Biden avoids a further Mideast spiral as Israel and Iran show restraint. But for how long?

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza could shadow US President Joe Biden right up to Election Day. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 April 2024
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Biden avoids a further Mideast spiral as Israel and Iran show restraint. But for how long?

  • The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden can breathe a bit easier, at least for the moment, now that Israel and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of tipping the Middle East into all-out war.

Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Iran and Syria caused limited damage. The restrained action came after Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to temper its response to Iran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel last week and avoid an escalation of violence in the region. Iran’s barrage of drones and missiles inflicted little damage and followed a suspected Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus this month that killed two generals.
Iran’s public response to the Israeli strikes Friday also was muted, raising hopes that Israel-Iran tensions — long carried out in the shadows with cyberattacks, assassinations and sabotage — will stay at a simmer.
The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific. All are testing the proposition he made to voters during his 2020 campaign that a Biden White House would bring a measure of calm and renewed respect for the United States on the world stage.
Foreign policy matters are not typically the top issue for American voters. This November is expected to be no different, with the economy and border security carrying greater resonance.
But public polling suggests that overseas concerns could have more relevance with voters than in any US election since 2006, when voter dissatisfaction over the Iraq War was a major factor in the Republican Party losing 30 House and six Senate seats.
“We see this issue rising in saliency, and at the same time we’re seeing voter appraisals of President Biden’s handling of foreign affairs being quite negative,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “That combination is not a great one for Biden.”
Biden has staked enormous political capital on his response to the Israel-Hamas war as well as his administration’s backing of Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion.
The apparent de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran also comes as the House on Saturday approved $95 billion in wartime aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, a measure that Biden has pushed for as Ukrainian forces run desperately short on arms.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, pushed the package forward after months of delay as he faced the threat of ouster by his party’s right flank. The legislation now awaits a vote in the Senate. The new money would provide a surge of weaponry to the front lines, giving the White House renewed hope that Ukraine can right the ship after months of setbacks in the war.
Biden also has made bolstering relations in the Indo-Pacific a central focus of his foreign policy agenda, looking to win allies and build ties as China becomes a more formidable economic and military competitor.
But Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have an argument to make that Biden’s policies have contributed to the US dealing with myriad global quandaries, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s unsuccessful efforts earlier in his term to revive a nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the Obama administration and abandoned by Trump, saying that would embolden Tehran. The agreement had provided Iran with billions in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program.
GOP critics have sought to connect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and they blame the Obama administration for not offering a strong enough response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
“You can make an intellectual case, a policy case of how we got from Point A to B to C to D and ended up in a world on fire,” said Goldberg, a national security official in the Trump administration. “People may not care about how we got here, but they do care that we are here.”
Polling suggests Americans’ concerns about foreign policy issues are growing, and there are mixed signs of whether Biden’s pitch as a steady foreign policy hand is resonating with voters.
About 4 in 10 US adults named foreign policy topics in an open-ended question that asked people to share up to five issues for the government to work on in 2024, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published in January. That’s about twice as many as mentioned the topic in an AP- NORC poll conducted in the previous year.
Further, about 47 percent of Americans said they believe Biden has hurt relations with other countries, according to an AP-NORC poll published this month. Similarly, 47 percent said the same about Trump.
Biden was flying high in the first six months of his presidency, with the American electorate largely approving of his performance and giving him high marks for his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. But the president saw his approval ratings tank in the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 and they never fully recovered.
Now, Biden finds himself dealing with the uncertainty of two wars. Both could shadow him right up to Election Day.
With the Israel-Hamas war, Republicans pillory him as not being adequately supportive of Israel, and the left wing of his party harshly criticizes the president, who has shown displeasure with Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war, for not doing more to force the Israelis to safeguard Palestinian lives.
After Israel’s carefully calibrated strikes on Iran, Middle East tensions have entered a “gray area” that all parties must navigate carefully, said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Middle East issues in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Does what has occurred over the last 10 days strengthen each sides’ risk-readiness or has it made them drop back from the brink and revert into risk aversion?” Miller said. “Israel and Iran got away with striking each other’s territory without a major escalation. What conclusions do they draw from that? Is the conclusion that we might be able to do this again? Or is it we really dodged a bullet here and we have to be exceedingly careful.”
Israel and Hamas appear far away from an agreement on a temporary ceasefire that would facilitate the release of remaining hostages in Hamas-controlled Gaza and help get aid into the territory. It’s an agreement that Biden sees as essential to finding an endgame to the war.
CIA Director William Burns expressed disappointment this past week that Hamas has not yet accepted a proposal that Egyptian and Qatari negotiators had presented this month. He blamed the group for “standing in the way of innocent civilians in Gaza getting humanitarian relief that they so desperately need.”
At the same time, the Biden administration has tried to demonstrate it is holding Israel accountable, imposing new penalties Friday on two entities accused of fundraising for extremist Israel settlers that were already under sanctions, as well as the founder of an organization whose members regularly assault Palestinians.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other administration officials met on Thursday with Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. US officials, according to the White House, reiterated Biden’s concerns about Israel’s plans to carry out an operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians have taken shelter.
Ross Baker, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University, said Biden may have temporarily benefited from Israeli-Iranian tensions driving attention away from the deprivation in Gaza.
“Sometimes salvation can come in unexpected ways,” Baker said. “But the way ahead has no shortage of complications.”


Olympics-France arrests person planning ‘violent action’ during Olympic torch relay

Updated 4 sec ago
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Olympics-France arrests person planning ‘violent action’ during Olympic torch relay

PARIS: French law enforcement officers arrested someone who was planning a violent action during the Paris 2024 Olympic torch relay in Bordeaux, the Interior ministry said on Thursday.
“Thanks to the police officers and, more broadly, to all the Ministry’s agents who are providing security for this popular celebration with remarkable professionalism and commitment,” Interior minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on X.
The torch relay started in the morning and is scheduled to end around 1930 local time (1730GMT). The Olympics will be held from July 26-Aug 11.

Bosnian Serb leader reiterates threat to secede from Bosnia ahead of UN vote on genocide

Updated 23 May 2024
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Bosnian Serb leader reiterates threat to secede from Bosnia ahead of UN vote on genocide

  • The proposed UN resolution sponsored by Germany and Rwanda has been supported by the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim

SREBRENICA: The leader of Bosnia’s Serb-controlled territory reiterated a threat to secede from the Balkan country Wednesday, a day ahead of a UN vote on establishing an annual day to commemorate the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs.
Relatives of the victims, meanwhile, said that the vote would mark a historic day in ensuring that the deaths cannot be denied or forgotten.
The proposed UN resolution sponsored by Germany and Rwanda has been supported by the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim, but has sparked protests and a lobbying campaign against the measure by the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, and the populist president of neighboring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic.
The two leaders say the resolution would brand all Serbs as genocidal, although the draft does not explicitly mention Serbs as culprits. Both Serbia and Bosnian Serbs have denied that genocide happened in Srebrenica although this has been established by two UN courts.
For the women who lost their loved ones in the massacre, any denial of the scope of the crime has meant more grief. This is why the UN vote “means a lot” for victims, truth and justice, said Munira Subasic, from the prominent Mothers of Srebrenica group.
“People who live in lies, who don’t know the truth, they will need this UN resolution more than we do,” Subasic said, adding that she was referring to “genocide deniers” among Bosnian Serbs and in Serbia. “They will not be able to glorify war criminals any more.”
“We expect a fair decision tomorrow, a decision that will tell us, the families, that there is justice in the world, that there is humanity,” added Nura Begovic, who also lost several family members in Srebrenica.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran a UN-protected safe area in Srebrenica. They separated at least 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys from their wives, mothers and sisters and slaughtered them.
The 193-member UN General Assembly plans to debate the resolution Thursday to be followed by a vote. Serbs have the support of their allies Russia and China, while the resolution is supported by the US and most other Western states.
Dodik, who is president of Republika Srpska, which comprises about half of Bosnia, said on the social media platform X that the UN resolution is being forced on the country by supporters of Muslim Bosniaks and that it will split up the country. He said his government could formally propose a separation on Thursday
“Bosnia and Herzegovina has reached its end, or to be more precise, it was brought to an end by those who swore to it,” Dodik said on X. “All that remains is for us all to make an effort to be good neighbors and to part in peace.”
Dodik has made several such threats in the past to have the Serb-controlled territories secede from Bosnia and join with neighboring Serbia. He and some other Bosnian Serb officials are under US and British sanctions partly for jeopardizing a US peace plan that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
The Srebrenica killings were the bloody culmination of the war, which came after the breakup of Yugoslavia unleashed nationalist passions and territorial ambitions that set Bosnian Serbs against the country’s two other main ethnic populations, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.
The International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest tribunal, determined in 2007 that the acts committed in Srebrenica constituted genocide, and the court’s determination is included in the draft resolution. It was Europe’s first genocide since the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.
Serbia’s President Vucic and his government have been campaigning both at the UN and among developing countries to win support for a “no” vote. Approval requires a majority of those voting.
In a massive campaign in both Serbia and the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, organizers have put up billboards and video beams reading “Serbs are not genocidal people.”
Vucic and Dodik, both pro-Russian politicians, also have argued against the resolution by saying it raises the possibility of having to pay war damages. Local analysts say Serb leaders, including Vucic, also fear they could be put on trial for active participation in the Bosnian bloodshed.
The draft resolution condemns “without reservation any denial of the Srebrenica genocide as a historical event.” It also “condemns without reservation actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by international courts, including those responsible for the Srebrenica genocide.”
Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, were both convicted of genocide in Srebrenica by a special UN war crimes tribunal. In all, the tribunal and courts in the Balkans have sentenced close to 50 Bosnian Serb wartime officials to lengthy prison terms.
Most Serbian and Bosnian Serb officials still celebrate Karadzic and Mladic as national heroes. They continue to downplay or even deny the Srebrenica killings, which has deeply offended relatives of the massacre victims and survivors.
“I can never bring my three sons back … also my husband and my grandson, five men from my house alone,” said Mejra Dzogaz as she looked at a vast memorial center in Srebrenica comprising thousands of white tomb stones for the victims found and buried so far.
“What are we supposed to show to prove (genocide?) asked Dzogaz. “What? Look at this memorial center here.”


Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to hit campaign trail as UK election race begins

Updated 23 May 2024
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Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to hit campaign trail as UK election race begins

  • Both party leaders are expected to hit the campaign trail, seeking to seize the early initiative by meeting voters

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Labour Party rival Keir Starmer will kick off their election campaigns in earnest on Thursday, a day after Sunak surprised the nation by calling a vote for July 4.
Sunak, whose Conservative Party trails Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls, ended months of speculation centered on an election in October or November, and instead used a rain-soaked address to the electorate to kick off what is likely to be six weeks of frenetic campaigning.
Both party leaders are expected to hit the campaign trail, seeking to seize the early initiative by meeting voters and delivering the messages they hope will earn them enough seats in parliament to form a majority government on July 5.
At stake is control of the world’s sixth largest economy which has endured years of low growth and high inflation, is still battling to make a success of its 2016 decision to exit the European Union, and is slowly recovering from twin shocks of COVID-19 and an energy price spike caused by the war in Ukraine.
That backdrop makes the economy one of the most important electoral battlegrounds.
Sunak, 44, announced the election on the day inflation returned close to target, and his early message to voters has been that his plan for the economy is working, and only he can turn that stability into a recovery that benefits all.
“Who do you trust to turn that foundation into a secure future for you, your family and our country?” he told a rally late on Wednesday, casting Labour as a party without a plan.
“We’re working for a Britain where we have renewed confidence in ourselves and our communities. A country where hard work will be met with fair rewards and where the opportunities enjoyed by the previous generations will be there for future ones.”
Starmer, a 61-year-old former lawyer who has pulled Labour’s politics back to the center ground after a spell of electorally unsuccessful left-wing leadership, has pitched his party as one that will bring change for a disgruntled electorate.
“Labour will stop the chaos, turn the page and get Britain’s future back,” he said in an early campaign message to party members, describing the election as “the fight of our lives.”
“This is the moment we’ve been working toward. We must come together to beat the Tories and deliver a Labour government to change Britain for the better.”
If Labour win the election, it would end 14 years of Conservative government and Britain, once known for its political stability, will have had six prime ministers in eight years for the first time since the 1830s.
While the electioneering gets underway, activity in parliament is expected to pick up too as the government works out which of the pieces of legislation currently in process will be rushed through, and which will fall by the wayside.
Laws currently under discussion include Sunak’s plan to impose some of the world’s strictest anti-smoking rules by banning anyone aged 15 and under from ever buying cigarettes.


Tornadoes pummel US Midwest, killing at least 5 in Iowa

Updated 59 min 15 sec ago
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Tornadoes pummel US Midwest, killing at least 5 in Iowa

  • The storms also knocked out power to tens of thousands of people in Illinois and Wisconsin, officials said
  • The tornadoes came at a time when climate change is heightening the severity of storms around the world

GREENFIELD, Iowa: Five people died and at least 35 were hurt as powerful tornadoes ripped through Iowa, with one carving a path of destruction through the small city of Greenfield, officials said Wednesday.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety said Tuesday’s tornadoes killed four people in the Greenfield area, and local officials said a fifth person — a woman whose car was swept away in the wind — was killed by a twister about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. Officials did not release the names of the victims because they were still notifying relatives.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety said Wednesday it’s believed that the number of people injured is likely higher.
The Greenfield tornado left a wide swath of obliterated homes, splintered trees and crumpled cars in the town of 2,000 about 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines. The twister also ripped apart and crumpled massive power-producing wind turbines several miles outside the city.

A wind turbine lies toppled in the aftermath of tornadoes which ripped through the area yesterday on May 22, 2024 near Prescott, Iowa. (Getty Images/AFP)

Greenfield resident Kimberly Ergish, 33, and her husband dug through the debris field Wednesday that used to be their home, looking for family photos and other salvageable items. There wasn’t much left, she acknowledged.
“Most of it we can’t save,” she said. “But we’re going to get what we can.”
The reality of having her house destroyed in seconds hasn’t really set in, she said.
“If it weren’t for all the bumps and bruises and the achy bones, I would think that it didn’t happen,” she said.
Tuesday’s storms also pummeled parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers in the two states. The severe weather turned south on Wednesday, and the National Weather Service was issuing tornado and flash flood warnings in Texas as parts of the state — including Dallas — were under a tornado watch.
The National Weather Service said initial surveys indicated at least an EF-3 tornado in Greenfield, but additional damage assessment could lead to a more powerful ranking.
The tornado appeared to have been on the ground for more than 40 miles (64 kilometers), AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jon Porter said. A satellite photo taken by a BlackSky Technology shows where the twister gouged a nearly straight path of destruction through the town, just south of Greenfield’s center square.
The deadly twister was spawned during a historically bad season for tornadoes in the US, at a time when climate change is heightening the severity of storms around the world. April had the second-highest number of tornadoes on record in the country.
Through Tuesday, there have been 859 confirmed tornadoes this year, 27 percent more than the US sees on average, according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. So far, Iowa’s had the most, with 81 confirmed twisters.
On Tuesday alone, the National Weather Service said it received 23 tornado reports, with most in Iowa and one each in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The tornado that decimated parts of Greenfield brought to life the worst case scenario in Iowa that weather forecasters had feared, Porter said.
“Debris was lifted thousands of feet in the air and ended up falling to the ground several counties away from Greenfield. That’s evidence of just how intense and deadly this tornado was,” Porter said.
People as far as 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from Greenfield posted photos on Facebook of ripped family photos, yearbook pages and other items that were lifted into the sky by the tornado.

Residents go through the damage after a tornado tore through town yesterday afternoon on May 22, 2024 in Greenfield, Iowa. (Getty Images/AFP)

About 90 miles away, in Ames, Iowa, Nicole Banner found a yellowed page declaring “This Book is the Property of the Greenfield Community School District” stuck to her garage door like a Post-It note after the storm passed.
“We just couldn’t believe it had traveled that far,” she said.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said FEMA’s administrator would head to Iowa on Thursday and that the White House was in touch with state and local officials. She said they were “praying for those who tragically lost their lives” and wished those injured a “speedy recovery.”
Greenfield’s 25-bed hospital was among the buildings damaged, and at least a dozen people who were hurt had to be taken to facilities elsewhere. Hospital officials said in a Facebook post Wednesday that the hospital will remain closed until it can be further assessed and that full repairs could take weeks or months. The hospital, with the help of other providers, set up an urgent care clinic at an elementary school with primary care services to start there Thursday, the post said.
Residential streets that on Monday were lined with old-growth trees and neatly-appointed ranch-style homes were a chaotic jumble of splintered and smashed remnants by Wednesday. Many of the homes’ basements where residents sheltered lay exposed and front yards were littered with belongings from furniture to children’s toys and Christmas decorations.
Dwight Lahey, a 70-year-old retired truck driver, drove from suburban Des Moines to Greenfield to help his 98-year-old mother. She had taken refuge from the twister in her basement, then walked out through her destroyed garage to a nearby convenience store, Lahey said.
“I don’t know how she got through that mess,” he said. His mom was staying in a hotel, uncertain about where she’ll end up with her home gone, he said.
Roseann Freeland, 67, waited until the last minute to rush with her husband to a concrete room in her basement. Seconds later, her husband opened the door “and you could just see daylight,” Freeland said. “I just lost it. I just totally lost it.”
Tuesday’s destructive weather also saw flooding and power outages in Nebraska, damage from tornadoes in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and dust storms in Illinois that forced two interstates to be closed.
The devastation in Iowa followed days of extreme weather that ravaged much of the middle section of the country, including Oklahoma and Kansas. Last week, deadly storms hit the Houston area, killing at least eight and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands.
 


‘Boiling not warming’: Marine life suffers as Thai sea temperatures hit record

Updated 23 May 2024
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‘Boiling not warming’: Marine life suffers as Thai sea temperatures hit record

  • The once vibrant and colorful corals, about five meters underwater, have turned white in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching
  • If water temperatures do not cool, more coral will die, says marine biologist Lalita Putchim

TRAT, Thailand: Aquatic life from coral reefs to fish in the Thailand’s eastern gulf coast is suffering as sea surface temperatures hit record highs this month amid a regional heatwave, worrying scientists and local communities.

The once vibrant and colorful corals, about five meters (16 feet) underwater, have turned white in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching, a sign that their health was deteriorating, due to higher water temperatures, scientists say.
Sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Gulf of Thailand reached 32.73°C (90.91°F) earlier this month while underwater readings are slightly warmer, with dive computers showing around 33°C, data shows.
“I couldn’t find a single healthy coral,” said marine biologist Lalita Putchim of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) after completing a dive in the gulf coast.
“Almost all of the species have bleached, there’s very little that’s not affected.”
The Trat archipelago is home to over 66 islands, with over 28.4 square kilometers (2,841 hectares) of coral reef, where Lalita has found that up to 30 percent of coral life was bleaching and 5 percent had already died.
If water temperatures do not cool, more coral will die, Lalita said.
“It’s global boiling, not just global warming,” she said.

Lalita Putchim, a marine biologist of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, dives to survey an area of bleached corals in a reef in Koh Mak, Trat province, Thailand, on May 8, 2024. (REUTERS)

Rising temperatures were also impacting other marine life and the livelihoods of local fishermen including Sommay Singsura.
In recent years, his daily catch of seafood has been dwindling. Previously he had been able to make up to 10,000 baht ($275) a day, but now sometimes he comes back empty handed.
“There used to be jackfish, short mackerel, and many others ... But now, the situation isn’t good. The weather isn’t like what it used to be,” Sommay laments.
Coral reefs are both a food resource and habitat for marine life, as well as being natural barriers preventing coastal erosion, scientists say.
If bleaching causes marine life to decrease, fishermen will need to spend more to get their catch, which could see selling prices rise, said Sarawut Siriwong, the dean of faculty of Marine Technology at Burapha University.
“While this (coral bleaching) would affect food security, at the same time, their (community) income stability is also at stake,” he said.