Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pakistan's assurances don't make sense

From here, it looks like assurances from the new Pakistan government that peace negotiations with Taliban-linked insurgents in the south will not imperil U.S. forces battling for control of Afghanistan cannot be believed. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that he has been assured by Pakistan that any deals will not lead to attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan by insurgents hiding across the border. "If you are dealing clearly with tribal leaders who are peaceful and simply want to make sure that their region is not affected by terrorism or the Taliban or al-Qaida, of course they are the people who are appropriate to negotiate with," he said. "But on the other hand, I do oppose agreements with militants. I oppose agreements with the Taliban, I oppose agreements with Al-Qaeda." NATO officials in Afghanistan recently have expressed alarm about increased attacks during peace talks with the rebels, according to the Reuters international news service. While it would be nice to think that insurgent armies operating outside of government control in Pakistan's lawless border region do not have any political ambitions, it doesn't make sense. The Taliban guerillas have already tasted statehood and mangled Afghanistan in the years before the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks -- the fact that they have reconstituted themselves means that their struggle is continuing. Pakistan's new leadership wants to reach agreements with the rebel groups, contrary to recommendations from the United States, which wants the groups defeated militarily. In fact, the United States backed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's dictatorship for years because he promised to battle insurgent elements.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Olmert resignation looks certain

Now that his main coalition partner has called for him to step down, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's dramatic years in office look to be just about over. Olmert is trying to negotiate peace deals with the Palestinian Authority and Syria at the same time he is facing a criminal investigation into cash contributions he received from an American businessman. Barring a spectacular breakthrough in the next few months, Olmert cannot possibly reach a successful conclusion to any peace deals while he is facing an almost certain indictment that impugns his honesty. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, currently defense minister in the Kadima-led coalition, said Wednesday that Olmert should step down, at least temporarily, until the corruption allegations were resolved. Barak's demand would cause the coalition to collapse if Labor bolts, and trigger a new parliamentary election. Olmert's term runs until 2010 unless he loses his majority in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Barak made the statement at a press conference called one day after a New York businessman testified in court in Israel that he gave Olmert envelopes containing thousands of dollars in cash.

Time for caution in Nepal

Nepalis may be dancing in the streets of Kathmandu today after the special national assembly abolished the country's monarchy and ushered in a republic, but the really hard work begins now. Elimination of the monarchy, which the assembly did on a 560-4 vote, was only the first step, and was the chief demand of Maoist insurgents who agreed to end 10 years of fighting and join the goverment. The Maoists, who still have not dissolved their army, are now the largest party in the assembly. Nepal's King Gyanendra, who just a few years ago was revered as a incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection, was ordered to vacate the Kathmandu palace within 15 days. So far, so good. But this only is Day 1. Nobody who remembers Chairman Mao, the communist who led the revolution that took control of China in 1949, believes the Maoist rebels will be content with a government that depends on the consent of the governed. China still doesn't have that, 59 years later.

The word of the day is "untrue"

Notice how you never heard the word "untrue" in all the bombast from Bush administration insiders over the recently published tell-all book by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan? Longtime Bush backers had nothing but criticism for McClellan, a former Bush loyalist from Texas, who says in his new book that President Bush deliberately misled the American people on the justification for the Iraq war. "It was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage," McClellan writes, calling the buildup to the war "a propaganda campaign." He is the first Bush insider to write a book criticizing his former boss, but he will hopefully not be the last. Two terms of arguably the worst president in U.S. history should bring many more harsh assessments from insiders, as it has from political observers. But Bush supporters couldn't resist getting their cuts in, blasting McClellan for writing "What Happened -- Inside the Bush White House and Wasington's Culture of Deception." Current press secretary Dana Perino, who replaced McClellen in 2006, called the book "sad." Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett said McClellan is going to lose all his friends. Former press secretary Ari Fleischer said he was "heartbroken and stumped" by the book. Perino also said Bush himself was 'puzzled and disappointed' by McClellan's book. But they never said McClellan wasn't telling the truth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What the heck is this?

The report on sexual abuse of kids by international aid workers and peacekeepers is unbelievable, and not in a good way. The report released Tuesday by Save the Children UK, a British charity, found "significant" levels of abuse of children during emergency situations, the Reuters international news service reported. Can this possibly be true? What's wrong with people? The report said the United Nations is investigating reports of abuse by its soldiers in locations such as Haiti, Liberia, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Reuters said. But the United Nations is but one of 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and groups accused of sexual abuse in three countries -- Haiti, Southern Sudan and Ivory Coast. The report called for the establishment of a global organization to monitor anti-abuse efforts and develop strategies to combat it. Strategies to combat it? Are there any countries where such conduct is acceptable? Is so, how about keeping those soldiers out of the peacekeeping forces? And, aren't they soldiers? How are they able to get out in the society unsupervised to have sex with children? If this is true, maybe the United States should reconsider putting its soldiers under U.N. command in emergencies.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zimbabwe threatens to expel U.S. ambassador

Apparently outraged by comments by U.S. diplomats, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador as an historic runoff election campaign began in this southern African nation. Mugabe also accused the United States of interfering in its internal politics after Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazier said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had won a majority of votes in the first round. Mugabe called Frazier's statements "disgraceful." But Mugabe has squandered his reputation as a rebel and continues to be determined to hold onto power at any cost, including the lives of his countrymen. Dozens of Tsvangirai have been killed in post-election violence, reportedly directed by the government. Inflammatory rhetoric from Mugabe does not make any of his abuses go away. The 84-year-old Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since it achieved independence from Great Britain in 1980, but his party lost control of parliament for the first time in the March 29 elections.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Zimbabwe opposition leader returns, calls on Mugabe to resign

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who outpolled longtime president Robert Mugabe in the first round of presidential voting in March, called on the longtime leader to resign today as he returned to the troubled country. Tsvangirai plans to contest a runoff election scheduled for June 27, according to the Associated Press. He left Zimbabwe shortly after the election to lobby other African nations for support when the vote count was delayed, raising the specter of fraud. The final official vote count, released five weeks later, showed Tsvangirai ahead, but not by enough to avoid a runoff. Tsvangirai claims he won outright but contends the government tampered with the results. The opposition leader landed in Harare on Saturday and immediately visited a hospital where he visited supporters injured in a wave post-election violence he blamed on the Mugabe government. "I return home to Zimbabwe with a sad heart," he said after the hospital visit, according to the AP. "I have met and listened to the stories of the innocent people targeted by a regime seemingly desperate to cling to power." Independent human rights groups back Tsvangirai's account of the violence, saying the ruling party has beaten and killed his supporters in an effort to keep Mugabe in power. Mugabe, who has headed Zimbabwe's government since independence from Britain in 1980, had been acclaimed worldwide for policies encouraging racial reconciliation and providing opportunities for the country's black majority. But he later was accused of using violence and fraud to hold onto power as the country's economy collapsed, plunging millions into poverty.

Friday, May 23, 2008

California city could be first of many to file for bankruptcy

If the California courts permit the city of Vallejo to escape its obligations in bankruptcy court, Friday's filing could set off a wave of similar filings by overextended government entities in the Golden State and elsewhere. Vallejo expected to run out of money in the next fiscal year, which starts in July, and went into court seeking to invalidate its public safety labor contracts, which consume 75 percent of its funds. The city of 120,000 apparently was relying on rising home prices to keep its revenues rising, but the housing market has crashed. And the state government is unable to pay its own bills and is furiously borrowing money, which appears to preclude a last-minute bailout from Sacramento. Cities and other local government entities in California have been forced into a kind of gambling game with their resources since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which slashed property taxes they had always depended on. The state government usually allocated money to help local governments but, upon taking office in 2003, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut the state's vehicle license fee that had been allocated to them. With California officials afraid to raise the state income tax for fear of another voter backlash, local governments have been struggling ever since. Vallejo's situation has been made worse by its heavy spending on public safety, but it is far from unique. Unless local officials learn to bargain effectively with employee unions, and unions agree to reasonable limits on their demands for money, this situation is certain to be repeated over the next two or three years. Maybe the problem is that the public employees who run the governments are unable to say "no" to the public employees who work for them.

Better news from Myanmar

Finally, some positive news from Myanmar. The U.N. announced today that the reclusive military junta that rules the country, formerly Burma, had agreed to allow international aid workers to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta region to help millions of survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the region three weeks ago. More than 80,000 people died and 50,000 are still unaccounted for in the aftermath of the cyclone, which caused a 12-foot sea surge that destroyed homes and flooded miles of rice fields. Some estimates say 90 percent of homes in the Myanmar's southern region were destroyed. The international community has responded with food and material aid, but the ruling junta has only permitted a small amount to enter the country. Navy ships loaded with food and medical supplies from the United States and France have been kept out of port by the military government, which has bristled at criticism of its human rights record. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Ban reached the agreement after days of negotiations with the junta leader, Than Shwe.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wasted fuel? In the United States?

The only surprise from today's congressional report estimating that flight delays will cost the troubled U.S. airline industry more than $2 billion in wasted fuel this year is that Congress investigated it in the first place. Talk about stating the obvious! The study, by the Joint Economic Committee, said the industry wasted 740 million gallons of fuel last year, a $1.6 billion loss, when fuel cost $2.15 a gallon. This year, with jet fuel approaching $3 a gallon, the loss will probably exceed $2 billion, the report said. But why is it necessary for Congress to investigate this? Aren't the airlines aware, and concerned, about it? Isn't it in their interest to fix the problem? Everyone who has flown on a U.S. airline knows about sometimes unbelievable flight delays -- whether they're at the terminal waiting for a plane or on the tarmac waiting to take off. And everyone knows that idling a giant airplane for hours wastes fuel. So, what's so hard? The report said more than a quarter of U.S. flights were delayed last year, according to the Reuters international news agency. Maybe if the airlines spent more time planning their takeoffs and landings and less time cutting customer services, they could expect more empathy from the flying public.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How long will Lebanon last?

Wednesday's deal to settle Lebanon's long-running political crisis might seem like good news, but it's too good to be true. While it is true that the Lebanese government and Hezbollah signed the agreement, which allocates seats in the cabinet to the Shiite group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the West, the way the deal is structured means either all-out war is coming or the Beirut government is destined to fall. The agreement was worked out after six days of talks under the auspices of the Arab League, and ostensibly has the support of Saudi Arabia and the United States. But the deal is too unwieldy to survive more than a few months. Lebanon will finally get a new president, after 18 months of drift, but the Lebanese government will not be able to do anything unless Hezbollah agrees to it. That is obviously a condition that should have been a deal-breaker, because the government will necessarily fall when there is a major disagreement. But the government in Beirut was barely hanging on after being routed by Hezbollah fighters in the capital and in Tripoli after a week of fighting that killed more than 80 people. The rout forced the government to back down from efforts to restrict Hezbollah's power and force the militant group to give up its weapons. The deal more reflects the government's desire to save itself than preserve the country.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No surprises in startling Justice report

Is there anyone still naive enough about the Bush administration to be surprised that our leaders ignored concerns raised by the FBI about abusive treatment of terror suspects from 2001-2004? The only surprising thing about the findings of the four-year Justice Department investigation released Tuesday was that anyone in the government protested at all about what one agent called "borderline torture" of detainees. Of course, our leaders -- including President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, now Secretary of State -- made no moves to stop the abusive treatment of detainees held by the United States. The report said FBI agents refused to participate in abusive treatment under the orders of FBI Director Robert Mueller, although they did join in interrogations. Abusive techniques employed by the Pentagon and CIA included snarling dogs, sexual provocation and forced nudity, the Reuters international news agency reported. "Neither the FBI nor the DoJ had a significant impact on the practices of the military with respect to the detainees," the report said. Congressional Democrats called for hearings and criticized administration officials for failing to stop the abuses. "This remains a sorry chapter in our nation's history," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Despite the report, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said "inhumane treatment of prisoners is not, and never has been, U.S. policy," Reuters said. The Pentagon stopped authorizing some abusive techniques in 2003, and Congress banned banned inhumane treatment of prisoners in 2005. But Bush vetoed legislation in March that would have barred the CIA from using waterboarding and other abusive techniques.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Lebanon peace talks seem hopeless

Arab League efforts to settle Lebanon's long-running political crisis are doomed to failure if Hezbollah refuses to negotiate seriously and insists on remaining independent of the government in Beirut. Government officials and Hezbollah leaders met Saturday in Qatar and reported no progress toward resolving the crisis after a leading Christian politician raised the issue of Hezbollah's weapons. The government wants the group disarmed as a condition for forming a coalition government but Hezbollah, which controls large swaths of Lebanese territory, demands to keep its military intact to wage war against Israel. The Doha, Qatar, meeting was arranged after the Arab League helped the Lebanese factions agree on a deal to settle several days of street violence that killed 67 and to accept a new president. Lebanon's National News Agency said the Doha talks began to break down after parliament majority leader Saad Hariri, a Sunni, and Samir Geagea, a Christian, raised the issue of Hezbollah's weapons. Geagea said the talks were certain to fail if the group, which the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, kept its weapons independent of the government. "We can no longer accept Hezbollah as it is," Geagea told Al-Jazeera TV. The leader of Hezbollah's negotiating team, Mohammed Raad, said the weapons "must not be touched," according to the private LBC Television. But the demand appeared to be aimed at avoiding a repeat of last week's violence in Beirut and Tripoli, which erupted after the government tried to impose limits on Hezbollah. The government backed down. President Bush called the Doha meeting "a defining moment" as he left a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt. The United States and the Beirut government accuse Iran and Syria of aiding Hezbollah to undermine Middle East stability; Hezbollah accuses the anti-Syrian Beirut government of being America's servants. The Doha meeting marked the first time the Lebanese factions had met together.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Beggars banquet

Not even a personal supplication by U.S. President George W. Bush could move Saudi Arabia's leaders to increase production to force down the price of crude oil, which has led U.S. prices to rise above $4 a gallon for the first time. Today's rebuff was the second time Bush's entreaties were rejected by the kingdom, which sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves. The Saudis reportedly told Bush that they were meeting world demand and did not need to pump more oil, according to the Associated Press. But what was Bush thinking in making the trip in the first place? If you owned a commodity and could sell it for, say, $127 a barrel, would you sell it for $99 or $50 or $18, just because someone asked you to? Not likely. So, what was the trip really about? Little noticed in the red-carpet welcome afforded the U.S. delegation was a deal to assist the Saudi government develop civilian nuclear power. Just like with Iran, why would a nation sitting on major oil reserves need nuclear power? They wouldn't, and are using the cover of civilian nuclear energy generation to hasten their development of nuclear weapons. All nations want to join the still-exclusive nuclear club, and Arab nations, in particular, want the technology to threaten Israel.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Inalienable rights

You would think that Thursday's decision by the California Supreme Court that homosexual couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples would put an end to the matter. Who can argue with such a determination -- that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under law -- without resorting to empty slogans or outright bigotry? The law does not care, and must not care, who is white or black, male or female, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight. That is what it means to live in a civil society, and we should be embracing each step on the path to equality. But the battle is far from over, even in California. Groups have already been formed to put an initiative on the statewide ballot barring same-sex marriage, and it has a very good chance of passage. Even in a state as tolerant as California, there are many, many people who oppose this kind of social progress, as reflected in the 4-3 decision. The court ruling, which takes effect in 30 days unless appealed, would make California just the second state to allow gay marriage. Massachusetts was the first, and Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont allow same-sex civil unions. San Francisco permitted same-sex marriages for two weeks in 2004 before the state Supreme Court ordered the city to stop. The court voided the marriages six months later, leading to the case that resulted in Thursday's ruling.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

War on terror trial resumes in Italy

Wouldn't that be a kick, if Italy forces the United States to face its recent path of international activities that violate Western standards of legality and decency? This question has arisen because an Italian judge ruled today that Italy's premier, Silvio Berlusconi, will testify in the trial of 26 U.S. residents accused of kidnapping in a CIA operation. The U.S. residents are believed to be CIA agents. The case, the first in the world involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, a Bush administration invention that allows the United States to kidnap foreign nationals in other countries and transport them to places that allow torture, concerns the 2003 disappearance of Egyptian cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, who disappeared from a Milan street. Nasr was under investigation in Italy for suspicion of involvement in international terrorism at the time of his disappearance. Prosecutors in Italy say Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was transferred to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being imprisoned in Egypt for four years. He was released last year, and claims he was tortured. Judge Oscar Magi approved the calling of former Premier Romano Prodi and senior officials from both Berlusconi's and Prodi's past governments. The U.S. suspects are still in the United States and are being tried in absentia.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Terror prosecution trips over latest hurdle

Today's withdrawal of charges against a Guantanamo detainee believed to have intended to join the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States demonstrates just how outrageous the military tribunal system for accused terror suspects actually is. The Pentagon dropped charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without comment Tuesday as prosecutors and defense attorneys prepared for trial. Trial still is scheduled for five others accused of planning the attacks, in which airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia, killing thousands in 2001. The defendants include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged to have been the mastermind behind the attacks. Trial is expected to begin within 120 days. The Pentagon did not explain its decision, but officials apparently decided to drop charges against al-Qahtani because evidence against him was obtained through the use of waterboarding, an interrogation technique that has been criticized internationally as torture. Such evidence, which includes confessions, would not be allowed in U.S. courts. Lawyers for the detainees have raised this challenge and will not doubt bring similar protests to the trial, which has the potential for getting all evidence against the detainees thrown out. The Bush administration contends that the Guantanamo detainees are "enemy combatants," not regular criminal defendants, and constitutional rights guaranteed by U.S. courts are not applicable. This interpretation has not been tested in court, but is certain to as the tribunals begin. Qahtani never joined the hijackers in Boston because he was detained by border-control agents at the Canadian border, prosecutors said.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Ironies of democracy

News from Zimbabwe today is that the Mugabe government has decided not to allow observers from the United Nations or Western nations to monitor the upcoming presidential runoff election unless international sanctions against the country are lifted. The still-unscheduled runoff between longtime president Robert Mugabe and challenger Morgan Tsvangirai could bring real change to Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has presided over the collapse of the country's economy and has been blamed for human rights abuses. But supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change have been subjected to political violence since before the March election, when Mugabe's party lost its parliamentary majority and lost the presidential race. The long-delayed official count showed Tsvangirai ahead but by not enough to avoid a runoff, although Tsvangirai claims the results were tampered with. Zimbabwe formerly had a powerful economy and was a supplier of food to its African neighbors but now is suffering from shortages of fuel and food and from the highest inflation rate in the world. Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader who has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, is viewed as an independence hero by many in Africa.

Double disaster in Myanmar

The first U.S. plane loaded with relief supplies for desperate survivors of last week's cyclone in Myanmar landed this afternoon in Yangon, a hopeful sign after a week of incomprehensible delays. The military junta that rules the country, formerly known as Burma, has been blocking relief convoys from other countries and international organizations. The cyclone killed upwards of 100,000 people, despite an official government estimate of 28,000, but many more will die if aid does not reach them in the next few days. Tens of thousands are missing. The Britain-based international aid agency Oxfam said that nearly 1.5 million people were at risk without supplies of clean water and other aid. The Myanmar government is distrustful of foreigners, particularly from the West, according to the Associated Press. While officials there have finally started to accept shipments of aid, they have refused to permit representatives of aid organizations to enter the country to distribute supplies. The United States does not recognize the military junta, which lost an election in 1990 but refused to step aside and allow the opposition to run the country. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said today that Myanmar's response to the cyclone is "unacceptably slow." "Unless more aid gets into the country -- very quickly -- we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's crisis," he said.

Pakistan's step backward

Pakistan took a step toward a return to political chaos today when former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his party pulled out of the coalition that took control of the government six weeks ago. Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), announced the split after talks with Pakistan People's Party leader Asaf Ali Zardari failed to resolve differences over the restoration of judges removed by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf last year, according to the Reuters international news service. Restoration of the 60 judges was the primary condition of the agreement by Sharif's party to join the four-party coalition, Reuters said. Sharif said his party's nine ministers would resign from the cabinet Tuesday. The alliance, reached after Musharraf's PML-M party was defeated in parliamentary elections earlier this year, was expected to assert civilian rule in Pakistan for the first time since Musharraf, then head of the armed forces, seized control of the government in 1999. Sharif, who was prime minister at the time, was forced into exile. Zardari and Sharif agreed in March to restore the judges by April 30, but the deadline was extended until May 12. Zardari is said to be trying to avoid a showdown with Musharraf, who removed the judges when he declared emergency rule last year.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Acts of patriotism

Zimbabwe political leader Morgan Tsvangirai announced Saturday he will defy death threats and return home to face incumbent Robert Mugabe in a runoff election following their one-two finish in March 29 ballotting, the Associated Press reported. Tsvangirai has stayed out of Zimbabwe for safety reasons after the March 29 vote, which he claims was rigged by supporters of Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. Dozens of Tsvngirai supporters have been killed and their homes destroyed in post-election violence, which many observers fear is directed by Mugabe supporters, if not by the president himself. Speaking Saturday in South Africa, Tsvangirai told reporters that his supporters would feel "betrayed" if he did not run against Mugabe in the runoff. "A runoff election could finally knock out the dictator for good," Tsvangirai said, according to the AP. "I am ready and the people are ready for the final round." No date has been said for the balloting. Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders who decide to return to Zimbabwe are taking a great risk. As we saw in Pakistan with Benazir Bhutto, challenging a dictator can be a dangerous path. But as we are also seeing in Pakistan, it can work for the betterment of the country and its people. The United States has called for the use of U.N. human rights monitors to oversee the runoff vote.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Political evolution in the Middle East

Lebanon's U.S.-backed government called gunbattles with Hezbollah militants in the street of Beirut "an armed and bloody coup" as it tried to rally support in the battle for control of the Mediterranean country. But the government continued to lose ground to Hezbollah fighters backed by Syria and Iran. Militants took control of the Muslim half of Beirut on Friday, the Reuters international news service reported. The outbreak of street violence comes after 17 months of deadlock between the anti-Syria ruling coalition and Hezbollah rebels that has paralyzed the government and left it without a president. At least 18 people have been killed and 38 injured in three days of fighting, Lebanon's worst internal unrest since the 1975-1990 civil war, Reuters said. The fighting erupted when the government tried to dismantle Hezbollah's military communications network. Hezbollah, which governs large swaths of Lebanese territory on its own and wants more say in the government, said the government had declared war. The United States has spoken with France, Saudi Arabia and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss options. Hezbollah kept its weapons after the civil war to fight Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon at the time. Israel withdrew in 2000.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Making a profit

Yesterday's decision by Microsoft Corp. to withdraw its $42 billion-dollar offer for Yahoo Inc. may not be what shareholders in both companies wanted, but it's probably the best thing for everybody else. Yahoo's board wanted $37 a share for the company, one of the world's largest Internet firms, but Microsoft, the world's largest software firm, refused to offer more than $33 a share. Microsoft initially bid $31 a share for Yahoo three months ago. Competition in the high-tech world has been great for consumers but this deal would have concentrated much more power in the hands of Microsoft, which already dominates the software industry. Besides, U.S. companies have made their money buying and selling each other, rather than building and improving actual products, for far too long. Shuffling money back and forth doesn't put better products on the shelves, doesn't build better cars and doesn't put more people to work -- in fact, the motivation behind these kinds of combinations is to employ fewer people.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Right idea, wrong reason

First the good news — unnamed U.S. officials say the Bush administration could be planning to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by the end of its term in January, according to the Reuters international news service. Closure of the prison on the U.S. Navy Base on Cuba will remove an enormous black mark from the record of the United States, which has used the facility to imprison hundreds of foreign nations suspected of terrorism without formal charges or trials. Even President Bush acknowledges the damage Guantanamo has done to the country's reputation around the world. Then there's the bad news — the U.S. government is not planning to close Guantanamo because it violates due process rights guaranteed by the Constitution but because it anticipates a scathing ruling by the Supreme Court in the next few weeks. The court is expected to issue a ruling shortly on whether Guantanamo inmates are entitled to civil rights under U.S. law, and the administration obviously wants to get ahead of the decision. "If the Supreme Court concludes that the detainees have constitutional rights, then there would be little legal difference between holding them in Guantanamo or holding them on the mainland," one senior official said, according to Reuters. "It's possible the Supreme Court decision could provide an impetus to a policy decision to close Guantanamo." One official who spoke to Reuters on the record, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, said the Bush administration has accepted the need to close the prison. "Everyone is agreed that we need to find a way that eventually leads to the closure of Guantanamo, which is the president's policy decision," Johndroe said. "It is a very complicated matter." There still are more 270 prisoners at Guantanamo and many of them have been held for years, Reuters said. "We would like to move towards the day when we can eventually close Guantanamo," Navy Commander Jeffrey Gordon said. "We do not want to be the world's jailer." said Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon. Nevertheless, the Pentagon is making plans to relocate Guantanamo inmates to military prisons on the U.S. mainland, such as the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and naval facility in South Carolina, Reuters said.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Democracy returns to Pakistan

The post-dictatorship era in Pakistan took another step forward yesterday when the four political parties that make up the new governing coalition in parliament agreed to reinstate Supreme Court judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf last November. Removal of the judges, reportedly on the eve of a ruling invalidating Musharraf's re-election as president, set off a political crisis that saw the return from exile and assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and led to the defeat of Musharraf supporters in February's parliamentary elections. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was forced to leave the country when Musharraf overthrew his government in 1999, also returned from exile to lead one of the parties in the new coalition. Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower who took control of her Pakistan People's Party, the coalition's largest member, held two days of emergency talks in Lahore that ended with yesterday's deal. "The meeting has made progress in a very positive way — we are now satisfied," Sharif said after the talks, according to the Reuters international news service. Sharif said a resolution to reinstate the judges would be introduced soon. "There is no ambiguity, there is no doubt about it," he said. "The restoration would take place through a resolution." A united government will help Pakistan resolve an Islamic insurgency along its northern border with Afghanistan and mounting economic problems.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The great pretenders

Not even the United States has much hope for progress this weekend when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Israel and the West Bank for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Rice, one of President Bush's longtime advisers, plans to meet with leaders from both sides separately and together in an effort to find out what is blocking progress in peace negotiations and how to put the talks back on track, according to the Reuters international news service. The Bush administration is trying to arrange an agreement to establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza before it leaves office in January. Good luck. It would be difficult enough to settle the historic differences between Arabs and Jews if both sides wanted to settle them, much less when they don't. The rhetoric coming from Ramallah, not to mention Hamas, which occupies Gaza and makes no secret of its enmity toward Israel, demonstrates the near-impossibility of her task. Word last week that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was angry when he left the White House after meeting with Bush and, presumably, Rice may be a harbinger of things to come. If the administration told Abbas to stop pretending and start facing reality, he probably would rather be angry than helpful. The Israelis could take steps to ease the economic crisis in the Palestinian territories, short of endangering their own security, but Abbas apparently does not have enough authority in his own territory to move the peace process forward. It is no help to peace if the end result of giving financial and military aid to the PA is that all the material and materiel ends up under the control of Hamas. The Palestinian Authority could start to change the hopeless dynamic by ending its pretense that Israel is the cause of all of its problems — the territories already are in open revolt. Abbas is like a leader without a country. The situation will not be able to change until the Palestinians stop educating their children to hate Israel and Israelis — what is going on in Gaza, where Hamas kicked the PA out, is the harvest of this sowing of hatred. Rice's trip begins Friday in London with meetings on the Palestinian economy, Iran's nuclear program and support for Kosovo.

'D.C. Madam' cashes out

A Northern California woman convicted last month of operating a high-end prostitution ring that catered to Washington's elite was found dead today after apparently hanging herself at her mother's property in Florida, CNN reported. Deborah Jeane Palfrey, 52, who ran the Pamela Martin & Associates escort service and was known as the "D.C. Madam," vowed last year to kill herself rather than return to prison. She left several suicide notes to that effect, police in Tarpon Springs, Fla., said. Palfrey ran her escort service, which operated in Washington, Baltimore and northern Virginia, from her home in Vallejo, Calif., a city of 120,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lived in a well-cared-for house in an older section of Vallejo, which was California's capital from 1851-1852. Palfrey was convicted April 15 of money laundering, racketeering and mail fraud after a two-week trial and faced a maximum 55-year prison term at her sentencing, which was scheduled for July 24. But Palfrey released her telephone records before the trial, and they resulted in the resignations of a U.S. senator, Republican David Vitter of Louisiana, and a top state department official, Randall Tobias, after their telephone numbers were identified. Palfrey maintained that she operated a fantasy service and discouraged sexual contact between her employees and clients. "There's no violence, there's very little if any drug activity. There's very little if any fraud. Basically a bunch of benign women who want to make a living. This is not racketeering by any means -- this is running a business," she told CNN Radio in March. Palfrey was working on a book when she died, according to Time magazine.

Constitutional riots

Like so many things about Bush administration foreign policy, today's release of an al-Jazeera cameraman held without charge for six years at the U.S. Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, raises a lot of very troubling questions. Of course, it's a great day for Sami al-Hajj of Sudan and his family. "I've been dreaming of this moment for the past seven years," al-Hajj told the Arabic news service, according to the Reuters international news service. Al-Hajj was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 by Pakistani intelligence officers and turned over to the United States, which accused him of being an enemy combatant and sent him to Guantanamo Bay, even though he had a work visa and al-Jazeera said he was on assignment. The United States has labeled captives being held at Guantanamo Bay as "enemy combatant" to deny them many rights under the U.S. Constitution, including access to the U.S. court system. The fact that al-Hajj was acting a journalist when he was captured raised even more questions. Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization that had campaigned for al-Hajj's release, said the cameraman was suspected of smuggling guns for al-Qaida and running an Islamic Web site, even though he was never charged and no evidence was ever produced. "U.S. authorities never proved that he had been involved in any kind of criminal activity," the group said, according to Reuters. An attorney who visited al-Hajj three weeks ago said al-Hajj had been on a hunger strike for more than a year and was being force-fed. "We are delighted that Sami al-Hajj can finally be reunited with his family and friends," said Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "But his detention for six years, without the most basic due process, is a grave injustice and represents a threat to all journalists working in conflict areas."