After years of escalating tensions and bloodshed, the talk in the Middle East is suddenly about talking. The shift is still relatively subtle, but hints of a new approach in the waning months of the Bush administration are fueling hopes of at least short-term stability for the first time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Much is happening, adding up not to any great diplomatic breakthrough, but to a distinct change in direction. Syria is being welcomed out of isolation by Europe and is holding indirect talks with Israel. Lebanon has formed a new government. Israel has cut deals with Hamas (a cease-fire) and Hezbollah (a prisoner exchange).
On Wednesday, the United States agreed to send a high-ranking diplomat to attend talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and was considering establishing a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time since the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis.
“The overall picture is moving in the direction of cooling the political atmosphere,” said Muhammad al-Rumaihi, a former government adviser in Kuwait and the editor of Awan, an independent daily newspaper there.
Many underlying problems, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are not on the verge of resolution. Afghanistan has recently seen a sharp spike in violence. In the Middle East, optimism can fill the void left by even a temporary lull in violence, like the recent — and still fragile — stability gains in Iraq. Nevertheless, not long ago, the fear was that Lebanon would descend into civil war and that either Israel or the United States, or both, would attack Iran. That seems less likely at the moment.
Many policymakers want to throw more money and troops at the problem. Both Barack Obama and John McCain say that as President, they would send additional combat brigades — from 7,000 to 15,000 troops — to tame the insurgency in Afghanistan. At a June conference in Paris, Western governments committed an additional $20 billion in aid, in the hope that this would finally bring success in counterinsurgency, counternarcotics, rule of law, governance and state-building — and eventually allow us to withdraw from Afghanistan with honor.
But just because Afghanistan has problems that need to be solved does not mean that the West can solve them all. My experience suggests that those pushing for an expansion of our military presence there are wrong. We don’t need bold new plans and billions more in aid. Instead, we need less investment — but a greater focus on what we know how to do.
For years, “oil” and “Iraq” couldn’t make it into the same sentence in mainstream coverage of the invasion and occupation of that country. Recently, that’s begun to change, but “oil” and “the Pentagon” still seldom make the news together.
Last year, for instance, according to Department of Defense (DoD) documents, the Pentagon paid more than $70 million to Hunt Refining, an oil company whose corporate affiliate, Hunt Oil, undermined U.S. policy in Iraq. Not that anyone would know it. While the hunt for oil in Iraq is now being increasingly well covered in the mainstream, the Pentagon’s hunt for oil remains a subject missing in action. Despite the staggering levels at which the Pentagon guzzles fuel, it’s a chronic blind spot in media energy coverage.
Let’s consider the Hunt Oil story in a little more detail, since it offers a striking example of the larger problem. On July 3, 2008, according to the New York Times, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that Hunt Oil had pursued “an oil deal with the regional Kurdistan government that ran counter to American policy and undercut Iraq’s central government.” Despite its officially stated policy of warning companies like Hunt Oil “that they incur risks in signing contracts until Iraq passes an oil law,” the State Department in some cases actually encouraged a deal between the “Texas oil company with close ties to President Bush” and Kurdistan that “undercut” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad.
Despite spending $230m (£115m) an hour on healthcare, Americans live shorter lives than citizens of almost every other developed country. And while it has the second-highest income per head in the world, the United States ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy.
These are some of the startling conclusions from a major new report which attempts to explain why the world’s number-one economy has slipped to 12th place – from 2nd in 1990- in terms of human development.
The American Human Development Report, which applies rankings of health, education and income to the US, paints a surprising picture of a country that spends well over $5bn each day on healthcare – more per person than any other country.
Climate change will pose “substantial” threats to human health in the coming decades, the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday — issuing its warnings about heat waves, hurricanes and pathogens just days after the agency declined to regulate the pollutants blamed for warming.
In a new report, the EPA said “it is very likely” that more people will die during extremely hot periods in future years — and that the elderly, the poor and those in inner cities will be most at risk.
Other possible dangers include more powerful hurricanes, shrinking supplies of fresh water in the West, and the increased spread of diseases contracted through food and water, the agency said.