Bernd Debusmann Mon, 13 Aug 2012 14:37:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Does Paul Ryan mean Romney has already lost the Latino vote? Mon, 13 Aug 2012 14:34:20 +0000 Has Mitt Romney, the U.S. Republican Party’s candidate for November’s presidential elections, given up hope of boosting his dismal standing among U.S. citizens of Latin American extraction? The question arises after Romney’s pick of a running mate of no apparent appeal to Latinos.

Romney’s choice as candidate for Vice President, the ultra-conservative congressman Paul Ryan, is a darling of the Republican Party’s rigidly ideological base but has done nothing that could endear him to the fastest growing segment of the American electorate. On average, around 1,600 Latinos turn 18, voting age, every day and by November 6, some 22 million will be eligible to vote.

Romney is aware of how important their vote will be – in April, two reporters overheard him talk about the subject in a closed-door meeting with donors in Palm Beach. His message then, according to the eavesdropping journalists, was blunt: failure to win over more Latinos “spells doom for us.” Since then, the Romney campaign stepped up efforts to court Latinos with television ads and a Spanish-language website.

That failed to narrow the wide gap in Latino support between President Barack Obama and his rival. In July, the latest in a string of public opinion polls with similar results showed 23 percent would vote for Romney and 67 percent for Obama. While support for Romney has been going down, Obama held steady. The President won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008.

Romney’s standing among Latinos is the worst for a Republican presidential candidate since 1996 and number-crunching pundits from both ends of the political spectrum have estimated that he would need more than 30 percent of the Latino vote to win. Which makes his choice of Ryan baffling. Of all the potential running mates Romney could have picked from, Ryan is probably the one least likely to draw in Latino support.

“Choosing him means he’s turning his back on Latinos,” said Fabian Nunez, a democratic political analyst for the Spanish-language Univision network in a debate on the Romney/Ryan ticket. Andres Oppenheimer, an author and writer on Latin affairs, commented that Romney had lost a major opportunity to pick a Vice President who would appeal to Latinos. “Looks like the Romney campaign gave up on the Hispanic vote altogether.”

Ryan rose to stardom in the Tea Party movement in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as the author of budget proposals that would tear apart America‘s social safety net on which Latinos and African-Americans tend to rely more than whites or Asian Americans. Ryan’s views of the role of government have been inspired, by his own account, by the work of Ayn Rand, the patron saint of unfettered capitalism.


In her best-known book, “Atlas Shrugged”, the controversial philosopher laid out a vision of a world where “money is the root of all good” and those expecting government to solve their problems are parasites. In a 2005 speech, Ryan described Rand as the thinker who prompted him to get involved in government service.

He has since dissociated himself from that remark, a revision of his personal history that echoes the habits of Romney, who has been trying hard to distance himself from the health care system he introduced when he was governor of Massachusetts. That state’s system is virtually indistinguishable from what Obama’s health care reform is introducing, a system Republicans term Obamacare and portray as a step towards the Socialist Republic of the United States.

It will be interesting to see how Romney and Ryan plan to sell their vision of the country to Americans on the lower end of the economic scale given their plan largely consists of smaller government, tax reforms that favor the very rich, and fewer social services. Romney’s choice of Ryan has made virtually certain that the final stretch of the presidential election campaign will be an ideological battle about the role of government.

“It is a debate Republicans have almost never won when they’ve put it directly before voters in the past,” wrote John Harris and Mike Allen in an analysis for Politico, the Washington news organization.

That holds true for the general electorate but even more so for Latinos, who have voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1972. The highest score for a Republican in those 40 years was 44 percent for George W. Bush, an energetic champion of an immigration reform that would have opened a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants.

On immigration, the number two issue of concern after jobs for Latinos, according to polls, Romney painted himself into an anti-immigrant corner during the Republican primary debates which often looked like a competition on who sounded toughest.

Both Romney and Ryan oppose the proposed Dream Act, stalled legislation that would grant conditional permanent residence to illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.

Obama has not endeared himself to Latinos on immigration either. First, he broke a campaign promise that he would produce a comprehensive immigration bill in his first year in office. Then, he allowed mass deportations of illegal immigrants on an unprecedented scale. The deportations, an average of around 400,000 a year, resulted in the separation of thousands of children born in the United States (and therefore citizens) from their undocumented parents.

But the president, clearly with an eye on the elections, announced in June that his administration would stop deporting illegal immigrants who entered the country as children. Under an executive order, people who entered the United States under the age of 16 are eligible for two-year work permits if they meet certain conditions.

How that move will translate into additional votes will be known on November 6. Those affected — an estimated 800,000 — cannot vote but friends and family who are citizens can. They are not likely to cast their ballot for the Romney/Ryan ticket.

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An African kleptocracy’s U.S. helpers Fri, 03 Aug 2012 20:31:12 +0000

As bizarre events go, pride of place must go to an African summit scheduled for later this month in Equatorial Guinea.

The meeting’s agenda includes human rights and good governance and it will be hosted by Teodore Obiang,Africa’s longest-serving leader, whose government has won a reputation for corruption and repression.

What makes the event even more noteworthy is the fact that it is being organized by a Washington-based organization founded by an American civil rights leader of sterling repute, the late Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, a champion of freedom and human rights. The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation is now run by his daughter, Hope Sullivan Masters.

The Chairman of the board is Andrew Young, like Sullivan a leader in the 1960s civil rights movement. Foundation documents list former President Bill Clinton as an Honorary Chairman.

The summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea’s capital, will bring together 4,000 delegates, including “nearly 25 heads of state” from Aug. 20 to 24, according to the Foundation’s website. Obiang, who has been in power since he ousted his uncle in a bloody coup in 1979, will host the discussions, under the motto “Africa Rising.”

Why Malabo? Why Obiang?

As Thor Halvorssen, head of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, sees it: “The Sullivan Foundation, charged with advocating for civil rights and justice, appears to be running a disinformation campaign for a dictator.”

That, in fact, seems to be a key reason for holding the event. One of the pre-summit press releases issued by the Foundation says the summit is designed “to combat the negative image of Equatorial Guinea” and the host site “will stand to challenge the international media, global human rights organizations and Western nations who have consistently been critical of President Obiang.”

Brightening the image of the Obiang government will require more than workshops and speeches extolling the virtue of good governance and the need to end a culture of impunity (both listed as agenda topics). Even on a continent which has had its fair share of corrupt and ruthless dictatorships, Equatorial Guinea stands out.

It ranks 172nd out of 182 on the corruption index issued annually by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog group.

Freedom House, a U.S. human rights group, lists Equatorial Guinea on the top of its “worst of the worst” list of human rights abusers, alongside North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.

The Committee to Protect Journalists rates Equatorial Guinea as the fifth most censored country in the world.

The U.S. Department of State’s annual report on human rights around the world mentions “disregard for the rule of law and due process, denial of basic political rights including freedom of speech and press, and widespread official corruption.”


On the Sullivan Foundation’s website, former Ghanaian president John Kufuor has expressed confidence that theMalabo summit will change the international community’s perception of Equatorial Guinea.

Probably not. One of the headline-generating problems for changing perceptions is President Obiang’s son, Teodore Obiang Nguema, also known as Teodorin (Little Teodor). He has run afoul not only of the U.S. Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Unit but also of the French authorities.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Teodorin aroused the authorities’ attention with spending sprees of truly mind-boggling scale, vastly out of proportion with his $81,600 annual salary as minister of forestry and agriculture in his father’s cabinet. In Paris last September, authorities investigating “ill-gotten gains” seized Teodorin’s collection of exotic and expensive cars including two Bugattis, a Maserati, a Ferrari, a Porsche and a Rolls Royce.

The French issued an international arrest warrant after he failed to appear in court to answer questions about the origins of his riches.

In the United States, the Justice Department has started legal proceedings to seize Teodorin’s $30 million mansion in Malibu on the coast of California, his $38 million Gulfstsream jet and other possessions. The department estimates that he spent more than $300 million buying property and assets on four continents between 2000 and 2011.

Most of the money, according to U.S. authorities, came from kickbacks from the export of timber, the country’s second-most important export commodity after oil. The discovery of large oil reserves in the mid-1990s catapultedEquatorial Guinea into the league of oil-rich nations. But the oil wealth has not trickled down to many of the country’s 700,000 inhabitants — less than 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product goes on public health and even less on education.

All this makes Malabo an odd place for a summit on Africa Rising and a group dedicated to the memory of a human rights champion an odd organization to arrange it. Which on Aug. 3 prompted a public call by the Human Rights Foundation for the event to be canceled.

The idea is to shame invited dignitaries into staying away. The chances of that happening look remote.

PHOTO: Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo attends the opening ceremony of the African Nations Cup soccer tournament in Estadio de Bata “Bata Stadium” in Bata January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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Guns in America: the business of fear Mon, 30 Jul 2012 18:41:20 +0000

Mass shootings are good for the gun business. So are dark warnings from the principal gun lobby in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA), that President Barack Obama is leading a global conspiracy to seize an estimated 300 million guns now held by private citizens.

Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter. As they say on Wall Street, perception is reality and the fears the NRA has managed to inspire since Obama’s 2008 election have led to a boom for the American gun industry. At a time of misery for much of the rest of the American economy, growth rates for makers of firearms and ammunition have been impressive. Between 2008 and 2011, jobs in the industry jumped 30 percent.

Sales of guns and ammunition have spiked after each of the mass shootings, which have become a familiar part of American life. The latest massacre, the July 20 killing of 12 people in a crowded cinema in Colorado, prompted a 40 percent jump in sales on the day after the midnight shooting. There was an even sharper spike after last year’s shooting in Arizona that killed six and wounded a dozen others, including a member of CongressGabrielle Giffords.

Why do people rush to buy guns after such bloody incidents? Two reasons, say experts. One is to defend themselves in case they are caught in a shooting and the second, more important, because the media coverage generated by unhinged killers invariably touches the topic of gun control. Fear of future restrictions, fanned without fail by the NRA, drives people to the gun shops.

No matter what one thinks of the NRA and Wayne LaPierre, its leader for more than two decades, his fearmongering has been effective and benefitted both his organization and the gun industry. When he took over the organization in 1991, it was close to bankruptcy. Now, in the words of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the NRA’s most prominent critics, the organization is “a $200 million-plus-a-year lobbying juggernaut with much of its funding coming from gun manufacturers and merchandising.”

“More than anything, the NRA is a marketing organization, and its flagship product is fear,” Bloomberg wrote in an opinion piece on Bloomberg News.

That fear works on different levels. Gun lovers taking their cue from the NRA fear that any kind of regulation – restrictions on the sale of magazines holding 100 rounds, for example – is a step on the road to the elimination of the U.S. constitution’s Second Amendment, which enshrines the right of citizens to own and bear arms. Politicians in favor of restrictions fear electoral defeat if they run afoul of the NRA.

That’s a boon for the gun industry. Demand for firearms has risen to such levels that Ruger, one of the two biggest publicly traded U.S. gun makers, temporarily suspended taking orders earlier this year because it could not produce fast enough. At the NRA’s 2011 convention, Ruger CEO Michael Fifer said his company’s target was selling one million firearms by the time of the NRA’s 2012 convention, and it would donate a dollar a gun to the association. In fact, the company sold 1,254,000 guns and made out a matching check at the 2012 convention.


The share prices of both Ruger and Smith & Wesson, the other big publicly traded gun company (and maker of the semi-automatic rifle used in the Aurora cinema shooting) reached records in 2012. Smaller companies thrived as well.

Which makes one wonder whether the NRA leadership actually believes in its overheated rhetoric – “the gun grabbers are coming, the gun grabbers are coming!” – or sees it as a marketing tool. Far from wading into the on-again, off-again American debate on gun control, President Obama stayed away from the subject and in fact signed into law two NRA-inspired bills – one that allows guns to be carried into national parks and one that lets people carry their guns in checked luggage on trains.

To hear LaPierre tell it, however, this is part of “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intention to destroy the Second Amendment in our country. When he got elected, they concocted a scheme to stay away from the gun issue, lull gun owners to sleep and play us for fools in 2012.” In a speech to a Republican meeting in Florida in February, he went on to explain that once re-elected, Obama planned to erase the Second Amendment.

LaPierre set out the plan in greater detail in a 3,800-word missive on the NRA website entitled “Obama’s Secret Plan to Destroy the Second Amendment by 2016.” Some of the arguments are recycled from his 2006 book, “The Global War on your Guns: Inside the UN Plan to Destroy the Bill of Rights.”

If you follow that train of thought, that plan came to a head in July when negotiators from more than 170 countries met in New York to work out a legally binding treaty to regulate the $60 billion conventional arms industry and throttle the flow of unregulated weapons to countries under arms embargoes, and to terrorist and criminal organizations. The talks collapsed on July 27 when the U.S. delegation said more time was needed to consider the draft proposal.

That followed a letter, a day before the July 27 deadline, signed by 51 Senators including eight Democrats, to Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing “grave concern about the dangers” posed by the treaty to U.S. sovereignty. The letter echoed the arguments and language of the NRA and spoke volumes about the organization’s influence in Congress.

There was no mention of what scholars say is a long-established legal principle – international treaty obligations cannot override the U.S. constitution. It includes the right to bear arms but does not fit into conspiracy theories.

PHOTO: A sticker is seen at the Rocky Mountain Guns and Ammo store in Parker, Colorado July 24, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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America’s Republican extremists Fri, 20 Jul 2012 16:24:21 +0000

The United States is in grave danger from domestic enemies:  Infiltrators from the Muslim Brotherhood have wormed their way into sensitive government positions, Communists wield influence in the House of Representatives, and President Barack Obama hates America and is trying to dismantle, brick by brick, the American Dream.

The first two assertions – Muslim infiltrators and Communists in Congress – come from Republican members of Congress. The third comes from the host of the radio talk show with the biggest audience in the United States. All three merit pondering about the current state of the Republican Party, a mainstay of American democracy for more than 150 years.

A brief look at the details of the claims first. In June, Michele Bachmann, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a radio interview that “it appears there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood.” In letters that came to light in mid-July, she asked the inspectors general of four government departments to launch inquiries into the depth of Muslim penetration.

Bachmann’s letter to the Department of State pointed to Huma Abedin, a top aide of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as grounds for “serious security concerns.” The letter, co-signed by four other Republican lawmakers, quoted an anti-Muslim organization as saying Abedin had family members with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.

That claim prompted angry rebukes from the man who ran her unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, Ed Rollins, and from Senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008. Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist, combined criticism of Bachmann’s “far-fetched” charges with a warning about the future of the party: “The Republican Party… is going to become irrelevant if we become the party of intolerance and hate.”

Bachmann’s root-out-the-Muslims campaign came just two months after Allan West, a Florida Republican, told a town hall meeting that “I believe there are about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party (in Congress) that are members of the Communist Party.” Republican leaders let that statement pass without comment.

For two of the country’s most eminent Congressional historians, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, West’s claim provided evidence that the Republican Party has gone astray. In an op-ed article in April, the two noted the lack of condemnation from major party figures. What was remarkable about the case, they said, “is that such extreme remarks and views are now taken for granted.”

For other extreme views, let’s turn to talk show host Rush Limbaugh on July 16:  “I think it can now be said, without equivocation – without equivocation – that this man hates his country. He is trying – Barack Obama is trying – to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.” Why? “He was indoctrinated as a child. His father was a communist. His mother was a leftist.”


Limbaugh has an average weekly audience of around 15 million, more than any other radio talk show and no matter how over-the-top his attacks on Obama and his team may be, they very rarely draw comment from Republican politicians who fear doing so might cost them votes.

Particularly in an election year, it’s not unusual for members of Congress or commentators to make outrageous remarks about the political opposition. Democrats were harshly critical of President George W. Bush. But there is no exact Democratic equivalent of the likes of West, Bachmann, Limbaugh and others who vent ideas that were once restricted to the lunatic fringe and are now part of the Republican mainstream.

To help understand how U.S. politics arrived at this stage, and the dysfunction that goes with it, a new book by Mann and Ornstein entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is recommended reading. The two work for think tanks on different places on the political map – Mann for the centrist Brookings Institution and Ornstein for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Their conclusion: “The… core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

“More loyal to party than to country,” the Republicans behave like an adversarial party in a parliamentary democracy. In America’s separation-of-powers government, this is a formula for “willful obstruction and policy irresolution,” write Mann and Ornstein.

The two criticize the U.S. mainstream media for having done a poor job in explaining the transformation of the Republican Party and its steady rightward drift to a place where compromise is a dirty word. They argue that the journalistic tradition of giving both sides of a story produced false equivalence and thus failed to portray an accurate picture.

But in the end, they say, it’s up to the voters. If they punish ideological extremism at the polls next November, the Republican Party would have an incentive to return to the center. “Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.”

PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann speaks to the employees of Nationwide Insurance Company during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa December 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes


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Why the world needs an arms treaty Mon, 09 Jul 2012 14:18:22 +0000 In the past two decades, experts monitoring the international arms trade recorded more than 500 violations of United Nations arms embargoes. Just two have resulted in trials and convictions.

This telling statistic helps explain why diplomats, experts and arms control activists are in New York this month at a U.N.-hosted conference aimed at working out a treaty to regulate a vast market that so far has fewer rules than the trade in bananas. Where high reward-low risk activities are concerned, few can match the international arms trade, licit or illicit.

The contrast between the number of embargo violations and the number of arms dealers held to account comes from a study, to be published later this year, conducted by a team led by James Stewart, a law professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Stewart looked into cases, dating back to 1990, that prompted U.N. panels of experts to report violations of embargoes imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

“Despite extensive searches, we couldn’t find more than two convictions,” said Stewart, who worked as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia before joining academia. What were the two cases that broke the pattern of impunity for embargo busters?

In 2007, a court in The Hague sentenced Dutch businessman Frans Van Anraat to 17 years in jail for selling raw materials for the production of mustard gas to the government of Saddam Hussein. Last January, Chile’s Supreme Court convicted two retired generals and seven others of illegally exporting weapons to Croatia in 1991. The case reached the country’s highest court after a long march through the military justice system.

What is notable about the conviction is that the United Nations arms embargo then in place for Yugoslavia played no role in the court’s decision. It found that the accused broke local laws. Violating a U.N. arms embargo is not a crime in Chile, nor is it in many other countries. To date, only 52 governments have laws regulating arms brokers, according to Oxfam, one of the non-governmental organizations pushing for an arms trade treaty with teeth. Fewer than half those 52 governments have criminal or monetary penalties for illegal arms deals.

Some pro-treaty campaigners see the case of Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer dubbed “Merchant of Death”, as Exhibit A for the urgent need for global regulations. Bout, who served as the inspiration for the 2006 Hollywood movie Lord of War, was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York court in April. But that sentence was not for having supplied arms to assorted armed groups and dictatorial regimes in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones in the 1990s, as U.N. watchdogs alleged at the time.

Instead, Bout was convicted of conspiracy and terrorism charges stemming from sting operation in which agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) posed as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla group that is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Bout agreed to sell them millions of dollars worth of weapons, a punishable act of “providing material support to a terrorist organization.”


Though Bout’s career has come to an end, there are “literally hundreds” of others out there who flourish by shipping weapons to governments and guerilla groups that violate human rights, according to Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World, Inside the Global Arms Trade, a book that delves deeply into the often overlapping worlds of government-to-government arms deals and the gray and black markets in weapons.

Shady deals that slipped through regulatory loopholes and circumvented embargoes account for a large proportion of the guns used in civil wars from Congo and Angola to Sierra Leone and Sudan. In the Congo alone, the death toll has been estimated in the millions since the early 1990s. If activists pushing for a robust arms treaty are right, more than half a million people, on average, die every year as a result of armed conflict. Civilians top the body count.

When the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon opened the conference which runs from July 2 to July 27, he termed the absence of a global treaty on the arms trade “a disgrace” and urged delegates to work for a pact with “real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict , repression and armed violence.”

This was an ambitious task, he said, but achievable. Perhaps. We’ll know by the end of July whether the vast majority of the 193 nations in the U.N. who have spoken out in favor of a treaty mean what they say.

The obstacles on the way to throttling the flow of unregulated weapons are as formidable as the scope of the proposed treaty – from tanks, aircraft and ships to missiles, submarines, machine guns and assault rifles.

Small arms have accounted for most of the casualties in conflicts in the past four decades yet China, an energetic small arms exporter, wants them excluded from the treaty. Russia, which is shipping weapons to the government of Syria, balks at a clause that would ban arms exports to recipients who might use them to violate human rights or humanitarian law. China, Iran and Egypt share such reservations.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States, the world’s biggest arms exporter, supports the treaty in principle, a reversal of policy from the administration of George W. Bush. But the U.S. still has reservations about including ammunition in trade controls.

Anna Macdonald, who heads Oxfam’s Arms Control Campaign, has termed the New York conference a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly make the world a safer place.”

Missing that opportunity would be a global shame.

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Mexico’s three wars Tue, 03 Jul 2012 19:02:57 +0000

Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s president-elect, inherited three wars from his predecessor. Staunching the bloodshed of one would be a huge achievement. Getting the upper hand in all three might require divine intervention.

Three wars? There is the war of choice President Felipe Calderon launched shortly after winning the presidency in 2006, by a razor-thin margin, when he deployed the army against the illicit drug business. That war pits the Mexican military and various security forces against the country’s drug trafficking groups.

Then there is the war the drug traffickers wage against each other for access to the rich markets of the United States, whose citizens have an “insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in 2009.

The third war, perhaps the most difficult to end, is waged by criminals — some with links to drug organizations, some not — against ordinary citizens. That war, unlike the other two, rarely makes international headlines. But it has contributed to a deep sense of insecurity in parts of the country and it flourishes in an environment of impunity. According to a recent academic study, 80 percent of all murders in Mexico in 2010 went unpunished.

A standard phrase in Pena Nieto’s stump speech addressed his fellow citizens’ fears: “No more murders, no more kidnappings, no more extortions.” Often carried out by criminals unconnected to the drug trafficking organizations, kidnappings and extortions have been a growing problem. Ending them is easier said than done and some of the remedies the president-elect is proposing have been tried before, without much success.

“What must be improved is coordination among federal, state and municipal crime-fighting authorities,” he wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Times just two days after winning the elections. “I will create a 40,000-person National Gendarmerie, a police force similar to those in Colombia, Italy and France, to focus on the most violent rural areas. I will expand the federal police force by at least 35,000 officers. I will consolidate the state and municipal police forces and provide greater federal oversight, to crack down on corruption within their ranks.”

Laudable goals. But police reforms, judicial reforms and crackdowns on corruption have been standard promises of new presidents for decades, renewed in one form or another every six years. (Mexican presidents serve six years and cannot be re-elected.) The outgoing president, Felipe Calderon, took considerable pride in the 35,000-strong, supposedly corruption-resistant federal police force he raised after coming to power in 2006.

The image of that force received a major dent on June 25, just five days before the elections, when a shootout between federal policemen at Mexico City’s international airport left three officers dead. The government version of events: the three who died were attempting to arrest fellow officers involved in a cocaine-trafficking ring. Other versions suggested that all five were involved in drug smuggling and had argued over sharing the spoils. The killers escaped.


The oft-promised fight against corruption has made slow progress since Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was voted out of office in 2000, after 71 years of uninterrupted rule. In came leaders of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), first Vicente Fox and then Felipe Calderon. Twelve years of PAN rule brought some overdue changes – a free press and cleaner elections.

Corruption continued. In 2000, the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International placed Mexico at number 59 (out of 90) on its corruption perception index. In 2006, the year Calderon took over, it moved up to rank number 70 out of 163. Last year, it shared 100th place (out of 180) with a group of 11 countries that include Malawi, Burkina Fasso and Tanzania.

Poverty and the immense power of drug money are one explanation for the slow progress. Another came in a recent essay by Alan Riding, author of Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, a perceptive book on Mexican history and the country’s relationship with the United States.

Riding argues that the broad power structure the PRI established over time remained largely intact even with two successive PAN presidents in Los Pinos, Mexico’s equivalent of the White House. Under the PRI, that argument goes, the country was run by a political bureaucracy in league with other power centers, such as banks, labor unions, the army, television magnates and industrial moguls.

Such perceptions clearly worry Pena Nieto. “There may be considerable hand-wringing in the international community that my election somehow signifies a return to the old ways of my party,” he wrote in the New York Times. “To those concerned about a return to then old ways, fear not. At 45, I am part of a generation of PRI politicians committed to democracy. I reject the practices of the past in the same way I seek to move forward from the political gridlock of the present.”

His two PAN predecessors were often stymied in reform attempts because they lacked a majority in congress. That’s a fate Pena Nieto will share. He won roughly 38 percent of the vote but not enough seats for a majority in the 500-seat lower house of Congress or the 128-seat Senate.

The quick reforms he promised in the euphoria of victory won’t be all that quick. So the wars will continue.

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What if Iran gets the bomb? Fri, 22 Jun 2012 15:25:30 +0000 The West worries too much about the prospect of Iran going nuclear. If it did get the bomb, the Middle East would probably become a more stable region. So says Kenneth Waltz, a veteran scholar, in an essay in one of America’s most influential magazines.

“Why Iran Should get the Bomb,” says the headline in Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank. “Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability.”

The author is a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. His contrarian essay coincides with yet another unsuccessful round of negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of countries who insist the government in Tehran must do more to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful, as it claims, rather than intended to build weapons.

The talks this week in Moscow brought Iranian negotiators together with officials from the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. The negotiations produced no breakthrough and no sign of compromise. New U.S. and European sanctions, including a ban on Iranian oil imports, are coming into force next month. Whether they will be more likely to make Iran bow to Western demands than previous turns of the sanctions screw is open to doubt. What next?

“Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff,” Waltz writes. “In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability in the Middle East.”

He dismisses U.S. and Israeli warnings that a nuclear Iran would be a uniquely terrifying prospect. “Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members…decided to live with it.”

What’s more, “by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.” Cases in point: China, which became less bellicose after becoming a nuclear power in 1964; Pakistan and India, which signed a treaty agreeing not to target each other’s nuclear facilities and have kept the peace since then.

In the Middle East, according to this view, Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal has produced an imbalance in power that is “unsustainable in the long term What is surprising in the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge.”

If Iran eventually went nuclear, the argument goes, Israel and Iran would deter each other the same way nuclear powers elsewhere have deterred each other – viz the United States and the Soviet Union or India and Pakistan.

Since 1945, when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, no country with nuclear weapons has used them.


It’s not difficult to find officials in Washington who think that a nuclear Iran is inevitable but decline to say so on the record because President Barack Obama has declared, repeatedly, that an Iranian bomb would be unacceptable and that containment of a nuclear Iran was not an option for his administration.

While views such as Waltz’s are not often aired in public in the U.S., experts both inside and outside the government have long pondered what would happen “the day after.” That could mean the day after Iran reached nuclear “breakout” – the ability to make a bomb at short notice – or the day after it tested a bomb.

All this is based on an unproven assumption: that Iran’s theocratic rulers have decided to build nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies admit they don’t know.

Think tanks both in the United States and Israel have run “day after” simulations that assumed what both countries have pledged to prevent – Iran succeeding in making a bomb despite ever tighter sanctions, sabotage of nuclear installations and assassinations of scientists. One of the questions addressed in such war games is the extent to which nuclear weapons would shield Iran from attack.

A recent simulation run by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies had the following scenario: Iran conducts an underground nuclear test in January 2013, after expelling inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and after a series of provocative maneouvres by Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval vessels and aircraft against forces of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

“In our assessment,” wrote the authors of the report on the exercise, Yoel Guzanski and Yonathan Lerner, ” the actual likelihood of an attack on Iran once Iran is in possession of proven nuclear capability decreases dramatically, although (it is) not entirely eliminated.”

That sounds in synch with Waltz’s thesis that Israel and Iran would deter each other. Whether that would bring stability to the perpetually unstable Middle East is another matter.

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The world expected more from Obama Mon, 18 Jun 2012 18:46:15 +0000

The 2012 global performance scorecard is in and the grade for Barack Obama is “failed to meet expectations.”

To varying degrees, that’s the view in each and every of 20 foreign countries — some close U.S. allies, some not – whose citizens were polled for the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a widely-respected survey that has tracked the standing of the United States, its president, and assorted foreign leaders every year for the past decade. The Washington-based Pew Research Center polled more than 26,000 people.

Though views of Obama are not as rosy as they were in 2009, when he took office after a campaign that promised “hope and change,” the U.S. president’s star is still shining so bright in 11 countries that sizeable majorities in seven and pluralities in another four would like to see him re-elected for a second term in November.

So where did Obama fall short of expectations so high that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just nine months into office?

A comparison of the 2009 and 2012 Pew surveys provides answers: In 2009, millions around the world thought the president was intent on making a decisive break with the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose penchant for unilateral actions made him deeply unpopular in large parts of the world.

Obama was expected to open a new chapter of multilateralism, take a fair approach on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and energetically push policies addressing climate change. His soaring pre-election rhetoric obviously raised expectations to lofty levels, both abroad and at home. For example, his assertion, in the summer of 2008, that his nomination as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

As for the rising oceans and the healing earth, the 2012 Pew survey reports that 56 percent of those polled in 2009 expected Obama “to take significant steps to deal with climate change. Today, a median of just 22 percent think he has actually done this.” There are similar declines in expectations on other key issues. In 2009, 45 percent of those surveyed thought Obama would seek international approval for the use of military force. Now, 29 percent say he failed to do so.

“While many around the world still have a positive image of Obama,” wrote the authors of the Pew report, “he has nonetheless failed to meet expectations on specific policies. For instance, in 2009, many public anticipated that the U.S. leader would consider their country’s interests when making foreign policy decisions. Today, relatively few believe Obama has done either.”


Part of the reason for that view is the ever-increasing use of drones to kill adversaries in countries such asPakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen. Dealing high-tech death from above, without risking American lives, has become Obama’s favorite kind of warfare. He has embraced it much more enthusiastically than Bush, part of a gradual transformation into “one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades,” in the words ofPeter Bergen, a national security expert at the New American Foundation, a liberal think tank.

Drone strikes are popular in the United States (62 percent in favor) and unpopular everywhere else, even in countries whose citizens want to see him re-elected and even in countries where his 2009 rock-star image has not been significantly dented. In Germany, for example, he outshines the popular chancellor, Angela Merkel. Eighty-seven percent expressed confidence in “Obama to do the right thing in world affairs.” Merkel polled 77 percent on that question.

The confidence to do the right thing does not extend to drone warfare. Almost two out of three Germans disapprove of it.

At home, Obama’s job approval never reached the heights it did in much of Western Europe. A Gallup poll taken in his first week of office gave him 69 percent approval. This month, it stood at 47 percent, two percentage points lower than Bush at the same point in the election cycle in 2004. Bush won, by the slimmest of margins.

All of which probably shows that the way an American president is seen abroad makes no difference to his electoral fortunes at home.

PHOTO: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) during before the G20 summit in Los Cabos June 18, 2012.  REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Pool

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Will Syria’s Assad get away with murder? Fri, 08 Jun 2012 15:24:47 +0000

Will Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad be allowed to get away with mass murder, like his father 30 years ago? Some of the ideas now under discussion could mean precisely that — a golden parachute into exile. No war crimes charges, no prosecution, no trial.

Unlike Egypt’s ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to life in prison on June 2, and unlike Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, who was killed at the hand of anti-government rebels, Assad would “transfer power and depart Syria.” That’s how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it after a meeting of foreign ministers of Arab and Western nations in Istanbul.

That idea is known as the Yemeni Solution and was floated by U.S. President Barack Obama at a meeting of the Group of Eight in May. It refers to a deal under which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution for the killing of protesters. In return, he handed power over to his deputy and announced he planned to go into exile in Ethiopia.

No such deal would be possible in Syria without the involvement of Russia, the Assad regime’s chief armorer, and the two other pillars of his support — China and Iran. This is why Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General who is now peace envoy on behalf of the U.N. and the Arab League, has come up with the idea of a “contact group” to work out an end to a conflict that has claimed at least 10,000 lives so far.

The group would include the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — where Russia and China have blocked tough measures against Syria — as well as “countries with real influence on the situation, countries that can influence either side — the government of Syria and the opposition,” Annan said at the United Nations. “Iran, as an important country in the region, I hope will be part of the solution.”

Clinton has poured cold water on that idea, saying Iran was helping to keep the Assad regime in power and therefore part of the problem. That, of course, also goes for Russia and China but involving Iran would take Washington on a collision course with its close ally Israel and open Obama to charges of being “weak on Iran,” a damaging label in his campaign for re-election.

If the contact group idea would eventually lead to Assad’s departure — and that is a very big if — where would he go? According to David Ignatius, a well-connected columnist for the Washington Post, Russia has offered him exile and there are rumors that Assad has already transferred $6 billion in Syrian reserves to Moscow.


Russia, not the U.S., holds the key here. As Middle East expert Volker Perthes, head of the German Institute for International Security in Berlin, put it: “Until such time as Assad is told by Moscow that the game is up and only a negotiated exit will guarantee him and his supporters safety, he is unlikely to feel genuinely isolated.”

The idea that the Syrian leader would leave with impunity is hard to swallow after 15 months of brutal crackdown on dissidents and a series of massacres that prompted outrage and a chorus of condemnation in terms that ranged from “despicable” and “vile” to “unspeakable barbarity.” But verbal outrage doesn’t topple dictators, economic sanctions have limited behavior-changing impact as the case of Iran shows, and there is no appetite in Washington and elsewhere for military intervention.

If Bashar did get away with murder, he would complete a family tradition. His father Hafez, from whom he inherited his power, enforced his rule with mass murder on a much larger scale. Even in a Middle East dotted with massacre sites, the way Hafez al-Assad dealt with Moslem Brotherhood dissidents in the city of Hama stands out.

On February 2, 1982, an army raid on a hide-out of the outlawed Brotherhood sparked fighting throughout the city. The government responded by surrounding Hama with tanks and artillery and blasted the densely-populated centre in a 27-day assault that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people, depending whose estimate you believe.

The carnage went largely unnoticed, out of sight in an era before cell phone videos uploaded to the internet provide shocking evidence for all the world to see. In 1982, Syria’s Arab neighbors remained silent, reaction from the West was muted. His country pacified and cowed, Hafez ruled for another 18 years. He died peacefully in bed, of pulmonary disease. His brother Rifaat, who ran the Hama operation, lives in comfortable retirement in London.

By contrast a flurry of statements this week on two massacres in Syria as many weeks included calls for those responsible to be held to account. Their wording suggested punishment for the men who went from house-to-house, shooting and stabbing entire families, not the leadership in Damascus on whose behalf they committed murder.

Bashar al-Assad has many things to fear in a country steadily sliding towards all-out sectarian war but it seems theInternational Criminal Court in the Hague is not one of them.

PHOTO: Syrian Zaher Al Hariri watches a television broadcast of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaking in parliament in Damascus, at his temporary home in Amman June 3, 2012. Assad said on Sunday his country was facing a war waged from outside the country and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month’s parliamentary election. Zaher said his right hand was cut off by Syrian security forces after he went to a state hospital in Syria’s Deraa city to receive treatment after a bullet penetrated his fingers when security forces fired shots at a pro-democracy rally he participated in.  REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

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The arms race for human rights Fri, 25 May 2012 14:26:24 +0000 Profits from arms deals tend to trump human rights. The United Nations Security Council, whose five veto-wielding permanent members count among the world’s biggest arms dealers, is falling down on its job. Hypocrisy is rampant as governments pay lip service to human rights.

So says Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, in its latest annual report, published this week. It deplores an “endemic failure of leadership” and says 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – had made clear that “opportunistic alliances and financial interests have trumped human rights as global powers jockey for influence…”

That reference covers Russia, chief armorer of the government of Bashar al-Assad, as well as the United States, which recently resumed arms shipments to the royal rulers of tiny Bahrain, whose crackdown on dissidents has been brutal, though not nearly on the same scale as the campaign to wipe out the opposition in Syria.  The death toll there now stands at around 10,000.

To hear Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty tell it, the leaders who have so far failed to match human rights rhetoric with arms export deed have a chance to redeem themselves at a United Nations conference next July to work out a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an idea first put forward in 2003 by a group of Nobel laureates who argued that existing arms control regulations are full of loopholes.

Campaigning for an arms treaty has gathered momentum over the past few years and in a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama timed to coincide with the Amnesty International report, representatives of 51 non-governmental organizations described the July conference as an historic opportunity to prevent weapons from ending up in the hands of human rights violators. “We urge you and your administration to play a strong leadership role,” the letter said.

According to arms control experts, there are more rules and regulations governing the trade in bananas than in the trade in tanks, machine guns, sniper rifles and bullets. The lack of common international standards, the argument goes, results in the deaths of  thousands of  civilians every year at the hand of dictatorial governments, criminals and terrorists.

The existing framework of arms embargoes is not bullet-proof, so to say. According to the relief organization Oxfam, which has taken a prominent role in advocating for the ATT, countries under arms embargoes imported more than $2.2 billion worth of arms and ammunition since the year 2000. Case in point: Darfur. It has been under an arms embargo imposed by the U.N. Security Council in 2004 but weapons from Belarus, China and Russia continue to flow despite large-scale human rights violations.


Given the long history of questionable arms deals, a dose of skepticism is in order about the prospect of a treaty that would change a world in which one man’s rights-trampling government is another man’s valuable ally. Case in point: Bahrain.

On May 11, the U.S. State Department said it would end a freeze on military sales to the island state – imposed in September in response to a violent crackdown on dissidents – because of “a determination that it is in the U.S. national interest to let these things go forward,” in the words of an official who briefed reporters. He did not need to explain the nature of the national interest — Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, there to guard shipping lanes that carry around 40 percent of the world’s tanker-born oil.

National interest trumps human rights concerns. That is as true for the United States, the world’s largest arms manufacturer and exporter, as it is for other arms exporters. Russia, number two in  the arms exporters’ ranking, does not cite “national interest” for shipping weapons to Syria, it just refers to compliance with commercial contracts. But its naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, Moscow’s only outpost in the Mediterranean, clearly plays a role.

While proponents of a treaty sound optimistic about the possibility of all 193 members of the United Nations agreeing on new regulations, they also say there are different approaches that have yet to be reconciled. One would require that countries “shall not” transfer weapons to recipients who might use them to violate human rights or humanitarian law.

“Without that ‘shall not’ requirement, the treaty would be ineffective,” says Oxfam’s Scott Stedjan. The second approach under discussion as experts prepare for the July conference would require signatories to “take into account” potential risks associated with an arms deal. That’s a loophole big enough to drive a tank through.

In April, the State Department’s point man on the proposed treaty, Thomas Countryman, put things into perspective at a panel discussion arranged by a Washington think tank. Even an effective treaty, he said, “will not fundamentally change the nature of international politics nor can it by itself bring an end to the festering international and civil conflicts around the world.”

PHOTO: An Ardha (Bahraini folk dance) dancer rests with his gold gun as he chats with his colleagues at the Bahrain Heritage Festival inaguratedin Manama, April 30, 2003. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

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