Saturday, January 31, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
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
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.
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
Monday, January 26, 2009
Sunday, January 25, 2009
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
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Sunday, January 18, 2009
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.
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
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
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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.
Monday, January 12, 2009
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.
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
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
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
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.