Nation Briefs After nearly a year of disorder, U.S. keep Mali conflict at arm's length

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has declared it cannot accept new terrorist sanctuaries in Mali or anywhere else and has promised to support French and African efforts to restore security. Yet after almost a year of disorder in the West African nation, Washington is still keeping the conflict at arm's length.

France has been engaged in a weeklong fight to eradicate Islamist extremists in northern Mali. But the U.S. ambivalence reflects several factors, foremost the U.S. government's desire to avoid being dragged into yet another war in a desolate, impoverished Islamic country. It also doesn't want to shoulder the financial burden of a potentially lengthy fight against extremists, and distrusts a Malian government dominated by military officials who've chased out a president and a prime minister over the last 10 months. That leaves the United States hoping France can get the job done.

Asks licensed gun dealers help: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is encouraging licensed gun dealers to help private gun sellers run federal background checks. In an open letter to the country's federally licensed gun dealers, the ATF says they can "enhance public safety and assist law enforcement" by facilitating private sales through their businesses and running federal background checks on prospective gun buyers. While federal background checks are required to buy a gun from a licensed dealer, the law does not cover sales at gun shows or among private sellers. The letter was posted on the agency's website hours after President Barack Obama asked Congress to close legal loopholes that allow about 40 percent of gun sales to be done without background checks.

Wants to continue pay freeze: The House next week will take up legislation to overturn an order from President Barack Obama giving federal workers a 0.5 percent pay raise, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Wednesday. The legislation, sponsored by GOP freshman Ron DeSantis of Florida, would continue a pay freeze for the federal government's 2 million employees that has been effect for more than two years. Republicans said that stopping the pay increase from going into effect when the current stopgap measure to fund the government ends on March 27 would save taxpayers $11 billion over 10 years.

McDonough likely for chief of staff: President Barack Obama is likely to name Denis McDonough, one of his closest national security advisers, as his next chief of staff, according to people familiar with the White House thinking. However, White House officials say a final decision has not been made. McDonough would replace current White House chief of staff Jack Lew, the president's nominee for treasury secretary.

Foreign holdings hit record: Foreign demand for U.S. Treasury securities rose to a record level in November, further evidence that overseas investors remained confident in U.S. debt despite looming budget battles in Washington. The Treasury Department says foreign holdings of U.S. Treasurys rose 0.6 percent in November from October to $5.56 trillion. It was the 11th consecutive monthly gain. China, the top foreign holder, increased its portfolio by $200 million to $1.17 trillion. Japan, the second-largest holder, boosted its investments by $900 million to $1.13 trillion. Demand kept rising even as Congress neared a deadline to raise its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit.

U.S. economy picked up: Holiday shopping, strong auto sales and a recovering housing market helped boost the U.S. economy from the middle of November through early January, according to a Federal Reserve survey released Wednesday. The Fed said 12 of its regional banking districts reported "modest or moderate" growth in the final weeks of 2012. Of those, only St. Louis said growth had slowed from the previous survey, which covered October through early November. Consumers increased spending at the end of the year in every district. Auto sales were steady or stronger in 10 districts. Nearly all of the districts reported increases in home construction and home sales.

Near 7-year high: Confidence among U.S. homebuilders held steady in January at the highest level in nearly seven years, but builders are feeling slightly less optimistic about their prospects for sales over the next six months. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index released Wednesday held at 47, the same as in December and the highest reading since April 2006, just before the housing bubble burst. Readings below 50 suggest negative sentiment about the housing market. The last time the index was at that level or higher was in April 2006 when the reading was 51. It began trending higher in October 2011, when it stood at 17.

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