Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why Library Funding is Important

Image courtesy of Fotalia

Image courtesy of Fotalia

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review features editor

Without libraries, opposable thumbs may be one of the few things separating us from supposed lower life forms. So when city and state governments nationwide begin cutting budgets, and one of their first choices is often associated with libraries and media centers (which, by extension, means educating young people), we should be concerned. If the world faces serious problems, don’t you think it would be nice to educate the next generation so they at least might have hope for a better life?

“Library funding behavior is driven by attitudes and beliefs, not by demographics,” according to a report by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC; formerly known as the Ohio College Library Center). “Voters’ perceptions of the role the library plays in their lives and in their communities are more important determinants of their willingness to increase funding than their age, gender, race, political affiliation, life stage or income level. The more that can be learned about library perceptions, the better the chances of constructing a successful library support campaign to improve library funding.”

Libraries continue to meet society’s changing needs, despite dealing with recession-driven financial constrictions and federal neglect, according to National Center for Education Statistics. Numerous school libraries face elimination or de-professionalization of programs, the study stated. Most libraries would be thrilled to remain relevant and keep their doors open, with a recent independent national survey showing that 90 percent of respondents said libraries are important to communities, according to the American Library Association.

These and numerous other library trends studied throughout the past year were discussed in the ALA’s 2014 State of America’s Libraries report, which was released during National Library Week this past April.

The majority of federal library program funds are distributed through the Institute of Museum and Library Services to each state. The Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) is part of the annual Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations bill. The ALA’s Washington office spearheads numerous activities, which include lobbying for LSTA funds, communicating with Congress concerning funding for federal libraries, the Library of Congress, the National Agricultural Library and the National Library of Medicine, among others.

ALA representatives seek funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, along with backing the causes of adult education and literacy. They also push for libraries to become involved in education programs, including those for early childhood education.

The majority of library funds come from state and local sources, but federal funding provides critical assistance, giving libraries nationwide financial support needed to serve communities. The amount of funding a library receives is directly proportional to quality of services.

Federal support for libraries has been falling the past several years, capped by severe funding cuts to LSTA and many other vital programs, even forcing some facilities to close. The ALA closely monitors numerous programs, because libraries are interrelated with education, the humanities, the arts and other social functions.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and related agencies (Labor-HHS-Education), marked up FY 2015 on June 10. This spending bill includes several important programs including LSTA and Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL). It funds LSTA at $180.9 million, which matches this year’s totals. IAL level funded within the bill’s report language, thus funding the program at $25 million for FY 2015. At least half the money appropriated to IAL must be set aside for a competitive grant for low-income school libraries.

The bill provides $156,773,000,000 in base discretionary budget authority, matching the FY 2014 level, while including $1,484,000,000 in cap adjustment funding, a $560,000,000 increase to prevent waste, fraud, abuse and improper payments in the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs.

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, had high hopes that the legislation would improve education in America.

“This is the bill that invests in America and allows us to respond to the changing needs of our country, all within a difficult budget,” he said. “I am particularly encouraged that the bill directs funding to investments in high-quality early childhood care and education, which have been proven to have positive, lasting effects on children and families.

“The bill also invests in programs that support working families and contains funding that allows for an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award,” Harkin said, “which is critical for expanding access to higher education. All in all, this bill takes a thoughtful approach to funding these critical programs because this bill funds America’s priorities; it is the bill in which we invest in our future.”

Related Thursday Review articles: How a College Library Thrives in a Digital Age; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 18, 2014.

New Yorkers Challenge Plan to Gut Landmark Library; Thursday Review; May 14, 2014.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles about libraries in the digital age; future segments will include looks inside public libraries, large and small; as well as other media center venues. – See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/LibraryFunding.html#sthash.993LE9SZ.dpuf

A Looming War at Sea?

Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Defense

Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Defense

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published August 11, 2014) As if the United States and its closest allies did not have enough international tension to contend with around the world—including violence between Israel and Hamas, fighting between Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev and militant forces with a paternal kinship with Moscow, and intense violence between ISIS and those ethnic and religious groups in its path in a rapidly-fragmenting—now there are worries about rising tensions in the South China Sea.

It’s an old beef, as they say.

Dating back to unresolved issues at the end of World War II—and to lines drawn by the Chinese in 1947 on maps and atlases—the nasty disagreements center upon competing claims to sea lanes and territorial waters, islands and reefs. China has begun to exert its long-maintained claim to the areas in question. But according to the Philippines and Vietnam, China is in violation of their sovereign lands, and the two smaller countries say that most international authorities recognize the islands as belonging to the former countries, not to China.

Despite protests and frequent complaints in international venues, China has built oil rigs, installed drilling platforms, constructed lighthouses, installed radar and high tech geo-positioning equipment, and even placed military hardware in areas which belong to the Philippines or to Vietnam. One area in dispute: the Paracel Islands, long considered Vietnamese territory but claimed since 1947 by China. Another source of friction is several of the Spratly Islands, widely-recognized by the United Nations as Philippine outposts, but now in a state of de facto annexation by China, where construction of radar stations and lighthouses is already taking place.

And for some of the Spratly Islands, it can get even more complicated. Other countries also have an ax to grind about who can claim which island as their own. Some of the Spratly’s are also contested by Malaysia, Taiwan (the Republic of China) and Brunei.

At issue is what is known as The Nine Dashed Line, or, in some international circles, The Nine Dotted Line. It’s one of those annoyingly complicated disputes—like the bitter contest between India and Pakistan over parts of the “Northern Areas,” the rugged, mountainous region south of Hindu Kush and north of Kashmir, only in this case without the heavy artillery and without the nuke-tipped rockets.

Here’s the short version. At the height of Imperial Japan’s reach, all the areas in question were controlled by Japanese military forces. After Japan’s surrender, and based on agreements and treaties signed in Cairo and at Potsdam, the Republic of China (as it was then called) re-claimed its authority over the Paracels, the Pratas, and some of the Spratlys. The Kuomintang government published maps and atlases which showed these areas as part of China. Later, after revolution reshaped China into the People’s Republic of China, the top brass in Beijing co-opted the same claims to the same islands. The new communist authorities in Beijing simply ignored Taiwan (then the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-shek) and steamrolled over its claims to any of the islands. Thus a dashed line hand-drawn by Zhou Enlai in 1947 still affects the world to this day.

But China’s claim of a wide net of authority over the Paracels and the Spratlys has been a source of tension, off and on, for years.

The Philippines, a close U.S. ally, has long complained of China’s bullying in the area, but its worries have grown more acute now that China has begun to develop and build on the islands. A few of the islands contain tourist and resort activity, but many are undeveloped or lightly developed, and all have important strategic value to the countries involved in the dispute. China’s construction of radar stations, geo-positioning hardware, radio and communications towers, lighthouses, and naval watchtowers is of deep concern to the governments of both Vietnam and the Philippines.

There have been protests and even riots in Vietnam over what the Southeast Asian country sees as deliberate encroachment on its island territories. The Philippines have taken a more proactive—if not anemic—approach, resorting to deliberately grounding old, mothballed, and retired battleships on some of the reefs in the Spratly’s. On board these rusting hulks reside detachments of Filipino Marines and Navy specialists whose sole job is to survey the waters for the presence of Chinese military or construction vessels. The marines take turns scanning the horizon, reporting all ship activity back to commanders in Manila. Chinese military ships—bristling with high-tech surveillance gear and beefed-up with heavy weaponry—often circle such Filipino outposts. The Philippine marines are heavily armed and specially-trained, but most military analysts in the U.S. and the U.K. concede that the Filipino forces—dedicated and motivated though they are—would be no match for Chinese naval forces should there be an actual confrontation on one of those islands or reefs.

The Filipino marines eat mostly their own catch of fish and seafood, and make do with supplies–including fruits and vegetables–brought in periodically by small boat or via airlift. Beginning in 2012, according to the Filipinos, Chinese naval ships began making the task of bringing in supplies much more difficult by blocking passage of delivery boats. For the Chinese military, it has become a war of attrition and time. Some Chinese policy analysts say that China clearly hopes that the Philippines will grow tired of defending the tiny islands.

The problem of the Spratly’s is another in a series of mostly unexpected and unwanted international flashpoints for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. With much of the Middle East in crisis, and with humanitarian disasters unfolding in Gaza, Iraq and the Ukraine, the possibility of a shooting war—even limited in scale—between competing forces in the South China Sea is a worrisome scenario. U.S. relations with China have alternated between modestly-effective to below-effective for decades, especially on the issue of military matters. China quietly backs North Korea in a dangerous stalemate which dates to 1956, and U.S. relations with China have never fully recovered after the events in Tiananmen Square.

Military tensions have also been raised between China and its neighbor to the south, Vietnam. When a large oil rig was set up near Vietnam late last year, construction and drilling vessels were accompanied by a massive contingent of Chinese navy and air force personnel—destroyers, gunboats, and even heavily-armed aircraft. When Vietnamese forces attempted to intercede, they were harassed by aircraft, and the smaller boats bombarded by water cannons. Both sides in that brief conflict blamed the other for the incident.

For China and the other countries involved in the dispute, the core issue may be economic. Many of these tiny islands sit adjacent to—or in the path of—critically important shipping lanes. And in a world increasingly interconnected through trade and commerce, there will be winners and losers when it comes to the traffic on those seas. But the military consequences are not to be overlooked either. China has for over a decade been engaged in flexing its muscle in Asia, most especially on the high seas. Chinese leaders see a clear strategic advantage in controlling airspace and naval lanes along its enormous coastline and south into the South China Sea. Furthermore, in a global economy hungry for more sources of energy, China is seeking to exert its maximum sphere of influence in areas rich in oil under the seabed—and the South China Sea is ideal for drilling.

At a recent meeting of the Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar, where representatives of scores of Asian nations met to discuss Pacific Rim business, a proposal by the Philippines (backed by the U.S. and European Union, as well as Australia) to de-escalate the crisis and draw up a territorial agreement which can be later endorsed by the United Nations was rejected out-of-pocket by the Chinese. China said it would not engage in any discussion of its claims to the Paracel Islands or the Spratly Islands. And though China has been vague on what it intends to build on some of the islands and reefs, most intelligence experts say that the Chinese goal is to construct a sophisticated net of tracking technology and detection equipment across the South China Sea.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the forum, and encouraged all parties in the territorial dispute to try to come to a working agreement.

“…We’re encouraging claimant states,” said Kerry, “to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions.” Translation: countries with an ax to grind over the disputed islands need to reduce the fevers and the tempers, lest a war begin.

The Philippines is a close ally of the United States, as well as Britain. In essence, the U.S. would quickly side with the Philippines if violence erupts. But most foreign policy experts and some U.S. military analysts question just how much the U.S. could do to intervene in such a conflict. Nevertheless, joint exercises with U.S. forces alongside Filipino forces have been taking place in a variety of South China Sea locations, and in the Philippines. A few of the recent exercises have been conducted in secret on remote beaches along Palawan and on smaller islands. Other military exercises have taken place in plain view of civilian populations, a way to signal Chinese officials that there is in fact a plan in place in case there is a confrontation or a shooting war.

In Vietnam, the problem has become a domestic tempest. After news reports in May that the Chinese had completed construction of oil wells, oil rigs, and permanent concrete docks in waters near the Paracels, riots broke out in several cities in Vietnam, with violence directed at Chinese residents. Five people died in the rioting, and over 100 more were injured. The rioting had begun as mass peaceful demonstrations in Hanoi, but the tone and harshness of the language quickly escalated over the course of several days, leading to looting and burning of shops and homes owned by Chinese business people, and rioting in industrial areas where Chinese manufacturing facilities are concentrated. Though some of the protests were also based on economic grievances, the presence of Chinese military and commercial facilities on islands claimed by Vietnam—as well as in territorial waters—has fueled anti-Chinese sentiments in several cities. The violence in late May became so bad that the Chinese government urged some business people to leave Vietnam, and evacuated those with jobs connected to the Chinese government.

China does not recognize Vietnam’s claims to the Paracel Islands, and has—since 1948—called the small island group the Xisha Islands. Chinese maps show both the Paracels and the Spratlys as being in Chinese waters. The government in Hanoi has requested that China sit down for talks in an impartial venue to discuss the dispute, but China has so far not budged on the issue.

There have been no riots in the Philippines, but the Philippine government has complained officially to the United Nations (and other international bodies) that Chinese militarily ships and construction vessels have repeatedly violated its territorial waters, even as close as Palawan.

China and Vietnam fought a brief war over the Paracel Islands in 1974, and there were additional skirmishes in the islands during the Sino-Vietnamese War, which was fought primarily along the border between China and northern Vietnam in 1979.

Related Thursday Review articles:

One Crisis at a Time; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 17, 2014.

No Conflict is Local, No War Regional; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2014. – See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SouthChinaSea.html#sthash.DrVH3H8q.dpuf

Sanctions Talk, Money Walks

Art for Thursday Review by Rob Shields

Art for Thursday Review by Rob Shields

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Many member states of the European Union have been reluctant to sign on wholeheartedly to U.S. sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s interference in the Ukraine. After all, several European countries have faced tough times as a result of recession and austerity programs. And to make matters more challenging, some of these same countries engage in a lot of business with Russia—and European dependence on Russian oil and gas places energy at the top of the list of concerns when U.S. President Barack Obama talks of ratcheting-up the heat on Vladimir Putin.

Germany alone did roughly $88 billion is trade with Russia in 2013, and a fourth of that is oil and gas. Norway has one of the world’s largest investment funds, at nearly $900 billion, and a significant share of that investment portfolio is in Russia. Poland, France, Italy and Spain all engage in billions of dollars’ worth of trade with Russian banks and businesses, and even the Netherlands—for whom almost half of the passengers of MH-17 called home—has significant business relationships with Russia. All told, trade between Russia and its two dozen European neighbors to the west totals, by some estimates, more than $2 trillion a year. Disrupting those markets in times of tepid recovery and in a period of debt crisis can be economically painful.

So discussion of harsher sanctions has, up to a few days ago, been the exclusive narrative of Obama and his spokespersons, and leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel have remained circumspect, to say the least.

But the downing of a Malaysian jetliner carrying 298 passengers has changed all of that.

When that Boeing 737 was shot out of the skies over war-torn eastern Ukraine, downed apparently by a missile system built in Russia and operated by pro-Russian militants on the ground, many European leaders realized that they could no longer take the middle path while leaving the toughest of tough talk to the Americans.

Since the Ukrainian crisis began seven months ago, tensions between Russia and the U.S. have been strained—a tension so chilly that many have compared the situation to the frosty, grey days of the Cold War. What began in winter as a mostly peaceful protest against Kiev’s pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych—a guy who won an election which many say was rigged, Soviet-style—turned violent at the very moment that Putin was basking in the glow of playing host to the Winter Olympics. Yanukovych was ousted, along with his steamer trunks of cash and his bags of gold. But things quickly became worse, much worse. Russian-inspired insurrection followed, with heavily-armed separatists taking over dozens of towns east of the Dnieper River, and Russia annexing the Crimea region after a snap referendum.

What was at first a slow-moving counter-revolution escalated into what is now all-out war, with the militants gaining access to increasingly heavy, high-tech weaponry—including the very BuK-11 rocket system which is alleged to have been used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner.

Along the way, as the fighting has increased on a steady basis, Obama and his closest allies (read: the United Kingdom) have sought to put pressure on Putin. This pressure has come in varying forms, including Putin’s expulsion from the G8, and a steady diet of unpleasant economic sanctions. Putin, the calculating, icy KGB field officer, has sought to brush aside the sanctions, even retorting with a few of his own. But in the EU, talk of a campaign of outright economic isolation against Moscow has for months sent shudders along spines—or, at the very least, spurred guarded language from European leaders reticent to put their already-precarious economies back into recession mode. Russia has used oil and gas as leverage before, including as recently as 2009, when it cut off the Ukraine in retaliation for political and market moves Putin deemed too western.

But the downing of that commercial jetliner on July 17 may have changed attitudes in dozens of countries, and given some European leaders a new reality to consider. The use of a battlefield rocket to kill innocent civilians was a horror, but for many Europeans, the specter of watching armed militants bar emergency services personnel and crash investigators from the site of the wreckage was too much, and the unseemly handling of the crash victims’ bodies (even now, many have not been located or recovered) turned a tragedy into a nightmare. Putin’s stone-faced, stolid response to the incident sent a chill through many in Europe.

Putin is a power player. But Putin answers to his closest friends and his tight circle of oligarchs as well. And that means that business analysts and financial wonks working for the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Treasury Department have been closely tracking the wealth of Putin’s richest cronies.

Two of the most powerful billionaires in Russia are Arkady Rotenberg, the leading figure in SMP Bank and InvestCapitalBank OAO, and Yury Kovalchuk, the majority stockholder in Bank Rossiya and owner of the National Media Group, a mega-media conglomerate which includes among its assets TV networks, news programs, TV stations, and a dozen print publications. Already squeezed by sanctions imposed by the United States months ago, Rotenberg and Kovalchuk are now among eight billionaires targeted for tough blacklisting by the European Union. Among other actions, the EU members voted to freeze all the European assets of the eight oligarchs. In the U.S., foreign policy analysts consider Europe’s stringent new battery of sanctions to be a crucial turning point, as U.S. sanctions alone may not have had an immediate impact on Putin’s attitude.

The EU also included Nikolay Shamalov, a close friend of both Putin and Kovalchuk, and a major stockholder in both banks and media operations. Shamalov is also a high-ranking policy-maker charged with media relations and press policy for the Kremlin. He is also the owner and publisher of dozens of major news and information websites with notably Putin-friendly editorial positions. Kovalchuk is widely considered the “Rupert Murdoch of Russia.”

The EU’s actions against Russia, and against Putin’s wealthy cronies, were followed closely by additional sanctions by the United States, most of which were aimed at several large Russian banks and financial institutions, but also included tweaking existing sanctions against some of the oligarchs most closely linked to Putin.

The 28-member EU also targeted Russia’s significant technology sector, agreeing to block certain forms of computer, military and communications technology from being sold to Russia. These measures may ultimately hurt tech firms in Germany, Italy and France, but the ripple effect may spill into most European economies as well. Among the items now limited or banned for sale to Russia: new hardware and software for oil and gas drilling and delivery, communication and cell phone technology, and many technologies and electronic devices which may have additional applications for military use.

In the meantime, the violence in eastern Ukraine continues to rise. In late June, the Ukrainian army began to make a concerted push into those areas controlled by the separatists. Kiev sent in heavier, more advanced weaponry, and began using air support and fighter jets in its operations against the militants. As a result, the Ukrainian forces began to regain ground and send the separatists into retreat in several key areas. The Ukrainians have suspected (and some U.S. intelligence seems to confirm) that Russia is intervening directly, but that Moscow is stopping short of an all-out invasion. Still, the militants have come into possession of newer, more powerful hardware and weaponry, including the BuK-11 surface-to-air system apparently used to shoot down MH-17.

Russia has moved tens of thousands of its troops to areas close to the border with eastern Ukraine. Putin has consistently said that these troop movements are routine exercises. Satellite imagery shows that along with the troop movements, scores of helicopters, hundreds and tanks, and scores of MiG fighter aircraft have been positioned along the frontier. Some U.S. and British intelligence photos also show what appear to be batteries of Russian long-range artillery lined up within firing range of eastern Ukraine.

Fighting has intensified in the areas around Donetsk, a city controlled by the militants but currently under siege by Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev. Shelling and gunfire in the vicinity of the airliner crash site has made it difficult for investigators to get to the scene of the wreckage, which is spread out over a five-mile area of rural Ukraine about 18 miles from the border with Russia.

Related Thursday Review articles: Information is War; Truth is its Casualty; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 23, 2014.

No Conflict is Local, No War is Regional; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 19, 2014

. – See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/SanctionsRussia.html#sthash.rec5gMjO.dpuf