Thursday, July 31, 2008

How much worse can Bush administration foreign policy get?

Just when you thought the Bush administration had botched nearly every foreign policy crisis it has a hand in, the New York Times reported Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that members of Pakistani spies helped plan the July 7 bombing at India's embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. According to the Reuters international news service, U.S. officials told the Times that the U.S. had intercepted communications between Pakistani spies and militants who carried out the attack that killed 54. The officials also said new information showed that members of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence had provided the militants with details about planned U.S. missile strikes against them. Pakistan is reputedly an ally of the United States and the beneficiary of more than $10 billion in U.S. aid in the past 10 years, mostly to the government of President Pervez Musharraf to fight militants along its border with Afghanistan. But Pakistan has become overly concerned about the power of Aghanistan and India, its neighbors, and has maintained contacts with some of the militant groups, according to Reuters. What's the term for a situation in which the United States is funding Pakistan's fight against militants but Pakistan is actually aligning itself with militants fighting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Incomprehensible? Unthinkable? Ridiculous? Plus, India is one of the United States' closest allies and the two countries are considering a nuclear technology deal that will draw them even closer. This is a region that is desperate for some actual diplomacy, not just more weaponry.

Wait 'til next year for Mideast peace

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision Wednesday to resign as leader of the Kadima party means there is virtually no chance that Israel will be able to come to a settlement with the Palestinian Authority by the end of George W. Bush's presidency. Olmert, who is in the midst of a corruption investigation but has not yet been indicted, announced Wednesday that he would not run for re-election and will resign the prime minister's post after Sept. 17, when Kadima chooses a new chairman, according to the Reuters international news service. This has been treated with surprise internationally, because Bush had seemingly staked his administration's legacy on reaching a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "I am not doing this out of a feeling that I cannot do my job ... I believe in my ability to continue," Olmert said at a news conference at his official residence. "When forced to choose between my own personal standing and considerations that relate to the welfare of the state, it is the latter that will take precedence." In his second year as prime minister, Olmert's government was negotiating peace deals simulaneously with the Palestinian Authority and with Syria, perhaps Israel's most intractable enemy. In Israel, leading politicians applauded Olmert's decision not to seek re-election. "Prime Minister Olmert made a right and appropriate decision," former prime minister Ehud Barak said.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Starbucks retreat excites investors, not customers

Investors might have been cheered Wednesday when U.S. coffee giant Starbucks Corp. detailed its plans to close 600 stores in the United States and lay off 12,000 workers, but legions of coffee drinkers probably had a much different reaction. Starbucks may well have brought the pleasures of premium coffee to tens of millions of U.S. residents, but the chain has dealt a mortal blow to family owned-and-operated coffeehouses that were long a staple in the urban setting. The chain's aggressive (acknowledged, finally, as over-aggressive) expansion killed off many independently owned coffeehouses in small communities. Now, the chain's retrenchment could leave a void. But that is not the concern of Wall Street investors, who pushed the company's shares up by four percent despite its first quarterly loss ever, according to the Reuters international news service. On Wednesday, Starbucks reduced its new-store expansion and posted a loss of $6.7 million in its fiscal third quarter, Reuters said. The loss was Starbucks' first since going public in 1992. The chain earned $158.3 million in last year's third quarter. Starbucks plans to close 200 U.S. stores in the next quarter and close the remaining 400 in its next fiscal year, which begins in October.

Who is most wrong on Olympic censorship?

Well, wasn't that stupid. Here we were, all worried about how China would react to being exposed to the crush of unfettered international media reporting that accompanies any Olympic games. But we needn't have been worried. The International Olympic Committee had already agreed in secret to allow censorship, the Reuters international news service reported Wednesday. Yes, the IOC made a secret deal with the Chinese government to prevent visiting journalists from accessing controversial Web sites that Beijing doesn't like, violating an earlier commitment to allow unrestricted access to the Internet. "I regret that it now appears [Beijing Olympic organizers] has announced that there will be limitations on website access during Games time," IOC press chief Kevan Gosper said. "I also now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games related. Reuters said blocked Web sites its reporters had found included Amnesty International and Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned in China. So, what is the worst evil here? The Chinese, with their authoritarian government trying to censor the international media while saying they're not? Or the IOC, supposedly representing what is right in the world but actually making backroom deals to undercut the principle of free speech?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Why does housing industry need rescuing?

The U.S. Senate's approval Saturday of a housing market rescue bill is great news for the hundreds of thousands of homeowners who may now be able to save their homes. But why do Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant public-private mortgage lenders, need emergency financing? Those companies, which back half of the nation's $12 trillion in outstanding home loans, are the backbones of the national economy and are not supposed to be taking risks with the money. So how did they end up losing billions on bad home loans, causing their stock price to plummet? Could it be that the same loose government regulation responsible for the collapse of IndyMac Bankcorp, the third-largest financial institution ever to fail, also infected Fannie and Freddie? Isn't anyone paying attention? The new housing bill also sets up a new regulator to oversee Fannie and Freddie. But how can we rationally expect the government to fix a financial meltdown that is largely the result of its own action or inaction?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What are Russians complaining about?

Perhaps Russia reacted so defensively to U.S. President George Bush's July 18 proclamation equating the fascist Nazi regime with Soviet communism because the former Soviet Union and modern-day Russia are inextricably linked, and not because Moscow simply rejects the comparison out of hand. Russia's foreign ministry said Saturday that Bush had insulted World War II veterans and was trying to rewrite history with the proclamation, according to the Reuters international news service. More than 20 million Soviets died repelling an invasion by the Nazis and battling the brutal Nazi forces across Eastern Europe, after the Soviets joined with the Allies. Russians call the defeat of Nazi Germany the Great Patriotic War and Moscow said Bush's proclamation, which marked the annual Captive Nations Week, was an "insult" to veterans who sacrificed their lives in the war. Bush called Nazi fascism and Soviet communism "a single evil," Reuters said. But let's be serious here. It is Russia that is trying to rewrite history by ignoring its alliance with the Nazis at the start of World War II. The two stayed in their alliance for years until Germany turned on the Soviet Union in 1941 and launched a surprise attack, prompted the Soviets to join with the Allies. Russians surely have not already forgotten that the Soviet regime itself was brutally repressive, discriminating against minorities, sending millions of citizens to prison camps and dominating Eastern Europe for decades.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday bank seizures must mean something

What does it mean that U.S. regulators were forced Friday to seize two more banks and sell them? Well, probably not that the nation's banking system is as "sound" as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told the country it was last week. The takeovers of First National Bank of Nevada and First Heritage Bank NA of Pasadena, Calif., were the sixth and seventh bank failures this year, and the first since the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. seized IndyMac Bancorp. Inc. two weeks ago in the third largest such failure in U.S. history. The banks seized Friday, which were on the FDIC's list of 90 troubled U.S. financial institutions, were sold to Mutual of Omaha Bank, a division of the giant insurance company, according to the Rueters international news service. The combined 28 branches are scheduled to open Monday as branches of Mutual of Omaha bank. Paulson may indeed be correct in his contention that this year's bank failures are minor in respect to the entire banking system, but even he thinks there will be even more failures this year. There were only 32 bank failures between 2000 and 2007, according to FDIC data.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nuclear power remains too risky

Wednesday's report of radiation contaminations at a nuclear reactor in southern France should remind everyone of the fearsome risks of the technology. Nuclear power has been mentioned prominently as an alternative source of energy to crude oil, which has skyrocketed in price this year. But the nuclear power industry has never resolved the danger factor, which includes the lack of a method for safe disposal of radioactive waste. The accident, which contaminated 100 workers, was the second incident at the Tricastin reactor site in the past two weeks, according to the Reuters international news service. On July 8, 30 cubic meters of liquid containing non-enriched uranium was poured onto the ground and into a river at the Tricastin site, Reuters said.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Power-sharing talks in Zimbabwe are counterproductive

There appears to be nothing to be gained from power-sharing talks announced today between Zimbabwe's bitter political rivals, President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe, who was re-elected in June in a runoff vote that Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from, has embarassed his country in the eyes of the world and worsened its economic crisis. The June runoff between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was marked by violence against Tsvangirai supporters and resulted in the challenger withdrawing from the balloting and seeking refuge in the Dutch embassy. But the two signed a deal Monday to negotiate, according to the Reuters international news service, even though they are said to detest each other. The purpose of the talks, apparently, are to try to fashion a coalition government patterned after Kenya. But if Mugabe is guilty of fixing the first presidential vote, as suspected, and of encouraging his supporters to attack Tsvangirai supporters in the runoff, he has lost all credibility and should not be welcome in the new government. Mugabe certainly has no credibility internationally, and probably has little in his own country. After nearly three decades of his rule, Zimbabwe's currency is essentially worthless and the country's crumbling economy has forced millions to emigrate to neighboring nations, according to Reuters. Mugabe should be forced to surrender power and to seat the new parliament. He should have a date with the country's chief criminal prosecutor, not another term in office.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Maybe the treasury secretary was kidding

Not too many people think the Bush administration is trying to be funny, but what else could explain Sunday's comments by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that the banking system is sound? Paulson told Sunday morning television news programs that the U.S. economy would recover in several months and that problems in the banking system, exemplified by the July 11 federal takeover of IndyMac Bank, were "manageable," according to the Reuters international news service. "Our banking system is a safe and a sound one," Paulson told the CNN program "Late Edition." But earlier, Paulson told CBS that the number of banks in trouble would be growing, but was under control. "This is a very manageable situation ... our regulators are focused on it," Paulson said. That could have been reassuring, but not after Paulson said he was sure Congress would pass legislation to help shore up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, long mainstays of the housing industry that props up the economy. News about how strong the economy is would make more sense if banks weren't tanking, Fannie and Freddie weren't broke, gasoline wasn't $5 a gallon and the dollar was holding its value. The IndyMac Bank failure was the third largest in U.S. history and did not happen because everything is fine. The only question is whether Paulson believes his own rhetoric or understands, like most everybody else does, that it is bull.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Maybe this guy should run for president

Thursday's speech by former Vice President Al Gore about renewable energy raises one big question: Is this the same guy who ran for president against George W. Bush in 2000? It looks like the same guy who won a Nobel Prize last year for his work publicizing the perils of climate change and an Oscar for his film on the same subject. The question has to asked because the Al Gore who ran a lackluster campaign and lost to Bush in 2000 after being part of the successful Clinton administration should still be embarassed. Gore spoke Thursday at an energy conference in Washington and challenged the United States to switch completely to renewable sources of electricity wtihin 10 years. His comments have been hailed by environmentalists and panned by others who consider the goal unrealistic. But this is not a zero-sum game. We already have the generation system we have; replacing even some fossil-fuel generating capacity with renewables will have broad dividends for the economy and the environment. The question is why Gore was unable to articulate his vision during the 2000 campaign.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Shoddy construction in Iraq? Who would have thought?

The surge might be succeeding, but news that five U.S. senators have asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates for an independent review of electrical work by KBR Inc. at U.S. bases in Iraq after the electrocution of more than a dozen soldiers is another reminder of the incompetence and waste that has characterized the 2003 invasion. The Reuters international news agency reported Friday that the five senators -- Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota -- have called on the Pentagon to employ an independent overseer to review the contractor's work. KBR Inc., the largest private contractor operating under contract to the U.S. military in Iraq, was spun off last year from Haliburton Inc., Dick Cheney's employer before he became Vice President. KBR has previously been accused overbilling and providing unsafe water to soldiers, Reuters said. In a letter to Robert Gates, the defense secretary, the senators said Houston-based KBR should not be inspecting its own work but that inspection responsibility should be given to a "well-qualified and objective" party. The Pentagon acknowledged that KBR was inspecting its own work, Reuters said, but said the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies also reviewed the work. Dorgan said KBR should be suspended. A KBR spokeswoman said the company had found no link between its work and the electrocutions, Reuters said. The New York Times said the Pentagon knew about problems with KBR's work but did little to respond to them until a member of the Green Berets was electrocuted while taking a shower in January.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

War crimes trial reveals a lot about ourselves

Thursday's decision by a federal judge to allow the first military trial of a Guantanamo Bay detainee, after lengthy pretrial proceedings, shows the strength of the U.S. system of justice. Even facing the opposition of U.S. leaders and contradictory legal precedents, the judiciary has forced an overly aggressive executive branch to respect the rights of the accused. This is a basic American value. As a result, the trial of Osama bin Laden's former driver, scheduled to begin next week, is probably going to be nothing like what the administration intended when it convinced Congress to establish a tribunal system for detainees captured in the war on terror. Detainee Salim Hamdan is going to be able to see the evidence against him and bring in other detainees as witnesses as a result of the legal process, over the objections of the Bush administration. U.S. citizens can be proud of upholding this nation's founding principles in the face of White House opposition cloaked in false patriotism, whether Hamdan is guilty or not.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The battle for control of the United States

The political battle over the White House's refusal to comply with a subpoena from Congress to turn over documents in the CIA leak case may seem like game-playing, but it really is a fight for control of the U.S. government. The Bush administration is already notorious for expanding the power of the president on control of the military, the budget and legislation in general; its attempt to wrest subpoena power from Congress is more of the same. But this time, especially, the risk of permitting an unchecked presidency is plainly obvious. Somebody, or some people, violated the law by revealing the identity of a CIA agent in 2003 and compromising the country's intelligence-gathering ability. President Bush promised to fire whoever did it; federal prosecutors might have other ideas about enforcing that particular law. An adviser to the vice president was convicted and pardoned by the president. But it appears obvious that the decision to expose the agent's identity was made in the upper reaches of the executive branch, perhaps by the vice president or the president or both, as retribution for criticism of the White House leveled by the agent's husband. There is no gain for the country if the leaker's identity is protected; only Bush's inner-circle profits from the refusal to turn over evidence. The House Oversight Committee must stop merely threatening a contempt citation against Attorney General Michael Mukasey and go ahead with the indictment; Congress may have to dispatch soldiers to the White House to get the documents. The people of the United States have a right to know -- once and for all -- who is the government employee or employees who compromised the nation's security for political gain.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Decision time for Beijing

With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing fast approaching and its international presence fast expanding, China is going to have to make a decision about what kind of contribution it wants to make to world affairs. Beijing weighed in Tuesday with "grave concern" over the genocide charge leveled against Sudan's president by International Criminal Court, but not in the way you'd think. China's "misgivings" are not about the 35,000 killed by Sudanese forces or the 2.5 million forced to flee their homes in the Darfur region but are about being called on by Western nations to temper support for Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. China is a top investor in Sudan's oil industry and is the country's largest arms provider. An arrest warrant for al-Bashir is expected to be issued shortly, obligating China or any other country to arrest him if he visits. The Chinese do not want to have to do this to such a good customer, and have been fighting the imposition of more severe sanctions against Sudan. But stopping genocide is the very essence of international diplomacy, and China must join the civilized world in doing so. China recently used its veto power on the United Nations Security Council to join Russia in blocking sanctions against the murderous and illegal Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. But China is no longer a rogue regime -- it is becoming a superpower, and it's time it started acting like one. If China wants respect on the international stage befitting a world power, it will have to do a lot more than provide a venue for sporting events.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Administration's crude shell game

U.S. President Bush's decision Monday to lift an executive-level ban on offshore oil drilling effected by his father in 1990 and to increase pressure on Congress to lift a legislative ban is nothing short of demagoguery. Bush is trying to harness frustration over rapidly rising gasoline prices -- the result of his administration's inept handling of energy and foreign policy -- and use it to despoil the coastline and even further enrich his greedy friends in the oil industry. "Failure to act is unacceptable -- it's unacceptable to me and it's unacceptable to the American people," Bush said at a White House event, according to the Associated Press. Bush called on the Democratic Party majority in Congress to "facilitate responsible offshore exploration." Of course, Bush made no mention of his administration's failure to develop a comprehensive energy policy, failure to encourage the use of solar energy and failure to encourage domestic output from existing oilfields and leased lands. He also failed to mention why Congress failed to act when his Republican Party allies were in control.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Failure of mortgage giant could be isolated but probably isn't

Federal banking regulators sought to reassure the public Friday after seizing IndyMac Bancorp Inc., in what is being called the third-largest banking failure in U.S. history. The Pasadena, Calif.-based mortgage lender, which held as much as $8 billion in deposits, failed Friday after a crush of withdrawals from panicked depositors, according to the Reuters international news service. IndyMac specialized in mortgages to borrowers with limited resources and was especially vulnerable to the nationwide downturn in property values. The bank is expected to reopen Monday as IndyMac Federal Bank under the control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Reuters said. The director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, John Reich, blamed IndyMac's failure on recent comments by a powerful Democratic senator, even though the institution already was in distress. "This institution failed today due to a liquidity crisis," Reich said. "Although this institution was already in distress, I am troubled by any interference in the regulatory process." Sen. Charles Schumer questioned IndyMac's stability in June and blamed the OTS for lax regulation of the bank. That, of course, is most likely true considering the bank's unique financing scheme. But it also is highly likely that the collapse of IndyMac is a result of pressure on the economy from the mortgage crisis, which means more instability lies ahead. With the federal government ideologically opposed to taking concrete actions to fix the problems, more bank collapses are probably on the horizon.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pentagon calls 'do-over' on air tanker contract

The downside of globalization was on display Wednesday when the U.S. Defense Department announced it had reopened the bidding for a disputed $35 billion contract to build air tankers for the Air Force, the Associated Press reported. The contract had been awarded to the team of Northrup Grumman Corp. and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., the parent of Airbus, over a competing bid by Boeing Corp., the incumbent. But the award set off a storm of protest from U.S. lawmakers, who wanted the contract awarded to U.S.-based Boeing -- apparently whether it offered the best bid or not. Boeing protested the award to its biggest competitor, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office decided last month that the original contract contained "significant errors" and should be rebid. The GAO said Boeing might have won the contract had it not been for the errors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said his office, not the Air Force, would oversee the rebidding process. The contract is one of the largest ever awarded by the Air Force, and is the first of three similar deals expected to be worth more than $100 billion to replace some 600 refueling air tankers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Climate changes at climate talks

The willingness of the world's richest industrialized nations to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets has to be seen as a big improvement, even if the actual proposed cutbacks are not too large and not too fast. Hopefully, this is only the beginning. The agreement reached Tuesday by G-8 leaders to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half in the next 40 years. China, India and four other fast-growing nations, the source of much of the new pollution, are expected to join the talks Wednesday. While the agreement, which lacks some vital details, was praised by the richest nations, it was panned by environmentalists, who called it inadequate. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said such an agreement was mandatory because time was running out for stopping global warming. Leaders must draft a new treaty to succeed the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The United States has refused to ratify Kyoto.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Britain backs Zimbabwe sanctions

Former colonial power Great Britain endorsed the United States' call for tougher sanctions on Zimbabwe following last month's re-election of Robert Mugabe in an election marred by violence and fraud. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Sunday that South Africa and other nations should join an international campaign to place restrictions on Zimbabwe in light of the Mugabe government's conduct during the campaign, according to the Associated Press. Miliband apparently singled out South Africa because its leader, Thabo Mbeki, has had the responsibility of mediating Zimbabwe's political crisis on behalf of a regional African agency. Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who withdrew from the balloting because of violence against his supporters, and complained to other countries after the first round of voting in March, accuses Mbeki of favoring Mugabe. International observers agreed the runoff was not fair. Tsvangirai won the March balloting with 48 percent of the vote, not enough to avoid a runoff, after a vote count that took five weeks. Sanctions proposed by the United States would require countries to freeze the assets of Mugabe and 11 Zimbabwe officials, and restrict their travel out of the country. "There has got to be a clear mix of diplomacy and sanctions," Miliband said, according to the AP. Mbeki made an unannounced visit to Zimbabwe yesterday to meet with Mugabe and Arthur Mutambara, leader in Tsvangirai's party, but not with Tsvangirai.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

False alarm on China-Tibet talks

Word from the recent negotiations in Beijing is that China's offers to talk with the Dalai Lama appear to have been disingenuous. One of the envoys told the Reuters international news service Saturday that the Chinese negotiators showed "an absence of serious and sincere commitment" to resolving the long-simmering dispute between China and Tibet. Envoy Lodi Gyari said the Chinese negotiators wanted only to disparage the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet when China took over in 1959 and has been in exile in India ever since, and did not discuss the welfare of Tibet or its people. "We were compelled to candidly convey to our counterparts that in the absence of serious and sincere commitment on their part, the continuation of the present dialogue process would serve no purpose," Gyari said. China agreed to convene the talks, the second meeting with the Dalai Lama's representatives since Chinese troops cracked down on protests in Tibet earlier this year, in response to international pressure concerning the 2008 Olympics, scheduled to begin next month in Beijing. Some Western leaders had threatened to boycott the opening ceremonies, but most have since said they will attend, including President Bush.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Security Council to vote next week on Zimbabwe sanctions

The United States said today it expects the U.N. Security Council to vote next week on new sanctions against the rulers of Zimbabwe, where longtime president Robert Mugabe was re-elected in a disputed election. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he submitted a formal proposal for asset freezes and travel bans on Mugabe and 11 members of his government, and for an embargo on arms sales to Zimbabwe, according to the Reuters international news service. "We expect a vote on the resolution sometime next week," Khalilzad said, according to Reuters. Mugabe was re-elected in a June 27 run-off after a campaign marked by violence against supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who pulled out of the voting because of the attacks. Western nations have been pressuring Mugabe to negotiate, but the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has rejected calls for a unity government like the one installed in Kenya. Tsvangirai won the first round of voting in March. Security Council members South Africa, Russia and China are against sanctions, Reuters said. Russia and China are among the five nations with veto power on the 15-nation council.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Rebels on the ropes in Colombia

Today's rescue of 15 hostages held by leftist anti-government rebels in the jungles of Colombia could signal the beginning of the end for the 44-year-old insurgency. Former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who had been held kidnapped during the 2002 campaign and held for six years, and three U.S. military contractors who had been held for more than five years were among the rescued hostages, according to the Associated Press. Colombia's defense minister said the hostages were rescued without a fight when spies tricked the guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into letting them go. Analysts regard the rescue as worst defeat ever in FARC's decades-long insurgency, which had recently seen many of its top commanders killed by government forces. The three Americans -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- who worked for a Northrup Grumman Corp. subsidiary under contract to the Pentagon -- were the longest-held American hostages in the world. FARC had long resisted efforts to free the hostages. Recent efforts included entreaties from Venezuela's anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez.