Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fears of protectionism drive efforts to reach global trade deal

The word from Davos on Saturday is that international trade ministers have agreed to redouble their efforts to reach a new global trade deal this year. Meeting in Switzerland on Saturday during the World Trade Organization's World Economic Forum, ministers from 17 countries and the European Union did agree to keep international trade free of most tariffs during deliberations. "It is very clear that we have to be better at communicating the message to all the people across the world that in order to come out of the economic downturn we need to keep trade open," said Catherine Ashton, a European Union trade commissioner, according to the Reuters international news service. While the ministers agreed that keeping trade open would help the staggering world economy recover more quickly, they failed to schedule the next WTO meeting for all 153 members. Some countries want to settle on a strategy before next April's G20 summit for rich and emerging countries. The so-called Doha round of talks, aimed at opening up world trade in food, goods and financial services, has been ongoing since 2001 but parties have been unable to reach agreement despite the world economic slump. "The Doha round will be the biggest stimulus package ever," Swiss Economy Minister Doris Leuthard said, according to Reuters. Trade has already begun falling across the globe, Reuters said, and an agreement could prevent a growing trend toward new import barriers. Trade officials also questioned the propriety of "Buy America" provisions in U.S. President Barak Obama's proposed $825 billion stimulus package pending before the U.S. Congress, Reuters said.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blackwater gets the boot from Iraq

As discussed in this space back in December, Iraq has decided to bar the Blackwater Worldwide security firm from continuing to operate in the country, officials said Thursday. Blackwater, the largest security firm operating in Iraq under contract to the U.S. State Department, was repeatedly accused of overly aggressive tactics in protecting U.S. diplomats, including the shooting of 14 unarmed civilians on the streets of Baghdad in 2007. "The operating permission for the firm Blackwater will not be renewed. Its chance is zero," said Alaa al-Taie of the press department at Iraq's Interior Ministry, according to the Reuters international news service. "It is not acceptable to Iraqis and there are legal points against it, like killing Iraqis with their weapons." Blackwater, which employs hundreds of heavily armed guards and used a fleet of armored vehicles and helicopters to protect diplomats, has boasted that no Americans have been killed under its protection, according to Reuters. But Iraqis, and the Iraq government, have been unhappy with the company since at least 2007. At the time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the shootings "a massacre," even though Blackwater claimed its guards had been fired upon. But in a criminal case that has evolved in U.S. courts since the shootings, one Blackwater guard has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter while five others await trial next year on similar charges. U.S. contractors were immune from liability in Iraq until new laws took effect Jan. 1. A U.S. embassy official said the State Department was working on making new security arrangements, Reuters said. "We don't have specifics about dates. We are working with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision," the official said. Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell told Reuters that the firm had followed the proper procedures to apply for a license and had not been told by the Iraqi or U.S. governments of the outcome. "Blackwater has always said that we will continue the important work of protecting U.S. government officials in Iraq for as long as our customer asks us to do so, and in accordance with Iraqi law. That has not changed," she said. The United States has used private contractors to provide security for diplomats in Iraq despite the presence of more than 100,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf nation.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Diplomatic contest heats up between Israel and Venezuela

The most surprising thing about Israel's expulsion of Venezuela's ambassador today is not that Jerusalem took that action in response to Caracas' breaking diplomatic relations on Jan. 14 but that the two countries were getting along at all. Israel said it gave Roland Betancourt, the head of Venezuela's diplomatic mission, and two other diplomats until Friday to leave the country. "Due to the decision of Venezuela to cut relations with us a few weeks ago, we told the Venezuelan charge d'affaires that he and his staff should leave Israel," said Lior Hayat, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "We told them they are declared persona non grata in Israel." Venezuela kicked out Israel's ambassador Shlomo Cohen and his staff on Jan. 6, ostensibly over the attack on Gaza. Caracas formally broke diplomatic relations on Jan. 14. Bolivia also cut relations with Israel on Jan. 14. "Our decisions were just, correct, aligned with and adjusted with the spirit of our constitution, which mandates that we seek international peace," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said in a statement on the foreign ministry's Web site. Madura said his country's actions were compatible with its support for a Palestinian state and that Israel's attack violated basic human rights. But tensions between Israel and Venezuela's high-maintenance president, Hugo Chavez, have been lousy before. Israel recalled its ambassador to Venezuela in 2006 to protest his rhetoric, which has been inflamed at times. Chavez famously called U.S. President George W. Bush the "devil" in a speech at the United Nations in 2006 and, equally famously, was told to "shut up" by Spain's King Juan Carlos at a regional conference in 2007.

Time for Starbucks to reconsider its strategy

Today's disappointing earnings report from Starbucks Corp. must have company bigwigs trying to figure out what is happening to the world's largest premium coffee chain. True, Starbucks has revolutionized the coffee-retail business and now owns thousands of stores in premium locations in cities throughout the world, especially in the United States. But it looks like the company, in its quest for greater profit, has hit the proverbial wall. Of course, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what's wrong -- Starbucks charges too much for everything but its coffee, which is expensive but competitive. Analysts speculate that the weak economy is squeezing Starbucks, which reported profit and sales below first-quarter forecasts, according to Starbucks plans to cut nearly 300 stores and 6,700 jobs, in addition to previously announced cutbacks. "These are very difficult decisions but necessary to ensure that we have the appropriate infrastructure and cost structure to remain profitable going forward," said Troy Alstead, Starbucks chief financial officer, in a conference call with financial analysts, the Web site reported. "We are moving swiftly to adapt our business to the realities of the current environment," said Howard Schultz, Starbucks' president and chief executive. That, hopefully for the company, means lower prices. Starbucks did say it plans to offer "real value" with new offerings in March, but what boardroom bigwigs and coffee drinkers on the street think is "real value" could be very different.

Economic crisis could change global political landscape

Repercussions from the global economic crisis could be more sweeping than Western nations realize. News out of Switzerland is that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for "radical" changes to the structure of the United Nations, including the Security Council. "We cannot continue to run the world based on countries that won a war 60 years ago," Annan said, according to the Reuters international news service. Speaking at the opening of the World Economic Forum today in Davos, Annan said the worldwide recession had exposed a "crisis of global governance" and called for changes to the Security Council, which controls the use of UN resources. The council is dominated by the five permanent members -- France, Britain, China, Russia and the United States -- which have veto power over the organization. "The current architecture of managing global affairs is broken and needs to be fixed," Annan said. "We have major new players coming on the scene and they need to be integrated and given a voice." Annan, one of six co-chairs of this year's meeting, also urged delegates to address energy, security and climate change, Reuters said. "It is important leaders work on ways of finding effective, far-reaching policies -- even if they are radical -- that will allow us to create sustainable economic growth and create jobs for those who are out of jobs," Annan said. The other chairs are journalism tycoon Rupert Murdoch, HSBC Chairman Stephen Green, Werner Wenning of the German chemical group Bayer, Indian industrialist Anand G. Mahindra and Maria Ramos, chief executive Transet, the South African transport group. Later Wednesday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are also scheduled to address the conference, Reuters said.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama administration changes approach on economy

What a difference a total change of government makes! We're speaking, of course, of Tuesday's announcement by the Federal Reserve that it would begin taking measures aimed at easing the foreclosure crisis in the United States. Nearly 1 million foreclosed homes already are on the depressed housing market and as many as 3 million more homes could be added in 2009, according to the Reuters international news service. The Fed was supposed reduce the foreclosure rate when Congress approved the Bush administration's $700 billion bank bailout last year, but did not move significantly in that direction when the first $350 billion was distributed. But new U.S. President Barak Obama wants at least some of the second $350 billion outlay to go to foreclosure relief, and the Fed has responded positively. "The goal of the policy is to avoid preventable foreclosures on residential mortgage assets that are held, owned or controlled by a Federal Reserve Bank," Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday in a letter to Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the financial services committee of the House of Representatives. Bernanke also said the new efforts would include $74 billion in assets purchased last year when the government bailed out investment bank Bear Stearns and giant insurer American International Group. Frank, a Democratic lawmaker from Massachusetts, applauded the Fed's policy change as a "major breakthrough," Reuters said. "We just had very good news from Mr. Bernanke from the Federal Reserve, who has just announced a very significant increase in Federal Reserve policies to reduce foreclosures," Frank told MSNBC television. Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said he was "delighted" by the Fed's decision. "We have been trying to get, as you know, for some time in the previous administration for them to take steps on foreclosure mitigation. "They refused to do so for whatever reason. I am very pleased that the Fed is stepping up." Specifically, the Fed said it would help mortgage companies modify loans at risk of default and purchase up to $500 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities to free up money for new home buyers.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Let's hear from Cheney on Halliburton fine

What we don't know, and need to, about the Halliburton Co.'s decision to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to stop a U.S. government investigation into charges of bribery by its KBR unit in Nigeria is whether Vice President Cheney was involved. The settlement announced Monday, under which Halliburton will pay a $559 million fine, still awaits final approval from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to the Reuters international news service. The investigation concerns allegations that KBR violated U.S. law by paying kickbacks to Nigerian government officials to win approval to construct and expand a liquid natural gas facility at Bonny Island. If true, the payments would violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes illegal for U.S. companies or their agents to use bribes to win foreign business. Some of the allegations date back 20 years, Reuters said, including when Cheney was chief executive officer of Halliburton. A Halliburton CEO after Cheney, Albert "Jack" Stanley, pleaded guilty in September to charges stemming from a scheme to pay $180 million in bribes to Nigerian officials relating to the Bonny Island LNG plant, Reuters said. Stanley worked under Cheney when he headed Halliburton and agreed to cooperate with U.S. investigators. Cheney left Halliburton in 2000 to run for office with George W. Bush. Bush and Cheney left office last week after eight years in power. KBR had no comment on the proposed settlement, Reuters said. Halliburton reported in regulatory filings in July that it was in settlement talks with the government, the news service said.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bolivians approve constitution backed by leftist leader

Looks like the United States will be stuck with damage from the Bush administration for years and years. On Sunday, Bolivia's anti-U.S. president, Evo Morales, won the right to extend his rule when voters agreed to adopt a new constitution that also gives the government more power to control the economy and gives indigenous people more power to control the government, according to the Reuters international news service. Exit polls showed as many as 60 percent of voters approved the new powers, which were proposed by Morales, Bolivia's first native Indian president, Reuters said. Morales, an ally of Venezuela's anti-U.S. president Hugo Chavez and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, will be able to extend his term in office to 2014 if he wins re-election this year. He would have had to leave office in 2011 under the previous constitution. The new constitution gives native Indians more seats in the legislature and more rights in the legal system, Reuters said, after years of domination by white and mixed-race Bolivians. The new basic law also gives the government more power to control the country's abundant natural resources, now a major source of income. Chavez and Correa also have proposed rewriting their countries' constitutions to exert more power over resources but also to extend their rule.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Was that the good Ford or the bad Ford?

Hopefully, Saturday's pronouncement from New Orleans that Ford Motor Co. does not need money from the federal government was a little good economic news in a month of deteriorating conditions. Speaking at the National Automobile Dealers Convention, Ford CEO Alan Mulally said his company had enough money to survive the downturn, at least for now, according to the Reuters international news service. "We don't want to borrow any more money," Mulally told reporters. "We have sufficient liquidity to fund our transformation plan, which means our business is in a relatively good shape." But no one knows whether that was an assessment by the good Ford, which plans to make itself more efficient by building more efficient, and therefore desired, automobiles, or if that was the other Ford, the one like the other U.S. automakers who were seemingly locked into building vehicles that were behind the times while sales plummeted year after year. And no one knows whether Ford will be back next year with its hand out, asking for some of the $17.4 billion in loans General Motors and Chrysler got in December. Ford has asked for a $9 billion credit line from the government, but has not received a replay. Mulally said his company was in better shape than GM and Chrysler because it borrowed $23 in 2006 by putting up most of its assets, and said he expects the U.S. economy to rebound later this year. "Right now, I think with everything planned in the fiscal and monetary policy, I am very comfortable that we are going to start to turn things around through the second half of the year," he said. Sounds good, depending on which Ford is doing the talking.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama plans to close Guantanamo, end 'enhanced' interrogations

Let the undoing begin! New U.S. President Barack Obama is expected Thursday to order the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end the use of 'enhanced' techniques to interrogate captured militants, the Reuters international news service is reporting. Reuters said today it has obtained a copy of a draft executive order setting a one-year deadline to close the prison, where foreign terrorism suspects have been held since 2002. Former President George W. Bush set up the prison after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Another expected order would require all U.S. spy agencies to abide by the Army Field Manual, which bans the use of waterboarding. Waterboarding is simulated drowning designed to break suspects' resistance to questioning. The admitted use of waterboarding, which is banned by the Geneva Conventions, has damaged the reputation of the United States at home and abroad. Obama, who was sworn in as the 44th U.S. president on Tuesday, promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison during the election campaign. There are 250 prisoners still at the prison, of which 50 have been cleared for release but cannot be returned to their home countries, Reuters said. Some 500 have been released or transferred to other countries.

California asks U.S. to back-up on car emissions

California officials expect new President Barack Obama to help them restore the state's strict auto emissions standards overruled by the Bush administration in 2007. The state's top climate official said Wednesday that the Obama administration would allow California to impose tougher limits on emissions than the federal government, according to the Reuters international news service. At least 12 states are expected to follow California and adopt the tougher standards, Reuters said. California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols asked new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson to reverse the 2007 decision and allow the stricter rules, which would require a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2016. The new rules also would require automakers to use more-reflective paint, smoother-rolling tires and more-efficient air-conditioning units to boost efficiency. California has the right to set its own standards under the Clean Air Act, but needs federal approval to do so. "If the California waiver is granted, states that represent over half the population of the United States and an even larger part of the market for new cars will be committing themselves to require the auto manufacturers to produce and sell vehicles that are 30 percent cleaner," Nichols said. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also asked the federal government to approve the waiver. Automakers warn the stricter rules would substantially increase car prices, but Nichols said they only would add about $100 to the price of a car.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One last cloud over the White House

Well, we knew it couldn't last. Millions turned out Tuesday to witness George W. Bush's final departure from the White House and the inauguration of former Sen. Barack Obama. But the day would have been infinitely more enjoyable were it not for a little tidbit Bush let slip upon his return home to Texas. He plans to write a book. Not read a book to children, which is what he was famously doing when terrorists attacked New York and Washington, but write one. He wants to offer insights into his thinking through the crises of his eight years in office, as if. "I want people to be able to understand what it was like in the Oval Office when I had to make some of the tough decisions that I was called upon to make," Bush said. Bush also plans to open a presidential library and the Freedom Institute in Dallas, a public policy center expected to defend the policies of his presidency. Everyone is looking forward to that.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What are the Russians doing now?

Certainly European nations will be overjoyed if Russia and Ukraine agree Monday to get the natural gas flowing, but the recent stoppage, in the middle of winter, should give everyone pause. The stoppage, which began Jan. 1 to Ukraine and Jan. 7 to Eastern Europe, was imposed by Russia in a pricing and payment dispute, according to the Reuters international news service. While all nations impacted were believed to have reserves, the dispute has now gone on long enough to leave residents of Ukraine and southeastern Europe in the cold. But even if Russia and Ukraine, the former Soviet republics, have reached a settlement, as reported Sunday by Reuters, the nature of the dispute and the potential for disastrous consequences should inspire the European Union to seek alternative sources for gas. On the surface, the dispute involved past due balances and future pricing but, just below the surface, was actually about politics. Ukraine is determined to join the Western military and political alliance NATO, and that's not acceptable to Russia. While it is understandable that Russia might feel some discomfort, since NATO was formed as a counterbalance to the Soviet military after World War II, it cannot choose when it will honor its commitments to the international community. The war is over, the Soviet Union has gone out of business and Russia must learn to behave itself -- with Ukraine, Georgia and everywhere else -- if it wants to reap the benefits of the world economic system.

Zimbabwe's Mugabe stopped making sense long ago

We already know that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has no intention of giving up any power to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, even though his party lost last March's election. So, the ultimatum Mugabe issued Sunday, reported in state-controlled media, is meaningless and will neither deflect worldwide pressure for him to resign nor stop opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai from demanding power. Mugabe's rhetoric about setting a deadline is likewise unbelievable, unless he is planning to throw the opposition party in jail. "This is the occasion when it's either they accept or it's a break," Mugabe was quoted as saying in the weekly Sunday Mail, referring to an interim agreement reached in September, according to the Reuters international news service. "After all, this is an interim agreement. If they have any issues they deem outstanding, they can raise them after they come into the inclusive government." But it is Mugabe who has breached the agreement by refusing to hand over control of key ministries. Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai plan to meet with the presidents of South Africa and Mozambique and with mediator Thabo Mbeki on Monday. MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told Reuters that the party agreed not to join any unity government without equitable sharing of cabinet posts. The international community wants the two sides to settle their differences and turn their attention to a growing humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, which has seen its economy collapse and is now suffering from a cholera epidemic.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Circuit City shutdown is hint of things to come

The shutdown of the Circuit City consumer electronics chain may have come as a shock to its employees and customers, but it's something that U.S. consumers will be getting used to in the coming years. The closure of the 567-store chain, the nation's second-largest, will begin with going-out-of-business sales on Saturday and last until the end of March, unless the merchandise is sold earlier, according to the New York Times. But the death of Circuit City and the 34,000 layoffs that will come with it will not solve the country's economic problems. Rather, the closure is just another casualty of the credit crisis caused by Wall Street run amok, when lending companies ran up a nearly incalculable debt by convincing government regulators to allow debt to be used as collateral for new loans. Circuit City filed for bankruptcy in November and tried to reorganize, but was unable to reach a deal with as many as two interested suitors, the Times said. “We are extremely disappointed by this outcome,” said James A. Marcum, acting president and chief executive of the 60-year-old company. But Circuit City is far from alone, joining retailers Sharper Image, Mervyn's, Linens 'n Things and Boscov's, which filed for bankruptcy last year, and Goody's Family Clothing and Gottschalks, which filed this year. Many more retailer bankruptcy filings are expected this year, the Times said. More bankruptcy means more layoffs and layoffs mean less people able to buy big-ticket items, translating to more bankruptcies. Best Buy is now the biggest electronics retailer in the United States, with it and Wal-Mart expected to pick up most of Circuit City's business, the Times said.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Corruption in Mexico's police forces? Can it be?

Now that the United States has acknowledged there may be corruption among police and security officers, maybe leaders in both countries are finally ready to take effective actions to battle drug traffickers who killed nearly 6,000 innocent civilians last year. A senior U.S. law enforcement agent acknowledged Wednesday that corrupt security force officials leaked anti-drug intelligence to traffickers to enable them to escape capture, according to the Reuters international news service. This may have come as a surprise to U.S. drug enforcement officials, but it is plainly obvious to everybody else. The drug trade would not have grown into the international monster it is today without the cooperation and, indeed, participation of officials in every country involved, including the United States. The U.S. agent, who Reuters said requested anonymity, also applauded recent efforts by the Mexican government to arrest top officials compromised by Mexico's powerful drug cartels. "There have been occurrences where we have shared information and then found that the information we shared was compromised, given, provided, leaked to the very targets that were being investigated," the official told Reuters. Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, has made fighting drug traffickers a top priority and has sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to battle the cartels, including the Sinaloa federation and the Gulf Cartel. In June, the U.S. Congress allocated $465 million in aid to fight drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America, part of the $1.4 billion package called the Merida initiative.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Republican attack on Bill of Rights continues

Wednesday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court limiting the scope of the exclusionary rule -- which bars the government from using evidence obtained improperly in criminal prosecutions -- was a timely reminder of the damage done by the Bush administration to the Bill of Rights. The court, with two George W. Bush appointees voting with the 5-4 majority, decided that an Alabama man's arrest for possession of contraband was legal even though he had been improperly searched by police, according to the New York Times. The ruling further limits the exclusionary rule, which was extended to all states after a seminal Supreme Court ruling on the Fourth Amendment in 1961. In Wednesday's decision, the Supreme Court held that the exclusionary rule does not bar improperly obtained evidence if the improper search was the result of "isolated negligence." In the actual case, the high court upheld the drug possession case against an Alabama man, Bennie Dean Herring, who was arrested and searched by the Coffee County, Ala., sheriff's department on an arrest warrant that turned out to have been invalid. “When police mistakes leading to an unlawful search are the result of isolated negligence attenuated from the search, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, the exclusionary rule does not apply,” Chief Justice Roberts said in the majority decision joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito, Jr. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer dissented from the ruling. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer. "The court’s opinion underestimates the need for a forceful exclusionary rule and the gravity of recordkeeping errors in the law enforcement,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. “Negligent recordkeeping errors by law enforcement threaten individual liberty, are susceptible to deterrence by the exclusionary rule, and cannot be remedied effectively through other means." The ruling came just a week before Bush, who appointed Alito and Roberts to the high court, is scheduled to leave office.

Things fall apart in Somalia

Tuesday's retreat from Mogadishu by Ethiopian troops backing Somalia's weak transitional government likely means another success for Islamist radicals fighting to control parts of Africa and Asia. Cheering Somalis filled the streets to watch the troops leave, according to the New York Times. Ethiopia, which had kept forces in Somalia since 2006, said it was withdrawing from the country entirely. The withdrawal probably means the collapse of the transitional government and the advance of fighters from Islamist factions that control most of the country. There still are 3,000 African Union troops in Mogadishu from the 2006 intervention that, instead of enhancing stability, helped incite a guerrilla war that killed thousands of civilians and drove more than 1 million from the capital, the Times said. Territory controlled by the government has been reduced to a few blocks of Mogadishu and the town of Baidoa, where Parliament meets. Analysts warn that the Islamist factions will begin fighting each other when Ethiopian troops leave, putting residents of Mogadishu at increased risk. Fighting may have already begun, the Times said. One Islamist leader, Sheik Yusuf Mohammed Siyad, took credit for the Ethiopian pullout. “We drove the Ethiopians out by means of muscle and bullet,” he said, according to the Times. “Today, we got the victory we were expecting. We are ready to unite with our brothers now, since the enemy is leaving.” U.S. officials had been pressing the United Nations to replace the African Union troops with a better-armed peacekeeping force, but other UN members have been reluctant to get involved, the Times said.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Don't the police still work for us?

Unfortunately, last week's protest march that turned violent in downtown Oakland, California, has distracted attention from the apparent crime that inspired the demonstration. The hundreds of people who turned out for the demonstration were outraged, and rightfully so, about the fatal shooting of a young man by a transit police officer at a BART station six days earlier. The victim, Oscar Grant III, was allegedly shot on New Years Day while lying face down after being detained by officers breaking up a fight at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. BART is an acronym for Bay Area Rapid Transit, the regional transit system for the San Francisco Bay Area. Whether the police officer mistakenly pulled his pistol instead of his stun gun, making the shooting an error, as has been alleged, is hardly the point. What is more relevant is the motive for using the weapon at all. The victim was subdued -- he was lying on the ground being handcuffed, with another officer sitting on him. Yet the officer who pulled the trigger still fired at him from point-blank range. Why? Why did that officer believe he had the right to fire? Could it be that the pendulum has swung too far, with police departments now protected from collective liability and officers themselves protected from personal liability in just about every conceivable circumstance? Even elected officials in towns and cities fear to challenge their own police departments and demand accountability on officers' conduct in the field and high salaries. The accused officer has refused to answer questions and has left the BART police department, apparently to avoid an internal investigation where his right to remain silent would be limited. So, this is the context that brought demonstrators to the streets of Oakland. More than 100 people were arrested at the protest after some demonstrators march and began breaking store windows, setting fires and damaging parked vehicles, according to KTVU, an Oakland television station. Many demonstrators in predominantly black Oakland expressed anger and frustration at the conduct of BART and other police. “We live a life of fear and we want them to feel fear tonight,” an unnamed demonstrator told KTVU at the height of the violence. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums called for calm as the demonstration reeled out of control. "Even with our anger and our pain, let's still address each other with a degree of civility and calmness and not make this tragedy an excuse to engage in violence," Dellums said. "I don't want anybody hurt, I don't want anybody killed." But Dellums, like nearly everyone distracted by the violence, missed the point.

Still crazy after all these years

Was that surreal, or what? U.S. President George W. Bush, arguably the worst president ever to hold the office, said Monday that he had made a few mistakes but that his administration had a lot of accomplishments to be proud of. In what was billed as the final press conference of his presidency (how does he know?), Bush said his government's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, handling of the economy and response to the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 were bright spots, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Reporters in the White House briefing room couldn't have been more surprised than tens of millions of voters around the country who were clearly rejecting the Bush administration when they soundly voted down Republican heir apparent John McCain in the November election. Maybe Bush was kidding. It seems most everyone realizes that the administration's response to the 9/11 attacks, which included the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003, unprecedented assault on civil liberties and willful violations of the Geneva Conventions, its woefully inadequate reaction to Hurricane Katrina and regulatory impotence on the economy were the reasons the country celebrated when Illinois senator Barak Obama was elected to replace him. Bush termed "disappointments" the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. "I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were things that didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way," Bush said. Bush also disagreed that the reputation of the United States suffered under his leadership. "My view is that most people around the world, they respect America. And some of them don't like me -- I understand that -- some of the writers and the, you know, opiners and all that. That's fine. That's part of the deal. But I'm more concerned about the country and -- and how people view the United States of America. They view us as strong, compassionate people who care deeply about the universality of freedom." The Bush administration is scheduled to leave office on Jan. 20.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Showdown looming over second $350 billion stimulus

What's another $350 billion? News that the Bush administration would ask Congress for the remaining $350 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program that Congress approved in October should come as no surprise. In the closing weeks of rule by the disgraced Republican leadership, we probably can expect a raft of moves to get even more money from even more people. After George W. Bush's performance, right-wing Republicans can't be sure they'll ever be in power again. But, before they go, let's look at the latest potential debacle. The Treasury Department wants another $350 billion for the financial system recovery, according to the Cable News Network (CNN), even though the administration doesn't know where the first $350 billion went or won't say. This seems like a slam-dunk. Nobody should get any more money until they account for what they've already received. That makes sense even if the current administration could be trusted. But Democratic leaders in Congress say they might not have enough votes to block administration efforts to get the additional money, CNN said. House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank has proposed placing restrictions on the use of the remaining $350 billion in TARP funds, including a requirement that Treasury use at least some of the money to help homeowners avert foreclosures. Foreclosure relief was left out of the first $350 billion, CNN said. Under the TARP program, Congress can block the second $350 billion by passing a resolution to that effect within 15 days of getting a formal request from the administration. But Bush could veto the resolution, allowing the money to be accessed unless a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress votes to override.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Former senator gives up appeal of conviction in airport sting

The latest word from Minnesota is that former U.S. Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who resigned after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct after being caught up in a sex sting in a Minneapolis airport restroom in 2007, is giving up efforts to clear his name legally. Craig's attorney, Thomas M. Kelly of Kelly & Jacobson of Minneapolis, said today that the former senator would not appeal the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court. "This is not a case the Supreme Court of Minnesota would accept for review," Kelly told the Washington Post. "It's not that novel of an issue." Last month, a state appeals court refused to overturn a lower court's refusal to allow Craig to withdraw his guilty plea. Craig has argued publicly and in court that he was pressured to plead guilty by police and that his conduct was not illegal. Craig is said to be forming a consulting company, the Post said, and considering writing a book about "the state of politics in Washington today."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Environmental President

Marine environmentalists were pretty happy Tuesday after U.S. President George W. Bush set aside large areas of the central Pacific Ocean as sanctuaries for marine life and research. Bush's order sets up the largest marine sanctuary in the world -- 195,280 square miles -- to the surprise of critics who criticize him for opposing global warming mitigation measures and state limitations on offshore oil drilling. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute helped the White House identify eight of the nine sites that make up the sanctuary, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "For sea birds and marine life, they will be sanctuaries to grow and thrive. For scientists, they will be places to extend the frontiers of discovery," Bush said Tuesday at the White House. "And for the American people, they will be places that honor our duty to be good stewards of the Almighty's creation." Bush used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to make the sanctuary designations at Rose Atoll, Wake Island, Johnston Island, Palmyra Island, Kingman Reef, Baker Island, Howland Island and Jarvis Island, with the assistance of the EDF and MCBI, Reuters said. "Today's announcement marks an enormous step in conserving the biodiversity of our planet, said David Yarnold, EDF's executive director. "We are gratified that the president has given careful consideration to the scientific evidence and our recommendations to protect these areas." The ninth site, in an around the Mariana Islands, was recommended by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Reuters said. But the huge protection order was not unprecedented for the Bush administration. Two years ago, a similar Bush order created the 138,000-square-miles Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

War is peace

It figures in the crazy world of Middle East diplomacy that an errant shell fired by Israeli forces would be the impetus for ceasefire talks involving Hamas. Months of shelling of Israeli cities by Hamas militants and repeated Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip did not bring the parties to the negotiating table, even though it would likely have avoided the current Israeli offensive. That's crazy, right? Anyway, the shell that struck the school, killing 42, apparently inspired a new ceasefire proposal from Egypt that was being reportedly being studied by Israel and Hamas, according to the Reuters international news service. The Egyptian plan, which envisions using foreign troops to stop smuggling on the Egypt-Gaza border and open other trade routes blocked by an Israeli blockade, has been backed by the United States and European Union, Reuters said. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at the United Nations, called for a "sustainable" ceasefire that involves the closure of Gaza's border with Egypt and the reopening of regular trade routes. "We need urgently to conclude a ceasefire that can endure and that can bring real security," Rice told the Security Council. Actually, what is needed is the start of negotiations between Israel and Hamas which, logic suggests, should reach a resolution quickly provided both parties are interested in a settlement. More than 600 Palestinians and 10 Israelis have been killed since Israel's offensive began last month.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Is anyone still listening to Cheney?

Some people never give up. We're speaking, of course, about U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who continued the Bush administration's defense of the 2003 invasion of Iraq on Sunday. Speaking on the CBS television news show "Face the Nation," Cheney said the invasion had been a "significant success," despite its still being partly unresolved after six years and the deaths of 4,000 U.S. soldiers and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. "We are close to achieving most of our objectives," Cheney told CBS, according to the Reuters international news service. "We have a significant reduction in the overall level of violence." Cheney also said the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's adoption of a new constitution, Iraq's elections and the 2011 withdrawal agreement as major milestones. "All of these things, by anybody's standards, would be evidence of significant success," he said. Cheney and other leaders of the Bush administration have been speaking to the media in recent months to defend their record before they leave office Jan. 20.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

High time for U.S. automakers to get moving

Four billion here, $4 billion there -- pretty soon, we'll have enough for a real blowout. Figuratively speaking, of course. The billions have been loaned by the U.S. government to General Motors Corp., the largest U.S. automaker, and Chrysler LLC, the smallest of what used to be known as the "Big 3." Chrysler received $4 billion Friday to help the company pay its bills while it restructures during an industrywide downturn, its management said, according to the Reuters international news service. U.S. auto sales are projected to have fallen to their lowest point since 1992, and no wonder. GM, Ford and Chrysler have nearly surrendered the small car market to foreign competitors, even though that market is expected to show the most growth in the foreseeable future. What these companies -- perhaps even more than a government bailout -- is a change in philosophy and a change in management. If Japanese automakers can make money building high-quality small cars, U.S. automakers can do it, too. GM got its $4 billion on New Year's Eve, Reuters said, while Ford Motor Co. has not requested bailout money now but wants $9 billion in revolving credit. General Motors Acceptance Corp., GM's financing arm that is 51 percent owned by Cerberus Capital Management, is in line to receive $6 billion from the financial system bailout. Cerberus is the owner of Chrysler. If the U.S. automakers have ideas on how to make the needed changes, they had better get started quickly. Under the terms of the bailout, GM and Chrysler are required to submit restructuring plans by mid-February and demonstrate to regulators by March that they can be viable.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Russia stops passing gas to Ukraine

Is the latest gas war between Russia and Ukraine just a spat between disagreeable neighbors or is it yet another sign that Moscow cannot be trusted to play nice with the free world? Russia cut off the supply of natural gas to Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, on Thursday in a contract dispute but the timing -- the middle of winter -- left Western European nations wondering if their gas supply would be next. European Union countries receive a fifth of their gas from pipelines that cross Ukraine, according to the Reuters international news service. Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom said the cutoff was due to a dispute over payment and future pricing and that the supply of gas to Europe would not be disrupted, Reuters said. But with the memory still fresh of last August's war between Russia and Georgia, also a former Soviet republic, many observers wondered if Russia was trying to punish Ukraine for its efforts to join the NATO alliance. Moscow previously cut off gas to Ukraine in 2006. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who has come under harsh criticism from Russia over his pursuit of NATO membership, said he wanted to resume talks on prices with Gazprom and that a deal could be reached by Jan. 7. Gazprom initially demanded more than $250 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas but is now demanding more than $400 per 1,000 cubic meters, according to Reuters. Ukraine, which uses close to 30 million cubic meters per day, offered $235 per 1,000 cubic meters. The United States called on both countries to settle their dispute to avoid supply disruptions in winter. "We hope that Russia and Ukraine can resolve their dispute over the gas debt and the terms of their natural gas supply arrangements in a transparent, commercial manner," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a written statement. The EU said existing commitments to supply and ship the gas must be honored.