Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EPA announcement reminds everyone there's a new sheriff

Word that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to use regulations to force power plants and factories to lower greenhouse gas emissions if Congress is unable to agree new legislation to combat global warming should remind everyone that things have changed at the top of the U.S. government. Where a year ago the White House might have looked the other way as major industrial companies, many of them big campaign contributors, stalled legislation in Congress or just ignored their legal and moral obligations to protect the environment, new president Barack Obama has authorized the EPA to restrict greenhouse gas emissions through regulation, according to the New York Times. “We are not going to continue with business as usual,” EPA Administration Lisa Jackson, an Obama appointee, said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “We have the tools and the technology to move forward today, and we are using them.” New rules proposed by EPA would require the 400 largest power plants, including those being built or undergoing extensive renovations, to prove that they were applying the best technology for reducing emissions, the Times said. The new rules, which Jackson said apply only to facilities that emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, would affect plants that are responsible for nearly 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. They would not, she said, apply to "every cow and Dunkin' Donuts" in the country, the Times said. The Times also said the proposal was timed to coincide with the introduction of global warming and energy legislation by Democratic senators John Kerry of Massachusets and Barbara Boxer of California, legislation that may prove impossible to pass this year. Obama prefers a legislative approach and is committed to approval of a climate bill this year. But industry groups attacked the EPA proposal, saying it violates the Clean Air Act, and suggesting the regulations could face lengthy court challenges. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have already threatened to sue, the Times said. Other industry groups are working with Congress on a climate bill that would substitute a so-called cap-and-trade system, under which polluters would buy and sell credits, for the EPA regulations.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Are U.S. regulators proposing covering bank failures with accounting tricks?

Could it possibly be true that regulators are proposing to use an accounting trick to replenish the beleaguered FDIC fund that protects bank deposits? That's what it seemed like Tuesday when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s five-member board voted to require banks to prepay $45 billion in quarterly fees but not require them to account for the money until later, according to the Reuters international news service. The proposal, released for a 30-day public comment period, is intended to help shore up the FDIC's bank failure fund, which is expected to pay out $100 billion through 2013. The fund is expected to be in the red later this year and remain in the red through 2012, Reuters said. Ninety-five banks have failed so far in 2009, compared with 25 last year and three in 2007. The prepayment will enable the banking industry to avoid another emergency assessment like the $5.6 billion fee levied on banks in May, Reuters said. "Everybody has bailout fatigue," said FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair, explaining that the prepayment would avoid forcing the agency to use its $500 billion line of credit with the U.S. Treasury. The proposal would require banks to prepay their regular assessments for all of 2010, 2011 and 2012 when they pay their regular assessments for the fourth quarter of 2009 on Dec. 30. Bair said her agency had plenty of money to protect depositors despite the negative balance in the fund. "We have tons of money to protect insured depositors," she said. "This is really about the mechanics of funding." Actually, it sounds some kind of game-playing, precisely the wrong signal to send to nervous depositors all over the country. If adopted, the proposal would be the first time the agency has ever asked banks to prepay regular fees, Reuters said.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Abbas puts gap between Israel and Palestinians on display at United Nations

Friday's speech to the United Nations by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a clear demonstration of the gap between Palestinian and Israeli political leaders -- following, as it did, Thursday's address by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Abbas said Israel was blocking progress toward peace by refusing to comply with Palestinian conditions for reopening peace talks, by refusing to fulfill its obligations under negotiated agreements and by refusing to comply with "hundreds" of U.N. resolutions. "All of these active efforts and initiatives, which have been welcomed and supported by us and by the Arab states, are, however, confronted with Israeli intransigence, which refuses to adhere to the requirements for relaunching the peace process," Abbas said. But Netanyahu said a day earlier that the PA was unwilling even to take the most "elementary" step toward peace of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. "We asked the Palestinians to finally do what they refused to do for 62 years, say 'yes' to a Jewish state," Netanyahu said. "As simple, as clear, as elementary as that, just as we are asked to recognize a nation-state for the Palestinian people, the Palestinians must be asked to recognize the nation-state of the Jewish people. The Jewish people are not foreign conquerors in the land of Israel. It is the land of our forefathers." The two sides are not even listening to each other -- maybe they do when they're face-to-face at the negotiating table. And, maybe, that explains their reluctance to meet. Any agreement they do reach will likely be of historical proportions and result in region-changing upheaval. Israel will have to give up sovereignty over the homes of 100,000 Israelis on land the Palestinians expect for a state; the Palestinian people will have to give up claims to land they left in 1948 and to Jerusalem. The PA has not even begun to educate its citizens on the realities and responsibilities of peace -- it may not understand them itself. For one thing, the PA does not appear capable of controlling all of the territory that has already been ceded to it. There is a very long way to go -- the current leaders may have to think of the future, not the present, if they truly want to make peace happen. But, remember, Israel, Egypt and Jordan -- formerly bitter enemies -- have reached peace deals that have held together for years.

Top commander wants U.S. to figure out what it wants to do in Afghanistan

Well, it certainly is nice to hear some common sense now and again. We're speaking, of course, of Sunday's broadcast of an interview with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who has urged U.S. President Barack Obama to commit tens of thousands more soldiers to battle to stabilize the country and defeat the Taliban, according to Cable News Network (CNN). McChrystal said the key to winning in Afghanistan is gaining the support of ordinary Aghanis, many of whom have turned against the United States and its allies over what they see as indiscriminate bombings and high civilian casualties. "The greatest risk is . . . to lose the support of the people here," McChrystal said on the CBS show "60 Minutes," CNN said. "If the people are against us, we cannot be successful," McChrystal said. "If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can't be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically." The United States has supplied 60 percent of the combined force of nearly 100,000 soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. U.S. and allied forces were dispatched to Afghanistan after determining that the radical Islamic group al-Qaida was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Al-Qaida was under the protection of another radical Islamic group, the Taliban, which was then in control of Afghanistan. The troops drove the Taliban from power but were unable to locate al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden despite years of searching. Obama has called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" and has authorized 21,000 additional soldiers to be sent there to battle a resurgent Taliban, but he has started a process of re-evaluating the U.S. engagement. McChrystal is expected to ask for as many as 70,000 more troops when he makes recommendations to the president in the coming weeks. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CNN on Sunday that Obama could turn down his generals' requests for more troops, as urged by some Democratic Party leaders in Congress. "The reality is, do we need additional forces. How many forces? And to do what?" Gates told CNN. "It's the 'to do what' that I think we need to make sure we have confidence, we understand, before making recommendations to the president." What's that? The administration is still figuring out the "to do what" in Afghanistan? Yes, it certainly would be nice to know what the troops are fighting and dying for in Afghanistan before risking any more lives -- ours and theirs.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Water on the moon changes a lot of assumptions

This week's realization that there probably is water on earth's moon raises a lot of questions -- not the least of which being, "what other things don't we know about space that we think we do know?" NASA scientists reached the startling conclusion about the presence of water after analyzing data from an instrument they supplied to to India's Chandrayaan-1 satellite, that country's first unmanned moon mission, according to the New York Times. The device detected the widespread presence of hydroxyl, a molecule composed of one atom of hydrogen and one atom of water, on a celestial body long considered completely dry. The discovery was published this week on the Web site of the journal Science. What may be even more surprising is that the finding actually replicates earlier findings of the Apollo missions, which brought back lunar soil containing evidence of water decades ago but were attributed to contamination from the moist earth atmosphere, the Times said. The data also confirms findings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which passed the moon 10 years ago on its way to Saturn, and the Deep Impact spacecraft sent to study the comet Tempel 1, the Times said. “It’s so startling because it’s so pervasive,” Lawrence A. Taylor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told the Times. "It's like somebody painted the globe." Taylor co-wrote a paper analyzing the Chandrayaan-1 data. NASA scientists now are examining the possibility that the moon's hydroxyl could be used to supply water and even oxygen for future manned missions to the moon, or for a permanent installation there, the Times said. But that's just like humans to see this new discovery in terms of human beings. Maybe it means that there is or was another type of life on the moon or on other planets in our solar system, life that we don't even begin to understand or know how to recognize. And maybe, just maybe, it means that a lot of our other assumptions about earth and space are incorrect.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The condition of the preconditions for Arab-Israeli talks

Word from the United Nations in New York is that U.S. President Barack Obama appears to have signaled a shift in policy and is no longer insisting that Israel freeze all home building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In a speech delivered after meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama said talks between the governments should resume immediately "without preconditions." Obama had been hoping to announce the resumption of peace talks but apparently was unable to convince either leader to return to the negotiating table, according to the Reuters international news service. U.S. officials said Saturday that they are still hopeful of putting a deal together that would involve steps toward normalization of relations between Israel, the PA and other Arab states in the region, even if a settlements freeze is not possible now, Reuters said. "We don't want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told Reuters. "We're not going to wait for the perfect package before we start negotiations." The PA has insisted on a freeze before it returns to talks, but Israel has pressed ahead with housing developments in East Jerusalem, which the PA wants as its capital despite Israel's objections. Abbas apparently believes a freeze is necessary to convince his people to support negotiations, still a highly controversial prospect among Israel's Arab neighbors. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also met with officials from nine Arab countries this week to discuss the Middle East peace process as well as issues involving Iran, Iraq and Yemen, Reuters said. She said she was "pleased" by the reaction of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- and what she heard from leaders of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, but would not specify what that was. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel but the rest have not. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was pessimistic on Saturday, Reuters said. "No real results or notable signs of progress have been achieved in spite of the commendable endeavors of the United States of America (and) the evident personal desire of President Barack Obama and his team to further the peace process," he said. Feltman suggested that other Arab states should back Abbas in resuming peace talks even if Israel has not agreed to a freeze. Readers of this Weblog know that the settlements freeze issue has been raised in an effort to discourage a peace deal, since the PA stands only to gain from such development. Peace is probably only possible if the parties return to negotiations without forcing Israel to agree to a freeze, since that will demonstrate that the PA and the Arab nations have been able to elevate their desire and need for peace over the obviously powerful instinct for revenge over centuries-old grievances.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nothing from nothing leaves $100 million

Rich people still are different from the rest of us. Perhaps that's the best explanation yet for why venture capitalists ponied up an additional $100 million on Thursday for a bit of Twitter, the wildly popular Internet microblogging service. Twitter, a Web startup that lets people express themselves in 140 words or less, has attracted millions of users in its three and a half-year existence but no known revenue. The new cash infusion is expected to raise the value of the company to $1 billion, even though it only has 60 employees and does not plan to begin accepting advertising revenue until next year, according to the New York Times. Twitter's valuation is apparently based in large part on the numerous takeover offers it has received, notably from its chief rival, Facebook, and as well from Google and Microsoft. “Twitter is so likely to be successful at this point, it is almost impossible to envision a way in which Facebook can truly monopolize online content-sharing,” Keith Rabois, the vice president of strategy at Web social entertainment firm Slide, told the Times. Facebook has more than 300 million users but its continued domination of Web social networking appears to face a serious challenge from Twitter. “There have probably been less than five examples of companies that have grown like Twitter has,” John Borthwick of Betaworks told the Times. Betaworks created the link-shortening service Twitter is "a new layer of innovation on the Internet," Borthwick said. “This investment is happening because it represents a shift.” And just who are the new investors? They include Insight Venture Partners, a New York company, mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price and current backers Spark Capital and Institutional Venture Partners, the Times said.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Effects of G.M bankruptcy still roiling San Francisco Bay

Did the State of California get the raw end of the deal along with thousands of autoworkers when the Toyota-General Motors joint venture in Fremont shut down last month? That's what a state panel that gave New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. a $2 million training grant in February is investigating, now that the automobile facility is scheduled to close early next year. The acting chairman of the Employment Training Panel, the little-known state agency that awarded the grant, has asked NUMMI to withdraw its request for the money in light of Toyota's announcement in August that the facility would be closing, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. "We would never have approved this if they had told us they were closing this factory in a year," said the acting chairman, Barry Broad, a labor union attorney. But NUMMI and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which helped train the workers, said the facility deserved the money because the training had been ongoing for months before the decision to close the plant was made. "We were hopeful that (Employment Training Panel) funding, along with other state and local programs, would enable Nummi to continue production at its Fremont facility," CMTA President Jack Stewart said, according to the Chronicle. "We expect that contractual obligations regarding completed employee training will be met." In fact, panel rules permit the agency to recover training funds when the company that gets money closes down or leaves the state. But a panel official said the $2 million was an indirect contract with CMTA, not NUMMI, so the recapture provision did not apply, the newspaper said. NUMMI received more than $18 million in training funds prior to the dispute. A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told the Chronicle that the governor's office requested the investigation.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bush-era wiretapping goes on trial in San Francisco

Today's start of a court hearing on the federal government's post-9/11 wiretapping could herald a major step in undoing the years of constitutional mayhem of the Bush administration. A federal judge in San Francisco could decide that a now-defunct Islamic charity declared a terrorist organization in 2004 can proceed with its damage suit against the government for listening in on phone conversations with its attorneys without a warrant, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The Bush and Obama administrations have tried, and failed, to get the case dismissed on national security grounds. U.S. Judge Vaughn Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has already ruled in the case that public statements by the government indicated that the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation had probably been wiretapped, the Chronicle said. The case is only the second in the country to challenge the Bush-era wiretapping program, instituted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. In the first case, a federal judge declared the program unconstitutional but was overruled on appeal because the plaintiffs could not prove they had personally been wiretapped. But the Al-Haramain case is different in that the government already released documents apparently showing the charity had been wiretapped. The Bush administration said the documents had been improperly released, requested their return and declared them confidential. The foundation's attorney, Jon Eisenberg, argued before Walker that the president did not have the power to override a 1978 law requiring a special national security court to approve wiretapping of suspected terrorists, the Chronicle said. "May the president of the United States break the law in the name of national security? ... We're asking this court to say, 'no,'" Eisenberg argued at the hearing. Eisenberg also quoted now-President Barack Obama's statement while a candidate in 2007 that "warrantless surveillance of American citizens in defiance of (the 1978 law) is unlawful and unconstitutional." Walker told a government lawyer that the foundation had presented strong evidence that it had been wiretapped, the Chronicle said. The New York Times revealed the existence of the program in 2005 and Bush confirmed it. But Justice Department attorney Anthony Coppolino contended Al-Haramain's case had to be dismissed because the program, and everything connected to it, were protected secrets. Any ruling to the contrary would be "simply inappropriate," he argued, because it could reveal confidential information about "intelligence sources and methods," the Chronicle said.

California utility quits U.S. Chamber of Commerce in dispute over climate policy

In a dispute that highlights the disconcerting dichotomy of views on global warming, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a major California utility, announced Tuesday that it had withdrawn from the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce. PG&E's chairman told the chamber that it was leaving because of "fundamental differences" with the group's approach to climate change, according to the New York Times. “We find it dismaying that the chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored,” PG&E Chairman Peter Darbee said in a letter to the chamber. The letter was published in a PG&E blog on Tuesday, the Times said. The chamber said it supports greenhouse gas emission reductions in principal, but has been critical of President Barack Obama's new regulatory proposals because it believes they could drive up energy prices and force U.S. jobs overseas, Reuters said. The chamber recently threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its climate change conclusions, Reuters said.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Crisis atmosphere returns to Honduras with Zelaya's return from exile

Demonstrators returned to the streets of Tegucigalpa on Monday after ousted leftist President Manual Zelaya returned to Honduras for the first time after a June coup forced him from office. Zelaya was forced to sneak back into the country and took refuge in Brazil's embassy under threat of arrest by the new conservative government, according to the Reuters international news service. Thousands of protesters defied a curfew and stayed outside Brazil's embassy in a peaceful show of support of Zelaya, who was forced into exile by the military in a dispute over term limits. Conservative legislative leader Roberto Micheletti, who was chosen to lead the interim government, has resisted worldwide calls to restore Zelaya to office. The United States, the Organization of American States and the European Union have refused to recognize the Micheletti government and have called for the restoration of Zelaya to power. "I am the legitimate president chosen by the people and that is why I came here," Zelaya told Reuters by telephone from inside the embassy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Zelaya and the coup leaders must find a way to avoid violence in Honduras, Reuters said. "It's imperative that dialogue begin ... (and) there be a channel of communication between President Zelaya and the de facto regime in Honduras," Clinton said after a meeting with President Oscar Arias of nearby Costa Rica. But Micheletti wants Zelaya arrested on corruption charges and called on Brazil to turn him over to the de facto government. "A call to the government of Brazil: respect the judicial order against Mr. Zelaya and turn him into Honduran authorities ... The eyes of the world are on Brazil and Honduras," Micheletti said. Zelaya was due to leave office in January but his opponents accused him of trying to change Honduras' constitution to permit him to stay in office. In New York, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told Reuters he hoped Zelaya's return to Honduras would start a new stage in negotiations to end the crisis.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Revolving Interior Department door comes as no surprise

Is there anyone who would be surprised to learn that a top Bush administration environmental official is under investigation for possibly breaking ethics laws? Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the first interior secretary under former President George W. Bush, allegedly discussed future job opportunities with Royal Dutch Shell, the giant oil company, while she was considering awarded shale oil exploration leases to a Shell subsidiary, the New York Times reported today. The Times said officials of the department's inspector general's office confirmed the existence of an investigation, as did a Shell spokeswoman. The investigation was first reported in the Los Angeles Times, the New York newspaper said. Investigators have already turned over their findings to the Justice Department after a yearlong investigation into allegations that an award of three leases in Colorado to the Shell subsidiary might have been tainted by Norton's job search. She is now Shell's general counsel in the United States for unconventional fuels, the Times said. "We are aware of an investigation, the Shell spokeswoman, Kelly C. op de Weegh, told the New York Times. "However, we are not in a position to comment.” Norton also declined to comment, the New York paper said. Of course, the mere appearance of impropriety is not in itself improper. But while she was in office, Norton was an ally of Vice President Dick Cheney in the administration's push to open more federal land to energy exploration, the New York Times said. The government has long sought a way to extract oil from shale, which is common in the west. If Norton was looking for a job with a company that was seeking and was awarded government contracts, she could be soon facing a federal indictment.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

U.S. wants additional two-month delay in terror trials

With the second of two U.S.-requested 120-day delays in the start of military trials for suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Obama administration says it will request an additional two-month postponement, the Reuters international news service reported Wednesday. In a legal filing in a challenge brought by accused Sept. 11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., federal prosecutors asked for the delay on the grounds that the Military Commissions Act, under which the trials are being conducted, "may be substantially amended" in the next two months and because, Reuters said, the government may decide "to prosecute [Binalshibh] in federal court." Binalshibh is accused of being a go-between between al-Qaida leaders and the Sept. 11 hijackers. He was captured in Pakistan in 2002 and held by the CIA four years before being sent to Guantanamo Bay. He is scheduled for a competency hearing on Sept. 21 before a miltitary judge at Guantanamo to determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial and to represent himself, as he has requested. The federal appeals court filing was in response to Binalshibh's effort to block the competency hearing scheduled and to have the military commissions system declared unconstitutional. In it, the government contends that the appeals court cannot intervene in Binalshibh's case because there has not yet been a decision and, even if there was, he first must appeal through the system of military commissions set up by former U.S. President George W. Bush. Congress is considering proposals to overhaul the commission system to bar statements made under harsh interrogation and to limit to use of hearsay evidence. Of course, the legal moves reflect more than the usual maneuvering in court proceedings. They actually represent what is perhaps the most difficult task faced by the Obama administration -- maintaining the continuity required in federal prosecutions while trying to reverse the Bush administration's most ill-advised policies.

Announcement on Europe missile shield sounds like appeasement

Is anyone else troubled by the latest moves by the United States to appear impotent in its dealings with Russia? That's the effect of the Obama adminstration's impending decision to scrub plans to build a missile-defense system protecting Poland and the Czech Republic before Russia fulfills its treaty obligations in Georgia. The White House will announce its decision to forego the Bush administration-proposed system as early as this week, according to the Wall Street Journal newspaper. Moscow apparently was outraged by the proposal, which it believed was directed at its intercontinental ballistic missiles despite U.S. assurances that it was intended to counterbalance the perceived threat from an increasingly radicalized and militarily sophisticated Iran. The Iranians are developing nuclear technology and are expected to have missiles capable of reaching European capitals and close U.S. ally Israel by 2015. But Washington needs Moscow's cooperation at the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions against Iran if Tehran refuses to give up its nuclear program at six-nation negotiations planned in October. The Obama adminstration denies such linkage, the Journal said, and maintains that it is dropping the missile shield after a reassessment of the Iranian threat. Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech last month that the missile programs of Iran and North Korea "are not there yet," according to the Journal. "We believed that the emergence of the intercontinental ballistic missile would come much faster than it did," Cartwright said. "The reality is, it has not come as fast as we thought it would come." The Bush administration-proposed system would have included a radar installation in the Czech Republic and 10 missiles in Poland.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

UN report says Israel and Hamas committed war crimes

What are we to make of yesterday's UN report finding both Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza committed war crimes during Israel's three-week incursion that ended in January? The report, released Tuesday by South African Judge Richard Gladstone, head of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, found Israel responsible for "war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity," and called on the Palestinian organization to investigate alleged war crimes, respect human rights and release an Israeli soldier captured in 2006, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). We know what the combatants think -- Israel and Hamas immediately rejected all findings of wrongdoing by their own fighters. Israel's Defense Ministry released a statement saying it had refused to cooperate with the investigation because it expected the Fact Finding Mission, and its findings, to be "one-sided." A Hamas spokesman applauded the report as "evidence of the crimes committed" by Israel but rejected any suggestion that its conduct also violated international law. The report highlighted what it termed violations by Israel, including using the chemical agent phosphorous in civilian areas, even though it is not proscribed by international law, firing shells at hospitals, which is, and failing to properly warn citizens before attacks. If Israel did these things, there is no excuse and leaders of the Jewish state should explain themselves beyond standard denials. We know Israel is trying to defend itself from hostile regimes in the Middle East yet attacking defenseless civilian populations only exacerbates the conflict and makes it even more difficult to resolve. But Hamas should likewise be required to take responsibility for its indiscriminate firing of missiles into population centers in southern Israel, near the border of the Gaza Strip, which precipitated Israel's attack. The Palestinians have to solve their governmental crisis and unify their leadership before they're going to be able to figure out what they want and reach a meaningful and beneficial peace with Israel.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

House vote on Wilson highlights historic hostility directed at new president

At least most of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives remember what an insult is when they hear it directed at someone else. That someone else, of course, is President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, whose speech to a joint session of Congress was interrupted by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) on Sept. 9. The House voted 240-179 on Tuesday -- largely along party lines -- to pass a resolution of disapproval against Wilson, who shouted "you lie" during Obama's speech, according to Cable News Network (CNN). No matter what anybody thinks about Obama, the financial crisis or the health care debate, this was clearly an insult and a violation of common sense. He is the president of the United States, and a measure of respect is called for. Nobody in government interrupted George W. Bush while he was speaking, and he was probably the worst president ever. In fact, nobody in government has ever blatantly interrupted a speech by the president in the country's 220 years, according to the House historian, CNN said. But what does it mean that our elected representatives treated even this as a partisan matter, except possibly for the 12 Democrats who voted "no" and the seven Republicans who voted "yes?" Do the House Republicans think their organized opposition to whatever the Democrats -- and Obama -- propose is reason enough to abandon rules that have kept debate at the Capitol civil over all these decades? Hasn't the Republican Party done enough to polarize the country by trying to demonize Democrats who opposed the last president and who supported Obama? The disapproval resolution was the mildest punishment the House could levy on Wilson, who apologized to Obama right after the speech but refused demands from Democrats to apologize to the entire chamber. "In my view, by apologizing to the president, the most important person in the history of the world, that applied to everyone," Wilson said during Tuesday's debate on the resolution in the House, CNN reported. But Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Wilson's refusal to apologize to the House merited punishment, whether Wilson apologized to Obama or not.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Federal judge cuts through the bailout rhetoric in New York courtroom

Think it's been awhile since there's been any straight talk about last year's $700 billion taxpayer rescue of the nation's financial system? Well, the wait is over. A federal judge in New York has issued a scathing ruling rejecting a proposed $33 million settlement of a lawsuit arising out of Bank of America's regulator-arranged takeover of the failing Merrill Lynch brokerage house, according to the New York Times. The ruling by U.S. Judge Jed Rakoff accuses the government's chief regulator, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, of being too lenient and blames BofA officials for failing to tell their shareholders that Merrill Lynch had paid as much as $4 billion in bonuses to its employees just before the merger. The lawsuit was filed by the SEC against BofA, but the judge said the SEC and the bank came up with the settlement to absolve themselves of any further responsibility. “The S.E.C. gets to claim that it is exposing wrongdoing on the part of the Bank of America in a high-profile merger,” the judge said, according to the Times, and “the Bank’s management gets to claim that they have been coerced into an onerous settlement by overzealous regulators.” The judge ordered the parties to trial in February, pending what is likely to be numerous appeals of the ruling. The decision came on the same day that President Barack Obama told Wall Street banking executives in New York that "we will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis.” Obama has proposed an overhaul of the federal government's financial regulatory system. The Times said the BofA case was one of several active investigations of the $50 billion merger, including one by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that is expected to result in a criminal complaint later this month. An investigation by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform also is underway, the Times said.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

U.S. effort in Middle East appears doomed for now

The United States certainly may want it to happen, but the likelihood is extremely small that U.S. envoy George Mitchell will be successful in convincing negotiators for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to resume peace talks. Mitchell said today that he hoped to wrap up an agreement in the next few days, according to the Reuters international news service. But that hope, if he really has it, seems unrealistic or, worse, dangerously naive. While Israel would love to be able to continue to relax its oppressive -- and expensive -- and oppressive military presence around territory it captured in 1967, and the PA needs statehood to fulfill the Palestinian people's desire for independence and to bolster its standing with its people, the two sides have rarely seemed further apart. The Palestinian Authority, of course, is insisting on a complete freeze of construction of housing for Israelis on land it wants for its state, including East Jerusalem. Israel, now led by a conservative prime minister, has offered to temporarily suspend future construction but refuses to stop building homes that are already planned or to give up any part of Jerusalem. "While we have not yet reached agreement on many outstanding issues, we are working hard to do so, and indeed the purpose of my visits here this week is to attempt to do so," Mitchell said Sunday with Israeli President Shimon Peres at his side, Reuters reported. Mitchell is scheduled to meet tomorrow with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau and Tuesday with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in his effort to put together a deal that would freeze settlements and require Arab nations to move towards diplomatic recognition of Israel. But a look at the issues here underscores the impossibility of Mitchell's assignment. Israel is talking about where to put the border between the two countries, the PA and most of the rest of the Arab world is still pretending that Israel doesn't exist. That's a very long road to travel in three days. It's going to take a diplomat on the same level as, say, the late Anwar Sadat, to achieve a breakthrough, and it appears, sadly, the Netanyahu and Abbas are simply not up to the task. As for Mitchell, he might have had an distinguished career as a politician but he will more easily be remembered for botching the Major League Baseball steroids investigation than anything else he accomplished as a public figure.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Taking whatever to the streets

What does it mean that tens of thousands of demonstrators from all over the country turned out Saturday in Washington, D.C., to protest the policies of President Barack Obama? Well, it certainly says something about the new administration, but what it says is not quite so easy to figure out. Taken at face value, the demonstrators were showing their concern about the expansion of power by the federal government in borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars to stabilize the economy and in trying to insert itself into the nation's healthcare system, traditionally regulated by the states, according to the New York Times. But the demonstrator's enthusiastic singing of patriotic songs did not mask an undercurrent of violent dislike for Obama, the nation's first black president, who took office in January with a mandate to undo the excesses of the administration of George W. Bush, who Obama replaced. In fact, the hatred expressed by large numbers of demonstrators, many of whom compared the new president to Adolf Hitler and called his initial policy initiatives "socialism," sounded more like the irresponsible commentators on FOX news than the expressions of a concerned and informed populace. "He pledged a commitment of fidelity to the United States Constitution," former House Republican leader Dick Armey told the crowd near where Obama took the oath of office. "Liar, liar, liar, liar," the crowd shouted back, echoing what Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) said three days earlier when he interrupted Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress, according to the Times. Armey's conservative advocacy group, FreedomWorks, was one of the organizations that helped organize the protest, and apparently organized the vocal opposition that dominated Obama's town-hall meetings last month. “This is not some kind of radical right-wing group,” Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina told the Times at the demonstration. “I just hope the Congress, the Senate and the president recognize that people are afraid of what’s going on.” But what, exactly, is going on? Where was these people's concern for the Constitution when Bush grossly expanded the president's war-making powers and repeatedly and deliberately violated the country's treaty obligations? Where was these people's concern for the Constitution when Bush grossly expanded the president's power by issuing signing statements that rejected the spirit of laws passed by Congress? Resetting the balance between the three branches of the federal government would be the province of a truly involved populace. Unfortunately, the demonstration in Washington seems more like a stampede by a disinterested, uninformed and uninvolved electorate than a legitimate political movement.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Twitter invites its own disaster with 9/10 announcement

Wildly popular microblogging site could be headed for disaster after yesterday's announcement that it would begin to allow advertising on its pages, which attract more than 45 million visitors monthly. The two-year old service, which allows legions of users to post messages of up to 140 characters, does not charge for access and has been looking for ways to turn its burgeoning popularity into profitability. "We leave the door open for advertising," founder Biz Stone said Thursday on the San Francisco-based company's official blog, according to the Reuters international news service. "We'd like to keep our options open, as we've said before." Until now, Twitter has been funded with venture capital, Reuters said. To accomplish the change, Twitter revised its terms of service to include the phrases "The services may include advertisements, which may be targeted to the content or information on the services, queries made through the services, or other information. The types and extent of advertising by Twitter on the services are subject to change." Users also are now required to concur that "in consideration for Twitter granting you access to and use of the services, you agree that Twitter and its third-party providers and partners may place such advertising on the services." Industry analysts were skeptical of the change, contending that advertising rarely succeeds on social networking sites and that advertisers would be reluctant to link their products with the unpredictable and often offensive chatter on the site, Reuters said. But advertising is the primary financial engine that drives free Web service, Reuters said.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Taiwan government should survive turmoil over typhoon response

Monday's resignation by Taiwan's premier is not expected to alter the current administration's focus on better ties with China, according to the Reuters international news service. More cabinet ministers are expected to resign in the furor of what most see as a botched response to devastation wrought by Typhoon Morakot, which struck the island over three days in August and killed 758 people. Torrential rains caused massive landslides that buried villages in the southern islands, Reuters said. President Ma Ying-jeou accepted the resignation of Premier Liu Chao-shiuan and appointed Wu Den-yih, another top Nationalist Party official, to replace him. "I'm the top administrator and all of the political responsibility rests on my shoulders, so I offered my resignation to the president, and he agreed," Liu said, according to Reuters. Ma has faced severe criticism over his government's disaster response efforts, but mostly for remarks he made after the disaster that appeared to blame residents of the six affected counties for not being adequately prepared. Wu said at a news conference that he would pursue Ma's policies of stronger economic ties with Beijing, Taiwan's rival since the 1949 revolution that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in the mainland. The Nationalist Party fled offshore to nearby Taiwan, where it now rules an island nation of 23 million. China maintains that Taiwan is a renegade province and frequently threatens to recapture the island by force. Taiwan's ruling party was considered by many Western nations, including the United States, to be the legitimate rulers of mainland China until 1971, when the United Nations transferred its seat to the Communist government. Taiwan's vice-premier, Paul Chiu, also resigned Monday and was replaced by another party official, Chu Li-lun. Hsu Yung-ming, a political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei, Taiwan's capital, told Reuters it was customary in Taiwan for the premier to resign in such a circumstance.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

War means big business -- U.S. tops list of weapons exporters

Just when it seemed Washington was ready to resume its expected role of helping to bring sanity to world affairs comes word of a congressional study finding the United States was involved in more than two-thirds of worldwide arms sales last year. The study, released Friday by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, found U.S. arms sales increased 50 percent in 2008 to $37.8 billion despite the worldwide recession, according to the New York Times. The report shows the United States is by far the world's largest arms trader, with Italy a distant second at $3.7 billion and Russia third at $3.5 billion. The report said U.S. arms sales increased nearly 50 percent from 2007. The increase was attributed by the report "not only to major new orders from clients in the Near East and in Asia, but also to the continuation of significant equipment and support services contracts with a broad-based number of U.S. clients globally. The study, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations," was written by Richard F. Grimmett, a specialist in international security at the CRS, a division of the Library of Congress. Top buyers of U.S. arms and equipment in the developing world were United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the report said, while main buyers of Russian armaments were China, India and Venezuela. Arms sales to major oil exporting countries helps keep the trillions of dollars they earn in circulation and keeps the world economy in some sort of balance, but is an enormous temptation to become aggressive and start wars.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Venezuelans split over success, future of Hugo Chavez

Maybe the most encouraging thing about Saturday's mass demonstrations in Caracas was that a large portion of the citizenry were showing concern -- and rightly so -- about the expansion of power by the central government. Led by President Hugo Chavez, the leader whose socialist policies have made him a hero among the nation's poor by raising living standards with redistributed oil wealth, Venezuela has nationalized major industries and removed the constitutional limit on consecutive terms, according to the Reuters international news service. So the man who famously called former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations in 2006 could end up controlling Venezuela and its oil reserves for decades. The government in Caracas also has been cracking down on opposition media and threatening opposition protesters with arrests for "rebellion," raising the specter of dictatorship. In that light, then, perhaps the most troubling thing about the day of protest was the people wearing red "I love Chavez" T-shirts, as if the man were more important than the institutions and rights of the people he leads. That's the danger -- the cult of personality combined with the temptation of power -- in Chavez's movement. Venezuelans who want to keep their government democratic ought to be deeply concerned about that. Then again, Chavez has a right to be angry at the United States, which almost surely played some sort of role in the coup that briefly toppled Chavez's government in 2002.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Shadowy environmental group knocks down radio towers

In a world grappling with international terrorism and cowardly attacks that kill hundreds or thousands of people in an instant, it's easy to react with outrage but not nearly as simple to craft a proportionate reaction to Friday's toppling of two radio station towers north of Seattle by a radical environmental group. The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for knocking the KRKO-AM towers down with a stolen bulldozer in Snohomish County, Washington, according to Cable News Network. One of the towers was 349 feet tall. The ELF, which has been involved in other high-profile attacks in the Northwest, issued a statement claiming the towers were destroyed because they caused higher cancer rates and harmed wildlife, as well as interfering with phone lines. "When all legal channels of opposition have been exhausted, concerned citizens have to take action into their own hands to protect life and the planet," said Jason Crawford, a spokesman for the group. No one has been killed in any of the group's attacks. But federal and local law enforcement officials were not exactly tolerant. The Snohomish County Sheriff's Department turned the case over to the FBI's Seattle office for a formal investigation. KKRO manager Andy Skotdal said the tower complex was "flattened like a pancake" and would take at least three months to repair. "There's quite a bit of destruction to the antenna and it will probably take at least three months to get it back up and operational again," station manager Andy Skotdal said, according to CNN. If caught, the ELF people responsible for the attack will no doubt face prosecution. A crime is a crime. But there's a difference between crimes against property and crimes against people.