North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tunisia - the end of the Arab Spring? Was there one?

Okay, most folks will now acknowledge that the hoped for "Arab Spring" has not turned out to be anything like the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, where nations emerged from the yoke of dictators and embraced parliamentary democracy. And while there were plenty of examples in Eastern Europe where the changeover did not go well (Belarus, Russia, and the breakup of Yugoslavia in another round of Balkan fighting) or unevenly (Ukraine, Czechoslovakia), most countries have truly moved on in a positive manner.

It is hard to find any such parallel in the Arab world. Egypt is in turmoil, Yemen violent, and Libya remains fragile. Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Morocco all experienced noticeable unrest, but little substantive changes were made to governance (though in several cases, the governance is relatively benign). Iranian protests were not supported in any way by the West and the belligerent rhetoric from the Islamist leaders there continues to fly. Syria's blip of democratic protest morphed, tragically, into a grotesque civil war of attrition, and Lebanon remains frozen under the Hezbollah shadow.

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Arab nations that had a whiff of protests ranging to outright regime change ...

Now Tunisia, where the protests began, has fallen back into crisis - a very unfortunate turn of events, as this nation of 10 million had been widely seen as one in which true democracy may have had a chance. As an AP news article puts it, "Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on Tuesday carried out his promise to resign, after his offer to solve the country's political bickering with an apolitical government of technocrats was rejected by his own Islamist Ennahda Party."

The article continues, "On Feb. 6, Chokri Belaid, a leftist Tunisian opposition politician and sharp critic of the government, was assassinated by four shots through his car window early in the morning outside his home. Those killers have yet to be caught, but people immediately suspected the government and days of unrest and rioting convulsed the country afterwards.

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A Tunisian politician, Chokri Belaid, leading the opposition to the Tunisian government was assassinated in early February. From one newspaper account, "Belaid had been critical of Tunisia’s leadership, especially Ennahda, and had accused authorities of not doing enough to stop violence by ultraconservatives who have targeted theaters and art exhibits seen as out of keeping with their strict interpretation of Islam."

Belaid's death did not kick off the crisis, however. It was only the culmination of a long-brewing stalemate between the ruling coalition and the opposition against a backdrop of dashed popular expectations, rising prices, crushing unemployment and an economy that is not getting back on its feet.

After a year of governing by the "troika," an alliance of Ennahda and two secular parties, there was a wide consensus that many ministers were incompetent and the urgent problems that had sparked the revolution were not being solved."

Again, the article goes on,

Tunisia is certainly not the biggest, richest or most influential Arab nation. It does, however, have one of the best educated populations and lacks the wide gaps between rich and poor found in places like Morocco and Egypt.

While a dictator, Tunisia's first post-independence leader Habib Bourguiba invested heavily in education, producing a literate population that is predominantly middle class and is widely considered to have one of the most promising profiles for becoming a prosperous democracy."

Tunisian youngsters benefiting from a solid national educational system - is it too at risk?"

So, not much more to add at this point. Where Tunisia heads now is somewhat foggy. A Reuters article describes the near term future this way, "Tunisian leaders began the search for a new prime minister on Wednesday to try to lead the North African nation out of its gravest political crisis since an uprising that inspired a wave of Arab revolts two years ago.

Rached Ghannouchi, the powerful head of the main Islamist Ennahda party, said the group had not named anyone to replace Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who resigned on Tuesday, but that he expected a new government to emerge this week.

"We need a coalition government with several political parties and technocrats," Ghannouchi told reporters after talks with secular President Moncef Marzouki."

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Some of Tunisia's basic economic industry sectors. Green areas are olive growing regions, purple is for vineyards.

Last year in March, the ruling coalition (now in disarray) had scheduled new elections by this coming March 20, 2013. One assumes those are on hold for several months at the earliest in order to solve the immediate crisis.

Let's hope that those in Tunisia's political class can rise above their preferences for the good of the nation. And let's always remember there are happy situations in any country.

For example, tourists can enjoy camel rides along the Mediterranean sea ...

Mediterranean climate encourages a great variety of foods - shown here in a market

Graffiti from a 31 year old Tunisian artist, eL Seed

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Leader of the Catholic Church plans to step down

Pope Benedict XVI rocked members and followers of the Catholic church by announcing his plans to step down from his role as church leader. The Catholic Church worldwide claims the allegiance of approximately 1.2 billion people (that's 1 out of every six individuals on the planet). Pope Benedict XVI, an 84-year old German, stated he was getting old and unable to meet the demands of his office. Seems to be a reasonable position and some would say, a courageous decision, as it sets an example for many other world leaders who have transformed their position into one to last a lifetime, and likely further into a dynasty for their own upcoming family members. On the other hand, this is the first time in over 600 years that a Pope resigned rather than dying in office, so it is clearly not a common action.

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger from Germany, is approaching 85, the first German Pope in 1000 years, and has been a theologically conservative leader.

The Catholic's view of the leader of the leader of the Church.

Church teachings state that the Pope in office represents the unbroken line of successors to the Apostle Peter, to whom Jesus said in Matthew 16:

He [Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”

From the Catholic church website, we can read, "The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys infallibility in virtue of his office, when as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals."

Interesting view of the number of Catholics around the world. Hardly any numbers in Asia, though the Philippines is strong. Then Mexico and Latin America outpace the US.

And from there, the debates erupt. Protestants and unbelievers speaking from a thousand different perspectives, resent, reject, and bristle at the thought of infallibility in a human, that God speaks through this person who has by virtue of his role (no women here) can bind decisions not only on earth but in heaven.

Of the many accusations against the Catholic church through the ages - the inquisition, how Catholicism spread during the colonization period, the concerns of Vatican city connections to Nazi's in WWII - the latest has been most damaging: instances of child sexual abuse by priests and less than aggressive efforts by Bishops and Cardinals to root out the offenders.

The Catholic church itself from a global perspective is as diverse a body as can be imagined. Relatively rich Western countries have Cardinals and Bishops overseeing debates and scandals from sex abuse from its priests, declining membership, and resistance to teachings that are out of touch with secular norms (abortion/pro choice, use of birth control, limited roles for women in authoritative positions). Yet membership is growing in African and Latin American countries where poverty and social justice issues have been the background where Catholic leaders have stood on the side of righting wrongs.

Numerous catholic institutions serve the poor, provide education, health, shelter and comfort. Mother Teresa is a well known example, but lay groups, orders of sisters, Catholic Relief Services all feed into a true force of Christian service.

In any case, this Pope's resignation - set for the end of February - means that a new successor to the original Peter is getting underway. A "conclave" will be organized where all Cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote for the next Pope. Apparently there are 118 of these, though 67 were given their appointments by Pope Benedict himself.

Here are the Cardinals who will select the next Pope

Conclaves that decide on each Pope, let's say the past three or four pope's have brought about discussion and debate about whether the new Pope should be Italian, Western European, or from Africa, or Latin America, whether the new one should be relatively young and therefore likely to remain in office for some time, or older, bringing about change once again on a faster schedule. The word "papible" has popped up - one having the necessary qualities of a Pope.

The previous pope, John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła) was the first Polish pope and first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He was in office from 1978 to 2005.

Pope John Paul II, was a key individual in supporting fellow Pole Lech Welesa in challenging Communism in Poland, and with Moscow's Gorbachev during his policies of glasnost and perestroika

Before him was John Paul I (Albino Luciani), an Italian who was in office one month before passing.

Before him was Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Marìa Montini) an Italian in office from 1963 to 1978, and was the first Pope to ever visit the United States in his official capacity. (That of course, reminds Teatree that John F Kennedy was the first Catholic US President (1960-1963), and a debate over whether he would answer to the Pope or follow the Constitution was an important decision point for Americans)

A CBC news photo - President John F. Kennedy talks with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican on July 3, 1963. The meeting was historic: the first Roman Catholic president of the United States was seeing the Roman Catholic pontiff only days after his papal coronation. President Kennedy was assassinated later that year.

So onward. Many young Westerners do not see the Catholic church as relevant as the earlier generations - indeed a group of 100 men most over the age of 55 picking from among themselves does give off a sense of yesterday - but the institution has shown its resiliency and influence many times in the past.

Smoke coming from a chimney at each Catholic conclave signals the inconclusive or conclusive votes cast for a new Pope. This also seems antiquated ... doesn't it? (PS - black smoke means a failed ballot, white smoke means a selection has been successfully made.)

Dare we say, "good luck"??

Friday, February 1, 2013

US Secretary of State: What difference does it make ...?

Yesterday was US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton's last day on the job - John Kerry, former Senator of Massachusetts, will be sworn in Friday afternoon for this important post. As Mrs Clinton leaves her position, her rhetorical question in hearings several days ago regarding the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack will, unfortunately, linger for some time.

A region where intelligence matters

Mrs Clinton was defending her agency and the administration's handling of the incident nearly 5 months ago when US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed by terrorists. When pressed to explain why the Obama administration clung to a theme of a video inciting passions from a mob for nearly two weeks after the killing, she shot back, "“Was it because of a protest or is it because of guys out for a walk one night and they decide they go kill some Americans?” she asked rhetorically, before adding: “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

The difference is key - and strangely, neither reason mentioned by Clinton was yet the right one. "It" was neither a protest, nor a spur of the moment decision. The correct answer, for some reason still not able to be acknowledged by the Secretary of State, was a deliberate attack by al-Qaeda linked groups. Her answer, in retrospect, was also testimony to a variety of questionable foreign policy lines being followed by the US.

One of the more damning issues of the case revolved around repeated requests by the American diplomatic corps in Libya over the summer for more protection from growing extremist threats - assistance that never arrived. In the months that have followed the attack, there has still been no progress in determining the militant groups, and continued fog over when assistance was asked for, and how far up in the Obama administration did the requests go.

The US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans, including the US Ambassador to that country, were killed

Connected to the lack of response to providing increased security, another question is whether the Obama administration has allowed its own narrative of describing the last two years of unrest in Arab nations as a positive "Arab Spring" to cloud a clearer, and more sober assessment. Also linked, the Obama administration trumpeted its Libyan response - one of leading from behind and gaining the support of the Arab League and the UN before it acted to topple Gadaffi - as the smart approach versus the previous administration's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does intelligence matter?

First, even Teatree recognizes that Mrs. Clinton's answer was 100% political, in response to 70% politically motivated questions by preening US Senators. It is Teatree's opinion at the same time, that the current administration is only 50% as interested in pursuing the matter as it should be.

With that said and returning to the question, in the middle of the Iraq war, many journalists noted that the intelligence gathering efforts by young US captains among the Iraqi population was the key to a slowing of the civil war. Deliberately putting US forces out in the neighborhoods during the 2006 surge also spurred further "understanding" between arguments, revenge killings, ethnic fighting, and al-qaeda attacks - all critical to the country's return to less violent levels.

The "horrors" of rendition, enhanced interrogation, and Guantanamo's detention center all revolve around collecting intelligence in order to act more precisely. Teatree notes that the unease over these actions ebb and flow with a high degree of correlation to the political winds ...

The Obama administration's reliance on drone attacks are increasingly being challenged, though only quietly in articles or speeches that do not become mainstream media fodder. The UN is even out front on this one by beginning an inquiry into the use of lethal drone strikes where collateral damage to those around the target person are seemingly discounted. More practically, military experts note that each drone strike obliterates future intelligence gathering from that individual in question, or those around that person.

The increasing reliance on armed predator drone strikes by the current US administration as its preferred approach to handling the "war on terror" is only heightened by the near unanimous and silent acquiescence by the Western media.

The question lingers

The ill-put question by Mrs Clinton has no partisan boundaries. Intelligence or the lack thereof concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 will forever taint that conflict, even if Iraq is able to successfully emerge with hope from its dark and brutal days under Saddam Hussein.

Mrs Clinton testifying and defending her actions, along with the Obama administration, in Benghazi Libya prior to September 11, 2012, and the nearly five months since.

In contrast to the vague responses by the US, the UK, Netherlands and others called for their citizens to leave Benghazi due to possible further terrorist attacks just since Clinton's Senate grilling. And the increasingly apparent lack of followup in Libya as to securing weapons caches has resulted in security turmoil in the Sahel.

Yes, Mrs Clinton, who did what, when, why and how makes all the difference ...

As one opinion piece from America's Southern Wisconsin heartland summarizes: "It was like asking: “What’s the difference between hitting a deer that bolts out in front of your car or running over some kids on a field trip because you’re blind drunk.” One is an accident; the other is a catastrophic failure of judgment.

The administration now acknowledges the assault in Benghazi was a deliberate, planned terrorist act. It is reasonable—indeed, necessary—to ask if State did everything reasonable to mitigate the risk.

We know there was no shortage of funds or other resources. Senior State Department officials have repeatedly testified there was no problem there—though some politicians continue to cry poverty on behalf of the administration. Clearly, the problem was the department’s failure to plan adequately before the attack and respond adequately once it began.

Seeing no difference between a riot and a raid also suggests Clinton doesn’t understand the nature of the threat. “Islamist terrorists,” wrote my colleague Middle East scholar Jim Phillips, “are motivated to kill Americans not because of emotional reactions to alleged slights such as the questionable video on Mohammed, but because they seek to seize power and impose their Islamist totalitarian ideology on other Muslims.”

Clinton just doesn’t get that. Her testimony revealed a leader unapologetic for her failure to act or understand. Worse, she showed no real interest in learning from the incident. Such knowledge could help her department better adapt to the emerging threats in the region."

Fast rising issues where what we know makes a difference

The validity of intelligence gathering will be critical in containing the fallout of yesterday's Israeli strike in Syria over weapons being moved to Lebanon.

The left-wing terrorist suicide bombing at the gates of the US embassy in Turkey today (Friday, February 1, 2013)has been more quickly characterized than has been the Benghazi attack in September.