Venezuela's Political Crisis Unfolds

Allison Fedirka - April 29, 2016


Summary: Venezuela's government and opposition are currently engaged in a standoff centered around President Nicolás Maduro. While economic disarray and social unrest make it appear that power is up for grabs, the government and opposition each have their own strategic approach for gaining and maintaining power.

Venezuela is constantly discussed but the serious issues facing the country are insufficiently addressed. The country is fragmenting due to its strong political divides - each with their own subgroups - and myriad economic and social problems. In our 2016 forecast, we indicated that Venezuela's crisis will continue throughout the year and that gridlock will prevail in the government. Therefore, it is useful to examine how this forecast is progressing by evaluating the current situation in Venezuela. The main political challenge for the country is the fight to remove the president from power. Despite several attempts by the opposition, nothing has worked so far and Venezuela has seen serious economic and social implications arise from this gridlock.

Legal Options to Oust Maduro After an opposition coalition won a majority of National Assembly seats in the elections on Dec. 6, it spent its first months in office seeking a legal means for removing President Nicolás Maduro. Three potential paths have been seriously pursued by the coalition, which does not control the other branches of government. First, the opposition sought to amend the constitution to shorten terms in office, including the president's term from six to four years. These changes would mean Maduro's presidency would end in early 2017, rather than 2019. However, the Supreme Court ruled on April 25 that any such amendment could not be applied to current terms. As a result, this path to removing Maduro has been taken out of play for the time being.

Impeachment by the National Assembly is the second legal option for ousting Maduro. To successfully carry this out, the opposition requires a two-thirds supermajority in the legislature. Although the opposition achieved this threshold in preliminary election results, three opposition candidates from Amazonas have been prevented from assuming office due to alleged election irregularities in the state. Without these three legislators, the opposition does not have the necessary supermajority to impeach the president. The opposition is currently in the midst of legal battles with the National Electoral Council (CNE) and Supreme Court in an attempt to get these legislators admitted into the National Assembly.

The Collapse of the Old Oil Order

Michael Klare - April 29, 2016


This article originally appeared in TomDispatch.

Sunday, April 17th was the designated moment. The world's leading oil producers were expected to bring fresh discipline to the chaotic petroleum market and spark a return to high prices. Meeting in Doha, the glittering capital of petroleum-rich Qatar, the oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with such key non-OPEC producers as Russia and Mexico, were scheduled to ratify a draft agreement obliging them to freeze their oil output at current levels. In anticipation of such a deal, oil prices had begun to creep inexorably upward, from $30 per barrel in mid-January to $43 on the eve of the gathering. But far from restoring the old oil order, the meeting ended in discord, driving prices down again and revealing deep cracks in the ranks of global energy producers.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Doha debacle. At the very least, it will perpetuate the low oil prices that have plagued the industry for the past two years, forcing smaller firms into bankruptcy and erasing hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in new production capacity. It may also have obliterated any future prospects for cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC producers in regulating the market. Most of all, however, it demonstrated that the petroleum-fueled world we've known these last decades -- with oil demand always thrusting ahead of supply, ensuring steady profits for all major producers -- is no more. Replacing it is an anemic, possibly even declining, demand for oil that is likely to force suppliers to fight one another for ever-diminishing market shares.

The Road to Doha

The Taliban Three Years After Mullah Omar

Catherine Hirst - April 28, 2016

This month marks the three year anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the infamous, one-eyed cleric who led the Taliban for more than sixteen years.

Omar was a fascinating figure on many fronts. Famously reclusive and enigmatic, no Western journalist ever met him and he wasn't seen in public after 2001. Under his rule, a stringent formulation of Shariah Law was implemented in Afghanistan, including amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. A veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, Omar and Osama bin Laden were close colleagues and this was an important factor in the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, Omar managed to evade capture for twelve years, despite an intensive US-led manhunt and a $US10 million bounty. He died of natural causes in 2013.

Beyond his notorious exploits, influence, and the mysteries that surround him, Omar's life and death provide fascinating insights into the role of individual leaders in the Jihadi system.

Omar commanded almost mythic status as the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban. He was referred to by his followers as Amir al-Mu'minin (Leader of the faithful), the prestigious title used by Islamic Caliphs throughout history. His authority extended beyond the Taliban; Al-Qaeda and other regional Islamist groups were also loyal.

Iraq: The Fight Within the Fight Against the Islamic State

Stratfor - April 27, 2016


 

 

Forecast

-As they cooperate in operations against the Islamic State, Iraq's various militias will also compete with one another for reclaimed territory. -Iraq's political and ethnic communities will use their associated militias' gains to boost their power in Baghdad. -The importance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State will give the Shiite community's pro-Iranian contingent more political influence. -The rivalry between Iranian- and Turkish-supported militias will expose regional competition playing out in Iraq.

Analysis

Trump Is a Danger to the Nation and World

Pierre Atlas - April 26, 2016


"Get ‘em out!" That's what Donald Trump shouted to peaceful, silent protestors last week at his rally at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds.

People wearing Trump masks or anti-Trump T-shirts - even if they were silent and just stood there -were removed from the political event as the crowd jeered. This is Donald Trump's approach to free speech in a democracy.

As we know from other rallies, Trump has lamented the "good old days" when police could crack people's skulls with impunity, and he has encouraged violent action by his followers, going so far as promising to pay the legal fees of those arrested for assaulting protesters. If this is how Trump behaves toward non-violent political dissent as a candidate, imagine what he would do with the power of the presidency.

Trump supporters love his mantra about building a wall and "making Mexico pay for it." The Republican frontrunner says he would withhold billions of dollars in remittances that Mexican workers (documented as well as undocumented) lawfully send home to support their families until the Mexican government paid for a wall along the border. What would this act of extortion (a violation of international law) look like domestically? Every Western Union in the country would require police surveillance to implement an unconstitutional interference by government in private commerce.

Serbia Votes to Continue Its EU Integration Path

Ivan Vejvoda - April 26, 2016


BELGRADE-The Serbian parliamentary snap elections held yesterday were always going to be about consolidating the incumbent Prime Minister's position and the strategic goal of taking the country forward toward full EU membership. The result was more than convincing with 48% of the votes won and a full parliamentary majority. With this, Serbia continues full steam ahead into the EU accession process and opening the next key negotiation chapters 23 and 24 on justice and home affairs. And some would say most importantly, the Serbian electorate has once again demonstrated that it chooses the West.

Since the democratic, peaceful, electoral victory over the Milosevic regime in 2000, pundits continue to ask whether Serbia has finally chosen between the EU (the West) and Russia. But every election in the past 15 years has produced pro-EU majorities. Occasionally these majorities have translated into governing coalitions with somewhat murky orientations, but every government since 2000 has contributed to and led, sometimes admittedly at a snail's pace, the country toward the EU.

Ahead of the election, some opinion polls showed rising pro-Russian, or anti-western, sentiments. This trend reflects a certain discontentment, as opposed to genuine attachment to the Kremlin. Serbia's economy is struggling with high unemployment and stagnant, if not sinking, standards of living, and uncertainty about tomorrow is undermining people's confidence.

In the light of this, what do these elections confirm? The Eurosceptic or blatantly anti-western, far-right parties garner overall less than 15% of the vote. Only two anti-EU parties secured a place in parliament: Vojisslav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (8%) and coalition of the Democratic Party of Serbia-Dveri (5%). The remaining 87% of party representatives are pro-EU. Serbia is thus at low-end of European countries with a far-right vote.

The View From Georgia: Waiting for Europe

Judy Dempsey - April 25, 2016


Georgia's defense minister spoke candidly about her expectations for the July 2016 NATO summit and about the security vacuum in Eastern Europe.

The notion of a Europe whole and united hardly got a look-in at this year's Globsec forum of foreign and security policy experts in Bratislava. Yet becoming part of the Euro-Atlantic structures of NATO and the EU is key to Georgia's future direction and stability. Since 2012, when the Georgian Dream coalition defeated the party led by then president Mikheil Saakashvili, reforms have lost their momentum, stagnation has set in, and corruption and nepotism have been on the rise, according to a new report by the Center for Eastern Studies. There are disagreements too about Georgia's relations with Russia.

None of the above has made things easier for Tinatin Khidasheli, who was appointed Georgian defense minister nearly a year ago. In an interview on April 16, she spoke candidly about Georgia's expectations for the July 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the security vacuum in the region, and relations with Russia. I began by asking her about the summit.

Judy Dempsey: What does Georgia expect from the NATO summit in Warsaw?

Obama Shrugs at Saudi Snubs

Anthony Bubalo - April 25, 2016


There has been a lot of parsing of yesterday's reputed snub of President Obama by King Salman of Saudi Arabia. It certainly was a snub. In 2009 the late King Abdullah greeted Obama off the plane during the US President's first to the Kingdom; yesterday King Salman sent the Governor of Riyadh to welcome the US President while he received his Gulf counterparts a few hundred metres down the runway.

The reasons for the snub are pretty obvious too. Saudi impatience with Obama personally has grown exponentially. They blame him for an assortment of failings, real and imagined: abandoning the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011; failing to hold his his red-line against Bashar al-Assad in 2012; and cozying up to the Iranians with a nuclear deal in 2015.

For Obama, sharp-eyed about US interests and unsentimental about US allies, the snub will have mattered very little. But if the Saudi leadership thinks, as it apparently does, that it can simply wait for Obama's successor to resume normal service then they are in for a nasty surprise.

The truth is that, with or without Obama, the fabric of interests that once tied the two countries together has been fraying for some time now. Certainly personalities do matter, especially in a country like Saudi Arabia, run more like a family business than a state. The Saudi royal family's close ties to the Bush family in the US, for example, certainly helped to hold some of threads of the relationship together.

More Civilian, Less Military, U.S. Policy Needed in the Middle East

Daniel Serwer - April 22, 2016


Daniel Serwer is a Senior Research Professor of Conflict Management, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This piece is a synopsis of a longer paper as part of the Middle East Institute's scholar series titled "The Middle East and the 2016 Presidential Elections." The views expressed here are the author's own.

America's allies in the Middle East -- the Sunni Arabs, as well as Israel -- are concerned that the United States is withdrawing and leaving a vacuum that will be filled by jihadi extremists or Shiite Iran. They are right to worry. U.S. interests in the region are declining from Washington's point of view, and so is the need for its military presence. It is not our military but our civilian capabilities that have the best chance of serving remaining American interests across the Middle East, and we need to wield them far more effectively than in the past.

The first priority for the U.S. military in the Middle East has been to keep oil flowing unimpeded to world markets from the Persian Gulf. The United States spends between 12 and 15 percent of the Pentagon's budget on this goal, which former President Jimmy Carter enunciated 36 years ago in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union is gone. The United States, which never imported a big portion of its oil from the Gulf, nevertheless had reason to worry that a supply disruption there would bump up the world market price and cause significant economic damage.

Today, there is little chance of that: The U.S. economy is far less dependent on energy than it was four decades ago; we maintain ample oil stocks in a Strategic Petroleum Reserve; and unconventional production of oil and gas would return quickly at $70 or more per barrel, mitigating any economic impact of a disruption. If Washington is worried about a supply disruption, it would make sense to encourage Gulf countries to increase their pipeline capacity, which would mitigate price increases by ensuring that adequate supply reaches world markets. We should also be convincing India and China to hold larger stocks and to contribute naval forces to guarding the Strait of Hormuz, since they import the lion's share of Gulf oil. It makes no sense for Washington to be spending more than $80 billion per year to keep oil flowing from the Gulf so that Beijing and Delhi can import most of it. Diplomatic means trump military means when it comes to Gulf energy issues.

This Is Not the Orange Revolution

Steven Keil - April 21, 2016


KYIV, Ukraine - Invoking Yogi Berra's overused quote may seem cliché, but for Kyiv watchers, it seems a bit like "déjà vu all over again." A continued stalemate and infighting between the president and prime minister caused the latter to resign. Corruption and a dysfunctional political system hinder the implementation of badly needed reforms. Russian pressure and exploitation of a broken post-Soviet system further erodes political capacity in Kyiv and divides interests in the regions. And while this story may sound familiar, this is not the mid-2000s and I am not talking about the Orange Revolution.

To start, for many in Ukraine the political situation today is existential. To understand the difference, it is critical to underscore how much Russia's action has catalyzed this change. This must start with dispelling a mistake often made in many analyses of the Maidan revolution - chiefly in the thinking that the protests were all that pro-Western in nature. Rather, they comprised a conglomeration of pro-Ukrainian, pro-EU, anti-Russian constituencies united in their opposition to the government of Viktor Yanukovych's handling of the Accession Agreement negotiations and the political status quo. The tragic events of early 2014 solidified these identities and infused pro-Ukrainian, pro-Western, and anti-Russian sentiments more widely across the anti-status quo movement.

The shooting of Maidan protesters, Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and the Kremlin's continued driver-seat role in the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine have given staying power to reform-oriented forces in Ukraine despite Kyiv's persistent political shortcomings. This is an important departure from the Orange Revolution script. During a visit to Odessa with the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, one activist that had also participated in the Orange Revolution demonstrations told me that the difference today is that there is no other choice. Because of Russia's actions, Ukrainians do not have a "status quo" to return to.

This was not the case during the mid-2000s. Many urged reform, yet Ukraine's oligarchic interests and the tensions of its multi-vector tendencies outlasted these ambitions. The voices of reform faded. It is clear that many of the same challenges that plagued the Yushchenko government are persisting in the post-Maidan era today, but it does not seem the voices of the Maidan will soon fade.

The French Conundrum

Adriano Bosoni - April 21, 2016


France is in the midst of political change. After years of economic decline and shaken by a spate of terrorist attacks at home and elsewhere in Europe, many French voters are disenchanted with traditional political parties, dubious of the country's economic prospects, and uncertain of its role in Europe and the world. During the next presidential election, set for April 2017, voters will reveal the extent of change in France, setting the course of the country's future and that of the European Union as a whole.

In the aftermath of World War II, France built its national strategy on three pillars. The first was to develop a strong alliance with Germany, securing peace on the Continent. Conditions were ripe for accomplishing this goal. Germany was occupied and divided. Meanwhile, Britain was exhausted by its war efforts, and the United States was pumping money into Europe and pushing for greater political and economic cooperation among its nations. Although France had its own postwar reconstruction and a crumbling colonial empire to contend with, Paris found itself in a unique position to lead European integration. What resulted were the European Communities, forerunners to the European Union.

France's second priority was to protect the independence of its foreign policy. As the political realities of the Cold War congealed, President Charles de Gaulle wanted to secure the most leeway possible for Paris. Following this premise, France sought to forge its own relationship with Russia, build its own nuclear arsenal, and protect its interests in the Arab world and its former colonies. At the same time, de Gaulle mistrusted international organizations. Under his rule, France left NATO's military command and opposed British membership in the European Economic Community.

Finally, France aimed to build a strong republic with a solid central power. For almost a century, fragile coalitions, weak executive power and short-lived governments characterized the French parliamentary system. In 1958, as decolonization in Africa and Asia strained the French political system, de Gaulle pushed for reform, introducing a semi-presidential system in which strong presidents were elected for seven-year terms (the term was eventually reduced to five years). The resulting structure featured a two-round voting system whose main goals were to ensure that the president had robust democratic legitimacy and to prevent fringe political parties from attaining power. The system also relied on infinite layers of public administration, a constant attribute of the French state, and on inflation-fueled employment thanks to a fluctuating franc.

Brexit Would Be a Further Blow to the Special Relationship

Xenia Wickett - April 20, 2016


Xenia Wickett is Head of the US and the Americas programme at Chatham House. This piece has been published in collaboration with Chatham House. The views expressed are the author's own. This piece was also published at the Chatham House website.

The U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship is in decline, and a British decision to leave the European Union would hasten its demise. As Great Britain increasingly becomes just one of America's many strategic relationships, Brexit would speed the transfer of U.S. attention and energy from the United Kingdom to the continent. This, however, does not need to be inevitable. The necessary ingredient to reverse this decline is stronger British leadership internationally.

The U.S. government has made it abundantly clear that its preference is to see Britain remain in the European Union. In January 2013, when British Prime Minister David Cameron had not yet committed to a referendum on Britain's EU membership, Phil Gordon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, bluntly stated that it is in the American interest for the United States "to see a strong British voice in that European Union." The fact that a senior U.S. official would go so far - to be seen to intervene so early in a divisive domestic political issue - spoke volumes about how important this is to America. This week, U.S. President Barack Obama will visit the United Kingdom to send an equally firm, if polite, message to the British public.

Why does the U.S. want the U.K. to remain in Europe?

Trump, NATO, and Europe's Security

Judy Dempsey - April 15, 2016


Donald Trump's criticism of Europeans' unwillingness to invest in NATO is misplaced. What he should have questioned is Europe's reluctance to take its own security seriously.

Big foreign policy issues have played hardly any role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. That briefly changed on April 3 when the Republican contender Donald Trump delivered his verdict on NATO. "It's obsolete," he told supporters in Wisconsin. "It's possible that we're going to have to let NATO go."

The reason, Trump explained, was that America's European allies were dragging their feet on financing the military alliance. "When we're paying and nobody else is really paying, a couple of other countries are but nobody else is really paying, you feel like the jerk," he said. "I call up all of those countries . . . and say ‘fellas you haven't paid for years, give us the money or get the hell out.' . . . Maybe Nato will dissolve, and that's OK, not the worst thing in the world."

Now that must have been pleasing to the Kremlin, which has always pursued the idea of splitting if not ending the transatlantic alliance.

No Exit in China

Thomas Vien - April 13, 2016


In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: "The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?" Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant "clear" or "pure," were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu's fate during the dynasty's infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus.

The Qing, like all other Chinese central governments, struggled to contain dissent across a continent-sized empire. This proved doubly difficult because a small number of ethnic Manchus ruled over a far larger population of resentful Han Chinese. Han rebellion, which often coalesced around the purported superiority of Han culture, was a constant threat, shaking the foundations of the empire from the mid-19th century. Eventually, Han-led revolution swept away the Qing - and the entire imperial Chinese system - in 1911, leading to the formation of the Republic of China. This, in turn, quickly split along factional lines into warlord cliques. Truly effective central rule did not return until the Communists seized power in 1949.

Paranoia appears to be on the upswing in China once again as President Xi Jinping attempts to force painful structural reforms past resentful provincial and local governments, the bitter medicine for years of distortions imposed by China's wave of economic stimulus. Outwardly, he seems well poised to do this. Observers often call him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. On the outside, it appears to be true. Xi is in the midst of an epochal housecleaning with his anti-corruption campaign, which has disrupted countless power networks and, in the process, created numerous enemies.

Since 2012, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's top anti-graft agency, has investigated and punished hundreds of thousands of officials. The campaign is set to continue, with all arms of the government completed before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. By doing this, Xi has eliminated political rivals, and seemingly, the system of consensus-based politics that had prevailed in China since 1978 - a system intended to be a hold on the emergence of individualistic dictatorship and the policy ills that flowed from it. It is a system now seen by Xi as unsuitable for handling China's entangled economic problems, such as overcapacity in heavy industry and ballooning corporate debt. But China's ruling authorities are behaving as if they are anything but secure - since February, Chinese censors have responded harshly to seemingly innocent slips in the press. Beijing's harsh response suggests that political struggle is more intense in China than it has been in decades.

What Ted Cruz Gets Right About Islamism

Hassan Mneimneh - April 12, 2016


Hassan Mneimneh specializes in the Middle East, North Africa, and the wider Islamic world. This piece has been published in collaboration with the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are the author's own.

Sen. Ted Cruz, when asked at last month's CNN town hall meeting to defend his controversial proposal to target Muslim neighborhoods in the United States, made a valuable distinction between Islam and Islamism.

Islam, the White House hopeful noted, is a religion, while Islamism is a political ideology. Cruz's elaboration, beyond this initial distinction, may garner less support from researchers examining Islamism in its multiple expressions, but the Texas senator can indeed be excused: These experts themselves are rarely in agreement about how to label and categorize their subject matter. When compared to the "Islam hates us" aside of another presidential contender, Cruz's remarks reflect an apparent attempt to understand a complex situation, rather than an effort to appeal to the primal fears of the electorate.

When it comes to Islam and Islamism, a multitude of terms and categorization schemes are in competition. Some are built upon known words and expressions, and may thus be easier to conceive -- such as Islamo-fascism and Islamic supremacism -- but they carry with them the effect of eliminating nuances by assuming undue similarities. Others, while hopefully more accurate, are too arcane for the non-specialists; often, even to the specialists, they may be too opaque without the assistance of copious footnotes.