Friday, April 30, 2010

Let the prosecutions begin -- Justice Department open criminal probe of Goldman Sachs

Word comes from New York that federal prosecutors have finally started the practically unconscionably delayed investigation into whether Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street traders should be held criminally liable for crashing the nation's housing market in 2006 and kicking off the global recession. Unnamed sources told the New York Times that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which last month filed a civil lawsuit accusing Goldman Sachs of fraud, referred its findings to the U.S. Justice Department. Goldman Sachs has denied the allegation in the fraud suit, which accuses the firm of defrauding investors in its Abacus 2007 AC1 collateralized debt obligations. According to the SEC, investors in the Abacus deals were not told that Goldman Sachs was simultaneously allowing other people to bet that the mortgage market would fall. When the market collapsed, Abacus investors lost millions but other investors enjoyed a windfall. One trader, hedge fund manager John Paulson earned more than $1 billion when value of bonds he helped select for Abacus investors crashed, the SEC alleged. Paulson has not been charged with any wrongdoing, the Times said. Of course, getting investigated is not the same as being charged, just as being charged is not the same as being guilty. In fact, two hedge fund managers at Bear Stearns were acquitted of criminal charges last year.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Obama avoids saying "genocide" when discussing massacre of Armenians

On the day Armenia has chosen to mark the mass killing of its people by Ottoman Turks at the end of World War I, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged "one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century," but didn't say the term "genocide." The careful choice of words was no accident -- Turkey is overly sensitive about what others think of it, and the United States is trying to keep Ankara engaged in the treacherous world of Middle East peacemaking, where it has been an asset . "On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that 95 years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began," Obama said in a statement issued Saturday by the White House, according to the Reuters international news service. "In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire." The remarks took on even more significance in light of Thursday's collapse of a deal to have Turkey and Armenia establish diplomatic relations and open their shared border for the first time. The deal, designed to ease tensions in the strategic south Caucasus region, apparently hung up over Turkey's demand that Armenia work out its differences with nearby Azerbaijan as a condition of the agreement, Reuters said. The region has taken on new strategic importance since the breakup of the Soviet Union because it is crossed by new pipelines shipping energy to Europe. Seen in this context, Obama's remarks were conciliatory towards Turkey, even if historically inaccurate. During his campaign for the U.S. presidency in 2008, Obama used the word "genocide" when describing the killings by the Ottoman Turks. Maybe diplomatic outreach really isn't as easy as he likes to describe it. Turkey, as we know, was angry and withdrew its ambassador to Washington in March after the House of Representative passed a nonbinding resolution that called the killings "genocide." The full body has not yet voted on the resolution and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Obama administration opposes it, Reuters said.

Friday, April 23, 2010

South Korea wants international response to ship sinking

News from Seoul is that South Korea wants to wait for the international community act before it responds to a suspected attack on one of its ships by its arch enemy. Preliminary results from a South Korean military intelligence report put the blame on North Korea, its reclusive and impoverished Communist neighbor, according to a Reuters international news service report in the New York Times. The two countries have technically been at war since North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950; a 1953 armistice ended most fighting but ushered in a cold peace that has persisted since then despite occasional moves by both sides to ease tensions. North Korea's testing of nuclear weapons beginning in 2006 has heightened tensions again between the two countries and the United States, which has 28,000 soldiers in South Korea. The South Korean patrol ship, the Cheonan, sank last month with 46 aboard after an explosion, which Seoul blames on a North Korean torpedo. Pyongyang denies any responsibility for the sinking. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told a group of visiting journalists on Friday that his country would wait until an international investigation of the incident was completed. "Just as the investigation is being conducted with international cooperation, we'll try to cooperate with the international community in taking necessary measures when the results are out," Lee said. The last pieces of the sunken ship are expected to be raised to the surface this week, Reuters said. But even if investigators determine that North Korea was responsible for the sinking, South Korea's options appear limited. A military attack on its neighbor would further heighten tensions and possibly get Russia and China involved, a replay of what happened during the Korean War. Plus, Lee faces tough local elections in June that got even tougher when citizens accused his government of being caught unprepared in the attack on the Cheonan. Lee infuriated the north earlier in the week by criticizing Pyongyang for spending money on a huge celebration to mark the birthday of Kim Il-sung, considered the founder of North Korea. Kim died in 1994.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Former top Bush administration official charged with contempt

Word from Washington that a former top Bush administration official has been charged with contempt of Congress for allegedly mistreating employees and deleting files from an office computer in 2006 is reassuring to those of us still waiting for the Obama government to fix the worst excesses of the previous administration. Federal prosecutors filed the criminal charge against Scott Bloch, the former head of the Office of Special Council, which ironically is responsible for protecting federal employees who report improper activities from retaliation, according to the Reuters international news service. Bloch had been under investigation for five years, and FBI agents seized his office computers and subpoenaed all 17 employees in a 2008 raid. Bloch resigned later that year. The charges apparently stem from Bloch's decision in 2006 to hire an outside contractor to purge a virus from his computer instead of using in-house technicians, and files mysteriously were deleted from his and other computers. The U.S. House of Representatives has been conducting its own investigation of that and of reports that Bloch had set up a separate office in Detroit to exile employees who displeased him. Bloch told the House Oversight Committee that he engaged the contractor to remove the virus. But documents filed by federal prosecutors in U.S. District Court on Thursday allege that Bloch "unlawfully and willfully withheld pertinent information from the committee" about the erasure. during an interview with the panel in March 2008, according to a criminal information filing by prosecutors in U.S. District Court. Such filings are typically used in plea agreements in which a defendant pleads guilty, Reuters said. Block's attorney, William Sullivan, would not confirm that a plea agreement was in place but told Reuters that was glad the investigation was over. Bloch had been appointed to a five-year term with the Office of Special Counsel in 2004 but ran into friction with the White House when he opened investigations into allegations that Bush adviser Karl Rove and other officials had used federal agencies for political activities, and whether laws were violated in the White House's firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006, Reuters said. Bloch had been a personnel lawyer at the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives office of the U.S. Justice Department before the appointment, Reuters said.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Elections in Sudan don't live up to Western standards

The United States and other Western nations didn't wait until the votes were completely counted in Sudan to begin questioning the validity of the results of the first multiparty election in the East African nation in 24 years. The U.S. State Department said Monday that the weekend balloting was "not a free and fair election," given wide reports of alleged fraud and boycotts by various groups. "It did not, broadly speaking, meet international standards," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington, according to the Reuters international news service. Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and his National Congress Party are expected to easily win re-election and continue to dominate politics, at least in the northern portion of the insurgency-torn oil-producing nation still under the control of the government in Khartoum. But given that the election occurred at all, even flawed, was seen as a positive development by the West. The balloting fulfilled another portion of the 2005 peace deal that interrupted a 22-year civil war between Sudan's Muslim-dominated north and Christian and Animist groups in the south led by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. The third and, perhaps, most important condition of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is a vote on whether to permanently separate the northern and southern regions of Sudan by 2011, Reuters said. "I think we recognize that the election is a very important step" in carrying out the 2005 peace deal, Crowley said. "The United States will continue to work with the government in the north, the government in the south, as we move forward with ... the vitally important referenda that'll happen in January of next year." Initial polls indicate Bashir's party would receive as much as 90 percent of the vote in northern Sudan, Reuters said. In a separate statement, delegations from the United States, Britain and Norway -- guarantors of the peace deal, said the election suffered from poor preparation and other irregularities and called on the Khartoum government to fix these problems before the next round of voting. "We note initial assessments of the electoral process from independent observers, including the judgment that the elections failed to meet international standards," the three countries said in a statement. "We are reassured that voting passed reasonably peacefully, reportedly with significant participation, but share their serious concerns about weak logistical and technical preparations and reported irregularities in many parts of Sudan. Observers from the European Union and the Carter Center also said the elections did not meet international standards. Bashir still faces genocide charges filed last year by the International Criminal Court in The Hague over hundreds of thousands of killings in the Darfur region of eastern Sudan, where millions were displaced by conflict between the Khartoum government and ethnic rebel groups that was not related to the 22-year war between north and south.

Toyota agrees to pay $16 million fine to U.S. regulators

So, what's up with Toyota? News that the Japanese automaker had agreed to pay a $16.4 million fine to U.S. regulators over sticky gas pedals in millions of its cars is Toyota Motor Corp. appears almost outrageously integral and honest, but that only makes things even weirder. Can anyone remember another time when a large, multinational corporation did the selfless thing in favor of its customers? Then again, can anyone remember another high-profile industrial company that so quickly ruined a sterling reputation it had earned over the years with high-quality products? Maybe Toyota's decision to pay the fine and focus instead on fixing millions of its cars and compensating victims really is an act of corporate contrition, and not a calculated attempt to limit future liability like we've all come to expect from U.S. companies. Then again, Toyota's present liabilities are bad enough. Legal experts say Toyota already could be facing $10 billion in damage claims, according to the New York Times. The U.S. fine was imposed to punish Toyota for failing to inform federal safety regulators for months about the sticky accelerator problem, even though it already had enough reports about the problem from car owners in Europe and Canada to have started fixing vehicles there, the Times said. "We did not try to hide the defect to avoid dealing with a safety problem," Toyota said in a written statement, even though that appears to be exactly what happened. Toyota said it had made a "good faith" effort to fix the problems but agreed to pay the penalty anyway to avoid a long legal fight. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota had put consumers at risk by failing to report the defective accelerator pedal problem and that U.S. officials would continue with their investigation, the Times said.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Goldman Sachs charges could be first of many

News that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had filed civil charges against Wall Street trading giant Goldman Sachs and one of its officers is a signal that the Obama administration is continuing to pursue its investigation of the financial collapse that thrust the country, and the world, into the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The lawsuit, which accuses the bank of devising and selling an investment product that was secretly designed to fail, could be the first of a series of government actions to punish companies and executives who behaved boorishly and prevent them from doing so again. It should, of course, be clear to everyone by now that this crisis was not caused by some uncontrollable and unexplainable economic forces but by human greed and regulatory inattention, and that the former is likely impossible to remedy but the latter is not. So it is at least reassuring that the White House is still pressing the case for tighter regulation of Wall Street. Of course, Goldman Sachs denies that it did anything wrong in designing and promoting a line of investment products to bet against the housing market, including one called "Abacus" that lost more than $1 billion, according to the New York Times. In a written statement, Goldman Sachs called the accusations “completely unfounded" and pledged to “vigorously contest them and defend the firm and its reputation.” But Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC enforcement division, said in his own statement that Goldman Sachs designed the investment products to fail and even allowed a hedge fund manager who stood to earn billions of dollars if they failed to help choose what to invest in. "Goldman (Sachs) wrongly permitted a client that was betting against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage securities to include in an investment portfolio,” Khuzami said. That client, a prominent hedge fund manager identified in the lawsuit as John Paulson, made nearly $4 billion in 2007, the Times said. The SEC suit also named Fabrice Tourre, a Goldman Sachs vice president who helped create and sell the investment products, the Times said. Then again, the lawsuit filed by the SEC is a civil complaint, meaning that if it is successful, and there really is no way at this point of knowing whether the government is correct, the defendants can only be forced to pay back their ill-gotten gains and possible monetary penalties. What everybody in the country is waiting for -- Wall Street excepted, no doubt -- is when the criminal complaints that carry the likelihood of prison time will be filed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

UN report blames Pakistan government in aftermath of assassination

Sometimes, the audacity of government officials who violate the public trust is truly breathtaking. How else to describe Thursday's conclusion by a United Nations investigation that Pakistan's political and law enforcement establishment deliberately failed to adequately protect former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after she returned from exile in 2007 or to conduct a proper investigation into her assassination in Rawalpindi two months later? This question has no doubt been asked millions of times in the Western-aligned Asian nation since the death of Bhutto, who was expected to oppose then-president Pervez Musharraf in the 2008 election. After her death, Bhutto's husband, Ali Asaf Zardari, took the reins of her Pakistan's People's Party and defeated Musharraf at the polls. Musharraf, who has since retired from politics, is the former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup. The United Nations commission's report does not name any suspects but does blame the Musharraf government for failing to prevent the attack and for not investigating the assassination properly, according to the Reuters international news service. "While she died when a 15-and-half-year-old suicide bomber detonated his explosives near her vehicle, no one believes this boy acted alone," the report said. "Ms. Bhutto's assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken." The three-person commission of inquiry, impaneled after a formal request by Zardari, was headed by Chile's U.N. ambassador, Heraldo Munoz. The 65-page report also blamed government officials for trying to obstruct the investigation. "The commission was mystified by the efforts of certain high-ranking Pakistani government officials to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources," the report said, and recommended that the new government conduct a new investigation. Speculation continues in Pakistan that she was killed by Musharraf supporters trying to prevent her from capturing the presidency, Reuters said, particularly after authorities in Rawalpindi did not collect evidence but hosed down the scene immediately after the assassination, and failed to conduct an autopsy on Bhutto's body. The Musharraf government blamed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud for the assassination, but Mehsud, an al-Qaida ally, was killed by a U.S. drone strike last year, Reuters said.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poland's government reassures country after deaths of top officials

With the country still reeling from Saturday's horrific plane crash that killed dozens of Poland's top political and military leaders, including President Lech Kaczynski, parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski went on television to reassure his stunned nation that the October presidential election would be moved up several months. Komorowski, who became acting president after Kacynski and 95 others were killed in the crash of their plane outside the Russian city of Smolensk, told his country that the election would now be held May 30 or June 13 under a procedure laid out in Poland's constitution. "The election date must be set," Komorowski told the TVP Info station while pledging to announce the date Wednesday, according to the Reuters international news service. "This must be done as soon as possible to shorten the period in which Poland is in a period of uncertainty." Kacynski, his wife, and a long list of military and government leaders died April 10 when their plane went down while trying to land in Smolensk, near the Katyn Forest. Poland's leadership was en route to Russia to take part in ceremonies marking the anniversary of the World War II-era massacre of thousands of military officers by the Soviet secret police in Katyn Forest, a massacre blamed for decades on the Nazis. Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev revealed in 1990 that his country actually was responsible. The revelation has poisoned relations between Poland and Russia even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Komorowski, a leading member of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, was heavily favored to win the presidential election but the possibility of a large sympathy vote for candidates from Kacynski's conservative Law and Justice party has put the outcome in doubt, Reuters said. Other prominent officials killed in the crash included Gen. Franciszek Gagor, the head of the Polish Army, Gen. Andrzej Blasik, commander of the Polish Air Force; Vice Admiral Andrzej Karweta, commander of the Polish Navy; Slawomir Skrzypek, chairman of the National Bank of Poland; former defense minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, a presidential candidate; Krzysztof Putra, the deputy parliament speaker; and Piotra Nurowski, head of the Polish Olympic Committee.

Monday, April 12, 2010

U.S. Postal Service's last name should always be service

All the hand-wringing of late about the deteriorating financial condition of the U.S. Postal Service can be traced to the unfortunate 1971 decision to privatize what had been a proud government tradition since the founding of the republic. Rather than being pragmatic proposals to resolve the current problem, calls for service and wage cuts merely demonstrate the ill-considered shortsightedness of the conversion of the post office from a government agency to a semi-private one back in the first Nixon administration. And, we all know how the second Nixon administration turned out. The postal service's problems -- mounting deficits, inflexible employment contracts and growing competition -- were pointed out Monday by the Government Accountability Office in a 15-page report. The GAO called for creation of an independent commission to make recommendations, such as new revenue enhancement proposals and service cuts to fix a deficit estimated at nearly $300 million in the first quarter. But this is not rocket science. Mail service is essential to democracy, even with the rise of computers and e-mail, and therefore must be preserved at all costs. Cries for service cutbacks, including ending Saturday delivery, if successful, will only compound the mistake. The post office shouldn't be expected to be a profit center; it's a responsibility of government. The USPS should be restored to the executive branch of the government, and maybe even have its director restored to the president's cabinet, and the unrealistic and, consequently, unprofitable experiment with privatization put to an end.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Voters in divided Sudan go to polls despite continuing controversy

Word from Sudan is that voters are jamming polling places in the country's first multiparty election in 24 years in the face of an unsettled political situation, calls for boycotts and allegations of fraud. The landmark election implements another requirement of a 2005 agreement that ended, at least temporarily, a decades-long civil war but left the oil-rich country divided between the government-controlled Muslim north and the Christian- and Animist-controlled south. The election is a prelude to the unification vote planned for 2011, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Voting continues through Tuesday. Reports of irregularities poured in from all over the country, despite the presence of 750 international monitors, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and 18,000 Sudanese monitors, CNN said. But some problems were expected "in a country that hasn't had an election in 23 years or so," Carter said. "Most of the problems I saw this morning were logistical in nature and have already been corrected, at least around Khartoum," he said. But he said some problems were expected "in a country that hasn't had an election in 23 years or so." Many reports of irregularities were coming from the south, the stronghold of the opposition Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement. In fact, complaints about fraud by the ruling National Congress Party caused the withdrawal of its candidate from the presidential race against President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in a 1989 military coup and implemented Islamic law, CNN said. In Juba, Southern Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, called the balloting a significant milestone for the country and said he had voted for the first time in his life. SPLM spokesman Yein Matthew told CNN that it was documenting incidents in the region and would present a list of them on Monday. "There are so many, and we are still tracking them down," Matthew said. More than 2 million people died in the civil war, not including the conflict in the western Sudan region of Darfur. That conflict, which received broad international media coverage, was between the government militias and ethnic rebels and resulted in genocide charges being filed against al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, CNN said. Al-Bashir denies the charges.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Currency deal could be near between China and United States

Word comes from New York that negotiators for China and the United States are closing in on an agreement to raise the value of China's currency, a point of contention between the two world economic giants. China's president, Hu Jintao, is scheduled to visit Washington this week, days after a surprise visit to China by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, according to the Cable News Network (CNN). The United States has been pressing China to allow its currency to float against other world currencies, at least temporarily, to help rebalance the value of trade between the two countries. Analysts say an increase in the value of China's currency, the yuan, will help cut a huge surplus in its balance of trade. "It basically seems like it's a done deal," Ashraf Laidi, chief market strategist for CMC Markets, told CNN. In addition to diplomatic friction, the undervalued yuan is hampering economic recovery in the United States, said Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland. "Unemployment would be falling rapidly and the U.S. economy recovering more rapidly but for the trade deficit with China and Beijing's currency policies." China has been keeping its currency undervalued by buying billions of dollars in U.S. currency and notes, CNN said. Most economists now think the yuan is undervalued by up to 40 percent, but raising its value precipitously could cause more problems than it would solve by overheating China's economy. In that scenario, a gradual increase would be more desirable, CNN said. "The movement from managed currency to freely floating currency is not easy to pull off," Mark Vitner, a senior economy with Wells Fargo Securities, told CNN. "If we have a boom and then a bust in China, that could lead to another global recession." In the short run, raising the value of China's currency will raise the price of Chinese goods sold in the United States while cutting the price of China's imports of natural resources like oil. Hu is expected in Washington next week for U.S. President Barack Obama's worldwide nuclear security summit.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

U.S., Russia agree to cut nuclear weapons arsenals

It's remarkable to see how much the world has changed in the past few decades. Not so long ago, an agreement to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia would have been greeted by celebrations, especially across Europe. Yet this week, a treaty signing that would do precisely that barely was noticed in the United States. Yes, it's true, it took some personal diplomacy involving U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, but a deal between the world's most nuclear-armed nations to cut weapons stockpiles by a third was signed Thursday in Prague, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Obama called the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) an indication of the two countries' commitment to "responsible global leadership" while Medvedev called it a "win-win situation" for both countries. "This day demonstrates the determination of the United States and Russia -- the two nations that hold over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- to pursue responsible global leadership," Obama said Thursday. "Together, we are keeping our commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which must be the foundation for global nonproliferation." Medvedev, too, acknowledged the potentially historic impacts of the new treaty. "This agreement enhances strategic ability and, at the same time, allows us to rise to a higher level of cooperation between Russia and the United States," Medvedev said. For U.S. residents who remember the days when public buildings had fallout shelters and schoolchildren participated in fallout shelter drills, the agreement is a welcome sign of real progress since the Cold War between the United States and the old Soviet Union. Of course, the new agreement is merely a continuation of the previous START deal that expired in December, and still leaves both countries with more than 1,000 nuclear warheads. Just as important in the short term, perhaps, Obama and Medvedev also discussed other related issues, such as developing nuclear power Iran, before the signing ceremony, CNN said. The weapons reduction agreement is still subject to ratification by each country's legislature. Obama and Medvedev wrapped up the new agreement shortly before the scheduled start of a global nuclear security summit in Washington on Monday.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

General Motors claims profit -- but only if discounts its expenses

Maybe it was naive to have assumed that General Motors, the top U.S. automaker, would have been required to stop playing games and be upfront about its finances as a condition of being saved from the junkyard by billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. Well, at least the naivete was short-lived. Today's release of its first detailed financial statement since emerging from bankruptcy protection shows that GM has not forgotten the sleight-of-hand that enabled it to pretend to be solvent for years despite epic mismanagement that caused what was then the world's largest automaker into bankruptcy. Focusing on what it called "positive cash flow of $1 billion since its bankruptcy," GM -- now known as General Motors Co., instead of General Motors Corp. -- said it wasn't counting the more than $4 billion it has to spend to settle with the United Auto Workers union to pay with retiree health benefits, according to the New York Times. If this is an example of what the company called its "fresh start" accounting principles since bankruptcy, it looks like there was nothing learned from its near-collapse as well as nothing to be learned from its official reports. Maybe what GM is doing is standard practice for bailed-out businesses, but it's no more reassuring -- especially since the company is now more than 60 percent owned by the U.S. government. “We don’t need to make that much improvement to get to profitability,” GM Chief Financial Officer Christopher Liddell told analysts and reports in a conference call, the Times said. “It’s getting close to break-even if you get rid of those one-off items that happened in the fourth quarter.” Well, any company would post a profit if it left losses off its balance sheet, right? But would that paint an accurate picture of its financial health? Still, many analysts said GM was considerably healthier than a year ago. “It would be a really impressive achievement if they were able to make a profit,” Rebecca Lindland of IHS Global Insight told the Times. “They’ve been able to do an awful lot, and all of those things should lead to a profitable picture.” GM said it would finish repaying $8.3 billion in loans from the U.S. and Canadian governments by June. The other U.S. automaker that took billions in bailout cash from the government, Chrysler Corp., is expected to release its first financial statement since its bankruptcy later this month, the Times said. Narayanan Jayaraman, a finance professor from Georgia Tech's College of Management, told the Times that he thought GM's prospects were better than Chrysler's. “Between G.M. and Chrysler, if I had to place a bet, I would place it heavily on G.M.,” Jayaraman said. “They seem to be doing the right things. They have some headwinds, so help from the economy would be good, but even in the absence of that they can do well.” He said the government could begin selling the millions of dollars in GM shares no earlier than 2011, after GM has "two or three quarters of profitability." GM's bankruptcy wiped out $83 billion in liabilities, the Times said.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Progressive nuclear policies sound good but mean nothing

While it'll been fun hearing right-wing blowhards blow a little harder this week, the most important thing about the new nuclear weapons policy unveiled Tuesday by U.S. President Barack Obama is that it doesn't mean anything. Rhetoric about when and where a country will or will not use nuclear arms is meaningless because neither situations nor temptations can be accurately predicted in advance. So, the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review, a document required from all U.S. governments by the Congress, can be full of lofty anti-nuclear sentiment yet not reflect what the country will actually do in the event of nuclear conflict. If another country launches a nuclear attack on the United States, sentiment loses all value. Critics of the administration must realize this, even as they launch what are sure to be bombastic attacks on the new policy. The Obama policy, which replaces the Bush administration's threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of chemical or biological attack, commits the United States to refrain from the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries that comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, according to the Reuters international news service. The new policy also declares that the United States will not develop any new nuclear weapons. "We are taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people," Obama said in a statement released by the White House, Reuters said. The policy was released in time for Thursday's scheduled signing of a new arms reduction treaty with Russia and appears designed to enhance next week's 47-nation nuclear summit in Washington. Iran and North Korea, emerging nuclear powers that have not signed the treaty, were deliberately left out of the non-use guarantee, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is ... if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you," Gates told reporters, Reuters said. The document also expressed concern about China, which has a nuclear arsenal and has signed the treaty, but has not been forthcoming about its program. "China's nuclear arsenal remains much smaller than the arsenals of Russia and the United States," the document said. "But the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs -- their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them -- raises questions about China's future strategic intentions." Obama is expected to hold talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao on the sidelines of next week's summit that will possibly include China's nuclear program as well as the value of its currency, Reuters said.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Justice still could come for victims of 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya

Word that the International Criminal Court in The Hague had decided to investigate widespread violence in Kenya that displaced hundreds of thousands following the country's disputed 2007 election inspires only one reaction -- it's about time! What was the international community waiting for -- an engraved invitation? Everyone knows something evil happened in Kenya in 2007 and 2008, and many suspect the government headed by President Mwai Kibaki was responsible sparking the tribal violence that began after police attacked demonstrators protesting the results of December's balloting. More than 1,000 were killed and more than 300,000 displaced by the weeks of violence before former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arranged a coalition government including Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Annan had been pushing the coalition government to order such an investigation, but grew frustrated after the divided administration missed a September deadline for putting the probe together, CNN said. Annan, who warned Kenya's government that failure to act would prompt ICC intervention, personally submitted a list of suspects to the panel in July. But the three-judge panel that approved the investigation was not unanimous, with Judge Hans-Peter Kaul finding that the alleged crimes did not amount to crimes against humanity, the ICC's standard for action, CNN said. In a prepared statement, Annan said he approved of the ICC's decision to investigate. "This is an important day for justice in Kenya," he said. "Justice for the victims suddenly looks brighter." An attorney for Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group, also applauded the panel's vote. "The decision today can help Kenya turn the corner," said Elizabeth Evenson of the group's International Justice Program. "A full investigation into possible crimes against humanity can help restore confidence among Kenya's people that elections don't have to turn into bloodbaths." Kenya's next election is scheduled for 2012.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

How do you solve a problem like Hamid Karzai?

In case anyone still was thinking that the U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who is suspected of stealing re-election last summer, was the best person to head his war-ravaged country, his comments Thursday slamming Western governments that keep him in power cost could change a lot of minds. Karzai, under fire for alleged corruption in his government as well as election fraud, blamed Western governments and the United Nations for the election fraud and Western news organizations for putting too much "pressure" on him. "There is no doubt the fraud was very widespread," Karzai said in a televised speech from Kabul, according to the New York Times, "but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners." Karzai criticized by name United Nations special representative Peter Galbraith and European Union election monitor Philippe Morillon, who helped reveal the election fraud, the Times said. "This fraud was committed by Galbraith, this fraud was committed by Morillon and this fraud was committed by embassies," Karzai said in his speech, delivered several days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Afghanistan to advise Karzai about cracking down on election fraud and corruption. "In this situation there is a thin curtain between invasion and cooperation-assistance,” Karzai said, warning that if foreign forces assisting his government were seen as invaders, the insurgency "could become a national resistance." Well, if this sounds crazy, it probably is. Western countries have committed thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars to oust Taliban insurgents from Kabul and to keep Afghanistan's government from being overrun, yet Karzai speaks as if their sacrifice is not the reason he's still in office. The question now, even as the United States commits tens of thousands of more soldiers to the battle, is whether the president is listening.