Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Zimbabwe's new frontier

Government sources in Zimbabwe say a preliminary recount indicates that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai got more votes than longtime President Robert Mugabe in last month's presidential race, but not enough to avoid a runoff. The sources, who declined to be named, say Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, got 47 percent of the vote to Mugabe's 43 percent, according to the Reuters international news service. But Tsvangirai, who accused Mugabe of delaying release of the vote count to try to rig the outcome, contends he actually won a majority of the votes cast. Mugabe has led Zimbabwe for the past 28 years, but has come under fire in recent years as the country's once-powerful economy collapsed. Zimbabwe suffers from food and fuel shortages, and a nearly worthless currency. Fears of violence now grip the country, stoked by memories of past elections and by attacks that began shortly after the Dec. 29 balloting. The MDC said 20 members were killed by pro-government militias after the vote, including five in the past two days. The government has denied instigating the violence. Tsvangirai was not in the country when violence broke out and has refused to return, fearing arrest. Instead, he was been visiting Zimbabwe's neighboring countries, seeking support. The UN Security Council met yesterday to discuss the Zimbabwe election crisis, Reuters reported. European and Latin American countries and the United States want to send an envoy to Zimbabwe to investigate the balloting and post-election violence, but South Africa, which is chairing the Security Council, says it is not a council matter. Mugabe's government denounced the Security Council session as "sinister, racist and "colonial."

Apology deceptive

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino is right about one thing, at least, this time. The media is sure to play up tomorrow's fifth anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" banner displayed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln just 44 days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," Bush said then. "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on." The banner displayed above him -- Mission Accomplished -- became a symbol of poor planning and mistakes as the war still is going on five years later and thousands of U.S. soldiers have been killed. Perino claimed yesterday that the banner was inexact, that the mission it was referring to was the 10 months at sea by the aircraft carrier. "President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said `mission accomplished' for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission," she said today. "And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner. And I recognize that the media is going to play this up again tomorrow, as they do every single year." As long as the White House keeps making ludicrous claims, the media should keep bringing it up.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Sword of retribution

The trial of Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, will no doubt be another lost opportunity to demonstrate what is right about Western government. Rather than a fair trial, Aziz, who was the public face of the old Iraqi government, will probably be railroaded to the gallows like his old boss was in 2006. Aziz and one of Saddam's half-brothers, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, are charged in the executions of 40 merchants in 1992 who were accused of illegally raising prices, according to the Reuters international news service. Aziz has been in custody since he surrendered to U.S. forces in 2003. Jaffer al-Moussawi, a prosecutor with the Iraqi High Tribunal, the special court system set up to try members of the Saddam regime, said Aziz was interior minister in 1992. Merely getting to court is no guarantee of a fair trial, however, as we saw with Saddam. Then, the legal system was set up to execute him and it succeeded, even though the trial seemed absurd. Yes, Saddam was a bad guy with copious amounts of blood on his hands, but we didn't used to be the kind of people who let the desire for revenge override our sense of justice and commitment to principles. Isn't that the very reason we have a legal system in the United States? Or could it be that the Bush administration's all-out assault on legal ethics has succeeded even more thoroughly than previously thought?

And the loser is . . .

The winner of Zimbabwe's disputed presidential election could be announced Tuesday, an an electoral commission spokesman said Monday, now that a partial recount has been completed, the Reuters international news service reported. The only remaining question appears to be whether Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai has more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff with President Robert Mugabe, whose 28-year reign appears to have ended. The MDC won a majority of seats in the country's parliament in the March 29 election, for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980, but release of the official presidential vote count has been delayed for a month. Tsvangirai has charged that the delay is due to Mugabe's interference in the vote count, a charge the president has denied. But Mugabe supporters have arrested members of the MDC and of an independent election monitoring group, and Tsvangirai has left the country. Mugabe's government has been blamed for the collapse of Zimbabwe's once-formidable economy, and inflation is now at 165,000 percent, the world's highest. The country also faces food and fuel shortages. Tsvangirai rejected a runoff, saying "the people have spoken," at a news conference in South Africa on Sunday. "Old man, go and have an honorable exit," Tsvangirai said in calling for Mugabe, 84, to leave office. Tsvangirai also said he has reached an agreement to work together in parliament with a breakaway faction of his party led by Arthur Mutambara. Maybe Mugabe is holding out for a deal like the one reached in Kenya, where the ruling party apparently lost the last election but managed to hold onto power by changing the constitution to bring opposition leaders into the government.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

China returns to angry rhetoric

Maybe yesterday's post was too hasty — China returned today to angry rhetoric about the Dalai Lama, calling him a 'criminal to history.' The new verbal assault came two days after Beijing said officials would meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama in an effort to blunt international protests that have followed the path of the Olympic torch around the world. China is hosting this year's Summer Games, and blames the Tibetan spiritual leader for the protests, many of which carried out by demonstrators for more autonomy for Tibet. China took over Tibet in 1950, and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959. On Friday, China appeared to have bowed to international pressure over the pro-Tibet protests and agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama's representatives. But the anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric returned Saturday, with the daily Communist Party newspaper, accusing him of trying to "split" China by agitating for more autonomy for Tibet. "The Dalai clique has always been masters at games with words and the ideas that they have tossed about truly make the head spin," the People's Daily said Saturday. "Questions of sovereignty are beyond debate and splitting China is sure to fail." Beijing has long called the Dalai Lama a "splittist," accusing him of trying to split China because he advocates more independence for Tibet.

Whine from the West Bank

Somebody ought to tell Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the success of his so-called negotiations with Israel depends more on his authority than on anybody else's. Abbas said Saturday that he has wide differences with Israel on "final status issues" -- diplomatic code for sovereignty over Jerusalem and whether Palestinians who fled Israel have the right to reclaim their lost property. Of course, the "final status issues" are really a smokescreen for "final solution issues," since the Palestinian Authority has no authority, or intention, to make such an agreement with the Israel. Abbas does not even control all of the territory Israel ceded to the Palestinian Authority -- the extremist Hamas group captured the Gaza Strip from Abbas' forces after Israel gave up the territory. There has been no indication from Ramallah that the Palestinian Authority has any intention of taking it back, which demonstrates Abbas' lack of seriousness as a leader of his people. There is no question about the control of Jerusalem -- that is Israel's capital. Israel agreed way-back-when to share Jerusalem with the Palestinian Authority -- a proposal that is as unrealistic as it is unworkable -- but Yasir Arafat turned the deal down. Abbas also considers Israeli settlement activity to be an impediment to peace but, as we have discussed earlier on this very blog, that is a non-issue. If Israel and the Palestinian Authority are going to live side-by-side in the Middle East, the people of both countries are going to be able to freely travel back and forth to trade and visit relatives and historic sites. So, it doesn't matter where they live. If Israel wants to continue building and expanding its settlements on areas claimed by the Palestinian Authority, it will have to accept that some of these "settlers" will be citizens of the new Palestinian country. If the Palestinians were serious about peace, that would not be a dealbreaker, like it is now. If they don't want to live with Jews, then they don't want to live alongside them, either. The Palestinian government is going to have to regain control of its territory and explain to its people the realities of peace in a way they will understand. Otherwise, no deal with Israel will ever be possible or acceptable to ordinary Palestinians.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chain reaction

Either the Syrian building bombed by the Israeli Air Force last September was a nuclear reactor or it wasn't, and all the rhetoric in the isn't going to change the facts. Israel says it was, and photographs appear to show that it bore a striking resemblance to a nuclear reactor built and put into operation by North Korea. But Syria insists it wasn't a reactor, and says the United States will be "embarrassed" when the truth comes out, according to CNN. The White House said Thursday that the reactor at Dayr az Zawr in eastern Syria was only weeks or months from operating, and that it wasn't designed for power generation but to build nuclear weapons. "This thing was good to go, so we had to assume they were ready to throw the switch," said a senior U.S. intelligence officer who briefed reporters about the site Thursday afternoon, CNN said. The White House issued a statement suggesting North Korea assisted Syria's nuclear activities. "We have long been seriously concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities," the statement said. "North Korea's clandestine nuclear cooperation with Syria is a dangerous manifestation of those activities." But North Korea, which has refused to disclose what countries received nuclear knowhow from Pyongyan, said Syria and North Korea have never worked together on nuclear technology.

China backs down on Dalai Lama

Just when it seemed China was determined to destroy the good faith it would earn by hosting this year's Summer Olympics, the Beijing government said Friday it would meet with envoys of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. The McClatchy News Service reported Friday that China's official Xinhua news agency said the officials would meet in the next few days to discuss how to deal with protests and violence that have embarrassed Beijing in the run-up to the Beijing games. China had embarked on a campaign of discrediting the Dalai Lama by calling him a criminal and claiming he is behind the protests that broke out last month in Tibet and have followed the progress of the Olympic torch relay around the world. But the Dalai Lama says all he wants is greater autonomy and religious freedom for the 6 million Tibetans in China. "It is hoped that through contact and consultation, the Dalai side will take credible moves to stop activities aimed at splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games so as to create conditions for talks,” the news agency quoted a Chinese official as saying. The announcement is the first time an agreement seemed possible since protests began in Tibet in mid-March, raising tensions with the West. “We welcome this,” said Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama. China's announcement came at the end of a visit to Berlin from officials from the European Commission.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Zimbabwe makes it even worse

Police and government agents loyal to President Robert Mugabe arrested and attacked hundreds of opposition party leaders and independent election monitors on Friday, ending all pretense that he somehow survived the March 29 election. Mugabe, who has headed Zimbabwe's government since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980, appeared determined to hang onto power in his southern African nation in the face of widespread domestic and international opposition. The police and intelligence officers ransacked offices of the main opposition party, which won a majority in Zimbabwe's parliament, apparently removing all evidence that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai prevailed in the balloting, according to the Associated Press. Official results have not been released. Hundreds were arrested at Harvest House in Harare, the capital, where Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change has its offices. Many of the people arrested had fled to Harvest House from post-election violence in the countryside. The government operation came one day after the United States' top envoy to Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said Tsvangirai had won the election and called on Mugabe to step down. Noel Kututwa, chairman of the monitoring organization, said officers from Zimbabwe's feared Central Intelligence Organization tried to arrest him and his deputy but they were out of the office. Tsvangirai is out of the country and has refused to return out of fear of arrest. Jacob Zuma of South Africa's African National Congress party condemned the government crackdown in neighboring Zimbabwe. The U.N. Security Council will begin looking into the Zimbabwe crisis next week, officials said, according to the AP.

The golden calf state

California's strange flirtation with Hollywood took another step backward yesterday when the state's orally fixated governor, reputed actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, warned that its budget deficit for next year would surpass $10 billion. If true, California will be more than $17 billion in deficit for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and next year. Schwarzenegger has already proposed 10 percent budget cuts in all departments, billions in additional borrowing and the closure of parks across the state. "Every time we look at our revenues, they're short," Schwarzenegger said. "So it just shows to you this is why we have such an extraordinary budget deficit and this is why we had to make all kinds of cuts across the board." The budget shortfalls are blamed on the weakening national economy and the imploding housing market, which has severely impacted state revenues. Schwarzenegger's remarks came after the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said revenue forecasts had to be "significantly reduced." But how will borrowing another $3.3 billion by selling bonds, as Schwarzenegger has proposed, help the state? Those bonds have to be paid off, with interest. All the borrowing does is allow the governor to pretend that the budget is balanced while postponing the reckoning until later years. Schwarzenegger came to office on promises to change the way the state does business, which most people assumed meant breaking the annual partisan deadlock that handcuffed the budget process year after year. Instead, the state got a leader who likes to smoke expensive cigars with legislative leaders but doesn't really know what he is doing. California is either going to have to raise taxes, instead of borrowng, to pay for everything or make the kind of budget cuts that will cause many members of the current government to be voted out of office.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sea lions win in federal court

A federal appeals court today blocked the states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon from proceeding with plans to kill 85 protected California sea lions on the Columbia River to aid threatened salmon runs. Acting on an emergency appeal filed by the Humane Society of the United States, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to issue an injunction but ruled that the killing of the sea lions would be "irreparable" and should not proceed before further proceedings in the case. A federal judge denied a request for the injunction last week, saying the Humane Society of the United States had not proven that there would be irreparable harm if the injunction was not issued. But the appeals court said the planned killings of the sea lions near the Bonneville Dam to protect the fish was "by definition, irreparable." "The stunning wildlife of the Pacific Northwest deserves protection, but choosing between salmon and sea lions is not the answer," the Humane Society of the United States says on its Web site, according to the Reuters international news service. "A thriving river needs a greater variety of creatures sharing its waters, not less." The appeals court compared the salmon run, estimated to be 269,000 fish this year, with the up to 2,000 salmon expected to be eaten by the 1,000 sea lions believed to live in the Columbia River. "The States' authorized action to manage California sea lion predation at the Bonneville Dam is stayed to the extent their proposed actions involve the lethal taking of any sea lions," the court said. But the three-judge panel said plans to move 19 sea lions to zoos and aquariums could proceed. The killing of the sea lions had been approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Intervention in Zimbabwe?

A South African political leader is calling for African nations to send representatives to Zimbabwe to convince President Robert Mugabe to release the results of the election claimed by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Jacob Zuma, the head of South Africa's African National Congress party, said the three-week delay in releasing the results was "not acceptable." "I don't think the constitution says: 'If you like, you can hold the results'," Zuma said Tuesday, according to the Reuters international news service. "The electoral commission must issue the results because it is actually destroying its own credibility as an institution that is supposed to be neutral." Tsvangirai, who leads Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, claims he won the presidential election and that Mugabe's 28-year presidency is over. Tsvangirai has been abroad since the election out of fear that he will be arrested if he returns to Zimbabwe. By calling for missions from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to meet with Mugabe, Zuma has broken with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who favors "quiet diplomacy" to deal with the crisis. Mugabe's ruling party, ZANU-PF, lost its majority in parliament in the recent election, apparently because of the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, but has called for a recount in an effort to hold onto power.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Terror compromise?

Today's release of a leading pro-Taliban militant apparently signals a change in policy by the new government in Pakistan. Maula Sufi Mohammad, a leader of the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) movement who had been in custody since November 2001, was freed after a meeting with the chief minister of the volatile North West Frontier Province. The release, which was accompanied by a peace agreement with TNSM, could be the start of similar agreements with other rebel groups thought to be hiding in the largely lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sufi Mohammad led hundreds of tribal men into Afghanistan to support the Taliban after the United States invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Reuters international news service. The United States gave more than $10 billion to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf over 10 years to encourage him to gain control over the border region, where remaining members of the Taliban leadership, as well as Sept. 11 suspect Osama bin Laden, is thought to be hiding. But the new government has offered to negotiate with rebel groups, and Sufi Mohammad was released after eight leaders of TNSM movement signed a six-point peace agreement that commits the group to help create conditions for the restoration of government control over the Swat district of NWFP. The Reuters international news service says the agreement includes a declaration by TNSM that the killing of police, soldiers or other government employees is "un-Islamic."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Paraguay's unexpected left turn

Sunday's historic victory by left-leaning Fernando Lugo in Paraguay's presidential election could be more bad news from South America for Bush administration foreign policy. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, defeated Blanca Ovelar of the Colorado Party, which has ruled Paraguay for more than 60 years. "You've decided that Paraguay will be free and independent," Lugo said Sunday at an ecstatic outdoor rally in Asuncion, the capital. "We've made history with these elections." Lugo is believed to be aligned with Venezuela's virulently anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez, and his close ally, Bolivia's Evo Morales, but Lugo's rhetoric during the campaign was moderate and he pledged to be "independent." The U.S. State Department said it planned to work with Lugo, who got 41 percent of the vote, according to the Los Angeles Times. Ovelar, the first woman to run for president of Paraguay, conceded defeat Sunday night after finishing with 31 percent. She was supported by outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who leaves office in August. Retired Gen. Lino Oviedo, recently freed from prison after being jailed for plotting a coup in the 1990s, received 22 percent of the vote. Among the major issues in the campaign were land reform and Lugo's promise to charge more for hydroelectric power sold to Brazil and Argentina. Paraguay, a poor country marked by widespread corruption where nearly 40 percent of citizens live in poverty, is the world's fourth-largest exporter of soybeans. The Colorado Party came to power in 1947 and backed the brutal 35-year dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, but helped to oust him in 1989.

What they were fighting for

Could it possibly be that the list of federal agencies failing during the Bush administration includes the Department of Veterans Affairs? Hopefully it isn't, for the sake of the tens of thousands of soldiers fighting overseas. But a lawsuit filed by military veterans who contend they were denied adequate medical care for injuries they suffered while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan claims precisely that. Trial begins tomorrow in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. The lawsuit argues that the VA was overwhelmed by the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and has resisting providing benefits. "Unless systemic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families, and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism, and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system and other social services in our communities," the suit says, according to the Reuters international news agency. But the VA contends that its procedures for determining who gets benefits are sound. "[This} attempt to force VA to overhaul its entire benefits systems under penalty of contempt must fail," defense lawyers wrote last week in a court filing, according to Reuters. "The specific remedies sought by plaintiffs are not within this Court's authority to grant." Trial is expected to continue through May.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cultural politics in the Persian Gulf

Have no fear, Mickey Mouse may soon be here! Word out of the Persian Gulf is that government-backed companies in the United Arab Emirates are investing billions of dollars to construct huge amusement parks based on characters from U.S. popular culture. Theme parks are under construction or planned in the oil-rich UAE's largest cities, Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai. Eight licensing deals have been signed with entertainment companies such as Viacom Inc., Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment Inc., the Associated Press reported. Current plans include a $2.2 billion Universal Studios theme park outside Dubai based on King Kong and Jurassic Park, expected to open in 2010, and $1 billion Marvel theme park in Abu Dhabi by 2011. The U.S. companies are trying to downplay unavoidable culture frictions with residents of the Muslim country, with Marvel focusing its park on Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men instead of Captain America. Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., brewer of Budweiser and other beers, plans beer-tasting zones in a SeaWorld complex in Dubai but will limit advertising them to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities, the AP said. Park menus are expected to include falafel and hummus along with typical U.S. menus. "On the one hand, they hate America. On the other hand they love America to the bone," said Michael Izady, an expert on Middle East culture who teaches at Pace University in New York. Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros. home entertainment group, which plans a theme park in Abu Dhabi, thinks Superman, Batman and other DC Comics characters will be readily accepted by visitors to the park from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. The world's largest theme park operator, the Walt Disney Co., has no plans to enter the market but is studying it, the AP said. "Up until very recently, the Middle East has been theme-park deprived," said Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine. "They've suddenly joined the 21st century."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fears of flying

News this week that hundreds of planes were grounded because of maintenance lapses at major U.S. airlines means the Federal Aviation Administration has joined the growing list of federal agencies doing a lousy job in the Bush administration. The poor performance of the U.S. government under President Bush goes far beyond the ill-planned wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the loss of standing in the world community, the easily preventable mortgage crisis and the humiliatingly botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Now, we're just beginning to find out that the FAA stopped doing its job years ago and was leaving it up to the airlines to inspect and fix their own planes without serious oversight. Testifying before a Senate subcommittee Thursday, acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell indicated self-inspection was the way the system was designed to work. "I do not want the FAA to be the quality-control unit for each airline," Sturgell told a Senate appropriations panel. "I want them to check quality control." Even though having airlines do their own inspections is an obvious conflict of interest, it's still better than having no one inspect planes, which was what the FAA was doing. The FAA hadn't checked the inspection records of Southwest Airlines for 10 years, an investigation revealed. The whistleblower, a transportation department inspector named General Calvin Scovel, testified about an "overly collaborative" relationship between airline maintenance personnel and FAA management in Dallas regarding compliance with FAA safety directives. Maintenance lapses at Southwest triggered an increase in inspections nationwide that also revealed lapses at American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and other carriers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sure enough

The U.S. Supreme Court missed the point again Wednesday when it turned down a challenge to the constitutionality of the lethal injection method of execution used in most states. In a 7-2 ruling made unusual by the writing of seven separate opinions from the nine justices, the court said the injection method was constitutional, even if it was possible that some of the condemned inmates suffered excruciating pain before they died. "The Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the court's main opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented. But perhaps the most salient points were raised in a separate opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens that concurred with the judgment. Stevens said the use of one of the drugs in the so-called three-drug cocktail used in most states was unacceptable, since even veterinarians refused to use it, and he had come to the conclusion that the death penalty was not worth the cost to society of imposing it. But Stevens said he was voting with the majority out of respect for precedent. Perhaps if the vote was closer, he would have voted to overturn the death sentence. But why the other justices refuse to nudge the country forward on what is most assuredly a question of morality is hard to understand. There is a reason nearly every other civilized nation has outlawed the death penalty — it's cruel and unusual. Every month or so, we hear about a condemned inmate being exonerated by DNA evidence — can you imagine anything worse than being imprisoned for years and then put death for something you didn't do? The basic law of the United States bans cruel and unusual punishments. What's so difficult about this?

Press freedom, Iraq-style

Today's release of an Associated Press photographer held without charges by the U.S. military for more than two years illustrates how far the Bush administration has twisted the rule of law and how much work will have to be done to undue the damage. Bilal Hussein, 36, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was working in the Iraqi city of Ramadi when he was accused of links to insurgents and arrested, was released to family members and AP staffers in Baghdad after an Iraqi judicial panel ordered his release earlier this month. The U.S. military had referred Hussein's case to the Iraqi court system for prosecution in December. But in a statement released yesterday announcing the impending release, the military said Hussein had been freed under Iraq's new amnesty law, not cleared of all wrongdoing. We can hope the Multi-National Force, Iraq, will be able to explain exactly what it was thinking. Hussein, an Iraqi citizen, and the AP had long maintained the photographer was innocent of aiding insurgents, and that the military wanted him to stop taking pictures of what was going on in Iraq. "I want to thank all the people working in AP," he said after being released. "I have spent two years in prison even though I was innocent." Yes, people make mistakes. But this was no mistake. He was held for two years, even though the military already knew who he was, perhaps to discourage other Iraqis from cooperating with the U.S. press. Maybe this guy really should be ecstatic he got out, judging from what happened to that other Hussein guy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bully pulpits

Just when we thought the Iraq war had made the Middle East safe for democracy, Iran threatened to "eliminate" Israel today if it attacks Iranian nuclear facilities. "If Israel wants to take any action against the Islamic Republic, we will eliminate Israel from the scene of the universe, said Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, the deputy commander-in-chief of Iran's army, in comments quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency. Ashtiani's remarks apparently were in reaction to a statement by Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, during a week of civil defense exercises in Israel. Ben-Eliezer said any attack from Iran "would result in the a harsh Israeli reaction that would cause the destruction of the Iranian nation." But Ben-Eliezer's comment probably was in response to repeated threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to destroy Israel. Can't these guys play nice? Iran contends it is playing nice and wants pursuing nuclear technology to generate electricity, but the United States and European Union believe Iran intends to build nuclear weapons. Three rounds of U.N. sanctions have so far failed to persuade Tehran to put its nuclear ambitions on hold. The U.S. State Department called Ashtiani's comments "unbelievable rhetoric" and said they demonstrated that the international sanctions were correct. "Any civilized person finds that disturbing," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, France, England and Germany are meeting in Shanghai today to discuss further actions.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Nepal's Maoist suprise

Western nations were shocked today to learn that former Maoist rebels seemed headed for a landslide win in Nepal's special election last week. The Maoists, still considered a terrorist group by the United States for leading a deadly 40-year insurgency that ended in 2006, have won 83 of the first 160 seats counted in a special assembly to rewrite the constitution and abolish the 239-year-old Hindu monarchy. The constitutional assembly was dissolved in 2005, when King Gyanendra assumed absolute power, but a provisional assembly created last year stripped the king of most of his powers. The special assembly is expected to serve for two years. Most Nepal analysts had expected the Maoists to finish third, behind the Communist party (Communist Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Nepali Congress party, according to the Reuters international news service. The Madheshi People's Rights Forum was fourth. The Maoists were permitted to rejoin politics in the deal to end the insurgency, which killed more than 13,000. They campaigned on a platform of radical land reform in favor of small farmers, abolishing the monarchy and encouraging foreign investment. "It is amazing. It is a huge defeat, especially for the Nepali Congress and the UML," said Rhoderick Chalmers, who heads the Nepal branch of International Crisis Group, a Brussels think-tank. "I think it is a vote for change, a change in the way of doing politics and a change in the way state functions."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Last curtain in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's High Court is expected to decide Monday whether to order the government to reveal who won the presidential election two weeks ago. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he won, as reflected in a parliamentary majority won by his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and the delay in announcing the results reflects efforts by the ruling party, ZANU-PF, to fix the election. Tensions have been rising in the streets of Harare, the capital, amid rumors of a military crackdown instigated by longtime President Robert Mugabe in an effort to hang on to power. ZANU-PF says neither candidate won a majority and a runoff election will be necessary. Recounts have been ordered in many districts at the ZANU-PF's request and MDC is threatening legal action. "The soldiers are in the barracks where they belong because the country does not fully require their services in such a peaceful environment," Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said yesterday, according to the Reuters international news service. "I believe everyone in the country is aware that there is no military junta." MDC has called for a general strike starting today to put pressure on Mugabe to release the results. Zimbabwe's once-promising economy has collapsed under Mugabe's rule and residents face shortages of food and fuel and inflation of more than 100,000 percent.

Unrest in Haiti

Saturday's ouster of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis of Haiti does not bode well for the future of Bush administration-style capitalism in the Western Hemisphere. Alexis was voted out by Haiti's senate over his handling of the economy after more than a week of riots over food prices in the long-troubled Caribbean nation, which has been protected by U.N. peacekeeping troops since 2004. The senate vote came shortly after President Rene Preval announced a deal with businesses to cut the price of rice by more than 15 percent to $41 for a 50-pound bag. Most Haitians earn less than $2 a day. Preval said he would ask parliament to pick a new prime minister, according to the Reuters international news service. Preval said Haiti could not cut taxes on food because the revenue was needed for longterm projects to create jobs and boost agriculture.Sen. Youri Latortue, a leader of Saturday's vote, said Alexis had failed to stimulate food production, fight crime or impose a deadline for U.N. troops to leave, Reuters said. None of this should come as any surprise to the Bush administration, which already has poor relations with Venezuela and many other South American countries over U.S. economic policies.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Guilty as not charged

Just as we all suspected, or should have, top Bush administration officials, including the vice president, were involved in the decision to have the United States violate its obligations under the Geneva Conventions and use "enhanced" interrogation techniques on suspected al-Qaida terrorists. President Bush admitted at least knowing his top advisers discussed and approved the use of the enhanced techniques, which included waterboarding. Waterboarding, which simulates drowning, is generally regarded as torture by governments around the world. "We started to connect the dots in order to protect the American people," Bush said. "Yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved." According to ABC News, which reported the story Wednesday, the Bush administration officials repeatedly discussed and approved using the enhanced techniques on suspected al-Qaida operative Abu Zabaydah, who was captured by the CIA in Pakistan in 2002, suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad and suspected Sept. 11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh. ABC News said the administration officials, who included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft, decided how much and how often the suspects were subjected to specific techniques, including waterboarding, slapping, pushing and sleep deprivation. The meetings were held in the White House Situation Room, ABC News said, which at one point prompted Ashcroft to say, "Why are we talking about this in the White House. History will not judge this kindly." Ashcroft, who agreed the enhanced techniques were legal, told the group that top officials should not be involved in such decisions, ABC said, according to the Reuters international news service.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Sorting through the Shiites

What is going on with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia in Iraq? Al-Sadr goes from being the United States' Enemy No. 1 in Iraq to helping the occupying forces, then goes back to being the enemy, then cooperates with forces trying to pacify southern Iraq before the Iraqi Army goes after him in a crackdown. Now, his forces are under attack by U.S. forces in Baghdad's Sadr City, the slum named for his father, even though he urges calm after the slaying of one of his top aides in Najaf. But what is the truth about the situation? Should the United States even be involved in it, or is it just a turf war between al-Sadr's militia and the other major Shiite militia in league with the Islamic Supreme Council? Does anyone in the United States know? The top two U.S. officials in Iraq — Gen. David Petreus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker — testified before Congress this week and we still don't know. Seventeen people have already been killed in the past 24 hours. Al-Sadr blamed the United States for the death of his aide, Sayyed Riyadh al-Nuri, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised a full investigation. Of course, al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council have strong links to Iran, which the United States blames for fomenting violence between Shiite groups in Iraq. In fact, the leadership of al-Maliki's Dawa Party took refuge in Iran during the last years of Saddam Hussein's reign in Iraq, when the Islamic Supreme Council was backed by Iran. Al-Maliki went into exile in Syria but returned after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Al-Sadr's backing helped al-Maliki become prime minister of Iraq after the country's 2005 elections.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fun in the Oval Office

The wheels of government may turn slowly, but they keep turning. In court papers filed today, attorneys for the House Judiciary Committee argued that the Bush administration's refusal to permit presidential advisers to testify before Congress last year about the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys was the largest expansion of executive privilege since Watergate. Doesn't the U.S. Attorneys thing seem like such a long time ago? Well, it wasn't. "Not since the days of Watergate have the Congress and the federal courts been confronted with such an expansive view of executive privilege as the one asserted by the current presidential administration and the individual defendants in this case," the court papers say, according to the Associated Press. The lawsuit was filed by the committee in March after Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused to bring contempt of Congress charges against Bush's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for refusing to testify about whether the firings of the U.S. Attorneys were politically motivated. The White House contends that information is private and falls under the executive privilege doctrine, which allows the president to keep some communications private. The White House said Bush was not personally involved in deciding which U.S. prosecutors to fire, that communications on the matter were off-limits, and that Miers and Bolten were immune from prosecution because their refusal to comply with the subpoenas was at the administration's direction. The fun is sure to continue May 9 when the administration is scheduled to respond to the committee's filing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Over there

At least the United States is not the only country twisting its principles to justify the Iraq war. Of course, that may not be a good thing. The Associated Press reported today that Britain's highest court has rejected a effort by two mothers of slain soldiers to force an inquiry into the legality of the war. The mothers, Rose Gentle and Beverley Clark, had contended that former Prime Minister Tony Blair acted illegally when he committed thousands of troops to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. They argued that Britain was required to conduct an inquiry under the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life. Clarke's son, David, died in March 2003 in a friendly fire incident near Basra and Gentle's son, Gordon, was killed by a roadside bomb in 2004, also in Basra. British Attorney General Peter Goldsmith raised questions about the war's legality in 2003 but later agreed that England had the right to go to war under United Nations resolutions. A committee of Law Lords at the House of Lords, England's highest court, issued a ruling Wednesday that the women's claims had properly been dismissed by two lower courts. The lords did not agree that the European convention applied to the case. "There is no basis for any inquiry into the circumstances of the sad deaths," the Lords said in a written ruling. Current Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said there will be an inquiry after all British troops have returned home.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Trying to tame Tehran

France has picked up the call to toughen sanctions on Iran's government after Tehran announced today that has started to install 6,000 centrifuges to accelerate its enrichment of uranium. "I fear that we will have to continue on the path of sanctions if we do not receive a response from the Iranians, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris. Western nations have offered a package of incentives to persuade Iran to stop its nuclear development, which they suspect could lead to nuclear weapons. About 1,500 of the centrifuges are enough to build a small nuclear weapon, analysts say, according to the Reuters international news service. Iran insists its work is limited to the development of nuclear power for electricity, even though the country is the world's fourth leading oil exporter. In a televised speech today marking Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said Western nations that tried to restrict Iran's nuclear ambitions had been defeated. "They imagined that by imposing political pressure and sanctions, Iran's economy will fall apart but we saw that this did not happen," Ahmedinejad said, according to Reuters. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, plan to meet in Shanghai next week to discuss increasing their incentives offer.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Kenya deal still undone

Realistically, nobody should be surprised that Kenya's top political leaders and rivals have hit another snag in forming the country's first coalition government. Talks deadlocked again today, the second time since Saturday's announcement that an agreement was imminent. This time, opposition leader Raila Odinga, designated to be Kenya's first prime minister in the evolving agreement, accused President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity of reneging on an deal to divide cabinet posts and refused to attend a meeting with Kibaki. Kibaki's suspect re-election in December prompted a political crisis that threatened the very existence of the government. The normally peaceful country descended into tribal violence after Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement, contended that he won the presidential election. Kibaki disputed that but said large numbers of ballots had been destroyed and could not be recounted. The resulting violence killed more than 1,000 and displaced more than 300,000. Weeks of negotiations mediated by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan ended with a power-sharing deal and calmed the violence. But Kibaki is fortunate to have reached a deal because Odinga's party seems to have some valid complaints about the process. Kibaki is fortunate to be able to stay in office under such conditions, and his reluctance to finalize the deal is understandable only because his second term will forever be tainted.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bush's unfortunate legacy

So-far unsuccessful final-year efforts by the Bush administration to achieve long-sought diplomatic successes in an effort to frame the 43rd president's legacy certainly leaves one impression — the most striking yet dubious accomplishment of his eight years in office has been his management of news coverage. Bush has held very few press conferences, when the president must give unrehearsed answers to reporters' questions, and only gives speeches in front of hand-picked audiences who are certain to applaud wildly at whatever he says. The issue comes up today because the Associated Press is reporting that Bush administration officials made four trips to the back to the press section of Air Force One during Sunday's flight from Moscow to convince journalists to put a positive spin on the president's inconclusive weekend summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many of the comments were off the record and could not be quoted or repeated, the AP said. The administration apparently was concerned that initial reports from the summit were that President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin were unable to resolve differences on U.S. plans for a missile defense shield for eastern Europe and other issues. The differences have caused a dramatic cooling in relations between Russia and the United States, despite the personal relationship that developed between the two leaders. U.S. officials had hoped to reach an agreement with Russia on missile defense at the summit, but now concede that an agreement is unlikely before the end of Bush's second term in January. National security adviser Stephen Hadley said as much in response to reporters' questions on the flight. "What matters is that the two presidents have reached an agreement to set our two countries on the path for cooperation here," Hadley said. "And they can leave that to their respective successors." Other points of disagreement between Bush and Putin concerned U.S. support for plans to invite former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia to NATO and U.S. backing of an independent Kosovo.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Getting real about Iran

What was the point of the secretary of defense traveling to the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman to assure its leader that the United States would continue to use diplomacy with Iran? Secretary Robert Gates was in Muscat, Oman's capital, today to affirm the U.S. commitment to negotiations to resolve disputes with Iran. "Although we keep all options open with regards to Iran, we remain committed to a diplomatic solution," Gates told Sultan Qaboos bin Said, according to a U.S. official who was with reporters on the flight home to Washington, the Reuters international news service reported. Oman, a U.S. ally, has expressed concern about the dangers of war with nearby Iran, a regional powerhouse. The United States is behind efforts by the United Nations to stop Iran's nuclear program and to block Iranian assistance to groups opposed to U.S. policy in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. But why would the United States want to negotiate now, rather than plunging into war as in Iraq and Afghanistan? Maybe Washington, which has toned down its saber rattling, is afraid that Iran won't be as easy to beat as Iraq and Aghanistan, where U.S. occupations already are five years old and face increasing criticism at home.

Blackwater rafting

It's hard to tell what message the U.S. government is trying to convey to Iraqis with the announcement Friday that the State Department would renew a $92 million contract with Blackwater, the security contractor whose personnel killed 17 civilians in a shooting incident in September. Disrespect? Disregard? Contempt? The U.S.-supported Iraqi government reacted with predictable dismay Saturday, with a top adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki calling the decision "bad news." Sami al-Askari said quite reasonably, it seems, that the United States should have waited until all investigations were completed. Blackwater is one of three companies contracted by the State Department to help provide security to diplomats, construction workers and government officials in Iraq. The September incident prompted changes in the way security contractors operate in Iraq. Now, a State Department official is required to ride with every private convoy and all vehicles must be equipped with video cameras. "I personally am not happy with this, especially because they have committed acts of aggression, killed Iraqis, and this has not been resolved yet positively for families of victims," al-Askari said. "The U.S. government has the right to choose what contractors its chooses, but Iraq should also have the right to allow or ban certain contractors from operating on its territory." The three security companies — Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp. — are immune from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Chavez strikes back

U.S. analysts say Venezuela's decision Thursday to nationalize the country's cement industry shows that President Hugo Chavez still is determined to create a socialist state despite a defeat at the polls last December. The move by the anti-U.S. Chavez, whose support had been eroding before a diplomatic dispute with neighboring Ecuador was resolved amicably and Venezuela prevailed last month in a compensation dispute with Exxon Mobil, could help restore his government's popularity. Chavez has been very popular with Venezuela's poor because of lavish social spending funded by the booming oil market. But his proposal to accelerate the nationalization program was defeated by Venezuela voters last year and Chavez promised to focus on reducing crime and food shortages. Venezuela's government has been under fire for failing to build enough houses and analysts said the takeover of the cement industry could be a way to solve that problem quickly, according to the Reuters international news service.
Chavez had accused the industry, which was privatized in the 1990s, of exacerbating the housing situation by exporting cement instead of selling it to domestic builders. Reuters said a poll showed public support for the government slipped to 34 percent in February, its lowest point since 2003. "The measure in some ways is an attempt to move more rapidly in one of the problem areas," said Daniel Hellinger a political science professor at Webster University in St Louis, according to Reuters. The nationalization move affects facilities owned by Mexico's Cemex, France's Lafarge and Switzerland's Holcim. "This is another iteration of the gradual move to a command economy as the government is steadily encroaching on private sector activity," said Albert Ramos, a senior economist at Goldman Sachs, according to Reuters. Venezuela usually pays compensation for such takeovers.

Shortsighted vision thing

What is going on at NASA? The U.S. space program, long a source of immense pride, appears to be in trouble because of inadequate planning and funding. According to a report presented Thursday to Congress by the General Accounting Office, NASA's ambitious plans to build a new space vehicle to ferry astronauts to the moon and to Mars is foundering. The space agency's Constellation Program, charged with building the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle to replace the shuttle, is in danger of collapse because of a lack of resources, the GAO report indicated. "If something goes wrong with the development of the Ares I or the Orion, the entire Constellation Program could be thrown off course and the return to human spaceflight delayed," the report said. The report also said the agency's test facilities were inadequate for testing the Ares I engine. "From its beginning, NASA's Exploration initiative has suffered from chronic under-funding, with a 'once-in-a-generation' project to develop a new space transportation system 'shoehorned' into a NASA budget that in some years hasn't even kept pace with inflation," said Mark Udall (D—Colo.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, according to the Reuters international news service. Former astronaut Kathryn Thornton, a professor at the University of Virginia, said costs linked to retiring the shuttle had not been accounted for in NASA budgets. Inadequate planning, unrealistic budgeting — where have we heard that before?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Zimbabwe election drama continues

The future of democracy in Zimbabwe will be on the line Friday when longtime President Robert Mugabe meets with leaders of his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party to decide whether he should seek another term as head of state. Results of Saturday's election appear to show challenger Morgan Tsvangirai with around 50 percent of the vote, but possibly not enough to avoid a runoff. But Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for 28 years, also saw his party lose its majority in parliament to Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change. MDC claims its count shows that Tsvangirai received enough votes to avoid a runoff and fears Mugabe could try to intimidate voters in a runoff. Opposition parties claim Mugabe stole the 2002 election. Mugabe's popularity has plummeted in recent years with the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, once one of Africa's strongest. The White House has expressed concern about the slow vote count and called for the election to be decided quickly. President Bush regards Mugabe as "a discredited dictator."

Fuzzy on the details

Sometimes, you just have to wonder about these guys. To his credit, San Diego-area Republican Congressman Darrell Issa has begun retreating from comments he made yesterday at a meeting of two House committees complaining about additional requests for compensation for victims of the Sept. 11 attack on New York. But he didn't apologize for his seeming lack of understanding of an event that sent shockwaves across the country. In a statement posted on his Web site today, the congressman's office said the comments had been misunderstood. "Contrary to what some have stated, Rep. Issa did not state that the 9/11 attacks were not an attack on America itself; he did not object to the billions in federal aid that has already been sent to New York City (including help for injured and sick responders) that he has previously and consistently supported; and he never minimized the horrible tragedy that took place on September 11, 2001," the statement said. That would be good, if it were true. But Issa also must have forgotten that what he said in the hearing would be recorded. Issa asked "why the firefighters who went there and everyone in the city of New York needs to come to the federal government for the dollars versus, quite frankly, this being primarily a state consideration." Issa described the attack on the World Trade Center, in which two fuel-laden airplanes were crashed into the twin towers, eventually destroying them and thousands of people who worked there, as "a fire that had no dirty bomb in it" and "had no chemical munitions in it. It simply was an aircraft, residue of two aircraft and residue of the material used to build this building." That sure sounded like he was minimizing the attacks. Does he also think the plane that hit the Pentagon was merely a crash, and not a terrorist attack?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Congressional criticism

The spectacle of oil company executives testifying before Congress on the price of gasoline was just that — a spectacle full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Congressional lawmakers do not have the guts — or the votes, for that matter — to do anything about the profit-gouging behavior of multinational oil companies. Even if the new Democratic majority in Congress wanted to do something, such as passing a proposal now before them to repeal $18 billion in tax breaks, President Bush would surely veto it. Bush is still the president, and everybody knows where his sympathies lie. Executives from five companies — Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch Shell testified Tuesday before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to explain their record profits while the price of fuel paid by U.S. citizens soared to new highs. "The American people deserve answers and it is time for Big Oil to go on the record about these record prices," said Chairman Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and a longtime oil industry critic. The executives said prices were rising because the price of crude has increased more than 500 percent since 2002. "Given that the largest contributor to the cost of gasoline is crude oil, this has translated into record-high gasoline prices," Peter Robertson, vice chairman of No. 2 U.S. oil company Chevron, said in testimony. Rep. John Boehner, the Republican leader, called the hearing "politically motivated" and "made for TV." Boehner was right on both counts, although it's hard to see how politically motivated is a bad thing. The citizens of the country are demanding answers, and their elected representatives are trying to respond. And the Republican leadership takes that as some kind of insult? No wonder nothing gets done in Washington.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Zimbabwe voting for change

Results from Zimbabwe's parliamentary election released Monday indicates longtime President Robert Mugabe's ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, will lose its majority in the lower house of parliament. Results have been trickling in but so far Mugabe's party nearly even in seats with Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, but five seat have been won by a breakaway opposition party that is likely to combine with MDC. Seven of Mugabe's cabinet ministers had lost their parliamentary seats as of Monday, according to the Reuters international news service. Tsvangirai said his party would announce its own tally of the results on Wednesday out of dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the count. Opposition leaders have expressed concerns that the slow count reflected an effort by the ruling party to fix the vote, as they suspect happened in 2002, when Mugabe was re-elected. Projections in the vitally important presidential race show Tsvangirai getting 50 percent of the vote, but maybe not enough to avoid a runoff with Mugabe. Many Zimbabweans blame Mugabe and his party for the collapse of the country's economy, which used to be one of Africa's success stories but now suffers from the world's highest inflation rate, and recurrent shortages of food and fuel. Mugabe has been Zimbabwe's president for more than 28 years. U.S. President George W. Bush called Mugabe a "discredited dictator" in a speech last month.

The torturer's apprentice

Now that we have the documents, let's not get silly about this. Let's listen and learn. The Pentagon's release Tuesday of the infamous 2003 Justice Department memo justifying the Bush administration's decision to violate U.N. treaties barring torture of detainees didn't change anything — everybody already knew what was in it, if not the exact language, and it has already been withdrawn. But here's what it said: "Customary international law is not federal law and ... the president is free to override it at his discretion." That was the conclusion of John Woo, now a college professor but then deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Special Counsel. And that's really what President Bush thinks. The soaring optimism of the United Nations Charter, the somber poetry of the Geneva Conventions — these are ideas for the world we want to live in, not the one we do live in. You can sign all the agreements you want, it still doesn't change rule number one. After he finished reading My Pet Goat to those kids in New Jersey, Bush was made to understand that the United States had been attacked and that it could be the big one. So, he forgot all that treaty garbage and barreled ahead. The amazing thing was not that Bush thought this — everybody knows a lot of people who think this way, even some that have been to college — but that the U.S. Congress and now the Western alliance have gone along with it, too. All of the abuses that have become synonymous with the war on terror — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, enemy combatants, waterboarding, the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein — merely illustrate the illogic of this approach. We can't out-brutalize the feudal organizations that fight us and still pretend we're civilized. The American Civil Liberties Union said the Pentagon released the memo as a result of its lawsuit to force the release of more documents on the war on terror, according to the Reuters international news service. The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer said under Yoo's view of executive authority, there is "literally no limit at all" to the president's power in wartime. "The whole point of the memo is obviously to nullify every possible legal restraint on the president's wartime authority," Jaffer said. "The memo was meant to allow torture, and that's exactly what it did." No, the whole point was to demonstrate that there are no legal restraints on the president's wartime authority. If the citizens of the United States think there need to be some limits, it's long since time to write them into the Constitution.