The myth of Obama’s failure in the Middle East

US President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

It has become an article of faith that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, along with the rest of his foreign policy, is adrift. According to a slew of would-be policymakers and pundits, the United States is “weak” and “feckless.” These criticisms are not exclusive to the Obama administration’s adversaries in Washington, but also routinely heard among officials and pundits in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Jerusalem​ and Riyadh. Such critics believe that Washington has not “done enough” to meet the challenges of the region, portending disaster for America’s national security and its allies in the region. Has it really?

Calamity and misfortune may be the future of the Middle East, at least in the short run, but the region’s problems are not the result of the White House’s policy choices. Lost among the complaints about what the administration is or is not doing and demands for leadership is an appreciation of just how difficult the region has become or what demonstrating “leadership” actually means.

The Obama administration has had its problems, no doubt. The White House got itself into trouble with its now-infamous Syrian “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, confusing friends and emboldening enemies. It is fair to say that since August-September 2013, when the administration reneged on its vow to respond to the Syrian regime’s use of such weapons, President Bashar al-Assad has prosecuted the civil war with even greater impunity.

In regard to Egypt, Washington has sought to split the difference between its strategic interests and efforts to hold leaders there accountable to their own democratic commitments as they engage in a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. As a result, Washington’s Egypt policy is muddled.

When it comes to prosecuting the war against terrorists, the White House’s overreliance on drones has led to the deaths of a number of civilians, needlessly antagonizing innocents and ensuring that generations of Yemenis and others will harbor resentment and anger toward the United States. Despite the administration’s bold effort to reach a “grand bargain” with Iran, hard-liners in both Washington and Iran may still block a final deal from reaching fruition.

Even taking into account these problems, much of the Washington-based criticism is rooted in politics rather than an objective analysis of what is happening in the Middle East. After Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fell and protests began in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Washington policy geeks and journalists began to ask if they were witnessing a Middle Eastern version of the Eastern and Central European revolutions of 1989 or maybe the Arab analogue to 1848’s Springtime of Nations. These are interesting analogies that may offer analysts some general insights about political change, but there is no precedent or policy playbook for the historic changes underway in the Arab world.

It has almost become a cliche that Arabs are engaged in battles over the hearts and soul of their countries, but that is precisely what is happening. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were successful in chasing long-time authoritarian leaders from power, but since then, the struggles to shape new and more just political orders have produced instability, uncertainty and violence. Even Tunisia, which pundits and analysts consider the most promising prospect for a democratic transition, confronts significant economic challenges that could threaten political progress.

Then there is Bahrain, which, with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has suppressed demands for political change. The Bahraini leadership along with the Saudis and Emiratis clearly believe that these demands and the demonstrations that have accompanied them are part of an allegedly broad sectarian struggle playing out in the region. With the prevailing unstable circumstances in North Africa and the perception of threat in the Gulf, where local political actors think they are engaged in existential struggles, it is unclear how US “leadership” can alter the calculations of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, Libyan militias, the Bahraini ruling family or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Read more at Al-Monitor

China Revises Environmental Law

FILE – Commuters wearing masks make their way amid thick haze in the morning in Beijing. China’s north is suffering a pollution crisis, with the capital Beijing itself shrouded in acrid smog. Authorities have introduced anti-pollution policies.

HONG KONG — After almost two years of debate, China’s parliament has passed a new law that analysts say is a positive step in addressing the country’s systemic problems with the environment. Environmental groups say that although implementation may prove difficult, the revision gives them a legal framework to challenge polluters.

The new law gives more punitive powers to environmental authorities, allows a broader range of actions for environmental organizations and defines geographical “red lines” where the area’s ecology requires special protection.

It is the first time the environmental protection law has been revised since 1989.

Lawmaker Xin Chunying, told a news briefing Thursday that the revision will have an important effect on the future of China’s environmental protection efforts. “The revision of the environmental law is a heavy blow [in the fight against] our country’s harsh environmental realities, and an important systemic construct,” said Xin.

China has suffered from the effects of its rapid development, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty but heavily damaged the environment.

Air, water and soil pollution have reached alarming levels, becoming one of the key sources of discontent for many Chinese.

Despite official pronouncements to put the environment first, local governments have for decades been judged solely on their economic performance.

Read more at Voice of America

Mistrust and Hate: The Frightening New Lives of Homosexuals in Uganda

By Jan Puhl in Kampala, Uganda

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On February 24, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a law allowing for life sentences for homosexuals. Michael Kawuba is one of the many in the country who supports the measure. He spends much of his free time preaching against what he sees as the evils of homosexuality.

Michael Kawuba is sitting in his church office reflecting on tumescence. “We Ugandans get an erection when we see a beautiful woman,” he says. “Anything else is unnatural.”

During the day, Kawuba works as a financial advisor, but once he is finished, he rejoins the battle against homosexuality. A friendly man of 31, Kawuba is married and has three children — and he is not one to rant. But every second Sunday, he preaches to the Kakumba congregation. “The Bible forbade homosexuality. God rained down fire onto Sodom and Gomorrah” — he continues in this vein for hours at a time, standing behind a wooden pulpit. The sanctuary is spacious with a roof made of palm fronds. A band including guitar, bass and drums players pumps out gospel music while worshippers sing along, sway to the rhythm and stretch their arms heavenward as they call out “praise the Lord!”

On Feb. 24, God would seem to have finally heard their entreaties. That was the day that President Yoweri Museveni signed a law making “aggravated homosexuality” punishable with sentences of up to life in prison. A first draft of the law had even called for the death penalty. Michael Kawuba invited friends over for the event and they watched their head of state sign the new statute. “We cheered like we were watching football,” Kawuba says.

According to one survey, 96 percent of all Ugandans find homosexuality unacceptable and many are in favor of locking away gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Uganda has long been a model country in Africa: Though the regime is authoritarian, the country is stable and economically successful. Now, it has one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the continent, trailing only Nigeria’s Muslim north, Mauretania, Somalia and Sudan. Now, homosexuality is a punishable offense in 36 of Africa’s 54 countries.

Afraid of Attacks

The international community was horrified: The United States slashed development aid to Uganda, the Europe Union threatened to impose sanctions and the United Nations warned the country to uphold human rights. But the reactions have done little to help the gays and lesbians in Uganda: Many have gone into hiding or fled the country. They believe that a wave of arrests is pending. Most of all, though, they are afraid of attacks from anti-gay activists.

There are thousands of congregations like that of lay-preacher Michael Kawuba. They tend to be small, but are often radical. Many of them, including Kakumba Church, maintain close contacts with evangelicals in the US whose self-proclaimed mission is that of bashing homosexuals. In 2009, for example, the ultra-right-wing activist Scott Lively traveled to Uganda claiming, among other things, that gays are to be blamed for the Holocaust.

The new law, following years of debate, has led to an increase in hate in the country. Though homosexuality has long been forbidden in Uganda, and gays and lesbians were often the target of abuse, nobody was locked away for it. There were even bars and clubs where they could go undisturbed. But that has now changed.

‘No Chance Against a Mob’

Attacks against gays and lesbians now occur on an almost daily basis, with human rights activists counting more than 70 cases since the law was signed. Dennis Wamala’s boyfriend, an actor, decided to stay in France following a theater trip to the country — out of fear. “We aren’t so much afraid of the police,” Wamala says. “When you get arrested, you can get yourself a lawyer. But you don’t have a chance against a mob. Many in Uganda would prefer to see us dead.” He says that the new legislation is a green light for people to take the law into their own hands.

Read more at Der Spiegel

A Brief History of Big Tax Breaks for Oil Companies

There will be subsidies: Nine decades later, “perhaps the most glaring loophole” in the tax code is still going strong.

Oil derricks and a “lake” of spilled crude in Santa Barbara, California, in 1935. Associated Press

Over the past century, the federal government has pumped more than $470 billion into the oil and gas industry in the form of generous, never-expiring tax breaks.

1926 Congress approves the “depletion allowance,” which lets oil producers deduct more than a quarter of their gross revenues. Texas Sen. Tom Connally, who sponsored the break, later admits, “We could have taken a 5 or 10 percent figure, but we grabbed 27.5 percent because we were not only hogs but the odd figure made it appear as though it was scientifically arrived at.”

1985 President Reagan takes aim at federal tax breaks. Oil and gas is one of few industries to emerge unscathed from the "showdown at Gucci Gulch." He fails to convince Congress to kill the depletion allowance for most oil wells.

1995 President Bill Clinton signs the Deep Water Royalty Relief Act, letting oil companies drill in federal waters without paying any royalties. More than 1,000 leases omit a promised price trigger, costing billions.

2005 With oil prices on the rise, President George W. Bush states, “With $55 [a barrel] oil, we don’t need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore.” But a few months later, he signs the Energy Policy Act, which expands the depletion allowance to apply to more drillers. It also lets companies write off exploration costs over two years instead of one.

2007 Illinois Sen. Barack Obama introduces the Oil sense (Subsidy Elimination for New Strategies on Energy) Act, which would repeal the depletion allowance and suspend royalty-free leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The bill dies in the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee. A House bill that would have expanded tax credits for renewable energy and energy conservation also dies.

2013 Despite talk of everything being “on the table,” oil’s tax perks survive the fiscal-cliff negotiations.
Congressional Democrats introduce five bills targeting tax giveaways for oil and gas companies. Their death is all but assured, especially in the Republican-controlled House.
In April, Obama introduces his 2014 budget, which includes $23 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency over 10 years and permanent tax cuts for renewable power generation. It also would end “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” In contrast, the gop budget proposed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan targets “federal intervention and corporate-welfare spending” by cutting subsidies for renewables. Tax breaks for oil are left untouched.

Read more at Mother Jones

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Conservative heavyweights have solar industry in their sights

The Koch brothers and large utilities have allied to reverse state policies that favor renewable energy. Environmentalists are pushing back, but the fight is spreading and intensifying.

Americans for Prosperity, run by David Koch, shown here, and his brother, Charles, has led the effort to overturn a law in Kansas that requires 20% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources. (Phelan M. Ebanhack / Associated Press / August 30, 2013)

WASHINGTON — The political attack ad that ran recently in Arizona had some familiar hallmarks of the genre, including a greedy villain who hogged sweets for himself and made children cry.

But the bad guy, in this case, wasn’t a fat-cat lobbyist or someone’s political opponent.

He was a solar-energy consumer.

Solar, once almost universally regarded as a virtuous, if perhaps over-hyped, energy alternative, has now grown big enough to have enemies.

The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation’s largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

Alarmed environmentalists and their allies in the solar industry have fought back, battling the other side to a draw so far. Both sides say the fight is growing more intense as new states, including Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, enter the fray.

At the nub of the dispute are two policies found in dozens of states. One requires utilities to get a certain share of power from renewable sources. The other, known as net metering, guarantees homeowners or businesses with solar panels on their roofs the right to sell any excess electricity back into the power grid at attractive rates.

Net metering forms the linchpin of the solar-energy business model. Without it, firms say, solar power would be prohibitively expensive.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

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Obama Punts On Keystone Pipeline

A decision to give executive agencies more time to review plans for the controversial pipeline could push a final decision to after the midterm elections

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s conference in New York, April 11, 2014 (Carolyn Kaster—AP)

The Obama Administration is extending its review of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that has become an election-year minefield.

The State Department said Friday that while the public comment period will not be extended, executive agencies need more time to review the submitted comments as well as consider a Nebraska court case surrounding the pipeline. The indefinite extension could put off a decision on the pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canadian tar sands to American refineries, until after November’s midterm elections.

“On April 18, 2014, the Department of State notified the eight federal agencies specified in Executive Order 13337 we will provide more time for the submission of their views on the proposed Keystone Pipeline Project,” the department said in a statement. “Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the on-going litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state. In addition, during this time we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014.

“The Permit process will conclude once factors that have a significant impact on determining the national interest of the proposed project have been evaluated and appropriately reflected in the decision documents,” the State Department statement continued. “The Department will give the agencies sufficient time to submit their views.”

The pipeline has become a focus of Republican critics of the Obama Administration’s regulatory process. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the White House Friday after news of the decision broke.

Read more at TIME

A last-minute act of forgiveness in Iran

Parents mourn at the grave of their son after they spared the life of their son’s convicted murderer. (ARASH KHAMOOSHI/AFP/Getty Images)

With eyes covered and a noose around his neck, a young man identified only as Balal was “screaming and praying loudly before he just went silent,” Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) photographer Arash Khamooshi, who was photographing a public execution in Iran told CNN.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan of The Guardian reports Balal, who is in his 20s, was convicted of killing 18-year-old Abdollah Hosseinzadeh with a knife during a street brawl in 2007. He was arrested by police after fleeing the crime scene and, after six years, was given a death sentence.

The crowd watched as Samereh Alinejad, Hosseinzadeh’s mother, approached. Time writes: “According to some interpretations of sharia law, the victim’s family participates in the punishment by pushing the chair from under the condemned man.”

But instead of pushing the chair from underneath him and execute him, Alinejad slapped him in the face.

Khamooshi told CNN that, after slapping Balal, the mother told the crowd that she had forgiven him, and helped Hosseinzadeh’s father take the noose off.

Read more at the Washington Post

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Syria: the story behind one of the most shocking images of the war | World news | The Guardian

From the archives of the Pulitzer Prize winning English newspaper, The Guardian.
Originally published 3-10-2013.

The Progressive Democrat offers its sincerest congratulations to The Guardian.

Bodies revealed by the Queiq river’s receding waters. Photo: Thomas Rassloff/EPA

It is already one of the defining images of the Syrian civil war: a line of bodies at neatly spaced intervals lying on a river bed in the heart of Syria’s second city Aleppo. All 110 victims have been shot in the head, their hands bound with plastic ties behind their back. Their brutal execution only became apparent when the winter high waters of the Queiq river, which courses through the no man’s land between the opposition-held east of the city and the regime-held west, subsided in January.

It’s a picture that raises so many questions: who were these men? How did they die? Why? What does their story tell us about the wretched disintegration of Syria? A Guardian investigation has established a grisly narrative behind the worst – and most visible – massacre to have taken place here. All the men were from neighbourhoods in the eastern rebel-held part of Aleppo. Most were men of working age. Many disappeared at regime checkpoints. They may not be the last to be found. Locals have since dropped a grate from a bridge, directly over an eddy in the river. Corpses were still arriving 10 days after the original discovery on January 29, washed downstream by currents flushed by winter rains.

Read more atThe Guardian.

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Syria’s Lost Generation

By KHALED HOSSEINI APRIL 11, 2014

There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Photo credit; Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

SOMETHING about the boy was not right. He seemed disoriented, detached from his surroundings. He barely spoke, and when he did, it was in flat monosyllables, his eyes unfocused and downcast, as if too heavy to roll up from the weight of all they had seen. He was the picture of quiet devastation, of a childhood forever splintered.

He was 14 years old, a Syrian refugee, sitting with his family in a small room in the registration building of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Erbil, northern Iraq. In the crowded, noisy offices downstairs, scores of newly arrived refugees queued to register, including an exhausted-looking, dust-sheathed family of Dom Gypsies and a Syrian woman with a club foot, who limped about the hallways and pleaded with every passer-by to give her asylum in Germany.

In the upstairs office, the boy’s father sat across a table from me. A supple, boyish-looking 36-year-old, he recounted, with admirable calm, the story of his family’s harrowing escape, two weeks earlier, from their hometown, Aleppo, and their subsequent trip across the Turkish border and into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Before the war, he said, he worked at a shoe store, and his three children excelled at school. It was a modest but happy middle-class life. But then came war, and suddenly rocket-propelled grenades were whooshing in all day and Aleppo was honeycombed by falling bombs. He lost his job and his children’s school closed; they would lose two full years of schooling before the family’s eventual escape.

Soon, there was no electricity, no telephone service, no food. The father sold the family’s belongings, down to the last piece of furniture. When the money ran out, he borrowed flour from neighbors for his wife to make bread.

“Sometimes we weren’t eating for two or three days, but just giving the bread and water to the children to eat to survive,” he said.

At some point this year, Syria will overtake my native country, Afghanistan, as the world’s largest refugee-producing state. There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Two-thirds of Syrian refugee children, and nearly three million children inside the country, are out of school.

They face a broken future. Syria is on the verge of losing a generation. This is perhaps the most dooming consequence of this terrible war.

Read more at The New York Times

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Why This Year’s El Niño Could Grow Into a Monster

Expect soaring global food prices, monsoons in India, drought in Indonesia, and bush fires in Australia.

El Niño, warmer than average waters in the “Niño3.4” region of the tropical Pacific Ocean, affects weather around the world. NOAA Visualization Lab

The odds are increasing that an El Niño is in the works for 2014—and recent forecasts show it might be a big one.

That’s an incredibly powerful tool, especially if you are one of the billions who live where El Niño tends to hit hardest—Asia and the Americas. If current forecasts stay on track, El Niño might end up being the biggest global weather story of 2014.

The most commonly accepted definition of an El Niño is a persistent warming of the so-called “Niño3.4” region of the tropical Pacific Ocean south of Hawaii, lasting for at least five consecutive three-month “seasons.” A recent reversal in the direction of the Pacific trade winds appears to have kicked off a warming trend during the last month or two. That was enough to prompt US government forecasters to issue an El Niño watch last month.

Forecasters are increasingly confident in a particularly big El Niño this time around because, deep below the Pacific Ocean’s surface, off-the-charts warm water is lurking:

That giant red blob is a huge sub-surface wave of anomalously warm water that currently spans the tropical Pacific Ocean—big enough to cover the United States 300 feet deep. That’s a lot of warm water. Australia Bureau of Meteorology

As that blob of warm water moves eastward, propelled by the anomalous trade winds, it’s also getting closer to the ocean’s surface. Once that happens, it will begin to interact with the atmosphere, boosting temperatures and changing weather patterns.

Read more at Mother Jones

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