Archives for December 2016

The most powerful men in the world

Masha Gessen writes: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mode of public communication is the very opposite of Donald Trump’s: rather than tweet 140-character bursts, he stages elaborate, laboriously choreographed affairs that far outlast anyone’s attention span. He holds one press conference and one televised call-in show a year. Participants are pre-screened, question topics are pre-cleared, and many are pre-scripted. Each event usually lasts more than four hours. Each usually contains a memorable and informative passage that summarizes Putin’s current vision of himself in the world. There have been times when he positioned himself as the savior of a country on the brink of catastrophe, a conqueror, a victor. This year, in his press conference on December 23, he positioned himself as the most powerful man in the world.

Here is Putin’s scripted exchange with a state-media journalist (I am quoting both sides at length precisely because this is pre-written dialogue):

Journalist: Vladimir Vladimirovich, the world is undergoing a global transformation. We are witnessing nations expressing their will, voting against old political concepts, against the old elites. Britain voted to leave the EU, though we still don’t know how it’s going to play out. Many people are saying that Trump won because people were voting against the old elites, against faces that they are tired of seeing, among other reasons. Have you and your colleagues discussed these changes? What will the new global order be like? Remember, at the General Assembly, on the seventieth anniversary [of the United Nations], you said, “Can’t you see what you’ve done?” Where are we going? At this point we are still in the context of confrontation. The back-and-forth yesterday about whose military is stronger. During his last press conference your still-colleague Barack Obama said that 37 percent of Republicans like you and that Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave.

Putin: What was that?

Journalist: 37 percent of Republican voters like you.

Putin: Really?

Journalist: Yes, and if Ronald Reagan knew, he’d be turning over in his grave. By the way, we as your voters are very pleased that you have such power, that you could even reach Ronald Reagan. Our Western colleagues often tell us that you can manipulate the world, pick presidents of your choosing, intervene in elections wherever you want. How does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world? Thank you.

Putin: I have addressed this issue on numerous occasions. But if you think that I need to do it one more time, fine, I will say it one more time. The current US government and the leadership of the Democratic Party are trying to blame all their failures on outside forces. I have some questions and a few ideas regarding this.

The Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election but also the election to the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, and to Congress, where Republicans have the majority. I wonder if that’s my accomplishment too. [Here Putin cracks a joke with a reference to a Soviet-era film about a hapless college student who gets in trouble and takes the blame for things he did as well as things he didn’t do.] None of this is true. All of it is testament to the fact that the current administration is facing systemic problems. I have talked about this before.

I think there is a gap between the elites and the broad masses, as we used to say in Soviet times, regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. The fact that a significant portion of, let’s say, Republican voters are supporting the Russian president is not something I take personal credit for. You want to know what I think? I think a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like, what we should be doing, where we face common dangers and problems. It’s good that there are people who share our understanding of traditional values, because it’s a good start for building relations between two countries as powerful as Russia and the United States, on this basis, the basis of mutual admiration of the people.

I wish they wouldn’t dredge up the names of their former leaders. I don’t know who would be turning over in his grave. I think Reagan would rejoice in the victory of his party and would be happy for the newly elected president, who had a fine understanding of societal mood and worked in that paradigm and went to the very end even though no one, except you and me, believed that he would win.

At this point Putin is interrupted by applause. After the break, he continues by chiding Democrats for being sore losers. Later in the press conference he dismisses the conclusions of the CIA that Russian intelligence services threw the American election through hacking, claiming (much as Donald Trump has done) that the hackers could have been anyone, including “someone lying on the couch or in bed.” But Putin is reveling in the idea that he is “the most powerful man in the world.” He is right: it doesn’t matter if Russian hacks were decisive in the election—what matters is that many people believe that they were. If Americans perceive Putin as the ultimate winner of the presidential race, then that is what he is. [Continue reading…]


NASA’s overlooked duty to look inward

Elisa Gabbert writes: In 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote an essay called “The Image of Victory,” in which he asked what winning the Second World War, the “airman’s war,” would mean for posterity. MacLeish believed that pilots could do more than bring victory; by literally rising above the conflicts on the ground, they could also reshape our very understanding of the planet. “Never in all their history have men been able truly to conceive of the world as one: a single sphere, a globe, having the qualities of a globe, a round earth in which all the directions eventually meet, in which there is no center because every point, or none, is center — an equal earth which all men occupy as equals,” he wrote. The airplane, he felt, was both an engine of perspective and a symbol of unity.

MacLeish could not, perhaps, have imagined the sight of a truly whole Earth. But, twenty-six years after his essay appeared, the three-man crew of Apollo 8 reached the highest vantage point in history, becoming the first humans to witness Earth rising over the surface of the moon. The most iconic photograph of our planet, popularly known as “The Blue Marble,” was taken by their successors on Apollo 17, in 1972. In it, Earth appears in crisp focus, brightly lit, as in studio portraiture, against a black backdrop. The picture clicked with the cultural moment. As the neuroscientist Gregory Petsko observed, in 2011, in an essay on the consciousness-shifting power of images, it became a symbol of the budding environmentalist movement. “Our whole planet suddenly, in this image, seemed tiny, vulnerable, and incredibly lonely against the vast blackness of the cosmos,” Petsko wrote. “Regional conflict and petty differences could be dismissed as trivial compared with environmental dangers that threatened all of humanity.” Apollo 17 marked America’s last mission to the moon, and the last time that humans left Earth’s orbit.

It was always part of NASA’s mission to look inward, not just outward. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which established the agency, claimed as its first objective “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” NASA’s early weather satellites were followed, in the seventies and eighties, by a slew of more advanced instruments, which supplied data on the ozone layer, crops and vegetation, and even insect infestations. They allowed scientists to recognize and measure the symptoms of climate change, and their decades’ worth of data helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclude, in 2007, that global warming is “very likely” anthropogenic. According to a report released last month by NASA’s inspector general, the agency’s Earth Science Division helps commercial, government, and military organizations around the world locate areas at risk for storm-related flooding, predict malaria outbreaks, develop wildfire models, assess air quality, identify remote volcanoes whose toxic emissions contribute to acid rain, and determine the precise length of a day. [Continue reading…]


Trump refuses to face reality about Russia

In an editorial, the Washington Post says: Although President Obama’s sanctions against Russia for interfering with the U.S. presidential election came late, his action on Thursday reflected a bipartisan consensus that penalties must be imposed for Moscow’s audacious hacking and meddling. But one prominent voice in the United States reacted differently. President-elect Donald Trump said “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” Earlier in the week, he asserted that the “whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.”

No, Mr. Trump, it is not time to move on. U.S. intelligence agencies are in agreement about “what is going on”: a brazen and unprecedented attempt by a hostile power to covertly sway the outcome of a U.S. presidential election through the theft and release of material damaging to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The president-elect’s dismissive response only deepens unanswered questions about his ties to Russia in the past and his plans for cooperation with Vladi­mir Putin.

For his part, Mr. Putin seems to be eagerly anticipating the Trump presidency. On Friday, he promised to withhold retaliatory sanctions, clearly hoping the new Trump administration will nullify Mr. Obama’s acts. Then Mr. Trump cheered on Twitter: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!”

For any American leader, an attempt to subvert U.S. democracy ought to be unforgivable — even if he is the intended beneficiary. Some years ago, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor,” and the fear at the time was of a cyberattack collapsing electric grids or crashing financial markets. Now we have a real cyber-Pearl Harbor, though not one that was anticipated. Mr. Obama has pledged a thorough investigation and disclosure; the information released on Thursday does not go far enough. Congress should not shrink from establishing a select committee for a full-scale probe.

Mr. Obama also hinted at additional retaliation, possibly unannounced, and we believe it would be justified to deter future mischief. How about shedding a little sunshine on Mr. Putin’s hidden wealth and that of his coterie?

Mr. Trump has been frank about his desire to improve relations with Russia, but he seems blissfully untroubled by the reasons for the deterioration in relations, including Russia’s instigation of an armed uprising in Ukraine, its seizure of Crimea, its efforts to divide Europe and the crushing of democracy and human rights at home.

Why is Mr. Trump so dismissive of Russia’s dangerous behavior? Some say it is his lack of experience in foreign policy, or an oft-stated admiration for strongmen, or naivete about Russian intentions. But darker suspicions persist. Mr. Trump has steadfastly refused to be transparent about his multibillion-dollar business empire. Are there loans or deals with Russian businesses or the state that were concealed during the campaign? Are there hidden communications with Mr. Putin or his representatives? We would be thrilled to see all the doubts dispelled, but Mr. Trump’s odd behavior in the face of a clear threat from Russia, matched by Mr. Putin’s evident enthusiasm for the president-elect, cannot be easily explained.


How Russians pay to play in other countries

The New York Times reports: For a brief moment, it seemed that the powerful adviser’s head might roll at the Castle. After he lost his long legal battle over a hefty state fine, the Czech president warned him to pay up or lose his post.

Then a guardian angel materialized from Moscow.

Lukoil, the largest private Russian oil company in an industry dependent on Kremlin approval, stepped in to pay the nearly $1.4 million fine owed to a Czech court.

The aide, Martin Nejedly, stayed on as economic adviser to the Czech president, Milos Zeman, and vice chairman of his party. Perhaps more important, he retained his office right next to the president’s in the Castle, the official palace that looms over the capital, Prague.

But the payment last spring raised questions about Russian influence-buying in the Castle, where Mr. Zeman has staked out a position as one of the Kremlin’s most ardent sympathizers among European leaders.

“Unfortunately in the Czech Republic, some advisers to the president or the prime minister are willing to cooperate with the Russians,” said Karel Randak, who retired as head of the Czech foreign intelligence service in 2007. “I am not saying that they are Russian agents — but unfortunately for some people, the money is more important than the security of the Czech Republic.” [Continue reading…]


The world has finally called Israel’s bluff on its non-existent Palestinian peace process

Tony Karon writes: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long based his settlement strategy on the assumption that the international community will ignore the plight of the Palestinians. But the United Nations proved him wrong on Dec. 23, passing Security Council resolution 2334, which reaffirms the longstanding UN ruling that all Israeli settlements built outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders violate international law.

Israel has reacted with predictable fury to the UN resolution, with Netanyahu engaging in theatrical attempts to humiliate the resolution’s supporters. Netanyahu has also jousted verbally with US secretary of state John Kerry over the Obama administration’s reasons for withholding its veto, presumably hoping to impress his domestic political audience with an almost comical display of assumed international authority.

But even though Israel has made it clear that the non-binding resolution won’t restrain its continued settlement construction on the ground, the tone of its response reflects a well-grounded anxiety over the potential consequences of renewed international engagement on the conflict.

Despite Netanyahu’s confidence that the incoming Trump administration will back Israel on its settlement enterprise, the fact that not a single Israeli ally voted against the resolution deals a staggering blow to the prime minister’s core belief that Israel can normalize its international standing while denying the rights of millions of Palestinians. Netanyahu frequently boasts of Israel’s diplomatic gains, claiming it has made common cause with Sunni Arab states against Iran. But these statements are based on the unspoken assumption that amid more dramatic developments elsewhere, the world will simply forget about the Palestinians’ plight. [Continue reading…]


U.S.-Venezuela relations will probably deteriorate under Trump. Ask ExxonMobil why

Timothy M. Gill writes: President-elect Donald Trump recently nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. That company and Venezuela have been hostile toward each other over the past decade — which means Tillerson’s nomination suggests that the United States and Venezuela have a tense relationship ahead.

Venezuela is in a stunning economic crisis, with triple-digit inflation, scarce food and medicine, and a weakening currency. The Venezuelan government blames all this on “economic war” waged by the United States and the Venezuelan opposition.

Over the past two decades, the United States and Venezuela have had a difficult relationship. Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez as president, Venezuela has criticized U.S. foreign policy, including the “war on terror”; promoted socialist and left-wing governments throughout Latin America; and sought to create a multipolar world by embracing anti-U.S. leaders in Belarus, Cuba, Iran and Russia. [Continue reading…]


Turkish authorities detain Wall Street Journal staff reporter Dion Nissenbaum for 2½ days

The Wall Street Journal reports: Turkish authorities detained a Wall Street Journal staff reporter for 2½ days this past week, without permitting him contact with his family or attorneys before releasing him.

The reporter, Dion Nissenbaum, 49 years old, left Turkey to return to the U.S. on Saturday. Police took Mr. Nissenbaum from his Istanbul apartment on Tuesday evening. He was released from a detention center on Friday morning.

A person familiar with the matter said he was held for allegedly violating a government ban on publication of images from an Islamic State video.

“While we are relieved that Dion was released unharmed after nearly three days, we remain outraged at his peremptory detention, without any contact with his family, legal counsel or colleagues,” said Gerard Baker, editor in chief of the Journal. [Continue reading…]


Music: Rostam Mirlashari, Maati Baani, Gabin ft. Zee Gachette, Trio Chemirani with Omar Sosa & Ballaké Sissoko, Abida Parveen & Rahat Fateh Ali Khan







Ceasefire in Syria: Turkish policy sets Syria on new path

Yezid Sayigh writes: If the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey holds, it will be welcomed by most people in Syria – but the odds seem stacked against it.

Several previous ceasefires have collapsed, and new clashes have already broken out in several parts of the country amidst sharp differences in interpretation of the latest agreement by the Syrian opposition and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But not all past ceasefire attempts have failed. And this time dramatic shifts in Turkish policy towards the Syrian conflict may alter everything.

Political investment by major external powers is clearly critical for any ceasefire deal to succeed.

The “cessation of hostilities” that was brokered by the US and Russia in February 2016 produced a major drop in levels of violence in all regime- and opposition-held areas for some two months.

Its eventual collapse was likely, but not inevitable.

Other, more localized ceasefires were mediated by Iran in the city of Homs in May 2014 and January 2015 and by Iran and Turkey in the large towns of Zabadani, Foah and Kefraya in September 2015.

These were flawed and highly coercive arrangements that had to be renegotiated repeatedly, but they allowed the evacuation of fighters and wounded and some supply of humanitarian assistance.

Russia and Turkey appear sufficiently invested politically to make the latest ceasefire work.

But in seeking to encompass all parts of Syria not under Islamic State control, they are hostage to the two parties that have the least stake in a general truce: the Assad regime and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra until ending its formal affiliation to Al-Qaeda last July.

Their gradual military escalation and counter-escalation was the principal reason for the ultimate collapse of the February cessation of hostilities agreement.

Already, the Assad regime has claimed that the latest ceasefire does not include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. But opposition spokesmen say the opposite: that only areas under IS control are excluded. [Continue reading…]


Evidence of Russian malware found on U.S. electrical company laptop

The Verge reports: A utilities company in Vermont has detected evidence of Russian malware, according to a report this evening from The Washington Post, which cited anonymous US officials. The code is said to be connected to a Russian hacking outfit the US government has named Grizzly Steppe.

According to the company, later revealed to be the Burlington Electric Department, the code linked to Grizzly Steppe was found on just one laptop, and the laptop wasn’t connected to the electrical grid — allaying earlier fears that Russia had hacked into the nation’s electrical grid. Owned by the city of Burlington, the utility firm confirmed the breach in a post on its Facebook page.

“The grid is not in danger,” Vermont Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia told the Burlington Free Press. “The utility flagged it, saw it, notified appropriate parties and isolated that one laptop with that malware on it.” [Continue reading…]


Netanyahu corruption probe expected within days

Ynet reports: An Israeli TV channel reported Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is suspected of receiving valuable gifts from two businessmen.

The Channel 2 segment was the latest in a series of reports in Israeli media saying that police are close to opening a criminal investigation against the prime minister.Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to order the head of police investigations to open the probe into allegations of bribe-taking and aggravated fraud leveled against Netanyahu.

The station said Netanyahu had accepted large-scale “favors” from businessmen in Israel and abroad. It said there had been a breakthrough in the case three weeks ago, but gave no further details.

Channel 2 said Netanyahu was the central suspect in a second investigation that also involves members of his family. It said some 50 witnesses were involved in the case.

The station, along with the Ynet news site, said a formal criminal probe is expected to be opened next week. [Continue reading…]


Diana Buttu & Gideon Levy on Israeli settlements, Kerry, military aid & end of two-state solution



Trump and the climate: His hot air on warming is far from the greatest threat

By Andrew Revkin, ProPublica, December 29, 2016

President-elect Donald J. Trump has long pledged to undertake a profound policy shift on climate change from the low-carbon course President Obama made a cornerstone of his eight years in the White House.

“This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop,” Trump tweeted a year ago.

In recent weeks, Trump doubled down, nominating champions of fossil fuels to several cabinet positions and peppering his transition team with longtime opponents of environmental regulations.

Both the rhetoric and the actions have provoked despair among many who fear a Trump presidency will tip the planet toward an overheated future, upending recent national and international efforts to stem emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

But will a President Trump noticeably affect the globe’s climate in ways that, say, a President Hillary Clinton would not have?

In recent weeks, a variety of consultants tracking climate and energy policy have used models to help address that question. ProPublica asked Andrew P. Jones at Climate Interactive, a nonprofit hub for such analysis, to run one such comparison.

[Read more…]


The right is emboldened but it’s not in the ascendancy

Gary Younge writes: When there’s a cloud this large and foreboding no lining, silver or otherwise, will suffice. This was a year in which vulgarity, divisiveness and exclusion won – a triumph for dystopian visions of race, nation and ethnicity. Those thought dangerous and marginal are now not only mainstream, they have power. Immigrants and minorities are fearful, bigots are emboldened, discourse is coarsened. Progressive alternatives, while available, have yet to find a coherent electoral voice. You can polish this turd of a year all you like – it won’t stop it stinking to high heaven.

But while the prospects for hope are scarce there is, none the less, one thing from which we might draw solace. The right is emboldened but it is not in the ascendancy. The problem is that the centre has collapsed, and liberalism is in retreat. There is nothing to celebrate in the latter but there is much to ponder in the former. It suggests that this moment is less the product of some unstoppable force than the desperate choice of last resort.

Americans did not turn their backs on a bright new future but on a candidate offering more of the same at a time when the gap between rich and poor and black and white is growing. Nor did most of them vote for Donald Trump. Not only did he get fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but he got a lower proportion of the eligible vote than Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 – all of whom lost.

Britain did back Brexit – no sugarcoating that. But voters didn’t reject the case for the EU because it was never really made. Nor was it a rejection of the case for immigration, because that was never made either. I don’t know whether remain would have prevailed if those cases had been made. Probably not. But since they weren’t made they could hardly have been defeated. Instead people were fed a diet of fear of the unknown from a political class that has failed them and gagged.

The right did not win the arguments: they won electoral contests because their principal opponents were too arrogant, complacent or contemptuous (and sometimes all three) to make an argument beyond “at least we’re not them”.

We are not set for an ideological assault like the early 80s, when Thatcherism provided a sharper understanding of the forces shaping our society than the left did. On both sides of the Atlantic, the right is deeply divided, intellectually incoherent and set to fail on its own terms. [Continue reading…]


If Donald Trump targets journalists, thank Obama

James Risen writes: If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump made his animus toward the news media clear during the presidential campaign, often expressing his disgust with coverage through Twitter or in diatribes at rallies. So if his campaign is any guide, Mr. Trump seems likely to enthusiastically embrace the aggressive crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers that is an important yet little understood component of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy.

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s stance on press freedom, government transparency and secrecy is hotly disputed by the White House, but many journalism groups say the record is clear. Over the past eight years, the administration has prosecuted nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers, compared with only three by all previous administrations combined. It has repeatedly used the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I-era red-baiting, not to prosecute spies but to go after government officials who talked to journalists.

Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases. [Continue reading…]


‘Sometimes the baby dies, sometimes the mother’: Life and death in Yemen’s hospitals

The Washington Post reports: The infant was barely breathing when his uncle brought him to the hospital in a cardboard box. He was wrapped in a blue towel, and wads of cotton were stuffed around his frail body to keep him warm.

Muhammad Haithem was just hours old, born two months premature.

His mother had gone into labor when an airstrike by a Saudi-led coalition hit near their home in the town of Abs. The hospital there was destroyed by an airstrike in August. So the baby’s uncle put him in a pickup truck and drove three hours to the nearest government hospital, recalled Ahlia Ashumali, a nurse who received the baby.

A week later, Muhammad was still teetering between life and death. He weighed four pounds and was being fed through tubes.

Surviving even birth is a struggle in Yemen. After nearly two years of war, thousands of children and adults have died from easily treatable diseases, illnesses and injuries as the health-care system collapses. [Continue reading…]


‘They looked like they were coming out of a concentration camp’: British surgeon treats Aleppo’s wounded

The Telegraph reports: For fifteen hours a day, the flow of wounded men, women and children from the remains of Syria’s largest city did not stop.

Aleppo residents – evacuated to the safety of the countryside after a six-month siege – came with bones jutting through their skin, limbs succumbing to gangrene and shrapnel still buried in their wounds.

“They looked almost like they were coming out of a concentration camp,” said David Nott, a British surgeon who returned to Britain last week after spending eight days in Syria’s Idlib province treating the injured.

Dr Nott works in operating theatres across three London hospitals but has made repeated medical trips into Syria since fighting started in 2011.

He trained many of the doctors who worked in east Aleppo’s makeshift hospitals throughout the regime siege and Russian bombardment and wanted to be there to help when 30,000 civilians and fighters finally left the city in early December under the terms of a ceasefire deal.

Over the course of a frenetic week of surgery, he operated on 90 people, including 30 children.

“The patients were really in desperate state” after months with little food and harrowing journey out of the city through snow and freezing temperatures, Dr Nott said.

“They were coming in not just injured but dehydrated, malnourished, and psychologically traumatised.” [Continue reading…]


Anti-regime protests break out across Syria

TheNewArab reports: Anti-regime activists defied on-going regime air-strikes across rebel-held areas of Syria on Friday to launch a series of protests against the government.

Although the country’s civil society has reacted negatively to a new ceasefire which could leave Bashar al-Assad’s regime in power at least until the next general election, activists took advantage of the lull in bombing to hold protests.

Regime forces responded to demonstrations in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, with heavy shelling. Twenty-one civilians have reportedly died in the Damascus countryside town over the last twenty-four hours. [Continue reading…]