NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: October 21

Muslim McCain fans confront intolerance at rally

At a John McCain rally in Woodbridge, Virginia, three people handed out “Obama for Change” bumper stickers with the Communist sickle and hammer and the Islamic crescent, saying Obama was a socialist with ties to radical Islam. Several moderate McCain supporters, Muslim and Christian alike, struck back – relentlessly bombarding the group distributing the flyers until they left the premises. [continued…]

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Editor’s Comment — It might come as news to a few McCain supporters but socialism (as in the God-denying Soviet type) and Islam mix like oil and water. Why can’t they just stick to a coherent form of bigotry? Obama is the anti-Christ, or Obama is a terrorist, or the simplest line of all: we don’t want a black president.

There’s an interesting giveaway phrase in the dialogue above from the guy who describes himself as a Christian conservative: “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to question Barack Obama’s type… ”

Hmmm… And what “type” would that be?

Bush decides to keep Guantánamo open

Despite his stated desire to close the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, President Bush has decided not to do so, and never considered proposals drafted in the State Department and the Pentagon that outlined options for transferring the detainees elsewhere, according to senior administration officials.

Mr. Bush’s top advisers held a series of meetings at the White House this summer after a Supreme Court ruling in June cast doubt on the future of the American detention center. But Mr. Bush adopted the view of his most hawkish advisers that closing Guantánamo would involve too many legal and political risks to be acceptable, now or any time soon, the officials said.

The administration is proceeding on the assumption that Guantánamo will remain open not only for the rest of Mr. Bush’s presidency but also well beyond, the officials said, as the site for military tribunals of those facing terrorism-related charges and for the long prison sentences that could follow convictions.

The effect of Mr. Bush’s stance is to leave in place a prison that has become a reviled symbol of the administration’s fight against terrorism, and to leave another contentious foreign policy decision for the next president. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — If in his final months in office, Bush was to have announced that Guantanamo was being closed, his decision would have been totally out of character. He would in effect have been acknowledging that he had a responsibility to resolve a problem that he had created. Instead, as a deadbeat president, he’d rather just walk away.

Having already decided that the judgment of history won’t come until after his death, Bush has freeze-wrapped his conscience by refusing to question himself. We can only hope that history moves faster than he would hope and the questions he won’t address now are posed later by others while he is under oath. It might not happen for a decade or two, but meanwhile, the prospect of life as a social and political pariah is just around the corner.

If an hour is a long time in politics, we must start thinking in centuries

The problem is simply stated. As Gordon Brown – discussing what he perceives to be an improvement in his political fortunes – says, “an hour is a long time in politics”. It used to be a week, but everything is speeding up. To remain in office or to remain in business, decision-makers must privilege the present over the future. Discount rates ensure that investments made today are worth nothing in 10 years’ time; the political cycle demands that no one looks beyond the next election.

The financial crisis is just one consequence of a system which demands that governments sacrifice long-term survival for short-term gains. In this case, political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic – from Reagan to Brown – decided to appease business lobbyists and boost short-term growth by allowing the banks to use new financial instruments, many of which were as dodgy as a three-pound coin. It made perfect political sense, as long as the inevitable crash took place after they left office.

For similar reasons we are likely to be ambushed by other nasty surprises: runaway climate change, resource depletion, foreign policy blowback, new surveillance and genetic technologies, skills shortages, demographic change, a declining tax base, private and public debt. Politics is the art of shifting trouble from the living to the unborn. [continued…]

As fuel prices fall, will push for alternatives lose steam?

Just four months ago, a conference here on electric cars drew four times as many people as expected. District fire marshals ordered some of the crowd to leave, and the atmosphere was more like that of a rock concert than an energy conference. A brief film depicted an electric car owner driving off with a beautiful woman to the strains of “The Power of Love” while her original companion struggles to pay for gasoline. The audience cheered.

One discordant note in the series of enthusiastic speeches came from Bill Reinert, one of the Toyota Prius designers. He cautioned that designing and ramping up production of a new car takes five years.

“If oil goes down to $60 or $70 a barrel and gasoline gets back to $2.50 a gallon, and that very possibly could happen,” he said, “will that demand stay the same or will we shift back up?”

It didn’t take five years to hit those numbers. One type of oil shock has given way to another. Even more swiftly than the price of oil rose, it has tumbled to the range that seemed far-fetched when Reinert spoke and oil was more than $130 a barrel. Now that drop threatens a wide variety of game-changing plans to find alternatives to oil or ways to drastically reduce U.S. consumption. [continued…]

Decades of eroded trust and democracy did the damage

Economic remedies for the fiscal crisis continue to frustrate their political backers. On that black Monday when the US Congress refused to pass the $700bn bail-out, the market plummeted 477 points. A few days later, after Congress reversed itself and passed the $700bn bail-out, the market dropped nearly 800 points. Since then it has gyrated wildly, drawing markets in Britain, continental Europe and Asia into the maelstrom. What’s going on – a crisis in economic capital or in fiscal confidence?

Neither exactly. As the global hysteria makes evident, trust is at stake, but not purely fiscal or economic trust. De-leveraging banks, insuring deposit accounts, penalising CEOs and socialising risk can’t do the trick because trust is ultimately political – more specifically, democratic. Trust is a crucial form of social capital, a recognition of the common ground on which we stand as citizens. It is the glue that holds rival producers and consumers together and lets them do the business that would otherwise do them in. Whereas the whole point of the market is competition – selfishness and narcissism as instruments of market calculation.

The dirty little secret is, however, that market capitalism works only when it can feed parasitically off active democratic social capital. When too many mortgages fail and too many banks come under pressure and too much bad paper gets sold and too many hedge funds don’t realise what they’ve bought, and credit freezes up and stocks tumble, the trust deficit appears. And no amount of fiscal tinkering, government pushing, banking reform, resolute de-leveraging or presidential and ministerial rhetoric can make up for this democratic deficit. [continued…]

A new breed grabs reins in Anbar

As the day crossed into dusk, Jassim Muhammed al-Sweidawi sat on brown floor cushions, chain-smoking, calmly watching the tribesmen argue over blood money.

A man from the Dulaimi tribe had killed a man from the Jenabi tribe. The elders of both tribes could have sought justice in a provincial court. They could have conferred with traditional sheiks versed in centuries-old ways of resolving disputes. But they didn’t. They came to Sweidawi, a sunburned, American-backed chieftain who in less than two years had become the most powerful man in this patch of eastern Ramadi.

He asked the men if they trusted his authority. They nodded. Within minutes, he worked out a settlement. The men were not happy, but they also feared Sweidawi and needed his protection. “Your appreciation for me will not be forgotten,” the chieftain, 52, said after both men had kissed his cheeks.

“Sheik Jassim,” as his tribesmen call Sweidawi, is among a new generation of tribal leaders asserting influence across Sunni areas. They have won their respect by fighting Sunni insurgents of the al-Qaeda in Iraq group. With American money and support, they have brought a fragile order to Anbar province, once Iraq’s most violent theater, accomplishing in months what the U.S. military could not do in years.

But the rise of these sheiks, collectively called the Awakening, is already touching off new conflicts that could deepen without U.S. military backing for the movement. They have stripped traditional tribal leaders of influence. They have carved up Sunni areas into fiefdoms, imposing their views on law and society and weakening the authority of the Shiite-led central government. Divisions are emerging among the new breed of tribal leaders, even as they are challenging established Sunni religious parties for political dominance. [continued…]

Afghanistan’s emerging antiwar movement

In a musty room near the edge of town, a group of bearded men sit on the floor and heatedly discuss strategy. The men are in the planning stages of an event that they hope will impact Afghan politics – a peace jirga, or assembly, that will agitate for the end of the war between the Taliban and Afghan government by asking the two sides to come to a settlement.

“People are growing tired of the fighting,” says Bakhtar Aminzai of the National Peace Jirga of Afghanistan, an association of students, professors, lawyers, clerics, and others. “We need to pressure the Afghan government and the international community to find a solution without using guns.”

Mr. Aminzai is not alone in his sentiments. As violence and insecurity grow in this war-ravaged nation, a broad network of peace activists have been quietly pushing for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban.

This push coincides with recent preliminary talks in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government hosted a secret high-level meeting in September with former Taliban officials and members of the Afghan government. The event was intended to ultimately open the door to direct talks with the Taliban.

Analysts interviewed say that the majority of Afghans favor some sort of negotiated settlement between the warring sides, but many peace activists are critical of the Saudi talks. “We want reconciliation with the Taliban through a loya jirga,” or grand assembly of Afghans, says Fatana Gilani, head of the Afghanistan Women’s Council (AWC), a leading nongovernmental organization (NGO) here. “We don’t want interference from foreign countries or negotiations behind closed doors,” she says. [continued…]

Pakistani legislators show little appetite for a fight

An unusual parliamentary debate organized to forge a national policy on how to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda has exposed deep ambivalence about the militants, even as their reach extends to suicide attacks in the capital.

In one of his first initiatives as president, Asif Ali Zardari called the session in an effort to mobilize Pakistan’s political parties and its public to support the fight against the militants, which he has now called Pakistan’s war.

But instead, the nearly two weeks of closed sessions have been dominated by calls for dialogue with the Taliban and peppered with opposition to what lawmakers condemned as a war foisted on Pakistan by the United States, according to participants.

The tenor of the debate has highlighted the difficulties facing Mr. Zardari and Washington as they urgently try to focus Pakistan’s full attention on the militant threat at a time when the Pakistani military is locked in heavy fighting in the tribal areas. [continued…]

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