Monday, December 31, 2007

Unfashionably late

News that France has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria to punish Damascus for interfering with Lebanese government affairs is like the having the police arrive at a hostage-taking 12 hours after it starts. All you'd be thinking is, 'Where have you been?' Syria occupied Lebanon military and controlled Lebanese politics for 30 years before a popular uprising drove them out, with Western nations choosing to abandon the mess and let Israel try to manage it. But France's pro-U.S. president Nicolas Sarkozy said today that France will not have any contact with Syria until it stops blocking progress towards agreement on a consensus candidate satisfactory to the pro- and anti-Syria factions that dominate Lebanese politics. France has tried to mediate the dispute and guide the factions to a compromise candidate. But where were these characters — and the entire European Union, for that matter — for the last three decades while Israel has been forced to fight the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group Hezbollah?

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Message from OBL

Anyone who has any doubts about the intentions of Israel's enemies in the Middle East should stop and reassess their positions following the release of Osama bin Laden's latest audiotape yesterday. In it, OBL vowed to expand al-Qaida's holy war to Israel saying "We will not recognize a state for the Jews over even an inch of Palestinian soil," according to the Reuters international news service, and promising "blood for blood, destruction for destruction." Is it any wonder why Israel seems so paranoid? No doubt millions of Arabs feel the same way, particularly those who lived in Palestine when Israel was created and left at the behest of Israel's neighbors who promised they would return after the Arab states attacked the Jewish state in 1948 and 1967. Of course, that didn't happen and the Palestinians were stuck because Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon refused to admit the refugees. OBL also had choice words for Sunni Arabs in western Iraq who have joined a U.S.-sponsored coalition to fight al-Qaida-linked insurgents in Anbar province, saying they would "suffer in life and in the afterlife." Al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called Sunnis who cooperate with the U.S. "traitors" in a Dec. 16 videotape. U.S. officials credit the coalition with helping to reduce the level of conflict in Iraq and are trying to form similar "Awakening Councils" in other parts of the country. A spokesman for the White House said bin Laden's tape demonstrates that al-Qaida is trying to block democracy and freedom in Iraq.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Damage control

With all the conflict overseas, much of it involving the United States, it's easy to forget that President Bush still runs this country, whether we like it or not. That point was driven home today when Bush said he would not sign the $696 billion defense spending bill because he objected to a minor provision that permits Americans injured during Saddam Hussein's reign to sue Iraq in U.S. courts. Because Congress is not technically in session, Bush's action amounts to a pocket veto that cannot be overridden by Congress. Members of Congress complained after the pocket veto that Bush had not indicated that the entire bill was threatened because of the Iraq provision; the White House said it had complained for weeks about the provision, which could have led to a court-ordered freeze of Iraqi government assets in U.S. banks. The bill also would have raised soldiers' pay by an additional .5 percent, improved veterans benefits and tightened oversight of contractors and weapons programs.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Grassy knoll

Today's assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto is a tragedy for Pakistan. The charismatic leader appeared on the verge of returning to power in next month's parliamentary election, when embattled President Pervez Musharraf's supporters in the government were likely to be routed. The Pakistani government and President Bush, who released a statement following the shooting after a Bhutto rally in Rawilpindi, blamed the killing on extremists. Pakistan is fighting with al-Qaida and Taliban militants along its long northern border with Afghanistan, helped by billion of dollars from the United States. The U.S. considers Musharraf a vital ally in the war on terror. But he seems to benefit most from the assassination, which removes his most serious competition. This country takes credit for pressuring Musharraf into allowing Bhutto to return from exile and freeing her from house arrest. But what is the U.S. going to do if Musharraf is responsible for the assassination, or for the attack on her motorcade that killed 136 in October? She was shot today in the headquarters city of the Pakistani military amid extremely high security, just as she waved to the crowd from the vehicle she was riding in. Sound vaguely familiar?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Anti-terror gang

That's a relief. The embattled president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, and Afghanistan's U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai, have promised to work together to fight Taliban and al-Qaida militants believed to be operating in the border region between their countries. Musharraf blamed extremists for the recently relaxed state of emergency he declared in November; Karzai blames militants operating from bases in Pakistan for recent attacks against his government. Now, maybe we'll be able to find out just how much of their countries' territory is under government control and how much has been ceded to the extremists. In Pakistan yesterday, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, promised to crack down on extremists if she wins in parliamentary elections planned for Jan. 8, according to the Associated Press. She blamed Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, for permitting the militants to operate. Pakistan's foreign ministry said yesterday that 200 international observers are expected to arrive in the country to monitor the balloting.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Right for a change

Looks like the United States is saying all the right things after Thailand's People's Power Party was the clear victor in Monday's parliamentary election, the country's first since a military coup in 2006. The PPP, which formed after deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded by court order earlier this year, won nearly half the seats in the Thailand parliament's 80-seat lower house, according to the Reuters international news service. The pro-military Democrat Party finished well behind in second place. The U.S. State Department said it welcomed the results and applauded Thailand's return to democratic government after its 18th coup in the last 75 years. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called on all sides "to respect the results" following the resolution of voting fraud claims. But the return to democracy is not over yet. The PPP still must form a coalition with one of the other five parties that won seats in Monday's balloting. Thailand's military seized power after Thaksin's 2005 re-election election was declared invalid by the courts and forced the former prime minister into exile. Thaksin, who greatly increased aid and services to the poor, said he would return to Thailand but would not return to politics.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Doubletalk alert

The hope is that U.S. diplomats are smart enough to recognize diplomatic doubletalk when they hear it. Monday's news from Iraq that our good friends in Iran want further talks with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker should be greeted with the proper amount of skepticism. Three rounds of talks held already have apparently yielded little progress — no surprise there. Iran says the U.S. is not giving it enough credit for slowing the flow of its weapons to insurgents in Iraq, as if slowing the illegal exports of bombs and other weaponry aimed at killing U.S. servicemen and women is the same as stopping it or having never permitted it in the past. This is on its face ludicrous and, in practical terms, an insult. Sure, talking is better than fighting, but if Iran wants to sit at the grownup table, its government had better start acting like a responsible adult and disavow the rhetoric of the dangerous Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Iran only wants talks because it knows the United States still has too much integrity to attack it while diplomatic contacts are in progress, not because it wants to behave like a civilized nation.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Making it worse

The more the CIA says about its decision to destroy interrogation tapes of suspected al-Qaida terrorists, the worse the government looks. CIA spokesman Mike Mansfield said on Saturday that the agency kept the tapes while the 9/11 commission was active "because it was thought the commission could ask about tapes at some point," but destroyed them afterward because they were "no longer of intelligence value," the Reuters international news agency reported. As we now know, the CIA did not tell the commission about the existence of the tapes because the panel did not specifically mention the word "tapes" when it requested all information in the government's possession while it investigated the worse terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. This is your classic misdirection ploy, blaming the victim for your misconduct. Neither members of Congress or the American people are obligated to believe what the CIA is saying, nor should they. In fact, the two chairmen of the commission said yesterday that they believe the existence of the tapes was deliberately withheld from the panel to obstruct the investigation. So, the questions for Congress are who gained from the deception and who has the guts to find out.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Stating the obvious

Today's revelation that the chairmen of the old Sept. 11 commission now believe the CIA was actively trying to obstruct their investigation by refusing to disclose the existence of interrogation videotapes of suspected al-Qaida terrorists raises some paralyzing questions. Foremost, of course, is what were the intelligence agencies trying to cover up? Was it merely the use of aggressive techniques, such as waterboarding, that officials were afraid to reveal? Or was it something more sinister? But wait, there are more things to ponder, like what are we going to do about it? Our elected representatives and sworn officials are going to have to take this seriously and start prosecuting the serial liars who run this country. The conduct of the Bush administration has demonstrated repeatedly that the structure of the U.S. government is severely atrophied and has concentrated far too much power in the executive branch. While that no doubt has made the government easier to operate, leaving legislators more time to raise money for campaigning and bureaucrats more time to do whatever it is that bureaucrats do, it has created the situation where a foolish, poorly educated man with smart, calculating friends can run roughshod over the nation's fundamental laws and values.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Implausible denials

It's plausible deniability all over again at the White House. President Bush's refusal to comment today on the destruction of the CIA videotapes allegedly showing the use of harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists seems dubious, at best. Bush again insisted that he knew nothing about the existence of the tapes or their destruction in 2005 until he was told earlier this month by CIA director Michael Hayden. But this has the ring of untruth. If the CIA and the Justice Department didn't think this was a matter for the president, or at least the vice president, to decide, what exactly is important enough? If Bush is not telling the truth about the tapes, it might explain why new Attorney General Michael Muskasey declined to answer questions last week at a hearing before the House and Senate Judiciary committees.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nothing but

So, now it looks as if White House lawyers were all over the CIA decision to destroy videotapes of its interrogations of suspected al-Qaida operatives in 2005. The New York Times reported today that at least four top Bush administration attorneys, including former White House counsels Alberto Gonzales — the former attorney general — and Harriet Miers, discussed the issue with the CIA beginning in 2003. The decision to destroy the tapes, which are said to show the use of harsh interrogation techniques, apparently was made with the full knowledge of the White House. If true, this would seem to contradict assertions by President Bush that he did not know about the existence of the tapes or plans to destroy them. Maybe the truth will come out Friday at a hearing ordered by a federal judge to find out if there is reason to believe the government destroyed the tapes in violation of a subpoena he issued in a lawsuit brought by 16 prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Signs of life

A judge's order yesterday requiring the U.S. Justice Department to discuss whether the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes violated a court order may signal the start of the re-engagement of the federal judiciary in the protection of the Constitution. The judiciary has been strangely acquiescent in the Bush administration's usurption of authority since the Supreme Court's incomprehensible decision declaring Bush the victor in the 2000 presidential election. But after Justice Department lawyers asked Judge Henry H. Kennedy of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to stay out of the government's investigation of the tapes' destruction, the judge ordered them to answer questions Friday morning. Of course, Kennedy still could decide not to investigate or the Justice Department could get an extraordinary ruling blocking the hearing. But the very fact that at least one member of the federal judiciary is interested enough to get involved could mean the beginning of the end of the Bush administration's free ride on the slippery slope of unchecked power.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Peace pitfalls

Maybe the international pledges of $7.4 billion over the next three years, announced today at an conference of nearly 90 nations in Paris, will enable the Palestinian Authority to tone down its confrontational rhetoric and concentrate on neighborly relations with Israel. The PA needs the cash to pay its rising deficit and stave off bankruptcy and irrelevancy, since it is under threat from Israel's construction of a wall around its territory and from extremists among its own people who seized control of Gaza. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called the pledges "absolutely vital" for the survival of the PA and for Middle East peace efforts renewed at last month's U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Md. Conference participants called on Israel to relax travel restrictions in the West Bank for the sake of the Palestinian economy, and Israel sounded amenable. Perhaps as a reminder of the pitfalls ahead, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza called the donor conference "a declaration of war" against his movement, which refuses to renounce violence or recognize the existence of Israel.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What happened?

Great to hear that British forces have turned over security responsibility in the Iraqi port city of Basra, as the Associated Press reported today, but it kind of raises some obvious questions. Were the British able to pacify southern Iraq while U.S. and coalition forces seem locked in an endless war of attrition in the rest of the country? If so, how did they do it? Or, are they just kidding themselves, and us, and is the U.S. going to have put forces there to support the Iraqi army and hold the territory from extremists? Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, the British commander, said the city had been pulled from the grip of its enemies and turned over to friends. Mowafaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said his government was ready and called on Basra's citizens to work together. The British presence in Iraq costs London $12 billion annually and is very unpopular in England. Britain has lost 174 soldiers since the March 2003 invasion.

Back from the brink?

Saturday's supposed lifting of emergency rule and restoration of the constitution in Pakistan met with mixed reaction in the troubled country, according to the Reuters international news service, and with good reason. President Pervez Musharraf announced the decision in a nationally televised address last night, but left many new rules in place that dismayed opposition leaders. Members of the Supreme Court who were removed by Musharraf to block an expected ruling against the former army commander remain under house arrest, and limits on dissent and press freedom also remain. Musharraf said emergency rule was lifted because of progress in the battle against Islamic militants in northern Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose party is expected to oppose Musharraf's candidates in next month's parliamentary elections, called the announcement "an important step forward" but said "more needs to be done for the restoration of democracy." Nuclear-armed Pakistan is considered a vital ally of the United States in the war against terror, and has received billions of dollars in aid in recent years.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Almond Joy defense

Sometimes, you feel like a nut. Take this morning, when the Assoicated Press reported that the Bush administration actually told a federal judge Friday night that a court inquiry into the destruction of the CIA waterboarding tapes would interfere with investigations already launched by the Justice Department and Congress. The Bush administration is already trying to block Congress' probe -- what, the government wants to corner the obstruction of justice market? This is the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, stupidity or all three.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bali deal

The United States earned some praise earlier today for ostensibly backing down from its opposition to a joint declaration at the UN climate conference in Bali. But the U.S. decision came after European Union nations agreed to remove specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals in all-night negotiations. The EU had demanded cuts of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, while the White House opposed setting specific levels. Future talks could revive the issue. "The United States is very committed to this effort and just wants to really ensure we all act together," said Paula Dobriansky, head of the U.S. delegation, to loud applause, according to the Reuters international news agency. "We will go forward and join consensus." The agreement clears the way for negotiations on a new climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which had specific targets and expires in 2012, but which the Bush administration had rejected. The deal also apparently means the EU will participate in the planned Sept. 27-28 meeting on climate change planned by the White House, which the Europeans had threatened to boycott.

Getting no respect

What is it about the Bush administration that leads even the best conservative to disrespect the rule of law? We're speaking, of course, of today's refusal by new Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a former judge, to tell Congress about the progress of government investigations into the interrogations of terror suspects that videotaped by the CIA. The videotapes, which reportedly showed the use of harsh questioning techniques, were destroyed in 2005 over the objections of ranking members of Congress. Mukasey told the House and Senate judiciary committees, which oversee the Justice Department, that revealing details about the investigations could raise questions about whether they were vunlerable to political pressure. "I am aware of no facts at present to suggest that department attorneys cannot conduct this inquiry in an impartial manner," Mukasey wrote to Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press. Lawmakers from both parties also accused the Justice Department of obstructing a House Intelligence Committee inquiry by advising the CIA against cooperating.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Strike two

As expected, the long-anticipated Mitchell report on steroid abuse in baseball is out and, as expected, it is long on accusations against the players and short on blame for management. The report names dozens of extremely famous or still active players as abusers of performance-enhancing drugs -- like Barry Bonds -- but strikes out where it really matters. Where are the names of the club owners or league officials who knew about the drug abuse but failed to take affirmative steps to combat it? Instead, the report blames the players, and the players' union, for the problem.

Environmental holdup

U.S. intransigence on global warming threatens to derail next month's climate talks in Honolulu. The European Union threatened today to boycott the U.S.-sponsored talks, the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change, to protest the United States' refusal to agree to manatory emissions cuts at this week's United Nations-sponsored climate conference in Bali. "No result in Bali means no Major Economies Meeting," said Sigmar Gabriel, the top EU environment official. "This is the clear position of the EU. I do not know what we should talk about if there is no target." Japan, Russia and several other governments also have backed away from proposals at Bali to cut emissions 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020. But the United States is the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases and the only major industrial country that did not ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Baseball's real hot corner

Today, former Olympic star athlete Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won at the 2000 Sydney Games for using performance-enhancing drugs. Tomorrow, fans of Major League Baseball and of integrity in general are bracing for the release of the results of baseball's investigation into steroid abuse. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported today, MLB's investigation, conducted by former Sen. George Mitchell, will likely add to the list of 55 current and former players who have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. The steroid question was all over the news last year, when Barry Bonds broke baseball's all-time home run record. But will Mitchell's report, commissioned by Major League Baseball, address the responsibility of league execs and club owners who undoubtedly looked the other way as drug abuse exploded in clubhouses around the league? Since those very execs and club owners paid the $2 million a month cost of the 21-month probe, we seriously doubt it. Mitchell himself is a director of the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

Stonewall Hayden

Well, so much for the testimony of CIA director Michael Hayden. Gen. Hayden, testifying yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door hearing, said he could not answer questions about the destruction of interrogation videotapes because he did not work at the agency at the time. The tapes, said to show the use of "waterboarding" and other enhanced interrogation techniques of two suspected al-Qaida insiders, were made in 2002 and destroyed in 2005. The existence of the tapes was not revealed to the Sept. 11 Commission nor to federal courts that had requested government materials for trials of terror suspects. Of course, it's just clandestine business as usual for today's government, which is operating as though it's not subject to the U.S. Constitution. For Hayden to pass the buck is preposterous. He knows what went on from the previous directors, Porter Goss and George Tenet, or he simply is not fit for the job.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Developments in Pakistan

The collapse of an opposition boycott of Pakistan's parliamentary elections next month does not bode well for the troubled country, considered a vital U.S. ally in the war against terror. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff began campaigning for his party's candidates yesterday after talks with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, failed to convince her to keep her Pakistan's Peoples Party from participating. Shariff, who recently returned from exile, had advocating boycotting the vote until President Pervez Musharraf lifted the state of emergency he imposed in November and restored the Supreme Court justices he removed. Musharraf, who resigned earlier this month as commander of Pakistan's armed forces, has pledged to lift the state of emergency next week. A coalition of 33 other political groups also had agreed to the boycott, which would have severely undermined the credibility of the ballotting and could have forced Musharraf to step down. Musharraf seized control of the Pakistani government in a 1999 coup, exiled Shariff to Saudi Arabia and placed Bhutto under house arrest.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The expert speaks

Oh, good, the voice of Serbia is again heard on the subjects of peace and independence. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica today called Kosovo's moves toward independence "illegal" and called for more negotiations. We can be sure of one thing -- they know of what they speak, NOT! Serbia and Montenegro are what's left of the former Yugoslavia, which broke up in a horrible war more than 15 years ago. More than 200,000 people died after Croatia and Bosnia declared independence from Belgrade. Do you remember the death and destruction and 'ethnic cleansing,' and the war crimes trial of the late Slobodon Milosevic? Now, Serbia is trying to force Kosovo, which still is under the protection of the United Nations, to stay in its union with Montenegro. NATO forces bombed Serbia in 1999 to force Serbia to pull out its troops and stop killing Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. Kosovo is expected to declare its independence next month.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The saga continues

The disaster that is the George W. Bush presidency just grows worse and worse. Last week's revelation about the CIA's destruction of tapes showing the interrogations of top al-Qaida suspects — recordings said to show the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques — further illustrates the danger of allowing the executive branch to dominate the other two branches of our government. Our employees, acting in our name, have violated U.S. and international law with impunity and are trying to cover it up. Look, the president took us to war on false pretenses and is threatening to attack another country that our spies think is not a nuclear threat, and the vice president thinks he's his own special branch of government not subject to the laws of the others. Is a pattern beginning to emerge? Finally the Congress is beginning to investigate, which it should have done years ago when the Republicans were in the majority. The very ideals of our country are at stake but our representatives could not look beyond party affiliation and blindly supported the Bush administration. But there is another hope: Maybe there are additional copies of recordings of the interrogation of al-Qaida suspects in 2002 that were destroyed by the CIA two years ago. Let's see what CIA Director Michael Hayden says about the affair when he testifies before Congress on Tuesday — if, of course, they can get him to tell the truth.

Conspicuous consequences

Is today's news that at least 40 woman have been found killed and mutilated in the Iraqi port of Basra this year a signal of what will happen when British forces leave southern Iraq later this month? The woman are believed to have been killed by religious vigilantes who objected to the women's choice of clothing, the Associated Press reported. The murders raise the spectre of a descent into anarchy and violence in southern Iraq when the British troops complete the handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. I wonder if war planners had strategy for that. "Those who are behind these atrocities are organized gangs who work under cover of religion, pretending to spread the instructions of Islam, but they are far from this religion," an Iraqi commander, Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, told the AP. Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Basra was known for its mixed population and vibrant nightlife. The revelation about the bodies came the same day British Prime Minister Gordon Brown landed in Iraq to rally Britain's remaining 4,500 troops. Britain had more than 45,000 soldiers in Iraq in 2003.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Best defense

Looks like the White House has wasted no time in launching a counter-offensive to combat efforts to find out the truth about Iran's supposed efforts to build nuclear weapons. A former high-ranking U.S. diplomat reportedly told a magazine yesterday that the revised National Intelligence Estimate issued Monday that indicated Iran had stopped its nuclear arms program four years ago was politically motivated. "This is politics disguised as intelligence," White House insider John Bolton told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview to be published next week, according to the Reuters international news service. Bolton, who along with President Bush has been outspoken about the alleged Iranian threat, said U.S. intelligence agencies were trying to influence policy by not providing up-to-date information about Tehran's intentions. Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr defended the revised report, saying the assessment was "objective." Bush has threatened force to block Iran's nuclear pursuits, and Bolton has criticized the International Atomic Energy Agency for saying it could not find proof that Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb. Then again, the reputation of U.S. intelligence agencies has yet to recover from their incorrect assessment that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons, which was used to justify the Iraq war.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Lying as art

Oh no, here we go again. Yesterday's revelation that the C.I.A. destroyed tapes of interrogations of two high-level al-Qaida operatives in 2005 — recordings whose existence were not revealed to the Sept. 11 commission or to judges in criminal proceedings against the operatives and other terror suspects — raises real doubts about the truthfulness of our government in what is surely its most crucial test since World War II. CIA officials claim they destroyed the tapes — in the midst of investigations — to protect the identities of agents conducting the interrogations. But that rings untrue. According to the New York Times, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told employees yesterday that the decision was made "within the CIA" because the tapes no longer had intelligence value. More likely, the tapes were destroyed to protect agency officials from criminal prosecution because they allegedly show the use of improper and illegal interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. That raises the specter of obstruction of justice and perjury on the part of agency officials, because the materials were requested by the courts, Congress and the Sept. 11 commission. The Times also reported today that the decision to destroy the tapes was made by Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the head of the Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine service, and that Porter J. Goss, CIA director at the time, was not told that the tapes would be destroyed and was angered to learn that they had been.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Deja vu?

I don't know about you, but I have my suspicions about the mortgage interest rate freeze/bailout plan announced today by President Bush. If you lived through the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, in which financial institutions squandered billions of dollars that taxpayers had to pay back, you know that some folks in the mortgage industry stand to make a lot of dough -- probably at taxpayers' expense. It's too early now to see how that will play out -- and, for one thing, the plan announced today is voluntary -- but rest assured, the fix is in. In addition, while it seems positive that the president has heard the people in danger of losing their homes, the new plan does not offer help to homeowners already behind on their mortgage payments. Hello? That seems only to help lending institutions that have already extended credit backed by the endangered mortgages and will face multiplying losses if hundreds of thousands of more loans go delinquent. Ronald Reagan was president in the years of excess leading up to the S&L crisis, but President Bush's father was president during the bailout.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Counter intelligence

Yes, it is pretty strange that U.S. spy agencies have concluded that Iran is not trying to build nuclear weapons, despite what the White House has been saying, according to a new intelligence assessment released Monday. The report, compiled by 16 U.S. agencies, concludes that Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it. President Bush has been trying to secure international support for new economic sanctions and has threatened the use of force against Iran to force it to stop enriching uranium and to be more open about its nuclear programs. But it turns out that Washington has believed since last year that Iran was not trying to make bombs and had suspended its missile program, even though Bush said as late as last October that Iran had to be stopped from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran has consistently claimed its research was into the peaceful use of nuclear energy. What's going to happen now? Well, for one thing, neither the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. agency that has been investigating Iran's program, is sure of anything. And, for another, the rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been anything but reassuring. But we've had enough bad intelligence on Iran and Iraq — it's time for this country to get it right. Didn't this country used to have the best intelligence agencies in the world?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Venezuela vote

Believers in democratic principles were heartened today to hear that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's socialist reform package was voted down, 51 percent to 49 percent, in a much-anticipated national referendum. The reforms would have expanded the powers of the presidency and permitted Chavez, the man who called President Bush "the devil" at the United Nations, to run for reelection indefinitely. To his credit, Chavez, who has run Venezuela for the past 9 years, appears to have accepted the outcome of the vote. Critics, including large numbers of student demonstrators in the biggest cities, had complained that the reform package was a power grab by the wildly popular Chavez, who won 63 percent of the vote in his reelection campaign last year. In fact, much of the opposition was spearheaded by defectors from the Chavez camp, the Reuters international news agency reported, including Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, the retired army commander, and Ismael Garcia, a deputy in the National Assembly. Chavez supporters till control the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, most state governments and the federal bureaucracy, Reuters says.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Risky honesty

Gee, I wonder what the reaction in the Arab world will be to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement today that the resolution of long-term grievances that have stymied world leaders for 60 years and the establishment of a Palestinian state might not be accomplished by the end of next year? Just kidding -- I'm sure Olmert's statement to the Israeli Cabinet, as reported by the international Reuters news service, will be widely attacked and criticized, never mind that that it was the truth. Pragmatic observers understood that the 13-month timetable agreed upon at last week's peace conference in Annapolis, Md., was unrealistic and overly ambitious. It probably was at least earnest -- I'm sure both sides would like to figure out a way to get along. But a lasting and just peace in the Middle East is simply not possible in the current political and social environment; all parties are going to have to accept major compromises and probably face severe domestic fallout when they try to sell such a deal to their constituencies. Then again, we might never even get that far. The word from Gaza, which was taken over by violent anti-Israel Hamas movement in June, is that Israel has stepped up military operations and fuel is running out.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Travels with Larry

I'm in Washington, D.C., today on family business, and when I got off the plane at Dulles airport I stopped in a men's room for a pee. It was a plain, sterile-looking bathroom with steel stall walls and doors, and a faint odor of disinfectant. Of course, the first thing I thought of was Idaho Senator Larry Craig getting busted for allegedly trying to solicit an undercover cop in the next stall at the airport in Minneapolis. You remember Craig, one of those 'holier than thou' types, promising to resign after being exposed as a closeted homosexual but changing his mind, denying he was gay and staying in the Senate? Well, thinking of the guy in an airport bathroom was pretty sick humor, or so I thought. Then I looked down at the toilet paper dispenser. There, scrawled in black ink on the shiny chrome surface, were the words "Larry Craig wuz here." You can't make this stuff up.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Back to basics

Wasn't everybody happy to hear that President Bush plans to refocus his efforts away from major legislation and towards executive action and foreign policy leadership, as the Washington Post reported todday. White House counselor Ed Gillespie said yesterday that Bush's advisers are convinced he cannot get major bills through the Congress so the president will concentrate on what he can accomplish with executive orders. Funny, I was under the impression that Bush didn't care what the legislature thought.

Regime change

Is today's announcement of plans to lift the nationwide state of emergency enough to save President Pervez Musharraf's eight-year hold on the Pakistani presidency? Not likely. Musharraf did resign yesterday from his post as head of the army, as he had been promising for weeks, and was sworn in today to a new five-year term as president, but his pledge to lift emergency rule on Dec. 16 is too little, too late. If new parliamentary elections do take place on Jan. 8, as he also promised, the Pakistani people won't forget the political turmoil he caused by suspending the constitution and arresting justices of Pakistan's Supreme Court on Nov. 3. Nor are they likely to return Musharraf supporters to the legislature now that former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have returned to public life.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chavez unhinged

Is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez losing it for real? It sure seems so today after the firebrand Socialist leader accused CNN of trying to incite his murder and, in an unrelated matter, cut diplomatic relations with next-door Colombia. Chavez is notorious in the West for his incendiary rhetoric, including calling President Bush the "devil" at the United Nations, and for being told to "shut up" by the Spanish king at a European conference. Not that the man isn't under extreme pressure; he is trying to convinced his country's voters to pass a referendum allowing him to stay in office indefinitely, and the vote is expected to be close. Chavez lashed out at CNN after the cable network mistakenly showed his picture over the words "Who Killed Him" that was supposed to be shown with a story about slain Detroit Lions defensive back Sean Taylor. The break with Colombia came after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe removed Chavez as a mediator in negotiations with leftist rebels. The countries share a 1,380-mile border. Uribe is the U.S.' closest ally in South America, according to the Associated Press.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Be realistic

Before everybody gets giddy with excitement, the agreement reached today between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority is much fanfare about nothing. Agreeing to talk after decades of animosity and violence is better than nothing, but it will not and cannot resolve anything by itself. "We agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements," the joint statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said. But these issues are intractable, and it will take far longer than one year to make any meaningful progress.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Same as the old deal?

It may, in fact, be a very good thing that President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today signed an agreement to negotiate a new long-term deal about the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. As reported by the Associated Press, the agreement commits the two countries to an "enduring" military, economic and political relationship, but leaves it to future negotiations to decide what that means in practice. If the deal means the United States and Iraq will view each other as equal, independent states, then it is, indeed, a welcome development. Unfortunately, though, the agreement likely includes a commitment to the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and what the AP called "preferential treatment" for U.S. investors. Does that mean U.S. officials will continue to tell the Iraqi government what to do, but that U.S. companies will gain control over Iraq's oil? Say it ain't so, Mr. Bush.

Russian dressing down

Are the Russians giving up on democracy and returning to the autocratic ways of the former Soviet Union? Russian President Vladimir Putin today accused the U.S. of convincing international observers to stop their efforts to monitor that country's parliamentary elections to raise doubts about the results. But it appears that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had valid reasons for pulling out. According to the New York Times, a spokesman for the ODIHR said it had withdrawn because restrictions placed on the group by the Russian government made its task impossible. The Russians delayed issuing visas to the group, causing observers to miss most of the campaign, and then limited it to 70 people, rather than 400 as in 2003. Putin said the ODIHR decision was the result of U.S. interference in Russian affairs, but Putin's critics in Russia say he doesn't want observers to witness that the elections are not conducted fairly, the newspaper said. On Saturday, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov, who leads the Other Russia movement, was arrested as he tried to deliver a letter protesting the conduct of the election to federal authorities.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Changes in Islamabad

Today's return from exile of Pakistan's last prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, marks the end of the dictatorship of President Pervez Musharraf, the army general who seized power in the nuclear-armed country in 1999. Sharif's peaceful return, a marked contrast to the violent return last month of another former prime minister living in exile, Benazir Bhutto, apparently means both that next month's parliamentary elections will be contested and that Musharraf's backers will be voted out. Barring another coup, of course. "I have come to save this country," Sharif said after landing in Lahore, according to the New York Times. Musharraf had ordered Sharif deported in September when he previously tried to return from exile in Saudi Arabia. The fact that Sharif has returned probably means that Musharraf has decided to give up power, despite the three-week old emergency declaration that allowed the general to fire the country's Supreme Court and get re-elected. Now, it looks like the only question left is where Musharraf will live in exile.

Stating the obvious

News that Syria has agreed to join the United States-sponsored Middle East peace conference at Annapolis, Md., this week should bring some hope, but not much, that the 16 nations will make some progress toward solving the seemingly intractable dispute between Israel and Arab nations. Syria is coming because it has received some assurance that the status of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel for more than 40 years, could be on the agenda. But let's be realistic. Syria cannot possibly expect any progress on this issue if all it only will consider the return of the territory without agreeing to anything else. Plus, the Israelis just bombed a suspected reactor site in Syria, an ally of Iran. But the primary focus of the meeting is on the Israel-Palestinian issue, which is a crisis because Israel's neighbors don't want Palestinian Arabs to live in their countries. That's why millions are still living in teeming refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan -- in addition to the West Bank -- after 40 years. Why haven't they been assimilated by the societies they live in? Because the Arab states still expect to resolve these issues by eliminating the state of Israel and the millions of Jews who live there. Why else would the Palestinian Authority consider Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be an obstacle to peace? If a Palestinian state is going to be set up alongside Israel, wouldn't you expect the two countries to be living in peace? That means free travel between them, not forcing citizens of each state to open their trousers before they can cross the borders. And that means Jews living in Arab countries. Of course, the fact that Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, has already stated he will refuse to shake hands with the Israeli delegation cannot be seen as anything but a sign of what's ahead -- a lot of rhetoric, little substance.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Rhetorical standoff

Did you read the one about Iran offering to talk with the U.S. and Iraq about improving security? It sounds like a joke, but that's yesterday's word from Iran. Maybe Tehran is just kidding. Why else would Iran make such an offer just a couple of days after its president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, hosted U.S.-bashing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? Ahmedinejad and Chavez boasted that they would defeat "deviant U.S. imperialism" together and end U.S. global dominance. Ahmedinejad and Chavez failed last week to get OPEC to stop using the U.S. dollar to set prices, a move that would mean huge price increases in the United States because of the slumping value of the currency. Saudi Arabia, as usual, blocked the effort. But Washington has accused Iran of selling weaponry to Shiite-aligned anti-government militias in Iraq. Washington has threatened war, but also is trying to step up economic pressure on Iran to force it to give up its nuclear program. Iran claims it wants nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. accuses Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. If Iran and the U.S. are ever going to get along, and they haven't since the 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, the over-the-top rhetoric will have to be toned down or neither will have any reason, or incentive, to trust the other.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

White House exposed

Ah, now we're getting someplace, after four years. A former White House press secretary says in an upcoming book that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were involved in efforts to mislead the public about the leak of a CIA operative's identity in 2003, the Associated Press reported today. Scott McClellan says in an excerpt from the book that he was lying when he said at a 2003 news conference that then White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, were not involved in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. The excerpt was published on the Web site of PublicAffairs. The White House has repeatedly denied that Bush or Cheney were involved in such activity, even though Libby was convicted in the case and Rove is generally considered the source of the leak to newspaper columnist Robert Novak. Bush commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence for obstructing the investigation. Plame contends her identity was revealed by the White House, ending her career as a spy, as retaliation for an article by her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, questioning the justification for the Iraq war. Bush and Cheney have never admitted involvement in the affair, despite rampant speculation at the time, and Bush said in July that he considered the matter closed. But revealing the identity of an undercover CIA agent is a crime, and maybe we'll finally find out what all the probes failed to find out -- whether Bush or Cheney or both actually were responsible for the leak.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Learning curve

What is the Bush administration going to do about Pakistan now? Any hopes for a return to democracy appear dashed after the Pakistan Supreme Court dismissed nearly all of the challenges to the questionable reelection of President Pervez Musharraf last month. Musharraf removed the justices who appeared to be about to rule that the election was invalid because he remains head of the armed forces, in violation of the country's Constitution, when he imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3 and suspended the Constitution. U.S. envoys have reportedly been urging Musharraf to end the emergency and permit free elections to Pakistan's legislature in January. But if Musharraf is determined to remain dictator of our nuclear-armed Asian ally, and keep opposition leaders locked up for protesting the emergency declaration, should the U.S. continue to back him? Reuters reported today that a final challenge to the election is to be heard by the court on Thursday.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Trouble in South America

Have you heard that Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, the guy who called President Bush the "devil" at the United Nations, has proposed a rewrite of his country's constitution that would allow him to amass more power and stay in office indefinitely? The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Chavez, who won reelection to a new six-year term in 2006, was facing new opposition to his plan to take on more power to hasten Venezuela's conversion to a socialist state. The plan is scheduled to be voted on by Venezuela's citizens on Dec. 2. Chavez has been wildly popular with Venezuela's poor because of his initiatives to redistribute oil revenues and expand free education, health care and subsidized food. But the world has been down the socialist path before, and it seems that the concentration of power in a ruling elite -- an apparent inevitability of socialism, as it was in communism -- is a fatal flaw. While plans to ensure more equitable income distribution can be seen as laudable, the fact that Chavez's proposal couples that with his acquisition of more and more power makes it suspect. Does he really need the power to limit free speech and lock up opponents, even in emergencies? Sounds a lot like Pakistan, and we understand that to be a dictatorship, even though its leader, Pervez Musharraf, also calls himself "president."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

As secret does

Yesterday's curious federal appeals court decision excluding crucial evidence from an Islamic charity's challenge to the U.S. government's warrantless wiretapping program hardly settles the matter, despite what many analysts claim. In fact, the ruling allows the charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation of Oregon, to continue its challenge that the program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveilance Act, which requires warrants. The ruling also permits a separate lawsuit against telecommunications companies who cooperated with the government program. But the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, generally considered the country's most liberal appellate court, found that a document inadvertently released to the charity proving it had been wiretapped must be excluded from the case because it was a "state secret," even though the program itself could no longer be considered a 'secret,' as the government had claimed. Obviously, this case is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court where, unfortunately, anything can happen.

Artists at work

A positive but still inconclusive International Atomic Energy Agency report this week on Iran's nuclear intentions just seemed to add to tensions and talk of war between Washington and Tehran. Rather than see the Iranian disclosures as an improvement over that country's past intransigence, which they apparently were, the Bush administration urged the implementation of further economic sanctions by the U.N. Security Council. But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad said the report proved that Iran had been truthful about its peaceful nuclear ambitions, which was an obvious overstatement. Iran did not fully comply with IEAE demands and has placed restrictions on the agency's inspectors. The United States, Britain and France accuse Iran of trying to acquire nuclear weapons technology, while Iran says it only wants to build nuclear power plants for electricity. The Bush administration seems intent on building a case for war with Iran, so it's comments must be seen in that light. But after Ahmedinijad's speech at Columbia University early this year, we know not to believe the Iranian president says.

Friday, November 16, 2007

One if by land

Isn't this interesting. A few days after retired New York judge Michael Mukasey took over the troubled U.S. Department of Justice, the agency reopened a probe of President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program that had been allowed to languish under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Could this signal a turnaround in the last 14 months of the Bush administration? Is the White House changing course and about to show new respect for the Bill of Rights? Maybe. But before the parties begin, let's recall that the original probe went nowhere because the White House refused to grant the security clearances investigators needed to conduct the inquiry, which could expose government secrets. And the leaders of the Executive Branch, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who have shown little faith in the U.S. Constitution beyond the clauses that give them power, are still in office.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Contract killings

Surely, nobody was surprised to learn that an ongoing FBI investigation has determined that at least 14 of the 17 slayings of Iraqi civilians by Blackwater agents in Baghdad on September 16 were unjustified and violated U.S. rules covering security contractors in Iraq. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Justice Department had opened an inquiry to see if indictments were warranted, even while the FBI probe continues. The shootings prompted strong protests from the Iraqi government, including threats to bar Blackwater personnel from the country, and inspired the House of Representatives to pass legislation imposing criminal liability on military contractors who may be immune from such sanctions under U.S.-imposed rules covering the Iraq conflict. But what is surprising is the speed and seriousness with which the U.S. government has handled this incident, one of dozens involving military contractors operating in Iraq. Maybe all the pressure brought by the Democratic majority in Congress and the growing Republican opposition is having an effect on the conduct of the war.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Prosecutorial misconduct

The failure of the CIA to provide evidence requested by attorneys defending Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui last year should trouble Americans who believe in justice and respect for the laws of this country. As if it wasn't bad enough that our government has flouted the Constitution and held suspected terrorists for years without charges or access to lawyers, we learned Tuesday that the nation's top spy agency withheld evidence from Moussaoui's defense and even twice told judges that it didn't have the requested material. But it turns out the CIA actually did have three tape or video recordings of interrogations of "enemy combatants" that Moussaoui's defense had requested. Moussaoui was the so-called "20th hijacker" who was arrested while taking flying lessons less than a month before the Sept. 11 attacks. Of course, government prosecutors said they didn't know that the CIA had the material and, in fact, brought that fact to the court's attention as soon they found out. The prosecutors also said their failure to produce the evidence did not affect the outcome of the trial, in which Moussaoui pleaded guilty in exchange for life imprisonment after a jury could not agree on the death penalty. This could very well be true. But it seems strange that the government repeatedly screwed up the only prosecution arising from the Sept. 11 attacks. Of course, similar scenarios take place every day in courts across the country in cases which much less impact nationally. Prosecutors overreach, overstretched public defenders do the bare minimum for their poor clients. Sometimes the system works, but oftentimes it doesn't. That's why the death penalty, even "humane" lethal injection, has been suspended by the Supreme Court and why the government will be hard-pressed to get it reinstated.

Damning evidence

Did you read last week how top Yahoo Inc. officals were lambasted by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) because the company gave information to the Chinese government that led to the jailing of a journalist? As reported by the Associated Press, Lantos told Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan their behavior was either "inexcusably negligent" or "deliberately deceptive" because the two did not reveal the extent of Yahoo's conduct in testimony before Congress last year. Lantos also insisted they apologize to Shi's mother, who was sitting behind them in the House meeting room. Of course, the Yahoo execs said Yahoo had no choice but to reveal information about Shi's online activities after they got a subpoena from the Chinese government. They also said they didn't know what Peking was looking for when the company got the subpoena. Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly revealing state secrets, a common charge against pro-democracy activists in China. But what are U.S. companies to do when they do business in countries with repressive regimes? "I do not believe that America's best and brightest companies should be playing integral roles in China's notorious and brutal political repression apparatus," Lantos told the Yahoo execs. But does the U.S. have rules against it? Should we? And if we do, should we enforce them against Chevron in, say, a brutal military dictatorship like Burma, or against other oil companies in a less-toxic country like Saudi Arabia, where a small group of men control the wealth and women must cover their heads and are not allowed to drive cars?

Monday, November 12, 2007

A matter of principle

Today is Veterans Day and, hopefully, all of us have been able to pause to think about the hundreds of thousands of our countrymen and women who have been killed fighting for the rest of us. Whatever we think of the Iraq war or the Bush administration, as of today 3,860 of us have been killed and 28,451 of us have been injured, many catastrophically, to defend some kind of principle. All of them were doing what they believed was the right thing. All of us hope they were right.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Say anything

It was kind of funny, in a not-really-funny way, to read that Cassidy & Associates, a powerful Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, has opted out of its $1.2 million contract to represent the government of Pakistan in the nation's capital. According to The, a Washington Web site, the Cassidy firm decided that the ongoing crackdown by President Pervez Musharraf against lawyers and pro-democracy groups made it impossible to portray Pakistan in a positive light. Gen. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, declared a state of emergency Nov. 3 and suspended Pakistan's constitution and Supreme Court. Musharraf claimed to make the move to help in his country's long battle with Taliban forces on the northern border with Afghanistan, observers in Pakistan say Musharraf acted to prevent a Supreme Court decision forcing him to give up his army post while serving as president. But things are not going all that badly for Pakistan. According to Washington Post columnist Jeffrey H. Burnbaum, Pakistan still has one of D.C.'s biggest lobbying firms, Van Scoyoc Associates, on retainer for $660,000 a year.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Staying afloat

Listening to the Democrats and Republicans this week after the Congress overrode President Bush's veto of a $23 billion water resources bill was an exercise in meaningless rhetoric. Yes, the Democratic Congress succeeded in the first override of the woeful Bush presidency, after being joined by a majority of Republicans, but no, the tenor of politics on Capitol Hill did not fundamentally change overnight. In fact, it was business as usual for Congress, because the bill was packed with local projects. So, for the Democratic leadership in Congress to call the override some kind of historic occasion vastly overstates their power and influence. Congress still is afraid to seriously challenge the president on the Iraq war, and won't do it on the upcoming war with Iran, either. But to hear the administration cry how Democrats are irresponsible on the budget, like they claimed on the Children's health care bill, is the height of absurdity.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Free at last

Today's release of nine Iranians from U.S. custody in Baghdad raises questions about why at least two of them were arrested at a Iranian diplomatic office in Erbil in January and why they were held so long. Iran has complained about the January arrests, in which five Iranians in total were accused of helping Iraqi insurgents. The U.S. has acknowledged holding 11 Iranians; Iran says the number is 25. Of course, we in this country want to believe the United States is telling the truth, but it's growing more and more difficult. Then again, Iran keeps making things up as it goes along, too. Remember Mahmoud "There are no homosexuals in Iran" Ahmedinijad's speech at Columbia University? The U.S. is still holding nearly 26,000 Iraqis in custody.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Cultivating friendships

The Bush administration's handling of foreign policy hit another bump today when the president was forced to tell Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to hold parliamentary elections early next year as promised and to step down as army leader. "I had a very frank discussion with him," Bush said from George Washington's home in Mt. Vernon, Va., where he was meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He said he told Musharraf, "You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time." The relationship between the United States and Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-sponsored war against terror, has been in question lately -- certainly since Saturday, when Musharraf issued a declaration of emergency and suspended the Pakistani constitution. The U.S. has helped keep Musharraf in power with $10 billion in military aid since he seized power from the democratically elected prime minister in 1999. Musharraf's move had been widely anticipated in light of recent reversals in Pakistan's long struggle with a Taliban-inspired insurgency on the border with Afghanistan, and because of an imminent Supreme Court decision expected to force him to give up one of the two leadership posts. It seems to me that the dictator thing never works out for the United States, yet we always keep trying it. We're a democratic country and should not, at least on principle if not practicality, cozy up to repressive, undemocratic regimes. The result of our dalliances with dictators seems inevitably to be some kind of peril, like the rise of religious fundamentalism in Iran to the anti-U.S. fervor in South America.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Unclear on the concept

The news last week that NASA has agreed to release the results of an aviation survey that cost taxpayers $11.3 million was both gratifying and troubling. The agency agreed Wednesday under pressure from Congress to release the data, at least by the end of the year. The Associated Press had been requesting the information for the past 14 months. No matter what the topic, we have both a right and an obligation to know what our government agencies are doing and it's very weird, although fairly typical under the Bush administration, for them to try to prevent us from finding out. But the topic of this study was airline safety, something anybody who flies commercially really ought to know about. The study interviewed 24,000 pilots about near collisions and other safety problems and the results, NASA claimed in explaining why it withheld them, could negatively affect the airline industry. Oh, isn't that reassuring.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Under seige

Today's state of emergency declaration by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who sent troops into the streets, suspended the country's constitution and Supreme Court, and jammed private television broadcasts, is yet another challenge to the Bush administration's idea of foreign policy. Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago but is considered a vital ally in the war on terror, is supported by billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military assistance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the emergency declaration but urged calm. Musharraf defended the move -- necessitated, he said, by threats against the state by Islamic extremists. But critics have long said Musharraf has been planning to assume emergency powers to avoid an expected ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court barring him from continuing as chief of the military while president. Arrests of pro-democracy activists are expected, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Caving on Mukasey

Did you hear what Sen. Charles Schumer said today about attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey, the judge who refused to say whether he opposed a coercive interrogation technique barred by the Geneva Conventions? He said he would support the nominee because if he doesn't, President Bush will probably pick someone worse. Is that really where the United States is in 2007? Or is this really just a bad dream? With Sens. Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California agreeing to back Mukasey, it looks like the New York jurist will be approved to be the next U.S. attorney general. But his task is not envious. He will be taking over a demoralized and morally compromised agency in charge of enforcing the laws that the president and his followers blatantly misinterpret and violate. What kind of job can he possibly be able to do. He'll probably do a far superior job than his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, the president's friend, who is blamed for dangerously politicizing the Justice Department like it was in Richard Nixon's presidency in the late '60s and early '70s. Nixon, of course, was the only president to resign.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Zoned out

Even if the military situation in Iraq has improved since the U.S. added 30,000 soldiers to its forces there, the political situation just continues to deteriorate. Turns out that the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security granted limited immunity to Blackwater USA employees being investigated by U.S. and Iraqi agencies over their conduct in a now-notorious Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad. The immunity means the bodyguards could escape prosecution if it turns out, as seems likely, that Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqi civilians without cause. The Sept. 16 incident outraged the Iraqi government, which is trying to kick Blackwater out of the country. But what should worry Americans is that no one seems to know who authorized the immunity, and how administration officials can continue to insist that anyone found to have committed a crime will be prosecuted.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Drilling for gold

The U.S. Supreme Court could be about to neuter the great equalizer in this country's legal system -- punitive damages. Civil trial juries have traditionally had great leeway in determining if a defendant's conduct was so reprehensible as to deserve a monetary penalty on the principle of the more money the defendant has, the larger the penalty needed to deter unlawful conduct. But after years of appellate court decisions chipping away at that principle, the Roberts court could be sculpting with a mallet. Today, the court agreed to decide if Exxon Mobil will have to pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages for the spill of 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound in 1989. Remember the spoiled beaches, the dead and dying wildlife, the devastated fishing industry. Turns out the captain of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker was a drunk and Exxon knew it. Sounds like the perfect time for a damage award that will get the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation's attention, and a jury delivered it. But now, the Supreme Court with its new conservative justices could emasculate one of the most-cherished rights of our legal system -- the power to sue and get compensated for injuries.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kabul crapola

Do you know the war against al-Qaida in Aghanistan is going? We hear the name of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, so often it's nearly a cliche, and we hear about the lawless mountainous region on the 500-mile border between Pakistan and Aghanistan so often that's almost a cliche, too. U.S. forces drive out the Taliban, the Taliban return. Today, we hear that U.S. and Afghan forces have won a series of battles around the town of Musa Qala and retaken the area from the Taliban. The area, in Helmand province, is the world's largest poppy-growing region and the front line of Afghanistan's bloodiest fighting this year, according to Newsday in New York, where I worked more than 25 years ago. Most of the Western troops in Helmand are British, although U.S. Special Forces also operate there. But how is the wider war going? Are the Taliban about to collapse? Are more troops needed? How much authority and over how much area does the government have? Is there another surge coming?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Actions speak

Employees do the darndest things, don't they? Even homeland security chief Michael Chertoff, he of Hurricane Katrina fame, found the conduct of staffers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be "dumb" and "inappropriate." Of course, we're talking about the phony press conference staged by FEMA earlier this week to discuss the government's response to the Southern California wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands to evacuate. At the fake press conference, FEMA employees played the roles of reporters and asked softball-type questions to a top agency official who was, of course, laudatory about the federal government's response. But the outraged comments of Chertoff and some other high officials are simply theater, much as the fake press conference. The Bush administration has no understanding of the role of the press and no respect for its responsibilities as agents of the people of the United States. While they may say they are outraged, all the FEMA workers did was demonstrate what the Bush administration is actually thinking. That's what really makes them angry.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Saying something

What if you were a well-accomplished and educated person like Condoleezza Rice and the people who are paying you to run the United States Department of State accused you of gross mismanagement? Would you be angry, depressed, frustrated? Hopefully, all three. Condi was forced to face angry House Democrats yesterday to answer pointed questions about this country's conduct in Iraq. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that sponsored the hearings, said "I think there was a huge gap between what she said and reality." Ouch. That would anger anyone, especially someone like Condi. But she deserves it. Who is making all the diplomatic mistakes for the Bush administration? Is the president making all these wrong foreign policy calls? Not likely. He's already over his head on children's health insurance. No, the foreign policy guru must be Condi, with all of her doctoral and graduate degrees and university teaching positions, and fault for the stupid mistakes must belong to her and George W. Bush, for accepting her counsel despite the continuing decline in American fortunes abroad. Hmm, is a subtle pattern beginning to emerge? This sounds a lot like what happened to Alberto Gonzales, the obviously overwhelmed attorney general who Bush supported blindly even as the U.S. Justice Department lost all credibility. Is it time for Rice to hang it up or be canned, before she does to the rest of the Middle East what she's already done to the fertile crescent?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Messing with Mahmoud

It used to mean a lot more when the United States took economic action against a smaller country, like the sanctions against Iran imposed today by President Bush. The president cut off access to the U.S. financial system to Iran's Revolutionary Guards and banking institutions, which used to bring economic stagnation and decline to countries thus penalized. But this is not the pre-Bush days of world politics. Instead of agreeing to respect U.S. wishes, Russia and China are openly opposed. The size of those countries' economies means the sanctions will have limited effect beyond sanctions already imposed by the United Nations to punish Iran for its nuclear energy activities. So what was the point? If it's a matter of principle, to punish Iran for supporting terrorism aimed at U.S. troops in Iraq, why stop at sanctions? Supporting terrorists killing your troops is clearly an act of war, and the Bush administration has not seemed shy about that in the Middle East.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Disrespectful distance

Well, that was fast. Just one day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had personally asked Turkey to refrain from violating the territorial integrity of northern Iraq, the Turks sent planes and helicopter gunships to attack Kurdish positions just outside of Iraq. On Sunday, the Associated Press reports, Turkey's choppers penetrated three miles into Iraqi territory and artillery shelled Kurdish positions inside Iraq. Is that respect, or what? The image of the United States abroad has fallen so far, even Turkey is willing to make our diplomats look bad. In just a few presidents, we have gone from a foreign policy that promoted human rights to one built on falsehoods and misunderstandings. We all know who is to blame for that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ask Dr. Bush

Was anybody surprised to hear that the White House cut out testimony about the anticipated health effects of global warming testimony given Tuesday by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? According to the Associated Press, the government removed details on health risks from the presentation by Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC, to the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Her testimony, as given, was substantially different from draft testimony submitted in advance and circulated through government agencies. One official called the changes "heavy-handed" and said Gerberding's testimony was "eviscerated." Of course, this is nothing more than business as usual for the Bush administration, which has consistently placed opinion above fact in advancing its military and social agenda. Have you noticed how President Bush and Vice President Cheney never give a speech unless it's in front of a hand-picked audience of enthusiastic supporters? This is their way of managing the news, just like they are trying to manage the facts and the science. Some officials in the government, including the Democratic leadership in the Congress, are, thankfully, beginning to tire of this as much as large segments of the public, which is why there is a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. But let's try not to be too vindictive next year, when the Republicans are sent home for good.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Turkish traffic

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pakistan questions

It will be a surprise if today's bloody attack on the convoy bringing Benazir Bhutto back to power in Pakistan was not done with government knowledge or involvement. While Bhutto herself blamed the attack on al-Qaida and other extremists in statements after the Karachi bombings, it would be a stroke of incredible fortune if the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf was not involved. The Pakistani government has denied involvement in the attack that killed dozens, which has been called an assassination attempt. But many of the circumstances invite further questioning, particularly the timing. Remember, the prime minister that Musharraf deposed in 1999, Nawaz Sharif, tried to return earlier this year but was not allowed to leave the airport. True, Musharraf reportedly had a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto, but such deals are no guarantee. The deal just means he won't kick her out peacefully. Look, we're talking about a tyrant here, a military dictator. It would be too perfect for Musharraf if Bhutto were killed in an "accident" that was not his responsiblity, thus removing Pakistan's most powerful pro-democracy leader at no political cost to his failing government. Government involvement does not necessarily mean Musharraf took a personal role, but officials could have permitted the attack by inaction. Maybe it isn't true, and maybe we will eventually find out the truth. The thing is, he's our guy. If he's responsible for this atrocity, then all of us are.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Balancing act

Looks like it was business as usual today in Congress, where Democratic and Republican senators agreed to approve a grant of legal immunity to telecom companies that have gone along with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. The Washington Post reported that the deal was reached after Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, decided to withdraw a competing bill that did not grant such sweeping immunity. Power in the government is supposed to be split amongst the branches, but the president has accumulated so much power since the Sept. 11 attacks that the usual checks on executivve power are not operating. President Bush has no respect for the traditions of power that have characterized the American democracy for over 200 years, and the Democrats seem powerless to reassert themselves, despite taking majorities in both houses of Congress after the November election. The Democrats, who lack the votes in the Senate to stop filibusters, continue to be cowed by Republican threats to portray them as weak on terrorism.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Foreign policy

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Environmental injustice

The Bush administration has been backing off from the federal government's traditional role as enforcer of pollution laws, the Washington Post reported. Criminal cases filed against polluters have dropped off by more than a third, and civil cases have fallen nearly 70 percent, EPA and Justice Department data reveal, the newspaper said. Of course, administration officials say this merely reflects a new approach to environmental enforcement that concentrates on cleanups, not criminal enforcement. But the administration has repeatedly failed the truth test on its statements -- think Iraq. More likely, the relaxation of enforcement relects a classic Republican tactic of bowing to the demands of large corporations that usually are the party's biggest campaign contributors. Of course, businesses have a huge stake in what the government does and have a right to object to things they disagree with. But let's not forget -- the president didn't get to the top of the Republican Party by disappointing its most important supporters.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Changing climate

That was just what I'm sure everyone wanted to hear, and today especially, on Blog Action Day. According to the New York Times, President Bush, speaking in Arkansas, said that his administration's voluntary approach to carbon emissions, which have been blamed for global warming, was working and that mandatory pollution caps are 'bad policy.' Of course, our president has no credibility on environmental policy, perhaps even less than he has on military policy. Bush, who rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol shortly after taking office in 2001, spoke about the environment during a question-and-answer session following a speech on the federal budget. The United Nations is sponsoring a conference on climate in Bali in December. Views from the Left Coast agreed to post about the environment today as a participant in Blog Action Day activities throughout the blogosphere.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Brotherly love

Let's be serious. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority currently being championed by Condoleezza Rice are doomed to failure unless the Palestinians give up their unrealistic expectations. While everyone hopes Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia can reach some kind of an accommodation, the far-reaching goals of the Palestinian Authority -- agreement on a permanent peace that includes right of return for millions of refugees and Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem -- are ridiculous. The peace part is totally right on, they need to have peace. But the other demands -- well, let's be honest about this. Such demands should be called what they are -- a pretext to ensure more and repeated conflict. The Palestinian people should be told the truth and should learn to live with it, instead of being told by their leaders -- the same ones who claim to seek peace with Israel -- that such demands are acceptable. If the Palestinians were truly serious about peace, they would agree to a deal that still would give them a lot more than they deserve -- an independent country. Israel will never give up sovereignty over East Jerusalem and its holy sites nor permit millions of Palestinian Arabs and their descendents to exert unrestricted claims over property they abandoned 40 years ago. When Jordan had sovereignty over East Jerusalem, it did not even permit Israelis to visit the holy sites. Arabs can visit the sites now. Similarly, Israel's Arab neighbors are not even considering honoring the rights of Jews who were forced to flee from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Working-class Palestinians and Israelis understand that peace, not conflict, is synonymous with prosperity for all of the people in the region. Conducting foreign policy to satisfy the demands of radical right-wing Palestinians does not serve the interests of the region, just as Israel fights every day to resist the demands of its radical right-wing minority. Tell the truth. Palestinians and Israelis are brothers; they can get along if they really want to.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Star power

What is going on with all these Bush administration loyalists? I know many of them are bailing because Bush's second term will be ending in 15 months, but what's with all the rhetoric. Of course, I'm talking specifically about retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who today called the U.S. involvement in Iraq "a nightmare with no end in sight." According to the New York Times, Sanchez, who left the army in April 2006, said the Bush administration's handling of the war was “catastrophically flawed" and "unrealistically optimistic." But Sanchez, who had previously been a staunch supporter of the war, was in charge during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal that tarnished the image of the United States worldwide. The three-star general resigned after being denied a fourth star, so some analysts say his comments could be seen as his way of seeking retribution for the lost promotion. We, of course, know that things don't actually work that way. It's far more likely that he kept his mouth shut about the war like a good soldier while he was driving it, even though he didn't like all of what was going on, and now is expressing his true feelings when he's out. Obviously, it would have been nice if he brought his concerns to the president while he was in charge of the troops, and maybe he did. After all, when all is said and done, what the president says goes.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Common sense

Condoleezza Rice, our secretary of state, thinks Iran is 'lying' about its nuclear intentions. Gee, ya think? How could anyone believe that a country awash with oil that is hell-bent on developing a nuclear capability wants the knowledge for power generation? Iran doesn't need nuclear power, they want nuclear weapons. Their leader, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, as much as said so the other day at the United Nations and again at Columbia University. If he does not want nuclear weapons, to paraphrase Shakespeare, I think he protests too much.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A few questions

Great Britain plans to reduce its force in Iraq by half and to limit itself to support for Iraqi troops in the country's south, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today, according to the Washington Post. By turning more authority over the Iraqi Army, Britain could cut its forces to 2,500 by spring, a far cry from the 46,000 British troops in Iraq as late as 2003. But what sounds like good news for the Brits raises serious questions for us. How have the British been able to turn their security duties over to the same Iraqi forces that the United States says are not adequately trained? It's true that the south of Iraq, which includes the major oil exporting city of Basra, has been quieter than Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. But is that because of the presence of the Brits? What are they doing that the United States has been unable to do? Or are they being unrealistic? Maybe insurgent forces are just waiting for the Brits to withdraw before they really start fighting and trying to take control of Basra. It sure would be nice if we could trust our own government to tell us the truth about what's going on.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Election coincidence

Less than hearty congratulations are due to Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf for yesterday's election triumph in which the incumbent president/general was returned to office for another term at the head of his troubled country. The voting by the 1,170 outgoing federal and provincial parliament lawmakers was bizarre; nearly 500 lawmakers belonging to opposition parties boycotted the vote. Musharraf got 671 votes and applauded himself on being re-elected, as did the National Security Council in Washington. Of course, the election still could be invalidated by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which still is deciding whether Musharraf is even eligible to run. But if Pakistan's Supreme Court is anything like the U.S. Supreme Court, forget about it. Remember, our own court ruled after the 2000 election that the best way to determine who won the balloting in Florida was to not count the rest of the votes. How could they ever have reached a result like that? Maybe the Pakistanis have something to show the rest of us.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Better than never

Today we get the word that Condoleeza Rice, the secretary of state, has approved new procedures ensuring that U.S. officials will accompany Blackwater USA security convoys operating in and around Baghdad. The procedures also include installation of video cameras on Blackwater's armored vehicles and keeping recordings of radio transmissions between the security company and U.S. agencies. Duh. Is it me, or is this an obvious thing that should have been done all along? Blackwater has been involved in 56 shootings this year alone; I'm glad we're doing finally something, but what took so long? The Times said the new rules were in reaction to the Sept. 16 shooting incident, when at least 17 Iraqi civilians were killed in an allegedly unprovoked shooting rampage by Blackwater agents, but that must be the reporters' personal opinion. It's obvious to me that the new rules were proposed in reaction to the outraged reaction to the incident and to the events that preceeded it. The U.S. government under George W. Bush doesn't do what the people want unless they are made to look ridiculous for not doing it. Of course, the new rules do not apply to the two other military contractors operating in Iraq. I guess they'll have to have dozens of their own outrageous incidents before the president does anything.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Democracy by example

The New York Times reports today that Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, two leading candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, have proposed making military contractors subject to American law enforcement in reaction to the developing scandal involving Blackwater USA. Edwards even called for an end to the use of contractors for military and security missions. Obama proposed creating a special FBI unit to oversee such contractors. It's certainly refreshing to see candidates take a stand on an issue while it's still relevant, even though it seems obvious what the right thing to do it. We're the United States. We're an inspiration to the world; we're not a bunch of reckless, lawless people. We don't conduct ourselves that way, despite what George W. Bush thinks.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Blackwater black eye

The more we learn about the conduct of Blackwater USA and other private contractors hired by the U.S. government to protect diplomats in Iraq, the worse it gets. The New York Times reported today that the State Department has opened its third review of the Blackwater following the Sept. 16 shooting incident that outraged the Iraqi government. Turns out the security company's guards have opened fire 56 times this year alone, killing perhaps dozens of civilians in Baghdad. The Iraqi government was enraged by the shootings and sought to kick Blackwater out of the country, but the United States apparently got the Iraqis to cool their rhetoric. The United States has long protected these security contractors but it's long past time for the legal immunity these companies have enjoyed since the days of the provisional government to be eliminated and for some of these cowboys to be brought up on criminal charges. And while we're doing that, let's have a public discussion about whether our government should be in the business of hiring outside companies to do the security work that our tens of thousands of soldiers should be doing.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Bad instincts

Just when it gets hard to imagine how much worse the Bush administration can possibly get, the president takes a new step into the absurd. Bush's insistence on vetoing the highly popular $35 billion extension of the State Children's Health Insurance Program is such a move. Extending health coverage for children whose parents cannot afford private health insurance seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? More than 70 percent of the people support it, according to a New York Times poll released today, yet Bush is determined not to sign the bill. Could it be the White House is out of touch with the American people? Isn't that a suprise. Pushing the Democrats around on foreign policy is one thing, but domestic policy is a far different thing. Does anyone else still wonder how Bush got elected in the first place? Oh yeah.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Losing our religion

There was a time not long ago when the United States would have had something to say about the dreadful goings on in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Unfortunately, there is only silence from the White House about the military junta's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in the main city of Yangon and across the country. After tolerating a couple of days of protests, authorities sent troops to fire on demonstrators to stop the protests, killing perhaps scores or hundreds of unarmed civilians, including highly respected Buddhist monks. Sounds like Tianenman Square all over again. Tianenman Square was where Chinese troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989, killing hundreds if not thousands. China is one of the United States' largest trading partners and just happens to be the biggest backer of the military junta in Myanmar. There is a cost to the United States' loss of moral authority in the world under the Bush administration.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Orwellian turns

Well, I guess we learned our lesson. Just days after permitting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak to students at Columbia University during a trip to speak to the United Nations — Iran's parliament voted to declare the CIA and the U.S. Army as terrorist organizations. Ouch. That hurts. A totalitarian regime with a leader whose verbosity is matched only by his lack of knowledge is criticizing us? Of course, Iran was responding to a U.S. Senate resolution urging the State Department to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group and subjecting it to asset seizure and other economic sanctions. But while a lot of Iran's long list of complaints against the U.S. were ludicrous, some were not. The Bush administration's approval of torture for imprisoned terror suspects (the so-called unlawful enemy combatants) violates the Geneva Conventions to which we were a proud supporter is a stain on the United States' long history of respect for the rule of law. But that doesn't make our governmental agencies terrorist organizations any more than it makes Ahmadinejad a reasonable person.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Face to face with totalitarian

Wasn't that just a bit scary? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sounded so reasonable, it was easy to see how that country's leadership could have gone for him. This is the face of dictatorship, and it doesn't look a bit like George W. Bush. Of course, I'm talking about Ahmadinejad's speech to Columbia University students, in which the Iranian president defended his seemingly unbelievable positions on Iraq, Israel, nuclear weapons and homosexuality. Ahmadinejad was in New York to speak to the United Nations, and it shows how enlightened we still are that both forums were available to him. The Iranian leader got a very rude welcome from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, which Ahmadinejad quite correctly said was rude, but proceeded to defend his country's policies, which have caused no small amount of distress in Washington.

Monday, September 24, 2007

War is heck

Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the Washington Post reported today about a Defense Department program of using Army snipers to kill Iraqis who pick up fake bomb-making material and weapons planted by our forces. The program came to light during court-martial proceedings involving three Army Rangers soldiers who killed Iraqi civilians in such operations and planted incriminating evidence on the bodies to help justify the slayings. The tactic raises ethical questions about U.S. conduct in Iraq, since our country has long recognized that it's improper to kill innocent civilians in war. That's why the soldiers are being court-martialed. Of course, if the material is picked up by insurgents, the military has the legal right to kill them. The problem is being sure of who's who. But it occurs to me -- when was the last time we heard about armed government employees shooting people and planting weapons on them to justify the killings? Yes, it sounds an awful lot like the police, doesn't it?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Trouble in paradise

So, it turns out that Blackwater USA, the U.S. government-contracted security company involved in the shooting deaths of unarmed civilians in Baghdad last week, has been involved in several violent episodes this year in which civilians were killed. Plus, the Washington Post reported today, Iraqi government officials have complained about incidents involving Blackwater several times, but were ignored by U.S. officials. Well, isn't this getting juicy. We have hired mercenaries to protect diplomats in Iraq and they have been committing atrocities against Iraqi civilians. We have to stop it. The Iraqi government is powerless to do anything because of laws passed by the old U.S.-dominated provisional government giving security contractors immunity from liability. I suppose that might have been understandable when Iraq had no governmental authorities in place, but that is not the situation now, and the Iraqis are justifiably unhappy about the situation. I wonder if President Bush is willing to take time from his Web site review duties to get to the bottom of this.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Stuff to do

Is that the problem? Is that why President Bush misled the public and got us into a ruinous war -- he didn't have enough to do and was bored? How else to explain why the president has the time to criticize a newspaper advertisement from an anti-war Web site? If you don't already know, our commander-in-chief used time at his recent press conference to attack the "Betray Us" ad from as "disgusting." Disgusting? Irreverant, perhaps; controversial, perhaps; but disgusting? He refuses to explain why the Israelis bombed some target in Syria, apparently at our suggestion or urging, but he can discuss a newspaper ad? That's disgusting. What's next -- does the White House plan to brief reporters on its position on department store advertising or the Victoria's Secret catalogue?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On the outsource

So, let's review. Armed private security guards operating in Iraq under contract to the U.S. government kill as many as 20 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Iraqi government is outraged, claims contractor's personnel were not reacting to a car bomb but instead shot indiscriminately at civilians. Iraqi government revokes contractor's authorization to operate in the country. U.S. diplomats in Iraq are barred from traveling outside the green zone, because BlackwaterUSA is the contractor who protects them. Today, the New York Times reports, Iraq begins to back away from its revoc ation claim and agrees to develop new rules to hold such contractors accountable. So, what happened? It looks to me that what happened is precisely the kind of thing that is sure to happen in the kind of armed chaos that is post-invasion Iraq. Hopefully, a promised investigation will be able to determine exactly what happened. But that's kind of doubtful. What will hopefully happen now is the U.S. will start to reconsider the whole private contractor thing in a war zone. How could it have come to this anyway? Private security companies guarding our diplomats? Don't we have 160,000 soldiers in Iraq? How many more do we need? When the president withdraws the 30,000 surge troops this year, will he authorize 30,000 more private soldiers to take their places? What's going on?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What's duh problem?

All this fuss about former federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's comment about the Iraq war . . . what is everybody thinking? All Greenspan said in his new book was that he advised Bush and Cheney that removing Saddam Hussein would help stabilize the world oil situation. So what? Does anyone actually think that Iraq's oil reserves weren't part of the equation when the United States decided to pour thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars into a very risky military endeavor in Iraq? Please. Just because the Bush administration says Iraq's oil had nothing to do with its decision doesn't make it so. The administration has lied consistently on Iraq.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pakistan conundrum

The New York Times reported today that Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, will return to Pakistan next month after Ramadan, ostensibly to challenge Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the country's president. She apparently will return whether she reaches a power-sharing deal with Musharraf or not. If she doesn't, or even if she does, Bhutto is subject to arrest on past corruption charges. Are these true? Does anyone know? What's important about Pakistan is not only that it is a nuclear-armed country, but that Musharraf is, ostensibly, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror. This, as we've discussed, despite the fact that areas of his country are overrun by the precisely the same insurgents that the war on terror is supposed to be rooting out. Musharraf is our guy, he wasn't shunned because he joined our team, and now we have to try to influence to embrace democratic reform in the country he has dominated since 1999. Is the U.S. up to this challenge?