutions when you’ve cut down the salaries of people who work for them,” said Alexis Papahelas, the managing editor of the Kathimerini daily. “That’s the big problem the government and the country are facing.”

On the eve of the vote, nearly 50 employees of Greece’s central bank resigned to protest the deep cuts to public-sector salaries, while on Wednesday, Greece’s Supreme Court ruled that cuts of up to 30 percent in judge’s salaries would violate the Constitution.

Parliamentary staff also threatened Wednesday to resign over their salary cuts, leading Mr. Samaras to consider invoking executive authority to force them to stay on the job, according to a government official not authorized to speak publicly.

Greece’s troika of foreign lenders — the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — have demanded that Greece reduce its budget deficit in exchange for more aid.

Yet few believe that the measures will help improve the country’s economic health.

“Telling a whole people that they have to commit collective suicide to save the debt is not a policy,” Zoe Kostantopoulou, a member of Parliament from the leftist Syriza opposition party, said in an interview, expressing a sentiment growing across the political spectrum.

“The reason why we’ve seen the economy implode much more rapidly than thought is that they grossly underestimated the impact that fiscal austerity of this magnitude would have on the Greek economy,” said Simon Tilford, the chief economist at the Center for European Reform in London. “Additional austerity is going to compound that weakness.”

Mr. Tilford added that the slump in the economy was also making it harder for Greece to meet the troika’s demands to reduce a mountain of debt. “The whole strategy for Greece has failed,” Mr. Tilford said. “It’s led to collapse in the Greek economy and the ballooning of debt so it’s an abject failure.”

Stella Dimitrakopolou, a 29-year-old graphic designer who donned a surgical mask as protection against tear gas in Wednesday’s demonstration, agreed.

“These measures are inhumane,” Ms. Dimitrakopolou said. “The young generation has no future, and older people have no money and the measures do not help society economically.”

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.


11/08/2012 05:05 PM

Budget Disarray: US Set to Restage Greek Tragedy

By David Böcking

The US has more in common with heavily indebted southern European countries than it might like to admit. And if the country doesn't reach agreement on deficit reduction measures soon, the similarities could become impossible to ignore. The fiscal cliff looms in the near future, and its not just the US that is under threat.

The US has finally voted and the dark visions of America's future broadcast on television screens across the country -- and most intensively in battleground states -- have come to an end. Supporters of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had developed doomsday scenarios for what would happen if their candidate's opponent were to win. Four more years of Obama, the ads warned, would result in pure socialism. A Romney presidency would see the middle and lower classes brutally exploited.

But following Obama's re-election, Americans are now facing a different, much more real horror scenario: In just a few weeks time, thousands of children could be denied vaccinations, federally funded school programs could screech to a halt, adults may be forced to forego HIV tests and subsidized housing vouchers would dry up. Even the work of air-traffic controllers, the FBI, border officials and the military could be drastically curtailed.

That and more is looming just over the horizon according to the White House if the country is allowed to plunge off the "fiscal cliff" at the beginning of next year. Coined by Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke, it refers to the vast array of cuts and tax increases which will automatically go into effect if Republicans and Democrats can't agree on measures to slash the US budget deficit.

In total, the cuts add up to $1.2 trillion over the next nine years, with half coming from the military and half from other government programs, and with $65 billion coming in the first year alone. They were enshrined in law with the Budget Control Act of 2011, which also increased the debt ceiling. And though a deadline of Jan. 2, 2013 was set, they were never meant to come into effect. The plan for deep across-the-board cuts was intended as a way to prod Democrats and Republicans into reaching agreement on a long-term plan to reduce America's vast budget deficit.

Not a Bad Thing?

The "fiscal cliff" also includes the expiration of tax cuts for the rich, which were originally passed by President George W. Bush and extended by Obama. The elimination of the lower tax rates would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, result in $221 billion in extra tax revenues in 2013 alone. A temporary 2-percent federal income tax cut would also expire, resulting in an additional $95 billion flowing into government coffers next year.

There are also several other cuts and tax hikes included in the austerity package. Some $18 billion in taxes would come due as part of Obama's health care reform, and welfare cuts would save $26 billion. Should lawmakers not reach agreement prior to the end of the year, the US budget deficit for 2013 would be cut almost in half, to $560 billion.

Which doesn't sound like a bad thing. After all, the US is staggering under a monumental pile of debt and could potentially begin to face the kinds of difficulties that have plunged several euro-zone countries into crisis. It is a viewpoint shared by the ratings agencies -- a year ago, Standard & Poor's withdrew America's top rating, justifying the measure by pointing to the unending battle over the debt ceiling. The agency noted that "the political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed."

From afar, it is difficult to argue; the ongoing battle between Democrats and Republicans in the face of a horrendously imbalanced budget looks catastrophically absurd. As their country heads toward the edge of the abyss, lawmakers preferred to debate whether or not French fries and pizza should be considered vegetables.

Still, a significant element in the dispute is a fundamental conflict that won't sound foreign to Europeans: How much austerity is too much?

Plunging Growth

As good as an instantaneous halving of the budget deficit might sound, the landing after a plunge off the fiscal cliff would be a hard one. Were taxes to be ratcheted up at the same time as state programs were slashed, it would have an enormous effect on the economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 2013 growth would immediately drop by four percentage points, making a recession unavoidable. The number of unemployed would be two million higher than without the cuts.

It is an eventuality that doesn't just put fear into the hearts of Americans. In its annual report on the US, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) referred to the fiscal cliff as the largest risk currently facing America. Investors have already reportedly become more cautious in the face of the looming cuts. Should politicians not agree to a credible plan for reducing US debt, it could ultimately harm the credibility of the dollar as a reserve currency. More immediately, the IMF writes in its World Economic Outlook report published in October, the drastic cuts "would inflict large spillovers on major US trading partners." In other words, an already fragile Europe would become even weaker.

As such, Germany won't be the only country watching closely as US Congress struggles to reach an agreement in coming weeks. Should the US economy radically slow down next year, "it could in the current atmosphere of uncertainty result in a global loss of confidence that would lead to a collapse in investment worldwide," according to the annual report of top German economic advisors released on Wednesday. Nevertheless, the experts warn, simply postponing measures to address the debt and budget deficit problems "would also have long-term costs in the form of still higher sovereign debt."

The Greek Model?

What, then, is the solution? In the end, the US could arrive at a compromise similar to the one that appears to be forming for Greece: austerity measures combined with more time to achieve budget deficit reduction targets. The drastic cuts currently looming are essentially a kind of debt brake, but it is one with no flexibility built in whatsoever. The US economist Denis Flower proposed in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE that Washington should introduce a law mandating long-term debt reduction, but which allows higher deficits in times of crisis.

US politicians, no doubt, would not be fond of hearing their country compared to Greece. After all, the heavily indebted euro-zone country was used during the presidential campaign as a caricature for the horrors of European-style socialism. But their current finances are not dissimilar, with one difference being that the US can't count on outside help as the Greeks have received.

It remains to be seen how US politicians choose to approach the problem. Republicans, having defended their majority in the House of Representatives, could simply let the country plunge off the cliff in the hopes that it would be blamed on Obama. Or, on the other hand, their willingness to compromise may have been increased by virtue of losing the presidential election badly. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner on Wednesday pledged to work closely with the White House as negotiations begin. He said that lawmakers won't be able to solve the country's problems overnight, but said that voters "gave us a mandate to work together to do the best thing for our country."

Greece's economic problems and the resulting austerity packages it has passed have plunged the country into five straight years of recession. Germany, Europe and the world are hoping that the same fate is not in store for the US.


Bank of France warns of recession

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 9, 2012 7:34 EST

The French economy suffered two setbacks on Friday when the central bank warned of a slight recession and official data said that industrial output fell sharply in September.

France is heading for a slight recession at the end of the year, the Bank of France forecast.

In another gloomy announcement, the statistics institute INSEE reported that industrial output fell by 2.7 percent in September after a jump of 1.9 percent in August and that industrialists were planning further reductions of investment.

The central bank estimated that total output would shrink by 0.1 percent in the last quarter, after an estimated setback of about the same amount in the third quarter.

In the previous three quarters gross domestic product was flat.

This latest outlook underlines strains in the economy and comes in a week marked by a big effort by the government to reverse the falling competitiveness and a huge structural trade deficit.

Two of the main factors of growth in an economy are investment, and exports minus imports — a trade surplus.

The main thrust of new measures is to switch the cost of paying for social security and health benefits from employers to a wider tax base, and also to reduce public spending.

One brighter note came from the budget ministry which said that the budget deficit of the central French state, part of the overall public deficit, had fallen by 7.7 billion euros on September 30 on a 12-month basis to 85 billion euros.

It said that this was “coherent with the expected reduction.”

INSEE said that regarding the industrial setback in September, output by manufacturing, excluding the mining and energy sectors, fell by 3.2 percent after a rise of 2.1 percent in August.

For the whole of the third quarter, overall industrial output was flat from output in the previous quarter.

However manufactured output in the quarter, on a 12-month comparison, fell by 1.9 percent.

INSEE also reported that French industrialists, who had revised down sharply their investment programmes for 2012, were now planning on reducing their investment in equipment next year.

The central bank’s overall growth estimates are in line with those of INSEE and would mark the first recession since France was hit by the financial crisis in the first part of 2009.

A recession is considered to occur when output from one quarter to the next contracts for two quarters in a row. And emergence from recession, then a return to contraction within a few years, is commonly referred to as a double dip.

If output is flat or contracts for five quarters in a row, as the latest estimates indicate, this would be unprecedented in France since World War II.

INSEE expects the economy to have grown over the whole of 2012 by 0.2 percent, slightly less than the figure given by the government in its effort to reduce the public deficit to 4.5 percent of output at the end of the year.

Strong growth is important because it leads to higher tax revenues and to lower charges for benefits such as unemployment.

The latest estimates put France on a gloomy footing for the beginning of 2013.

The government repeated on Thursday that it was counting on the economy growing by 0.8 percent next year, but economists consider this to be optimistic.

So does the European Commission which revised down its forecast for next year this week to 0.4 percent, half the government’s figure.
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« Reply #2962 on: Nov 09, 2012, 08:02 AM »

11/09/2012 11:55 AM

Pan Am Astronomy: A New Telescope Looks into the Birthplace of Stars

By Olaf Stampf

Astronomers have long had a basic understanding of how stars are formed. But observing and proving the theory has proven elusive. Now, a German-American project, complete with an infrared telescope mounted on an old Pan Am 747, is providing new insights.

Stars are heavenly bodies that originated in darkness. All of the twinkling points of light in the night sky were once born in inky black clouds that wander through the vast expanses of the Milky Way.

The maximum temperature in these ghostly clouds is minus 250 degrees Celsius (minus 418 degrees Fahrenheit); indeed the clouds are hardly any warmer than space itself. Furthermore, their density initially is almost as low as that of a vacuum, with a volume the size of the Pacific Ocean containing but a single gram of hydrogen.

These widely dispersed gas atoms are the raw material from which stars are born. But it takes eons for the thin, icy strips of clouds to condense into compact, hot balls of fire. First, clumps must form within the clouds of gases and dust, with particles attracting one another and flying together at supersonic speeds. In the end, extreme pressure builds in the center of the increasingly dense ball of gas, and thermonuclear fusion in the hydrogen core begins. It is the fire of the new star.

This, at any rate, is the theory, based on computer simulations. No one has actually seen the birth and growth of suns. To the regret of astronomers, all of these processes are either invisible in the early stages or are hidden in the late stages. The gas-and-dust clouds surround the growing stars like a protective cocoon, preventing all light from escaping. The precise details of how a star is born remain a mystery.

Now astrophysicists are taking a new approach to gazing at the places where stars are born. Even the icy, dark clouds emit thermal radiation. While such waves are invisible to the human eye, the world's most unusual telescope, which stares into space from an aircraft, is now being used to intercept the infrared signals.

Clouds Ablaze

The telescope, called SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), is the largest German-American research project currently running. It took 20 years of development, at a cost about €1 billion ($1.27 billion), before it was ready for prime time -- and the project was repeatedly in jeopardy of cancellation.

The infrared telescope is located on board a converted Boeing 747 that was once used on Pan Am's trans-Atlantic routes. At altitudes of up to 14,000 meters (45,932 feet), high above the flight paths of commercial aircraft, the older jet transforms itself into a convertible. A retractable roof in the fuselage is opened so that SOFIA can gaze into infinity. To offset turbulence and vibration, the telescope, the largest ever to be mounted in an aircraft, floats on a film of oil.

The great effort involved in unavoidable. An earthbound telescope is largely blind to infrared radiation from space, because most of it, with the exception of a few wavelengths, is absorbed by water vapor in the earth's atmosphere. As a result, the cold gas-and-dust clouds can only be studied from the stratosphere on out.

The effort seems to be paying off. "On the first images, it looks as if the dark clouds were ablaze, because of how intensely they glow in the infrared spectrum," says Hans Zinnecker, the deputy director of SOFIA Science Mission Operations. "We can now finally recover an incredibly valuable treasure trove of data."

The clouds of matter aren't just the raw material from which the stars emerge. They also form cosmic factories in which highly complex molecules are incubated, presumably even building blocks of life, like amino acids. "Complex chemical processes are taking place inside the clouds, processes that we haven't even come close to understanding," says Zinnecker.

The astrophysicists are currently evaluating data they have obtained with their flying telescope. And it looks as if SOFIA will indeed provide them with a view into the delivery room of the stars.

Fast-Forward Star Production

A team led by astrophysicist Friedrich Wyrowski of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, set its sights on an early phase of star development. The scientists have observed how ice-cold protostars gradually consume the clouds of matter surrounding them. Their appetite seems to be limitless.

The scientists picked up telltale light signals of ammonia molecules rushing toward the protostars "at measured speeds of up to 10,000 kilometers per hour (about 6,200 mph)," says Wyrowski. Their calculations show that, because of its tremendous gravitational force, each of the gas balls absorbs the mass of the earth within only a few weeks.

Because of this high "accretion rate," stars develop at a much faster rate than computer models had predicted. The star embryos will continue to grow in their cocoon for just another 10,000 years or so until some of them will have reached masses 30 times that of our sun. Then, nuclear fusion will suddenly begin deep in their cores, transforming a dim ball of gas into a blazing star within a few years.

The astrophysicists plan to keep sending their flying telescope on trips into the stratosphere until at least 2030. Their infrared observatory will soon be without any competition at all. The only other telescope sensitive to comparable wavelengths is the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, which will run out of coolant in a few months.

The Herschel spacecraft has recently made some exciting discoveries. Last week, a team headed by Markus Nielbock of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg presented a unique 3-D map of a dark cloud, which the scientists created with the help of Herschel data. The 3-D image shows that the cloud of molecules, dubbed Barnard 68 (in the constellation Ophiuchus), has apparently collided with a smaller cloud.

This collision could now trigger the collapse of Barnard 68, leading to the birth of several new stars within the next 100,000 years.

The Next Generation

The scientists working on the SOFIA project hope to make such a dramatic event, the ignition of a star, visible within the next few years. "By measuring infrared radiation, we'll be able to observe how a star taps against its eggshell from the inside," Zinnecker hopes. "And we'll also be able to watch it emerge from the egg."

With each birth of a new star, the cosmic cycle of coming into being and passing away begins anew. When a star like our sun is extinguished after a lifetime of several billions of years, it ejects its hot gaseous shell out into empty space. The gaseous remnants of an extinguished sun continue to burn at several thousands of degrees for thousands of years after that. But then the cloud gradually cools off and drifts through the Milky Way, so that the ashes of dead suns furnish the raw material for the next generation of stars.

In the end, perhaps the astronomers will even solve the mystery of why such an astonishingly small number of stars are born in our home galaxy. The Milky Way contains an almost unimaginable number of stars, more than 100 billion, as a photo published by the European Southern Observatory at the end of October impressively illustrates. It shows more than 84 million stars in the center of the galaxy but, oddly enough, hardly any new stars are being added.

The swirling dark clouds should provide enough fuel to allow a new star to flare up in the sky every hour. But star maturation is apparently a sensitive process, one that only begins when the clouds of molecules reach exactly the right temperature and density. This helps to explain why only three new stars are ignited in the Milky Way every year.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #2963 on: Nov 09, 2012, 08:19 AM »

In the USA...

November 7, 2012

How a Race in the Balance Went to Obama


Seven minutes into the first presidential debate, the mood turned from tense to grim inside the room at the University of Denver where Obama staff members were following the encounter. Top aides monitoring focus groups — voters who registered their minute-by-minute reactions with the turn of a dial — watched as enthusiasm for Mitt Romney spiked. “We are getting bombed on Twitter,” announced Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager, while tracking the early postings by political analysts and journalists whom the Obama campaign viewed as critical in setting debate perceptions.

By the time President Obama had waded through a convoluted answer about health care — “He’s not mentioning voucher-care?” someone called out — a pall had fallen over the room. When the president closed by declaring, “This was a terrific debate,” his re-election team grimaced. There was the obligatory huddle to discuss how to explain his performance to the nation, and then a moment of paralysis: No one wanted to go to the spin room and speak with reporters.

Mr. Romney’s advisers monitored the debate up the hall from the Obama team, as well as at campaign headquarters in Boston. Giddy smiles flashed across their faces as their focus groups showed the same results.

“Boy, the president is off tonight,” said Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, sounding mystified, according to aides in the room. Russ Schriefer, a senior adviser, immediately began planning television spots based entirely on clips from the debate. As it drew to a close, Gail Gitcho, Mr. Romney’s communications director in Boston, warned surrogates heading out to television studios: “No chest thumping.”

The Oct. 3 debate sharply exposed Mr. Obama’s vulnerabilities and forced the president and his advisers to work to reclaim the campaign over a grueling 30 days, ending with his triumph on Tuesday. After a summer of growing confidence, Mr. Obama suddenly confronted the possibility of a loss that would diminish his legacy and threaten his signature achievement, the health care law. He emerged newly combative, newly contrite and newly willing to recognize how his disdain for Mr. Romney had blinded him to his opponent’s strengths and ability to inflict damage.

After watching a videotape of his debate performance, Mr. Obama began calling panicked donors and supporters to reassure them he would do better. “This is on me,” the president said, again and again.

Mr. Obama, who had dismissed warnings about being caught off guard in the debate, told his advisers that he would now accept and deploy the prewritten attack lines that he had sniffed at earlier. “If I give up a couple of points of likability and come across as snarky, so be it,” Mr. Obama told his staff.

As his campaign began an all-out assault on Mr. Romney’s credibility and conservative views, the president soon was denouncing Mr. Romney’s budget proposals as a “sketchy deal” and charging that the Republican nominee was not telling Americans the truth.

Mr. Obama recognized that to a certain extent, he had walked into a trap that Mr. Romney’s advisers had anticipated: His antipathy toward Mr. Romney — which advisers described as deeper than what Mr. Obama had felt for John McCain in 2008 — led the incumbent to underestimate his opponent as he began moving to the center before the debate audience of millions of television viewers.

But as concerned as the White House was during the last 30 days of the campaign, its polls never showed Mr. Obama slipping behind Mr. Romney, aides said. The president was helped in no small part by the tremendous amount of money the campaign built up, which had permitted him to pound his Republican rival before he had ever had a chance to fully introduce himself to the nation.

That was just one of several ways that Mr. Obama’s campaign operations, some unnoticed by Mr. Romney’s aides in Boston, helped save the president’s candidacy. In Chicago, the campaign recruited a team of behavioral scientists to build an extraordinarily sophisticated database packed with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. The ever-expanding list let the campaign find and register new voters who fit the demographic pattern of Obama backers and methodically track their views through thousands of telephone calls every night.

That allowed the Obama campaign not only to alter the very nature of the electorate, making it younger and less white, but also to create a portrait of shifting voter allegiances. The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney’s aides on election night, as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla. “It’s one thing to say you are going to do it; it’s another thing to actually get out there and do it,” said Brian Jones, a senior adviser.

In the last days of the campaign, Mr. Romney cast himself as the candidate that he may have wanted to be all along: moderate in tone, an agent of change who promised to bring bipartisan cooperation back to Washington, sounding very much like Barack Obama in 2008.

But he could never overcome the harm that Mr. Obama’s advertising had done over the summer or the weight of the ideological baggage he carried from the primary. On Tuesday night, a crestfallen Mr. Romney and his family watched as the television networks showed him losing all but one battleground state.

Even as the networks declared Mr. Obama the winner, Mr. Romney, who had earlier told reporters he had written only a victory speech, paused before the walk downstairs from his hotel room in Boston. It was 11:30 p.m., and Romney field teams in Ohio, Virginia and Florida called in, saying the race was too close for the candidate to give up. At least four planes were ready to go, and aides had bags packed for recount battles in narrowly divided states. Bob White, a close Romney friend and adviser, was prepared to tell the waiting crowd that Mr. Romney would not yet concede.

But then, Mr. Romney quietly decided it was over. “It’s not going to happen,” he said.

As Ann Romney cried softly, he headed down to deliver his speech, ending his second, and presumably last, bid for the White House. Four decades earlier, his father and inspiration, George Romney, a former Michigan governor failed in his own such quest.

By the end of the 30 days, after Air Force One carried Mr. Obama on an almost round-the-clock series of rallies, the president had reverted back to the agent of change battling the forces of the status quo, drawing contrasts between himself and Mr. Romney with an urgency that had been absent earlier in the race. Mr. Obama had returned, if not to the candidate that he was in 2008, as a man hungry for four more years to pursue his agenda in the White House.

A Difficult September

As the summer came to a close, the Romney campaign was stuck in a tense debate over how to rescue a struggling candidacy. On some nights, it did not even bother with the daily tracking poll. Why waste money on more bad news? Mr. Obama’s attack on Mr. Romney’s role at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded, was in full swing, the Democratic convention had been an unequivocal boost for the president, and a videotape had surfaced that caught Mr. Romney at a private fund-raiser saying that 47 percent of the nation did not pay taxes, a line that reinforced Democrats’ efforts to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist.

“We had struggled pretty dramatically in September,” said Neil Newhouse, Mr. Romney’s pollster. “The 47 percent remark came out, and that was on top of the bounce that Obama got from his convention, so needless to say September was not our best month. It showed in our data. It was grim.”

There was, advisers decided, one last opportunity on the horizon: the presidential debate in Denver.

Mr. Stevens argued that Mr. Obama’s dislike of Mr. Romney would lead the president to underestimate him. “They think there’s something intellectually inferior there,” he said later. Mr. Romney’s advisers also believed that Mr. Obama had demonized Mr. Romney to such an extent that their candidate would benefit when judged against the caricature.

In August, Mr. Romney began testing out one-liners on friends flying with him on his campaign plane. On issue after issue, Mr. Romney led discussions on how to frame his answers, to move away from the conservative tone of his primary contests in front of the largest audience he would have as a candidate.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio was recruited to play Mr. Obama, and he embraced the role, even anticipating how the president would open his first debate, which fell on his wedding anniversary. “I’ve got to tell you, tonight’s a really special night,” Mr. Portman said, playing Mr. Obama. “I see my sweetie out there, boy, 20 years ago.”

(Mr. Romney’s advisers broke out in laughter when the real Mr. Obama opened with a similar line, and nodded approvingly when a very prepared Mr. Romney countered with a gracious response that even Democrats said put Mr. Obama off balance.)

Nothing had been left to chance: Mr. Romney put on full makeup and did his final practice in a room set up to replicate, down to the lighting and temperature, the hall where he would meet Mr. Obama.

On the Sunday before the debate, a group of top advisers and elected Republican officials from across the country, calling themselves the War Council, gathered in Boston to reassure Mr. Romney after his rough month — essentially saying “this is a place in the race, but it isn’t a destiny” as Beth Myers, a senior adviser, put it — and to boost his confidence. George W. Bush phoned Mr. Romney, too. Pointing to his own history, he predicted that Mr. Obama would fumble, according to aides.

Democrats advising Mr. Obama saw the same peril for the president in the first debate that Mr. Romney’s aides did. Ronald A. Klain, a Democratic strategist who has overseen debate preparation for presidential candidates for nearly 20 years, warned Mr. Obama at his very first debate session, a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room on a sweltering day in mid-July, that incumbent presidents almost invariably lose their first debate.

“It’s easier for a candidate to schedule the time to prepare; it’s easy for the challenger to get away; the president has competing needs,” Mr. Klain told Mr. Obama, according to aides who witnessed the exchange.

Ken Mehlman, who had managed Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, ran into one of Mr. Obama’s advisers at a party, and warned him that presidents are not used to being challenged, and unlike candidates, are out of practice at verbal jousting. Mr. Romney had gone through 20 debates over the past year.

Mr. Obama showed no interest in watching the Republican debates. But his aides studied them closely, and concluded that Mr. Romney was a powerful debater, hard to intimidate and fast to throw out assertions that would later prove wrong or exaggerated. At one debate, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas criticized Mr. Romney for having praised Arne Duncan, the education secretary, days earlier. Mr. Romney flatly denied it, leaving Mr. Perry speechless.

At the White House, Mr. Obama’s communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, took note of that moment, intending to mention it to Mr. Obama. He would later fault himself for failing to fully understand “the magnitude of the challenge” Mr. Romney’s debate style presented.

Mr. Obama displayed little concern. When he went to a resort outside Las Vegas for several days of debate preparation in September, his impatience with the exercise was evident when he escaped for an excursion to the Hoover Dam.

Mr. Klain and David Axelrod, a senior strategist, told Mr. Obama that he seemed distracted, but he shrugged them off. “I’ll be there on game day,” he said. “I’m a game day player.”

Shortly after the debate began, Mr. Obama’s aides realized they had made their own mistakes in advising Mr. Obama to avoid combative exchanges that might sacrifice the good will many Americans felt toward him. In Mr. Obama’s mock debates with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Kerry drew Mr. Obama into a series of intense exchanges, and Mr. Axelrod decided that they were damaging to the president.

In 90 minutes, Mr. Obama crystallized what had been gnawing concerns among many Americans about the president. He came across, as Mr. Obama’s advisers told him over the next few days, as professorial, arrogant, entitled and detached from the turmoil tearing the nation. He appeared to be disdainful not only of his opponent but also of the political process itself. Mr. Obama showed no passion for the job, and allowed Mr. Romney to explode the characterization of him as a wealthy, job-destroying venture capitalist that the Obama campaign had spent months creating.

The voter-analysis database back in Chicago noted a precipitous drop in perceptions of Mr. Obama among independent voters, starting that night and lasting for four days, long before the public polls picked it up. Voters who had begun turning to Mr. Obama were newly willing to give Mr. Romney another look.

What was arguably the most dismal night of Mr. Obama’s political career could hardly have come at a worse time: Early voting was already under way in some states. Absentee ballots were on voters’ coffee tables that very night.

After the debate, Mr. Obama called Mr. Axelrod on his way back to the hotel room. He had read the early reviews on his iPad.

“I guess the consensus is that we didn’t have a very good night,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Axelrod.

“That is the consensus,” Mr. Axelrod said.

For the next 30 days, Mr. Romney and his advisers tried to capitalize on Mr. Obama’s mistakes. And Mr. Romney continued his drift toward the center, softening his language on abortion and immigration from the positions that had defined him during the Republican primaries. It was something that the White House had expected he would do. Perhaps most important, the debate gave him a swagger, confidence and presidential bearing that had been absent.

Mr. Romney soon recognized the scope of his accomplishment. He flew from Denver to Virginia for a rally the next day, and as the motorcade headed toward the event, there was so much traffic that Mr. Romney and his top advisers thought there must have been an accident. In fact, the roads were jammed with people on their way to see him.

A Storm’s Effect

It was clear that Hurricane Sandy was going to upend Mr. Obama’s final week of campaigning, but aides in Chicago were determined to squeeze in one more visit to Florida. It almost became a calamity.

To get ahead of the storm, the president flew to Orlando on Oct. 28, the evening before a morning event. But overnight, the storm intensified and accelerated. Well before dawn, the Air Force One crew told the president’s advisers that if he was going to beat the storm back to Washington, he had to leave at once. His aides blanched at the image of Mr. Obama stuck in sunny Florida as the storm roared up the Eastern Seaboard.

The White House announced the change of plans at 6:45 a.m. The president returned to the White House at 11:07 a.m. and went directly into the Situation Room, canceling his political events. The decision was costly to a campaign so dependent on organization: Mr. Obama used his rallies to collect supporters’ telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Once the storm struck, it was more of a problem for Mr. Romney. It put him in the position of struggling to explain the skepticism he had expressed during the Republican primaries about a federal role in disaster relief. Even worse, the hurricane pushed him off the stage at a crucial time.

In Boston, Mr. Romney’s aides broke out in a chorus of groans as they watched on television as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey offered effusive praise of the president’s handling of the disaster. They viewed it as a self-serving act of disloyalty from a man whom they had expected to deploy that very weekend on Mr. Romney’s behalf. The praise of Mr. Obama from a Republican governor came at the same time Mr. Romney had been portraying Mr. Obama as partisan and polarizing.

The same week, the president’s campaign released an advertisement in which another Republican, Colin Powell, a former secretary of state, endorsed Mr. Obama. The ad, Mr. Obama’s aides said, produced a spike of support from independent voters. (Mr. Obama’s aides grabbed the clip from a television interview with Mr. Powell, deciding not to chance asking him for permission).

Mr. Romney was finding Ohio, a state central to his victory, a stubborn target, as Mr. Obama benefited from the auto industry rescue he championed and that Mr. Romney had opposed. The Romney campaign sought to undermine Mr. Obama with an advertisement misleadingly implying that Jeep was moving jobs from Ohio to China. By every measure, the ad backfired, drawing attacks by leaders of auto companies that employed many of the blue-collar voters that Mr. Romney was trying to reach.

The futility of that effort was apparent outside the sprawling Jeep assembly plant in Toledo, which had just had a $500 million renovation for production of a new line of vehicles, a project requiring 1,100 new workers.

“Everyone here knows someone who works at Jeep,” Jim Wessel, a supply representative making a sales visit. He said no one would believe the ad. Speaking of Mr. Obama’s efforts to rescue the auto industry, he said,“I can just tell you I’m glad he did it.”

Mr. Romney was running out of states. He made an impulsive run on Pennsylvania, chasing what his aides said were tightening polls there. Mr. Romney had spent little time or money there before roaring in during the campaign’s final hours.

On the last weekend of the race, Mr. Romney scheduled a rally in Bucks County. Supporters began arriving at 2 p.m. But his plane was delayed, and as the hours rolled on — and the temperatures dropped — dozens of people were temporarily blocked by the Secret Service as they sought to leave. Mr. Romney arrived to an unpleasant scene: clusters of angry, cold supporters.

That Tuesday, Mr. Romney lost the state by 5 percentage points and watched Mr. Obama hold a 50,000-vote lead in Florida — a state that he had once been confident of winning.

Michael Barbaro, Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker contributed reporting.


November 7, 2012

Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors


At the private air terminal at Logan Airport in Boston early Wednesday, men in unwrinkled suits sank into plush leather chairs as they waited to board Gulfstream jets, trading consolations over Mitt Romney’s loss the day before.

“All I can say is the American people have spoken,” said Kenneth Langone, the founder of Home Depot and one of Mr. Romney’s top fund-raisers, briskly plucking off his hat and settling into a couch.

The biggest single donor in political history, the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, mingled with other Romney backers at a postelection breakfast, fresh off a large gamble gone bad. Of the eight candidates he supported with tens of millions of dollars in contributions to “super PACs,” none were victorious on Tuesday.

And as calls came in on Wednesday from some of the donors who had poured more than $300 million into the pair of big-spending outside groups founded in part by Karl Rove — perhaps the leading political entrepreneur of the super PAC era — he offered them a grim upside: without us, the race would not have been as close as it was.

The most expensive election in American history drew to a close this week with a price tag estimated at more than $6 billion, propelled by legal and regulatory decisions that allowed wealthy donors to pour record amounts of cash into races around the country.

But while outside spending affected the election in innumerable ways — reshaping the Republican presidential nominating contest, clogging the airwaves with unprecedented amounts of negative advertising and shoring up embattled Republican incumbents in the House — the prizes most sought by the emerging class of megadonors remained outside their grasp. President Obama will return to the White House in January, and the Democrats have strengthened their lock on the Senate.

The election’s most lavishly self-financed candidate fared no better. Linda E. McMahon, a Connecticut Republican who is a former professional wrestling executive, spent close to $100 million — nearly all of it her own money — on two races for the Senate, conceding defeat on Tuesday for the second time in three years.

“Money is a necessary condition for electoral success,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. “But it’s not sufficient, and it’s never been.”

Even by the flush standards of a campaign in which the two presidential candidates raised $1 billion each, the scale of outside spending was staggering: more than $1 billion all told, about triple the amount in 2010.

Mr. Obama faced at least $386 million in negative advertising from super PACs and other outside spenders, more than double what the groups supporting him spent on the airwaves. Outside groups spent more than $37 million in Virginia’s Senate race and $30 million in Ohio’s, a majority to aid the Republican candidates.

The bulk of that outside money came from a relatively small group of wealthy donors, unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited contributions to super PACs. Harold Simmons, a Texas industrialist, gave $26.9 million to super PACs backing Mr. Romney and Republican candidates for the Senate. Joe Ricketts, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, spent close to $13 million to bankroll a super PAC attacking Mr. Obama over federal spending.

Bob Perry, a Texas homebuilder, poured more than $21 million into super PACs active in the presidential race and the Senate battles in Florida and Virginia, where Democrats narrowly prevailed. A donor network marshaled by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists and conservative philanthropists, reportedly sought to raise $400 million for tax-exempt groups that are not required to disclose their spending.

Mr. Adelson’s giving to super PACs and other outside groups came to more than $60 million, though in public Mr. Adelson did not seem overly concerned about the paltry returns on his investment.

“Paying bills,” Mr. Adelson said on Tuesday night when asked by a Norwegian reporter how he thought his donations had been spent. “That’s how you spend money. Either that or become a Jewish husband — you spend a lot of money.”

Flush with cash, Republican-leaning groups outspent Democratic ones by an even greater margin than in 2010. But rather than produce a major partisan imbalance, the money merely evened the playing field in many races.

In several competitive Senate races, high spending by outside groups was offset to a large extent with stronger fund-raising by Democratic candidates, assisted at the margins by Democratic super PACs. For much of the fall, Mr. Obama and Democratic groups broadcast at least as many ads, and sometimes more, in swing states than Mr. Romney and his allied groups, in part because Mr. Obama was able to secure lower ad rates by paying for most of the advertising himself. Mr. Romney relied far more on outside groups, which must pay higher rates.

Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor who helped Mr. Rove raise money for American Crossroads and its sister group, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, said that without a blitz of coordinated anti-Obama advertising in the summer, the campaign would not have been as competitive.

“I believe that some of that money actually kept Romney from getting beat down by the carpet-bombing he underwent from the Obama forces,” Mr. Barbour said. “I did look at it more as us trying to keep our candidates from getting swamped, like what happened to McCain.”

Some advocates for tighter campaign financing regulations argued that who won or lost was beside the point. The danger, they argued, is that in the post-Citizens United world, candidates and officeholders on both sides of the aisle are far more beholden to the wealthy individuals who can finance large-scale independent spending.

“Unlimited contributions and secret money in American politics have resulted in the past in scandal and the corruption of government decisions,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group. “This will happen again in the future.”

But on Wednesday, at least, the nation’s megadonors returned home with lighter wallets and few victories.

As the morning wore on at Logan Airport, more guests from Mr. Romney’s election-night party at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center trickled in, lugging garment bags and forming a small line at the security checkpoint.

“It’s going to be a long flight home, isn’t it?” said one person, who asked not to be identified.

The investor Julian Robertson, who held fund-raisers for Mr. Romney and gave more than $2 million to a pro-Romney super PAC, arrived with several companions. Mr. Robertson spotted an acquaintance: Emil W. Henry Jr., an economic adviser and a fund-raiser for Mr. Romney, to whom Mr. Robertson had offered a ride on his charter.

“Aww, group hug,” Mr. Henry said.

Ashley Parker contributed reporting.


November 8, 2012

With Obama Re-Elected, States Scramble Over Health Law


After nearly three years of legal and political threats that kept President Obama’s health care law in a constant state of uncertainty, his re-election on Tuesday all but guarantees that the historic legislation will survive.

Now comes another big hurdle: making it work.

The election came just 10 days before a critical deadline for states in carrying out the law, and many that were waiting for the outcome must now hustle to comply. Such efforts will coincide with epic negotiations between Mr. Obama and Congress over federal spending and taxes, where the administration will inevitably face pressure to scale back some of the costliest provisions of the law.

Mr. Obama faces crucial choices about strategy that could determine the success of the health care overhaul: Will the administration, for example, try to address the concerns of insurers, employers and some consumer groups who worry that the law’s requirements could increase premiums? Or will it insist on the stringent standards favored by liberal policy advocates inside and outside the government?

But for now — with Democrats retaining control of the Senate and Mitt Romney’s vow to “repeal and replace” the law no longer a threat — supporters are exulting.

“For our district and for our country, the debate on Obamacare is over,” declared Bill Foster, a Democrat elected Tuesday to the House from a suburban Chicago district.

Many supporters feel one of Mr. Obama’s most important tasks will be to step up efforts to promote and explain the law to a public that remains sharply divided and confused about it. In exit polls on Tuesday, nearly half of voters said the law should be either partly or fully repealed.

“There is still a tremendous amount of disinformation out there,” said Jeff Goldsmith, a health industry analyst based in Virginia. “If you actually are going to implement this law, people need to know what’s in it — not just the puppies-and-ice-cream parts, but ‘Here are the broader social changes intended and how they can help you.’ ”

Already, advocacy groups eager for the law to succeed have shifted into a higher gear. One such group, Families USA, held a conference call on Thursday with about 300 advocates around the country to strategize about next steps, said Ronald F. Pollack, the group’s executive director. Enroll America, a sister organization, will hold focus groups next week in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas to collect ideas for a public education campaign.

Much depends on the states as they decide in the coming weeks and months whether to build online marketplaces known as insurance exchanges, where individuals and small businesses can shop for health plans, and whether to expand their Medicaid programs to reach many more low-income people.

The clock is ticking on the exchange question in particular: states have until next Friday to decide whether they will build their own exchange or let the federal government run one for them. Some states have asked the administration for more time.

So far, only about 15 states and the District of Columbia have created the framework for exchanges through legislation or executive orders; three others have committed to running exchanges in partnership with the federal government. A number of Republican governors, including those in Arizona, Idaho, New Jersey, Virginia and Tennessee, had said they would decide after the election, giving themselves only a 10-day window before the deadline.

“I would expect that starting today there are a significant number of fascinating conversations going on behind closed doors in state capitols all over America,” said John McDonough, a professor of public health at Harvard who helped draft the law.

With deficit-reduction talks beginning in Washington next week, some observers believe that the law’s most expensive provisions — like federal subsidies to help families with incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty level pay their insurance premiums — could be scaled back in the name of deficit reduction.

“We know folks on the Hill are talking about this already,” said David Smith, an analyst at Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm that advises states on the law. “There are a lot of competing factors, but they have to find the savings and we believe health care will be one of the places where they will go.”

Another target for budget-cutters could be the planned expansion of Medicaid to people with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level — a crucial step toward the law’s goal of insuring about 30 million Americans.

When the Supreme Court upheld the health care law in June, it ruled that states do not have to participate in the expansion. For those that do, the federal government would pay the full cost for the first three years, starting in 2014, and gradually decrease its share to 90 percent in 2020 and beyond. As part of a deficit-reduction deal, Mr. Smith said, the Obama administration could agree to reduce the federal share.

In the nearer term — perhaps within weeks — the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue a torrent of federal regulations and informal guidance to carry out the law. Without these rules, insurance executives said, it is virtually impossible for them to devise the health plans that will be offered in every state through insurance exchanges.

The marketing of those health plans begins in October 2013, for coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014, the date by which the law requires most people to have insurance or pay a tax penalty. But state insurance regulators say they need to start reviewing the new products — for compliance with federal and state laws — much earlier, in the first few months of 2013.

Justine G. Handelman, a vice president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, said insurers were still waiting for the administration to define “essential health benefits” and provide details of “insurance market reforms” and consumer protections at the heart of the law.

The law says, for example, that rates for older subscribers cannot be more than three times the rates for young adults. But, Ms. Handelman said, the administration has not said how those ratios will be calculated. Will the government compare premiums for a 64-year-old and a 19-year-old? Or will it compare the rates for different age groups — 55 to 64 and 19 to 25, for example?

Although there is no deadline for states to indicate whether they will expand Medicaid, hospitals and other stakeholders are already lobbying the states to do so. Hospitals will see reimbursement rates trimmed under the health care law, and expanding Medicaid would bring new paying customers to help cover their losses.

Some states are worried about the cost, regardless, and have talked about pursuing a partial expansion instead. Whether the Obama administration would allow that is one of the many questions awaiting answers.

While the prospect of repeal appears dead, Professor McDonough predicted that Republicans in Congress would still seek to delay the fulfillment of the law’s major components — the mandate that most Americans carry health insurance by January 2014, for example, and the premium subsidies. That would be “a trap,” he said, because the Senate could theoretically flip to Republican control in November 2014, presenting “a new set of opponents to blockade implementation.”

Brett Graham, a partner at Leavitt Partners, said that he did not think a delay was likely, but that the Obama administration, realizing it may be impossible for many states to be ready by January 2014, might redefine what they need to do by then.

“Part of this is redefining what the expectation is,” he said, “and we fully expect them to do that.”


November 8, 2012

Congress Sees Rising Urgency on Fiscal Deal


WASHINGTON — Senior lawmakers said Thursday that they were moving quickly to take advantage of the postelection political atmosphere to try to strike an agreement that would avert a fiscal crisis early next year when trillions of dollars in tax increases and automatic spending cuts begin to go into force.

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, said he had begun circulating a draft plan to overhaul the tax code and entitlements, had met with 25 senators from both parties and “been on the phone nonstop since the election.”

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, the Maine Republican who will retire at the end of the year, made it clear that she intended to press for a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff and get serious on the deficit, lame duck or not.

“The message and signals we send in the coming days could bear serious consequences for this country,” she said. “It could trigger another downgrade. It could trigger a global financial crisis. This is a very consequential moment.”

Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, extended an olive branch to Republicans, suggesting Thursday that he could accept a tax plan that leaves the top tax rate at 35 percent, provided that loophole closings would hit the rich, not the middle class. He previously had said that he would accept nothing short of a return to the top tax rate of Bill Clinton’s presidency, 39.6 percent.

“If you kept them at 35, it’s still much harder to do,” Mr. Schumer said, “but obviously there is push and pull, and there are going to be compromises.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office underscored the stakes in a report Thursday that framed Washington’s dilemma. It said that if automatic spending cuts go into force and all the Bush-era tax cuts expire, the nation would slip into recession next year and unemployment would rise to 9.1 percent, from October’s rate of 7.9 percent. But simply canceling those deficit-reduction measures would risk a financial crisis that would make matters worse, the report said.

The accelerated activity in Washington showed that members of Congress believed the election had amplified the imperative to strike a deal. Still, signs that the two sides are open to some compromise are no guarantee that they can reach an agreement after warring for two years. Many Republicans will continue to resist any proposal that can be read as increasing taxes, and many Democrats will balk at changes in entitlement programs and spending cuts.

Lawmakers also have a wary eye on the electoral landscape. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a crucial player in budget talks, is up for re-election in 2014 and may resist any deal that could foster opposition back home.

But members of Congress clearly see recent events creating an opening in the postelection session of Congress, when some retiring and defeated lawmakers could have a freer hand on voting for legislation, absent political consequences. Republicans were weakened by losing seats in both the House and the Senate, while Democrats are eager to move to issues like immigration, which animated Latino voters and helped deliver victory on Tuesday. “The conditions are there to act,” Mr. Corker said. “I think the environment is different now.”

Even conservative Republicans are signaling newfound flexibility. Aides said that on a conference call of House Republicans, a number of lawmakers spoke up to say they needed to give their leaders breathing room and avoid brinkmanship.

The budget office report suggested that allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for households earning more than $250,000 a year — a position strenuously opposed by Congressional Republicans — would have relatively modest economic impacts, versus many of the other components of the fiscal cliff.

“House Republicans must end their intransigence on tax cuts for the very wealthy and sit down on a bipartisan basis to finish the work of this Congress,” said Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

A separate C.B.O. report released Thursday threw cold water on Republican beliefs that a simplified tax code that lowered income and payroll taxes and closed loopholes to make up for lost revenue would substantially close the deficit by boosting economic growth. Such a plan would raise about $100 billion a year by 2020, far less than Democrats say is necessary, the report said.

The forces arrayed against a budget deal remain powerful, and the gap between the parties — at least in their public postures — is wide. Liberals, backed by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, say Social Security should not be part of any deal. Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and a standard-bearer for the left, said Thursday that virtually all deficit reduction should come from tax increases on the rich, closing loopholes that have allowed profitable corporations to avoid paying any corporate income taxes and cutting military spending.

Mr. Corker said many Senate Republicans were willing to agree to a deal that raises more revenue through an overhaul of the tax code, and that additional revenue must be generated by taxation, not just economic growth. In a speech Thursday in his home state of South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham said that fellow Republicans should hold the line on tax rates, but that they had to accept that a reformed tax code would raise more revenues. Only then, he said, can they expect Democrats to negotiate changes to entitlement spending.

Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, has said he will agree only to a deal that lowers the top income tax rate from the current 35 percent, not from the top rate that is scheduled to kick in on Jan. 1, 39.6 percent. He said that additional revenue would be generated by economic growth spurred by a simpler tax code, not by higher taxes.

Spinning revenue from tax cuts like that, Mr. Schumer said, is a “Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.”

Conservatives are not giving in.

“We will certainly face many battles in Congress in the coming months that will give us the opportunity to clearly articulate the failures of liberalism and the common sense of conservative alternatives,” Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said Thursday on Facebook. “We must not shrink from the fight on Capitol Hill.”

Andrew Siddons contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 9, 2012

An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of a contributing reporter. He is Andrew Siddons, not Andrews.


November 8, 2012

Speaker ‘Confident’ of Deal With White House on Immigration


WASHINGTON — Fresh off an election in which Hispanic voters largely sided with Democrats, Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he was “confident” Congress and the White House could come up with a comprehensive immigration solution.

Immigration reform is “an important issue that I think ought to be dealt with,” Mr. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in an interview with Diane Sawyer on “ABC World News.”

“This issue has been around far too long,” he said, “and while I believe it’s important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws, I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

The words conveyed a new sense of urgency from Mr. Boehner, who said earlier this year that he thought it would be politically impossible to tackle a Republican proposal on the Dream Act, which sought to open a path to citizenship for some students in the United States illegally.

According to exit polls by Edison Research, President Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote compared with Mitt Romney’s 27 percent, a gap greater than Mr. Obama’s 36-point advantage with those voters over John McCain in 2008.

Though Mr. Boehner did not elaborate on his ideas, nor give a time frame, many lawmakers want to tackle immigration legislation in the next session of Congress. The lame-duck session starting next week will be devoted to dealing with pressing tax and deficit issues.

Mr. Boehner’s comments caught the attention of Senate Democrats.

“This is a breakthrough to have the speaker endorse the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York in a statement. “Democrats in the Senate look forward to working with him to come up with a bipartisan solution.”

Just seven months ago, when Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, first floated his compromise version of the Dream Act, Mr. Boehner called the idea “difficult at best” to take up in the House, saying “the problem with this issue is that we are operating in a very hostile political environment.”

But, after the election, Republicans could be more open to taking their cues from Mr. Rubio, whom many see as their best hope for helping to expand their voter base and guide the way on immigration.


Obama to make economy statement Friday

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 8, 2012 20:13 EST

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama will make Friday his major first post-election intervention in the looming showdown with Republicans over debt and spending, with an on-camera White House statement.

A White House official told AFP that the remarks, in the presidential mansion’s ornate East Room, would focus on “the action we need to take to keep our economy growing and reduce our debt.”

Obama is expected to weigh in on the cresting row with Republicans over expiring tax cuts, looming automatic spending reductions and reducing the deficit, which experts warn could spark a recession if not defused.

The president says Americans sent a message to Washington by returning him for a second term on Tuesday, and that both parties should put aside partisan interests to focus on the economy first.

Obama campaigned for re-election on the idea that the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes, and will feel he has a mandate for such an approach.

But Republicans refuse to countenance any tax hikes and insist on cuts to spending on social programs that many Democrats cherish.

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, has laid down the terms of his party’s negotiating approach to the row, known as the “fiscal cliff.”

He said Republicans were ready to make a short-term fix to avert the spending cuts and higher taxes slated to come into law on January 1.

But Boehner said a longer-term deal to cut the country’s debt and deficit burden would have to rely on a shakeup of the tax code — cutting loopholes and special breaks — to boost government revenues rather than Democrat-favored tax increases.

“Mr President, the Republican majority here in the House stands ready to work with you to do what’s best for our country,” Boehner said Wednesday.

“What we can do is avert the cliff in a manner that serves as a downpayment on and a catalyst for major solutions enacted in 2013 to begin to solve the problem.”

Boehner made clear that a comprehensive long-term plan for debt reduction was unlikely in the next seven weeks of the outgoing “lame duck” Congress, but that a short-term compromise could be achieved.

That was a challenge to Obama, who has previously opposed calls for a short-term fix that would just mean “kicking the can down the road.”


November 8, 2012

Colorado Democrats Elect State’s First Gay Speaker


DENVER — Democratic lawmakers in Colorado sustained a wrenching defeat in the final days of the legislative session last spring. A bill that would have allowed civil unions for same-sex couples was blocked from getting a full vote in the State House of Representatives by Republican leaders, who knew Democrats had the votes to pass it.

But this week, Democrats here regained control of the House, buttressed by a favorably redrawn legislative map and simmering anger over the civil unions debate.

And on Thursday, punctuating the moment, Democratic lawmakers elected the state’s first openly gay speaker of the House.

The new speaker, State Representative Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat from Denver, was a co-sponsor of the civil unions bill and has vowed to bring it back when the session resumes in January.

“Twenty years ago, Amendment 2 passed in Colorado,” an emotional Mr. Ferrandino said after his election, referring to a 1992 state constitutional amendment passed by voters that banned laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination. “And now we have our first openly gay speaker. I think that is an amazing turnaround for our state. It speaks volumes for how much we’ve grown.”

Amendment 2, which led some to call Colorado “the hate state,” was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. A separate 2006 amendment to the state Constitution defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman.

Mr. Ferrandino said that the economy and education were legislative priorities, but that in terms of expanding rights for gay men and lesbians, “civil unions is the thing we really are pushing for.”

California and Rhode Island have openly gay House speakers, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports gay candidates. And a lesbian lawmaker will most likely become speaker in Oregon, said Denis Dison, a spokesman for the group.

Over the past two years, Republicans have controlled Colorado’s House of Representatives by a single vote, forcing Democrats to seek their support on contentious legislation like on civil unions.

This year, even a special legislative session called by Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, in a last-ditch effort to pass civil unions could not resolve the heated impasse over the issue.

But Democrats now have a 37-to-28 majority in Colorado’s House and outnumber Republicans, 20 to 15, in the Senate.

Colorado, which is split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, also supported President Obama for a second time on Tuesday.

And despite its reputation as a swing state, Colorado has been trending toward the Democrats in recent years, nudged by a growing number of Latinos, who now make up 20 percent of the state’s population and who supported Mr. Obama in overwhelming numbers, according to exit polls.

“I give the Obama machine a great deal of credit,” said State Representative Frank McNulty, a Republican from Highlands Ranch and the departing House speaker. “They were devastatingly efficient.”

Mr. McNulty, who was instrumental in blocking the civil union vote in May, said Democrats had successfully been identifying like-minded voters for the last six years.

“What they have is a machine,” he said.

With their newfound power, Democrats also believe they can pass another prized piece of legislation, one that would allow state colleges and universities to offer discounted tuition to illegal immigrants.

Colorado lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates have tried to pass such legislation in recent years without success.


November 8, 2012

Ethics in Play, Voters Oust Incumbents Under Scrutiny


WASHINGTON — It turns out that ethics really do matter here in Washington, at least according to some of the nation’s voters.

In races around the country, an unusually large number of lawmakers facing charges of wrongdoing were unceremoniously ousted from their jobs on Tuesday — which is quite rare, because more than 90 percent of the incumbents seeking re-election to Congress typically return for another term.

The list of those who lost this year includes Representative Laura Richardson, Democrat of California, who was reprimanded in August by the House Ethics Committee for illegally forcing her staff to help her run for re-election and then obstructing the investigation by altering or destroying evidence. There is Representative David Rivera, Republican of Florida, who last month was charged by the Florida Commission on Ethics with concealing a $1 million consulting contract with a Miami gambling business while serving in the State House.

Of those defeated, perhaps the one with the highest profile was Representative Shelley Berkley, Democrat of Nevada, who was seeking a seat in the United States Senate. Her opponent was the only Republican Senate candidate to win in a state that President Obama also won.

Ms. Berkley spent much of her campaign on the defensive after the House Ethics Committee opened a formal investigation into allegations, first raised in The New York Times, that she may have used her office to benefit her husband’s Las Vegas medical practice, in part by intervening with federal officials to prevent the closing of a kidney transplant center that his practice helped run.

Others defeated were Representative Joe Baca, Democrat of California, whose family ran a charity that took donations from corporations and other groups that have appealed to him for help in Congress, and Representative Joe Walsh, Republican of Illinois, who had long been plagued by financial questions, including about tax liens, a foreclosure on a condominium and failing to pay child support.

The ethics issues were not the only matters in the race. But in a number of cases, they appeared to play a role.

“Politicians ignore ethics issues at their own peril,” said Melanie Sloan, who runs a Washington-based nonprofit group that annually publishes a report titled the “Most Corrupt Members of Congress.” “Americans are overwhelmingly cynical about their government, but they still expect ethical conduct from their congressmen.”

In total, 11 of the lawmakers included in the “Most Corrupt” report over the last two years, out of a total 31 featured, have been defeated or are retiring, including New Hampshire’s only two House members: Representatives Charles Bass, a Republican, and Frank Guinta, a Republican.

For lawmakers facing Congressional ethics inquiries, there is at least one advantage to a political career cut short: the House and Senate ethics committees lose jurisdiction over them once they leave office, so no charges can be brought.

But there is a precedent for at least releasing reports on investigations even after lawmakers make their exit. The Senate ethics committee released a report about Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, who helped his former chief of staff get a job as a lobbyist after Mr. Ensign had an affair with the aide’s wife. Mr. Ensign stepped down in April 2011, just before he was going to have to testify under oath to ethics investigators.

The hard luck this year started during the party primaries, when some incumbents under ethics clouds fell to challengers. They included Representatives Jean Schmidt, Republican of Ohio, who improperly allowed a Turkish-American group in Ohio to pay her legal fees, and Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas, who is currently the subject of an ethics investigation and has been accused of paying nearly $600,000 to himself or his family from campaign funds. Also defeated in a primary was Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, who was publicly accused by a Florida court clerk of trying to bribe a political rival into ending his campaign.

The list of winners on Tuesday included other lawmakers facing allegations of wrongdoing, like Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, who has been on medical leave for months and is also under investigation by federal authorities in the possible misuse of campaign money.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported on Wednesday that Mr. Jackson may be negotiating a plea deal. He is the subject of a separate House ethics committee inquiry into whether a longtime supporter improperly tried to secure him an appointment to the United States Senate after Mr. Obama was elected president.

Representative Robert E. Andrews, Democrat of New Jersey, who is accused of using $13,000 in campaign funds to pay for a family trip to Scotland for a wedding, also survived Election Day.

Ken Boehm, co-founder of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Virginia-based group that has filed ethics complaints, said some lawmakers under investigation come from districts dominated by one party. “These are people who it appears believe they are above the law and immune from defeat,” he said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 9, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated the party affiliation of Representative Frank Guinta.  He is a Republican, not a Democrat.


November 8, 2012

In Michigan, a Setback for Unions


Hoping to set a precedent for other states, Michigan’s labor unions spent months pushing a referendum to amend the state’s Constitution to prohibit the legislature from ever enacting a law that would curb the powers of public employee unions.

But this push to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the Constitution was roundly defeated in Tuesday’s election, 58 to 42 percent — an embarrassing loss for labor in a state known as a cradle of American unionism.

While union leaders have been quick to claim success in other Election Day contests, from the re-election of President Obama to the defeat of a California proposal that would have limited their ability to spend union dues in political campaigns, they have been largely silent on the Michigan loss.

Some political experts say the measure was voted down for the same reason that the four other ballot initiatives to amend Michigan’s Constitution were defeated: voters were wary of tinkering with their state’s Constitution.

But business leaders and some labor analysts say that the unions overreached by trying to pass sweeping language that would have potentially overturned all or parts of other state laws and perhaps cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Voters were afraid of amending the Constitution to give that much power to organized labor and make them a superlegislature above their representatives,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative research center. He said many Democrats and even some private sector union members saw the measure as “a power grab by government unions.”

Union leaders do not concede that they were overreaching. They mostly fault a hard-hitting advertising campaign by business-backed groups that opposed the measure, known as Proposal 2.

Karla Swift, president of the Michigan A.F.L.-C.I.O., said that business heavily outspent labor in a blitz of ads during the two weeks before Election Day. Campaign spending reports showed that before then, the labor side had spent $21.5 million to promote the proposal while business groups and conservative donors had spent $23.4 million.

“It’s very hard to stay in the game against a campaign of lies and distortions,” Ms. Swift said. She said the other side’s advertisements were inaccurate in claiming that Proposal 2 would bar school districts from firing teachers who had committed crimes.

Michigan unions did succeed with a separate referendum campaign to overturn a law that allowed the state to appoint emergency managers to run financially distressed communities, including revising or scrapping union agreements.

But they appear to have misjudged the level of public support for entrenching union rights in the state Constitution, even in a state that is home to influential unions like the United Auto Workers.

Dale Belman, a professor of labor relations at Michigan State University, said that voters were uneasy with a proposal that would do so much, from barring right-to-work legislation to superseding state laws that barred communities from negotiating with public employee unions about specific issues.

“It was broad and ambiguous and not sufficiently well-defined,” he said. “With this loss, now there is some concern whether unions have proved their weakness.”

Richard K. Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said the union-friendly measure would have damaged the state’s business climate. And he said voters rejected the proposal because they feared that it would hit their already squeezed wallets.

“The heart of the proposal was an unprecedented provision to retroactively repeal up to 170 different laws, many of them cost-saving measures,” he said. “Many taxpayers were stunned to learn that the cost of such repeals could be $400 million to local school districts.”

The proposal was defeated even though Mr. Obama won the state, 54 to 46 percent, attracting 2.5 million votes. Proposal 2 garnered 600,000 fewer votes, indicating that many Democrats turned against labor on this issue.

Bob King, the U.A.W.’s president, said he was surprised by a survey that found that 55 percent of Michigan voters who said they supported collective bargaining nonetheless said they had voted no on Proposal 2.

“Obviously we didn’t get our message out clearly enough to the general public,” he said. He said unions did not do a good enough job responding to what he said were the other side’s misstatements, such as claims that the proposal would bar schools from screening the employees they hired.

“The intent of the constitutional amendment was to stop the legislature’s overreach over the past 18 months,” he said, noting that the Republican-dominated legislature had passed laws that barred bargaining on several issues, including how to evaluate teachers.

The Service Employees International Union had pushed a separate referendum to amend the Constitution to guarantee home-care aides the right to bargain collectively, a move many conservatives denounced for increasing costs for employers and ensuring several million dollars in dues for the union. That measure lost 57 to 43 percent.

Unions had more success with the referendum to repeal the year-old emergency manager law. That measure, pushed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, won 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent.

Union leaders said they were upset that emergency managers appointed to run financially troubled communities had the power to rewrite union agreements for public sector workers like teachers and firefighters.

Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said voters had overturned the law because many thought “it seemed undemocratic to put a person in place with all those powers.”

After their membership and bargaining clout declined in recent decades, the nation’s unions were badly stung when the Wisconsin and Ohio legislatures enacted laws in 2011 to restrict the ability of government employees to bargain collectively.

In Ohio, unions engineered a successful effort to repeal that state’s law last November, but unions failed in their push to recall Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, in a vote last June.

Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, said organized labor would have had a lot to celebrate if it had triumphed on Proposal 2 in Michigan.

“If they had won, they could have claimed that they had reversed the trend that began in Wisconsin,” he said. “Combined with the Obama victory, they could have said that labor has come roaring back in the political arena.”


Rep. Issa allegedly violated House ethics rules with anti-Obama video

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, November 8, 2012 16:37 EST

The D.C.-based group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has accused Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA) of using official government resources on a political ad attacking President Barack Obama, a violation of House ethics rules.

Issa, the chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, on November 2 uploaded a video to YouTube that attack Obama over State Department dinner spending. The video, entitled “Obama State Dinners: Spend Like He Says, Not Like He Does,” was uploaded on the Oversight Committee’s official YouTube channel and also promoted by Issa’s official Twitter account.

“The attack ad offers no information about any action whatsoever by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan wrote in a complaint filed Thursday with the Office of Congressional Ethics.

“Further, it makes no attempt to put the costs of the two state dinne
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Explosive secret may be contained in Arafat’s tomb

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 9, 2012 14:10 EST

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories — The Palestinians’ most explosive secret may be lurking under the stone slab covering Yasser Arafat’s tomb where experts hope to explain his mysterious death eight years ago.

When the iconic Palestinian leader died at the age of 75 in a French military hospital near Paris on November 11, 2004, French doctors were unable to say what had killed him.

Many Palestinians still hold on to the belief that he was poisoned by Israel although there has been no proof of such allegations until now.

But following the broadcast of an Al-Jazeera documentary in July, in which Swiss experts reported finding abnormal quantities of the radioactive substance polonium on his personal effects, the controversy has been resurrected.

On November 26, French magistrates pursuing a murder inquiry are to arrive in the West Bank town of Ramallah along with a Swiss delegation who will work in parallel to take samples from his body for testing.

But the two investigations have rekindled an old dispute among his family members and those close to him.

The French murder inquiry was opened in late August at the request of Arafat’s widow Suha, who, at the time of his death, had refused to give her permission for an autopsy.

News of the findings after Suha had handed over Arafat’s effects for testing came as a surprise to the Palestinian Authority.

It quickly agreed to let the investigators come and take samples “on the condition that the family … accepts,” in a reference to his widow, his daughter Zahwa and his nephew Nasser al-Qidwa.

Tawfiq Tirawi, who is in charge of the ongoing Palestinian probe into Arafat’s death, has said the tomb can be opened only once in presence of both sets of experts.

Qidwa, who has repeatedly accused Israel of poisoning his uncle, hailed the Al-Jazeera documentary for providing the long-overdue evidence and has said there is no need for further proof by opening the grave.

He has called for the immediate formation of an international commission of inquiry to try those responsible.

This week, Qidwa, who heads the Yasser Arafat Foundation, repeated his “opposition in principle” to an exhumation, “primarily because samples collected after eight years may not be clinically exploitable.”

“Every Palestinian is convinced that Arafat was murdered,” he told AFP, “but even opening his tomb won’t convince the sceptics of the truth.”

In a survey carried out shortly after his death in November 2004, more than 80 percent of Palestinians said they believed there was truth in the rumour that he was poisoned by Israel.

And 93 percent said they wanted his medical files to be made public — which eventually happened in July this year but shed no more light on the cause of death.

Unlike Qidwa, Suha Arafat has not specifically pointed the finger at Israel, telling AFP last month that “the truth about the death of the martyr Arafat is of interest to every Palestinian patriot.”

On July 31, Arafat’s widow and her daughter launched a civil suit for murder in France, with her lawyers saying the action was “against (a defendant referred to as) X meaning that Suha and Zahwa Arafat are not accusing anyone — not a specific state, a group or an individual.”

As Arafat lay dying in a military hospital near Paris, Suha — who was tightly guarding access to her husband — raised speculation that other players could be involved by accusing his top lieutenants of trying to to bury him alive.

“A handful of (people) seeking to inherit power are coming to Paris to try and bury Abu Ammar alive,” she said, using her husbands nom-de-guerre.

The remarks were directed at Mahmud Abbas, the current president who was acting PLO chief at the time, Ahmed Qorei, who was prime minister, and Nabil Shaath, who was then foreign minister.

In light of the renewed speculation that Arafat was poisoned, Israeli officials have denied any involvement in the death and raised the suggestion that Palestinian officials and his wife were keeping crucial details from the people.

But such denials from Israel, which has been involved in killing or trying to kill a number of leading Palestinians, often in extraordinary circumstances, have little chance of changing beliefs which still remain strong on the Palestinian street eight years later.

Only last week Israel for the first time admitted that it assassinated Arafat’s deputy, Abu Jihad, in a 1988 raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunis.

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November 9, 2012

Palestinians Renew Push for Enhanced U.N. Status


JERUSALEM — A Palestinian official in the West Bank said Friday that the distribution of a draft resolution at the United Nations headquarters in New York a day earlier was the “first big step” toward a vote this month on enhancing the Palestinians’ status in the General Assembly.

The distribution of the draft to all 193 member states is the first practical act in an effort likely to set the Palestinians on a collision course with Israel.

The United States and Israel have strongly opposed the Palestinians’ plans to gain international recognition for their claim to a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and to upgrade their status to that of a nonmember observer state in the United Nations system.

Although close to 130 countries have expressed support for the move, according to the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership has come under heavy diplomatic pressure to postpone it, to give a second-term Obama administration some time and flexibility and to await the outcome of Israeli elections scheduled for January.

But the Palestinian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy under way, said, “We do not see any reason to delay it,” adding that the Palestinians had been waiting for statehood for decades.

Last year, the Palestinians submitted an application to the Security Council to become a full member state of the United Nations, but the United States made it clear it would veto approval for the request. It became bogged down in committee and has not come to a vote. In the General Assembly, where resolutions are nonbinding, there are no veto powers.

The draft resolution “reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their state of Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 borders,” according to the Palestinian official who is familiar with the document. He said it also expresses “the urgent need for the resumption and acceleration of negotiations within the Middle East peace process” and states that the permanent borders of a Palestinian state are “to be determined in final status negotiations.”

The official said that friendly countries, including some in Europe, had advised the Palestinians to emphasize the need for negotiations, presumably to try to undercut the argument made by Israel and some major international players, including Britain, that unilateral actions like this are detrimental to efforts for a two-state solution that can be achieved only through peace talks.

Israel rejects the Palestinian assertion that the resolution does not conflict with a return to negotiations.

“We are trying to make the case with all United Nations members that this vote is not what it seems,” said Yigal Palmor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. “It is not a vote for Palestinian reconciliation with Israel but for a continuation of the confrontation with Israel by other means.”

Mr. Palmor said that Israel was ready for negotiations at any time but that the Palestinians had set preconditions. He said that enshrining outlines for negotiations in a United Nations resolution was problematic. The Palestinians, he added, would use any enhanced status to try to join additional United Nations organizations as well as other international bodies like the International Criminal Court, where they could attempt to sue Israel for activities like settlement building.

In an opinion article on The New York Times’s Op-Ed page last year, the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, wrote: “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”

This time the Palestinians have been more circumspect, stating more vaguely in a recent official document that enhanced status will “enable Palestine to better use the U.N. and other international forums to advance its just cause for freedom and independence” and help the Palestinians “to reinforce the international position that does not recognize Israel’s occupation and practices of colonization and annexation as legitimate.”

The Palestinians are now waiting for feedback on the draft resolution before setting a date for a vote, most likely on Nov. 29, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations vote to partition the territory of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

This week, Palestinian leaders fanned out across Europe to drum up support for the motion. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was meeting in Vienna on Friday with Israel’s ambassadors to more than two dozen European countries to coordinate the campaign against the Palestinian request.
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« Reply #2966 on: Nov 10, 2012, 08:11 AM »

November 9, 2012

A Vague Role for Religion in Egyptian Draft Constitution


CAIRO — After months of fierce debate over the place of Islam in government, the assembly drafting a new constitution for Egypt has settled on a compromise that opens the door to more religion in governance but mainly guarantees that the issue will continue to roil politics, the Parliament and the courts for many years to come.

The compromise would insert religion more deeply into the legislative and judicial process by elaborating new guidelines to interpret “the principles of Islamic law” that the old Constitution had recognized, at least nominally, as the main source of Egyptian legislation.

But the new constitution would also leave the final authority to apply those principles with the elected Parliament and civil courts, making the long-term consequences hard to foresee. Little is expected to change under the current courts and Parliament — dominated by Islamists who mostly favor a relatively flexible or gradual approach to adopting Islamic law — but the potential long-term consequences are already a subject of impassioned debate.

If literal-minded ultraconservatives — known as Salafis and who currently hold about a quarter of the seats in Parliament — gain more influence in the legislature and eventually the courts, they could someday use the provisions to try to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. If Islamists gain more power across the Parliament, courts and religious institutions, “I would see a real possibility for evolutionary change,” said Nathan J. Brown, an expert on Egyptian law at George Washington University.

But by keeping power in the hands of elected officials and civil courts, the agreement should also dispel, for now, the fears here and in the West that Egypt might follow the path of Iran’s 1979 revolution toward a theocracy where religious leaders have the final say on all matters of state. And liberal delegates who signed onto the deal noted that the guidelines were broad enough to leave substantial room for debate over just what Islamic law should require in the context of modern Egypt.

“The more interpretation, the better off we are,” said Manar el-Shorbagy, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo and a liberal delegate who signed the deal. “You are no longer putting everything under one interpretation — the Salafis’ or whoever else.”

As the largest Arab state and the original home of the international Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has become a bellwether for Islamist political movements around the region after the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the site of the first uprising, the dominant Islamist party has already agreed on a more liberal compromise, retaining a clause in its Constitution declaring that Islam is the state religion but omitting any reference to Islamic law.

Although many Muslim-majority countries acknowledge Islam in their charters, Egypt would become the first Arab state to seek to meld democracy with the principles of Islamic law, or Shariah. The full terms of the deal have not been released, but several liberals and Islamists involved in the negotiations described its details. Delegates on both sides called the deal a victory. Younis Makhyoun, a Salafi leader in the constitutional assembly who signed the deal, argued that it would “prevent random people from coming up with new schools of thought and claiming they’re part of Shariah.”

Echoing the liberals’ fears, Mr. Makhyoun suggested that someday the provisions might even be used for strict enforcement of puritanical Islamic moral codes, including stoning adulterers or cutting off the hands of thieves.

But outside the assembly, many on both sides denounced the deal as a sellout. On Friday, thousands of Salafis filled Tahrir Square to protest that the drafts did not go far enough.

While liberals in the assembly argued that they had beaten back Salafi proposals for a council of religious scholars that could strike down legislation, many activists outside were angry that the constitution appeared for the first time to take Shariah so seriously. “The road to Afghanistan,” said Malek Adly, a liberal activist.

The old Constitution had recognized the “principles of Islamic law” after a 1980 revision, although its texts hardly mattered under the old secular autocracy.

The ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year set off a clamor for Islamic law but also a debate over what it should mean, with new Islamist parties ranging from ultraconservative to avowedly liberal.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has dominated the elections since the uprising, argues that Shariah only “polishes morals, through persuasion and education, with no coercion whatsoever” as the group’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, said last week in a statement supporting the deal. “Shariah totally rejects the concept of a theocracy.”

Straining to present some semblance of consensus, Brotherhood leaders helped bring together representatives of the liberal and Salafi camps, along with officials from Egypt’s Coptic Church, for at least three six-hour negotiating sessions before they signed the compromise.

The agreement stipulates that in personal matters Christians and Jews are free to follow their own religious teachings. And it provides that on questions related to Islamic law, the Parliament or the courts can seek the nonbinding advice of scholars at Al Azhar, the center of Sunni Muslim scholarship set to become independent of state control.

In the end, scholars said, the real impact of the new provision — defining “principles of Shariah” according to established Sunni Muslim thought — would be to move the battle over the application of Islamic law further into the terrain of religious scholarship.

Conservatives feel more comfortable there, said Clark Lombardi, a professor at the University of Washington Law School who studies the role of Islamic law in the legal systems. But “liberal Islamists” in Egypt and elsewhere are also becoming increasingly effective at building their own cases on the basis of Shariah for women’s rights or other causes.

“The battle between liberals and conservatives,” Mr. Lombardi said, “is just going to reappear.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
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« Reply #2967 on: Nov 10, 2012, 08:13 AM »

November 9, 2012

In One Day, 11,000 Flee Syria as War and Hardship Worsen


The United Nations reported that 11,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries on Friday, the vast majority clambering for safety over the Turkish border, in one of the largest single-day torrents of refugees since the Syrian conflict began. It came as mayhem and deprivations were worsening inside the country, its president more determined than ever to stay and his fractious enemies still politically paralyzed.

United Nations refugee agency officials said 9,000 of the fleeing Syrians, many of them drenched from a cold rain, went to Turkey. The flow alarmed Turkish officials and led their prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to vent bitterly at the five permanent members of the Security Council for what he called their failure to respond decisively to the crisis after nearly 20 months.

“The world cannot be left to what the five permanent members have to say,” Mr. Erdogan told a conference in Indonesia. “If we leave it to the five permanent members, humanity will continue to bleed.”

Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations refugee agency official coordinating the response, told reporters in Geneva, where the agency is based, that the latest surge included 1,000 Syrians who reached Lebanon and 1,000 who reached Jordan, bringing the number of registered refugees to more than 408,000 in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Agency officials said a few weeks ago they had anticipated that more than 700,000 Syrian refugees would be living in these countries by year’s end, straining their resources just as the cold Middle East winter intensifies.

The agency’s figures do not include Syrians who have fled without registering, a number believed to be in the tens of thousands in Jordan alone.

Turkish officials said more than half the Syrians who fled into Turkey on Friday had been seeking to escape combat between insurgents and loyalist forces near Ras al-Ain, a northeast border town where fighting has raged for days.

The arrivals who crossed the Turkish border at Reyhanli in Hatay Province included 26 Syrian Army defectors, with 2 generals and 11 colonels among them, the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency of Turkey reported.

The increased exodus coincided with new signs of defiance by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Russia Today, a government-run news service. In portions of the interview that were first released Thursday, Mr. Assad said that he intended to remain in Syria and warned that any foreign invasion would be a costly catastrophe. Russia has been a steady defender of Mr. Assad.

In the complete version released Friday, Mr. Assad denied that Syria was consumed in a civil war and insisted that his forces could “finish everything” within weeks if foreign suppliers stopped sending weapons to the insurgents, whom he universally categorizes as terrorists.

Mr. Assad also denied that Syrian forces had shelled targets in Turkey and accused Mr. Erdogan — a former friend and now one of Mr. Assad’s biggest critics — of coveting Syrian territory. “He personally thinks that he is the new sultan of the Ottomans and he can control the region as it was during the Ottoman Empire under a new umbrella,” Mr. Assad said.

The surge in refugees occurred as agencies of the United Nations and other groups met donor governments in Geneva to report on the crisis and seek greater financial support for the emergency fund for Syrian refugees, which has received only one-third of its intended goal of $488 million.

“There is more violence, more humanitarian suffering, more displacement and more losses,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the refugee agency’s coordinator based in Damascus.

The United Nations has also estimated that more than 2.5 million people inside Syria need humanitarian assistance, including 1.2 million displaced by the conflict. John Ging, the director of operations for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that four million Syrians may need help in the country by early next year. “It’s just getting a lot worse very rapidly for the ordinary people,” Mr. Ging said.

The United States will provide $34 million in additional aid to Syrians affected by conflict, bringing the total provided by the United States to more than $165 million, the American diplomatic mission in Geneva said in an announcement distributed at the donor meeting.

Groups that track the violence reported widespread attacks, including the government use of warplanes, in Damascus suburbs and other areas on Friday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain with contacts inside Syria, said at least 120 people had been killed nationwide.

In Doha, Qatar, the Syrian National Council, an opposition group in exile, elected a new president, George Sabra, a veteran leftist dissident and Christian and an outspoken critic of Mr. Assad who had spent more than eight years in prison for his activism. But it was unclear whether Mr. Sabra’s new role would help or hinder efforts to create a more unified opposition front at a convention of Syrian opposition groups under way in Doha.

Earlier this week Mr. Sabra criticized an attempt to subsume the Syrian National Council into a larger umbrella group, an idea that has been advanced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton has been increasingly exasperated with the council’s dysfunction and irrelevance because its members are all exiles with little feel for the combat raging in their home country.

Many council members have suggested that the formation of a larger umbrella organization would diminish their role without any guarantees of further international funding and other support for the uprising, which currently gets nonlethal aid from the United States. On Thursday and Friday, representatives of the Syrian National Council did not even attend the convention.

“They have a problem that is paralyzing them,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, an opposition activist and former confidant of Mr. Assad.

The council’s vote for a new president and new executive committee caused its own problems, with at least one organization and various independent members quitting over the outcome. Those leaving the council said that the election process had been meant to introduce reforms that added diversity to the group, but that instead it had reinforced the control of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

“The council has been one color, which defies logic,” said Rima Fleihan, a member in exile of the Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad group that has sought to document casualties. “The institution has failed to deliver what it promised in terms of fixing its internal problems.”

Rick Gladstone reported from New York, and Neil MacFarquhar from Doha, Qatar. Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; Sebnem Arsu from Hatay, Turkey; Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon; and Christine Hauser from New York.
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« Reply #2968 on: Nov 10, 2012, 08:17 AM »

10 November 2012 - 13H59 

Grumbling 'volunteers' roped into Beijing crackdown

AFP - The Chinese Communist Party's paranoia is on full display for its congress in Beijing in a security squeeze extending from police swarming Tiananmen Square to elderly sentinels watching street corners.

The capital has 1.4 million "public order volunteers" -- retirees, street cleaners, firemen and low-paid private security guards -- on the lookout for anything that could upset the sensitive gathering, even in the quietest residential neighbourhoods.

But despite their patriotic armbands, many grumble about being roped in as foot soldiers for China's massive police state.

"Volunteer? They made me volunteer," said Zhang Weilin, 25, a security guard at a central Beijing shopping mall who wore a camouflage jacket bearing a "US Army Airborne" patch and that was a size or two too large.

"My security company gave us the uniforms and made all of us (other security guards) volunteer during the congress," he said.

Increasingly worried about rising social unrest and acutely aware of public unhappiness over a lack of democracy, Chinese authorities have dramatically escalated the state security apparatus under President Hu Jintao.

At the end of the congress next week, Hu is widely expected to hand leadership of the party to Vice President Xi Jinping after ten years in power.

Under Hu, security budgets have exploded -- $111 billion was allocated in 2011 for "stability maintenance", exceeding China's stated defense budget.

Authorities frequently buttress security by tasking ordinary citizens with maintaining order in their patch and reporting potential threats to the Communist regime, particularly during important events like the congress.

"If we see anything out of the ordinary, like a petitioner trying to protest, we report immediately to the neighbourhood committee, who calls the police," said retired teacher Huo Huihua, watching a Beijing street corner.

Under an age-old system from imperial times, Chinese across the country are officially granted the right to petition to Beijing authorities against local injustices.

However, petitioners and rights groups claim complainants are routinely jailed, beaten, or otherwise persecuted into silence. Rights groups say petitioners are being detained and ejected from the city during the congress.

"It doesn't matter if the petitioner has a legitimate beef or not. That will be up to the police to decide," said Huo, adding a sad grimace that acknowledged routine police brutality.

Zhang Yaodong, a petitioner from Henan province, was beaten to death by unknown thugs on Tuesday ahead of the congress, a rights group has said.

Beijing police refused comment to AFP. Such incidents are common in China and often trigger violent demonstrations.

Although AFP reporters have witnessed numerous petitioners being dragged by police since the congress began, none of the nearly 20 "public order volunteers" interviewed by AFP said they had seen anything that merited a report to police.

The security clampdown in Beijing has many of its practical-minded residents involved in the effort wondering why none of the huge security spending has trickled down to them.

"If any 'stability maintenance money' is handed out, it will surely go to the neighbourhood committee, we will never see any of it," said a retired worker named Chen.

Instead, rewards for "volunteers" included uniforms, jackets, soap powder and cooking oil in exchange for the hours spent on street corners in the chilly November air.

Dissident Bao Tong said the huge domestic security build-up of recent years indicates the Communist Party has lost its ruling legitimacy.

"No country in the world makes its own people the biggest enemy," Bao, who was the highest official jailed following the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests that were suppressed by the army, told AFP before the congress opened.

"In a republic, the people should be the masters. 'Stability maintenance' takes the people as the enemy. This is an insult and a disgrace," he said.

Chen Huili, a house cleaner who says she was pressured into acting as a neighbourhood sentinel, has her own reasons for grumbling.

"I didn't volunteer. My company is making me do this," said Chen, as she swept up cigarette butts in a Beijing housing complex wearing a red "public order volunteer" arm band.

"They didn't give me anything but extra work to do."
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« Reply #2969 on: Nov 10, 2012, 08:21 AM »

Russia’s Putin hires army chief in military shake-up

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 9, 2012 16:25 EST

President Vladimir Putin on Friday replaced Russia’s army chief of staff with a veteran commander from a Chechnya war, in a military shake-up after the dramatic sacking of the defence minister.

Putin announced that army chief Nikolai Makarov has been replaced by General Valery Gerasimov, a commander from the second Chechen war, just days after firing defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov over a graft scandal.

“You are an experienced person,” Putin told Gerasimov in a meeting at the Kremlin that also included the new Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“I believe the minister has picked the right candidate and I hope that you will work to the best of your abilities and efficiently,” Putin said.

The chief of staff is one of three people in Russia with exclusive access to nuclear launch codes along with the president and the defence minister.

Shoigu described Gerasimov — who served as first deputy chief of staff between 2010 and 2012 — as a “military man from head to toe.”

He added that Gerasimov enjoyed respect in the army and had “colossal experience working both at the General Staff” as well as “in the field.”

A career officer, 57-year-old Gerasimov also served as the commander of the 58th army in the North Caucasus military district in the late 1990s and commanded Russian troops in the 1999-2000 battle against separatists in Chechnya.

The replacement of the army chief of staff was widely expected in the wake of the dramatic departure earlier this week of Serdyukov. Also on Friday, Putin replaced a number of top generals.

Putin had on Tuesday fired Serdyukov over a corruption scandal, the most dramatic change to the government since he returned to the Kremlin for a third term in May amid rising discontent.

Putin said at the time Serdyukov had been relieved of his duties so that a thorough investigation can proceed into a suspected $100 million property scam at a defence ministry holding company.

Serdyukov made many enemies, including top Putin allies like the head of the giant state conglomerate Russian Technologies Sergei Chemezov, as he tried to get Russia’s arms manufacturers to produce modern weaponry.

Observers said that Putin had initially backed Serdyukov’s army and procurement reforms but eventually took the side of the powerful military lobby.

At the Kremlin meeting Friday, the Russian strongman indicated that the long-brewing conflict over military orders and a failure to back the Russian defence ministry was the real reason for Serdyukov’s dismissal.

“We have a problem,” Putin told Gerasimov. “The situation in the scientific and technical spheres is quickly changing, and new means of conducting warfare are appearing.

“I expect you together with the minister to organise stable, good, partner-like work with our leading industrial enterprises in the defence industry.”

Military analyst Alexander Golts said Putin’s words betrayed the real reason for Serdyukov’s dismissal. “The military-industrial lobby has won,” he told AFP.

Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief at Echo of Moscow radio station, said under Serdyukov the defence ministry demanded that Russian arms makers produce new modern weapons, while the military lobby wanted the army to purchase what had already been “made and developed.”

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the arrival of a new team signalled the end of Serdyukov’s reforms. “They will try to revive the Soviet army but it’s impossible, they do not have the same resources.”

Serdyukov’s dismissal was very unusual because Putin is widely known for his aversion to high-profile sackings.

Serdyukov, who is a son-in-law of Viktor Zubkov, a former prime minister and top Putin ally, left behind a trail of corruption and personal scandals.

His sacking came on the heels of a probe into a defence ministry holding company and reports that Serdyukov had left his wife for a younger woman at his ministry.

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