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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1089525 times)
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« Reply #3180 on: Nov 25, 2012, 08:37 AM »

In the USA..

November 24, 2012

Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy


WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.

Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.

More broadly, the administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures.

But since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies wherever they are found.

Partly because United Nations officials know that the United States is setting a legal and ethical precedent for other countries developing armed drones, the U.N. plans to open a unit in Geneva early next year to investigate American drone strikes.

The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.

“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.

Mr. Obama himself, in little-noticed remarks, has acknowledged that the legal governance of drone strikes is still a work in progress.

“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” Mr. Obama told Jon Stewart in an appearance on “The Daily Show” on Oct. 18.

In an interview with Mark Bowden for a new book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, “The Finish,” Mr. Obama said that “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors for some time to come.”

The president expressed wariness of the powerful temptation drones pose to policy makers. “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” he said.

Despite public remarks by Mr. Obama and his aides on the legal basis for targeted killing, the program remains officially classified. In court, fighting lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times seeking secret legal opinions on targeted killings, the government has refused even to acknowledge the existence of the drone program in Pakistan.

But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”

But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”

Then there is the matter of strikes against people whose identities are unknown. In an online video chat in January, Mr. Obama spoke of the strikes in Pakistan as “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.” But for several years, first in Pakistan and later in Yemen, in addition to “personality strikes” against named terrorists, the C.I.A. and the military have carried out “signature strikes” against groups of suspected, unknown militants.

Originally that term was used to suggest the specific “signature” of a known high-level terrorist, such as his vehicle parked at a meeting place. But the word evolved to mean the “signature” of militants in general — for instance, young men toting arms in an area controlled by extremist groups. Such strikes have prompted the greatest conflict inside the Obama administration, with some officials questioning whether killing unidentified fighters is legally justified or worth the local backlash.

Many people inside and outside the government have argued for far greater candor about all of the strikes, saying excessive secrecy has prevented public debate in Congress or a full explanation of their rationale. Experts say the strikes are deeply unpopular both in Pakistan and Yemen, in part because of allegations of large numbers of civilian casualties, which American officials say are exaggerated.

Gregory D. Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia,” argues that the strike strategy is backfiring in Yemen. “In Yemen, Al Qaeda is actually expanding,” Mr. Johnsen said in a recent talk at the Brookings Institution, in part because of the backlash against the strikes.

Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan-born analyst now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the United States should start making public a detailed account of the results of each strike, including any collateral deaths, in part to counter propaganda from jihadist groups. “This is a grand opportunity for the Obama administration to take the drones out of the shadows and to be open about their objectives,” he said.

But the administration appears to be a long way from embracing such openness. The draft rule book for drone strikes that has been passed among agencies over the last several months is so highly classified, officials said, that it is hand-carried from office to office rather than sent by e-mail.


Congress, Obama set to resume ‘fiscal cliff’ talks

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, November 24, 2012 17:00 EST

Congress returns from its week-long Thanksgiving holiday Monday, as lawmakers and President Barack Obama try to avert a looming fiscal crisis that could send the entire US economy plunging into recession again.

Officials in Washington are hoping to find a way to avoid what has been described as a year-end “fiscal cliff”: a convergence of tax hikes and massive spending cuts, including slashes to the military, which some experts say could bring dire economic consequences — possibly sparking another crippling economic slowdown.

Both Republicans and Democrats are well aware of the need for the country to get its fiscal house in order, as America tries to rein in a huge debt that has been growing bigger by the day and reduce deficit spending.

After months of stalemate, congressional leaders met on November 16 with Obama — who is deemed to have a considerably stronger negotiating hand after handily winning reelection 10 days earlier.

Just five weeks now remain in the calendar year to conclude an agreement before the expiration of tax cuts put in place during the presidency of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama has said that any deal he concludes would have to include an increase in taxes on wealthy taxpayers, something congressional Republicans so far have rejected.

The plan he proposes — and presented to voters on the campaign trail — would raise the tax rate for top earners, but keep Bush-era tax rates for individuals who make less than $200,000 per year and families earning less than $250,000.

Republicans insist that raising taxes on the wealthy would be counter- productive and only serve to slow economic growth and ensure that the country continues to be plagued by economic stagnation.

They insist that higher taxes would dampen spending and hiring and investment by business owners.

Republicans say they prefer to look at ways to bring in more tax revenue by completely overhauling the old and unwieldy US tax code, including closing what they say are “special interest loopholes” likely to hit the poor and the middle class as well as the rich.

Several economists also have said, however, that closing loopholes and ending deductions likely would not generate sufficient money to chip away at the debt, and that a combination of tax increases and spending cuts will be needed.

Some experts said that there need not be a “grand deal” by the end of the year, because they could give themselves an extension by passing new legislation.

“Anytime Congress puts handcuffs on itself, it still has the key to those handcuffs. It can open the handcuffs anytime they want, or say. ‘OK, we’ll change the lock’,” said Roberton Williams at the Tax Policy Center, an independent thinktank.

“At this point the most likely scenario is some small compromise — not a big grand compromise that solves all the problems, but something that says, ‘We’re going to get ourselves past January 1st, we’ll raise taxes a little bit, we certainly won’t let all the tax cuts expire.

“The question is how much and for whom?” said Williams, who served at the Congressional Budget Office from 1984 through 2006.

Further complicating efforts to reach a deal is the fact that Congress is in “lame duck” mode.

During the lame duck interregnum lasting several weeks after every election, outgoing lawmakers have only a few weeks to wrap up legislative business before they are out the door and the newly elected Congress is sworn in in January.

Another wrinkle is a pledge signed by numerous Republican lawmakers over the span of more than two decades, vowing never to vote for tax hikes.

There are signs however that some lawmakers — now aware that they have been rendered utterly hamstrung by the pledge — are re-thinking their position.

Grover Norquist, a powerful political player in the US budget debate, and his Americans for Tax Reform advocacy group organized the pledge-signing campaign, but there are signs of fraying support.

One prominent US senator, Saxby Chambliss, said in comments to a television station in his southern state of Georgia that he would be not bound by the promise.

“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” he said recently.

“If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”


States Want to Have Say During Talks Over Budget


Their states are still recovering from the recession, and now the nation’s governors are bracing, again, for cuts in federal aid.

They have been down this road before — Congress has already missed several self-imposed deadlines to cut the deficit — but many say they fear that this time, the talks in Washington to avert the so-called fiscal cliff will actually lead to deep cuts.

So they want a say in the negotiations.

“The main message is that it’s important to remember that, on a lot of areas of governance, we’re partners — and that these issues can’t be solved simply by cost-shifting to the states, because the states aren’t really in a position to do all that,” said Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, chairman of the National Governors Association. “We just want to make sure that we have a voice as these decisions are being made.”

But there is a long history of the federal government’s giving short shrift to the needs of states and cities — by making cuts in federal aid that forced service cuts or tax increases at the local level, or by passing laws requiring localities to take expensive actions without giving them the money to do so.

So in recent days, more than a dozen mayors with the United States Conference of Mayors have gone to Washington to lobby lawmakers. And last Monday, Mr. Markell, a Democrat, joined several governors from both parties to discuss the issue on a conference call with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The states, whose tax collections are still below the peak levels they reached in 2008, are in something of an unusual situation. That is because the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to begin in January, called “the fiscal cliff” by Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, are actually better for them in some respects than many of the alternate proposals in Washington.

Half of the cuts scheduled to take effect at the beginning of next year would be to military spending, which would affect states only indirectly. The scheduled cuts to domestic programs would leave Medicaid, the single biggest source of federal aid to states, untouched. And the planned federal tax increases would increase revenues in states whose tax codes are closely linked to the federal code.

But governors said that no one was rooting for President Obama and Republicans in Congress to fail to reach a financial accord, in part because they fear that the resulting combination of spending cuts and tax increases could prompt another recession, which their states can ill afford.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, noted that the spending cuts and tax increases were intended to be so undesirable that they would spur opposing sides in Washington to overcome their antagonism and strike a deal on taxes and spending just to avoid them.

The plan “was designed to be a terrible answer,” Mr. Snyder said, “and I think they did a fairly effective job of doing that.”

Pat McCrory, the Republican governor-elect of North Carolina and former mayor of Charlotte, said state and local officials needed a greater voice in Washington.

“I don’t think the debate should be just between the White House and Capitol Hill, but the state and local government should be at the table,” Mr. McCrory said. “Because I assume some of their answers are going to be pass-throughs to the states or to cities, as I saw as mayor in the past.”

The automatic cuts would hurt states in several areas. A recent analysis by the Pew Center on the States found that roughly 18 percent of the federal grant dollars flowing to the states would be subject to across-the-board cuts, including money for education, public housing and nutrition programs for low-income women and children.

But some governors fear that any “grand bargain” struck by Mr. Obama and Congress could lead to even deeper cuts to states, and they worry that it could include tax provisions that they believe would be harmful, like ending the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds that makes the bonds more attractive to investors.

But the needs of states and cities have often been an afterthought when Washington has talked about curbing spending.

Alice M. Rivlin, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget who served on two recent high-profile federal commissions — the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force — acknowledged as much in an appearance this summer.

“I’ve served on not one but two commissions on the federal deficit,” Ms. Rivlin said when another group she belongs to, the State Budget Crisis Task Force, released a report warning of the fiscal problems facing states. “And I can attest that although we were certainly aware that the proposals we made would impact state and local government, we did not do a serious analysis of what would happen.”

Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, has been on both sides of the federal-state divide: trying to cut the federal budget as a chairman of the House Budget Committee, and now seeking to preserve services, especially for the poor, as a governor.

“I’m just saying that if you’re going to affect us, you’d better realize there’s a bottom line that affects flesh and blood and real people,” he said this month at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. “And you can easily throw every one of these budgets into the red by just trying to get a nice number.”

The absence of a formal dialogue between the federal government and the states was cited as a danger by the State Budget Crisis Task Force, a private group led by Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor of New York, and Paul A. Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve.

“There are no standing structures and procedures within the federal government for analyzing the impacts on states and localities of reduced federal spending or federal tax changes, and there is little dialogue about these issues between the federal government and state and local governments,” its report said last summer. It recommended creating something like the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which lasted from 1959 to 1996.

John Kincaid, a former executive director of the advisory commission, which included federal and state officials, said it grew less effective as political polarization increased.

“No matter what happens in Washington, it’s going to hit state and local governments very hard,” said Mr. Kincaid, who is now a professor of government and public service at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “I think, by and large, states have become accustomed to this pattern of decision-making, so they’re going to brace themselves for whatever comes. State and local officials will lobby very hard to get what they can out of this bargain, but they won’t be all that significant as players.”


November 24, 2012

The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock


WASHINGTON — Senator Bob Dole had just assumed the mantle of Senate majority leader, after the Republican landslide of 1994, when he confronted a problem.

Piles of Republican legislation from Newt Gingrich’s self-styled “revolutionary” House were stacking up in a narrowly divided, more deliberate Senate, and Democrats were threatening to gum up the works with amendments that would stall the bills.

Mr. Dole turned to the Senate’s Democratic master of floor procedure, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who taught him a parliamentary trick known to Senate insiders as “filling the tree,” Mr. Dole recalled.

The convoluted procedure allows the majority leader to claim all opportunity for offering changes to a bill, effectively preventing any other senator from proposing an amendment intended to slow down legislation or force a politically embarrassing vote.

“I never knew what ‘filling the tree’ was until I tried it, but it turned out to be pretty good,” Mr. Dole said, ruefully accepting a share of the blame for the parliamentary arms race that has consumed the Senate in recent years. “I don’t think there’s any credit.”

The increased use of the tactic, which had previously been rare, is part of the procedural warfare that has reached a zenith over the past two years in the Senate. Republicans threaten to filibuster and propose politically charged amendments, Democrats fill the amendment tree, and Republicans filibuster in retaliation.

The tactic initially meant to speed bills has instead helped slow them down. The Senate — the legislative body that was designed as the saucer to cool the House’s tempestuous teacup — has become a deep freeze, where even once-routine matters have become hopelessly stuck and a supermajority is needed to pass almost anything.

As a result, the first fight of the next Senate, which convenes in January, is not likely to be over a fiscal crisis, immigration, taxes or any issue that animated the elections of 2012. It will instead probably be over how and whether to change a troubled Senate, members and aides say.

With his majority enhanced and a crop of frustrated young Democrats pushing him hard, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, says he will move on the first day of the 113th Congress to diminish the power of Republicans to obstruct legislation. “We need to change the way we do business in the Senate,” said Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico. “Right now, we have gridlock. We have delay. We have obstruction, and we don’t have any accountability.”

The pressure leaves Mr. Reid with a weighty decision: whether to ram through a change in the rules with a simple majority that would significantly diminish Republicans’ power to slow or stop legislation.

The changes under consideration may sound arcane, but they would have such a profound impact that they are referred to as the “nuclear option.” In effect, they would remake a Senate that was long run on compromise and gentlemen’s agreements into something more like the House, where the majority rules almost absolutely.

Critics of the idea, who exist in both parties, say such a change would do great damage, causing Washington to career from one set of policies to another, depending on which party held power.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said he would aggressively fight any rule change and blamed the Democratic majority for the Senate’s dysfunction. “This notion that the Senate is dysfunctional is not because of the rules,” he said. “It’s because of behavior.”

Supporters of the idea, who also do not fit a neat ideological profile, argue that the collegial Senate of the past no longer exists and that American democracy is often paralyzed as a result. Today’s Senate, they say, has left crucial positions unfilled, like a confirmed head for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and is preventing action on major issues like job creation proposals.

“There is a tendency to look to the past through rose-colored glasses, to some mythical golden era when everyone got along and cooperated. That’s not true. It’s always been tough, and it’s always been rough,” said George Mitchell, a former Democratic majority leader who would now back some changes. “But I do believe and accept the premise that it’s worse now.”

Doing almost anything in the Senate today requires 60 votes, because Republicans, who will have 45 seats in next year’s Senate, are blocking even procedural motions to begin debating bills or considering nominations. The act of doing so is commonly called a filibuster, although it no longer requires holding the Senate floor for hours.

Both parties bear some responsibility for the changes, experts say, though not in the same precise ways.

Before 1917, senators could delay final votes on legislation by holding the floor and talking. There was no mechanism to stop them, but such filibusters were rare until the debates surrounding entry into World War I. In 1917, the Senate adopted its first “cloture” rule: two-thirds of the Senate could cut off debate on a bill and force a final vote.

Between 1917 and 1971, no session of Congress had more than 10 such votes in its two years. Still, filibusters were common enough that in 1971, Mr. Byrd, a master of Senate procedure, shifted the rules to allow the Senate to take up other legislation during a filibuster.

That change began an escalation of tactics, in which both delays and attempts at circumventing delays have become more common, with one often leading to more of another. Moves by the minority to obstruct bills elicited responses from the majority worsening the environment.

In the 93rd Senate, which met in 1973 and 1974, the number of cloture motions filed — a rough measure of filibuster threats — jumped to 31, from an average of fewer than two per Congressional term between 1917 and 1970. Throughout much of the next two decades, cloture votes continued to rise, regardless of which party was in the minority, with many such motions filed in anticipation of filibusters.

“The notion that this started in 2010, I’m sorry, that’s so revisionist,” said Lauren C. Bell, a political scientist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

But the current Republican minority has taken the practice to a new level. During the past three sessions of Congress, the majority leader has resorted to an average of 129 cloture motions, a near doubling from the level when Democrats were in the minority from 2003 to 2007.

The current Democratic majority has contributed to the parliamentary tit-for-tat, by filling the tree more than in any previous Congress. It has done so over 20 times in each of the last three sessions of Congress. The previous high had been 11, under Republican leadership in 2005 and 2006.

“None of this is new,” said Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate majority leader. But, he added, “I’m shocked at how much deterioration has occurred.”

Senators from both parties agree that one cause of the trends is the ease with which lawmakers can now bring the institution to a halt. Once the Senate found a way to move on to other business while a bill was being filibustered, senators faced little personal pressure against mounting one. And when the number of votes needed to break a filibuster dropped to 60 in 1975, from 67, the Senate minority could claim that this change allowed for reasonable bipartisan compromise.

But there have been major cultural shifts as well, past majority leaders and academics say. Lyndon B. Johnson once said the Senate was an ecosystem of whales and minnows. Get the few whales and the minnows follow.

The advent of C-Span 2, which put cameras in the Senate in the 1970s, helped turn all the minnows into whales in their own right, Ms. Bell said. The influx of House Republicans in the 1990s, steeped in the partisan fights of Mr. Gingrich, furthered the shift. Republicans and Democrats alike point to a moment in the 1990s when Rick Santorum, then a Republican senator from Pennsylvania and a former House warrior, refused to yield the floor to a colleague when asked, a refusal almost unheard of in the Senate.

The battles over procedure themselves helped corrode the environment. Talk of the “nuclear option” began almost a decade ago, in President George W. Bush’s first term. With Democrats thwarting Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican majority leader, considered overriding filibusters with a majority vote. Mr. Reid, then the minority leader for the Democrats, fought back. “We believe in following the rules, not breaking the rules,” he said. “It will change the Senate forever, and that is not good.”

Ultimately, the two parties averted a larger confrontation by a gentlemen’s agreement to filibuster judicial nominees under only the most egregious circumstances, as when a nominee is overly partisan or obviously unqualified. In Mr. Bush’s first term, the Senate approved 89 percent of his judicial nominees. The rate fell to 74.5 percent in his second term, and was 75.5 percent in Mr. Obama’s first term.

In October last year, Mr. Reid took the first step toward going nuclear, a step many of his predecessors have contemplated but never done. Unilaterally dismissing a Republican filibuster, he used a simple majority — 51 to 48 — to override the Senate parliamentarian. The parliamentarian had ruled that additional Republican amendments were in order on a China currency bill, even though they were unrelated to it.

Around 40 Democrats — led by Senators Udall, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jeff Merkley of Oregon — have indicated their support for a set of broader rules changes. Two incoming senators, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have also pledged their support. The filibuster would be prohibited on motions to take up legislation or nominations and motions to take approved legislation to conference with House negotiators. A simple majority could approve these motions, which would reduce the amount of time the Senate spends on procedural matters.

Beyond that change, Democrats want to make filibusters harder to execute. Although filibusters would be allowed on final votes to pass legislation or confirm nominees, those conducting them would have to speak from the Senate floor. “It’s completely reasonable that senators choosing to argue there should be more debate should have to make their case in public,” Mr. Merkley said.

Democrats argue that the changes are modest and will not deny the minority party leverage to block bills and force concessions from the majority. Mr. Reid, who opposed the changes over the last two years, now says he strongly backs them. But he has not said if he will resort to the nuclear option after Republicans almost certainly block the Democrats’ initial efforts.

Mr. McConnell says that the power to filibuster a motion to proceed to legislation is the lever Republicans need to negotiate the conditions for debate; without it, the minority party will not have a fair chance to amend bills or to shape the discussion.

Neither side, however, denies that the Senate is dysfunctional.

“There’s so much difficulty with comity now,” lamented Tom Daschle, a former Democratic majority leader. “Both the majority and minority feel as if their backs are against the wall, and they have no choice but to fight. The majority wants to govern, the minority wants its rights, and those two are almost irreconcilable these days.”


November 23, 2012

Lincoln, Liberty and Two Americas


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Those are the opening words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they seem eerily prescient today because once again this country finds itself increasingly divided and pondering the future of this great union and the very ideas of liberty and equality for all.

The gap is growing between liberals and conservatives, the rich and the not rich, intergenerational privilege and new-immigrant power, patriarchy and gender equality, the expanders of liberty and the withholders of it. And that gap, which has geographic contours — the densely populated coastal states versus the less densely populated states of the Rocky Mountains, Mississippi Delta and Great Plains — threatens the very concept of a United States and is pushing conservatives, left quaking after this month’s election, to extremes.

Some have even moved to make our divisions absolute. The Daily Caller reported last week “more than 675,000 digital signatures appeared on 69 separate secession petitions covering all 50 states,” according to its analysis of requests made through the White House’s “We the People” online petition system.

According to The Daily Caller, “Petitions from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas residents have accrued at least 25,000 signatures, the number the Obama administration says it will reward with a staff review of online proposals.” President Obama lost all those states, except Florida, in November.

The former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul took to his Congressional Web site to laud the petitions of those bent on leaving the union, writing that “secession is a deeply American principle.” He continued: “If the possibility of secession is completely off the table there is nothing to stop the federal government from continuing to encroach on our liberties and no recourse for those who are sick and tired of it.”

The Internet has been lit up with the incongruity of Lincoln’s party becoming the party of secessionists.

But even putting secession aside, it is ever more clear that red states are becoming more ideologically strident and creating a regional quasi country within the greater one. They are rushing to enact restrictive laws on everything from voting to women’s health issues.

As Monica Davey reported in The New York Times on Friday, starting in January, “one party will hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years and a significant jump from even two years ago.”

As the National Conference of State Legislatures put it, “thanks to an apparent historic victory in Arkansas, Republicans gained control of the old South, turning the once solidly Democratic 11 states of the Confederacy upside down.” Arkansas will be the only one of these states with a Democratic governor.

As Davey’s article pointed out, single-party control raises “the prospect that bold partisan agendas — on both ends of the political spectrum — will flourish over the next couple of years.” But it seems that “both ends of the political spectrum” should not be misconstrued as being equal. Democrats may want to expand personal liberties, but Republicans have spent the last few years working feverishly to restrict them.

According to a January report from the Guttmacher Institute: “By almost any measure, issues related to reproductive health and rights at the state level received unprecedented attention in 2011. In the 50 states combined, legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, a sharp increase from the 950 introduced in 2010. By year’s end, 135 of these provisions had been enacted in 36 states, an increase from the 89 enacted in 2010 and the 77 enacted in 2009.” Almost all the 2011 provisions were enacted in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, at least 180 restrictive voting bills were introduced since the beginning of 2011 in 41 states. Most of the states that passed restrictive voting laws have Republican-controlled legislatures.

An N.C.S.L. report last year found “the 50 states and Puerto Rico have introduced a record 1,538 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants and refugees in the first quarter of 2011. This number surpasses the first quarter of 2010 by 358.” That trend slowed in 2012 in large part because of legal challenges. Many of the states that had enacted anti-immigrant laws or adopted similar resolutions by March of last year, again, had Republican-controlled legislatures.

We are moving toward two Americas with two contrasting — and increasingly codified — concepts of liberty. Can such a nation long endure?
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« Reply #3181 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:06 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

In world's most religious country, humanists rally for secular space

By Chris Stein   
November 25, 2012 at 11:15 am EST

Accra, Ghana

In Ghana, where deeply held religious beliefs unite much of the population, a new group has formed around a shared disbelief in religion.

The Humanist Association of Ghana practices a philosophy that is mostly unheard of in Ghana, which a recent survey ranked as the most religious country in the world. Nonetheless, the group has already made waves in West Africa.

Last weekend, the association hosted humanists from across the region for a conference in the capital Accra, where attendees listened as speakers discussed the impact humanists could make on West African society. Lecturers talked about how humanists can stand up for gay and lesbian rights and against traditional practices like witch hunts. One talk dealt with whether humanism is compatible with belief in God.

“The humanist movement isn’t really about converting anybody or forcing anyone to think a certain way,” says Monika Mould, a member of the group. “It’s just about giving people a way to say, ‘I can make my own decisions and I can think my own thoughts.’”

Humanism is a philosophy based on emphasizing humans over deities or religious texts. While many humanists are atheists, it’s not required, and some humanists believe that you can practice the philosophy while still being religious.
Nyame in many names

Nonetheless, humanism is seen as at best an oddity and at worst an offense in deeply devout Ghana.

On the streets of the capital Accra, everything from taxis to restaurants and real estate offices seems to be named after “Nyame,” the word for God in the local Twi language. The trend carries into politics: The country’s largest opposition political party has the slogan, “the battle is the Lord’s,” on their campaign posters.

A recent survey by polling firm WIN-Gallup International said that 96 percent of Ghanaians are religious, the highest percentage of the 57 countries polled. Nigeria came in second, with 93 percent of people claiming religion.

About 70 percent of Ghanaians are Christians, 17 percent are Muslim, and the remainders belong to traditional religions or other theologies, says Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor of African Christianity and Pentecostal theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra.

Even before Christianity reached the continent, religion in much of sub-Saharan Africa was practiced in public, Mr. Asamoah-Gyadu said.

“We live in a country where unlike the western world, even financial institutions open business daily with prayer. Parliament opens daily with prayer,” Mr. Asamoah-Gyadu says. “If you are a humanist and you are in such a society, it’s very difficult.”
Zero percenters

Atheists are a tiny minority in Ghana; so tiny, in fact, that the WIN-Gallup survey said zero percent of Ghanaians identified as such.

Amanor Apenkro, a member of the association who identifies as atheist, says he’s lost a girlfriend and had insults yelled at him on the street because of his non-belief.

“I don’t try to hide it, but I don’t tell people either,” Mr. Apenkro says. “Because you tell people and they think you are evil. They can’t even believe that you don’t believe.”

But not believing is becoming prevalent worldwide.

The number of religious people dropped globally by nine percent since 2005, according to the survey, while the number of atheists rose by three percent.

The poll also showed that less prosperous countries tended to be more religious, while the ranks of the faithful were thinner in countries with more money.
Still a poor nation

Though Ghana has recently posted impressive growth rates based on exports of cocoa, gold, and oil, much of the country is still impoverished and underdeveloped.

“We pray for everything, and if there’s a god out there that’s listening to us, we should be the most developed,” Apenkro says. “The people who don’t pray at all, or pray the least… seem to be far ahead of us.”

James Yamoah, dean of faculty at Ghana Christian University College and a commentator on religion, says he sees nothing wrong with engaging Ghana’s humanist population. But he says a backlash could occur if the humanists become too forthright with their beliefs.

“Of course, we can’t doubt the fact that the devil is sometimes behind these things,” Mr. Yamoah says. “But there is always the possibility of engaging some people and winning them back. And it won’t come back from any kind of argument, it will come from a reasonable discussion.”

Ms. Mould says she thinks there is room for humanists in Ghana’s religious landscape, regardless of the odds.

“I know a lot of people who are religious, but have their doubts about religion, [and] can understand the value [of] critical thinking,” Mould says. “As long as you arrive at whatever decision you take though rational thinking, then you’re on the right track.”

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November 25, 2012

Leadership University Rises for Asian Women


When the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh opened in 2008, it set in motion the idea that the region would benefit from a high-profile university dedicated to young women.

Now, veterans of the A.U.W. have altered the concept to lay the foundations for another Asian women’s university that, by conservative estimates, is expected to open in Malaysia in 2015.

The concept of an Asian Women’s Leadership University, a private nonprofit institution, was conceived in 2010 by Barbara Hou, who had previously served as legal council and director of admissions at A.U.W. in Bangladesh.

“I learned a lot from that experience about the desire for this type of institution in the region,” Ms. Hou said of her time at the A.U.W. “And many of us realized that if we could expand the idea of a women’s liberal arts college beyond Bangladesh, and make it pan-Asian and located in a more developed but affordable country — well, we thought that’d be pretty awesome.”

She enlisted six like-minded individuals to form a board of founding members for the Malaysia project.

Henry Lau, one of those founding members and a corporate lawyer in Tokyo, convinced his firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, to support the project on a pro bono basis. The firm was instrumental in registering the A.W.L.U. as a nonprofit organization in the United States.

“Once they signed on, we got more credibility and we got more support,” Mr. Lau said. “If there’s no organization, then it’s hard to raise money; it’s hard to conduct activities legally. You can’t even enter into contracts.”

Mr. Lau described the process of securing outside support as a “chicken and egg issue.” He added that having a prominent academic partner was needed for the project to gain recognition in Malaysia.

Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters of U.S. women’s liberal arts colleges, has signed on as an academic planning partner. Three of the A.W.L.U. founders — Ms. Hou, Hoon Eng Khoo and Mona Sinha — are graduates of Smith, and Ms. Sinha sits on its board of trustees.

“There’s a developing consensus among government, NGOs and business that women’s leadership in public life, in the professions and in business is key to the development of emerging economies,” said Carol Christ, president of Smith College, when asked about support for projects like the A.W.L.U. “Over a century of experience in the United States has demonstrated the powerful role women’s colleges play in educating women leaders.”

As Ms. Hou put it: “Anyone can check the news and see that the central challenge of our time is incorporating the full talent, effectiveness and participation of women in society. A.W.L.U. is being created to meet that challenge.”

The A.W.L.U. has set up a graduate pathway partnership with the Graduate School of Medicine at Perdana University in Malaysia, which works in collaboration with Johns Hopkins’s medical school in the United States.

It has also identified 100 acres, or 40 hectares, of land in Penang.

There are notable differences between the existing A.U.W. in Bangladesh and the proposed A.W.L.U. in Malaysia. The former, in a country where per capita income is only about $700, runs on charitable donations and supports women from the poorest backgrounds. The latter, planned for the relatively more affluent country of Malaysia, will serve a broad swath of society.

“We wanted something like the Eighth Sister in Asia,” Mr. Lau said. “In the United States these colleges are self-sustaining. The fact is you do need tuition; you do need fee-paying students. Of course the learning environment is much improved by diversity, whether racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic, so we definitely need to provide assistance for people of less means. And we also are definitely very committed to a liberal arts education model.”

The board envisions that the majority of students will pay full tuition, with about one-quarter of students on full scholarship.

“A lot of the challenges in Bangladesh, in the views of many, stemmed from poor governance and the significant infrastructural challenges from being located in a place without clean water and air, adequate hospitals and medical care, road safety, reliable electricity, Internet connection, etc.,” Ms. Hou said of the A.U.W. “Earthquakes, dengue fever, building codes and fire safety were also a concern.”

“That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a university in Bangladesh, but just that if you wanted to set up one modeled on the U.S. Seven Sisters, you might have to think of other more appropriate locations,” she said.

“Location turns out to be pretty key because it impacts the types of students and faculty you will be able to attract and retain,” she added.

The A.W.L.U. board is working with the Malaysian government to iron out the specifics of the land agreement, while also waiting for a licensing decision from the Ministry of Higher Education.

It is also working to raise the $8 million in seed capital required to start a university in Malaysia. Under a conservative estimate, they expect that the A.W.L.U. will open its doors in 2015, but if fund-raising goes better than planned, they say the opening could come even sooner.


November 25, 2012

University Caters to the Deprived


CHITTAGONG, BANGLADESH — It is not the most glamorous of campuses: a handful of converted apartment blocks, huddled around a short, narrow gated street that ends in a small garden. Tucked away inside the buildings, there is a small library, a dining hall, a doctor’s clinic, classrooms and a small gym where karate classes are held.

For the 541 students who attend the Asian University for Women, the basic and somewhat cramped facilities are home. And for many of them, the university, which opened its doors in this sprawling, bustling Bangladeshi port in 2008, represents the rare and coveted chance to get an English-language, university-level education.

Nearly all of the students come from deprived backgrounds. Their room, board and education costs — which total about $15,000 a year — are covered by donations. Most of the students would not be here without the funding and the university’s female-only admissions policy.

They come from a dozen countries as varied as Cambodia, Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar, India and, of course, Bangladesh, where the university is located. They practice many religions and speak 33 languages.

Soon, recruitment will be extended to three more countries — Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia — for an even more diverse mix.

Stepping into the university lets a person visit “a dozen different countries all at once,” said Chogyel Wangmo, one of 23 students from the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. “There are no prejudices, no assumptions.”

Ms. Wangmo, who had to walk several kilometers to submit her application, is the first woman from her village to attend a university.

“It was quite a shock to come here,” said Bayan Hisham Salaymeh, who wears a head scarf and is a native of Hebron in the Palestinian territories. The traffic, the different language, even the spicy food was an adjustment.

“I had never been in a place with so much diversity before,” said Ms. Salaymeh, 21.

Many of the students had never been abroad before they came to this university. Many had limited English and computer skills and were given a year of preparatory training before starting their formal undergraduate studies.

All of them were selected for being dynamic and determined, and for their dedication to making their education count.

“We look for the gleam in their eyes,” said Kamal Ahmad, the university’s founder. “We look for courage, a sense of outrage at injustice, and empathy — a sense that they are moved by the woes of other people.”

Born in Bangladesh and educated in the United States, Mr. Ahmad worked for many years in development organizations and as a lawyer in the United States and Britain. A passionate believer in education, he arranged basic schooling for children in the slums in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka when he was a teenager.

Mr. Ahmad said that educating young women could play a critical role in Asia, where, despite progress in some countries, gender discrimination and stereotyping are still rife.

Mr. Ahmad’s decision to set up a university for women was, in part, a deliberate attempt to help redress some of the gender imbalances in tertiary education. It also builds on the fact that women tend to deploy their skills, income or education to support their families and communities — and that educating and empowering young women, in particular, is thus likely to benefit their societies as a whole, Mr. Ahmad said.

Taslima Khanam, who attends the Asian University for Women and is from Chittagong, is studying public health with the goal of helping the government of Bangladesh combat medical issues.

Sumpa Sarkar, also from Bangladesh, plans to get a doctorate in politics and become a professor. “I want to share my knowledge with other people,” she said by telephone from the French city of Reims, where she and Ms. Khanam are on a one-year exchange program at the prestigious Institut d’Études Politiques.

There are also young women like Mowmita Basak Mow, a native of Chittagong, who, like so many of the women here, exudes confidence and enthusiasm that is likely to help her go far.

Kubra Panahzada is one of 40 students from Afghanistan, who, before she came to Chittagong, set herself up as a liaison between nongovernmental groups and companies offering spare parts and other supplies.

“A friend of mine in Kabul is a businessman — and I thought, if he can do this, why not me?” she said.

“I want to help others as well as myself,” Ms. Panahzada, 24, added. “I am the future of my country.”

Mr. Ahmad said that the Asian University for Women was not only about academic training and exposing students to other cultures and religions, but it is also about giving hundreds of young women the confidence to challenge established assumptions about themselves and others.

Meherun Ahmed, who teaches social sciences at the university, said that the young women were often timid and inhibited when they arrived; some were even depressed. For many, being encouraged to think independently and critically, rather than learning by rote, is new and takes time and adjustment.

“But there’s a real fighting spirit,” Ms. Ahmed said. “If you look at them now, you wouldn’t believe the difficulties they had.”

The Asian University for Women has received financial backing and other high-profile support from around the world. Its chancellor, for example, is Cherie Blair, the wife of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Mrs. Blair is an international human rights lawyer and campaigner for women’s equality.

On the financial front, donations of about $50 million have come from individual donors and organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. State Department. In May, the IKEA Foundation committed $5 million to sponsoring 100 students for five years.

The Bangladeshi government, whose female foreign minister, Dipu Moni, is a trustee of the university, has made available a large plot of land on the outskirts of Chittagong.

There, a new campus is slowly emerging from the rugged terrain, with the help of a work force that includes women as well as men.

Once the new complex is finished, there will be room for 3,000 students. But the going is slow, and the funding is hard to obtain, so completion remains a long way off. Until then, the lack of space in the existing campus is a major hurdle to expansion.

A milestone for the fledgling outfit, meanwhile, comes next May, when the first group of students — 138 in all — graduates.

There are dreams of jobs with international companies, of postgraduate degrees, of setting up businesses and nongovernmental organizations, and of promoting women’s education back home.

Among the expected 2013 graduates is Nazneen, 26. Already, her studies have taken her from her home in the Hunza Valley, in the mountainous far north of Pakistan, to Stanford University, where she took part in a summer academic program last year. Nazneen, who uses only one name, is majoring in politics, philosophy and economics and has also done an internship at the World Bank. Her next goal is to get a master’s degree.

As for Ms. Salaymeh, the student from Hebron, she has embraced the diversity that shocked her when she arrived. The conflict in and around the Palestinian territories, she said, is “suffocating” — and she is determined to help change that once she returns, by helping people become more aware of the world outside.

“I can’t think of another place on earth,” she said, “that needs my help as much as my home country.”


November 25, 2012

Philippines Leads Pack in Promoting Female Academics


KUALA LUMPUR — When Emerlinda Roman finished her term last year as president of the University of the Philippines, she had no shortage of female company occupying the top offices at other universities.

Of more than 2,100 higher education institutions in the Philippines, 39 percent, or 850 institutions, were led by women in 2011, she said, citing figures from the Commission on Higher Education.

“In the Philippines there’s general acceptance or recognition of women’s ability to assume leadership positions, in higher education especially,” said Dr. Roman, 63, who was the university’s first female president. “Men are no longer threatened by women leaders.”

But Dr. Roman and her countrywomen are relatively rare examples of women reaching academia’s upper echelons in Asia, a region dominated by much lower levels of female participation in administrative and research roles.

While the Philippines has an impressive number of female university administrators — and where women account for almost half of the country’s researchers, a figure that surpasses some Western countries — Asia in general lags behind much of the rest of the world, with women representing just 18 percent of researchers, according to Unesco figures.

But with women in many Asian countries now outnumbering men in undergraduate enrollments, researchers say it is only a matter of time before university leadership and research laboratories adopt a more female face.

Globally, women represent only 29 percent of researchers, according to a Unesco report released this year.

Venezuela and Latvia posted the highest proportion of female researchers of any country, with 55 percent.

Across Europe, it is a mixed picture, ranging from less than 25 percent in Germany, to between 35 percent and 45 percent in Britain.

The Philippines and Thailand are bright spots in Asia, with women accounting for more than 45 percent of researchers in those countries. Data were not available for many other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, but researchers say they expect lower levels there.

Despite impressive gains in female student enrollment in higher education across Asia, academics say those gains are yet to result in significant numbers of women being appointed to senior research and administrative positions.

In Hong Kong, for instance, home to some of Asia’s most highly ranked universities, women represent more than half of all undergraduate students, but its universities have not yet had a female president or at least a vice chancellor.

While about a third of Hong Kong faculty members are women, according to 2010 figures, they represent just under 10 percent of vice presidents or pro vice chancellors, and less than 6 percent of faculty deans.

Fanny M. Cheung, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the number of women obtaining doctorates had only begun rising in recent years.

“It takes a while before women can be promoted through the ranks,” said Dr. Cheung, a professor of psychology. “You may find in some Western countries there are probably higher numbers of women in the senior positions partly because the proportion of women faculty has increased earlier than those in Asian countries.”

Malaysia fares somewhat better in terms of the number of female university leaders, although academics here say there is still a long way to go.

Four female university vice chancellors have been appointed since 2006. Two are now serving, including Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, vice chancellor of the National University of Malaysia.

“I wouldn’t say we are doing well, but we are making a start,” she said.

Dr. Sharifah, a medical doctor, said the higher education sector still fell short of the Malaysian government’s target of having women occupy 30 percent of decision-making positions in the public and private sectors. “In the public universities we should have six vice chancellors,” she said. “We only have two.”

Dr. Sharifah, 65, attributed the shortage of female university administrators to traditional ideas about men and women. “If there are two candidates of equal standing, the man will get it. If you have to choose, they will choose the man,” she said.

Qualities like assertiveness are considered an advantage in male leaders, but in women they are seen as a disadvantage, Dr. Sharifah added. “We are still expected to be passive,” she said.

But Dr. Sharifah, who said that 70 percent of undergraduates at her university were women, pointed out that the growing number of female researchers and women leading academic disciplines was promising.

“I’m getting more and more women academics even in disciplines known to be very male-dominated, such as engineering, I.T. and medicine,” she said.

While juggling work and family is commonly cited as one of the main barriers hindering women’s career advancement, irrespective of location, this is one area where some Asian women may have an advantage over their Western counterparts.

Child care is often expensive in Western countries, but affordable live-in domestic help is widely available in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Many of these places also have a strong culture of extended family support, where grandparents often help with child care.

Dr. Roman, who had live-in domestic helpers when she became a mother, said that she returned to work a month after giving birth to each of her two children, even though she could have taken a longer maternity leave.

Despite the affordability of nannies in Asia, Dr. Cheung, who spoke about the issue at a recent British Council conference in Hong Kong, said in many cases women continued to bear the bulk of responsibility for child care.

She said that a woman’s childbearing years often coincided with the “golden age” for academics. “If you want to be a very productive researcher, you really have to think of ways to balance your responsibilities as a mother with that of an active researcher,” she said.

Dr. Roman, who now works as a professor at the University of the Philippines and is the chairwoman of the board of trustees of the International Rice Research Institute, said that extended family and domestic help enabled her to devote more time to her work, and she added that her husband was very supportive. But “when it came to taking care of the kids, looking after their needs, it was me rather than my husband,” she said, adding, “For many of my younger colleagues, that’s how it is today.”

While domestic workers are commonly found in middle-class Malaysian homes, Dr. Sharifah said that juggling work and family was still challenging for many women, which prompted her to open a child care center at her university.

A less openly discussed issue is whether a high-flying academic career presents a hindrance to women in finding a husband.

Dr. Cheung said that in some Asian countries, particularly China, women may hesitate before even pursuing a doctorate because of concern that potential spouses may find them less attractive if they are better educated.

“It takes a very confident man to be able to accept a wife who is in a so-called superior position because, by virtue of a higher degree, you will be considered more superior,” she said. “In Asia that is still a fairly strong barrier.”

Dr. Roman believes part of the secret behind the success of female academics in the Philippines lies in having a society where female leaders are well accepted.

“The Philippines has had a long history of women asserting themselves in leadership positions, and people have learned to appreciate how women work and perform,” she said.

She added that regulations and laws had helped women advance, such as a policy that requires all government departments allocate 5 percent of their budgets to support activities to help women.

“I never felt that I was discriminated against because I’m a woman,“ Dr. Roman said.

For countries looking to follow the Philippines’ example, academics believe that more leadership training, mentoring and networking are vital to helping push women into top positions in higher education.

Dr. Sharifah, who is also president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which advises the government on gender issues, said more Malaysian women must put themselves forward as leaders and network at home and abroad.

Dr. Cheung, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said institutions needed to address the needs of female faculty members to help them achieve their potential.

“Diversity programs never catch on very much in universities,” she said, adding that institutions were often too narrowly focused on climbing the university rankings published in the news media. “They are just looking at numbers and not people.”


November 25, 2012

Changing the Notion of Masculinity


BANGKOK — Mention “transforming masculinities” in Asia, and some might assume the topic is Thailand’s flourishing sex-change industry.

Yet a different effort to transform masculinities has started among civil society groups that have a goal that may be even more ambitious than physically transforming gender: They want to change how people think about “being a man” to break the connection between masculinity and violence that is the root cause of high rates of gender violence in the region.

The new direction is prompted by a realization that after years of trying to help the mostly female and child victims of domestic and gender violence, the situation is not improving. The logic is straightforward: prevention.

“To stop violence, you need to prevent it from happening,” said Somsouk Sananikone, a civil society activist from Laos, speaking after a recent training workshop in Bangkok, where he was one of about 30 civil society participants from eight Asian and Pacific nations, including Indonesia, Fiji and Mongolia. The event was organized by Partners for Prevention, a U.N. interagency program aimed at ending gender-based violence.

Across Asia, as elsewhere in the world, notions of masculinity are infused with power, control and entitlement, the source of much brutality against women and children, including gang rape by teenagers in Cambodia and daily violence in families in China, to name two examples, activists and researchers said.

They hope that shifting that dynamic could unlock a door to more effective prevention.

The question is, “How are you supposed to be a man in society?” asked James Lang, the program coordinator of Partners for Prevention , in a recent interview in Bangkok.

“These are generational changes, but we do need to plant the seeds,” Mr. Lang said.

The program that Mr. Lang heads is regional, put together by four U.N. agencies. It began in 2008 and is gathering steam this year as the results come in from new surveys it has been conducting among 15,000 men and women across Asia, with the help of many local groups and national governments.

The surveys, titled “The Change Project,” focus on the perpetrators of gender violence and aim to mirror and deepen earlier studies carried out by the World Health Organization, which focused on the female victims of violence.

The different focus is yielding valuable, and sometimes unexpected, results.

One country survey is from Bangladesh, where 52 percent of men said they had been physically violent against a partner, compared with the previous W.H.O. survey, which reported that 40 percent to 42 percent of women said they had been the victims of violence by their partner, Partners for Prevention said in a statement in August.

In the surveys, men tended to admit to a high rate of committing crimes like rape. In Cambodia, about one in five men said they had committed a rape. Of those men, about half, or 11 percent of the male population over all, said the rape had occurred within the last year.

The perpetrators were often young.

“Significantly, across the region, nearly half of those who reported perpetrating rape did so for the first time when they were under the age of 20 years,” the statement said. “Clearly, we must enhance the work being done with younger men and boys.”

Sexual entitlement is the No.1 reason given by men in the region for committing rape, Partners for Prevention said. By comparison, alcohol, long considered a key driver of sexual violence, plays less of a role than previously thought.

This showed clearly in figures from China, where the new survey said that just 24 percent of Chinese men cited “drinking” as a motivation, a higher figure than in Bangladesh, where alcohol figured in about 9 percent of rapes.

Among other findings, to be presented next March at the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, an arm of the United Nations, 86 percent of men in China who report having raped a woman say that their motivation was “sexual entitlement,” while 58 percent cited “fun,” and 43 percent cited “anger” or “punishment,” according to findings presented at another recent workshop.

In Bangladesh, “entitlement” was also one of the most-cited motives, with 77 percent to 81 percent of the respondents — depending on whether they were from urban or rural areas — saying it was a factor. The “fun” factor was higher among rural men at 66 percent, and the “anger” or “punishment” factor was lower than China’s, at around 34 percent on average.

If the surveys are adding range and depth to the problem and pointing the way ahead to major areas, like youth work, then pressure from civil society groups on the ground is another motivation, Mr. Lang said.

“Women engaged in crisis and service centers were asking for help in dealing with the partners” of the victims, he said.

Looking more closely at the men may seem an obvious thing to do. But “the work with men has been very superficial until this point because they haven’t been targeted,” he said.

“There’s a whole cohort of men who don’t use violence and can be worked with,” Mr. Lang said. “We haven’t thought enough about why men are opposed to violence and how to support them in that.”

Underlining men’s role in bringing change, many of the people attending the Bangkok workshop were men.

“The idea is very progressive,” said Mr. Somsouk, the Laotian activist, speaking after the workshop by telephone from Thailand, where he is working on a doctorate on “transforming masculinities” at Khon Kaen University.

In comments echoed by many participants, he pointed out that Laos was socially conservative and a place where the problem of gender violence went largely unacknowledged, making it “very difficult” to translate the idea into action.

Crucially, attitudes need to shift that dictate that gender violence is “a woman’s issue,” he said.

“For Laos, we can start with the idea of having a space for all the activists to come together and work on this — a space for people to build alliances, because right now we say that gender work is women’s work, that violence is something happening to women,” he said. “It’s only now that we are starting to talk about masculinity.”

Mr. Somsouk said youth work must be a focus.

“We’re looking at how every man may become violent, not just those who are already violent,” he said. “You come back to the view that if the culture allows it, then they will do it. And certain men may do it if the situation allows it.”

In Laos, as in other nations, “more or less, society allows it,” he added.

Very different cultural conditions prevail in Mongolia, yet some of the issues are the same, said Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, a sexual rights activist who attended the workshop, speaking by telephone from Ulan Bator, the capital.

“In our society, that work is predominantly carried out by very strong women, and men don’t consider this men’s work,” said Mr. Otgonbaatar, the executive director of the LGBT Center in Ulan Bator.

“It is a question of personal transformation leading to social transformation,” he said, adding that change would be slow.

At the Partners for Prevention event in Bangkok, Mr. Otgonbaatar and others discussed strategies on how to counter bullying and how to mobilize society. But the challenges run deeper than that. As in Mongolia and Laos, the vocabulary of gender is differently expressed, where it exists at all, he said.

“Feminism and that vocabulary does not exist in our country, and would offend people,” Mr. Otgonbaatar said. “They would block their ears.

“I would use words that ordinary people would use,” he said about outreach. “We would use different vocabulary. To refer to gender violence, I would not use the word ‘gender.’ People will think you are a man-hater. For example, for feminism, I’d use the phrase ‘equal rights for men and women.’ When people hear ‘male gender’ in Mongolia they say, ‘What?!”’

Despite the obvious challenges, the Mr. Lang, the Partners for Prevention coordinator, feels the time is right to push for change.

“Asia is so dynamic,” he said. “There are great new opportunities for education, for economic advancement, for being engaged in society, in new media, on working with government and young people in new ways.”

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November 25, 2012

Pressure Grows on Egyptian Leader After Judicial Decree


CAIRO — Cracks appeared on Sunday in the government of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, as he faces mounting pressure over his sweeping decree seeking to elevate his edicts above the reach of any court until a new constitution is approved.

Mr. Morsi’s justice minister began arguing publicly for a retreat. At least three other senior advisers resigned over the measure. And it has prompted widening street protests and cries from opponents that Mr. Morsi, who already governs without a legislature, was moving toward a new autocracy in Egypt, less than two years after the ouster of the strongman Hosni Mubarak.

With a threatened strike by the nation’s judges, a plunge in the country’s stock market and more street protests looming, Mr. Morsi’s administration sent mixed messages on Sunday over whether it was willing to consider a compromise. A spokesman for the president’s party insisted that there would be no change in his edict, but a statement from the party indicated for the first time a willingness to give political opponents “guarantees against monopolizing the fateful decisions of the homeland in the absence of the Parliament.”

And the justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, the influential leader of a judicial independent movement under Mr. Mubarak and one of Mr. Morsi’s closest aides, was actively trying to broker a deal with top jurists to resolve the crisis.

It is the most acute test to date of the ability and willingness of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president and a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to engage in the kind of give and take that democratic government requires. But he also must contend with real doubts about the willingness of his anti-Islamist opponents to join him in compromise. Each side is mired in deep suspicion of the other, a legacy of the decades when the Brotherhood survived here only as an insular secret society, demonized as dangerous radicals by most of the Egyptian elite.

“There is a deep mistrust,” said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo who studies the Brotherhood. “It is an ugly round of partisan politics,” he said, “a bone-crushing phase.”

The scale of the backlash against the decree appeared to catch Mr. Morsi’s government by surprise. “In his head, the president thought that this would push us forward, but then it was met with all this inflammation,” Mr. Mekki said. He faulted the president for failing to consult with his opponents before issuing it, but he also faulted the opponents for their own unwillingness to come to the table: “I blame all of Egypt, because they do not know how to talk to each other.”

Government and party officials maintained that Mr. Morsi was forced to claim the expansive new powers to protect the process of writing the country’s new constitution, and that the decree would be in effect only until the charter was in place. A court of judges appointed under the Mubarak government was widely rumored to be about to dissolve the elected constitutional assembly, dominated by Mr. Morsi’s Islamist allies — just as the same court had previously cast out the newly elected Islamist-led Parliament — and the decree issued by Mr. Morsi on Thursday gave him the power to stop it.

“I see with all of you, clearly, that the court verdict is announced two or three weeks before the court session,” Mr. Morsi told his supporters on Friday, referring to the pervasive rumors about the court’s impending action in a fiery speech defending his decree. “We will dissolve the entire homeland, as it seems! How is that? How? Those waywards must be held accountable."

He said that corrupt Mubarak loyalists were “hiding under the cover of the judiciary” and declared, “I will uncover them!”

But instead of rallying the public to his side and speeding the country’s political transition, as Mr. Morsi evidently hoped, his decree has unleashed new instability across the country. On Sunday, the first day of business here since the decree was issued, the Egyptian stock market fell by about 9.5 percent, erasing more than $4 billion of value.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political offshoot, the Freedom & Justice Party, faced the ire of protesters. Nader Omran, a spokesman for the party, said on Sunday that as many as 13 of its offices around the country had been burned or ransacked, and he blamed the attacks on an organized conspiracy.

The most significant sign of the growing pressure on Mr. Morsi, though, may have been the apparent efforts of Mr. Mekki, the justice minister, to address the crisis by finding a way to scale back the decree.

Beginning in two television interviews late Saturday night, Mr. Mekki said that he trusted the sincerity of the president’s intention to quickly end Egypt’s tortured political transition, bring back a Parliament and turn over to it much of the vast power he currently holds. But Mr. Mekki said the text of Mr. Morsi’s decree was much too sweeping, and that he could never have signed it himself because it “violates my core convictions.”

“The means, the tools and the wording caused exactly the opposite of what was required,” he said.

He publicly urged Mr. Morsi to amend the decree so that it would no longer place all the president’s future edicts above judicial scrutiny — the provision that aroused the loudest outcry — but instead would protect only edicts related to the functions of the constituent assembly and upper house of Parliament.

“I believe it is the duty of the president” to limit the decree’s scope, Mr. Mekki said.

Mr. Mekki met on Sunday with the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, the highest council overseeing the Egyptian courts, to discuss the issue, and there were signs that he may have had some influence. In a statement afterward, the council urged judges not to disrupt their work by joining in a proposed strike over the decree. But the council also appeared to join Mr. Mekki in urging the president to scale back his writ, calling for limiting the immunity from judicial review to “laws and decisions issued by the president as sovereignty acts,” a reference to Egyptian legal precedents that could justify such executive action in certain circumstances.

Mr. Morsi was expected to meet with the Supreme Council of the Judiciary on Monday to discuss the issue.

It was unclear whether the court that was to rule on the constitutional assembly, the Supreme Constitutional Court, would respect such an action. When that court dissolved the elected Parliament, Mr. Morsi sought to use a presidential decree to restore it, only to have the court strike that down as well.

Most of the political opposition in the country, newly united to fight the latest decree, has vowed not to hold talks with Mr. Morsi until he withdraws it.

The state news media reported that the Morsi advisers who had resigned over the decree included Samir Morqos, one of the few Christians in the administration; Sekina Fouad, one of the few women, and Farouk Guweida, a poet and intellectual.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi’s opponents have each called for major demonstrations in Cairo on Tuesday, and some fear violence. Sporadic clashes broke out over the weekend in several cities, including Damanhour in the Nile Delta, one of the places where the Brotherhood’s offices were attacked. A 15-year-old Brotherhood supporter, Islam Fathi Masoud, was killed in the violence, and security officials said scores were injured.

By Sunday night, Brotherhood leaders were citing the boy as an inspiration. “When Future of Egypt is in balance, we have no regrets, we are more than willing to pay for it with our lives, not votes,” Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, wrote in a message reproduced on the group’s Web site.

Kareem Fahim, Nevine Ramzy, Mayy El Sheikh and Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.


11/26/2012 01:12 PM

ElBaradei Speaks Out against Morsi: 'Not Even the Pharaohs Had So Much Authority'

Last week Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi granted himself sweeping new powers, a move that has sparked widespread backlash. In a SPIEGEL interview, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei argues that the move threatens to plunge Egypt into a dictatorship.

SPIEGEL: Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi granted himself broad new powers last week. Is this a coup?

ElBaradei: He grabbed full power for himself. Not even the pharaohs had so much authority, to say nothing of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. This is a catastrophe -- it a mockery of the revolution that brought him to power and an act that leads one to fear the worst.

SPIEGEL: You are widely considered to be diplomatic and balanced. Why is your reaction now so dramatic? One of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood said that the new powers would only be in effect until a new constitution is passed.

ElBaradei: We have to look at it in the context of almost two years of transition. We have no functioning parliament and months ago Morsi assumed legislative functions. Now he's decided that there should be no opposition to the laws that he makes and that he is authorized to pass any national security measure. It is difficult to be more absolutist than that. And the constitutional convention -- what a sad gathering; it threatens to send us back to the darkest period of the Middle Ages.

SPIEGEL: Almost all of the liberal and Christian members of the constitutional commission have withdrawn. Why is that?

ElBaradei: Because we all fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will pass a document with Islamist undertones that marginalizes the rights of women and religious minorities. Who sits in this group? One person, who wants to ban music, because it's allegedly against Sharia law; another, who denies the Holocaust; another, who openly condemns democracy.

SPIEGEL: You believe that Egypt is on the path to becoming a dictatorship once again. But Morsi was legally elected and the Muslim Brotherhood has a majority.

ElBaradei: The Muslim Brotherhood received their votes under dubious circumstances. The country is fractured. If the moderate forces no longer have a voice, a civil war threatens to erupt in Egypt. I fear that. And I fear that this incompetent government will ruin the economy.

SPIEGEL: Has the Arab Spring already failed in Egypt?

ElBaradei: I don't believe that. I fight against that. In April I founded the Constitution Party. With the Social Democrats and all liberal powers we will combine against the Islamists. We still have a chance and we should not waste the awakening; that would be a tragedy. Young people want more personal freedom and better jobs. They want a clear word from the West against Morsi. If Americans and Europeans really believe in the values that they are always preaching then they must help us and pressure Morsi.

SPIEGEL: Would you support freezing US aid to Egypt?

ElBaradei: I cannot imagine that someone with democratic principles could support such a regime for the long term. I will speak with the US Secretary of State in the coming days. We do not want to repeat the barbarism of the French Revolution.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath

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« Reply #3184 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:22 AM »

November 25, 2012

Congo Slips Into Chaos Again as Rebels Gain


GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The lights are out in most of Goma. There is little water. The prison is an empty, garbage-strewn wasteland with its rusty front gate swinging wide open and a three-foot hole punched through the back wall, letting loose 1,200 killers, rapists, rogue soldiers and other criminals.

Now, rebel fighters are going house to house arresting people, many of whom have not been seen again by their families.

“You say the littlest thing and they disappear you,” said an unemployed man named Luke.

In the past week, the rebels have been unstoppable, steamrolling through one town after another, seizing this provincial capital, and eviscerating a dysfunctional Congolese Army whose drunken soldiers stumble around with rocket-propelled grenades and whose chief of staff was suspended for selling crates of ammunition to elephant poachers.

Riots are exploding across the country — in Bukavu, Butembo, Bunia, Kisangani and Kinshasa, the capital, a thousand miles away. Mobs are pouring into streets, burning down government buildings and demanding the ouster of Congo’s weak and widely despised president, Joseph Kabila.

Once again, chaos is courting Congo. And one pressing question is, why — after all the billions of dollars spent on peacekeepers, the recent legislation passed on Capitol Hill to cut the link between the illicit mineral trade and insurrection, and all the aid money and diplomatic capital — is this vast nation in the heart of Africa descending to where it was more than 10 years ago when foreign armies and marauding rebels carved it into fiefs?

“We haven’t really touched the root cause,” said Aloys Tegera, a director for the Pole Institute, a research institute in Goma.

He said Congo’s chronic instability is rooted in very local tensions over land, power and identity, especially along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. “But no one wants to touch this because it’s too complicated,” he added.

The most realistic solution, said another Congo analyst, is not a formal peace process driven by diplomats but “a peace among all the dons, like Don Corleone imposed in New York.”

Congo’s problems have been festering for years, wounds that never quite scabbed over.

But last week there was new urgency after hundreds of rebel fighters, wearing rubber swamp boots and with belt-fed machine guns slung across their backs, marched into Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province and one of the country’s most important cities.

The rebels, called the M23, are a heavily armed paradox. On one hand, they are ruthless. Human rights groups have documented how they have slaughtered civilians, pulling confused villagers out of their huts in the middle of the night and shooting them in the head.

On the other hand, the M23 are able administrators — seemingly far better than the Congolese government, evidenced by a visit in recent days to their stronghold, Rutshuru, a small town about 45 miles from Goma.

In Rutshuru, there are none of those ubiquitous plastic bags twisted in the trees, like in so many other parts of Congo. The gravel roads have been swept clean and the government offices are spotless. Hand-painted signs read: “M23 Stop Corruption.” The rebels even have green thumbs, planting thousands of trees in recent months to fight soil erosion.

“We are not a rebellion,” said Benjamin Mbonimpa, an electrical engineer, a bush fighter and now a top rebel administrator. “We are a revolution.”

Their aims, he said, were to overthrow the government and set up a more equitable, decentralized political system. This is why the rebels have balked at negotiating with Mr. Kabila, though this weekend several rebels said that the pressure was increasing on them to compromise, especially coming from Western countries.

On Sunday, rebel forces and government troops were still squared off, just a few miles apart, down the road from Goma.

The M23 rebels are widely believed to be covertly supported by Rwanda, which has a long history of meddling in Congo, its neighbor blessed with gold, diamonds and other glittering mineral riches. The Rwandan government strenuously denies supplying weapons to the M23 or trying to annex eastern Congo. Rwanda has often denied any clandestine involvement in this country, only to have the denials later exposed as lies.

Many people in Goma don’t like the fact that the M23 is so closely linked to Rwanda, with Rwandan-speaking soldiers strutting around this city as if they own it — which they do right now. But the venom toward Mr. Kabila seems even greater.

“He treats us like street kids,” said Kalimbiro Kambere, a police officer who makes only $50 a month, despite 37 years in service. “No one wants to fight for him.”

Few countries in the world have been as disastrously ruled as Congo. Western interference has not helped — from the 1880s when King Leopold II of Belgium turned Congo into an enormous labor camp to produce as much rubber and ivory as possible, to the violence in the Goma area today, which may have been set into motion by a miscalculation on the part of Western ambassadors.

Last November, Mr. Kabila ran for re-election. He was widely unpopular, suspected of hoarding millions if not billions of dollars from mineral deals and leaving the bridges, roads, hospitals and schools a fiasco.

During the election, his agents were caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes, and his soldiers gunned down opposition supporters who protested. But Western diplomats, though expressing unhappiness, did not press the case.

Several Congolese and Western rights advocates and analysts said that the diplomatic corps then urged Mr. Kabila to arrest Bosco Ntaganda, a Rwandan-speaking army general nicknamed the Terminator, who had been a commander in several brutal rebel groups and was wanted for years by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.

“Kabila miscalculated,” Mr. Tegera said. “And so did the West. They pressured him.”

In March, as Mr. Kabila began to move against Mr. Ntaganda and threatened to dislodge the Rwandan-speaking rebels who had been incorporated into the national army, they mutinied. They were far more powerful than the government expected, and United Nations officials said the rebels quickly drew reinforcements from Rwanda. They seized town after town, culminating in Goma, where power lines were cut in the fighting, casting it into darkness. At each battle, the government army unraveled.

The bodies of government soldiers now litter the roads around Goma, someone’s father or son rotting in the bush, eye sockets and mouth sizzling with flies. Villagers trudge past, looking away. For them, misery is a familiar face.

On Friday, Alfonse Kiburura stood in front of his twig and tarp hut in a camp for displaced people. The rains are falling hard now, every day. His family curls up on a floor of cold, wet mud.

This was the second time this year that the Kibururas have had to pick up everything they own, throw it over their heads and dash down the road away from the combat. Mr. Kiburura said that as soon as his 5-year-old son, Destin, heard gunfire, the boy knew what to do.

“This isn’t the first time he’s heard gunshots,” he said. “He’s heard them many times before.”
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« Reply #3185 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:24 AM »

November 26, 2012

Rebels Claim They Seized Air Bases and a Dam in Syria


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Fresh from declaring that they seized an important military airport and an air defense base just outside Damascus, Syrian rebels on Monday said they overran a hydroelectric dam in the north of the country, adding to a monthlong string of tactical successes — capturing bases, disrupting supply routes and seizing weaponry — that demonstrate their ability to erode the government’s dominance in the face of withering aerial attacks.

The battlefield advances coincided with fresh claims of bloody events on the ground with rebels saying a government airstrike on Sunday killed several schoolchildren in a playground. On Monday, moreover, the conflict was reported once again to have spilled beyond Syria’s border, drawing in Turkish antiaircraft gunners who were said by the insurgents to have opened fire on a government warplane that appeared to have entered Turkish airspace as it attacked rebel positions in the Syrian town of Atma, just across the 550-mile Turkish-Syrian border.

According to two anti-government Syrian opposition groups — the Syrian Observatory for Human rights and the Local Coordinating Committees — and a fighter on the ground, who gave his name only as Saado, the Turkish fire deterred an attack on an area that includes a rebel headquarters and a camp for internally displaced Syrians. But there was no confirmation of the episode from Turkey and the Syrian state news agency did not refer to the rebels’ claims.

Syria and Turkey have exchanged mortar fire on numerous occasions in recent months and Turkey, a NATO member, has requested that the alliance provide it with Patriot antimissile batteries, a possible step toward creating a de facto no fly zone in northern Syria to protect rebels from Syrian government air attacks.

But Reuters reported Monday that Turkey planned to use the Patriot missiles only to defend Turkish territory, not to establish a no fly-zone, citing a statement from the Turkish military. Turkey has come under criticism from Russia and others for the Patriot proposal.

“The deployment of the air and missile defense system is only to counter an air or missile threat originating in Syria and is a measure entirely aimed at defense,” the statement was quoted as saying. “That it will be used to form a no-fly zone or for an offensive operation is out of the question.”

On Monday, amateur video, which could not be verified, showed what was purported to be rebel soldiers ransacking boxes of captured weapons — including hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades at the Tishreen Dam near the town of Menbej. “Here are your spoils Bashar,” a voice can be heard saying, referring to President Bashar al-Assad. “Here are your weapons, Bashar. God is great,” a rebel exclaims as two men are filmed carrying off a trunk of munitions.

Rebel forces had been besieging the dam’s defenses on the Euphrates River for days.

The footage seemed to have been recorded in darkness. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles its reports from militants on the ground, said the rebels overran the facility before dawn. The dam supplies electricity to several parts of Syria, the activists said, and lies on an axis between the northern provinces of Raqa and Aleppo, apparently broadening the rebels’ potential supply lines in northern Syria.

Another clip, posted on the Internet and apparently recorded later when the sun had risen, showed several rebel fighters relaxing in the dam’ control room while one of them checks a computer and another man serves tea.

While the rebels called the reported capture of the dam a strategic victory, it was not clear whether they were able to operate it or to withstand a government counterattack.

Over the past month, rebels have seized or damaged major military bases around the country, making off with armored vehicles, antiaircraft weapons and other equipment they desperately need to break the stalemate in the grinding conflict, which has taken more than 30,000 lives. But they have not tried to hold all of the bases, as they become easy targets for government airstrikes.

The capture of the air base near Damascus, Marj al-Sultan, on Sunday could be significant because it was one of the principal bases used by the Syrian Air Force’s fleet of Mi-8 helicopters, said Joseph Holliday, a senior analyst covering Syria for the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. The government relies on the aircraft to resupply army units and to carry out bomb and rocket attacks, especially in the north where government forces are increasingly isolated and air power is the main way to harass the rebels.

Still, despite videos of rebels seizing weapons caches, analysts said the recent successes appeared unlikely to produce a sudden shift in the balance of power, since the government seems to be consolidating its forces to defend core areas.

Mr. Holliday said the events of recent weeks underscored the arc of the conflict since late spring: The rebels have been gaining strength and becoming more organized, he said, and the government forces have been slowly contracting under pressure.

The government’s continued loss of bases, however, raises questions about how long it will be able to operate in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo “The real question,” Mr. Holliday said, “is when the regime will start to pull out of the north.”

Rebels have assaulted Taftanaz air base in Idlib, and captured two major bases and an oil field in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour and a large base outside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Striking at government air power is militarily and psychologically important for the rebels, for whom aircraft pose a significant threat because of their firepower and unlimited reach. Yet the rebels have so far been unable, because of international reluctance and opposition disunity, to obtain significant amounts of antiaircraft weaponry that could help them turn the tide in the conflict, which began as a protest movement and gradually turned into a civil war after soldiers fired on demonstrators.

The battle for the air base on Sunday was part of a day of intense military activity that showed the level of chaos that has come to be expected even near the heart of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

By day’s end, rebels claimed to have seized three military installations, including the Marj al-Sultan airfield, and 11 mobile antiaircraft guns, and blamed the government for the bombing of a playground that killed eight children, whose bloodied bodies were shown in an online video.

On Sunday evening, according to antigovernment activists and videos, rebels took over the base of the Rahbeh air defense battalion in Deir al-Suleimen, which housed antiaircraft weapons. In a video said to have been shot there, the voice of a man off camera trembled with excitement as he showed a row of armored vehicles, which he said were Russian-made “Shilka” antiaircraft weapons. In the dark it was unclear if the weapons were what the rebels claimed or whether they could use them.

Rebels also seized a training facility in nearby Douma that belonged to a pro-Assad Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose members have clashed recently with rebels, according to an activist reached in Douma and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The activist said that government security troops and Palestinians inside the facility were released after turning over their weapons.

The rebel claims were impossible to verify because of the Syrian government’s restrictions on journalists.

Video from the playground, which activists said was taken in the village of Dayr al-Asafir close to the Marj al-Sultan air base, showed at least half a dozen children who were dead or wounded from what activists said was a cluster bomb. The asphalt was pockmarked and littered with bomb casings.

On the ground lay two children: a young girl, identified as Anoud Mohammed, in a purple sweatsuit, and a child who appeared to be a toddler in a red sweater, their eyes open and staring. Around them people were carrying the limp bodies of other children whose bare feet were smeared with blood, as a woman knelt beside Anoud and screamed at the sky. In a later video, Anoud lay dead in a hospital.

“What’s her fault, this child?” a man’s voice shouted. “What’s her fault, Bashar, this little girl?”

An activist with the opposition Damascus Media Office who gave her name as Lena said “residents believe this massacre was in retaliation” for the airport attack. Referring to the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group, she said, “Whenever the F.S.A. does something big, we expect a massacre.”

Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, C.J. Chivers from the United States, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad, Hania Mourtada and Hala Droubi from Beirut
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« Reply #3186 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:26 AM »

Hamas chief backs Palestinian UN bid: statement

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 26, 2012 7:00 EST

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Monday told Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas that his movement backs a bid for enhanced UN status for the Palestinians, a Hamas statement said.

“Khaled Meshaal… held a telephone conversation with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in which he affirmed that Hamas welcomes the step of going to the United Nations for state observer status,” the statement said.

The statement, which comes just three days before Abbas is due to ask the UN General Assembly in New York to upgrade Palestinian representation, came after Hamas members in Gaza last week denied offering the president their backing.

But both Meshaal and fellow political bureau member Izzat al-Rishq said Monday that they supported the move, though they warned it should not “compromise” Palestinian “constants and rights.”

“This move must be in the context of a vision and national strategy to maintain the national constants and rights and based on elements of power in the hands of our Palestinian people, the first of which is the resistance,” Meshaal’s statement said.

In his statement, Rishq said he “welcomed” the UN bid but warned it should not “sacrifice or compromise any inch of Palestinian land from the (Mediterranean) sea to the (Jordan) river.”
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« Reply #3187 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:28 AM »

November 26, 2012

Israeli Defense Minister to Quit Politics


JERUSALEM – Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced Monday that he would soon “leave political life,” after a half-century career in the military and government that included two years as prime minister.

Coming days after the end of a weeklong air blitz on the Gaza Strip and eight weeks before Israelis head to the polls, Mr. Barak’s move is the latest to show the disarray in Israel’s center-left bloc. Though he formed a close partnership with the right-leaning prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat, Mr. Barak was a longtime leader of the liberal Labor Party, and now heads the tiny Independence faction.

Polls have suggested for months that Independence might not win enough votes for even a single seat in the Parliament, so some observers saw Mr. Barak’s decision as a way to avoid such an embarrassment, instead walking away amid praise for a Gaza operation that killed high-ranking Hamas militants and significantly reduced their arsenal of long-range rockets. He did not address the question of whether he would accept what is known as a “personal appointment” to serve a new government as defense minister despite sitting out the elections.

“I came to this decision not without misgivings but in the end a whole heart,” Mr. Barak, 70, said at a news conference in Tel Aviv. “I would be concealing the whole truth if I did not say that the warmth that I feel from the public — favorable coverage from some of you, in recent days — wasn’t nice. As someone who has not been indulged in that way usually, I know how to appreciate this and rejoice in it.”

Mr. Barak, who has been well regarded as defense minister but is not a personally popular figure, was never considered a major factor in the shifting alliances for the coming elections. His announcement disrupted the swirling speculation over the plans of Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and head of the centrist Kadima Party, who is expected to announce that she is re-entering politics on a new ticket.

Ms. Livni was courted both by the Labor Party and another new centrist party, Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, run by the former journalist Yair Lapid, but recent reports in the Israeli media suggest she has decided instead to go it alone. Ms. Livni also was among those who reportedly tried to get persuade Shimon Peres, 89, currently filling the largely symbolic post of Israel’s president, to make a late-in-life comeback and challenge Mr. Netanyahu.

Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister who has spent recent years battling corruption charges, has also apparently decided against a comeback right now, leaving Ms. Livni, Mr. Lapid, and the current heads of Kadima and Labor to battle it out for the dwindling center-left electorate. Analysts say this landscape is unlikely to change the fundamental dynamic in which right wing and religious parties win a majority of Parliament seats, and Mr. Netanyahu is widely seen as the most likely to form a new government.

An article about Ms. Livni’s plans in Monday’s Maariv newspaper — published before Mr. Barak’s surprise withdrawal — carried the headline, “Shooting the Left in the Foot.”

“The ratio between the blocs is to the center-left’s disadvantage,” wrote the author, Mazal Mualem, adding that the recent military operation “strengthened the right even more and made attitudes more extreme.” Ms. Livni “is aiming her fire at Netanyahu, but in practice is taking seats from her own bloc,” he added.
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« Reply #3188 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:31 AM »

Russian PM ‘does not rule out’ Kremlin comeback

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 26, 2012 7:30 EST

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he is not ruling out a return to the Kremlin after his 2008-2012 single term as Russian head of state but was happy working as premier under his mentor Vladimir Putin.

“If I have sufficient strength and health, if our people trust me in the future with such a position, then of course I do not rule such a turn of events,” Medvedev said in an interview with Agence France-Presse and Le Figaro when asked if he had the ambition for another Kremlin term.

Medvedev, who on Monday embarks on a working visit to France, served as president after Putin stepped aside following the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution after his 2000-2008 stint.

But Putin, 60, stayed on as a powerful prime minister and Medvedev, 47, never fully emerged from the shadow of his fellow Saint Petersburg native, an impression strongly reinforced when Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012.

Medvedev, who in turn was then appointed prime minister in May, failed to bring about lasting change through a much-trumpeted modernisation programme in his one term as president.

But in his interview with AFP, he revealed he had not lost his political ambition.

“This (returning to the presidency) depends on a whole range of factors.”

“Never say never, especially as I swam in that river once and this is a river that you can swim in twice,” he said.

Russia will only go to the polls to vote for a president again in March 2018 and in the next half decade society is expected to see major change as the middle class grows and Internet use explodes. Putin has also not ruled out standing again.

This year’s tightly choreographed job swap was criticised for being played out far from the public, and frustration over the return of Putin to the Kremlin fuelled the opposition protests that rocked Russia in the last year.

Medvedev acknowledged the protests that began last December had shown a transformation in Russian society that the authorities could no longer ignore.

“Our society changed, it had become more active and the authorities needed to take account of this and react,” said Medvedev, saying the government had done this by introducing electoral reform.

Some of Medvedev’s supporters — who saw him as a possible champion of a refreshed, innovative and more pro-Western Russia — were hugely disappointed by his apparent surrender of the Kremlin back to Putin.

But Medvedev played up the tight links between the two men, saying he would find it impossible to work under anyone else.

“I would hardly have become prime minister under another president, I cannot imagine it at all,” he said.

“If there is someone you can work with comfortably as prime minister after being president it is just one person, Vladimir Putin.”

However Medvedev has distanced himself from Putin on some issues, notably the case of feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, two of whom have been sent to prison camps for performing a song against the Russian strongman in a church.

Reaffirming his belief that they should be released, he said: “I think they have already tasted what prison is… So further punishment in the form of prison is not necessary. This is my personal position.”

On the case of Russia’s best known prisoner, the former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Medvedev said court decisions had to be respected but noted that the convict had never made a bid for clemency from the Kremlin.

Medvedev admitted that his modernisation drive had so far fallen short but expressed hope there was still time to put his ideas into place.

“It’s true that for the moment modernisation has not turned into a national idea and there has been no kind of radical progress reached.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #3189 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:32 AM »

November 25, 2012

Divisive Election in Spain’s Catalonia Gives Win to Separatist Parties


BARCELONA, Spain — Voters in Catalonia delivered victory to separatist parties in a regional election on Sunday, raising the likelihood that Spain’s most powerful economic region will hold an independence referendum that Madrid has vowed to block.

But even as voters set up a fight with the central government by rewarding the independence cause, they delivered no clear message about who should lead it. The party of Artur Mas, the Catalan president who called the election two years ahead of schedule, actually lost seats in the regional parliament, falling to just 50 seats in the 135-seat body, from 62 in the last vote.

As a result, before holding any referendum on independence, Mr. Mas will first have to strike alliances with smaller parties that share his separatist goal, but not his economic and social agenda. After a vote that he had described as “the most significant in the history of Catalonia,” Mr. Mas told supporters that his referendum project was on track, while recognizing his party’s failure to consolidate its grip on power.

“Mas managed to turn separatism into a burning issue, but then ended up being overtaken by more radical parties in this debate and now finds himself in a much harder position to govern Catalonia in a time of crisis,” said Ferran Pedret Santos, a lawyer who was himself elected for the first time Sunday as a Socialist lawmaker.

Indeed, despite the enthusiasm that the separatist drive has generated in Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain with an outsize weight both economically and culturally, Sunday’s vote also underlined divisions among the region’s 7.5 million citizens. In particular, there are questions over whether sovereignty demands should be limited to seeking fiscal concessions from Madrid or stretch far beyond that.

Mr. Mas called the election after failing to persuade Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to ease Catalonia’s federal tax burden, and after a huge pro-independence rally in Barcelona on Sept. 11.

“Whether people like or not, Catalonia does most of its trade with the rest of Spain, so pursuing independence would add a lot of uncertainty, which is not exactly what people need in the middle of a crisis,” said Sara González, a 34-year-old chemist.

Before Sunday’s vote, Mr. Rajoy accused Mr. Mas of acting irresponsibly by turning the vote into a divisive plebiscite on independence, and thus diverting Catalans’ attention from his financial mismanagement. There was some evidence that Catalans agreed.

José María Cañellas, general manager of a digital television company based in Barcelona, said that, while he had backed Mr. Mas’s Convergència i Uni” party in the past, he had not voted for Mr. Mas on Sunday because “the duty of our government is to help create jobs and get us out of this crisis rather than divide people over independence.”

One of the biggest benefactors on Sunday was the left-leaning Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party, which has long pushed for independence. That party came in second Sunday, doubling its parliamentary representation to 21 seats, from 10 seats won two years ago.

Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party won 19 seats Sunday, little changed from the 18 seats that it won in Catalonia two years ago.

The separatist drive in Catalonia has emerged as a huge domestic political challenge for Mr. Rajoy, who has also remained stuck on the front lines of the euro crisis and is under pressure to decide whether Spain needs more financial assistance through bond purchases by the European Central Bank.

With Spain in the midst of a recession expected to last through 2013, Mr. Rajoy is struggling with a record unemployment of 25 percent, as well as street protests against his austerity measures.

The European Union, meanwhile, is expected to soon demand significant job cuts at Bankia and other rescued Spanish banks, in return for releasing part of a roughly $129 billion European banking bailout negotiated by Madrid last June.
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« Reply #3190 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:39 AM »

IHT Rendezvous
November 26, 2012, 2:00 am

As Doha Climate Talks Convene, Report Finds Broken Promises


All eyes are on Doha, Qatar, this week as world leaders, politicians, academics and environmentalists gather to work on a global solution to climate change at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

O.K., not all eyes.

After deep disappointment at the Rio+20 conference in June, when nations wrestled with the related challenges of sustainable development, more and more people may be ignoring these global confabs.

Still, it is in Doha that the slow-turning wheels of global politics will try to devise plans to both mitigate climate change and adapt to it. "This conference is not merely procedural, it can also bring about important policy," said Martin Kaiser, head of the International Climate Politics unit of Greenpeace.

Watch on Youtube.

One important discussion during the two week conference - meetings start today and continue through Dec. 7 - will center on a new emissions cap-and-trade agreement, as the famously flawed Kyoto Protocol is scheduled to expire this year.

My colleague Andrew C. Revkin posted this funny, very short video primer to explain the very complicated matter of climate treaties (above and here).

But how much of the talk - even the seemingly "easy" commitments to honor, like cash support to poor countries - are actually fulfilled? Not many, says a report to be released today by a British think tank. Some of the world's richest countries have failed to honor their financial pledges to some of the world's poorest.

The European Union and nine countries pledged about $30 billion under the so-called fast-start funding program overseen by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen three years ago.

"The biggest surprise is that the countries that gave the money did not track it in any significant way," said Saleemul Huq, one of authors of the study, The Eight Unmet Promises of Fast-Start Climate Finance, in a telephone interview from Doha.

According to the report by the International Institute for Environment and Development - which also examined whether nations were giving enough, whether funds were loans or grants and whether they went toward mitigation or adaptation projects - transparency is lacking when it comes to funds committed to fighting global climate change. Mr. Huq blames the tendency of big donor nations to channel funds through third-party agencies, such as USAID in the case of the United States.

Of the $30 billion committed under fast-start, very little has actually reached the recipient countries. Even less has made its way into adaption projects that poor countries, which disproportionately feel the effects of climate change, need, according to Mr. Huq.

The funding, which was to cover a three year period ending this year, was supposed to support mitigation and adaptation projects in equal measure. The money was also supposed to be new. But I.I.E.D. found that many donor nations either recommitted previously pledged funds or paid disproportionately toward climate mitigation projects.

Long debated in countries most vulnerable to environmental change, the debate on climate change adaptation has become a hot topic in the United States, which recently has been struck by a series of extreme weather events.

The I.I.E.D report found that the United States, which pledged $5.1 billion at the Copenhagen meeting, was allocating about 17 percent of the total for adaptation measures in the world's poorest countries. When it comes to donor transparency, the United States was rated 9th of the total 10 donors by the report. The European Union was rated 5th on the same scale.  While Switzerland led the pack in terms of transparency, the think tank found that the country's original pledge of $135.5 million represented only 75 percent of its fair share, a metric based on perceived responsibility and capacity to help (by the same metric, the United States was found to be contributing 43 percent of its fair share).

At Doha, countries are expected to commit to another round of fast-start funding. The next commitment -  $100 billion - is pledged starting in 2020, leaving an eight year gap for which funding has yet to be committed.

The conference comes at a critical time. With the European Union, which has long shown leadership on the issue of climate change, currently focused on in its own fiscal difficulties, activists worry that the Doha summit will not lead to the necessary solutions.

"Without a strong E.U. at the table, it will be impossible to convince the U.S. to become active," said Mr. Kaiser of Greenpeace.

Of course, the E.U. was at the table at Rio +20.

What do you think? Do you believe the U.N. framework meetings at Doha will present an opportunity to steer the world toward a climate change solution?
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« Reply #3191 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:40 AM »

11/26/2012 12:44 PM

Denying Reality: Germany's Ongoing Refusal to Forgive Greek Debt

The International Monetary Fund believes that the only way to reduce Greek debt to a sustainable level is by way of a debt haircut involving the country's government creditors. But with an election approaching, Germany has refused to consider the proposal. Reality is on the IMF's side. By SPIEGEL Staff

An elegant appearance is important to Christine Lagarde. The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wears her short hair carefully coiffed, and diamonds glitter on her manicured fingers. When she talks about global financial issues, she hardly ever raises her voice. Her colleagues at the Washington-based financial authority call her "Ms. Perfect."

But last Tuesday Lagarde, who was once French finance minister, was having trouble keeping her composure. She had hurried back to Europe from Asia to attend the latest in a series of Euro Group crisis meetings on Greece. And even though she had a fever and felt weak from the flu, she began to raise her voice as she spoke. For Greece to recover, she insisted, creditor countries would have to forgive the government in Athens a large share of its debt. "Nothing else will work," Lagarde said.

But the group, most notably Germany's impassive Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), refused to budge. The meeting ended unsuccessfully at around 5 a.m. and was adjourned until this Monday.

It is something of a paradox. Originally, Germany was the primary backer of IMF involvement in efforts to save the euro, primarily because of the group's experience, as Merkel repeatedly emphasized. Schäuble, for his part, said at the time: "There is no institution worldwide that has a comparable level of expertise."

Now, however, it is Berlin that has shown the greatest resistance to Lagarde's approach to the crisis. The reason is simple: If the Greek government were in fact forgiven a portion of its debt, Germany would have to write off billions in aid loans. It would mark the first time that Greece's crisis actually cost German taxpayers money, a novelty that Merkel and Schäuble would like to avoid on the eve of an election year.

Refuses to Change Approach

As such, their resistance to Lagarde's proposal runs deep. For the IMF it is a question of truthfulness and economic good sense, for Germany's current leadership, the coming campaign takes priority.

In the private economy, it's considered a crime to delay an unavoidable bankruptcy. Merkel and Schäuble, however, are determined to do just that, adopting a stance that could have drastic consequences for the Greek government and its economy. With the country's mountain of debt remaining unsustainably high, the government has been forced into intensifying its austerity policies. Meanwhile, the situation in Greece is scaring away private investors. But instead of providing Athens with the perspective of economic improvement in the foreseeable future, the Euro Group refuses to change its approach.

Not surprisingly, relationships are beginning to sour. Last week, Lagarde -- who was once among Schäuble's favorite colleagues -- lectured the German finance minister in no uncertain terms. If you want to keep Greece in the euro zone, Lagarde said, you have to be prepared to pay the price.

The numbers at the group's disposal were hardly ambiguous. The Germans want to address Greece's dismal debt situation with a number of accounting tricks and lower interest rates in an effort to find the €32 billion in funding necessary between 2014 and 2016 now that Athens has been given an extra two years to meet its budgetary targets. But even should all of the proposed measures be implemented, the shortfall could not be offset, according to Euro Group meeting documents. Furthermore, the package of mini-measures would not even come close to the target of reducing Greece's sovereign debt load to 120 percent of gross domestic product by 2020.

The Euro Group has proposed granting Greece extra time to hit the sovereign debt target as well. But Lagarde has refused to budge, saying that IMF statutes would prohibit further aid were the target to be watered down. As such, given that Greece will be unable to reach the target on its own, European creditors have little choice but to forgive a portion of the debt they hold, Lagarde insists. She reminded the group of ministers that it was not the IMF that had defined the goal and timing of the rescue program, but rather the leaders of euro-zone member states. "We can't delay everything at our convenience," she said.

Lagarde was particularly upset with Schäuble, whom she had addressed as "my friend Wolfgang" at his 70th birthday party in September -- because he, of all people, had left her high and dry.

A Surprise from Schäuble

A day earlier, on Monday of last week, Lagarde met with the key players in the Greek bailout in Paris. The French finance minister hosted the meeting, which also included Lagarde and the finance ministers of Italy, Spain and Germany. Experts from the European Commission, the European Council and the European Central Bank (ECB) were also present.

Lagarde said that she would be willing to give Greece more time to service its debt, as requested by Germany and other countries. In return, she demanded a drastic cut in the interest rates collected by the euro countries for their bilateral loans to Athens. According to several meeting participants, Schäuble agreed to go along with such a cut.

This could reduce the Greek debt burden by 6 percent over the next 10 years, a real improvement from the standpoint of the IMF. When the meeting ended, participants felt they had worked out a concrete proposal for the meeting with other euro-zone finance ministers set for the next day.

But when the meeting of the Euro Group began last Tuesday at 5 p.m., the ministers were in for a surprise. Suddenly Schäuble was only willing to agree to a moderate reduction in the rates on bilateral loans to Athens. In the meantime, he had spoken with Merkel, who was worried about those in her coalition government who are skeptical of the Greek bailout. Schäuble's change of position meant that the debt target that was so important to the IMF was up in the air once again. The Germans are becoming unreliable, one minister moaned.

The unpleasant haggling that ensued was something even long-serving Brussels officials had rarely experienced. Whenever an idea was proposed, the representative of one country or another had an objection. The Dutch minister rejected a proposal to buy back Greek bonds, and the Slovenians bridled at longer terms and interest rate reductions for loans from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). ECB President Mario Draghi said he was opposing to buying any more short-term government bonds from Greek banks.

Late in the evening, Lagarde finally put her foot down. "I have rules that I must adhere to," she said, and threatened that the IMF would withdraw from the Greek rescue effort, if necessary. "If you want the IMF to remain part of this, you'll have to do something."

'A Disaster on Our Hands'

The meeting was adjourned once again. European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn, Euro Group President Jean-Claude Juncker and his most important official, Thomas Wieser, from Austria, tried to convince Schäuble to change his mind. "If Germany doesn't move, the meeting will be a failure," one of them warned. "We'll have a disaster on our hands!" said another.

Now it's up to Commissioner Rehn to find a compromise as quickly as possible. He is appealing to leaders of euro-zone member states, Germany in particular, to fulfill their pledge to rescue Greece. "Everybody must reconsider his red lines," says Rehn.

Most economists feel that forgiving the ailing country at least a portion of its debt is unavoidable given the extreme interest rate costs associated with that debt. Even if Athens were to achieve the targeted debt level of 120 percent by 2020, the country would still have difficulties financing itself.

Denying Athens a partial default, on the other hand, would essentially condemn the country to further austerity measures. Already, however, Greece has slashed its budget to a degree never before seen in an industrialized country. The consequence is an ongoing recession that results in an ever growing pile of sovereign debt. Further cuts would only accelerate this vicious cycle.

Finding foreign investment in such a climate is almost impossible. Instead of creating the basis for a new beginning, the current bailout policy is achieving the opposite effect: eroding the country's economic base.

Schäuble knows this. Nevertheless, he is resisting the unavoidable and has been hiding behind specious explanations for several weeks. A lawyer by profession, Schäuble likes to point out that forgiving Greek debt is legally impossible. According to Schäuble, the federal government's budget rules require that new loans can only be issued if payback is realistic. He argues that, should Greek default on a portion of its debt, it would make it impossible to issue new loans to the country.

Unrealistic Calculations

It sounds logical enough, and yet it has little to do with the economic and political reality. After all, if a country's debt load exceeds a sustainable level, payback becomes even more unrealistic. The German government has long recognized the conundrum in the context of its development policy. Indeed, Berlin periodically forgives some of the loans made to highly indebted countries if they introduce reforms. In return, they receive fresh funds to pay for a new beginning.

This could also work in Greece, but Germany isn't interested. Instead, they come up with bizarre calculations. At Germany's request, for instance, the troika -- made up of the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank -- is to assume in its current report that Greece will achieve a so-called primary surplus of at least 5 percent as of 2016. This key number indicates the size of the budget surplus prior to interest payments. Experience shows that a value of 4.5 percent is more than optimistic, and IMF experts see anything higher than that as wishful thinking.

The troika calculations already seem completely unrealistic. In estimating the ability to carry debt, the experts assume that the Greek economy will return to annual growth of 4 to 5 percent after 2014 should all reforms be implemented.

Germany has become used to getting its way among euro-zone leaders. But it now faces growing resistance. Senior troika representatives, including ECB Executive Board member Jörg Asmussen, Thomas Wieser, the president of the Euro Working Group, and IMF representative Paul Thompson, are campaigning for a debt haircut, especially among smaller member states. Their goal is to reduce Greece's 2020 debt level from the 144 percent of GDP that it would likely be without any kind of debt forgiveness, to just 70 percent. To achieve the latter number, creditor countries would have to waive half of their claims.

Such a step would relieve Greece from its burdens and give it the ability to refinance itself on its own once again. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the Brussels illusionists will recognize this reality on Monday. Once again, the real numbers aren't likely to make an appearance at the table.

The Search for Sustainability

Much will depend on how IMF Managing Director Lagarde behaves. Only a few days ago, on her trip through Asia, she made it clear that she isn't interested in a quick but rather a "sustainable solution" to the Greece problem. "For one, I would like to give my blessing to a program for Greece that isn't based on wishful thinking. Second, I want to preserve the integrity, credibility and quality of out advisory activity."

Nevertheless, Lagarde has already made it clear that the IMF will not leave the negotiating table. A balance of terror is in place. If the IMF were to exit, the entire euro rescue would be a failure, because it would mean that other players, like the ECB, would also have to get out. And because everyone knows this, it won't happen.

But whatever the Euro Group decides to do now, it will not last until the German parliamentary election in September 2013, as Merkel and Schäuble would like. One senior official involved in the talks ventured a sober prognosis: "In the spring, we'll have to revisit this junk again."

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« Reply #3192 on: Nov 26, 2012, 07:59 AM »

WHO issues warning of SARS-like virus

By NewsLook
Monday, November 26, 2012 2:28 EST

So far, the number of cases identified is small. But the fact it is so highly contagious, and has been brewing for months, has So far, the number of cases identified is small. But the fact it is so highly contagious, and has been brewing for months, has scientists concerned.

Click to watch the report:
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« Reply #3193 on: Nov 26, 2012, 08:15 AM »

In the USA...

Fault Lines: How the White House was Won

Al Jazerra

It was a long and bitter race that cost at least $2.5bn, but were American voters presented with a real choice?

This episode of Fault Lines takes viewers through a tour of the US 2012 presidential campaign, from the high and low moments, to the Spin Room, to the noisy campaign ads that blanketed swing states.

We ask whether voters were presented with a real choice between the candidates, and whether the system truly is democratic.

Click to watch:


November 25, 2012

A Minimum Tax for the Wealthy

NYT Editorial


SUPPOSE that an investor you admire and trust comes to you with an investment idea. “This is a good one,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m in it, and I think you should be, too.”

Would your reply possibly be this? “Well, it all depends on what my tax rate will be on the gain you’re saying we’re going to make. If the taxes are too high, I would rather leave the money in my savings account, earning a quarter of 1 percent.” Only in Grover Norquist’s imagination does such a response exist.

Between 1951 and 1954, when the capital gains rate was 25 percent and marginal rates on dividends reached 91 percent in extreme cases, I sold securities and did pretty well. In the years from 1956 to 1969, the top marginal rate fell modestly, but was still a lofty 70 percent — and the tax rate on capital gains inched up to 27.5 percent. I was managing funds for investors then. Never did anyone mention taxes as a reason to forgo an investment opportunity that I offered.

Under those burdensome rates, moreover, both employment and the gross domestic product (a measure of the nation’s economic output) increased at a rapid clip. The middle class and the rich alike gained ground.

So let’s forget about the rich and ultrarich going on strike and stuffing their ample funds under their mattresses if — gasp — capital gains rates and ordinary income rates are increased. The ultrarich, including me, will forever pursue investment opportunities.

And, wow, do we have plenty to invest. The Forbes 400, the wealthiest individuals in America, hit a new group record for wealth this year: $1.7 trillion. That’s more than five times the $300 billion total in 1992. In recent years, my gang has been leaving the middle class in the dust.

A huge tail wind from tax cuts has pushed us along. In 1992, the tax paid by the 400 highest incomes in the United States (a different universe from the Forbes list) averaged 26.4 percent of adjusted gross income. In 2009, the most recent year reported, the rate was 19.9 percent. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

The group’s average income in 2009 was $202 million — which works out to a “wage” of $97,000 per hour, based on a 40-hour workweek. (I’m assuming they’re paid during lunch hours.) Yet more than a quarter of these ultrawealthy paid less than 15 percent of their take in combined federal income and payroll taxes. Half of this crew paid less than 20 percent. And — brace yourself — a few actually paid nothing.

This outrage points to the necessity for more than a simple revision in upper-end tax rates, though that’s the place to start. I support President Obama’s proposal to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for high-income taxpayers. However, I prefer a cutoff point somewhat above $250,000 — maybe $500,000 or so.

Additionally, we need Congress, right now, to enact a minimum tax on high incomes. I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that. A plain and simple rule like that will block the efforts of lobbyists, lawyers and contribution-hungry legislators to keep the ultrarich paying rates well below those incurred by people with income just a tiny fraction of ours. Only a minimum tax on very high incomes will prevent the stated tax rate from being eviscerated by these warriors for the wealthy.

Above all, we should not postpone these changes in the name of “reforming” the tax code. True, changes are badly needed. We need to get rid of arrangements like “carried interest” that enable income from labor to be magically converted into capital gains. And it’s sickening that a Cayman Islands mail drop can be central to tax maneuvering by wealthy individuals and corporations.

But the reform of such complexities should not promote delay in our correcting simple and expensive inequities. We can’t let those who want to protect the privileged get away with insisting that we do nothing until we can do everything.

Our government’s goal should be to bring in revenues of 18.5 percent of G.D.P. and spend about 21 percent of G.D.P. — levels that have been attained over extended periods in the past and can clearly be reached again. As the math makes clear, this won’t stem our budget deficits; in fact, it will continue them. But assuming even conservative projections about inflation and economic growth, this ratio of revenue to spending will keep America’s debt stable in relation to the country’s economic output.

In the last fiscal year, we were far away from this fiscal balance — bringing in 15.5 percent of G.D.P. in revenue and spending 22.4 percent. Correcting our course will require major concessions by both Republicans and Democrats.

All of America is waiting for Congress to offer a realistic and concrete plan for getting back to this fiscally sound path. Nothing less is acceptable.

In the meantime, maybe you’ll run into someone with a terrific investment idea, who won’t go forward with it because of the tax he would owe when it succeeds. Send him my way. Let me unburden him.

Warren E. Buffett is the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.


Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist faces erosion of power

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, November 26, 2012 0:29 EST

Anti-tax evangelist Grover Norquist, one of Washington’s most influential figures, is facing an apparent erosion of his power as leading Republicans begin opting out of pledges to his cause.

Norquist has amassed considerable clout over the last couple of decades by managing to get hundreds of Republicans in elective office to sign a controversial pledge vowing never to vote for a tax increase.

But there was growing feeling Sunday that the anti-tax crusader and his pledge were quickly becoming irrelevant as several party bigwigs said they would abandon the vow and analysts openly questioned his continued relevance.

“Grover Norquist is an impediment to good governing,” Republican political strategist Matthew Dowd told ABC television’s “This Week” program.

“The only good thing about Grover Norquist is, he’s named after a character from ‘Sesame Street,’” Dowd said.

“I think Grover Norquist’s sell-by date has passed,” said another longtime political observer, Joe Klein of Time Magazine.

Norquist, who heads the Americans for Tax Reform group, began collecting signatories to his pledge more than 20 years ago, gathering the names of politicians no less powerful than Mitt Romney, the recently-vanquished Republican presidential candidate.

Signatories to Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” agreed to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses.”

They also promised to “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

A longtime Washington player, Norquist is a Harvard MBA and trained economist whose rock-solid Republican credentials include membership on the board of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Conservative Union.

He founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, and the group’s website says that in the current legislature there are 238 House members and 41 senators who have taken the pledge, as well as 13 governors and 1,244 state legislators.

Any Republican lawmaker who breaks the no-taxes vow faces the opprobrium of their party and a probable primary challenge from a more hardline opponent who can be counted on to toe the party line.

But prominent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss said last week that even a possible future election challenge was not enough to convince him to stick to his promise.

“I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” Chambliss told a Georgia television station last week.

As far as a primary challenge goes, he said, “I don’t worry about that because I care too much about my country. I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist.”

Norquist’s influence appears to have diminished quickly following the November 6 vote that re-elected Barack Obama and gave the president greater authority in talks to find measures to reduce America’s ballooning debt.

Amid a growing consensus that it will take a combination of spending cuts and more revenue to rein in the deficit, the Republican leadership appears ready to jettison what had once seemed an iron-clad no-tax-hike promise.

“I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country,” senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told “Fox News Sunday.”

Republicans are only reconsidering their stance on taxes because a poison pill law — designed to force action to rein in the debt — will see a potentially catastrophic combination of tax hikes and spending cuts come into force if no deal is reached by the year-end.

Another prominent Republican to openly break with Norquist on Sunday was leading House representative Peter King.

One cannot be held to “a pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago,” the New York lawmaker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

“For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I’m not going to attack Japan today,” he said.

“The world has changed,” said King, “and the economic situation is different.”


November 25, 2012

Trying to Turn Obama Voters Into Tax Allies


WASHINGTON — When Tea Party activists swamped town hall-style meetings about health care in the summer of 2009, President Obama’s army of campaign volunteers largely stayed away, seemingly less interested in fighting for legislation than they had been in electing the nation’s first African-American president.

Now, Mr. Obama is seizing a second chance to keep his election-year supporters animated.

With lawmakers scheduled to return to work on Monday to begin intense discussions before a looming fiscal deadline, Mr. Obama’s aides are trying to harness the passions that returned him to the White House, hoping to pressure Republicans in Congress to accept tax increases on the wealthy. The president’s strategists are turning first to the millions of e-mail addresses assembled by the campaign and the White House.

Already, supporters are being asked to record YouTube videos of themselves talking about the importance of raising taxes on the rich. Aides said those videos would be shared on Facebook and Twitter and would be forwarded to centrist Democrats, as well as to mainstream Republicans, who they hope will break with their Tea Party colleagues.

An e-mail last week urged activists to share with their friends a graphic explaining the president’s tax argument. And Mr. Obama’s campaign manager sent an e-mail appeal asking supporters to fill out a survey about issues they would like to stay involved in.

The president is planning rallies in influential states to remind supporters of the need to keep the pressure on lawmakers during the fiscal talks. And should negotiations break down, Mr. Obama’s team is arranging for Republican lawmakers to hear from of tens of thousands of riled-up activists through angry Twitter posts, e-mails and Facebook messages.

“If Republicans refuse to move, if they refuse to cooperate, then you’ve got to be willing to engage the American public,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and important Obama ally. The campaign machinery, he said, “will respond to the president calling upon it to get engaged.”

As Mr. Obama tries to motivate his army of supporters, his rivals will be working to do the same. Republicans have acknowledged that they did not match Mr. Obama’s campaign operation, but in the tax fight, the party and its allies will also be using technology.

The Republican National Committee has turned to Twitter regularly to talk about the impact of tax increases on small businesses, using the hashtag #StopTheTaxHike. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has begun a multimedia campaign that it says is intended to prevent a financial disaster if Congress and the president do not reach an agreement.

The chamber’s site has a “Fiscal Cliff Countdown” clock, a calculator to determine “your post-taxmageddon taxes” and links to e-mail members of Congress.

Republicans in Congress will not have access to the kind of national list that Mr. Obama does. And yet it is not certain that Mr. Obama and his allies will be any more successful in motivating his followers than they were during the postelection period four years ago.

The fiscal negotiations are taking place behind closed doors, and to reach a deal with Speaker John A. Boehner, Mr. Obama will probably have to make compromises that could undermine the fervor of his most ardent supporters.

“The big issue they are going to have to figure out with the list is that activists want to fight for issues they can believe in,” said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, a liberal advocacy group. “A call to cut a bipartisan deal — that’s not going to cut it.”

At the same time, the White House needs to avoid overplaying its hand and antagonizing Republicans to the point where a deal becomes impossible.

Obama aides view keeping their grass-roots supporters energized as important to the president’s second-term success on broader tax changes, an immigration overhaul and efforts on climate change.

In his first term, Mr. Obama’s yearlong battle over health care failed to inspire the millions of activists from his 2008 campaign to put pressure on Republican lawmakers.“We were stunned that it never showed up,” said a senior member of a pro-health-overhaul interest group, who asked for anonymity to avoid angering the White House. “They had this thing built, and we were waiting for them to turn it on, and it just never came.”

Later on, Mr. Obama’s team did more to rally pressure on his adversaries. The president succeeded in fights with Republicans to extend the payroll tax cut in 2011 and to change student loans.

“There’s always a challenge between rallying cry issues and the challenge of governing,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group. “It’s one that I’m confident he can navigate.”

The first test of the mobilization efforts will come quickly, as the president pushes the tax issue during the lame-duck session of Congress. The idea, aides say, is to marry old-fashioned phone calls to the offices of wavering lawmakers with the latest social media tools.

Unions and progressive groups have made a Web site,, calling for an end to “the Bush tax cuts for the richest two percent.” Supporters are encouraged to download an “action kit” that includes materials needed to make signs, letterheads and Web site banner ads — all arguing for an end to the tax cuts.

One sign that can be printed out says “Middle Class Over Millionaires.” Another says “Fairness & Progress from Congress.” A typical banner advertisement that supporters can download and post on their Web site says “End the Bush Tax Cuts for the Wealthy.”

Visitors to the site are also given the option of expressing their support for Mr. Obama with a single click that creates a Twitter message: “The election is over. Don’t rest. Join the action. The action to end the Bush tax cuts for the rich. #theaction.”

Another button on the site takes visitors to a Facebook page that can be used to organize meet-ups for the tax fight.

“People just spent five years winning two presidential elections together,” Jim Messina, the president’s campaign manager, told Politico last week in his first extended interview since the election. “They’re now not going to walk away and not help him become the change that they want to see.”

In the survey e-mail that came from Mr. Messina shortly after the election, supporters were asked to identify issues they would be willing to volunteer on, including the economy, education, immigration, jobs and trade, tax fairness, urban community issues and climate change.

Among the questions on the survey: Would supporters like to continue to volunteer in their community as part of an Obama organization? And if so, the survey asked, how many hours a week could they work?

“They built these tools,” Mr. Messina said. “They’re the people that know how to do them. And I think what they want to use them on now is to continue to help the president advocate for his agenda.”

The president himself has vowed to take the lead by continuing a campaign-like presence in communities across the country as he battles for the tax increases on the wealthy and what he calls a “balanced” approach to spending cuts and deficit reduction.

If Mr. Obama succeeds in the fight over the tax cuts because of help from energized activists, his advisers hope the victory will embolden those supporters even more.

“Success begets success,” Ms. Tanden said. “If they are able to take this argument and mobilize them on the fiscal cliff, then I believe he will have success on immigration reform and future issues.”


November 26, 2012 07:00 AM

Why Isn't Austerity For The Greedy CEOs of Fix The Debt?

By Susie Madrak

As economists Jared Bernstein and Chuck Marr explain, tax repatriation isn't a good deal for anyone except the greedy CEOs whose companies don't have to pay the taxes.

As our friend at Scrutiny Hooligans points out, scratch a fervent austerian and find an opportunistic S.O.B.! How deliciously ironic that the Fix The Debt gang are pushing austerity policies that will translate into millions, even billions of dollars for themselves in tax breaks!

    Austerity. Just what you wanted for Christmas. From McClatchy:

        CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A group co-founded by Charlottean Erskine Bowles brings its campaign to reduce the federal debt to North Carolina next week, making the state the latest front in the battle to avert the “fiscal cliff.”

        Two former governors – Democrat Jim Hunt and Republican Jim Holshouser – will launch Fix the Debt’s N.C. chapter at a news conference Tuesday in Raleigh.


        Fix the Debt was founded by Bowles and Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming. They chaired the so-called Bowles-Simpson commission that two years ago proposed a package of spending cuts and tax hikes to begin reducing the federal debt, now estimated at over $16 trillion.

    If you didn’t see Lloyd Blankfein’s CBS interview a few days ago, it gets better. From Huffington Post, “CEO Council Demands Cuts To Poor, Elderly While Reaping Billions In Government Contracts, Tax Breaks”:

        WASHINGTON — The corporate CEOs who have made a high-profile foray into deficit negotiations have themselves been substantially responsible for the size of the deficit they now want closed.

        The companies represented by executives working with the Campaign To Fix The Debt have received trillions in federal war contracts, subsidies and bailouts, as well as specialized tax breaks and loopholes that virtually eliminate the companies’ tax bills.

        The CEOs are part of a campaign run by the Peter Peterson-backed Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, which plans to spend at least $30 million pushing for a deficit reduction deal in the lame-duck session and beyond.

        During the past few days, CEOs belonging to what the campaign calls its CEO Fiscal Leadership Council — most visibly, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and Honeywell’s David Cote — have barnstormed the media, making the case that the only way to cut the deficit is to severely scale back social safety-net programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — which would disproportionately impact the poor and the elderly.

    But not them or their firms. The HuffPost’s Christina Wilkie and Ryan Grim point to a report by the Institute for Policy Studies that calls Fix the Debt “a Trojan horse for massive corporate tax breaks,” and provides these findings:

        The 63 Fix the Debt companies that are publicly held stand to gain as much as $134 billion in windfalls if Congress approves one of their main proposals — a “territorial tax system.” Under this system, companies would not have to pay U.S. federal income taxes on foreign earnings when they bring the profits back to the United States.
        The CEOs backing Fix the Debt personally received a combined total of $41 million in savings last year thanks to the Bush-era tax cuts. The top CEO beneficiary of the Bush tax cuts in 2011, Leon Black of Apollo Global Management, saved $9.9 million on the Bush tax cuts. The private equity fund leader reaped $215 million in taxable income last year just from vested stock.
        Of the 63 Fix the Debt CEOs at publicly held firms, 24 received more in compensation last year than their corporations paid in federal corporate income taxes. All but six of these firms reported U.S. profits last year.

    So the one-time-only Bush repatriation tax holiday (2004) is back again, again. A year ago, NC Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan partnered with Sen. John McCain in an attempt to resurrect the one-time-only scheme one more time. It went nowhere. But their corporate sponsors are persistent little devils. So now repatriation is back re-branded as Fix the Debt’s “territorial tax system.” In addition to the profits mentioned above, the territorial tax system “give companies additional incentives to disguise U.S. profits as income earned in tax havens in order to avoid paying U.S. income taxes.”

    Not to mention a permanent incentive for moving jobs offshore. Chuck Marr, Director of Federal Tax Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told Jared Bernstein last year, “a dog could figure this out.” [timestamp 4:10]

Isn't that nice. Show this to your relatives who still think this whole austerity "crisis" is real.


November 25, 2012

Time Slipping, U.S. Ponders Afghan Role After 2014


WASHINGTON — American and allied military planners are drawing up the broad outlines of a force that would remain in Afghanistan following the handover to Afghan security after 2014, including a small counterterrorism force with an eye toward Al Qaeda, senior officials say.

Under the emerging plan, the American counterterrorism force might number less than 1,000, one military official said. In a parallel effort, NATO forces would advise Afghan forces at major regional military and police headquarters but most likely have a minimal battlefield role, with the exception of some special operations advisers.

Final decisions on the size of the American and NATO presence after 2014 and its precise configuration have not been made by the United States or its allies. But one option calls for about 10,000 American and several thousand non-American NATO troops.

The planning for a post-2014 mission has emerged as an early test for President Obama in his new term as he tries to flesh out the strategy for transferring the responsibility for security to the Afghans. But it is not the only challenge: After the White House decides what sort of military presence to propose to the Afghan government for after 2014, it must turn to the question of how quickly to reduce its troop force before then.

As one of his last acts as senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen is expected to submit a formal recommendation for how quickly to begin withdrawing the United States’ 66,000 troops. Two American officials who are involved in Afghan issues said that General Allen wants to keep a significant military capability through the fighting season ending in fall 2013, which could translate to a force of more than 60,000 troops until the end of that period.

Afghan forces are to assume the lead role for the war next year, and a military officer said that such a troop level would enable the United States to better support them, maintain the initiative and control critical terrain.

But such an approach may entail a heavier military involvement than the White House, which appears weary of the war, might like.

The White House is expected to ask General Allen to submit a range of options for drawing down forces next year, including some involving substantial reductions in troop levels.

“The White House has not yet asked General Allen for his assessment, nor have we begun considering any specific recommendations for troop numbers in 2013 and 2014,” said George Little, the Pentagon spokesman. “What is true is that in June 2011 the president made clear that our forces would continue to come home at a steady pace as we transition to an Afghan lead for security. That it still the case.”

The issue is already a politically contentious one. Some leading Democratic lawmakers have signaled that they would like to see steady troop reductions next year while Republicans have argued that speedy withdrawals would jeopardize hard-won gains.

There are also questions about General Allen’s future: his e-mails to a woman linked to the F.B.I. inquiry that disclosed David H. Petraeus’s affair are being investigated by the Pentagon inspector general.

But General Allen has resumed his duties in Kabul, and Mr. Obama has said that he thinks highly of his military performance. The Marine general who has been nominated to replace him, Joseph F. Dunford Jr., is not scheduled to take up the post until early February and recently told Congress that he had not been part of the planning process.

The planning for a post-2014 force is the Obama administration’s first order of business on Afghanistan for several reasons. The United States has opened talks with the Afghans on a security agreement that would authorize an American troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. So American officials need to define what role American and NATO forces might play then.

In addition, NATO’s political arm has authorized the alliance’s military planners to develop a concept for how to carry out the post-2014 mission, which is to be approved by the alliance’s defense ministers early next year.

The planning for after 2014 turns on troubling questions on how to guard against the expansion of terrorist groups and advise an Afghan military that has little airpower, poor logistics and difficulties evacuating and treating its own wounded. But it will also depend heavily on the willingness of allied nations to contribute troops and funds.

One question is the scope of the mission for the American counterterrorism force. The targets of the counterterrorism force would include Al Qaeda and possibly Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group linked to Al Qaeda that was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and which is found in small numbers in northeast Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might also make the list.

But it was unclear whether the Pakistani-based Haqqani network, which American commandos have focused on for the past two years, would also be a potential target of the American force. Officials say that does not appear to be contemplated by the White House.

An important question for the NATO mission after 2014 is what level of the Afghan military hierarchy they would advise. It is generally expected that they would advise seven regional Afghan Army corps and several regional Afghan police headquarters. The arrangement would largely insulate the NATO advisers from the battlefield, though officials said advisers might accompany Afghan brigades on major operations.

It is unlikely that NATO officers would advise Afghan battalions on the battlefield. That would require many more advisers than the alliance is likely to muster and would entail more risk than most nations seem prepared to assume, though some American experts believe it would make the Afghan military more effective. Still, NATO special operations advisers would be likely to accompany Afghan Army commandos and police SWAT-type units on the battlefield, under the emerging plan.

A major challenge is that Afghanistan will not have an effective air force before 2017, if then. American officials said that NATO airpower would remain in Afghanistan after 2014 but will likely only be used on behalf of NATO and American troops and perhaps Afghan units that are accompanied by NATO advisers. NATO forces rely heavily on airpower for airstrikes, supply and medical evacuation since Afghanistan’s roads are poor and often seeded with bombs.

To compensate for Afghanistan’s limited airpower, American officials are working on a number of fixes, including providing Afghan forces with armored vehicles that would be equipped with mortars and assault guns. The United States is also looking into expanding the purchase of turboprop planes for the Afghans and is trying to help Afghan pilots learn to fly at night.

Equally troubling is the problem of medical evacuations. After 2014, the Afghans will almost certainly need to rely on a system that depends more on ground transportation than helicopters. The Americans want to help them develop more field hospitals.

Senior Afghan military officials are well aware of their deficiencies and are counting on American support.

“Until 2017, we will have American pilots and engineers flying with us,” said Gen. Abdul Wahab Wardak, the Afghan Air Force Commander. “They will start the handover of the air force at the beginning of 2017 and at the end of the year it will be complete.”

General Wardak also noted that the Afghan military needed NATO help to provide “close air support and medevac.” And he ticked off a long list of equipment he hoped to receive from the United States, including transport airplanes and parts.

Still, in the broader sense, a senior American military officer acknowledged that the United States faced formidable difficulties in getting the Afghans ready to operate on their own.

The challenge, the officer said, is “building the back end” of the army and the police: “We’ve been focused on their fighting ability. Now it’s the time we need to focus on getting them the ability to get what they need so they can fight.”

Reporting was contributed by Matthew Rosenberg and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Eric Schmitt and Wesley S. Morgan from Washington.


November 25, 2012

Courts Divided Over Searches of Cellphones


Judges and lawmakers across the country are wrangling over whether and when law enforcement authorities can peer into suspects’ cellphones, and the cornucopia of evidence they provide.

A Rhode Island judge threw out cellphone evidence that led to a man being charged with the murder of a 6-year-old boy, saying the police needed a search warrant. A court in Washington compared text messages to voice mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room and are therefore not protected by state privacy laws.

In Louisiana, a federal appeals court is weighing whether location records stored in smartphones deserve privacy protection, or whether they are “business records” that belong to the phone companies.

“The courts are all over the place,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a criminal lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. “They can’t even agree if there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that would trigger Fourth Amendment protection.”

The issue will attract attention on Thursday when a Senate committee considers limited changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that regulates how the government can monitor digital communications. Courts have used it to permit warrantless surveillance of certain kinds of cellphone data.

A proposed amendment would require the police to obtain a warrant to search e-mail, no matter how old it was, updating a provision that currently allows warrantless searches of e-mails more than 180 days old.

As technology races ahead of the law, courts and lawmakers are still trying to figure out how to think about the often intimate data that cellphones contain, said Peter P. Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University. Neither the 1986 statute nor the Constitution, he said, could have anticipated how much information cellphones may contain, including detailed records of people’s travels and diagrams of their friends.

“It didn’t take into account what the modern cellphone has — your location, the content of communications that are easily readable, including Facebook posts, chats, texts and all that stuff,” Mr. Swire said.

Courts have also issued divergent rulings on when and how cellphones can be inspected. An Ohio court ruled that the police needed a warrant to search a cellphone because, unlike a piece of paper that might be stuffed inside a suspect’s pocket and can be confiscated during an arrest, a cellphone may hold “large amounts of private data.”

But California’s highest court said the police could look through a cellphone without a warrant so long as the phone was with the suspect at the time of arrest.

Judges across the nation have written tomes about whether a cellphone is akin to a “container” — like a suitcase stuffed with marijuana that the police might find in the trunk of a car — or whether, as the judge in the Rhode Island murder case suggested, it is more comparable to a face-to-face conversation. That judge, Judith C. Savage, described text messages as “raw, unvarnished and immediate, revealing the most intimate of thoughts and emotions.” That is why, she said, citizens can reasonably expect them to be private.

There is little disagreement about the value of cellphone data to the police. In response to a Congressional inquiry, cellphone carriers said they responded in 2011 to 1.3 million demands from law enforcement agencies for text messages and other information about subscribers.

Among the most precious information in criminal inquiries is the location of suspects, and when it comes to location records captured by smartphones, court rulings have also been inconsistent. Privacy advocates say a trail of where people go is inherently private, while law enforcement authorities say that consumers have no privacy claim over signals transmitted from an individual mobile device to a phone company’s communications tower, which they refer to as third-party data.

Delaware, Maryland and Oklahoma have proposed legislation that would require the police to obtain a warrant before demanding location records from cellphone carriers. California passed such a law in August after intense lobbying by privacy advocates, including Mr. Fakhoury’s group. But Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, questioning whether it struck “the right balance between the operational needs of law enforcement and individual expectations of privacy.”

Similar legislation has been proposed in Congress.

Lacking a clear federal statute, the courts have been unable to reach a consensus. In Texas, a federal appeals court said this year that law enforcement officials did not need a warrant to track suspects through cellphones. In Louisiana, another federal appeals court is considering a similar case. Prosecutors are arguing that location information is part of cellphone carriers’ business records and thus not constitutionally protected.

The Supreme Court has not directly tackled the issue, except to declare, in a landmark ruling this year, that the police must obtain a search warrant to install a GPS tracking device on someone’s private property.

“We are in a constitutional moment for location tracking,” said Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “It’s percolating in all these places.”

The Rhode Island case began shortly after 6 a.m. on a Sunday in October 2009, when Trisha Oliver called 911 to say that her son, Marco Nieves, 6, was unconscious in his bed. An ambulance rushed the boy to the hospital. A police officer also responded to the call, and Ms. Oliver escorted him through the bedrooms of her apartment. She then went to the hospital, leaving the police officer behind.

The officer heard a “beeping” in the kitchen, according to court papers. He picked up an LG-brand cellphone from the counter and saw this message: “Wat if I got 2 take him 2 da hospital wat do I say and dos marks on his neck omg.” It appeared to be from Ms. Oliver to her boyfriend, Michael Patino, court documents said.

Mr. Patino, 30, who was in the apartment at the time, was taken to the police station for questioning. The cellphone he had with him was seized. By evening, the boy was dead. The cause of death, according to court records, was “blunt force trauma to the abdomen which perforated his small intestine.”

Mr. Patino was charged with Marco’s murder.

In the course of the investigation, the police obtained more than a dozen search warrants for the cellphones of Mr. Patino, Ms. Oliver and their relatives. They also obtained records of phone calls and voice mail messages from the cellphone carriers.

Nearly three years later, in a 190-page ruling, Judge Savage sharply criticized the police.

The first police officer had no right to look at the phone without a search warrant, Judge Savage ruled. It was not in “plain view,” she wrote, nor did Ms. Oliver give her consent to search it. The court said Mr. Patino could reasonably have expected the text messages he exchanged with Ms. Oliver to be free from police scrutiny.

The judge then suppressed the bounty of evidence that the prosecution had secured through warrants, including the text message that had initially drawn the police officer’s attention.

“Given the amount of private information that can be readily gleaned from the contents of a person’s cellphone and text messages — and the heightened concerns for privacy as a result — this court will not expand the warrantless search exceptions to include the search of a cellphone and the viewing of text messages,” she wrote.

Mr. Patino remains in jail while the case is on appeal in the state’s Supreme Court. A lawyer for Mr. Patino did not respond to a request for comment.

Just months before Judge Savage’s ruling, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law compelling the police to obtain a warrant to search a cellphone, even if they find it during an arrest. Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, an independent, vetoed the bill, saying, “The courts, and not the legislature, are better suited to resolve these complex and case-specific issues.”


November 25, 2012

Republican and Lesbian, and Fighting for Acceptance of Both Identities


In 1996, Kathryn Lehman was a soon-to-be married lawyer working for Republicans in the House of Representatives. One of her major accomplishments: helping to write the law that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Today, Ms. Lehman, 53, no longer has a husband, and no longer identifies as straight. And she is a lobbyist for Freedom to Marry, which is devoted to overturning the very law she helped write, the Defense of Marriage Act.

But Ms. Lehman is still a fervent Republican.

“I’m trying to break the stereotype that all gays and lesbians, especially lesbians, are Democrats,” she said.

Although the Republican Party has long drawn gay men who believe in the party’s message of small government and a strong military, Republican lesbians are a rare political breed.

“Oh, we’re like unicorns,” said Erin Simpson, 51, who cites “personal liberty” as a fundamental value and teaches firearms safety in Tucson. Ms. Simpson, who came out in February, was “very disheartened” by Mitt Romney’s loss — one fueled, in part, by overwhelming gay support for President Obama.

There is no way to measure the true numbers, but gay activists say that in many cases, these “unicorns” were Republicans before they were gay — driven by conservative upbringings, economic issues and libertarian principles. They often did not acknowledge their sexual orientation, even to themselves, until middle age.

In interviews, these Republicans said they often feel like the odd women out, in their party and among other lesbians. But they are beginning to make their presence known, said Casey Pick, a program director and the first woman on the staff of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay-rights group.

“There is a presence of mature, established Republican women who are being more vocal of late,” Ms. Pick said.

These women fear that they are losing the younger generations, who are coming out earlier and are even more likely to identify with the Democratic Party now that Mr. Obama has embraced gay marriage.

The election results, including victories for advocates of same-sex marriage on ballot measures in four states, offer ammunition for Ms. Lehman when she talks to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Ms. Lehman said last week that some conservatives had already begun saying to her: “You know, it’s not really worth pursuing a federal marriage amendment. This really should be left to the states.”

“That is the more consistent conservative position,” she added.

Ms. Lehman said she felt no guilt over her role in the law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Her motivation, she said, is her gratitude for those who fought for gay rights decades before she knew the cause was her own.

If it were not for them, “I would not be living the wonderful life that I am right now with Julie,” Ms. Lehman said, referring to her partner, Julie Conway, a Republican fund-raiser, with whom she lives in Alexandria, Va.

“I am uniquely suited to do this, so I really need to do it,” she said.

The phenomenon of coming out later in life is not unique to conservatives, but it is more common among women, said Lisa M. Diamond, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who studies identity and sexual orientation.

“Women are generally socialized to not spend a lot of time thinking about their sexual desires,” Professor Diamond said.

Republican lesbians rejected suggestions that they might have come out earlier if they held more liberal views. In Professor Diamond’s research, the delay usually has more to do with family and religion than ideology.

Cathy Smith’s upbringing was “not rigidly Catholic,” but when she came out in 2010, she said, her mother told her that “she loved me, but she didn’t want me to lose my soul.”

Ms. Smith, a 53-year-old teacher in North Carolina, said that despite signs that she was attracted to women, she was “clueless” in her youth.

“I always wanted to find a husband because my mother felt that women should be married,” Ms. Smith said.

At 18, she registered as a Republican, and though she briefly reconsidered her party affiliation when she came out, Ms. Smith voted for Mr. Romney, albeit reluctantly. Echoing the more than a dozen women interviewed, Ms. Smith said liberal lesbians react more negatively to her political views than conservatives do to her sexual orientation.

“Mention that you’re Christian or mention that you’re Republican and suddenly you just get vilified,” she said. “That may be one of the reasons for the lack of visibility of gay women in the Republican Party.”

Still, she said, “What good are gay rights if your country is falling apart?”

Like many Republican women who have followed her path, Ms. Smith is “still divided in the mind about whether or not gay people should be allowed to marry,” she said, though she supports civil unions.

Younger conservatives increasingly back same-sex marriage. A poll in May by The Washington Post and ABC News found that half of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 44 think it should be legal, compared with a quarter of those over 45.

This shift in attitude — not to mention the election results — led Sarah Longwell, 32, to fear that the Republican stance on gay issues could mean few younger reinforcements, even as older Republican lesbians raise their profiles.

“Now, it is increasingly hard for the Republican Party to attract younger people,” said Ms. Longwell, the only female board member of the Log Cabin Republicans.

“One of the things that’s interesting about these older people in general is that when they were coming up in the world, the Democrats were not any better,” Ms. Longwell said. Because Democrats now support gay marriage, “it posed a much harder question suddenly for gay Republicans.”

Lauren Yarbrough, 22, has, she said, “been lesbian my whole life, also been in church my whole life.”

Ms. Yarbrough has been with the same woman since she was 15, but she prefers civil unions over gay marriage. She opposes abortion rights in most cases, and thinks the government should spend more on the military and less on food stamps and Medicaid. On those issues, she fits into her conservative town, LaGrange, Ga. But she keeps quiet about her sexuality, especially after being fired from a job after her boss found out.

“That’s why I want to get out of this town,” Ms. Yarbrough said. She dreams of moving to California, which she thinks would be more accepting of her sexuality, but not of her politics.

“I can’t win for losing anywhere,” she said with a sigh.


November 25, 2012

With Ban on Drilling Practice, Town Lands in Thick of Dispute


LONGMONT, Colo. — This old farming town near the base of the Rocky Mountains has long been considered a conservative next-door neighbor to the ultraliberal college town of Boulder, a place bisected by the railroad and where middle-class families found a living at the vegetable cannery, sugar mill and Butterball turkey plant.

But this month, Longmont became the first town in Colorado to outlaw hydraulic fracturing, the oil-drilling practice commonly known as fracking. The ban has propelled Longmont to the fiercely contested forefront of the nation’s antifracking movement, inspiring other cities to push for similar prohibitions.

But it has also set the city on a collision course with oil companies and the State of Colorado.

“People really didn’t think through this too well,” Mayor Dennis L. Coombs said, sounding weary at the prospect of an onslaught of lawsuits. “We are where we are. I guess you have to respect the people.”

In a way, Longmont’s fracking ban is in a position similar to Colorado’s ballot measure legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Both are lessons in the promise and peril of populism: both initiatives sailed through on Election Day despite opposition from the authorities, and both now face legal scrutiny and fights at all levels of government.

Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has warned Longmont residents that the ban is likely to mean a lawsuit from the state, which insists that only it has the authority to regulate drilling. Already this summer, Colorado sued Longmont over earlier city rules that limit drilling near schools and homes.

Local leaders are also bracing for more lawsuits as they tell energy companies they can no longer frack their wells — a process that involves injecting thousands of gallons of pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to fissure the rock and extract the oil and gas locked inside.

The ban does not outlaw all drilling, only the specific practice of hydraulic fracturing within the city limits, as well as the storage and disposal of waste created by the process.

“We’re going contrary to state laws,” said Bill Swenson, one of seven former mayors of Longmont who fought the ban. “We are, in effect, taking your property.”

Fracking has allowed drillers to unlock huge new reservoirs of oil and natural gas over the past few years, and has kick-started economies from North Dakota to western Pennsylvania to here in northern Colorado. The industry says the practice is environmentally safe, but opponents have raised concerns about water contamination and air pollution while objecting to islands of well pads and forests of drilling towers in their communities.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the main lobbying group for the energy industry here, criticized the ban as confrontational and encroaching on the private property of companies that have rights to oil and gas buried deep beneath Longmont’s streets, parks and reservoirs.

“Are the taxpayers of Longmont prepared to provide fair compensation to all of the oil and gas lease holders in Longmont?” said Tisha Schuller, the group’s president.

Supporters of the ban call it a “citizen uprising” against a rush of drilling that has spread like brush fire through towns across the plains of northern Colorado.

In nearby Firestone, wells sit within a few hundred feet of libraries, schools and subdivisions. In Greeley, herds of tanker trucks line up at city fire hydrants at dawn to load water for fracking. Earlier this year, a federal scientist reported finding elevated levels of propane and benzene in the air around Erie. City officials and environmental advocates have even led fracking tours of communities where drilling is at its peak.

When people learned of plans to sink wells in Longmont near the Union Reservoir and a playground and recreational area on the east end of town, a response began to coalesce: not here. Supporters said the state’s decision to sue over Longmont’s regulations stiffened their resolve.

At the start, the ban seemed like a doomed idea.

The energy industry poured money and resources into fighting it, raising more than $500,000 to send out mailers and buy advertisements saying the ban would drive away businesses and incite expensive court battles. The major newspapers in Denver, Boulder and Longmont all urged voters to reject the proposal.

“I had no idea we could upset an entire state government and a trillion-dollar industry,” said Michael Bellmont, an insurance agent who helped gather thousands of signatures and knocked on doors to persuade voters.

Advocates of the ban focused less on climate change and environmental concerns than on hitting voters where they lived: Do you want oil wells venting near your backyard? Do you want drilling near your schools?

The industry said the arguments were based on fear-mongering, deception and antifracking hysteria, but they resonated with voters. The ban passed 60 percent to 40 percent, with broad bipartisan support.

One recent afternoon, a few supporters who helped get the ban passed drove through town to visit some of the “red sites” — areas that had been leased for drilling, or could be in the future. They drove past public parks, open spaces and golf courses and stopped at the Union Reservoir, still and limpid under a cloudy sky.

“There’s a swim beach, there’s sailing, and there will be eight well pads,” said Kaye Fissinger, a supporter of the ban, pointing out potential drilling sites in the distance. “You come out here to relax. You don’t come out here to have your air polluted.”

Al Jazerra

Fault Lines: Fracking in America

With the US looking to ease its reliance on foreign oil, Fault Lines investigates the impact of natural gas extraction.

For years now, the United States has tried to lower its dependence on foreign oil for its energy needs.

With stability in the Middle East in question, drilling at home has never been more attractive. But it often comes at a cost.

Natural gas extraction - fracking - is being touted as the answer. But questions are being asked about the process and its implications.

Click to watch this documentary film:

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November 26, 2012

Seeming Retreat by Egypt Leader on New Powers


CAIRO — With public pressure mounting, President Mohamed Morsi appeared to pull back Monday from his attempt to assert an authority beyond the reach of any court. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood canceled plans for a large demonstration in his support, signaling a chance to calm an escalating battle that has paralyzed a divided nation.

After Mr. Morsi met for hours with the judges of Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council, his spokesman read an “explanation” on television that appeared to backtrack from a presidential decree placing Mr. Morsi’s official edicts above judicial scrutiny — even while saying the president had not actually changed a word of the statement.

Though details of the talks remained hazy, and it was not clear whether the opposition or the court would accept his position, Mr. Morsi’s gesture was another demonstration that Egyptians would no longer allow their rulers to operate above the law. But there appeared little chance that the gesture alone would be enough to quell the crisis set off by his perceived power grab.

Hundreds of opponents of Mr. Morsi protested in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Reuters reported, with the crowd expected to grow in the late afternoon.

The presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, said for the first time that Mr. Morsi had sought only to assert pre-existing powers already approved by the courts under previous precedents, not to free himself from judicial oversight.

He said that the president meant all along to follow an established Egyptian legal doctrine suspending judicial scrutiny of presidential “acts of sovereignty” that work “to protect the main institutions of the state.” The judicial council had said Sunday that it could bless aspects of the decree deemed to qualify under the doctrine.

Mr. Morsi had maintained from the start that his purpose was to empower himself to prevent judges appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak from dissolving the constituent assembly, which is led by his fellow Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The courts have already dissolved the Islamist-led Parliament and an earlier constituent assembly, and the Supreme Constitutional Court was widely expected to rule against this one next week.

But the text of the original decree had exempted all presidential edicts from judicial review until the ratification of a constitution, not just those edicts related to the assembly or justified as “acts of sovereignty.”

Legal experts said that the spokesman’s explanations of the president’s intentions, if put into effect, would amount to a revision of the decree Mr. Morsi issued last Thursday. But lawyers said that the verbal statements alone carried little legal weight.

How the courts would apply the doctrine remained hard to predict. And Mr. Morsi’s opposition indicated it was holding out for far greater concessions, including the breakup of the whole constituent assembly.

Speaking at a news conference while Mr. Morsi was meeting with the judges, the opposition activist and intellectual Abdel Haleem Qandeil called for “a long-term battle,” declaring that withdrawal of Mr. Morsi’s new powers was only the first step toward the opposition’s goal of “the withdrawal of the legitimacy of Morsi’s presence in the presidential palace.” Completely withdrawing the edict would be “a minimum,” he said.

Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer and former presidential candidate, pointed to the growing crowd of protesters camped out in Tahrir Square for a fourth night. “The one who did the action has to take it back,” Mr. Ali said.

Moataz Abdel Fattah, a political scientist at Cairo University, said Mr. Morsi was saving face during a strategic retreat. “He is trying to simply say, ‘I am not a new pharaoh; I am just trying to stabilize the institutions that we already have,’ ” he said. “But for the liberals, this is now their moment, and for sure they are not going to waste it, because he has given them an excellent opportunity to score.”

The attempt to qualify Mr. Morsi’s position follows four days of rising tensions and flashes of violence set off by his edict. He argued that he was forced to act because of indications that the Mubarak-appointed judges of Egypt’s top courts were poised to dissolve the constitutional assembly as soon as next week. The courts had already shuttered the democratically elected Parliament and an earlier constitutional assembly — both dominated by Islamists — and the courts had also rejected an earlier decree he issued to try to reopen Parliament.

By enabling the current assembly to complete its work, Mr. Morsi said, he would expedite the transition to a stable democracy with a written constitution and an elected parliament that would limit his own powers. His supporters portrayed his assertion of executive power over the judges as a triumph of democracy over Egypt’s unelected arms of the old Mubarak government.

But infringement on the courts touched a nerve. Under Mr. Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, the Egyptians had grown cynical about corrupt and politicized judges but still cherished their courts as the source of at least the promise of impartial justice and some check on power. And over the past decade, a judges’ campaign for judicial independence had helped lay the groundwork for the 2011 revolt.

To his surprise, according to at least one adviser, Mr. Morsi’s decree exempting himself from judicial scrutiny set off a furious reaction. The president’s fractious political opponents galvanized together into a unified coalition against him. Vandals attacked more than a dozen headquarters of his political party. Thousands demonstrated in the streets. Judges called for a national strike, which has begun in some places.

And the justice minister, a former leader of the judicial independence movement, publicly dissented, arguing that Mr. Morsi should limit his attempt to assert immunity from judicial oversight to acts only related to protecting the constituent assembly or other elected bodies — something the clarification offered Monday appeared to do.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman said Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had spoken about the decree on Monday with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Amr. Mrs. Clinton had told him, “We want to see the constitutional process move forward in a way that does not overly concentrate power in one set of hands,” the spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said, and she suggested that the Egyptian government had offered signs that a compromise was in the works.

“Our understanding from the Egyptian side is that there are now discussions ongoing among a number of the stakeholders, that President Morsi is conducting consultations with various groups, including with the judiciary,” Ms. Nuland said. The clarification Mr. Morsi offered on Monday also pulled back one of the most popular elements of his decree. He had called for retrials for officials of the former government, including Mr. Mubarak, accused of directing the killing of civilians during the revolt. Many Egyptians have been outraged at acquittals or what they consider to be inadequate sentences handed down in such trials; Mr. Mubarak’s life sentence was accompanied by a convoluted court statement that appeared to pave the way for a release on appeal.

But on Monday, Mr. Morsi’s spokesman said the president’s decree had not meant to provide new trials for the same crimes, a violation of Egyptian and international law. Instead, the spokesman said the decree had only meant to provide for new trials if new evidence emerged. That is already a part of Egyptian law, so the clarification rendered that provision of the decree moot.

Mr. Morsi’s decree had also sought to replace the Mubarak-appointed chief prosecutor, who was widely blamed for failing to pursue corrupt Mubarak government officials aggressively. But Egyptian law had blocked Mr. Morsi from removing him. It was unclear whether Mr. Morsi would now argue that replacing the chief prosecutor was justified as an “act of sovereignty,” the doctrine the spokesman cited to justify immunity from judicial scrutiny of other presidential edicts “to protect the main institutions of the state.”

Hossam Bahgat, executive director of a human rights group that has filed a lawsuit challenging the decree as unlawful, said he had “more questions than answers” after the statement. “Right now, these are just verbal explanations that contradict the written word of the declaration, so that discrepancy needs to be settled,” he said.

In a television interview, Hisham Raouf, an assistant to the minister of justice and the president of the court of appeals, described the spokesman’s statements as an “explanation memorandum” that complemented the original decree. He acknowledged that the explanation made much of the decree superfluous because the spokesman had asserted that all the powers the president claimed were already found in longstanding Egyptian legal doctrine.

But he said the explanation was a step forward because without it, the decree suggested that until the passage of a new constitution any act Mr. Morsi took was beyond judicial scrutiny. Now, courts would decide what qualified as a “sovereign act,” he said, adding that all sides had to accept small compromises because “the crisis isn’t small.”


11/26/2012 05:24 PM

Morsi's Grab for Power: Egyptian Revolutionaries Take on Radical Islam

By Daniel Steinvorth and Volkhard Windfuhr

Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency just a few months ago. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood leader has made a grab for absolute power. The move has torn open old wounds in the fledgling democracy and threatens to resurrect the revolution that swept away his predecessor Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

Abd al-Galil al-Sharnubi says he can only laugh at the thought that there are people in the West who still see the Muslim Brotherhood as "moderate Islamists." Sharnubi is a journalist and a Muslim -- and he was a member of the Brotherhood for 23 years. He's been familiar with the movement since he was 14, and he says that the Brotherhood could be the kiss of death for democracy in Egypt.

Last year, Sharnubi, 38, left the Islamist organization. Since then, he says that his life has become a nightmare. "They tried to turn my family against me," says Sharnubi. He's sitting in a Cairo coffeehouse, keeping a careful eye on the front door: "They went to my home town and spread rumors about me, saying that I've become an atheist and that I drink alcohol. They told my wife that I frequent prostitutes."

As the former editor in chief of Ikhwan Online, the brotherhood's website, Sharnubi went public shortly after his resignation. In talk shows he warned his fellow Egyptians that the movement was undemocratic and authoritarian, and that leading Muslim Brothers were no less corrupt than politicians from the old regime.

Many accused Sharnubi of spreading panic, saying that the Islamists should be given a chance. But the former member of the Brotherhood says that last week's events show that he's been right all along. The president's "coup," says Sharnubi, provides just an inkling of the Brotherhood's obsession with power.

Revived Revolutionary Spirit

Last Thursday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi unexpectedly granted himself such extensive rights that there is effectively no longer a separation of powers in the Arab world's most populous country.

Morsi has decreed that the president will from now on have the last word "on all constitutional amendments, decisions and laws." According to his plan, no state organ will be able to tell him what to do and not even the country's constitutional court will have the power to stand up to him.

The "new pharaoh," as Morsi has already been branded in Egypt, will in the future presumably only have to be accountable to God and to the executive committee of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose membership the president has probably never terminated, in contrast to what he claims.

If Morsi doesn't rescind his decree, it will probably take nothing short of a renewed uprising in Egypt to challenge the president's power. Indeed, after sacking his chief prosecutor, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, who was a member of the old regime, Morsi no longer has any opponents -- with the exception of the Egyptian people.

While Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered last Friday in front of the presidential palace to cheer Morsi, his opponents demonstrated on Cairo's Tahrir Square. "We don't want a new dictatorship," they yelled. "The people intend to topple the religious leader."

Suddenly it's back again: the revolutionary spirit that many here have been missing for months now. Except this time the demonstrators' rage is not directed at Hosni Mubarak, but rather at their first democratically elected president. "People are finally waking up," says Dina Abd al-Soud with tears in her eyes. A group of young men walk by wearing Palestinian scarves and carry megaphones. Al-Soud chants with them: "Down with the regime! We won't go, you have to go!"

The 37-year-old woman manages a nearby hotel. She says business has become more difficult since the economy took a downturn. And she notes that she increasingly receives critical looks because she doesn't wear a headscarf, but instead allows her hair to hang loose. But on this evening, she says that her sense of hope is returning. "Morsi has made a stupid mistake. He's lost his credibility. Now, the people will resist."

Egypt 's Decisive Turning Point

The regional offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party were torched in at least three cities on Friday. In Alexandria the Brothers held up prayer rugs to protect themselves as they were pelted with stones.

Nearly two years after the beginning of the revolution, the country has reached a decisive turning point. Will the Muslim Brothers -- who by no means launched the popular rebellion against Mubarak, yet have emerged as the biggest winners of the revolutionact -- actually manage to solidify their power over the long term? Will Morsi end up as yet another absolute ruler in the presidential palace? This would spell the end of Egypt's fledgling democracy. Or will Morsi yield to the protests against him that have been more vehement than expected? Last week, the president only received positive feedback from his Western partners.

Indeed, Morsi cleverly timed his domestic policy maneuver, selecting a day in which the world was still singing the praises of the "new Egypt." The Egyptian president had used his influence to help persuade Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. As the beneficiary of billions in American military and economic aid, he had no alternative.

"Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace," exclaimed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Words of recognition for the Islamists could even be heard in Israel.

Morsi, who is often considered lethargic and wooden by observers abroad, seized the moment to dismiss his chief prosecutor and strip the constitutional court of its power. This strengthens the president's position and bolsters the Muslim Brotherhood, which for weeks has been the target of demonstrations by the young revolutionaries who led the rebellion in 2011.

The protesters have sprayed anti-Brotherhood graffiti on the walls of the buildings surrounding Tahrir Square, and they are threatening a "second revolution." Surprisingly, the outbreak of the Gaza crisis did not spark mass demonstrations in Egypt against Israel, but rather protests against the Muslim Brothers.

Nightmare for Secular Egyptians

Two weeks ago nearly 50 children died in a horrific traffic accident in the province of Assiut -- an incident that underscored the miserable state of the country's infrastructure. In addition to derelict public hospitals, schools, highways and bridges, the railway network is completely decrepit.

There are enormous economic and social problems in the country, yet Morsi, who has headed the government for the past five months, has preferred to focus on removing his opponents. He sacked the country's top generals, ordered the closure of critical TV stations and had headstrong journalists punished. What's more, he appointed Muslim Brothers to key ministerial positions and made no attempt to be the "president of all Egyptians."

The only remarkable thing about Morsi's accomplishments in office is the speed with which he has cemented his power. Egypt currently has neither a parliament nor a constitution, and the president's decrees constitute the final word on all political matters. A council appointed by the last parliament is working on a new constitution, but this body is nearly completely controlled by Islamists.

Left-wingers, liberals, Nasserists, women and Christians have all resigned from the council, out of protest over the dominating influence of the Muslim Brothers and Salafists.

In one draft of the constitution, the Islamists proposed changing the rights and obligations of women to match the "rules of Sharia law." For Egyptian women's rights activist Karima al-Hefnawy, this would be the equivalent of requiring all women to wear the hijab, as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, according to Hefnawy, women are already discriminated against in Egypt: "Many Islamists make no secret of the fact that they want to make women legally subservient to men."

In order to properly apply the Sharia code of conduct, the Islamists suggested that they should be interpreted by Muslim legal scholars, known as ulama. This would allow the ulama to acquire the same status as constitutional judges -- a nightmare for secular Egyptians.

Participants speak of debates on the constitutional council in which members discuss the merits of lowering the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 14 -- or even to 9 years. The recently disenfranchised constitutional court would have been the only authority capable of dissolving the council. But even this hope has been dashed.

Not Just Isolated Lunatics

Consequently, even the most radical Islamists have become part of the daily political landscape in Egypt.

This includes preachers such as Wajdi Ghunaim, who views secular Egyptians as infidels who should be punished with death.

There are also ultraconservative Salafists like Murgan Salem al-Gohary, who boasts that he was present when the Taliban dynamited the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. On a recent TV show, Gohary called for all "symbols of blasphemy" to be destroyed in Egypt as well, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Sphinx and all other "idolatrous images" from the days of the pharaohs.

It would be wrong to maintain that these are just isolated lunatics. Back when Mubarak was in power, he would have had such extremists jailed, but they now appear on private TV networks with an unprecedented degree of confidence. And this speaks volumes about the current political climate in Egypt. Former Muslim Brother Sharnubi says that the Brotherhood is probably tolerating even the most radical Salafists because it will need their support.

He no longer believes in a peaceful solution to the conflict, and predicts that there will soon be violent confrontations between the various camps. And he expects that there will be further attempts on his life.

Sharnubi barely survived such an attack on Nov. 2. Two masked men forced his car off the road and shot at him with automatic pistols until help arrived. There was never an investigation, but he says he knows who was behind the attack.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


11/26/2012 03:08 PM

The World from Berlin: 'The New Islamization of Egypt Has Arrived'

Democratic reform in Egypt has taken a distressing turn for the worse with President Mohammed Morsi's recent move to give himself sweeping new powers, German commentators say on Monday. Many fear that it is the first step in the Islamization of the country.

Violent protests have rocked Egypt since Thursday when President Mohammed Morsi issued controversial decrees that granted the leader far reaching new powers.

Clashes between supporters of Morsi's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, opposition parties and police have been reported across the country since Friday, resulting in some 500 injuries. The first death in the unrest was reported on Sunday, when a 15-year-old boy was killed and 40 others were wounded as anti-Morsi protesters tried to storm the political offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Damanhoor.

Amid the ongoing clashes, the Egyptian stock market index reportedly dropped 9.59 percentage points on Sunday, the first day of trading since the edicts were announced. The steep drop was among the biggest since the uncertainty surrounding the toppling of former autocrat Hosni Mubarak early last year.

There are signs, however, that Morsi may seek a compromise to ease tensions with his opponents. In a statement issued on Sunday evening, his office said the decrees were necessary for a proper transition to democracy and stressed that they would not be permanent. "The presidency reiterates the temporary nature of the said measures, which are not meant to concentrate powers," it said.

'This Is a Catastrophe'

Morsi, who came to power in the country's first democratic elections this summer, is also scheduled to meet with senior judges on Monday to calm their fears about giving himself immunity from judicial review until a new parliament is elected, a move that had prompted many judges and prosecutors to boycott courts around the country. But the country's top judicial body, the Supreme Judiciary Council, asked them to return to work on Monday, saying it would try to convince Morsi to limit his immunity to "sovereign matters" like declaring war. The courts, which already dissolved the elected lower house of parliament, had also reportedly been considering doing the same to the heavily Islamist assembly currently writing Egypt's new constitution -- a situation that justified Morsi's move, his supporters say.

Opposition leaders, including prominent Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, have refused to cooperate with Morsi until the edicts have been scrapped. "He grabbed full power for himself," he told SPIEGEL in an interview published on Monday. "Not even the pharaohs had so much authority, to say nothing of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. This is a catastrophe -- it a mockery of the revolution that brought him to power and an act that leads one to fear the worst." Fractious opposition groups are also reportedly attempting to band together to increase resistance to Morsi's edicts, widely seen as an unprecedented power grab.

The move came directly after Morsi was praised for helping to broker a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, ending eight days of violence in the Gaza Strip. German commentators on Monday say that Morsi has used that momentum to sieze greater powers, which could endanger Egypt's transition to democracy.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"A freely elected politician is removing the institutions of the state and thus the control mechanisms of democracy -- the parliament, the justice system and independent media.... The media has long been under attack. And Morsi's decree … now combines executive, legislative and judicial powers in one set of hands -- his. Not even his toppled predecessor Hosni Mubarak had such an abundance of power."

"The reason for Morsi's clumsily handled grab for complete power is obvious. The new Islamization of Egypt, the pet project of the Muslim Brotherhood, has arrived. … The mistakes of the revolution are taking their toll: the divided opponents of the Islamists, time pressure, vague guidelines for the new constitution, and the lack of police reform. And then there is the good faith in the fundamentalists who have kidnapped the revolution and are now working to build a Sharia state."

Left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"When it comes to relations between the United States and Egypt, it seems everything has remained the same. The Egyptian government is committed to representing the interests of the West in the region. It is mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and attempting to find a solution to the conflict in Syria. The goal is stability. President Morsi has proven that he can and wants to fulfill this role. For this he is praised by Washington and Europe. And they are overlooking the fact that on a domestic level he continues to deviate from his promise to lead Egypt to democracy."

"Many Egyptians fear that Egypt is now headed directly into a new dictatorship. They feel let down because the West is allowing Morsi's power grabbing at home to go on because their interests are being met. It was no different under Hosni Mubarak's government."

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"That Morsi has chosen exactly the moment in which he is being praised internationally for his role as mediator in the Gaza conflict to grant himself new powers shows just what a cold power-monger he is, regardless of how he might try to justify his behavior in the face of the angry protests against it. It should be noted that the rebellion against autocrats and dictators from Tunis to Cairo has not created a wonderland for Arab democracy. That can't happen overnight. The process of restructuring is complicated and is not immune to setbacks. But it would be bitter if it led to single-party rule for the Islamists."

Financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"There is cause for concern about the democratic process along the Nile. … But Egypt is not Iran. While Morsi wants to expand the dominance of the Islamists, opposition groups have found unprecedented unity. The protests against Morsi becoming a 'new Pharaoh' and against the Islamization of society have brought them together. In the battle for Egypt's future, everything is at stake. The outcome remains uncertain. But at least there is hope that given the poor economy and lack of economic output under the governing Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptians will reconsider and avoid blindly following Morsi."

"The Arab Spring certainly has not cooled into an Islamist winter, though this danger has by no means been eliminated. But it was naive to think from the beginning that after a successful revolution against the dictators in the Arab world that market economy-oriented and liberal democracies would emerge right away."

"The people in Tahrir Square must fight for this. And the West should finally ask itself how it can actively help without being patronizing."

-- Kristen Allen
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