White smoke over the Vatican symbolizes the election of a new pope. He is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He will serve as Pope Francis I, choosing his name after St. Francis of Assisi. The 76-year old Jesuit is the first pope from Latin America, arguably now the world’s center of Catholicism with 40% of the religion’s adherents.
** QUICK HITS. The new pope, the first from the Americas, is an Argentinian Jesuit of Italian extraction. He lives very frugally, eschewing the archbishop’s mansion in Buenos Aires and using public transit rather than the usual limo. Who does that sound a bit like? … The new Francis I, however, has been accused of collaborating with a previous Argentinian regime’s deadly repression of left-wing activists. A staunch opponent of Argentina’s law allowing same-sex marriage, he has been an advocate for the poor. … Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama’s meeting today with House Republicans did not go swimmingly. … Taking a break from the University of California Board of Regents meeting, Governor Jerry Brown joined US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in San Francisco to announce two major solar energy projects, of 750 megawatts and 150 megawatts, both in the Riverside area of Southern California.
** PIVOTING, DRONING, AND OUR MAN IN KABUL. Is new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel having fun yet?
No sooner does he come into office after a rugged confirmation fight then he finds himself dealing with automatic spending cuts from the budget sequester and, oh yes, looming policy challenges and intense fall-out from the choices of the past.
On Tuesday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden held meetings with the sultan of Brunei. After that, Obama and Biden met privately with Hagel, just back from Afghanistan and also in on the Brunei meetings.
Clearly, this was a day intended in large measure for Asia-Pacific pivot geopolitics. (An archive of my pieces related to the pivot.) But trouble at the other end of the pivot was to prove distracting.
Brunei is on the South China Sea — site of much contention in the region — and will host key East Asian summitry later this year.
There’s plenty of action in the Asia-Pacific region that would garner much more attention were it not for our fateful fixations on the other side of the world. Japan, locked in a feud with China over islands in the East China Sea, is hosting a gathering now in Tokyo with several Southeast Asian nations which also have problems with China, seeking stronger security ties. Chinese naval vessels just drove Vietnamese fishing boats out of waters that most nations regard as international but China claims as its own.
Then there is rising cyber disruption and hacking, which the administration identifies as the biggest security threat of the future. Much of it reportedly emanates from China, and the administration wants it to stop.
Which is not to forget North Korea, which, having set off another successful test of a more advanced nuclear, last week bizarrely threatened a nuclear missile attack on the U.S. While any such attack could probably be shot down by U.S. forces, that’s not the sort of thing you want to hear from one of the largest militaries in Asia, especially one that also claims it will no longer respect the decades-old armistice with South Korea.
But Afghanistan flared into deeper crisis over the weekend, coinciding with Hagel’s first visit there as defense secretary. He and Obama traveled there together as senators during the 2008 campaign. His visit was marked by Taliban attacks and some seemingly bizarre rhetoric from our man in Kabul — apologies to Graham Greene — Afghan President Hamid Karzai. …
With controversy accompanying the big recent U.S. troop deployments, the drone has increasingly become a seemingly low-profile substitute. Drone strikes in Afghanistan have gone up sharply. So sharply that data about them has just been removed from public U.S. military databases.
The drone has become a new symbol, and for many, including many in American military ranks, not a very good one. In fact, the backlash against the so-called “drone medal,” the recently approved Distinguished Warfare Medal, is so intense that Hagel just ordered a review of the award.
Production of the medal, which had yet to be awarded, has stopped.
What’s the controversy about? Many take offense that drone operators, often thousands of miles from any battlefield, can be given a medal that rates higher than the Bronze Star, a frequent combat decoration, and the Purple Heart, which is awarded to those wounded in action.
The irony here is that the Bronze Star is usually awarded not for heroism but for meritorious service or achievement, sometimes also to those nowhere near a battlefield. And there were already several higher-rated medals which have nothing to do with heroism or action in combat.
But there is something about the drone that frightens, and something about the notion of drone operators killing by remote control, that rubs many the wrong way.
So this award is being re-thought.
If only the actual drone program, and the strategic thinking that underlies it, were to undergo the same sort of review as a little contraption of cloth and medal. …
** NEW SURVEY: U.S. IMAGE IN THE WORLD DECLINES. A new Gallup Poll survey brings news of declining regard for the US in most of the world.
Approval of the US leadership is down nearly 20% from the first year of the Obama presidency.
But it is still higher than it was before.
American leadership, incidentally, is quite popular in Libya.
But one of the biggest drops in support came in Pakistan.
The image of U.S. leadership worldwide was weaker during President Barack Obama’s fourth year in office than at any point during his first administration. Median approval of U.S. leadership across 130 countries stood at 41% in 2012, down measurably from 49% approval in Obama’s first year. Despite these poorer scores, approval ratings for the most part remain stronger than they were at the end of the last Bush administration. …
This shift suggests that the president and the new secretary of state may not find global audiences as receptive to the U.S. agenda as they have in the past. In fact, they may even find even once-warm audiences increasingly critical. The image of U.S. leadership continued to be the strongest worldwide in Africa in 2012, bolstered by strong majority approval in sub-Saharan Africa. However, this strong support in the subcontinent, which first showed signs of weakening in 2011, waned more in 2012. …
U.S. leadership remains far less popular in North Africa, except in Libya, where U.S. support for the revolution may have generated an almost unprecedented level of goodwill toward America. A majority of Libyans (54%) surveyed before the attack in Benghazi approved of U.S. leadership in 2012. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, no more than one-third approved and ratings remained mostly flat. Algerian approval of U.S. leadership is down slightly since 2011, dropping from 37% to 30%. …
Iconic puffs of black smoke have emanated three times so far from the chimney over the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. The black smoke signifies an unsuccessful vote by the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals to elect a new pope. White smoke will signify that a new pope has been elected.
** NEW COLUMN COMING UP … DRONING, PIVOTING, AND OUR MAN IN KABUL.
** OBAMA TODAY. President Barack Obama is in Washington.
Obama received the intelligence and economic briefings in the Oval Office.
At 10:30 AM Pacific, Obama meets with the House Republican Conference at the United States Capitol.
At 12:05 PM Pacific, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office.
At 12:40 PM Pacific, Obama meets with CEOs to discuss cybersecurity in a session inside the White House Situation Room.
At 1:05 PM Pacific, Obama meets with business leaders on immigration reform in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
At 1:30 PM Pacific, Obama and Biden meet with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in the Oval Office.
At 3:30 PM Pacific, Obama delivers remarks at the Organizing for Action dinner at the Adour Restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel.
Obama is monitoring several geopolitical crises involving the Arab Awakening, Iran and Israel, Syria, Iraq, AfPak, and the South China Sea.
Military Crisis Zone Times: The Persian/Arabian Gulf is ten hours ahead of Pacific time, and Afghanistan is eleven and a half hours ahead of Pacific time. The time in Manila, on the South China Sea, is fifteen hours ahead of Pacific time.
Mars Rover Curiosity, directed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has made a startling find while performing chemical analysis of rocks, indicating that life may have existed in the past on the Red Planet.
** FROM THE JERRY FILES. Governor Jerry Brown is in San Francisco.
Brown will attend the University of California Board of Regents meeting today and Thursday in San Francisco at the Mission Bay Conference Center at the University of California at San Francisco.
At 12:15 PM, Brown will join US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for an announcement on renewable energy at the Gladstone Institute adjacent to UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.
Backers of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s regulatory framework law which critics want to alter to avert lawsuits and make some developments easier, rallied yesterday at the Capitol led by labor leaders and enviros. They said they opposed any efforts to gut the law but did not say what changes might be unacceptable.
Brown, who has strong longstanding environmental bona fides, is among those calling for adjustments to the law, but has been unspecific about the particulars.
** FOR CALIFORNIA REPUBLICANS, STUNT POLITICS WORKED FOR AWHILE AND THEN BACKFIRED (YET DEMS CAN STILL BLOW IT). … From my March 12th column.
** THE SUDDENLY SCRAMBLING OBAMA. … From my March 8th column.
** CALIFORNIA REPUBLICANS: OUT OF STUNTS. … From my March 6th column.
** WILL JERRY BROWN BE UNOPPOSED FOR RE-ELECTION? … From my March 4th feature.
** SECRETARY HAGEL AND THE SENATE’S MASSIVE WASTE OF TIME. … From my February 27th essay.
** OSCARMANIA! (OR NOT): A POLITICAL STEW ON LIGHT SIMMER. … From my February 25th essay.
** FROM GOVERNATOR TO MOONBEAM. … From my January 3rd, 2011 feature.
** OBAMA: RIDING WITH HISTORY. (NOTE: As Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, this column was the featured column on the top of the front page of the Huffington Post.) … From my January 19th, 2009 Huffington Post column.
** 24/7 LIVE TV NEWS FEED FROM AL JAZEERA. With the US entangled in major military operations in the region, and the Arab awakening underway, it’s valuable to keep up with news and perspectives from the leading Middle Eastern-based TV news network. Click here for a live TV news feed on your computer. The NWN live link to AJ does not constitute an endorsement of the channel’s views. It’s presented as an otherwise unavailable new media window.
** 24/7 LIVE TV NEWS FEED FROM RUSSIA TODAY. Russia has re-emerged as one of the world’s great powers. Click here for a live TV news feed on your computer from the Russia Today channel. The NWN live link to RT does not constitute an endorsement of the state-run channel’s views. It’s presented as an otherwise unavailable new media window.
** TRACK GLOBAL AND NATIONAL ENERGY PRICES IN NEAR REAL TIME VIA BLOOMBERG ENERGY MARKET WATCH. Having crashed over $147 for yet another record on July 11th, 2008, crude oil is trading around $93 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
This is up about $59 from the low of $34 per barrel prior to enactment of the Obama economic recovery program, reflecting a low point in global economic activity, and down about $21 per barrel from the price at the time of the Osama bin Laden raid.
Your posts are welcome in the Forum. You can send me a private tip by clicking on the “Contact” button in the upper right.