Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sacre bleu! France threatens to storm out of G20 summit

That France. Just when we thought Paris had returned wholeheartedly to the family of Western nations by resuming full membership in NATO, French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to walk out of the G20 economic summit in London if he didn't get the toughened financial regulation his country was seeking. "I want results. We have to get results, there's no choice -- the crisis is too serious to allow us to have a summit for nothing," Sarkozy said, according to the Reuters international news service. French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde later echoed Sarkozy's remarks, saying Paris would not sign any accord it didn't like, despite Britain's call for unity. "(Sarkozy) was very clear on that front," Lagarde said. "He said if the deliverables are not there, I won't sign the communique -- that means walking away." But British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the summit's host, said he had spoken personally with Sarkozy on Monday and they were looking forward to working together, Reuters said. Actually, it wasn't just France. The United States and Britain have been divided from other countries in continental Europe on the size of stimulus and regulation packages. European nations have been pushing for overhauls of world financial regulations over the objections of the U.S. and the British, which favor stimulus packages.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Resignation of CEO should be just the beginning if GM is to recover

Today's resignation by General Motors chief executive Rick Wagoner still leaves another question, and it's a big one: what took so long? GM shares have lost 95 percent of its value since Wagoner took over in 2000 and GM lost its position as the world's largest automaker by stubbornly refusing to build vehicles that measured up to the foreign competition for years. Wasn't anyone over there concerned about that until now? Actually, it didn't seem anyone over there was concerned about it all, since Wagoner had to be driven from office by the Obama administration as a condition of continued federal support. But how can Wagoner's expected replacement, Chief Operating Officer Fritz Henderson, be any better? He's part of the same management team that drove General Motors to the brink of bankruptcy. A GM official said earlier Sunday that the White House had made clear to his company that "new leadership" was the key to additional federal help, according to CNN. The government already has loaned more than $13 billion to GM to keep the company afloat and Chrysler has accepted $4 billion in federal loans, but the automakers have asked for more than $20 billion in additional loans. Ford, the second-largest U.S. automaker, has not sought federal loans.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday night is lights out for planet Earth

It's going to be a lot more symbolism than substance today when nearly 3,000 cities and towns across the world turn out lights to express concern about global climate change. Major cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe have already gone dark and it's only Saturday afternoon in the United States. "We think we are going to have 100 million people around the world sending a message that climate change is real, and we need to take action now," said World Wildlife Fund CEO Carter Roberts, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The world is watching to see what America is going to do because if America acts on climate change, the world will follow." The participation of the United States in international agreements to address climate change is crucial because it is one of the leading producers of greenhouse gases, which are blamed for much of the problem. After helping to negotiate the Kyoto emissions reduction treaty in 1997, the U.S. famously withdrew from the agreement before it took effect in 2005. More than 650 communities in the Philippines, one of the first countries in the world to reach 8:30 p.m., participated in the Saturday's event. Lights began going out first in Sydney, Australia, birthplace of the Earth Hour idea in 2007. Hundreds of Australians lined Sydney harbor to watch the city's lights begin to go out, CNN said. Lights went out at monuments around the world, including the pyramids in Egypt, the Vatican, the Eiffel Tower and the Acropolis in Greece. But something tangible could be accomplished by the event. Organizers want to bring the global concerns to the attention of world leaders attending an international summit on climate change in Denmark later this year, according to CNN.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newspapers should have figured this one out years ago

New talk today of cutbacks at the country's most respected daily newspaper publishers focused additional attention on the plight of that industry, which has been losing millions of dollars and subscribers since the Internet explosion. Today's news focused on announcements by the New York Times Co. and Washington Post Co. of new rounds of cost-cutting that will include layoffs and salary reductions, according to the Reuters international news service. The Times said it had laid off 100 workers and cut nonunion salaries, and had asked its unionized workers to make similar concessions. "This was a very difficult decision to make," said a memo sent to employees Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Chief Executive Janet Robinson. "The environment we are in is the toughest we have seen in our years in business." The Post said it was offering another round of buyouts to its news, circulation and production staffs. But none of this was a surprise to anyone in the business. The old newspaper business model -- earning most of the revenue from classified advertising -- just doesn't work anymore because Internet sites can outdo traditional publishing in cost and reach. Yet newspapers have resisted long-term change and in large part failed to develop new revenue sources, leading to large-scale layoffs at U.S. publishers such as Gannett Co. and McClatchy Co. and closures of some of country's best-known newspapers, such as the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The result has included a dizzying pace of newspaper mergers that created huge conglomerates that have proven unable to sustain themselves. This doesn't seem outrageously difficult. Small papers can make money, massive papers cannot. If the smartest people in the country can't figure out a business model that works with this information, maybe newspaper industry moguls should give up trying to become rich magnates and embrace the not-for-profit world instead. The country needs an informed, literate citizenry -- the very Constitution of the United States was written with the press in mind -- because even back in the late-18th century its advocates understood that the state cannot always be trusted to do the right thing. But if the titans of industry can't get figure out something as simple as this, it may be time to let the most unwieldy of them go under, start again with local, easy-to-print and distribute newspapers, and consign the mega-papers to the circular file of history.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Twitter looks to turn Internet popularity into cash

Word that Internet startup Twitter is looking at ways to make money should come as no surprise -- any of the millions of people who already enjoy the service know it doesn't them anything and there is no advertising. The cash has to come from somewhere. So, Twitter says it is looking for ways to make money from commercial applications of its service, which allows people to send short messages to whomever is also on the service, according to what the company told the Reuters international news service by e-mail. "We think there will be opportunities to provide services to commercial entities that help them get even more value out of Twitter," said Biz Stone, a company co-founder. "If these services are valuable to companies, we think they may want to pay for them." The San Francisco-based startup has boomed in popularity over the past year, logging 7 million unique visitors in February compared with 475,000 in Feb. 2008, Reuters said. Many of the country's -- and the world's -- most powerful political leaders already have Twitter accounts that allow them to connect directly with voters. Of course, it's usually not the actual leader online but one of his or her assistants. But the principle -- reaching your audience without expensive and often misdirected advertising -- is the same. Twitter reportedly turned down a $500 million buyout offer from Facebook last year and is said to be being looked at by Google as a potential acquisition. Twitter is expected to begin rolling out its commercial enhancements sometime this year, Stone told Reuters. But there is a lot of competition in messaging and Twitter will have to be very careful not to kill the golden tweet.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Financial crisis claims another government

Today's collapse of Czechoslovokia's center-right government should come as another warning to the United States and the world's other rich nations that a lot more will have to be done before the world economic system gets restored to health. Particularly in Europe, where former Soviet-dominated countries and former Soviet republics have been struggling for years to qualify for admission to the common currency of the European Union, the floundering world economy is a threat to stability, trade and, ultimately, the post-USSR peace. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek offered to resign Tuesday after losing the confidence question by one vote. His center-right minority government may stay on until June when its turn as rotating chair of the EU ends, according to the Reuters international news service. Of course, the real problem is that the relatively newly independent countries are, in fact, relatively newly independent countries, and their former centrally planned economies are still young. Without plenty of support from the older and richer EU members, these states are destined to remain second-class members of the economic alliance. Their economies simply are not capable of generating the income necessary for maintaining European-style economies, which are a mix of the capitalist and central-planning models. It's expensive to guarantee state-paid health care for tens of millions of citizens, to pay extensive unemployment benefits to those who are not working and to provide free college educations for those who qualify. Despite its economic difficulties, Czechoslovakia has not had to bail out its banks, like the United States and other major Western nations have done.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

China can't keep its totalitarian hands off Tibet

As long as China and the United States are committed to prosperous relations and treating each other with due respect, it's time for Washington to convince Beijing to back away from its domination of Tibet. What brings this to mind today is news from Shanghai that Chinese police detained 95 people in an alleged attack on a police station in predominately Tibetan region of northern China. According to the New York Times, Chinese state media reported that nearly 100 monks from Quinghai Province led the attack, which began Saturday over rumors about someone being taken into custody for advocating Tibetan independence. The reports could not be independently verified. But it's certainly believable, given the behavior of Chinese authorities in the recent past. Even Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has been forced to live in exile since 1959. Yet it looks as if Tibet was an independent country before the Chinese communists took over in 1950. Tibetans say hundreds were killed after the government cracked down on pro-independence demonstrations last March. But if Tibetans want to be independent, why can't they be? China apparently still has a lot to learn about being a modern country.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Madoff case is a distraction, albeit a huge one

News that confessed swindler Bernie Madoff has been ordered to stay in jail until his sentencing in June must be some solace for his many victims, but it should not be confused with the current turmoil in the economic system. Madoff, who pleaded guilty last week to running a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of billions (!) of dollars over 20 years, lost his appeal of a federal judge's decision to jail him immediately after his plea, according to the Reuters international news service. The former Nasdaq chairman had apparently hoped to be released on bail prior to sentencing on charges that probably mean the 70-year-old will die in prison. But a federal appeals court said he was a potential flight risk and could have secretly stashed money overseas. Madoff had been confined to his luxury Manhattan penthouse for three months after his arrest in December and seems to have been seeking to return until at least June. "The defendant has a residence abroad, and has had ample opportunity over a long period of time to secret substantial resources outside the country," the judges said. But Madoff's crimes, while devastating to his victims, simply do not approach the level of misconduct on Wall Street that led to the loss of trillions of dollars in investments and devastated the world economy. The wheeler-dealers who gamed the financial system with recklessly over-leveraged investments and the regulators who let them do it, sometimes knowingly, still must face legal reckoning.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama gets into trouble on Tonight Show

Why all the fuss about President Barack Obama's appearance on the Tonight Show? So, the president went on a TV talk show, as reported by the Associated Press, but presidents have been known to go on television from time to time. Sure, he shouldn't have said the thing about the Special Olympics -- at least it was funny, if in bad taste -- but that's hardly worth getting all excited about. Plus, he apologized to people who took it too personally. No, the crap that has been stirred up about it is being fomented by the same fools who are getting on his case about everything, especially the incredibly bad shape the economy was in when George W. Bush left office. Right, George W. Bush -- remember him? His government is the one that took its hands off the regulatory steering wheel and set the economy on its collision course. Is that the same guy whose emergency agencies left the people of the Gulf Coast to starve in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Yes. Is that the same guy who declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq in 2003 even though it wasn't true and 140,000 U.S. troops are still there? Yes again. It's about time the nation's supposedly educated pro-Republican political leaders and pundits find their ways back to a semblance of intellectual honesty. The United States has just emerged from eight years of governance by one of the worst administrations ever, and it's going to take some time to fix everything.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Administration confirms commitment to democratic values

News out of Washington that the Obama administration had issued guidelines expanding the release of government records is a reassuring sign that the new American government is serious about reversing the damage of the Bush administration. The guidelines released Thursday by Attorney General Eric Holder are the practical application of President Barack Obama's Jan. 21 order expanding the reach of the Freedom of Information Act, which acknowledges the fundamental principle that the public owns what the government has and does. ''We are making a critical change that will restore the public's ability to access information in a timely manner,'' Holder said in a written statement, according to the Associated Press. The new rules basically restore the standard in effect under Attorney General Janet Reno when Bill Clinton was president, and reverse the Bush administration's presumption against releasing documents. Holder also said the administration would be reconsidering the Bush administration's refusal to turn over documents in civil lawsuits challenging the government's conduct in the war on terror, including jailing suspects indefinitely and domestic wiretapping, the AP said. Obama had given Holder until May to develop the guidelines but the government's quick release of them suggest that the change was under consideration well before Obama became president in January.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

France rejoins NATO military command

Tuesday's move by French lawmakers to approve that country's return to being part of NATO's military command came as quite a surprise in the United States, since very few people apparently knew it had left. France's National Assembly voted Tuesday to endorse President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to rejoin the military command over the fervent opposition of many, according to Cable News Network (CNN). France was a founding member of NATO but left in 1966 during a period of friction with the United States. Then-President Charles de Gaulle feared France would lose independence if it agreed to operate under NATO command. But France has continued to participate in most NATO military actions, including Kosovo and Afghanistan. The decision to rejoin the military command was up to Sarkozy, CNN said, and National Assembly approval was not required. But the debate sparked renewed controversy, with many lawmakers passionately opposed to the proposal. "You tell us this would mean more independence and more influence. It would probably mean less independence and less influence," Socialist Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, told Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Reuters reported. "With this decision, France will return as a subordinate country and will lose its ability to represent another image in the world," argued Assemblyman Nicolas Dupont-Aignan. But Sarkozy's opposite view, that France would gain more influence in Europe and with the United States by rejoining NATO as a full participant, carried the day in Paris. "There will be more European weight in the way decisions will be made," said Assemblyman Louis Giscard d'Estaing, a member of the assembly's U.S. Friendship Committee. "The balance of power between the USA and Europe will be re-established within this French move." The vote in the assembly was 329-238.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Empire strikes back -- U.S. plans to recoup AIG bonuses

Just days after the revelation that a major insurer that got $180 billion in federal bailout money intended to award $165 million in employee bonuses, the U.S. Treasury Department said Monday that it would try to recoup the money, according to the Reuters international news service. The Treasury Department's action came after President Barack Obama said he was "outraged" by the bonuses given by American International Group (AIG) and would seek to block them. In remarks at the White House, Obama said he was "choked up with anger" over the bonus payments. "How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?," he said. AIG said on Sunday that it was contractually obligated to make the $165 million in awards for 2008, but would revamp its bonus system under new chief executive Edward Liddy. The 2008 bonuses are the last installment of $450 million in bonus money agreed to by former CEO Martin Sullivan. Bonuses totalling $55 million were paid in December, Reuters said.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

AIG bonuses demonstrate what's wrong with Wall Street

Even with Saturday's agreement to rework its system for paying bonuses to employees, American International Group still stands as a trillion-dollar example of corporate greed gone wrong. The giant insurer caused widespread outrage this week when its plans were revealed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses despite getting $180 billion in bailouts from taxpayers. Since appointing a new chairman late last year, when news of its faltering financial situation was revealed, AIG has cut executive salaries and plans more cuts in its AIG Financial Products divisions, where the massive investments in default swaps and below-prime mortgages that nearly sank the company originated, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). But AIG still committed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to its executives, including $165 million due Sunday. The new company chairman, Edward Liddy, told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a letter that 2008 bonuses would be recalculated and that 2009 bonuses would be reduced by 30 percent. The Obama administration as sharply criticized AIG for agreeing to pay bonuses after taking bailout funds from the federal government. But imagine how much the executives would have gotten had their company actually been making a profit!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Back to civilization: U.S. drops 'enemy combatant' designation for detainees

Friday's announcement by the Obama administration to stop using the term 'enemy combatant' to get around international laws to justify open-ended detentions of terror suspects is another step forward in the reintegration of the United States to civilized society. The U.S. Justice Department said it had filed court papers outlining the end of detention standards promulgated by the Bush administration as it moves to close the controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "As we work toward developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, according to the Reuters international news service. "The change we've made today meets each of those standards and will make our nation stronger." The Justice Department said that from now on, it only would seek to detain people who provided "substantial support" to al-Qaida or the Taliban, and would justify their detention using international law. Former President George W. Bush contended the power to detain came from his inherent power as commander in chief. The Justice Department also said further refinements of the U.S. detention policy were expected.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Madoff conviction might only be the beginning

If the Western economic system is ever to regain respect from the everyday people it was supposed to benefit, today's conviction of Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff is only the first in a long line of similar cases -- most still to be filed. The former Nasdaq chairman pleaded guilty on Thursday to running a $65 billion investment fraud thought to be the largest in Wall Street history, according to the Reuters international news service. The 70-year-old is expected to be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. At a federal court hearing in Manhattan, Madoff admitted to setting up a worldwide Ponzi scheme from the beginning, but said he expected to be able to get himself and his clients out of it quickly, Reuters said. "I am painfully aware that I have deeply hurt many, many people," he told U.S. Judge Denny Chin in his first public acknowledgment of the fraud. "When I began my Ponzi scheme I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme." Madoff, who read from a prepared statement, said he was unable to shut down the scheme, which used money from new investors to pay earlier investors for 20 years. "As the years went by, I realized that my arrest and this day would inevitably come," Madoff said. The scandal has increased scrutiny of Wall Street and government regulators who were supposed to be monitoring investments and preventing wrongdoing. The scam was first brought to the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 1999, Reuters said. Investors -- some of whom attended today's court hearing, included hedge funds, banks, Jewish charities, the wealthy, and small individual investors in North and South America and Europe. Madoff could get a sentence as long as 150 years for the 11 charges against him, which include securities fraud, money laundering and perjury, Reuters said. Sentencing is scheduled for June 16.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

United States and China have too much to lose

It may well be that the economic and military power of the United States and the rising power of China are on an inevitable collision course, but nothing unforgettable is going to happen now. The two powerhouses need each other too much and get along too well to allow that to happen, particularly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to arrive in China on Wednesday. So, Monday's incident involving a U.S. naval survey vessel and five Chinese military ships in the South China Sea cannot be anything serious, despite the rising level of rancor emanating from Washington and Beijing. China accused the United States of violating its exclusive economic zone, while U.S. officials accused the Chinese of "harassment," according to the Reuters international news service. Dennis Blair, the new U.S. National Intelligence Director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington that the incident reflected "a trend" in Chinese policies toward "military, aggressive" behavior. He called the incident the gravest between the two countries since the 2001 collision between a Chinese military plane and a U.S. surveillance plane off Hainan in 2001, Reuters said. That is probably true. But the 2001 incident was resolved peacefully even though China probably had a right to be upset about spying. Beijing has a key military base on the island.

Italy seeks dismissal of criminal case against spies over Bush rendition program

It certainly looks as if lawyers representing Italy will succeed in getting the criminal prosecution against 33 U.S. and Italian undercover operatives thrown out of Rome's Constitutional Court and avoid another international embarassment over the former Bush administration's war on terror. The 33 spies -- 26 Americans and 7 Italians, are accused of kidnapping a Muslim imam from Milan in 2003 and flying him to Egypt, where he claims he was tortured. The Americans, many or all of whom are reported to be CIA agents, are being tried in absentia. The government in Rome contends prosecutors broke Italian law while building their case against the 33 operatives by using wiretaps and questioning them about classified matters, and wants the evidence suppressed. "If the government's position is upheld by the Constitutional Court, certain evidence will become impossible to use," Italy's attorney Ignazio Francesco Caramazza, who wants the trial stopped, told the Reuters international news service before the start of this week's closed-door hearings. An attorney for the prosecutors, Alessandro Pace, contends no laws were broken in the gathering of evidence. The trial, which is due to start in a lower court, has been held pending the outcome of this appeal. Human rights groups accuse the United States and some of its allies of breaking international law by using agents to capture suspects in other countries, Reuters said, a practice called "rendition." But the United States defends rendition as an important anti-terrorism tool and denies torture allegations, Reuters said, including those raised by the Milan man, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. Nasr claims he was beaten and shocked in custody before being released in 2007. He still faces allegations of terrorist activity in Italy.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Stem-cell decision shows return of common sense to U.S. policy

New U.S. President Barack Obama's long-anticipated decision on Monday to lift restrictions on stem-cell funding imposed by former President George W. Bush demonstrates just how far the United States has come in rejoining the world community it used to lead. The decision, which fulfilled a campaign promise, clears the way for U.S. scientists and companies to apply for federal funding to pay for research into whether manipulating human embryonic stem cells could produce treatments or cures for many diseases. "We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research," Obama said to applause at a White House gathering, according to the Reuters international news service. "We will also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield." The decision reverses controversial Bush administration policies that sharply limited U.S. participation in stem-cell research already underway worldwide. "When it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama said at the gathering. "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research -- and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly." Bush restricted federal funding to a small group of existing cells to prevent the destruction of human embryos, which and other religious conservatives consider murder. But many scientists had accused Bush of sacrificing research and subverting scientific findings for political considerations, Reuters said, not only on stem cells but on climate change policy, energy and reproductive and end of life issues. Shares of companies specializing in stem cell research rose sharply after the announcement, with Geron Corp gaining as much as much as 35 percent and StemCells Inc up 73 percent at one point. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas issued a statement of opposition to Obama's decision. "If an embryo is a life, and I believe strongly that it is life, then no government has the right to sanction their destruction for research purposes," the statement said, according to Reuters. Stem cell experts agree that stem cells offer the potential of a new science of regenerative medicine, which could lead to a way to replace brain cells destroyed by Alzheimer's disease, reverse genetic defects such as cystic fibrosis and regrow severed spinal cords.

With their future at stake, Palestinians try to settle differences

At least Palestinian Authority officials realize how vital it is that they resolve their differences with their Hamas counterparts in Gaza, and how how far apart they are politically. An unnamed official told the Reuters international news service on Monday that "the gap is huge." That doesn't sound promising, coming as it does on the eve of unification negotiation between from the PA, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Cairo. But the PA understands, even if Hamas and Islamic Jihad doesn't, that Palestinians must be able to present a unified negotiating position to the Israelis, and one that will be respected by the factions, if they have any hope of reaching a regional territorial compromise with Israel. The talks are expected to last 10 days, and are expected to focus on formation of a unity government and the inclusion of Hamas in the PA, which governs the West Bank. Hamas militants defeated PA forces in 2007 to take control of the densely populated Gaza Strip but has been isolated by the West because of its refusal of recognize Israel or abide by previously negotiated peace agreements, Reuters said. "We must reach an agreement to form a government of reconciliation that will abide by the obligations of the PLO," PA President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters yesterday, Reuters said. Agreement by Hamas also could speed international aid to Gaza, where a recent 22-day offensive by Israel, aimed at eliminating daily rocket fire from militants, left more than 1,000 dead and thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed. "The sooner (a unity) government is formed, the faster the reconstruction will be realized," Abbas told Reuters. But Hamas official Ayman Taha said: "Gaza reconstruction is important but we are not required in return to cede our principles or recognize Israel, because that will never happen." And so it goes in the Middle East.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Getting serious about Syria

Sure, it'd be great if talks between the United States and Syria achieved some kind of positive relationship that rubbed off on Damascus' relations with its own people and its neighbors, particularly Israel. But that's probably way too much to hope for. The question comes up as a result of reports over the weekend of high-level contacts between U.S. and Syrian diplomats in Damascus, according to the Reuters international news service. The first high-level contacts between the two countries since 2005 included meetings involving Jeffrey Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, Reuters said. "We want to achieve results," Feltman said. "We want to see forward momentum on the Syrian-Israeli track at the time when the parties are ready for this." There already appears to have been progress between Syria and Israel since they had considerable indirect contact through Turkey until Israel's recent attack on the Hamas militant group in Gaza, a Syrian client. Syria and Israel have technically been in a state of war since the 1967 Middle East war in which Syria was expelled from the strategic Golan Heights, but Syria is known to have made entreaties about reacquiring the territory. But the United States has to move extremely carefully in this arena. Syria has a lot of questions to answer about its support for Middle East terror groups -- notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front -- and about involvement, which it denies, in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Syria has been labeled a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States since 1979, and allows Hamas and Islamic Jihad to keep their headquarters in Damascus. Syria claims the groups are legitimate resistance organizations. Syria also must answer questions about its treatment of its own citizens, since one of the allegations in a lawsuit challenging former President George W. Bush's policy on extraordinary rendition is that a detainee was sent to Syria to be tortured.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Anywhere it wants

Q: Where does a 300-pound gorilla sit? A: NATO's decision Thursday to resume formal ties with Russia, suspended after Moscow's war with Georgia last year, is the 2009 version of that old joke. The European alliance depends upon Russia in a lot of ways, notably for keeping the peace and supplying natural gas, and cannot pretend it has any intention or desire to isolate Moscow. On the surface, NATO ministers said the rapproachment was intended to gain support for its mission in Afghanistan, where it has some 50,000 troops backing up the nearly impotent Kabul government, according to the Reuters international news service. "We can and must find ways to work constructively with Russia where we share areas of common interest, including helping the people of Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a summit in Geneva. Russia seemed to welcome the move, Reuters said. "This decision is positive," said Dmitry Rogozin, its ambassador to NATO, who said it was "promising in terms of stability and security in Afghanistan." But that sounded like relief more than rhetoric from Clinton, who earlier obtained an agreement from Russia to allow shipments of supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Russia also could help convince other Central Asian countries to allow shipments of NATO supplies and allow NATO to keep its bases open. New shipment routes to Afghanistan are needed because existing routes are under attack from insurgent forces, Reuters said. Keeping everybody happy is not an easy task. Russia still has not completed its withdrawal from disputed areas of Georgia but, since Moscow's cooperation is needed on these other issues, the United States is trying to keep from making the gorilla too angry. Clinton plans to talk with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, and has proposed an international conference on Afghanistan on March 31, Reuters said.

Understanding the First Amendment

News out of Illinois that a county sheriff has filed a lawsuit against Craigslist for allegedly promoting prostitution by posting personal ads is yet more evidence that people -- yes, even those in positions of authority -- need to learn how to think. For an official sworn to uphold the law to use his office to try to violate people's constitutional rights is outrageous! Yet that's what Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart did Thursday when he had his office sue Craigslist in an effort to force the Web site to stop carrying so-called Erotic Services advertising, according to the Reuters international news service. "Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation," Dart said. "Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they're being pimped on Craigslist." Of course, Dart has completely missed the point. Prostitution is the largest source of prostitution, not Craigslist. What if the objectionable advertising is moved to another section of the Craigslist site? Is Dart really recommending that the government examine every posting on every Web site on the Internet? That is the logical extension of his position. What's next, a lawsuit to shut the telephone company for allowing its phones to be used in illicit activity? Maybe the next one should try to shut makers of cold remedies because their products can be abused by teens? In a statement e-mailed to CNN, Craigslist said its site was "an extremely unwise choice for those intent on committing crimes, since criminals inevitably leave an electronic trail to themselves that law enforcement officers will follow." Craigslist spokeswoman Susan McTavish said the site assists law enforcement authorities in tracking illegal activity on a daily basis. "Misuse of craigslist to facilitate criminal activity is unacceptable, and we continue to work diligently to prevent it," she said. In November, Craigslist entered into an agreement with 43 states to impose restrictions on its Erotic Services section, including a phone verification system, listing fees and requiring a credit card. But Dart called the fees "dirty money," according to Reuters, and said the move was a "publicity stunt" that had little practical effect.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Switzerland guards world's dirtiest secret

Is anyone surprised to hear that Switzerland is still holding out against identifying tens of thousands of rich Americans who have been hiding millions of dollars in secret bank accounts to skirt U.S. taxes? Switzerland's largest bank, UBS, told a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday that it would not release client names, despite a settlement last month that ostensibly required just that. "UBS has now complied ... to the fullest extent possible without subjecting its employees to criminal prosecution in Switzerland," said Mark Branson, chief financial officer of UBS Global Wealth Management and Swiss Bank, according to the Reuters international news service. But that's just more empty rhetoric from Switzerland's banking industry, which still refuses to fully disclose its holdings from Nazi Germany. Swiss banks probably still hold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property looted from victims of the Nazi conquest of Europe during World War II and refuse to release more than a small amount of information about it. So why would the U.S. government expect them to divulge the names of rich American clients dodging something as minor as U.S. taxes? UBS even paid $780 million last month in that settlement -- the giant bank must have thought that was like hush money. Of course, UBS and the rest of European banks are now in a colossal hole as a result of the global financial crisis, and now need government support to stay in business. Well, if the people of Europe -- like the people of the United States -- are going to have to pay for the opulent bank lifestyle, they are entitled to get some answers about what's been going on.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Will Bush himself be charged?

Now that the new Obama Justice Department appears intent on releasing previously secret documents that explain how Bush administration officials got to the point of abrogating constitutional rights in their reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it seems apparent that many of them are going to face criminal charges. Monday's release of secret Bush administration memorandums justifying ignoring the Bill of Rights to advance the battle against terrorism was, apparently, just the beginning. On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced it was considering the release of other secret legal opinions, including one authorizing the use of specific interrogation techniques banned by treaty and another authorizing warrantless wiretaps, the New York Times reported. Justice Department officials, to spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, said the release of the documents was accelerated because they had been subpoenaed in a lawsuit filed by Jose Padilla, a Chicago resident held for years as an enemy combatant. Padilla filed the suit against John Yoo, the former Bush administration lawyer who wrote legal opinions justifying policies authorizing detention without trial and harsh interrogation techniques. The Yoo opinions were repudiated by the administration shortly before Bush left office in January. "These memos appear to have given the Bush administration a legal blank check to trample on Americans’ civil rights,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Times said. Whitehouse's committee plans a hearing Wednesday on creating an investigatory commission. The committee chairman, Pat Leahy of Vermont has already called for a panel that could grant immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan also has proposed legislation setting up a commission but without offering immunity. But if these panels focus only on low-level officials who did what they were ordered to do, such an exercise will be pointless. What U.S. citizens need to know is whether the former vice president, Dick Cheney, and the then-president, George W. Bush, were responsible for the breakdown of law and order at the top of the executive branch.

Monday, March 2, 2009

U.S.-Cuba rapproachment looks nearer

Today's shakeup of Cuba's government by President Raul Castro should make it easier for the impending settlement with the United States. Castro, the brother of longtime president Fidel Castro, replaced eight ministers on Monday in his most decisive move since assuming the presidency a year ago, according to the Reuters international news service. The government said the move was made to improve efficiency, but it seemed more like a consolidation of power by Castro, who removed two prominent younger ministers who could have been seen as rivals, Reuters said. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, 43, and Chief Cabinet Minister Carlos Lage, 57, were the most prominent ministers replaced Monday, Reuters said. Lage was considered an economic reformer who led a host of economic changes that helped the tiny island nation survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief benefactor. Castro also replaced Perez Roque, Fidel Castro's former personal secretary and a strong proponent of Cuban socialism. Roque had recently spoken positively about prospects for improved relations with the United States under the Obama administration.

The new fascism

The reason it is so important for us to know what the Bush administration was thinking when it restricted civil liberties after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is that we need to be able to recognize the fascists among us. The new Obama administration has released nine secret legal opinions relied upon (and solicited, no doubt) by the Bush people to justify their actions, the New York Times reported Monday. The opinions attempt to offer legal cover for restricting privacy, habeas corpus and other constitutional rights by portraying them as necessary to protect the United States from the threat of terrorism. But the previous administration's authoritarian reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks was founded in a complete misunderstanding of the fundamental basis for this country. Hopefully, the Bush administration thought it was doing what had to be done to protect the country. But did we really want a country that no longer offers equal protections to all of its citizens? Did we really want a country that does not respect the fundamental rights of other nations to live in peace? Did we really want a country that is no longer a beacon of hope to the world but is instead an embarrassment of lost or forfeited opportunity? To their great credit, the citizens of the United States did more than just elect their first African-American president in November. They blocked the advance of fascism cloaked in patriotism that was being peddled by the Bush administration and the Republican party. But they may have done us a great service. At least we know what the new fascism is going to look like.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Emergency declaration shows continuing idea drought

With rain falling in Northern California and more expected through Thursday, it is hard to imaging a worse time for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a drought emergency and call for mandatory rationing. Yet that's exactly what he did last week in the third year of below-normal precipitation in the Golden State, according to the Reuters international news service . Schwarzenegger warned that as many as 95,000 agricultural jobs could be lost if the lack of rain forces farmers in the state's Central Valley to curtain spring planting. "California faces its third consecutive year of drought and we must prepare for the worst -- a fourth, fifth or even sixth year of drought," Schwarzenegger said in a statement released by his office, adding that recent storms were not enough to repair the problem. Schwarzenegger called on cities to cut consumption by 20 percent and for state agencies to implement a water use reduction plan. But let's review -- this is the third year of drought, not the first, yet state agencies don't have use reduction plans? Why? Because the lately unpopular Republican governor and former action movie star wants to promote dam construction, despite the Western trend toward removing dams to restore wild fisheries. California's smelt and salmon populations have crashed and with it the state's multibillion-dollar fishing industry, because the state government refuses to acquire more access to water from states that have it or limit the use of water by inefficient farming operations. California products more than half of the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts, and farmers panic when cutbacks in subsidized irrigation water are discussed. But that may be exactly what is necessary until new supplies are arranged or more rainfall is in the forecast.