Saturday, July 31, 2010

Florida church announces Quran burning event

Maybe the tea partiers have found a new hero. News that a Florida pastor was planning a Quran-burning event to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is typical of the kind of ignorant thinking that characterizes the tea party movement and its over-publicized icon, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The announcement of the Islamic good book burning that Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, says is to remember the victims of attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and to express outrage against that religion, has sparked cries of outrage from leaders of U.S. religious denominations, according to Cable News Network (CNN). As we all know, the 19 9-11 hijackers were Muslim and the United States blames the attack on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, also a Muslim. "We believe that Islam is of the devil, that it's causing billions of people to go to hell, it is a deceptive religion, it is a violent religion and that is proven many, many times," Jones said on CNN this week. Jones is the author of a book entitled "Islam is of the Devil" and his church sells T-shirts and coffee mugs bearing the phrase. But many Muslim and Christian leaders urged Jones to call off his event because it would just aggravate tensions, Reuters said. "American Muslims and other people of conscience should support positive educational efforts to prevent the spread of Islamophobia," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American Islam Relations. The CAIR called on Muslims and others to hold 'Share the Quran" dinners to educate the public during Ramadan, the month-long fast that begins in August, and began a campaign to distribute copies of the Quran to U.S. leaders, Reuters said. An evangelical Christian group issued a statement promoting "relationships of trust and respect" with members of other religions. "God created human beings in his image, and therefore all should be treated with dignity and respect," the statement said. But "dignity and respect" for others is not what the Dove World Outreach Center is selling. Tellingly, the group also said it was promoting a rally on Monday to protest as "godless" Gainesville's openly gay mayor, Craig Lowe. At least we know this group has nothing to offer. The planet seems always to have been overpopulated with people who claim to know precisely what god is thinking.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Arab League rhetoric ignores the facts

Thursday's declaration by the Arab League that it favored direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel whenever PA President Mahmoud Abbas agrees to participate is the height of arrogance. After all, the intransigence of the very 21 countries that make up the League of Arab States is responsible for the perpetually unsettled political situation in the Middle East and the political and economic isolation of the Palestinian people. Of course, the league is free to continue to blame the situation on Israel, but false rhetoric does not become truthful merely by how often or how vehemently it is repeated. The league issued its declaration after Abbas briefed members of its peace process committee at a meeting in Cairo, according to the Reuters international news service. League members agreed to send a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama outlining Palestinian concerns over the negotiating process with Israel in the face of that country's refusal to extend a 10-month partial ban on settlement construction after Sept. 25, Reuters said. "There is a green light from the Arabs to go to direct negotiations if we receive terms of reference (for the negotiations) in line with the letter," Nabil Abu Rdainah, a senior Abbas aide, told Reuters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants direct negotiations with Abbas to begin immediately, but his coalition is tied to pro-settler political parties that adamantly oppose extending the partial settlement freeze. The prospects for a breakthrough in such talks is, of course, unclear. But nobody should forget how the situation got to this point. Instead of accepting Palestinians and Jews as brothers and neighbors, which they clearly are, Arab states have chosen to keep Palestinians who fled the three wars they started in refugee camps for decades and to keep maintain a constant state of hostilities against Israel, first as warring enemies and now through radical proxy groups.

Monday, July 26, 2010

BP's defense of Alaska pipeline safety is not reassuring

Assurances from British Petroleum, owner of the largest stake in the Alyeska consortium that operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, that the 800-mile oil pipeline is not deteriorating dangerously have apparently not satisfied congressional investigators looking into reports of inadequate maintenance. After all, the consortium's managing partner is BP, the company responsible for the catastrophic oil spill caused when a deep-water drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 workers. To its credit, BP has agreed to cover the cost of restitution and placed $20 billion in escrow for expected damage claims stemming from the Gulf spill. But BP has made no such offer for the deteriorating pipeline. According to Cable News Network (CNN), a little-reported spill of 5,000 gallons of oil on the ground near Delta Junction, Alaska, has reignited concerns about the safety of the pipeline. "There's incident after incident within the last six months (that) might seem like small things, but when you put them all together, in a relatively short period of time, it really tells you how poorly this pipeline is being maintained," Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, told CNN. The news service also said an unnamed source said deferred maintenance year after year was endangering the pipeline. Officials have refused to allow CNN to videotape near the site of the spill, the news service said. Alyeska's vice president of operations, Mike Joynor, told CNN that the pipeline was safe and said he was unaware of any incident involving a CNN news crew. Joynor said Alyeska was investigating the spill. He said Alyeska was developing rules to avoid such incidents in the future but that the rules would not be made public. "We stick to what our core values are: safety, integrity, environmental protection and protection of a safe workforce," Joyner said.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Big surprise -- no prosecutions in U.S. attorney firings

News out of Washington that the U.S. Justice Department has decided not to prosecute former Bush administration officials for improperly firing nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 is disheartening to Americans who believe the country needs to understand what went so terribly wrong when George W. Bush was president, but it is no shocker. The timidity with which the Obama administration has approached the question has not inspired any confidence in the new president's leadership -- in fact, the contrary is true. The breathtaking damage done to the basic law of the United States by the last administration and the acquiescence by the very officials who had taken solemn oaths to defend the Constitution demands action, not further timidity. The people of the United States have the right to have confidence in their government, not the persistent sense that their leaders are willing to sacrifice the country's founding principles to preserve their own lives of privilege. At the very least, the people should demand to know why civil liberties were curtailed, why the country's treasure was compromised by wars without end, why the White House was allowed to amass virtually unlimited power and why almost no one in office is talking about how to start putting things back to the way they should be. The legal system is a very good place to start this re-examination, especially if the White House is not willing or able to lead a process that will surely lead to limitations on presidential authority. President Obama should reject the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder not to prosecute former Bush administration officials in the U.S. attorneys case, as Cable News Network (CNN) reported, and rethink his earlier reluctance to pursue other officials. Obama seems destined to be a one-term president no matter what he does at this point; at least he can leave a legacy we will always remember and be proud of.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

City of Oakland OKs large medical marijuana farms

News that the San Francisco Bay Area city of Oakland had approved large-scale medical marijuana farming for medical use was met by silence by opponents of such cultivation and by U.S. authorities who have eased up on enforcement of a federal ban since the 2008 presidential election. The city council of Oakland, a city of 350,000 across the bay from San Francisco, passed a provision Tuesday legalizing "industrial" marijuana cultivation and agreed to issue as many as four permits for large operations next year, according to the Reuters international news service. Medical marijuana has been legal in California under a state law approved by voters in 1996, but it is still illegal under federal law and cultivation has only been allowed by individuals in small garden operations. But Oakland officials said the city would profit by allowing and taxing large-scale cultivation. "This is going to grow as an industry," City Councilwoman Jean Quan said during the debate. "And someone is going to have a high-tech producer." The city plans to impose an array of new taxes on growers and sellers next year, Reuters said. The council approval has no relation to a ballot initiative on the November ballot that would, if passed, make California the first state to legalize marijuana use. But law enforcement officials complain that underground marijuana cultivation in California have been dominated by criminals.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Troubled border with Mexico gets White House attention

News that hundreds of U.S. National Guard soldiers and border protection agents have been sent to the Mexico border to prevent illegal immigrants and illicit cargo from crossing into the United States is both welcome and unwelcome at the same time. While a stronger U.S. response to rising reports of drug-related violence in border regions is long overdue, excessive reliance on the military to resolve the nation's problems is extraordinarily ill-advised. Nobody can seriously oppose using soldiers to stop violence from heavily armed drug gangs that is spilling over into U.S. border cities, as the Reuters international news service is reporting, but using soldiers to do what diplomats should have been doing in talks with the Mexican government should be prevented. The United States has plenty of leverage with Mexico City to pressure that government to better its border enforcement and to direct more of its oil wealth to better the lives of its citizens so they won't be forced by economics to flee. That people are forced to leave their country and live second-class lives in another place to provide food for their families should be an issue of paramount importance to countries around the world. But excessive reliance on the military has taken an unacceptable toll on the United States both economically and philosophically. This country has compromised some of its most basic principles in pursuit of military dominance in other parts of the world. The historic changes in Washington have so far been unable to reverse that trend, and we will all be a lot worse for it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Former Bush adviser defends decision to abuse detainees

Anyone -- including, unfortunately, U.S. President Barack Obama -- who thinks the long nightmare that was the George W. Bush administration is behind us should consider what the former official who approved brutal interrogations of terror suspects said the other day. According to transcripts released Thursday, Judge Jay Bybee, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003 and recommended the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, told Congressional investigators that he stood by his advice. “We took a muscular view of presidential authority,” Bybee said, according to the New York Times. “We were offering a bottom line to a client who wanted to know what he could do and what he couldn’t do. I wasn’t running a debating society, and I wasn’t running a law school.” Bybee's deputy, John Woo, now a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley, wrote the infamous memos approving the use of waterboarding and other invasive techniques and Bybee approved them. Bybee made his comments in closed-door testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which is still investigating the conduct of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Bush administration. Bybee was appointed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco after he left the White House but before the contents of the torture memos were revealed publicly. Many of the memos were withdrawn by the government after the contents were leaked to the media. Bybee and Yoo were accused of misconduct after a Justice Department investigation, but its conclusions also were withdrawn. Of course, the point is not only that Bybee was in the middle of some of the worst abuses of power in the nation's history -- it's also that he still thinks he was right. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also believe they were right to erode respect for the rule of law that has made the United States a great nation, as if ruining the country's great traditions and sacrificing its founding principles could ever be the way to keep it safe.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

International alarm sounds on food inspections in China

Word from China that officials were stepping up food inspections in the wake of last week's seizure of 64 tons of milk powder contaminated by the flame retardant melamine sounds like too little, far too late. This is not the first time contaminated milk has gotten through China's vast and varied food regulatory system; residents have not forgotten the 2008 incident in which contaminated milk killed six kids and sickened hundreds of thousands. The milk seized last week could have resulted in a similar toll or worse -- China still does not have a uniform system of regulating food safety for the entire country. "China attaches great importance to food safety, particularly dairy quality and safety," Chen Rui, a top Ministry of Health official told reporters on Tuesday, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "The ministry will continue to organize the national dairy safety standards to track evaluations, listen to the food production companies and consumer opinion, and constantly revise and improve the national dairy safety standards." If only China's trading partners could believe that. China is usually extremely guarded about such matters and the health ministry did not offer much information beyond saying an investigation was under way. But investigations in China usually get results. In 2008, 21 people were convicted of criminal charges and two were executed in the aftermath of that tainted milk scandal.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Palestinian rhetoric on Israeli settlements is just talk

Anybody can say anything about whatever they want to about anything, and it is with that understanding that Sunday's statement by former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei about Israeli "settlements" in Jerusalem being a "time bomb" should be viewed. Qurei and Israeli opposition leader Tsipi Livni, the former foreign minister, urged moderates on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to work harder to settle their differences. "The Jerusalem situation, I think, is a time bomb if it continues in this way," Qurei said a meeting of academics in Jerusalem, according to the Reuters international news service. "It has an impact on the Palestinian people . . . and on trust on both sides." Qurei was discussing Israel's continuing construction of housing for its citizens in formerly Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem, often after demolishing Palestinian-owned housing. "It is 19 years since Oslo and things remain as is," Qurei said, referring to the historic agreement that recognized Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank of the Jordan River, which Israel captured, along with East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war, and led to the return from exile of Yasir Arafat. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching the Oslo Accords. But the lasting peace that seemed within reach in 1993 no longer appears at hand, not after the years of violence and mistrust that supplanted what turned out to be naive optimism -- on both sides. If the Israelis assumed that their Arab enemies, with whom they had already fought three all-out wars, were now willing to accept their Jewish neighbors as equals, and if Palestinian leaders assumed they were on the fast-track to statehood without having to undo the hatred they had been planting in the hearts of their people and convince them to work for peace, they both were tragically mistaken. The repeated failure of all parties to accept these realities are responsible for the current situation.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Appeals court does what oil industry wants in Louisiana

If you know what you're doing in the legal world and you have plenty of resources, you can pretty much always find a judge, or judges, willing to do whatever you want. So it was no surprise Thursday when a federal appeals court in New Orleans enjoined the Obama administration from implementing a six-month moratorium on deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The three-judge panel upheld a judge's ruling last month that struck down the moratorium as too broad and unfair to the fishing industry, and agreed that it should not even be enforced during the months it will take for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, according to the New York Times. Lawyers for the U.S. Department of the Interior had argued that the catastrophic BP oil rig explosion and massive leak made the moratorium necessary; industry representatives contended the suspension of drilling was crippling economically and should not be enforceable while their lawsuit challenging it was pending. Of course, ordinary people may find it impossible to imagine a situation where immediate and drastic government intervention is more appropriate -- a highly technical operation on a mass scale gone awry, causing incalculable and continuing environmental damage. Ordinary people might think that such a situation is precisely why the government is necessary. But the oil industry is not ordinary people; apparently, neither is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposed the stay on economic reasons even though the leak has rendered the Louisiana coast virtually unusable and, apparently, destroyed the Gulf fishing industry. Then again, the appeals court ruled that the Interior Department had not proven that it would suffer irreparable injury if drilling operations were not halted like the administration was demanding. It's hard to argue against that proposition, even though the sea bottom drilling operation that blew up and killed a dozen workers has so far resisted all efforts at repair. After all, there are 3,000 drilling platforms in the Gulf, and only one of them has ever exploded and caused a catastrophic oil spill.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Refusing to sell fuel would be step toward war

Has it become the official position of the United States that war with Iran is considered the best way to move beyond the current stalemate over Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons development? That's how it seemed Monday after Iran complained that three U.S. allies had refused to permit Iranian planes to refuel at airports in their countries. If it's true, it's an extremely hostile and provocative act -- especially since it comes just days after the United States and European Union imposed a wide-ranging array of sanctions against Iranian business and government interests. "Since last week, our planes have been refused fuel at airports in Britain, Germany and UAE because of the sanctions imposed by America," the secretary of the Iranian Airlines Union, Mehdi Aliyari, told Iran's ISNA news agency, according to the Reuters international news service. "Refusing to provide fuel to Iranian passenger planes by these countries is a violation of international conventions." The governments in Britain, Germany and the United Arab Emirates immediately denied the allegation and said they were complying with worldwide agreements and fulfilling contracts with Iranian airlines. But will they when current contracts expire, and how much pressure will Iran endure before lashing out against its neighbors or against Israel? The new sanctions are aimed at restricting Iran's ability to import refined oil products, like gasoline, that it does not produce on its own, even though it is the world's fifth-largest exporter of petroleum. An Iranian lawmaker, Hesmatollah Falahatpisheh, told ISNA that his country would retaliate against any country refusing to service its airplanes, Reuters said. "Iran will do the same to ships and planes of those countries that cause problems for us," he said. But more countries and companies are agreeing to comply with the new sanctions regime. This summer, United Arab Emirates froze more than 40 accounts of Iranian individuals and companies suspected of helping Iran evade current U.N. sanctions, which are not as strict. Western countries think Iran is trying to use its civilian nuclear power program to advance its development of nuclear weapons, but Iran denies the allegation.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Obama grows into commander-in-chief role

Today's White House ceremony marking the signing of new economic sanctions against Iran illustrates the recognition by U.S. President Barack Obama that his well-meaning leftist ideology does not always translate well to international affairs. The kind of world Obama envisioned when he spoke so hopefully in Cairo just after taking office in 2009 is not the kind we have. Iran has not responded forthrightly to U.S. efforts to convince Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons development and, instead, has threatened the United States and its allies -- notably Israel. Iran denies trying to develop nuclear weapons and insists its program is for peaceful purposes. But Tehran has lied before and, given the tense relations between Iran and the United States almost continuously since the violent 1979 revolution that replaced the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran with an Islamic government, could reasonably be expected to do so again. Previous rounds of sanctions imposed by Western nations have not been effective in getting Iran to honestly discuss its nuclear ambitions. Obama's endorsement of further sanctions -- this time, expected to restrict Tehran's import of oil for domestic purposes and severely penalize private companies that enable Iran to get around them -- indicates that he, too, is frustrated by the lack of progress and convinced of the need to take determined action short of outright war. "There should be no doubt -- the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," Obama said at the signing of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act. "With these sanctions -- along with others -- we are striking at the heart of the Iranian government's ability to fund and develop its nuclear programs. We are showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences." Iran has already starting feeling the effects of the newly toughened sanctions, Reuters said. French oil giant Total announced it would stop selling refined fuel to Tehran and Spain's Repsol withdrew from a contract to help develop Iran's South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, the news service said.