White House discovers ‘there are no good military options’ on North Korea

Fred Kaplan writes: If you had started to think that President Trump and his team might know something about diplomacy after all, that their firm talk and shows of strength might finally prod the Chinese and North Koreans to get rid of Kim Jung-un’s nuclear weapons, well, think again. Trump’s holsters are empty, and so is his brain trust. They’ve got nothing, up and down.

In recent days, Trump has sent an aircraft carrier battle group and a guided-missile submarine toward North Korea’s shores. Vice President Mike Pence has gone to the Demilitarized Zone and squinted through the binoculars at the North Korean guards, so they can see his resolve. Pence also declared, “The era of ‘strategic patience’ ”—President Obama’s policy of containment, as opposed to action, toward North Korea—“is over.” To lay the message on thick, Trump summoned all 100 U.S. senators to the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, on Wednesday, for an urgent briefing on the subject from the secretaries of defense and state, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State. Buses were even chartered to take the lawmakers on their unusual field trip.

And what did these top advisers and cabinet secretaries say? Apparently, nothing.

Here’s Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when asked by a reporter about the briefing: “It was an OK briefing.” The reporter asked, “What do you mean, you didn’t really learn much?” Corker replied, “I—it was OK.”

Other senators, from both parties, told reporters the same thing: They learned nothing new, they wondered what the big deal was, why they were dragged down Pennsylvania Avenue for such a waste of time. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: It’s not a sonic boom or bunker buster Pyongyang should most fear from the Trump administration. It’s the sound of cash registers falling silent, and doors to the outside world shutting, as the U.S. works to convince China and other allies to cut off the oil, access to money and perhaps even communication links to the outside world.

That was the word from Trump administration officials Wednesday, explaining a multipronged strategy to defang Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program to lawmakers at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Administration officials made clear that open military confrontation or toppling the Kim regime are the least desirable of all possible options—even as China appeared to hint that it wouldn’t oppose certain American military measures against Pyongyang.

“We want to solve this through political or economic measures,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “There are no good military options.” The official said any unilateral strike would likely lead to a North Korean counter-strike on U.S. allies South Korea and Japan—both within artillery or missile range of North Korea—as well as threatening tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Pacific.

“We want to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees,” said Adm. Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. He repeated the administration mantra that “all options are on the table,” but the tone had decidedly shifted from President Donald Trump’s earlier provocative tweets. [Continue reading…]

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Kim Jong Un is a survivor, not a madman

Andrei Lankov writes: Everyone loves thinking of North Korea as crazy. It threatens to consume the United States in nuclear fire on a semi-weekly basis, its leader brutally executes his own generals and had his brother murdered, and it wastes huge amount of money on nuclear weapons while sticking to a failed economic model. Tales of North Korean lunacy are never far from the front pages.

The problem is it’s not just the media that delights in depicting Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un, as irrational — U.S. policymakers indulge in the same behavior. In April, U.S. Congressman Bradley Burne (R-Ala.) said “I don’t believe the leadership in North Korea is rational. How do you deal with someone that is irrational?” He echoed prior remarks by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley who said, “We are not dealing with a rational person,” since, she claimed, Kim is a person “who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.”

As a guide for understanding North Korea, this analysis is just plain wrong. As a guide for crafting policy toward Pyongyang, it may be catastrophic. North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational” Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war, but it can also promote unrealistic expectations of compromise — if only the North “comes to its senses.”

Back in the 1980s the Kim family was laughed at even inside the Eastern Bloc as an embodiment of Stalinist irrationality. They were mocked for clinging to their outdated personality cult and failed economics and it was suggested that they should follow the dynamic leaders of Eastern Europe, like the reformist communist leader Karoly Grosz of Hungary. Today, these leaders are in the waste bin of history — overthrown, disgraced, and forgotten — while the Kim family still enjoys not only power, but the luxury that goes with it and remains in full control of their country. [Continue reading…]

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The end of foreign aid as we know it

Bryant Harris, Robbie Gramer, and Emily Tamkin write: President Donald Trump’s vow to put “America first” includes a plan to drastically cut assistance to developing countries and merge the State Department with USAID, according to an internal budget document and sources.

The administration’s March budget proposal vowed to slash aid to developing countries by over one-third, but contained few details. According to a detailed 15-page State Department budget document obtained by Foreign Policy, the overhaul also includes rechanneling funding from development assistance into a program that is tied closely to national security objectives.

The document details how the Trump administration’s plans to reduce direct foreign assistance would take place in fiscal year 2018.

Acting USAID Administrator Wade Warren told employees at a recent staff meeting that administration officials are considering folding the agency into the State Department as part of a review mandated by President Trump’s March 13 executive order on streamlining the executive branch, according to a source within USAID. The order instructs the head of each agency to submit a plan to the Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, “to reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency.”

While the order appears to give USAID’s administrator some discretion in the reorganization plan, the White House’s 2018 budget proposal points to a preference for consolidating the two entities, stating “the need for State and USAID to pursue greater efficiencies through reorganization and consolidation in order to enable effective diplomacy and development.”

Such a move would not be unprecedented. In 1999, the U.S. Information Agency, which funded information and cultural programs abroad, was closed down and many of its programs folded in the State Department. But shutting down, or even just scaling back, an agency dedicated to issues like disease prevention and food security could prove far more polarizing.

“That will end the technical expertise of USAID, and in my view, it will be an unmitigated disaster for the longer term,” said Andrew Natsios, the former USAID Administrator under President George W. Bush. “I predict we will pay the price. We will pay the price for the poorly thought out and ill-considered organization changes that we’re making, and cuts in spending as well.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s assault on the Antiquities Act signals trouble for national parks and monuments

Adam Markham writes: Without the Antiquities Act, now under attack by the Trump administration as part of its strategy to roll-back environmental protections and open public lands to increased exploitation for coal, oil and minerals, we might never have had the benefit of the Grand Canyon, Olympic or Acadia national parks.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president of the United States the power to designate lands and waters for permanent protection. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Act to place extraordinary archaeological, historic and natural sites under protection and out of reach of commercial exploitation.

Many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Saguaro and Death Valley. In many cases in the past, the Antiquities Act allowed presidents to protect vital natural and cultural resources when congressional leaders, often compromised by their ties to special interests representing coal, oil, timber and mining industries, were reluctant or unwilling to act.

A new Executive Order signed by President Trump on April 26th, 2017 puts this important regulatory tool for conservation and historic preservation at risk. The clear intention of the Executive Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for untrammeled growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea’s Special Operations forces are numerous, mysterious and formidable

The Washington Post reports: Dozens of Special Operations troops marched in North Korea’s military parade this month, covered from head to toe in green, brown and black camouflage. Carrying variants of the Kalashnikov rifle with high-capacity “helical” magazines, they shouted slogans in support of Kim Jong Un, seemingly delighting the North Korean leader as he watched.

The scene underscored a long-held understanding about Pyongyang’s military: Special Operations troops have an outsize role. An assessment of those forces will likely come up Wednesday when the Trump administration hosts an unusual White House briefing for lawmakers about North Korea’s military capabilities, as Washington pressures Pyongyang to halt its advancing nuclear weapons program.

In the past few years, national security analysts and senior defense officials have suggested that it may not be North Korea’s ballistic missiles or artillery that are used to launch a large-scale attack on South Korea or U.S. installations, but North Korean commandos potentially armed with chemical or biological weapons. [Continue reading…]

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New study claims hominids were in North America 130,000 years ago

Ed Yong writes: In the winter of 1992, a construction crew in San Diego, California started cutting into the rocks that flanked the State 54 Highway, in a bid to widen the road. Those rocks hailed from the Pleistocene period and were rich in Ice Age fossils, so scientists from the San Diego Museum of Natural History accompanied the crew to recover whatever they unearthed. Among bits of horse, camel, dire wolf, and ground sloth, they found the remains of a single mastodon—an extinct mammoth-like animal. “And we noticed there was something different about it,” says Thomas Deméré, who was part of the team.

Based on several lines of evidence—the way the bones are broken, the way they lay, the presence of large stones that show curious patterns of wear and are out-of-place in the surrounding sediment—the team think that early humans used rocks to hammer their way into the mastodon’s bones. That wouldn’t have been contentious in itself, but the team also claims that the bones from the “Cerruti Mastodon” are 130,000 years old. That would push back the earliest archaeological evidence for humans in North America by a whopping 115,000 years.

To put that in perspective, for decades, the first American settlers were thought to be the Clovis people, who arrived 13,000 years ago. But by discovering older sites with strong evidence of human activity, archaeologists confirmed that the continent had a pre-Clovis presence that dates back 14,600 years—or perhaps even further. Genetic studies have also suggested that modern humans entered America from Asia even earlier, around 23,000 years ago. [Continue reading…]

 

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How Syria and Russia spun a chemical strike

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North Korea is a long-term threat, not an immediate one. Trump’s belligerence could change that

Fred Kaplan writes: North Korea is a knotty problem, but there’s no cause for the hysteria that President Trump and his aides have been pumping up in recent days, and it’s time to turn down the heat and the noise, before someone gets hurt.

The worry (and it’s a legitimate worry) is that, sometime soon, the North Koreans will test another ballistic missile or nuclear weapon, which would, yet again, violate a U.N. resolution and put them one step closer to threatening American troops and allies in East Asia—and maybe, years from now, the United States itself. But there is no immediate crisis, no threat that must be staved off now or never. And yet President Trump is sending an aircraft-carrier task force and a guided-missile submarine toward North Korean shores. At the same time, he has summoned all 100 U.S. senators to a classified briefing on the subject, to be conducted on Wednesday, at the White House, by the secretaries of defense and state, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. military exercises in the region are routine, as are top-secret briefings to select lawmakers. But to hold a briefing for all senators, by the administration’s top security officials, is unusual. To hold it at the White House (or, more precisely, the Executive Office Building next door to the White House), instead of in the Capitol, is unprecedented. And to do all this while the deadliest warships in the U.S. Navy’s non-nuclear fleet dart toward the country in question—well, the leaders in the region needn’t be paranoid to infer that Trump might be preparing to launch an attack on North Korea.

Still, it’s unlikely that Trump actually intends to launch an attack. By all accounts, his top advisers, U.S. allies in the region (especially the leaders of South Korea and Japan), and his new best friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, are counseling against military action. But who knows what Trump is thinking from one moment to the next? His unpredictability and impulsiveness might have a deterring effect, as in an accidental version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory.” Precisely because he doesn’t know how Trump will react, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might tone down his provocative ways, even adopt a certain caution.

But let’s say Kim ignores Trump’s unwitting stab at the ploy and risks another missile or nuclear test. Will Trump—riled by Kim’s persistence or feeling a need to display “resolve” and “credibility”—launch a volley of cruise missiles and more at the test sites, at some nuclear facilities, or even at Kim’s hangouts in Pyongyang?

Most North Korea–watchers are convinced that, in this scenario, Kim would retaliate with an attack—possibly a bring-them-all-down-with-me attack—on U.S. bases and allies, not necessarily with nuclear weapons but with a barrage of artillery shells. North Korea’s military has thousands of these shells deployed on the border with South Korea (whose capital, Seoul, sits only 35 miles away) as well as on its eastern shore (within firing range of Japan). North Korea’s live-fire long-range artillery drills on Tuesday were no doubt meant as a “signal” of what Trump should expect if he follows through on his own threat.

No one could possibly want a military conflict, with hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of casualties on both sides. But a mix of mutual bluff, bluster, ego, and insecurity—fueled by heavy firepower and an itchy trigger-finger or two—makes for a potentially lethal concoction. In the annals of history, wars have erupted from less combustive kindling. [Continue reading…]

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Fighting back against Putin’s hackers

Christopher Dickey writes: Looking back on the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton last year, one sees an appalling passivity and helplessness as online attackers stole her campaign secrets and now-President Donald Trump exploited that information without shame or discretion.

But, having learned many lessons from the Clinton debacle, the digital team working for French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron not only took precautions, it decided to fight back.

Next to the U.S. presidential elections, none in the world have had such high stakes riding on them: the future of the European Union, NATO, global commerce—the list is long. And Macron’s team realized early on, as they watched the Democratic Party’s implosion in America, that they too might be the targets of a group of hackers known by many sobriquets, including Pawn Storm, Apt28, STRONTIUM, and rather more colorfully, Fancy Bear.

The group’s hacking operation is most clearly identifiable by its techniques and targets. It’s made up of cyber-criminals with political agendas that fit so closely the priorities of Russian President Vladimir Putin that they are widely believed to be working on his behalf or under his direct orders. (Indeed, the American intelligence community appears to have little doubt on that score anymore.)

And, sure enough, when Macron’s upstart centrist political movement began to gain real momentum toward the end of last year, the “spear phishing” attacks against it started. [Continue reading…]

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Congress is trying to give even more power to Hollywood

Mike Masnick writes: On March 23rd, Reps. Bob Goodlatte and John Conyers introduced a controversial bipartisan bill with over 100 years of history behind it, though you wouldn’t know it from its boring name and seemingly boring topic. It’s called the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act of 2017 — the key part is that it makes the Register of Copyright a political position appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. That’s in contrast to the current state of affairs, which has been in existence since the creation of the Copyright Office in 1897.

Right now, the Copyright Office is a part of the Library of Congress, and the head of the office — known as the Register of Copyrights — is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, who, in turn is appointed by the president, and approved by the Senate.

Who cares? Well, you should. This seemingly small change could have a big impact on a variety of different issues concerning how the internet functions. The simple version is that the music and movie industries have always had an uneasy relationship with the internet, and they worry that the Library of Congress might appoint a Register of Copyrights who thinks expanding copyright protections might not be the best thing for the public or individual creators. And one of the best ways to prevent that from happening is to have much more control over who will be in charge of the Copyright Office. The new bill gives the copyright industry the means to do that by lobbying the president and Congress directly.

The long version is a fascinating glimpse at the collision of politics, the internet, and history. [Continue reading…]

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Understanding North Korea’s missile tests

Nuclear Threat Initiative reports: Since 2014, North Korea has dramatically altered its missile testing patterns, launching missiles much more frequently and from a variety of new locations. Recognizing the importance of understanding the proliferation implications of these patterns, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has created a database of every known North Korean missile launch.

The CNS database reveals more subtle changes than simply an increase in the number of missiles that North Korea has launched. The data reveals:

  • North Korea has created sites specifically dedicated to developmental testing of missiles
  • North Korea has largely abandoned its original missile test site dedicated to development and design verification tests, the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground. The regime has shifted space launches to the Sohae Satellite Launch Center, and developmental missile tests to Wonsan
  • Many recent launches of extended range Scud and Nodong missiles, rather than being developmental in nature, have been undertaken as operational tests at relevant military units’ training grounds

Taken together, these trends make the clear and disturbing point that North Korea has been conducting launch exercises, consistent with the regime’s probable intent to deploy nuclear weapons to missile units throughout the country.

North Korea’s totalitarian regime releases propaganda rather than facts about its missile capabilities. Analysts at CNS estimate the evolution of the regime’s true capabilities by locating every test site and examining open source evidence about the tests, from regime propaganda to satellite imagery. This information helps to determine the purpose of each launch, and how well developed each missile system is. For example, if North Korea only tests a missile at a site from which it conducts developmental tests, it is highly likely the missile remains purely under development. Tests elsewhere suggest North Korea is trying to achieve some other goal than seeing whether the missile works.

North Korea established the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, near Musudan-ri, as its first missile testing site in 1984. Tonghae was North Korea’s primary developmental test site for its first generation of ballistic missiles. Because North Korea doesn’t disclose the names and types of its missiles, outside analysts named them after nearby locations – the villages of No-dong, Taepo-dong, and Musudan. Of the fifteen known missile launches carried out under Kim Il Sung, all but one was conducted at Tonghae. At least one-third of these developmental tests, in which North Korea experimented with different designs and attempted to perfect its reverse-engineered missile technology, ended in catastrophic failure.

Developmental testing of new missiles paused for four years after Kim Jong Il succeeded his father in 1994. Kim Jong Il restarted missile testing with an attempted Taepodong launch in 1998. The missile made it off the ground and over Japan before exploding spectacularly and splashing down into the Pacific. The immediate international outcry prompted talks between the United States and North Korea, which resulted in a ballistic missile testing moratorium.

After abandoning the moratorium in 2006, North Korea resumed missile testing. By then, it had converted the Tonghae facility entirely into a space launch facility, which the regime used for two more space launch attempts in 2006 and 2009 (both of which failed). North Korea moved developmental testing of new missiles to a new site near the city of Wonsan, usually called Kittaeryong. Of the 16 rockets that North Korea launched during Kim Jong Il’s rule, only 3 were launched from Tonghae and all of these were space launches – in 1998, 2006 and 2009. All other launches during this period occurred from the Wonsan area. This shift in behavior can clearly be seen in this interactive, which displays the test locations used by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea isn’t testing its missiles. It’s preparing for a nuclear first strike

On March 9, Jeffrey Lewis wrote: On Monday morning, North Korea launched four missiles from the northwest corner of the country that traveled 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.

While none of the launches were the long-awaited test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile — the sort of weapon that could reach the United States — the salvo was a big deal in its own way. Pyongyang very vividly demonstrated the warnings from Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected last year and described how the country was taking the final steps to arm its missile units with nuclear weapons. North Korea is developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict. When combined with what we know about U.S. and South Korean war plans, this fact raises troubling questions about whether a crisis on the Korean peninsula might erupt into nuclear war before President Donald Trump has time to tweet about it.

In the past, North Korea tested all its No-dong missiles out of a single military test site near a village of the same name. (Why, yes, the U.S. analysts did name the missiles after the town. The emasculating quality was a pure coincidence, I am sure.) These tests were designed to demonstrate that the Scud and No-dong missiles worked. They were tests in the literal sense of the word.

In recent years, however, North Korea has started launching Scuds and No-dongs from different locations all over the damn country. These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises. North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing — practicing for a nuclear war.

The North Koreans haven’t exactly been coy about this. Last year, North Korea tested a No-dong missile. Afterward, North Korea published a map showing that the missile was fired to a point at sea that was the exact range as South Korea’s port city of Busan, with an arc running from the target into the ocean, down to Busan. In case you missed the map, the North Koreans spelled it out: “The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear war hardware is to be hurled.”

This time, North Korea launched four “extended-range” Scud missiles that are capable of flying up to 620 miles. The map showed all four missiles landing on an arc that stretched down to the Marine Corps Air Station near Iwakuni, Japan. Once again, the North Korean statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination: “Involved in the drill were Hwasong artillery units of the KPA (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.”

So why is North Korea practicing nuking U.S. forces in Japan?

The United States and South Korea are conducting their largest annual joint military exercise, known as Foal Eagle. The exercise, which is really a series of exercises, lasts two months and involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean military personnel, as well as an aircraft carrier, bombers, and — guess what? — F-35 aircraft based out of Iwakuni. Foal Eagle is a rehearsal for the U.S.-Republic of Korea war plan, known as OPLAN 5015, which has been described as a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, including its leadership, as a retaliation for some provocation. Whether that’s a fair description or not, the North Koreans certainly think the annual exercise is a dress rehearsal for an invasion. This year’s menu of fun and games reportedly includes a U.S.-ROK special operations unit practicing an airborne assault on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.

What North Korea is doing is simply counterprogramming the Foal Eagle with its own exercise. If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion. [Continue reading…]

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Russia funds and manages conflict in Ukraine, leaks show

Aric Toler and Melinda Haring report: Hacked emails show that the Kremlin directs and funds the ostensibly independent republics in eastern Ukraine and runs military operations there. In late 2016, Ukrainian hacker groups released emails purportedly taken from the office of Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov, who oversees Ukraine policy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Surkov leaks confirm what many have long suspected: the Kremlin has orchestrated and funded the supposedly independent governments in the Donbas, and seeks to disrupt internal Ukrainian politics, making the task of rebuilding modern Ukraine impossible. Russia has consistently denied accusations from Kyiv and the West that it is providing the separatists with troops, weapons, and other material support or meddling in Ukrainian affairs. The emails from Surkov’s office betray the official Kremlin line, revealing the extent of Russian involvement in the seizure of Ukrainian territory, the creation of puppet “people’s republics,” and the funding to ensure their survival.

There have been three tranches of information from Surkov’s account: a PDF document detailing plans to destabilize Ukraine, a dump of 2,337 emails, and a final dump of 1,000 emails. While the plot to destabilize Ukraine with its detailed plan to use energy tariffs to foment revolution has garnered attention, its veracity is disputed. The trove of 2,337 emails, released by the hacker group Cyber Hunta, covers the period from September 2013 to November 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and deployed separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine to start a war. The final dump dates from September 2014 to September 2016. We have analyzed the overlooked second and third troves. Here’s what we found. [Continue reading…]

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Decree 66: The blueprint for Assad’s reconstruction of Syria?

Tom Rollins reports: It might not look like much now – patches of turf and half-finished dust roads bulldozed through orchards and farmhouses – but a three-square-kilometre plot of land in the neighbourhood of Basateen al-Razi is fast becoming ground zero for the reconstruction of Syria. Critics say it is also the urban planning blueprint President Bashar al-Assad intends to use to consolidate his post-war power.

Back in September 2012, al-Assad signed legislative decree (66/2012) to “redevelop areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements [slums]”. Decree 66 has since provided the legal and financial foundation for reconstruction in several areas returned to Syrian government control, including Basateen al-Razi.

Al-Assad inaugurated the multi-million-dollar urban redevelopment project in March 2016, promising grand designs and a scintillating future for the capital. Armed with planning documents full of futuristic tower blocks, park boulevards, and row upon row of modern-fronted housing, the Damascus Governorate says the 2.15-million-square-metre development will provide 12,000 housing units for an estimated 60,000 residents. There will be schools and restaurants, places of worship, even a multi-storey car park and a shopping mall.

Not everyone shares the government’s vision for the future. Opposition activists and independent analysts, as well as former residents, argue that Decree 66 is not only being used to forcibly dispossess Basateen al-Razi civilians but also to engineer demographic change. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s dictatorship: A war of Sisi’s own making

In an editorial, The Guardian says: The news that Egypt’s army shot dead up to eight unarmed detainees, including a minor, in the Sinai peninsula and tried to cover up the extrajudicial killings by claiming they had happened in combat should alarm all those interested in the cause of democracy in the Arab world. Back in December the Egyptian army posted on its Facebook page that the military had raided a militant outpost, killing eight and arresting four others. But a three-minute video that emerged this weekend raises serious questions over the army’s version of events. It shows no firefight but does record the cold-blooded murder of prisoners. In one instance a soldier casually shoots a man in the head. In another, soldiers escort a blindfolded man into a field, place him on his knees and shoot him repeatedly. Predictably, Cairo’s military dictatorship calls this propaganda by its opponents. Just as predictable is that there’s to be no investigation into alleged war crimes.

The video was leaked on the day the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, sat down with Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who seized power in a bloody coup in 2013. Possibly the most authoritarian leader in the Middle East, a title for which there is some competition, Mr Sisi bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians, jailing thousands of others and running his country’s economy into the ground.

Instead of treating the Egyptian leader as a pariah, this month Donald Trump welcomed him to the White House after he had been cold-shouldered by Barack Obama for years. Cairo’s pro-Sisi press proclaimed human rights in Egypt were no longer an issue. This may be true. While Egypt remains a human rights “priority country” for Britain, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did not focus on them when he visited the country in February. Perhaps Britain cannot afford such moral positions. British companies have extensive offshore gas interests in Egypt. The hypocrisy is not just ours. Following the coup, an EU arms embargo was brought in but it is honoured more in the breach. About £120m in British arms have been sold since the coup. [Continue reading…]

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The French elections showed the strength of the European far-right — and its limits

Zack Beauchamp writes: To understand what France’s election means, and what it tells us about the rise of far-right movements around Europe, you need to understand two fundamental truths about the results.

The first is that it’s a historic victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen and her Front National party. Le Pen was one of two candidates who qualified for the second round, soundly beating the standard-bearers both of France’s traditional establishment parties — the center-right Republicans and center-left Socialists. The once-reviled Front has clearly entered the mainstream of French politics.

At the same time, the election seemed to demonstrate the very clear limits of Le Pen’s popularity — and, potentially, European far-right politics more broadly.

Le Pen came in second in Sunday’s election, with 21.7 percent of the vote. The plurality winner, upstart centrist Emmanuel Macron, won with 23.9 percent. He’s her polar opposite in virtually every respect. She wants to restrict immigration to France and pull France out of the EU; he supports keeping the borders open and proudly waved the EU flag at his final campaign rally. And when these two face each other one-on-one in a runoff in two weeks, he’s very likely to win — every poll that’s been taken so far has him up by massive margins:


The tolerant center, in France, appears likely to hold.

What we’re seeing in France mirrors what’s happening in much of Europe. After the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, the far-right has seen a series of setbacks. From elections in Austria and the Netherlands to polls in all-important Germany, the far-right is performing far less well than many have expected.

What these numbers suggest is that the far-right has a political ceiling: That while its supporters may be hard-core, the majority of Europeans still recoil from its vision — at least for now. [Continue reading…]

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