US to send military advisers & recon to Cameroon


NBC News:

The Obama administration says it expects to deploy about 300 U.S. service members to the African nation of Cameroon to help stop the spread of Boko Haram and other violent extremist groups.

Roughly 90 U.S. service members are already en route to Cameroon to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the region.


Background from our prior briefing reports:

Cameroon, which is located next to Nigeria (Boko Haram’s home base) and shares a difficult-to-monitor 300-mile border with it, announced it was going to war with Boko Haram back in May of 2014 when hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped in a raid. This decision triggered a wave of Boko Haram incursions into Cameroon (including high-profile kidnappings) and retaliatory ground and air operations by the Cameroon Armed Forces.

President Paul Biya next month will celebrate his 33rd anniversary as president (after 7 years as prime minister before that). The Cameroonian military (some parts competent and some parts rickety) could probably use the U.S. military assistance, but there will be concerns as to whether the U.S. is again militarily aiding and training a military force in an autocratic African country after more than a few recent instances of political trouble or repression involving U.S.-trained local military forces.

Cameroon — a country once carved out of colonial remainders by Imperial Germany and then split at random by France and Britain before re-merging itself after independence — now finds itself as an unusually stable dictatorship wedged between the rising conflict in northern Nigeria and the aftermath of the recent genocidal civil war in Central African Republic, exposed along lengthy borders on both sides. The populations in northeast Nigeria and northern Cameroon have long had cultural and economic interchange, since the border was an arbitrary colonial one crossing through an existing society.

In Brazil, native militias form to protect forests


Here’s another story along the lines of the First Nations resistance in British Columbia, Canada, to oil pipeline construction on traditional lands… “Amazon residents resort to militias to keep out illegal loggers” – Washington Post:

A beat-up sign on the edge of this Amazon reserve warns strangers not to enter. For years, loggers ignored it and barreled straight into the protected indigenous territory, cutting tracks ever deeper into the diminishing forest.

But on a recent day, visitors approaching Juçaral village, just inside the reserve, encountered an improvised checkpoint operated by a militia called the Guardians. Wearing disheveled uniforms and face paint, members of the 48-man militia sauntered out, shotguns in hand, to check every arriving vehicle.

The Guardians are one of two indigenous groups on this eastern fringe of the Amazon that have taken radical action to reduce illegal logging. They have tied up loggers, torched their trucks and tractors, and kicked them off the reserves.

As a result, such logging has sharply declined in these territories. But the indigenous groups have faced reprisal attacks and death threats for their actions, raising fears of more violence in an area known for its lawlessness.

The clashes highlight the continuing grave threat to the Amazon, the world’s biggest remaining rain forest, which plays a crucial role in maintaining the world’s climate and biodiversity. From 2005 to 2012, deforestation plunged in Brazil, as the government increased its conservation efforts and cracked down on illegal loggers. But since then, the numbers have begun to creep up again. In 2014 alone, almost 2,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest were cleared by farmers, loggers and others.

Indigenous groups play an important role in preserving Brazil’s Amazon rain forest; their reserves make up roughly one-fifth of its area. Silvio da Silva, a village chief from Arariboia and an employee of the Brazilian government’s indigenous agency, said that a year ago as many as 130 logging trucks left the southern end of this reserve a day. Thanks to the Guardians, that has fallen to around 10 to 15 trucks a day.

In a rare visit to the reserves permitted by the indigenous tribes, Washington Post journalists found that many residents support the militias. But others are uneasy about relying on informal armed groups to resolve a problem that should fall to the Brazilian government.

Continue reading this feature…

In many cases, they have used mild force to restrain loggers and block their activities. This has, of course, been met with violent reprisals and assassinations of indigenous leaders and activists.

18% of the pre-1970 Brazilian Amazon had been cut down as of 2013. Massive clear-cutting began in 1970 and has played a crucial role in Brazil becoming the world’s seventh-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The Amazon rainforest is being cleared for timber, mining, soybean farming, sugar plantations and cattle grazing, as well as to assert legal claims to property by showing “development” on the land.

Brazil’s government has taken steps to make significant reductions in yearly deforestation, but these efforts will need to be sustained consistently and more deeply — and thus far they have not been. Brazil’s climate action plan released in September 2015 is a continuation of its recent strong emissions cuts, but its deforestation pledge only tackles illegal logging, not vast legal timber harvests. And even the illegal logging clearly isn’t close to under control as the Washington Post feature quoted above proves.

Cherokee Nation approves largest budget ever

Flag of the Cherokee Nation. (Credit: Hosmich - Wikimedia)

Flag of the Cherokee Nation. (Credit: Hosmich – Wikimedia)

Less than a month ago, in September 2015, a major milestone for the Cherokee Nation was reached as its legislative body (the Tribal Council) unanimously backed the Nation’s largest budget ever, authorizing significant increases in the Nation’s government services to its people. Indian Country Today Media Network reported the good news and broke down the numbers:

The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council approved the largest comprehensive budget in the tribe’s history at $767 million during its meeting on September 14. As part of that, Cherokee Nation citizens are about to receive more services.

The tribe’s fiscal year begins October 1 and the new budget is $35 million more than the 2015 fiscal year.

The increased funding will be dispersed as such:
– Health services will receive a $30 million increase;
– Commerce will see a $3.5 million increase;
– Human Services will receive a $3 million increase;
– Career Services receives a $2.5 million increase;
– Higher Education College Scholarships will see a $1.5 million increase.

Cherokee Nation, one of the Oklahoma-based successor governments to the original Cherokee nation of the southeastern United States, represents the people of the largest (or perhaps second-largest) single tribe in North America. Reflecting on the challenges the community has faced, both recently and long ago, Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd commented on the budget:

“It is truly miraculous to see where our tribe is today in comparison to even our recent past. Against all odds, we continue to prosper and move forward, as indicated by this budget.”

Principal Chief Bill John Baker credited the increased available revenues to tribal businesses (presumably including not just casinos, but also the many small businesses of the Nation), federal assistance, careful financial management, and “strategic investments.”

The Cherokee Nation budget reached $767 billion for the first time with the budget approved in September. For comparison, the smallest U.S. state budget in FY2015 was Vermont’s $3.56 billion — nearly half of which is invested in public education at the K-16 levels. Of course, Cherokee Nation represents less than 300,000 people, whereas Vermont has a population more than twice as large. But even a proportionally smaller budget would probably be a billion dollars larger than it is, which likely points to continued under-development in the Nation and a need for further sustained investment and assistance.

Still, Cherokee Nation’s budgeting is far higher than that of Navajo Nation, representing about the same number of people over a very large area in the American Southwest, which this month approved a 2016 budget that is nearly $600 million smaller than the Cherokee budget. The Navajo budget has remained at around $172 million for some years now, according to my quick searches online.

Revisiting the Mayflower Compact, 395 years later

Cape Cod and Plymouth (NASA Satellite image, April 1997)

Cape Cod and Plymouth (NASA Satellite image, April 1997)

In November 1620, the Mayflower was bound for Virginia but found itself diverted by storms to what is now Massachusetts. The leadership on board made a decision to establish a colony there instead of attempting to continue to the Mid-Atlantic. They also made a hasty decision to draw up their own emergency charter for a new, separate colony. While this may have been a bid to retain control over a ship full of passengers who weren’t all part of the religious mission or colonial vision of the elites leading the mission, the result was the Mayflower Compact. The lost original document likely occupied a single page in large handwriting. Yet in that limited space, it explained the premise and goal for any future governmental structures or laws in the colony: a just and equal self-governance dedicated to the common good.

We also know approximately what it said. Here is an excerpt from the core of The Mayflower Compact:

“Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”


While that’s pretty easy to read for an early 17th century charter, it also certainly is still a bit confusingly written and “old-timey.” Here is my attempt at a somewhat cleaned up and streamlined paraphrasing of the key objectives that could also be applied in a more general context:

Those present — solemnly and mutually, in the presence of one another — covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation. [For this purpose, we pledge to] enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices as shall be thought most convenient for the general good, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

This, in essence, means that government is a mutual compact between a collective of people. They promise each other that this government will be dedicated to establishing order in and ensuring the survival of society. To achieve this, the government must be based on laws, ordinances, acts, and structures which apply equally and justly to everyone in the society and which promote the “general good.” And to make it all work, everyone promises to submit to this rule of law and follow the order established by this collective government, as far as was reasonable to expect. (The words “all due” before “submission and obedience” — in my opinion — qualify that it is not requiring unlimited obedience without challenge to unjust authority.)

At the time, of course, they meant this self-government really to apply to wealthy and free men aboard the ship. But as you can see, they never actually specified that in the text. Thus, these become universalizable principles for participatory collective self-governance in a free, fair, and just society for the promotion of the common good and common self-preservation.

The Compact is so simple, brief, and non-specific that its core elements — with very few points removed — can apply to any society that wishes to adopt its principles.

It is a bold and noble compact with one another that we the people would do well to renew, as we approach its 400th anniversary in 2020.

Top Catalan independence party fails to move the needle

You may recall my November 2014 post “Just 3 in 10 back Catalonia independence in ridiculous referendum” in which I broke down what the “80% for independence” recorded on a non-binding referendum sponsored and staffed by the Spanish region’s secessionist movement actually translated into real-world proportions. Ultimately I determined that only about 30% of registered voters — 1.6 million people — had actually showed up and voted for independence on behalf of 7.5 million residents.

We now have the results from this month’s regional parliamentary elections. While the turnout was much higher, a few facts jump out presenting a very similar picture all the same:
1. In September 2015 Catalonia parliamentary elections, 48% of those 77% who voted chose two parties supporting independence from Spain, handing them a “victory.”
2. In absolute numbers, this translated to just shy of 2 million votes for pro-independence parties. (The opposing 4 parties actually won slightly more votes than the two pro-independence parties.)
3. That’s less than 36% of all registered voters and barely more than a quarter of the region’s total population (7.5 million).

And the biggest observation of all?
4. The first-place party, really the same umbrella coalition behind the referendum, won 1.6 million votes and 29% of the registered voters.

Wow. That’s exactly the same as the November 2014 referendum outcome. 1.6 million and about 30% of registered voters. So all they’ve proven is that they are disciplined enough to get their same 1.6 million people out to the polls twice in 12 months. They didn’t grow their base at all over that span. They didn’t move the public needle on independence. And 65% of registered voters either voted for a party that doesn’t support Catalonia becoming independent or couldn’t be bothered to show up to vote at all because this doesn’t matter to them.

No wonder the Spanish central government doesn’t particularly feel compelled to negotiate with such a small and unpersuasive faction. In the final analysis, this “movement” so far remains less about Catalan identity and more about wealthy conservatives trying to keep poorer people in other parts of Spain from getting any of their money.

The feuding between [Prime Minister] Rajoy and Mr. Mas started in 2012 as a dispute over the financial contribution that Catalonia should make to a Spanish system that redistributes tax income from Catalonia and other wealthy regions to poorer parts of the country.

Mr. Mas then turned his frustrated demand for fiscal concessions into a full-fledged drive for independence.


Regional flag of Catalonia

Regional flag of Catalonia

Perkins Loan program set to expire at end of month, after 57 year run

The country’s longest-running student loan program, the Perkins Loan, is set to expire on September 30th and it remains unclear whether the program will be extended. For the past 57 years, the Perkins Loan has aimed to serve students with the highest needs and is unique because of the flexibility in the loan.

The Perkins program distributes $1.2 billion in loans each year, which represents only 1% of college loans disbursed in 2014.

Colleges and Universities receive an allotment of Perkins Loan money and are responsible for determining who has the most need in their student body and passing on the loan to them. Many believe this is a cost-effective model because universities use the money that they are paid back through the loan program to distribute more loans.

The loan also provides students with a 9-month grace period after graduation before they begin repayments and allows the loans to be cancelled if the student goes on to work in certain public fields, such as law enforcement or social work.

At least 95 members of Congress, university and college leaders, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) are prepared to defend Perkins Loans. However, key GOP lawmakers appear to be prepared to let the program expire.

Perkins Loans are not without their pitfalls. Some wish to simplify the federal aid programs to students to make it easier for students to navigate the system. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) would like to see a simplified system with three programs for aid: one federal loan program, one work study program, and one grant program — which would leave no room for the Perkins program.

Additionally, the funding formula used to determine how many Perkins loans a college can distribute is outdated. Ben Miller, Senior Director for Post Secondary Education at the Center for American Progress points out:

“The funding formula guarantees colleges receive the same amount of money that they did in 1999. Because the 1999 amount was supposed to provide colleges what they received in past years, that amount is similar to what schools received in 1979. The 1970s funding formula looked at school enrollment to determine how those dollars would be allocated. However, during that time period, enrollment in colleges and universities in the Northeast was much more concentrated than it is now, so students attending universities in other parts of the country are losing out, Miller said.”

While there are legitimate reasons to simplify student aid programs and ways to improve the existing Perkins program, there is little chance of that happening before the end of the month and if the program is allowed to expire, it is America’s neediest students who will pay the price.

According to NASFAA President, Justin Draeger:

“If Congress doesn’t vote to extend the program before its Oct. 1 expiration date, incoming low-income students are expected to face a gap of $2,000, on average, in their financial aid packages.”


The Only Way is Blair?

Questioning a fundamental tenet of the Tony Blair mythos (and the Bill Clinton mythos).


One of the major talking points put forward by Tony Blair allies (and the former Prime Minister himself) in the aftermath of the 2015 election fiasco and again now during the leadership contest with the rise of leftist Jeremy Corbyn has been that Blair’s strain of Labour Party ideology (“New Labour”) was superior to all others because he “won three elections in a row” with it and brought Labour out of its nearly two decades in the opposition wilderness. Blair’s own snide phrasing, which he even dared to utter long before the election loss, was “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result” implying that a traditional left-wing party can’t win elections (not that Labour ran a particularly or consistently left-wing campaign this year).

Similarly, we sometimes hear roughly the sentiment echoed in the United States with regard to Bill Clinton’s centrist/triangulating Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the “New Democrats.” Blair explicitly modeled his 1997 election campaign on Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns (and Clinton’s wider political philosophies), so there are always comparisons between the two. At minimum, they both ran on highly personality-oriented campaigns that claimed to be bringing a new direction to politics on the whole, not just to their own parties. Something transcending those “tradition” right and left alignments, supposedly.

Let’s examine these dual contentions, though. Did the Democrats re-take the White House in 1992 because of Clinton’s Democratic Party centrism? Did Labour re-take parliament in 1997 because of Blair’s New Labour approach?

Blairites and Clintonites alike fervently believe that centrism is what won them power. I would contend instead that inevitability did. Eventually, the opposing major party returns to power.

Blair going centrist didn’t “save” Labour from itself. Conservatives held power for 18 years. Prime Minister John Major’s net approval rating across the early 1990s was in -60 to -20 range. The Labour leadership had higher net approval before Blair took over as opposition leader in 1994, and Major’s net approval really fell off a cliff even before Blair’s ascent. I would conclude from that that any reasonably competent politician (left or center) could have led Labour back to power in 1997 after a whopping eighteen (bleak) years of Conservative rule. (True, leadership ratings are not wholly predictive at the ballot box, but they’re indicative of strengths or weaknesses in broad terms.)

By comparison, Democrats panicked after losing the White House only 3 times in a row in merely 12 years (1980, 1984, 1988). In all likelihood, rota fortunae (the ever-rotating wheel of fortune), not DLCism, won the White House back for Democrats in 1992. The relatively centrist Democratic Congressional caucus also kept shrinking before and after Clinton’s ascent to power, eventually leading to the loss of its House majority in 1994 for the first time since the 1950s. It’s a little hard to square that fact with the Clinton hype.

Much like Prime Minister Major, of course, President George H.W. Bush was struggling with rather low popularity by 1992. Where the year before his high ratings had deterred every single top-tier Democrat from challenging him (leaving Clinton to emerge startlingly from the third tier), by July 1992 George H.W. Bush had the approval of less than 30% of Americans. Not a ringing endorsement for him, and also not really a function of anything Clinton was doing. I believe a reasonably competent progressive Democrat — anyone who could connect with voters on their top concerns and tap into their frustrations — could have won the White House in 1992.

“Inevitability” is, of course, a loaded word in politics. But I’m speaking in broad, big-picture terms based on historical and structural realities. The odds were very low that, in both the U.S. and the U.K., during the 1990s, the major left-leaning parties (Democrats and Labour respectively) would completely wither away and die out as a major party. Thus, regardless of ideology, they would have remained the only serious voting options for people who had lost patience with the incumbent governments. Eventually, in democratic systems, people always get tired of single party rule and change horses.

That’s why three terms in a row for one party to rule is already relatively unusual, 4 terms is rarer, and 5 almost never happens. At a certain point, how far left/center/right your party runs in a breaking-point election becomes pretty irrelevant in a system dominated by two parties. People get frustrated enough to vote for the opposition party automatically. It doesn’t even take that long, considering just 12 years seems to be a pretty common point for voters to jump ship.

Republicans have learned that fact very well and used it to their advantage to continue winning elections with ever-more conservative platforms. Rather than giving up and moderating, they just wait it out and organize for the next moment of frustration in which to bring extreme candidates into office to enact steadfastly conservative agendas.
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