Sunday, May 30, 2010

Israeli move to stop flotilla explodes into shooting and damaging rhetoric

It looks like Israel has a lot to answer for after its commandos killed at least nine activists trying to outmaneuver the county's blockade of the Gaza Strip territory controlled by Hamas. The commandos staged a predawn raid to try to stop the six-ship flotilla of 700 activists after it refused orders to stop. The flotilla was bringing thousands of tons of supplies to Gaza's isolated Palestinian population, but violence broke out before the boats could be secured and brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod to be searched, according to the Reuters international news service. European countries that had been steadily warming to Israel for two decades were quick with condemnations including, as expected, the usually hostile General Assembly of the United Nations. Turkey, the Muslim country that has been trying to join the European Union for years and has recently been facilitating negotiations between Israel and Syria, also joined the anti-Israel chorus. But Israel rightly contends that it had a right to enforce its blockade, which was imposed to prevent material that could be used to make weapons from reaching Gaza. Militants have fired thousands of missiles from the territory into southern Israeli cities. Egypt has cooperated with Israel in officially sealing the territory, but there have been reports of massive amounts of smuggling through tunnels under the border between Egypt and Gaza. But Israel is being sadly unrealistic if it ignores the magnitude of its miscalculation. That the commando raid went awry is not entirely Israel's fault, since the supposedly peaceful activists had obviously expected something to happen and came armed with, at least, crude weapons. But Israel did send paratroopers to seize control of the flotilla instead of using navy vessels to force the activists into Ashdod so the cargo could be searched. Israel will investigate the conduct of its soldiers and, hopefully, figure out what went wrong. But Israel will be forced to do it alone, since the rhetoric coming from the Palestinian Authority and other Arab states shows they are less interested in preventing violence than in scoring propaganda points against the Jewish state. Turkey called Israel's actions "terrorism," a comment so illogical it precludes any reasonable response. The Palestinian Authority called the attack on the flotilla "a massacre," which it obviously wasn't. Israel certainly did not expect its commando raid to go so terribly wrong. U.S. President Barack Obama got it exactly right when he said he regretted the loss of life and demanded a full accounting of what transpired at sea.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama's proposals for NASA fail to gain much altitude on Capitol Hill

Plans hatched in the Bush era for a new NASA moon landing may not have seemed terribly logical, since U.S. astronauts already visited there in the 1960s and 1970s. But changing those plans to advance human space travel in the future is turning out to be a lot harder than it should be. What else would explain the chilly reception the Obama-appointed head of the United States space agency -- Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. -- faced, even from Democrats, when he went before Congress on Wednesday to explain the new administration's proposed 2011 budget? Obama has proposed boosting NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years and directing the extra funds toward aeronautic and climate research, and science missions using robotic ships, not astronauts, according to the New York Times. But U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee told Bolden that Obama's proposed spending was nowhere near enough to achieve the president's loftier goals, and it makes no sense to cancel the existing program to return to the moon without the money to do anything else. Obama proposed in a speech last month that NASA gear up to put astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2035, and to cancel the existing Constellation program and open travel to the moon and the international space station to private companies instead. “So far we have not seen any hard analysis from the administration that would give us confidence that it can be done for the amount budgeted,” Gordon said. Gordon said the administration's projections were far less than a NASA panel had estimated human travel to an asteroid and Mars would cost. “It does no good to cancel a program that the administration characterizes as ‘unexecutable’ if that program is simply replaced with a new plan that can’t be executed either,” he said. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, also a Democrat, said she was "very dubious" that NASA would continue to work on the Constellation program while Obama's proposals were pending, the Times said. But Obama also proposed that the Constellation program's proposed Orion crew capsule that was going to return astronauts to the moon be redeveloped into a "lifeboat" for space station astronauts. Bolden said at the hearing that NASA estimates the capsule will take five years and $4.5 billion to develop, the Times said.

Arrest of Indian leader sparks concern over U.S. ally Peru

Word from Lima that Indian leader Alberto Pizango had been taken into custody upon his return to Peru raises new worries about the future of one of South America's staunchest U.S. allies. Pizango was arrested at the airport after 11 months of exile in Nicaragua, where he fled to avoid sedition charges stemming from anti-development protests in the Amazon that turned violent, according to the Associated Press in an article published in the New York Times. More than 30 police officers and demonstrators were killed last June during protests against government decrees allowing exploration of potential oil and gas resources in the Peruvian rainforest, the Indians' ancestral lands. Violence broke out after authorities tore down roadblocks set up by the demonstrators in Bagua to block access to the rainforest, and Pizango was charged with fomenting the violence. Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, granted Pizango political asylum. But Pizango said he had been away from Peru long enough. "I think that I have waited too long and will make this enormous sacrifice that has cost me and is costing me so much," Pizango said before he left Nicaragua. Groups of Pizango supporters rallied at the airport as his plane came in, backing his contention that the government should have consulted native groups before allowing the planned exploration. Opponents of Pizango also protested at the airport, urging the government to press charges against the Indian leader. Government officials claim potential discoveries could generate enough money to end poverty in Peru but, hopefully, not at the cost of the country's vibrant democracy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Top U.S.official 'frustrated' by failure of oil spill cleanup

Nice to see that U.S. regulators are "frustrated" by the failure of oil giant BP to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from one of its wells, but it's nothing short of astounding that the people who were supposed to be overseeing production by the oil companies operating in this country apparently weren't doing so. Why else would the massive U.S. regulatory apparatus been caught so unprepared? Yes, the oil spill was an accident and is a tragedy of probably incalculable proportions. And yes, a gusher at such a depth -- nearly a mile under the ocean -- is unprecedented. But no one in the industry or at the regulatory agencies should be permitted to pretend that it should not have been anticipated. The oil industry -- in this case, BP, formerly known as British Petroleum -- had to apply to the government for permission to operate in the Gulf of Mexico, they had to offer production estimates and pay taxes and they had submit plans for the drilling and for how they were going to take care of any emergencies that were sure to result. What were those plans? Where are those plans? If they didn't include what to do in the event of an explosion on a drilling platform, as occurred in April on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon platform, what did they include? What about other companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere? Do they have such plans? Why not, if their plans included drilling at such depths? And, if not, will they be required to have them now? What we're discussing, of course, is Sunday's statement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he no longer has confidence that BP officials "know exactly what they're doing," according to Cable News Network (CNN). Add to that comments by Marcia McNutt, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, that BP's plans for stopping the gusher were probably infeasible. "I think everyone has to understand that the kinds of operations they're doing in the deep sea have never been done before," McNutt told CNN. But the problem is not that "everyone" has to understand that -- the problem is the regulators seem not to have understood it. Why even regulate oil production at all if obvious risks are not being planned for? Why have the regulators been doing all this time if we have to ask these questions now, when oil has begun washing up on some of the country's most beautiful beaches and contaminating some of the country's richest fishing and wildlife areas? If U.S. President Barack Obama's plans to revamp the federal government do not include better regulation of some of the country's biggest and most vital industries, he had better start explaining why not.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Indefinite detentions overseas become Obama administration's dilemma

U.S. citizens who thought last year's change at the top meant a return to the days before al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington got another reality check Friday when a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that terror suspects captured overseas may not challenge their detentions in U.S. courts. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel means that three detainees held for years without trial at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan did not have the same right of appeal that suspects being held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, won in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2008, according to the New York Times. The ruling reversed a trial judge's decision that the Bagram detainees -- in this case, two men from Yemen and one from Tunisia who claimed they were captured outside Afghanistan and brought to the U.S. base -- had the same rights as prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Critics and supporters of the Bush administration's aggressive post-9/11 detention policies, which Obama criticized while campaigning but has defended in court, reacted to the ruling with expected vehemence. A lawyer for the detainees, Tina Foster of the New York-based International Justice Network, said the appeals court ruling would allow U.S. presidents to “kidnap people from other parts of the world and lock them away for the rest of their lives” without ever having to prove that they were guilty of anything, the Times said. “The thing that is most disappointing for those of us who have been in the fight for this long is all of the people who used to be opposed to the idea of unlimited executive power during the Bush administration but now seem to have embraced it during this administration,” she said. “We have to remember that Obama is not the last president of the United States.” But U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), a backer of the Bush-era detentions, told the Times that the ruling was a "big win" for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. “Allowing a noncitizen enemy combatant detained in a combat zone access to American courts would have been a change of historic proportions,” he said. “There is a reason we have never allowed enemy prisoners detained overseas in an active war zone to sue in federal court for their release. It simply makes no sense and would be the ultimate act of turning the war into a crime.” A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, Dean Boyd, declined to comment on the decision, the Times said. The three prisoners say they are not terrorists and are being held by mistake.

Monday, May 17, 2010

High-profile federal investigation into gulf oil spill won't answer the big questions

At least U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to heed calls from lawmakers for an investigation into the potentially catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but even the authority of the White House won't be enough to resolve the problem unless
the young government is willing to ask the questions nobody wants to answer. An unnamed White House official said Monday that Obama will establish a commission to investigate the massive spill, which started in late April and now threatens to contaminate some of the nation's richest fishing areas and most beautiful beaches, according to Cable News Network (CNN). Eight senators had formally requested an investigation to determine whether oil giant BP, which used to go by British Petroleum, violated any laws leading up to the explosion that destroyed its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and started the oil leaking more than a mile under the surface. "The commission will take into account the investigations under way concerning the causes of the spill and explore a range of issues," the official told CNN, including industry practices, rig safety, federal governmental oversight and environmental review. That's fine in theory, and Obama has raised a lot of hopes with his harsh criticism of companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon and his pledge to break up the often incestuous relationship between the oil industry and government regulators. But solving the basic problem raised by the Gulf of Mexico spill, and the Exxon Valdez and hundreds or thousands of spills before that, will be a lot harder. If we're drilling for fossil fuels, spills are unavoidable. They don't have to be as bad as this one, but they're going to happen. The relationship that needs to change is the one between U.S. citizens and their automobiles, and that will require the government to raise prices by imposing new taxes, reducing petroleum imports through tariffs, stopping the construction of so many highways and starting to invest in the kinds of public transportation that will make automobiles less of a necessity.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Toyota makes it look easy -- automaker races back in the black

Well, maybe that's why it pays to hire a good accountant. Toyota Motor Corp. announced Monday that it is profitable again despite being accused of safety lapses, paying millions of dollars in fines and being forced to recall millions of cars around the world. Toyota, the world's largest automaker, reported a profit of $1.2 billion in the first quarter of 2010 after losing millions of dollars in 2008 and 2009. “After taking over amid a storm, I wanted to do anything to avoid a third straight year in the red,” said Akio Toyoda, Toyota's president, according to the New York Times. Toyoda said the automaker had made "tough and anguishing decisions" to return to profitability, including cost-cutting and layoffs in Japan and in other countries where Toyota cars and trucks are manufactured. The company said it expected to make more than $3 billion this year as its worldwide sales surged, particularly in the United States and China. The rebound surely is good news for slumping U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, if it reflects worldwide trends. GM and Chrysler borrowed billions of dollars from the U.S. and Canada to stay afloat during the global recession. But Toyota's good news could not completely obscure problems looming in the near future for the automaker. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced this week that it was investigating the company's handling of a steering defect in its popular Tacoma truck after denying it for a year. “We’re still in a storm — there’s been no change on that front,” Toyoda said. “But from the storm, we’ve begun to see glimpses of sunny but faraway skies. I feel that we’re starting to approach safer waters.” Toyota still faces lawsuits from car buyers claiming injuries causes by acceleration problems and a series of shareholder suits. U.S. regulators also are considering imposing additional fines on the automaker, which paid a $16.4 million fine -- the largest permitted under U.S. law -- to the Transportation Department in April.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Obama administration resorts to Bush path on detainees

News from Washington that the Obama administration is proposing exempting terrorism suspects from constitutional protections guaranteed to U.S. citizens raises troubling questions about the president's commitment to undoing the worst abuses of the last administration. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights to suggest that it is negotiable, or that it only was intended to apply to some of the people some of the time. Yet that is undeniably the basis of Attorney General Eric Holder's proposal that terrorism suspects -- in this case, the Pakistani immigrant who stands accused of trying to set off a bomb in New York's Times Square on May 1 -- no longer be allowed the protection of the so-called Miranda rule, according to the New York Times. The Miranda rule, which bars authorities from questioning suspects until they are advised of their right against self-incrimination -- comes from a landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from forcing citizens to testify against themselves, and the Supreme Court held in Miranda that police must advise suspects of this right before questioning begins to give full effect to its protection. But the Fifth Amendment is not the government's protection to give: it was made part of the basic law of the United States to prevent the government from accumulating too much power. As we well recall, Obama was elected in 2008 because the Bush administration developed the nasty habit of selectively enforcing rights that the United States previously knew to apply to everybody. Yet there was Holder on the NBC-TV show Meet the Press on Sunday, touting "big news" and recommending new limits on people's constitutional rights. “We’re now dealing with international terrorists,” Holder said, “and I think that we have to think about perhaps modifying the rules that interrogators have and somehow coming up with something that is flexible and is more consistent with the threat that we now face.” Holder also indicated for the first time that the United States now believes that bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, who was arrested as he boarded a plane to leave the United States, had been trained by the Pakistani Taliban. Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Times that Congress did not have the authority to limit the Miranda ruling since it merely interprets the U.S. Constitution. “What’s troubling is that this is coming from the Obama administration,” Romero said. “The irony is that this administration supposedly stands for the rule of law and the restoration of America’s legal standing, and now they are trying to negotiate away fundamental Fifth Amendment rights that have been the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Saturday, May 8, 2010

High court gets it wrong in church-state case

There was a time in this country when most people understood what the U.S. Constitution said, even on controversial and evolving legal situations like the separation of church and state. States and municipalities did whatever they wanted, pretty much, whether constitutional or not, like they still do sometimes, but the U.S. Supreme Court always had the last and most reasonable word. Of course it wasn't always so -- there have, as we all know, been some amazing doozies over the years. But that was then, before the likes of Byron White and William Rehnquist were on the court. Now, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas in four of the panel's nine seats, the high court can no longer be relied on for sound reasoning in the face of the kind of blatant partisanship that comes from highly paid advocates. Each yearly term of the current panel reveals further examples of this, from the utterly regrettable Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 (the constitutional way to determine who won a presidential election is to stop counting the votes!) to the shockingly unrealistic Citizens United decision (Congress is constitutionally barred from placing reasonable limits on campaign contributions!) earlier this year. So, it came as little more than rueful surprise to see the court rule 5-4 Wednesday that a Christian religious cross erected on national parkland as a war memorial in California's Mojave Desert did not violate the First Amendment, as the New York Times reported. It wasn't just that the cross itself was on public land, or that the government had tried to relieve itself of responsibility by selling the tiny bit of land under the Sunrise Rock cross to a veterans' group, but that U.S. officials refused to allow representatives of other religions to place their own memorials there! The First Amendment's prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion" has come to bar the United States from favoring any religions over others. It is a tribute to the soundness of this reasoning that such disputes rarely reach the high court, even with the loud and often overbearing religious leaders that populate the country. Yet favoring is clearly what the government did at Sunrise Rock. "The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court majority. "Here one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten." But in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, the only war veteran on the court, said "I certainly agree that the nation should memorialize the service of those who fought and died in World War I, but it cannot lawfully do so by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message." The case is entitled Salazar v. Buono, No. 08-472.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Democracy in the new Iraq -- loser could prevail in parliamentary elections

News from Baghdad that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has formed a coalition government to rule his U.S.-supported country for the next four years sounds like good news. For the continuation of Maliki's role as prime minister of Iraq, it could be. But since Maliki finished second in the March election to the secular and Sunni coalition led by Ayad Allawi, the prospect of four more years of a Shiite-dominated government despite the election results could be problematic for the fragile Iraqi society, according to the New York Times. An unpopular government also could complicate the planned withdrawal of 100,000 U.S. soldiers by the end of August, particularly if the current parliamentary standoff continues and is accompanied by an escalation of violence. But if Maliki's State of Law coalition holds and it results in Allawi's Iraqiya party being completely excluded from power in the next government, despite its narrow victory in the election, there is almost certain to be political resentment in addition to the simmering Shiite-Sunni religious friction that seems to almost always be present. Minority Sunnis held power in Iraq during the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein but the majority Shiites have been in power since the 2003 U.S. invasion. "No doubt this could lead to a resurgence in violence and provide a fodder for extremism," said Sheik Abdul-Rahman Munshid al-Assi, leader of a Sunni political council in the disputed region of Kirkuk, the Times said. "There must be participation in the government by any means. Otherwise, we will return to square one." There is only one Sunni politician in Maliki's coalition, the Times said. "The fear is this alliance will have a sectarian color," said Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni allied with Allawi. "That is how Iraqis and the world will see it, whether we like it or not. This development will be a tragic step backward." One hopeful sign -- the Shiite coalition invited Allawi's Iraqiya group to join a national unity government. But the details of such a government -- surely the most important factor -- have not been made clear, the Times said.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Someone's not telling the truth in U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute

Lingering mistrust over the imperial attitude of the United States during the last administration no doubt took at lot of the sting off Monday's trade of hyperbole between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the United Nations in New York. After Ahmadinejad delivered his expected tirade against the United States, which is trying to put together international economic sanctions to penalize Iran for trying to develop nuclear weapons, Clinton accused Tehran of ignoring its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and called for "a strong international response," according to Cable News Network. The two leaders spoke at the opening of a monthlong conference on nuclear nonproliferation, which has taken on additional urgency of late due to Iran's apparent progress toward developing nuclear weaponry and North Korea's detonations of two nuclear warheads since 2006. Diplomats from the United States, Britain and France walked out of Ahmadinejad's speech a few minutes after he began speaking, CNN said. But the diplomats no doubt heard Ahmadinejad denounce the United States for accusing Iran of nuclear activities without "even a single credible proof," and for permitting Israel to compile an arsenal of several hundred nuclear weapons. "Regrettably," Ahmadinejad told the conference, "the government of the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including Iran." Of course, Ahmadinejad speaks as if the world hadn't repeatedly heard him threaten Israel with annihilation. And, as if Israel hadn't already proved itself capable of maintaining a nuclear stockpile in a peaceful manner -- something no one wants to see unstable Iran try to do. Clinton, for her part, accused Iran of placing the future of the nonproliferation treaty in jeopardy with its actions and disingenuous remarks. Iran "will do whatever it can to divert attention from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability," she said. "I hope that we can reach agreement in the Security Council on tough new sanctions because I believe that is the only way to catch Iran's attention," Clinton told reporters after her speech. Ahmadinejad also called for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, a concept endorsed by the United States. Clinton said such a zone would be possible only after successful peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Clinton also called for creation of a $50 million Peaceful Uses Initiative by the International Atomic Energy Agency to bring the benefits of nuclear energy to more countries, no doubt a reaction to Ahmadinejad's oft-repeated complaint that the United States and Western nations were trying to monopolize nuclear technology.