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.