Thursday, March 21, 2013

Checklist: Obama returns to the Middle East

On his first presidential visit to the region since 2009 Cairo speech, we evaluate US progress on key policy pledges.
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2013 06:45

Not only is this Barack Obama's first visit to Israel since taking office - it is his first trip back to the Middle East since his much-hyped "address to the Muslim world" in Cairo in 2009.
He has done a mixed job implementing the promises he made in that speech. His pledge to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal "with all the patience that the task requires" has largely evaporated, and he will say little on the subject while in Jerusalem and Ramallah, according to the White House. And his promise of a new beginning in relations with the Arab world has been overtaken by events; US policy in the region is still largely focused on stability.
Below is a summary of the main promises Obama made on his trip to Cairo. He has made progress on the issues where he can act unilaterally: boosting aid and exchange programmes, for example, or ending the war in Iraq. But he has accomplished little on the diplomatic front, or in terms of ending torture and other US policies which have sparked so much anger across the region.

  • Withdraw US troops from Afghanistan

    A complete withdrawal is years, if not decades away.
    The size of the US force in Afghanistan has more than doubled since Obama took office, from around 40,000 when he took office to a peak of about 100,000. Those numbers have been declining, though, as the US nears a planned withdrawal at the end of 2014.
    Still, the US plans to leave a residual force of perhaps 10,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely; they will be tasked primarily with targeting al-Qaeda members in the country, a seemingly open-ended commitment.
  • Afghanistan and Pakistan

    Invest billions in economic development in Afghanistan and Pakistan

    The White House has vastly expanded its aid to Pakistan, pledging $7.5bn over five years in civilian aid, a fulfillment of Obama's pledge in Cairo.
    The two countries launched a "strategic dialogue" in Washington in 2010, and have held a series of high-level meetings since. Money from the US has already been earmarked for a number of projects in Pakistan, including new hospitals, water infrastructure and agricultural investments.
  • End the war in Iraq

    This is an unequivocal "yes," though much of the credit is due to the Bush administration, which in 2008 signed the status-of-forces agreement that required all US troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

  • Prohibit torture and close the Guantanamo Bay prison

    Obama issued an executive order just days after taking office which required interrogations be conducted in accordance with the US army field manual, which prohibits many forms of abuse.
    But he has not barred some policies widely held to be a form of torture - keeping detainees in solitary confinement for long periods, for example. Nor has he repudiated the practice of "rendition," where suspects are sent for interrogation to foreign countries with lax human rights standards; several news reports have documented the continued use of "black sites," secret prisons in Somalia and perhaps elsewhere.
    And there has been no accountability for the officials who condoned torture under the Bush administration. Obama's newly-confirmed CIA director, John Brennan, has been accused of complicity in abusive interrogations.

  • Demand an end to Israeli settlement growth

    Obama has repeatedly urged Israel to stop building settlements, and his pressure helped bring about a 10-month settlement freeze announced in late 2009 -- though calling it a "freeze" is a bit generous, because hundreds of new homes were built during that period.
    But despite all the public pronouncements, Obama has not forced Israel to choose between its settlements and its relationship with the United States. He has not threatened any consequences for their continued growth.
    Even when the Israeli government publicly humiliated vice president Joe Biden, by announcing 1,600 new settler homes hours after Biden landed in Jerusalem for a visit, the only response was to deprive Netanyahu of a photo op on a visit to the White House several weeks later. The incident was quickly forgotten.

  • Pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace

    Obama has done less on this issue than his predecessors. There has been no "Obama peace plan," no counterpart to Oslo or Wye River or the "road map."
    He did broker a high-profile meeting in September 2010 with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan. The summit was meant to restart direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, and it did, for less than a month. But when the temporary settlement freeze expired at the end of September and Netanyahu refused to renew it, the Palestinians withdrew from the talks, and they have not resumed since.
  • Support education, science, technology and health programmes in the region

    The US has done a number of things to fulfill this pledge. Exchange programmes in Muslim-majority countries have increased by 30 percent since Obama took office; the US state department also created a programme that allows American high school students to spend a semester or a full year abroad in Muslim-majority countries.
    US embassies in individual countries have also set up lower-level efforts. In Qatar, for example, the embassy runs a "sister schools" programme that pairs US and Qatari high schools.
    And in late 2009, the White House announced the Global Technology and Innovation Fund, which provides between $25m and $150m to "catalyze and facilitate private sector investments that promote access to and growth of technology ... throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa". The administration also dispatched three "science envoys" to Muslim-majority countries in north Africa and southeast Asia.

Attack on Iranian dissident group in Iraq

BAGHDAD – Rockets tore into a former US military base near the Baghdad airport before dawn on Saturday, killing at least five members of a controversial Iranian dissident group and wounding almost 40 other people, according to the UN.
The group, the Mujahadeen al-Khalq or People’s Mujahadeen, said a sixth member died of injuries in what they called an Iranian-sponsored attack facilitated by the Iraqi government.
 “This is an area very close to the airport surrounded by military units…How could someone get close enough and have the freedom and liberty to shoot 30 missiles into the camp?” said Hossain Madani,  a camp leader reached by phone.

He said the six dead included five men and one woman, all of whom he said had completed interviews with the UN refugee agency and were awaiting resettlement.
The top UN official in Iraq said he was "deeply shocked" by the attack.
"It is now important for the government to form an investigation committee and to ensure that safety and security are ensured in the future because it is very important that the resettlement process goes on," Martin Kobler, special representative to the UN secretary general, told al-Jazeera.
Kobler last year negotiated an agreement between the MEK and the Iraqi government to close Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s last remaining base, after 28 members of the group were killed in an operation by the Iraqi army to force them to leave.
The agreement includes a commitment by the Iraqi government to ensure the group’s security. As part of the agreement, all but 100 of the group’s members were relocated to Camp Liberty – renamed "Camp Freedom" by the Iraqi government.
The organisation’s members live in the trailers left behind by the US military in a compound guarded by Iraqi police.
The group of about 3,000 people is the last remaining legacy of the heavily armed opposition invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein to help fight Iran. After the 2003 invasion, they gave up their weapons but remained at Camp Ashraf, close to the Iranian border.
The Iranian government has put pressure on Iraq since 2003 to close the camp and Iraqi officials have emphasised that the MEK members have no legal status in Iraq. Designation by the UN refugee agency as persons in need of protection now allows them to be resettled in other countries.
The US state department recently agreed to remove the MEK from its list of terrorist organisations, a move that was believed to have been made in response to the Paris-based organisation agreeing to close Camp Ashraf.
Hundreds of the group’s members have ties to Germany, France and other countries. While many of them have devoted their lives to fighting the Iranian government, hundreds of them who grew up abroad have never been to Iran.  The organisation keeps very tight control on its members, limiting access to families outside. Men and women are segregated and many of those inside the camp have children raised by MEK members abroad.
Rocket and mortar attacks against the airport complex have been rare since US forces pulled out of the country two years ago. Extensive defense systems were installed at the airport itself to detect and deter attacks.
'Impossible to prevent'
Iraqi security spokesmen said the rockets had been launched from Abu Ghraib, a Sunni area in west Baghdad. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said it would have been impossible to prevent.
“It’s true we are responsible for protecting the perimeter of the camp but we can’t control indirect fire,” Mohammed al-Askari told al-Jazeera.  “Even if it’s a bird that’s been attacked they will accuse the Iraqi government. The country is being threatened by al-Qaeda, Baathists and militias and we are doing our job.”
The organisation said the attack was proof they should be allowed to return to Camp Ashraf.
"Camp Liberty was a failed project," said Madani.
In the three decades since Saddam Hussein invited in the MEK, the organisation turned the camp in Diyala province into a small city with a college, a museum, gardens and their own cemetery. For the Paris-based MEK, it was the last remnant of their once significant presence in Iraq.
In the agreement to close the camp, 100 of its members have remained there until the group reaches agreement with the Iraqi government on selling off what the MEK says are $500m in assets including buildings, and “Diyala authorities have called it a pearl of the desert,” said Madani.
The disagreement over the assets and hostility between the MEK and the Iraqi government threatens to further complicate the MEK’s withdrawal from Camp Ashraf.
“The United Nations for obvious reasons does not get involved in buying or selling their property,” said Kobler.

Iraq: Powering up after a decade down

Explore how electricity problems have plagued Baghdad and beyond by comparing government data with citizen reports.
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2013 16:01

Official government data

With an infrastructure crippled by international sanctions and three Gulf Wars, Iraq's electricity grid continues to mount a recovery from years of neglect and corruption.
Current power output is more than double the prewar production of just 3,300 megawatts (MW) before the US-led invasion of 2003. The current level of generation approaches the peak 1990 production level of 9,000 MW. However, demand over the last two decades has more than tripled.
The current thirst for electricity, 14,000 MW, far outstrips the present supply of around 8,500 MW. A growing consumer economy has stimulated the need for more power plants to supply computers in the workplace and air conditioning units during brutally hot summers - when the outages are most severe.
The map below shows the average electricity output for each of Iraq's 18 provinces. Overlaid are the country's power plants with production capabilities. Click on regions or icons for more details.

  • Using official data from the Iraqi government, these chart display average usage statistics from a regular Thursday (work day) and Friday (weekend) in early March. The numbers, while debated by some government critics, can explain some of the issues Iraq is facing.
  • The power generated by the public, national grid is complemented by electricity imported directly from Turkey and Iran. In addition, private local diesel generators for households and neighbourhoods are crucial sources of energy when municipal lines are powered down.
  • The figures for Iraq are separate from the numbers for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Statistics from Iraqi Ministry of Electricity
19h00 Peak time of day
8,130 Total load from all governorates (MW)
6,637 Power supplied by ministry (MW)
1,493 Imported electricity (MW)
12,596 Total demand (MW)

Population Governorate Daily peak consumption (MW)
7,055,200 Baghdad 1,975
3,270,400 Ninawa 843
2,532,000 Al-Basra 808
1,878,800 As-Sulaymaniyah 1,280*
1,836,200 Dhi-Qar 355
1,820,700 Babil 345
1,612,700 Arbil 1,143*
1,561,400 Al-Anbar 420
1,443,200 Diyala 326
1,408,200 Sala ad-Din 420
1,395,600 At-Ta'mim 598
1,285,500 An-Najaf 260
1,210,600 Wasit 235
1,134,300 Al-Qadisiyah 200
1,128,700 Dihok 856*
1,066,600 Karbala' 245
971,400 Maysan 265
719,100 Al-Muthannia 173

* Power supplied by the Kurdistan Region Ministry of Electricity

Iraq Speaks: citizen reports

A lasting solution to Iraq's energy shortages is elusive, but involves a creative mix of attempted fixes every day by individuals and businesses, as well as a long term plan to build more power plants to serve a burgeoning population and fulfill its energy desires.
We sent the following SMS, translated into Arabic, to a group of randomised subscribers on Asia Cell and Zain networks -

"Al Jazeera wants to know: How many hours do you have electricity per day in March, and how do power outages affect your life? Please give your name and location in the response."

Largely clustered in the central and northern areas of Iraq, the 70 most substantial messages appear on the map below. Lighter shading indicates reports of the most daily power availability.
This map shows citizen reports of average daily electricity availability for selected governorates. Overlaid are SMS replies from ordinary Iraqis. Click on the map for specific responses and province-wide averages
  • As with the data in the left panel, the respondents confirm that the Kurdistan region has a better record of providing reliable electricity. The combined output of the three Kurdish provinces is more than 3,000 MW.
  • In addition to recently becoming independent from Baghdad's electricity resources, the KRG also supplies some electricity during peak summer months to areas of adjacent Ninawa (Mosul), At-Ta'mim (Kirkuk) and Diyala provinces. Kurdish Iraqis in cities such as Khanaqin have benefited from the north's transmission of power to these disputed border areas.

Notable responses

It doesn't disconnect but the electricity lines are bad and worn out after more than 40 years. They need maintenance. - Rana

It disconnects for 19 hours. The situation is miserable. Electricity is almost non-existent. It's a poor situation and our lives are in danger. - Idris

Power disconnects for roughly 7 hours and affects my work. - Ra'ed

Electricity is good and doesn't disconnect at all. - Enas

Al Jazeera spoke with Mussab al-Mudaris, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity:
Q: The First Gulf War, sanctions, and the Second Gulf War explain power problems in the past. But what is the government's explanation for why there are such serious shortages now?
Fact box: Electricity sources
81% of Iraq's electricity is generated by fossil fuel sources (thermal and gas). 19% is produced from renewables (hydro). Residential use competes with industrial and government consumption. While prewar Baghdad was favoured for electricity distribution, the capital often uses programmed load-shedding during hot summer days to allocate four hours on, and then two hours off. The majority of Iraqi power plants are thermal plants that burn crude oil and were built in the 1970's and 1980's under Saddam Hussein. Nowadays, some of the power shortages are attributable to delays that oil tankers face in reaching and unloading at the southern Iraqi port city of Basra. The US contributed some $4.6 billion to rebuilding Iraq's power grid.
A: The production capacity back then - before April 2003 - was about 3,500 MW. And the power production needed was estimated to be 7,000 to 8,000 MW. Baghdad enjoyed most of the electricity, given the fact it is the capital. And at the same time, almost all provinces were deprived of electricity. After April 2003, there were new projects added to the power grid but when we reached production capacity in 2005 of about 4,500 MW, the estimated power production required also jumped higher.
The production capacity back then - before April 2003 - was about 3,500 MW. And the power production needed was estimated to be 7,000 to 8,000 MW. Baghdad enjoyed most of the electricity, given the fact it is the capital. And at the same time, almost all provinces were deprived of electricity. After April 2003, there new projects added to the power grid but when we reached production capacity in 2005 of about 4,500 MW, the estimated power production required also jumped higher.
As we reached 2013, we had power production of approximately 8,500 MW but the power needed is up to 16,000 MW. This is due to the increase of living standards for the Iraqi citizen.
Plus, there is poor planning operations. The Ministry of Electricity works alone. There is no cooperation from other ministries. The borders were widely open and businessmen were importing bad electrical appliances. During that time, the National Center for Quality Control [started to] restrict businessmen through strict laws to import only the good electrical appliances with specific standards.
But as we see now the market is flooded with bad electrical appliances which consume more electricity than they are meant for. So that really affects the power grid. Also the haphazard housing is affecting us as well. In Baghdad only, we have 550 unofficial neighborhoods - also agricultural lands in which people were forced to avoid the housing crisis. The ministry follows a set or procedures and rules in establishing power lines and thus cannot provide such areas with power, unless they are recognised by the Baghdad municipality.

Q: How does the current electrical infrastructure stack up to services that existed in 2003?
A: The American forces in 2003 did not target power plants but rather the lines of power - due to their low-altitude military aviation by helicopters and other planes. But these lines were restored to service. The American forces also have built some of the manufacturing power plants with their engineers. And they also built some small power plants to provide their military bases with electricity.
We as the Ministry of Electricity were all the time targeted by insurgents sabotaging our centres and in some areas the government at that time had no jurisdiction on where we could have our own project sites and power plants. So after the American forces pushed back insurgents and cleaned the area, they would construct their own military bases. And in return, the armed groups were constantly targeting these sites. Thus all the time our power plants were affected and we had many power plants that were affected badly, like Yousefiyah power plant project south of Baghdad.

Q: Does the government have a load-shedding schedule for rolling blackouts?
Fact box: Kurdistan's electricity
The Kurdish Electricity Ministry has 112 ongoing projects with a total value of more than $1.5 billion. The Kurdistan Regional Government aims to increase its own power production to almost 8,000 MW by 2020 and says it currently offers power supply between 20 and 22 hours per day. Current consumption in the Kurdish region is 3,488 MW, up from only 1,457 MW in 2006. Demand has increased by some 400 percent in the last decade, as the economy has boomed.
A: There is a mechanism to distribute electricity across the country proportional to the population in each province. We have the National Control Center for Electricity, and we have there a daily-updated database. This database depends on each production capacity for each power plant. The production capacity for each power plant will be transferred through the power lines to the manufacturing power plants then to the secondary power plants.
There is full monitoring for the distribution of power inside each province. There are some provinces which have a production power plant that will exceed its quota by taking extra quota. Taking this extra quota will affect the other provinces' quotas. We have about 14 control centers run by the Ministry of Electricity that we have signed contracts to be built - so we can overcome the shortage of power.

Q: At what point in the future does the government hope Iraqi electricity demand will be met by supply?
A: We do admit that the current electrical infrastructure is old and in some points it needs renovations. Our power plants still depend on crude oil to run and some other power plants rely on gas. Sometimes the crude oil or gas tankers will get delayed for the refuelling schedule, thus affecting the workflow of the power plants. Most major power plants existed even before 2003.
After 2003, we have had projects to build new ones, but the construction of these power plants needs much time. By the time they open - [targeting] specific power production limits - we will find ourselves in need of upgrading the rate of production as the people's demand for electricity goes ever higher.

Q: What is being done to prepare for high demand in summer 2013?
A: The Ministry of Electricity was able to start working effectively in 2008, so it started to make contracts with major power companies which had been afraid to come to Iraq when the security situation was dangerous. Now we have about 42 projects in power production: transferring power and distribution. All 42 projects have reached between 50-90 percent of completion. Every month we have about two power plants joining the national grid with electricity through 2014.
Our plan is to have - before the summer of 2013 - about 12,000 MW of power production. That is half the production of summer 2011, and thus it will have a positive impcat on the hours of electricity given to the people. We always assure and emphasise that by the end of 2013 electricity will reach 14,000 MW, and by the end of 2014, we will exceed power production of 20,000 MW.

Khamenei not against nuclear talks with US

Supreme leader asserts Iran's "natural right" to enrich uranium and says he is not optimistic about talks taking place.
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2013 18:10
Obama said he accepted that Israel would not cede its right to confront Iran's nuclear threat to the US [Reuters]

Iran's supreme leader has said he is not opposed to direct talks with the US to resolve Tehran's nuclear standoff with the West, but said he was not optimistic about any developments.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday that such talks would not yield results unless Washington stopped imposing sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The offer of direct bilateral talks with Iran is a US tactic to deceive the public and impose its will on Tehran, Khamenei said in his televised speech from the northeastern holy city of Mashhad to mark the Iranian new year.
He said the problems could be resolved if Washington, with which it has had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 Revolution, would stop imposing sanctions, harming Iran's economy and acting against Iran's territorial integrity.
Khamenei called for Iran's "natural right" to enrich uranium for nuclear energy to be recognised by the world.
Iran has been holding talks with six world powers - the US, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany over the issue.
Western powers say Iran has hidden nuclear work from UN inspectors and stonewalled their investigations, a charge the country denies.
Talks are expected to resume early next month in a further attempt to strike a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, which the country says is for civilian purpose and not for making weapons.

'Destroy Israeli cities'
Israel, believed to be the sole undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, has threatened military action against Iran unless it abandons its nuclear activities.
Washington has also refused to rule out a military option, but says it prefers a diplomatic solution to the nuclear stand-off.
US President Barack Obama in Jerusalem on Wednesday accepted that Israel would not cede its right to confront Iran's nuclear threat to the US.
"We agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran," Obama said, adding that "all options are on the table".
Referring to the Israeli threat to attack Iranian nuclear sites, Khamenei said the Tehran would destroy the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa if it came under attack.
"Every now and then the leaders of the Zionist regime threaten Iran with a military attack," Khamenei said.

The Ryan budget and the austerity argument within the GOP

For the third time in the last three years, the Republican-controlled House today will vote in favor of a budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that, by anyone’s calculation, prizes austerity.

Wisconsin Congressman and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. AP Photo
Wisconsin Congressman and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul 
Ryan. AP Photo

Few — if any — House Republicans will vote against the Ryan budget (Four Republicans voted “no” in 2011; 10 voted “no” in 2012.) But, increasingly there is a debate within the GOP about whether pushing austerity and a relentless focus on the bottom line is the right policy and political path for the party.
“By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our country is on the phony economy of Washington, instead of the real economy out here in Charlotte and Shreveport and Cheyenne,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who, like Ryan, is mentioned as a 2016 presidential candidate, said in a speech before the Republican National Committee in January. He added: “A debate about which party can better manage the federal government is a very small and short-sighted debate.”
Jindal, his advisers argue, is not saying that Ryan’s plan to limit federal spending is a bad thing — rather that the focus needs to be first and foremost on how Republicans can grow the economy rather than shrink the government.
Jindal isn’t the only conservative voice raising questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the Ryan budget.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who praised the first and second editions of Ryan’s budget, was critical of version 3.0, writing:
“Modest deficits are perfectly compatible with fiscal responsibility, and restructuring the biggest drivers of our long-term debt is a much more important conservative goal than holding revenues and outlays equal in the year 2023. What’s more, the quest for perfect balance leaves the House G.O.P. officially committed to a weird, all-pain version of Obamanomics — in which, for instance, we keep the president’s tax increases and Medicare cuts while eliminating his health care law’s assistance to the uninsured.”
And National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru got in on the act, writing in Bloomberg View:
“The choices that Ryan made have kept Republicans unified but also reinforced the impression that they are too attuned to the interests of the rich, and more concerned with their own obsessions than what the public wants. House Republicans are in danger of becoming like the House Democrats of the early 1980s: secure and comfortable in their power base, and not oriented toward achieving a governing majority.”
At the heart of this issue is the absolutist strain that exists within the party — particularly in the House. Elected primarily in 2010 in a tea party wave that was fueled by a promise to cut, cut, cut, a substantial portion of the GOP conference sees shrinking federal spending and eliminating the budget deficit as not just a goal but the goal.
For politicians with their eyes on bigger prizes than simply winning reelection to a House seat, however, pledging fealty to austerity over all other priorities may well be a very limiting proposition.
A look at 2012 exit polling bears out that debt reduction alone isn’t a winning strategy for Republicans. Just 15 percent of the electorate said the deficit was the most important issue facing the country, while 59 percent said the state of the economy mattered most. And, even on the deficit, Republicans lacked a clear edge; 49 percent of voters said they trusted Mitt Romney more to handle it, while 47 percent named President Obama.
To win — in 2014 but especially in 2016 — Republicans must go beyond simply touting the need to curb spending. They also must find ways to emphasize where the nation’s economy can grow. It’s a both/and proposition that simply focusing on austerity doesn’t solve.
The Senate passed a stopgap funding measure.
Larry Grooms conceded. At first, his campaign tried to suggest he hadn’t.
Colorado Gov John Hickenlooper (D) signed strict new gun laws.
The DSCC outraised the NRSC nearly 2-1 last month.
Georgia Democratic Rep. John Barrow is looking at a Senate run.
Attorney Nick Preservati (D) may run for the Senate in West Virginia.
Ben Carson said running for office is “not something that is at the top of my agenda.”
Whatever happened to the Tea Party Caucus?
Even Obama has car trouble sometimes.
“Obama and Netanyahu show unusual solidarity” — Scott Wilson, Washington Post
“Mark Sanford faces family-values contrast in runoff” — Alex Isenstadt, Politico
“New York Governor Favors Easing Newly Passed Gun Law” — Thomas Kaplan and Danny Hakim, New York Times

White House Returns Proposed Rule On Refineries to EPA for More Analysis

Friday, March 15, 2013

By Jessica Coomes
The White House Office of Management and Budget has sent back to the Environmental Protection Agency a proposed rule to revise air pollution standards for petroleum refineries, BNA has learned.
The proposed rule, which would affect about 150 refineries, was intended to address residual risk and technological developments related to air toxics emissions from the sector and to amend new source performance standards to control emissions of a number of pollutants.
“OMB returned the rule to the agency so EPA could complete additional analysis for the proposed rules,” EPA said in a statement to BNA March 13.
The Bush administration determined in January 2009 that air toxics emissions from refineries did not pose any additional health risks and no new controls were required. However, the Obama administration later withdrew that finding (42 ER 1630, 7/22/11).
EPA then surveyed all of the refineries in the country about their emissions in preparation for a new proposed rule.
OMB received the proposed rule for interagency review Sept. 5, 2012. The OMB website said the office completed interagency review March 12, and the rule would be withdrawn.
The Natural Resources Defense Council criticized the withdrawal March 13.
“The Obama administration has allowed these clean air standards for Big Oil to languish for over four years, after the Bush administration before it refused to uphold the law to protect people,” John Walke, clean air director for the environmental group, told BNA in a statement. “Now the White House interferes and offers this non-explanation as explanation for further inaction? That is inexcusable.”
Industry Says New Controls Unnecessary
The refining industry has opposed new emissions controls.
“Imposition of additional regulation of refinery emissions on top of the layers of regulations already imposed on the refinery sector is unnecessary,” Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific policy for the American Petroleum Institute, told BNA in a statement March 13. “EPA's own analyses have demonstrated that petroleum refineries are not 'high risk' facilities and that the public health is already protected with an ample margin of safety. Furthermore, the refining industry is already facing additional regulatory threats from EPA, including Tier III fuels, greenhouse gas regulations, and a tightening of the ozone standards.”
Representatives of petroleum refiners told administration officials during an Oct. 4, 2012, meeting on the proposed rule that more stringent air pollution controls on the sector would not reduce the risk to public health (43 ER 2697, 10/26/12).
API and several companies had said data that EPA collected from industry show that the risk from refineries is low, which meant EPA should not impose additional control requirements unless they are cost-effective.
In materials presented during the OMB meeting, the trade association said the data that EPA collected show that existing regulations have been effective in protecting public health. It also said refineries spent $50 million to comply with the EPA information request in the survey.
The now-withdrawn proposed rule was expected to include a Clean Air Act-mandated review of residual risk from the existing national emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants for refineries and of the potential for new technology to make further emissions reductions. The rule also was expected to amend new source performance standards for the sector.
The petroleum industry also has been lobbying against Tier 3 gasoline and vehicle standards, which API says could be costly for the industry. EPA is expected to propose the Tier 3 standards this month (44 ER 541, 3/1/13).

The Senate as Facebook

Ever wonder what the Senate would look like viewed through the lens of Facebook?  Us too.

This is Facebook.
Now, thanks to Yahoo’s Chris Wilson, we know. Using Senate votes, Wilson has created a mini-social network of the world’s greatest deliberative body.
Here’s how he explains it:
“For every member, I calculated which other senators voted the same way at least 75 percent of the time. In effect, this organizes the Senate as a mini-Facebook of 100 users, in which any given pair of senators are friends if they meet this 75-percent threshold….Visualizations like this one work by treating the senators as particles that repel one another, and treating the connections between them as springs that hold them together. Because the Democrats vote so cohesively, with few defectors, they are held together by a large number of springs.”
In the chart below, you can see the Senate as a whole or sort via specific Senator to see whether they have any ties — meaning they vote with a colleague 75 percent or more of the time — to other Senators.

What’s clear from the chart is that while Senate Democrats are more closely aligned than Republicans in their voting patterns so far in 2013 — Wilson notes that 22 Democrats have voted exactly the same on every vote this year — there are very few ties between the two parties. The two members sitting in the middle are Republicans Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Me.), two of the noted moderates in the chamber.
Then there is the strange case of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D). Neither man has voted with any other senator more than 75 percent of the time during 2013. (Lautenberg, who is retiring in 2014, hasn’t even voted with any other Senator 65 percent of the time.)
The most obvious storyline from the amazing tool Wilson has built is that the two parties in the Senate have, at least by their voting records in 2013, almost nothing in common. That affirms the widening partisan divide that we’ve observed in the Senate and in politics more broadly over the past few years.
Fiddle around with Wilson’s infographic. It’s a great tool that can spawn a thousand insights into how the Senate works (and doesn’t). What’s yours?

Iraq: 10 Years After, Have We Learned a Thing?

Posted: 03/18/2013 11:20 pm

On the decennial of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the persons responsible have shown remarkably little guilt over launching an unprovoked war of aggression, even when the lamentable results might be expected to give one pause to rethink the enterprise. Marveling at the complacency about Iraq of America's foreign policy elite as they are fawningly interviewed on the Sunday talk shows, columnist Alex Pareene says that "[p]eople who were integral in the decision to wage that war sat there and opined on what the United States should do about Iran and China and North Korea and no one laughed them out of the room. It was disgusting." Disgusting, but hardly surprising here in the United States of Amnesia.

Are there any lessons to be drawn from the debacle? Here are three tentative conclusions:

American Exceptionalism is a more pernicious drug than crack cocaine. Almost 50 years ago, J. William Fulbright described American Exceptionalism extremely well in his book The Arrogance of Power:

The causes of the malady are not entirely clear but its recurrence is one of the uniformities of history: power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations -- to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.

Whatever grubby calculations of realpolitik our political classes harbor -- access to cheap oil, strategic military advantage, appeasement of political lobbies -- they invariably mask them in the doctrines of American Exceptionalism, the idea that a war has a higher moral purpose when the United States is involved in it. The invasion of Iraq was a marquee example of this deception, because the aggression was so naked. What looked like an ordinary cynical land-grab was actually (according to American Exceptionalism) a selfless duty, rather like Rudyard Kipling's white man's burden.

American Exceptionalism's appeal to what H.L. Mencken called the bilge of American idealism was crucial to getting the Iraq war started on a bipartisan basis. That said, the humanitarian arguments of neoconservatives in the Bush administration always struck me as a bit of a pose: while they could weep over Saddam's brutality "to his own people," they were remarkably cynical when the C-Span cameras were turned off (as the insurgency got going, these were the folks who would privately say things like "the only thing Arabs understand is force").

Where the pseudo-idealism of American Exceptionalism really came in handy was in corralling the liberals. It was a convenient escape hatch for tender-minded souls of the New Republic set whose consciences were stricken by the notion of a war for oil or strategic advantage. Their war fever was an expression of a fundamental lack of confidence and a need to impress Republicans and the media with their "political seriousness." From what I witnessed on Capitol Hill, I suspect that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and other Democratic luminaries who voted for war did so less because a plausible case had been presented than to prove they were tough [i.e., bellicose] enough to be respected by the American people.

Never trust so-called national security experts. The Beltway national security expert, whether in or out of government, is usually a huckster trying to scare up the next foundation grant, Pentagon contract, or resume-building TV appearance by selling the next scary threat. Ten years on, it is hardly worth the effort of denouncing the deceitfulness of Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and the rest of the tub-thumpers. They have been thoroughly discredited, even if they never paid a price for their malfeasance in office.

What is possibly more insidious is the way that Colin Powell, a key figure in putting over the case for war, was able to reinvent himself as a martyr who had somehow been victimized by the administration he served. It was his address before the United Nations on February 5, 2003, which galvanized the movement to war, and it was his credibility that sold the goods. Hearing it, I thought some of his purported findings were patently ridiculous. The idea that a nation could have a serious bio-warfare research and production program operating from trucks scurrying around the desert to avoid surveillance by U.S. aircraft which had a free run of Iraqi airspace, was a stretcher worthy of Baron von M√ľnchhausen. But the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post swooned. Much of Powell's evidence was later shown to have derived from a plagiarized university research paper.

The experts are still at it ten years later, continuing to obfuscate the causes and consequences of the Iraq war and whitewashing their own role. Beltway fixture Michael O'Hanlon, who does his non-combatting from the offices of the Brookings Institution, is typical of the blame-dodging by national security experts who were erstwhile cheerleaders of the war. Five years after the beginning, he claimed to have been "generally proven right" about Iraq. On the eve of the tenth anniversary, on the March 18, 2013 CBS Radio News, O'Hanlon ruefully hoped the "angry edge about the debate will recede." Yes, one supposes there are people angry at having been sold a bill of goods.

The political establishment never learns. Aside from its inordinate fiscal and human cost, deposing Saddam Hussein and installing a Shia-led government has had the effect of strengthening the regional position of Iran. But having built up the Iranian bogey through its own stupidity, the U.S. political establishment is now contemplating how to coerce Teheran. This refusal to see the consequences of one's actions, and then using the disastrous result as an excuse to do the same thing again, is a recurring pattern of American statecraft.

One can hypothesize that our leaders see world events as discrete and unconnected with anything that happened before; like infants, they live in a continuous present. This is nowhere truer than when looking at political reaction to the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that cost the lives of four U.S. personnel. Dismal as the incident was, congressional Republicans contrived to make it worse, and in a manner that ignored their own partial responsibility for the train of events that led to the attack in the first place. For months after the incident, Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham kept up a drumbeat about the horror of the attack and the incompetence of the administration. Yet the year before, they were among the most vociferous proponents of an armed intervention to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi: an action bound to lead to the kind of chaos that would make something like Benghazi not only possible, but probable. And now the insurgents involved in the Libyan fighting, as well as the weapons they seized from Gaddafi's armories, have made their way outside of Libya's borders and are a factor in the insurgency in Mali.

But this kind of myopia can be bipartisan. At a February 7, 2013 Senate hearing on Benghazi, McCain paused from berating the witnesses on that subject long enough to ask why the administration hadn't intervened in the Syrian civil war. One witness, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, an erstwhile liberal who discovered his hawkish manhood late in his career, actually went out of his way to say he had recommended to the president that the U.S. supply arms to Syrian rebels. Obama didn't take the advice. From his manner, it appeared Panetta took the rare opportunity to publicly expose an internal deliberation in the president's office, and even reveal his disagreement with the president, in order to appease and score points with his Senate interrogators. Essentially, he signaled he was one of them in his desire to intervene in the Middle East. Never mind that his recommendation was fraught with peril, for the same reason overthrowing Gaddafi was fraught with peril, and just as invading Iraq was fraught with peril.

But since most of our policymakers can ignore their own past mistakes, "this time is different."

20 Mar 2013 10:08 GMT
Are Iraq and the countries involved in the conflict still suffering the consequences of the US-led invasion?
31 Jul 2012 15:02 GMT
Fault Lines travels across Iraq to take the pulse of a country and its people after nine years of occupation.
27 Jul 2012 18:00 GMT
In one of Baghdad's most dangerous districts, a man struggles to rebuild the lives of 32 Iraqi orphans.
19 Jun 2012 14:47 GMT
As Iraq's national power grid struggles to provide electricity, a new form of entrepreneur has started to fill the gap.

See the March Madness tournament of tax-dodging. Read about Bernie's bill to end tax havens here:

End Offshore Tax Havens

February 7, 2013

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday introduced a bill to stop profitable corporations from sheltering income in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens. The legislation also would end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs and factories overseas. Sanders’ bill and a companion measure to be introduced in the House by Rep. Jan Schakowsky would yield more than $590 billion in revenue over the next decade, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. “At a time when we have a $16.5 trillion national debt and an unsustainable federal deficit; at a time when roughly one-quarter of the largest corporations in America are paying no federal income taxes; and at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high, it is past time for corporate America to contribute significantly to deficit reduction,” said Sanders, a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

To watch a video of the press conference, click here.

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For a fact sheet on the bill, click here.

To read the bill, click here.

To read a report on corporate tax dodgers, click here.

“Even as profits grow to record levels, corporations’ share of tax revenues paid has dropped significantly in recent decades. Sen. Sanders and I are offering a comprehensive and commonsense solution that would eliminate tax subsidizes for big oil companies and corporations that are shipping jobs and profits overseas,” Schakowsky said.

Sanders was joined at the news conference by Bob McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice; Damon Silvers, the policy director for the AFL-CIO; and Dorigen Hoffman, policy director for the Norwich, Vt.-based Clean Yield Asset Management.

The legislation “would increase investment, employment and wages in the United States,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Mary Kay Henry, the Service Employees International Union president, said the proposal would “raise revenue, restore fairness to our tax code and create good jobs in the U.S.”

Under current law, U.S. corporations are allowed to defer or delay U.S. income taxes on overseas profits until the money is brought back into the United States. U.S. corporations are also provided foreign tax credits to offset the amount of taxes paid to other countries.

According to a 2008 Government Accountability Office Report, 83 of the Fortune 100 companies in the United States use offshore tax havens to lower their taxes. Today, U.S. corporations have an estimated $1.7 trillion of un-repatriated foreign profits sitting offshore.

Sanders also released a report today on how 31 corporations represented by the Business Roundtable have avoided $128 billion in federal income taxes by setting up more than 500 subsidiaries in tax haven countries. The Business Roundtable recently released a report calling for Congress to slash Social Security and Medicare benefits something that Sanders called “shameless.”

The Corporate Tax Fairness Act would require U.S. companies to pay taxes on all of their income by ending the deferral of foreign source income.

Under the legislation proposed by Sanders and Schakowsky, corporations would pay U.S. taxes on their offshore profits as they are earned. The legislation would take away the tax incentives for corporations to move jobs offshore or to shift profits offshore because the U.S. would tax their profits no matter where they are generated.

West Bank reacts to Obama visit with a shrug

Ramallah – On the other side of the "green line", the boundary marking Israel's pre-1967 borders, this week's visit by US President Barack Obama is being greeted with something close to a national celebration.

The streets are lined with posters hailing the "unbreakable alliance" between the United States and Israel; both countries' flags hung from lampposts. Newspapers hailed Obama's "historic visit" on their front pages. (Other posters, which urged Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, the American citizen convicted of spying for Israel, were quietly removed before the president arrived.)
Many Israelis are still sceptical of the US president: A Jerusalem Post poll released ahead of Obama's visit found that 36 percent believe he is biased towards the Palestinians. The Israeli government nonetheless rolled out the red carpet for its most important international ally.
But Obama's alleged pro-Palestinian leanings came as a revelation to people here in the West Bank, who will almost unanimously greet him with a mix of anger, frustration and utter apathy.
There are no American flags or cheerful newspaper headlines. The only outward signs of Obama's visit are a few posters advising the American president not to bring his smartphone to Ramallah, because "we have no 3G in Palestine". Nobody seems to know who paid for the posters, though they are widely believed to be a publicity stunt by a mobile phone operator.
The only Obama-related posters in the West Bank were veiled advertisements for mobile phone companies
Regardless, they were quickly defaced: Some people drew red "X's" across Obama's face, while others simply tore his likeness off the posters.
In Ramallah on Wednesday, a main topic of conversation was the traffic. Obama will travel here for a few hours on Thursday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to tour a youth centre with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. His trip will mean widespread road closures and probably longer-than-usual traffic jams at Qalandia, the main Israeli checkpoint leading to Jerusalem.
On a hilltop near Ramallah, across from the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, a few dozen activists decided to welcome Obama by erecting tents and a large Palestinian flag.
Their camp was the third incarnation of Bab al-Shams, a short-lived protest village established by Palestinian activists in January east of Jerusalem. It was intended to create "facts on the ground", much the way Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank have done for decades.
Activists said Wednesday's protest, dubbed Ahfad Younes – after the protagonist in the popular novel from which Bab al-Shams drew its name – was intended as a message to the American president. Demonstrators held signs asking whether Obama planned to pursue another "four years of AIPAC policies", referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential US-based Israel lobby group.
"We are disappointed by his visit because he did not give any clear message to the Palestinians," said Mundher Amira, one of the organizers of the protest. "We want to have our brothers out of jail, and to have our state. We want him to come here to defend the rights of the Palestinians, not just the security of the Israelis."
By nightfall, Israeli officials had ordered the camp closed, but had not moved to dismantle it – though many activists expected them to do so overnight.
Further south, in the city of Bethlehem, Obama's upcoming visit was viewed mostly with a sense of dread. He will stop by for a few hours on Friday morning to see the Church of the Nativity, which marks the site where Jesus was born.
Shopkeepers and others who depend on the flow of tourists into Bethlehem said Obama's visit would not bring any political changes – only lost business.
"They are going to shut down 50 percent of the old town of Bethlehem," said Hisham Ikhmais, a tour guide outside the church. "That means nobody will come over next Friday to visit."
"He is coming just to see the place, just to put into his memories that he visited Bethlehem," Ikhmais added. "This is a fixed policy for American presidents, to stay, to make or to ally with the Israelis all the time, and to be against the Palestinians."
Even officials from the Palestinian Authority, normally reluctant to criticise the United States, waved off Obama's visit. One senior official said that the visit was focused purely on regional issues, namely the perceived threat from Iran's nuclear programme, and on rehabilitating Obama's image with the Israeli public.
If there was a message to the Palestinians, the official said, it was to "say goodbye" – an obligatory visit to the region by a president who has clearly decided not to waste any political capital on trying to broker a solution to a decades-old conflict.

Steele: How can GOP reach minorities when its policies are seen as racist?

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele thinks the Republican Party needs to start looking at its policies, not just its messaging and campaigning strategies.
“How does Reince Priebus reconcile his approach and his agreement with voter registration policies that many in the black community view as anti-black, racist, whatever the term happens to be,” Steele said. “You’ve got to reconcile how people feel about your policies, not just the fact that you’re going to show up. You can show up any time. It’s what you say and what you do when you get there that matters most to people.”
The Republican Party’s gut check 2012 self-assessment: the $10 million “Growth and Opportunity Project” pointed to process and messaging issues as big problems, but Steele points to voter ID laws that largely disenfranchise minorities as a policy the party needs to revaluate its actions more than its words.
When presented with Steele’s argument later on The Daily Rundown, Priebus scoffed at his predecessor’s name and reiterated his standard, thinly veiled complaint about the state of the RNC finances he inherited from Steele. (Steele’s response to the jab? “I won, and he didn’t.”)
“I’m not going to engage in an argument with Michael, but the fact of the matter is you have to have enough resources to be able to have an effective ground game in minority communities…we’ve brought our financial condition back in order so we can actually hire hundred of people across America and that’s what this report calls for.”
Priebus said Obama’s successful organizing methods, and not the Democratic Party, are the real opponent the RNC is fighting–exactly the sort of response Steele said the party is using to keep from having to expose and address their own policies and principles.
“I argue taking the party outside of its comfort zone. A lot of members at the time thought that was a good idea until they realized this is going to require exposure on policy, exposure on principle, exposure on a lot of things that the party just didn’t want to be exposed on,” Steele said.
Watch Priebus on The Daily Rundown:

CSRRR to analyze facets of Trayvon Martin case on Wednesday

Published: March 18th, 2013

By Matt Walker
Senior writer
More than a year after the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, legal, social and cultural questions raised by the case are still being discussed across the country. The Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations will analyze a number of these questions during the 10th annual CSRRR Spring Lecture, which will bring together experts from nine different departments at UF along with keynote speaker, New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow.
“At Close Range: The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin,” will take place Wednesday at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom, HOL 180. The panel presentations will be from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and Blow’s keynote lecture will be from noon to 1:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public and law school parking restrictions will be lifted in the green lots. The event will also be webcast at  

The panels will look at a wide variety of issues raised by the case, from a multitude of academic perspectives. Some of the featured panels include “Jim Crow Riding High: The 21st Century Assault on African-American Voting Rights in Florida,” “Half-Baked: Weed, Race and the Demonization of Trayvon Martin,” and “Racial Profiling, Security and Human Rights.”
“The Trayvon Martin case is a social touchstone precisely because it serves up topics we’re uncomfortable talking about in public, including race, crime, policing, interracial crime, use of deadly force, black crime victims, Southern race relations, media representations of race, and gun control,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the CSRRR and Chesterfield Smith Professor of Law. “The case offers an important opportunity for us to learn about, discuss and debate these myriad and overlapping issues. Our Spring Lecture event will contribute to the national discussion of the case and emphasize policy recommendations.”
The departments of political science; health services; philosophy; sociology, criminology and law; journalism and communications; history; English; anthropology, and African-American studies will all be represented. The academic papers, which comprise the basis for the panel discussions, will be compiled for the first installment in a new series in collaboration with UF Law’s Lawton Chiles Legal Information Center. The panel agendas and abstracts for the papers can be seen in the Collections of the UF Law Scholarship Repository at, For more information regarding the spring lecture, please visit the CSRRR homepage,
The University of Florida Levin College of Law’s CSRRR is committed to fostering communities of dialogue on race. The center creates and supports programs designed to enhance race-related curriculum development for faculty, staff and students in collegiate and professional schools. Of the five U.S. law schools with race centers, the CSRRR is uniquely focused on curriculum development.