Wednesday, January 21, 2015

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How Saudi Arabia’s harsh legal punishments compare to the Islamic State’s


Following the lashing of blogger Raif Badawi and leaked footage that showed the public execution of a woman accused of beating her daughter, Saudi Arabia's harsh interpretation of sharia law and its use of capital punishment have come under international scrutiny.
For many, the Saudi justice system sounds not unlike that of the Islamic State, the extremist Islamist group which has struck fear in much of the Middle East.
This week, Middle East Eye, a Web site that focuses on news from the region and is frequently critical of Saudi Arabia, contrasted a set of legal punishments recently announced by the Islamic State with thecorresponding punishments in Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi Arabia isn't particularly forthcoming about its use of capital punishment (and Middle East Eye doesn't cite its source) and accurate information from within the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate is hard to ascertain, information from news sources and human rights organizations suggest the chart is at least broadly accurate.
One key difference between the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia, of course, is that the latter is a key U.S. ally in the region – and a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Some experts argue that the fundamentalist brand of Islam practiced by both has theological links, however, and Riyadh's recent crackdown has been interpreted as an act of appeasement for Saudi hard-liners.
Saudi Arabia's own concern about the Islamic State is likely genuine (plans to build an enormous wall along its border with Iraq are a good sign of that), but for many Americans, the extremist group's rise is also bringing with it a renewed skepticism about American allies in the region.

Flogging case in Saudi Arabia is just one sign of a new crackdown on rights activists


Mohammad al-Qahtani usually talks to his family at 2 a.m., when his prison cell block in Saudi Arabia is quiet and his wife is making dinner for their five kids in their home in exile in Rochester, N.Y.
Every night, Qahtani, a human rights activist serving 10 years in prison for “questioning the integrity” of Saudi government officials, sings “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” to his 2-year-old daughter, whom he has not seen since before he was imprisoned in March 2013.
“In this country, if you open your mouth, you end up in prison,” Qahtani, an academic with a PhD in economics from Indiana University, said in a telephone interview from his prison in the Saudi capital.
The case of Raif Badawi, a blogger whose criticism of Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious leaders led to a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in public, has focused harsh international attention in recent days on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
But Badawi’s case is simply the most recent example of what rights groups call an intensifying campaign to punish activists, bloggers and anyone else who challenges the country’s political or religious leaders. People have been jailed for tweets, and two women have been held since early December for defying the ban on women driving.
“The government wants to send a message to the people: If you think like them, if you talk like them, you will spend all your life in the jail. They want to make an example of these people,” Samar Badawi, the blogger’s sister, who is also a human rights activist, said in a telephone interview from her home in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah.
Samar Badawi in 2012 received a U.S. State Department “International Women of Courage Award,” which was presented to her in Washington by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama.
She has been especially affected by the government’s imprisonment in the past two years of at least a dozen activists for speech it deems criminal but which would be considered harmless by Western standards. In addition to her brother, who angered authorities by saying the country’s religious establishment had too much influence, her husband, Waleed Abulkhair, has been in locked up since last April.
Abulkhair, 35, is a human rights lawyer convicted of “disrespecting the authorities” and “disobeying the ruler” after he criticized the government’s rights record and founded a human rights organization. Abulkhair was originally sentenced to 10 years and fined more than $250,000, but last week a Saudi judge increased the prison term to 15 years when Abulkhair refused to sign an apology and pledge to refrain from further dissent.
“I am happy that Waleed didn’t apologize, because he didn’t do anything wrong,” Samar Badawi said.
Still, she said, the government’s actions have silenced many activists. “Everyone is afraid. They cannot talk, they cannot move, they can’t do anything,” she said.
“I don’t have any choice,” she said when asked why she was willing to speak to a reporter. “I must let all the world [know] what is going on here in Saudi Arabia. I have to do this for my husband, for my brother and for my daughter; I have to do something.”
Saudi Arabia has long been assailed for its human rights record, which the U.S. State Department says includes the use of torture and arbitrary detention. The country also applies an especially strict form of sharia, which has resulted in at least 10 beheadings this year, according to media reports.
U.S. officials have issued statements criticizing the treatment of Badawi, Abulkhair and other dissidents, but Washington is cautious about pressing hard publicly on human rights with Riyadh, a key military ally and economic partner.
Saudi Arabia and three other Muslim countries are currently taking part with the United States in a military campaign against Islamic State fighters. The kingdom is also one of the world’s largest producers of oil and the second-largest source, after Canada, of oil imported into the United States.
But Badawi’s case has set off a wave of international condemnation as the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and human rights groups around the world have decried the lashings. Protesters have picketed Saudi embassies in Washington, Europe and Canada.
A bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators wrote to Saudi King Abdullah on Friday calling for Badawi’s immediate release and calling his flogging “barbaric.”
“Flogging is, in my view, at the very least, a form of cruel and inhuman punishment,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in a statement. “I appeal to the King of Saudi Arabia to exercise his power to halt the public flogging by pardoning Mr. Badawi, and to urgently review this type of extraordinarily harsh penalty.”
A Saudi government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said he did not understand why international groups were so focused on flogging, which is standard practice in many Muslim nations.
“Flogging is a punishment approved by the religion of Islam,” he said. “If your court system is based on Islamic sharia law, you will find this sort of punishment. They do it in Iran, they do it in Afghanistan, and nobody complains.”
The official also said that Badawi’s case was serious because “he insulted Islam.”
In a deeply conservative Muslim nation, he said, the government must punish any perceived insults to the religion, because failing to do so would tempt vigilantes to take revenge on the alleged perpetrators.
“The government tries its best,” he said.
‘A horrendous situation’
Badawi, 31, received the first 50 of his lashes Jan. 9 in a public square outside a Jiddah mosque after Friday prayers, a scene captured in a video posted on YouTube. It showed Badawi standing silently as a police officer struck his back and legs, and when the 10-minute punishment ended, onlookers cheered “Allahu akbar,” or God is great.
Badawi is to receive 50 more lashes each Friday for 19 more weeks, but medical officials last Friday concluded that his wounds had not healed sufficiently, according to Ensaf Haidar, Badawi’s wife, reached by telephone in Montreal, where she lives with the couple’s three children.
“It’s a horrendous situation that no one should accept,” said Haidar, who moved to Canada 14 months ago because she no longer felt safe in her home country. “I have no loyalty to this government any longer. No one should be loyal to a government that tortures its sons and robs their humanity.”
Haidar said Friday that she was told that the king’s office had taken the unusual step of referring Badawi’s case to the Supreme Court for review.
“The government changed its decision because of pressure from people in the outside world,” Haidar said. “I am hopeful that he and I and our children will all be back together again one day.”
Saudi human rights activists trace the government’s new zeal to prosecute dissenters to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which toppled authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
Saudi officials largely averted protests at home, mainly by spending tens of billions of dollars on housing, jobs and other benefits designed to appease citizens.
Rights activists said the government also started a campaign to silence dissent, especially targeting those who used Twitter and other social media networks that had served as a key organizing tool for anti-government protests in other countries.
“The regime is so scared,” Qahtani said from prison. “In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the toppling of so many corrupt dictators, they are terrified. They tried to bribe people. They waited until they weathered the storm, and then they went out and rounded up everyone who opposed them and threw them in jail.”
Qahtani said the government was “obsessed by social media.”
“For years they controlled the media — the TV stations and the newspapers,” he said. “Now they are losing control because of social media.”
The whims of judges
The government last year enacted an anti-terrorism law, which rights groups have denounced as vague and giving the Ministry of Interior broad powers to arrest those who criticize authorities. Abulkhair was the first person arrested under the law.
Qahtani, 49, said he has settled into a routine in his prison in Riyadh. In addition to his nightly call to his family, he said, he exercises every morning in his cell and reads newspapers and watches television news to keep up on current events. His wife, Maha, who is studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology, sends him about $300 worth of telephone calling cards each month.
He said he believes that the Saudi political system should be changed to a constitutional monarchy, which he said would provide more accountability to the people. He said the judiciary is still run largely on the whims of judges, without a standardized penal code.
Reforms are especially important in light of the rise of the Islamic State and other violent religious groups, he said.
“If we would have political reforms and guarantee free expression, people would not feel the need to resort to violence,” he said. “So many Saudis are engaged with the Islamic State because of the lack of political freedoms in our country. They are frustrated because they cannot express themselves.”
He said he has seen young men in prison being recruited to join the Islamic State.
“I try to talk them out of it, but no luck. Basically, they feel really helpless. It’s like committing suicide for them to join the Islamic State, but they feel that their lives don’t matter because of the injustice in this country. That’s what happens when people are deprived of their rights.”

How Saudi Wahhabism Is the Fountainhead of Islamist Terrorism

By Yousaf Butt

The horrific terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo weekly in Paris have led to speculation as to whether the killers -- the brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi -- were lone wolves or tied to masterminds in ISIS or its rival, Al-Qaeda. Although Al-Qaeda in Yemen has taken credit for the attack, it is unclear how closely the affiliate actually directed the operation. No matter which organizational connections (if any) ultimately prove to be real, one thing is clear: the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical "Wahhabi" strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia. And if the world wants to tamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.

Perversely, while the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri took part in a "Je suis Charlie" solidarity rally in Beirut following the Paris attacks, back home the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received the first 50 of 1,000 lashes he is due each Friday over the next 20 weeks. His crime? Running a liberal website promoting the freedom of speech. (Thankfully, in recent days it seems the Saudi authorities have buckled to international pressure and suspended the sentence.)

It would be troublesome but perhaps acceptable for the House of Saud to promote the intolerant and extremist Wahhabi creed just domestically. But, unfortunately, for decades the Saudis have also lavishly financed its propagation abroad. Exact numbers are not known, but it is thought that more than $100 billion have been spent on exporting fanatical Wahhabism to various much poorer Muslim nations worldwide over the past three decades. It might well be twice that number. By comparison, the Soviets spent about $7 billion spreading communism worldwide in the 70 years from 1921 and 1991.

This appears to be a monumental campaign to bulldoze the more moderate strains of Islam, and replace them with the theo-fascist Saudi variety. Despite being well aware of the issue, Western powers continue to coddle the Saudis or, at most, protest meekly from time to time.

For instance, a Wikileaks cable clearly quotes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." She continues: "More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups." And it's not just the Saudis: Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are also implicated in the memo. Other cables released by Wikileaks outline how Saudi front companies are also used to fund terrorism abroad.

Evidently, the situation has not improved since Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Late last year, Vice President Biden caused a stir by undiplomatically speaking the truth at an event at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, saying:

"Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends... [and] the Saudis, the Emirates, etcetera. What were they doing?.... They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad -- except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world."

More recently, the Saudi role in promoting extremism has come under renewed scrutiny. Calls for declassifying the redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 congressional commission have been getting stronger. And statements from the lead author of the report, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, suggest they are being hidden because they "point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as the principal financier" of the 9/11 hijackers. He has been unusually explicit, "Saudi Arabia has not stopped its interest in spreading extreme Wahhabism. a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support, although now they are making a pretense of being very anti-ISIS."

In fact, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, made a similar observation about her husband's flogging: "the Saudi government is behaving like Daesh [a derogatory Arabic term for ISIS]." About 2,500 Saudis are thought to be in ISIS' ranks.

Ensaf Haidar's quip exposes a deeper truth. One could reasonably argue that the House of Saud is simply a more established and diplomatic version of ISIS. It shares the extremist Wahhabi theo-fascism, the lack of human rights, intolerance, violent beheadings etc. -- but with nicer buildings and roads. If ISIS were ever to become an established state, after a few decades one imagines it might resemble Saudi Arabia.

How does Saudi Arabia go about spreading extremism? The extremist agenda is not always clearly government-sanctioned, but in monarchies where the government money is spread around to various princes, there is little accountability for what the royal family does with their government funds. Much of the funding is via charitable organizations and is not military-related.

The money goes to constructing and operating mosques and madrassas that preach radical Wahhabism. The money also goes to training imams; media outreach and publishing; distribution of Wahhabi textbooks, and endowments to universities and cultural centers. A cable released by Wikileaks explains, regarding just one region of Pakistan:

Government and non-governmental sources claimed that financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from "missionary" and "Islamic charitable" organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments.
Although the Wahhabi curriculum was modified after the 9/11 attacks, it remains backward and intolerant. Freedom House published a report on the revised curriculum, concluding that it "continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the 'unbeliever,' which include Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others." This is taught not only domestically but also enthusiastically exported abroad.

Of course, initially there was complicity with the U.S. and Pakistan in promoting this ideology to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In addition to the radical indoctrination, thousands of volunteer jihadis from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were also dispatched to fight alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan. But it remains a complicated problem to this day because the politicians in the poor countries getting the Saudi and Gulf-Arab funds approve these extremist madrassas in part because the local authorities likely receive kickbacks.

In many places in poor Muslim countries the choice is now between going to an extremist madrassa or getting no education at all. Poverty is exploited to promote extremism. The affected areas include Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, India and parts of Africa. The same Wikileaks cable explains:

The network reportedly exploited worsening poverty in these areas of the province to recruit children into the divisions' growing Deobandi and Ahl-eHadith madrassa network from which they were indoctrinated into jihadi philosophy, deployed to regional training/indoctrination centers, and ultimately sent to terrorist training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
The more tolerant indigenous versions of Islam cannot survive in the face of the tsunami of money being poured into promoting theo-fascist Wahhabism. This is a major problem that the Muslim world must urgently address.

But it is also a problem where the West can help by stopping its historical pandering and support of Middle East tyrants who spread this extremism. The most fundamental way to make the message clear to the House of Saud would be to threaten to stop buying oil from them. Given the relatively cheap oil prices these days it need not be an empty threat.

Eliminating the occasional militant leaders in drone and special-forces strikes is of limited use in reducing extremism if millions of radicals are being actively trained in Wahhabi madrassas across the Muslim world.

The fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda is deeply ironic since these organizations were created and are sustained, in part, by funds we hand over to the Saudis and Gulf Arab nations to purchase their oil. And while France mourns its cartoonists and police officers, the French government is busy signing military and nuclear deals worth billions with the Saudis. If we continue down this road, it may well be a never-ending war.

The House of Saud works against the best interests of the West and the Muslim world. Muslim communities worldwide certainly need to eradicate fanatical Wahhabism from their midst, but this will be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish if the West continues its support of the House of Saud. The monarchy must be modernized and modified -- or simply uprooted and replaced. The House of Saud needs a thorough house cleaning.

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China - Speech shows ‘US ambition to dominate world’

Analysts on Wednesday hit back at US President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, saying that China has never sought to be the rule maker, and the statement reflects a US ambition to pursue world domination. 

President Barack Obama said on Tuesday the US, not China, must write trade rules for Asia, and called on Congress to give the White House a freer hand to close trade deals as he delivered his annual State of the Union address. 

"But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field," Obama said. 

"Obama's address indicates that the US still wants to dominate the world. They worry that China's fast development will challenge the status of the US," Zha Xiaogang, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the Global Times Wednesday. 

Rather than becoming the rule maker, China is more interested in developing an economy that aims at creating mutual benefits, Zha said. 

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a media briefing on Wednesday that China has always followed the win-win principle in economic cooperation with other countries, including the US. 

China wishes all parties to work together to create a fair, open and transparent environment for economic cooperation as well as to contribute to the improvement of world trade rules, Hua said. 

Obama, who is pushing to overcome resistance to so-called fast-track authority from within his own party as well as conservative Republicans, said that if China prevailed, US workers and businesses would be at a disadvantage.

"That's why I'm asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair," he said.

China is not included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) the US is negotiating with 11 other trading partners, which aims to set common standards on issues such as workers' rights and the environment as well as lower trade barriers.

China is pushing for faster progress toward a trade pact with the wider Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc. In recent years, China has proposed or launched a series of multilateral free trade agreement. 

The US should pay more attention to developing cooperation with China instead of excluding China in its regional trade pacts, Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times Wednesday.  

Obama, seeking to complete the TPP and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pacts, admitted that past trade deals "haven't always lived up to the hype and that's why we've gone after countries that break the rules at our expense." 

Ninety-five percent of the world's customers live outside the US, and the US cannot close off from those opportunities, he said, adding that "more than half of manufacturing executives have said they're actively looking at bringing jobs back from China."

Obama also mentioned other Asia-Pacific issues in his address beside trade cooperation. 

"In the Asia-Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules - in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief," Obama said.  

Zha believes that the statement is a signal that the US intends to be more active in Asia-Pacific affairs. 

A climate change agreement reached between the two countries is another highlight in Obama's speech. 

"The US will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions," Obama said. 

China has vowed that its carbon emissions will reach a peak around 2030 with the US planning to slash its "economy-wide" emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

In his address, Obama also called on the US Congress to pass a new authorization of force against the Islamic State militant group and to not rush into new sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program. 

He also said the US was upholding "the principle that bigger nations can't bully the small" by opposing what he called Russian aggression and supporting democracy in Ukraine.

His remarks irked Russia as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that the speech "shows that at the center of the [US] philosophy is one only thing: 'We are number one and everyone else has to recognize that.'"

Russian Officials Riled by Obama's State of the Union Address

U.S. President Barack Obama's claim that Western sanctions have isolated Russia and left its economy “in tatters” at his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday has ruffled feathers among Russia's political elite.
The United States and its Western allies have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and its alleged support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia has reacted with tit-for-tat sanctions, which included an import ban on a series of Western food products.  
“We're upholding the principle that bigger nations can't bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine's democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies,” Obama said.
“Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength,” Obama said. “Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”
In Russia, the official reaction was swift. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lambasted Obama's claims about Russia, saying they demonstrated that the United States sees itself as the “number one” country in the world.
“[The speech] shows that the U.S. still wants to dominate, and not even be first among equals,” Lavrov said Wednesday at his annual press conference. “They have a more aggressive foreign policy philosophy.”
Lavrov also expressed the belief that attempts at isolating Russia were pointless and that U.S. foreign policy attitudes would eventually change course.
Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich also moved to debunk Obama's claim that Russia had been isolated by Western sanctions.
“We are going through a difficult period in our relations with the United States and Europe, but not with the whole world,” Dvorkovich was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency, likely referring to Russia's enhanced cooperation with other regions, such as Asia and Latin America. “On a practical, working level, we are maintaining contact with our European partners, with national authorities and with Brussels.”
Other Russian officials adopted a more defiant stance against Obama's assertions, publishing inflammatory statements on their social media pages.
Notorious for his anti-Western tirades, Alexei Pushkov, the head of the Duma's international affairs committee, tweeted Wednesday that Obama had forgotten about the “4,800 civilians killed by Kiev in eastern Ukraine. The Islamic State has killed fewer people,” his tweet read.
Notably, the United Nations reported that more than 4,800 lives have been lost in east Ukraine since the start of the conflict, but did not distinguish a breakdown in that number of soldier versus civilian casualties, and did not distinguish how many of those casualties were the fault of Kiev-loyal forces, as opposed to separatist forces.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin also chimed in with unflattering words for Obama, saying that he was a “dreamer” for thinking he had shattered the Russian economy.
The Duma's deputy speaker, Sergei Neverov, told RIA Novosti that Obama's comments about Russia were being used to distract the American public from issues at home, while Duma lawmaker Frants Klintsevich, of the ruling United Russia party, said they attested to the theory that the United States was displeased that Russia was serving as a counterweight to its ambitions to maintain a unipolar world order.
Russia's criticism of broader U.S. policy has also proliferated since Obama's State of the Union address. The Foreign Ministry published a statement Wednesday condemning certain European governments for their complicity in torture allegedly carried out in secret CIA detention centers located on their territory. The statement deplored the fact that claims made in a recent Amnesty International report about Europe's purported role in supporting CIA torture had not prompted an international investigation.

What President Obama said (and what he meant)

President Obama - At the State of the Union, a President Outgunned in Congress Is Still Combative

The circumstances facing President Obama as he delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday night could not have seemed less promising: a presidency with only two years left to get anything done in a Congress that is now totally in the control of a party that has routinely ignored his pleas for cooperation. So he chose wisely to send a simple, dramatic message about economic fairness, about the fact that the well-off — the top earners, the big banks, Silicon Valley — have done just great, while the middle and working classes remain dead in the water. His remedy: skim from the rich and redistribute to those below, while deploying other weapons to raise wages and increase jobs.

He did not frame the debate over inequality as starkly as many economists have, preferring instead to talk about the virtues of “middle-class economics.” But he came close. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come,” he said. “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
Mr. Obama knows his prospects of getting Congress to agree are less than zero; Republicans dismissed his ideas before he even voiced them. That does not make them irrelevant. Mr. Obama was speaking not just to the present but to the future, to the 2016 presidential elections and even beyond. By simply raising the plight of the middle class (and, looming behind it, the larger issue of economic inequality), he has firmly inserted issues of economic fairness into the political debate. Hillary Rodham Clinton or whomever the Democrats nominate cannot ignore them now. Even Republicans, disinclined to raise taxes on top-tier earners, may find attractive the idea of doing something for those in the middle.
Further, while the rhetoric was combative, even defiant in parts, the president’s proposal is hardly radical. It would raise the capital gains tax to 28 percent — which is where it was in the Reagan era. It would impose ordinary income tax rates on dividends and end a provision in the tax code that shields hundreds of billions of dollars in appreciated wealth passed on to heirs. These changes, plus a new fee on big banks, would finance a set of tax breaks for middle-income families, including credits for two-earner couples, increased child care and college tuition credits, as well as other programs, including two years of tuition-free community college for some students. And the whole thing is designed to be revenue-neutral, the tax increases paying for the new programs to avoid the endless wrangling over deficits that have exhausted both political parties as well as the American public.
It was hardly surprising that a president who expects so little from Congress devoted some of his speech to celebrating the things that he has accomplished against considerable odds. With Congress’s help, he rescued the automobile companies, jump-started the renewable energy industry, imposed new rules on financial institutions and, most dramatically, engineered a major overhaul of the health care system. On his own initiative, he ordered major reforms in immigration policy, forged a landmark agreement with the automobile companies on fuel efficiency and proposed tough restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
His task will be to defend these initiatives from almost certain congressional attack, wielding his veto pen, or threatening to wield it, much as President Bill Clinton found himself doing after Newt Gingrich and his Republican majority took over the House in 1995. President Obama should also seek out opportunities to use his executive authority to improve conditions for the middle class and for workers, such as fixing overtime rules, and, at every opportunity, use the bully pulpit on important matters like improving the minimum wage.
There is one other thing he must do: Resist his instinct to follow the false promise of compromise. Give-and-take is part of the legislative process, but trade-offs amounting to Republican legislative triumphs are unacceptable. Gridlock seems almost foreordained over the next two years. Mr. Obama should do nothing to confuse the voters as to where the responsibility lies.

After defiant speech, Obama heads to Republican heartland

A day after delivering a defiant State of the Union speech to the Republican-led U.S. Congress, President BarackObama headed to the conservative heartland on Wednesday to promote his plans for bolstering the middle class.
Obama left Washington for a two-day trip to Idaho and Kansas to push his message that everyone should stand to gain from aneconomy that has all but recovered from years in the doldrums.
No longer restrained by having to face an election again, Obama struck a confident tone in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, saying, "the shadow of crisis has passed."
It is now time for policies like raising taxes on the rich and offering community college for free for two years, he said.
After losing control of the Senate to Republicans in November's midterm elections, Obama has taken a more active role in policy - from immigration reform to improving relations with Cuba - as he seeks to shape his legacy.
Polls show Obama has reason to be upbeat. Reuters/Ipsos polling data on Wednesday put his approval at 41 percent this week, up four points from a month ago. But 52 percent of Americans still disapprove of his performance.
The Democrat threatened on Tuesday to veto Republican efforts to overturn key decisions such as his signature healthcare law, the loosening of immigration policy, and the administration's opposition to the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Republicans called for Obama to be more humble, given that they took control of both chambers of Congress this month after winning the midterms handsomely.
"We've only been here 2-1/2 weeks, and he's put seven veto threats. I think that's probably not the best start. Let us work the legislation before you decide something's going to be vetoed," House of Representatives Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on the CBS "This Morning" program.
One area where Obama might win support from Republicans is on trade. He called in his speech for Congress to give him so-called fast-track authority to help complete major trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal currently being negotiated with Asia.
He warned that China would be the winner if that deal falters.
"The president made very clear last night that TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) and TPP is now a top presidential priority and now is the time to get it done," said Evan Medeiros, the top White House aide on Asia.
While some conservative Republicans oppose giving Obama fast-track authority, the heaviest resistance might be from fellow Democrats who worry that trade deals could hurt American workers.
McCarthy said Republicans are also willing to work with Obama on tax reform.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on Wednesday that after recent talks with Republicans he was confident a business tax reform plan can make it through Congress.
Lew put the chances of passage at "better than 50-50."
The tax plan includes a lower top corporate rate, ensuring more taxes are paid on foreign earnings, and closing a host of loopholes.
On his trip, Obama will visit a lab at Boise State University’s Micron Engineering Center in Idaho.
Both Idaho and Kansas are “red” or Republican-leaning states, which White House officials took into account in an effort to show his policies can appeal to a bipartisan audience.
Obama told lawmakers and millions watching on television that it was time to "turn the page" from recession and war, and work together to boost middle-class Americans.
His vision of a stronger and more expensive safety net stands little chance of becoming law this year, but it could shape the debate for the 2016 presidential election.
Hillary Clinton, the likely frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is already facing heat from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and others on the left, who worry Clinton may bow to pressure from Wall Street and not push enough of a populist agenda on theeconomy.
In a post on Twitter after the speech, Clinton wrote:
"@BarackObama #SOTU pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare".

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Music Video - "Da Bajawar Gulona'' Bakhtiar Khattak &Shan Yousafzai

Music Video - Da Zwani Khoob -Naghma

Charges and Clashing Interests Mar Selection of a Cabinet for Afghanistan


Choosing the Afghan cabinet is to government what the national sport of buzkashi is to polo: a wild and woolly version with uniquely local characteristics and notably more carnage.
President Ashraf Ghani’s presentation of new cabinet nominees to Parliament on Tuesday was a case in point. One proposed nominee had just pulled out after revelations of an Interpol warrant for his arrest. Another dropped out, complaining that he did not have enough money and jobs to bribe Parliament into approving him. A third was subject to a social media smear campaign alleging that she had just gotten a new identity card so she could add a few years to her age to qualify for the job.
Several other would-be ministers were reportedly headed to the exits before Parliament got a chance to vote on them, as revelations tumbled out about dual citizenships, frowned on by the Afghan Constitution, or even, in one case, allegedly not being fluent in any national language.

“The candidate for rural development studied urban development, and the candidate for urban development studied rural development,” said Ramazan Bashardost, an anticorruption crusader and member of Parliament, famous for his outspokenness. “It is another buzkashi game for the presidential palace.”
It did not help the appearance of disarray that the formation of the cabinet had already been more than three months in the making, held up as Mr. Ghani and his chief executive and political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, hashed out a compromise that would balance the cabinet among competing ethnic and political interests.
All of this might be comical if it were not also potentially tragic. In the view of Ahmad Nader Nadery, head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, the cabinet proposed by Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah is in some ways one of the best the country has ever seen — if it survives the parliamentary process and the wave of revelations about the qualifications of candidates.
Not only is it generally younger and better qualified than past bodies, but the many new faces are a welcome change from the revolving cast of former warlords, jihadist commanders and old-guard figures who have dominated previous Afghan governments, Mr. Nadery said.
In addition, both Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani agreed on a government in defiance of many of the hard-liners who had supported them during the election. “There isn’t a single old face in the proposed cabinet,” Mr. Nadery said. “They pushed aside those big players who have been in every government we’ve had. This is payback.”
In theory, the new 25-member cabinet, plus the head of the central bank and the intelligence service, was meant to be split equally between the two camps, and it was expected to strike a balance among the country’s four major ethnic groups.
Backers of both candidates have cried foul, however, some complaining about ethnic or regional imbalances, others about political disloyalty.
Many of those doing the complaining were clearly behind the payback revelations about the qualifications of the would-be ministers — some of them uncomfortably on the mark.
Links to the website of Interpol were emailed around, referencing a red notice that said the proposed minister for agriculture, Yaqub Haidari, was wanted for large-scale tax evasion and fraudulent conversion in, of all places, Estonia. Mr. Haidari could not be reached for comment, but his aides have said he claims the charges are for activities of a company to which he is no longer connected.
Nonetheless, Mr. Haidari’s name was withdrawn from the cabinet list. As a member of Interpol, Afghanistan would be expected to arrest anyone subject to an Interpol red notice.
A more prominent nominee, Jilani Popal, a well-regarded former government official, withdrew his name from nomination as finance minister. While he is believed to have dual United States and Afghan citizenship, Mr. Popal told friends that he had pulled out when members of Parliament asked him for a total of 400 jobs in exchange for their votes, most of them in the lucrative customs service, leaving him with no slots for unstained candidates.
“He said he decided to withdraw his nomination because of the M.P.s’ demands,” said a friend and former Afghan diplomat, Ahmad Saeedi. “He said he couldn’t do that for them.” Mr. Popal could not be reached for comment.
Posts soon began appearing on various forms of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, purporting to show the old identity documents of Khatera Afghan, the nominee to be minister of higher education, alongside her purported new identity documents, issued only a couple weeks ago.
The documents suggested that Ms. Afghan’s age had suddenly gone up to 38 from the original 32. Ms. Afghan could not be reached for comment, and there was no way to verify the authenticity of the documents. Her picturedoes perhaps suggest someone on the younger side of 35, the minimum age for cabinet members.
The old guard did a lot more than dish dirt on the newcomers.
Ismail Khan, the warlord who has long ruled the western city of Herat and was an important Abdullah supporter in the elections, denounced the lack of ministers from western Afghanistan and said Mr. Abdullah had “disrespected his voters.” Similarly, a warlord and member of Parliament, Hajji Zahir Qadir, who had supported Mr. Ghani, accused the president of abandoning him and his followers after winning election, and campaigned against the cabinet.
In the northern Panjshir Valley, Tajik followers of Mr. Abdullah held a demonstration last weekend to protest the lack of Panjshiris in the proposed cabinet.
Previously, the Panjshiris, whose assassinated resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud is deeply revered, have always had at least one of the three most important security ministries, and other northerners have typically had one of the others.
This time, Mr. Abdullah, himself identified with the Panjshir Valley and the north, agreed to a cabinet in which the three top security jobs were delegated to Pashtuns. While the most numerous of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, the Pashtuns are viewed warily by northerners because the Taliban are mostly Pashtun.
Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, now the army chief, is expected to become head of the ministry of defense, while a former communist general, Nur ul-Haq Ulumi, is the proposed choice for the ministry of the interior.Rahmatullah Nabil would lead the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence service. All are Pashtuns.
All of them still have to be approved by an increasingly hostile Parliament. President Ghani fired all of the country’s previous cabinet ministers on Nov. 30 rather than keep them on indefinitely. That old guard has many friends in Parliament, and ratification of the proposed cabinet is far from assured.