Monday, March 31, 2008

Iraq government loses its nerve

What sort of deal did the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government in Iraq offer renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to get him to pull his forces off the streets of Basra and other cities? Probably the least of it is that al-Maliki's Shiite supporters will stop arresting members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, whose cooperation in the past year has helped the government maintain the appearance of authority. The deal may also include the release of militiamen being held without charges in Iraqi jails. While the deal preserves al-Maliki's government for now, this past week's failed attack on the Mahdi Army has revealed how weak the government is, even with billions of dollars of U.S. support. The attack on al-Sadr's forces did not dislodge them from Basra and other southern Iraq cities but instead made them even more popular. In the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a Baghdad district, al-Sadr supporters handed out sweets to celebrate, according to the Associated Press. A jump in the number of daily attacks on the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, the government center where diplomats are located, demonstrated just how tenuous the government's control over the country actually is. One of al-Maliki's top security officials was killed in a mortar attack, the AP said.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Slow progress in the Middle East

The sharp divisions among Arab states highlighted Saturday at the opening of the 22-nation Arab League in Damascus, Syria, reflect the advance of Western ideology in the politically backward region. At least 10 Arab countries kept their heads of state home for the start of the summit, which opened with a speech by Syrian President Bashar Assad, to protest Syria's role in Lebanon and other Middle East hotspots, according to the Associated Press. Assad, whose regime is deeply involved in Lebanon's political crisis, is closely aligned with Iran and is believed to be supporting the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups, threatened to withdraw the Arab League's unrealistic six-year-old peace proposal to Israel. Heads of state from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco and Somalia, which have strong relations with the United States, did not attend the summit, and Lebanon did not send any diplomats at all. The division is a welcome change from the rabidly anti-Israel positions most Arab states have taken in the past. But not all Arab states were even that flexible. In his speech to the summit, Assad denied that Syria was interfering in Lebanon and said the Arab League proposal, which offers peace with Israel in exchange for withdrawal to pre-1967 borders and the creation of a Palestinian state, would not be on the table forever. It's no wonder Israel has refused to accept the proposal, except as a starting point for talks. "Peace will not come except through withdrawal from occupied Arab land and giving back (Arab) rights," Assad said, according to the Associated Press. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa suggested that Arab foreign ministers meet this summer to evaluate the Arab-Israeli peace process. "We must know in which direction we are moving," Moussa said. "If there is progress, we will welcome it. If there is not, then Arabs may have to take painful positions." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reportedly headed to the region to meet with Israeli and Arab leaders.

Getting out cheap

Stepped up fighting across Iraq this week, particularly in Basra and Baghdad, further illustrates how clueless U.S. policymakers have been in the five-year-old conflict. The United States allowed close-ally Great Britain to withdraw most of its forces from Basra, the center of Iraq's oil industry, and turn control over the Iraq's oil-rich south to Iraqi security forces. Now, it seems, those security forces are no match for the Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army or a number of other Shite militias now controlling Basra's streets. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed. An offensive ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to regain control appears to have made no progress, leaving a huge power vacuum that U.S. troops are going to have to fill. How could the United States have miscalculated so badly, yet again, five years into the war? Even Baghdad has again become a battlefield, with daily attacks on the fortified Green Zone that houses Iraqi and U.S. officials. President Bush called the start of the Basra offensive a "defining moment" in the Iraq conflict, but it looks like another "mission accomplished" moment instead.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who likes Bush proposal?

The alphabet soup agency names are confusing, but U.S. residents can be sure of one thing if President Bush gets his way on a proposed overhaul of regulations overseeing the financial services industry — more will be less. The purpose of proposals to switch regulatory power from one agency to another and to expanding the power of the Federal Reserve is not to improve government oversight but to do the opposite — to insulate Wall Street financial powerhouses from the wrath of the people affected by their misdeeds. Removing the power to regulate Wall Street from the Securities and Exchange Commission, a government agency, and transferring it to the Federal Reserve, which is independent of the government, is the centerpiece of the Bush proposal, and it's not hard to see why. The plan is being sold as a way to give the Federal Reserve more power to control what happens on Wall Street, where respected companies are being steamrolled by the credit crisis that brought down the mortgage industry. But how is reducing government control of the economy going to increase government's ability to oversee the economy? It isn't, and it's not intended to. The collapse of Bear Stearns, the nation's fifth-largest investment bank, which had to rescued by a government-arranged buyout by JP Morgan Chase, is a warning of what is ahead. Because while bureaucrats and money managers bicker of whether the $2 per share price of the buyout was ridiculous or not, thousands of workers are losing the retirement savings they spent decades accumulating. The financial sector is backing the Bush proposal — like the major players would ever support increased government scrutiny. That alone should tell everybody what they need to know.

Kenya growing pains

Parties to the historic power-sharing deal that settled a deadly political crisis that brought Kenya to the brink of anarchy have come too far to be sidetracked now. But negotiators for President Mwai Kibaki's Party for National Unity and Prime Minister-designate Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement have stopped talking in a deadlock over the makeup of a coalition government. The disagreement apparently concerns the painstaking allocation of cabinet seats between the two parties and the public offering of shares in Safaricom, a top mobile phone operator in east Africa. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan of Ghana, who mediated the power-sharing deal that stopped weeks of tribal violence in normally calm Kenya cities, has been summoned to help the parties return to negotiations. Annan is negotiating with both sides, the Reuters international news service reported Thursday. More than 1,200 people died in ethnic violence after Kibaki's re-election in December in an election marred by a problematic vote count. The deal with opposition leader Odinga took power from the presidency by creating post of prime minister.

Seemed like a good idea

Is this where the War on Terror is headed? Thursday's news out of Los Angeles that a woman was demanding an apology from the U.S. Transportation Security Agency for forcing her to remove nipple rings before she boarded a flight from Lubbock, Texas, in February raises troubling questions. Is that really what any of us want the government to be doing? The fact that airport personnel forced the woman, 37-year-old Mandi Hamlin, to remove one of her nipple rings with pliers before permitting her to board illustrates the ludicrousness of the government's position. Certainly the TSA has policies on how to handle sensitive situations — humiliating the customer, whose taxes help pay for the agency and its employees, is certainly not one of them. These airport baggage inspectors were making up the rules as the situation unfolded, not following established guidelines, and that's a sure way to lose the respect of the public. Give the government power and it always takes more. Remember the ban on bottled water? Law-abiding U.S. citizens tolerate a lot of insults in the interests of security these days — they practically can't go into a government building they paid for or meet a family member at an airport without submitting to a search. Fortunately, Hamlin has hired well-known Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who will at least be able to make the agency squirm. In a written statement after the incident, the TSA said the threat of female terrorists hiding explosives on their bodies was increasing. "TSA is well aware of terrorists' interest in hiding dangerous items in sensitive areas of the body, therefore we have a duty to the American public to resolve any alarm we discover," the agency said. Maybe it's time to re-examine the rules of flying to take power away from the TSA, maybe even to eliminate it altogether, along with its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and replace them with agencies more accountable to and respectful of the public.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The five tenors

Just what were those five former U.S. secretaries of state thinking yesterday when they encouraged President Bush to open a dialogue with Iran and to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center? Did they really think that reason was driving U.S. foreign policy? Don't they still read the newspaper? Colin Powell, who was Bush's first secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, all offered common sense suggestions to current world affairs complications when they spoke at a University of Georgia-sponsored forum in Athens. "One has to talk with adversaries," said Henry Kissinger, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Baker served under the first President Bush and Albright and Christopher served under President Clinton. The five also said the closure of Guantanamo Bay, where suspected terrorists have been held for years without trial in violation of the Geneva Conventions, would help restore the tarnished international image of the United States. Thank you very much. But who were they talking to? Was this for the consumption of the general public? The Bush administration is certainly not listening.

Election time in Zimbabwe

Opponents of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe accused the longtime leader of planning to steal Saturday's election in the troubled African nation. Simba Makoni, the former finance minister who abandoned the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party to run against Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change and Arthur Mutambara, who leads a small MDC faction, told reporters in Harare on Thursday that they had evidence of planned ballot rigging. "We believe there is a very well thought out, sophisticated and premeditated plan to steal this election from us," Makoni said after a meeting between the three opposition leaders, according to the Reuters international news service. "We are satisfied that the integrity and credibility of this election is gravely in doubt." Critics say the 84-year-old Mugabe had held onto power in Zimbabwe for 28 years through patronage and a security force, and blame him for ruining the country's economy, once considered Africa's most promising. Mugabe blames Zimbabwe's troubles on sanctions imposed by Western nations to punish him for seizing property owned by white landowners. Mugabe says the measures had harmed health care in Zimbabwe, which is one of the countries worst affected by HIV/AIDS. "Our health sector (once) operated in a regional and international context that was free of the illegal sanctions which weigh us down today," Mugabe said during a ceremony to present new automobiles to senior and middle-level doctors at government hospitals. Mugabe promised the doctors houses and said he had used his own money to buy flat screen televisions for hospitals. Zimbabwe's inflation rate is more than 100,000 percent. U.S. President George W. Bush called Mugabe a "discredited dictator" in a speech last month.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

China crackdown

Ignoring an international furor that has cast a shadow on the Summer Olympics, China today stepped up its campaign against pro-independence protesters in ethnic Tibetan regions, according to the Reuters international news service. More arrests were reported in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, and China promised increased control over monasteries as unrest spread to the western province of Qinghai. Hundreds of people sat down in protest after security forces blocked a protest march, Reuters said. The Tibet government in exile says 140 people have been killed since Chinese soldiers began firing on protesters who turned violent and rioted. But China, which has banned Western reporters from Tibet and is trying to keep control over the protesters, claims only 19 have died. Several European countries, notably France, have begun to talk about boycotting the Summer Olympics in Beijing this summer if China's crackdown continues. China had hoped to use the Olympics to showcase its arrival as a world economic power. China has blamed the protests on the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet, who leads the government-in-exile in India and has been an outspoken proponent of more autonomy for the region.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Giving up on Musharraf

The presence of senior U.S. officials in Pakistan appears to demonstrate that Washington is finally willing to cut ties with President Pervez Musharraf and work with opposition parties who have taken control of the new civilian government. President Bush telephoned the new Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, after his swearing-in today to underline U.S. support. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher already were in Pakistan to attend the swearing-in ceremony. Musharraf, the former army commander who seized power in a coup in 1999 and has had the financial and military backing of the United States, appears to be on the way out after his political party was roundly defeated in last month's parliamentary elections. Gilani immediately released the Supreme Court justices who Musharraf had arrested to stop them from ruling on challenges to his re-election. The U.S. officials wanted assurances from Pakistan that it would maintain a hard line on militant groups operating in the border region with Afghanistan. "Pakistan would continue to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations since it is in Pakistan's own national interest," Gilani told Bush, according to the Reuters international news agency. U.S. officials apparently feared a backlash from the civilian coalition that took nearly two-thirds of the seats in the national assembly, since the leaders of both parties — Gilani of the Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League-N were jailed by Musharraf. But Washington considers Pakistan a vital ally in the war against terror, whether Musharraf is in charge or not. Gilani spent five years in custody and Sharif, who was prime minister when Musharraf seized power, was sentenced to life in prison but was exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2000.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Musharraf on the mat

The democratic process has not been good for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, and his time as head of state is running out. The country's National Assembly today chose a loyal supporter of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, and Yousaf Raza Gilani ordered the release of Supreme Court justices detained by Musharraf in November. Gilani also called for a U.N. investigation into Bhutto's assassination after her triumphant return from exile last year. Musharraf, who resigned as army head last year after winning a second five-year term as president, had said he wanted to work with the new government, which is now dominated by two anti-Musharraf parties. But Gilani's first moves seem aimed at confrontation, not cooperation, with Musharraf. Musharraf declared a national emergency last November and had the Supreme Court justices removed from office just before they were expected to rule that his re-election was unconstitutional. Shouts of "long live Bhutto" and "Go, Musharraf, go" were heard in the Assembly visitor's gallery after Monday's vote, according to the Reuters international news service. Musharraf seized power in Pakistan in 1999 in a coup that toppled the government led by Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who joined with Bhutto's party in a coalition opposing the former general's rule. But Musharraf has been backed by billions of dollars in aid from the United States, which considers Pakistan a key component of the war on terror.

Gloating in Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez called last week's decision by a British court to lift its freeze on $12 billion in assets "historic" at a public celebration today in Caracas. The anti-U.S. Chavez, whose popularity appeared to have peaked after losing a national referendum on socialist reforms last year, heralded the decision as "a victory against imperialism" at Monday's celebration, according to the Reuters international news service. "I feel like the manager of a great baseball team who, after being in the lowest categories you can image, suddenly our team is playing major league and beating the New York Yankees," Chavez told hundreds of workers at the event. Chavez, who still is wildly popular among Venezuela's poor because of his government's lavish social spending, is a baseball fan. The ruling, which the judge said he would explain on Thursday, lifted a court-ordered freeze on assets held by PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil company, after Exxon Mobil filed sued in several countries seeking to block the nationalization of its Venezuelan assets. Venezuela nationalized several foreign-controlled oil projects in the Orinoco oil belt last year. Most companies had agreed to compensation deals, but Exxon Mobil refused to settle and went to court. Chavez cut supplies of oil to Exxon Mobil and threatened to cut off oil entirely to the United States, the country's biggest customer. Lawyers for Exxon Mobil and Petroleos de Venezuela declined to comment on the ruling, Reuters said.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Doing the math

Another four U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq late today, putting the official U.S. death toll over 4,000. Yes, it's unbelievably tragic. Those 4,000 Americans have spouses and children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters — and all of them will never forget George W. Bush's war, even after the nasty politics have faded into history. But let's not forget — this is the cost of war, and we can't have one without the other. The only thing the citizens get to decide is whether it was worth it, and only after the fact. And let's also not forget the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed and remember that it doesn't really matter what side they were on — their spouses, children, parents and siblings won't ever be able to forget, either. Bush may truly have no regrets, as he said in a March 19 speech marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the war, but that's not the way it feels to people of both countries who have been forced to bear the losses.

China's disingenuous rhetoric

The more China has to say on Tibet, the worse the government sounds. Today, China's government accused the Dalai Lama of plotting to hijack the Beijing Olympics planned for August and blasted U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for expressing support for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader after a visit with him in India on Friday. But China's protestations sound less like genuine concerns and more like propaganda aimed at blunting worldwide outrage and events unfolding in western China. China has sent thousands of soldiers to Tibet and other western provinces to prevent protests, banned western journalists from the region and tried to stop Internet broadcasts of videotapes of protests in Tibet. China acknowledged today that 22 people had been killed since pro-independence protests began in Tibet 10 days ago; the Dalai Lama's government in exile says at least 99 people have died, many at the hands of the soldiers. But China has been attempting to manage the news that does manage to emanate from Tibet — it apparently was responsible for footage sent to YouTube, which is banned in China, of rioters in Llasa, Tibet's capital — and turning up the rhetoric. "'Human rights police' like Pelosi are habitually bad tempered and ungenerous when it comes to China, refusing to check their facts and find out the truth of the case," China's official Xinhua New Agency said today, according to the Associated Press. "Her views are like so many other politicians and western media. Beneath the double standards lies their intention to serve the interest groups behind them, who want to contain or smear China." The Dalai Lama has denied the charges and says he's only looking for dialog with Beijing. A Pelosi spokesman said Sunday that she condemned the crackdown in Tibet. Calls for a boycott of the Beijing games have started in many countries, including the European Union. China had hoped the games would showcase its embrace of modernity and enhance its reputation as a world power. The ceremonial lighting of the Olympic torch is planned tomorrow in Greece, and the torch will be carried through 20 countries before the games open Aug. 8.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Here's the beef

News that one of two men videotaped abusing cattle at a Chino, Calif., slaughterhouse last month will be jailed for six months and deported should not be the end of the story, but it probably will be. The man, Rafael Sanchez Herrera, pleaded guilty yesterday to three counts of animal abuse in San Bernardino County Superior Court and will serve six months in jail as part of a plea arrangement that includes deportation to Mexico. The videotape, shot by animal rights advocates, led to the largest beef recall — 143 million pounds — in U.S. history because of the risk of mad cow disease. Actually, the other worker at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. taped dragging and prodding apparently sick cattle to slaughter will have to be tried -- Herrera's former supervisor, Daniel Ugarte Navarro -- since he pleaded innocent to animal cruelty charges on Thursday, according to the Associated Press. Then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will no doubt try to hang its own "mission accomplished" banner. But the incident demonstrated the fallacy of slaughterhouse regulation in the United States — there's too much going on for the government to watch everyone — and exposed the moral contradiction of factory-raising animals for food. These are issues that require a lot of investigation and soul-searching, and cannot be resolved merely with a short jail sentence or a boot across the border. When are we going to start that process? After all, does anyone think the slap on the wrist Scooter Libby got resolved the issue of Bush administration misconduct in the buildup to the Iraq war?

Breaking with China?

At least some U.S. leaders have the courage to condemn China's violent response to pro-independence protesters in Tibet. While President Bush has kept quiet as soldiers attacked demonstrators, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and three presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have spoken out against China's crackdown. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the administration has expressed its concerns to China in private, according to the New York Times, but Bush has committed to attending the Summer Olympics in Beijing in August even as calls for a boycott grow louder. Pelosi visited the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, in India on Friday and called China's response to the protests "a challenge to conscience of the world." The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959, when China crushed an uprising in Tibet. Tibet has been under Chinese control since 1950. "If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China's oppression in China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world," Pelosi said. China's ambassador to India, Zhang Yan, characterized Pelosi's visit as interference in China's internal affairs. Bush welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House in October, a visit that was condemned at the time by China.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

China view

Reports from China's southwestern Sichuan province say many people have died in riots since the government sent soldiers to quell pro-independence demonstrations in and around Tibet. Witnesses reported as many as 10 people killed in Aba prefecture when government troops fired on demonstrators, the Reuters international news service said. China has sent thousands of soldiers to the region to short-circuit the unrest, which has led activists to call for a boycott of the summer Olympics scheduled for Beijing in August. The Chinese government is anxious for the games to go smoothly as it shows the world its new prominence. But rising tensions in Tibet, which China overran in 1950, have spread to neighboring areas with large Tibetan populations. China also appears to have started a public relations campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has lived in exile since 1959. The government said the Dalai Lama was orchestrating the violence to embarrass China before the Olympics and agitate for independence in Tibet. The Tibet Daily newspaper, which is owned by the government, called the Dalai Lama "a faithful tool of Western anti-China forces, the general source of social chaos in Tibet," Reuters said. U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia said as many as 2,000 monks and their supporters were protesting in Huangnan prefecture in Sichuan.

Cheney time

Nice to see that Vice President Dick Cheney was able to sneak into Afghanistan today to meet with U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai and urge NATO members to commit more troops to the NATO force fighting there. The 43,000-member International Security Assistance Force took over the bulk of the military duties from U.S. forces in 2006, five years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to expel the Taliban and al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. A third of the ISAF troops are from the United States, which also has 13,000 troops in Afghanistan under separate command. "ISAF has made a tremendous difference in the country and America will ask our NATO allies for an even stronger commitment for the future," Cheney told a news conference with Karzai in Kabul, according to the Reuters international news service. The future of ISAF is expected to be a primary topic of a NATO summit next month in Bucharest. The ISAF mission is the first deployment of NATO forces outside Europe and many of the alliance's 26 countries have sharp disagreements about the mission. U.S., British, Canadian and Dutch troops are doing most of the fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan, while France, Germany and other countries have refused to allow their troops to be send into combat. Also Thursday, the U.N. Security Council voted to extend the mandate of the United Nations' diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. At the Kabul press conference, Karzai argued for expansion of the NATO force. "The continuation of NATO in Afghanistan is very, very important," he said. "As the Afghan National Army gets stronger, there will be less pressure and responsibility on the foreign security forces." Hmm, when have we heard that before?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Saying no to bull

Imagine what would happen to our society if judges returned to their original purpose and made their trials into searches for truth, not stages for ritual legal drama. Today's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, overturning the death penalty and ordering a new trial for a Louisiana man convicted of killing his estranged wife and her male friend in 1996, looks like a major step in that direction. In a 7-2 ruling, the court held that the conviction was improper because the prosecutor excluded all five potential black jurors from the trial on the basis of race, despite the prosecutor's claims that he did not. What is significant about this is not the ruling about race, which is fairly settled law. What was unusual, at least to this observer, was that the Supreme Court said it had to look beyond the lawyers' arguments and figure out the meaning behind the words. The court found that even though the prosecutor contended there were other reasons besides race to exclude the five black potential jurors from the trial of Allen Snyder, a black former Marine who turns 46 on Friday, the truth was that the other reasons were weak or, as the majority said, "suspicious." Then again, there apparently was no question about whether Snyder was responsible for the deaths. The only question was whether it was murder, which would make Snyder eligible for the death penalty, or another form of homicide which would not. In fact, one of Snyder's attorneys, Jelpi Picou of the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, said the charge against Snyder should be reduced to manslaugher. The majority opinion was written by Samuel Alito, who was appointed to the court by the current President Bush.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Voodoo that they do

Let it never be said that President Bush is a pessimist. The man who refused to interrupt his reading of My Pet Goat while terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon also refuses to say the "r" word, instead saying the plummeting U.S. economy was experiencing "some difficulty" while his top economic advisers seemed to be cleaning out their desks. The same day that Bush said the U.S. economy was going through a "challenging time," Treasury Secretary Paulson admitted the economy was in "sharp decline" and the Federal Reserve slashed a key interest rate by three-quarters of a point. Is everybody on the same page? Bush spoke Tuesday in Florida after touring the Port of Jacksonville; Paulson made his remarks after spending a long weekend arranging the fire sale of one of Wall Street's most well-known investment firms, Bear Stearns, to keep it out of bankruptcy. But bankruptcy is just a technical term in this case. Tens of thousands of workers and investors still lost billions of dollars they had invested in company stock. "This is a challenging time for our economy," Bush said, according to the Reuters international news service. "In the long run, Americans ought to have confidence in our economy. I understand there's short-term difficulty, and I want people to understand that in the long run we're going to be fine." That's easy for a rich guy from a rich family to say — what about all of those people who lost their retirements? This is a time of trillion-dollar deficits, wars fought with borrowed money and $100 a barrel petroleum, and still the White House wants more tax cuts. If there really are moving vans lined up at White House and Treasury Department, and by the end of January there surely will be, it's time to worry.

Success in Kenya

Looks like Kenya's chief political rivals will get the opportunity to put their conflict-ravaged country back together now that parliament unanimously approved the power-sharing deal that helped resolve a violent post-election dispute that killed more than 1,000 and forced 300,000 to flee their homes. Kenya's legislators approved legal changes to create the post of prime minister for opposition leader Raila Odinga, whose claims that President Mwai Kibaki had stolen December's election prompted weeks of tribal violence that severely damaged Kenya's reputation as an economic success story. Kibaki's Party of National Unity and Odinga's Orange Democratic Union reached the agreement last month after negotiations mediated by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. As part of the deal, the two parties will name deputy prime ministers and split the chairmanships of government departments. The new coalition government will have 12 months to rewrite the country's constitution to resolve long-running grievances over power and land distribution that apparently fueled the violence. "Where we have come to now is a joy," Kibaki told parliament before the vote, according to the Reuters international news service. "We are genuinely seeking a solution to our problem. I am quite sure myself that we have found an answer." Odinga made similar comments in his speech before the vote, which drew loud applause in the parliament chamber. "We need to feel part and parcel of one and the same," he said. "Let us now fuse together as one people who want to do something for the people of Kenya," he said to loud applause, according to Reuters.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ethnic studies abroad

NATO troops in armored personnel carriers retook the Mitrovica courthouse in northern Kosovo on Monday that had been overrun by anti-independence rioters Friday in the most serious challenge to the new Kosovo state. NATO said its troops came under fire today as they entered the courthouse, which has become a flashpoint in the war of nerves and tempers that has erupted since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia last month. Independent Kosovo was quickly recognized by the United States and several European nations, but Serbia, Russia and China have stayed angrily opposed. Tensions had gotten so high in northern Kosovo, which is largely ethnic Serbian, that U.N. forces that had run Kosovo since 1999 had to be withdrawn and replaced by NATO peacekeepers. The population of Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Bridges over the Ibar river that divides the Serb north from the Albanian south were closed, according to the Reuters international news service. The United States condemned the violence against U.N. and NATO soldiers. "We urge all communities in Kosovo to remain calm and we call on the Serbian government to denounce these acts of violence and take affirmative steps to reduce tensions," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casy said. The United Nations has controlled Kosovo since 1999, when NATO forces drove Serbia out of Kosovo in an effort to stop attacks on Albanians. Serbia, which is nearly all that's left of the old Yugoslavia, regards Kosovo as the heart of its historic civilization.

Failure in Tibet

Initial reports from Tibet say Chinese soldiers are firing on pro-independence protesters on the streets of the capital, Llasa, and that scores already have been killed, the Reuters international news service said Monday. China denies it, but has refused to allow Western news media to approach Tibet. If it is true, the United States had better think twice about attending the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the Bush administration had better rethink its policy of growing more and more economically dependent on China. If China is slaughtering Tibetan monks and others on the streets of the country it occupied in 1959, the leaders in Beijing are going to have to be subject to consequences, including re-imposition of tariffs on Chinese products. China hasn't been playing by the same monetary rules as everybody else anyway, and now we see the results of letting it slide on human rights, too. China blames the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, for fomenting the unrest, but people know better in the West. No one has forgotten China's deadly attack on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Tienanmen Square in 1989. If China cannot behave like a civilized nation, it should not be treated like one on the world stage.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Now, what?

News that Vice President Dick Cheney left Sunday for a trip to the Middle East doesn't appear to be any cause for optimism. Cheney plans to visit Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Turkey on his nine-day trip, where he plans to discuss U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Middle East peace, and the skyrocketing price of oil. "It's a very long list and rich agenda," said John Hannah, Cheney's national security adviser, according to the Reuters international news service. "Clearly, our ongoing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be discussed," John Hannah, national security adviser to Cheney, told reporters. "Middle East peace, Iran, the situation in Syria, Lebanon, the violence in Gaza, energy -- it's a very long list and rich agenda." Cheney is expected to ramp up the diplomatic pressure on the Palestinians and Israelis to make progress in their negotiations. President Bush visited the region in January and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was there earlier this month. A senior U.S. official also told Reuters that Cheney would be pushing Arab states to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq and exchange ambassadors for the post-Saddam Hussein era. "The United States can do a lot for Iraq, but we cannot provide Iraq with an anchor in the Arab world, a kind of legitimacy for the new Iraqi project that comes from being fully integrated in its neighborhood," the unnamed official said.

72 years later

China's crackdown in Tibet, coming in reaction to protests that began just five months before the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, presents an historic opportunity for the Chinese government to show what it has learned since the Tianenman Square massacre and just how serious it is about being a world power. Soldiers and police locked down the streets of Llasa, Tibet's capital, on Sunday in an effort to quell violent street protests against Chinese rule that have already resulted in as many as 40 deaths. But protests are spreading to other Tibetan cities, according to the Reuters international news service. This is the perfect time, with the world watching, for the Chinese government to do the right thing and respond peacefully and reasonably to the protesters' demands. The success of the Beijing Olympic Games depends on it. If the Chinese put down the protests brutally, like they did to pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananman Square in 1989, many countries will boycott and try to delegitimize the games — and rightly so. The nations of the world cannot afford to heap praise on and offer more stature to another brutal regime. The specter of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany still hangs over the games — and rightly so.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Those darned amendments

Maybe the drafters of the U.S. Constitution had it right, from the beginning. The Bill of Rights — you know, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to a fair trial — aren't part of the original document but were added. They're the first 10 amendments. Maybe we all should be like Michael Mukasey, the attorney general, and figure they can be ignored because they came later, like a woman's right to vote. Speaking today at the London School of Economics, Mukasey recommended against the death penalty for six Guantanamo Bay prisoners charged with involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. "I hope they don't get the death penalty — they would see themselves as martyrs," Mukasey said, according to the Reuters international news service. "If those are not poster children for the death penalty, I don't know what is." That may very well be true, but there's a very big problem — they haven't been tried yet. An attorney representing one of the detainees, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, said the death penalty case against his client, Mohammed al-Qahtani, had already been tainted by suspected abuse of the prisoner and that Mukasey's comments were improper. "I appreciate him being on my side on the death penalty thing, but I don't need his help," Broyles said, according to Reuters. Larry Cox of Amnesty International USA called Mukasey's comments "extremely disturbing." "You have the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the country indicating that he thinks they are guilty," Cox said. The Pentagon declined to comment. Charges have been filed against of 13 of Guantanamo Bay's more than 275 prisoners.

Poisoned atmosphere

Don't act all shocked to hear that President Bush administration intervened to weaken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new limits on smog-forming ozone. This is not the first time that the administration has tried to interfere with health assessments by government scientists, and it probably won't be the last. With less than a year left in office, we can be sure that the administration will try again and again to impose its short-sighted policies on the rest of us. The latest case involved the EPA's efforts to lower the seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks and farmland as required by the Clean Air Act. Even though the EPA proposal was less restrictive than what scientists recommended, Bush overruled the agency and ordered the limit increased, according to the Washington Post. Solicitor General Paul Clement warned administration officials earlier this week that the new rules would contradict past submissions by the agency to the U.S. Supreme Court on the harm caused by ozone, so officials are trying to rewrite agency regulations to eliminate the conflict, the Post said. "It is unprecedented and an act of political interference for the president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves exclusively to EPA's expert scientific judgment," said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Documents showing the extent of administration involvement with the rules change were released by EPA on Wednesday, the Post reported. Ozone, which forms when pollutants are exposed to sunlight, is linked to heart and respiratory illnesses. An EPA spokesman said the new standard complied with the Clean Air Act.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Paying for it

There are a lot of lessons in the astonishing rise and fall of New York State's governor, Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer resigned this week, just one year after being elected governor, after being heard on a federal wiretap arranging a liaison with a $1,000 an hour prostitute. Spitzer was overwhelmingly elected on a campaign to clean up New York politics after he made his reputation pursuing corruption on Wall Street as the state's attorney general. In fact, many on Wall Street celebrated the news of his downfall. The fact that his duties as attorney general also included prosecuting individuals in the sex trade was incredibly ironic. But for all his promise as a leader, Spitzer fell victim to the same kind of vanities that have ruined the careers of countless powerful men before him, including former President Bill Clinton, who was impeached after lying about his involvement with a White House intern. At least Spitzer, a millionaire many times over, was paying for the sex. And he's likely to keep paying, since he now could face prosecution, the Reuters international news service said, over the way he transferred funds for the liaison to a service called Emperors' Club VIP, which may have been the actual target of the wiretap. According to the New York Times, which broke the story, Spitzer was ensnared after he arranged for an Emperors' Club employee named Ashley Alexandra Dupre to travel from New York to meet him at Washington's exclusive Renaissance Mayflower Hotel. The newspaper said Room 871 was registered in the name of a longtime Spitzer friend and donor, listing the governor's Fifth Avenue address.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

His majesty's secret service

Protecting the United States from terrorist attacks is one thing, but eliminating the very things that make the United States a special place is quite another. In its determination to do the former, the government may be well on its way to doing the latter. News today that the FBI twice took it upon itself to ignore orders from the top-secret national security court to obtain private business records demonstrates yet again the dangerous waters our country is wading in. The Justice Department's Inspector General reported the FBI breaches on Thursday and "questioned the appropriateness of the FBIs action," according to the Reuters international news service. But at least one senator accused the FBI of "systemic failure" and an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman said the FBI had "far too much surveilance power," Reuters said. The FBI said was trying to correct its problems and was striving for "zero errors." But it's not an error when an agency purposely ignores orders from a court, even or especially when it's the top-secret national security court set up after the Sept. 11 attacks. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said new laws may be needed to curb abuses by the FBI.

On the record

Just as predicted in this space in January, as the tale of the destroyed waterboarding videotapes was unfolding, the Pentagon admitted this week that it had found nearly 50 recordings of interrogations of terror suspects at military facilities around the world. In an article that appeared yesterday on the New York Times' Web site, a Pentagon spokesman said one of the tapes showed the forcible gagging of a terror suspect. Many of the tapes show interrogations of Jose Padilla, a Chicago resident who had been accused of plotting a radioactive bomb attack and was held for more than three years without charge. Padilla was sentenced in January to 17 years in prison for supporting terrorism. The tapes have surfaced as a result of a Pentagon investigation that started in January after the agency admitted destroying videotapes showing the use of extreme interrogation techniques against three suspected members of al-Qaida. The Defense Department investigation is still in progress. The revelations about the tapes have added to a national controversy about the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. Congressional investigations also are underway.

Kenya adjusts, slowly

Good to hear that Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, who was barely re-elected after a disputed vote count in December and survived weeks of violence that threatened the very foundations of his country, is following through on commitments he made in post-election negotiations to resolve the crisis. Kibaki today appointed a commission to investigate the December 27 balloting and vote counting process that triggered the unrest. In a statement issued Thursday, Kibaki's office said the panel would look at "all aspects of the General Election . . . with particular emphasis on the Presidential Election," according to the Reuters international news service. More than 1,000 people were killed and 300,000 forced to flee their homes during the unrest, which disintegrated into tribal warfare in one of Africa's most stable democracies. The power-sharing agreement between Kibaki's Party of National Unity and the Orange Democratic Movement of chief rival Raila Odinga would create a prime minister's post expected to be filled by Odinga. The ODM is the largest party in Kenya's parliament. The agreement was hammered out in often-tense negotiations mediated by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The ODM is the largest party in Kenya's parliament. But all disagreements that surfaced during the unrest have apparently not been completely resolved. The Reuters international news service reported yesterday that violence between some ethnic groups -- including machete attacks and burning of homes -- is still happening in some rural areas.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In communicado

What, the Pentagon expects kudos for planning to allow some detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to call home? That's how it looked today, when a prison spokesman said plans were in the works to permit inmates to get telephone calls up to twice a year if the Pentagon can figure out how to monitor them. "I have no projected time line for implementation but it is currently being developed, Lt. Col. Ed Bush said, according to the Reuters international news service. The Guantanamo Bay prison was set up in 2002 to hold suspects captured in the war on terror, which was launched by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Guantanamo detainees are considered "enemy combatants" by the government, not prisoners of war, so they are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Guantanamo prisoners are allowed to send and receive mail, which is censored by the military and delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, but only rarely receive phone calls, Reuters said. A lawsuit over the rights of Guantanamo prisoners to challenge their detentions is currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Red Cross recently launched a telephone program at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military holds detainees captured in that country.

Right and wrong

Now that the U.S. House of Representatives has upheld President Bush's veto of a bill that would have barred the CIA from using the discredited invasive interrogation technique known as waterboarding, it would seem to be long past time for U.S. citizens to discuss how they see the future of their country. Is the United States determined to continue to decline, both morally and economically? Are U.S. residents resigned to the deposing of their country as the leader of the free world? The controversy over the U.S. government's use of interrogation techniques condemned by our allies and competitors as torture is really a debate about what the future is going to look like. The Bush White House has lowered the standing of the country in the world, and the Republican Party has signed on for the remainder of the descent. The 225-188 vote in the House, far from a two-thirds majority, was largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting the president's approach to world affairs. But this is an approach that has failure written all over it, as the Iraq war amply demonstrates, and the president must have lost his reading glasses.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another Iraq war mistake

What is the White House going to say now? "Oops?" "My bad?" After many billions of dollars spent and many thousands of lives lost in President George W. Bush's Iraq war, the Pentagon has concluded what many suspected all along — there was no link between Saddam Hussein's government and al-Qaida. The finding will be announced later this week, the McClatchy newspaper chain said yesterday. The Pentagon study, based on a review of more than 600,000 documents captured after the 2003 invasion, confirmed that while Iraq did support Middle Eastern terrorist groups and his security services did target Iraqis viewed as domestic threats, there were no documents showing a direct link between Iraq and al-Qaida during Hussein's regime. Bush told the American people in the run-up to the war and as late as July of last year that Saddam's Iraq supported al-Qaida, and his top officials, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, repeatedly referred to the connection as justification for the war. "The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is a crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims," Bush said in July. The Pentagon study, "Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents", was completed last year and has been undergoing what one U.S. official described as a "painful" declassification review, the newspaper chain said. The report was produced by a federally-funded think tank, the Institute for Defense Analyses, under contract to the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Drinking it all in

Why, exactly, are taxpayers paying thousands of federal, state and regional regulators millions of dollars every year to monitor water supplies if it takes the nation's press to reveal that pharmaceuticals have contaminated our drinking water? The Associated Press revealed yesterday that a five-month investigation uncovered at least trace contamination in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. Of course, Congress sprang into action after the AP published the first installment of its planned five-part series on its investigation. Two U.S. senators said today they favored immediate hearings into the problem, and a Pennsylvania representative called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set up a task force to make recommendations about what to do now. Traces of at least 56 different pharmaceuticals were found in the drinking water of the city of Philadelphia, the AP said. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), who chairs the Transportation, Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality Subcommittee, said the hearings would begin next month. Nice to see the EPA consider getting involved, now that we know the nation's chief environmental agency apparently didn't notice what was going on. "I call on the EPA to take whatever steps are necessary to keep our communities safe," Boxer said. Maybe she was being ironic. EPA spokesman Timothy Lyons said his agency was "committed to keeping the nation's water supply clean, safe and the best in the world." That's just a tad late, isn't it? The AP National Investigative Team found that some, but not all, of the water suppliers screen for drugs, most of those that do don't tell their customers what they found. The AP said the drugs, mostly residue from medications taken by people, excreted and flushed down the toilet, were found into the water supplies of at least 24 metropolitan areas across the country. The AP series also said scientists are concerned that the contamination has had adverse effects on wildlife.

Spy central

That's always been the problem with giving the government too much power without oversight — it always wants more. The Wall Street Journal (!) reported today that the highly secretive National Security Agency has secretly taken on an electronic data monitoring system Congress killed five years ago and has been collecting information on millions of Americans to search for terror connections. The little-known NSA used to be limited to foreign surveillance but has taken on a lead role in domestic intelligence gathering, the newspaper said. "An inquiry reveals that its efforts have evolved to reach more broadly into data about people's communications, travel and finances in the U.S. than the domestic surveillance programs brought to light since the 2001 terrorist attacks,"said the article, written by Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman. The NSA monitors domestic e-mails and Internet searches, bank transfers, credit-card transactions and travel and telephone records, looks for suspicious patterns and gives investigation tips to government counterterrorism programs. Of course, the NSA itself denies that it is doing anything untoward. A spokeswoman said the agency "strictly follows laws and regulations designed to preserve every American's privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," Judith Emmel said in a written statement, according to the newspaper. And that would be why more, not less, Congressional oversight is necessary and why telecommunications companies that violate the privacy of Americans do not deserve immunity and should be accountable, despite what President Bush seems to think.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Peaceful intentions

The predictable bombast from the Palestinian Authority about Israel's decision to build 750 homes in a settlement near Jerusalem says more about the Palestinian's idea of peace than it does about Israel's. Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the decision to revive plans for the homes at the Giva Ze'ev settlement and said it would "undermine" negotiations on a settlement expected to restart this week. But the talks are doomed to failure anyway unless the Palestinians drop their ridiculous demands and agree to accept the realities of the political situation they find themselves in. It is patently absurd to the Palestinian Authority to insist on sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the right of refugees to return to Israel; such demands are serious only in that they are designed to derail negotiations. A country with no economy that has lost the respect of its own citizens is lucky to still have a seat at the bargaining table; it is no position to make outrageous demands. If Abbas has any sense, he would take what he can get and set up a country for his people. This gives him a seat at the United Nations, a pass into world capitals and massive amounts of foreign aid. Then, he can use some of the money to redesign the curriculum in the Palestinian education system and stop teaching children to hate the United States and Israel. Where else are these militants coming from? Palestinian businesspeople know prosperity is at the end of the path to peace. The talks were suspended last week after Israel launched an offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip suspected of almost daily rocket barrages into the Jewish state's southernmost cities. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas agreed this week to return to the talks after a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, before a Palestinian gunman killed eight Jewish students in an attack on a Jerusalem religious school.

Musharraf countdown

Assuming the agreement announced today between the political parties of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif holds, U.S.-backed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will have to resign or forget the trappings of democracy he now favors and seize control of the government again by force. Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who took over leadership of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party after she was assassinated in December, and Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, agreed today to join forces in parliament and to reinstate the country's Supreme Court. Musharraf deposed the judges and put them under house arrest in November when he imposed emergency rule. The court was widely seen as being on the verge of invalidating Musharraf's candidacy for president in last October's presidential election, in which he won a new 5-year term. But the PPP won the most seats in last month's parliamentary elections and PML-N was second, swamping Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-M party. "The coalition partners . . . undertake to form a coalition together for a democratic Pakistan," Sharif and Zardari said in the agreement, which was read by Sharif at a news conference Sunday in Bhurban, near Islamabad. Sharif was the prime minister in 1999 when Musharraf, then the leader of the armed forces, seized power in a coup.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Back to the Middle Ages

President Bush reminded everyone today just how important it will be to vote in November, just in case anybody thought it was going to be safe to sit out this year's presidential election. The legislation Bush vetoed today would have barred the CIA from using invasive interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, that the rest of the world considers torture. Bush said in his weekly radio address that the harsh interrogations were "one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror" in announcing the veto, according to the Associated Press. "This is no time for Coingress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe," Bush said. Congress passed the ban last year on close votes in both houses, making an override of the president's veto unlikely. The bill would have limited the CIA to the 19 techniques specified in the Army Field Manual, which banned waterboarding and other sensory deprivations in 2006. The CIA's use of waterboarding, which simulates drowing, and other harsh techniques not permitted by the U.S. Army or the FBI has seriously impacted the country's image abroad and may violate treaty obligations. "Torture is a black mark against the United States," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. Techniques prohibited by the field manual also include hooding prisoners, stripping them naked, forcing them to perform or mimic sexual acts, or beating, electrocuting, burning or otherwise physically hurting them. The CIA also prohibited waterboarding in 2006, except when approved by the president, and says it has not been used since the interrogations of three suspected al-Qaida terrorists in 2003.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Suicidal attacks

News that the Hamas organization that governs the Gaza Strip has claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack on Jewish students in Jerusalem should remove any reluctance on the part of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to kick the group out. The fact that Hamas was allowed to gain control over Gaza after the 2007 parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories was a stain on the West Bank governing authority and an impediment to reconciliation between Jews and Arabs in the region. Hamas' 2007 electoral success was not an irreversible problem — the Palestinian people had spoken. But Hamas' decision to take part in the democratic process carried the obvious responsibility to be part of the process, not to drive the Palestinian Authority out by force. Why the Authority has accepted this situation is not understandable, unless it reflects a lack of commitment to peace with Israel on the part of its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, or a total inability to function on anywhere near the level required to be an independent country. The Palestinian Authority expects sovereignty over the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, and to sit at the United Nations with the real countries of the world? It should at a minimum be required to demonstrate control over its own territory, and a commitment to the principles of statehood.

Peace in the Andes

Handshakes between the presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela marked the apparent end of a diplomatic crisis that had brought the Andean countries to the brink of war. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, shook hands with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe at a summit in the Dominican Republic — a gesture that seemed impossible as late as yesterday as the two nations, plus Venezuela, mobilized troops to their borders. The war posturing was triggered by a cross-border attack by Colombia, the strongest ally of the United States in the region, against Marxist rebels in Ecuador. Ecuador reacted by breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia, and Venezuela, led by its anti-United States president, Hugo Chavez, immediately followed suit and moved troops to the border. The Organization of American States tried but failed to resolve the crisis. "And with this . . . this incident that has caused so much damage (is) resolved," the leftist Correa said as he stood up to shake hands with Uribe, according to the Reuters international news service. Even Chavez, who blamed the United States for the crisis, applauded loudly before shaking hands with Uribe. The agreement came after Uribe apologized to Correa for the incursion under pressure from a long list of Central and South American countries, including Mexico and Brazil. The handshake was televised across Latin America. "This summit was a gift from God," Chavez said, according to Reuters. "We are all happy." Even Fidel Castro of Cuba, a Chavez ally, praised the agreement.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Refusal to learn

Is anyone surprised to hear that the United States paid a fugitive international arms-dealer $60 million to fly supply missions for U.S. troops in Iraq? Is unbelievable corruption a necessary component of war? ABC News reported today that U.S. officials knowingly contracted with companies that subcontracted to companies owned or associated by Viktor Bout, the Russian arms and drug dealer who was the inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War. Bout made his fortune in the 1990s selling Soviet-made weapons to some of the world's most violent rebel groups and most hated despots, including Charles Taylor in Liberia and Mobuto Sese Seko in Zaire, and was regarded by the United States as one of the world's most wanted men in 2000, according to ABC. But the U.S. military contracted with Bout-owned companies from 2003-2005 and even supplied 500,000 free gallons of fuel to Bout's cargo planes from bases in Iraq. Bout may have worked for the United States as late as last year, according to one of the authors of a book about the situation, "Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Plans, and the Man Who Makes War Possible" by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun. In an interview on state-run Russian television last year, Bout called the charges "very funny" and said the United States had no proof of the allegations. But even U.S. intelligence regarded Bout as a major threat, on a par with Osama bin Laden, while it dealt with him, ABC reported.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Could be war

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened today to nationalize Colombian companies operating in Venezuela in protest of Colombia's cross-border attack on Marxist guerrillas in Ecuador. Chavez has been meeting with other South American leaders to turn up the heat on Colombia and its president, Alvaro Uribe, who is backed by billions in U.S. aid. Chavez is scheduled to meet with Argentine President Christina Fernandez today and met with Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, yesterday. Mexico and Peru also have criticized Colombia for Saturday's attack. Venezuela and Ecuador broke diplomatic relations with Colombia after the attack, which killed a FARC leader and 20 others. The attack has caused a major diplomatic crisis in the region. Ecuador and Venezuela mobilized troops to their borders with Colombia. "Our policy is peace, but we have to take preventative measures to prevent war," Chavez said, according to the Reuters international news agency. The Organization of American States said Colombia had violated international law. Colombia said it captured laptop computers in Ecuador that prove that Ecuador and Venezuela were actively aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the oldest insurgency group in Latin America, which has been fighting the Colombian government for decades.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pressure cooking

Iran blasted the U.N. Security Council yesterday for approving further sanctions on Tehran for refusing to stop enriching uranium. Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Khazaee said the Security Council's credibility had been "downgraded" by the sanctions resolution, which was pushed by the United States and its European allies. The new sanctions include expanded travel and financial restrictions on Iranian companies and individuals as well as a total bar on the sale of items with dual civilian and military uses, according to the Reuters international news service. But Iran has ignored two previous sanctions resolutions, which it calls violations of international law, and continued its nuclear program, which it says is for peaceful uses only. The resolution passed the Security Council by a 14-0 vote, with Indonesia abstaining. Previous resolutions passed unanimously. At a meeting of the governing board of the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Mohamed ElBaradei, the agency's leader, said Iran had to come clean about its nuclear activities. "I urge Iran to be as active and cooperative as possible in working with the agency," ElBaradei said. In a speech to the Security Council, British Ambassador John Sawers told the council that the five permanent members – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — and Germany were willing to sweeten the package of incentives promised to Iran if it stopped enriching uranium. Enriched uranium can be used to generate electric power but also for nuclear weapons.

Break time

The Hamas thing is starting to get old. After crying for help for five days during an Israeli incursion aimed at stopping rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Hamas declared victory Monday after Israel pulled its troops out. The withdrawal came just ahead of the start of a two-day visit by U.S. Secretary Condoleezza Rice to encourage Palestinian and Israeli negotiators working on a long-term peace deal. Negotiators had reportedly been making very slow progress before the Palestinian Authority pulled out of the talks to protest the incursion, which killed more than 100. Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since June, when its gunmen defeated forces loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who now controls only the West Bank. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and is committed to its destruction, making any kind of settlement impossible or at least unlikely. "The blood of Gaza's children has achieved victory and occupation will be removed," Hamas's Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would re-enter Gaza should rocket attacks continue. "We are not willing to show tolerance — period," Olmert said. But a senior Israeli official told the Reuters international news service that there would be a two-day suspension of the incursion during Rice's visit. Israel has been under international pressure to stop further violence. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki called for a international peacekeeping force in Gaza and the West Bank, which Hamas opposes.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Nothing political

Today's murderous rampage in the Mount Elgon region of Kenya appeared unrelated to the ethnic violence that has swept Kenya since the Dec. 27 presidential election, the Reuters international news service reported today. Twelve people were killed and six seriously injured in land clashes near Kenya's border with Uganda, but it appeared to be an internal Kalenjin tribe affair. But the violence could help spur negotiators for Kenya's rival political parties to resolve issues still outstanding from the weeks of intensive negotiations that has settled, at least for now, the disputed election that sparked two months of civil unrest expected to cost Kenya's economy nearly $4 billion. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who brokered the deal, urged Kenyans yesterday to support the agreement and to hold political leaders to their promises, which included economic and electoral reforms. Mount Elgon has been the scene of violent property disputes for the past year, Reuters said. Annan turned over mediation duties to a former Nigerian foreign minister, Oluyemi Adeniji. Opposition negotiator William Ruto said the major issues had been resolved and what was left included "how to get to a new constitution in two months and the issue of setting up a truth, justice commission." Parliament is scheduled to meet Thursday to approve a constitutional amendment setting up the post of prime minister, which is promised to opposition leader Raila Odinga. Odinga claimed the Dec. 27 election was stolen from him in an election that international observers agreed was suspect. Parliament is due to meet on Thursday to pass a constitutional amendment to allow for a coalition government led by Kibaki. His opposition rival, Raila Odinga, will take a newly created post of prime minister. President Mwai Kibaki, who was re-elected in December, applauded the settlement. "We all need to come together as a united nation so that we can move forward as one," Kibaki said Monday. More than 1,000 people were killed and 300,000 displaced in violence after the election results were announced.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

South America crisis

Ecuador broke diplomatic relations yesterday with Colombia, a key U.S. ally in South America, to protest a cross-border raid by Colombian forces that killed a leftist rebel leader. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, rejected Colombia's apology, ordered troops to the border and expelled Colombia's top diplomat. "There is no justification," Correa said, according to the Associated Press. On Colombia's western flank, Venezuela's anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez, warned against future incursions, moved troops and tanks to the border, and closed its embassy in Bogota, Colombia's capital. Chavez called Colombian President Alvaro Uribe "a criminal" and called his country a "terrorist state." Nice to see Chavez and Correa getting along so well, but the war talk has got to stop. The United States backs Uribe in the long battle against Marxist insurgents, and the Bush administration is not about to abandon him. Colombia has long complained about Ecuador and Venezuela giving sanctuary to FARC guerrillas. Chavez likes to talk, but has no stomach for armed conflict with the United States.


Word that the United States plans to send trainers to Pakistan this year to teach counterinsurgency techniques to the country's military officials is most likely a signal that Washington is looking ahead to the post-Musharraf era and the deployment of U.S. or NATO troops to fight al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents. Musharraf has long resisted the use of foreign troops in the Muslim country, even as his battle against extremists lagged, but he is probably in his last days as head of the nuclear-armed nation. Musharraf is no longer the head of the armed forces, and his civilian party was trounced in the recent parliamentary election. Presuming he doesn't declare another emergency and lock up his political opponents, whomever is his successor will probably look more favorably on stepped-up U.S. support. Candidates from the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N parties won more than 150 seats in the 268-member National Assembly. Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q won only 40 seats. As many as 100 U.S. trainers could be in Pakistan by June, according to the Associated Press. The United States supplied Musharraf with more than $10 billion to fight extremists since he seized power in 1999, but he said recently that he was no longer actively searching for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders believed hiding along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The United States blames al-Qaida for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon.

Israeli-Palestinian outrage

It's impossible to defend the killing of children and other civilians in Israel's current offensive in the Gaza Strip, even as Israel's government justifies its attacks as a response to rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory. But who, exactly, are Hamas militants in Gaza aiming at when they fire rockets into cities in southern Israel? At least the Israelis aren't trying to hit civilians, they were bombing government installations in Gaza. The same cannot be said for Hamas, which does not officially recognize the existence of Israel even though it depends on energy and water from the Jewish state. No, the Israelis are going to have to find a better approach to this problem than shooting or starving Gaza residents. But what? They obviously cannot depend on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose own people fought and died to get away from his Palestinian Authority. Abbas suspended his unrealistic and, apparently, unproductive peace talks with Israel to protest the deaths of more than 100 Palestinians in Gaza since Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. Two Israeli soldiers also were killed on Saturday. "For the time being, the negotiations are suspended because we have so many funerals," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he was not deterred by international criticism of his army's attacks, including condemnation by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. "Nothing will prevent us from continuing operations to protect our citizens," Olmert said. Maybe U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has some ideas to share when she visits the region this week.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Whales win again

What will the White House do now that a federal appeals court has rejected Bush administration efforts to exempt the U.S. Navy from complying with the National Environmental Policy Act in testing sonar on the southern coast of California? Yesterday, a three-judge panel largely upheld last month's decision by a federal judge requiring the Navy to protect marine life if it wanted to test its sonar equipment within 12 miles of the coast. A coalition of environmental groups, led by the National Resource Defense Council, had sued to block the testing because it is believed to harm whales and other marine mammals. President Bush issued an executive order exempting the navy from the Coastal Zone Management Act on the basis of national security, but U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper said he did not have the authority to overrule NEPA. "The Navy must be environmentally responsible when training with high intensity sonar, and . . . doing so won't interfere with military readiness," said Joel Reynolds, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's marine mammal protection project, in a statement today. If nothing else, the Navy is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court within 30 days. And as we have seen, anything can happen when the high court gets its hands on the case.

Iraq complications

Tomorrow's expected arrival in Baghdad of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad further illustrates the seemingly unresolvable complexities of nation-building inherent in the continuing U.S. military occupation of Iraq. The visit by Ahmadinejad, who stunned U.S. residents with outrageously self-serving remarks during a controversial speech to students at Columbia University in New York last year, will unavoidably showcase the failures and successes of the U.S. effort. Ahmadinejad will be the first Iranian leader to visit Iraq since the 1981-1988 war between the two countries that killed a million people. The United States has been mostly silent about the trip, which it has to be if Iraq is going to be an independent country. Iraq and Iran are neighbors with strong economic and cultural links, and will have to get along long after U.S. troops are gone. The two governments are now dominated by Shiite Muslims after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. In fact, the U.S. accuses Iran of aiding Shiite militias in Iraq, a charged Ahmadinejad denies. Ahmadinejad plans to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, both Shi'ites, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, at Talabani's house in Baghdad's Karrada district and spend the night there, Iraqi officials said, according to the Reuters international news agency. They are expected to sign a list of agreements President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice do not stay in Iraq when they visit out of security concerns. But Ahmadinejad apparently will not visit the heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. military and Iraqi government headquarters are located.