Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Israeli-Palestinian talks are doomed to failure

Nothing constructive is likely to emerge from the latest talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas because both leaders are too weak and the two sides are too far apart. Netanyahu cannot maintain his majority in Israel's parliament without the support of conservative settler parties that oppose further territorial concessions, and Abbas does not even have authority over all the territory he expects to make part of the Palestininan-dominated new country to emerge from a comprehensive peace agreement. The talks, which would not have even been scheduled without diplomatic pressure from the United States, have started just in time to resolve the still widely misunderstood issue of Israeli settlements when Israel's freeze on such construction expires Sept. 26, according to the Reuters international news service. The Abbas-led Palestinian Authority considers a freeze extension to be a necessary condition of its continued participation in the talks; Israel insists on continuing to build housing for its population, and obviously considers such construction to be its prerogative as a conquering power. But these people have been over this same issue for decades. It should be obvious to everyone involved that somebody is going to have to blink first. But whom? It doesn't help, of course, that both sides think they have already blinked numerous times with questionable results. Israel has maintained its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for more than 40 years, and the Palestinians -- people who did not even exist as a people until they were disowned by their Arab brethren after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war -- have a functioning government and observer status at the United Nations. Complicating matters is the breakaway Hamas government in Gaza, which broke off from the West Bank government in 2007 to protest the PA's moves toward settlement with Israel. In the midst of the pessimism is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said recently that her view is that the issues could be settled within one year. Good luck with that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Iran's first nuclear reactor caps decades of living dangerously

What in the world is the West going to do about Iran? News that Iran had started loading fuel into its first nuclear power plant in Bushehr is a reminder of the limits of muscular foreign policy. Decades of confrontation with Tehran, including economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, have served only to get us where we are now: less control over events combined with deepening mistrust and growing animosity. "Despite all the pressures, sanctions and hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the start-up of the largest symbol of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities," Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference on Iranian television as technicians prepared a fuel rod assembly at the plant, according to the Reuters international news service. Iran completed the plant with the help of Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear corporation, over the objections of the United States. But a U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington did not consider the Bushehr reactor to be a proliferation threat because Russia would be providing fuel and taking back spent fuel rods for reprocessing. "Russia's support for Bushehr underscores that Iran does not need an indigenous enrichment capability if its intentions are purely peaceful," spokesman Darby Holladay told Reuters. Russia backed a U.N. Security Council resolution in June that imposed a fourth round of economic sanctions on Iran to discourage Tehran from trying to develop nuclear weaponry. Construction of the reactor at Bushehr was started in the 1970s, before the Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and started what has now been more than 30 years of animosity between Tehran and Washington.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Billions earmarked for Haiti rebuilding projects

News that an international commission announced $1.6 billion in projects to help build new homes, improve agriculture and rebuild schools in earthquake-ravaged Haiti is welcome, albeit late, news. The quake that killed 300,000 and reduced cities to rubble in the poor Caribbean nation was in January, after all, and hurricane season is approaching. The news was announced Tuesday during a meeting of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission in the nearly destroyed capital city of Port-au-Prince, according to the Reuters international news service. The commission, chaired by Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton is responsible for distributing more than $5 billion dollars in international aid pledged to the relief effort in the next two years. Foreign governments and nongovernmental aid agencies pledged a total of nearly $10 billion for Haiti's recovery in March, Reuters said. Projects approved Tuesday included $200 million to create 50,000 jobs in agriculture and increase production, a United Nations rubble-removal program and construction of a teaching hospital to train new doctors and nurses. More than 1.5 million people are still living in refugee camps in Port-au-Prince, Reuters said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Myanmar plans election for Nov. 7 but bars pro-democracy leader

Do the military rulers of Myanmar, the southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, really think the rest of the world thinks they have created a democracy? That's apparently the purpose of Friday's Myanmar National Radio announcement Friday that the country will hold general elections on Nov. 7 despite refusing to allow leading democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kui to participate. Suu Kui has been under house arrest for more than 14 of the past 20 years since her party won a landslide victory in the 1990 election that the ruling junta refused to recognize. "There is no illusion about freedom and fairness in this election," Aung Zaw, the Thailand-based editor of The Irrawaddy magazine told Cable News Network (CNN). Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, CNN said. Suu Kui's party, the National League for Democracy, decided not to compete in this year's election after she was barred from running for office. "Everything is just so convenient for the regime since the NLD is out, Suu Kyi is not running," Aung Zaw told CNN. "Plus USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party, the government-backed party) is the largest, strongest party in this country. There is no way any other political parties could compete with them." Members of NLD who formed another party, National Democratic Force, have been allowed to meet but have not been permitted to campaign, CNN said.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wonder of wonders -- Venezuela and Colombia still recognize each other

Actually, the only surprise in what Venezuela does anymore is that its radical leftist leader, President Hugo Chavez, hasn't gotten into any new trouble internationally. To the contrary, Venezuela appears to have become a more-or-less responsible member of the South American community of nations. Case in point: Tuesday's agreement to restore full diplomatic relations with its oft-estranged neighbor, U.S. ally Colombia. Chavez was in Santa Marta for Tuesday's ceremony announcing the resumption of relations and agreement to form commissions for economic and security cooperation between the two countries, according to Cable News Network (CNN). "I think we've taken a step forward in re-establishing confidence, which is one of the basic tenets of any relationship," Colombia's newly elected president, Juan Manuel Santos, said at the announcement, CNN reported. The countries have been arguing for years over allegations by former President Alvaro Uribe that Venezuela was harboring Marxist guerrillas seeking to overthrow Colombia's pro-U.S. government. Chavez was particularly aggrieved by Colombia's 2008 raid on rebel camps across the border in Ecuador, and by last year's military agreement between Colombia and the United States. Santos was Colombia's defense minister in the Uribe government. But both countries' leaders were all smiles Tuesday. "I came here to turn the page," Chavez said, according to CNN. There are billions of dollars in trade at stake. Bilateral trade between Caracas and Bogota reached $7.3 billion in 2008 but has fallen sharply since then as relations between the countries soured, CNN said.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Not everything goes -- U.S. tobacco companies to pay $30 million for bribing officials

News that two U.S. tobacco companies had agreed to settle charges that they bribed their way into overseas sales contracts is a timely reminder that laws against excessive avarice are an unfortunate necessity of a capitalist economic system. Competition works -- the best products and the best companies will prevail over lesser competitors -- but only when everybody is playing by the same rules. The two companies, Universal Corp. of Richmond, Va., and Alliance One International of Morrisville, N.C., are going to be paying nearly $30 million for violating this most-basic of capitalist principles, according to the New York Times. The two companies, which supply tobacco leaves to cigarette and cigar makers, agreed to pay to avoid a civil trial and criminal charges that they bribed officials in eight countries. Universal was accused of bribing government officials in Thailand, Malawi and Mozambique, and Alliance One with bribing officials in Thailand, China, Greece, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan. Universal issued a statement saying that it had reported the misconduct to authorities and had cooperated with the investigation, the Times said. “We have absolutely no tolerance for this type of activity,” the chief executive, George C. Freeman III, said in the statement, the Times said. Universal said the U.S. Justice Department agreed not to prosecute the company any further if it follows the terms of the agreement for the next three years. Alliance One could not be reached for comment, the Times said.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Isn't it time to give up on banning gay marriage?

Does anyone really think life would not be worth living if gay people were allowed to marry? That seems to be just what anti-gay marriage partisans have been saying since a San Francisco federal court struck down California's Proposition 8, a ban on such unions approved by voters in 2008. “This is going to set off a groundswell of opposition,” prominent Prop. 8 backer Jim Garlow, pastor of Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., told the New York Times. “It’s going to rally people that might have been silent.” The ruling applies only to the parts of Northern California included in Walker's district, and not to the rest of California nor to any other U.S. states that already have banned gay marriage. So, what's the big deal? It's not like the court is requiring people in Northern California to enter into gay unions, is it? No, the court simply said the government cannot make laws that extend benefits to some people while excluding them from others on the basis of who they love. “Proposition 8 cannot withstand any level of scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause,” highly respected Judge Vaughan Walker of the Northern District of California said in his ruling. “Excluding same-sex couples from marriage is simply not rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” This is the kind of ruling we expect from our courts when the government does something outrageous, particularly when that something reflects the passion of the moment. We have rules that protect minorities precisely for this reason -- the government is barred from enacting discriminatory provisions. The disconnect here is that the opponents of gay marriage try to use the government to advance a religious-oriented agenda, not the other way around. Why did they even go to court in the first place? A rational judiciary could not decide this case any other way, and the fact that some courts have allowed states to ban gay marriage is both preposterous and insulting.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

General Motors, Chrysler and Ford sales rise, perhaps

Could it possibly be true that U.S. automobile companies General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are reporting sales gains and, assumedly, profits instead of more red ink?
That is what U.S. automakers said Tuesday, even though many of the figures were adjusted to allow for corporate changes, like Ford's sale of its Volvo brand, and the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, according to the Reuters international news service. The announcements were not well-received by stock market investors, who sent Ford shares down nearly 2 percent, even though normally buoyant Toyota and Honda sales fell in July. But the sales increases were met with enthusiasm by some industry analysts, who had feared the U.S. economy was facing a double-dip recession. "In June, you had the feeling that maybe the industry wasn't out of the woods, and there was a lot of talk of a double dip. But June really seems to have been a blip," Al Castignetti, the head of Nissan sales in the U.S. market, told Reuters. Yeah, maybe. The big problem is that auto industry players talk on and on but what they say may not have anything to do with what's really going on. GM and Chrysler have been allowed to take billions of dollars worth of debt off their balance sheets -- without paying the money back, of course, and eventually sticking the taxpayer with the bill -- and to re-enter the world of real companies even though the U.S. taxpayer owns major amounts of their shares. How can anyone ever trust company reports again? Ford did not take bailout money or file for bankruptcy but have shown little resiliency going forward. Where are the new U.S. car models? Where are the new head-turning designs? Doesn't anyone in the industry care that nobody talks about American cars anymore unless they work for the Justice Department? "We are certainly optimistic about our prospects for the third quarter," Ford's U.S. sales chief, Ken Czubay, told Reuters. Yeah, right.