Thursday, April 30, 2009

The last American car

Chrysler's bankruptcy filing may have bought the beleaguered carmaker a little more time in the short term, but signals the end of the U.S. automobile industry as any of us have ever known it. When the third-largest domestic car company emerges from court protection in August, the entire industry will not look anything like it does now. If the U.S. government gets its way, and there doesn't seem to be much reason to think it won't, Chrysler will be majority-owned by the United Auto Workers healthcare trust fund and merged with Fiat, which will be tasked with introducing the innovative, gas-efficient new models that stumped its previous owners for 40 years. If it is successful running Chrysler, Fiat -- an Italian company -- will end up the majority owner, according to the Reuters international news service. General Motors, once the symbol of American capitalism, is laying off tens of thousands of workers, shutting down subsidiaries and will wind up majority-owned by the U.S. government. Bondholders and previous shareholders will end up with very little. Only Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, has not mortgaged its present and future to borrow billions from the feds. U.S. President Barak Obama endorsed the Chrysler bankruptcy filing, saying it would save jobs at the automaker, and at auto parts companies and other firms that supply it. But Obama criticized some of Chrysler's bondholders and creditors that refused to agree to a proposal to reduce the automaker's debt by nearly $5 billion. "I stand with Chrysler's employees and their families and communities," he said. "I don't stand with those who held out when everybody else is making sacrifices. That's why I'm supporting Chrysler's plans to use our bankruptcy laws to clear away its remaining obligations." The bankruptcy filing evoked memories of 1980, when the United States provided more than $1 billion in loan guarantees to keep Chrysler afloat.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

North Korea's high-stakes nuclear gamesmanship

What, exactly, does North Korea have to gain by continuing to violate UN Security Council resolutions and baiting the United States into a confrontation on nuclear development? That's the question today after Pyongyang announced it would begin enriching uranium as an addition to its known plutonium-enrichment program unless UN sanctions were lifted, according to the New York Times. North Korea said it also would conduct additional nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests if the UN did not apologize for the Security Council's April 13 condemnation of its most recent missile test and threat to tighten economic sanctions, which it said it considered "a declaration of war." Pyongyang has managed to exact some concessions from Washington, including high-level dialogue and shipments of food for its impoverished people, with earlier threats, but it is hard to see what Pyongyang wants now. North Korea was impoverished by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which cut its international trade lifeline, and has been depending on shipments of food from the West to feed its people. Of course, the billions of dollars it is pouring into its weapons research would feed a lot of people if redirected into domestic programs. Instead, the North denounced the Security Council as “a tool for the U.S. highhanded and arbitrary practices” and refused to acknowledge its continuing activities, which the United States believes includes helping Syria with its nuclear research. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Fred Lash, said Wednesday that the Security Council resolution was “balanced and appropriate.” “We certainly call on North Korea, as we have in the past, to uphold its commitments” under a Sept. 19, 2005, joint statement of six-party talks and a 2006 Security Council imposing sanctions, the Times said. “We remain committed to achieving the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, hopefully through the six-party talks,” Lash said. “We urge them, as we always do, to return to the table.”

Palestinian Authority agrees deal with Hamas is necessary for peace with Israel

At least Fatah, which controls Palestinian civil society on the West Bank of the Jordan River, understands that it must resolve its standoff with the radical group Hamas before it can hope to negotiate a reasonable peace with Israel. At least, that's what a top Fatah official said Tuesday after the fourth round of negotiations in Cairo failed to reach an agreement between the rivals. Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior Fatah official who took part in the negotiations with Fatah, said a deal between the groups was a priority because it is a prerequisite for a regional peace deal with Israel, according to the New York Times. “The next round will determine everything,” Ahmed said. “Egypt will not allow a failure." The Times said Egypt has set a May 15 deadline for an agreement, according to Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy political chief of Hamas leader. “We cannot just talk for the sake of talking,” said Abu Marzouk said. “To continue without results is a disaster on the national level.” Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which Israel abandoned to Palestinian authority in 2005. Such an agreement would be a daunting accomplishment. The two sides, which fought a bitter war nearly two years ago, have been unable to resolve any of the major issues separating them, including terms for setting up a unity government, holding new legislative and presidential elections, and unifying competing security forces, the Times said. Such a deal is urgent for the Palestinians because the international community refuses to openly provide reconstruction funds to Hamas, which Israel, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist group. The aid is sorely needed in the Gaza Strip following the 22-day Israeli offensive that ended in January.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not talking with Taliban in Pakistan speaks louder than the alternative

Let's face the simple facts, however counterintuitive they may be. There will be no settlement with the resurgent Taliban militant group, which is now trying to take over nuclear-armed Pakistan. We know from what they did in Afghanistan -- indoctrinating men, subjugating women, trying to wipe out a proud nation's long history. So news Monday that a radical cleric in the Swat valley was breaking off his services as a Taliban representative in negotiations with Pakistan's civilian government cannot be a bad thing. According to the Reuters international news service, Sufi Mohammad broke off negotiations with the government after Islamabad launched a military offensive against the Taliban in the lawless northwest region of Lower Dir. Swat and Lower Dir are part of the Malakand division, where Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto, agreed in talks with Mohammad to appease the Taliban by allowing them to impose Islamic law. But violence has surged since then, prompting increased concern by Western nations fearing for the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weaponry. The West has been trying to convince Zardari to commit his army to fight the Taliban and stop their power grab. Zardari is scheduled to meet in Washington next month with U.S. President Barack Obama and Aghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. Zardari tried to reassure Western nations on Monday that Pakistan's arsenal was not in danger of falling to the Taliban. "I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands," he told the international media, Reuters said. Mohammad caused an uproar last week by denouncing Pakistan's parliament, democracy and Supreme Court as un-Islamic, Reuters said.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nothing comes easy in post-Bush era foreign policy

News that socialist Rafael Correa easily won re-election as president of Ecuador on Sunday should give pause to the inner circle around U.S. President Barack Obama, since it means they will have to work harder to contain damage from the Bush administration. No doubt, the White House had hoped that Correa, a pal of anti-U.S. rhetoric spouting Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, would at least suffer a setback in this election that would slow him down. Instead, Correa got a majority of the vote in the eight-candidate field, avoiding a runoff for the first time since democracy was restored in Ecuador in 1979, according to the Reuters international news service. The leftist Correa, popular in Ecuador for socialist policies that took hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign countries drilling for offshore oil or managing banana plantations and putting the money into pensions, schools and health care, money to the poor, successfully pushed a constitutional amendment enabling him to run for a third term in 2013. "This revolution is on the march, and nobody and nothing can stop us," the 46-year-old president said in Guayaquil, his hometown. "The people ... have given us the most splendorous victory of probably the last 50 years." Correa's major rivals included former president Lucio Gutierrez and billionaire Alvaro Noboa. Correa caused a stir in the West last year by defaulting on billions of dollars in debt, closing a U.S. airbase used for anti-drug flights and expelling two U.S. diplomats he accused of spying.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Closure of Pontiac shows GM still doesn't get it

Speculation that General Motors plans to kill off its Pontiac brand instead of trying to revitalize it with new models and better values is an indication that the country's largest automaker is still locked-in on a highway to failure. With new leadership at the top and billions of dollars in federal loans, General Motors should be making plans to build better, more-attractive cars across all of its divisions. Instead, the automaker is trying to suck the remaining life out of itself as it careens toward bankruptcy. An official announcement about Pontiac's fate is expected as eartly as Monday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). A GM spokesman, Jim Hopson, declined to comment Saturday on the future of the Pontiac brand, saying the automaker was not prepared to comment at this time, CNN said. Pontiac was GM's third-best selling brand last year, outselling Cadillac and Buick. But Cadillac is the corporation's most-profitable brand and Buick is very popular in China, CNN said. Pontiac once built GM's most exciting vehicles, from the high-performance GTO to the flashy Firebird. The 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO is credited with creating a new class of American car, the muscle car.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Iran reveals true self by imprisoning U.S. journalist

The sad truth behind the jailing, and recent espionage conviction, of a U.S. journalist in Iran is that the regime in Tehran does not respect people, particularly people it believes are its enemies, and cannot be trusted to do what's right. The offbase rantings of the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, demonstrates just how little regard Tehran has for the truth and, by extension, its international obligations. It's no wonder, then, that his regime is the subject of international economic sanctions aimed at restricting its access to nuclear materials. The Western countries all share the understanding that Iran cannot be trusted with nuclear capability, even as they hypocritically enrich the country by refusing to end their dependence on imported oil. The January arrest and last week's secret prosecution of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi of North Dakota adds more mistrust to the fire. Saberi, an Iranian-American who has been reporting from Iran for National Public Radio and other news organizations for years, was jailed for not having permission from the government, which revoked her credentials in 2006, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Her father, Reza Saberi, said she is on a hunger strike. Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison after a one-day trial conducted in secret, CNN said. "Without press credentials and under the name of being a reporter, she was carrying out espionage activities," Hassan Haddad, a deputy public prosecutor, told the Iranian Students News Agency, CNN reported. Authorities also said Saberi confessed. But Iran's is not a trustworthy account, given its already compromised regime. All Tehran is accomplishing now is making it harder to be accepted into the civilized nations' club, which is where Iran will have to be if it hopes to survive for yet another century.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Obama gets it right on credit card reforms

It's enough to make you think he knows what's going on in the United States. We're talking, of course, about President Barack Obama's effort to restrict the unconscionable growth of interest rates and fees placed on credit cards used by most U.S. residents. After meeting with 13 credit-card industry executives at the White House on Thursday, Obama said he wanted to stop abuses and eliminate the "fine print" in credit-card contracts, according to the Reuters international news service. "We want to preserve the credit card market but we also want to do so in a way that eliminates some of the abuses and some of the problems that a lot of people are familiar with," Obama said. The president endorsed efforts in Congress to pass a so-called Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, which would convert into law regulations issued by the Federal Reserve in December. The bill would prevent credit card issuers from imposing arbitrary interest rate increases and penalties. A version of the bill is pending in the Senate. Obama said he wanted the Congress to protect consumers from abuses by credit card companies as part of his effort to retool the government's regulation of the U.S. economy, which has been mired in recession. "The days of any time, any reason rate hikes and late fees has to end," Obama said. "No more fine print, no more confusing terms and conditions. We want clarity and transparency from here on out." Executives from Bank of America, American Express, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, Visa and MasterCard were invited to the meeting, Reuters said.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Indictments in the offing for Bush and Cheney?

What isn't being said in the uproar over President Barack Obama's recent statements about investigating harsh interrogation tactics approved by Bush administration officials in apparent violation of longstanding treaty obligations is the obvious: that all investigations lead directly to the Oval Office. We now know that Condoleezza Rice personally approved the CIA's use of waterboarding, which involves simulated drowning, in 2002, and that the technique was used more than 200 times against three suspected terrorists, according to the Reuters international news service. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney said a year later that the White House backed the interrogation program, Reuters said, citing a report issued today by the Senate Intelligence Committee. We can tell where this is going. Rice would not have approved such a controversial program without discussing it with then-president George W. Bush, her good friend, and Bush would not have agreed without discussing it with Cheney. If anyone is ever going to be held liable for the Bush administration's gross perversion of justice, the indictments certainly should start at the top.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April surprise! Bill of Rights wins one at Supreme Court

What are we to make of today's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding limits on the ability of police (read "government) to search vehicles without a warrant? Could it be that we have finally reached the point where the nation's highest court, despite its cadre of radically conservative justices, is going to honor the promise of the Bill of Rights against the whims of the executive branch? Were the reversals of overly restrictive Bush administration-era detainment policies, which signaled that this court was taking its constitutional responsibilities seriously, just the beginning? In fact, the 5-4 ruling in Arizona v. Gant (No. 07-542) did not really break any new ground, according to the New York Times, but restored a measure of balance to warrantless searches involving motorists. "Although we have recognized that a motorist’s privacy interest in his vehicle is less substantial than in his home,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the 5-4 majority, “the former interest is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection.” The ruling upheld an Arizona Supreme Court decision in a case involving drugs found in a car that was routinely searched after the driver had been arrested and physically detained. Perhaps more importantly, the ruling reversed the high court's 1981 decision in New York v. Belton, which had been seen as a controlling precedent for the past 28 years. In Belton, a case involving four defendants in a car stopped by a single police officer on the New York Thruway, the court held that a search without a warrant was legal if done soon after an arrest. But Stevens said Belton applied only when an immediate search is necessary for the safety of the officer or to preserve evidence. In an unusual split, Stevens was joined in the majority by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the court's most conservative justices, and by David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, joined as expected by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Anthony M. Kennedy. But Stephen G. Breyer, one of the court's most liberal justices, also joined the dissent. Breyer indicated at oral argument in October that he did not want to disturb the Belton precedent after 27 years.

Obama changes course; may now favor prosecutions

Seemingly just days after ruling out the prosecution of CIA agents who used torture to interrogate terrorism suspects, President Barack Obama created a media firestorm Tuesday when he said he might favor investigating and prosecuting Bush administration officials who authorized the harsh methods. Obama's statement followed weeks of denials, in which the president said the country should be looking ahead and not examining the recent past, according to the New York Times. The controversial remarks came while Obama was answering questions from reporters in the oval office. "If and when there needs to be a further accounting," he said, Congress should figure out how to get it "in a bipartisan fashion" from people independent from the government. The comments certainly suggest that that Obama now favors an independent investigation of the Bush administration policies, perhaps by a special prosecutor. Obama also suggested he might favor the prosecution of the attorneys who wrote legal justifications for the harsh interrogation policies when he said that question would be up to Attorney General Eric Holder. "I don't want to prejudge that," Obama said. Three Bush administration lawyers who signed the legal memorandums, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, are expected to be the subject of a highly critical Justice Department report that could recommend their disbarment. Obama's latest statements come while reverberations from the administration's release of the secret memos are still reverberating in Washington. The memos revealed that two al-Qaida operatives were subjected to waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning, more than 250 times, the Times said. Release of the memos prompted the predictable howls of outrage from Obama's Republican critics, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, the Times said.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The gang that wouldn't give up

Nice to hear from George W. Bush-era CIA director warning against release of secret memos authorizing invasive interrogation techniques -- NOT. The new Obama administration ought to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for agreeing to release the memos, which reveal who in the Bush administration was in on decisions to break international treaties and violate the country's fundamental principles. But these characters never give up, not even after U.S. voters resoundingly rejected the former administration's cavalier attitude toward human rights as it preached them to other countries. The latest outrage comes from Gen. Michael V. Hayden, CIA director during the last two years of the Bush government, who Sunday that release of the so-called torture memos would hamper the country's ability to fight terrorism, according to the New York Times. Hayden said the CIA had already stopped using waterboarding, a technique involving simulated drowning, by the time he became the agency's director, and told a Congressional committee in 2007 that he thought its use was probably illegal. But in an interview broadcast on Fox News Sunday, Hayden said release of the memos gave Al-Qaida an advantage by revealing what practices the CIA used in the past. “It describes the box within which Americans will not go beyond,” he said, according to the Times. “To me, that’s very useful for our enemies, even if, as a policy matter, this president at this time had decided not to use one, any, or all of those techniques.” The memos released this week Thursday detailed interrogation techniques used by the CIA from 2002-2005, apparently with the approval of the White House.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Racism" conference is no place for democratic nations

Word from the U.S. State Department today that Washington will not participate in next week's U.N. conference on racism is a step forward, not backward, for settling international conflicts. On the surface, it would appear that more engagement would be the best thing. But Democratic nations that value honesty and integrity should have nothing to do with this meeting, which the United Nations is convening to try to repair the damage from the last racism conference in 2005 in Durban, South Africa, according to the Reuters international news service. "With regret, the United States will not join the review conference," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said today, putting an end to deliberations inside the new Obama administration about whether or not to attend the conference, known as Durban II. The United States and Israel walked out of the 2005 conference after Arab states proposed a declaration defining Zionism, the Jewish statehood movement that led to the creation of Israel, as racism. Months of negotiations over the wording of the first Durban II statement failed to get offending language removed, Reuters said, after Arab nations added language barring "defamation of religion," a reference to the 2006 controversy over cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper. Wood indicated that the United States saw the addition of that language as an effort to restrict free speech. But a draft statement that removed all references to Israel and to the cartoon controversy also was found wanting, Wood said, possibly because Iran's virulantly anti-Israel leader, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, was scheduled as the conference's keynote speaker. Canada has also said it will boycott the conference to avoid a repeat of the "Israel-bashing" from the last conference, Reuters said. The European Union is still deliberating whether to attend, Reuters said.

Friday, April 17, 2009

New administration frees scientists from doghouse

The significance of Friday's announcement that U.S. environmental regulators have officially determined that air pollutants blamed for global warming pose significant health hazards to people is not only that emissions can be regulated, but that government officials are again listening to scientists. Finally, a scientific approach to problems -- far superior to the 'faith-based' approach of President Barak Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. The Environmental Protection Agency, which made the announcement, did not just find out about heat-trapping gases -- they've understood that for years, as have many of us. But irresponsible leaders of the last administration obviously muzzled regulators to reward corporate campaign contributors who will have to pay for compliance with new regulations. "This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a news release, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The science clearly shows that concentrations of these gases are at unprecedented levels as a result of human emissions, and these high levels are very likely the cause of the increase in average temperatures and other changes in our climate." Jackson was nominated by Obama and confirmed by Congress in January. Reuters said environmentalists applauded the EPA announcement. "Global warming threatens our health, our economy, and our children's prosperity," said Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund. "EPA's action is a wake-up call for national policy solutions that secure our economic and environmental future." But Republicans in Congress condemned the decision, saying it would lead to an increased in government regulations. "Today's action by the EPA is the beginning of a regulatory barrage that will destroy jobs, raise energy prices for consumers and undermine America's global competitiveness," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cuba's Fidel Castro responds to Obama move

While reaction in the United States has been mixed, U.S. President Barak Obama's proposal of a change in policy toward Cuba has drawn positive feedback from Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader. In a column published Tuesday on a government Web site, Castro called the changes "positive" but urged "many others" as well. "The measure of easing the restrictions on trips is positive although minimal," he wrote, according to the Reuters international news service. "Many others are needed." Castro has been Cuba's leader since the 1959 Communist revolution but ceded power last year to his brother because of ill health. He apparently is bouncing back. Castro complained in a column earlier in the day that the Obama administration had not done enough to end the United States' 47-year-old economic embargo of Cuba, which he called a form of genocide. "The conditions are created for Obama to use his talent in a constructive policy that puts an end to what has failed for the past half century," Castro said. A White House spokesman said the easing of travel and currency restrictions announced by Obama last week were meant to help families and promote human rights in Cuba. The White House announcement came just before the start of a Summit of the Americas regional conference scheduled for Friday in Trinidad & Tobago, where Obama could hear criticism from regional leaders unhappy with the U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Deal with Taliban strains U.S.-Pakistan alliance

The future of Pakistan's alliance with the United States and other Western nations appeared in doubt Monday as Taliban militants took over more territory in the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic country. Militants are now imposing Islamic law -- sharia -- in Buner, a mountain valley just 60 miles from Islamabad, according to the Reuters international news service, less than two months after the government conceded the Swat Valley to the Taliban. "They are everywhere," Arsala Khan, a deputy superintendent of police, told Reuters by telephone. "They are visiting mosques, they are visiting bazaars, asking people to help them in enforcing sharia. Buner is fast turning into Swat." Swat was a main tourist destination until 2007, when militants began infiltrating the region from their strongholds on the border with Afghanistan. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto, negotiated a settlement with the Taliban in February to allow the imposition of sharia in an effort to temper rising violenc in the region. At the time, Western nations vehemently objected to the agreement, warning Zardari that such deals protected Taliban and al-Qaida militants and encouraged even more violence -- precisely what happened.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Democracy under attack: Thailand cracks down on anti-government protesters

Monday's move by Thailand's government to crack down on weeks of anti-government protests in Bangkok was probably inevitable but is nevertheless disheartening. The army has begun shooting at protesters in an effort quell protests in Bangkok, the capital, where tens of thousands of protesters gathered Sunday night in support of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, according to the Reuters international news service. Thaksin, a populist, was forced out in a 2006 coup, the 18th coup on Thailand since 1932. Current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was elected by lawmakers in December after Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, who had succeeded Thaksin, was forced out of office, has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, Reuters said. Protesters in the southern resort town of Pattaya, who claim Aghisit was democratically elected, disrupted Saturday's Asian summit, forcing some regional leaders to flee by helicopter. Thaksin urged on the protesters by telling supporters by telephone that Sunday was a 'golden time' to revolt against the government, Reuters said. Abhisit discounted talk of another coup, saying the military still supported his government. But Thaksin, a populist elected in 2001 on a platform of universal healthcare and cash payouts to peasants, urged "the people to come out for a revolution." Thaksin was convicted of corruption and went into exile after being convicted of corruption. Somchai was forced out after a week of protests by the opposition People's Alliance for Democracy, a group composed of members of Thailand's traditional ruling class. Thailand's Constitutional Court then ordered Somchai's party disbanded and barred him from office for five years.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

CIA closes secret prisons under pressure from Obama government

There doesn't seem to be much question that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency would have continued to use its network of secret prisons in Europe and Asia if not for the determination of the new Obama administration. From Washington comes word that the CIA is now planning to eliminate the secret prisons, which had been mostly closed since 2006 but were still being maintained, according to the New York Times. The secret prisons were reportedly where suspected terrorists captured overseas were subjected to interrogations that violated the Geneva Conventions definition of torture. The sites are believed to be in or to have been in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania, Jordan and other countries, the Times said. In a letter to employees on Thursday, new CIA Director Leon Panetta said his agency "no longer operates detention facilities or black sites and has proposed a plan to decommission the remaining sites." The decision, assuming its implementation as announced, fulfills a campaign pledge of President Barak Obama to end the controversial interrogation program. In a report issued last month, the International Red Cross said that in addition to waterboarding, prisoners were forced to stand for days while handcuffed to the ceiling, held in small boxes and kept in freezing temperatures, the Times said. Panetta's letter also raised another contentious issue, contending that agency employees should not be subjected to any investigations of alleged abuses committed during the program because the Justice Department under then-President George W. Bush determined that harsh interrogations were legal.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Death throes for affirmative action?

There was a time when it was good news for the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to decide a controversy involving racial prejudice. At least there was a probability that the justices would issue a clear, well-reasoned opinion that advanced racial equality in U.S. society. But that was then. Now, with George W. Bush-appointee John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, everyone has to wonder what good can come from the court's decision to hear a case involving a New Haven, Conn., firefighter's claim of reverse-racism in a 2003 promotional examination. Oral arguments in the case, Ricci v. DeStefano (No. 07-1428), will be heard April 22, according to the New York Times. The case involves allegations by 17 firefighters -- 16 whites and one Hispanic -- that they were discriminated against by the city of New Haven when the results of the lieutenant's exam they took in 2003 were thrown out because none of the 19 black firefighters who took it qualified for promotion. Frank Ricci, a dyslexic white firefighter who says spent more than $1,000 on coaching, finished sixth out of 77 who took the exam. No firefighters have been promoted since the exam was given. The city contends it threw out the case to comply with federal law that recommends "great suspicion" of job requirements that disproportionately disfavor minorities. But what makes the case especially noteworthy is it is first test for the Roberts court on claims of racial discrimination in employment, the Times said, and Roberts has been outspoken in his opposition to racial preferences in education. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote in a 2007 decision. With luck, the court will only decide the question raised by the appeal -- whether the city acted properly in this particular circumstance. But because education is a far different arena than employment, the court could break new (or old) ground in employment law, prompting interest groups to file brief weighing in on the decision. It's even possible that the conservative Roberts court took the case because it was looking for a way to end affirmative action, which has without question helped raise standards of living for blacks and other minorities in the United States over the past few decades. A federal appeals court in New York upheld the decision, but six of 13 appellate justices urged the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and decide the case.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hard to see what negotiations with Iran can accomplish

It probably can't hurt, but it's hard to see what further negotiations can possibly accomplish given the state of relations between the United States and Iran. The word from Washington is that the United States will, for the first time, take part in talks between Iran, the European Union and other U.N. Security Council members over Tehran's nuclear program, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). According to the U.S. State Department, the Obama administration has asked the EU to invite Iran to new negotiations, in which Washington has previously refused to participate, CNN said. "If Iran accepts, we hope this will be an occasion to seriously engage Iran of how to break the logjam of recent years and work in a cooperative manner to resolve the outstanding international concerns about its nuclear program," said Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman. But Iran has repeatedly refused previous Security Council demands to stop enriching uranium, which Tehran claims is needed to fuel nuclear power plants. The United States accuses Tehran of secretly trying to build a nuclear weapon, a claim the UN is still unable to resolve. The decision to enter the talks is seen as a further move by the new Obama administration to engage the Iran diplomatically after nearly three decades without formal diplomatic ties. But whether regimes like Iran and North Korea can afford to be more involved with the West is an open question, because such involvement brings with it a host of international responsibilities that those those countries don't seem to be mature enough to live up to.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Iraqi court cuts shoe thrower's 3-year sentence

From Baghdad comes word that an Iraqi judge has cut most of the prison sentence of Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi broadcaster who infamously threw his shoes at President George W. Bush last year at a press conference. Zaidi was convicted of assaulting a visiting head of state for the attack, according to the Washington Post. The throwing of shoes was said to be a show of disrespect in the Arab world. Bush avoided both thrown shoes but Zaidi was wrestled to the ground and taken away after the attack, which occurred during a Dec. 14 press conference with Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad's heavily fortified green zone. Zaidi was convicted in an Iraqi court and sentenced to three years in prison. The April 6 decision, which came as Zaidi's lawyers appealed his sentence, reduced his term to one year. Zaidi, a Sadr City resident who worked for al-Baghdadia, a satellite channel based in Cairo, threw his leather shoes at Bush and shouted, "This is your farewell kiss, you dog," during the news conference, which came during Bush's last visit to Iraq as president. Zaidi said at trial that the attack was the result of his years of anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Post said. Zaidi gained wide fame in the Arab world as a result of the attack, which was broadcast around the world. But three years in prison certainly seemed excessive, since the attack occurred in a country where people get murdered with astonishing regularity. Plus, Bush was able to duck and was not struck by either shoe. Zaidi could be released as early as this fall, according to the Post.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

North Korea's tests missile, Obama gets angry

While domestic policy changes are unfolding daily, U.S. residents hoping for a about-face on foreign policy issues may have to wait a little longer. President Barack Obama took a step back into the Cold War-era on Sunday, calling for nuclear-armed North Korea to be "punished" for firing a test missile into the Pacific Ocean. Obama, speaking in Prague on his first European trip since assuming the presidency in January, called the missile test a "provocation" that violated international norms, according to the New York Times. Obama called for a "strong international response" to the firing of the missile, which fell harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean a few hours before Obama's speech before 20,000 in Prague. "This provocation underscores the need for action -- not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council -- but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons,” Obama said. “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Obama said blocking North Korea's pursuit of missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons was part of his effort to limit the spread of such technology. He said he was still pursuing a missile defense syestem for Europe, including Poland and Czechoslovakia, but linked it to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry. "As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven,” Obama said. Russia is opposed to the missile defense, which was proposed by former president George W. Bush. Here's hoping the Cold War is not going to be defrosted.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Change in U.S. stance on Cuba coming soon

The new administration in Washington plans imminent changes in the relationship between the United States and Cuba, raising hope that one of the worst yet most enduring blunders in U.S. policy could be ending. According to a report Saturday in the New York Times, the lifting of some restrictions on travel and sending money from family-to-family in Cuba is imminent. The United States imposed those limits as part of a 1960s-era trade embargo imposed after Fidel Castro, a communist, seized control of the island nation off the coast of Florida. Relations between Cuba and the United States have stayed tense since then, including, of course, during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John Kennedy was president, but Castro's retirement last year raised hopes of some kind of reconciliation. Announcement of the changes is expected before U.S. President Barack Obama attends a Latin summit in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17, the Times said. The changes are not expected to include a lifting of the entire embargo, just an easing of its terms, the newspaper reported. Lifting of the entire embargo would require an act of Congress. Obama discussed relaxing the embargo during his successful 2008 campaign.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Iowa Supreme Court does what courts are supposed to do

It's too much to hope that today's unanimous decision by the state Supreme Court in Iowa invalidating a law that banned same-sex marriage will begin to quiet the unconscionable rhetoric from the homophobic among us, but at least logic has prevailed even briefly. No doubt, the forces of intolerance are planning a ballot-box assault on the court ruling, just like what happened in California. But it's really long past time to retire such ignorance. Our guiding principles and laws guarantee equal treatment to everyone. Gay people think they ought to be able to get married. That's it, game over. End of story. What anyone thinks God wants is immaterial. The United States is a nation of laws that apply to everyone, not subject to some people's definition of religion. The ruling, which takes effect in 21 days, makes Iowa the third state to legalize same-sex marriage after Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "This is a great day for civil rights in Iowa," said former Iowa Solicitor-General Dennis Johnson, who represented six same-sex couples on behalf of Lambda Legal, an arm of a gay rights organization. "Go get married. Live happily ever." But a conservative Iowa nonprofit research group had a reverse reaction. "It's, quite frankly, a disaster," said Brian English, a spokesman for the Iowa Family Policy Center. "Obviously, we're extremely disappointed," he said. "We're saddened . . . and perhaps a little bit surprised in the unanimous decision that the court handed down." San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who captured the imagination of the entire country when he allowed gay people to marry in San Francisco for a brief time in 2004, applauded the Iowa court's decision. Newsom said he was "very proud" of Iowa's high court for "standing tall on equality.

Problem solved: Venezuela wants Gitmo detainees

Problem solved. Just when it looked as if there was no way out for the United States short of living up to its principles and accepting never-convicted inmates when the detention center closes at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced Thursday that his country would be willing to accept any former prisoners. "We would not have any problem with receiving a human being," said a government news release quoting an interview gave to Al-Jazeera television on Wednesday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Chavez also said he hoped the United States would return the land on which the naval base is located to Cuba. The United States acquired the land for the Guantanamo base in 1903 after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Then-President George W. Bush opened the detention center in 2002 to hold what he characterized as "enemy combatants" captured in the so-called war on terror. The new administration of Barack Obama, which took over the White House in January, has not disclosed its plans for the prisoners when the detention center closes. Obama has pledged to close the prison.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

General Motors is already bankrupt every way but legally

News that General Motors told the Treasury Department this week that it could seek bankruptcy protection comes as a surprise to no one, except maybe the federal regulators who have been propping up the auto giant with billions of dollars in taxpayer money since last year. The admission, the first time GM has openly discussed a bankruptcy filing, appeared in a regulatory filing about its restructuring progam, according to the Reuters international news service. Of course, new GM chief executive Fritz Henderson, who took over the top spot after the Obama administration demanded the removal of former CEO Rick Wagoner, mentioned the possibility earlier in the week after its proposed restructuring plan was rejected by the government. In its report to Treasury, GM said it was trying to restructure out of court but would file bankruptcy if it was unable to reach cost-saving agreements with its bondholders and employee unions. "If the changes needed for long-term restructuring cannot be obtained out of court, the company is prepared and would consider in-court options,” GM said in its filing. The United States has loaned the automaker billions of dollars in an effort to help it recover from the economic downturn, and also has suggested guaranteeing warranties and aiding GM in emerging from bankruptcy after restructuring. But if what GM really wants is to get out of its labor contracts while stalling on new car development and continuing to overpay its executives, maybe it really should get out of the way and let emerging automakers with better ideas take over.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Surprise -- U.S. and Russia discuss peaceful cooperation

Finally, signs of civility in the relationship between the United States and Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed Wednesday to press for a new nuclear disarmament agreement and to try to get along in solving pressing world issues. The leaders' joint statement said they expect some results by July, when Obama is scheduled to visit Moscow, according to the Reuters international news service. "In the past years, there were strains in relations between our two countries and they were drifting in the wrong direction," Medvedev said to reporters at the G20 economic summit in London. "This was not in the interests of the United States, Russia or global stability. We agreed to open a new page in these relations, to reset them, given the joint responsibilities of our states for the situation in the world." Obama promised "constructive dialog" with Medvedev on counter-terrorism and economic stability, in addition to nuclear proliferation. "The new agreement will mutually enhance the security of the parties and predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces," they said in a joint statement. "We are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries." Relations between the nuclear superpowers have been damaged the past few years by differences over Russia's war with neighboring Georgia and a U.S. plan to build a nuclear shield in Eastern Europe. Obama and Medvedev also agreed to work together on the future of Afghanistan, relations with Iran and dealing with North Korea's planned rocket launch.