Friday, October 21, 2011

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Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis

Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis is republished with permission of STRATFOR.


Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a two-part series on the European banking crisis.

Europe faces a banking crisis it has not wanted to admit even exists.

The formal authority on financial stability, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde, made her institution’s opinion on European banking known back in August when she prompted the European Union to engage in an immediate 200 billion-euro bank recapitalization effort. The response was broad-based derision from Europeans at the local, national and EU bureaucratic levels. The vehemence directed at Lagarde was particularly notable as Lagarde is certainly in a position to know what she was talking about: Until July 5, her title was not IMF chief, but French finance minister. She has seen the books, and the books are bad. Due to European inaction, the IMF on Oct. 18 raised its estimate for recapitalization needs from 200 billion euros to 300 billion euros ($274 billion to $410 billion).

Sovereign Debt: The Expected Problem

The collapse in early October of Franco-Belgian bank Dexia, a large Northern European institution whose demise necessitated a state rescue, shattered European confidence. Now, Europeans are discussing their banking sector. A meeting of eurozone ministers Oct. 21 is largely dedicated to the topic, as is the Oct. 23 summit of EU heads of government. Yet European governments continue to consider the banking sector largely only within the context of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.

This is exemplified in Europeans’ handling of the Greek situation. The primary reason Greece has not defaulted on its nearly 400-billion euro sovereign debt is that the rest of the eurozone is not forcing Greece to fully implement its agreed-upon austerity measures. Withholding bailout funds as punishment would trigger an immediate default and a cascade of disastrous effects across Europe. Loudly condemning Greek inaction while still slipping Athens bailout checks keeps that aspect of Europe’s crisis in a holding pattern. In the European mind — especially the Northern European mind — a handful of small countries that made poor decisions are responsible for the European debt crisis, and while the ensuing crisis may spread to the banks as a consequence, the banks themselves would be fine if only the sovereigns could get their acts together.

This is an incorrect assumption. If anything, Europe’s banks are as damaged as the governments that regulate them.

When evaluating a problem of such magnitude, one might as well begin with the problem as the Europeans see it — namely, that their banks’ biggest problem is rooted in their sovereign debt exposure.


Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis
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The state-bank contagion problem is fairly straightforward within national borders. As a rule the largest purchaser of the debt of any particular European government will be banks located in the particular country. If a government goes bankrupt or is forced to partially default on its debt, its failure will trigger the failure of most of its banks. Greece does indeed provide a useful example. Until Greece joined the European Union in 1981, state-controlled institutions dominated its banking sector. These institutions’ primary reason for being was to support government financing, regardless of whether there was a political or economic rationale justifying that financing. The Greeks, however, have no monopoly on the practice of leaning on the banking sector to support state spending. In fact, this practice is the norm across Europe.

Spain’s regional banks, the cajas, have become infamous for serving as slush funds for regional governments, regardless of the government in question’s political affiliation. Were the cajas assets held to U.S. standards of what qualifies as a good or bad loan, half the cajas would be closed immediately and another third would be placed in receivership. Italian banks hold half of Italy’s 1.9 trillion euros in outstanding state debt. And lest anyone attempt to lay all the blame on Southern Europe, French and Belgian municipalities as well as the Belgian national government regularly used the aforementioned Dexia in a somewhat similar manner.

Yet much debt remains for outsiders to own, so when states crack, the damage will not be held internally. Half or more of the debt of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Belgium is in foreign hands, but like everything else in Europe the exposure is not balanced evenly — and this time, it is Northern Europe, not Southern Europe, that is exposed. French banks are more exposed than any other national sector, holding an amount equivalent to 8.5 percent of French gross domestic product (GDP) in the debt of the most financially distressed states (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Spain). Belgium comes in second with an exposure of roughly 5.5 percent of GDP, although that number excludes the roughly 45 percent of GDP Belgium’s banks hold in Belgian state debt.

Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis

When Europeans speak of the need to recapitalize their banks, creating firebreaks between cross-border sovereign debt exposure dominates their thoughts — which explains why the Europeans belatedly have seized upon the IMF’s original 200 billion-euro figure. The Europeans are hoping that if they can strike a series of deals that restructure a percentage of the debt owed by the Continent’s most financially strapped states, they will be able to halt the sovereign debt crisis in its tracks.

This plan is flawed. The figure, 200 billion euros, will not cover reasonable restructurings. The 50 percent writedowns or “haircuts” for Greece under discussion as part of a revised Greek bailout — likely to be announced at the end of the upcoming Oct. 23 EU summit — would absorb more than half of that 200 billion euros. A mere 8 percent haircut on Italian debt would absorb the remainder.

Moreover, Europe’s banking problems stretch far beyond sovereign debt. Before one can understand just how deep those problems go, we must examine the role European banks play in European society.

The Centrality of European Banking

Several differences between the European and American banking sectors exist. By far the most critical difference is that European banks are much more central to the functioning of European economies than American banks are to the U.S. economy. The reason is rooted in the geography of capital.

Maritime transport is cheaper than land transport by at least an order of magnitude once the costs of constructing road and rail infrastructure is factored in. Therefore, maritime economies will always have surplus capital compared to their land transport-based equivalents. Managing such excess capital requires banks, and so nearly all of the world’s banking centers form at points on navigable rivers where capital richness is at its most extreme. For example, New York is where the Hudson meets the Atlantic Octen, Chicago is at the southernmost extremity of the Great Lakes network, Geneva is near the head of navigation of the Rhone, and Vienna is located where the Danube breaks through the Alps-Carpathian gap.

Unity differentiates the U.S. and European banking system. The American maritime network comprises the interconnected rivers of the Greater Mississippi Basin linked into the Intracoastal Waterway, which allows for easy transport from the U.S.-Mexico border on the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Europe’s maritime network is neither interlinked nor evenly shared. Northern Europe is blessed with a dozen easily navigable rivers, but none of the major rivers interconnect; each river, and thus each nation, has its own financial capital. The Danube, Europe’s longest river, drains in the opposite direction but cuts through mountains twice in doing so. Some European states have multiple navigable rivers: France and Germany each have three major ones. Arid and rugged Spain and Greece, in contrast, have none.

The unity of the American transport system means that all of its banks are interlinked, and so there is a need for a single regulatory structure. The disunity of European geography generates not only competing nationalities but also competing banking systems.

Moreover, Americans are used to far-flung and impersonal capital funding their activities (such as a bank in New York funding a project in Nebraska) because of the network’s large and singular nature. Not so in Europe. There, regional competition has enshrined banks as tools of state planning. French capital is used for French projects and other sources of capital are viewed with suspicion. Consequently, Americans only use bank loans to fund 31 percent of total private credit, with bond issuances (18 percent) and stock markets (51 percent) making up the balance. In the eurozone roughly 80 percent of private credit is bank-sourced. And instead of the United States’ single central bank, single bank guarantor and fiscal authority, Europe has dozens. Banking regulation has been expressly omitted from all European treaties to this point, instead remaining a national prerogative.

As a starting point, therefore, it must be understood that European banks are more central to the functioning of the European system than American banks are to the American system. And any problems that might erupt in the world of European banks will face a far more complicated restitution effort cluttered with overlapping, conflicting authorities colored by national biases.

Demographic Limitations

European banks also face less long-term growth. The largest piece of consumer spending in any economy is done by people in their 20s and 30s. This cohort is going to college, raising children and buying houses and cars. Yet people in their 20s and 30s are the weakest in terms of earning potential. High consumption plus low earning leads invariably to borrowing, and borrowing is banks’ mainstay. In the 1990s and 2000s much of Europe enjoyed a bulge in its population structure in precisely this young demographic — particularly in Southern European states — generating a great deal of economic activity, and from it a great deal of business for Europe’s banks.

But now, this demographic has grown up. Their earning potential has increased, while their big surge of demand is largely over, sharply curtailing their need for borrowing. In Spain and Greece, the younger end of population bulge is now 30; in Italy and France it is now 35; in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands it is 40; and in Belgium it is 45. Consumer borrowing in general and mortgage activity in particular probably have peaked. The small sizes of the replacement generations suggests there will be no recoveries within the next few decades. (Children born today will not hit their prime consumptive age for another 20 to 30 years.) With the total value of new consumer loans likely to stagnate (and more likely, decline) moving forward, if anything there are now too many European banks competing for a shrinking pool of consumer loans. Europe is thus not likely to be able to grow out of any banking problems it experiences. The one potential exception is in Central Europe, where the population bulges are on average 15 years younger than in Western Europe. The younger edge of the Polish bulge, for example, is only 25. In time, these states may be able to grow out of their problems. Either way, the most lucrative years for Western European banking are over.



Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis
(click here to enlarge image)

Too Much Credit

Germany has extremely high capital accumulation and extremely competent economic management. One of the many results of this pairing is extremely inexpensive capital costs. When Germans — governments, corporations or individuals — borrow money, it is accepted as a near-fact that they will pay back what they owe, on time and in full. Reflecting the high supply and low risk, German borrowing rates for governments and corporations have long been in the low to mid single digits.

The further you move from Germany the less this pattern holds. Capital availability shrivels, management falters and the attitude toward contract law (or at least as defined by the Germans) becomes far less respectful. As such, Europe’s peripheral economies — most notably its smaller peripheral economies — have normally faced higher borrowing costs. Mortgage rates in Ireland stood near 20 percent less than a generation ago. Government borrowing rates in Greece have in the past topped 30 percent.

With that sort of difference, it is not difficult to see why many European states have striven for inclusion in first, the European Union, and second, the eurozone. Each step of the European integration process has brought them closer in financial terms to the ultra-low credit costs of Germany. The closer the German association, the greater the implicit belief that German financial resources would help them in a crisis (despite the fact that EU treaties explicitly rejected this).

The dawn of the eurozone era prompted lenders and investors to take this association to an extreme. Association with Germany shifted from lower lending rates to identical lending rates. The Greek government could borrow at rates that only Germany could demand in the past. Irish borrowers were able to qualify for 130 percent mortgages at 4 percent. Compounding matters, the collapse of borrowing costs and the explosion of loan activity occurred at the same time as Southern Europe’s demographic-driven consumption boom. It was the perfect storm for explosive banking growth, and it laid the groundwork for a financial collapse of unprecedented proportions.

Drastic increases in government debt are the most publicly visible outcome, but it is far from the only one. The least visible outcome is that extraordinarily cheap credit to consumers triggers an explosion in demand that local businesses cannot hope to fill. The result is unprecedented trade deficits as money borrowed from foreigners is used to purchase foreign goods. Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia and Spain — all states whose cheap labor when compared to the Western European core should encourage them to be massive exporters — instead have run chronic trade deficits in excess of 7 percent of GDP. Most routinely broke 10 percent. Such developments do not directly harm the banks, but as credit costs return to more rational levels — and in the ongoing debt crisis borrowing costs for most of the younger EU members have tripled and more — consumption is coming to a halt. In the few European markets that demographically may be able to generate consumption-based growth in the years ahead, credit is drying up.

Foreign Currency Risk

Much of this lending into weaker locations was carried out in foreign currencies. For the three states that successfully made the early sprint into the eurozone — Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia — this was a nonfactor. For those that did not make the early leap into the eurozone it was a wonderful way to get something for nothing. Their association with the European Union resulted in the steady strengthening of their currencies. Since 2004, the Polish, Czech, Romanian and Hungarian currencies gained roughly one-third versus the euro, driving down the monthly payments on any euro-denominated loan. That inverted, however, in the 2008 financial crisis. Then, every regional currency but the Czech koruna (and Bulgarian lev, which is pegged to the euro) gave back their gains. For Central Europeans who had taken out loans when their currencies were at their highs, payments ballooned. More than 10 percent of Polish and Hungarian mortgages are now delinquent, largely because of currency movements.

Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis

New Banking ‘Empires’

The cheap credit of the eurozone’s first decade allowed several peripheral European states a rare opportunity to expand their network of influence, even if they were not in the eurozone themselves. They could borrow money from core European banking centers like Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands and pass that money on to previously credit-starved markets. In most cases, such credit was offered without the full cost-increase that these states’ poorer and smaller statures would have justified. After all, these would-be financial centers had to undercut the more established European financial centers if they were to gain meaningful market share. This pushed far more credit into Central Europe than the region otherwise would have attracted, speeding up the development process at the cost of poor underwriting and a proliferation of questionable lending practices. The most enthusiastic crafters of new banking empires have been Sweden, Austria, Spain and Greece.



Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis
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  • Sweden has the happiest record of any of the states that engaged in such expansionary lending. Being one of the richest countries in Europe and yet not being a member of the eurozone, Sweden did not experience a credit expansion nearly as much as other states, instead it served as a conduit for that credit — augmented by its own — to its former imperial territories. Alone among the forgers of new banking empires, Sweden’s superior financial stability has allowed it (so far) to continue financial activities in its target markets — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark — despite the ongoing financial crisis. But instead of lending, Swedish banks are now purchasing regional banks outright. Swedish command of the Danish banking sector, for example, has increased by 80 percent since the crisis. Through its new local subsidiaries, Swedish banks now lend more in per capita terms to Danes than they do to their own citizens, and there is no longer a domestic Estonian banking sector — it is 97 percent Swedish-owned. Such expansionary activity is likely to continue so long as Sweden can sustain it, as there is a geopolitical angle to Sweden’s effort: It is seeking to deepen its regional influence not only for economic purposes, but also to mitigate the rising role of its longtime competitor, Russia.
  • Austria has tapped not only eurozone credit but also taken advantage of favorable carry trades to serve as a conduit for Swiss franc credit into Central Europe. Just as Sweden is using foreign capital to re-create its historic sphere of influence in the Baltic, Austria is doing the same in the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now, the majority of all mortgages in Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Romania — and a sizable minority in Austria — are denominated in foreign currencies, courtesy of Austrian banking activity. With the Swiss franc now locked in at record highs, many of these mortgages are not serviceable. The Hungarian government has felt forced to abrogate the terms of many of these loans, knowing that the Austrian banks are now so overexposed to Central Europe that they have no choice but to take the losses. As the financial crisis has continued apace, Austria has found itself with more exposure, fewer domestic resources and greater vulnerability to external forces than Sweden. So instead of being able to take advantage of regional weakness, it is finding itself losing market share both at home and in its would-be financial empire to Russia.
  • Spain’s banking empire isn’t even in Europe. Spanish firms BBVA-Compass and Santander have used the cheap euro credit to massively expand credit to Latin America. And Spain’s expansion took a somewhat novel route: The combination of cheap lending at home and in Latin America encouraged more than a million Latin American Spanish speakers to relocate to Spain and gain citizenship. To smooth the naturalization process, Madrid mandated that the new Spaniards be granted top-notch credit, a factor that only added to an already hyperactive construction sector. Spanish banks’ nearly 500 billion-euro exposure to Latin America is, for now, holding; only time will tell its impact to Spain’s bottom line.
  • The Greek government used its access to cheap credit to build up debt levels that are now the subject of much discussion across Europe. But much less is made of its banks, who encouraged consumers both at home and across the southern Balkans to increase their own debt levels. Being the least experienced of the four would-be financial centers, Greek banks offered the steepest credit breaks to the countries with the weakest repayment potential. Like Spain, Greece also did not make EU membership a condition for lending; vast volumes accordingly were fed into Macedonia, Serbia and even Albania.

Housing Bubbles

Large volumes of suddenly cheap credit made available to eager consumers obviously generated a series of sizable housing bubbles.

Spain’s tapping of European credit markets also underwrote the largest housing boom in Europe. More construction projects have been completed in Spain in recent years than in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom combined. The construction sector — both commercial and residential — has now collapsed and there are about 1 million homes now sitting vacant in a country with just 16.5 million families. Outstanding loans to various real estate interests total some 400 billion euros, all backed by collateral that has lost 20 percent of its value since the housing market peaked.

In relative terms, Ireland actually did more than Spain. At its peak, nearly 10 percent of Irish gross national product was dependent upon construction, with 70 percent of that purely from residences. Half of the mortgages extended during the Irish real estate boom were made at the peak of the market between 2006 and 2008. That sector remains in the midst of a fairly rapid collapse. Residential home prices have reduced by half since their peak in 2007 and are showing few signs of stabilizing. The Irish government hopes that with their eurozone bailout package, their banking sector will become functional again by 2020. Until then, Ireland in effect has no banking sector and has been financially sequestered from the rest of the eurozone.

Two other European states — the United Kingdom and Sweden — have both experienced massive increases in home price growth, and both suffered from price corrections due to the 2008 financial crisis. But prices in both markets have recovered smartly, with Sweden even bouncing back above its pre-crisis highs. Sweden, in fact, is still experiencing a massive housing boom, with annual mortgage credit still expanding at a 30 percent annualized rate.

Next: Looking Ahead in the European Banking Crisis


Read more: Special Series (Part 1): Assessing the Damage of the European Banking Crisis | STRATFOR

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Back To Blogging And A Successful Conclusion To Our School Saga

My modem went out so I was stuck with a dial up connection for a few days.  The technicians got the new modem working now and I am enjoying being out of the stone age.  I wanted to give a quick update to all of our followers who were concerned about the bullying our autistic son was enduring at school.  I am happy to report that I had a very productive meeting with our Superintendent and Director of Special Education.  All of our concerns have been addressed and I have already noticed changes by my son's teacher.  I am really excited about the future for our son, now, at this school.  Even during the difficult periods I was noticing improvement in his reading skills. 

Because of the modem issue I was not able to post on it, but the presidential debate the other night on CNN sure was exciting.  I think Perry destroyed any chance he had of getting the nomination, Mitt actually looked upset, and Gingrich was able to continue the elder statesman role.  Let's hope people don't fall for any of the RINO's and actually take the time to read Ron Paul's plan to cut one trillion dollars.

STRATFOR Dispatch: Post-Gadhafi Libya

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

'Fast & Furious': How a botched operation spawned fatal results - Washington Times

'Fast & Furious': How a botched operation spawned fatal results - Washington Times

Ron Paul On CNBC

Countdown To November 5th: 3 Reasons Why Alabama Beats LSU

Countdown To November 5th: 3 Reasons Why Alabama Beats LSU

PHOTOS: Gilad Shalit is home

Article courtesy of Israel Today magazine, www.israeltoday.co.il.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 | Ryan Jones
PHOTOS: Gilad Shalit is home
After more than five years of being held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Gilad Shalit is home with his family in Israel.

His release came at a steep price, with Israel freeing more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists, many with "blood on their hands." Nevertheless, there were not many dry eyes in Israel on Tuesday as the nation watched the touching scene of Gilad embracing his father, Noam Shalit, who has labored tirelessly on the international stage on behalf of his son.

After being transfered to the Egyptian Sinai early Tuesday morning, Shalit crossed into southern Israel via the Kerem Shalom Border Crossing. He was checked there by Israeli army doctors who declared him to be in good health.

From there Shalit was flown to Tel Nof Air Force Base to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government and military leaders, as well as his anxiously waiting parents.

Later in the day, the family was returned to their home in Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel.
Gilad Shalit
Shalit is seen on Egyptian television after crossing into the Sinai. It was the first time Israeli had seen him alive in years.

Gilad Shalit
Israelis watch with anticipation as Shalit is interviewed by Egyptian television during his brief stop in Sinai.

Gilad Shalit
Shalit speaks with his parents for the first time in years after crossing into southern Israel.

Gilad Shalit
Shalit salutes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after steopping off his transport plane at Tel Nof Air Force Base.

Gilad Shalit
Noam Shalit embraces his son after more than five years of laboring for his freedom.

From the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush: Rethinking the Region

From the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush: Rethinking the Region is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

By George Friedman

The territory between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush has been the main arena for the U.S. intervention that followed the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, the United States had been engaged in this area in previous years, but 9/11 redefined it as the prime region in which it confronted jihadists. That struggle has had many phases, and it appears to have entered a new one over the past few weeks.

Some parts of this shift were expected. STRATFOR had anticipated tensions between Iran and its neighboring countries to rise as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq and Iran became more assertive. And we expected U.S.-Pakistani relations to reach a crisis before viable negotiations with the Afghan Taliban were made possible.

From the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush: Rethinking the Region
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However, other events frankly surprised us. We had expected Hamas to respond to events in Egypt and to the Palestine National Authority’s search for legitimacy through pursuit of U.N. recognition by trying to create a massive crisis with Israel, reasoning that the creation of such a crisis would strengthen anti-government forces in Egypt, increasing the chances for creating a new regime that would end the blockade of Gaza and suspend the peace treaty with Israel. We also thought that intense rocket fire into Israel would force Fatah to support an intifada or be marginalized by Hamas. Here we were clearly wrong; Hamas moved instead to reach a deal for the exchange of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, which has reduced Israeli-Hamas tensions.

Our error was rooted in our failure to understand how the increased Iranian-Arab tensions would limit Hamas’ room to maneuver. We also missed the fact that given the weakness of the opposition forces in Egypt — something we had written about extensively — Hamas would not see an opportunity to reshape Egyptian policies. The main forces in the region, particularly the failure of the Arab Spring in Egypt and the intensification of Iran’s rise, obviated our logic on Hamas. Shalit’s release, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, marks a new stage in Israeli-Hamas relations. Let’s consider how this is related to Iran and Pakistan.

The Iranian Game

The Iranians tested their strength in Bahrain, where Shiites rose up against their Sunni rulers with at least some degree of Iranian support. Saudi Arabia, linked by a causeway to Bahrain, perceived this as a test of its resolve, intervening with military force to suppress the demonstrators and block the Iranians. To Iran, Bahrain was simply a probe; the Saudi response did not represent a major reversal in Iranian fortunes.
The main game for Iran is in Iraq, where the U.S. withdrawal is reaching its final phase. Some troops may be left in Iraqi Kurdistan, but they will not be sufficient to shape events in Iraq. The Iranians will not be in control of Iraq, but they have sufficient allies, both in the government and in outside groups, that they will be able to block policies they oppose, either through the Iraqi political system or through disruption. They will not govern, but no one will be able to govern in direct opposition to them.

In Iraq, Iran sees an opportunity to extend its influence westward. Syria is allied with Iran, and it in turn jointly supports Hezbollah in Lebanon. The prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq opened the door to a sphere of Iranian influence running along the southern Turkish border and along the northern border of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi View

The origins of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad are murky. It emerged during the general instability of the Arab Spring, but it took a different course. The al Assad regime did not collapse, al Assad was not replaced with another supporter of the regime, as happened in Egypt, and the opposition failed to simply disintegrate. In our view the opposition was never as powerful as the Western media portrayed it, nor was the al Assad regime as weak. It has held on far longer than others expected and shows no inclination of capitulating. For one thing, the existence of bodies such as The International Criminal Court leave al Assad nowhere to go if he stepped down, making a negotiated exit difficult. For another, al Assad does not see himself as needing to step down.

Two governments have emerged as particularly hostile to al Assad: the Saudi government and the Turkish government. The Turks attempted to negotiate a solution in Syria and were rebuffed by Assad. It is not clear the extent to which these governments see Syria simply as an isolated problem along their border or as part of a generalized Iranian threat. But it is clear that the Saudis are extremely sensitive to the Iranian threat and see the fall of the al Assad regime as essential for limiting the Iranians.

In this context, the last thing that the Saudis want to see is conflict with Israel. A war in Gaza would have given the al Assad regime an opportunity to engage with Israel, at least through Hezbollah, and portray opponents to the regime as undermining the struggle against the Israelis. This would have allowed al Assad to solicit Iranian help against Israel and, not incidentally, to help sustain his regime.

It was not clear that Saudi support for Syrian Sunnis would be enough to force the al Assad regime to collapse, but it is clear that a war with Israel would have made it much more difficult to bring it down. Whether Hamas was inclined toward another round of fighting with Israel is unclear. What is clear is that the Saudis, seeing themselves as caught in a struggle with Iran, were not going to hand the Iranians an excuse to get more involved than they were. They reined in any appetite Hamas may have had for war.

Hamas and Egypt

Hamas also saw its hopes in Egypt dissolving. From its point of view, instability in Egypt opened the door for regime change. For an extended period of time, it seemed possible that the first phase of unrest would be followed either by elections that Islamists might win or another wave of unrest that would actually topple the regime. It became clear months ago that the opposition to the Egyptian regime was too divided to replace it. But it was last week that the power of the regime became manifest.

The Oct. 9 Coptic demonstration that turned violent and resulted in sectarian clashes with Muslims gave the government the opportunity to demonstrate its resolve and capabilities without directly engaging Islamist groups. The regime acted brutally and efficiently to crush the demonstrations and, just as important, did so with some Islamist elements that took to the streets beating Copts. The streets belonged to the military and to the Islamist mobs, fighting on the same side.

One of the things Hamas had to swallow was the fact that it was the Egyptian government that was instrumental in negotiating the prisoner exchange. Normally, Islamists would have opposed even the process of negotiation, let alone its success. But given what had happened a week before, the Islamists were content not to make an issue of the Egyptian government’s deal-making. Nor would the Saudis underwrite Egyptian unrest as they would Syrian unrest. Egypt, the largest Arab country and one that has never been on good terms with Iran, was one place where the Saudis did not want to see chaos, especially with an increasingly powerful Iran and unrest in Syria stalled.

Washington Sides with Riyadh

In the midst of all this, the United States announced the arrest of a man who allegedly was attempting, on behalf of Iran, to hire a Mexican to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. There was serious discussion of the significance of this alleged plot, and based on the evidence released, it was not particularly impressive.

Nevertheless — and this is the important part — the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama decided that this was an intolerable event that required more aggressive measures against Iran. The Saudis have been asking the United States for some public action against Iran both to relieve the pressure on Riyadh and to make it clear that the United States was committed to confronting Iran alongside the Saudis. There may well be more evidence in the alleged assassination plot that makes it more serious than it appeared, but what is clear is that the United States intended to use the plot to increase pressure on Iran — psychologically at least — beyond the fairly desultory approach it had been taking. The administration even threw the nuclear question back on the table, a subject on which everyone had been lackadaisical for a while.

The Saudi nightmare has been that the United States would choose to reach an understanding with Iran as a way to create a stable order in the region and guarantee the flow of oil. We have discussed this possibility in the past, pointing out that the American interest in protecting Saudi Arabia is not absolute and that the United States might choose to deal with the Iranians, neither regime being particularly attractive to the United States and history never being a guide to what Washington might do next.

The Saudis were obviously delighted with the U.S. rhetorical response to the alleged assassination plot. It not only assuaged the Saudis’ feeling of isolation but also seemed to close the door on side deals. At the same time, the United States likely was concerned with the possibility of Saudi Arabia trying to arrange its own deal with Iran before Washington made a move. With this action, the United States joined itself at the hip with the Saudis in an anti-Iranian coalition.

The Israelis had nothing to complain about either. They do not want the Syrian regime to fall, preferring the al Assad regime they know to an unknown Sunni — and potentially Islamist — regime. Saudi support for the Syrian opposition bothers the Israelis, but it’s unlikely to work. A Turkish military intervention bothers them more. But, in the end, Iran is what worries them the most, and any sign that the Obama administration is reacting negatively to the Iranians, whatever the motives (and even if there is no clear motive), makes them happy. They want a deal on Shalit, but even if the price was high, this was not the time to get the United States focused on them rather than the Iranians. The Israelis might be prepared to go further in negotiations with Hamas if the United States focuses on Iran. And Hamas will go further with Israel if the Saudis tell them to, which is a price they will happily pay for a focus on Iran.

The U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

For the United States, there is another dimension to the Iran focus: Pakistan. The Pakistani view of the United States, as expressed by many prominent Pakistanis, is that the United States has lost the war against the Afghan Taliban. That means that any negotiations that take place will simply be about how the United States, in their words, will “retreat,” rather than about Pakistani guarantees for support against jihadists coupled with a U.S. withdrawal process. If the Pakistanis are right, and the United States has been defeated, then obviously, their negotiating position is correct.

For there to be any progress in talks with the Taliban and Pakistan, the United States must demonstrate that it has not been defeated. To be more precise, it must demonstrate that while it might not satisfy its conditions for victory (defined as the creation of a democratic Afghanistan), the United States is prepared to indefinitely conduct operations against jihadists, including unmanned aerial vehicle and special operations strikes in Pakistan, and that it might move into an even closer relationship with India if Pakistan resists. There can be no withdrawal unless the Pakistanis understand that there has been no overwhelming domestic political pressure on the U.S. government to withdraw. The paradox here is critical: So long as Pakistan believes the United States must withdraw, it will not provide the support needed to allow it to withdraw. In addition, withdrawal does not mean operations against jihadists nor strategic realignment with India. The United States needs to demonstrate just what risks Pakistan faces when it assumes that the U.S. failure to achieve all its goals means it has been defeated.

The Obama administration’s reaction to the alleged Iranian assassination plot is therefore a vital psychological move against Pakistan. The Pakistani narrative is that the United States is simply incapable of asserting its power in the region. The U.S. answer is that it is not only capable of asserting substantial power in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also that it is not averse to confronting Iran over an attempted assassination in the United States. How serious the plot was, who authorized it in Iran, and so on is not important. If Obama has overreacted it is an overreaction that will cause talk in Islamabad. Obviously this will have to go beyond symbolic gestures but if it does, it changes the dynamic in the region, albeit at the risk of an entanglement with Iran.

Re-evaluating the Region

There are many moving parts. We do not know exactly how far the Obama administration is prepared to take the Iran issue or whether it will evaporate. We do not know if the Assad regime will survive or what Turkey and Saudi Arabia will do about it. We do not know whether, in the end, the Egyptian regime will survive. We do not know whether the Pakistanis will understand the message being sent them.

What we do know is this: The crisis over Iran that we expected by the end of the year is here. It affects calculations from Cairo to Islamabad. It changes other equations, including the Hamas-Israeli dynamic. It is a crisis everyone expected but no one quite knows how to play. The United States does not have a roadmap, and neither do the Iranians. But this is a historic opportunity for Iran and a fundamental challenge to the Saudis. The United States has put some chips on the table, but not any big ones. But the fact that Obama did use rhetoric more intense than he usually does is significant in itself.

All of this does not give us a final answer on the dynamics of the region and their interconnections, but it does give us a platform to begin re-evaluating the regional process.

Read more: From the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush: Rethinking the Region | STRATFOR

Founding Fathers Quote

The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and to influence their actions.

John Hancock

Monday, October 17, 2011

New Northwoods Blog

A dedicated parent has taken the time to start a new blog called, Crivitz School Board. I think it is outstanding that a parent decided to tackle the tedious chore of covering their school board. A step towards reclaiming their school system from cronyism.

A Day in the Life of a Ron Paul Sign

Absolutely hillarious video.

Third World America

Another disgusting display of what third world looks like.  This article is disturbing and should be shared with those you love.  People need to understand the kind of third world element that is out there and take precausions to protect themselves.  Don't be a victim, don't let a loved one become a victim, and trust your instincts when you see things that just aren't right.

Press Release: Ron Paul Announces Ambitious ‘Plan to Restore America: UPDATE, VIDEO ADDED

Realistic solutions to spending, tax challenges

LAKE JACKSON, Texas The Ron Paul 2012 Presidential Campaign announced the release of Dr. Paul’s “Plan to Restore America,” an ambitious federal government spending, tax and reform blueprint that as President he will implement.

The plan, authored by Paul’s campaign staff at his direction, promises to restore the federal government to its former Constitutionally-limited, smaller-government and less-burdensome place. The plan cuts $1 trillion in federal spending during the first year of a Paul Presidency and delivers a balanced budget in year three of a Paul Presidency.

“Ron Paul’s plan is the only one that seriously addresses the economic and budgetary problems our nation faces. It cuts $1 trillion in one year, and slashes regulations and taxes so our economy can grow and create jobs,” said Ron Paul 2012 National Campaign Chairman Jesse Benton, a plan co-author.

“It’s the only plan offered by a presidential candidate that actually balances the budget and begins to pay down the debt. And it’s the only plan being offered that tries to reign in the Federal Reserve and get inflation under control.”

Cuts totaling $1 trillion during the first year of a Paul Presidency would be achieved by eliminating five federal cabinet departments – the Departments of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Interior and Education. Cuts of this scale will also be accomplished by a Paul Presidency abolishing the Transportation Security Administration and returning responsibility for security to private property owners, abolishing corporate subsidies, stopping foreign aid, ending foreign wars, and returning most other spending to 2006 levels.

To view Dr. Paul’s “Plan to Restore America” in full, please click here.

UPDATE:

Founding Fathers Quote

By removing the Bible from schools we would be wasting so much time and money in punishing criminals and so little pains to prevent crime. Take the Bible out of our schools and there would be an explosion in crime.

Benjamin Rush

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Epic Rescue of Ron Paul Sign From WI City Thugs



h/t: The Daily Paul

Above the Tearline: Increased Cartel Violence in Mexico City

Above the Tearline: Increased Cartel Violence in Mexico City is republished with permission of STRATFOR.



Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton examines two recent violent incidents in Mexico City that could indicate a tactical shift in cartel strategy.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

In this week’s Above the Tearline, we are going to examine two recent brutal events in Mexico which could mean that the cartels are taking the fight to Mexico City.

We’ve been following cartel violence for quite some time at STRATFOR and it’s very easy to become numb to the levels of brutality that we see. From body dumps in Veracruz, to firefights across from Roma, Texas, with incursions into the United States.

However, there have been two recent events in Mexico City that give us cause to re-evaluate what could be occurring here and they are the murder of the two female journalists that were found naked, bound and gagged and their bodies dumped in a park in Mexico City. And most recently two severed heads were found on Oct. 3 in close proximity to the Mexican military office, or SEDENA, in Mexico City. These two recent brutal events are unusual in that it happened in Mexico City, which has historically been spared the levels of violence we have seen elsewhere throughout Mexico. The signal resonates with the murder of the journalists, which is a very powerful example to others who may be writing about cartel activity inside of Mexico, and now with the severed heads being found in close proximity to the Mexican military office, this is also a very powerful signal to the Mexican military from the cartels that anybody is accessible in Mexico.

In doing assessments of countries or monitoring the scope of violence that could be occurring, you’re consistently looking for tripwires that are crossed or anomalies which are outside the norm, and those are incidents such as what we have seen unfold here.

The Above the Tearline with this video is the tactical shift that could be taking place here with the cartels striking inside the Mexican capital, specifically targeting journalists and the Mexican military. The symbolism resonates, and it also clearly shows that the cartels are very capable of reaching out and targeting whoever they want throughout the country, even in the capital city of Mexico.


Read more: Above the Tearline: Increased Cartel Violence in Mexico City | STRATFOR