Sunday, May 31, 2009

Migration talks could signal real opening with Cuba

Word from Washington that Cuba had agreed to reopen talks on allowing migration from the island and on mail delivery could be a sign that relations between the two countries are indeed warming and that diplomatic relations could be eventually in the offing. Cuba sent a note to U.S. officials on Saturday agreeing to resume migration talks suspended by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004, according to the Reuters international news agency. A second note offered talks on direct mail service. "The two notes are a very positive step forward," the U.S. official said, according to Reuters. "Our goal has always been safe, orderly migration out of Cuba. It's in our interest to resume these talks." The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1960, when Cuba's new leftist leader, Fidel Castro, who overthrew the island's U.S.-backed leader, nationalized businesses owned by U.S. companies. The official said the Cubans also indicated an interest in holding talks on counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and hurricane disaster responses. The notes apparently were timed to coincied with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's three-day trip to Latin America, where the Organization of American States is expected to readmit Cuba. Cuba's membership was suspended in 1962 after Castro began to implement Communist reforms and aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union, Reuters said.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Happy talk by former presidents obscures deep political divide

Nice to see former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton getting along so well. The stuck up for each other and even joked around Friday at a political forum in Toronto when they spoke before a crowd of 6,000, according to the Associated Press. Neither criticized the other in their first appearance together, the AP said. Bush, who left office in January after eight controversial years as president, said he didn't like being criticized by previous administration officials and that Clinton never did that. Bush said there were "plenty of critics in America," the AP said. And Clinton, who was president from 1993-2001, did not even mention recent well-publicized comments by Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, who has been highly critical of the new administration of Barak Obama. Bush even called Clinton his "brother" while joking about how much time his father, former President George H.W. Bush, spends with his immediate predecessor. Clinton and the elder Bush led international fundraising efforts after the southeast Asian tsunami and after hurricanes Katrina and Ike. The two former presidents made speeches before answering questions from the audience, the AP said. Clinton said he regretting not sending soldiers to Africa to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and Bush defended his administration's conduct of the Iraq war. "I don't buy the premise that our attention was diverted," Bush said, after Clinton said Bush should have given U.N. inspectors more time to look for weapons of mass destruction and instead concentrated more on Aghanistan, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is still thought to be hiding. Clinton praised Bush for his contributions to efforts to battle the AIDS virus in Africa and for appointing a racially and ethnically diverse Cabinet. Bush said Clinton would not have been able to mobilize enough troops in time to stop the Rwanda bloodbath, in which Hutu militias killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in three months. The event was moderated Frank McKenna, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rise in bank failures belies optimistic assessments about economy

All the happy talk about the economy coming from the White House these days could just be wishful thinking. The Federal Deposit Insurance Program, which protects U.S. bank deposits, said yesterday that 53 banks had been added to its list of financial institutions at risk of failure, bringing the total to 305 in the first quarter, according to the Washington Post. The FDIC also said 36 banks had already failed in 2009. That doesn't exactly comport with President Barak Obama's optimistic statement today that the economy was getting better with the help of his $787 billion stimulus package. "Americans have saved thousands by taking advantage of the tax credits for the purchase of a new home, a new fuel-efficient car, or energy-efficient cooling and heating systems, windows and insulation," Obama said in a speech at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Obama said 95 percent of working families received tax cuts, unemployment benefits were extended and 44 million Social Security recipients got a $250 bonus from his stimulus bill, according to the Associated Press. But FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair said at a news conference Wednesday that officials have run into problems implementing the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which was supposed to help the banking system recover by sponsoring purchases of "toxic assets" held by financial institutions. Those assets, which include ill-advised loans to millions of home buyers and unsafe "securities" held by financial institutions, are blamed for the collapse of the banking system last year. Bair said some banks are balking at revealing information required by the government to enter the TARP system, and some are objecting to rules being drafted by regulators to bar banks from repurchasing their own toxic assets at a discount under the program. But the FDIC also said the nation's banks made a profit of $7.6 billion in the first quarter after losing $36.9 billion loss in the fourth quarter of 2008. Banks earned $19.3 billion in the first quarter of 2008, the Post said.

Pakistan continuing to dismantle Musharraf legacy

Word from Pakistan that the country's Supreme Court has lifted a ban on holding office imposed on two leading politicians, including a former prime minister, demonstrates a commitment to maintaining its restored democracy and undoing the eight-year legacy of Pervez Musharraf. Tuesday's ruling means Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N who was deposed as prime minister in 1999 in a Musharraf-led military coup, can return to Parliament if he runs again and wins, according to the New York Times. The ruling also keeps Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, in his post as chief minister from Punjab Province. Shahbaz Sharif was forced to leave his post in February after the same Supreme Court ruling that barred Nawaz Sharif from holding office. But that ruling was stayed in March after nationwide protests by lawyers and others forced the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been suspended after refusing Musharraf's demand that he resign. Musharraf, a former commander of Pakistan's army, ruled the country for eight years before running for re-election in 2008 and losing to Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Musharraf now lives in London. After the Supreme Court ruling that cleared his return to politics, a triumphant Nawaz Sharif told a press conference at his home in Raiwind, near Lahore, that the country had never accepted the ruling that barred him. "Today, Pakistan will start moving in the right direction," he said, according to the Times. He said his government had been removed illegally in 1999 but was vague about his future plans, except to say he would run "when the right moment comes," the Times said.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Iran rejects West-proposed freeze of nuclear program

News from Tehran that Iran has rejected a proposal by Western nations to freeze its nuclear program was, presumably, not a surprise to anyone except, perhaps, U.S. President Barak Obama. Obama has made diplomatic engagement with Iran one of the hallmarks of his early foreign policy, even after decades of mutual mistrust, and the Western allies are looking for a way to convince Tehran to stop pursuing nuclear weaponry short of war. But it is a risky proposition, given the less-than-peaceful rhetoric emanating from Tehran, Washington and Jerusalem. True, the West was only offering the usual inducements -- an end to UN financial sanctions, international acceptance and full participation in the rulers' club -- things that have repeatedly failed to convince Iran to stop behaving like an outlaw nation. But Iran has not always behaved like a rational country since the 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-imposed Shah and brought Islamic rulers to power. Iran's conservative president, Dr. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, offered to debate Obama on world politics at the United Nations but ruled out any further talks on the nuclear issue, according to the Reuters international news service, after the United States, Russia, China, England, France and Germany invited Iran fto talks on the subject. "Our talks will only be in the framework of cooperation for managing global issues and nothing else," Ahmadinejad said Monday at a news conference. "The nuclear issue is a finished issue for us." Ahmadinejad said Iran was pursuing peaceful nuclear energy, not weaponry, and was opposed in principle to "the production, expansion and the use of weapons of mass destruction," Reuters said. So, why is Iran so afraid to join the civilized world?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Obstructionism as an art form

Today's comment by Sen. John Kyl of Arizona threatening a filibuster of whomever U.S. President Barak Obama nominates for the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court is another low for the foundering Republican Party in a decade of lows. Believe it or not, the second most-powerful GOP senator said today that he would try to hold up confirmation of any court nominee who displays the quality of empathy, according to the Associated Press. Kyl told the conservative Federalist Society that such a judge could not be trusted to be objective so such a nomination should be blocked. "I was distinguishing between a person who is just liberal — and undoubtedly this nominee will be liberal — and one who decides cases not based upon the law or the merits but, rather, upon his or her emotions, or feelings or preconceived ideas," Kyl said. "That would be a circumstance in which I could not support the nominee." Do these guys even listen to what they're saying? Kyl's remarks were in response to comments to a C-Span interview broadcast Saturday in which Obama said he wanted to nominate a judge with "understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles" in deciding cases. "You have to have not only the intellect to be able to effectively apply the law to cases before you," Obama said. "But you have to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes and get a sense of how the law might work or not work in practical day-to-day living." Who could argue with that? Well, apparently, at least Kyl has figured out how to, even though he should well know that George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, appointed doctrinaire conservatives to the court. "We will distinguish between a liberal judge on one side and one who doesn't decide cases on the merits but, rather, on the basis of his or her preconceived ideas," Kyl said, according to AP. Obama is expected to announce his nomination this week, possibly as early as Tuesday. The nominee should be confirmed with little problem, because the Democrats hold a 59-40 majority in the U.S. Senate. People known to be under consideration include federal appeals court judges Diane Wood and Sonia Sotomayor, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, the AP said.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sri Lanka government about to defeat decades-long insurgency

Reports from Sri Lanka say the government is in control of the entire coastline and has cornered the Tamil Tigers in what could be the end of the 25-year insurgency. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Saturday that his military had "finally defeated" the insurgents after a generation-long war that killed thousands of civilians, saw the first use of suicide bombings and of women and children in terrorist attacks, and included assassinations of many Sri Lankan political leaders and, allegedly, of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. According to the Associated Press, the Tamil Tigers rebel group, which had been fighting for the establishment of an independent state for the minority Tamils in the island nation, was calling for peace and for negotiations with the government in Colombo. It was a far cry from the 1980s when the Tamil Tigers operated a virtual state in the country's north, commanded a navy and controlled a smuggling network, the AP said. The vast majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese, mostly Buddhist and speak the Sinhala language; the Tamils come from India, are primarily Hindu and speak Tamil, according to the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations. But the government has rejected entreaties for a truce, even from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and pressed on with a massive bombing campaign against the remaining rebels. Tigers spokesman Selvarasa Pathmanathan told the AP that U.S. President Barak Obama call on Wednesday for a peaceful resolution of the conflict was welcome, but did not agree to Obama's request for lay down their weapons.

Friday, May 15, 2009

They're back! Obama to revive military commissions to try terror suspects

Maybe the most important thing to remember is that the Obama administration is still a work in progress, even if it is filled with very smart, capable people and led by an apparently very smart and capable president. Otherwise, it's hard to see Barak Obama's expected decision today to resume military trials for high-profile terror suspects as anything but a betrayal of a promise he made to millions of voters in the 2008 presidential campaign. If media reports are true, Obama plans to announce today that the Bush-era military commission system will be reinstituted, albeit with changes to better-protect detainees' rights, according to Cable News Network (CNN). CNN cited three unamed administration officials who said the commission trials would resume with expanded due process rights for suspects. Among the changes will be outlawing the use of evidence obtained using controversial invasive interrogation techniques, new restrictions on the use of unsubstantiated allegations, guaranteeing the right to remain silent and allowing suspects more say in choosing their lawyers, according to a statement released by the White House. "These reforms will begin to restore the Commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law," Obama said in the statement. "This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values." Administration critics and some allies jumped on the statement, calling it a retreat. The administration denied that, but that's exactly what it was. Obama apparently decided that it was not worth all the problems that completely doing away with the commissions would create, even though he strongly objected to them in Congress and during the campaign. But some commentators speculated that Obama's decision merely reflected the difference between campaigning and governing.

Were pope's mistakes in Jerusalem too obvious to be accidental?

What's up with Pope Benedict XVI? Did the first actual Nazi to lead the Catholic church really think he could visit Israel and not have his every move, his every word, microscopically examined for vestiges of the ideology of hatred? Of course not. He is not a stupid man -- he has risen despite his past to the pinnacle of one of the world's greatest religions. He is considered one of the holiest men in the world and his visit to the Middle East -- holy man in the Holy Land -- was a major event. So why would this guy, with so much to prove, fall so pitifully short? In the first visit of any pope to the Holy Land since John Paul II's trip in 2000, Benedict deliberately alienated his Jewish hosts with cavalier references to the Holocaust, in which 12 million people, including 6 million Jews, were brutally slaughtered by the Nazis, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). Benedict knows what happened in World War II, he has no doubt seen the "concentration" camps that made a perfectly innocuous word into a euphemism for evil. Yet he angered many Jews in Israel by referring to Holocaust victims as having been "killed" instead of "murdered," a distinction not overlooked by his predecessor. No doubt, John Paul II would not have rehabilitated an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust, either. But perhaps Benedict's biggest mistake was trying to navigate the treacherous Israeli-Palestinian dispute without understanding it. The pope actually said that "one of the saddest sights" he saw was the wall being built on the West Bank to protect Jewish communities. What is he talking about? Is the wall around Vatican City "sad?" Is the wall around Jerusalem "sad?" Hardly. Also, the West Bank wall is not made of stone and built to stand for a thousand years; it can easily be removed, and no doubt will be, when the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank finally resolve to live in actual peace with the people of Israel. That is the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and between the Israelis and most of the other countries of the Middle East, and all the rhetoric in the world is not going to solve it until the Arab nations face up to their internal and international responsibilities and change the dialog. Benedict, apparently, has not even begun to get a clue.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

General Motors gets rear-ended by its executives

Top executives at General Motors finished running the once-proud automaker into the ground Tuesday as they dumped their remaining shares of stock and watched the company's stock price fall to its lowest since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The stock sank as low as $1.09 on the New York Stock Exchange before closing at $1.13, a 22 percent decline, according to the Reuters international news service. Former GM vice chairman and product chief Bob Lutz and five other execs revealed Monday in Detroit that they were selling their last holdings in the largest U.S. automaker, including $315,000 in stock, Reuters said, as GM approached a government-imposed deadline for reorganizing or filing for bankruptcy protection. It was a humiliating collapse for the carmaker, one of the original members of the NYSE, which for decades symbolized the strength and success of U.S. capitalism. But GM came to stand for corporate atrophy, as the automaker doggedly refused to build energy-efficient small cars to compete with its overseas rivals despite a plunging market share. Instead, GM used its wealth to lobby for tax changes and environmental law waivers that kept profits high in the short term but actually sealed its doom. Few Americans will forget seeing the chief executives of the three largest U.S. carmakers waste tens of thousands of dollars flying to Washington, D.C., in private jets to beg Congress for taxpayer bailouts. Now, that's out of touch! Of the three -- Rick Wagoner of GM, Bob Nardelli of Chrysler and Alan Mulally of Ford -- only Mulally remains in his post. Not coincidentally, Ford is the only one of what used to be known as the Big Three to have refused government loans so far.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Duh! United States will post guards on ships sailing off Somalia

After months of piracy off the coast of Somalia that included the seizure of a U.S.-flagged merchant ship and its captain taken hostage, the United States has decided it's time to require guards to accompany the vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that it will require guards on merchant ships sailing off Somalia and require owners of the vessels to develop anti-piracy security plans, the Reuters international news service reported. How long could it have taken to figure this one out? The new rules will allow shipowners to decide whether to use armed or unarmed guards, Reuters said, citing remarks by Coast Guard Rear Admiral James Watson at a maritime security meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We expect to see additional security on U.S.-flagged vessels that transit these waters," Watson said, according to Reuters. "It can involve the use of firearms. We are looking for things that work but that don't make the situation worse." Those "things" include what to do about countries that, like the United States, don't allow armed vessels to enter their ports and how to help shipping companies that will be impacted by higher insurance costs as a result of the introduction of weapons on their vessels, Reuters said. "We're not interested in putting ships out of business," said Watson, the Coast Guard's director of prevention policy. The new directive was signed Monday by Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, Reuters said. Some shipowners expressed concern that with weapons aboard, misunderstanding between sailors could escalate into gunfights, Reuters said, since fishermen from some countries fire rifles into the air to warn other vessels away from their nets. U.S.-flagged ships that carry military cargo already are armed, Watson said.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Iran frees U.S. journalist accused of spying but still holds 15 others

Despite protestations that it believes in freedom of speech following Monday's release of U.S.-born freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, Iran still holds 15 journalists and bloggers in custody, the Reuters international news service is reporting. Saberi, the North Dakota resident who reported from Tehran for the past five years, had been held since January on charges that included spying for the United States. U.S. officials had called the charges baseless and demanded her immediate release, so her release likely was a signal to President Barak Obama, who had personally called on Tehran to free Saveri, that Iran could approach moribund relations with the United States more constructively. Obama called Saveri's release a "humanitarian gesture," and administration spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president was "relieved." "We want to continue to stress that she was wrongly accused, but we welcome this humanitarian gesture," Gates said. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based international media watchdog group that previously called Saveri's arrest a warning to foreign journalists in Iran, said reporters and bloggers already in custody should use Saveri's release to challenge their own detentions. "The appeal court's decision to free her can be used as a legal precedent for other journalists currently detained in Iran," the organization said. Iran denies allegations that it is trying to stifle dissent, and says it welcomes constructive criticism and upholds free speech, Reuters said.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Peace is not the goal of new Obama-backed Middle East peace plan

The new U.S. peace plan for the Middle East, the so-called "57-state solution," might sound good on paper but could be quite different in reality. The new plan, reportedly developed in meetings between Jordan's King Abdullah and U.S. President Barak Obama in April, would result in all of world's Muslim countries recognizing Israel, according to the Reuters international news service. But what would Israel be required to surrender in return? Details on that are sketchy, but they appear to involve having Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 war borders and the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan River, which Israel captured in the Six-Day War along with East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, which it also captured in 1967, in a separate peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. "We are offering a third of the world to meet them with open arms," Abdullah told the London Times, Reuters said. "The future is not the Jordan River or the Golan Heights or the Sinai, the future is Morocco in the Atlantic and Indonesia in the Pacific. That is the prize." But that is no prize -- not if, as Abdullah says, Israel will be forced to make further concessions to get the right to fly over Arab countries or the right to visit them. What he is talking about is not peace, it is precisely the opposite. Abdullah is offering a situation that can serve only as a prelude to war. In fact, Abdullah actually threatens war is Israel does not agree to the plan. "If we delay our peace negotiations, then there is going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12-18 months," Abdullah told the newspaper. Maybe new U.S. president Barak Obama is in accord with the new plan, maybe not. Maybe Obama already realizes this is not a legitimate peace offer. Peace means more than the mere absence of war and, rhetoric aside, the 57-state solution is, at best, no more than a starting point.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pakistan offensive highlights unintended consequences of warfare

Now we can see why Pakistan was so reluctant to go to war against the Taliban in the Swat valley. In the two days since Islamabad launched its all-out campaign to force the radical Islamic group's fighters from their strongholds, hundreds of thousands of residents have fled the area and sought refuge at U.N.-run refugee camps along Pakistan's long border with Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. Pakistan's attack began Thursday, at least partially in response to pressure from the United States and other Western nations, which were highly critical of Islamabad's peace deal with the Taliban in January that surrendered control of the valley. The Taliban promptly imposed Islamic law in the former tourist locale and began expanding its influence to the neighboring Buner and Lower Dir districts, just 60 miles from the capital, the AP said. Pakistani officials said they wanted to give the peace deal a chance to work before going on the offensive. The flight of so many residents from the war zone, where Pakistan has sent 15,000 soldiers backed by warplanes, has created a humanitarian crisis on top of the region's already dire security, economic and political problems, the AP said. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani convened an emergency cabinet meeting today and authorized millions of dollars in relied to the border region, calling the campaign a "war of the country's survival." Taliban militants dominate the tribal region just across the border in Afghanistan, where the United States believes al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is hiding. Pakistani and U.N. officials say as many as 500,000 people could be displaced by the fighting, the AP said.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pakistan changes course, attacks Taliban militants

What a difference a visit to the White House makes! From Pakistan comes word that the government under seige from Taliban militants in the Swat Valley has launched a full-scale counterattack against Taliban militants aimed at returning the area to Islamabad's control. An army spokesman in the garrison city of Rawalpindi said Friday that scores of Taliban fighters had been killed in the initial attack by up to 15,000 soldiers and security forces, the Washington Post reported. The new attack comes just one week after Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai met with U.S. President Barak Obama to discuss the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and, until then, Pakistan's apparent unwillingness to take on the Taliban. We know the Taliban from its fundamentalist Islamic rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001, when it was ousted by a Western coalition composed primarily of U.S. troops. Under Taliban rule, women were forced to cover their heads in public and were not permitted to attend school. But Pakistan and its new civilian government, headed by Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and current Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, have conceded control of the once-prosperous Swat Valley to Taliban forces, which promptly began moving into nearby Bunder and Dir in an apparent effort to expand their territory. But the army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, told a news conference that Pakistani forces were determined to defeat the "miscreants" and "anti-state elements." Abbas' talk followed up Gillani's speech to the nation Thursday in which the start of the offensive was announced. Both Abbas and Gillani said there was no reluctance on the part of the army to fight the Taliban, but officials wanted to give the peace agreement negotiated in January a chance to work. But Western nations had criticized the agreement as appeasement, particularly after the Taliban imposed Islamic law in Swat. Reuters said the army's stepped-up military posture appeared to have wide popular support, even though it was criticized in some circles as capitulating to the United States.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Most large banks pass government 'stress test'

$74.6 billion. Seventy-four point six billion dollars. Let's look at that again: it's seventy-four billion, 600 million dollars. Believe it or not, that's what U.S. banks still need, and that's good news. That number that sparked a sigh of relief in U.S. financial circles today because it was a lot lower than many iduustry leaders feared would be needed to prop up the banking system. Today's release of results of the Federal Reserve's so-called stress tests of the 19 largest U.S. banks sent many of the 10 who need more capital scrambling to develop plans to raise it, according to the Reuters international news service. Bank of America, the historic San Francisco banking giant that was purchased by NationsBank of North Carolina in 1998, was found to be lacking nearly $34 billion in reserves, slightly less than half of the entire industry shortfall. "We're going to be watching carefully to make sure they give us credible plans for raising capital and becoming privately owned again," said Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, referring to the entire group of banks, Reuters reported. Bank of America immediately offered plans to raise most the money it needed through issuance of new stock and asset sales. Other banks identified in the Fed's report, written after more than 150 officials examined the banking institutions' books, issued similar statements, Reuters said. Other banks found wanting included Wells Fargo, which was found to need $13.7 billion; GMAC, the auto and home loan finance company, which was found to need $11.5 billion, and Citigroup, which was ordered to raise $5.5 billion. The federal government expects banks to be able to raise the money privately, Reuters reported, but Bernanke said the United States "stands ready to provide whatever additional capital may be necessary to ensure that our banking system is able to navigate a challenging economic downturn." U.S. stock futures were up following release of the figures, but some critics said the Federal Reserve examination was not rigorous enough. "I'm a skeptic," said Robert Andres, president of Andres Capital Management in Philadelphia, Reuters said. "I don't see this as a genuine audit. They have been playing the marketing game strongly lately." The reviews were designed to measure how the banks would be able to perform if the recession worsened, Reuters said.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Blackwater saga keeps getting worse and worse

Just when we thought the Blackwater scandal in Iraq had faded from the headlines when the U.S. Army security contractor changed its name after five of its guards were indicted in an ugly shooting incident incident in Baghdad in 2007, comes word from Raleigh, N.C., that a different contractor claims Blackwater guards asked him to dispose of weapons after the shooting. According to the Associated Press, the other contractor, John Houston, was an employee of SOS International Ltd. of New York when he allegedly tried to smuggle a case of firearms out of Iraq. Houston now faces smuggling charges in federal court in Maryland based on testimony given by two informants, army reservists in Iraq, who told authorities they had been approached about the scheme, the AP said. The weapons were seized before they were shipped to an accomplice in the North Carolina, according to court papers, the AP said. The alleged accomplice, Michael Henson, also faces smuggling charges. Houston is a former Special Forces soldier. It is not clear, the AP said, whether the planned weapons shipment including the weapons used by Blackwater guards in the 2007 incident, which left 17 dead in Baghdad's Nisour Square. The bloody incident strained relations between the United States and the fledgling Iraq government, and led to last year's agreement to withdraw U.S. forces from the countryside to the cities by June and from the country in 2011.

No reason to expect anything better from Iran courts

Hopefully, the Iranian appellate court's decision to review the draconian eight-year sentence meted out last month to an American freelance journalist who had reported from Tehran for years will result in the dismissal of spying charges against her. But it seems a little too much to hope for after the government charged her with espionage after her arrest for allegedly buying alcohol, which is banned in the Islamic republic. Roxana Saberi recently ended a hunger strike she started to protest the charges after she suffered a fainting spell, according to the New York Times. Saberi, a resident of North Dakota, had continued to report for the BBC and National Public Radio despite having her press credentials revoked in 2006. The case has caused an international furor with U.S. President Barak Obama calling the charges a fabrication and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad urging the court to be fair. But the case also presents an opportunity for Iran to decide if it wants to continue to be an outlaw nation or begin to conform to international standards of conduct -- assuming, of course, that authorities ever had any legitimate case against her for anything. It is Iran, after all, and judging from the rhetoric of Ahmedinejad, honesty and integrity seem to be the biggest suspects of all.

Extremist language barrier

Today's agreement between the leaders of the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan seems good on the surface, but it undoubtedly doesn't mean the same thing to all sides. Barak Obama, Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai Obama might have been all smiles after meeting at the White House today, but that's not the same thing as being on the same page. "We meet today as three joined by a common goal -- to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and its extemist allies," Obama said, according to the Reuters international news service. As if. Obama certainly must realize that neither Zardari, who seems to be trying to surrender large swaths of his country to the al-Qaida-linked Taliban, and Karzai, who only tenuously controls a tiny portion of his strategic country, are not reliable allies. Not that Kabul is enamored at the moment at its part of the alliance, even though the United States and NATO took Afghanistan from the Taliban and installed Karzai as head of the government in 2001. Obama's statement came on the same day that U.S. air strikes were blamed for more than 100 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, part of Washington's increased focus there as the war in Iraq winds down. But Obama said the U.S. commitment to defeating al-Qaida and the Taliban was a "lasting commitment," Reuters said. Obama said to expect more violence and setbacks in the ongoing war against Islamic militants and pledged addditional resources to the battle. "This support will not waver and it will be sustained," he said. "No matter what happens, we will not be deterred." Obama said the United States already had pledged 21,000 additional soldiers to the Afghanistan battlefield and said additional NATO resources were on the way.

Monday, May 4, 2009

New republic of Nepal threatened by constitutional crisis

How can Nepal's Maoist revolutionaries hope to accomplish more as an opposition party than as rulers of the impoverished Himalayan nation? That's the question this week after the newly democratic country descended into a constitutional crisis with the resignation of Prime Minister Prachanda. The capital, Kathmandu, is reportedly in turmoil with soldiers on the streets since Prachanda resigned after being told by President Ram Baran Yadav that he did not have the power to fire the commander of the country's army, according to the Reuters international news service. But no violence or protests have been reported since Prachanda's resignation, which leaves the opposition New Congress party to try to put together a new government. Prachanda fired Gen. Rookmangud Katawal on Sunday for alleged insurbordination and refusing to acknowledge the primacy of the national government. The Maoists, who fought a decadelong guerilla war against the monarchy before joining the political process last year and winning the most seats in parliament, have called for street protests to put pressure on Yadav, also an army officer, who they say is trying to take over the government. In a televised speech to the nation Monday, Prachanda said "I have resigned from the cabinet," Reuters said. "We made enough efforts to forge a consensus but various forces were active against this and were encouraging the president to take the unconstitutional and undemocratic step (of keeping Katawal in office)," Prachanda said. The resignation threatened to unravel the 2006 peace pact that resolved the long-running Maoist insurgency, but opposition parties said they would try to form a new government. The Maoists came to power last year and raised voter expectations by pledging to create a "new Nepal" and dissolving the country's 239-year-old monarchy. But power shortages and high inflation stifled economic growth, keeping most of the population mired in poverty

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Iraq government's endorsement of withdrawal plan means nothing

The national government in Baghdad is correct when it says the U.S. troops should leave the Iraq's cities by June 30, as planned in the U.S.-Iraq withdrawal agreement, but must understand that such statements are meaningless. If the current increase in suicide attacks in Baghdad and Mosul begins to threaten the country's stability, what government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said today simply won't matter. Dabbagh said Sunday that the Iraqi government won't extend the June 30 deadline despite the upsurge in violence, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Under last August's agreement, U.S. troops only will serve in support of Iraq's security forces until most soldiers are ultimately withdrawn in 2011. "The Iraqi government is committed to the agreed-upon withdrawal dates, whether it's the June 30 withdrawal of the U.S. troops from all cities and towns or the complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011," al-Dabbagh said in a written statement, according to CNN. The U.S. military had been considering leaving troops in Mosul beyond the deadline, CNN said. "The bottom line is we're doing joint assessments with the government of Iraq in all of the areas," U.S. Gen. Raymond Odierno said in April. "And we believe, if you ask me today, the one area I'm still not sure about is Mosul." But Iraqi officials will have the final say, U.S. Maj. Gen. David Perkins said Friday. "What we have always said with regards to al Qaida is that, strategically, for [al Qaida in Iraq] to win, they have to win Baghdad, and for them to survive, they have to hold on to Mosul," Perkins said. "You can see that by how they are conducting their attacks." April 23 was the deadliest day this year in Iraq, CNN said, with suicide bombers killing at least 55 people in Diyala province and at least 28 people in Baghdad. Let's be serious about this. After spending thousands of American lives and billions of dollars in resources, the U.S. government is not about to permit Iraq to be destabilized or to put its colossal investment at risk.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Change doesn't always come easily at Guantanamo Bay

Now from Washington comes word that the Obama adminstration may not do away with the controversial military tribunal system for suspects captured in the Bush administration's war on terror. Officials admitted this week that they had plans to restart the military trials after making some changes in how the tribunals are conducted, according to the Associated Press. The move appears to be a setback for the Obama administration, which suspended the tribunals almost immediately upon taking office in January. Obama also ordered reviews of all cases against the 241 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- which he had expected to take until May 20. The government now is expected to keep the suspension in place for three more months and to use that time to fine-tune the system, instead of transferring all detainee cases to federal courts as it had originally intended, the AP reported, citing two unnamed federal officials. Issues still to be resolved include the use of top-secret evidence that would not be admissable in civilian court because revealing it could jeopardize undercover operatives. "We'll be making, again, individualized determinations about where . . . for that group of people who should be tried, where they should be tried," Holder testified recently before the House of Representatives. Holder said there would be "significant changes" to the current tribunals, the AP said. Obama faced criticism from Republicans when he suspended the tribunals as part of his pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by January, and was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union this week for trying to keep the tribunal system going. "To revive a fatally flawed system that was specifically designed to evade due process and the rule of law would be a grave error and a huge step backward," Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU attorney, told the AP. But a Georgetown University legal ethics professor said the change is strategy was typical for a new administration in Washington. "Once you become president and see the whole panoply of issued that you face, some of the things that seemed easy to promise or talk about during the campaign sometimes appear more difficult," Prof. Paul F. Rothstein told the AP on Saturday. "Elections are fought on big slogans without much nuance or detail. I think we want a president who responds to what he sees when he actually gets in there and sees the whole picture, rather than one who adheres rigidly to what he said before." News of the three-month delay being considered by the administration was first reported in the New York Times.

Friday, May 1, 2009

European nations agree to take Guantanamo inmates, AG says

Well, it's looking as if U.S. President Barack Obama's 'apology tour' around Europe last month is beginning to pay dividends. At a stop in Berlin on his own three-day tour of Europe, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that he was "pleasantly surprised" that some European allies were willing to some accept terror suspects when the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, closes in January, according to the Washington Post newspaper. "I know that Europe did not open Guantanamo and that in fact a great many on this continent opposed it," Holder said. "To close Guantanamo, we must all make sacrifices, and we must all be willing to make unpopular choices." To be sure, the Europeans have been slow to offer to accept any of the prisoners, who were captured and held, some for years, in the U.S.-sponsored war on terror that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Many European countries, notably France, opposed the war on terror. Holder said the United States was conducting a review of all cases involving the 241 prisoners still held at Guantanamo and would be making formal requests to European nations about accepting specific inmates who are not considered security risks. Obama has put Holder, the first African American Attorney General in U.S. history, in charge of closing the prison, the Post said. While only England has accepted even one prisoner so far and France is only believed to be committed to resettling one Guantanamo inmate, U.S. officials are said to believe that European nations could eventually take as many as 60 suspects. Portugal, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain and Lithuania have also offered to resettle inmates, the Post said.