Archives for December 2014

Palestinians request membership of ICC

Al Jazeera reports: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signed a document at a meeting in Ramallah requesting membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Abbas signed the document on Wednesday, a day after a UN Security Council (UNSC) failed to pass a resolution that had aimed to set a deadline for Israel to end its occupation of territories sought by the Palestinians.

The president also signed a raft of about 20 other treaties, aligning Palestine with various international organisations.

The decision sets the stage for filing a war crimes case against Israel for its actions in Gaza. Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to take action following the announcement. [Continue reading…]

Julian Borger writes: ICC membership is a powerful weapon but it is also double-edged. It defines the geographical area in which such crimes can be investigated, and the Palestinian leadership could also define a time period for the prosecutors to examine, but it cannot dictate the target of such an investigation. For example, if Abbas now seeks a retroactive investigation of the last bloody bout of violence in Gaza last summer, as he has the right to do, both the Israel Defence Forces and Hamas would be scrutinised for their actions.

That was one reason for delay. Hamas is Abbas’s principal challenger on the Palestinian political scene, but he wanted to secure its approval before making a final decision on ICC membership. There were other reasons for caution. The threat of joining the court was also one of the few meaningful bargaining chips Abbas could take into the negotiating chamber with his Israeli counterpart, Binyamin Netanyahu. Now it has been used, he is virtually empty-handed. But such chips are only of any use when there is a dialogue and a diplomatic process. Right now, there is neither.

It is not the first time the Palestinians have sought redress at the ICC, which has been reluctant to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long ago as 2009, they went to the court in The Hague with an ad hoc request for a war crimes investigation in the wake of an earlier Israeli offensive in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. The chief prosecutor at the time, Luis Moreno Ocampo, took three years to decide on the status of that request before announcing in 2012 that it was a decision about Palestinian statehood that could only be taken by the UN general assembly. In November 2012, the UN voted to recognise Palestine as a non-member observer state, which gave it the right to join the ICC and make ad hoc requests for investigations. Moreno Ocampo’s successor as prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, ruled that Palestine’s new status could not be applied to its 2009 request for an investigation. If the leadership wanted such an investigation, Bensouda argued, it would have submit the request again. But Abbas came under intense pressure from the Israelis, Americans, British and other Europeans not to do so, backed up by threats of financial and economic sanctions.

Wednesday’s decision will exact a price in the form of such punitive measures that could cripple the Palestinian Authority. But Abbas clearly decided he had been treading water for far too long. A fter the defeat on Tuesday of a UN security council resolution demanding an end to occupation by 2017, and with his popularity plummeting, he has sought to carve out as much Palestinian sovereignty as he can as a political legacy. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times adds: “There is no question mark as to what are the consequences, that there will be immediate American and Israeli financial sanctions,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. “Those sanctions will gradually become more and more crippling, and this could indeed be the beginning of the end of the P.A. They fully realize that.”

A poll in December by Mr. Shikaki’s group found that just 35 percent of Palestinians approved of the president’s performance, down from 50 percent before the fighting in Gaza. If there were elections now, the poll found, Mr. Abbas and his more secular Fatah party would be defeated by Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates the Gaza Strip. Reconstruction in Gaza after the devastating war has stalled amid continuing acrimony between Hamas and Fatah despite an April reconciliation pact, and analysts said Mr. Abbas was desperate to show that he was effective.

“They have to take some meaningful steps to recover anything of their really shredded credibility,” Nadia Hijab, executive director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, said of Mr. Abbas’s team. “That fig leaf of action is growing steadily more tattered. They keep saying it’s a new paradigm and they want to use international tools, but now they have actually been put on the spot.”


A war against childhood


The Wall Street Journal reports: Jomah, a 17-year-old Syrian who joined Islamic State last year, sat in a circle of trainees for a lesson in beheading, a course taught to boys as young as 8.

Teachers brought in three frightened Syrian soldiers, who were jeered and forced to their knees. “It was like learning to chop an onion,” Jomah said. “You grab him by the forehead and then slowly slice across the neck.”

A teacher asked for volunteers and said, “Those who behead the infidels will receive gifts from God,” recalled Jomah, who didn’t want his full name revealed. The youngest boys shot up their hands and several were chosen to participate. Afterward, the teachers ordered the students to pass around the severed heads.

“I’d become desensitized by that time,” said Jomah, who has since defected to Turkey with his family. “The beheading videos they’d shown us helped.”

The enrollment of hundreds of boys in such militant training camps is another tragic facet of Syria’s nearly four-year-long civil war — and its impact could trouble the Middle East for years to come. Parents worry their boys will be forever lost to the indoctrination of Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

A TSG IntelBrief concludes:
• Through systemic indoctrination, intimidation, and extermination, violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and both Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, are targeting children with unprecedented ferocity

• Children are no longer accidental casualties in extremist conflicts but rather they are a primary target

• Extremists are trying to steal the future away from vulnerable regions by stealing the future generation through relentless messaging and violence that separates the youth from their society, government, and culture

• The damage already done by the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and violent extremist groups in in Pakistan pales in comparison to what is yet to come if even a small percentage of their focus on youth pays off.

In the midst of pervasive war-weariness and deeply felt opposition to military intervention following the war in Iraq, social media has not only desensitized children living under ISIS’s rule, serving as a primer on brutality, but it has also desensitized opponents of war.

Images which provoke instinctive revulsion, trigger a desire not only to look away, but also turn away in every way possible, such that both ISIS and those who have become its victims can be cloaked in otherness.

When we see children in masks, it’s easier to see the masks than see the children.

Paradoxically, among the many who readily acknowledge that ISIS came into existence primarily as a result of the war in Iraq and that in this sense, ISIS is an American creation, far fewer are willing to admit that the U.S. has a huge responsibility in now trying to thwart the monster that it unwittingly released.

At the same time, even if we acknowledge that we are part-owners of the problem, no one will be served well by casting America in its traditional self-ascribed role as rescuer.

Now, as has long been the case, the U.S. needs to break out of its bipolar relationship with the rest of the world, neither seeking to dominate, nor retreat.


Backlash in Berlin over NSA spying recedes as threat from ISIS rises

The Washington Post reports: In a crescendo of anger over American espionage, Germany expelled the CIA’s top operative, launched an investigation of the vast U.S. surveillance programs exposed by Edward Snowden and extracted an apology from President Obama for the years that U.S. spies had reportedly spent monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.

In an address to Parliament last year, Merkel warned that U.S.-German cooperation would be curtailed and declared that “trust needs to be rebuilt.”

But the cooperation never really stopped. The public backlash over Snowden often obscured a more complicated reality for Germany and other aggrieved U.S. allies. They may be dismayed by the omnivorous nature of the intelligence apparatus the United States has built since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but they are also deeply dependent on it.

Over the past year, Germany has secretly provided detailed information to U.S. spy services on hundreds of German citizens and legal residents suspected of having joined insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq, U.S. and German officials said.

Germany has done so reluctantly to enlist U.S. help in tracking departed fighters, determining whether they have joined al-Qaeda or the Islamic State and, perhaps most importantly, whether they might seek to bring those groups’ violent agendas back to Germany.

The stream of information includes names, cellphone numbers, e-mail addresses and other sensitive data that German security services — ever mindful of the abuses by the Nazi and Stasi secret police — have been reluctant even to collect, let alone turn over to a suspect ally. [Continue reading…]


U.S. troops return to Iraq to train force to fight ISIS

The New York Times reports: The United States has begun training a first wave of Iraqi Army recruits, in recent days putting them through morning fitness exercises and instructing them in marksmanship and infantry tactics, in an effort to gather enough forces to mount a spring offensive against the extremists of the Islamic State.

Military officials here say the first of the American-trained recruits, who answered the call to arms by Iraqi religious leaders over the summer and have completed some basic training under the Iraqis, will be ready to join the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by mid-February. Pushing forward, officials say the goal is to train 5,000 new recruits every six weeks.

“These are new patriots of Iraq, that have actually signed up, have been through basic training and are now ready to go through some advanced training,” said Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, the American commander who is overseeing the training program.

More than six months after the Islamic State’s lightning advance through northern Iraq forced a reluctant President Obama to order a new United States military mission here, an American training program for the Iraqi security forces has begun to take shape. In recent days, the first recruits, about 1,600 men in four battalions, have been received by American instructors at Camp Taji, a base north of Baghdad. Others have begun arriving at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar Province, joining roughly 200 American Marines and Special Forces soldiers.

The American presence in Iraq is expected to grow in the coming weeks, to more than 3,000 personnel from about 1,800. The American military already has a presence in Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, and has plans for two more training sites: one for Special Forces in Baghdad and another in Besmaya, south of the capital. [Continue reading…]


Shi’ite militias expand influence, redraw map in central Iraq

Reuters reports: Behind black gates and high walls, Iraqi national security agents watch 200 women and children.

Boys and girls play in the yard and then dart inside their trailers, located in a former U.S. military camp and onetime headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s officials in Babel province’s capital Hilla.

The women and children are unwilling guests, rounded up as they fled with their male relatives in October from Jurf al-Sakhr, a bastion of Islamic State, during a Shi’ite militia and military operation to clear the farming community.

Once they were arrested, security forces separated out the men, accusing them of being Islamic State fighters. They have not been heard from since.

Security forces say the women and children are being investigated, but have not been brought to court.

Their status shows how central Iraq’s mixed Shi’ite and Sunni regions are being altered.

As Shi’ite forces push into territories held by Islamic State, many Sunnis have fled for fear of both the Shi’ite-led government and the Sunni jihadists.

Shi’ite leaders insist Islamic State must never be allowed to strike them again, nor return to areas now abandoned.

Shi’ite groups now decide who can stay in a community and who should leave; whose houses should be destroyed and whose can stand. [Continue reading…]


Deaths in Iraq show two sides of Iran’s role in sectarian conflict

The Guardian reports: Thousands of Revolutionary Guards gathered in Tehran on Sunday for the funeral of Iranian Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, who was reportedly killed by a sniper while organising the defence of the Iraqi city of Samarra against Islamic State (Isis) militants.

According to Fars News, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani told mourners that if “people like Taqavi do not shed their blood in Samarra, then we would shed our blood [within Iran] in Sistan [-Baluchestan], [East and West] Azerbaijan [provinces], Shiraz and Esfahan [to defend the country]”.

Mehr News reported the funeral was also attended by General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds brigade, the overseas arm of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which has been active in Iraq. The Iranian Labour News Agency relayed condolences from Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, “to the Lord of the Age [the 12th Shia Imam, believed to be in occultation], the Supreme Leader, the honourable Iranian nation, his comrades and respected and patient family members.”

Taqavi, 55, was the most senior Iranian military commander killed in Iraq, where Tehran calls its role “advisory” in assisting the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias against Isis. While Taqavi’s funeral illustrated the clear official Iranian commitment to its armed forces, the murkier dimensions of Tehran’s growing role in the brutal sectarian conflict engulfing Iraq and Syria were highlighted by the death of Wathiq al-Battat, an Iraqi militant with long links to Iran and leader of one of Iraq’s several Shia militias.

The Mukhtar Army, the Iraqi militia, recently announced its leader Wathiq al-Battat had been killed in Diyala province. Battat had been a player in the shady war between Iraqi Shia militias and the Sunni militants of Isis. [Continue reading…]


Kabul was eerie and dangerous under the Taliban. It feels that way again

Pamela Constable reports: Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.

Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multi-story apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.

But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum. [Continue reading…]


Taliban sees U.S. defeat as troops leave Afghanistan

Foreign Policy reports: A day after the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force held a low-key ceremony in a heavily guarded military compound to mark the formal end of its combat mission in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents on Monday mockingly accused the United States and its NATO allies of leaving the country in defeat after a long and costly 13-year military campaign.

“Today ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement Monday, using the acronym for the American-led coalition. “We consider this step a clear indication of their defeat and disappointment.”

In the lengthy statement, Mujahid said the war had exacted a heavy toll from the United States and its allies while leaving them precious little to show for their human and financial losses. [Continue reading…]


A nuclear deal with Iran would mean a less volatile world

Julian Borger writes: There will be no greater diplomatic prize in 2015 than a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. In its global significance, it would dwarf the US detente with Cuba, and not just because there are seven times more Iranians than Cubans. This deal will not be about cash machines in the Caribbean, but about nuclear proliferation in the most volatile region on Earth.

An agreement was supposed to have been reached by 24 November, but Iran and the west were too far apart to make the final leap. After nine months of bargaining, the intricate, multidimensional negotiation boiled down to two main obstacles: Iran’s long-term capacity to enrich uranium, and the speed and scale of sanctions relief.

Iran wants international recognition of its right not just to enrich, but to do so on an industrial scale. It wants to maintain its existing infrastructure of 10,000 centrifuges in operation and another 9,000 on standby, and it wants to be able to scale that capacity up many times.

The US and its allies say Tehran has no need for so much enriched uranium. Its one existing reactor is Russian-built, as are its planned reactors, so all of them come with Russian-supplied fuel as part of the contract. The fear is that industrial enrichment capacity would allow Iran to make a bomb’s-worth of weapons-grade uranium very quickly, if it decided it needed one – faster than the international community could react.

However, the west is currently not offering large-scale, immediate sanctions relief in return for such curbs on Iran’s activity. President Barack Obama can only temporarily suspend US congressional sanctions, and western states are prepared to reverse only some elements of UN security council sanctions. The best the west can offer upfront is a lifting of the EU oil embargo. [Continue reading…]


Sony insider — not North Korea — likely involved in hack, experts say

The Los Angeles Times reports: Federal authorities insist that the North Korean government is behind the cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Cybersecurity experts? Many are not convinced.

From the time the hack became public Nov. 24, many of these experts have voiced their suspicions that a disgruntled Sony Pictures insider was involved.

Respected voices in the online security and anti-hacking community say the evidence presented publicly by the FBI is not enough to draw firm conclusions.

They argue that the connections between the Sony hack and the North Korean government amount to circumstantial evidence. Further, they say the level of the breach indicates an intimate knowledge of Sony’s computer systems that could have come from someone on the inside.

This week, prominent San Mateo, Calif., cybersecurity firm Norse Corp. — whose clients include government agencies, financial institutions and technology companies — briefed law enforcement officials on evidence it collected that pointed toward an inside job.

“We can’t find any indication that North Korea either ordered, masterminded or funded this attack,” Kurt Stammberger, a senior vice president at Norse, said in an interview with The Times. Although conceding that his findings were not conclusive, Stammberger added: “Nobody has been able to find a credible connection to the North Korean government.”

Stammberger said a team of nine analysts dug through data including Norse’s worldwide network of millions of Web sensors, internal Sony documents and underground hacker chat rooms. Leads suggesting North Korea as the culprit turned out to be red herrings and dead ends, he said.

Instead, the data pointed to a former employee who may have collaborated with outside hackers. The employee, who left the studio in a May restructuring, had the qualifications and access necessary to carry out the crime, according to Stammberger.

Moreover, names of company servers and passwords were programmed into the malware that infiltrated the studio’s network, suggesting hackers had inside knowledge of the studio’s systems, Stammberger said. [Continue reading…]


How the U.S. blocked Palestine’s bid for statehood in the UN Security Council

Marwan Bishara writes: The US has defeated the PLO at the UN Security Council (UNSC) by a first-round knockout, without even using its veto power.

But the humiliation won’t go unnoticed in a region that has been seeking divine intervention when its repeated calls for international intervention had failed to stop aggression and bloodshed.

Behind the UN commotion is a leadership failure on the part of the three concerned parties.

Once again, Palestinian gullibility, American cynicism and Israeli bullying, have degraded the role of the UN in putting an end to the longest case of illegal occupation in memory. [Continue reading…]


Music: Roberta Sá & Yamandu Costa — ‘Modinha’


James Fallows and the chickenhawks

James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]

Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”

Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.

During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”

Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.

But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.

Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.

The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.

If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.

A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.

The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.

Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.

In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.


Why has progress stalled?

Michael Hanlon writes: We live in a golden age of technological, medical, scientific and social progress. Look at our computers! Look at our phones! Twenty years ago, the internet was a creaky machine for geeks. Now we can’t imagine life without it. We are on the verge of medical breakthroughs that would have seemed like magic only half a century ago: cloned organs, stem-cell therapies to repair our very DNA. Even now, life expectancy in some rich countries is improving by five hours a day. A day! Surely immortality, or something very like it, is just around the corner.

The notion that our 21st-century world is one of accelerating advances is so dominant that it seems churlish to challenge it. Almost every week we read about ‘new hopes’ for cancer sufferers, developments in the lab that might lead to new cures, talk of a new era of space tourism and super-jets that can fly round the world in a few hours. Yet a moment’s thought tells us that this vision of unparalleled innovation can’t be right, that many of these breathless reports of progress are in fact mere hype, speculation – even fantasy.

Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.

There is more. Feminism. Teenagers. The Green Revolution in agriculture. Decolonisation. Popular music. Mass aviation. The birth of the gay rights movement. Cheap, reliable and safe automobiles. High-speed trains. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life. The Golden Quarter was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals.

Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology. [Continue reading…]


If you thought things were bad this year, wait until 2015

Tony Karon writes: Those in Washington nostalgic for the heady days of empire will proclaim 2014 as the year the Cold War resumed: Russia annexed Crimea and backed a secessionist movement in eastern Ukraine after its ally in Kiev was overthrown by a western-backed rebellion. Nato sounded dire warnings and its members imposed sanctions on Russia as the rhetoric on both sides turned decidedly old-school. US leaders berated Russian expansionism, while in Moscow the talk was about resisting Nato’s steady encirclement.

But the renewed US-Russia standoff is nothing remotely like the Cold War.

Geopolitical contests between Washington and Moscow dominated international affairs for the second half of the 20th century. The current Nato-Russia standoff, by contrast, is a petty regional conflict with scant effect on the rest of the world. As the Nato-Russia dispute simmered, the world pretty much got on with its own business – messy and chaotic as that business often was.

Sure, Moscow ended the year in financial turmoil as its currency plummeted, but that was largely a result of the global oil price being cut in half in a matter of six months.

And the fact that Moscow turned not to the International Monetary Fund when it needed to prop up the rouble but instead to China was a sign of just how much the global balance of economic power has changed.

Curiously enough, Barack Obama ended 2014 by finally telling Americans that more than a half-century of US- Cuba policy had failed, resuming diplomatic ties and easing the embargo.

Mr Obama’s decision is historic in US domestic politics, but it simply brings America into line with the rest of the world. The move won universal praise in Latin America, where governments have long maintained normal relations with Cuba and pressed the US to follow suit. Far from the US “backyard” of yore, Latin America today does more business with China, which has broken ground on an epic construction project to open a new transcontinental canal through Nicaragua. [Continue reading…]


Intelligence, defense whistleblowers remain mired in broken system

McClatchy reports: When Ilana Greenstein blew the whistle on mismanagement at the CIA, she tried to follow all the proper procedures.

First, she told her supervisors that she believed the agency had bungled its spying operations in Baghdad. Then, she wrote a letter to the director of the agency.

But the reaction from the intelligence agency she trusted was to suspend her clearance and order her to turn over her personal computers. The CIA then tried to get the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation of her.

Meanwhile, the agency’s inspector general, which is supposed to investigate whistleblower retaliation, never responded to her complaint about the treatment.

Based on her experience in 2007, Greenstein is not surprised that many CIA employees did little to raise alarms when the nation’s premier spy agency was torturing terrorism suspects and detaining them without legal justification. She and other whistleblowers say the reason is obvious.

“No one can trust the system,” said Greenstein, now a Washington attorney. “I trusted it and I was naive.”

Since 9/11, defense and intelligence whistleblowers such as Greenstein have served as America’s conscience in the war on terrorism. Their assertions go to the heart of government waste, misconduct and overreach: defective military equipment, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, surveillance of Americans.

Yet the legal system that was set up to protect these employees has repeatedly failed those with the highest-profile claims. Many of them say they aren’t thanked but instead are punished for speaking out. [Continue reading…]


FBI’s weak case against North Korea on Sony hacking gets weaker

Reuters reports: U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month’s massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang “contracted out” some of the cyber work. The official was not authorized to speak on the record about the investigation. [Continue reading…]


Conflicts that were under-reported in 2014: Libya, Yemen, Assam, The Sudans, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Kenya

Ishaan Tharoor writes: 2014 has been a brutal year. The death toll of Syria’s ongoing civil war likely eclipsed 200,000, while the hideous rise of the Islamic State spurred a U.S.-led bombing campaign. A separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine led to thousands of deaths and clouded relations between the West and Moscow, which is believed to be aiding the rebels. And an Israeli offensive against Hamas militants saw whole stretches of the Gaza Strip reduced to rubble.

Sadly, there was plenty of other mayhem and violence that didn’t make newspaper frontpages as often. Here are seven awful conflicts that merited more attention. [Continue reading…]