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.