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Obama Readies Climate Change Push At U.N. Summit

Washington (AFP) — President Barack Obama will seek to galvanize international support in the fight against climate change on Tuesday when he addresses the United Nations, with time running out on his hopes of leaving a lasting environmental legacy.

Obama has warned that failure to act on climate change would be a “betrayal” of future generations, but faced with a Congress reluctant to even limit greenhouse gas emissions — let alone ratify an international agreement — his options appear limited.

Tuesday’s climate summit in New York kicks off a process that will culminate in Paris at the end of 2015, where the world’s powers will hope to seal a new global climate change pact.

“Internationally, this is the opportunity for the president to leave his mark on the issue,” said Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based think-tank.

Obama’s last meeting with heads of state to try to strike a climate deal, in Copenhagen five years ago, ended in bitter disappointment.

“I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen,” Obama said at the time, lamenting the failure to agree a timetable to reduce emissions over the coming decades.

– Complicated landscape –

Five years after that setback, the landscape remains complicated.

“I think that there is some greater sense of perhaps realism as well as ambition among parties than perhaps there was in 2009,” said Todd Stern, the United States top climate negotiator.

“I think, at the same time, these negotiations are always difficult,” he said in a recent conference call.

In the short term, it remains highly unlikely that the 120 heads of state and government due to attend Tuesday’s one-day meeting in New York will meet the expectations of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has called for “bold pledges” to be made.

The White House has said it will not announce its post-2020 goals in New York this week, but rather plans to roll an out ambitious target early next year according to John Podesta, Obama’s adviser on climate and energy.

“You can expect the U.S. to make public by the first quarter of 2015 a strong national target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the post-2020 time frame,” Podesta said.

“The President will use his speech at the Climate Summit to call on other leaders to keep their ambition high and to work toward a strong global framework to cut emissions.”

For the time being, the Obama administration will highlight the measures it has taken in recent months to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

And activists may be gearing up to push harder: celebrities, political leaders and the masses rallied in New York and across the globe on Sunday demanding urgent action on climate change, with organizers saying 600,000 people hit the streets.

– Ambitious 2030 goal –

In June, Obama unveiled new standards aimed at achieving a drastic reduction in carbon emissions from all existing power plants — a 30 percent reduction of 2005 levels by 2030.

But the White House has delayed addressing the difficult debate surrounding the legal nature of the agreement that 195 nations in the U.N. Convention on Climate Change will hope to reach in Paris at the end of next year.

The U.S. Constitution states that all legally binding treaties must be ratified by two thirds of the U.S. Senate, an unthinkable prospect in the current political climate. Memories of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated and signed in 1997 but never ratified by the United States, also loom large.

U.S. negotiator Stern said the terms of any new climate agreement “is a matter that is completely open for question and for discussion,” noting that in Durban in 2011 the countries had agreed only to negotiate a “protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force.”

“That is a very elastic phrase,” Stern said.

Obama’s climate team is reportedly working to put together a “politically binding” deal which would combine voluntary pledges with legally binding conditions from already existing treaties. Any such pact would avoid the need to seek ratification from the U.S. Senate.

“Unfortunately, this would be just another of many examples of the Obama administration’s tendency to abide by laws that it likes and to disregard laws it doesn’t like — and to ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree,” U.S. Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in response to reports outlining the administration’s strategy.

Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute said any international agreement faced a “very challenging road” in the United States.

“It’s also a narrow road, because for most other countries around the world, having an agreement that is legally binding is a top priority,” she said.

“They want to know that the U.S. and other countries are going to implement their commitments. It will be one of the big challenges for president Obama to navigate that with other countries.”

AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary

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United States Reveals Failed Bid To Rescue Hostages

by Jérôme Cartillier

Washington (AFP) — U.S. special forces were sent into Syria this year to try to rescue American hostages held by Islamist militants, U.S. officials said, as international revulsion mounted Thursday over the beheading of journalist James Foley.

President Barack Obama demanded that the world take action against the “cancer” of jihadist extremism after the execution of the American journalist by Islamic State militants who have seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Outraged U.S. allies have pledged to help in the battle against the Islamic State, sending in weapons and other aid to Kurdish forces fighting the extremists in northern Iraq, while Washington pressed on with air strikes.

U.S. government officials confirmed Wednesday that special forces had been sent to Syria over the summer to try to rescue people held hostage by the IS militants, reportedly including Foley.

“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within ISIL (IS),” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement, without confirming if Foley was among the captives.

“Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location.”

The White House said Obama had “authorized action at this time because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in ISIL (IS) custody.”

In the execution video, a black-clad militant said that Foley, a 40-year-old freelance journalist, was killed to avenge U.S. air strikes against IS.

The man, speaking with a British accent, then paraded a second U.S. reporter, Steven Sotloff, before the camera and said he, too, would die unless Obama changed course.

In the five-minute video, Foley is seen kneeling on the ground, dressed in an orange outfit that resembles those worn by prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

– ‘Justice must be done’ –

Foley was kidnapped in northern Syria in November 2012 and his grisly murder has provoked revulsion and condemnation across the globe.

“When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done,” Obama said Wednesday as U.S. jets continued to strike IS targets in Iraq despite the threat hanging over Sotloff.

The State Department has asked for 300 more U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq to protect U.S. facilities.

“We will be vigilant and we will be relentless… From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread,” Obama said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron broke off his holiday to convene urgent meetings of the threat posed by IS, with rising concerns about how many jihadists are walking Britain’s streets.

“We have not identified the individual responsible, but from what we have seen, it looks increasingly likely that it is a British citizen,” Cameron told reporters. “This is deeply shocking.”

Richard Barrett, former head of counterterrorism at foreign intelligence service MI6, said he believed the suspected killer would be brought to justice “sooner or later”.

Interpol has called for a global response to the Islamist militant threat, with monitors covering the conflict in Syria saying the Islamic State has more than 50,000 fighters in that country alone, including about 20,000 foreigners.

Interpol chief Ronald Noble said there should be a “multilateral response against the terror threat posed by radicalized transnational fighters traveling to conflict zones in the Middle East.”

The European Union joined international condemnation of Foley’s “outrageous” beheading.

“Such forms of terrorism constitute one of the most serious threats to international peace and security and the EU is more committed than ever to support international efforts to fight terrorism,” said a spokesman for foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Last week, EU foreign ministers held a rare summer meeting to coordinate the bloc’s response to the jihadist onslaught and gave unanimous approval to the arming of Iraqi Kurd forces by individual member states.

French President Francois Hollande has called for an international conference on tackling the Islamic State.

“If the world doesn’t organize regarding this group there will be other equally appalling images, which won’t only concern journalists, they’ve crucified people,” he said.

The president of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, described the beheading as a “new wake-up call” to the world, saying IS actions were not only “embarrassing” to Islam but “humiliating”.

– ‘Jim wouldn’t want us to hate’ –

Foley’s parents, John and Diane, paid tribute to their son and called for other hostages to be released.

“Jim would never want us to hate or be bitter. We cannot do that and we are just so very proud of Jimmy and we are praying for the strength to love like he did,” Diane said.

The scale of the threat from the Islamic State became clear in June when the group, then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, declared the dawn of a Muslim caliphate and seized control of large parts of eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

Obama reacted this month by ordering US warplanes to counter threats to US personnel in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil and to civilian refugees from Iraqi religious minority groups.

He has insisted the scope of the strikes would remain limited, but Iraqi officials and observers have argued that only foreign intervention can turn the tide on jihadist expansion in Iraq.

Shiite militias, federal soldiers, Kurdish troops, and Sunni Arab tribes have been battling IS for weeks in some areas but have been unable to clinch a decisive victory.

AFP Photo

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Obama Walks Fine Line On Racial Issues

By Jerome Cartillier

Washington (AFP) — Under a photo of Barack Obama carried by demonstrators in a town rocked by racially-charged protests, the appeal to America’s first black president is loud and clear: “Please come now.”

The poster is among those waved by demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white policeman nine days ago, touching off days of unrest.

It summarizes, in part, the huge hopes stirred in the African-American community by Obama’s historic election win.

But it also touches on a question that has loomed large since Obama took power in 2009: should he get more directly involved when a local incident raises the issue of racism.

The United States is a country where segregation was abolished only half a century ago in some southern states, but now has a black president walking a fine line on still highly-charged issues.

Obama spoke out Monday on the latest unrest.

In a carefully worded speech, he urged law enforcement forces to show restraint and the demonstrators to avoid violence, which he said weakens any quest for justice more than it strengthens it.

– ‘Gulf of mistrust’ –

But when he was asked whether he planned a personal intervention in a drama that has gripped the nation for more than a week, Obama appeared to rule out anything so dramatic as a visit to Ferguson.

Nevertheless, clearly uncomfortable, he did address broader issues.

“As Americans we’ve got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment,” he said.

“I’ve said this before, in too many communities a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” he added.

“In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.”

But he also warned that fighting racial discrimination is a long term project that America has been working on for 200 years, as if to play down the idea that he alone can be some kind of savior.

Since the end of his first term, Obama, elected thanks to strong support from minorities, has warned against expecting too much.

“I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in April 2012.

– Time for a strong message –

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the legal arm of America’s largest civil rights group, said it was right for the president to keep a certain distance from day-to-day events.

“We have to be very careful about getting addicted to asking the president to speak into every moment,” she said.

Ifill added that the White House in recent days has supported a federal civil rights probe of the Ferguson killing and a separate autopsy separate from the one being done by local authorities.

During the campaign leading up to his first presidential victory, Obama did address relations between African-Americans and whites.

In a speech in March 2008 amid controversy over divisive remarks made his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. Obama said racism is a problem that the United States cannot afford to ignore.

But, after he took power, things got off to a messy start.

In July 2009, Obama was forced to apologize after he labeled as “stupid” the arrest of a black friend and speculated over racial motivations, without having all the facts in hand.

A turning point came in the case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black male shot dead in February 2012 in Florida by a member of a civilian anti-crime patrol while walking in residential neighborhood.

After a trial in which the defendant was acquitted, having pleaded self defense, Obama spoke in very personal terms.

While not criticizing the verdict, he spoke of the “pain” the decision caused among blacks. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said.

Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St Louis chapter of the NAACP, said events in Ferguson justified Obama turning “his focus on dealing with the plight of the disenfranchised population of this country.”

“Now is the time for an extremely strong message to be put out,” Pruitt said. “Now some of the focus has to be shifted to the people who are Michael Brown’s neighbors.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Clinton’s Obama Balancing Act As 2016 Looms

By Jerome Cartillier

Washington (AFP) — President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton broke bread, trying to defuse a bitter row over foreign policy as the former U.S. secretary of state eyes a possible 2016 bid for the White House.

But aides did not immediately confirm whether the pair had indeed taken part in a highly anticipated conciliatory hug before 150 guests at a dinner on Martha’s Vineyard that was closed to the press.

“A good time was had by all,” said White House deputy spokesman Eric Schultz.

“The president and first lady also were happy to have the chance to spend time with secretary Clinton and former president (Bill) Clinton,” Schultz said on Wednesday.

After a ferociously bitter battle with Obama for the 2008 Democratic presidential ticket, Clinton was a loyal lieutenant in the president’s first administration before she stepped down in 2013.

But the increasing probability of a Clinton presidential bid will place the 66-year-old’s relationship with Obama under scrutiny.

So far Clinton has remained silent on her intentions, yet all of her actions — a series of lectures, a tour to promote her latest memoir, media appearances — appear calibrated towards a 2016 campaign.

Clinton’s attempts to map out a distinct vision of what her administration may look like — and how it would differ from the incumbent’s — however risks causing cracks in her relationship with Obama.

The first sign of discord emerged this week when, in an interview with the magazine The Atlantic, Clinton blamed failures of U.S. policy under Obama for the rise of Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria.

Clinton, who as Obama’s chief diplomat was an unsuccessful advocate of arming moderate Syrian rebels, said the failure to do so had “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

She had made similar statements in her memoir published in June, but the tone of her latest comments, coming when Obama is struggling with his lowest ever approval ratings while grappling with foreign policy crises in Ukraine and Iraq, set Washington abuzz.

Clinton also raised eyebrows by echoing Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, famously encapsulated in the unofficial slogan used by his staff: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton said.

– Stinging response –

The response from the Obama camp was stinging, with David Axelrod, the mastermind of Obama’s 2008 election triumph, remarking pithily on Twitter: “Just to clarify: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.”

Axelrod’s barbed message to Clinton, one of several Democratic senators who backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and who has since stated it was a mistake, was loud and clear: do not tread on the toes of the 44th President of the United States, two and a half years before his departure from office.

Clinton’s camp swiftly sought to extinguish the war of words, with Clinton herself calling Obama during his vacation in Massachusetts to assure the U.S. leader that “nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership,” according to her spokesman Nick Merrill.

Clinton, Merrill said, was looking forward to “hugging it out” with Obama when they met at the soiree in Martha’s Vineyard hosted by Vernon Jordan, a former advisor to Bill Clinton.

The exchange highlights the balancing act Clinton will have to deal with if she does decide to run in 2016 — how to set herself apart from Obama without it looking like calculated political opportunism.

In a rare joint interview in 2013, the two former rivals insisted they were close friends.

“I consider Hillary a strong friend,” Obama said. Clinton, describing her friendship with Obama as “very warm” added: “I think there’s a sense of understanding that, you know, sometimes doesn’t even take words because we have similar views.”

But the next two years, where every comment emanating from the Clinton and Obama camps will be dissected and pored over in detail, could test the “warmth” of their friendship.

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

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Trade To Dominate As Obama Welcomes African Leaders

By Jerome Cartillier

Washington (AFP) – President Barack Obama will welcome African leaders at an unprecedented summit in Washington on Monday with all eyes on the continent as it battles the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in history.

Forging stronger economic ties between the United States and Africa is the main aim of the three-day summit, with U.S. officials keen to boost links with a continent projected by the International Monetary Fund to see 5.8 percent growth in 2014.

While the focus is on trade, with Obama last year describing Africa as “the world’s next major economic success story,” Washington has also vowed to ensure issues such as security, governance, and human rights are on the agenda.

The United States currently lags in third place in the trade standings with Africa, far behind the European Union in first and China in second.

The White House insists that its initiative is in no way a belated response to China’s growing investment and influence across the continent over the past decade.

It is clear, however, that China’s emergence in Africa is at the forefront of American minds.

“My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai, but that there’s an ability for the African governments to shape how this infrastructure is going to benefit them in the long term,” Obama said in an interview with The Economist on Friday.

The extension of AGOA, the U.S. program that grants commercial advantages to certain African products, and “Power Africa,” a scheme to double access to electricity to sub-Saharan Africa will also figure in discussions.

Drawing up a list of invites for the summit has proved delicate. Only four nations were left off the guest list — the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Nevertheless, the longtime leaders of Equatorial Guinea (Teodoro Obiang Nguema), Cameroon (Paul Biya), and Angola (Jose Eduardo dos Santos) have all received an invitation.

Human Rights Watch urged Obama to raise the issue of human rights, particularly in the case of Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema.

“Instead of giving him propaganda opportunities, President Obama should press for an end to torture, corruption, and other abuses that are rife in Equatorial Guinea,” said the group’s Lisa Misol.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni will also be in Washington, despite recent criticism of an anti-homosexuality law that triggered an international outcry and U.S. sanctions. Uganda’s constitutional court overturned the law on Friday.

– Fight against Boko Haram –

Security discussions are expected to focus on the threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the repeated attacks by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, the civil war in South Sudan, and terror attacks in Kenya by Shebab militants.

For Obama, a central topic of the summit will be “finding ways to strengthen peacekeeping and conflict-resolution efforts by Africans.”

Before heading to Washington, Cameroon’s Biya said he hoped the meeting would be an opportunity to discuss a regional strategy with Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to combat the rise of Boko Haram.

“An international terrorist movement requires an international strategy,” Biya said.

Yet it is the public health crisis caused by the Ebola outbreak — which has left more than 700 people dead in west Africa — that could take center stage.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Sierra Leone counterpart Ernest Bai Koroma both scrapped plans to head to Washington as the two nations battle the worst outbreak of the disease in history.

Obama has said delegations from African nations affected by the outbreak will be subjected to precautionary health screenings upon arrival in the United States, even if there is only an “a marginal risk, or an infinitesimal risk” of exposure to the disease.

While no bilateral meetings are planned, with US officials citing logistical and diplomatic headaches, a lavish banquet will be held at the White House on Tuesday evening.

Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who declined an invitation to Washington, will be one of the notable absentees.

Peter Pham, Africa director at the Atlantic Council think tank, said the summit could provide an opportunity for Obama, the son of an American mother and African father, to reshape American attitudes toward the continent.

“There is a historic opportunity if the summit can begin to change perception of Africa in the United States,” Pham said.

“Much of the attention given to Africa in the United States is attention given to conflict, poverty, disease.”

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

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