Saturday, February 28, 2009

Some light enters the long Iraq tunnel

What a difference a political upheaval can make! U.S. President Barak Obama's announcement Friday that the United States would withdraw most of its troops from Iraq by August of next year is yet another indication of how dramatically the change of administrations in Washington is impacting world politics. In a speech at a U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina, Bush told an audience of uniformed soldiers that around 100,000 troops will be withdrawn from Iraq in the next 17 months, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end," Obama said. Obama said U.S. troops had accomplished their mission of removing Saddam Hussein from power and had nearly completed the task of stabilizing the once-troubled Middle East country. "Iraq is not yet secure and there will be difficult days ahead," he said, but the Iraqi people now have a "hard-earned opportunity ... for a better life." The trip to Camp Lejeune was the president's first to a military installation since taking office last month. The United States has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq, and the remaining forces will advise Iraq's military and possibility conduct operations themselves, Obama said. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised to withdraw U.S. forces within 16 months. The current plan is for withdrawal within 19 months, CNN said. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican who ran against Obama in the last election, reflected just how much the political climate has changed in the United States. McCain, a vocal backer of former President George W. Bush's conduct of the war, called Obama's plans "reasonable." "We are finally on a path to success," McCain said. "Let us have no crisis of confidence now." There is no reason to doubt Obama's sincerity on this point, and he has the power to pull the troops out, even if members of Congress do object. Of course, McCain attributed his view to the "dramatic success of the surge strategy," even though we know that the so-called surge only was needed because of the previous administration's dramatic failure to plan adequately for the Iraq conflict in the first place.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Nuclear power industry looks ahead to the present

News out of Washington, D.C., that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had voted to require any new nuclear power plants to be able to withstand crashes by commercial jetliners certainly raises at least one question: Why is this a new rule? And another: Aren't all nuclear plants designed like that? As it turns out, this is a new rule because no existing nuclear facilities in the United State are required to protect against such an attack or accident, according to Cable News Network (CNN). The new rule, which requires plant designers to create facilities that either cannot be penetrated by such a crash or that will continue to operate even after a crash, was proposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. In the New York attack, two jetliners struck the World Trade Center and brought down its two 110-story skyscrapers. Still, some industry officials and NRC members opposed the new rule, contending that the possibility of such an attack or catastrophe was too remote and the cost of compliance too great, CNN said. Possibly as a result of such opposition, the new rule is stated in language subject to interpretation and does not specify what steps plant owners are required to take, CNN said. Also, the new rule does not affect existing nuclear power plants, the network said. "This decision will go a long way toward protecting Americans from the horrific possibility that terrorists could target our nuclear plants with large aircraft," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts. NRC Chairman Dale Klein, who had opposed earlier drafts, called the final rule a "common-sense approach" that will result in a very wide margin of safety. The new designs must protect both the reactor cores and pools of spent fuel, which are usually stored on the plant sites. The NRC said it has already taken steps to improve security at existing nuclear plants, including a 2002 rule mandating plans to cope with large explosions and fires from any cause. Even though an agreement was reached in this instance, the continuing reluctance of the nuclear power industry and its backers to recognize the extraordinary steps necessary to adequately protect the public raises many more questions about proposals to expand such power generation in the United States.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This must be a law school problem

Did all of these characters graduate from law school? We're speaking, of course, of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled unanimously on Wednesday that communities can refuse to allow a religious monument to be put up in a public park that already has other religious displays. In another decision that sacrifices serious legal considerations for what passes as practical ones, the court said the Utah city of Pleasant Grove could refuse to allow a monument from the Summun religious group in a park that had a Ten Commandments display. "It is hard to imagine how a public park could be opened up for the installation of permanent monuments by every person or group wishing to engage in that form of expression," the court said, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, according to the Reuters international news service. The justices rejected an appellate court ruling that found the exclusion of the Summun monument violated free speech rights. Instead, they ruled that the case was not a free-speech question at all but one of practicality. If the government was required to be viewpoint-neutral, Alito said, parks all over the country would become littered with monuments or some of the country's most cherished monuments would have to removed. But the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a statement after the ruling demanding exactly that -- that religious monuments be removed from public property under the principle of separation of church and state. “Government has no business erecting, maintaining or promoting religious symbols or codes,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the group's executive director. “The answer in this case is to remove the Ten Commandments from the public park, not compound the problem by adding more sectarian material.” The city's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, called the case "a landmark decision" that allows "government to express its views." But that's entirely the point that creates the constitutional violation. Hmm, maybe he didn't go to law school either.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sole Man?

Does the case of the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President Bush reflect the true feelings of the people? Do most the people of Iraq consider him a hero, as suggested by Cable News Network, or as an embarrassment? The trial of the journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who is charged with assault for throwing shoes at Bush in Baghdad during a press conference with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, began Thursday with a hearing at the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. Al-Zaidi, a reporter for the al-Baghdadia television network, arrived in court to applause and cheers, CNN said. Throwing shoes is considered a grave insult in the Arab world. Al-Zaidi was arrested immediately after the incident, in which the two shoes missed the then-president, and claims he was beaten and otherwise mistreated by law enforcement officials, CNN said. Al-Zaidi told the court Thursday in an hourlong appearance that he was enraged by Bush's 'bloodless and soulless smile.' "I could only see Bush and feel the blood of the innocents flow under his feet, as he was smiling that smile -- as if he had come to bid farewell to Iraq and with the last support and more than 1 million martyrs," al-Zaidi said. "At that moment, I felt this is the man who killed our nation ... the main murderer and the main person responsible for killing our nation." After court, al-Zaidi was
rushed by the crowd, trying to get closer to him. If al-Zaidi is a hero to Iraqis, it raises extreme doubts about the hundreds of billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq since 2003. If the Iraqis now hate the United States, the continued presence of U.S. forces is a mistake. But the answer to this question could come from the judge overseeing Al-Zaidi's trial. The journalist faces up to 15 years in prison for "assaulting" Bush, under Iraq's criminal code, but the judge could reduce the crime to "insulting" a foreign leader, punishable by a maximum of two years. That will certainly settle the question.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Talks between Palestinian groups to begin Wednesday

Word out of Egypt this week is that leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the militant Hamas organization plan to meet in Cairo this week to begin talks aimed at ending a competition that threatens to ruin progress toward peace in the Middle East. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced the Feb. 25 start of the long-delayed mediation efforts in a statement on Saturday, according to the Reuters international news service. The failure of the Fatah-dominated government of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Islamic Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, to bring a united position to negotiations with Israel has made future progress nearly impossible. The violent schism also apparently has enabled Israel to convince the European Union that the Palestinians are not ready for statehood, Reuters said. The talks were scheduled to begin Sunday but were delayed by Hamas after the failure of truce talks on a more-lasting ceasefire with Israel following the Jewish state's three-week offensive in January. Hamas has demanded the release of members arrested by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum confirmed the Feb. 25 date, Reuters said, but demanded the release of Hamas activists arrested by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. A Fatah official said his group could release some Hamas prisoners, Reuters said. Bringing the two groups together has promise, but it is only a start considering the distance between their stances. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called for a union between his organization and Hamas, but only under his authority. U.S. officials have said a unity government would have to renounced violence, recognize Israel and accept earlier agreements, three conditions that Hamas has thus far refused to consider.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Obama promises open trade with Canada

Sure, U.S. President Barack Obama's first trip out of the country would be news, in and of itself, and it was. Obama's choice of Canada as his first overseas destination since assuming the presidency last month restored an old White House tradition that had been ignored by George W. Bush. But if U.S. residents were hoping for some sort of breakthrough in relations with Canada, they were disappointed. Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper accomplished nothing besides restating some old bromides about protectionism that surely ring hollow in the competitive world economy. The United States and Canada are too co-dependent on trade, defense and policy to have serious disagreements. The fact that Obama specifically discussed protectionism with Canada, according to the Reuters international news service, may have been reassuring to the Canadian people but truly had no bearing on the issue. If the United States does decide to begin a withdrawal from the free trade policies of past governments, and Obama assured Ottawa it will not, Canada would certainly be included in whatever new economic grouping replaces the free trade regime. "Now is a time where we have to be very careful about any signals of protectionism," Obama told reporters after several hours of talks with Harper on his one-day visit to Ottawa, Reuters said. "And as obviously one of the largest economies in the world, it's important for us to make sure that we are showing leadership in the belief that trade ultimately is beneficial to all countries." Likewise, Harper said he thought the United States would continue to hold up its end of the free trade bargain. "I'm quite confident that the United States will respect those obligations and continue to be a leader on the need for globalized trade," he said. Harper also said he would consider strengthening environmental and labor provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Obama asked for, but said he did not support renegotiating the entire agreement, as Obama has proposed. The U.S. and Canada did announced that they would begin to collaborate on environmentally friendly energy technologies to help develop coal and oil sands resources with less pollution. Perhaps notably, Obama did not ask Canada to expand its military presence in Afghanistan, where it has 2,700 troops in support of NATO. Canada plans to withdraw its troops in 2011, Reuters said.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Expulsions of U.S. diplomats by Ecuador raise alarms

The recent expulsions of two U.S. diplomats by Ecuador raises the rather distressing prospect of more tension between Washington and countries in South America. The U.S. State Department voiced strong objection and threatened retaliation after the expulsions this month of First Secretary Mark Sullivan and Department of Homeland Security attache Armando Astorga after Ecuador accused them of meddling in the country's internal affairs. The dispute involves U.S.-sponsored aid programs in Ecuador, and the accusations were denied by Washington, according to Cable News Network and the Reuters international news service. "The United States rejects any suggestion of wrongdoing by embassy staff," said Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman in Washington, according to CNN. Hopefully, the dispute is merely a misunderstanding, which is logical considering how ill-advised it would be for Ecuador to antagonize a country offering millions of dollars in aid. But it is too early in the Obama administration for the United States to insist that all of the untoward programs promulgated by the Bush administration have been ended. And the United States had better be careful of alienating its friends, of which Ecuador is one, in a region that already has virulently anti-U.S. governments in power in nearby Venezuela and Bolivia. The United States is Ecuador's main trading partner and imports much Ecuador's oil and banana.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pacifying Taliban is not going to work

The world should have learned from Afghanistan that trying to pacify the Taliban will never work. That's why Pakistan's recent move to compromise with Taliban insurgents terrorizing Swat valley and areas of the country's northwest is both unrealistic and unworthy of a democratic government. Pakistan's North West Frontier Province government and Islamic militants agreed Monday to introduce Islamic law to those regions, according to the Reuters international news service. But while this agreement is ostensibly a compromise, it actually is a capitulation to the forces of irrationality. Since starting an uprising in 2007, Taliban forces and supporters have destroyed more than 200 girls schools in a campaign against female education and have forced thousands from their homes, Reuters said. The Taliban also did this in Afghanistan, where the forces of repression also destroyed priceless statues of Buddha that were thousands of years old. But the government apparently is trying to make the Taliban and al-Qaida uprising less appealing to residents of the region absorbed by Pakistan in 1969, Reuters said. A spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of assassinated former president Benazir Bhutto, said the agreement was a concession to the region's religious conservatives. "After successful negotiations ... all un-Islamic laws related to the judicial system, those against the Koran and Sunnah, would be subject to cancellation and considered null and void," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the NWFP's information minister. The Sunnah is a book of the prophet Muhammad's sayings and teachings. Militants in Pakistan now control Swat, an alpine valley just 80 miles from Islamabad, which used to be a favorite spot for honeymooners and trekkers.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chavez wins constitution vote in Venezuela

Results from today's voting in Venezuela, where constitutional changes proposed by President Hugo Chavez were approved, probably came as a shock of reality to the new government in the United States. Venezuelans voted to remove term limits and allow Chavez, the leftist leader who is more than halfway through his second term, to run for office indefinitely, according to the McClatchy News Service in Washington, D.C. His current term expires in 2012. Today's vote was the second time Chavez tried to have Venezuela's two-term limit removed. A previous effort was defeated in 2007. But Chavez, who pledges to turn Venezuela into a socialist state, is a hero to poor Venezuelans for using the country's oil revenues to benefit society at large. Chavez's government has nationalized major industries and turned income from rising oil prices into food- and housing-price subsidies, free medical care and free schooling. But the recent downturn in the world economy has cut Venezuela's oil revenues and is expected to lead to cuts in government spending. Chavez said after today's election that he was eager to meet with the new U.S. president, Barak Obama. Chavez and the previous U.S. president, George W. Bush, had an antagonistic relationship exemplified by Chavez's characterization of Bush as "the devil" at the United Nations in 2006.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Only a flesh wound

It doesn't make any sense for Hamas to insist, the way it did Saturday, that talks on a more-stable Gaza truce collapsed because Israel insisted on the release of a captured soldier, unless the hostage is already dead. Hamas has so much to gain from any agreement -- an end to hostilities, the opening of Gaza's borders, relief of suffering by civilians, the repatriation of 1,000 prisoners -- that it would be the height of irresponsibility to reject any deal. Some 1,300 Gazans were killed in the fighting that ended last month because of Hamas' refusal to even talk to Israel, its neighbor on two sides. With so much to gain, the only reason Hamas would refuse to release Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006, before allowing a more-permanent truce to take effect is that Israel will not be amenable to compromise if he is dead. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted Saturday that Shalit be released before further agreements would be reached. "The prime minister's position is that Israel will not reach understandings on a truce before the release of Gilad Shalit," Olmert's office said in a statement, according to the Reuters international news service. Hamas had said earlier that a ceasefire agreement was imminent after progress in talks mediated by Egypt. A Hamas representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, told Al Jazeera TV that Israel wanted "to make the deal fail" by insisting on Shalit's release. "We consider that this kind of Israeli procrastination is for the aim of achieving more objectives and wasting more time and effort," Hamdan said. "But our position is still as it was, and what was agreed has to be implemented fully. Otherwise, Israel will bear the consequences of any failure." In fact, Palestinians living in Gaza will bear the consequences, and it's about time that Hamas takes the lives of its citizenry seriously. Hamas forces were routed in the latest conflict, and would have surrendered long ago if the group was concerned about the people. It's beginning to look as if Hamas is simply incapable of playing a constructive role in the future of the Palestinians.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Blackwater changes its name but not its reputation

News out of Raleigh, N.C., today is that Blackwater Worldwide, the controversial private security firm that protected diplomats after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is changing its name. The company said Friday that it would now be called Xe, pronounced Zee, and change its logo, apparently to distance itself from notoriety earned after a shooting incident in Baghdad that left at least a dozen civilians dead in 2007, according to the Associated Press. The U.S.-backed Iraqi government has refused to renew Blackwater's authority to operate in that country and the State Department said it will not rehire Blackwater when its current contract expires in May, the AP said. Blackwater told the AP last year that it had decided to pursue other lines of business and deemphasize private security contracting. It has one other security contract, which is classified. But it was too little, too late for Blackwater. Repercussions from the Nisoor Square shooting probably will result in an end to the U.S. military's use of outside contractors for jobs that could be filled by soldiers. "They have established themselves as the bad guys," said Katy Helvenston, who sued the company after her son died on a mission in Fallujah for Blackwater in 2004, the AP said. "They've established such a horrible reputation," Helvenston said. "Why else would they change their name?" Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who chairs the Intelligence Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said a new name can't change the fact that the company's actions resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians. "Blackwater's notorious reputation will outlast its name," she said.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hamas looks to stay in power by agreeing to truce with Israel

What are we to make of today's statement by Hamas, the militant group controlling the Gaza Strip, that a formal truce with Israel would be announced within three days? Of course, it would be great if the Egyptian-mediated agreement meant that Hamas had agreed to talk with Israel, which recently concluded a 22-day offensive that killed 1,300 Palestinians in the crowded coastal strip. Then again, Israel, which considers Hamas to be a terror group, refuses to talk to its leaders, too. Somehow, progress has been reported at talks in Cairo. "Most of the obstacles that prevented us from reaching an agreement were resolved and an announcement of a deal is expected within three days," Taher al-Nono, a member of the Hamas negotiating team in Cairo, told the Reuters international news service. Nono said the deal would end the cross-border attacks that prompted Israel's attack and open Gaza's border crossings with Israel and Egypt. Hamas also is reportedly seeking the release of more than 1,000 prisoners being held in Israel in exchange for releasing an Israeli solder captured in 2006. Israel had no immediate comment, Reuters said. But such a deal makes sense for Israel only if it changes the current political situation, which is barely tenable for all sides. Hamas appears willing to accept the status quo provided it leaves them in power. The Israelis want the soldier back, assuming he's still alive, but they are going to have to get Hamas out. Hamas has complicated the still-breathing Mideast peace process since seizing control of Gaza from the more-moderate Palestinian Authority in 2007 by refusing to honor existing agreements with Israel. Egypt has invited the Palestinian factions to reconciliation talks in Cairo on Feb. 22.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

General Motors gives up

For all the hand-wringing and teeth gnashing in the Bush and Obama administrations and in Congress over whether and how to help the nation's ailing automobile industry, the most important answer was missing because the question was not asked. Does the industry want to be bailed out? The corporate bigwigs at the major carmakers were happy to take the billions of dollars in loans the government forced on them, and even agreed to come up with plans showing how they expect to regain viability. But don't expect to see anything approaching realistic. It's too late for that. General Motors Corp., perhaps the greatest industrial dynamo the world has ever seen, has given up. The nation's largest automaker made that clear yesterday when it announced plans to lay off 10,000 workers, according to the Detroit Free Press. This follows months of cost-cutting and plant closures to try to stem years of losses. But don't be fooled. A company planning to develop a new fleet of technologically advanced, fuel-efficient and reasonably priced vehicles -- necessary to compete in the evolving domestic and world economies -- would not be laying off workers and seeking government protection. Yesterday's announcement said GM would cut 14 percent of its worldwide workforce and temporary reduce pay for a majority of white-collar employees in the U.S., the Free Press reported. GM actually plans to cut more than 31,000 jobs by 2012. "These difficult actions are necessitated by a severe drop in vehicle sales worldwide and by the need to restructure GM for long term viability," the company said in yesterday's statement. CEO Rick Wagoner, in Washington to meet with congressional leaders, said GM's announcement was "indicative of the kind of things we need to do to get this viability plan in shape and respond to these tough market conditions.” But that only is necessary if GM plans to become an average company and accepts being in second place behind Toyota or in third or fourth place behind other forward-thinking automakers -- or if GM really plans to give the taxpayers' 13 billion dollars to its shareholders and seek bankruptcy protection.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time . . .

California voters must have thought they were sending a message to the do-little state legislature in Sacramento when they chose an action film star to be governor in 2003 and again in 2006. But it's hard to conclude that the message they were sending was to do even less. Yet that's the situation the state finds itself in, with the government paralyzed along partisan lines and about to run out of money. News out of California's capital today is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to lay off thousands of state workers by July 1 if the legislature cannot agree on a budget -- a budget that actually was due last July 1, according to the Sacramento Bee newspaper. Layoff notices could start going out on Friday. But how could this happen? It's a failure of leadership and a breakdown of common sense in Sacramento. If it was up to the majority Democrats in the legislature, the budget probably would already have been approved. But because California requires a super-majority, two-thirds, to pass a budget, the legislature has been unable to provide a spending plan for nearly a year. Not one Republican legislator has been willing to vote for a budget proposed by a Republican governor. Budget confrontations have become the norm when July rolls around in California, which operates on a July to June fiscal year, but it has never been this bad. Perhaps it's time for the Republican Schwarzenegger, who cannot get even one colleague from his own party to vote with him, to step down.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama stance on government secrecy seems painfully familiar

Maybe it's just not realistic to expect the new Obama administration to already have its act together on rewriting the Bush administration's dangerously overreaching policies on government secrecy. Then again, it's also not realistic to think that today's hearing before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco came as a surprise to anyone in the administration. Whatever the situation, the Obama administration took a widely discredited Bush administration position and argued to a three-judge panel that a lawsuit by five victims of CIA kidnapping and torture should be dismissed because it could compromise government secrets. "Judges shouldn't play with fire," Justice Department attorney Douglas Letter told the panel considering the appeal, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. "You will see that this case cannot be litigated." The five victims are appealing the dismissal of their suit against Jeppesen Dataplan of San Jose, the Boeing Corp. subsidiary that arranged extraordinary rendition flights for the CIA. The five claim they were flown to secret prisons in other countries and tortured. ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, who represents the five plaintiffs, argued that the rendition program, under which the United States could capture suspects in other countries and take them into custody, was not secret at all, the Chronicle said. Wizner said Sweden has awarded $450,000 in damages to one of the plaintiffs who was taken to Egypt and is still being held. "The notion that you have to close your eyes and ears to what the whole world knows is absurd," Wizner told the appellate court. After the hearing, the ACLU accused Obama of "reneging" on his promise to end the abuse of the state secrets privilege, the Chronicle said. A Justice Department spokesman said new Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a review of government claims of secrecy. Hopefully, the new Obama administration is not going to get into the habit of saying one thing and doing the opposite.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

June election could offer peaceful solution to Iran's diplomatic row with West

From here, it looks like we be happy to hear that former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who favors detente with the West and more freedom at home, plans to run for president of the Islamic republic. Khatami announced Sunday that he would oppose the fiercely anti-United States and anti-Israel current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, in elections scheduled for June, according to the New York Times. Khatami was president from 1997-2005 but faced severe opposition from Iran's conservative religious elite that actually rules the country, the Times said. The Islamic republic celebrates the 30th anniversary of the revolution that toppled a U.S.-backed secular government this week. Khatami made his announcement at a Tehran news conference and said “the Iranian nation’s historical demand is to have freedom, independence and justice, and I will work for that.” Khatami could pose a challenge to Ahmedinejad's re-election, if the country's religious rulers allow him to run. During his presidency, Khatami's allies in Iran's parliament were barred from seeking re-election, many of his supporters were arrested and pro-democracy publications were shut down, the Times said. Ahmedinejad curtailed many of the freedoms allowed by Khatami's government. But Ahmedinejad's popularity has been hurt by the country's intractable economic problems and its deteriorating relations with the West, which has threatened Iran over its nuclear program. If Khatami is the same person that he was in 2005 and his campaign successfully reflects the will of the Iranian people, a new government in Iran could be a peaceful solution to the West's concerns over Iran's aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Signs of intelligent life in Venezuela

Saturday's protests in Caracas against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's plan to stay in power indefinitely shows that the people of this South American country are planning to resist his blatant power grab. Venezuelans go to the polls Feb. 15 to decide for the second time in three years whether to allow politicians to keep their seats for as long as they can win elections, according to the Reuters international news service. The Chavez-proposed reform is leading in the polls, Reuters said, even as tens of thousands of people streamed into Caracas streets to oppose the leftist leader's proposal. "This reform hides, as President Chavez himself has said, the start of what would be a country, a state with a Castro-communist system," said Manuel Rosales, a former opposition presidential candidate. The fiercely anti-U.S. Chavez is close friends with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Protesters, who marched from the city's largest slum to a wealthy business district, wore shirts that said, "I also want to be president," and complained about Venezuela's rising violent crime rate, Reuters said. But Chavez, who famously called former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations in 2006, is wildly popular among Venezuela's poor because he nationalized some of his nation's largest industries and raised spending on health and welfare since he took office in 1999.

U.S. ventures nothing, gains nothing in Georgia

Maybe the United States should have expressed a little more than "regret" Friday over Russia's plans to set up military bases in disputed regions of Georgia. It is obvious that Russia, which forced Georgia to withdraw from South Ossetia and Abkhazia last year, has decided not to live up to its part of the ceasefire agreement that ended the 5-day war. The U.S. State Department said Russia had agreed to return its forces to prewar numbers and locations in Georgia's breakaway regions, according to the Reuters international news service. "This latest announced build-up of the Russian Federation's military presence in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without the consent of the Georgian government would clearly violate that commitment," said Robert Wood, an acting State Department spokesman. Wood said Russia's plans to build a naval base at Ochamchire and army bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia "violate Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," which Russia committed itself to in U.N. Security Council resolutions, Reuters said. If the United States is serious about this, and about ensuring that Russia lives up to other agreements with the West, it will have to make the point a little stronger. Russia has to learn to play nice, when dealing with former republics or selling natural gas to Europe, or it will have to leave the sandbox that rich Western nations usually play in. Russian soldiers repelled Georgia's attack on South Ossetia, a former Georgian province that declared independence in 1990s, in a five-day war last August.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pakistan frees disgraced nuclear scientist

Just in case anyone was seduced into thinking the return to sanity in the United States meant the same for the world comes news from Islamabad that Pakistan has released a scientist who confessed to selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya in 2004. Pakistan's High Court ended five years on house arrest for Abdul Qadeer Kahn on Friday, ruling there was no evidence of any illegal activity, according to Ali Zafar, Kahn's attorney, the Reuters international news service reported. Kahn, considered the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, was accused by the United Nations of leading a proliferation network that was active in 12 countries. The United States imposed sanctions on 13 people and three companies because of their involvement in that network, Reuters said. But Khan said he was pleased with his contribution to Pakistan's security. "I will always be proud about what I did for Pakistan," he told reporters, according to Reuters. "I am obliged to answer only to my government, not to any foreigners." Pakistan has blocked foreign investigators from interviewing Kahn, saying it had passed on all relevant information about his network. But U.S. and international nuclear experts still want to question him, Reuters said.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

U.S., Britain call for ceasefire in Sri Lanka

Let's hope leaders of Sri Lanka will not seek bloody retribution against the Tamil Tigers insurgent group that appeared on the verge of surrender this week after a nearly 30-year insurgency. Officials of the United States and Britain have suggested a ceasefire between the government and the remaining rebels to evacuate casualties and allow humanitarian aid into the last rebel-held territory, according to the Reuters international news service. As many as 250,000 civilians are trapped between opposing forces, Reuters said, citing information from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa applauded his army's apparent success Wednesday as part his island nation's 61st celebration of independence from Britain, the colonial ruler. "Our troops were able to carry forward the battle against terror with great care so as not to cause harassment to the innocent Tamil people," Rajapaksa said Wednesday in a speech to top officials and diplomats. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a joint statement callilng for the ceasefire. "Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband call on both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to agree to a temporary no-fire period," the statement said, according to Reuters. "Both sides need to allow civilians and wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies." Japan and Norway also urged the insurgents to surrender to avoid additional casualties.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Public transportation careens to the abyss

At times like these, when public transportation systems punish loyal regular users and even sometimes users with service cutbacks and higher fares, the question that's never asked is, "who is paying for these systems?" And the not-too-difficult answer is, "the taxpayers." So why would major transit systems around the country be discouraging ridership at the same time they are attracting more and more users? It doesn't make any sense -- in fact, it's counterintuitive -- yet that seems to be precisely what is happening, for example, in St. Louis, in Washington, in Denver and in New York City, according to the New York Times. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's the same story, with the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) district proposing fare increases and service cuts, and local transit services doing the same. Government should be encouraging people to ride public transportation to reduce the pressure on already-crowded highways and reduce pollution, not the opposite. It's the public sector gone mad. Transit system managers have been losing touch with the riding public for decades; maybe now they've gone completely over the edge. After all, they get paid enough -- of our tax money -- to drive or be chauffered to work and never have to venture onto public transit like the rest of us. Why don't the elected officials who oversee transit agencies say something? In California, that answer is obvious and it's disgraceful. Politicians are still fighting over a state budget that is eight months overdue, and there is no resolution in sight. But they're still getting paid -- with our tax money. What is the penalty for elected officials who do not live up to their responsibilities? That's right, vote them out of office, and elect people who understand that the society's needs come first.

U.S. auto industry still refuses to make changes

Auto sales figures released Tuesday demonstrate the effect of the U.S. automobile industry's worsening failure to innovate combined with a weakening general economy. Sales fell 55 percent for Chrysler, 49 percent for General Motors, nearly 40 percent for Ford and 32 percent for Toyota, according to the New York Times. It's more than obvious that things are going to have to change for the major automakers -- how about better small cars, better gas mileage, lower prices? Don't count on it. A statement Tuesday by a top Chysler executive shows just how out of touch the industry is. “These are turbulent, uncharted times in our industry,” said James E. Press, a Chrysler vice chairman, according to the Times. “We’ve got to get our arms around the fact that this is probably normal.” Normal? Automakers usually expect to sell 17 million vehicles a year, this year sales projections are under 10 million. Plunging vehicle fleet sales -- bulk deliveries to car rental companies and large businesses -- exacerbate the problem. So are the automakers trying to make their cars more desirable to justify the billions in bailout dollars they are receiving from the government? No, their response is to cut production and buy out employees to lower costs in the long run but vastly increase them in the short run, with the taxpayers picking up the tab. It could be time to abandon the Big 3 or 4 and start seriously backing the new automakers -- like Tesla, Fisker and others -- that are trying to recharge the industry.