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.