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The latest news on The Christian Science Monitor from Business Insider

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    China, Beijing, Military, SoldiersBeijing - China has expelled the English language correspondent of Al Jazeera, prompting the Qatar-based channel to close its Beijing bureau, an Al Jazeera spokesman said on Tuesday.

    Melissa Chan’s expulsion marks the first time an accredited foreign correspondent living in China has been ejected since 1998.

    The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately answer a faxed request for an explanation of the expulsion, but Chinese officials are known to have expressed their anger at a documentary the channel aired last November on the alleged use of slave labor by prisoners in Chinese jails.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told Scandinavian correspondents at a recent private dinner that the documentary had been “fabricated” according to two of the reporters present.

    Ms. Chan played no role in making the program, which was produced by Al Jazeera’s London bureau, according to a spokesman for the channel.

    During talks between Chinese and Al Jazeera officials earlier this year, the Chinese also accused Chan of unspecified violations of Chinese law. A spokesman for the channel said that Al Jazeera had repeatedly asked for clarification of the nature of these violations but had not been given one.

    Chan had made a reputation for herself with a number of investigative reports on issues about which the Chinese authorities are sensitive, such as the violent confiscation of farmers’ land for development projects and the incarceration of citizens protesting such behavior in illegal “black jails” in Beijing.

    The Chinese government’s refusal to renew Chan’s accreditation beyond the end of March or to accredit a replacement correspondent left Al Jazeera with “no choice other than to close its Beijing bureau,” the channel said in its statement.

    Protesting the expulsion, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) said Chan’s ejection fit “a recent pattern of using journalist visas in an attempt to censor and intimidate foreign correspondents in China.”

    In a survey of its members last year, the FCCC said, it had found 27 cases throughout the previous two years in which the Chinese authorities had made foreign reporters wait more than four months for visa approval, and 28 cases in which permanent postings or reporting visits had been canceled because requests for the required visas had been rejected or ignored by the Chinese authorities.

    In six cases, reporters said they had been told by Foreign Ministry officials that their bureaus’ visa applications had been rejected or put on hold due to the content of the bureaus’ or the applicant’s previous coverage of Chinese affairs.

    The FCCC said it “believes that foreign news organizations, not the Chinese government, have the right to choose who works for them in China, in line with international standards.”

    “Just as China news services cover the world freely, we would expect that same freedom in China for any Al Jazeera journalist,” the channel’s director of news, Salah Negm, said in a statement about Chan’s expulsion. He said Al Jazeera would “continue to work with the Chinese authorities in order to reopen our Beijing bureau.”

    Chan was refused a standard one-year foreign correspondent’s accreditation – without which reporters are not allowed to live in China – at the end of last year. Instead she was given a two month credential that was extended until the end of March.

    On Monday evening she left China for the United States, where she has been offered a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University

    Editor’s note: Peter Ford is the Vice President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, whose statement is quoted in the above article.

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    oil

    Kenya has announced the second profitable oil discovery in two months, a development that could give a needed boost to Kenya's economy.

    With the May 7 announcement of a large oil deposit in the remote northern Turkana region, discovered by the British oil and gas firm Tullow Oil PLC, Kenya has become the latest African country to join the great African oil boom, following recent discoveries in GhanaUganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo

    Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters in Nairobi on May 7 that the discovery of oil was “good news” for Kenya, which spends millions of dollars in oil imports. Kenya spent $4.1 billion on oil imports, which is equivalent to 100,000 barrels per day in 2011, according to reports.

    At the same time, Odinga said the government was remaining “cautiously optimistic” over commercial viability of the latest oil find. Thirty-one wells have been drilled across the country over the past few years, all of them turning up dry, so this caution is reasonable. But after Tullow sinks the well to a deeper 2700 meters from the current 1500 meters, there is some optimism that the well could prove to be commercially viable, able to produce oil for either local consumption or for export.

    "These results clearly indicate the presence of crude oil and as further information becomes available during the on-going drilling activities, it will enable a more comprehensive assessment," said Mr. Odinga.

    The discovery of oil can be a mixed blessing for any country, bringing both the prosperity of increased revenues and new jobs and also the "resource curse" of high-level corruption and governmental abuse. Kenyans are hoping that they can avoid the mistakes of other African oil giants such as Nigeria and Angola and channel any future oil revenues to building a stronger and more diverse economy.

    Oil companies like Tullow are hoping the country will remain politically stable enough for them to stay in Kenya long enough to recover their exploration costs and make a profit. And Kenyan civil society activists hope that the same politicians who made Kenya one of the continent's most corrupt nations during the 1990s and early 2000s won't mess up a good economic chance for Kenya.

    Beyond tea, coffee, and tourism

    Preliminary tests are very encouraging, ahead of the tests to determine amount and flow, says Mwendia Nyaga, a lead consultant at Oil and Energy Services Ltd. in Nairobi.

    "The oil find means Kenya has a new resource apart from tea, coffee, and [tourism]," says Mr. Nyaga. "New industry will develop, that will not damage the existing ones. I can say this is a 'new jewel' for the country." 

    For Tullow Oil, this is just the beginning. Tullow has a 50 percent operational interest in seven onshore licenses in the Kenya and Ethiopia Rift Basins, an area that covers 100,000 square kilometers. The basin where Ngamia-1 – where Tullow announced a separate oil discovery in late March – is located in one of the seven basins mapped in Tullow’s acreage and has projected reserves similar in size to Lake Albert Rift Basin in Uganda, where the company discovered oil in 2006.

    “This ongoing wild-cat is an excellent start to our exploration campaign," Tullow said in a recent news release. "The net pay encountered in Ngamia-1 is more than double that encountered in any East African exploration wells to date. We now look forward to the drilling and evaluation of the deeper potential of this well and the acceleration of our seismic and drilling campaigns in the region." 

    Cattle rustling violence

    For a country like Kenya, which has relied on tourism, agriculture, low-scale mining, and occasional foreign loans in order to finance its development, it's obviously better to have oil revenues as an added income stream. While some analysts fret about frequent gun violence in the Turkana region – usually associated with cattle rustling – Nyaga says that the Tullow exploration efforts experienced no incidents of violence. 

    "I see infrastructure as the biggest challenge," Nyaga says. "The area is more than 800 kilometres away from the port of Mombasa. This is a long way, given that there is no rail or pipeline or proper roads. I see how to transport the resource being the biggest challenge." 

    Although official estimates of the deposits have not been announced, government and Tullow officials have been quoted in Kenyan newspapers saying that the deposits are more that than those of Uganda and Ghana, where Tullow also made discoveries.

    Tullow has spent $58 million in the exploration phase. According to a production-sharing contract between the Kenya government and Tullow, Kenya will keep 55 per cent of the proceeds, while Tullow will keep 45 percent in the first five years. After that, Tullow's share will drop to 22 percent. It is hoped that by this time, the company will have recouped its initial investments.

    Ghana production started in 2010 and has so far generated US$1 billion. Uganda will start refining crude in 2014, eight years after the discovery of the 2.6 billion barrels on the Albertine basin, along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

    Leadership is key

    At the same time, the results of Kenya’s exploration are closely being monitored – within and outside the country – with analysts discussing whether this one will be another “African curse or a blessing.”

    "There is no natural resource which is curse," says Nyaga. "The problem is always the leadership. When there is right leadership, there are fewer problems. Oil resource is just like tea or coffee. When poachers kill an elephant in a park, it is the same as when oil or coffee is misused." 

    Even so, oil production in Nigeria has created a host of problems, from the poisoning of drinking water, fishing areas, and agricultural lands in the Niger Delta region, to the growing militancy of young Niger Delta residents about government corruption and the lack of local jobs.

    In Equatorial Guinea, a small African country on the Gulf of Guinea, oil revenues provide little relief to ordinary citizens, but those in power channel those revenues to their own personal bank accounts around the world. 

    Oil to fund 2030 vision

    Kenya hopes it can be a leading light in managing the resource. According to Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi the revenue will be used to boost an ongoing economic and social transformation outlined in a national vision known as 2030.

    "In line with the new constitution, we will amend the Petroleum [Exploration and Production] Act of 1986 to conform to the best international standards and to include the local communities," said Mr. Murungi.

    Such promises of inclusion aside, Kenya’s civil society warn that they will continue to push for greater transparency to ensure that their politicians don't follow the familiar path of personal enrichment and corruption. 

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    north koreaThe price for a North Korean woman named Kim Eun-sun, her mother, and sister, to escape toChina was 2,000 Chinese yuan, slightly more than $300.

    Like thousands of North Korean women before them, they crossed the Tumen River into China and met a woman who said she would help them escape –only to discover that they’d been sold to a Chinese farmer who wanted a wife.

    “A lot of women come to China not knowing what they are getting into,” says Ms. Kim, who escaped the farmer with her family but was caught by Chinese police and then sent back to North Korea. “Women are secretly sold in China.”

    After fleeing from North Korea to China a second time, Kim Yuen-sun, her mother, and sister eventually made it to Mongolia moving mostly on foot across the Gobi desert. Mongolian soldiers found them and delivered them to the South Korean Embassy in Ulan Bator whence they were flown to Seoul.

    Now a senior in college here, she has received a US government grant that gives her eight months of English-language training and another semester of study in psychology at a US university. Wherever she goes, she conveys the message of the suffering inflicted on North Korean women, generally estimated by officials and activists to comprise at least 70 percent of the defectors who cross into China.

    She believes that exposure of the plight of North Koreans, particularly women, is the best she can do to bring about change.

    Campaigning for women’s rights

    Lately, Kim has been campaigning on behalf of North Korean defectors held in China in demonstrations across the street from the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, protesting China’s policy of complying with North Korean demands to return them to the North. Once she was angry enough to grab the microphone and shriek out her sentiments in Chinese.

    She also talks about the plight of North Koreans in meetings at college campuses – though she’s disappointed by the apathy she encounters among young South Koreans.

    "I feel resentful there is small interest here, but I feel thankful for those who attend when I talk," she says. "I know I will work [to promote] North Korean issues when in the US."

    Kim says “living in North Korea was impossible” as she discusses a book, “My Nine-Year Escape from Hell,” that she wrote with French journalist Sebastien Falletti.

    Mr. Falletti describes Kim's book as one way for her to raise awareness in South Korea and the world, considering how shocked she was by the reluctance of South Koreans to heed the daily life-and-death struggle endured by most North Koreans. 

    Sold into slavery

    Kim Sang-hun, director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, estimates 20,000 to 30,000 North Korean women are now entrapped in China in what many observers see as a form of slavery. "Most of the women," he says, "are forced into sexual slavery." 

    Female defectors typically must choose between being forced into marriage, serving as a hostess in a karaoke bar or "massage” establishment, or escaping into forbidding mountains where life is a constant struggle for food and shelter. The last option means eluding Chinese police often working in tandem with North Korean security officials.

    Estimates of the number of North Koreans, both men and women, living in China range from 100,000 to 200,000, he says, though there’s no accurate way of counting since they hide in obscure jobs, merging with a populace that includes a community of more than 2 million Chinese citizens of Korean descent.

    Kim Sang-hun says Chinese authorities view those whom they capture as economic migrants who have entered China illegally, preferring to appear oblivious to the issue of slavery. 

    The Chinese show little inclination to respond to demands not to return defectors to North Korea. Typically they are sent to North Korea by buses at night with curtains drawn and then placed in special camps for interrogation and indoctrination.

    China’s policy outrages activists campaigning against a wide range of North Korean human rights abuses. "It’s a modern form of slavery where you’re being sold into a forced situation for a price,” says Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International. Rather than do anything about it, he says, the Chinese have built "a brand new detention facility where they would store 200 to 300 North Koreans."

    ‘A blot on South Korean society’

    Human rights organizations blame South Korean gangs for some of the suffering. Working in cahoots with Chinese Koreans, investing in karaoke bars in China, they are said to hold women against their will while paying them just enough to survive.

    "South Korean businessmen are their best customers,” says Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands Korea, dedicated to aiding North Korean children in China. “It’s a blot on South Korean society,” he says blaming the Chinese for "doing nothing about a criminal system in violation of the rights of women.”

    Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio North Korea, broadcasting into North Korea via short wave for one or two hours a day from Seoul, says informants in China report hundreds of North Korean women are forced to work in “chat rooms” selling telephone and Internet sex at high prices. 

    “They are detained in a room all the time, talking to people in South Korea,” says Mr. Ha, elected last month to the South Korean national assembly representing a district in the port city of Pusan.           

    Why so many women defectors?

    The market for women may help explain why such a high proportion of defectors are female. “Women can sell themselves easily,” says Kim Tae-woo, president of the Korean Institute for National Unification. They sense they can hide within a forced marriage or brothel, he says, though they may not have quite imagined what they were getting into when they crossed into China.

    “Men are more conspicuous, more active,” says Mr. Kim, as they move from job to job, earning very little for often onerous labor.  

    Kim Eun-sun offers a more elaborate explanation for the predominance of women among North Korean defectors.

    "Males do not do well under starvation,” she believes, reflecting on the death of her father before she, her sister and mother fled for the first time. “Men pass away more easily."

    Then too, Kim adds, “A lot of men are serving in the North Korean military and maybe worry more about betraying the regime and changing their ideology.”

    In the end, the lure of relative freedom trumps the knowledge of the ordeal women are up against if caught.

    Once back in North Korea, they face beatings and humiliation at the hands of prison guards even if they're not charged with crimes such as selling stolen goods or spying, both capital offenses. 

    “Typically, 60 women are held in one room," she says. “When you first are there, you are stripped naked. They search every part of your body to look for money. If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to ask permission. You feel like the North Korean regime has stripped you of humanity.”

    She predicts the numbers escaping are sure to increase. So far more than 23,000 North Koreans – some 80 percent of them women – have made it to South Korea, usually via Mongolia orSoutheast Asia via Thailand or Vietnam. “The North Korean economy is not getting better,” she says. “Many more will escape."

    Just how isolated is North Korea? 6 facts to consider

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    Putin obama

    It's part Occupy Wall Street, part Hyde Park Corner, and entirely something new for Russia.

    The little encampment spontaneously created a week ago by a few hundred mostly young activists in a downtown Moscow park, near the Chistye Prudi metro station, has blossomed into a "democracy preserve" that features free lectures on civics by university professors, unfettered outdoor debate and an intimate look at Russia's growing rainbow of opposition forces, who appear to agree only on the demand that freshly-inaugurated President Vladimir Putin step down.

    So far the police have left it alone, though they beat and arrested hundreds during protests against Mr. Putin's inauguration last week. Yesterday about 15,000 people, including top opposition leaders, writers, and other celebrities, marched across central Moscow to express solidarity with the campers.

    But is the appearance of a permanent opposition outpost in the heart of Moscow and the outpouring of social support it's attracted the reason behind the apparently odd behavior of Putin, who was inaugurated amid unprecedented social protests? Within days of taking office, Putin announced he would not be attending the G-8 summit later this week at Camp David, an unprecedented action for a Russian head-of-state and what looks like a direct snub of President Barack Obama.

    Putin explained that he is "too busy" establishing his new government to attend the annual summit of G-8 leader, and that he will send former president and current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev instead. That may be all there is to it. But the move has sparked an outpouring of discussion in Moscow because it's unheard of for a Kremlin leader to dodge an opportunity to share the big stage with his Western counterparts and enjoy an intimate tete-a-tete on the sidelines with the president of the US.

    Today the Moscow daily Kommersant reported that the Kremlin leader's first foreign trip will probably be to isolated, anti-Western Belarus, followed by a meeting of the Central Asia-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization in China in early June.

    Unprecedented defiance

    Some argue that Putin, mindful of a national history that has seen two mighty Russian states collapse under the impact of social discontent in the past century alone, has decided to play it safe and remain at home until it's clear where the current protest movement may be leading.

    "Everyone underestimated the energy of popular protests," says Sergei Davidis, a leader of the opposition Solidarnost movment. "A lot of people thought it would all calm down [after the inauguration] but that's not happening, and people are finding new ways to express their civil position. Things like this camp are new for Russia, and the authorities are flummoxed to find that cracking down and arresting people doesn't stop it. People are saying they don't want to wait another six years [till the end of Putin's term] to see changes."

    The appearance of this defiant little camp, and the wide social resonance it's drawn, suggests that Russia's middle class, anti-Putin protest movement that began with a few huge rallies against electoral fraud in December is rapidly shape-shifting and becoming a permanent fixture on Russia's political landscape. But the numbers of people involved are still relatively few, and the mood is more festive than revolutionary.

    "Here there's no difference between left and right, everyone lives together in tents and gets along because they all stand for honesty," says Olga Romanova, a journalist who's become a leading opposition figure and a regular denizen of the Chistye Prudi encampment. "Even if this camp is swept away – as it will surely be – we'll go to new places and find new ways to express ourselves… 

    "This is no longer a protest movement of the middle class, but increasingly of angry citizens of lower middle class as well," she says. "The moods are growing more serious, and tending more to the left. I think we're going to see a huge outpouring of protest when the next big rally is held on June 12."

    Does Putin prefer a 'cold war' to a 'reset'?

    Some experts suggest Putin's decision to shun the G-8 is not just about sticking around to see what happens in Moscow in the next few weeks, but heralds a major shift in foreign policy. They say that the "reset" of relations between the US and Russia initiated by Mr. Obama has run into a brick wall of disagreement over missile defense and that Putin would be more comfortable – for domestic as well as international reasons – with the state of semi-cold war that existed between Russia and the US under former President George W. Bush.

    "The fact that Putin is snubbing the G-8 is related to his personal distrust of the US, and perhaps he's sending the message that the Kremlin would actually prefer a Mitt Romney presidency," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank.

    "To skip the summit at the last minute like that suggests that we are not ready to continue the relationship with the US on the same level that we did under Medvedev. It also sends the message that we think a Romney presidency, in which Russia would be treated like a 'geopolitical foe' would be better for us," Mr. Suslov says.

    The foreign policy choice, if that's what Putin is making, has direct implications for the little "democracy preserve" at Chistye Prudi.

    "As for dealing with the opposition, worse relations with the US would be a godsend for Putin, and would give him the perfect excuse to crack down. He would be able to say 'we're surrounded by enemies, we need to consolidate'. I fear that Russia's old-new president is still stuck firmly in that old paradigm," Suslov says.

     

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    Chen Guangcheng

    Beijing - Soon after blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from illegal house arrest late last month, after suffering 19 months of detention and beatings, he issued a dramatic video appeal to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

    "Is it just local officials flagrantly violating the law, or do they have the support of the central government?" he asked.

    The question highlighted one of the key challenges facing the rulers of the world's most populous nation: how to control what goes on within their enormous country.

    "You might think that this is a highly autocratic system where control is effective," says David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who is writing a book about governance in China. "But that would be a wrong assumption. President Hu Jintao is at the helm, spinning the wheel, but it is not always connected to the rudder."

    There seems no doubt that at least some of China's top leaders knew of the treatment to which Mr. Chen was subjected. Even if their own internal channels had failed to inform them, senior US officials raised Chen's case repeatedly with their Chinese counterparts, and foreign media reported his plight widely.

    But as officials in Beijing try to sort truth from fiction in the reporting they get from the provinces, follow the media, and send out secret inspection teams to investigate suspected wrongdoing, "you'd be surprised by what they don't know," says Professor Lampton.

    It is surprising, for example, that local governments can build massive power stations without the knowledge or approval of the central government. Yet in 2009 the China Electricity Council, the power sector's industrial grouping, estimated that 30 million kilowatts of installed capacity – half the electricity generated by the Three Gorges Dam – had been illegally constructed, without the necessary permission from the central government.

    Local governments mislead Beijing

    Central government officials are aware that their regional subordinates sometimes seek to mislead them. Three years ago the government began to suspect that provincial officials were exaggerating reports of their grain stocks so as to attract more of the money that Beijing pays granaries to hold reserves.

    Beijing had to organize 100,000 inspectors for a three-month nationwide audit "to find out the true volume of our grain stocks," Vice Premier Li Keqiang said at the time. They found a number of irregularities.

    Sometimes Beijing finds out too late that it has been tricked. Local officials in the eastern city of Changzhou, for example, evaded rules requiring them to seek government approval for any industrial project using more than 40 hectares (about 100 acres) of land by breaking up a planned steel mill into a dozen or so projects, each requiring only the sort of land-use permit that local officials could issue themselves.

    The steel mill functioned for years before Beijing officials found out and closed it down.

    This is not a new problem.

    A well-known Chinese saying, that "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away," dates back to the 14th century, when China's imperial rulers already had trouble keeping an eye on their far-flung domains.

    More local control means less federal control

    But Beijing's difficulties have grown more complex as the central government has devolved more authority to local governments.

    Provincial parliaments, all dominated by the ruling Communist Party, "are allowed to make their own regulations to serve their regions' development needs," says Xiong Wenzhao, head of the Rule of Law and Local Government Research Center at Beijing's Minorities University. "In practice, there is no effective mechanism to balance central government and local government interests" when they conflict.

    "Because there are big differences between different parts of China, it is hard to impose nationwide policies," adds Zhang Zhihong, who teaches at Nankai University's School of Government in Tianjin, a port city on the east coast. "Local governments make decisions according to their local situations."

    When it comes to the all-important task of "stability maintenance," Beijing "is giving local governments more tools," such as control of the police, says Peter Mattis, a China expert at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Central government just wants things kept quiet" and leaves it up to local leaders to decide how much force to use against troublemakers, as appears to have been the case with Chen.

    When problems arise and attract public attention, local leaders often try to cover them up, for fear their promotion prospects will be adversely affected. Sometimes the Chinese media, or petitioners who travel to Beijing to seek redress from the central authorities, draw official attention to local officials' misbehavior.

    But media can be censored, and petitioners are regularly snatched from the streets of Beijing by police officers sent from the petitioners' home regions to stop them from publicizing their grievances. "Petitioners and the media are fragile channels" of communication, says Professor Xiong. "This is not an institutionalized solution."

    The government's own reporting channels are not always clear. And as messages pass up and down parallel government and Communist Party systems through many layers (central to provincial to municipal to county or district, to township or neighborhood) and then to the village, "messages get distorted," as in a game of telephone, says Lampton.

    How Beijing might reassert itself

    The picture is further complicated by the fact that local ministry bureaucrats are not named by ministerial headquarters but by the local authorities, to whom they owe some allegiance and to whom they must report, as well as to the Communist Party branch at their level.

    "The most effective way for central government to control local governments is by promotions and other personnel decisions," says Professor Zhang.

    But the Communist Party's Central Organization Department, which handles personnel issues, has handed over decisions on most of the 13,000 jobs it used to fill to lower-level cadres, weakening its control.

    Beijing can also exert pressure on local policymakers by granting or withholding tax revenues, but this works well only in poor regions. "Wealthier areas, which do not rely so heavily on the central government" because they can raise more local taxes themselves, "are not so dependent, so it is harder for the central government to affect them," says Xiong.

    "The question is whether China can control itself," says Lampton. "Sometimes it can. Sometimes it can't. But the question is becoming more important by the day."

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    american jihadist

    Insights into the minds of Westerners who have traveled to faraway lands to join the armies of radical Islam are usually confined to esoteric security websites and jihadist blogs rarely written in English.

    But an eye-opening, eyebrow-raising, 127-page document just uploaded to the internet gives a unique glimpse into the motivations of the increasing numbers of young men now fighting in the ranks of Somalia’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabab

    "The Story of An American Jihadi: Part One" is the autobiography of Abu Mansur al-Amriki, a 28-year-old Al Shabab commander who was, in an earlier life, a popular school soccer player, star student, and baptized Christian from Daphne, Ala., called Omar Hammami.

    In the book, Mr. Hammami talks of his “privileged” upbringing, his turn to Islam, his journey to Somalia, and his time training with some of America’s most wanted Islamist terrorists. 

    He also writes of how he misses “Chinese food, hot wings, Nestle ice cream, and gourmet coffee,” but that his motivation to fight for Islam means he knows that he will be “a fugitive for the rest of my life.”

    Hip hop jihadi

    Hammami has become one of the few public faces of Al Shabab. He has appeared on YouTube videos explaining Al Shabab's aims, has been featured on an al-Jazeera documentary, and even recorded a rap song that was released on the internet. He is wanted by the FBI, and has been indicted in the Southern District of Alabama on terrorism violations, including for leaving the US to join Al Shabab. 

    Hammami’s father is a respected civil engineer who came to Alabama as a teenager from Syria, and his mother is a “typical Southern protestant girl” descended from Irish immigrants. 

    “I think having the IRA on one side of my family tree and Al Qaeda on the other might have given me a bit of a bad temperament

    I think having the IRA on one side of my family tree and Al Qaeda on the other might have given me a bit of a bad temperament

    ,” he writes.

    His father, a Muslim, was not religious. His mother would take Hammami and his sister, with whom he was very close, to church each Sunday, and he was baptized at the Perdido Baptist Church, where he says he was “the best student in Bible school.” As a young teenager, he would visit his maternal grandfather and “spend time deer hunting like good old boys.”

    “My accuracy with the shot gun those days was not as good as my accuracy with the AK though,” he writes. “Let’s just say I missed my good share of deer.”

    He was, he says, “the most popular guy in school,” a trusted member of the soccer team, and cruising at the top of his class with among the best grades. But his interests changed as he grew older – especially after a trip to Syria to visit his father’s family

    His interests changed as he grew older – especially after a trip to Syria to visit his father’s family

    . He began to think of himself as a Muslim and turned away from what he increasingly saw as unIslamic activities: “the drugs, the girls, the friends, the TV."

    “It would be around my tenth grade year that it started becoming clear that Omar is a Muslim and Muslims can’t do drugs or have girlfriends,” he writes, referring to himself in the third person. “It was an upward battle.” 

    He dropped out of university, moved to Canada where a friend helped him find a wife, a Somali refugee, and he took menial jobs including delivering milk to Toronto’s large Somali community. Eventually he left North America for Egypt, where he wanted to study. 

    September 11, he says, did not “radicalize” him. “I took things a bit more intellectually than that. But by the time the Iraq war started I could not find any way for us to say that it is anything less than obligatory to fight the Americans.” 

    Soon after arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, he met another American Muslim, Abu Muhammad al-Amriiki, born Daniel Maldonado, and the two began plotting to join the war raging in Somalia between Islamist forces and the weak Western-backed government. 

    After a fretful journey from Cairo to Dubai and then to Mogadishu, when he worried that he would be stopped as “a lone white man” on the flight, he eventually arrived in the Somali capital, only to be disappointed that “I did not see people that looked like Al Qaeda on every street corner.” 

    He eventually joined with young international fighters based in Kismayo, now Al Shabab’s stronghold in Somalia’s far south. 

    Boot camp, with beatings

    There follows a long stretch of writing about his “torturous” training, which included performing push-ups on broken glass and long marches on empty stomachs being beaten by senior commanders – once between his legs. 

    RELATED: What is Somalia's Al Shabab? 

    “I became fatigued. I told him that he will pay the full blood money if I find out that I won’t be able to reproduce, but everyone thought it was funny, so the torture continued,” Hammami writes. 

    The book is a strange mixture of childish humor (he writes “ha ha” a lot to indicate something he found funny) and deadly serious description of his life with Al Shabab. 

    When he chose to go to the front-line during battles between the Islamists and Ethiopian troops in Somalia, there are more descriptions of sharing ambush sites with biting ants, being almost attacked by a snake, and hearing lions encircle his camp, than there are about the actual conflict. 

    Constant squabbles between Al Shabab commanders worry him. He is "irked" by vehicles breaking down, a lack of water rations and meager food. “Sometimes I found myself irking myself out, because I would inevitably remember a time [in America] when my pocket was full of change and I carelessly drove past an ice cream parlor, a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, a café, or even a convenience store without so much as stopping for a treat,” he says. 

    But his desire to oppose what he sees as unjust American battles against Islam remains strong, despite the hardships, he concludes. “It was only when I had become completely convinced that jihad is truly incumbent upon me as an individual that I took it upon myself to make that huge leap," he writes. 

    “I knew that I was going to become a fugitive for the rest of my life when I made that decision. I was well into the post-9/11 era. Someone seeking a thrill or a hippy's mid-summer’s night dream doesn't normally consciously burn his bridges like that."

    “The real fear that the Americans feel when they see an American in Somalia talking about jihad, is not how skilful he is at sneaking back across the borders with nuclear weapons. The Americans fear that their cultural barrier has been broken and now jihad has become a normal career choice for any youthful American Muslim."

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    egyptian men on bikes with rally posters

    Egyptians will go to the polls to choose their president for the first time in modern history, but they are facing a choice of front-runners who represent some of the oldest forces in the state.

    On one side is Amr Moussa, a long-time foreign minister under former President Hosni Mubarak. He casts himself as the anti-Islamist candidate, and a vote for experience and stability. On the other is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a long-time member of the historic Egyptian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Though he was expelled last year, and has attempted to bridge the Islamist-secular polarization of Egyptian politics, in the minds of many Egyptians he is still Ikhwan.

    Even a broader definition of "front-runners" doesn't broaden the spectrum: there is Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s official candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

    “Most of the candidates are old figures. Yes, a number of them were not part of the regime, but they were part of the political establishment during the Mubarak era. … Yes, a number of them were in the opposition, yet it’s clear that we don’t have new, younger faces,” says an Egyptian blogger who goes by The Big Pharoah. “It’s pretty clear that the revolution still did not develop into political choices.”

    A poll conducted this month by the University of Maryland found that Dr. Aboul Fotouh was leading, with 32 percent of respondents saying they favored him, while Mr. Moussa came in second with 28 percent. Mr. Shafiq garnered 14 percent and Mr. Morsi 8 percent.

    In the capital, the candidates’ familiar faces seem to stare out from every wall, on campaign posters plastered all over the city, or banners fluttering in the breeze. On some posters belonging to Mr. Moussa, the word felool, a pejorative term referring to members of the previous regime, has been scrawled by passers-by.

    In Cairo streets, on the metro, in taxis and cafes, it is difficult to escape the discussions and arguments over who to vote for. Some Egyptians are not disturbed by Moussa’s connections to Mubarak. After all, he left the regime a decade ago, pushed out when his popularity appeared to threaten his boss. He spent the next decade as leader of the Arab League, away from the growing power of Mubarak’s son Gamal, whose status as Mubarak’s assumed heir and reputation for corruption incited popular anger.

    A steady hand?

    Many of those who intend to vote for Moussa say they value his experience, which they say will enable him to start turning things around on day one in office. “He was in government for many years, so he knows how to get things done,” says Amr Ibrahim, an unemployed college graduate. Mr. Ibrahim said another reason he will vote for Moussa is to keep power from being concentrated in the hands of the Brotherhood, which took nearly half the parliamentary seats in recent elections, and reneged on its post-revolution pledge not to seek the presidency.

    “We gave them parliament, and what have they done?” asks Mr. Ibrahim. “We don’t need another National Democratic Party,” he says, referring to Mubarak’s party, which dominated all branches of government. And his sentiment applies to Aboul Fotouh as well, though he is no longer part of the movement. “Aboul Fotouh is Ikhwan,” he says.

    Yet despite his history with the Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh’s inclusive rhetoric and moderate stances have won him a wide base of support. He was a reformer in the Brotherhood, and his differences with the organization on some issues (like accepting a Christian or woman as president) win him support among secularists. He delicately handles questions about implementing sharia, or Islamic law. Many prominent liberal and leftist revolutionary types are among his supporters, partly because he is the only front runner who can be considered a “revolutionary.”

    Yet he lost some of this support when the most organized group of ultraconservative Islamists, known as salafis, endorsed him. Many experts see the endorsement as an attempt by salafis to counter the Brotherhood, but it also incited suspicion in some liberal and secular types who had considered supporting Aboul Fotouh.

    The secularist revolutionary activists who don’t support Aboul Fotouh have few other choices. Some won’t vote at all. Others will make the pragmatic decision to support Moussa to counter Islamist candidates. Others are supporting Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist who adheres to the pan-Arabist ideology of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. His popularity has surged recently as he picked up support from liberal, leftist, and secular Egyptians who refuse to vote for an Islamist or felool candidate.

    Choices for activists

    “What choices do we have?” asks activist Alfred Raouf. Instead of choosing a candidate who represents their views, some feel forced to use the process of elimination, choosing the best of the worst, he says. “You keep excluding until you’re left with one.”

    Some of those who had hoped the revolution would bring greater change say it may be easier to make up their minds in the second round. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, which will take place Wednesday and Thursday, then a runoff election will be held between the two candidates with the most votes.

    Some activists say they would only vote for Moussa if he is in a runoff with Shafiq or Morsi. Others say they would vote for Aboul Fotouh for the same reason. Esraa Abdel Fattah, a well-known activist, says she would be “very, very disappointed” if the runoff is between Morsi and Shafiq, the most conservative Islamist and most pro-military and pro-Mubarak figures in the race. In that case, she says, “I cannot think that any of us [revolutionaries] can vote.”

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    saudi arabia

    When Khalid Suliman al-Jhari stands up to speak in his freshly pressed white thobe (a traditional Arab tunic), he doesn't look like a hard-core jihadi who scurried around Tora Bora with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

    And he's not – anymore. Today, he's the soft-spoken father of two daughters who has returned to his native Saudi Arabia, thanks in part to a jihadi rehabilitation center set up by the government five years ago to help ex-Guantánamo detainees reintegrate.

    "I have good life, a good wife," says Mr. Jhari, former Guantánamo prisoner No. 155, who is referred to as Khalid Sulaymanjaydh al-Hubayshi in US government documents. "I believe that this idea is working because the people ... are honest about fixing [ex-jihadis].... It's not just a job."

    The Mohammed bin Naif Center for Counseling and Care, where Jhari spoke recently to a US media delegation, is part of Saudi Arabia's carrot-and-stick approach to tackle both the threat of domestic terrorism and the spread of violent Islamist ideology abroad. Of the 19 9/11 hijackers, 15 were Saudis.

    Now, as more than 5,500 Saudis arrested on suspicions of terrorist involvement are making their way through the country's courts, the government is moving to open five more deradicalization facilities. Designed as halfway houses, the centers are meant to "reeducate" ex-jihadis to help them see that their former ways are inconsistent with Islam.

    The approach is remarkably successful, according to Saudi officials, who say that only 3 percent of the program's more than 850 graduates have returned to violent extremism. Foreign researchers, however, say many of the "graduates" were far from hard-core and never convicted of any crime.

    But it's also expensive. Saudi officials declined to disclose costs. But more than 300 employees work here, with 200 alleged militants in their care. They enjoy buffet meals, classes in everything from Islam and history to art therapy, and various financial incentives. Upon graduation, the men receive a lump sum of 10,000 rials ($2,665) and about $700 per month for the first six months out.

    RELATED: Are terrorists beyond redemption? 

    The government helps the men secure a job, get married, and make a new start. It's a solution Saudi Arabia appears eager to promote for a problem it helped to create, first by providing a haven for exiled Arab Islamists in the 1960s and '70s, and then by giving its ultraconservative religious establishment wide latitude in the decades that followed.

    Jhari was a student living away from home when he became interested in jihad. He saw footage of the Bosnian war and felt impelled to help fellow Muslims. He headed first to Chechnya, then Afghanistan. "I was believing that if I die, I'll be a martyr."

    But on his jihadi travels, he found himself trapped in a life he didn't deeply believe in. He felt he couldn't escape because of his past violations of Saudi law. When the US-led war in Afghanistan began, he was swept up in the search for militants and became prisoner No. 155 at Guantánamo, where the US identified him as Khalid Sulaymanjaydh al-Hubayshi. He spent three years there and one more in Saudi jail before entering the center.

    He says he has now changed his view of jihad.

    "Jihad is a good thing in Islam," he said, but it's often misinterpreted. "If someone fought in my country and [takes] my house, I'm going to fight. This is what we call jihad. But if I go to some area to help one group against another group," that wouldn't be Islamic.

    Some of the beneficiaries who graduated from the center say they were never involved in extremism, but are nonetheless grateful for their time there.

    Juma al-Dossari spent 2001-07 in Guantánamo after Saudi embassy officials in Pakistan turned him over to the Americans. He says he had merely been helping with a humanitarian project in Kabul, Afghanistan, but lacked the proper documentation and fled to neighboring Pakistan; the US government says he fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya and was present at Tora Bora.

    Whatever his background, when Mr. Dossari arrived at the Saudi rehabilitation center, he was in dire need physically and mentally, he says. “After I came here, I was broke,” says Dossari, who received mental health treatment and today works in construction in the eastern city of Dammam, where he lives with his new wife and three young children, with a fourth on the way. “I think this center is very much like mercy from God to us…. I found here a cure to my wound.”

    Christa Case Bryant traveled to Saudi Arabia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project.

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    More than 19 countries, led by the United States, wrapped up the sprawling Operation Eager Lion military exercise yesterday in Jordan at a time of heightened tensions in the region.

    Though the exercise had been long scheduled and was designed to improve military coordination between allies, it drew far more attention than usual given the deepening civil war across the border in Syria. Many press accounts, particularly on cable news channels like CNN, tried to connect the exercises to Syria's war. Among the wilder media speculation were claims Eager Lion was a dry-run for an invasion or cover for training Syrian rebels.

    Those fanciful accounts are belied by the fact that Eager Lion 2012 was three years in the planning and amounts to an outgrowth of the annual bilateral "Infinite Moonlight" US-Jordan exercise that stretches back to the 1990s.

    But war in Syria, or anywhere else in the region, is relevant in the sense that training exercises are about being prepared for an often unpredictable future.

    Major General Ken Tovo of the US Special Operations Command, who was in charge of the participating US forces, explained the objective was to "build partnerships and friendships that will allow us to serve successfully together to meet any challenges that our nations ask us to.”

    Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, calls the timing of the exercise “a happy coincidence... I suspect they’re trying to get kind of a psychological operations bump by [publicizing] this exercise now; it puts more pressure on the regime in Syria. But this was planned from a long time ago.”

    Long range

    American and Jordanian military officials said Eager Lion is expected to become an annual event in the region. The first Eager Lion, a bilateral exercise between the US and Jordan, took place in the summer of 2011 – when the world’s attention was focused on EgyptBahrain, and Yemen, and the fledgling protests in Syria were just another blip on the radar.

    Michael Rubin, an adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from 2002-2004 and now an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute says the exercise is useful as a reminder that the US military presence in the region is still extensive.

    “In Washington we can convince ourselves we withdrew [from Iraq] per political agreements, but a lot of the propaganda in the region, especially the Iranian-backed propaganda, suggests we fled in defeat,” Rubin says. “One of the perceptions we’re trying to reverse is the perception among many of the Gulf monarchs, and the king of Jordan, that we dumped Hosni Mubarak way too quickly."

    “What this does is send a signal to many of the GCC states that we’re not simply going to turn our backs on all the monarchs,” Rubin says. And there other long-term concerns: building cooperation between Arab armies, he adds, is an important check against Iran’s military ambitions, and has been a US goal since the 1980s.

    A very special operation

    Mr. Eisenstadt points out that while the exercise included all branches of America’s armed forces, it had a particular emphasis on Special Operations Forces (SOF) one of the reasons that a Special Operations Command general was chosen to head the event.

    “Admiral [William] McRaven, [the head of America’s special forces], has talked about building this global SOF alliance. This is part of his vision,” says Eisenstadt. Admiral McRaven told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that America is now fighting “insurgents, transnational terrorists, [and] criminal organizations” and said special operations forces will bear much of the burden of that fight.

    Eisenstadt agrees. “That’s one of the lessons we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan: The value of conducting these intense campaigns against violent extremist networks. You can constantly conduct night raids, every night, over the span of months and years, and you constantly [deplete] their leadership cadre and their bomb-building cadre.”

    Special operations, he said, is one of the few areas of the US military that is slated to grow in the coming years. It’s been frequently reported in the past decade that between 70 and 80 percent of America’s deployed special operations forces are in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in the greater Middle East. But there is need for them around the world, Eisenstadt says. He points to Uganda, where US SOF are helping local military in the hunt for Joseph Kony

    The Monitor got a glimpse of Eager Lion in Jordan’s southern desert, where Jordanian and US soldiers worked with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the Jordanian Red Crescent, and Jordan’s police and civil defense to simulate a camp for people displaced by fighting.

    “Every hour or two you have a different scenario, and this forces the Jordanian Army, who are doing the role-play, to act as in real life,” says UNHCR Jordan head Andrew Harper, who was on-hand for the exercise. “It’s really working well on both sides. Certainly the Jordanians are finding out about how to work with humanitarian organizations, and we’re finding out how to work in this type of environment, too.”

    “One of Jordan’s big training objectives is for their civilian affairs to interact with their military affairs,” explains Capt. Tom Gresback, a public affairs officer for the US Central Command. He says Eager Lion planners identified 1,300 different challenges to be worked on based on participants priorities. Other countries wanted to work on countering chemical and biological attacks, while others were interested in learning more about operating in mountains or improving their naval search and seizure capabilities, he says.  

    Getting to know other militaries may seem less exciting than planning an invasion of Syria – but Rubin says it’s more important.

    In times of crisis, when political relations break down, “the military officers who have drilled together, had exchanges together... tend to do much better than diplomats,” he says. “Usually the back-channels are going to involve two people who were colonels at the same time, two majors at the same time, what have you. … The irony is it’s usually the military-to-military exchanges that do more to enable peace than anything else.”

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    torontoActor and broadcaster Jeff Douglas says he knows there are “more responsible” things to do than take on a mortgage he will likely have to pay until he turns 70.

    But that didn’t stop him and his wife, interior painting contractor Ana Maria Diez, from charging headlong into the battleground that has become the Canadian real estate market.

    Mr. Douglas and Ms. Diez fell in love with and purchased a 1,300-square-foot duplex in a middle-class west Toronto neighborhood last month for $632,000. Like an increasing number of Canadian buyers, they sealed the deal after duking it out with several other couples who also wanted the house. They placed no conditions on their contract and finally paid 112 percent of the original list price of $555,000.

    “It was one of the last houses I think we’d have a shot at because the price of houses in Toronto goes up every week so it was definitely a now or never situation,” says Douglas. “At $625,000 ($632,000 inUS dollars) we feel like we got a bargain.”

    Douglas and Diez may feel lucky. But house purchases like theirs are increasingly fueling concerns that, like their American neighbors a few years ago, Canadians are spending themselves into financial disaster.

    “What we are seeing is the irrational exuberance that was present in the US,” says David Madani, a former Bank of Canada analyst now with the consultancy Capital Economics. “It has all the symptoms of a disaster waiting to happen.”

    Fueled by record low interest rates – earlier this winter, major Canadian banks offered five-year, fixed-term mortgage loans for just under 3 percent (the average for a five-year term is 3.49 percent) – and an economy that was largely unaffected by the 2008 economic crisis, real estate prices in Canada have taken a steep turn upward.

    Nationwide, they have nearly doubled in the last 10 years, to an average of about $373,000. In some large cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, they are up more than 10 percent year over year. Stories of bidding wars, like the one this winter in which a young woman paid $1.18 million, or more than $400,000 over the asking price, for a suburban Toronto bungalow, have become common.

    Although buyers seems convinced that real estate prices can only go up, Mr. Madani, along with the International Monetary Fund, the Economist magazine, and various independent and bank economists, warns they are already overvalued by as much as 25 percent. Madani warns they are likely to drop by at least that much over the next few years. If that happens, he says, the drop in consumer spending and investment in housing would likely be dramatic enough to push the economy into recession.

    “If credit tightens tomorrow, the game is over,” adds Ben Rabidoux, an analyst with the US real estate market research firm M Hanson Advisors and the author of the website The Economist Analyst.  “I think we will see a decade of stagnant returns and a stagnant economy.”

    Although low interest rates mean buying a house is only slightly less affordable than it was in the mid-1980s, Mr. Rabidoux and Madani  say other factors suggest a price drop is on its way. For one thing, real estate prices have risen nearly three times as fast as real incomes. That has pushed current house prices in Toronto to about 15 times the average annual disposable income, compared to a long-term average of about 10. In Vancouver, they are 25 times disposable income.  

    Rising prices, along with strong consumer spending, much of it on house improvements, have pushed household debt to record highs. Canadians now owe $154 for every $100 earned, up from just $90 10 years ago. By comparison, US consumers owed $161 for every $100 earned just before the economic crisis in 2008, a figure they have whittled down to $141 this year.

    For the time being, buyers like Jeff Douglas are content to carry their debt. He says that although he is paying 3.4 percent on his mortgage, he could still afford it at 4.5 percent.

    But like many Canadian homeowners, his finances could be at risk if rates go higher than that.  Canadians are more at risk from rising interest rates than their American counterparts are, because unlike the fixed 15- and 30-year mortgages in the US, the typical Canadian mortgage resets every five years. Canadians who lock in to a low interest rate now have no guarantee that those same rates will still apply when they renew their mortgage in five years.

    TD Bank Vice President Craig Alexander says that when interest rates return to more normal levels, about 2 percent higher than they are now, about one million Canadians, or 10 percent of those who carry debt, would be financially vulnerable.

    “I don’t see a US-style problem with high foreclosures, but I do worry about the economy,” he says.

    The Bank of Canada and the Canadian government have repeatedly warned over the last several months that interest rates will eventually rise and that Canadians should start paying down debt. Spending has started to decrease, but for the most part Canadians still seem to have their “heads in the sand,” says Rabidoux.  

    “There is an idea that it’s different here, that what happened in the US cannot happen to us,” he said. “But part of it is just simple mathematics. You can’t have house prices rise like this indefinitely."

    The most common difference cited is the Canadian bank structure. Canadian banks have stricter lending rules than in the US. Only about 3 percent of mortgages are considered subprime, and NINJA (No Income, No Job or Asset) mortgages do not exist here.

    But Rabidoux agrees that that difference is key, since it means most Canadians have not been given mortgages they cannot afford under current conditions. But he says, once interest rates begin to rise, over-stretched Canadians will have no choice but to cut back on spending and that when that happens the country is likely headed for a recession.

    Still, Toronto real estate agent Melanie Piche says she expects real estate prices to continue rising.

    “People see their friends, how much money they have made in real estate,” she said. “And there aren’t a lot of safe places to put your money right now. Where else can you make 10 percent?”

    Douglas agrees, and said he thinks of his purchase as an investment, similar to buying into the stock market.

    “I would say prices are hyperinflated. But for the price of housing to go down in Toronto, that I can’t see,” he said. “Simple supply and demand dictate that as long as the city continues to grow, there will be a demand for housing and that will keep prices up.”


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    Michael McFaul Russia

    Mike McFaul, the earnest and plain-spoken Russia hand from the Obama White House who became US ambassador to Moscow, has been up to his neck in controversy since he took up his duties in January.

    But Mr. McFaul attracted a new level of ire this week, with the Russian Foreign Ministry taking to the relatively new medium of Twitter and also issuing an old-fashioned official statement to angrily assail Mr. McFaul for his "unprofessionalism" and his penchant for spreading "blatant falsehoods through the mediasphere."

    Many experts express bafflement at the unprecedented targeting of McFaul with highly personal official criticism, which is getting to be a regular and embarrassing distraction from his job of keeping the troubled US-Russia "reset" of relations on track.

    Some suggest newly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin would prefer to deal with Mitt Romney, whose attitude toward Russia is frankly hostile, and has licensed the Russian establishment to go after McFaul, who is not merely US ambassador but also a member of Mr. Obama's inner circle and a key architect of the "reset." In this view, the Kremlin is fed up with deadlock over missile defense, Syria, and other issues, and has decided to turn its foreign policy focus eastward toward the former Soviet central Asian countries and China.

    Mr. Putin, under pressure from the biggest wave of street protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union, may also find it easier to crack down on the opposition if they can be explicitly linked to an ill-intentioned Western adversary

    Others argue that no high politics are necessarily involved, and that McFaul's open and unguarded way of speaking, as well as his extraordinarily active public style, has ruffled the old-school diplomats in Russia's Foreign Ministry, who can't resist teaching him some manners. 

    "He's not your typical ambassador. It's his straightforward way of expressing himself, his openness, how public he is, that makes him different," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "It makes waves." 

    'Still learning' how to be a diplomat

    The trigger for the latest blizzard of official outrage was an upbeat, routine slideshow presentation about the course of the "reset" that McFaul gave to Russian students at the prestigious Higher School of Economics on May 25. It's mostly a summary of the progress the US and Russia have made: signing the new START treaty, cooperating in Afghanistan, boosting trade and investment, and improving dialogue about contentious issues like Iran and Syria. 

    But in his asides to the students, McFaul made a few controversial remarks. The one that ignited the most fury at the foreign ministry was the suggestion that in early 2009 the Kremlin had "put a big bribe on the table" to get authorities in Kyrgyzstan to cancel the US lease on Manas airbase, a vital link in the resupply chain to embattled NATO forces in Afghanistan. That's an undeniably colorful way to describe how then-Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev decided to close Manas after receiving a huge aid package from the Kremlin that included a $150 million gift.

    The foreign ministry Tweeted that it was "utterly shocked" by the claim, adding in its lengthy statement that "Mr. McFaul knows better what kind of bribe, and to whom, Washington gave," to get Manas back. 

    McFaul himself subsequently took to Twitter to dial back some of his remarks. "Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically," he Tweeted. On his blog today, McFaul insisted that he was surprised by the reaction to his presentation, since it was mainly about how much relations between Russia and the US have improved in recent years.

    "Prime Minister Medvedev said recently in Seoul that the last three years of the US-Russia relationship have been the best period in US-Russia relations in history," McFaul wrote. "We agree, and I am proud of the personal role that I have played in improving the bilateral relationship between our two countries." 

    State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland backed up McFaul in a briefing yesterday. "He was making the point that with regard to Kyrgyzstan and the importance of the Manas transit center, that we are very transparent," she said. "We ask for the same information and the same support from Russia. So it's no longer this sort of secret competition that you had in the Soviet era. …

    "As one of the architects of the president's reset policy, [McFaul is] in a position not only to really understand the benefits, but also to try to continue to advance them. So from that perspective we considered him an extremely strong ambassador," she added. 

    A sign of the times

    Some analysts suggest there may be more going on here than just a free-speaking ambassador who's having a bit of trouble finding his diplomatic voice and is irritating the old professionals. 

    "Criticism of McFaul is part of the general pattern of anti-Americanism that came to life during the last parliamentary and presidential election campaigns" in Russia, says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

    "McFaul would have been the perfect ambassador during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who positioned himself as more liberal and democratic. But it took time after McFaul was nominated for him to be approved and arrive in Moscow. By that time the wind had changed and was blowing in the opposite direction. So he's become a hostage of this new situation." 

    McFaul, a former Stanford professor and expert on democratization, arrived in Moscow just as massive anti-Kremlin protests were gathering steam. One of his first acts on the job was to meet with Russian opposition leaders, a routine diplomatic function, but one that triggered a storm of indignation in Russia's official media and led to McFaul being shadowed and harassed by activists of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement wherever he went. At one point, McFaul even complained that his e-mail and phone accounts were being hacked into by Nashi activists posing as journalists. 

    "McFaul's background as a democracy specialist arguably made the Kremlin suspicious of him from the outset," says Ms. Lipman. "His background, which should have served him well, had the effect of strengthening those irrational fears that the US was somehow behind the [opposition] demos. 

    "He's made a few mistakes, but he's a straight talker and an open person. It's clear this is how he intends to be, and how his government wants him to be," she adds.

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    stephen king

    Legendary author Stephen King will be releasing a new book next June – but fans will have to get it in paper format only.

    King was on the forefront of the e-book revolution before now, releasing one of his titles, “Riding the Bullet,” in electronic format in 2000 before that was the norm.

    “I also loved the paperbacks I grew up with as a kid,” the author said in a statement about his decision to go paper-only for the new title, which will be called “Joyland. “And for that reason, we're going to hold off on e-publishing this one for the time being.”

    “Joyland” will follow a college student named Devin Jones who works at a carnival in North Carolina during the 1970s and learns of a past crime and a child whose time may be running out.

    The book will be published through Hard Case Crime, an imprint under the umbrella of Titan Books.

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    China, Beijing, Military, Soldiers

    As the United States and other Western nations prepare to withdraw their military forces from Afghanistan, China is growing nervous about the prospect of chaos after they have left.

    So, after years of standing in the background, Beijing is starting to show signs of closer engagement with its strife-torn neighbor in a bid to ward off disaster, say Chinese and foreign analysts.

    When Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao here on Friday, they will raise their countries’ bilateral relations to a “new strategic level,” an Afghan official told reporters in Kabul this week.

    Though it is still unclear what that will mean in practice, the step reflects Beijing’s feeling that “it is urgent that China strengthen its relationship with Afghanistan,” says Zhang Li, an expert on South Asia at Sichuan University in Chengdu.

    “Afghanistan’s security situation will have a direct impact on China’s security,” he adds. The Western military pullout “clearly presents China with more problems than opportunities.”

    China to the plate

    Some observers here believe it is time that China stepped up to the plate. “It is not rational to rely on a distant and remote country to provide security for the region,” says Hu Shisheng, an analyst at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, referring to the United States. “China has to take more responsibility.”

    But after leaving things to the Americans for so long, warn others here, Beijing may not be well placed to exert influence. “We cannot play a significant role because we do not have a sufficient presence in Afghanistan,” cautions Ye Hailin, an Asian affairs analyst at the China Academy of Social Sciences, a government-linked think tank in Beijing.

    The one thing China will not be doing as Western soldiers leave Afghanistan is get involved militarily there itself. With scarcely any experience of peacekeeping operations abroad, the Chinese Army “would be stepping into uncharted territory in a potentially very kinetic situation,” points out Raffaello Pantucci, a scholar who follows China’s relationship with Central Asian nations. “It would be a huge jump for them.”

     “We are not qualified to play a military game in Afghanistan,” adds Mr. Ye. “Only empires can do that, and neither the British, nor the Soviet Union, nor the Americans have won.”

    The security question

    Closer ties with Kabul could bring more aid, more infrastructure projects, and more training for Afghan policemen and soldiers, say Chinese observers. That security support, they suggest, could come through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group of Asian nations led by Beijing and Moscow at whose summit here this week Afghanistan is expected to be admitted as an observer.

    Beijing is also likely to step up its tentative diplomatic involvement in the Afghan conflict, suggests Professor Zhang, after it hosted a first trilateral meeting with Afghan and Pakistani officials last February that “showed China’s intention of strengthening its influence in Afghan security issues.”

    At that meeting, Chinese diplomats reportedly sought to convince the Afghan and Pakistani governments to work more closely together to regain control over their borderlands. Armed Uighur separatists, fighting for the independence of China’s mainly Muslim Xinjiang region, which abuts Afghanistan and Pakistan, are believed to have set up camps in North Waziristan. (See map here.)

    “Stability in those tribal regions is of utmost national security importance to China,” says Mr. Hu.

    Why China cares

    If Western troops leave the Afghan Army and the Taliban still locked in combat, China is worried that the Uighur “East Turkmenistan Independence Movement,” which Beijing regards as a terrorist group, might find refuge in Taliban-controlled zones. Officials here also fear an upsurge of drug smuggling through Xinjiang.

    More frightening, though, is the prospect that continued fighting and possible Taliban gains would spill over into Pakistan, China’s closest regional ally. “A disaster in Afghanistan could undermine China’s strategic bulwark in the region,” points out Andrew Small, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Washington who is writing a book about China’s relationship with Pakistan.

    At the same time, a security vacuum in Afghanistan could prompt a proxy conflict there between regional rivals India and Pakistan, further complicating China’s position.

    “If Afghan troubles spilled into Pakistan, that could turn our alliance into chaos,” warns Ye. “China has the same interest as the Americans in preventing Pakistan from becoming a nest of terrorists.”

    Indeed China’s interests in Afghanistan coincide strongly with Western interests, says Mr. Pantucci. “They want a stable, peaceful, prosperous country that they can trade with and build roads through and where they can seek natural resources,” he says. “Stability in Afghanistan would contribute to stability in Central Asia, and that would help Beijing develop Xinjiang, its biggest and poorest province.”

    For the past decade, China has not played a significant role in Afghanistan. Its state owned companies have built roads and invested $3.5 billion in a copper mine, but according to the Chinese Embassy in Kabul, Beijing has contributed only $246 million in aid over the past decade; that is less than one-tenth of Japan’s aid, or half of South Korea’s.

    Until now, concerns in Beijing about the proximity of NATO bases to Chinese territory have been offset by relief that at least somebody else was dealing with the problem in Afghanistan.

    Now, says Zhang, “China has to face the fact that a withdrawal timetable has been confirmed and we have to focus on all the new problems that may crop up.”

    In the US, adds Ye, “a lot of people may think that after their military withdraws in 2014, Afghanistan is not their business anymore. We, on the other hand, see 2014 as a very crucial year for Afghanistan, but we don’t see it as the end of anything. We are going to have to live with that.”

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    Francois Hollande

    President François Hollande and the French left took Round 1 yesterday of parliamentary elections that are being closely watched as harbingers of Europe’s political direction at a time of economic crisis.

    Most of the individual seats still need to be won in a June 17 runoff. But leftist parties enter those contests with the overall best showing, taking 46 percent of French voters, and setting up Mr. Hollande and his Socialists – who won 36 percent – for a majority needed for a free hand and an undivided government. 

    “It’s a very, very good result for the Socialists and François Hollande,” says Arun Kapil of Catholic University in Paris. “But we will see on June 17. I think the Socialists are on track to get a majority on their own.”

    Six of Hollande’s 24 declared cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, were elected outright yesterday. But as of this morning’s tally, only about 60 seats of the 577-seat body were decided after the lowest voter turnout (57 percent) since Charles de Gaulle took office in the 1960s.

    Under the election rules, a candidate must receive an outright majority of votes to win in Round 1. Otherwise, all candidates who garner more than 12.5 percent of the vote advance to a runoff.

    Winning a clear majority on June 17 would enable Hollande to consolidate power and give heft to programs expected to combine growth with the tough and increasingly controversial austerity-only policies that have dominated Europe’s remedy for its economic crisis and that are favored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

    While characterized by some foreign media as a “tax and spend” liberal, Hollande is in fact a pragmatist who pledges a balanced budget by 2017 and a 3 percent budget deficit next year. The French right is skeptical he can do so.

    Like most European politicians in an age of austerity, Hollande's hand is severely constrained. So far, he has implemented symbolic measures such as cutting his and his ministers' salaries by 30 percent. He has tinkered with social fairness policies: He did not change the pension reforms of Mr. Sarkozy that moved France's generous retirement age from 60 to 62; but he added a caveat allowing those beginning work at age 18 to retire at 60, and to allow females to count part of their pregnancy months. 

    But while French voters gave Hollande a boost, he has not yet delivered a knockout blow to the political right.  The main right party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy took 27 percent to bring the conservative majority to a 34 percent total.

    “There was no ‘pink landslide,’” said former Prime Minister François Fillon, referring to the vote on the left.

    “Without a majority, no laws will be passed,” warned Prime Minister Ayrault after last night’s tally.

    The elections appear set to give the French far right party of Marine Le Pen, which is anti-Europe and anti-Islam, its first seats in decades. Ms. Le Pen’s National Front, which is now the No. 3 party in France, got 13.6 percent.  But in a clear blow to Le Pen, the main French right party headed until May by Nicolas Sarkozy has not been willing to align itself with her, dashing her hopes for a historic realignment.

    However, Le Pen trounced far-left figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Henin-Beaumont, a distressed former mining region, in what Mr. Melenchon had hoped would be a comeuppance for her. Melenchon had made waves this spring as a dynamic new voice on the far nationalist left. But after carpetbagging up in the French north, his nose was bloodied by Le Pen, who scored 42 percent to his 21 percent.

    Le Pen’s party may score three seats. In Paris today, speculation has it that one of those seats would be from the Le Pen clan: Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s niece and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder.

    In an unexpected development, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party nominee in 2007 and the former partner of Hollande, could well lose her seat after deciding to run in a region that has other popular long-time Socialists. Le Parisian today commented on a campaign of “Saving Private Royal,” after party officials have tried to ban other candidates from that seat.

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    mitt romney and ron paulIs it possible that Ron Paul is getting ready to endorse Mitt Romney? More specifically, is he beginning the delicate task of preparing his supporters for the day when such an endorsement might come?

    We ask that question because Congressman Paul’s campaign website in recent days has posted several pieces that discuss political endorsements in a somewhat defensive manner. In one, campaign blogger Jack Hunter talks about libertarian founding father Murray Rothbard’s 1992 endorsement ofPresident George H. W. Bush.

    Rothbard’s libertarian principles did not evaporate because of the “mere act of endorsing,” writes Hunter.

    As to the current Paul campaign, “any endorsements made or not made are done with our movement’s goals and efforts within the GOP in mind, whether some understand this or not,” according to Hunter.

    In another post, Hunter reiterated that in the past Ron Paul voted for GOP Reps. John Boehner (Ohio),Dennis Hastert (Illinois), and Newt Gingrich (Georgia)for speaker of the House.

    That did not mean Paul shared these lawmakers’ political beliefs. Their elections as speaker were inevitable, writes Hunter, and Paul wanted to work within the Republican Party to push his own issues.

    “Ron Paul is a member in good standing of the Republican Party. Ron Paul’s message is that he is against his party when it’s wrong,” writes Hunter.

    Of course, both these pieces might really be about son Sen. Rand Paul, not Paul pere himself. The second in particular mentions Rand at length.

    Senator Paul endorsed Romney in an appearance onSean Hannity’s Fox News show last week – a move that infuriated many Paul true believers. They burned up Twitter and Paul discussion boards with anger over what they saw as a betrayal.

    Given that Rand’s dad technically is still running for president, the timing of the announcement indeed was a little ... odd. So was the manner in which Senator Paul implied that the announcement was some sort of joining of the Paul and Romney clans. He talked about “a kinship between our families.”

    The Ron Paul campaign appeared taken aback by the degree of supporter animosity to this move. So Hunter’s works might be an attempt to calm those roiling digital waters.

    Plus, a Ron Paul endorsement of Romney would be out of step with much of Paul’s past behavior. He famously refused to endorse Sen. John McCain in 2008, and bolted the party entirely in 1987, running as a third party candidate on the Libertarian ticket. We still think it’s likely that Paul senior will just strike a sort of non-aggression pact with the Romney forces that does not include explicit backing. Rand’s endorsement might have been as far as the Paul team is willing to go.

    But look – Mitt Romney is going to control the GOP convention in Tampa. In the modern era nominees meld their campaigns with the party apparatus prior to the meeting, then treat it like an opportunity for a multi-day advertisement. It’s not primarily a forum for political debate.

    Will Romney demand a Paul endorsement in return for, say, allowing Paul a prime speaking slot? That’s certainly possible. In return, Paul could just state the obvious – Romney is the GOP pick, and he (Paul) would prefer Romney triumph over President Obama. That could be an endorsement that doesn’t contain the word “endorse.”


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    UN haiti kids

    When the United Nations deployed peacekeepers to Haiti in 2004, its troops were charged with restoring order following the tumultuous departure of then-president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Their presence brought a much-needed calm after months of violence and political unrest. In the years that followed, they provided security for two democratic elections and, after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, pitched in with recovery and reconstruction efforts.

    But that’s not the only legacy MINUSTAH, as the peacekeeping mission is referred to here, has created. Once popular, the UN mission now is viewed by many as a poor use of money and an unnecessary presence – a result in part of numerous scandals that have rocked the mission in recent years. From accusations of sexual abuse of two boys, ages 14 and 18, to the deadly cholera epidemic, peacekeepers are being blamed for impeding the  path to a sustainable state.

    “[MINUSTAH] came to help us,” says Arsene Dieujuste, a lawyer representing the 14-year-old boy. “But they ended up violating our human rights. Someone has to make this as right as possible, even though it will never be right again.”

    'What happened is ying and yang'

    When MINUSTAH set up in Haiti in 2004, the peacekeepers tackled rogue officers from the defunct military and secured access to parts of the capital that had been off limits due to gang monopolies. When successive storms left thousands homeless in 2007 and 2008, the mission responded by delivering tangible goods and services to people and the government of Haiti. This was also true after the 2010 earthquake, which took the lives of over 200,000 people, including 96 UN peacekeepers.

    “MINUSTAH came in and did the job that was asked, which was restore stability into the country,” said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. “The initial mission has been achieved. We’ve now adjusted the scope of the work to different infrastructure development projects – road maintenance, bridges, clearing of canals, and assisting in strengthening the police.”

    Despite their accomplishments, the UN spokesperson in Haiti, Silvie Van den Wildenberg, says she can’t mention the mission without someone asking her about cholera or the cases of abuse.

    In Uruguay, four marines are currently on trial for sexually abusing an 18-year-old Haitian boy last year while they were posted in Port Salud. The teenager and his family were forced to leave their seaside home after the incident went viral on the Internet. It had been captured on a mobile phone by the Uruguayan peacekeepers themselves.

    Earlier this year, three Pakistani peacekeepers were found guilty of raping a mentally challenged 14-year-old boy in the western town of Gonaives. The boy is now a ward of the state. A man accused of helping the Pakistanis cover up their involvement is also in prison. Two other cases of sexual abuse by MINUSTAH peacekeepers are pending.

    Finally, unrelated to cases of sexual abuse but perhaps most damaging to MINUSTAH’s reputation has been the death of more than 7,000 people from cholera, and the infection of half a million others nationwide. The virus was linked to Nepalese peacekeepers who were not tested for the virus, though it is widespread in the area from which they originated. Mismanagement of their human waste is thought to have contaminated the water and soil in an area known as Haiti’s breadbasket, just a few hours from the capital.

    Throughout the country, graffiti slurring the forces is as prominent as the troops’ trademark blue helmets.  A parliamentary recently referred to the mission as a "fish bone stuck in our throats." Ms. Van den Wildenberg, the UN spokesman, says the damage these cases have done to MINUSTAH is irreparable.

    “What happened is ying and yang,” says Van den Wildenberg. “It is the opposite of why we are here, to defend the highest values and ideals and this is killing our credibility worldwide.... We will always wear the scar.” She says MINUSTAH and the UN are very sorry for what happened but their apologies are “not being heard anymore.”

    'More than an apology'

    Many victims are looking for more than an apology, though. A Haitian public interest law firm – supported by a nonprofit organization and law firms in the US – is claiming on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims that MINUSTAH is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars for failing to adequately screen and treat peacekeeping soldiers arriving from countries experiencing cholera epidemics; dumping untreated wastes from a UN base directly into a tributary of Haiti's longest and most important river, the Artibonite, and failing to adequately respond to the epidemic.

    Ruth Wedgewood, a former UN Human Rights Commission member, doesn’t think the UN will ever pay the $700 million requested in damages, but, she says, the UN should protect the rest of the population from what is now an endemic disease.

    “At the very least they should require medical records for all peacekeepers,” says Wedgewood, who serves as the director of the International Law and Organizations Program at John Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. “We don’t want someone with a contagious disease to enter a different biosphere and start an epidemic.” 

    No one contacted at the UN would comment on the cholera lawsuit, saying only that its legal counsel was reviewing the claim and that an independent panel concluded it was not possible to determine the cause of the outbreak. This contradicts claims by five scientific studies, more than a dozen scientists, and a statement by former President Bill Clinton indicting the Nepalese as the source of the virus. 

    Legal firms representing the two victims of sexual abuse are also asking for compensation. Mr. Dieujuste, whose firm represents the Gonaives youth, is outraged by what he says is the stonewalling – local UN officials here have told him that the situation is with the legal department in New York. He’s heard nothing for the past two months, Dieujuste says. “It’s unacceptable.” He is asking for $5 million for his client.  

    Challenges to accountability

    Part of the challenge of peacekeeping missions is holding accountable peacekeepers from any of the United Nations’ 193 member states.

    Troops receive pre-deployment UN training on a code of conduct the moment they join a peacekeeping mission, but, as UN public affairs officer Anayansi Lopez says, “It’s complicated because they rotate every six months and a couple of trainings are not going to make a big impact."

    The military unit of MINUSTAH  – about 7,300 troops – originates from 16 countries; 48 countries contribute to the 1,156 UN police unit in Haiti as well. Once the troops arrive in country, officers and noncommissioned officers receive a three-day “train the trainer” induction. They are given materials to distribute to the rest of the contingents, but there appears to be no enforcement to ensure that these trainings take place, and ultimately, member states’ army units are accountable only to the country that sends them, not to the UN.

    The motivation for many countries to contribute peacekeeping troops is financial, says Martin Aguirre, editor at the Uruguayan daily newspaper, El Pais, which has been covering the peacekeepers' trials there since the accusations began. “Uruguay has little money for its military and … it’s a way for the military to make some extra income.”

    Phyllis Bennis, author of “Calling the Shots, How Washington Dominates the UN,” says the challenge with peacekeeping troops is the same problem that exists between the Security Council and the General Assembly – a contradiction between power and democracy. “The UN has no authority over those perpetrators,” says Ms. Bennis, who works at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “You can ask the leadership to bring that person home and hope they are taken to trial, but there’s no way to enforce that.”

    The numbers of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are posted on the UN website. Only 25 have been registered for all peacekeeping missions this year,  down significantly from the 127 recorded in 2007 when the database collection began. MINUSTAH has consistently ranked third in violations, following Congo and Liberia, respectively. But the data does not include the more than 100 Sri Lankan troops expelled in 2007 on suspicion of sexual exploitation of Haitian women and girls.

    No information about what happened to those Sri Lankan peacekeepers was ever made public by either the UN or Sri Lanka. Member states are not required to divulge the outcome of their internal inquiries.

    Zero tolerance

    The very lack of accountability for member states who contribute troops to peacekeeping missions, however, is what makes the decisions by Uruguay and Pakistan to charge the offenders from their countries so significant.  If anything good comes from these scandals, it is perhaps that these countries are enforcing a zero tolerance policy, says one UN employee who asked not to be named for reasons of job security.

    “[T]he government [in Uruguay] has been very open and strict with this issue,” says Mr. Aguirre. “Uruguay may not see this trail as groundbreaking, but … it could be seen that way from a global perspective.”

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    Syria

    Yesterday afternoon CNN aired a series of heartbreaking images from Syria: Gruesome close-ups of toddlers alleged to have been killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

    I looked up from my desk, and a wave of nausea and anger washed over me as a I saw the body of a little girl in a party dress. The images were twinned to a UN report that alleges 1,000 children were killed in Syria last year, largely by the regime, and that kids had also been subjected to sexual assaults and torture by security forces.

    But then I started thinking. How often had I seen on CNN the broken bodies of children killed in Iraq during the US occupation, or by NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan, or by drone strikes in Pakistan? The answer I came up with from my own recollections was "never." I asked around the newsroom, and most folks there agreed.

    The point is not to draw equivalencies, but simply to point out the implied argument made by the unusual choice to show these murdered kids: A special horror is unfolding in Syria, and the world (read, the US) must do something to stop it.

    Perhaps the world should. But far less explored are the practicalities of military intervention, the risks that horrors as great or greater await by widening Syria's civil war into an international conflict. For now, a simple narrative is being spun of a depraved Assad and his helpless victims. Serving that cause yesterday were claims from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Russia was rushing deliveries of attack helicopters to Assad's army "which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

    Russia is denying that claim, saying it's only repairing MI-24 (Hind) gunships which were sold to Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, more than a decade ago. Either way, such helicopters would be more useful for fighting the Free Syrian Army or other armed rebel groups than targeting civilians. Syria has thousands of tanks, mortars, and artillery pieces and 600,000 soldiers who are the main threat to civilian population centers.

    So if you were for, or against, going to war with Syria before the claims were made about the helicopters, your thinking shouldn't be shifted. And make no mistake, the longer Syria's war goes on, the greater the likelihood that President Assad will follow in his father's footsteps with a truly horrific massacre. In 1982, Assad the elder had at least 10,000 residents of the city of Hama killed in an atrocity that ended an Islamist uprising against his Baath regime.

    In the US, there are surprising signs of support for a US intervention. A Monitor/TIPP poll conducted from June 1 to June 8 found that 15 percent of Americans think the US should "take the lead" in a military intervention in Syria and that 19 percent think the US should "lead from behind encouraging and bolstering military action by many countries but not driving it." The poll's margin of error was plus/minus 3.3 percentage points.

    While the most popular answers were the US should not get involved militarily (29 percent) or only if "no ground campaign is involved" (27 percent), it's surprising that 34 percent of Americans are willing to consider a direct military engagement in another Middle Eastern country when the war in Iraq just ended and the war in Afghanistan continues. More atrocities in Syria will surely tip the needle closer to public support.

    Many opinion makers are pushing for a US-initiated invasion as soon as possible, from the neocon John Bolton to the influential columnist and liberal interventionist Nick Kristof. Mr. Kristof offers an emotion-laden, moralistic call to arms over Syria (and Sudan) while ignoring the uncomfortable question of whether that really serves American interests.

    The reliably hawkish Mr. Bolton at least tries to make the case. He argues in a piece for the National Review this week that President Barack Obama should ignore the concerns of some that unilateral action could put the US at loggerheads with Russia, and undermine whatever slim hopes that negotiations with Iran (another key backer of Mr. Assad) over its nuclear program could succeed. In fact, he seems to relish the prospect.

    First, he regrets that President George W. Bush didn't extend the war in Iraq to Syria in 2003. He writes: "In the days just after Saddam’s ouster in 2003, conditions were optimal (if nonetheless imperfect) for overthrowing Assad and replacing his regime with something compatible with American interests."

    Then he asserts that since Syria is close to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon that "regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest, as well as the interests of Israel and our Arab friends in the region."

    Then he suggest a broader conflict might be a good idea: "Significantly, US intervention could not be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia," he writes. "This the Obama administration is unwilling to do, although it should."

    Does he remember what happened the last time he successfully led the charge for a US-led war in the Middle East?

    Saddam Hussein was among the most vicious tyrants of the last half of the twentieth century, which is saying something. Bolton and others pushed hard for a war they promised would be quick and cheap and would transform Iraq into a prosperous bastion of democracy that would serve as a beacon for the region. Instead, half a million Iraqis died as the country became a magnet for Al Qaeda-style jihaddis and a sectarian civil war broke out that tens of thousands of US troops could do little to contain. The cost to the US was somewhere north of $1 trillion, not to mention the nearly 5,000 US soldiers who died and countless more who lost their health and limbs.

    Today, violence is far down from the peak of the war, but terrorism is a sort of background radiation seeded there by the war and that continues to ooze through the Iraqi nation. Today's sectarian car-bomb attacks against Shiite pilgrims in at least four different Iraqi cities, which killed at least 65 people, are just the latest outrage. The US government estimates that 13,600 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2007. Last year, that number dropped to 3,063, but that was still high enough to place Iraq second, after Afghanistan, in the annual terrorism death toll.

    The Iraqi central government remains split between hostile Shiite and Sunni factions. Basic service delivery such as medical care and electricity remains poor. Corruption and torture by the police and politically motivated prosecutions remain commonplace. Between one-half and two-thirds of Iraq's ancient Christian community have been driven out of the country since 2003. And a regime that was a staunch opponent of Iran (the country that Bolton promises will inevitably need to be confronted in the event of war in Syria) has been replaced with one that is friendly to it.

    And while the violence unfolding in Syria is heart-wrenching, it isn't currently directed at the US. The Iraq war drew in jihadis from around the Middle East, eager to kill US soldiers in the name of Islam. Hundreds of Sunni jihadis have already entered Syria from the Middle East and South Asia to fight Assad's Alawite dominated regime. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam that Sunni jihadis view as apostates, and they're eager to replace the Baath regime with an Islamic caliphate, just like the one they foolishly believed they could impose on Iraq. US boots on the ground and supporters of Al Qaeda have traditionally been a volatile combination.

    A US-led effort to oust Assad? If the US made it a priority, there is little doubt that could be accomplished relatively quickly (just as in the case of Saddam Hussein). What comes next? Just as unpredictable and dangerous.

    You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the Syrian people or ponder a righteous war to save the country from more pain. But sound decisions aren't made from emotion. And actions from the best of intentions can sometimes lead to outcomes as grim or grimmer than any now currently imagined.

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    Changing a lightbulb

    When high school science teacher Ray Janke bought a home in Chicopee, Mass., he decided to see how much he could save on his electric bill.

    He exchanged incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents, put switches and surge protectors on his electronic equipment to reduce the "phantom load" – the trickle consumption even when electronic equipment is off – and bought energy-efficient appliances.

    Two things happened: He saw a two-thirds reduction in his electric bill, and he found himself under audit by Mass Electric. The company thought he'd tampered with his meter. "They couldn't believe I was using so little," he says.

    Mr. Janke had hit on what experts say is perhaps the easiest and most cost-effective place to reduce one's energy consumption: home.

    Moving closer to public transportation or riding a bike instead of driving is not an option for many, but changing incandescent bulbs for fluorescent and buying more efficient appliances is not only possible, it quickly pays for itself with savings.

    In the end, not-very-glamorous changes like these as well as obsessively sealing and insulating your home will save more than, in the words of one expert, "greenie weenie" additions like green roofs and solar panels. Twenty-two percent of all energy in the United States is used for residential purposes. (Transportation accounts for 28 percent.) And although residences consume only about two-fifths of this as electricity, because electrical generation is inherently inefficient, it accounts for 71 percent of household emissions. A home's electrical use may be responsible for more CO2 emissions than the two cars in the driveway. Ultimately, changes made at home may be the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to reduce one's carbon footprint.

    The future apparently holds less-snowy winters, earlier springs, and hotter summers because of human-produced greenhouse gases, scientists say. Accumulating evidence supports climate scientists' gloomy forecasts. Five of the hottest years measured since modern record keeping began a century ago occurred in the past decade, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Last year, the year of Katrina and Rita, set records for hurricane activity.

    "If you love your children, replace your lights," says Joseph Lstiburek, principal engineer of Building Science, a Boston-based consulting company that specializes in building technology.

    The No. 1 contributor of carbon emissions worldwide is the US. It is responsible for 22 percent of the world's annual emissions. In second place, China produces 17 percent, while Russia at No. 3, contributes 6 percent. By another measure, of the top five producers (responsible for more than half of global emissions), the US is by far the highest per capita contributor – 20 metric tons per person per year compared with China's 3.6 metric tons. (Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration.)

    But the flip side of these numbers is that, of the top five CO2-producing countries – India and Japan are fourth and fifth, respectively – an individual American can have the greatest impact in reducing carbon emissions.

    The best place to start is to reduce electricity consumption. Power plants lose two-thirds of their energy in waste heat. For every one unit of electricity your space heater consumes, for example, two units have been lost at the power plant. This inefficiency is reflected in electricity's cost to consumers. Even though more American homes use more natural gas than anything else, homeowners spend more than twice as much on electricity – $100 billion annually compared with $47 billion. Not only is electricity more expensive, but because of its inherent inefficiency, it contributes 21 percent more CO2 annually than does transportation.

    Cutting back on electricity used for lighting (9 percent of residential usage nationwide) presents the quickest savings-to-effort ratio. The EPA estimates that changing only 25 percent of your home's bulbs can cut a lighting bill in half. Incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of their energy as heat, and compact fluorescents, which can be up to five times more efficient, last years longer as well.

    Second stop, kitchen appliances, which consume 27 percent of the average US household's electricity. More than half of that goes to your refrigerator. So "any fridge over 10 years old is worth changing," says Henry Gifford, a New York-based mechanical system designer. "And no, don't put it in the basement and plug it in and leave it there." Get rid of it.

    For the reasons mentioned above, using electricity for water and space heating, which accounts for 19 percent of home electrical use nationwide, should be avoided. "One of the worst things you can do with electricity is use it to make heat," says Alexander MacFarlane, director of green building technical services at the New York-based Community Environmental Center, a consulting company in energy efficiency.

    Ideally, all appliances should be exchanged for those bearing the EPA's Energy Star seal. Plugging electronics into power strips, which can then be turned off, will decrease "phantom loads" and further increase savings. (Transformers inside electrical equipment convert your wall socket's alternating current to the direct current electrical devices use to function. Even in "off" position, they often continue to draw small amounts of electricity.)

    The reduction of heating costs, where US residences consume 47 percent of their overall energy, is more complicated and begins with an exercise in visualization. A house should be conceived of as an airtight, insulated box where you manage airflow, humidity, and heat. "Build tight and ventilate right," says Mr. MacFarlane.

    Individual thermostats in rooms keep energy from being wasted where it's already warm – on the south side of a house, say. And not only external walls should be sealed and insulated, but also between floors to prevent the "stack effect." Hot air rises through badly sealed buildings the same way it goes up a chimney. The upper floors overheat, leading people there to open windows for relief, Meanwhile, a cold draft is sucked into the lower floors. So people living there then crank the thermostat higher, exacerbating the problem, says Chris Benedict, a New York-based architect who specializes in energy-efficient building.

    The extra money spent on caulking, using high quality insulators like blown-in cellulose, and windows with high thermal resistance translate into far less energy spent to control indoor temperatures, she says.

    The lower price of the smaller boilers and air-conditioning units needed for well-sealed and insulated buildings also balance this higher cost. Ms. Benedict brings her new buildings' energy needs down to 15 percent of the area mean – and this for the same cost as regular construction. (With gut renovations, she reduces it to 50 percent.)

    And now – only now – should you consider solar panels. "Go for the efficiency, then go for the solar," says MacFarlane. "Solar panels are the badge that the building gets to wear when you do everything else right."

    • The US government has a home energy saver calculator at: hes.lbl.gov. The Energy Star program website: www.energystar.gov. For tips on sealing your home, go to:www.energyconservatory.com.

    Now check out photos of an incredible cabin built in the wilds of Canada > 

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    California beachIf greenhouse-gas emissions continue unabated, the expected additional warming could raise sea levels by up to four or five feet all along the US West Coast by 2100, according to an analysis released Friday by the National Research Council (NRC).

    Beyond any real estate permanently inundated, such an increase would bring some $100 billion worth of facilities that currently are high and dry into a new 100-year flood plain, according to previous studies that assumed a comparable increase in sea levels. Those facilities include power plants, airports and seaports, and other big-ticket pieces of infrastructure.

    The council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, produced the report at the request of the state of California.

    The study is expected to become a common frame of reference that coastal communities can use to plan their adaptation measures, says Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program for the Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, Calif. The institute focuses on environmental issues and on the sustainable use of resources.

    The NRC's estimates are higher than some previous estimates because they take advantage of more recent research than earlier estimates – notably those estimates published in 2007 by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

    The NRC's estimates are the latest but not the final word on the subject, Ms. Cooley cautions. As techniques for measuring and analyzing sea-level data improve, and as climate models improve, the numbers are likely to change. The biggest uncertainty: how quickly humans move to curb greenhouse-gas emissions – most notably carbon dioxide – in terms of fossil-fuel and land-use changes.

    For now, however, "communities can begin to use this as part of their adaptation planning," she says.

    The report underscores that several factors combine to determine sea-level rise in any one location. Local wind and ocean-circulation patterns, and even the West Coast's shifting crustal plates, which generate earthquakes and raise volcanoes, can play a role. A magnitude 8 quake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific Northwest, for instance, could significantly change a coastal community's height above sea level within seconds, according to the study. Intense El Niño events can boost sea levels in winter by as much as a foot. Changes to the mass of icecaps in AlaskaGreenland, and Antarctica alter sea levels on the West Coast by changing the distribution of mass on the planet, inducing regional changes in Earth's gravitational field.

    Rising sea levels triggered by global warming are superimposed on these natural factors. Warming by itself affects the oceans in several ways. The ocean expands from heating alone. Melting land-based ice contributes. And human-induced changes to river flows also have an effect: Dams tend to reduce rivers' input of water to the oceans, while heavy use of aquifers can increase the flows to the sea.

    Between the 2007 IPCC report and the NRC study, new studies have shown thermal expansion to have played a smaller role in sea-level rise than the IPCC estimated. But melting ice's role has grown. The latest estimates attribute 65 percent of the rise in global average sea levels between 1993 and 2008 to melting ice. Ground water and water stored in reservoirs in effect cancel each other out.

    The NRC estimates that by 2030, global average sea levels could rise between three and nine inches over 2000 levels, range from six inches to two feet by 2050, and from 19 to 55 inches by 2100. The IPCC's upper estimate from 2007 projects as much as a 23-inch rise by 2100.

    For the West Coast, the NRC's figures by century's end are much higher than the IPCC's 2007 projection as well, although different regions take different paths. The report notes that depending on the rate of sea-level rise, north of California's Cape Mendocino, sea levels along the coast could fall roughly a tenth of an inch or more during the first half of the century, largely because of the impact of subduction along the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

    As the Pacific Plate slides beneath the Juan de Fuca Plate, it puts upward pressure on the crust to the east. Although the NRC's projections show considerable sea-level rise north of the cape during the latter half of the century, it remains somewhat less than elsewhere along the coast because of this tectonic process. By 2100, the NRC projects an average rise of between four inches and 56 inches north of the cape, and between 17 inches and 66 inches south of it.

    The broad ranges in the NCR's estimate reflect in no small part uncertainties in the future rate of glacier and icecap melting, as well as in changes to land height, among other issues. The committee acknowledges that the uncertainties grow larger the further out they try to project.

    Regardless of which end of the estimates proves the more likely as time passes, averages don't tell the whole story, adds Robert Dalrymple, a civil engineer at the Johns Hopkins University inBaltimore who chaired the NRC committee conducting the study.

    "As the average sea level rises," he said in a prepared statement, "the number and duration of extreme storm surges and high waves are expected to escalate," increasing the risk of the destruction of wetlands, the erosion of beaches and coastal bluffs, and flooding.  

     
     

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    Vladimir Putin

    At the Crimean resort of Yalta last Thursday the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, waited in sweltering heat for his honored guest, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to show up for a scheduled summit to thrash out the two nations' differences over the price of natural gas.

    And he waited, along with all his officials, for four hours after the meeting was supposed to begin. Eventually, Mr. Putin showed up, and someone explained to the Ukrainians that he'd stopped to "drink a glass" with a group of Russian bikers known as the "Night Wolves" on his way to the summit.

    That incident might be put down to a quirk of Russian-Ukrainian relations, which are quite strained these days over the price of gas and other issues.

    But since coming to power 12 years ago, Putin has developed a consistent reputation for keeping everybody waiting, sometimes for hours, including Russians of every social station, foreign leaders, global corporate executives, the queen of England, and even, once, the pope.

    The now-three term Russian leader's habitual lateness has seldom been made an issue of and goes widely unreported. Supporters say it's really his only personal vice, while critics argue that the Russian media – which often covered Putin's episodes of tardiness during his long-ago first term of office – has since clammed up about it out of fear of offending the Kremlin.

    We only happen to know about the incident in Crimea last week because a few outraged Ukrainian officials have chosen to make an issue of it.

    "Rather than rush to a meeting, a stop was made to drink a glass with bikers.… In my opinion, it is a diplomatic slap in the face or just plain rudeness. This is a manifestation of abnormal relations," former Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko told a press conference in Kiev last Friday.

    "President Putin exceeded the limits of a delay. He went to meet with motorheads and their friends, showing his priorities," in Ukraine, Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Baloga wrote on his Facebook page, according to AFP.

    Last month, at the start of an important state visit to Israel, Putin kept "the entire upper echelons of Israel's government" waiting for 90 minutes before showing up to take part in the unveiling of a monument to Soviet Red Army sacrifices in World War II, according to Haaretz.

    Later in June, Putin dissed hundreds of top global corporate executives at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, a meeting organized by the Kremlin to reassure foreign investors that Russia is a good destination for their capital, by keeping them waiting for 40 minutes in a crowded auditorium. Putin reportedly arrived three hours late for another, private, meeting with foreign CEOs, who were forced to cool their heels in a narrow corridor. Those incidents prompted the English-language Moscow Times to pen an editorial – rare in any Russian media – scolding Putin for his lack of manners.

    "Obviously, foreign investors are not going to ignore Russia because Putin cannot make it to meetings on time," the paper wrote. "Russia offers tremendous opportunities, and Putin has made it easier to invest here. But his apparent inability to keep appointments does reveal a lack of respect for investors, for whom 'time is money.' Putin is overlooking a simple way to show investors that he values them. He should be on time."

    Over the years, Putin has kept the Finnish president waiting for two hours, German Chancellor Angela Merkel for 40 minutes, the king of Sweden for 30 minutes, the king and queen of Spain for 20 minutes, and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for three hours.

    In 2003, he famously arrived 14 minutes late for an appointment with Queen Elizabeth II, but on that occasion at least his aides explained that he'd been trapped in a London traffic jam.

    During his first year as president, in June 2000, Putin reportedly arrived "as much as 15 minutes late" for a meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, according to archived Russian news reports.

    "This habitual lateness of Putin's can be read in different ways, as a character trait or his way of demonstrating his attitude toward others," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the Moscow-based opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

    "But only God is above him now. He's person No. 1, and he can afford to be late whenever he wants," he adds.

    But it's Russians and officials of neighboring post-Soviet countries who've probably had to bear the brunt of Putin's tardiness.

    "In October of 2011, a meeting of heads of governments of Commonwealth of Independent States began three hours late because they had to wait on Putin," writes veteran Russian journalist and blogger Andrei Malygin on his LiveJournal blog. "Even during his election campaign [early this year] he made students in Tomsk wait for him for 2 hours; local journalists had to wait for 9 hours [for a scheduled press meeting], during which time security officials forbade them from leaving the place.... In 2008 journalists were urgently summoned to Putin's dacha, and told that he had an urgent announcement to make. Several hours later, in the middle of the night, Putin appeared and told them he'd gathered them together to show them a tiger cub he'd been given as a present."

    Sometimes there is no lighthearted way to look at it: "In 2002 families of children who died in an air crash in Germany waited for Putin to appear for the funeral. When he didn't turn up, they buried their children and went off to the wake.... But once they were seated, officials appeared and told them to go to the cemetery to repeat the funeral with Putin present.... Even when they returned to the graveyard they had to wait another 2 hours for him," Mr. Malygin writes. (The story was covered by some Russian media outlets in 2002.)

    On another occasion, in April 2001, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church delayed the traditional Easter midnight declaration that "Christ has Risen!" for 10 minutes until Putin showed up.

    "Yes, I had to wait for Putin many times, about half an hour on average," recalls Ella Pamfilova, a veteran Russian Duma deputy, government minister, and Kremlin human rights commissioner who retired in 2010. "But honestly, there are worse sins and other things in life that are more important."

    Even some of Putin's toughest critics agree.

    "They say that punctuality is the courtesy of kings, though Putin is no king," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow.

    "If that were the only problem we have with Putin, I think we might easily excuse it," he adds.

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