Monthly Archives: December 2015

Terror threat high for tonight’s New Year’s Eve celebrations

Throughout both the United States and Europe, threats against New Year’s Eve celebrations are being taken seriously.

Within the USA, concerns are mounting that terrorists may have entered the nation through the southern border, where illegal immigration is widespread. According to the Washington Times “The Border Patrol nabbed two Pakistani men with ties to terrorism at the U.S.-Mexico border in September in the latest instance of illegal immigrants from so-called “special interest countries” using the southern border as a point of entry to the U.S. Muhammad Azeem and Mukhtar Ahmad, both in their 20s and from Gujrat, were caught Sept. 20 by agents south of San Diego and just over the international border from Tijuana. When agents checked their identities through databases they got hits on both of them: Mr. Ahmad popped up as an associate of a known or suspected terrorist, while Mr. Azeem’s information had been shared by a foreign government for intelligence purposes.”

According to The Source “Federal, state and local authorities have heightened security in many highly populated locations that are expected on New Year’s Eve, including Times Square and the Rose Bowl party in Los Angeles.” Security is also being tightened in the nation’s capital. “In lieu of the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and elsewhere, the FBI is increasing agents and staff in some of its 24-hour command centers around the country, including New York, Washington and Los Angeles. NYPD reports it will have 6,000 police near Times Square, the largest deployment ever of its type. Officials say their areas of concern always focus on so-called soft targets, including large gatherings and mass transit. Senior U.S. officials say the number of probes shows the way ISIS has used technology to enhance terrorist threats. Instead of vetting recruits and carefully planning major attacks as Al-Qaeda and other groups have done, ISIS uses a diffuse-propaganda strategy to encourage its recruits to be self-starters.”

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert last month, stressing that “Current information suggests that ISIL (aka Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions.  These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests. Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq.  Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis.  Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services.”

According to Stratfor  “Authorities across Europe have issued warnings and increased security efforts in light of intelligence indicating that jihadists may be planning attacks… Alerts have extended beyond Europe, too: Russia has canceled New Year’s festivities in Red Square, and the United States and the United Kingdom have issued warnings to citizens living in Beijing to avoid the commercial Sanlitun area of the city over Christmas. There is also concern regarding large New Year’s Eve gatherings in New York and other U.S. cities. “Warnings such as these are not new. Similar warnings have emerged nearly every holiday season since 2000, and they are not entirely without merit. Al Qaeda attempted to pull off a spectacular multi-continent attack at the turn of the millennium and then plotted an attack against the Strasbourg Christmas Market in 2000. The Pan Am Flight 103 bombing and the failed shoe and underwear bombings also happened on or near the holidays.”

The Wall Street Journal  reports that “Belgian officials…cancelled the capital city’s main New Year’s Eve fireworks display because of a threat of terrorism…Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, appearing on RTBF, the Belgian national broadcaster, said the celebration was cancelled in light of “a possible and credible threat…In France, investigators are probing cellphone traffic between the Nov. 13 attackers and an operative who was located in Molenbeek while the Paris massacre was under way, according to police and the Paris prosecutors office…Data recovered from a cellphone used by gunmen who struck the Bataclan concert hall, killing 90 people, showed the attackers made calls and several text messages to a prepaid Belgian phone that investigators tracked to the Brussels’ district of Molenbeek, according to a report in French daily Le Monde that was confirmed by a police officer.”

The UK’s Express newspaper reports that “London has been placed on high alert amid fears a terror attack could strike on New Year’s Eve.”

2016 Defense Budget exposes U.S. to danger

Defense spending for the next fiscal year, excluding veterans’ benefits, was finalized this month at $572.7 billion, a $94 billion decrease over the amount spent in 2009, when President Obama entered office.   Defense News projects that the pre-Obama spending levels will not be reached, if at all, until well after 2020.

A Defense Dept. review of the budget emphasizes what the FY 2016 deal does not adequately address, including:

NEAR TERM: — Balancing capability, capacity and readiness;

— Terrorism, instability across the Middle East and North Africa;

— Rising pressure from Russia and China;

— Globalization of advanced technology;

— Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region;

— Cyber defense, attribution and response; and

— Short-term budget deals, constrained resources and fiscal uncertainty.

LONG TERM: Priorities and uncertainties for fiscal 2017 and beyond include, among others, McCord said, nation-states like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea; ISIL and the global counterterrorism challenge; balancing capability, capacity and readiness; compensation and retention for today’s force; the Force of the Future; innovation in investments and practices; operating in space and cyberspace; and modernizing the nuclear deterrent in the 2020s and 2030s.

As noted by the Department of Defense, reduced support for the military comes at a time when Russia and China have both dramatically increased their military spending and aggressiveness, made significant technological strides, and engaged in aggressive actions.  It also comes as North Korea moves rapidly ahead in nuclear armaments, and the threat from Islamic terrorists escalates to extremely dangerous new levels.

PressTV reports that “Russia’s Defense Ministry has announced an increase in future military equipment procurement…The announced plans included the annual purchase of some 200 planes and helicopters, up to 30 ships and submarines, and around 600 armored vehicles, the UPI reported on Tuesday.”The state program for armaments extending till 2021 will increase the share of modern weapons and military hardware to no less than 70 percent,” said Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov during a press briefing in Moscow.

China, by contrast, continues its rapid escalation in military spending. According to a CNBC report  “Beijing’s defense spending is estimated to grow 7 percent annually until 2020…By 2020, the center of gravity of the global defense spending landscape is expected to have continued its gradual shift away from the developed economies of Western Europe and North America and towards emerging markets, particularly in Asia.”

In addition to Beijing’s announced spending, a Quartz.com reports that “China is responsible for 30% of the world’s secretive defense spending,reports Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based anti-corruption NGO. Secretive spending, defined by TI as “military expenditure where no meaningful details are released either to the public or parliament,” is leading to corruption at home and mistrust in the Asia-Pacific region that could destabilize the area, the organization says… No information is available on acquisition planning, and only broad details are disclosed on actual and planned purchases.”

An analysis by The Week  opines: “The defense budget is often constrained for economic or political reasons. The gap between what the United States actually spends and what it takes to fully resource and execute the strategy is risk. Unfortunately, risk is difficult to measure, but all too easy to ignore. A particular threat may be out of sight and out of mind, but it still exists and could still harm a vital interest of the United States. It’s similar to buying cheap car insurance. It may save a few bucks and turn out fine as long as you never have an accident. That is what it means to accept risk… Since the imposition of the Budget Control Act in 2011, the base defense budget (excluding war costs) has gone down by 15 percent in real terms, while the threats to U.S. vital interests have, if anything, increased. The Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength assessed the current capacity, capability, and readiness of the U.S. military as “marginal.”

Why America’s middle class is vanishing

In Part 1 of our review of the plight of America’s middle class, we reviewed the information indicating how middle income families are increasingly scarce. In today’s report, we look at why this is happening. 

Blame for the sharp reduction in America’s middle class has been placed on misguided federal policies.  The Daily Signal opines that “Americans of all income levels would benefit from faster economic growth that raises wages. Unfortunately, wages are being held back by the very policies supported by those criticizing slow wage growth. Liberals across the country supported the misnamed Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The law’s mandates have made health coverage more expensive for both individuals and businesses…when benefit costs rise, employers cut wages. Empirical research confirms this prediction. Ironically, some of the most rigorous evidence for offsetting wage cuts comes from Jonathan Gruber, the Obamacare architect who boasted the health law takes advantage of Americans’ ‘stupidity.”

Resrearch from the Heritage Foundation  concurs. “The curse of the U.S. economy today is the downward trend in “take-home pay.” This is the most crucial economic indicator for most Americans, but when President Obama said in a recent speech at Northwestern that nearly every economic measure shows improvement from five years ago, he conspicuously left this one out.

“Most workers’ pay has not kept up with inflation for at least six years. Even as hiring picked up … Why aren’t wages rising? There are several reasons, including that many jobs today don’t pay as well as the ones lost during the recession. ObamaCare has made health insurance more expensive for businesses…and that takes a bite out of take-home pay. Yet one factor is often overlooked: the tax increase on “the rich” at the beginning of 2013…The overall effect of the 2013 tax hike was not minor. The highest income-tax rate on small business income has risen to almost 42% from 35%. That’s a 20% spike in the small business tax for successful companies. When the government takes more, there is less to plow back into the business or invest elsewhere.

“A comparison with the Reagan years when investment taxes were cut tells the story. From 1983 to 1988, private investment averaged 12% of GDP, one-third faster than the 9% since 2009 under Obama. In the aftermath of the Kennedy, Clinton and George W. Bush capital-gains tax cuts (1998-2006), the investment rate rose sharply and immediately.

“What does investment have to do with stagnant wages? Everything. As Paul Samuelson, the premiere Keynesian economist who sold more economics textbooks than anyone in history, once explained: “What happens to the wage rate when each person works with more capital goods? Because each worker has more capital to work with, his or her marginal product [or productivity] rises. Therefore, the competitive real wage rises as workers become worth more to capitalists and meet with spirited bidding up of their market wage rates.”

“History bears this out. Workers did very well in jobs and rising incomes in the 1960s, 1980s and late 1990s when capital gains and dividend taxes fell.

“The high corporate tax rate is also holding the economy back. Twenty years ago the U.S. rate was about at the international average, but now we are about 15 percentage points above the rate of most of our competitors and nearly three times higher than countries like Ireland. The American Enterprise Institute has found that “a 1% increase in corporate tax rates is associated with nearly a 1% drop in wage rates” because when corporations invest less here at home, worker productivity suffers.”

An American Thinker article suggests that “The U.S. middle class is sinking into government-provided economic quicksand. U.S. living standards have declined ever since 1970…the two-earner family lost ground … Typical U.S. households earned less in 2009 than a decade earlier; median household income is still declining. Even with two earners, many live closer to the poverty line than did families in the ’70s. Middle-class family savings turned into consumer and mortgage debt, which reached 134% of household income at the end of 2007.

“A middle-class key, and a requirement for its upper half, is a degree. For those whose parents couldn’t afford it, “working your way through college” was practicable and so common that it became a cliché, but by 2008, ABC News said, “Soaring Tuition Pushes College Out of Reach.” Not only lower-middle, but also many upper-middle-class parents can’t afford college for their kids. Graduates are often burdened with school loan debt. In short, life has been growing tougher for the middle class, with a recent kick from the ailing economy.

“Considering that, what’s ahead? Middle-class wealth was personal savings, homeownership, and a pension, stemming in most cases from a decent job. Savings are now debt, homes are mortgaged and losing value, and the private-sector pension has devolved into a 401(k) with shrunken assets. Government pensions face shrunken assets, too. Everyone knows that Social Security is in the red (seven years early), and the government is broke. Unemployment is outlasting previous declines (excluding the 1930s), and the current 9.7% rate has been “adjusted” by the government. At Shadowstats, where readjusted numbers are more realistic, unemployment shows close to 21%. Those unemployed add another economic burden for the government (i.e., taxpayers), or for families. …

“When most middle class wealth is built on jobs, no jobs equals no middle class. So will the jobs be back soon? Short answer: No. And the main reason, politicians’ speeches to the contrary being lies, is deliberate government policy.”

Whatever happened to the middle class?

Whatever happened to America’s Middle Class? Today and tomorrow, the New York Analysis of Policy & Government reviews the most important data and research on this bedrock portion of the U.S. population. 

There is one issue that most Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives actually agree on: America’s middle class is dwindling.  In both numbers as a percent of the population and in income, those at the center of the economy in earnings are becoming an endangered species. A review of several key reports is revealing.

As the New York Analysis of Policy & Government has previously reported, a significant source of middle income employment has been considerably reduced since President Clinton normalized trade relations with Beijing. Combined with America’s corporate tax rates (highest among any of the U.S.’s developed trading partners) and a refusal by both parties to adequately address issues such as the importation of goods manufactured overseas by slave or dramatically underpaid labor and with considerably less regulation than found domestically, the exodus of jobs has been rampant.

While the Obama Administration notes that some jobs have been created to replace those lost during the Great Recession, the reality is that these replacement jobs are largely very-low paying positions, many of them taken by immigrants, legal and illegal.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William Galston notes that “Over the next decade, the service sector will provide 95% of all the new jobs.  Manufacturing, which shed more than two million jobs between 2004 and 2014, will shrink by an additional 800,000, to only 7% of the workforce.  Of the 15 occupations with the most project job growth, only four ask for a bachelors degree, eight require no formal education credentials; nine offer median annual wages under $30,000…For middle income families…[net wealth has stagnated] from $96,000 in 1983, $98,000 in 2013…”

The latest report to join the ever-increasing number of worrisome analyses about the middle class comes from the Pew Research CenterRakesh Kochhar and Richard Fry note that:

“Americans in middle-income households have lost significant ground since 1970, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data. The middle class has long been the country’s economic majority, but our new analysis finds that’s no longer true. Meanwhile, the middle class has fallen further behind upper-income households financially, which now hold a larger share of aggregate household income than ever before in the 44-year period examined.”

Pew summarizes its report in five points:

1.Middle-income Americans are no longer the nation’s economic majority. In early 2015, there were 120.8 million adults in middle-income households, matched in number by the 121.3 million adults who were in lower- and upper-income households combined. This is the culmination of a long slide in which the share of adults in middle-income households has fallen from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2015.

  1. The decline in the middle represents both economic progress and polarization. The shift shows progress in the sense that a larger share of Americans now live in upper-income households. Fully 21% of American adults in 2015 were upper income, compared with 14% in 1971, a 7-percentage-point increase. The increase in the share of upper-income adults was greater than the change in the opposite direction. Some 29% of U.S. adults were low income in 2015, compared with 25% in 1971. But the data also show increasing economic polarization: As the distribution of adults thins in the middle, it is bulking up most at the extreme ends of the income distribution, the lowest and highest tiers.
  2. 3. Over the long haul, America’s middle-income households have seen their income grow.From 1970 to 2014, these households’ median income increased from $54,682 to $73,392 (in 2014 dollars), a gain of 34%. Lower-income household incomes have grown, too, but not as much: 28% over the same 44-year period. Upper-income household incomes have grown most, up 47% over this period. However, the nation’s economic progress over the past several decades masks financial setbacks since 2000.Because of the recession in 2001 and the Great Recession of 2007-09, overall household incomes fell from 2000 to 2014. The greatest loss was felt by lower-income households, whose median income fell 9% over this period; the median for middle-income households fell 4%, and that for upper-income households fell 3%.
  3. The shareof U.S. aggregate household income held by middle-income households has plunged,from 62% in 1970 to 43% in 2014. Meanwhile, the share held by upper-income households increased from 29% to 49%. This shift is driven both by the growing size of the upper-income tier and more rapid gains in income at the top. There is also a growing disparity in the median wealth (assets minus debts) of these income tiers. Upper-income families, who had three times as much wealth as middle-income families in 1983, more than doubled the wealth gap to seven times as much in 2013.
  4. Over the years, certaindemographic groups have fared better than others in moving up the economic ladder. Since 1971, older Americans (ages 65 and older) and African Americans have made notable progressin moving up the income tiers. But overall, both groups are still overrepresented in the lower-income tier. Married adults also made significant progress over this 44-year period, and women overall made greater economic gains than men.

“Americans without a college degree stand out as experiencing a substantial loss in economic status since 1971, as do young adults ages 18 to 29. Hispanics overall are also more likely to be in lower-income households than in 1971, a change driven by the increasing share of immigrants in the Hispanic population in the past four decades.”

Afghan pullout may repeat mistake in Iraq

The Constitution gives Congress a considerable role, through funding and treaty approval, in military and foreign affairs. It has also has been an area in which the citizenry and the press have, through vigorous comments, demonstrations and electoral decisions, played a substantial part.

Uniquely, however, throughout the course of the Obama presidency, the influence of Congress and the public has been comparatively less considerable. Part of this has been due to the exceptional support this White House has received from the media, limiting the public’s exposure to the controversial nature and unwanted results of his decisions. Additionally, Mr. Obama’s tactic of labelling new treaties as “agreements” or other terms has been successfully employed to reduce the Senate’s role.

Throughout his tenure in office, Mr. Obama has combined reduced military spending with lesser cooperation with traditional allies and greater concessions to adversaries. He has given greater priority to United Nations decision making, as well as concerns about potential global warming over more immediate issues such as national security.

There have been dramatically undesirable results from the President’s policies, including the failed “reset” with Russia, China’s continuing extensive cyberespionage, unfair trade tactics, and outright armed aggression, and, of course, the series of mistakes which strengthened international terrorism to an unprecedented degree. It appears that a repeat of his mistake in Iraq may lead to the return of the Taliban and a new role for other terrorist forces in Afghanistan.

There is much debate on whether the U.S. should have eliminated the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. However, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Obama’s premature removal of U.S. forces following the conflict created a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to grow into a significant regional power. That mistake may be repeated in Afghanistan.

It has been approximately a year since the U.S. and its NATO allies have changed their mission from direct confrontation with Afghanistan Islamic extremist to a supporting role for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF.)  The President had previously announced a departure date for U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but later amended his plans, in light of the disastrous results of the Iraqi pullout, to allow some continuation of a limited role.

According to a Defense Department Report  “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” “U.S. forces in Afghanistan continue to conduct two narrow, well-defined, and complementary missions: training, advising, and assisting the ANDSF and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda and its associates. In order to preserve hard-fought gains and help the ANDSF continue to develop and to provide stability and security in Afghanistan, on October 15, 2015, President Obama announced that U.S. forces will maintain their current posture of 9,800 military personnel through most of 2016. By the end of 2016, rather than draw down to a Kabul-only U.S. military presence as previously envisioned, the United States will maintain 5,500 military personnel in Kabul and Bagram, in addition to a limited presence in the east and south of Afghanistan. This decision provides U.S. forces the access and the reach required to implement these two missions effectively in the next year and reflects the U.S. government’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan and its security forces. It also recognizes that the ANDSF will require more time and assistance to develop into a capable, credible, and independent force that can protect the Afghan people and contribute to regional and international security. The continued U.S. presence will also address threats to the homeland from terrorist actors in the region, particularly al Qaeda.

The results from America’s reduced role and the announced pullout date have been poor. According to the Report, “In the second half of 2015, the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase in effective insurgent attacks and higher ANDSF and Taliban casualties…The Taliban have remained active in their traditional strongholds, namely in Helmand in the south and Logar and Wardak in the east, and also created a sense of instability for brief periods of time in other parts of the country, such as in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan… insurgents are improving in their ability to find and exploit ANDSF vulnerabilities, making the security situation still fragile in key areas and at risk of deterioration in other places.” While the Report notes improvement and some successes for Afghan forces, it is clear that the 2016 pullout is an enormous risk.

Persecution of Christians outside of the Islamic World

While persecution of Christians is most violent and pronounced in the Islamic world, other regions have also engaged in the practice.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide emphasizes, according to the Commission, that “One of the worst countries in the world for the persecution of Christians is North Korea. With the exception of four official state-controlled churches in Pyongyang, Christians in North Korea face the risk of detention in the prison camps, severe torture and, in some cases, execution for practicing their religious beliefs. North Koreans suspected of having contact with South Korean or other foreign missionaries in China, and those caught in possession of a Bible, have been known to be executed.”

North Korea’s economic sponsor, China, also engages in oppression against Christians.  In May, Think Progress reported: “the provincial government of Zhejiang made public a new draft proposal calling for the removal of crosses from the tops of churches and outlining a rigid policy that would greatly restrict their display. According to the New York Times, the regulations will reduce the Christian symbol to obscurity, mandating that they only be installed on the side — not the top — of structures, be a color that blends into their surroundings, and extend no more than one-tenth the height of the building’s facade. Carsten Vala, research fellow at Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, told ThinkProgress that the policy appears to be the latest move in a sustained effort by local officials to reduce the visibility and influence of Christianity in Zhejiang, whose unusually large Christian presence — roughly 10 percent of the local population — has earned the city the nickname “China’s Jerusalem.” Despite heated protests, the government has forcibly removed the crosses from several churches in the province over the past year, and even tore down the 180-foot spire of state-sponsored Sanjiang Church in Wenzhou, China last May.”

The U.S. State Department notes: While most incidents involved the removal of crosses and steeples, a handful of prominent churches were demolished, including the Sanjiang Church in the city of Wenzhou that was leveled in April despite efforts by its parishioners to form human shields to protect it. Zhejiang officials stated that crosses and churches needed to be “demolished” as “illegal structures” that violated local zoning laws. Unofficial “house” church members continued to face harassment and detention. Security officials frequently interrupted outdoor services of the unregistered Shouwang Church in Beijing and detained people attending those services for several days without charge. Reports indicated the average length of these detentions increased from hours to days.

Russia, through its proxies, has also engaged in repression of Christians, notes the State Department. In the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-backed separatists proclaimed the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In the areas they control, the separatists have kidnapped, beaten, and threatened Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, as well as participated in anti-Semitic acts.

Police, local authorities, and hired men in Vietnam ‘s Binh Duong Province began a campaign of harassment against an unregistered Mennonite group in June, according to their pastors. Church leaders reported government forces throughout the year raided Bible classes, detained and beat congregants, and harassed members of the religious community. Reports also state that hired men prevented the movement of church members, vandalized a Mennonite church, and barred followers from leaving their houses.

At the start of 2015, it was reported by Christian Solidarity Worldwide  that “Violations of religious freedom are increasing in Cuba, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.The number of recorded violations has risen year on year. There were 220 recorded incidences in 2014, up from 180 the previous year, 120 in 2012, and 40 in 2011.The incidences have also become more violent, with cases of Protestant pastors being arbitrarily detained or beaten and churches being demolished…

“Religious life in Cuba is regulated by the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), which has the power to recognise certain religious groups and permit them to build new premises while denying others. But even churches that are registered, legally operating church can face intimidation. CSW’s spokesperson said members of the congregation can be threatened with losing their jobs, pastors’ children are often singled out at school, and the ORA can refuse to allow building repair work to be done. Unregistered churches can experience anything from the confiscation of property to the demolition of the church building.”

Persecution of Christians

This is an appropriate week to review the persecution suffered by Christians throughout the planet.

Open Doors USA  notes that in an average month:  332 Christians are killed for their faith; 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed; and 772 forms of violence, including beatings, abductions, rapes, and forced marriages, are committed against Christians.

According to Open Doors “Islamic extremists capitalized on the instability of the region to seize power. In countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the unprecedented violence held horrific consequences for Christians. Today, virtually all personal rights have been rescinded and Christians have been the targets of violence and murder. Women and girls of the region have become victims of human trafficking, forced marriages and sexual slavery.” Persecution is greatest in North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Nigeria. China is also one of the worst offenders, along with most Islamic nations.

“The prediction that the Arab Spring would lead to greater freedom for minority voices in Arab nations has, sadly, not panned out,” said Open Doors President and CEO David Curry. “To the contrary, the overall impact of the Arab Spring on Christians in the region has been catastrophic…

“… the full impact of the Arab Spring has yet to be felt. In Syria alone, 700,000 Christians have fled the nation. The Islamic State is executing a mission to remove or harm all Christians. Historic churches across the region have been burned or bombed. While the Western world focuses on the potential impact of an influx of refugees on their own nations, the situation in the region remains dire.”

There is significant controversy in the United States, which, led by the Obama Administration, endorsed the Arab Spring movement. Despite being among the most persecuted groups to have suffered repression in Syria, only an extremely small percentage of refugees granted asylum.

The Pew Center  reports that “over 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians).  Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.”

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission , reviewing U.S. State department data,  finds that “Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Christ. In 41 of the 50 worst nations for persecution, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists.”

According to the United States State Department’s report on Religious Freedom:

“In Mosul, Iraq and nearby towns, shortly after the takeover of the area by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Christians who had been given the choice to convert, pay a ruinous tax, or die, gathered their families and what few possessions they could carry, and sought all possible means to escape. Their community, having been a part of the rich culture and history of this city for more than a thousand years, was being threatened.

“Three-year old Christina Khader Ebada boarded a crowded bus with her mother to leave when suddenly one of the fighters guarding the checkpoint tore Christina from her mother’s arms. The panicked mother followed him, pleading with him to return the girl. “Shut up,” he responded. “If you come close to this little girl you will be slaughtered; we will slaughter you.” And she was forced back on the bus, leaving her baby behind, never to know what became of her.  Christina and her family were also victims of ISIL’s brutal persecution, which has targeted all those, including religious and ethnic minorities, who oppose or do not fit in with ISIL’s ideological vision and its categorical and violent opposition to religious freedom.

“David Saperstein, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (IRF) has said, “There is an absolute and unequivocal need to give voice to the religiously oppressed in every land afraid to speak of what they believe in; who face death and live in fear, who worship in underground churches, mosques or temples, who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid killing and persecution simply because they love God in their own way or question the existence of God.”

“… Non-State Actors, including rebel and terrorist organizations… committed by far some of the most egregious human rights abuses and caused significant damage to the global status of respect for religious freedom. In some cases, government failure, delay, and inadequacy in combatting these groups and other societal actors had severe consequences for people living under dire religious freedom conditions

“In the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and throughout Asia, a range of non-state actors including terrorist organizations, have set their sights on destroying religious diversity. Members of religious groups were disproportionately affected, often suffering harsh and hateful treatment of non-state actors. In these regions, religious intolerance and hostility, often combined with political, economic and ethnic grievances, frequently led to violence. Governments stood by, either unwilling or unable to act in response to the resulting death, injuries and displacement.”

 

U.S. allies boost defense spending in response to growing danger

It has been a familiar refrain, from those seeking to further reduce the already dramatically shrunken U.S. defense budget, that America’s allies aren’t doing their part. Obviously, they haven’t been paying attention. From one end of the planet to the other, Washington’s friends are hiking their military spending even as the U.S. continues to dangerously defund its armed forces.

The Philippines have drastically increased its defense budget by 25%, notes Defense News. to a record high level for that nation.

Korea Observer reports that South Korea’s defense budget will increase by 4%.

Japan Today  reports that Tokyo’s defense budget will exceed five trillion yen for the first time. The budget even includes funding for a controversial U.S. military base to replace the U.S. Marine Corps’s Futenma air base on the southern island of Okinawa, host to the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan.

The United Kingdom’s  defense spending has risen fairly steadily throughout the 21st Century.

UPI reports that France will increase its 2016 defense budget .

Defense News reveals that “The German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has approved plans to increase defense spending by 6.2 percent over the next five years.

Reuters reports that Lithuania will increase its defense spending by a third.

Perhaps the most significant dedication to countering the rising threats from the new and dangerous military threats from the Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean axis can be found in Poland, which has hiked its military expenditures by 18%. In fact, an Ozy review  emphasizes: “A new military power may be rising on the plains of Central Europe. According to data recently released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a leading tracker of global defense spending, Poland’s military outlays last year jumped higher than any other country in Europe bar Ukraine, which is in the midst of a full-blown war. That includes Russia, which is on the other side of that war in Ukraine. In 2015, Poland’s plans for military spending top $10 billion. This is part and parcel of a 10-year, $36 billion modernization plan Warsaw launched in February to bulk up its defenses.”

Digital Journal,  In fact, states that “NATO-member Poland has kicked off an unprecedented military spending spree worth billions to overhaul its forces as Warsaw believes peace in Europe is no longer a given…Poland has earmarked 33.6 billion euros ($42 billion) on [upgrades] over a decade, which includes a missile shield and anti-aircraft systems, armoured personnel carriers and submarines as well as combat drones…Its long shopping list is full of pricey items including multi-role and combat helicopters, an anti-missile system and cruise missiles for submarines and drones.”

Poland’s tragic 20th century history, which saw it invaded by both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, gives that nation’s leadership a sober view of looming danger.

IBI Times  reports that Poland, in addition to its NATO obligations, has signed a military cooperation agreement with Sweden over Russia’s increased military activity in the Baltic Sea. “Once a sea of peace, the Baltic has become a sea of danger,” said Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak. Sweden had already signed military agreements with Denmark and Finland as Russia’s actions continue to reverberate across the region.”

Defense News  notes that Poland is taking a leading role in assisting the defense plans of nations formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. In October, Poland began its “Regional Security Assistance Program”  to help Eastern European arm to defend itself against Moscow.  Poland seeks to “boost defense and industrial cooperation with the Visegrad Group countries — Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic — as well as Romania, Bulgaria and the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia…local analysts said the move is part of a comprehensive strategy by Poland to enhance regional defense and security cooperation.”

America and its allies face a swiftly growing threat.

In Europe, Forbes notes that “From 2013 to 2014 Russia’s military budget increased by 26% in nominal terms. Hikes of a generally similar magnitude [were] announced for 2015…”

In Asia, Foreign Affairs notes “ in almost every year for over almost two decades, China increased its military expenditure by double-digit percentages” This years’ increase is 10.1%. At the same time, North Korea http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2015/04/14/rok-report-on-dprk-military-spending/ has increased its defense spending by 16 percent over the past five years.

In the Middle East, Business Insider stresses that Iran’s military budget is going to get a huge boost from the nuclear deal.

Montenegro may join NATO

NATO has invited Montenegro to begin the process of joining NATO.  It could become the alliance’s 29th member.

NATO secretary General Jens Stoltenberg hailed the decision as “historic,” noting that “This is a good day for Montenegro, a good day for the Western Balkans and a good day for the alliance.”

Since 2009, NATO and Montenegro have worked closely together through the Membership Action Plan, which helps nations prepare for possible future membership. Stoltenberg said the decision reflected Montenegro’s “unwavering commitment to our common values and to international security” but advised Montenegro to continue on its reform path, “on defense adaptation, on domestic reform, especially rule of law, and to continue to make progress in demonstrating public support for Montenegro’s NATO membership.”

The negotiations will start in early 2016. Once they are concluded, NATO members will sign an “accession protocol” which will have to be ratified by parliaments in all 28 Allies. Once that process is completed, Montenegro will be able to accede to the Washington Treaty and become a member of the Alliance.

According to NATO sources, the alliance is open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area. Since 1949, NATO’s membership has increased from 12 to 28 countries through six rounds of enlargement. Currently, four partner countries have declared their aspirations to NATO membership: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Montenegro and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The alliance emphasizes that its ongoing enlargement process “poses no threat to any other country, [and] is aimed at promoting stability and cooperation, at building a Europe whole and free, united in peace, democracy and common values.

Other nations are seeking or considering NATO membership. Macedonia has been assured that it will be invited to become a member as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the issue over the country’s name has been reached with Greece. Bosnia and Herzegovina was invited to join the Membership Action Plan in April 2010 but its participation is pending the resolution of a key issue concerning immovable defense property. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the Allies agreed that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO in the future (since 2010, Ukraine has not been formally pursuing membership.)

In what would be a very significant move, some in Sweden are advocating joining the alliance. However, as noted by Business Insider  “Russia’s ambassador to Sweden has warned the country of the potential military ‘consequences’ associated with joining NATO. In an interview with the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter…Russian Ambassador Viktor Tatarintsev told Dagens Nyheter that Russia does not have any military plans against Sweden, in line with Stockholm’s alliance neutrality. But Tatarintsev warned that this could change if Sweden were to join the NATO alliance…Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, ‘that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles,’ the ambassador said. ‘The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to’…An October 2014 poll showed 37% of Swedes were in favor of joining NATO with 36% of Swedes against — the first time that more Swedes have favored joining the alliance than not. This swing in public opinion could be in response to a series of aggressive and provocative Russian actions throughout the region.”

Russian air and naval forces have, over the past several years, engaged in provocative incursions into Swedish territory.

On September 2, notes the website antiwar.com  reported that“The Ukrainian National Security Council formally declaring neighboring Russia to be a ‘military opponent’ and making it a specific priority for the country to try to secure NATO membership .”

Current NATO members include Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, The United Kingdom, and The United States.