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Critics want clear Obama strategy against IS

Friday, 22 August 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

WASHINGTON — In calling for global action against the “cancer” of Islamic State militants, President Barack Obama puts the fight against them at the top of his agenda in a move that also raises questions about his military strategy in Iraq.
Obama made it clear. The beheading of American journalist James Foley at the hands of the group that has captured swaths of Iraq and Syria shocks the world’s conscience, and only reinforces Washington’s determination to fight “this kind of nihilistic ideologies.”
Obama had already insisted for days that the struggle to rout out IS will play out over the long term, and that there was no timeline for targeted US airstrikes.
And Washington has highlighted encouraging results obtained in close collaboration with Kurdish and Iraqi forces since in the more than 80 air raids conducted since Aug. 8, such as the recapture of Iraq’s largest dam.
“ISIL also has strengths and weaknesses,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said Tuesday, using one of the acronyms by which the group is known.
“They are potent. They are well-resourced. They are pretty well-organized for the terrorist network that they are.”
But he also stressed that the militants were not invincible giants either.
“We’ve begun to see that through the use of these strikes, their morale is suffering; their competency and capacity has been damaged. And so they’re not invincible either.”
Defense policy expert Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations noted, however, that challenges remained ahead, despite the success of the initial air strikes two and half years after American troops withdrew from the country.
“In this kind of war, the early airstrikes have an immediate effect partly in destroying targets that haven’t taken adequate precautions,” he said.
But once the fighters adapt, spread out their military equipment and mix in the civilian population, it’s a major game-changer.
“That does not mean that the airstrikes are useless — it makes ISIL equipment less effective compared to when there was no air threat,” Biddle said.
“But once the enemy is taking counter measures and is not presenting you with this kind of ideal targets any more, you don’t get the same payoff by doubling the amount of airstrikes,” he added, calling for a medium- and long-term strategy to be clearly defined.
While the Pentagon insists its goals are clearly defined, the definition itself — delivering humanitarian aid and protecting US assets and personnel — is open to interpretation.
And the scope has widened with the operations to recapture the Mosul dam and with sometimes dozens of airstrikes conducted in a single day.
The Obama administration justified the operations to retake the dam sprawled across the Tigris River by warning that if the militants compromised it, a huge wall of water could flood the northern city of Mosul and even the capital Baghdad, killing an untold number of civilians.
But nearly two weeks after the first US air raids in northern Iraq, many questions remain on how it is being carried out — and about the scope of US military actions in the weeks and months to come.
“That, of course, remains the big unknown — how far will President Obama go?” Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Commentary magazine.
“Beyond protecting the Yazidis and retaking Mosul dam, we still need a strategy to annihilate ISIS. It can be done — and if done right it will be the best, indeed the only worthy, response to James Foley’s barbaric demise.”
He called for sending 10,000 US soldiers and military advisors to Iraq, as well as for a significant reinforcement of the air raids.
Such a large deployment is not yet at hand in Washington, where officials repeatedly stress that ground troops are out of the question and that much of the solution lies in the hands of new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, tasked with forming a unity government in deeply divided Iraq.
The State Department had asked for 300 more American troops to be sent to Iraq to protect US facilities, bringing to 1,150 the number of American soldiers and military advisers in the country.
On the domestic front, the release of Foley’s execution video could make the American public sense a greater threat from IS, and the price it is willing to pay to confront it.
Republican lawmakers stress that while Obama’s military response is justified, it has been far too shy so far.
“The more he delays and the more he acts incrementally, the more ISIS adjusts and the more difficult they will become,” Senator John McCain told The Arizona Republic.
“And one of the decisions that he has to make is to attack ISIS in Syria because they are moving the captured equipment there and they are fighting there and their enclaves are there. They have erased the border between Iraq and Syria.” 

BUDAPEST — Controversial new plans to make Hungary’s banks bear the burden of surging mortgage repayments could drag down economic growth and may prompt some beleaguered lenders to leave the country, analysts say.
Around a million Hungarians have been left with skyrocketing repayments on foreign-currency loans taken out before the onset of the financial crisis as the national currency has slumped.
Those loans were originally cheaper than forint-denominated debt, but as the currency has weakened it has made repaying them more expensive.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, re-elected in April on a populist platform, has repeatedly tried to shift the loan burden onto the banking sector, which he accuses of enticing consumers with overly attractive loans.
Under a new law, lenders will have to refund past fee and interest rate hikes on the loans. Another proposal calls for the debt to be converted into forints to make it easier to pay back.
Laszlo Geza Tilk, head of the Currency Debtors Advocacy Association, a group helping borrowers to sue the banks, argues the government’s plans do not go far enough.
“Social justice requires banks to suffer,” he told AFP, arguing that loans should be annulled and turned into forint-based agreements.
But commentators warn the plans could hold back growth in Hungary, which has twice fallen into recession in the past five years as households have struggled to meet soaring loan repayments.
The forint, already one of the worst-performing emerging market currencies this year, has slumped since the plan was announced and earlier this month hit a 30-month-low against the euro.
The draconian measures will also take a heavy toll on Hungary’s already battered banking sector, which has suffered under previous government policies and lost millions of dollars in 2011, and could even prompt some banks to pull out, analysts warn.
The debt relief plan will “created a zombie-like banking sector that is just trying to survive,” said Andras Vertes of the Budapest-based research institute GKI Gazdasagkutato.
Orban has often railed against foreign investors and Hungary’s mostly foreign-owned banks, including UniCredit, Erste Group and Intesa SanPaolo, which control much of the industry.
The firebrand politician’s populist economic policies — including “special taxes” on energy and retail and the nationalization of private pension funds — have also strained relations with the Europen Union (EU).
EU institutions, including the European Central Bank, have often accused Orban’s government of eroding the independence of Hungary’s central bank, judiciary and other institutions.
The ECB earlier this month warned of “significant adverse financial impact on the banking system (and) the possibility of negative effects on the Hungarian economy” because of the new banking law.
Hungary’s central bank estimates that repaying the fee and interest rate hikes will cost banks around 700 to 900 billion forints (2.2-2.9 billion euros, $3.0 to 4.0 billion).
Moody’s ratings agency puts the figure at around 2.6. billion euros.
“This will be another drag on the banking sector. It increases the cost of doing banking business in Hungary again,” Timothy Ash, an economist at London’s Standard Bank, told AFP.
Converting the debt to forints could add another 2.4 billion euros in losses, which would have a “hugely detrimental impact on the banking sector,” Phoenix Kalen, a London-based strategist at Societe Generale, told AFP.
She predicts the losses could prompt some foreign banks — most likely the Austrian or Italian ones — to leave the country, while “the draconian environment” will also deter future foreign investors.
Austria’s Erste Bank forecasts it will lose 93 billion forints due to the new legislation. Last month it posted its heaviest quarterly loss since 2011, dragged down in part by Hungary’s stiffer banking rules.
Austria’s Raiffeisen and Belgium’s KBC have also said they are bracing themselves for heavy losses. 

Pope’s message lost on China?

Thursday, 21 August 2014 00:00 Published in Commentary

SEOUL — When Pope Francis sent an unprecedented message to Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, it went missing — an apparent technical glitch laden with symbolism.
Communications between the Vatican and Beijing have never been easy or particularly fruitful, and the problem China poses for the Holy See’s plans to expand Church membership in Asia loomed large over the pope’s first visit to the region, which wrapped up Monday.
The trip to South Korea was partly planned to coincide with the gathering of thousands of young Asian Catholics for Asian Youth Day in the city of Daejeon.
Organisers said Beijing prevented a number of Chinese Catholics from travelling to the event and, according to some reports, participating Chinese priests were warned not to attend any function involving the pope.
“In a particular matter like this we have to be discreet,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told AFP when asked to comment on the Chinese action.
China did allow Pope Francis to fly over China on his way to South Korea — a courtesy it did not extend to pope John Paul II who was forced to fly around when he travelled to Seoul in 1989.
In line with papal protocol, that allowed Pope Francis to send a brief goodwill message directly to President Xi Jinping as he entered Chinese airspace.
Although the message was widely reported by the international media, it failed to reach Xi due to some unexplained technical issue, and the Chinese embassy in Rome ended up having to request its retransmission.
Although he did not directly address China during his five days in South Korea, the pope made several remarks that were seen as reaching out to Beijing, including a call for dialog with Asian nations that have no formal ties with the Vatican.
“You ask me if I want to go to China? Certainly, even tomorrow,” Francis later reporters as he flew home.
“But the church asks for the freedom to do its job in China, there is no other condition,” he said.
China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951, and does not recognize the Vatican’s authority over its Catholic community.
Experts estimate that there are as many as 12 million Catholics in China, with about half in congregations under the officially administered Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The rest belong to non-sanctioned or so-called “underground” churches, with clergy loyal to the Vatican.
China’s ruling Communist Party is officially atheist and Beijing exercises strict control over all recognized religious institutions, including vetting sermons.
The main point of contention concerns the approval of bishops, where the Vatican sees its authority as absolute.
From China’s viewpoint, ceding control of such appointments would be tantamount to a loss of political sovereignty.
“China sees bishops as social leaders,” said Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, which closely monitors the church in mainland China.
“And because China doesn’t really have civil society, social leaders there are seen as part of the government,” Lam said.
In unscripted remarks during a speech to Asian bishops on Sunday, Pope Francis stressed the dialogue he sought with countries like China was “fraternal” and not political.
“Christians are not coming to Asia as conquerors,” he added.
Francis’s papal predecessor Benedict had similarly stated the Vatican had no intention of undermining Beijing’s rule.
Despite such assurances, dialog between the Vatican and Beijing has rarely risen beyond the level of low-level informal talks.
“Goodwill is fine, but goodwill is not enough. There aren’t going to be any miracles in this relationship,” said Gianni Criveller, a Hong Kong-based Catholic theologian and watchdog of religious issues in China.
Criveller is “not very optimistic” of any breakthrough in the short-term, partly because of the factional nature of Chinese politics, especially between hardline and more liberal elements.
“When the infighting breaks out, religion is one issue that can be used as an ideological weapon,” he said.
“So nobody in the leadership wants to be seen as compromising on something like religion as it will just hand ammunition to their critics.”
And the Vatican is no stranger to factional politics either.
While some power-brokers may push for some sort of accommodation with China, others balk at any move that could be seen as accepting government interference in the running of the Church’s affairs.
“There is great concern about setting a precedent,” Lam said.
Some feel the Vatican places too much emphasis on the idea of diplomatic relations with Beijing — a goal that prevents it speaking out too loudly about injustices in China for fear of alienating the government.
“My personal opinion is that no agreement is better than a bad agreement,” said Criveller.
“I would stop sending envoys around the world and focus more on supporting Catholics in China and speaking about their plight more openly,” he added.






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