Monday, May 16, 2016

Inside Facebook's GOP Charm Offensive

The social media giant contacted the RNC and other top party organizations to counter allegations of anti-conservative bias.

By Tony Romm and Hadas Gold
May 16, 2016

After accusations of anti-conservative bias began to burn Facebook last week, the social media giant quietly reached out to Republican Party leaders to douse the brush fire.

They contacted the Republican National Committee, whose chairman, Reince Priebus, had publicly demanded that Facebook "answer for conservative censorship" — and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had blasted out a fundraising email lumping the ostensibly neutral tech company in with the "liberal media," according to a GOP source. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's main House campaign arm, also heard from Facebook, the source added.

In public posts and private meetings, Facebook has worked feverishly to contain the fallout from reports, first aired by the tech website Gizmodo, that its employees had overlooked conservative media in choosing news stories to run in its "Trending Topics" feature. The effort culminates Wednesday with a high-profile meeting at Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg will try to persuade a throng of conservative leaders that they can trust it as an unbiased news platform.

The company's global public policy director, former George W. Bush aide Joel Kaplan, sought again this week to reject the bias accusations, using a post on his own Facebook page to highlight his experience as “a Republican and a conservative." He noted the major role Facebook has played in the campaigns of GOP presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.

So far, Facebook may have kept the controversy from spiraling out of control — Trump, notably, has yet to weigh in publicly. But not all conservatives may be easy to sway, especially amid frustration with the Valley's largely liberal political temperament. And that poses risks to a company that, while aspiring to become an even larger hub for news and advertising, cannot afford to risk alienating Republicans who are crucial to its own political agenda in D.C.

“I think people saw Facebook as a non-biased, very fair algorithmic platform that wasn't playing politics, and if they start to get labeled as a biased platform, that’s absolutely going to impact how I think conservatives spend money, how they think about the platform, and their trust in [what they're] reading," said Vincent Harris, a top GOP strategist.

Jonathan Garthwaite, the general manager for conservative sites RedState, Twitchy, Townhall and HotAir, told POLITICO he thought Zuckerberg’s company responded appropriately after the Gizmodo report surfaced May 9. But, Garthwaite added: "It was just a response. The proof will be what they do in the ensuing months.”

Garthwaite plans to attend Wednesday’s session, which will also include leaders like Barry Bennett, a top Trump aide; Zac Moffatt, a former digital adviser for Mitt Romney during his 2012 run for the White House; conservative commentator Glenn Beck; and S.E. Cupp, a political commentator on CNN. Late Monday, former Sen. Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation, announced on Facebook he too would join Zuckerberg's huddle. "Even before these recent allegations surfaced for years there were questions of whether conservative stories and authors were suppressed in the Facebook newsfeed," he wrote.

Facebook confirmed some of the roster on Monday, though the company has declined to comment further on its strategy.

Some conservatives are skipping the meeting, however. The conservative news site Breitbart refused to accept the invitation, slamming Facebook for holding a “photo op.” Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who previously ran RedState, said he too had been invited but could not attend, though he described it initially as “a positive sign.”

“Facebook is a private company and can do whatever it wants, but I do hope the company takes care to not just cater to one political view and does not censor stories because those stories conflict with the world view of the news editors or management,” Erickson wrote early Monday.

He added: "Frankly, I think Facebook has been far more open and fair to conservatives than Twitter, which seems increasingly hostile toward conservatives."

The initial GOP reaction was swift and hostile after Gizmodo, citing an anonymous source, said employees who vetted news for Facebook's “Trending Topics” feature had routinely rejected stories from conservative news outlets while amplifying others. “Trending Topics,” which appears on the upper right-hand corner of Facebook’s website, is separate from the site’s main news feed but is still regarded as a driver of traffic.

But the Gizmodo report shed light on the degree to which human intervention, as opposed to neutral-seeming algorithms, shapes the content of the site’s news items.

Within hours of the news breaking, Priebus tweeted that "Facebook must answer for conservative censorship," while the NRSC blasted out a fundraising email asking supporters "to hold Facebook and the liberal media accountable."

Facebook repeatedly has stressed that its internal guidelines prohibit employees from excluding political viewpoints — but even the appearance of bias has threatened its position as a neutral platform for news, political and otherwise. Like most tech giants, the company has labored to avoid the appearance it's close to either party, and it's sought to donate equally to Democrats and Republicans, despite the liberal leanings of its engineers in the Democrat-heavy Bay Area.

"Silicon Valley and conservatives have a lot of issues in common — we share similar approaches to privacy and security concerns, government regulations and free markets,” Cupp said, adding that she welcomes the opportunity to join the meeting with Zuckerberg and leading conservatives. "We should be working together in more concerted ways, and obviously this development was a setback."

Garrett Johnson, who leads a Bay Area conservative tech organization called the Lincoln Initiative, said Silicon Valley’s broader political leanings have already created an inhospitable atmosphere for people on the right. “There is open hostility to people who consider themselves to be conservative … and openly make it known [at] Facebook and other companies,” he said.

For its part, Facebook has worked swiftly to combat the charges. In a post on his own Facebook page Saturday, Kaplan stressed that the company “has always been a place where anyone can share their opinions and engage in discussion.”

Facebook also responded to the furor by publishing for the first time its internal rules for reviewing “Trending Topics” stories, emphasizing that it demands objectivity of the employees. Days later, it promised to brief lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to an aide, though such a session hasn’t yet happened.

The company is also working on answering written questions from Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who said last week that his panel is exploring Facebook’s conduct on “consumer protection” grounds.

Even before Gizmodo’s story, however, Facebook’s relationship with the Republican Party seemed strained, especially after Zuckerberg found himself in open war with Trump over immigration.

Zuckerberg didn’t mention Trump by name when he sounded off last month against ”fearful voices calling for building walls" — but it was clear he had been referring to Republican candidate’s plan to fortify the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump's campaign soon fired back at Zuckerberg in more explicit terms, urging him to "focus on innovation and jobs and their businesses and let the politicians make their policies."

The spat largely has subsided — and Facebook is still planning to support the 2016 Republican convention, despite protests from liberal groups and civil rights activists, who have pressed the entire tech industry to withdraw from the event given Trump’s controversial statements about women and minorities.

Just as importantly, Facebook has become a crucial, unavoidable hub for political advertising. Attracted by large audiences and empowered with the company’s ability to target individual voters, Democrats and Republicans alike are expected to spend more than $1 billion trying to sway voters through digital ads during the 2016 presidential election cycle, according to some estimates, a large portion of which will flock to Facebook. It will sell those very services at the GOP and Democratic conventions in 2016, much as it did for both parties in 2012.

Even the mere appearance of bias, however, casts fresh doubt on Facebook as a equitable platform for conservatives to promote political views. Facebook's size and reach make it impossible to boycott — worldwide, it has more than 1.5 billion users — but the recent controversy might deter digital wary Republicans from getting "more of the ad budget directed to digital," said Elizabeth Wilner, the senior vice president following political media at Kantar Media Intelligence.

"This is a PR problem," she said, "they need to put to bed quickly."

Article Link to Politico:

Inside Facebook's GOP Charm Offensive

Sanders Nevada Revolt Puts Democrats On Notice

Party leaders sound alarms after chaotic state convention.

By Gabriel Debenedetti and Daniel Strauss
May 16, 2016

When hotel security kicked the raucous Nevada Democratic Party convention out of the facility on Saturday night, Hillary Clinton and Democratic leaders across the country were put on notice: Expect serious turbulence before arriving in Philadelphia this summer.

For several chaotic hours, legions of Bernie Sanders’ backers lashed out in anger and frustration over Clinton’s delegate win there. The Paris Las Vegas hotel finally managed to shut down the event, but another group of angry Sanders fans descended on the state Democratic headquarters the next morning.

To the state party officials across the nation who saw videos from the convention on the Internet and on cable news Monday morning, the Nevada debacle served as a jarring reminder that the party is still a long way from united after its long slog of a primary.

“I think maybe Nevada is a little bit of a wake-up call” to party leaders, warned West Virginia Democratic Vice Chairman Christopher Regan. "If every state chair is not talking about how we can make sure that doesn't happen in our state, [for] those that have yet to go, you're just not doing your job."

In interviews with state Democratic chairs and other party leaders in roughly a dozen states — some of whom back Sanders, and some who support Clinton — the consensus is that the Nevada meltdown was an anomaly. But many worry that it might also be a harbinger of trouble at upcoming state conventions, and perhaps even the July national convention in Philadelphia.

“It is really important for [Sanders], if it’s clear to him by the time the convention starts — and that’s likely to happen — [that Clinton has won], that he send messages to his supporters through his lieutenants, through the heads of his delegations, that if Secretary Clinton has the necessary delegates, then we’ll have a roll call,” said former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chairman Ed Rendell, the convention chairman and a veteran Clinton ally, conceding that a fight over the party’s platform would still be likely.

Democrats had hoped to portray the party as a picture of unity – to contrast to what’s expected to be a messy, contentious Republican affair a week earlier in Cleveland – but those hopes are fading as some level of unrest is now expected in various state Democratic conventions in upcoming weeks.

Those concerns began surfacing in formal and informal communications on Sunday and Monday, said state Democratic officials — and it is certain to be a glaring topic of conversation later this week in Philadelphia when state party leaders gather for their quarterly meeting.

“You’ll see similar things happen in other state conventions elsewhere in the next few weeks. I don’t know if it will be to the same extent as Nevada,” predicted Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, noting that he had already discussed the Nevada proceedings during a meeting with his own party on Monday morning, weeks before their own convention. “I can’t imagine that tensions will be this high come late July [at the national convention]. But obviously if they are, that would be a problem."

Others express a higher degree of alarm, and hope to head off any further clashes by encouraging the Vermont senator to call for a cool-down.

“I hope Senator Sanders would understand that he is not only damaging his own reputation and standing, but also doing harm to the Democratic Party, unless he encourages his supporters to be more genteel in their protest,” said Don Fowler, the Democratic National Committee chairman from 1995 to 1997.

In Nevada, Saturday’s convention fell into disarray even after Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid — the state’s leading Democrat — issued statements Friday urging a calm, respectful event following fraught county conventions last month.

The Vermont senator’s backers at one point shouted down California Sen. Barbara Boxer, speaking on behalf of Clinton, while protesting party chairwoman Roberta Lange’s stewardship of the event and accusing the local leadership of stacking the rules and credentials against them when some delegates — including those who were not registered Democrats — weren't accepted.

Three hours after the event was scheduled to end, hotel security stepped in to close out the proceedings but the turmoil didn’t end there. Protesting into the next day after Clinton came out on top, some angry participants posted Lange’s phone number online, spurring thousands of death threats, according to the Nevada Democratic Party.

While many of the state Democratic conventions have gone off without a hitch this year — both in states won by Clinton and by Sanders — the contentiousness surrounding Nevada had some precedent.

In Colorado’s April convention, Clinton-backing Sen. Michael Bennet was drowned out by Sanders backers chanting “change your vote,” referring to his role as a super delegate. More recently in Maine, where Sanders won the state’s caucuses by a 2-1 margin but a majority of the state’s 5 super delegates back Clinton, the Democratic convention approved a proposal forcing super delegates to proportionally align their support with the caucus results. Sanders supporters in the crowd booed and yelled “sellout” and “go back to Massachusetts” at former Congressman Barney Frank, when he called on them to unite behind Clinton.

State leaders said they can envision future gatherings getting even testier as the race drags on and as Sanders keeps winning primaries, as he is expected to do on Tuesday.

"I am a little concerned about some of the procedural stuff, but I think we're prepared to have those conversations," said Wyoming Democratic Chairwoman Ana Cuprill, explaining that she had raised security concerns while planning the convention in her state, where Sanders won the popular vote but tied in the pledged delegate count.

To the Sanders team, such worries simply mean party officials should work on finding a way to improve and clarify their procedures to be more inclusive toward supporters of a candidate who has won so many states and delegates.

“We’re still putting together the facts on what happened there at the time, but in general I can say that it would be in the Democratic Party’s best interest for its leaders to figure out a way to welcome the millions of people we have brought into Democratic Party politics this year, and make them part of the process,” said Sanders’ communications director Michael Briggs. “Smart, self-interested Democrats should figure out how to welcome those people rather than stiff-arm them."

"It’s fair for [party leaders] to figure out what happened, and to try to figure out a way to be more open and welcoming than the Nevada Democrats were for their own sake,” he added. “Whoever is the nominee of this party is going to need the support of as many people as possible, obviously, and the way to do that is to take advantage of this boom in interest that has happened because of Senator Sanders’ message resonating all across the country.”

But most state leaders who spoke with POLITICO wouldn’t commit to making changes, instead insisting, like Mississippi Democratic Chairman Rickey Cole, “If you want to participate in the process, you have to know the rules."

Accordingly, those officials are now reviewing the plans for their own state conventions or gatherings — many spent Monday checking in with their staffs about their preparation. But they say they are more concerned about how Sanders’ local fans read his campaign trail messaging, and fear that insinuations that the nominating process is rigged — not to mention Sanders’ consistent criticism of the party establishment — could lead to more unrest. They’d prefer that the senator focus more of his campaign trail ire on Donald Trump.

South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison floated the idea of a public event held in conjunction with Clinton, to send a message of party harmony even if both candidates remain in the race for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, in state after state, party leaders said they were aiming to ensure calm at their state conventions by explaining the rules and opening lines of communication between Clinton and Sanders supporters.

The alternative, said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, is a Trump presidency: “If people walk away just because they don’t get their way, it will result in the worst president in the history of the United States."

China's 'Undersea Great Wall'

Beijing will build its next line of defense on the ocean floor.

The National Interest
May 16, 2016

As defense analysts brood over the evolving military balance in the western Pacific, considerations related to undersea warfare keep coming to the fore. Given the lethality of modern antiship cruise missiles, surface combatants of all types may well be scarce on the future naval battlefield. Moreover, precision strikes on airbases (and the inherent vulnerability of aircraft carriers) suggest that aerial platforms could additionally be rather sparse during the first few critical weeks of any military conflict that breaks out in the Asia-Pacific region. That leaves submarines (assisted by undersea robots) to decide the epic battle.

Western strategists have been reasonably comfortable with this conclusion, safe in the knowledge that Washington possesses a very considerable undersea advantage over Beijing. That advantage includes acoustic superiority, larger and more capable boats, and a wealth of experience both in operating submarines and in developing undersea warfare-technology innovations. However, this column has occasionally drawn attention to caveats in the assumption of U.S. undersea superiority, including China’s robust mine-warfare posture, its broad front effort to improve its antisubmarine capabilities, as well as possible attempts to experiment with alternative submarine doctrines. That is not to even mention the fact that the U.S. Navy fleet of nuclear attack submarines is now declining to a perilous low of just forty-one boats by 2029—a “valley” in U.S. naval capabilities that is widely noted in Chinese military sources.

This edition of Dragon Eye seeks to sketch out the undersea warfare competition in the western Pacific in slightly greater detail, by discussing anew Chinese-language article about China’s new “undersea Great Wall” (水下长城) that appeared in a late 2015 edition of China Ocean News (中国海洋报). The article presents a rather complete discussion of China’s new “undersea monitoring system” (水下观测系统). Making clear the national-security imperative for developing this system, the article begins with the suggestion that China’s maritime security situation has become “significantly complicated.” In particular, it is pointed out that in the undersea domain, China’s “doors have been left wide open” (门户洞开). China’s methods for tracking undersea targets are said to have been “weak.”

Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the article does not rely on the military rationale alone to justify this ambitious research and development enterprise. A paragraph is devoted to the many nonmilitary applications of such a system, that include providing advanced warning of natural disasters, such as typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis. Thus, the undersea monitoring system is explained as an important way to “reduce social and economic costs” to China’s massive coastal population. Another rationale offered for the system is that all the other major maritime powers are involved in similar research projects, including Canada, the United States, Japan and the European Union. These systems under development by other countries have civilian research objectives “and at the same time have military goals too” (同时用于军事目的).

According to this rendering, the undersea observation system is intended to rectify three lingering gaps. First, Beijing’s lack of ability to monitor targets in the undersea domain is not commensurate with its status as a great power. Nor is it commensurate with “the growing strategic threat” (战略威胁的增长严重). Finally, China’s longtime substandard capability for undersea observation is said to be out of sync with Beijing’s naval surface and subsurface combat capabilities.

This account relates that the first elements of a Chinese undersea observation system went into the water in 2010. Other reports I have analyzedsuggest the initial setup was near China’s North Sea Fleet headquarters at Qingdao. A second installation occurred off of Hainan Island in 2011 and part of the system went into operation for testing in May 2013 near the Sanya nuclear submarine base. Two other projects were also mentioned, including one near Shanghai at Yangshan, as well as one managed by Zhejiang University at Zhairuoshan Island. The latter system was deployed in August 2013, according to this article.

It is emphatically stated, moreover, that China’s ambitions for its undersea observation system cannot be restricted to its coastal waters, but rather may be appropriate to deploy into all ocean areas touching Chinese national interests. Therefore, the systems may be put into place in “the near seas, the depths of the far seas, and around islands bordering the far seas, as well as in strategic passages and such areas” (对近海, 深远海, 边远海岛, 战略通道等区域). More than once in the article, the author compares this endeavor to a space project in terms of complexity and difficulty. Indeed, a definite concern is voiced in the article concerning poor coordination among different ministries, capabilities that are too decentralized, duplicative efforts and wasted resources. Notably, the author calls for developing a “strict system of secrecy” for the project.

The above developments should serve as a warning that Beijing is not simply willing to yield to American undersea dominance. The recent RAND “Scorecard” report on the evolving military balance in the western Pacific does actually attempt to model certain aspects of a hypothetical undersea-warfare battle. For example, an evaluation of U.S. submarines operating against a Chinese amphibious force invading Taiwan yields the conclusion that growing Chinese ASW forces might kill 1.82 U.S. submarines per week of the campaign (p. 213). If the campaign lasted two weeks, therefore, the U.S. Navy could presumably expect to lose approximately three to four submarines.

But this conclusion, entailing very significant U.S. losses, could actually be too rosy. Bathymetry (water depth) would mean very shallow and tight spaces for comparatively larger U.S. submarines. China could employ unconventional platforms like coast guard vessels or even fishing boats to patrol adversaries’ submarine operating areas and report on periscope sightings and missile launches. In creating such a low-tech ASW targeting system, the Chinese would know well that such nonmilitary vessels would not be worth the expenditure of even a single precious American torpedo since submarines are well known to have comparatively limited magazines, nor any easy solution for resupply.

What is most troubling about the RAND study is that it does not seriously grapple with the problem of sea mines and their likely employment against U.S. submarines. Ten of fifty-two U.S. submarines lost in the Pacific War were likely destroyed by sea mines. It is well known, moreover, that China has deployed and continues to work diligently on ASW-optimized sea mines. The undersea observation system discussed above presents yet another challenge to U.S. undersea superiority that did not figure into the RAND estimate of losses.

True, these waters may be so shallow and noisy as to limit the value of these new undersea sensors for Beijing. But Chinese scientists are hard at work trying to master the principles of shallow-water acoustics, and such breakthroughs cannot be ruled out.

Article Link to the National Interest:

ISIS Is Getting America Stuck in Iraq Again

"There's no exit strategy for this."

By Kevin Reagan
The National Interest
May 16, 2016

Around one month ago, I chronicled the exasperating reality of the U.S. military’s relegation to operational hand-holding in Iraq [4]. Sure enough, as more time passes, the magnitude of the challenges therein is becoming clearer. Recent events like the (mostly peaceful and brief) occupation of the Iraqi parliament [5] by followers of prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are illustrative of the political disarray gripping Baghdad. This disorganization has been an utter albatross in the campaign to clear the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) from the north and west of the country, particularly their stronghold of Mosul.

Unfortunately, the U.S. military is now being reluctantly dragged [6] into sectarian squabbles as various regional leaders (i.e., those with tangible power in the area, unlike the government in Baghdad) jockey for control of specific territories. The United States thus finds itself trapped in the middle of messy combat politics without much leverage. The Obama administration’s justifiable reluctance to commit many thousands of troops to the mission of driving ISIS firmly back underground while stabilizing the country (effectively doing the Iraqi security forces’ job for them) means that this problem will persist for some time to come. This makes the current mission creep [7] there that much more concerning, as there is little more than serious headaches and enormous financial burdens ahead.

Amongst other challenges, the United States is coming up short in the Iraqi public-relations arena. Incredibly, as much as one-third of the Iraqi civilian population [8] believes that the United States is supporting ISIS or terrorism in general. Given the significant budget already devoted to positive messaging on the United States’ role in Iraq, its failure to make much headway amongst a general population long skeptical of its role there does not bode well for future diplomacy or security operations. That problem will only be exacerbated if the U.S. and Iraqi security forces are forced to further delay their beleaguered operation [9] to retake Mosul from ISIS. There is a growing recognition that any tactical military gains in ISIS-controlled territory will be for naught without the strong domestic political and institutional support needed to ensure the area doesn’t regress into the fractured tribalism that allowed ISIS to thrive in the first place. Policymakers and military leaders in Baghdad and Washington are thus left with the extremely unappetizing options of either leaving the citizens of Mosul languishing under Islamic State control or moving forward with the liberation of the city without any coherent plan for governing it thereafter.

This raises a number of questions about the U.S. military’s role in the country in the near-term future. Its ostensible mission is to “advise and assist” the Iraqi government security forces so that they can take over full responsibility for internal security and the fight against ISIS. But historical precedent illustrates that this will be an interminable task. One need only look at the images of ISIS fighters using U.S.-supplied Iraqi military gear easily captured in their Mosul offensive to see that the considerable time and effort already devoted to this mission between 2003 and 2011 already appears wasted. Pair those images with the reports from the military advisors in the country of the Iraqi troops’ incredulousness [10] at the idea of Iraqis, not Americans, leading the ground offensive against ISIS, and the mission becomes even more unpalatable. Can we expect the current training mission to be any more effective or expedient than the previous eight-year effort? Even if it successfully produces more competent and efficient Iraqi security forces, can the various political factions agree enough to form a central government which can effectively manage and direct them? (All signs point to “no,” [11] or at least not anytime soon.)

The odiousness of ISIS and the inherent moral clarity of the campaign against it have allowed the Obama administration’s steady troop buildup in Iraq to continue relatively unabated. But as these U.S. troops become more involved in the fight and combat casualties continue to mount [12], questions about a viable exit strategy [13] will undoubtedly begin to flow in earnest. Indeed, as recently as the end of March, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were pushing administration officials in charge of overseeing the anti-ISIS campaign for answers on this front. The answers from retired Gen. John Allen were not promising [14]. When the best answer of the official in charge of overseeing the coalition efforts against ISIS is, “There’s no exit strategy for this. This is about dealing with Daesh [an Arabic name for ISIS]. This is about defeating Daesh. The success of the strategy is not about exit,” there is considerable cause for concern.

Achieving stability in Iraq will be a quandary for the rest of the Obama presidency and well into the next administration. The United States cannot be too singularly focused on the elimination of one single terrorist pseudo-state without addressing the systemic issues [15] which begat it. Policymakers should understand that the current mission to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS is most likely to succeed in pushing it back underground in Iraq, rather than effectively eliminating it (as it expands elsewhere in places like Libya and Afghanistan). Iraq will still be an extremely volatile place with political instability borne of mismanagement [16], ethnic and sectarian division [17], and a depressed economy [18]. The sooner policymakers start working on answers to the challenges in addressing these issues, and evaluating whether the American public even has the faintest appetite for that commitment, the better.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Iran Parliament Seeks Damages For US Support Of Saddam

Iranian parliament passes bill to seek American assets for US actions taken against Iran in the past 63 years.

By Arash Karami
May 16, 2016

After the US Supreme Court upheld legislation that allows American courts to confiscate Iranian assets in the United States, the Iranian parliament passed a bill that forces the administration to seek compensation from the United States for US actions taken against Iran in the past 63 years.

In an open session May 15, the parliament passed the double emergency bill with 181 votes in favor, six votes opposed and eight abstentions. According to Mehr News Agency, some members of parliament chanted "Death to America" during the vote.

Ibrahim Karkhaneh, the head of Iranian parliament's Nuclear Committee, presented the bill and said that the court cases against Iran in the United States were examples of "unjust actions to seize property and assets of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Blaming officials from President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, Karkhaneh added, "The Islamic Republic of Iran until how has not taken significant action against these unjust actions, and day by day these sentences in America are increasing."

According to the bill, the US actions for which Iran would seek compensation are: US involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as king of Iran; a coup attempt known as the Nojeh coup in 1980 shortly after the Islamic Republic was established; US support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, including the 223,000 victims and 600,000 injured during that war; the deaths of 17,000 Iranian citizens at the hands of US-backed terror groups; spying against Iran; confiscating Iranian assets; and US support for Israel.

The bill requires the administration to take "appropriate legal action" against the US violation of state immunity and to take countermeasures against US assets in third countries. The bill requires the Foreign Ministry to present a report to parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission every six months.

The bill is in response to an April ruling by the US Supreme Court that families of victims of the 1983 Beirut bombing of US Marine barracks and other bombings were entitled to compensation from $2 billion of Iranian funds in US banks. In 2012, the US Congress passed a bill allowing 1,000 families access to the funds after they had won a 2007 lawsuit against Iran in a US court. In March, a New York court also held Iran responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, awarding the victims $10 billion.

In response to the US Supreme Court ruling on the Beirut attack and the New York court ruling regarding 9/11, Karkhaneh said, "After the nuclear deal, we see that the United States issues verdicts against Iran with baseless and false excuses." He called the rulings "a cooperation between the American Congress, the government and courts to steal Iranian property."

On May 16, a special working group formed at the order of Rouhani and headed by Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance Ali Teyebnia to "review the various dimensions of the robbery of Iranian property by the American government" issued a statement saying "America's judicial system violated the principle of state immunity." The statement blamed the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for not withdrawing the money from the United States "despite numerous warnings."

The statement continued that in consideration of the studies conducted by the group, and because the issue is not only a legal, political or banking question but also a question of national security, that further studies and decisions be made by the Rouhani administration and the Supreme National Security Council.

Article Link to Al-Monitor:

Iran Parliament Seeks Damages For US Support Of Saddam

What's Next For Hezbollah In Syria?

Hezbollah will have a difficult time finding a replacement for slain commander Mustafa Badreddine.

May 16, 2016

Many people know the name Mustafa Badreddine, but few could say they really knew the Hezbollah high commander in Syria, who died last week in an explosion at one of the group’s bases near Damascus International Airport.

Even those who had met the man knew him by different names.

Hezbollah announced that its most prominent commander, known among his ranks as Zulfiqar (a legendary sword in Islam), was killed in an artillery bombardment carried out by area groups of “takfiris,” fundamentalists who excommunicate other Muslims. According to an Iranian military source in Syria who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Badreddine wasn’t alone at the time of the explosion.

“There was a high-ranking meeting. A senior Iranian commander was with him, along with other Hezbollah senior officers. As they finished the meeting [and started to disperse], a shell fell close to [Badreddine]. Shrapnel to the back of his head killed him immediately … while there were a few light injuries among the others.”

Losing the high commander of its forces in Syria makes the stakes very high for Hezbollah in a war that has seemed to go nowhere in five years. According to the Iranian military source, there is no way to make up for Badreddine's loss.

“He’s a combination of several elements — experience, charisma, military vision and shrewdness — that are hard to find in one person. He had them all in him. But this doesn’t mean Hezbollah’s men are going to be affected on the ground,” he told Al-Monitor. “Resistance bloc fighters execute plans and tactics that are drawn by the joint military command, so there’s no fear in this regard on field operations. But, yes, the command will miss his capabilities and broad vision.”

The source added, “Hezbollah’s military today isn’t the same as a decade ago. Today they are more institutionalized. Several great commanders have fallen in the past couple of years, but this didn’t change the course of the war. … The best farewell to [Badreddine] is to continue this war until the victory that he was looking for [is achieved].”

But in fact, the killing of Badreddine is going to have a deep effect on Hezbollah’s military command. For the first time in many years, there will be a new commander from outside the legend of Badreddine and his brother-in-law, commander Imad Mughniyeh.

A source close to the organization said, “There are other commanders who are going to rise. The mythical effect of Mughniyeh and Badreddine didn’t allow others to be heard clearly. This might be a chance for fresh blood to pour into the group’s body — yet in Syria this will have a different effect.”

According to the source, the command in Syria is expected to see more centralization under the Iranians. “Until his death, Badreddine played an important role in the decision-making path in Syria, military-wise. This is due to his character and history. Now the command is expected to solely be in the hands of the Iranians, whereas Hezbollah’s role will be executing decisions taken by the central command.”

Badreddine’s name has been in the media for decades. In 1991, he was said to have taken part in negotiations for the release of Western hostages taken in Beirut by the Islamic Jihad movement. According to the Oct. 16, 1991, issue of the New York Times, Badreddine supervised a secret meeting with former United Nations envoy Giandomenico Picco.

“I heard of his death this morning,” Picco told Al-Monitor on the phone from New York. He said he wasn’t able to say for sure that he had met Badreddine. “They were all masked, but I heard he was with them.”

In 1991, Badreddine was back from Kuwait, where he had been serving a life sentence for allegedly bombing the French and US embassies there. According to Kuwaiti media reports, Badreddine’s nom de guerre was “Elias Saab” and he was a member of the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party.

An Iraqi who said he was with Badreddine in the prison recalls the story of their escape after the Iraqi invasion. “The prison was isolated completely. There were seven of us — myself; Mustafa Badreddine, who used the name Abu Amin; the well-known Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al Mohandes; and others from the PLO,” the Iraqi inmate, who refused to give his name, told Al-Monitor.

“Badreddine was trained to use and make explosives; therefore, when the guards fled and we started hearing gunshots, he began planning for our escape. He brought some soap, matches and batteries, and made a small bomb that destroyed the locks.” According to the source, the prisoners were able to flee and stayed in Kuwait for four days before arranging for sea passage to Iran, where they were temporarily detained.

From 1992 until 1999, Badreddine was the military commander of Hezbollah leading the resistance against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Then Badreddine assumed another role and the command was taken by Mughniyeh, who was married to Badreddine’s sister. While Badreddine had mainly focused on reducing the number of deaths among members by enhancing the use of booby traps, Mughniyeh came from a newer school of thought that blended classic military with guerrilla war. By May 2000, Israel was forced to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally.

From 2000 until 2008, Badreddine’s role was to lead the group’s security apparatus, which helped later in uncovering several Israeli spy networks in Lebanon. A source close to the party indicated that Badreddine played a vital role in the 2006 war with Israel, though the source provided no details.

The special tribunal for Lebanon that is looking into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri believes Badreddine and three others were responsible for Hariri’s Feb. 14, 2005, death, an accusation that Hezbollah repeatedly denied while refusing to hand over the four suspects. According to the court, Badreddine used several names during this operation, among them Sami Issa, Elias Fouad Saab and Safi Badr. The court’s accusation of Badreddine and Hezbollah’s denial added to the already-tense atmosphere that had pervaded Lebanon since 2005, though after the Syrian crisis the case dropped down on Lebanon’s priority list.

In 2008, Mughniyeh was assassinated in a Damascus car bombing. Badreddine was chosen among other commanders to fill the shoes of Mughniyeh, whose death Hezbollah blamed on Israel. All those who were chosen became members of the jihadi council and aides to Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. In 2011, the Syrian crisis began at the same time the tribunal indicted Badreddine. A year later Hezbollah started preparing for its intervention in Syria. May 2013 marked Hezbollah’s first battle in Qusair. Badreddine started overseeing the group’s war in Syria and how it developed from an operation to protect the borders to a battle for the preservation of the Shiite shrines. He remained in that capacity until the day he was killed.

To Hezbollah, Badreddine isn’t someone who can be replaced the next day, given his history, understanding and influence inside the organization. Yet, the number of commanders slain during the Syrian war has given the group the experience to endure such hits with the fewest possible effects. In fact, one day, years ago, Mughniyeh and Badreddine were seen as Nasrallah’s main lieutenants. Now that he has lost both, Nasrallah will begin looking within his ranks for the man who’ll replace his Syria war commander. He might have many candidates, but none of them can fill the shoes of Mustafa Badreddine.

Article Link to Al-Monitor:

What's Next For Hezbollah In Syria?

Obama’s Excellent Lesson For Dissent-Crushing Kids

By Post Editorial Board
The New York Post
May 16, 2016

President Obama could’ve played to the crowd for his entire Rutgers University commencement speech; instead, he went out of his way to call out the kids for their intellectual cowardice.

Specifically, he slammed them for their protests against the planned 2014 commencement speaker, ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — protests so angry that Rice opted to withdraw.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the policies of Dr. Rice,” the president said. “But the notion that this community or this country would be better served by not hearing a former secretary of state or not hearing what she had to say — I believe that’s misguided. I don’t think that’s how democracy works best.”

“Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities,” Obama added.

Yes, the prez also made a few slams at Donald Trump. But what stands out is that he told the graduates some hard truths that apparently got left out of their education.

Maybe next year’s class will get the message — and extend a new invite to Condi Rice.

Article Link to the New York Post:

Memo to Trump: U.S. Debt 'Shall Not Be Questioned'

By Stephen Mihm
The Bloomberg View
May 16, 2016

Donald Trump got into hot water last week for suggesting that the U.S. could effectively repudiate some of its debt, offering to give the holders of its securities something less than what they are owed. The presumptive Republican nominee eventually backpedaled, claiming that the U.S. would “never have to default because you print the money."

In Trump’s defense, similar ideas have been floated by serious politicians before and even by Democrats. Unfortunately for him, however, the last genuine debate on this question, immediately after the Civil War, ended with a change to the Constitution meant to settle the question forever. (Although the question did arise in 2011 and 2013 when Republicans threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, the legal argument wasn’t put to the test.)

When the founders drafted the Constitution, payments on the national debt weren’t enshrined as sacrosanct. That’s probably because the fledgling U.S. had already effectively defaulted on scads of obligations incurred during the Revolution.

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton consolidated these obligations into a new national debt, and the U.S. soon acquired the kind of reputation for creditworthiness that became the envy of the world. But there was nothing that forbade the nation’s leaders from defaulting on their debt if they opted to do so.

During the Civil War, however, the Union racked up unprecedented levels of debt, though it could readily be serviced by a wartime tax-collection system. Any default by the U.S. would be a matter of choice, and who would possibly want to do that?

The Democrats. When the Confederate states seceded, they left control of Congress and the presidency in the hands of the Republican Party. The end of the war brought the final destruction of the Confederacy and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery throughout the country.

The 13th Amendment did something else, too: it abolished the “three-fifths” clause in the original Constitution. The net effect -- absent an enfranchisement of the former slaves -- was that the South gained significant political power in Congress. When the former rebels returned to Washington, everyone correctly assumed they would vote Democratic and would, in the words of historian Franklin Noll, “combine with Northern Democrats in Congress to form an unstoppable majority that could rewrite many of the changes made during the war.”

This looming supermajority could certainly undo much that the Republicans had accomplished. They might even force the U.S. to assume the debts of the Confederacy and compensate slave-owners for the loss of their property.

But according to Noll, one thing in particular began bothering Republican leaders in the months after the war. As one Republican representative wrote at this time: “None of the white population of the Southern States is interested in paying the public debt … If the whites be restored to political power, their representatives are interested in repudiating that public debt.”

The South already had a history of repudiation: In the 1840s, a number of Southern states defaulted on their debts. No less a public figure than Jefferson Davis, future leader of the Confederacy, was believed to have advocated repudiation for his home state of Mississippi. This reputation stuck. In 1863, a Unionist from Mississippi claimed “secession, repudiation, and slavery are the same in principle and had the same leaders.”

In December 1865, the popular newspaper Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly referred to Davis as the “apostle and high priest” of repudiation. “Whoever assails the public credit is an enemy to his country,” the newspaper said. Leslie’s labeled the unnamed Democratic proponents of repudiation “traitors to the interests and welfare of the country.”

Congress itself sought to head off this threat, considering a resolution in the House of Representatives that declared the public debt created during the Civil War to be “sacred and inviolate,” and that “any attempt to repudiate or in any manner to impair or scale the said debt shall be … promptly rejected by Congress if proposed.” The measure passed, 162-to-1. The single holdout was Lawrence Trimble, a former slave-owner from Kentucky.

But what would happen when the Confederacy rejoined the Union? In January 1866, the Nation warned readers that “it would hardly be a safe thing for the national credit to have such a body of men in Congress, reinforced … by a considerable number of Northern men ready to go for at least qualified repudiation.”

This was an exaggeration. In fact, by this point, Republican leaders realized that fears over repudiation could be deployed to protect and advance party interests. This strategy came together in the language of the 14th Amendment, which granted former slaves the rights of citizens. Section 4 declared that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

Yet, at the same time, it declared the debts of the Confederacy to be “illegal and void.”

If it passed, the amendment would enable former slaves to vote -- and they would almost certainly vote Republican, blunting the impact of the demise of the three-fifths clause. At the same time, it protected the national debt from political meddling. More immediately, it handed Democrats a poison pill: If they voted against the amendment, they could be portrayed as favoring repudiation. The Republicans wasted no time in reminding voters of that prospect. This resonated with many Northerners because, as historian David Thomson has shown, bond sales during the Civil War reached an astonishing cross-section of the populace. A vote for the 14th Amendment helped guarantee a return on investments made by a broad swath of society.

Indeed, the anti-repudiation clause was far more popular than the other clauses giving full rights to the former slaves. But the debt helped insure the passage of the entire amendment.

While the ratification of the 14th Amendment protected the national debt against a full-scale repudiation, Democratic politicians continued to push the idea of a soft repudiation, arguing that the government should use the printing press to repay its bondholders with paper greenbacks instead of the promised gold.

But this, too, went down in defeat when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Public Credit Act of 1869, which dictated that bonds be repaid in coin.

The battle over repudiation was over. From that point forward, the only politicians who dared endorse the idea were fringe figures who catered to the ignorant and the foolish -- the sorts of leaders whom Leslie’s memorably described as “demagogues of the basest kind.”

Article Link to the Bloomberg View:

Does Hillary’s Two-For-One Help?

By Jonathan S, Tobin
Commentary Magazine
May 16, 2016

Back when Bill Clinton was merely an Arkansas governor who wanted to be president, he wanted the country to know that the smart lawyer he married was part of a package deal. Electing Clinton was, Americans were told, a “two-for-one” deal because Hillary Clinton would be an important part of his administration. The line was designed to appeal to female voters eager to embrace a new model of a First Lady as policy maven rather than hostess. In the end, Hillary’s stint as the Clinton administration’s health care czar ended in disaster as her proposal was sunk by critics on substance as well as the secretive nature of the way she operated. But 24 years later the two-for-one deal is back although the roles are reversed. Now it is candidate Hillary who is touting her spouse as a bonus for voters. As the New York Times reported from a Clinton campaign stop in Kentucky:

Hillary Clinton already has an assignment for her husband, Bill Clinton, if they return to the White House next year. The former president, Mrs. Clinton told voters on Sunday, will be “in charge of revitalizing the economy.”

“Because, you know, he knows how to do it,” she said. “Especially in places like coal country and inner-cities and other parts of our country that have really been left out.”

Does this make any sense? In its favor, Bill Clinton is still a very popular figure. Moreover, the 90s interlude between the Cold War and 9/11, during which he governed, is now seen by a lot of Americans as a lost golden age when compared to the subsequent years of war and economic travail. But the Clinton camp’s belief that merely invoking the name of the 42nd president will work to bolster Hillary’s credentials is an assumption that fails to take into account a number of factors. Though Hillary might be well advised to listen to her more politically talented spouse, the talk of Bill as her economic czar brings with it as many problems as it does solutions. Far from energizing Democrats, the prospect of two-for-one, part two will discourage her party’s liberal base and other voters who aren’t interested in recycled ideas in this year of political revolt while also opening her up to more personal criticism by Donald Trump.

Let’s concede that nostalgia for the economy of the 1990s is somewhat understandable. It was the product of the end of the Cold War and the unique juxtaposition of a centrist Democrat in the White House and a new Republican Congressional majority determined to rein in liberal excesses. Bill Clinton’s willingness to work with the GOP produced landmark legislation on welfare reform and crime as well as a balanced budget. Not all of the credit belongs to Clinton, but he does deserve kudos for being willing to work with Republicans as he admitted that the “era of big government is over.” That doesn’t make Clinton an economic genius but, when compared to the woes of the George W. Bush administration that had to deal with the 2008 economic downturn and an Obama administration that has presided over the most anemic recovery in modern American history, it’s no surprise that his stock has gone up in recent years.

What the Clinton camp is forgetting is that other than her own lack of retail talent as a presidential candidate, Hillary’s main liability is the perception that she is a recycled candidate from an earlier era. There’s little that is fresh or new about a woman who has been a leading figure in American politics since that first two-for-one campaign. Promising a Bill Clinton comeback as a policymaker only highlights that problem.

But there are two other far more serious factors that render this announcement a political liability.

The first is that she forgets just how unpopular Bill Clinton’s policies are among the liberal base of the Democratic Party. If the 1990s was an era of prosperity, it is due entirely to the free market and free trade principles Hillary’s husband pursued in cooperation with congressional Republicans. But it is opposition to those ideas that have fueled an unexpectedly potent insurgency against her candidacy from an otherwise unlikely 74-year-old socialist challenger. Clinton has had to tack hard to her left in order to fend off Bernie Sanders in a way that caused her to not only disavow her husband’s policies but also her own record of support for free trade.

This contradiction is no mere detail. Clinton’s only path to victory involves an Election Day turnout of liberals, minorities and young voters that have cheered Sanders’ message. Pundits assume that revulsion against the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency will generate the kind of massive voter turnout that elected and re-elected Barack Obama. But that factor can only be undermined by Hillary’s embrace of a man that embodies a lot of what the political left hates about this country.

But there is one more problem with Hillary essentially promoting the prospect of a two-person presidency: the Trump factor.

Trump is deep under water with female voters who perceive his insults and treatment of women as proof of his chauvinism. Not all of these charges are going to stick as the New York Times less than successful takedown of Trump’s record with women showed yesterday. But it remains an important talking point for the Clintons. Trump’s only answer is the same he uses under any and all other circumstances: he attacks. Those attacks will be centered on Bill Clinton’s odious conduct toward women. The Clinton camp has replied, with some justice, that Hillary Clinton should be judged on her own merits and not as an appendage of her brilliant but wayward husband. But by positioning Bill as a co-president who will run the economy while Hillary presumably goes back to mismanaging foreign policy, she is making it easier for Trump’s no-holds-barred approach to undermine that defense. If Bill really will run the economy, then his record is fair game.

The Clinton camp is clearly uncertain as to what the best strategy for countering Trump might be. Letting him sink himself while Clinton presents a reasonable and responsible alternative to a cult of personality might be the smartest approach. But a new two-for-one deal is not likely to help her with Democrats or Republicans and has the added problem of making it easier for Trump to talk about Monica Lewinsky. If that’s Hillary’s idea of winning the news cycle, she is mistaken.

Article Link to Commentary:

The GOP Is Starving The Justice System

The judicial confirmation rate under the Republican-controlled Senate is less than half of what it was when Democrats held power under George W. Bush. There are so few judges that it’s hurting the country.

By Jay Michaelson
The Daily Beast
May 16, 2016

It’s Not Just Merrick Garland: Republicans Are Blocking So Many Nominees It’s Caused a Judicial Emergency. It’s not just Merrick Garland—this Senate isn’t confirming anybody.

That’s the takeaway from a variety of new data that has emerged in the wake of the Garland stalemate, showing that his non-confirmation (and non-hearing) is the rule, rather than the exception, for the Republican-led Senate.

“It’s absolutely absurd,” Marge Baker, executive vice president of liberal group People for the American Way (PFAW) told The Daily Beast. PFAW has been tracking the issue closely and released new findings this week. “And it’s qualitatively different from anything that has gone before.”

For example, Mike DeBonis at The Washington Post compared the confirmation rates of the Democrat-led Senate in 2007-08, the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency, with those of the Republican-led Senate in 2015-16. The results are startling, and go far beyond Judge Garland.

Over the past sixteen months, the Senate has confirmed 17 lifetime-appointment judges. In the same period in 2007-08, the Democrat-led Senate confirmed 45; in 1991-92, when Democrats controlled the Senate and George H.W. Bush was president, it confirmed 82. In other words, the GOP Senate is confirming just 38 percent as many judges as the Democratic 2008 Senate, and 21 percent of the Democratic 1992 one.

And it’s not just judges. The Congressional Research Service found that President Obama has had the fewest presidential nominees confirmed in decades: 198, compared with 345 for George W. Bush, and 268 for Bill Clinton.

For judicial confirmations, Baker lay the blame squarely on Senator Charles Grassley, the chair of the Judiciary Committee who—in part because of the Garland fiasco—is now locked in a fierce re-election battle.

“Senator Leahy worked hard in the last two years of Bush’s presidency to continue processing nominees,” she said. “Grassley is not. He is not just the judiciary chair for the Republican party—he’s the judiciary chair for the whole country. It’s indefensible.”

PFAW’s own analysis, released this week, revealed that under Grassley’s leadership, the judicial confirmation rate has been 25%. Leahy’s was 58%. A recent PFAW press release dubbed Grassley the “Do-Nothing Chairman.”

While the public’s (wavering) attention is on the unprecedented refusal to consider Judge Garland’s nomination, Baker told The Daily Beast that the truly shocking inaction is on lower court nominations.

“I’ve been following this issue for thirteen years,” she said. “District court vacancies were never in play—they were routine. But now, the obstructionism has gotten down to the district court level.”

A similar point was made in a New York Times op-ed by the recently retired Judge Shira Scheindlin, famous for ending New York’s controversial “Stop & Frisk” program. Scheindlin noted that since 2014, Republicans have confirmed only 15 of President Obama’s district court nominees, compared with 57 confirmed in 2007-08—again, when the Democrats controlled the Senate but a Republican was in the White House.

“The Senate majority’s policy of delaying qualified district-court nominations on purely political grounds undermines public trust in the impartiality and legitimacy of the judiciary,” Scheindlin wrote.

Baker noted that while the Supreme Court hears around 100 cases per year, district courts across the country hear 350,000—and 90 percent of the time, they have the final word.

“Not having these courts adequately staffed creates a real impediment for average Americans—business people, everybody —to get justice in the courts,” she said.

Indeed, the number of “Judicial Emergencies”—a formal designation by the federal court system for when the per-judge caseload is so high that it endangers access to justice—has nearly tripled in the last two years, from 12 in January 2014, to 32 in April 2016.

By way of comparison, there were 19 such judicial emergencies at this point in George W. Bush’s second term—and the number had gone down since the Democrats took control of the Senate.

Republican senators “are blocking nominations in such a cavalier fashion that it’s really distressing,” said Baker.

Yet Baker sees a silver lining in the Garland cloud. As I suggested in these pages last week, the Garland non-confirmation is shining an unusual light on the Supreme Court confirmation process—usually a non-issue in elections, but, perhaps, less so this year.

Baker went even further.

“This issue is a tangible part of presidential and senate campaigns in a way that it hasn’t been before,” she said. Indeed, Baker hoped that the high-profile obstruction of Judge Garland’s nomination could call attention to the obstruction of nominees throughout the judicial system.

If people are paying attention, that is. Already, as Dahlia Lithwick complained in Slate, it’s hard to maintain attention on the Garland nomination, let alone more obscure ones down the line. Especially with two high-profile and highly polarizing presidential candidates this year, there’s reason to doubt anyone is paying attention to district court nomination battles.

Still, Baker remained optimistic. At the end of the day, she said, “the polling is miserable for [Republicans]. The American public does not support this.”

Article Link to the Daily Beast:

Win Or Lose, Trump Could Cause A Recession

By Simon Johnson
May 16, 2016

The question of the moment is: If GOP front-runner Donald Trump were to be elected president, what would he do?

At least on the economic side, we recently had glimpses of what could lie ahead. And those fiscal hints have much broader implications, including for U.S. national security.

Trump contends he can run Washington far better by treating the federal government like one of his companies. He has a very particular style as a real-estate developer, and his general approach to business could indeed be applied to fiscal and monetary policy. Any way that you look at what Trump is inclined to do, however, the result could lead to unprecedented disaster on a global scale.

Trump has already demonstrated a great ability to make the kinds of inconsistent comments that, -- if coming from the mouth of a president -- would scare investors, create a great deal of uncertainty, push up interest rates, lower employment, drive down stock market prices and cause the bottom to fall out of the value of other assets.

This kind of destabilization wouldn’t just have negative effects on investor and consumer confidence in the United States. It would spread rapidly around the world and drive up interest rates, bankrupt private-sector companies and plunge countries into a downward default-recession spiral. U.S. exports would naturally crater in this scenario because U.S. allies and trading partners would be in deep crisis and could not afford to buy American products.

The Trump ripple effect would really be a devastating global tidal wave of rising interest rates.

Trump wants to be seen as a responsible business executive. Ironically, given his hostility toward Latinos and other immigrant groups, his messages most resemble those irresponsible populists who have repeatedly ruined Latin America. On three big macroeconomic issues -- debt, inflation and financial regulation -- Trump would put the United States firmly on the road to becoming Argentina, a once-prosperous country until Juan and Eva Perón took over.

On debt, Trump believes the more the better. His companies issue a great deal of debt because, in the downside scenario, developers like Trump can find ways to pay less than the face value of what is owed. He recently said this approach is an opportunity the U.S. Treasury is losing out on.

The U.S. government, however, is not a speculative real-estate company. Alexander Hamilton realized, at the very start of the nation that having the federal government pay its debts in full, as well as assuming the states’ debts, was of fundamental importance. This was crucial not just for public finance but also for the ability of the private credit markets to operate in a reasonable fashion. And this is what Washington has done for more than 200 years.

“Risk-free debt” is how U.S. debt is described in the world of finance. Once you introduce default risk into those calculations, interest rates would spike for both the government and the private sector.

Trump’s brand of real-estate development is about taking huge risks based on large amounts of debt, while making sure there is limited downside for himself. Bondholders get paid if things go well. If the project does not work out, however, those investors bear the brunt of the losses.

Trump’s companies have gone bankrupt in this tactical fashion -- using Chapter 11 reorganizations -- four times: the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 1991, the Trump Plaza Hotel in New York in 1992, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts in 2004, and Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2009. In the 2004 experience, for example, total debt was $1.8 billion, and the Chapter 11 filing was designed to reduce this by about a quarter ($500 million).

Trump sees all these debt-restructuring experiences in a positive light. As he put it during a primary debate in September 2015, "I used the law four times and made a tremendous thing. I'm in business. I did a very good job."

Speaking on CNBC recently, Trump connected his past debt restructuring with prospective broad macroeconomic strategy for the United States. “I would borrow,” he declared, “knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal.”

This must rank as one of the most irresponsible economic policy statements ever made by a major party candidate for the presidency.

Second, Trump also seems very weak on inflation. When pressed on his purported plan for buying back federal government debt at a discount, he responded by suggesting that we could always print enough money to pay off the debt: “First of all, you never have to default because you print the money, I hate to tell you, OK?”

No doubt this is a fantasy of every highly leveraged real-estate developer whenever the value of their properties falls below the value of their debts. When you have borrowed far too much, the economy is turning down and you can’t make your interest and required principal payments, of course you would just like to print your own pieces of paper and hand those over to creditors.

As a statement of macroeconomic policy intentions from a potential president, this is another extremely scary idea. Combined with Trump’s earlier assertion that he would replace Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, this amounts to politicizing the Federal Reserve – and pushing it toward a high inflation policy. What he is saying could lead to higher interest rates, disruptions in the flow of credit and a contraction of business that could translate into mass layoffs.

Third, on financial regulation, Trump has made clear that he wants to repeal Dodd-Frank financial regulations -- a view that he shares with many other business people who live high on debt. This proposal would essentially bring the U.S. rules back to the status quo before the financial crisis of 2008.

But this is a recipe for -- the financial collapse of 2008. That crisis crashed the economy, threw millions of people out of work, pushed up the U.S. national debt dramatically and undermined America’s national security.

Any president obviously operates with constitutional constraints on his or her powers. But on all three issues -- running up the debt, undermining the independence of the Federal Reserve and repealing or refusing to enforce financial regulations -- candidate Trump is making it completely clear that a President Trump would have a major destabilizing impact.

Or perhaps Trump will walk his statements back -- or forward -- again. Just speaking in this unstable way about matters of profound importance is frightening for credit markets, with immediate negative implications for investment and for employment.

Any economic slowdown that we now experience will be in the private sector. Investors, businesses and millions of consumers could take the rational view that, if Trump became the next president, irresponsible economic policies -- and the instability they would create -- would head America’s way.

Goodbye also to the idea that the United States plays a positive role in the world economy. Electing Trump, the self-proclaimed “king of debt,” would undermine Washington’s image, resources and ability to influence others around the globe. The best way to cause irreparable damage to our national security would be to make Trump president.

As it gets closer to November, if the probability of Trump being elected rises, expect long-term interest rates to increase, while business spending and household consumption will come under serious pressure. Because Trump could easily create a recession -- even if he doesn’t win the presidency.

Article Link to Reuters:

What We Don't Get about Sykes-Picot

It wasn’t just about borders. It was about nation-states.

The National Interest
May 16, 2016

Sykes-Picot is dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by France and Britain after 1919, when each imposed governments in Syria and Lebanon, Iraq and Transjordan. It was signed by the pan-Arab nationalists of the 1940s and ’50s, when their movement crashed against the surprisingly resilient system that had been established; it was invoked again when Arab nationalism crested in the 1960s and fell back in the seventies. It was signed, too, by the minoritarian governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon when they violently split ethnic and sectarian divisions in the 1980s, ’90s and beyond. And it was signed most recently by ISIS, which in 2014 tweeted that Islamic State was “smashing Sykes-Picot” in establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Yes, old Sykes-Picot, which was ratified one hundred years ago this month, is dead as a doornail.

Yet like Marley’s ghost, Sykes-Picot haunts the present. Death and destruction persist in the Middle East. “Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace,” Vice President Joseph Biden said in Baghdad in April. “They’re places where, because of history, we’ve drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups and said: ‘Have at it. Live together.’”

Interest in Sykes-Picot on this its centennial isn’t simply about borders, which have changed since 1916; it’s about what the borders ought to contain. The nation-state, which seems to be gaining political legitimacy and strength everywhere else, has failed in the Middle East. This idea isn’t new, of course. It was recognized before America’s recent state-building campaigns in the region. This idea was known, for one, by Ernest Gellner, the twentieth century’s premier thinker on nations and nationalism.

In his posthumously published 1997 book Nationalism, Gellner sketches out the five-stage spread of nationalism from western Europe eastward. First, along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard, states and strong cultures had overlapped for so long that the formation of nation-states and nationalism was early and largely unbloodied by significant rivalries. Paris and London, Madrid and Lisbon, relative to later capitals, had it easy. “To understand the political map of western Europe,” Gellner writes, “it is still more important to know about the dynastic conflicts of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to know something of Louis XIV’s campaigns, than to be familiar with the ethnographic map of Europe.”

In the second stage, Germany and Italy each already had a strong, unique culture, to which was added a modern state through unification. So far, the story is pretty straightforward. “It is when we move further east that the trouble really starts,” Gellner writes. In central and parts of eastern Europe, Gellner’s third stage, there was a patchwork of cultures, ethnicities and groups, each contesting to be top dog—that is, to join a modern state and strong culture to create a viable nation-state. Increasingly, violence was the instrument employed to settle these contests, and the resulting divisions took on a stronger ethnic dimension. Gellner approvingly cites another scholar, writing that “west of Trieste, nationalism could be benign, but east of Trieste it was likely to be horrible.” He gets around the thorny issue of Hitler and Mussolini by saying that the “horror of Nazism and Fascism is optional. . . . The horror of nationalism to the east is inherent in the situation.”

Here is where the story becomes more pertinent to the Middle East. In the fourth stage, the area in eastern Europe under the Soviet Union, nationalism as a potent political force had been largely suppressed until recently. It has since flooded in among competing ethnicities and groups. Gellner asks of this region,

“Shall we see the proliferation of small, weak, inexperienced and minority-haunted states, or ethnic cleansing, or a diminution of the intensity of the ethnic intrusion in politics? For much of ex-Yugoslavia, the answer is, alas, clear: it is ethnic cleansing, and indeed this is where the term was coined.”

Now, a “Great Sorting Out” is happening in the Middle East, a slow-rolling ethnic cleansing where areas are becoming more homogenous. This mirrors the sorting in the Ottoman regions of eastern Europe over the last few decades (part of Gellner’s fourth stage). Making matters worse, a century (and more) of surprisingly resilient borders, grievances and territorial claims have accumulated in the region, and untangling them promises to be even more bloody than in the Balkans. Finally, a century of distrust in the idea of the Western-style nation-state has accumulated. Why would Middle Easterners turn to such a model of governance now, or turn to it even after a deadly and costly ethnic sorting that could take decades more? Gellner believed, for example, that there was something intrinsic in the culture in the Middle East that made it more resistant to nationalism than in his stages one through four in Europe. This, the Islam-dominated Middle East, was therefore part of a unique fifth stage.

Take Russia, for instance, where modern nationalism was produced from the friction between those elites who wanted to Westernize and those, the Slavophiles, who wanted to boost a local, particular folk culture. Gellner thought that in contrast, in the Islam-dominated fifth stage, the competition has been between those elites who want to Westernize and those elites who appeal not to a folk culture, but rather to a culture focused on the first years and ideals of Islam itself (real or imagined). This latter category includes both true believers (fundamentalists) and those who would simply use such appeals as an instrument of power consolidation. For Gellner, this difference made it more difficult for nationalism, as it had sprung up in Europe, to take root in the Middle East; the appeal was not to something particular and populist but rather to something supposedly universal, undifferentiating of locals. The extent to which this is true can be fought over; indeed, just that is happening, in a way, in the different people and groups fighting in the Middle East for self, home, sect, state and/or whatever else—now and most likely into the future.

Is there a chance to escape this violent fate? For Nicolas Pelham, Middle East correspondent for the Economist, there is. In his new book Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East, Pelham sees the future in the past. He advocates reviving an Ottoman-esque “milletocracy” in which there are parallel states in a shared space—said another way, no fixed national borders. Pelham writes,

“From the outset, Ottoman sultans had administered their diverse empire on sectarian lines, devolving authority to the leaders of their multiple faith communities, or millets. Patriarchs, chief rabbis, and Muslim clerics headed semi-autonomous theocracies that applied religious laws. But while the millets governed their respective co-religionists, they had no power over land. The empire’s many millets shared the same towns and villages with other millets. There were no ghettoes or confessional enclaves. Territorially, the powers of their respective leaders overlapped.”

Think of it as a Middle Eastern Schengen Agreement on steroids. Pelham sees glimpses of such a plan in present day Baghdad and Najaf. “By decoupling the rule of the sect from the rule of land,” he writes, “the region’s bloodied millets might find an exit strategy from secticide and restore their tarnished universalism.”

It’s a preposterous-sounding plan, one as fanciful as his next point is dead-on fact: nothing else since Sykes-Picot has worked. He writes,

“The history of the past century is in many ways a history of ever contracting horizons, ever more fortified border controls, and ever tighter permit regimes, as governments bent on exclusive control erect their defenses around the territorial patches in which they constitute the majority or have absolute power. While Europe dissolved its borders, the Middle East crisscrossed its once open expanse with ever more insurmountable barriers.”

One hundred years on from Sykes-Picot, it might just be a fanciful plan worth taking a second look at.

Article Link to the National Interest:

Oil Prices Jump As Goldman Sachs Says Market Flips Into Deficit

By Henning Gloystein
May 16, 2016

Oil prices jumped over 1 percent on Monday after long-time bear Goldman Sachs said the market had ended almost two years of oversupply and flipped to a deficit following global oil disruptions.

Brent crude futures were trading at $48.47 per barrel at 0703 GMT, up 64 cents, or 1.3 percent, from their last settlement.

U.S. crude futures were up 62 cents, or 1.3 percent, at $46.83 a barrel.

Supply disruptions around the world of as much as 3.75 million barrels per day (bpd) have wiped out a glut that pulled down oil prices by as much as over 70 percent between 2014 and early 2016.

The disruptions have now triggered a U-turn in the outlook of Goldman Sachs, which long warned of overflowing storage and another looming price crash.

"The oil market has gone from nearing storage saturation to being in deficit much earlier than we expected," Goldman said.

"The market likely shifted into deficit in May ... driven by both sustained strong demand as well as sharply declining production," it said, flipping the market from a 2 million bpd in 2015 supply overhang to a deficit of over 400 million bpd by the fourth quarter this year.

However, Goldman cautioned that the market would flip back into a surplus of 258-403 million bpd in the first half of 2017.

In Nigeria, output has fallen to its lowest in decades at around 1.65 million bpd following several acts of sabotage.

In the Americas, Venezuela seemed on the brink of meltdown, triggering fears of default by its national oil company PDVSA, which has to make almost $5 billion in bond payments this year.

Venezuela's oil production has already fallen by at least 188,000 bpd this year.

In the United States, crude production has fallen to 8.8 million bpd, 8.4 percent below 2015 peaks as the sector suffers a wave of bankruptcies.

And in China, output fell 5.6 percent to 4.04 million bpd in April, year-on-year.

Countering this, supply rose from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as its producers are engaged in a race for market share.

OPEC pumped 32.44 million bpd in April, up 188,000 bpd from March, the highest since at least 2008.

Also preventing steeper price jumps was a recovery in output in Canada following closures due to a wildfire, as well as bloated global crude storages.

"The inventory buffer may be preventing full price recovery and ... the market is rightly nervous about the sustainability of outages," said Morgan Stanley.

Barclays said that "while the supply-side disruptions are supporting oil market balances, refinery margins are starting to weaken, especially in Asia," adding that weaker demand from those refiners could produce "downside risk to prices in Q3 16."

Article Link to Reuters:

How The New York Times Plans To Conquer The World

America’s best-known newspaper targets Europe and other markets in search of a sustainable digital business.

By Joe Pompeo and Alex Spence
Politico EU
May 16, 2016

NEW YORK — One night in March, in a jam-packed Austin, Texas beer garden where the New York Times was throwing a party at the annual SXSW Interactive festival, CEO Mark Thompson spent a few minutes chatting with a reporter about the newspaper’s international ambitions.

The New York Times now has north of a million digital subscribers, but only 13 percent are from outside the United States. Thompson, a former head of the BBC, and his colleagues are convinced there’s a wealth of additional readers overseas who would be willing to pay for its journalism on smartphones and computers.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t aspire to a digital subscriber count of many millions,” Thompson told POLITICO.

It wasn’t the red wine talking. A month later, the New York Times announced it would spend $50 million over the next three years to jumpstart “a new era of international growth.” The money is not only a massive cash infusion, but a big bet on the New York Times’ odds of weathering the newspaper apocalypse through a combination of digital smarts and global scale.

“We intend to cultivate a much larger and deeper readership in core markets abroad” — CEO Mark Thompson

The future of the business depends on it. Later than some of its counterparts in smaller international markets, America’s best-known newspaper is confronting a harsh reality of the new digital media environment: revenues from readers at home won’t be enough to keep its newsroom running.

The New York Times will have to overcome formidable domestic competitors wherever it expands, and make its distinctly American sensibility appeal to readers in those places.

“Every part of the company … needs to think creatively about attracting and retaining a bigger non-American audience and growing revenue outside the U.S.,” Thompson wrote in a staff memo in April co-signed by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Dean Baquet.

“We intend to cultivate a much larger and deeper readership in core markets abroad.”

‘There’s a gap to fill’

The project technically lifted off in February, when the New York Times launched a Spanish-language website, The New York Times en Español, for readers in Latin America.

It was the paper’s second foreign-language product, following a Chinese website created several years earlier. The plan is to eventually charge NYT en Español readers for access and then to replicate the model elsewhere.

Beyond Latin America, the New York Times has its eye on about 10 “key markets” where it believes it can attract a substantial number of paying readers, according to New York Times president of international Stephen Dunbar-Johnson. He said they range from English-speaking countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia, to places in continental Europe like Germany and the Nordic countries, to Asian markets like India and Japan.

At the same time, Dunbar-Johnson told POLITICO the New York Times is exploring ways to “optimize the core experience” for casual foreign readers already coming to — a third of total web traffic — and to convert them into regular customers.

"The international expansion is the New York Times’ biggest financial investment right now."

“We believe there’s a gap we’re well positioned to fill,” said Dunbar-Johnson. “The Economist addresses its readers as if they’re aspiring heads of state. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal try to address them as if they’re captains of industry. Our readers are people who are deeply curious about the world, not necessarily because they want to run it, but because they want to understand it and make it better.”

The international expansion, which is rolling out as a cadre of U.S. print and digital publications seek growth abroad, is the New York Times’ biggest financial investment right now.

It stands to make the New York Times more influential in other countries, not unlike how the Guardian got on America’s radar by putting dozens of journalists in the U.S. and chasing homegrown stories like the Edward Snowden surveillance saga, which earned the 195-year-old British news organization a Pulitzer Prize.

But whereas the Guardian and other outlets are trying to make money from their global growth primarily by going after advertisers, the New York Times is banking on the success of its paid digital model, which hasn’t been marketed aggressively outside the U.S. since it began requiring readers to pay for unlimited digital access in 2011.

‘A very American brand’

There’s a lot riding on this. With the ongoing decline of legacy print revenues, the New York Times has set an ambitious goal of growing its digital revenues to $800 million by 2020, from about $400 million last year. Digital subscriptions will be key to achieving that goal.

Thompson said the New York Times has “got a lot more to do in the U.S.” in terms of adding digital subscribers. But really, it will need many more international customers to pull it off.

Not everyone is hot on their prospects.

Douglas McCabe, chief executive of the research firm Enders Analysis in London, said “audiences in all countries are moving away from home news brands … to free online services,” which will make it “extremely challenging” for the New York Times to build up its pool of global digital subscribers.

Another consideration, according to McCabe, is the growing distribution power of social media platforms like Facebook. “Consumption is moving further and further away from content origination,” he said.

“There is no question that the New York Times has much compelling content to offer readers across the world,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Oxford -based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

“The bigger question,” he said, “is what the problem that the Times solves for people is supposed to be, and whether it helps people be part of communities that they want to or need to be part of. Reading the New York Times is part of being a certain kind of person in the US. It is less clear that the Times occupies a similar position with its target audiences” around the world.

International editor Joe Kahn said that’s not an unfair assessment. He acknowledged that the New York Times is “perceived as a very American media brand, unlike some of the British idols”— the Guardian, the BBC, the Daily Mail — “that long ago began the process of realizing their home market is not large enough to sustain their businesses.”

But Kahn argued that the New York Times’ “existing global footprint and reach” is already impressive. According to the web measurement firm comScore, there were 13.6 million visitors to outside the U.S. in March, not counting mobile traffic, which is significant. “Everything we’re doing is going to enhance and market our experience to be ever more relevant” to overseas audiences, he said.

Leading the charge

A new “international growth team” called NYT Global is leading the charge. It includes journalists as well as sales, marketing and audience development personnel.

“We have this extraordinary brand recognition around the world, but not a lot of relevance,” said Lydia Polgreen, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who is heading up NYT Global on the editorial side. “People know who we are, but they don’t have any sense that we are for them. Every single product we have, all of them are really great, and all of them are designed with the U.S. audience in mind.”

That’s what Polgreen and her colleagues are out to change. She mentioned President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba, which got massive, meticulously coordinated coverage from the New York Times’ international desk, and yet didn’t generate a single article that cracked the top-10 on NYT en Espanol. Instead, the number one piece on the Spanish-language site that week was about Obama’s visit to Argentina, which generated less interested in the U.S.

“From the perspective of Latin America, that was much more important,” said Polgreen. Similarly, she said, “Imagine you’re a reader in France and come to the New York Times homepage. It’s completely dominated by what to a foreign reader feels like really small-bore American politics.”

"The Spanish newspaper of record, El País had already expanded aggressively across the very turf that NYT en Espanol is now encroaching on."

In addition to determining which other markets to storm, NYT Global also will be looking at developing new editorial products around certain topics with broad global appeal, like climate change, technology, gender identity and urban life, said Polgreen. By the end of 2016, they expect to have some conclusions about what they will launch next and where.

Neither Polgreen nor Kahn nor Dunbar-Johnson would share early figures from NYT en Espanol to give a sense of how promising the global proposition is. But they all said they were extremely pleased with the level of engagement among readers. Icing on the cake: The site has landed advertising campaigns with brands like Banamex, Acciona, Audi and Formula 1.

“This is a project that has to prove its worth,” said Polgreen. “If we do not see a path to monetization that will make this a growing concern, then we’ll need to pivot.”

Of course the New York Times won’t be without competition from other global media brands in the markets into which it expands.

The Spanish newspaper of record, El País, for instance, had already expanded aggressively across the very turf that NYT en Espanol is now encroaching on. Managing editor David Alandete said he’s watching the New York Times’ project closely.

“Of course we are worried,” he said. “We are worried about everyone that wants to open in Spanish, because it’s competition, and the New York Times is a newspaper of reference.”

Print in decline

Meanwhile, the New York Times is in the process of examining its newsroom structure to determine where there might be cost savings to be had. It’s an exercise that has quickened the newsroom’s collective pulse, with some journalists and departments wondering whether they should feel vulnerable.

Their anxiety certainly wasn’t tempered by an announcement last month that a Paris operation long responsible for the New York Times’ international print edition would be shut down, pending a French labor review process, in a move the company characterized as necessary to its ongoing digital transformation.

Editing and production functions for the the International New York Times are being moved to New York and Hong Kong, with a proposed 70 out of 113 Paris-based jobs to be axed. If all goes as planned, the paper is slated to be redesigned and relaunched in the fall, but Kahn and Dunbar-Johnson wouldn’t divulge any details except to say it will be heavy on enterprise reporting and analysis as opposed to the day’s breaking news.

And what about the $50 million that just landed in NYT Global’s lap?

Kahn said the money will be spent on overseas pilot projects; research, analytics and audience development needs related to the international expansion; and staffing, starting with six senior leadership positions in key areas including data, advertising and operations.

“There are a lot of claims on that money already,” he said. “We’re not gonna have trouble dispensing it.”

Article Link to Politico EU: