Tuesday, February 2, 2016

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America’s new Vietnam in the Middle East

by Ira Chernus

It was half a century ago, but I still remember it vividly. “We have to help South Vietnam,” I explained. “It’s a sovereign nation being invaded by another nation, North Vietnam.”
“No, no,” my friend protested. “There’s just one Vietnam, from north to south, divided artificially. It’s a civil war. And we have no business getting involved. We’re just making things worse for everyone.”
At the time, I hadn’t heard anyone describe the Vietnam War that way. Looking back, I see it as my first lesson in a basic truth of political life — that politics is always a contest between competing narratives. Accept a different story and you’re going to see the issue differently, which might leave you open to supporting a very different policy. Those who control the narrative, that is, are likely to control what’s done, which is why governments so regularly muster their resources — call it propaganda or call it something else — to keep that story in their possession.
Right now, as Americans keep a wary eye on the Islamic State (IS), there are only two competing stories out there about the devolving situation in the Middle East: think of them as the mission-creep and the make-the-desert-glow stories. The Obama administration suggests that we have to “defend” America by gradually ratcheting up our efforts, from air strikes to advisers to special operations raids against the Islamic State. Administration critics, especially the Republican candidates for president, urge us to “defend” ourselves by bombing IS to smithereens, sending in sizeable contingents of American troops, and rapidly upping the military ante. Despite the fact that the Obama administration andCongress continue to dance around the word “war,” both versions are obviously war stories. There’s no genuine peace story in sight.
To be sure, peace activists have been busy poking holes in the two war narratives. It’s not hard. As they point out, U.S. military action against IS is obviously self-defeating. It clearly gives the Islamic State exactly what it wants. For all its fantasies of an apocalyptic final battle with unbelievers, that movement is not in any normal sense either planning to attack the United States or capable of doing so. Its practical, real-world goal is to win over more Muslims to its side everywhere. Few things serve that purpose better than American strikes on Muslims in the Middle East.
If IS launches occasional attacks in Europe and tries to inspire them here in the U.S., it’s mainly to provoke retaliation. It wants to be Washington’s constant target, which gives it cachet, elevating its struggle. Every time we take the bait, we hand the Islamic State another victory, helping it grow and launch new “franchises” in other predominantly Muslim nations.
That’s a reasonable analysis, which effectively debunks the justifications for more war. It’s never enough, however, just to show that the prevailing narrative doesn’t fit the facts. If you want to change policy, you need a new story, one that fits the facts far better because it’s built on a new premise.
For centuries, scientists found all sorts of flaws in the old notion that the sun revolves around the Earth, but it held sway until Copernicus came up with a brand-new one. The same holds true in politics. What’s needed is not just a negative narrative that says, “Here’s why your ideas and actions are wrong,” but a positive one that fits the facts better. Because it’s built on a new premise, it can point to new ways to act in the world, and so rally an effective movement to demand change.
At their best, peace movements in the past always went beyond critique to offer stories that described conflicts in genuinely new ways. At present, however, the U.S. peace movement has yet to find the alternative narrative it needs to talk about the Islamic State, which leaves it little more than a silent shadow on the American political scene.

Vietnam redux

That’s not to say that the peace movement is stuck story-less. One potentially effective narrative that might bring it back to life is sitting in plain view, right there in the peace activists’ most common critique of the U.S. war against the Islamic State.
IS is not making war on the U.S., the critique explains, nor on Europe. Its sporadic attacks on those “infidel” lands aim primarily to radicalize Muslims living there in hopes of recruiting them. Indeed, all IS strategies are geared toward winning Muslims to its side and gaining more traction in predominantly Muslim lands. That’s where the vast majority of IS-directed or inspired violence happens, all over what Muslims call dar al-Islam, “the home of Islam,” from Nigeriato Syria toIndonesia.
The problem for the Islamic State: the vast majority of Muslims are just not buyingits story. In fact, IS is making enemiesas well as friends everywhere it goes. In other words, it is involved in a civil war within dar al-Islam.
Every step we take deeper into that civil war is a misstep that only makes us more vulnerable. The stronger our stand against the Islamic State, the more excuses and incentives we give it to try to attack us, and the easier it is for IS to recruit fighters to do the job. The best way to protect American lives is to transcend our fears and refuse to take sides in someone else’s civil war.
That’s the positive narrative waiting to be extracted from the peace movement’s analysis. One big reason the movement has had such a paltry influence in these years: it’s never spelled out this “Muslim civil war” narrative explicitly, even though it fits the facts so much better than either of the war stories on offer. It radically shifts our perception of the situation by denying the basic premise of the dominant narrative — that IS is making war on America so we must make war in return. It points to a new policy of disengagement.
And it’s a simple, powerful story for Americans because it’s so familiar. It sends us back half a century and half a world away — to Vietnam. At that time, my friend and (a bit later) I, too, embraced the narrative that Vietnam was indeed gripped by a civil war. That explanation would play a major role in boosting the success of the Sixties peace movement. Within a few years, many millions of Americans, citizens and soldiers alike, saw the conflict that way — and not so many years after, all U.S. troops were gone from Vietnam.
The peace movement’s story then was both simple and accurate. No, it said, we’re not the good guys protecting one independent nation from invasion by another nation. Nor are we fighting an enemy intent on doing us harm. Boxing champion Muhammad Ali got it right when he said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”
Intervening in Vietnam’s civil war cost us more than 58,000 American lives anddid untold damageto the vets who survived, not to speak of what it didto millions of Vietnamese. It showed us that, no matter how superior our technology, we could not swoop in and win someone else’s civil war. Our intervention was bound to do more harm than good.
Fifty years later, we are repeating the same self-defeating mistake. Military action against the Islamic State is leading us into another Vietnam-like “quagmire,” this time in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East. Once again, we have enmeshed ourselves in a complex civil war abroad with no strategy that can lead to victory. It was wrong then. It’s wrong now.
To put it mildly, the U.S. has a less than stellar track record when it comes to intervening in other people’s civil wars. We’ve also interfered quite selectively. In the last two decades, we stayed out of brutal conflicts in places like the Congo andSri Lankahttps://web.stanford.edu/group/sjir.... So a decision not to intervene militarily in a foreign civil war should be familiar enough to Americans.
To become neutral is not to condone the grim brutality and reactionary values of the Islamic State. It’s hardly likely that twenty-first-century peace activists will give the IS anything like the sympathy many Vietnam-era protesters offered the insurgents of that moment. In this case, becoming neutral merely means suggesting that it’s not Washington’s job to fight evil everywhere. Its job is to adopt the strategies most likely to keep Americans safe.
That’s a view most Americans already hold to quite firmly. So the “Muslim civil war” story just might get a sympathetic hearing in the public arena.

The bewildering maze of Muslim civil war

Of course, the Islamic State is not involved in what we conventionally think of as a civil war, in which two sides fight for control of a single nation. Even inside Syria, the number of factions involved in the struggle, including the oppressive government of Bashar al-Assad and rebels of every stripe from al-Qaeda-linked to Saudi-linked to U.S.-linked ones, is bewildering. Since IS is fighting for control not just of Syria but of all dar al-Islam, many other movements, factions, and forces are involved in this Muslim civil war as well.
Some observers are too quick to simplify it into a battle of “traditionalists versus modernizers.” In the U.S. mainstream media that usually translates into a desire for us to intervene on behalf of the modernizers. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is probably the best-known advocate of this view. Others simplify it into a battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Since Iran is the leading Shi’ite power, those in the media tend to favor the Sunnis.
All these simple pictures are painted to build support for one side or another. The only kind of peace they aim at is one that leaves their favored side victorious.
In fact, no simple dichotomy can capture the tangled maze of struggles in dar al-Islam. Sunni traditionalists battle other Sunni traditionalists (for example, al-Qaeda versus IS). Modernizers join traditionalists to fight other traditionalists (for example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in an uneasy alliance to weaken IS). Sunnis and Shi’ites become allies too (for example, Kurdish Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ite militiasallied againstIS). The U.S. supports both Shi’ites (like the government of Iraq) and Sunnis (like the oil-rich Gulf States), while it resists the growing power of both Shi’ites (like Iran) and Sunnis (like IS).
By emphasizing the true complexity of the Muslim civil war, a peace movement narrative can cast that war in a different light. Precisely because there are not two clearly demarcated sides, it makes no sense to cast one side as the good guys and launch our planes and drones to obliterate the bad guys. It’s bound to lead to incoherence and disaster, especially in this situation, where the Islamic State, however repugnant to most Americans, is arguably no worse than our staunch allies, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
Given the confusing, some might say chaotic, maze of intra-Muslim conflict, it is equally senseless to go on promoting the American fantasy of imposing order. (“Without order,” Friedman has written, “nothing good can happen.”) Taking this road so far has, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, actually meant unleashing chaos in significant parts of the Greater Middle East. There’s no reason to think the same road will lead anywhere else in the future.

Bring the boys, girls, and drones home

The Muslim civil war story leads directly to a radical change in policy: stop trying to impose a made-in-America order on dar al-Islam. Give up the dubious gratificationof yet another war against “the evildoers.” Instead, offer genuinely humanitarian aid, with no hidden political agenda, to the victims of the civil war, especially those fleeing a stunning level of violence in Syria that the U.S. has helped to sustain. But cease all military action, all economic pressures, and all diplomatic maneuvering against any one side in the Muslim civil war. Become, as we have in other civil wars, a genuine neutral.
To call this change of narrative and policy a tall order is an understatement. There would be massive forces arrayed against it, given the steady stream of verbal assaults the Islamic State levels against Washington, which have already inspired one terrible mass killing on American soil. We don’t know when, or if, other attacks will succeed in the future, whether organized by IS or carried out by “lone wolves” energized by that outfit.
The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that none of this is evidence of a war directed against America. It’s mainly tactical maneuvering in a Muslim civil war. For the Islamic State, American lives and fears are merely pawns in the game. And yet this reality in the Middle East runs against something lodged deep in our history. For centuries, most Americans have believed that our nation is the center of world history, that whatever happens anywhere must somehow be aimed directly at us — and we continue to see ourselves as the star of the global show.
Most Americans have also been conditioned for decades to believe that what’s at stake is a life-or-death drama in which some enemy, somewhere, is always intent on destroying our nation. IS is at present the only candidate in sight for that role and it’s hard to imagine the public giving up the firmly entrenched story that it is out to destroy us. But half a century ago, it was difficult to imagine that the story of Vietnam would be just as radically transformed within a few years. So it’s a stretch, but not an inconceivable one, to picture America, a few years from now, ringing with cries that echo those of the Vietnam era: “U.S. out of dar al-Islam.” “Bring the boys — and girls and bombers and drones — home.”
And if anyone says the analogy between Vietnam and the current conflict is debatable, that’s just the point. Rather than a rush to yet more war, it’s time to have a real national debate on the subject. It’s time to give the American people a chance to choose between two fundamentally different narratives. The task of the peace movement, now as always, is to provide a genuine alternative.

Saudi Arabia Reduces Ashraf Fayadh's Death Sentence to Eight Years in Prison and 800 Lashes

Written byAmira Al Hussaini

Saudi Arabia overturned the death sentence of Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, accused of apostasy and other blasphemy-related offenses which he denies, to eight years imprisonment and 800 lashes, announced his lawyer via Twitter today.

In a tweet, which had a press press release in Arabic attached to it, his lawyer Abdulrahman Al-Lahim said the court has revoked the death sentence, replacing it with the prison sentence and the public lashings, at the rate of 50 lashes per week, as well as enforcing Fayadh to renounce his poetry in Saudi official media.

The lawyer maintained that Fayadh was innocent and called for his immediate release from prison.
Fayadh, who was born and lives in Saudi Arabia, has curated art shows in Jeddah and at the Venice Biennale and has been a key leader of Edge of Arabia, a British-Saudi art organization. Fayadh was first detained in August 2013 in Abha, in South Western Saudi Arabia, by the country's religious police, also known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
The 35-year-old was released on bail only to be arrested again on January 1, 2014, when he was sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. After his attorneys appealed, judicial authorities decided to re-try his case before a new panel of judges, who sentenced Fayadh to death in November 2015, on charges of promoting atheism in his 2008 poetry collection, Instructions Within.
According to Human Rights Watch:
Prosecutors charged him with a host of blasphemy-related charges, including: blaspheming “the divine self” and the Prophet Muhammad; spreading atheism and promoting it among the youth in public places; mocking the verses of God and the prophets; refuting the Quran; denying the day of resurrection; objecting to fate and divine decree; and having an illicit relationship with women and storing their pictures in his phone.
On Twitter, many continued to criticise Saudi Arabia and its human rights record, despite the reduction of Fayadh's sentence. Zena tweets:
A relief that  death sentence has been dropped. But 8 years & 800 lashes for no crime is not justice.

Saudi Royal Family Gave $681M to Malaysian PM Who Banned Shia Islam

On Wednesday last week the Malaysia’s attorney general confirmed that Saudi Arabia’s royal family gave Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak a $681 million personal gift. The confirmation of the scandal ended months of speculation about the source of the huge personal donation received from ‘a middle eastern donor’ by the Prime Minister. The country’s top anti-graft agency had recommended Najib Razak be charged with criminal misappropriation.
The transfer of almost $700 million was made ahead of the 2013 re-election of the Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Najib Razak who had been in office since 2009 is widely known for his clamp down on Shia minority Islam in the nation.
In 2010 the nation declared that Shiites in the country, who have been termed a “deviant” sect, were barred from promoting their faith to other Muslims.
In December that year, 200 Shi‘a were arrested by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department for celebrating ashura under the Selangor state shari‘a criminal enactment law. Religious authorities who accused them of “threatening national security” in multicultural Malaysia.
The nation has since continued to persecute and arrest Shia citizens.
In 2014 in Perak another 114 were arrested during a Shia event.
Images filled global media of Shia Muslim, children and women laying sprawled in prisons in the nation.
In 2010 the nation declared that Shiites in the country, who have been termed a “deviant” sect, were barred from promoting their faith to other Muslims.
In December that year, 200 Shi‘a were arrested by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department for celebrating ashura under the Selangor state shari‘a criminal enactment law. Religious authorities who accused them of “threatening national security” in multicultural Malaysia.
The nation has since continued to persecute and arrest Shia citizens.
In 2014 in Perak another 114 were arrested during a Shia event.
Images filled global media of Shia Muslim, children and women laying sprawled in prisons in the nation.
Countries In Contest To Persecute Shia Muslims For Saudi Dollars
The Saudi Royal family is known for sponsoring administrations and fanatic clerics that support its political campaign against Shia faithfuls in their countries. Its massive financial backing of the Malaysian Prime Minister is one such example of how billions of petrodollars from the nation’s oil sales are used to back radical fanatic administrators and politicians across the world.
Following a recent deadly crackdown by the Nigerian army that saw as many as 1000 Shia minority Muslims killed in Nigeria, the Saudi government immediately voiced public support of the massacre, elucidating similar fears of similar financial support towards the state and Federal administrators.
This week a former Chief Imam of the Saudi grand Mosque described Saudi policies as identical to those of ISIS.
Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani said, “We follow the same thought [as IS] but apply it in a refined way,” he said. “They draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, from our own principles.”
The cleric said that “we do not criticize the thought on which it (IS) is based”.
Notably, most notorious global terrorists groups, Boko Haram, AQIP, ISIS or Daesh, al-Qaeda and the like are Sunni-extremist groups who recruit their followers from extremist Sunni nations and are known to receive financing from these governments. There are no known Shia terror organizations.
The donations to the Malaysian Prime Minister have put suspicion in various countries who are worried that their political administrators may like wise be sponsored by the Saudi royal family.

Video - Festive Atmosphere Felt in East China to Greet Spring Festival

China - President Xi Jinping Brings New Year Blessings to Villagers in Old Revolutionary Base

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited one of China's oldest revolutionary bases Jinggangmountain in east China's Jiangxi province on February 2, 2016. People crowded to seetheir leader of the country on the village roadThe President shook hands with them oneby one. "I have deep feelings with Jinggang Mountain," he said. "This is the third time Icome here to pay respect to this old revolutionary site and its peopleI wish you a betterlife.”
The Zuo family is a Red Army martyr descendant family in this cradle of People's Republicof ChinaWhen President Xi came to their housethey were busy preparing Spring FestivalfoodXi immediately started making the local rice cakes with the family.
Learning that the Zuo family is good at creating bamboo handcraft and raising giantsalamandersand that they are to renovate their house after the Spring FestivalXi wasvery happy for themHe wished that their life would get better and better in the newhouseand encouraged Zuo's grandson to work hard at school.

Russia rejects London’s claims that Moscow is escalating Syria conflict

The Russian Foreign Ministry has called London's claims that Moscow is undermining international efforts to stop the civil war in Syria "dangerous stoking of misinformation."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's remarks alleging Russia's negative role in the Syrian conflict as unfounded.
"We are used to these unfounded statements. It is characteristic not only of the Syrian topic, but our Western partners also prefer commenting on other acute global policy issues in a way that no one would be able to see any facts in them [the comments] because, if truth be told, no one is able to present any facts to us," Lavrov told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 2.
Earlier British foreign secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters that “everything we are doing is being undermined by the Russians.”
“The Russians say let’s talk, and then they talk and they talk and they talk. The problem with the Russians is while they are talking they are bombing, and they are supporting Assad,” Hammond said at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, near the border with Syria.
"Hammond has not voiced any specific complaints [during personal meetings] because he is unable to voice them. Probably, they [in London] want now that no one forgets them as participants in certain processes linked with the settlement of the crisis in the Middle East," said Sergei Lavrov.
On the contrary, the Russian air operation in Syria has proved its effectiveness, he added.

Russia is No Wild Bear and Europe is Lost Without It

After the fall of the USSR, Europe and the US approached Russia as they did Africa in the early days of colonization, offering trinkets for gold. However, Russia is not a "fierce, wild bear" as assumed, but an educated nation, without which Europe will be unable to defend its so-called European values, says a Portuguese historian and writer.

Last Wednesday Portuguese historian and writer José Milhazes presented his new book on Russia: "Russia and Europe: Part of the Whole", where he attempted to convey to Portuguese readers the history of relations between Russia and Europe since the ninth century to the twenty-first century.

The writer, who has a doctorate degree from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Porto and has been studying the History of Russia at Moscow State University, acknowledged that European diplomacy is often at fault due to its own convictions, and has a great deal still to learn.

European diplomats come to Russia in order to impose their own standards, which can potentially lead to disastrous consequences.

Right after the disintegration of the Soviet Union Europe, the US treated Russia like the first years of the colonization of Africa — offering trinkets for gold. The Russians were seen as a backward people who needed to be educated.

"We often despise partners, 'the other', we are convinced that we do know, we do reason, forgetting about the great cultural wealth of Russia. We are dealing with people who have a solid background and can contribute to the much talked about rapprochement with Europe," Milhazes said at the presentation of his book.

"I tried to show that Russia is not the 'fierce, aggressive, wild bear' as projected by some of the most fiery advocates of the so-called Western values. Russia must participate. Without it, we will not be able to defend the European values which are the basis of our civilization," he added.

Sputnik Brazil also talked with politician Guilherme d'Oliveira Martins, who was in charge of the presentation of the book.

"Unfortunately there is a great gap in our knowledge regarding the relationship between Russia and Europe. This ignorance is mainly due to the low awareness of the Portuguese and Europeans as a whole," he said at the presentation.

"Many of the recent developments of the Ukrainian crisis can be attributed to a lack of knowledge of the core of the problem and the geographic and geostrategic importance of this region, "he added.
Professor Oliveira Martins has consecutively held the posts of Portuguese Minister of Education (1999 – 2000), Minister of the Presidential Affairs (2000 – 2002), Finance Minister (2001 – 2002), President of the Portuguese Court of Audits (2005 – 2015).

Professor Oliveira Martins however stressed that he is optimistic about the future and democracy in Eastern Europe. His basic idea is that Europeans must learn more about Russia and the different cultures that inhabit its territory.

Peace in Europe depends on the existence of what José Milhazes has called the "modus vivendi" with European culture and the cultures of Russia.

"That is why, in the case of Ukraine, it is essential to know well this territory, its origins, its diversity, since Kiev is something of a matrix of the Russian culture, as we know, but the western territory of Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I," he says.

The basis for peace, he stressed, lies in understanding the makeup of Ukraine. It is vital to understand the diversity of the country, recognizing that it was the Russian culture, which is also a European culture, which has given us so many major artistic works by talents such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky.
"There will be no Europe if there is no awareness of a need for complementarity between the old European peoples and the peoples living on the Russian territory."

"All European diplomats should read this book because it is a very well-informed work, which clearly demonstrates that Europe needs a good relationship with Russia," he concluded.

Read more: http://sputniknews.com/europe/20160202/1034099776/europe-russia-history.html#ixzz3z3psEek2

Russian diplomat: Russia to continue assisting Syrian government in anti-terror efforts

Russia will continue its assistance to the Syrian government in the fight against terrorism, and ceasefire will not be applicable to extremist groups, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Tuesday. "Russia understands the importance of reaching a ceasefire," he said. "But it will not be applicable to terrorists." He stressed that "Russia will continue its assistance to the Syrian government in the fight against terrorists." Talks on Syria Russia hopes Syrian Kurds will join the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will continue to send invitations to them, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister went on to say. "The Kurdish aspect, I would say, is dominating our discussions, as the Kurds are serious part of the opposition," he said. 

"De Mistura promised us to continue sending officials invitation to the Kurds. We hope they will join later." In Gennady Gatilov's words, Jaish al-Islam group’s representative, Mohammed Alloush, is taking part in Geneva contacts on the Syrian settlement exclusively in a private capacity. "We think that these groups [Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham] are terrorist organization and have a corresponding attitude to them," he said. "And as for the fact that some persons from these organizations are present here, they are participating in the opposition delegation exclusively in a private capacity."

China shares Russia’s principal approaches to the Syrian settlement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov continued. "China basically shares Russia’s approaches," he said, commenting of Tuesday’s contacts with Chinese diplomats. "As of today, almost all understand the necessity of the soonest settlement of the conflict," he stressed. According to gatilov, Russia does not rule out more contacts with United States representatives in Geneva to discuss the intra-Syrian talks, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Tuesday. 

"When we met with US representatives last time, we agreed that more such contacts could be organized later," he said. He did not specify however when such contacts could be arranged. A possible merger of two delegations of the Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace talks is not expected so far, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister said. A merger of two delegations into one opposition delegation "is not yet on the agenda," he said. 

"Currently, two delegations are here, namely the Riyadh group and the so-called Lausanne group. These two key groups will be partners to the Syrian government delegation." The final makeup of the Syrian opposition delegation at peace talks in Geneva will be agreed within the next two days, Gatilov noted. "[United Nations Envoy for Syria Staffan] de Mistura will meet with representatives of the opposition in the next few days. The makeup of the delegation for negotiations may be announced after this meeting," he said. "It may take place tomorrow or the day after tomorrow."

More: http://tass.ru/en/politics/854086

Video - Hillary Clinton wins Iowa caucuses

Video - Iowa in 2012 and 2016: Two caucus cliffhangers

Hillary Clinton Just Made History

By Emily Peck

Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever to win the Iowa caucus, the moment when the voters finally jump into America's presidential selection process. That's not something to ignore.
Yet it seemed weirdly overlooked on Tuesday, as political observers argued over why men who came in second and third actually "won" the contest.
Sure, it was a tight race, but Clinton eked out first place on the Democratic side. The Associated Press on Tuesday morning declared the former secretary of state the winner, with slightly more delegate equivalents than her chief competitor, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Clinton had finished third in the Iowa caucus in 2008, behind John Edwards and Barack Obama, himself the first black person ever to win that contest.
Now, the Iowa caucus is hardly definitive. Plenty of politicians have won the early voting there and wound up nowhere in the national race, from then-Rep. Dick Gephardt (D) in 1988 to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2012. Still, the contest tends to give the winning candidate some momentum. Obama took that Iowa win in '08 and ran with it.
And, yes, Clinton has made primary history before. In 2008, she narrowly defeated Obama to win the New Hampshire primary, and she took a bunch of other states, too.
Clinton is a contentious figure, even among women. But that's no reason not to celebrate the fact that on Monday she made history -- again! Especially at a time when there are still so few women in politics.

Hillary Clinton Declared Winner of Iowa Caucuses


Hillary Clinton was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday after final vote counts showed her narrowly beating Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, according to The Associated Press and other news organizations.
According to the final results announced by the Iowa Democratic Party, Mrs. Clinton was awarded 700.59 state delegate equivalents, the terminology used in Iowa to represent candidates’ share of the total caucus vote. Mr. Sanders was awarded 696.82 delegates, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley received 7.61 delegates. Iowa Democrats usually do not release raw vote counts from each of the state’s 1,681 caucus precincts.
Based on these results, Mrs. Clinton is set to receive 23 of Iowa’s delegates and Mr. Sanders will earn 21 delegates. There are 4,763 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, so it will require 2,382 delegates to win the nomination.
The Iowa results — the closest in the history of the Iowa Democratic caucuses — were far tighter than Mrs. Clinton and her advisers had expected. But her team embraced the result as a significant win given her previous troubles in the state — she came in third place in the 2008 caucuses — and Mr. Sanders’s popularity with many liberals here. (In a poll last month, 43 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers described themselves as socialists.) Still, the close margin privately frustrated Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton, according to advisers, because they had hoped that a strong win would give her much-needed political momentum in New Hampshire, where Mr. Sanders has a solid lead in opinion polls.
Mrs. Clinton quickly sought to capitalize on the skin-of-her-teeth victory, presenting herself as a winner during a rally in New Hampshire on Tuesday morning as she and Mr. Sanders intensified their competition to win the primary there.
“I can tell you, I’ve won and I’ve lost there — and it’s a lot better to win,” Mrs. Clinton said to cheers at Nashua Community College.
“This is an exciting week for a lot of reasons,” she added, promising a spirited “contest of ideas” between herself and Mr. Sanders over policies and actions that can “make a real difference in people’s lives.”
Mr. Sanders planned to hold rallies later Tuesday in Keene and Claremont, while Mrs. Clinton had events in Nashua and Hampton.
With Iowa accounting for only 1 percent of the delegates at stake in the Democratic nominating race, Mrs. Clinton is already far ahead of Mr. Sanders in the delegate count that matters most, given her support from several hundred superdelegates who count toward the nomination. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Clinton have expressed confidence to allies that she can afford to lose Iowa, as well as the next contest, the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9, because of her strength in big-state, delegate-rich primaries and in the South where the Clintons believe their support among African-Americans will be a political firewall.
Rather than release precinct-by-precinct vote totals for Democratic candidates, Iowa uses a formula to allocate “state delegate equivalents” to the candidates based on their shares of support in each caucus site, where voters group themselves into different clusters that represent their preferred candidate. Democratic caucusgoers do not cast ballots that can be easily recounted; instead, state party volunteers and other workers in each precinct report the delegate totals based on the size of the clusters on Monday night.
State party officials said that 171,109 Iowa Democrats came out to caucus on Monday. Sanders campaign advisers believed they would win Iowa if the turnout was high, pointing to Barack Obama’s commanding win in the 2008 caucuses when about 240,000 people turned out. Neither the Sanders nor Clinton campaigns expected turnout to be anywhere near that level, but the Sanders advisers had hoped that it would be closer to 2008 than to 2004, when about 125,000 people showed up to caucus for Democratic candidates.
Two Sanders advisers said on Tuesday morning that they were awaiting the final caucus results before considering a possible challenge to the delegate calculations. Mr. Sanders, on his flight from Iowa to New Hampshire late Monday night, said he would ask the Iowa Democratic Party to reveal the raw vote count underlying the delegate percentages.
Matt Paul, the director of Mrs. Clinton’s Iowa campaign, said there was nothing to contest.
“Hillary Clinton has won the Iowa caucus,” he said in a statement early Tuesday morning. “After thorough reporting — and analysis — of results, there is no uncertainty and Secretary Clinton has clearly won the most national and state delegates. Statistically, there is no outstanding information that could change the results and no way that Senator Sanders can overcome Secretary Clinton’s advantage.”
Mr. O’Malley announced on Monday night that he was suspending his campaign, given his poor results in Iowa, leaving the fight for the Democratic nomination to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders.
Mrs. Clinton, in an MSNBC interview on Tuesday afternoon, said she believed she would get a “boost out of Iowa” to help her compete in “Senator Sanders’s backyard” in New Hampshire. Calibrating expectations for her performance in the primary, she noted that New Hampshire voters had a history of supporting “neighbors” like Mr. Sanders and said she would fight as hard as she did in 2008 when she pulled off an upset win there against Mr. Obama.
Recalling that earlier race, she pointed out that she was far down in the New Hampshire polls and had only five days to turn things around. This time, she has a week until the primary. “I really need to get out there and make my case,” she said.

Video Report - John McCain : We knew about ISIS fuel trucks all the time

A $43 million gas station in Afghanistan? Not so fast


“We built a $43 million gas station in Afghanistan and it doesn’t even sell the right gas.”
—Donald Trump, rally in Meza, Ariz., Dec. 16, 2015
Sometimes a news report generates big headlines at first, but the corrective follow-up weeks or months later generates barely a ripple — or is ignored altogether. This is a good example of this unfortunate phenomenon.
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We often catch Trump making wild exaggerations. But in this case, he is summarizing a story that was widely covered in November. Here are some of the headlines:

The stories were all based on a report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concerning the construction of a compressed natural gas (CNG) station in Afghanistan as part of project to promote business opportunities in the war-torn nation. The report made a number of assertions, such as the fact that the $43 million cost appeared to be 140 times the amount needed to build a similar facility in neighboring Pakistan.
It certainly sounds like a monumental waste of taxpayer money. But new information has emerged to call into question SIGAR’s claims. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

The project was initiated by the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a Defense Department effort to identify new business opportunities first in Iraq and then, after 2009, in Afghanistan. The group focused on promoting mining operations, light industries, agribusiness and other areas, but by most accounts, the $800 million effort did not get very far before it was essentially disbanded a few years later. SIGAR has been investigating allegations of profligate spending and mismanagement by TFBSO.
SIGAR and DOD have been engaged in a bureaucratic knife fight over TFBSO, with SIGAR claiming it has been not been given unfettered access to key documents and DOD accusing SIGAR of improperly providing private information to the media. The allegations that DOD spent $43 million on a gas station are best understood in that context. Ultimately, as a result of congressional outrage over the gas station report, DOD recently agreed to give SIGAR the access to the documents it had sought.
But that does not mean that the $43 million figure is correct.
DOD built the station to help generate a domestic fuel capacity for Afghanistan, as CNG is used throughout South and Central Asia. The station, constructed in the northern Afghanistan city of Sheberghan, was intended to be a pilot project, with a compression station, pipeline extension from the gas grid, vehicle conversion kits, and so forth.
DOD documents, given to SIGAR, show that the budget in 2011 for the CNG station was $2.9 million.  Another $2.1 million was spent in 2012 to construct an office building, a car conversion facility (essentially a garage) and in particular to fund the conversion to CNG of two generators that power Interior Ministry bases. This is also shown in the same document, embedded below:

SIGAR, in audit documents in April 2015 and January 2016, also referenced this $5 million figure as the cost of the overall project.
So the baseline cost of the gas filling station was $2.9 million. In its report, SIGAR quoted from a 2010 publication of International Energy Association that the “the range of investment for a public [CNG] station serving an economically feasible amount of vehicles varies from $200,000 to $500,000.” It also cited a 2005 feasibility study in Pakistan that a station would costs $306,000. “In short, at $43 million, the TFBSO filling station cost 140 times as much as a CNG station in Pakistan,” the report said.
The comparison to Pakistan is actually apples and oranges. Pakistan is the number one country in the world for using CNG, with at least 70 percent of its vehicles running on it. There are already more than 3,000 stations, meaning the incremental costs of adding a station are relatively small, experts said. By contrast, the TFBSO project was the first such station in Afghanistan.
Rob Adams, who has helped build approximately 200 CNG fueling stations as principal of Marathon Technical Services, said it generally takes about $2 million to $4 million to build a fueling station with two to three compressors, a standby generator, storage, multiple dispensers and significant site improvements. Lower estimates generally reflect a basic station with very limited site improvement and perhaps without a redundant compressor or standby generator, he said.
David Perry, business manager of NGV Global, one of the sources for the IEA report, said that currently a new modest public greenfield site costs between $1.5 million and $2 million, while a new fueling facility added to an existing conventional fuel site can cost between $1.2 million and $1.6 million.  “It is important to note there are many variables in both these scenarios including size of station, number of compressors, requirements of the customer, etc.” he said.
In short, the $2.9 million budget for the Sherberghan station is not out of line, given it was the first of its kind in a country with little manufacturing or technical expertise.
So how did this get blown up to $43 million?
The SIGAR report mentions there was a contract “awarded to Central Asian Engineering to construct the station was for just under $3 million.” But then it relies on a single line on a page in a consultant’s 2014 report, which assessed the impact of the TFBSO projects on the gross domestic product of Afghanistan: “The Task Force spent $42,718,739 between 2011 and 2014 to fund the construction and to supervise the initial operation of the CNG station (approximately $12.3 [million] in direct costs and $30.0 [million] in overhead costs),” said Vestige Consulting. Here’s a copy of the page in question:
The Vestige report was not designed to do a financial analysis. The $30 million for “overhead” is rather vague and undefined. But SIGAR took that number and built its report around it.
In January, Vestige wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee and took back the estimate. Much of the $43 million came from misallocating overhead and other costs from other TFBSO programs to the filling station. The gas station received 47 percent of all of the overhead for TFBSO, while subject-matter labor costs were split equally across five energy projects, even though the others were much larger.
The actual construction costs for just the filling station were confirmed at $2.9 million.
“It has become apparent to all that the CNG Gas Station construction project involved a significantly lower level of SME effort and corresponding overhead than other energy projects (ie: four large tender support projects),” said the letter from Vestige chief executive Robert Schraven. “A more accurate allocation is closer to 2%-4% versus 20%.   This would put the total CNG station costs at well under $10M.”

Schraven’s letter noted that the numbers included in the economic impact analysis were based on “TFBSO guidance.” In other words, that’s what the Pentagon suggested when Vestige was doing its report. But as we noted, the original Vestige report was not designed to do financial accounting of TFBSO, but to evaluate if the projects had an real impact. (Vestige calculated the projects would add nearly $55 billion to Afghanistan’s gross domestic product by 2025.)
SIGAR also points the finger at the Pentagon for the overhead numbers. SIGAR spokesman Alex Bronstein-Moffly said that when officials first saw the Vestige report, “We had the same reaction, this is insane.”
But he said the Pentagon has been stonewalling for months on the issue, all but ignoring a May letter that asked about the $43 million figure and offering no substantive comment before publication of the October report. (The Pentagon asserted that since the task force has been abandoned, there was no one available who could explain the math.) “We don’t withhold reports just because DOD doesn’t answer questions,” he said.
Bronstein-Moffly said Pentagon officials did not supply the necessary documents until just before a Senate hearing was held on the matter on Jan. 20.
“We are doing a review and if we are presented with the evidence that the numbers that DOD calculated was wrong, we are happy to issue an updated report,” Bronstein-Moffly said. “As of right now, all of the available evidence is the $43 million figure is the best available number.”
He also noted, with some irritation, that SIGAR has never been given the updated Vestige report, even though The Fact Checker obtained it.
Whether the investment was worth it is unclear. A just-published report by Rand on TFBSO, citing documents not available to the public, said the “Sheberghan pilot facility opened in May 2012 and, as of September 2013, had converted 120 cars to CNG and taken in a total revenue of 7,375,313 afghanis, or approximately $132,000.” In a statement to the Senate, Pentagon official Brian McKeon said that as of Nov. 15, “the operator indicated that the station was working normally, that 230 cars had been converted, and that every day approximately 160 cars obtain fuel from the station.” That indicates the revenue so far totals at least $250,000.
Vestige, in its original report, concluded the project would have a negligible impact on Afghanistan’s GDP but could generate growth in the natural gas industry.

The Pinocchio Test

If something sounds too fantastic to be true, it probably is. But for an agency famous for a $600 hammer, who would doubt a $43 million gas station?
Trouble is, the $600 hammer was a myth. It was $15 hammer that, for strange accounting purposes, had $420 of research and development overhead randomly assigned to it. (News media reports then rounded up to $600.)
Here again, we have an example of “overhead” apparently randomly assigned to a project, without much rhyme or reason. While SIGAR did point out, on Page 5 of the report, that a substantial part of this figure was overhead, its report overall treated the $43 million figure as an established fact, mentioning it seven times, including in the title. The report then further emphasized that figure by making the unwarranted comparison that this was 140 times more than an equivalent station in Pakistan.
The Pentagon, of course, did itself no favors by refusing to cooperate with SIGAR. It certainly took the massive dose of bad publicity for officials to provide more clarity on these numbers — and for SIGAR to obtain the documents it claimed it needed.
In terms of the Pinocchio Test, we are left with a conundrum. The $43 million figure was widely reported, and there have only been scattered reports about information that emerged at the recent Senate hearing. SIGAR, for its part, is sticking with its initial report, blaming the Pentagon for the figures — even though the Pentagon now says the numbers are wrong.
There’s enough blame to go around — Pentagon officials who gave figures to a consultant without enough due diligence, SIGAR officials eager for a flashy headline, and an overly credulous news media — that we will leave this unrated. But politicians are on notice that the story of “the $43 million gas station” should be treated with deep skepticism.