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Obama stresses Asia-Pacific’s importance as he announces increased military presence in Australia

President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during a visit to Royal Australian Air Force Base in Darwin, Australia, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

As the U.S. reduces its military presence in the Middle East, it is sharpening its focus on the Asia-Pacific – a major shift that will shape the U.S.’s foreign policy agenda in the coming years. President Obama made this much clear during his visit to Australia this week with his announcement that the U.S. would deploy 2,500 troops to the country by 2016 – which has put China in an uncomfortable position.

“With most of the world’s nuclear powers and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress,” Obama said in a speech to Canberra’s Parliament Thursday in Australia.

While the President affirmed a continuation of the U.S.’s strong alliance with Australia, he offered careful words over the future of the U.S.-Sino relationship, indicating that while the U.S. welcomes “the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China,” it would keep a watchful eye on China as the region’s dominant power.

 “We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation,” President Obama said. “We will do this, even as continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”

Plans to strengthen American military presence in the region have perturbed China, whose increasing strength has already been reshaping the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. troops remain stationed at military bases in Japan –a highly contentious subject for many Japanese citizens – and South Korea, and an added military presence in Australia has already evoked fears of “encirclement” in Beijing.

Although the Chinese government has not expressed a strong reaction to Obama’s decision publicly, there are several indications of dismay.  An editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper owned by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, declared, “The U.S. is carrying out smart power diplomacy that takes China as its target in Asia. Stopping it is not realistic, but it is equally unrealistic to expect China to stand idly by and indulge Asian countries as they join the U.S. alliance to guard against China one by one.”

China’s economic and military prowess has made it a formidable player in regional politics, notably in the currently brewing territorial disputes over access to the South China Sea. China has laid to claim to vast areas of the resource-rich South China Sea, but several others – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – have also made sovereignty claims. The region’s inability to resolve this question of sovereignty has resulted in naval flare-ups in recent months, despite the U.S. urging all parties to seek a peaceful resolution.  

In his speech, President Obama also emphasized that the current debate over cutting the Pentagon’s budget would not have an effect on the U.S.’s plans to expand its presence in the region. “Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

Occupy movement at a crossroads as evictions spread

Occupy Wall Street protesters were still in Zuccotti Park Wednesday morning, but without their tents after Police removed them during a raid on Tuesday. Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

In several ways, the Occupy Wall Street movement has gained more momentum and publicity than many had dreamed possible. Occupy protests have cropped up nationwide, credit unions recently saw a boom in business, and inequality and mounting student debt have made their way into the national conversation.  

Now, with local municipal governments’ patience wearing thin, that momentum seems to be slowing. City governments, faced with growing tent cities and reports of health and safety violations, made major moves this week to evict protesters after weeks of tenuously assessing the trajectory of the movement. Police in Portland, Oregon, made mass arrests in the Occupy Portland camp on Sunday. In Oakland, after last month’s violent raid on Occupy Oakland protesters, police finally cleared the Frank Ogawa plaza early Monday morning. Shortly after, on Tuesday morning, the New York Police Department cleared protesters from the Occupy movement’s origin, Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

Is this the beginning of the end for the Occupy movement? Several observers asked this question as the crackdowns began to spread this week. In New York, protesters were allowed back into Zuccotti Park Tuesday evening, but a state Supreme Court ruling upheld the city’s ban on overnight camping. Oakland protesters have largely moved to support the burgeoning movement at UC Berkeley, which faced its own crackdown by university police last week.

In general, far more Americans identify with the sentiment of Occupy Wall Street – that income inequality has run rampant, Wall Street banks should be held accountable for their role in the financial crisis and that the American dream is declining – than agree with the tactics of the Occupy protests, which in several cases have put the movement at odds with local businesses and city governments. With winter fast approaching and the rift between protesters and city officials widening, calls from within the movement to shift gears are growing louder.

One push has been for Occupiers to move out of outdoor spaces and into foreclosed homes, where they would be able to make a clearer statement of protest against the financial practices that led to the housing crisis. In California, the Occupy Oakland group has formally proposed moving into foreclosed homes and vacant properties around the city. The tactic has already received support from one Congresswoman, Marcy Kaptor (D-OH), who encouraged the protesters to squat in their own homes that had been foreclosed. In several cities, including Atlanta, Cleveland and Tucson, Occupy protesters have banded together at homes about to be foreclosed and at auctions of foreclosed houses.

And even before Occupy sites began to face shutdowns, protest organizers called for an International Day of Action for Thursday, with planned marches and occupations of banks, bridges, subways and college campuses worldwide.

But for the most part, the Occupy movement is at a crossroads over how best to keep its message resonating with the 99 percent – and keeping the focus on its goals, rather than the logistics of its operations. At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson articulates this need:

To persuasively argue for these things does not require a permanent home base cobbled together from camping tents in a private park. If Occupy Wall Street is ultimately about where protesters can and cannot physically be, then it’s already sacrificed macro strategy for logistical tactics. OWS has its newspeg. It’s time to write the larger story. To get moving again, Occupy Wall Street doesn’t need to re-pitch its tents. It needs a bigger tent.

The Penn State riots, the 99 percent and the powerful psychology of group identity

A lot of what we talk about these days, whether in the social or political realms, has to do with group identity. Republican primary voters are casting about for a candidate who qualifies as a “true conservative.” Disaffected middle and working-class Americans are banding together as the “99 percent.” And, in the most jarring example, students at Penn State have rioted over the firing over their beloved football coach, Joe Paterno.

What does that last item have to do with group-think? As it turns out, everything. To the rest of the world, it was shocking and unseemly for students to protest the firing of their football coach after he was accused of turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children by one of his assistants. The behavior of those students seemed to fly in the face of our most basic notions of morality, accountability and justice.

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International community ratchets up pressure on Syria. Is intervention the next step?

Pro-regime demonstrators gathered in Damascus on Sunday to protest the Arab League's vote to suspend Syria over its bloody crackdown on the country's eight-month-old uprising. Photo: AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi

In one of the most surprising developments of Syria’s 8-month-old uprising, King Abdullah of Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, became the first Arab leader Monday to publicly call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Jordan has itself experienced murmurs of political discontent in recent months, and King Abdullah’s remarks, in an interview with the BBC, were perhaps the strongest indication yet that the protests roiling the Arab world have shaken the region’s leaders.

King Abdullah’s remarks come just days after the notoriously fractious Arab League came together in a rare, nearly unanimous vote over the weekend to suspend Syria’s membership in the body, after the Assad regime was found to have blatantly violated an October ceasefire agreement. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, released a report documenting systematic attacks on civilians and suggesting that the Assad regime should be investigated for crimes against humanity.

The developments have ratcheted up the international pressure on the Syrian government, which has killed more than 3,500 people in a bloody, protracted crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. The Arab League said it planned to impose political and economic sanctions on the Syrian government in its harshest rebuke yet, joining Western nations such as the United States and United Kingdom in calling for the violence to stop.

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What to do about Syria? The brutality continues, even as the world spotlight fades

Cel phone photo of Syrian anti-regime protesters at a rally in al-Assy square in Hama last July. Photo: AP/Shaam News Network

Remember Syria?

Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have all had their turns in the international spotlight, and their leaders are now moving forward, however precariously, with plans to build democratic institutions and establish the rule of law. But in Syria, even as the spiral of violence has worsened, the crimes of the Assad regime have faded from the headlines, and from the dossiers of Western officials.

Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch wrote in testimony submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that more than 3,500 people have been killed in the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on protests in cities like Homs and Hama. Snipers have targeted civilians from rooftops, soldiers have sprayed bullets indiscriminately into funeral processions, and tens of thousands of civilians have been jailed, tortured or simply vanished.

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New bill would allow unemployment pay for entrepreneurs

Alexis Peterka (right) is a participant in Oregon's Self Employment Assistance Program. It allows her to collect unemployment benefits for six months while she works full-time on her own start-up company, Stayhound, a service that helps locate pet care providers.

Last week Need to Know reported on a small program in Oregon that allows unemployed workers to start their own businesses while receiving unemployment insurance, instead of looking for a new job. The Self-Employment Assistance Program, which has been in existence since 1993, has been very successful in Oregon – an estimated 77 percent of businesses started under the program are still running. But the program, which also operates in six other states in addition to Oregon, is very small in scope.

The law caps the number of participants at 5 percent of a state’s total unemployment beneficiaries, and in 2009, there were fewer than 2,500 SEA participants nationwide. In addition, SEA participants have to be identified as likely to exhaust their benefits and engaged full time in entrepreneurial activity while receiving benefits.

But some lawmakers think expanding SEA could be part of a solution to the nation’s unemployment crisis. Today, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the Startup Technical Assistance for Reemployment Training and Unemployment Prevention (STARTUP) Act (pdf) to expand self-employment assistance programs.

The bill would allow the long-term unemployed to take advantage of the program. Currently, SEA participants are not eligible to use the program during extended or emergency unemployment periods, which have been extended to 99 weeks in many states. Instead, SEA is only available for the first 26 weeks of unemployment. The STARTUP Act would allow an unemployment beneficiary to use 26 weeks of funds for self-employment assistance at any point during their eligibility. The bill would also incentivize every state to offer the program, providing technical assistance from the Labor Department and authorizing $35 million in state grants over the next three years to establish, implement, improve, and administer the programs.

Sen. Wyden, who was one of the architects of the original SEA legislation as a House Member in the early 1990s, said in a release that “being unemployed isn’t always a bad thing. For some of the nation’s most successful entrepreneurs, losing a job was an opportunity to start something new. But starting a new business takes time and focus which the current unemployment rules don’t provide.”

“By offering more workers access to this underutilized program, this bill will not only ensure that more Americans will find jobs but it will also help generate growth by fostering the next generation of startups that make our communities and economy stronger,” said Sen. Carper, who oversaw Delaware’s participation in the SEA program while governor.

But in a highly partisan Congress, the prospect for passing legislation related to the SEA program may not be easy. President Obama’s American Jobs Act also included language to expand SEA programs, but that bill stalled in the Senate last month. But the extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits, which will expire at the end of this year if no action is taken by Congress, may be one possible vehicle for passage of this new bill, according to Tom Caiazza, a spokesperson for Sen. Wyden.

Should the police be able to track your every move? Supreme Court grapples with GPS surveillance case

If you have a cell phone, you can be tracked. Your Blackberry, your iPhone — even your antique non-Internet-enabled handheld — is constantly seeking out cell towers, essentially letting your service provider know where you are, several times a minute. Smart phones also use GPS to help you with everything from driving directions to discovering restaurants to tracking your friends’ movements in real time. Consumers have come to rely on these location-specific services. Cell phone tracking is simply a part of our lives.

But what if it wasn’t just cell phones? What if your car, your clothes, your briefcase, your wallet, could be tracked, at any time, for any reason? What if data about your movements could be used to deduce sensitive personal information, like who you meet for lunch, what social or political groups you belong to, whether you’re faithful to your spouse? What if the ones doing the tracking weren’t cell phone companies, but government officials? And what if they could track you surreptitiously, without your knowledge?

If this scenario seems far-fetched, it isn’t. Not only is it possible, but if the federal government gets its way, it may actually come to pass.

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As Mississippi votes on ‘personhood’ amendment, can science tell us when life begins?

Update | 10:28 a.m. Mississippi voters rejected the personhood amendment Tuesday, with more than 55 percent voting against the measure.

Mississippi voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide on a proposed constitutional amendment that would redefine the term “person” to mean “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” At the minimum, the amendment would ban abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest. Critics also contend that the language is so broad and vague that the measure would also end up outlawing some forms of birth control and fertility procedures.

Opponents of abortion say the measure is designed to give legal rights to prenatal children. Abortion rights advocates allege that the Mississippi measure is just the latest in a series of back-door attempts at eroding women’s reproductive rights, enshrined in law by the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade. In recent years, several states have passed laws requiring women who seek abortions to first view sonograms of their fetuses. South Dakota even briefly flirted with a bill that would have made killing to “defend” a fetus a “justifiable homicide.”

Whatever the intended consequences of the so-called Mississippi personhood amendment, it’s almost certain that the measure will face an immediate and protracted court challenge, possibly winding up in the Supreme Court. It’s hard to tell whether the high court would take the case. On the one hand, the justices historically tend to consider cases that deal with laws that have been deemed unconstitutional by lower courts, or issues of national significance. On the other hand, the overly broad language of the amendment might become the courts’ focus, pre-empting the larger constitutional questions.

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Iran may be much closer to nuclear weapons than we thought. What happens next?

Iran has begun its own production of carbon fiber, a material under U.N. embargo because of its potential use in the country's nuclear program. Photo: AP Photo/ISNA, Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh

Is Iran closer to nuclear weapons than we think?

That’s the gist of a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to news reports. The Guardian, a British newspaper, wrote last week that the report from the international nuclear watchdog was expected to reveal new evidence that the Iranian nuclear weapons program was further along than previously thought. And this week, The Washington Post has added new details to those reports, alleging that Iran received assistance from foreign scientists and may have been hiding the money behind its rogue uranium enrichment program in civilian institutions.

Much remains unknown about the intelligence contained in the IAEA’s assessment, but the report is almost certain to add to the crisis atmosphere surrounding the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, especially as it relates to Israel. Israelis, already unnerved by the political upheaval roiling the Arab world, have been furiously debating the possibility of a missile strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli public remains sharply divided over the wisdom of such an attack. But most Israelis seem to agree that a strike on Iran would plunge Israel into war with Hamas in Gaza and possibly Hezbollah in Lebanon, adding a lit match to the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

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