Monthly Archives: September 2013

Naheed Nenshi, Canada’s Mayor

Nenshi3When river flooding inundated downtown Calgary, it caused billions of dollars in damage and tested the leadership of Naheed Nenshi, a first-term mayor who handled the crisis so adroitly that he attracted national and international media attention. 
How did this former policy wonk and self-styled “brown guy,” a liberal and a Muslim, come out of nowhere to defy the stereotypes?

How did Nenshi become the unlikely leader of Canada’s politically conservative energy capital, at a time when oil companies and environmentalists anxiously await a decision from President Obama on the future of the Keystone XL pipeline? 

Read Brian Brennan‘s story Canada’s Mayor: Naheed Nenshi in F&O’s Think/Magazine section, with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription starting at $2.95 per month



Posted in All, Canadian Journalist, Current Affairs, Gyroscope Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Iran opens the gate to a long and stony road

In a new column, international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe writes of the remarkable developments today between Iran and the United States, at the United Nations in New York. But hopes for a thaw in the icy relationship are tempered by tough questions – and the reality that Hassan Rouhani does not have ultimate control of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Has Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decided a functional relationship with the West is preferable to the armed animosity of the last three decades? If so, there’s little chance he’s changed his view of the world, or his ambitions for his country.

The column, in Commentary, can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

Posted in All, Current Affairs

Iran opens the gate to a long and stony road

Published September 27th, 2013.

The 34 years of animosity that has marked relations between Iran and the United States took a new direction today when President Barack Obama had an apparently constructive telephone conversation with his new counterpart from Tehran, Hassan Rouhani.

The exchange capped several days of progressively closer conversations between senior Iranian and American officials on the fringes of the United Nations general assembly in New York that are edging cautiously toward trying to end deadlock over Tehran’s nuclear program.

But amid the air of optimism, it is important to remember it is the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the affable Rouhani, who has ultimate control of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Khamenei may have decided a functional relationship with the West is preferable to the armed animosity of the last three decades since Iran’s Islamic Revolution, but not changed his view of the world, or his ambitions for his country.

Khamenei, not Rouhani, will decide what is agreed with the West, the United Nations and the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The Supreme Leader may be willing to give enough guarantees and open up the nuclear program to enough inspection to get U.S.-led sanctions lifted or diminished.

But he will not abandon the program. While he may agree to pledges that Iran will not make nuclear weapons, he will almost certainly want to ensure that his country has the capacity to do so.

He and even many Iranian opponents of the Tehran government believe that ambiguity about Iran’s nuclear capacity is the minimum essential for the country’s security in a very volatile neighbourhood.

Iran, the heartland of the Shiite sect of Islam, is in the midst of a prolonged contest for power and influence in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, who are the champions of the Sunni sect of Islam.

And in the background is Israel, which has a large, but unacknowledged, nuclear weapons arsenal.

Khamenei will not compromise either on any aspects of a nuclear deal that might undermine the tenets of Iran’s system of partial democracy guided by Islamic law and observance.

Even so, the change of tone in the Tehran government after six years of combustible rhetoric from the sinister former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an important opportunity.

There is now an opening for serious negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program, after years of bluff and bluster from Tehran, which only reinforced the suspicion in the West that the real objective is not to produce electricity but to build a bomb.

Rouhani unlocked the gate earlier this week when he spoke at the United Nations and indicated his willingness to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear impasse. Iran, he said, is prepared to enter talks “without delay.”

He was careful, though, to stress Iran maintains its “inherent right” to enrich uranium, a major problem for western sceptics who believe Tehran wants the bomb.

Momentum built on Thursday when Iran’s Foreign Minister, U.S.-educated Mohammad-Javad Zarif, had a half-hour meeting with his American counterpart, John Kerry. 

The two men, according to Zarif, discussed how to proceed with further discussions and negotiations. These were the most senior American and Iranian officials to meet since the 1979 revolution.

Progress continued today, Friday, when Zarif met the foreign ministers from the so-called P5+1 group charged by the UN with addressing the Iran problem. The group includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, U.S., Britain and France – plus Germany. And for this meeting the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, joined the talks.

After the meeting Zarif said the discussion was positive, and he and his government want a timetable for resolution of the disputes developed within a year. That’s easier said than done. 

There are three key elements to the way forward and all of them are fraught with difficulties.

Most obvious is agreeing on a sequence of events. Iran will want sanctions lifted. These have seen its oil exports – a central pillar of the economy – cut in half in the last year, and inflation rise to over 30 per cent annually.

Washington, Europe and the IAEA, on the other hand, will want watertight verification that Iran is giving full access to its nuclear facilities, and that it has halted its uranium enrichment program.

Both sides will want the other to move first. The kind of problems even these initial steps are likely to produce is clear from an Iranian document the IAEA circulated today. In it, Tehran officials continue to refuse inspectors access to the Parchin military base where it is believed nuclear trigger devices have been tested.

Then there’s the problem of whether an American administration can get congressional approval for the lifting of sanctions. Scepticism about dealing with Iran is highly-charged among right wing Republicans and, as they have shown over a willingness to bring the U.S. to a halt over Barack Obama’s health care program, they find it hard to see anything beyond their own bile ducts.

However, although agreeing a sequential dropping of sanctions in return for access and limits on Iran’s nuclear program will be difficult, it should be possible.

Very soon, though, negotiators will come up against what is perhaps the central issue of dealing with Iran. That is getting a verifiable agreement with Tehran on limiting the level to which it enriches uranium.

To power a light water reactor, which Tehran insists is the only objective of its nuclear program, uranium U-235 and U-233 need to be enriched by only 5 per cent. To build a nuclear bomb enrichment needs to be 80 to 90 per cent.

There is plenty of evidence Iran has built enough centrifuges to enrich uranium to very high levels. The trick will be to get Tehran to restrict itself to low levels of enrichment and to agree to a verifiable inspection regime. The final major hurdle will be to try to create a level of security in the Middle East so that Tehran ceases to believe it needs atomic weapons for its own defence.

That will require security guarantee agreements with Washington, but also a sea change in the relationships between Tehran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

From the vantagepoint of today, with Iran and Saudi Arabia fighting proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, and Israel vigilant on the sidelines, that seems a forlorn hope.

But if what started at the UN in New York this week is indeed a journey into confidence building, that can change the reality on the ground.   

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe

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“Give Disaster a Chance”

Published September 27, 2013

Where I live, in Mexico, screens have been filled with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ingrid and tropical storm Manuel along the country’s coasts. Mexico is in no doubt about the reality of climate change, and is instituting a national strategy to respond to it.

Meanwhile those relative few in the Canadian and US media who pay attention to such things have jumped on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to comfort skeptics with the idea that global warming has slowed down or perhaps even paused over the last 15 years.

A pause! Why, it’s the next thing to global cooling and a complete collapse of that whole, human-caused climate-change hoax conspiracy!

Of course there are good reasons why the IPCC’s fifth compendium of climate science acknowledges a flutter in the century-long incline of global average surface air temperatures, without stepping back from the ‘unequivocal” assertion that human emissions are forcing the climate into alarming and unfamiliar territory. To the contrary: its certainty about that is stronger than ever.

There are also good explanations for why the relatively flat record of one indicator over a decade or so is fully compatible with evidence that increasing heat is altering other strands of the climate system.

But if you are one of those dwindling—but still influential—people who has not accepted the conclusion that human activity is pushing the Earth toward conditions that endanger humanity, it would be better if I don’t explain.

It will only make you dig your heels in deeper.

That, regrettably, is what researchers at Yale, Harvard and Cornell concluded. They found that once someone makes up their mind about an issue in a way that aligns with key emotional values—such as their identity, their politics, or beliefs about what others in their community believe—cognitive reasoning kicks into reverse. The more evidence they encounter that should contradict their views—the more they dismiss those facts and double-down on their beliefs.

This may discourage some of those trying to push or cajole society toward a survivable future. They shouldn’t worry. To paraphrase Edward Littwak, give disaster a chance.

It was Littwak who observed, in an essay entitled Give War a Chance, the “unpleasant truth … that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace.”

The same could be said of other kinds of catastrophes. To take a homely example, the reason that fire departments exist and most commercial buildings have fire suppression systems, is that before they did, numerous entire cities burned to the ground.

Or, as Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, puts it: “Societies behave much like individuals. They find it very hard to change their behaviour and give up self-destructive habits until circumstances force them to do so. It took two world wars before Europeans decided they could not go on slaughtering one another as they had for thousands of years.”

War, given a horrific chance, brought peace.

So, I could point out that the lower atmosphere is only one place where heat can accumulate. It can also be absorbed into the oceans which, being made of water, can soak up a lot more of it than air before their temperatures rise much. Or that heat can be absorbed by water molecules evaporating from lake and sea surfaces into the air.

All of that is happening. But if you are a disbeliever, please forget I mentioned it.

Nonetheless, for North America either to prepare for a different climate or help delay its onset, large numbers of disbelievers in influential offices, particularly in corporate U.S. media and Canada’s petroleo-phile national government, must accept the urgency of those tasks.

And if reason can’t do the job, it will have to be brute force. Happily, nature is obliging.

Mexico’s floods and landslides killed more than 145 people. An early estimate put the cost of clean-up and rebuilding at US$1.2 billion, rivalling the US$1.75 billion in damage wrought by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The damage in one state alone—Sinaloa—would rank as the country’s eighth-worst-ever natural disaster.

In the rest of North America in the last twelve months, Hurricane Sandy did $65 billion in damage to the Jersey Shore and New York City; mountain flooding left thousands homeless in High River, Alberta; and nearly identical flooding killed at least ten and stranded thousands in small towns surrounding Boulder, Colorado.

Alberta’s insured damages alone are predicted to rise above $1.6 billion (total eventual damages have been spit-balled at up to $5 billion), making this spring’s floods the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history. Colorado’s losses are still being calculated.

By contrast, Canada’s biggest city emerged shocked but probably no more than $600 million poorer from the heavy rains that overwhelmed Toronto’s creeks and sewers in July. And the long-burning fire that threatened the iconic landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park was contained (more or less) at a cost of only some $100 million.

Still, these sums add up. In an ordinary year, even routine adverse weather costs Americans some $485 billion, according to the United States’ National Center for Atmospheric Research. But these are no longer routine times.

The number of weather-related natural disasters has doubled in number since 1990—from roughly 200 a year to 400. At this rate, the raging greenies at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecast, extreme weather will “endanger economic assets” worth US$45 trillion a year by 2050–slightly more than half of total world economic output in 2012.

Reason may not bring resistant believers around to reality. Disaster will have its chance.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Wood

Posted in Canadian Journalist, Current Affairs, Environment Tagged |

Science speaks on climate change


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a summary of its fifth periodic report on what’s happening to our planet’s climate on Friday, Sept. 27. The balance of the report, collecting the findings of more than 2,000 researchers over the past half-decade, will be released in stages over the next several months. 

But the bottom line is already clear: “Multiple lines of independent evidence [show that] warming in the climate system is unequivocal. It is extremely likely [ie: above a 90% probability] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models.”

Most of the heat collecting in the planet’s climate system is going into the oceans—expanding their volumes—while all of the globe’s ice sheets have dwindled.

The report is equally clear about what’s causing these changes: “It is extremely likely [again, a greater than 90% likelihood] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” The more alarming message may be that we are unleashing natural feedback loops that may push the pace of climate change beyond any human influence. “Climate change,” the scientists warn, “will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

The report was targeted before it appeared by climate-change skeptics who argue that global average atmospheric (air) temperature has not increased in the last decade. Observations show, however, that the last decade was the hottest on record—and the third in succession to be hotter than all previous recorded decades. 

Posted in All, Current Affairs, Gyroscope

Facts and Opinions goes LIVE.

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OPEN HOUSE: September 25 – October 1 

It’s official folks, we are live. Welcome to our Open House – come in and browse our sections for no charge, before our paywall goes up on Oct. 1.  Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, Facts and Opinions is a new online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism without borders.

Posted in All, Canadian Journalist, Gyroscope

Kenyan siege will increase U.S. military footprint in Africa

Published September 25, 2013.

One result of the siege of the Kenyan shopping mall occupied by Islamic militants will be to reinforce Washington’s determination to continue expanding its controversial military presence in Africa. 

The take-over of the up-market Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, by fighters claiming to be from the al-Shabaab militant group in neighbouring Somalia, will add to the belief among security analysts in Washington that Africa is emerging as the main battleground against Islamic terrorism.

Successive United States governments have significantly increased their military and diplomatic focus on Africa over the past decade, in part as a counterweight to China’s growing influence and economic involvement in the continent.

To that has been added more recently the perceived need to counter the growing spread of Islamic extremism in north, west and east Africa.

This focus in Washington saw the creation of the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. This was the time when Somalia, which had had no functioning government since the ouster of the dictator Siad Barre in 1991, was emerging as a refuge for Islamic militants looking for a new haven as American and allied forces attacked their refuges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the same time, al-Shabaab, a loose organization of young Islamic militant fighters, was beginning to capture large parts of southern Somalia from the largely ineffectual, and under-resourced, United Nations-backed transitional government in Mogadishu.

But AFRICOM was conceived in Washington as a different kind of approach to institution-building, and for countering both the march of extremism and insecurity in Africa.

The theory – now much disparaged – was that in many African countries the military is the only functional institution. If American forces concentrated on training local militaries, they could not only inject logistical skills into African administrations, but also lessen the likelihood of coups by instilling the culture of a professional, non-political military.

Detracters point out that in many cases this approach has only resulted in African countries spending more on their militaries, and there is little evidence of the organizational skills imparted by the American trainers being adopted by the civilian administrations.

In a recent report the British-based global analysis and risk-assessment advisory company, Oxford Analytica, said “military-focussed counter-terrorism and terrorism prevention strategies may yet prove to have exacerbated rather than mitigated radicalisation and other threats, where policing and justice system-based approaches would hold more longer-term promise.”

The evidence on the ground supports this view.

Although AFRICOM’s public descriptions of its efforts still emphasise building schools, constructing bridges and administrative capacity-building in the 49 African countries in which it operates, it has swiftly returned to its cultural background as a fighting force.

The rise of al-Shabaab in Somalia and the country’s role as a haven for al-Qaida terrorists and its associates was the first stimulus for AFRICOM’s shift in approach. That shift is clearly seen in AFRICOM’s now close relationship with the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.

There are several reliable reports in recent years of suspected foreign and local militants in Somalia being assassinated by missile-armed unmanned drones or other aircraft.

The assumption is these attacks were launched from the hub of AFRICOM’s actions in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti, the former French colony, crammed into the Red Sea coast between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland, the former northern region of Somalia that declared independence in 1991.

Camp Lemonnier is called the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, and has about 2,000 military personnel assigned to it. AFRICOM’s official web site says Camp Lemonnier’s mandate is to “enhance partner national capacity, promote regional security and stability, dissuade conflict, and protect U.S. and coalition interests.”

The Djibouti base is, however, only part of AFRICOM, whose network of operations bases and support structure has developed significantly since the onset of the North African regional revolutions called the Arab Spring.

Recent reports say AFRICOM has established relationships with the governments in Niger, Uganda and Burkina Faso. These allow AFRICOM to use airports in those countries to launch unarmed surveillance drones from their airports and to use them for small-scale special forces operations.

In about 26 other African countries, American forces have negotiated landing and refuelling rights.

AFRICOM’s headquarters is in Stuttgart, Germany, which is also the base for the Marine Corps forces assigned to the unit.

Regular U.S. Army units attached to AFRICOM are based in Vicenza, Italy, and the naval wing is also based in Italy, at Naples.

Air operations flow out of MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and the British Royal Air Force’s airfield at Molesworth in England.

AFRICOM took the lead role for the U.S. in the allied air operations in Libya, which led to the rebel overthrow of leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The unit also provided key logistic support earlier this year for French troops who wrested northern Mali in West Africa from al-Qaida-linked Tuareg rebels.

As well as in the Horn of Africa, Islamic militants are now operating in several countries of West Africa’s Sahara Desert region. In northern Nigeria there is something close to a civil war as government forces attempt to contain local Muslim terrorists known as Boko Haram.

Last month there were newspaper reports in Washington that the Pentagon is thinking of eliminating AFRICOM as a cost-cutting measure. The reports said its responsibilities would be absorbed by European and Central Commands.

But while AFRICOM remains controversial in Washington and among critics, and it is held up as evidence of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy in Africa, the events of the last few days in Nairobi have probably guaranteed its survival as an independent operation. 

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe




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Climbing rocks on The Rock

While Squamish, British Columbia and Yosemite, California are the major centres for rock climbing sports in North America, on the island at the far eastern edge of the continent Newfoundlanders have some pretty good rocks, too. The climbs are not as high, but they are just as hard, and they come with the stunning coastal scenery of Canada’s most eastern province.

We traveled to the town of Flatrock, Newfoundland, 2okm north of the capital city of St. John’s, for the 2013 FlatRock Climbing Festival, organized by the local chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada.


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New column: Aggression roils the East China Sea

Today’s column by international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe examines why the relationship between China and Japan is souring, as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe loosens constitutional restrictions on the use of the country’s armed forces. Japan’s move is in response to increasing military pressure from China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. 

The column, in Commentary, can be accessed with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

Posted in All, Current Affairs

Tokyo moves to boost military in response to Chinese “provocations”

Published: September 18, 2013.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is moving to loosen constitutional restrictions on the use of the country’s armed forces, in response to increasing military pressure from China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

On Wednesday Abe asked a legal committee to report by the end of the year on ways to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution — the so-called pacifist provision — so that Japan can have what he calls “ordinary armed forces.” The move comes as China has intensified its air and sea incursions into Japanese territorial waters and air space around the five uninhabited Senkaku Islands.

China claims to own the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu. In the last year it has sent Coast Guard cutters into Japanese waters around the islands on 59 occasions. Chinese Air Force warplanes and, in the last few days, unmanned drone aircraft, have repeatedly flown into Japanese air space over the islands, prompting Tokyo to scramble its own fighters. 

After the latest incursion last week, Japanese officials warned their jet fighters may shoot down Chinese drones. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, also said Tokyo will consider stationing government officials on the islands to reinforce its sovereignty.

This brought an angry response from Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said if Japan takes “provocative” actions it must “accept the consequences.”

“We are resolute and determined to safeguard our territorial sovereignty,” Hong said. “We will not tolerate any provocative actions against China’s sovereignty.”

The long-standing dispute came to a boil last year when the captain of a Chinese trawler, found fishing in waters around the islands, was detained after he rammed a Japanese Coast Guard cutter. The incident sparked fervour among ultra nationalists in both China and Japan.

In an effort to calm the situation, the Japanese government bought three of the five islands from their private owner on September 11 last year. But the move backfired. Beijing interpreted the purchase as “nationalisation,” and began the campaign of incursions by its Coast Guard ships and armed forces.

A brief meeting between Abe and the new Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Russia earlier this month failed to cool the issue. Indeed, the Chinese incursions have intensified in the days around the first anniversary of Tokyo’s purchase of the islands.

Even more threatening military displays have been held by all branches of China’s People’s Liberation Army on the East China Sea coast facing the Senkaku Islands. State-controlled Chinese media reported that an exercise was intended to “demonstrate the power projection of the People’s Liberation Army to the disputed Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.” It involved 40,000 soldiers of the 31st Army Group, warships from the East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet, and fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and bombers.

China has been engaged in a massive modernization and expansion of its armed forces since 1990. But despite Beijing’s evident determination to be able to project power overseas, in quality and sophistication its forces remain inferior to the Japanese military, whose systems and equipment are designed to allow joint operations with its major ally, the United States.

Tokyo, however, is restricted by Article 9 of the constitution, imposed on Japan by the U.S. after the Second World War, on how its forces can be used. The constitution allows Japan to maintain only sufficient “self-defence forces” to ensure the security of the country if it is attacked. Japan’s military is prohibited from either attacking another country or joining with allies in offensive operations, such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the face of considerable public disquiet, successive Japanese governments have in recent years pushed the boundaries of Article 9. Japanese forces have provided logistical support for allied operations and Japanese naval vessels have joined the anti-piracy patrols off Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Since his return to the prime ministership in December last year, Abe has made no secret of his wish to either revise Article 9 or reinterpret the section to allow greater freedom of action by Japan’s armed forces.

This is being encouraged by the U.S. administration of Barack Obama, which wants greater support from its allies as territorial disputes in Asia become more threatening, accompanied by a significant regional arms race.

Abe has repeatedly given two reasons for wanting to loosen restrictions on Japan’s military, neither of which is very convincing. One is to enable Japanese forces to counter-strike if a U.S. warship is attacked while on a joint exercise. The other is to allow Japan’s military to attempt to shoot down a missile aimed at the U.S.

Some Japanese legal experts say their military already has the authority to aid a U.S. vessel in a joint operation as part of its mission to defend Japan. As for shooting down a missile fired at the U.S., perhaps from China or North Korea, it’s highly questionable whether the current level of missile defence technology would allow such a feat.

Much more to the point were remarks by Abe earlier this month, remarks clearly pointing at China.

“We cannot look away from the reality of repeated provocations against our sovereignty, of the worsening safety and security situation surrounding our nation,” Abe said. “We must not conclude with a mere pretence that diverges from reality and thereby put strain on the self-defence forces that are on the ground.”

“We have continually walked the road of peace for 68 years after the end of the Second World War, with the U.S. security alliance as our bedrock. We can be proud of that. But this will not guarantee future peace,” he said.  

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe

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