Risky military options for US in Syria

(By Deutsche Welle) US senators continue to pressure the Obama administration to intervene directly in Syria’s increasingly Balkanized civil war. But all the military options at Washington’s disposal carry major risks.

For more than a year now, the United States has been walking a fine line in Syria’s civil war, offering rhetorical support and non-lethal aid to the anti-Assad rebels, while publicly distancing itself from any notion of deploying American military power to topple the regime in Damascus.

In the latest push to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict, the US and Russia have agreed to sponsor talks between the fragmented rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Geneva, possibly as early as June.

But the key differences between the two Security Council members remain. The US continues to push for Assad to step down, while Russia considers his fate an internal Syrian issue. Peace talks have also been complicated by Moscow’s call for Iran, Washington’s main rival in the region, to participate in the negotiations.

In the US Congress, key senators are putting little stock in the push for peace and are calling for direct US intervention on the ground. The scenarios range from arming the rebels, to establishing no-fly and safe zones, to intervening with ground troops to secure the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

“We have an obligation and responsibility to think through the consequences of direct US military action in Syria,” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

“Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” Hagel said.

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Obama signs order for painful budget cuts

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama has signed an order that starts putting into effect across-the-board budget cuts known as the “sequester” after he and congressional leaders failed to find an alternative budget plan.

Huge spending cuts will start to hit the US starting Saturday after President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans failed to find a compromise budget. Obama signed an order authorizing the cuts Friday night, officially enacting the across-the-board reductions.

With the series of automatic spending cuts, Democrats and Republicans are playing a game of political chicken, with neither party willing to compromise in the latest round of America’s 18-month-old fiscal drama. A last-ditch round of talks between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders ended without a breakthrough. After the talks Obama described the cuts that now have gone into effect as “dumb” and “arbitrary” and warned of the negative impact on the economy and jobs.

The $85 billion (65 billion euros) in across-the-board cuts for fiscal year 2013, called sequestration, will equally impact both defense and social spending. Another $1.2 trillion of austerity will then set in over the next decade. Designed originally as a strategy to intimidate hyper-partisan members of Congress into a compromise on taxes and spending, sequestration was never actually supposed to become reality.

But now, both sides of the political aisle are pointing fingers as Washington prepares to fall on its own sword.

“Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans in Congress have decided that instead of compromising  – instead of taking anything from the wealthiest Americans – they would rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class,” US President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

Having already agreed in January to postpone the sequester by two months and raise taxes on families earning more than $450,000, many Republicans are unprepared to meet the president’s demands on revenue this time around.

“Most Americans are just hearing about this Washington creation for the first time: the sequester,” John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial on February 20. “What they may not realize from Mr. Obama’s statements is that it is a product of the president’s own failed leadership.”

According to Ron Haskins, an expert on budget issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., the parties are unwilling to forge a bi-partisan agreement on austerity because they would be held politically accountable by their constituencies for the economic pain. So they are increasingly prepared to let the sequester go into effect and try to push the blame on their adversaries.

“I don’t think they have really made a rational calculation,” Haskins told DW. “I think that probably the main element in their thinking is that they can blame the other team – that’s what they’re hoping.”

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US, EU debt crisis escalates in the face of political gridlock

(By Deutsche Welle) Long after the bailouts of Wall Street and Greece, the US and EU face an escalating debt crisis. Political gridlock on both sides of the Atlantic prevents the implementation of controversial but necessary solutions.

The United States and the European Union have faced a financial onslaught this summer as stock markets and credit ratings tumble due to declining confidence in the political will of Washington and Brussels to implement the controversial but necessary steps to reduce ballooning sovereign debt.

For the first time in history, the US – the world’s leading economy and only political superpower – has lost its AAA credit according to the rating agency Standard and Poor’s, indicating a deteriorating faith in America’s gridlocked political system and still stalled economy.

In Europe, a debt crisis that began in the peripheral states of Greece, Ireland and Portugal has spread dangerously close to core countries such as Italy and Spain, the eurozone’s fourth and fifth largest economies respectively, placing the very future of the European project in question.

The parallel escalation of the debt problems on both sides of the Atlantic has raised concerns that the global economy could slide back into recession.

“The underlying weaknesses that are also revealed by these crises …have something in common in terms of the difficulty of putting your fiscal house in order,” Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the Brussels-based economic policy think tank Bruegel, told Deutsche Welle.

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Little sign of progress on US debt deal

(By Deutsche Welle) Negotiations in Washington to raise the nation’s debt limit have faltered on the partisan political divide. Credit rating agencies and Asian countries have warned the US to adopt responsible fiscal policies.

Republicans and Democrats have reached an impasse in an escalating ideological battle over raising the US debt ceiling, with the rating agency Moody’s threatening to downgrade Washington’s credit worthiness if the two sides fail to find a compromise by August 2 – a move that could destabilize the global economy.

“It’s the foundation of our financial system,” US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said during a recent congressional hearing. “The notion that it would become suddenly unreliable and illiquid would throw shock waves through the entire global financial system.”

Tax increases versus spending cuts

Both political parties agree in principle that the US must increase its $14.29 trillion (9.8 trillion euros) debt ceiling in order to continue paying its bills and avoid a short-term default on its financial obligations. Negotiations, however, have reached a stalemate due to a partisan divide over the appropriate balance between taxes and spending cuts.

Republicans have preconditioned any debt limit increase on parallel cuts in spending while at the same time rejecting tax increases across the board. Democrats, meanwhile, have been reluctant to make cuts in social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that could alienate their electoral base, proposing instead to raise taxes on wealthier Americans.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama appeared on track to bridge the divide through a “grand bargain” that would have included a $3 trillion reduction in spending and $1 trillion in tax increases. Rank-and-file Republicans led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, however, rejected the deal due to the tax hikes.

In lieu of the politically risky “grand bargain,” Cantor reportedly called for a short-term solution rooted in spending cuts. Cantor’s proposal prompted Obama to dig in his heels against Republican demands in what has become a volatile game of political brinkmanship.

“The problem is that there is no party discipline,” Josef Braml, an expert on American politics at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.

“Obama can’t get his liberals on board. On the other side, it’s difficult for Republicans to get the Tea Party guys involved because they would commit electoral suicide if they agreed to tax increases.”

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Growing US war-weariness defies traditional partisan divide

(By Deutsche Welle) Conservatives and progressives in the US have become odd bedfellows as they begin to question America’s costly military interventions in the Muslim world. But Congress remains unlikely to force an end to the conflicts.

For 10 years, the United States has waged war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq without a conclusive victory. The military interventions in Central Asia and the Middle East have cost America nearly $4 trillion (2.8 trillion euros) and the lives of over 6,000 troops. Around 225,000 people have died directly from the wars, according to a recent study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

The high cost and low return on these conflicts has worn down the political will among many members of Congress who represent an increasingly war-weary public. In May, a congressional resolution calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan narrowly failed in the House of Representatives in a 204 – 215 vote.

The House also recently refused to authorize President Obama’s intervention in Libya for one year, although representatives shied away from defunding the operation. The vote was the first such congressional rebuff of a president since the House refused to authorize the military action in Kosovo in 1999.

And for the first time since the Vietnam War, the US Conference of Mayors – which represents more than 1,000 cities with populations over 30,000 – passed a resolution calling on Washington to “end the wars as soon as strategically possible and bring war dollars home to meet vital human needs.”

A war skepticism originally anchored in the respective poles of the American political spectrum is increasingly gaining ground in the moderate center.

“Support for the war is strongest in the middle and weakest on either extreme,” Stephen Biddle, an expert on US national security policy with the Council on Foreign Relatins, told Deutsche Welle.

“Left-wing Democrats are strongly against the war and so are right-wing Republicans. What’s taking shape is a left-right coalition against the center on the war.”

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US government shutdown could rattle fragile economy

(By Deutsche Welle) If the US House of Representatives fails to reach a compromise over budget cuts, the federal government will go unfunded and partially shutdown. A shutdown could shake global confidence in the fragile American economy.

Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives continued to lock horns over America’s budget deficit on Friday with a shutdown of the US government looming should the two sides prove unable to reach a compromise by midnight.

Republicans, buoyed by the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, have called for drastic budget cuts over the next decade in order to reign in Washington’s ballooning debt. For the current fiscal year, Republicans are seeking some $40 billion (27 billion euros) in budget cuts.

Meanwhile, Democrats countered the Republican demand with $33 billion in reductions, arguing that deeper cuts could send America’s fragile economy into a tailspin just as it begins to work its way out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

President Obama met with Republican leader John Boehner and Democratic leader Harry Reid for emergency negotiations earlier this week. Although both sides of the political aisle said progress had been made toward compromise, a solution is outstanding.

“The only question is whether politics or ideology is going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown,” Obama said in an unscheduled appearance in the White House press briefing room.

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