Archives for November 2008

EDITORIAL: Thoughts on the Mumbai attacks

Thoughts on the Mumbai attacks

Was this India’s 9/11? The best way of answer that is to try and imagine if this had happened in New York City.

I suspect that three days of carnage like this would have been even more deeply traumatic for New Yorkers than were the actual 9/11 attacks — and I also think such an attack could have gone on for a lot longer. The gunmen would likely have had higher quality weaponry (easily available on the US gun market) and security services would have been much more cautious than their Indian counterparts in trying to avoid civilian casualties. The 24-hour cable network news coverage would have been breathtakingly sensational.

The intelligence failure: Predictably, this is being described as India’s intelligence failure — wrong. This is America’s intelligence failure. If the US intelligence apparatus with its global reach and its heightened focus on Pakistan didn’t see this coming, let’s not delude ourselves by imagining that it would have been thwarted in the event that the target had not been India, but had been closer to home.

Pakistan. The reflex for India to blame Pakistan is so habitual it has the effect of provoking the opposite reaction among observers, namely, to conclude that the Indian government must be intent on shifting attention away from its domestic problems. In this case, however, this type of political analysis does not stand up against the evidence. The evidence overwhelmingly points in the direction of Pakistan.

We know that some or all of the attackers landed by dinghy and came off a trawler believed to have originated from Karachi. They were heavily armed and supplied with large quantities of ammunition and most importantly had not only the ideological zeal to embark on a suicidal mission, but the combat training to engage in several days of fighting. Not only that, but they carried multiple forms of identification and had been provided with detailed intelligence. For instance, according to security analyst Sunil Ram (listen to his analysis that follows a short AP video news report here), the attacks occurred during a security “trough” in the days immediately following a relaxation of security levels at Mumbai’s hotels. Having entered the Taj hotel they were able to quickly secure the CCTV control room through which they could monitor the whole building and they were able to fend off the Indian commandos from this strategic position.

The Sunday Times reported:

RR Patil, the deputy chief minister of Mumbai’s state government, said there was “proof” that the terrorists were on the phone to someone in Pakistan during the attack.

“All phone calls made by them were tapped. They were being instructed from outside regarding their movement inside the hotel – whether to go upstairs or come down or make a move left or right,” he said…

Kasav [the sole surviving gunman], who speaks fluent English, told investigators he and his fellow terrorists had trained at a camp at the Mangla dam between Pakistani Punjab and Pakistan-held Kashmir.

The group had travelled in pairs to Karachi where they boarded a boat. They had been told not to talk to each other on the journey.

Strategic implications. This is what seems to clinch the argument that this was an operation that not only emanated from Pakistan but was most likely conceived by elements inside the ISI.

At face value we have what looks like the kind of nihilistic mayhem that we’ve come to expect from individuals whose ideological zeal is far stronger than their affiliation to a localized political cause.

In fact, what we witnessed was a major move on President-elect Obama’s chessboard of foreign policy even before he’d had a chance to lay a finger on any of the pieces.

The Obama team has made it known that it wants to push for reconciliation between India and Pakistan so that Pakistani forces focused on Kashmir can be freed up to operate in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. The effect of the Mumbai attacks has been to accomplish the opposite as Pakistan now readies its forces to defend the Indian border.

As Tony Karon writes in The National:

Police work typically begins with the question of motive, and this is plain: a ratcheting up of Indo-Pakistani tensions, possibly even threatening confrontation along traditional fault lines in Kashmir and elsewhere. The beneficiaries of an escalation of tension would be all those whose interests are threatened by Indo-Pak rapprochement – al Qa’eda and the Pakistani Taliban elements coming under sustained attack by Pakistani and US forces along the Afghan border; and hard-core elements of the military and intelligence community whose political DNA is orientated towards confrontation with India.

Not only would the Islamist militants want to reorient the Pakistani military away from counterinsurgency and towards confrontation with India – their common enemy – but so would elements in the military and intelligence services, who are hostile to deploying the army against the Taliban and who see the jihadi proxies as a key element of a continuing strategic rivalry with India.

Provoking India would not only realign the interests of the Pakistani military and the Islamists, it would threaten US efforts to reorient the Pakistani military towards domestic counterinsurgency, and to broker a deeper rapprochement with India – a development US analysts believe is key to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.


The assault of Mumbai

Last gunmen killed in India, ending siege

Security forces brought a three-day assault on India’s financial and cultural capital to an end Saturday morning, killing the last remaining gunmen holed up in one of the city’s luxury hotels after freeing hostages and recovering bodies from two hotels and a Jewish center Friday.

Pakistani officials, responding to charges by Indian leaders that the attack was carried out by an organization with ties to Pakistan, said a senior intelligence officer would travel to India, in an apparent attempt to ease tensions between the two nuclear-armed states.

Indian officials said they now believe that at least 15 gunmen carried out the operation after reaching Mumbai by sea. After an interrogation of one of the attackers, Indian intelligence officials said they suspected that a Pakistani Islamist group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, was responsible. An Indian intelligence document from 2006 obtained by The Washington Post said members of the group had been trained in maritime assault. [continued…]

‘I saw them land on the jetty’

“In the darkness, I saw eight young men stepping out of the raft, two at a time. They jumped into the waters, and picked up a haversack. They bent down again, and came up carrying two more haversacks, one in each hand,” said Tamore. The bags, he thought, looked very heavy.

They were in their 20s, fair-skinned and tall, clad in jeans and jackets. “The man who was lying down shouted at them, asking what they were doing there. So one of them shouted back ‘Tussle mut le ‘. When they approached me, I also asked them who they were, and what were they doing there. One of them said ‘student hai’.”

Tamore said he found their presence unusual, but as they said they were students, and were carrying haversacks, he didn’t think much about it. He thought they were youngsters returning from a picnic. [continued…]

Mumbai police declare Taj Mahal hotel siege over

The militants may have reconnoitred the hotels by checking in as guests, Indian newspaper reports said today. They appeared to be well trained and “very, very familiar” with the layout of the hotel, an army general said.

“At times we found them matching us in combat and movement. They were either army regulars or have done a long stint of commando training,” a commando told the Hindustan Times.

A bag found in the Taj Mahal hotel contained 400 rounds of ammunition, grenades, identity cards, rations, $1,000 (£650) in cash and international credit cards, indicating a meticulously planned operation. [continued…]

U.S. intelligence focuses on Pakistani group

American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Friday that there was mounting evidence that a Pakistani militant group based in Kashmir, most likely Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for this week’s deadly attacks in Mumbai.

The officials cautioned that they had reached no firm conclusions about who was responsible for the attacks, or how they were planned and carried out. Nevertheless, they said that evidence gathered in the past two days pointed to a role for Lashkar-e-Taiba or possibly another group based in Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad, which also has a track record of attacks against India.

The officials requested anonymity in describing their current thinking and declined to discuss specifics of the intelligence that they said pointed to Kashmiri militants. In the past, the American and Indian intelligence services have used communications intercepts to tie Kashmiri militants to terrorist strikes. Indian officials may also be gleaning information from at least one captured gunman who participated in the Mumbai attacks.

According to one Indian intelligence official, during the siege the militants have been using non-Indian cellphones and receiving calls from outside the country, evidence that in part led Indian officials to speak publicly about the militants’ external ties. [continued…]

Pakistani militants at center of probe

Evidence collected by police in Mumbai, along with intelligence gathered by U.S. and British officials, has led investigators to concentrate their focus on Islamist militants in Pakistan who have long sought to spark a war over the disputed province of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over Kashmir, the battleground between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan that each country claimed soon after India’s partition in 1947.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said additional evidence has emerged in the past 24 hours that points toward a Kashmiri connection. “Some of what has been learned so far does fall in that direction,” the official said, declining to offer specifics.

“We have to be careful here,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “When you posit a Kashmiri connection, that puts Pakistan on the table. That is huge, enormous, but what does it mean? It can be anything from people who were [initially] in Pakistan, to maybe people who used to be associated with someone in the Pakistani government, to any gradation you could find.” [continued…]

Britons are among those detained, official claims

Britons were among the militants arrested for the Bombay attacks, a senior Indian official said yesterday.

Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Maharashtra state, in which Bombay lies, made the claim on an Indian television station.

Patrick Mercer, MP, a former Conservative security spokesman, told The Times that he had been given information that at least two of the terrorists had credit cards and other identifying documents that linked them to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Other reports last night claimed that men from Leeds and Bradford were among the terrorists. [continued…]



Indian forces battle pockets of militants

As the crisis in Mumbai neared its 48th hour, Indian commandos were battling to overcome stubborn resistance by militants on Friday, seeking to end the bloody assault on India’s financial and entertainment capital that has shaken the nation and raised perilous regional tensions with Pakistan.

Shortly before night settled over the stricken city, the police said the death toll had reached 143 with the discovery of 24 bodies in the luxury Oberoi hotel, where guests were set free on Friday after being holed up in their rooms as security forces re-asserted control of the building. But officers did not explain why the operation to flush out a handful of assailants in other places had taken so long.

Commandos slid down ropes from a hovering Army helicopter on Friday morning as they stormed a Jewish center that had been seized. The blue-uniformed troopers landed on the roof and soon made their way inside Nariman House, home to the Hasidic Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch. The caution and pace of their maneuvers suggested the authorities were keen to avoid civilian casualties. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — For the individual gunmen involved in this attack their motives may have been personal and diverse. Time reports: “A gunman, holed up in Mumbai’s Oberoi Trident hotel where some 40 people had been taken hostage, told an Indian news channel that the attacks were revenge for the persecution of Muslims in India. ‘We love this as our country but when our mothers and sisters were being killed, where was everybody?’ he asked via telephone.”

Given that the tactical choice of using guns instead of bombs meant that the perpetrators inevitably risked capture, it seems possible that this team of gunmen may have been made up of groups of two, three or four men each of which had its own ideological agenda and none of which shared or necessarily were aware of the agenda of their sponsors. Even so, the broad character of the operation — it’s focus on Mumbai’s internationalism, its novelty, and its potential to have a far-reaching geopolitical impact — all of this strongly suggests that this was not simply a blood-curdling cry of vengeance from a group that sees itself standing up for India’s oppressed Muslims. Were it such, the target would have unambiguously been Hindus.

Attributes suggest outside help

Counterterrorism officials and experts said the scale, sophistication and targets involved in the Mumbai attacks were markedly different from previous terrorist plots in India and suggested the gunmen had received training from outside the country. But they cautioned it was too soon to tell who may have masterminded the operation, despite an assertion from a previously unknown Islamist radical group.

Officials in India, Europe and the United States said likely culprits included Islamist networks based in Pakistan that have received support in the past from Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

Analysts said this week’s attacks surpassed previous plots carried out by domestic groups in terms of complexity, the number of people involved and their success in achieving their primary goal: namely, to spread fear.

“This is a new, horrific milestone in the global jihad,” said Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia analyst for the CIA and National Security Council and author of the book “The Search for Al Qaeda.” “No indigenous Indian group has this level of capability. The goal is to damage the symbol of India’s economic renaissance, undermine investor confidence and provoke an India-Pakistani crisis.” [continued…]

India says trawler may have delivered attackers

An Indian-owned fishing trawler may have been used to deliver militants who attacked Mumbai from the sea, a top coast guard official said on Friday.

“Whether the trawler was hijacked or not is being investigated, but some of the things found on the trawler are bad news,” he said, declining to be named. “The boat was used to drop off men.” Indian investigators say the militants who attacked Mumbai, killing around 120 people, arrived by sea in rubber dinghies, but are trying to trace the ship which ferried them close to the city.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pinned the blame for the attacks on militants based in a neighbouring country, usually meaning Pakistan. [continued…]

India’s suspicion of Pakistan clouds U.S. strategy in region

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai occurred as India and Pakistan, two big, hostile and nuclear-armed nations, were delicately moving toward improved relations with the encouragement of the United States and in particular the incoming Obama administration.

Those steps could quickly be derailed, with deep consequences for the United States, if India finds Pakistani fingerprints on the well-planned operation. India has raised suspicions. Pakistan has vehemently denied them.

But no matter who turns out to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, their scale and the choice of international targets will make the agenda of the new American administration harder. [continued…]

Claims emerge of British terrorists in Mumbai

It is too early to tell whether British-born Pakistanis were among the Mumbai terrorists, Gordon Brown said today in response to claims at least two Britons were involved.

The Foreign Office is investigating reports on the Indian channel NDTV that quoted Vilasrao Deshmukh, the chief minister of Mumbai, saying there were British links to the attacks. [continued…]

City under siege

Today, the platitudes flow like blood. Terrorism is unacceptable; the terrorists are cowards; the world stands united in unreserved condemnation of this latest atrocity. Commentators in America trip over themselves to pronounce this night and day of carnage “India’s 9/11.” But India has endured many attempted 9/11s, notably a ferocious assault on its national Parliament in December 2001 that nearly led to all-out war against the assailants’ presumed sponsors, Pakistan. This year alone, terrorist bombs have taken lives in Jaipur, in Ahmedabad, in Delhi and (in an eerie dress-rehearsal for the effectiveness of synchronicity) several different places on one searing day in the state of Assam. Jaipur is the lodestar of Indian tourism to Rajasthan; Ahmedabad is the primary city of Gujarat, the state that is a poster child for India’s development, with a local GDP growth rate of 14%; Delhi is the nation’s political capital and India’s window to the world; Assam was logistically convenient for terrorists from across a porous border. Mumbai combined all four elements of its precursors: by attacking it, the terrorists hit India’s economy, its tourism, and its internationalism, and they took advantage of the city’s openness to the world. A grand slam.

Indians have learned to endure the unspeakable horrors of terrorist violence ever since men in Pakistan concluded it was cheaper and more effective to bleed India to death than to attempt to defeat it in conventional war. Attack after attack has proven to have been financed, equipped and guided from across the border, the most recent being the suicide bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, an action publicly traced by American intelligence to Islamabad’s dreaded military special-ops agency, the ISI. The risible attempt to claim “credit” for the Mumbai killings in the name of the “Deccan Mujahideen” merely confirms that wherever the killers are from, it is not the Deccan. The Deccan lies inland from Mumbai; one does not need to sail the waters of the Arabian Sea to the Gateway of India to get to the city from there. In its meticulous planning, sophisticated coordination and military precision, as well as its choice of targets, the assault on Mumbai bore no trace of what its promoters tried to suggest it was: a spontaneous eruption by angry young Indian Muslims. This horror was not homegrown. [continued…]

Keeping Robert Gates as secretary of defense is a great idea

If the reports are true that Robert Gates will stay on as President Obama’s defense secretary, the move is a stroke of brilliance—politically and substantively.

In his nearly two years at the helm of the Pentagon, Gates has delivered a series of speeches on the future direction of military policy. He has urged officers to recognize the shift in the face of warfare from the World War II legacy of titanic armored battles between comparably mighty foes to the modern reality of small shadow wars against terrorists and insurgents.

More than that, he has called for systematic adjustments to this new reality: canceling weapons systems that aren’t suited to these kinds of wars and building more weapons that are; reforming the promotion boards to reward and advance the creative officers who have proved most adept at this style of warfare; rethinking the roles and missions of the individual branches of the armed services; siphoning some of the military’s missions, especially those dealing with “nation building,” to civilian agencies. [continued…]

Iraq backs deal that sets end of U.S. role

With a substantial majority, the Iraqi Parliament on Thursday ratified a sweeping security agreement that sets the course for an end to the United States’ role in the war and marks the beginning of a new relationship between the countries.

The pact, which still must be approved by Iraq’s three-person presidency council, a move expected in the next few days, sets the end of 2011 as the date by which the last American troops must leave the country.

Its passage, on a vote of 149 to 35, according to a parliamentary statement, was a victory for Iraq’s government as well as for the often fractious legislative body, which forged a political compromise among bitterly differing factions in 10 days of intense negotiations. [continued…]

Cyber-attack on Defense Department computers raises concerns

Senior military leaders took the exceptional step of briefing President Bush this week on a severe and widespread electronic attack on Defense Department computers that may have originated in Russia — an incursion that posed unusual concern among commanders and raised potential implications for national security.

Defense officials would not describe the extent of damage inflicted on military networks. But they said that the attack struck hard at networks within U.S. Central Command, the headquarters that oversees U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and affected computers in combat zones. The attack also penetrated at least one highly protected classified network.

Military computers are regularly beset by outside hackers, computer viruses and worms. But defense officials said the most recent attack involved an intrusive piece of malicious software, or “malware,” apparently designed specifically to target military networks. [continued…]



Note – This might be the last update until after Thanksgiving. We’ll see.

Tribal power-politics

The political spectacle that is unfolding in Washington right now is, from the perspective of many observers, all about the apportioning of power.

Are the Clintonites getting too much of it? Where are the progressives? Is an interest in some kind of illusory bipartisanship being used to obscure the fact that the Republicans lost and the Democrats won?

In that context, here’s an incendiary idea that would drive many Obama supporters hopping mad: the possibility that the neoconservative co-founder of the Project for the New American Century could get a job in the new administration.

It isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. And if it happens, it might not — dare I say it — be a bad idea. But the reason it might be good has absolutely nothing to do with some notion that adding a bit of neocon spice to the Democratic sauce will improve its flavor.

The point is that these labels — neoconservative, liberal, progressive, realist, ideologue — serve primarily as substitutes for sharp observation and clear reflection.

Label someone a neocon and most of us instantly turn deaf. Our own thought processes become turgid.

For that reason, it would always serve us better to pay as close attention to what‘s being said as to who‘s saying it.

A case in point is the following conversation between Robert Wright and Robert Kagan. Although I’m definitely much more inclined towards Wright’s view of the world than Kagan’s, there’s no question that in this discussion (which runs for an hour instead of being one of those frustratingly short snippets) it is Kagan — not Wright — who demonstrates much more clarity in his thinking.

At the beginning, surprisingly, Kagan makes it clear that he sincerely entertains the hope that he’s going to get an appointment in the Obama administration. Has Hillary quietly suggested she might have a place for him at State? Could he conceivably have a role like Philip Zelikow had with Condoleeza Rice?

Whatever position he might get, here’s how it strikes me he could be useful: by sharpening the debate on the contesting relationship between national and international interests.

* * *

America’s hidden war in Somalia

To glimpse America’s secret war in Africa, you must bang with a rock on the iron gate of the prison in this remote port in northern Somalia. A sleepy guard will yank open a rusty deadbolt. Then, you ask to speak to an inmate named Mohamed Ali Isse.

Isse, 36, is a convicted murderer and jihadist. He is known among his fellow prisoners, with grudging awe, as “The Man with the American Thing in His Leg.”

That “thing” is a stainless steel surgical pin screwed into his bullet-shattered femur, courtesy, he says, of the U.S. Navy. How it got there — or more to the point, how Isse ended up in this crumbling, stone-walled hellhole at the uttermost end of the Earth—is a story that the U.S. government probably would prefer to remain untold.

That’s because Isse and his fancy surgery scars offer what little tangible evidence exists of a bare-knuckled war that has been waged silently, over the past five years, with the sole aim of preventing anarchic Somalia from becoming the world’s next Afghanistan. [continued…]

Battling the Somali pirates: the return of the Islamists

T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) famously compared counterinsurgency warfare to “eating soup with a knife”. The same might apply to the efforts of Western navies to protect commercial shipping from the marauding pirates of Somalia, except for the fact that soup is typically contained within a bowl — and the pirates have the freedom of a vast ocean in which to move. They recently captured a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million in crude oil, by striking hundreds of miles away from the shipping lanes being patrolled by some of the world’s most powerful navies. But if the pirates have the wind at their backs out at sea, they got some bad news back on shore last weekend, when five armored vehicles loaded with fighters of the Islamist Shabab militia arrived in the port town of Harardhere, where the pirates who seized the Sirius Star are based. [continued…]

Saving Citi may create more fear

One bailout was not enough for Citigroup. And it may not be enough for other big banks.

While Citigroup’s second multibillion-dollar rescue from Washington hit Wall Street like a shot of adrenaline on Monday, many analysts worried that the jolt would soon wear off. Citigroup has been stabilized, but the outlook for the financial industry as a whole is bleak.

With the red ink deepening, other banks may eventually turn to the government to soak up some of their losses. Taxpayers could end up guaranteeing hundreds of billions of dollars of banks’ toxic assets. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is expected to announce a new plan on Tuesday to bolster the consumer-finance market.

“When all else fails, government does come in,” said David A. Moss, a public policy professor at Harvard Business School.

On Monday, Wall Street put aside its worries, at least for a day. Citigroup’s share price, which had plunged to a mere $3.77 on Friday, shot up to $5.95. Shares of its biggest rivals — banks which, with the government’s help, are emerging to dominate the industry — also soared. Bank of America jumped 27 percent, JPMorgan Chase leapt 21 percent and Wells Fargo gained nearly 20 percent.

In the short term, the latest effort to steady Citigroup has removed the risk that a sudden failure of the giant bank would send losses cascading through the financial industry.

But longer term, the new bailout could haunt regulators and taxpayers. The move ultimately may encourage banks to take more risks in the belief that the government will step in if they run into trouble. [continued…]

Recession could cause large increases in poverty and push millions into deep poverty

Like previous recessions, the current downturn is likely to cause significant increases both in the number of Americans who are poor and the number living in “deep poverty,” with incomes below half of the poverty line. Because this recession is likely to be deep and the government safety net for very poor families who lack jobs has weakened significantly in recent years, increases in deep poverty in this recession are likely to be severe. There are a series of steps that federal and state policymakers could take to soften the recession’s harshest impacts and limit the extent of the increases in deep poverty, destitution, and homelessness.

Goldman Sachs projects that the unemployment rate will rise to 9 percent by the fourth quarter of 2009 (the firm has increased its forecast for the unemployment rate a couple of times in the last month). If this holds true and the increase in poverty relative to the increase in unemployment is within the range of the last three recessions, the number of poor Americans will rise by 7.5-10.3 million, the number of poor children will rise by 2.6-3.3 million, and the number of children in deep poverty will climb by 1.5-2.0 million. [continued…]

US military ripe for a fight with Obama

The most intense debate in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the Untied States has been over whether Robert Gates will agree to stay on as defense secretary. Speculation on Gates’ status seems to change by the hour. “Bob wants to come back to Texas to finish his work as a university president,” a Gates friend said in the aftermath of Obama’s sweeping victory over Republican Senator John McCain. Another colleague proffers a different story: “Bob and his wife are intent to enjoy their retirement,” he says. “They have a home in the northwest, and they would like to spend some time there. He wants out of Washington.”

The speculation over Gates’ tenure has been most intense inside the Obama transition team. The team received a request from Gates that, were he to stay, he would want to retain some of his top civilian assistants. The request led to concerns among the Obama transition staff: “Gates is not a neo-con or even a hardcore Republican,” a person close to the process noted, “but the people around him sure as hell are.” A former Bill Clinton administration official who has been deployed by Obama to conduct a series of “meet and greets” with top officials at the Pentagon scoffed at the notion of a continuation of Gates’ tenure: “The [presidential] election was a clean sweep,” he says, “and that includes Bob Gates. It’s called a change in government.” [continued…]

Is America’s new declinism for real?

Texas A&M is not the obvious place to pick if you want to discuss American decline. The university sends more of its graduates straight into the military than any other civilian college in the US. Its officer training corps prowl the campus in crisply pressed uniforms and knee-high leather boots, greeting each other with brisk “howdys”. Agonised introspection and crises of confidence are not Texan traits.

But last week the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M hosted a conference designed to discuss the latest, markedly gloomy world view issued by America’s intelligence establishment. Every four years the National Intelligence Council – which oversees America’s baroque collection of intelligence agencies – releases a global trends report, which is given to the new president.

The latest report, published on November 20, has made headlines around the world. The front page of Britain’s Guardian newspaper shouted “2025: the end of US dominance”. For once, the headline is broadly accurate. As the NIC frankly notes, “the most dramatic difference” between the new report and the one issued four years ago is that it now foresees “a world in which the US plays a prominent role in global events, but the US is seen as one among many global actors”. The report issued four years ago had projected “continuing US dominance”. [continued…]

Europe is waiting to see how Obama plays Iran

Iran could now credibly claim to have produced the nuclear elements necessary to make a single atom bomb. It’s a new and accelerating situation that’s giving life to apprehension in Europe about how Barack Obama will handle trying to stop the Iranian drive.

The fact: several nuclear experts in the United States reported last week, based on information from the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make a weapon.

The reservations: doing so would require additional purification and a warhead design. Iran would also have to behave aggressively, expelling the agency’s in-country inspectors who could track the existence of a weapons application. At the same time, the experts have differing notions on the point in time when military implications would kick in. [continued…]

US puts pressure on Israel to refrain from attacks

U.S. officials have asked Israel to refrain from launching any major military action in the region during the waning days of the Bush presidency, Israeli sources have told TIME. Previously, some Israeli military officials had hinted to the media that if Israel were to carry out its threats to strike at Iranian nuclear installations, it might do so before Barack Obama enters the White House in January. But now a Defense Ministry official says, “We have been warned off.” [continued…]

Hamdan to be sent to Yemen

The U.S. military has decided to transfer Osama bin Laden’s former driver from custody at Guantanamo Bay to his home in Yemen, ending the seven-year saga of a man the Bush administration considered a dangerous terrorist but whom a military jury found to be a low-level aide.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan is expected to arrive within 48 hours in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, where he will serve out the rest of his military commission sentence, which is set to expire Dec. 27, two government officials said. The Pentagon’s decision to send Hamdan home narrowly avoids what could have been a sticky diplomatic situation, as Bush administration officials had long contended they could hold Hamdan indefinitely.

It also prevents President-elect Barack Obama from having to decide Hamdan’s fate early in his term. Obama has said he wants to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba. [continued…]

Hamas leaders abroad question group’s iron grip on Gaza

Internal Hamas correspondence intercepted by the Palestinian Authority and obtained by Haaretz reveals a deep divide between the organization’s leadership abroad and its West Bank leadership, on the one hand, and the Gaza leadership on the other. In the documents, the leadership abroad says it does not want “to control Gaza completely while losing the West Bank.”

These leaders claim that Hamas in Gaza caused the reconciliation talks with Fatah that had been slated for Cairo to fail. The leaders abroad say their Gaza counterparts thwarted the chances for a Palestinian national unity government by their unwillingness to consider giving up control of the Strip and setting “impossible” conditions. [continued…]



Citigroup bailout: weak, arbitrary, incomprehensible

The government (should have) had two goals for this bailout. First, since everyone assumes Citi is too big to fail, the bailout had to be big enough that it would settle the matter once and for all. Second, it had to define a standard set of terms that other banks could rely on and, more importantly, the market could rely on being there for other banks. This plan fails on both counts.

The arithmetic on this deal doesn’t seem to work for me (feel free to help me out). Citi has over $2 trillion in assets and several hundred billions of dollars in off-balance sheet liabilities. $27 billion is a drop in the bucket. Friedman Billings Ramsey last week estimated that Citi needed $160 billion in new capital. (I’m not sure I agree with the exact number, but that’s the ballpark.) Yes, there is a guarantee on $306 billion in assets (which will not get triggered until that $27 billion is wiped out), but that leaves another $2 trillion in other assets, many of which are not looking particularly healthy. If I’m an investor, I’m thinking that Citi is going to have to come back again for more money.

In addition, the plan is arbitrary and cannot possibly set an expectation for future deals. In particular, by saying that the government will back some of Citi’s assets but not others, it doesn’t even establish a principle that can be followed in future bailouts. In effect, the message to the market was and has been: “We will protect some (unnamed) large banks from failing, but we won’t tell you how and we’ll decide at the last minute.)” As long as that’s the message, investors will continue to worry about all U.S. banks. [continued…]

Team of Rubins

As progressives, we can view President-Elect Obama’s emerging economic team in one of two ways. Either he has disappointed us by picking a group of Clinton retreads–the very people who brought us the deregulation that produced the financial collapse; the fiscal conservatives who in the 1990s put budget balance ahead of rebuilding public institutions. Or we can conclude that he has very shrewdly named a team of technically competent centrists so that he can govern as a progressive in pragmatist’s clothing–as he moves the political center to the left.

Which will it be? Certainly, Obama’s press notices are phenomenal, and Republicans have almost been more enthusiastic than Democrats. When Arianna Huffington and I debated George Will and David Brooks on George Stephanopulos’s This Week Sunday morning, the conservatives were, if anything, more approving of Obama’s picks than we were.

On another channel, Republican guru Ed Rollins could be heard exulting about the Obama cabinet. I even had the out-of-body experience of debating Pat Buchanan on Hardball, to find that he thought Hillary Clinton was a terrific choice for Secretary of State. Obama now has the highest approval ratings on record for any president-elect, and he has the entire Republican pundit class in a swoon. [continued…]

Rubinomics recalculated

It is testament to former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin’s star power among many Democrats that as President-elect Barack Obama fills out his economic team, a virtual Rubin constellation is taking shape.

The president-elect’s choices for his top economic advisers — Timothy F. Geithner as Treasury secretary, Lawrence H. Summers as senior White House economics adviser and Peter R. Orszag as budget director — are past protégés of Mr. Rubin, who held two of those jobs under President Bill Clinton. Even the headhunters for Mr. Obama have Rubin ties: Michael Froman, Mr. Rubin’s chief of staff in the Treasury Department who followed him to Citigroup, and James P. Rubin, Mr. Rubin’s son.

All three advisers — whom Mr. Obama will officially name on Monday and Tuesday — have been followers of the economic formula that came to be called Rubinomics: balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, a combination that was credited with fueling the prosperity of the 1990s.

But times have changed since then. On Wall Street, Mr. Rubin is facing questions about his role as director of Citigroup given the bank’s current woes. And in Washington, he and his acolytes are calling for a new formulation to address the global economic crisis that Mr. Obama will inherit — and rejecting or setting aside, for now, some of their old orthodoxies. [continued…]

Scowcroft protégés on Obama’s radar

Many of the Republicans emerging as potential members of the Obama administration have professional and ideological ties to Brent Scowcroft, a former national-security adviser turned public critic of the Bush White House.

Mr. Scowcroft spoke by phone with President-elect Barack Obama last week, the latest in a months-long series of conversations between the two men about defense and foreign-policy issues, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The relationship between the president-elect and the Republican heavyweight suggests that Mr. Scowcroft’s views, which place a premium on an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, might hold sway in the Obama White House.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was deputy national-security adviser under Mr. Scowcroft in the George H.W. Bush administration, is almost certain to be retained by Mr. Obama, according to aides to the president-elect. Richard Haass, a Scowcroft protégé and former State Department official, could be tapped for a senior National Security Council, State Department or intelligence position. Mr. Haass currently runs the Council on Foreign Relations. [continued…]

Israeli hawks ready to fly on Iran

Prepare for war. Last week I met the Boogie Man, the former head of the Israeli Defence Forces, General Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, who is preparing the political groundwork for a military attack on Iran’s key nuclear facilities. “We have to confront the Iranian revolution immediately,” he told me. “There is no way to stabilise the Middle East today without defeating the Iranian regime. The Iranian nuclear program must be stopped.”

Defeating the theocratic regime in Tehran could be economic or political or, as a last resort, military, he said. “All tools, all options, should be considered.” He was speaking in the tranquillity of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, where he was, until last Thursday, one of Israel’s plethora of warrior-scholars, though more influential than most.

Could “all options” include decapitating the Iranian leadership by military strikes, including on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel’s destruction? “We have to consider killing him,” Ya’alon replied. “All options must be considered.” [continued…]

An Israeli-Palestinian agreement: Forget about it

I‘ve been a Palestinian firster for most of my professional life. I believe that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the key to regional peace, and the sine qua non for preserving Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

These arguments remain valid. What’s changed is that a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians may no longer be possible. I choose my words carefully here. Varying kinds of accommodations cease fires, informal cooperation and temporary arrangements may still be possible. But an agreement now or perhaps for the foreseeable future that revolves conclusively the four core issues (borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security) isn’t.

Three realities drive my pessimism and should force experts, politicians and would be mediators to keep their enthusiasm for quick or easy solutions under control. [continued…]

Lawrence Wilkerson’s lessons of war and truth

Nations in flux are nations in need. A new president will soon take office, facing hard choices not only about two long-running wars and an ever-deepening economic crisis, but about a government that has long been morally adrift. Torture-as-policy, kidnappings, ghost prisons, domestic surveillance, creeping militarism, illegal war-making, and official lies have been the order of the day. Moments like this call for truth-tellers. For Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. For witnesses willing to come forward. For brave souls ready to expose hidden and forbidden realities to the light of day.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson is such a man. He came to national prominence in October 2005 when — having left his post as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier in the year — he laid bare some of the secrets of the Bush White House as he had experienced them. He had been inside the halls of power as the invasion and occupation of Iraq took shape. In Bush’s second term, on the outside, he found that he had had enough. The American people, he thought, had a right to know just how their government was really working, and so he offered them this vision of the Bush administration in action: “[S]ome of the most important decisions about U.S. national security — including vital decisions about postwar Iraq — were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”

In the years since, Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, has not been reticent, especially when it came to “the militarization of America’s foreign policy” and the practice of extraordinary rendition (the kidnapping of terror suspects and their deliverance into the hands of regimes ready and willing to torture them). [continued…]

Five steps to a nuclear-free world

Weapons of mass destruction and disarmament form one of the gravest challenges facing the world. One of my priorities as United Nations secretary general is to promote global public goods and remedies to challenges that do not respect borders. A world free of nuclear weapons is a global public good of the highest order.

My interest in this subject stems partly from personal experience. My homeland, South Korea, has suffered the ravages of conventional war and faced threats from nuclear weapons and other WMD. But, of course, such threats are not unique to Asia.

Despite a longstanding taboo against using nuclear weapons, disarmament remains only an aspiration. So, is a taboo alone on the use of such weapons sufficient? [continued…]

No nukes

For many Americans, the idea of a world without nuclear weapons is a bit like the idea of a world without war or disease – it would be nice, but, contra John Lennon, it’s hard to imagine.

That’s not to say lots of people haven’t devoted themselves to the cause. As the atomic age was dawning, Gandhi was already demanding its end, and today Pope Benedict XVI echoes that call. A host of international organizations, from Greenpeace to Mayors for Peace to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the German Green Party, are dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Many of them have been at it for decades.

The movement, however, has always carried utopian associations, and been conflated in the popular imagination with pacifism. The leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, their global stature buttressed by their atomic arsenals, have, with a few exceptions, shown little real interest in the idea.

This is changing. Total nuclear disarmament – “getting to zero” in the arms-control argot – has become a mainstream cause. Voices from the heights of the American foreign policy establishment have begun to argue that, in a world of inevitably unruly globalization, increasing interest in nuclear energy, incomplete alliances, ambitious suicide terrorists, and ever-present human fallibility, it will never be enough to improve controls on the world’s nuclear weapons, or to reduce their numbers. We have to commit to eliminating them altogether.

These arguments are being made not by popes and mahatmas and Greens but by former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense, by generals and nuclear scientists, Democrats and Republicans. The leaders of the new no-nuke movement are George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, four of the most respected figures in American foreign policy circles. Over the past two years, they have, in speeches, at arms-control conferences and, most prominently, in two widely circulated op-ed pieces, lent their authority to an idea that is still seen as fairly radical. [continued…]



Some in Arab world wary of Clinton

There is possibly no person President-elect Barack Obama considered for secretary of state who is more reliably pro-Israel than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the woman to whom he appears likely to give the job sometime after Thanksgiving.

During the Democratic primary campaign, Clinton said the United States could “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. She said the United States should not negotiate with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, unless it renounced terrorism. “The United States stands with Israel, now and forever,” Clinton told AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, at its conference in June.

Yet Clinton is also the former first lady who famously broke with her husband’s administration in 1998 and said Palestinians should have a state of their own. Ten years later, the comment seems unexceptional, but at the time it prompted the White House to make clear she was speaking only for herself.

Clinton’s foreign policy views will be scrutinized closely in the weeks ahead, but as her past statements on the Middle East illustrate, she has a considerable track record that provides evidence for several plausible explanations of how she might try to focus U.S. diplomacy. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Much of the debate around the wisdom (or lack of it) in selecting Hillary Clinton as secretary of state seems to imply that by putting her in that position Obama will be delegating foreign-policy making to her. In other words, as Bob Woodward claims, Obama has been persuaded to “give Hillary and Bill the world.” I find this highly implausible. Moreover, the gaping hole in much of this discussion so far is the fact that we simply do not know why Obama has picked Clinton, but maybe some context can shed some light.

A campaign is underway to make the Saudi-initiated Arab League peace plan (first presented in 2002) the central framework upon which a resolution to the Middle East conflict can be negotiated. It’s too early to tell whether this campaign is aimed at persuading Obama to put this at the top of his foreign policy agenda, or whether he’s already on board and the efforts of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Shimon Peres and others are simply groundwork in preparation for a presidential initiative.

If it’s the latter, then it’s reasonable to assume that when Obama offered Clinton SoS, he alerted her to the fact that she would have an important role to play in pushing the Arab peace plan forward. The fact that she’s perceived as a hawk and strongly pro-Israeli would then become assets — not deficits — if she fully supported Obama’s initiative.

So much for the speculation. What should not be lost sight of is that, as The Post says: “she would be responsible for implementing a foreign policy established in the end by Obama.” The Clintons are not about to be given the world.

Obama to take on torture?

Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible. “At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened,” said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved “waterboarding” and other controversial practices.

Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That’s one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice inquiry (absent specific new evidence of wrongdoing). “If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you’d instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship,” said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration. A new commission, on the other hand, could emulate the bipartisan tone set by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton in investigating the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 panel was created by Congress. An alternative model, floated by human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, would be a presidential commission similar to the one appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975 and headed by Nelson Rockefeller that investigated cold-war abuses by the CIA. [continued…]

The ‘good war’ isn’t worth fighting

Afghanistan does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks.

Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.

President-elect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs — the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.

We invaded intending to attack Al Qaeda and provide development assistance. We succeeded. By 2004, Afghanistan had a stable currency, millions more children in school, a better health system, an elected Parliament, no Al Qaeda and almost no Taliban. All this was achieved with only 20,000 troops and a relatively small international aid budget.

When the decision was made to increase troops in 2005, there was no insurgency. But as NATO became increasingly obsessed with transforming the country and brought in more money and troops to deal with corruption and the judiciary, warlords and criminals, insecurity in rural areas and narcotics, it failed. In fact, things got worse. These new NATO troops encountered a fresh problem — local Taliban resistance — which has drawn them into a counterinsurgency campaign. [continued…]

Militants and military brace for a winter of war in Afghanistan

In recent years, the first snow falling on the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan has ushered in a seasonal slowdown in fighting between insurgents and the Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

This winter looks to be different. Snow and icy terrain aside, both sides have made it clear that they plan to keep fighting, each contending that the harsh conditions favor them more than their enemy.

“We’ll be pursuing them, and pursuing them aggressively, whatever the conditions, and they know this,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, a vow amplified by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, in a speech in Washington on Tuesday. [continued…]

Ringed by foes, Pakistanis fear the U.S., too

A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among Pakistani elites. It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fueled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the United States really wants is the breakup of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

“One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan,” said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning, who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. “Some people feel the United States is colluding in this.”

That notion may strike Americans as strange coming from an ally of 50 years. But as the incoming Obama administration tries to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against militancy, it can hardly be ignored. [continued…]

In Somalia, piracy and state breakdown

You know we’re in trouble when much public sentiment in the Arab world probably backs the Somali pirates who recently captured a Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million of crude oil. If there is a single incident that captures the strange dynamics that have defined our region for the past 50 years or so, this is it: Lawless brigands of a collapsed, poverty-stricken and often violent state grab the paramount symbol of the modern Arab world – an oil tanker heading for the West! – and the rest of the Arab world remains mostly silent and indifferent.

This week in Beirut and on a working visit to Jordan, I asked people for their views of the seizure of the Saudi tanker. I heard three striking and frightening responses: mostly shrugs of the shoulder, some perfunctory expressions of distaste for criminal piracy, and an occasional wicked sense of glee by a few stressed people whose daily lives were increasingly becoming a losing battle to make ends meet, and who experienced vicarious thrills in the daring defiance of the pirates.

Somali piracy has suddenly captured international attention, because global sea-borne assets are now threatened, though the suffering and death of Somalis remain strangely invisible to the outside world. The global response has been a colossal failure in understanding what all this really means. Most comments I have heard focus on the need for greater security cooperation, a sort of “surge-at-sea” strategy to defeat the pirates militarily. This is probably futile in the long run if it only focuses on defeating criminality without addressing the underlying causes of state collapse that gave birth to the piracy phenomenon in the first place. [continued…]

To do: Somalia

The fraught 1992-93 U.S.-led humanitarian intervention, U.S. backing for Ethiopia, and civilian casualties caused by recent American counterterrorism strikes have eroded Somali respect for the United States. But Obama’s singular status as the first African American president substantially renews American diplomatic credibility with all Africans, including Somalis.

Expending political capital on such a knotty problem–over a dozen transitional governments have tried and failed over the past 17 years–might seem imprudent at first blush. But the Somalis’ very recalcitrance has yielded such low expectations that very little would actually be at risk. Moreover, an earnest attempt at conflict-resolution in Somalia would enable Mr. Obama to showcase the differences between him and his predecessor.

Mr. Bush was a self-described “gut player,” uninterested in the cultural subtleties of other peoples, and it showed in a foreign policy that was often ineffective on account of its insensitivity. By contrast, Mr. Obama is surrounding himself with true regional experts, including Africanists who have made it their business to understand Africans and their politics in all their complexities. Somalia’s notorious clan system makes for extreme political atomization, and makes any power-sharing solution an especially daunting prospect. Yet the clan network also disperses power from the bottom up, and, properly harnessed, could systematically limit the trajectory of a top-down movement like radical Islamism. [continued…]

Somali Islamists ‘hunt pirates’

Somali Islamist insurgents have begun searching for the pirates who hijacked a giant Saudi-owned oil tanker last Saturday, reports say.

A spokesman for the al-Shabab group, Abdelghafar Musa, said hijacking a Muslim-owned ship was a major crime and they would pursue those responsible.

The pirates are thought to be trying to obtain a multi-million dollar ransom. [continued…]


Secretary of State

Clinton is said to opt for Secretary of State position

Hillary Rodham Clinton has decided to give up her Senate seat and accept the position of secretary of state, making her the public face around the world for the administration of the man who beat her for the Democratic presidential nomination, two confidants said Friday. [continued…]

Will Clinton fill State Dept. with loyalists?

With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) almost certain to become President-elect Barack Obama’s secretary of state, some foreign-policy experts in the Obama orbit are expressing frustration.

Clinton herself isn’t so much the problem, they say. It’s the loyalists and traditional thinkers Clinton is likely to bring into the State Dept. if she becomes secretary. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — This would be a moment to relish: After Thanksgiving, the official announcement comes out and Hillary Clinton turns out not to be Obama’s pick for Secretary of State. At least, I’d relish that moment not so much because I hate the idea of her getting that position as much I’d delight in the chattering classes being made to look so foolish for having engaged in so much speculation about the meaning of something that never happened.

Even so, in the spirit of the times, I’ll join the herd and add a few thoughts of my own:

1. If HRC becomes SoS, it means she’s laid to rest any aspiration to become president. If the Obama administration turns out to be a failure, she could conceivably run in 2012 but only if she’d remained in the Senate.
2. The idea that Obama has picked her because he wants to create a “team of rivals” has been ridiculously overstated. Sure, that may have influenced his thinking but I doubt very much that it would be the core of his reasoning for selecting her in this particular position.
3. I would expect that he has laid out the parameters for her policy making role with sufficient clarity that they both agree on exactly what it means to be “serving at the president’s pleasure”. She’ll have a strong voice but she won’t have the final say.
4. Bob Woodward apparently said:

    Being president is about control, and tell me who ever controlled Bill or Hillary Clinton. They can’t control each other. … I think it’s because Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker and others have convinced Obama, ‘You’re going to have to focus like a laser on the economy. That’s issue Number One. And give Hillary and Bill the world.’ … I think people are fantasizing or smoking something if they think Joe Biden’s going to call Hillary Clinton up and say, ‘This is what we want you to do.’

I don’t buy it. This caricature of the Clintons as being utterly uncontrollable should have been laid to rest after HRC conceded her defeat in the primaries and then went on to help get Obama elected.
5. There seems to be a widely held view that as an executive rookie, Obama is now being buffeted by Washington’s institutional powers and pushed into making decisions that reflect the conventional wisdom of seasoned operatives more than judgments of his own. I suspect this perception is largely a product of a false equation being made between the mildness of Obama’s manner and the idea that this must make him susceptible to being pushed around. I believe, on the contrary, that he will turn out to be much more of a ‘decider’ than Bush ever was. His receptiveness to input from others is a reflection of the confidence he has in the power of his own mind.



Is it OK to be liberal again, instead of progressive?

If the conservative era is over, can liberals come out of their defensive crouch and call themselves liberals again, instead of progressives?

In the last two decades, Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, have abandoned the term “liberal” for “progressive.” The theory was that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan — had succeeded in equating “liberal” in the public mind with weakness on defense, softness on crime, and “redistribution” of Joe the Plumber’s hard-earned money to the collective bogey evoked by a former Texas rock band’s clever name: Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Dope.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with this rather soulless and manipulative exercise in rebranding, for a number of reasons. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — To my mind, neither liberal nor progressive are particularly useful terms. “Progressive” seems a rather hollow slogan when self-applied. If an agenda can objectively be described as being progressive, all well and good, but when its own proponents say it’s progressive it says little more than we know about a product when it gets branded “new and improved.”

On the other hand “liberal” has the connotations of personal freedom, but in America liberty is pretty much a bipartisan value. To be liberal, as in open-minded, is a good thing, yet who — whatever the facts might otherwise indicate — sees themselves as closed-minded? Then again, from a conservative point of view, liberal can connote the hedonistic libertine. Thus the culture wars get framed as pitting those Americans who have values against those who supposedly lack them.

What unambiguously distinguishes the left from the right is our view of the relationship between the individual and society. For the right, the interests of society are best served by protecting the interests of the individual; for the left it is the reverse. Our core value is that we are in this together. We believe in the common good. We believe that an understanding that “we share a common destiny” is more than a social ideal; it has become a global imperative.

Middle East priorities for Jan. 21

The election of Barack Obama to be the 44th president is profoundly historic. We have at long last been able to come together in a way that has eluded us in the long history of our great country. We should celebrate this triumph of the true spirit of America.

Election Day celebrations were replicated in time zones around the world, something we have not seen in a long time. While euphoria is ephemeral, we must endeavor to use its energy to bring us all together as Americans to cope with the urgent problems that beset us.

When Obama takes office in two months, he will find a number of difficult foreign policy issues competing for his attention, each with strong advocates among his advisers. We believe that the Arab-Israeli peace process is one issue that requires priority attention. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It’s good to see two foreign-policy heavyweights, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, advocate that the Arab-Israeli conflict should receive priority attention by President Obama. Their argument, in diplomatically tempered language, is however a bit tepid. Not only does the issue need to be among those at the top of Obama’s agenda but the current administration’s policy of promoting division among Palestinians needs to be explicitly reversed. To say that “if the peace process begins to gain momentum, it is difficult to imagine that Hamas will want to be left out,” is to imply that Hamas’ current isolation is self-imposed.

The issue that needs to be grasped by the incoming administration as well as the next Israeli government is that Palesinian unity will not merely serve the interests of the Palestinian people; it is the only basis upon which a viable peace agreement can be built. The effort to destroy Hamas through a war of attrition in which Gaza has been placed under siege for the last two years, has failed.

Recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and renunciation of violence, need to be seen not as necessary preconditions for entering into political negotiations but seen instead for what they realistically are: the reward for the successful completion of those negotiations.

Recasting the war on terrorism

Buoyed by high expectations for the first year of Barack Obama’s administration, an informal coalition of progressive national-security and civil-liberties experts are urging the president-elect to redefine the war on terrorism.

Eight years of the Bush administration’s approach to counterterrorism have yielded two open-ended and bloody wars; a massively expanded security apparatus, and spending on defense far outpacing outlays on domestic programs, even during a crisis-plagued economy.

Yet while liberals have spent much of this time opposing the Bush administration’s agenda, many of their proposals for Obama go beyond merely rolling back President George W. Bush’s policies — withdrawing from Iraq, shuttering the Guantanamo Bay detention complex, abolishing torture — to offer new areas of emphasis, like stabilizing Afghanistan, an Arab-Israeli peace and a re-envisioned balance between security and liberty. [continued…]

Fighting terrorism fairly and effectively

Over the past seven years, the US government’s consistent disregard for human rights in fighting terrorism has diminished America’s moral authority, set a negative example for other governments, and undermined the goal of reducing anti-American militancy around the world. The use of torture, unlawful rendition, secret prisons, unfair trials, and long-term, arbitrary detention without charge has been both morally wrong and counterproductive. [Read the report]

Liberty and security: recommendations for the next administration and Congress

“Liberty and Security: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress reflects the ongoing, collaborative efforts of a coalition of more than 25 leading organizations and 75 individuals to provide policymakers with a framework for addressing liberty and security issues. The catalogue includes recommendations drawn from the shared knowledge and experience of a broad coalition of groups devoted to exploring the intersection of civil liberties and national security. [continued…]

Waxman ushers in new era

On Capitol Hill’s Rayburn office building, in the private chambers of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, hangs an enormous satellite photograph of the planet earth. Beneath the picture is a couch, where, according to sources familiar with the committee, long-time Chairman John Dingell is fond of sitting. From that couch, they say, the venerable Michigan Democrat, who has served for 53 years, has been known to point up to the photo and say, “That is the jurisdiction of this committee.”

Now, Dingell is no longer in control of the world.

House Democrats Thursday morning took the remarkable step of ousting Congress’s longest-serving member as head of the powerful energy panel. They replaced Dingell with the more liberal Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.), whose energy plans are more in-line with those of President-elect Barack Obama.

The vote — 137 to 122 — marked a stunning defeat for the party’s seniority system.

Environmentalists, though, are thrilled. For decades, Dingell has fought successfully against efforts to adopt stricter emissions rules and force Detroit’s automakers in the direction of greater fuel-efficiency. With the arrival of an Obama administration next year, many climate-change groups had wondered how the new president would sneak his ambitious energy plans past the powerful head of the energy panel. Now he won’t have to. Waxman, a fiery environmentalist who has butted heads with Dingell on these issues, is seen to symbolize the end of Dingell’s obstructionism. [continued…]

Fear stalks the world’s economies

Fears of a severe recession gripped financial markets on Thursday as dire US unemployment figures helped drive long-term interest rates to record lows.

Economic news across the world was almost uniformly bad as slumping Japanese exports threatened to push the economy deeper into recession and the Swiss central bank unexpectedly slashed interest rates by a full percentage point. [continued…]

The lame-duck economy

Everyone’s talking about a new New Deal, for obvious reasons. In 2008, as in 1932, a long era of Republican political dominance came to an end in the face of an economic and financial crisis that, in voters’ minds, both discredited the G.O.P.’s free-market ideology and undermined its claims of competence. And for those on the progressive side of the political spectrum, these are hopeful times.

There is, however, another and more disturbing parallel between 2008 and 1932 — namely, the emergence of a power vacuum at the height of the crisis. The interregnum of 1932-1933, the long stretch between the election and the actual transfer of power, was disastrous for the U.S. economy, at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action. And the same thing is happening now.

It’s true that the interregnum will be shorter this time: F.D.R. wasn’t inaugurated until March; Barack Obama will move into the White House on Jan. 20. But crises move faster these days. [continued…]

Report sees nuclear arms, scarce resources as seeds of global instability

The drive for dwindling resources, including energy and water, combined with the spread of nuclear weapons technology could make large swaths of the globe ripe for regional conflicts, some of them potentially devastating, according to a report released by the National Intelligence Council yesterday.

The report, Global Trends 2025, covers a range of strategic issues, including great-power rivalry, demographics, climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy and natural resources. It makes for sometimes grim reading in imagining a world of weak states bristling with weapons of mass destruction and unable to cope with burgeoning populations without adequate water and food.

“Those states most susceptible to conflict are in a great arc of instability stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through North Africa, into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and South and Central Asia, and parts of Southeast Asia,” the quadrennial report says.

At the heart of its deepest pessimism is the Middle East, which it suggests could tip into a nuclear arms race if Iran goes ahead with such weapons. [continued…]

Killing of al-Qaida smuggler in Syria was joint Syrian, U.S. effort

Washington has long run a back channel to Damascus through Syria’s air force intelligence, the Idarat al-Murkabarat al-Jawiyya, U.S. sources said.

On Oct. 26, Syrian intelligence alerted U.S. forces in Iraq to Abu Ghadiyah’s whereabouts, at which time, U.S. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operatives began to track him, probably through his satellite telephone.

Four Blackhawk helicopters took off for the northeastern Syrian village of al-Sukkiraya, about five miles from the Euphrates river, an area where a compound of new homes was being built, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

At this point, the raid went wrong. As the U.S. Special Forces poured out of the aircraft, shots were fired and a gunfight broke out that lasted for 10 to 15 minutes. Abu Ghadiya was to have been captured and flown to Iraq for interrogation. Instead he was killed in the fighting, along with seven Syrian civilians, including four children, most of them members of the same family.

“There weren’t to have been any civilian casualties, no collateral damage,” a U.S. intelligence official said. “We wanted the [expletive] alive.” The U.S. raiding team carried off two captives for interrogation.

“The problem with these kinds of tactics lies with the fact that so many things can go wrong, and they usually do,” said Middle East expert Tony Cordesman. “You don’t want to solve one problem only to create a dozen others.”

But the praise of U.S. officials for Syria’s part was deeply appreciative. “The Syrians were perfect; they gave us the works,” said one U.S. official familiar with the incident. [continued…]



Judge orders five detainees freed from Guantánamo

In the first hearing on the government’s justification for holding detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a federal judge ruled Thursday that five Algerian men were held unlawfully for nearly seven years and ordered their release.

The judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court in Washington, also ruled that a sixth Algerian man was being lawfully detained because he had provided support to the terrorist group Al Qaeda.

The case was an important test of the Bush administration’s detention policies, which critics have long argued swept up innocent men and low-level foot soldiers along with high-level and hardened terrorists. [continued…]

Al Qaeda coldly acknowledges Obama victory

In a propaganda salvo by Al Qaeda aimed at undercutting the enthusiasm of Muslims worldwide about the American election, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy condemned President-elect Barack Obama as a “house Negro” who would continue a campaign against Islam that Al Qaeda’s leaders said was begun by President Bush.

Appealing to the “weak and oppressed” around the world, the Qaeda deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, said in a video released Wednesday that the “new face” of America only masked a “heart full of hate.”

For years, the terrorist network sought to fuel anti-Americanism with prolific audio and video recordings vilifying President Bush as the leading American “crusader” against Muslim nations. The election of Mr. Obama, a black man who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and whose father was from a Muslim family, has muddied Al Qaeda’s message. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — So, the big story is that Ayman al-Zawahiri insulted Obama by calling him a “house negro.”

The best retort to that I’ve come across was from Mary Mitchell: “Obama isn’t going to the White House to serve the man. He is the man.”

But as everyone has glommed on to the race element in the al Qaeda missive, there’s another part that seemed to get missed: Zawahiri played the Muslim card straight down the GOP line.

He said of Obama:

    You were born to a Muslim father, but you chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims, and pray the prayer of the Jews, although you claim to be Christian, in order to climb the rungs of leadership in America.

Just as some scare-mongering Obama critics suggested, al Qaeda appears to be casting Obama as an apostate.

Hillary Clinton justifiably got jumped on when she said Obama was not a Muslim “as far as I know.” Zawahiri seems to be using an even more thinly-veiled insinuation when he says “you claim to be a Christian.” Likewise, Zawahiri compares Obama with Malcolm X not just to make an unfavorable contrast between one black leader and another but to imply that one was being a true Muslim and the other not. In other words, that Obama has betrayed both his race and his faith.

My guess is that Adam Pearlman had a hand in drafting this message, not simply because of the English subtitles but because in part it seems to have been aimed at those white Americans who still believe Obama is a secret Muslim.

Giving up on God

As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.

Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.

I’m bathing in holy water as I type.

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh.

Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth — as long as we’re setting ourselves free — is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Even though I’m neither a Republican nor a Christian, I can’t resist pointing out that Kathleen Parker seems to have got it the wrong way around: the GOP doesn’t need to dump God; the evidence — at least if one accepts Rev Arnold Conrad’s impeccible reasoning — is that God already dumped the GOP.

“You raise up leaders and you pull them down,” Rev Conrad solemnly said to God while praying at a McCain rally in early October. No doubt Conrad has since pulled out that universal escape clause — God works in mysterious ways — but I’d like to know what he (Conrad, not God) is really thinking now.

O Lord, what made you make McCain pick Sarah Palin? And why couldn’t the financial crisis have come in November instead of September? You liked Bush well enough to get him elected twice, so why are you now casting us out into the wilderness? O Lord, why have you forsaken the GOP?

I guess the only council I can offer is to say, when it comes to politics, don’t bet your life on a swing voter — especially the ultimate swing voter. He’s clearly the most capricious of them all.

Did U.S. push detention of American without charges?

An American Muslim subjected to several years of intense FBI scrutiny and questioning about links to terrorism has been held without charges, access to a lawyer or contact with his family for nearly three months by the security services of the United Arab Emirates.

The case of Naji Hamdan, coupled with FBI interrogations of an American citizen secretly detained without charges in East Africa, raises the question of whether the Bush administration has asked other nations to hold Americans suspected of terrorism links whom U.S. officials lack the evidence to charge.

That allegation is central to a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union was planning to file Tuesday in federal court in Washington against President Bush, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

“If the U.S. government is responsible for this detention and we believe it is, this is clearly illegal because our government can’t contract away the Constitution by enlisting the aid of other governments that do not adhere to the Constitution’s requirements,” said Ahilan Arulanantham of the ACLU’s southern California office. [continued…]

Iran said to have nuclear fuel for one weapon

Iran has now produced roughly enough nuclear material to make, with added purification, a single atom bomb, according to nuclear experts analyzing the latest report from global atomic inspectors.

The figures detailing Iran’s progress were contained in a routine update on Wednesday from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been conducting inspections of the country’s main nuclear plant at Natanz. The report concluded that as of early this month, Iran had made 630 kilograms, or about 1,390 pounds, of low-enriched uranium.

Several experts said that was enough for a bomb, but they cautioned that the milestone was mostly symbolic, because Iran would have to take additional steps. Not only would it have to breach its international agreements and kick out the inspectors, but it would also have to further purify the fuel and put it into a warhead design — a technical advance that Western experts are unsure Iran has yet achieved. [continued…]

Twenty reasons why we’re not consuming

This week’s news about October retail sales (-2.8% relative to the previous month and now down in real terms for five months in a row) confirm that the U.S. has entered its most severe consumer-led recession in decades. At this rate of free fall in consumption, real gross domestic product growth could be a whopping 5% negative or even worse in the fourth quarter of 2008. And this is not a temporary phenomenon: Almost all of the fundamentals driving consumption are heading south on a persistent and structural basis.

Consider the many severe negative factors affecting consumption. One can count at least 20 separate or complementary causes that will sharply reduce consumption in the next several years: [continued…]

The Pentagon’s argument of last resort on Iraq

It’s the ultimate argument, the final bastion against withdrawal, and over these last years, the Bush administration has made sure it would have plenty of heft. Ironically, its strength lies in the fact that it has nothing to do with the vicissitudes of Iraqi politics, the relative power of Shiites or Sunnis, the influence of Iran, or even the riptides of war. It really doesn’t matter what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or oppositional cleric Muqtada al-Sadr think about it. In fact, it’s an argument that has nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do with us, with the American way of war (and life), which makes it almost unassailable.

And this week Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen — the man President-elect Obama plans to call into the Oval Office as soon as he arrives — wheeled it into place and launched it like a missile aimed at the heart of Obama’s 16-month withdrawal plan for U.S. combat troops in Iraq. It may not sound like much, but believe me, it is. The Chairman simply said, “We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an awful lot of equipment that’s there. And so we would have to look at all of that tied to, obviously, the conditions that are there, literally the security conditions… Clearly, we’d want to be able to do it safely.” Getting it all out safely, he estimated, would take at least “two to three years.” [continued…]



How the war on terror pushed Somalia into the arms of al-Qaeda

As President Bush prepares to leave office, the pundits will start to produce their balance sheets. It is hard to know what they will list under “achievements”, but easy to predict their “disasters”: Iraq, Afghanistan, economic meltdown, soaring debt and America’s loss of global stature.

One other debacle should feature prominently in that second column, but probably won’t because it has occurred in a faraway country that most Westerners know only through the film Black Hawk Down – or from recent reports of rampant piracy including the seizure early on Sunday of a Saudi tanker, carrying more than two million barrels of oil, which had an immediate effect on crude prices.

I am referring to the Bush Administration’s intervention in Somalia in the name of the War on Terror. It has helped to destroy that wretched country’s best chance of peace in a generation, left more than a million Somalis dead, homeless or starving, and achieved the precise opposite of its original goal. Far from stamping out an Islamic militancy that scarcely existed, the intervention has turned Somalia into a breeding ground for Islamic extremists and given al-Qaeda a valuable foothold in the Horn of Africa.

Rewind to the early summer of 2006. For 15 years, since the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, feuding warlords had made Somalia a byword for anarchy and terrorism – the archetypal failed state. A tenth of its population had been killed. A million had fled abroad. At that point the warlords were finally routed, despite covert CIA backing, by a remarkable public uprising in support of the so-called Islamic Courts movement that promised to end the lawlessness.

Somalia had always practised a mild form of Islam, but the Courts received a bad press in the West, being widely portrayed as a new Taleban determined to impose the most draconian forms of Sharia on a terrified populace. That was certainly what I expected when I visited Mogadishu in early December 2006. But what I actually found was a people still celebrating the return of peace and security. [continued…]

The pirates of Somalia

A Chatham House report last month on the pirates of Somalia said: “At present it seems that scaling the high sides of large oil tankers is beyond their capabilities.” With the capture of the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star this week it became clear that the pirates are rapidly extending their capabilities.

“Both the size of the vessel and the distance from the coast where the hijackers struck is unprecedented,” Commander Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet, told The Guardian. “It shows how quickly the pirates are adapting.”

In the space of just five days this month the International Maritime Bureau recorded 11 incidents in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden which involved ships coming under armed attacks including fire from rocket-propelled grenades. [continued…]

India ‘sinks Somali pirate ship’

An Indian navy warship has destroyed a suspected Somali pirate vessel after it came under attack in the Gulf of Aden….

The Indian navy said the Tabar spotted the pirate vessel while patrolling 285 nautical miles (528km) south-west of Salalah in Oman on Tuesday evening. The navy said the pirates on board were armed with guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers. When it demanded the vessel stop for investigation, the pirate ship responded by threatening to “blow up the naval warship if it closed on her”, the statement said. Pirates then fired on the Tabar, and the Indians say they retaliated and that there was an explosion on the pirate vessel, which sank. [continued…]

Obama’s cabinet candidates: Harvard rules and wisdom wanes

Americans seem mesmerized by the emerging list of potential cabinet members being interviewed for jobs. Brilliant! Assertive! “The Genius Cabinet” gushes Slate writer Jacob Weisberg. Larry Summers? Wow! Joel Klein? Whew!

Calm down, folks. What’s wanted in anyone’s cabinet is not brilliance but judgment. Not genius but wisdom. And the former is a lousy predictor of the latter. Like Summers and Klein, a number of the wannabes are arrogant and unlistening. Known for what they know and where they went to school (like Harvard and Yale).

Summers folded as Harvard’s President not because he said something politically incorrect about women (too baby-obsessed to be good scientists) or tried to tell one of America’s leading public intellectuals (Cornel West) how to be a “good” scholar, but because he was seen as dismissive of faculty, indifferent to contrarian ideas and unwilling to listen to others – traits he had shown during his tenure with the Clinton administration.

Joel Klein’s career as chief education honcho for New York City has been marked by a similar disrespect for teachers and parents, and a techno-corporate approach to education that, while putatively wedded to equal opportunity, has been completely tone-deaf to the communities he supposedly serves. He knows a lot and knows it. But he lacks elementary judgment.

President Obama will be in need of counselors with wisdom as well as smarts, and will quickly learn that arrogance isn’t merely a “defect of a superior mind” (as Weisberg puts it), but a form of deafness that incapacitates the hubristic for leadership. Oedipus was smart as they come, but, as I recall, made a terrible king. [continued…]

The end

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

When I sat down to write my account of the experience in 1989—Liar’s Poker, it was called—it was in the spirit of a young man who thought he was getting out while the getting was good. I was merely scribbling down a message on my way out and stuffing it into a bottle for those who would pass through these parts in the far distant future.

Unless some insider got all of this down on paper, I figured, no future human would believe that it happened.

I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they’d be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn’t expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, “How quaint.” [continued…]

The perils of efficiency

This spring, disaster loomed in the global food market. Precipitous increases in the prices of staples like rice (up more than a hundred and fifty per cent in a few months) and maize provoked food riots, toppled governments, and threatened the lives of tens of millions. But the bursting of the commodity bubble eased those pressures, and food prices, while still high, have come well off the astronomical levels they hit in April. For Americans, the drop in commodity prices has put a few more bucks in people’s pockets; in much of the developing world, it may have saved many from actually starving. So did the global financial crisis solve the global food crisis?

Temporarily, perhaps. But the recent price drop doesn’t provide any long-term respite from the threat of food shortages or future price spikes. Nor has it reassured anyone about the health of the global agricultural system, which the crisis revealed as dangerously unstable. Four decades after the Green Revolution, and after waves of market reforms intended to transform agricultural production, we’re still having a hard time insuring that people simply get enough to eat, and we seem to be more vulnerable to supply shocks than ever.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Over the past two decades, countries around the world have moved away from their focus on “food security” and handed market forces a greater role in shaping agricultural policy. Before the nineteen-eighties, developing countries had so-called “agricultural marketing boards,” which would buy commodities from farmers at fixed prices (prices high enough to keep farmers farming), and then store them in strategic reserves that could be used in the event of bad harvests or soaring import prices. But in the eighties and nineties, often as part of structural-adjustment programs imposed by the I.M.F. or the World Bank, many marketing boards were eliminated or cut back, and grain reserves, deemed inefficient and unnecessary, were sold off. In the same way, structural-adjustment programs often did away with government investment in and subsidies to agriculture—most notably, subsidies for things like fertilizers and high-yield seeds.

The logic behind these reforms was simple: the market would allocate resources more efficiently than government, leading to greater productivity. Farmers, instead of growing subsidized maize and wheat at high cost, could concentrate on cash crops, like cashews and chocolate, and use the money they made to buy staple foods. If a country couldn’t compete in the global economy, production would migrate to countries that could. It was also assumed that, once governments stepped out of the way, private investment would flood into agriculture, boosting performance. And international aid seemed a more efficient way of relieving food crises than relying on countries to maintain surpluses and food-security programs, which are wasteful and costly. [continued…]

Premier of Iraq is quietly firing fraud monitors

The government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is systematically dismissing Iraqi oversight officials, who were installed to fight corruption in Iraqi ministries by order of the American occupation administration, which had hoped to bring Western standards of accountability to the notoriously opaque and graft-ridden bureaucracy here.

The dismissals, which were confirmed by senior Iraqi and American government officials on Sunday and Monday, have come as estimates of official Iraqi corruption have soared. One Iraqi former chief investigator recently testified before Congress that $13 billion in reconstruction funds from the United States had been lost to fraud, embezzlement, theft and waste by Iraqi government officials.

The moves have not been publicly announced by Mr. Maliki’s government, but word of them has begun to circulate through the layers of Iraqi bureaucracy as Parliament prepares to vote on a long-awaited security agreement. [continued…]

Israeli military intelligence chief: U.S. can halt Iran nuclear program with dialogue

Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president and the world financial crisis present an opportunity to halt the Iranian nuclear drive through diplomacy, Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin said Monday.

Iran, for example, has been stung by lower global oil prices in recent months.

Obama’s election also sets the stage to apply international pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations, Yadlin said. He stressed that he is not opposed to direct talks between the United States and Iran, saying that “dialogue is not appeasement.”

“Iran will do anything not to be cornered into the position of Iraq or North Korea,” he said at an annual lecture in honor of late Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Dayan. “Iran is also very susceptible to international pressure because of the crisis.” [continued…]

UN rights chief calls for end to Gaza blockade

The UN’s top human rights official has called on Israel to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip, saying it breaches humanitarian law.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in Geneva Tuesday that 1.5 million Palestinians “have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights for months” by the blockade.

She said that Israel should allow aid goods such as food, medicines and fuel into the Hamas-controlled territory and restore electricity and water supplies. [continued…]

Israeli tanks rumble into Gaza, raze farmlands

Israeli tanks pushed into the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, drawing mortar fire from Palestinian militants and intensifying violence that has chipped away at a tenuous cease-fire.

Israel and Gaza’s ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement have been trading fire for two weeks after nearly five months of relative quiet. The violence comes as the Egyptian-negotiated truce that began June 19 is due to expire next month, and both sides might be trying to dictate more favorable terms in anticipation of the agreement’s renewal.

Backed by a bulldozer and military jeep, the tanks rumbled about a quarter-mile into the tiny seaside strip, residents and Gaza security officials said. Residents said they leveled lands along the border east of the city of Rafah near the Egyptian border. [continued…]



Is Obama a Middle East ‘splitter’?

Historians are sometimes divided into lumpers and splitters. The splitters like to chop problems up into lots of small bits. The lumpers like to link them altogether.

Would-be Middle East peacemakers can be categorised in the same way. The lumpers want a “comprehensive peace settlement” that links together all the problems in the region – Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine, even Iran. The splitters want to deal with all these problems separately….

I think, as a matter of practical politics, Mr Obama will have to be a splitter. The state of the American economy is going to eat up most of his working day. When he turns to foreign policy, the Israeli-Palestinian problem will come fairly low down his list of priorities – behind, in rough order of urgency, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, Iran, international economics and Russia. He will see the Iranian nuclear issue as too important to await progress on Israel-Palestine. Withdrawal from Iraq is a central pledge of his administration, regardless of what is happening with Israel. If an Obama administration sees chances to make progress on Lebanon, or with Syria, it will take them as they arise.

European diplomats who have dealt with the new American team say that they have been assured that Mr Obama does regard the Israel-Palestine problem as a priority and something that the new administration intends to start work on quickly. (It is generally held that President Bill Clinton left the Middle East peace process until too late in his second term and that this mistake has been repeated by President George W. Bush.) A “serious” commitment by Mr Obama need not mean launching immediately into an important global conference. Simply appointing a high-profile envoy would be regarded as a good earnest of intent.

Mr Obama may well oblige on the envoy front. But I doubt he will want to spend much political capital and time on the Middle East peace process when there are so many other priorities clamouring for his attention.

A decision to put the Israeli-Palestinian question on the back burner would, however, be a shame. That is not because it necessarily holds the key to solving all the other problems of the Middle East. It is because the situation – although relatively quiet at the moment – remains dangerous, unstable and a disaster for the population. Ignore the Palestinian problem when things are quiet and it is liable to force its way back on to the agenda – by blowing up at an even more inconvenient time. [continued…]

Top Obama aide denies report president-elect will back Arab peace plan

A senior adviser to Barack Obama on Sunday denied reports that the U.S. president-elect plans to throw his weight behind the 2002 Arab peace plan, which calls for Israel to withdraw from all territories captured during the 1967 Six-Day War in exchange for normalized ties with the Arab world.

The British Sunday Times said Obama expressed this sentiment during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last July.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s adviser on Middle East policy, issued a statement Sunday, saying “I was in the meeting in Ramallah. Then-senator Obama did not say this, the story is false.” The Times cited a senior adviser who quoted Obama as telling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “The Israelis would be crazy not to accept this initiative. It would give them peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.”

According to the Times, Obama, who is due to take office as the U.S. president on January 20, has been urged by leading bipartisan figures in the American foreign policy establishment to embrace the plan, which was first proposed by Saudi King Abdullah in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The multipronged lobbying effort that is clearly underway right now is not necessarily aimed at trying to push the Middle East peace process to the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda — a goal that would be unrealistic when Iraq and Afghanistan require so much attention. Rather, this seems like an attempt to grasp the opportunity to set aside Oslo, the Road Map, and Annapolis and reframe the peace process in terms of a comprehensive solution. In and of itself, this is a useful exercise because it implicitly acknowledges that the current process is dead without undiplomatically declaring its failure.

Hamas, Israel trying to rewrite truce

A June truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers comes up for renewal next month and it looks like both sides are trying to dictate more favorable terms.

That would explain why Israel and Hamas have been trading rocket fire and air strikes for two weeks, even as they keep saying they’re interested in a continued cease-fire. But the attempt to establish new ground rules could easily spin out of control, especially if there are civilian casualties.

Domestic concerns further complicate the situation.

Israel is holding general elections Feb. 10 and the cross-border violence has become campaign fodder. [continued…]

When will Obama give up the Bin Laden ghost hunt?

In a talk to the Atlantic Council this week CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said Osama bin Laden is alive. I’ll take his word for it. But bin Laden’s strange disappearance makes one wonder what exactly happened to him. The last relatively reliable bin Laden sighting was in late 2001. A video that he appears in last year shows him with a dyed beard. More than a few Pakistani intelligence operatives who knew bin Laden scoff at the idea he would ever dye his beard. They think the tape was manipulated from old footage, and that bin Laden is in fact dead. But then again, they would have an interest in making us believe bin Laden is dead, since it would relieve American pressure to find him by any means necessary, including going into Pakistani territory.

And what about all the other audiotapes bin Laden has put out since 9/11? Experts will tell you that off-the shelf digital editing software could manipulate old bin Laden voice recordings to make it sound as if he were discussing current events. Finally, there’s the mystery why bin Laden didn’t pop up during the election. You would think a narcissistic mass murderer who believes he has a place in history would find it impossible to pass up an opportunity to give his opinion at such a momentous time, at least dropping off a DVD at the al Jazeera office in Islamabad.

I asked a half dozen of my former CIA colleagues who have been on bin Laden’s trail since 9/11. What surprised me was that none would say for certain whether he is alive or dead. Half assumed he is dead, the other half assumed he is alive. I suppose a lot of their timidity has to do with the still open wounds about the CIA’s missing an event like Saddam’s destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It would be so much easier to miss the death of a single man. [continued…]

Russia to cut oil export duty by third

Russia plans to cut its oil export duties by a third next month, offering much-needed relief to companies that have been making a loss on their crude exports.

Exporting oil from Russia, the world’s second biggest producer, has become unprofitable as a result of the fall in the price of crude and heavy taxation.

Oil companies had been warning they were being forced to cut their exports, intensifying the financial crisis engulfing Russia.

The Russian government has been calling on the companies to sustain their exports, and indicated on Monday that there would be a steep cut in oil duty to reflect the fall in oil prices. [continued…]

The tribal fallacy

The Pakistani government has flirted with divide-and-conquer tactics in the past by taking sides in internecine squabbles in the tribal areas. But rather than siding with tribes against the Taliban, Pakistan often tries to play one Taliban faction off another. It distinguishes between “good” and “bad” Taliban: the “good” ones focus on fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the “bad” ones target Pakistani troops and politicians. Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are both “bad.” In April 2007, a mini-civil war in South Waziristan pitted “good” Taliban fighters from the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, under the command of Maulvi Nazir, against several hundred “bad” Uzbek militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and to al-Qaeda. The Uzbeks had killed scores of Pakistani tribal chiefs. When the fighting began, the Pakistani army sided with the Taliban and provided helicopter- and artillery-fire. The ranking general later told me that he ordered soldiers to strip off their uniforms, don a shalwar kameez, and lead the “good” Taliban to victory. (The incident, while encouraging, highlighted the degree to which Washington and Islamabad’s security priorities are mismatched. Among the rash of recent drone attacks in the tribal areas, several missiles have targeted “good” Talib Maulvi Nazir and his associates in South Waziristan.)

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis have had little success enlisting ordinary tribesmen to rebel against the Taliban. Their failure should be worrying. Without the support of ordinary tribesmen in Iraq, the Anbar Awakening and the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq would have been unthinkable. The same holds true in northwestern Pakistan. Yet the Pashtun tribes have been understandably reluctant to join the government. During Musharraf’s regime, sporadic, overhyped military offensives failed to dislodge the Taliban, and any malik, or tribal chief, suspected of sympathizing with the government was branded a spy and slaughtered. Khalid Aziz, a former political agent in North Waziristan, told me that, in the past, “If a malik or his family was attacked, we used to do everything to redeem the malik’s honor. The current administration has unfortunately disowned these policies.” [continued…]

A pact with the devil

The big bang is not that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s majority Shi’ite/Kurdish 37-member cabinet in Baghdad has approved the draft of a security pact with the George W Bush (and Barack Obama) administrations allowing the US military to stay in Iraq for three more years; it’s that the 30-strong Sadrist bloc will move heaven and Earth – including massive nationwide protests – to bloc the pact in the Iraqi National Assembly.

The proposed Status of Forces Agreement not only sets a date for American troop withdrawal – 2011 – but also puts new restrictions on US combat operations in Iraq starting on January 1 and requires a military pullback from urban areas by June 30. The pact goes before parliament in a week or so.

Sadrist spokesman Ahmed al-Masoudi stressed this Sunday that the pact “did not mean anything” and “hands Iraq over on a golden platter and for an indefinite period”.

Masoudi is right on the money when he says the overwhelming majority of popular opinion is against it and the Sadrists and many Sunni parties insist a popular referendum to approve it is essential. [continued…]

Iraqi and American critics of security pact speak up

Iraqi and American critics of a security agreement governing American troops in Iraq voiced their objections on Monday, a day after the Iraqi cabinet approved the pact and sent it to Parliament for ratification.

In Iraq, opposition has created an unlikely association between the followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who rejected the agreement out of hand, and some Sunni politicians, including ones who support the deal but are trying to wrest concessions from the Iraqi government.

Ghufran al-Saadi, a Sadrist lawmaker, said opponents had collected 115 signatures, primarily from Sadr supporters and members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, demanding that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and several cabinet members appear in Parliament to answer questions about the agreement, which governs the presence of American troops in Iraq through 2011. Parliament has 275 members. [continued…]

Government near to collapse, says Somalia leader

President Abdullahi Yusuf of Somalia has admitted that his government is on the verge of collapse and that Islamist groups now control most of the country.

In a speech to Somali MPs gathered in the Kenyan capital Nairobi at the weekend, Yusuf said that the government only had a presence in the capital Mogadishu and in Baidoa, “and people are being killed there every day. Islamists have taken over everywhere else.”

His frank admission confirms what is known but seldom publicly acknowledged by those with a stake in Somalia’s future, from Ethiopia, whose continued occupation unites the different Islamist groups against a common enemy, to the UN and western countries, which have backed the warlord-heavy government for years. [continued…]

Turkey could be good mediator with Iran: Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Ankara could play a positive part if it were to act as a mediator in the stalled negotiations with Iran over its suspect nuclear program.

“If Turkey plays such a role, it could have a positive impact on the process,” Erdogan told a press conference in Washington after arriving to take part in the summit of G20 leaders on the economic crisis.

He said Turkey would be able to exert some influence on the dragging dossier because it was Iran’s neighbor. [continued…]

Bill’s $500,000 Kuwait lecture

The National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) has paid $500,000 to Bill Clinton for a single lecture he delivered in Kuwait City on Sunday on his assessment of Barack Obama’s foreign and economic policies. It was delivered the day after the Kuwaiti stock market resumed trading after it was suspended by order of a Kuwaiti court on Thursday to avoid a total collapse.

Without mentioning reports that Clinton’s finances were coming under close scrutiny as his wife, Hillary Clinton, is being vetted for the job of secretary of state, the Arab-language Kuwaiti newspaper Awan published a front-page story under the headline “Clinton’s lecture at NBK cost $500,000.” [continued…]

Cabinet post for Clinton roils Obamaland

Barack Obama’s serious flirtation with his one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, over the post of secretary of State has been welcomed by everyone from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton as an effective, grand gesture by the president-elect.

It’s not playing quite as well, however, in some precincts of Obamaland. From his supporters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to campaign aides of the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, there’s a sense of ambivalence about giving a top political plum to a woman they spent 18 months hammering as the compromised standard-bearer of an era that deserves to be forgotten.

“These are people who believe in this stuff more than Barack himself does,” said a Democrat close to Obama’s campaign. “These guys didn’t put together a campaign in order to turn the government over to the Clintons.” [continued…]



Study finds ex-Guantanamo prisoners broken

The first extensive study of prisoners released from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, finds that many of them are physically and psychologically traumatized, debt-ridden and shunned in their communities as terrorist suspects.

“I’ve lost my property. I’ve lost my job. I’ve lost my will,” said an Afghan man, one of 62 former inmates in nine countries interviewed anonymously by UC Berkeley researchers for a newly released report.

Another man, jobless and destitute, said his family kicked him out after he returned, and his wife went to live with her relatives. “I have a plastic bag holding my belongings that I carry with me all the time,” he said. “And I sleep every night in a different mosque.”

The report, “Guantanamo and its Aftermath,” also found that two-thirds of former prisoners interviewed between July 2007 and July 2008 suffered from psychological problems, including nightmares, angry outbursts, withdrawal and depression. [continued…]

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US acknowledges it held 12 juveniles at Guantanamo

The U.S. has revised its count of juveniles ever held at Guantanamo Bay to 12, up from the eight it reported in May to the United Nations, a Pentagon spokesman said Sunday.

The government has provided a corrected report to the U.N. committee on child rights, according to Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon. He said the U.S. did not intentionally misrepresent the number of detainees taken to the isolated Navy base in southeast Cuba before turning 18. [continued…]

Why Guantanamo must be closed: advice for Barack Obama

On Sunday, in his first television interview since winning the Presidential election, Barack Obama repeated his campaign pledge to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay and to ban the use of torture by US forces. Speaking on 60 Minutes, he explained, “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture. And I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.”

Ever since Obama began meeting with his transition team, leaks, gossip and rumors concerning the new administration’s plans to close Guantánamo, and the hurdles they will have to surmount, have been filling the airwaves and the front pages of newspapers. In an attempt to separate fact from fiction and to provide useful information to the President-Elect, I’d like to offer my advice, based on the three years I have spent studying Guantánamo in unprecedented detail, as the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the prisoners, and as a commentator and analyst responsible for numerous articles on Guantánamo in the last 18 months. [continued…]

The audacity of patience

The conventional wisdom about the presidency is very much the same as the advice Obama was given in the primaries: Move quickly. Overwhelm the forces of the establishment. Use the momentum of the election to achieve the biggest things possible. You’ll never be more powerful than on Jan. 21.

If Obama ignores this conventional wisdom, he will not do so because he’s crazy or lazy but because he’s taking the same approach to governing as he took to the election. It will mean he’s taking the long view, gambling on patience, and carefully putting into place the pieces that win lasting majorities for progressive policies, just as he won a majority of delegates and a majority of votes in the election.

On the day after the 2004 election, George W. Bush declared, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” He announced that he would privatize Social Security and revamp the tax system by the following spring. In Bush’s version of the conventional wisdom, the presidency was a rapidly depreciating financial asset, and he had to act quickly.

But Bush was wrong. The error was fatal. The collapse of his own presidency, the Republican brand, and the McCain candidacy can be traced to that moment of macho strutting as surely as to the “Mission Accomplished” moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln. The fact was Bush had earned no political capital; he had no mandate for the policies he now intended to pursue. All he had won was the raw institutional power of the presidency and control of Congress. He pushed that power further than any president before him, including Richard Nixon. And in doing so, Bush found its limits. The institutional power of the presidency, combined with a compliant one-party Congress, can start wars, enrich predatory capitalism, and destroy long-established norms, but alone it cannot do what Karl Rove aspired to, which was to build a new and lasting political order. That work requires patience and diligence. [continued…]

The case for putting a Mideast peace agreement first

The list of crises facing Obama starts with the economic collapse, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But as he’s said, “A president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time.”

Immediate, high-profile engagement with Israel and the Palestinians would be the clearest proof to frustrated American allies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world that the Bush years of American unilateralism are over. Reaching an agreement would end the tension between American support for Israel and maintaining warm ties with moderate Arab regimes. It would eliminate one of the main causes of anti-Western resentment in the Arab world, reducing the influence both of Iran and of radical Sunni Islamicists.

By acting quickly — addressing the issue before he formally takes office and perhaps in his inaugural address, and by visiting the region early next year — Obama can exploit the awe that his election inspires. A small example: The daily Ha’aretz, normally a frighteningly staid newspaper, covered its entire front page on Nov. 4 with a photo of Obama, one hand held high, facing what looked like a pillar of cloud in the distance, as if he were Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The headline, in English, was “Yes We Can.” In January, Obama will still be a symbol of transformation. If he waits two or three years, he will be a shopworn president. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Anyone who read this article in The Sunday Times would conclude that the decision has already been made. The article opens:

    Barack Obama is to pursue an ambitious peace plan in the Middle East involving the recognition of Israel by the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, according to sources close to America’s president-elect.
    Obama intends to throw his support behind a 2002 Saudi peace initiative endorsed by the Arab League and backed by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and leader of the ruling Kadima party.

Unfortunately, like a lot of the other headline-grapping reports that The Times comes up with, this seems like a case of reporting possibility as fact.

Tzipi Livni, far from doing what would genuinely be news — backing the Arab peace plan — on Sunday had this message for the incoming administration and its approach to the Middle East: “You don’t need now to do nothing dramatic about it. The situation is calm. We have these peace talks.”

Report suggests Obama press Israel over nuke program

The Middle East is in danger of accumulating large stocks of nuclear material over the next decade that could be used to produce over 1,700 nuclear bombs, a U.S. research center has projected in a newly released report.

The Institute for Science and International Security, headed by David Albright, one the world’s top experts on nuclear weapons and the prevention of nuclear proliferation, recently released its report urging president-elect Barack Obama to take a number of measures to avoid such an outcome, including convincing Israel to halt production of its nuclear weapons.

“The Obama administration should make a key priority of persuading Israel to join the negotiations for a universal, verified treaty that bans the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear explosives, commonly called the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT),” the institute argued. “As an interim step, the United States should press Israel to suspend any production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Toward this goal, the United States should change its relatively new policy of seeking a cutoff treaty that does not include verification. The Bush administration’s rejection of the long-standing U.S. policy of requiring verification was a mistake that the incoming administration needs to rectify.” [continued…]

Hillary vetting includes look at Bill

President-elect Barack Obama’s advisers have begun reviewing former President Bill Clinton’s finances and activities to see whether they would preclude the appointment of his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as secretary of state, Democrats close to the situation said Sunday. [continued…]

Depression 2009: What would it look like?

Over the past few months, Americans have been hearing the word “depression” with unfamiliar and alarming regularity. The financial crisis tearing through Wall Street is routinely described as the worst since the Great Depression, and the recession into which we are sinking looks deep enough, financial commentators warn, that a few poor policy decisions could put us in a depression of our own.

It’s a frightening possibility, but also in many ways an abstraction. The country has gone so long without a depression that it’s hard to know what it would be like to live through one.

Most of us, of course, think we know what a depression looks like. Open a history book and the images will be familiar: mobs at banks and lines at soup kitchens, stockbrokers in suits selling apples on the street, families piled with all their belongings into jalopies. Families scrimp on coffee and flour and sugar, rinsing off tinfoil to reuse it and re-mending their pants and dresses. A desperate government mobilizes legions of the unemployed to build bridges and airports, to blaze trails in national forests, to put on traveling plays and paint social-realist murals.

Today, however, whatever a depression would look like, that’s not it. We are separated from the 1930s by decades of profound economic, technological, and political change, and a modern landscape of scarcity would reflect that.

What, then, would we see instead? And how would we even know a depression had started? It’s not a topic that professional observers of the economy study much. And there’s no single answer, because there’s no one way a depression might unfold. But it’s nonetheless an important question to consider – there’s no way to make informed decisions about the present without understanding, in some detail, the worst-case scenario about the future. [continued…]

How to ground The Street

President-elect Barack Obama will soon face the extraordinary task of saving capitalism from its own excesses, much as Franklin D. Roosevelt had to do 76 years ago. Up until this point in the crisis, policymakers have appropriately applied the rules of triage — Band-Aids and tourniquets, then radical surgery — to keep the global financial system alive. Capital infusions, bailouts, mega-mergers, government guarantees of unimaginable proportions — all have been sought and supported by officials and corporate chief executives who had until now opposed any government participation in the marketplace. But put aside for the moment the ideological cartwheel we have seen and look at the big picture: The rules of modern capitalism have been re-written before our eyes.

The new president’s team must soon get to the root causes of the mistakes that have brought us to the economic precipice. Yes, we have all derided the explosion of leverage, the failure to regulate derivatives, the flood of subprime lending that was bound to default and the excesses of CEO compensation. But these are all mere manifestations of three deeper structural problems that require greater attention: misconceptions about what a “free market” really is, a continuing breakdown in corporate governance and an antiquated and incoherent federal financial regulatory framework.

First, we must confront head-on the pervasive misunderstanding of what constitutes a “free market.” For long stretches of the past 30 years, too many Americans fell prey to the ideology that a free market requires nearly complete deregulation of banks and other financial institutions and a government with a hands-off approach to enforcement. “We can regulate ourselves,” the mantra went. [continued…]

Karzai offers passage to Taliban leader for talks

Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, said Sunday that he would guarantee the safety of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if Mr. Omar agreed to negotiate for a peaceful settlement of the worsening conflict in the country.

Mr. Omar, a fugitive with a $10 million American bounty on his head, has been in hiding since the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001, and is believed by Western intelligence agencies to be living somewhere in the region of Quetta in western Pakistan. [continued…]

On the front line in war on Pakistan’s Taliban

Ali Hussein, a sergeant in the Sindh Regiment of the Pakistani Army, peers over the lip of his sandbagged machinegun pit to see the following: a muddy patch of farmland divided into a chaos of individual fields, a row of slender birch trees, a dry river valley and, almost invisible among the trees half a mile away, a village called Khusar. Over his head, shells screech through the air towards its half-dozen mud-walled houses.

A rocket-propelled grenade cracks out in solitary, futile response, leaving a trail of spiralling smoke in the chill dawn air. There is the continual crackle of small-arms fire, the distant thud of a mortar.

Khusar lies in Bajaur, a 500-square- mile jumble of valleys and hills high on Pakistan’s north-western border with Afghanistan. Few outside Pakistan had heard of Bajaur until recently. But now the fighting here – the biggest single clash of conventional forces and Islamic militants anywhere – is being watched closely around the globe.

The battle of Bajaur has huge local and international implications. Locally, it is a critical test for the new Pakistani civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial widower of Benazir Bhutto. The recent bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad is thought to be a response to the Bajaur offensive. Regionally, the battle is a chance for the Pakistani Army to rebut allegations that it is dragging its feet in the fight against international extremism. Internationally, the fight is crucial for the 40-nation coalition fighting in Afghanistan. Not only will its result determine who controls the supply route that crosses the Khyber Pass just to its south – where militants hijacked a 60-vehicle Nato convoy last week – but it will also show if the semi-autonomous ‘tribal agencies’ that line the mountainous zones on the Pakistan side of the frontier can be stabilised. It is there that al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban leadership are hiding. Peace in Afghanistan will remain a distant prospect until the frontier is calmed. [continued…]

Operation enduring disaster

Afghanistan has been almost continuously at war for 30 years, longer than both World Wars and the American war in Vietnam combined. Each occupation of the country has mimicked its predecessor. A tiny interval between wars saw the imposition of a malignant social order, the Taliban, with the help of the Pakistani military and the late Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister who approved the Taliban takeover in Kabul.

Over the last two years, the U.S./NATO occupation of that country has run into serious military problems. Given a severe global economic crisis and the election of a new American president — a man separated in style, intellect, and temperament from his predecessor — the possibility of a serious discussion about an exit strategy from the Afghan disaster hovers on the horizon. The predicament the U.S. and its allies find themselves in is not an inescapable one, but a change in policy, if it is to matter, cannot be of the cosmetic variety.

Washington’s hawks will argue that, while bad, the military situation is, in fact, still salvageable. This may be technically accurate, but it would require the carpet-bombing of southern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the destruction of scores of villages and small towns, the killing of untold numbers of Pashtuns and the dispatch to the region of at least 200,000 more troops with all their attendant equipment, air, and logistical support. The political consequences of such a course are so dire that even Dick Cheney, the closest thing to Dr. Strangelove that Washington has yet produced, has been uncharacteristically cautious when it comes to suggesting a military solution to the conflict. [continued…]

War on Taliban sparks refugee crisis

Hundreds of thousands of once prosperous Pakistani villagers are stranded in freezing tented refugee camps after being compelled to leave home by their own forces in a ferocious battle against the Taliban along the Afghan border.

Yesterday 300,000 Pakistani men, women and children, many of them driven from farms in the Bajaur region, were sheltering in eight makeshift camps on the outskirts of their nearest city, Peshawar. [continued…]

Pakistan and U.S. have tacit deal on airstrikes

The United States and Pakistan reached tacit agreement in September on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that allows unmanned Predator aircraft to attack suspected terrorist targets in rugged western Pakistan, according to senior officials in both countries. In recent months, the U.S. drones have fired missiles at Pakistani soil at an average rate of once every four or five days.

The officials described the deal as one in which the U.S. government refuses to publicly acknowledge the attacks while Pakistan’s government continues to complain noisily about the politically sensitive strikes. [continued…]

The climate in Pakistan

About three weeks ago, militants in Pakistan delivered a copy of a Pashtu-language jihadi magazine called Tora Bora to the Peshawar office of the Daily Times, a newspaper, headquartered in Lahore, that is run by two friends of mine, a husband and wife team, Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. The magazine’s lead article, Jugnu wrote to me this week, lists five Pakistani journalists as “C.I.A. enemies of jihad,” and it exhorted readers to silence the offenders. Najam was first on the list; the others named included Ahmed Rashid, the intrepid journalist and chronicler of the Taliban, whose recent book, “Descent Into Chaos,” lays out a detailed history of the Taliban’s recent revival. Najam and Ahmed already live under police protection in Lahore, being recipients of repeated threats of this character. Some of the threats have come from vigilantes describing themselves as the “mujaheddin of Waziristan,” who have attached photographs of beheaded journalists to illustrate their warning letters. [continued…]

An African crisis for Obama

While world leaders gathered here to unleash soothing words on the financial tsunami swamping their economies, the daring “responsibility to protect” doctrine adopted by U.N. members three years ago was being buried in the killing fields of eastern Congo.

For the sake of your bank account, hope that the international community can protect dollars, euros and yen more successfully than it protects the lives and safety of people who happen to live in failed or rogue states.

In three years, “never again” has become “sorry about that.” Humanitarian intervention — proudly proclaimed as a universal mission by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and other Third Way leaders and eventually adopted at the 2005 U.N. summit — has fallen into serious disrepair. [continued…]

Five million dead and counting

In the North Kivu province of eastern Congo, people are living in ditches along the sides of roads. They’re filling up the floors of churches and schools. Displaced people are surrounding the compounds of bewildered U.N. peacekeepers. Young boys and men are hiding in the forest to avoid being killed or forced into armed groups.

“There are only girls left in the schools in my village,” one 13-year-old boy told me. The day before, he and three friends had run from rebel soldiers who’d come to kidnap them.

There are now more than 1 million displaced people scattered throughout the province. In the last 10 years of fighting, more than 5 million people have died in the Congolese conflict—mostly civilians who haven’t had access to enough food or health care because of the fighting. And let’s be clear: That’s 5 million and counting. [continued…]

Congo’s riches, looted by renegade troops

Deep in the forest, high on a ridge stripped bare of trees and vines, the colonel sat atop his mountain of ore. In track pants and a T-shirt, he needed no uniform to prove he was a soldier, no epaulets to reveal his rank. Everyone here knows that Col. Samy Matumo, commander of a renegade brigade of army troops that controls this mineral-rich territory, is the master of every hilltop as far as the eye can see.

Columns of men, bent double under 110-pound sacks of tin ore, emerged from the colonel’s mine shaft. It had been carved hundreds of feet into the mountain with Iron Age tools powered by human sweat, muscle and bone. Porters carry the ore nearly 30 miles on their backs, a two-day trek through a mud-slicked maze to the nearest road and a world hungry for the laptops and other electronics that tin helps create, each man a link in a long global chain.

On paper, the exploration rights to this mine belong to a consortium of British and South African investors who say they will turn this perilous and exploitative operation into a safe, modern beacon of prosperity for Congo. But in practice, the consortium’s workers cannot even set foot on the mountain. Like a mafia, Colonel Matumo and his men extort, tax and appropriate at will, draining this vast operation, worth as much as $80 million a year.

The exploitation of this mountain is emblematic of the failure to right this sprawling African nation after many years of tyranny and war, and of the deadly role the country’s immense natural wealth has played in its misery. [continued…]

Iraq cabinet approves troop agreement with U.S.

Iraq’s cabinet today approved a security pact that calls for Americans to withdraw from the country within three years. That action sets up a final vote on the agreement in Iraq’s parliament.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki built political momentum for the agreement through the weekend, declaring his support and helping persuade leading Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani to give it the green light on Saturday.

Representatives of Maliki’s Dawa party framed the deal as a means to end America’s occupation of Iraq while phasing out the assistance coalition forces provide. He reportedly bargained for concessions late last week before endorsing it Friday.

The agreement faces an uncertain outlook in parliament. [continued…]

A new twist in Iraq’s Shi’ite power struggle

Eighteen months after the U.S. troop surge aimed at creating the security necessary for Iraqis to resolve their political conflicts, those political conflicts are threatening to become even more complicated. Besides the Arab-Kurd and Sunni-Shi’ite divides, there has long been a struggle among rival political parties for supremacy among the Shi’ites. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently called for amendments to Iraq’s constitution to strengthen the central government’s power at the expense of the country’s 18 provinces. This week, Maliki’s rivals in the southern Shi’ite bastion of Basra submitted a petition demanding a referendum in the oil-soaked province aimed to turning it into a semi-autonomous federal region akin to Kurdistan. [continued…]

Al-Sadr throws down the gauntlet on US-Iraq talks

The terms and timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are as much a matter of politics in Baghdad as they are in Washington. As the Iraqi cabinet prepares for Sunday’s discussion of the vexing draft of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which provides a legal basis for U.S. military operations in Iraq after Dec. 31, firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday threw down the gauntlet: he threatened to resume attacks against U.S. troops if they don’t leave Iraq “without retaining bases or signing agreements.” Al-Sadr’s unilateral cease-fire, declared more than a year ago, has been generally acknowledged as a key factor in tamping down violence in Iraq over the period, but it remains unclear whether his Mahdi Army militia has the means to make good on his threat. [continued…]

Holocaust’s unholy hold

Even today, when economic storms are shaking markets around the world, posing a threat to the stability of entire countries and societies, Israel continues to conduct its business far from the turmoil, as if swimming in a private ocean of its own. True, the headlines are alerting the public here about the crisis, and the politicians are hastily recalculating their budgets. But none of this is dramatically changing the way we think about ourselves.

To Israelis, these issues are mundane. What really matters here is the all-important spirit of Trauma, the true basis for so many of our country’s life principles. In Israel, the darkest period in human history is always present. Regardless of whether the question at hand is of the future relations between Israel and our Palestinian neighbors in specific and the Arab world in general, or of the Iranian atomic threat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it always comes down to the same conversation. Every threat or grievance of major or minor importance is dealt with automatically by raising the biggest argument of them all — the Shoah — and from that moment onward, every discussion is disrupted.

The constant presence of the Shoah is like a buzz in my ear. In Israel, children are always, it seems, preparing for their rite-of-passage “Auschwitz trip” to Poland. Not a day passes without a mention of the Holocaust in the only newspaper I read, Haaretz. The Shoah is like a hole in the ozone layer: unseen yet present, abstract yet powerful. It’s more present in our lives than God.

It is the founding experience not just of our national consciousness but of more than that. Army generals discuss Israeli security doctrine as “Shoah-proof.” Politicians use it as a central argument for their ethical manipulations. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: Who comes first?

Who comes first?

The tribal areas of western Pakistan along with the least developed parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan have become the epicenter of international handwringing.

On one level, “the problem” revolves around government military forces being constrained by an international boundary, while their opponents can use that constraint to their advantage. On another level, there’s a struggle to find a suitable balance between bullying and helping as Nato pursues its bomb and build strategy.

The one constant is that no one seems to think that the indigenous population has the preeminent right to determine its own future.

Consider the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan and the people who inhabit this rugged terrain. A fascinating photographic essay in the Boston Globe last week sheds light on some of the inherent contradictions in western efforts to impose a military solution on a topographical reality.

Look at the human craft in the physical structure of this mountainside settlement — something that might not be immediately apparent when viewing this hamlet down the barrel of a gun:

Note, there are no roads. To the western eye, this is a development problem.

At the same time it is also an extraordinary indigenous accomplishment. Men and women and donkeys alone did all the heavy lifting. But instead of admiring the ability of people to master the art of survival in a challenging environment, we regard them as living in a state of deprivation. With a road, life would be better — or so we think.

But do they want a road? Apparently not. The report says: “U.S. and Afghan officers tried to convince the [Korengal Valley] elders to accept a new paved road through the Korengal Valley as part of a large American development project. The elders refused the road, however, saying that they would prohibit anyone in their valley from working on the project.”

What would a road provide for the people of Korengal? Most predictably, the means for Americans to establish larger and more heavily equipped military bases. Beyond that, a road would provide the means to tame a harsh environment. It would diminish the value of the resilience of those who for centuries have survived without a road.

Where a people invest their pride, we see their backwardness and then are perplexed when they spurn our goodwill. We suffer from the burden that dogs every evangelist: how can you insult someone and help them at the same time?

Meanwhile, the narrative that drives out all others is that Afghanistan is now in a downward spiral with the Talilban having established control over a substantial portion of the country.

Counterinsurgency expert, David Kilcullen, tells The New Yorker:

We have built the Afghan police into a less well-armed, less well-trained version of the Army and launched them into operations against the insurgents. Meanwhile, nobody is doing the job of actual policing—rule of law, keeping the population safe from all comers (including friendly fire and coalition operations), providing justice and dispute resolution, and civil and criminal law enforcement. As a consequence, the Taliban have stepped into this gap; they currently run thirteen law courts across the south, and ninety-five per cent of the work of these courts is civil law, property disputes, criminal matters, water and grazing disputes, inheritances etc.—basic governance things that the police and judiciary ought to be doing, but instead they’re out in the countryside chasing bad guys. Where governance does exist, it is seen as corrupt or exploitative, in many cases, whereas the people remember the Taliban as cruel but not as corrupt. They remember they felt safer back then. The Taliban are doing the things we ought to be doing because we are off chasing them instead of keeping our eye on the prize—securing and governing the people in a way that meets their needs.

Kilcullen could have said, “The Taliban have established law and order across much of southern Afghanistan. What can we learn from their success?”

Most importantly, in a war that was originally billed as being driven by a moral imperative, how has it come to pass that in this “good war” our allies are corrupt while our opponents are able to establish some system of justice?

To ask such a question is not to excuse the brutality of the Taliban, but merely underline how utterly lost we have become in a country and a region we insist on trying to reshape even while it still eludes our understanding.



Sadr calls for resistance to U.S. presence in Iraq

As the Iraqi cabinet prepares to vote on a security agreement for American troops, the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr called Friday for armed resistance against any agreement that allowed a continued United States presence in Iraq.

“I repeat my demand to the occupier to leave our land without keeping bases or signing agreements,” Mr. Sadr said in a statement read to thousands of supporters at Friday Prayer. “If they keep bases, then I would support honorable resistance.”

Tension is rising here over the agreement as the vote nears, even if few oppose it to the extremes of Mr. Sadr and his followers. An aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, also indicated that he would intervene in some way if the draft did not enjoy the full support of the Iraqi people. But Ayatollah Sistani, who far outranks Mr. Sadr, has consistently advocated nonviolence. [continued…]

Maliki tells Bush he now backs new U.S. troop deal

After months of tough negotiations and multiple revisions, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has decided to back the controversial U.S.-Iraq security agreement that calls for the complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Friday.

Maliki informed President George W. Bush in the last 24 hours that he’s “satisfied” with what Iraqi officials now are calling the “withdrawal agreement,” a Bush administration official said in Washington. Earlier, Maliki informed the Iraqi Presidency Council that he’d back it, Sami al Askari, a Shiite Muslim legislator who’s close to the premier, said Friday.

At Maliki’s meeting with the Presidency Council last week, President Jalal Talabani and Shiite Vice President Adil Abdul Mehdi responded that they and their political blocs also supported the draft, but the Sunni Muslim vice president, Tariq al Hashimi, declined to give his endorsement, Askari said. [continued…]

Obama’s biggest Guantanamo dilemma may lie in Yemen

President-elect Barack Obama’s pledge to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, faces a major obstacle: Yemen.

The Bush administration has transferred hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners to the custody of their home countries, but it’s been unable to win assurances from Yemen — whose approximately 100 prisoners are the largest group still jailed at Guantanamo — that the men, if they’re returned, won’t pose a threat to the United States.

By striking similar deals with nations such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Bush administration officials have dramatically reduced Guantanamo’s population over the past three years. Yemen, however, which has failed to stop homegrown militants from staging major attacks on American targets in the past decade, says it can’t continue to hold prisoners without charges. [continued…]

Post-Guantánamo: a new detention law?

As a presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama sketched the broad outlines of a plan to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: try detainees in American courts and reject the Bush administration’s military commission system.

Now, as Mr. Obama moves closer to assuming responsibility for Guantánamo, his pledge to close the detention center is bringing to the fore thorny questions under consideration by his advisers. They include where Guantánamo’s detainees could be held in this country, how many might be sent home and a matter that people with ties to the Obama transition team say is worrying them most: What if some detainees are acquitted or cannot be prosecuted at all?

That concern is at the center of a debate among national security, human rights and legal experts that has intensified since the election. Even some liberals are arguing that to deal realistically with terrorism, the new administration should seek Congressional authority for preventive detention of terrorism suspects deemed too dangerous to release even if they cannot be successfully prosecuted. [continued…]

This endless savagery is the Congo’s colonial legacy

Western media like to describe the conflict in the Congo as Africa’s First World War. Certainly, five million people have died in the Congo since 1997 and as many as six African countries have been involved in its war, but there the similarities end.

The 1914-1918 war in Europe was fought between sovereign nation states; although the warring factions in the Congo bear the trappings of sovereignty, they are little more than self-serving warlord formations organised on ethnic or tribal lines, seeking to control territory to sustain themselves, and for profit. Civilians are as terrified of the “national” army supposedly fighting on their behalf as they are of the rebel “invaders,” having learnt that either side is capable of unleashing murder, rape and pillage.

There is no nation-state in eastern Congo beyond the rag-tag formations who fight in the name of the government in Kinshasa, when they’re not extorting money from civilians or collaborating on lucrative secret mining deals with some of the very “enemies” they’re meant to be fighting. The state provides no healthcare or education: the brave souls of the NGOs do their best to feed the hungry and extend lives that are usually nasty, brutish and short.

War is not just good for business in eastern Congo: war is business. For the warlord commanders, control of land means ownership of its resources – the gold, diamonds, coltan and other minerals for which mining companies are willing to pay anyone capable of delivering security. [continued…]


Torturing Democracy

Torturing Democracy, a major documentary film more than 18 months in the making, has been airing on individual public television stations around the US since October — although PBS has been reluctant to air it nationally.

The 90-minute film, from Emmy and DuPont awarding-winning producer Sherry Jones, relies on the documentary record to connect the dots in an investigation of interrogations of prisoners in U.S. custody that became “at a minimum, cruel and inhuman treatment and, at worst, torture,” in the words of the former general counsel of the United States Navy.

Up to date with the latest revelations, Torturing Democracy details how the government set aside the rule of law in its pursuit of harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists. It features in-depth interviews with numerous senior military and government officials.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage describes – for the first time on-camera – being waterboarded during military training before he was sent to Vietnam. When producer Jones asked Mr. Armitage if he considered waterboarding to be torture, he answered, “Absolutely. No question.” He added: “There is no question in my mind – there’s no question in any reasonable human being, that this is torture. I’m ashamed that we’re even having this discussion.”

Torturing Democracy can be viewed in three parts (part one, part two, part three).



The choice for Obama lies on the road to Jerusalem

[The Israeli-Palestinian conflict] is the issue that more than any other shapes attitudes in the [Middle East] towards the US. On almost everything else, probably the best the incoming president can hope for is to damp the fires. A deal between Israel and the Palestinians would change the game.

Yet here Mr Obama has promised least. True, he has made the right noises about throwing his authority behind a two-state solution. There is talk of the appointment of a special US envoy to take a permanent seat at the negotiating table. As yet, however, Mr Obama has given little sign that he is ready to invest the energy and political capital to broker a deal.

You can see why. The Annapolis process, the belated effort by the Bush administration to secure an accord, has gone nowhere slowly. This week the outgoing administration all but abandoned hopes of progress before Mr Bush leaves the White House.

Tony Blair, the United Nations’ special envoy to the region, displayed all his trademark optimism by insisting that a “platform” was in place for a final settlement. We have heard that one before.

The polls suggest that the Israeli elections are unlikely to deliver a coalition with the authority to strike a land-for-peace bargain with the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Likud leader, may emerge as prime minister. During his last spell in office Mr Netanyahu sought to derail the Oslo accords. I have heard it said that the one meeting that went badly during Mr Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Europe this year was his encounter with Mr Netanyahu.

For their part, the Palestinians remain divided in spite of the best efforts of Egyptian mediation. Hamas has so far refused to offer the recognition of Israel demanded by the international community. In the absence of a committed interlocutor on the Israeli side, it is hard to see what would prompt Fatah and Hamas to settle their differences.

So why should Mr Obama risk his reputation in such a cause? The answer comes in several parts.

The early years of his presidency will be his best, and quite possibly the last, chance to broker a two-state solution. Facts on the ground – demography, the West Bank barrier, Israeli settlements across swaths of the West Bank, Palestinian radicalism in Gaza – are steadily undermining the bargain that would give Israel security and the Palestinians a state.

For all the formidable obstacles to an agreement, Mr Obama’s heritage and the nature of his victory has bestowed as much authority among Israelis, Palestinians and in the wider Arab world as any US president can ever expect. This precious political capital will diminish over time.

A serious and even-handed effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians would disarm the most serious charge against US policy in the region: that everything it does is rooted in double standards.

A deal would not settle all the problems and conflicts. Nor, of itself, would it repair the relationship between the west and much of the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would find plenty of other reasons to attack America. Yet the creation of a Palestinian state would change profoundly the dynamics of the Middle East. It would make possible much that now seems beyond all reasonable reach.

Brokering such an accord would be tough and thankless. Mr Obama might well fail in the attempt. But there lies the existential choice for Mr Bush’s successor. Does he want to patch things up? Or does he want to redraw the strategic map of the Middle East and thereby set a new direction for America’s role in the world? That, in the final analysis, is what will mark out the difference between a competent and a transformational presidency. [continued…]

Settlers who long to leave the West Bank

Surrounded by hostility, living on land most of the world wants turned over to Palestinians for a state, they meet quietly in Jewish settlements like this one, plotting the future. But these besieged West Bank settlers, widely viewed as an obstacle to peace, want only one surprising thing: to get out.

While the vast majority of settlers vow never to abandon the heart of the historic Jewish homeland — these ancient and starkly beautiful hills whose biblical names are Judea and Samaria — thousands of other settlers say they want to move back to within the pre-1967 borders of Israel.

They say the West Bank settlement enterprise — at least that part beyond the barrier of wall and fence Israel has been building — is doomed and their lives are at risk. Many say something else as well: The Israeli occupation of land claimed by the Palestinians is wrong and they want no part of it. But their houses are worthless, and they are stuck. They want help. [continued…]

Islamists continue advance through Somalia

Islamist militias in Somalia on Thursday continued their steady and surprisingly uncontested march toward the capital, Mogadishu, capturing a small town on the outskirts of the city.

Several dozen Islamist fighters poured into Elasha Biyaha, which is 11 miles southwest of Mogadishu, after government-allied militias fled. No shots were fired, but residents feared it was only a matter of time.

“Many people are now on the verge of fleeing,” said Yusuf Abdi Nur, a shopkeeper in Elasha Biyaha.

The tense but bloodless capture of Elasha Biyaha was a carbon copy of what happened in Merka, a strategic port town, on Wednesday, when hundreds of heavily armed Islamist militants took over the town after government-allied troops beat a hasty retreat. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Somalia represents one of the most glaring failures of the war on terrorism. In the name of opposing terrorism, the Bush administration helped undermine the first sign of stability that had appeared in that grief stricken state in over a decade — the prospect of the end of civil war was of no inherent value in the eyes of Washington if Somalia’s government was going to be Islamist. But the result of opposing the Islamic Courts Union was to strengthen the more extreme wing, the Shabab.

Just before the election, Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times:

    During the cold war, the American ideological fear of communism led us to mistake every muddle-headed leftist for a Soviet pawn. Our myopia helped lead to catastrophe in Vietnam.

    In the same way today, an exaggerated fear of “Islamofascism” elides a complex reality and leads us to overreact and damage our own interests. Perhaps the best example is one of the least-known failures in Bush administration foreign policy: Somalia.

    Today, Somalia is the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster, worse even than Darfur or Congo. The crisis has complex roots, and Somali warlords bear primary blame. But Bush administration paranoia about Islamic radicals contributed to the disaster.

    Somalia has been in chaos for many years, but in 2006 an umbrella movement called the Islamic Courts Union seemed close to uniting the country. The movement included both moderates and extremists, but it constituted the best hope for putting Somalia together again. Somalis were ecstatic at the prospect of having a functional government again.

    Bush administration officials, however, were aghast at the rise of an Islamist movement that they feared would be uncooperative in the war on terror. So they gave Ethiopia, a longtime rival in the region, the green light to invade, and Somalia’s best hope for peace collapsed.

    “A movement that looked as if it might end this long national nightmare was derailed, in part because of American and Ethiopian actions,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College. As a result, Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism have surged, partly because Somalis blame Washington for the brutality of the Ethiopian occupiers.

    “There’s a level of anti-Americanism in Somalia today like nothing I’ve seen over the last 20 years,” Professor Menkhaus said. “Somalis are furious with us for backing the Ethiopian intervention and occupation, provoking this huge humanitarian crisis.”

    Patrick Duplat, an expert on Somalia at Refugees International, the Washington-based advocacy group, says that during his last visit to Somalia, earlier this year, a local mosque was calling for jihad against America — something he had never heard when he lived peacefully in Somalia during the rise of the Islamic Courts Union.

    “The situation has dramatically taken a turn for the worse,” he said. “The U.S. chose a very confrontational route early on. Who knows what would have happened if the U.S. had reached out to moderates? But that might have averted the disaster we’re in today.”

    The greatest catastrophe is the one endured by ordinary Somalis who now must watch their children starve. But America’s own strategic interests have also been gravely damaged.

    The only winner has been Islamic militancy. That’s probably the core reason why Al Qaeda militants prefer a McCain presidency: four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world would be a tragedy for Americans and virtually everyone else, but a boon for radical groups trying to recruit suicide bombers.

CIA chief says Qaeda is extending its reach

Even as Al Qaeda strengthens its hub in the Pakistani mountains, its leaders are building closer ties to regional militant groups in order to launch attacks in Africa and Europe and on the Arabian Peninsula, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Thursday.

The director, Michael V. Hayden, identified North Africa and Somalia as places where Qaeda leaders were using partnerships to establish new bases. Elsewhere, Mr. Hayden said, Al Qaeda was “strengthening” in Yemen, and he added that veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan had moved there, possibly to stage attacks against the government of Saudi Arabia.

He said the “bleed out” from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also extended to North Africa, raising concern that the countries there could be used to stage attacks into Europe. Mr. Hayden delivered his report in a speech to the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, and it offered a mixed assessment of Al Qaeda’s ability to wage a global jihad.

He drew a contrast between what he described as growing Islamic radicalism in places like Somalia and what he said had been the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia — the network’s affiliate group in Iraq. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Al Qaeda is as strong as the policies of the Bush administration helped make it. If Hayden had not been such a willing party to the administration’s strategic and tactical mistakes he might now have the honesty and humility to acknowledge that America will soon be free from the threat posed by its greatest security liability — the current administration. And had the director of the CIA a broader mind he might also acknowledge that the threats posed to America by climate change and economic turmoil, dwarf those posed by a few thousand violent fundamentalists.

The worst is not behind us

It is useful, at this juncture, to stand back and survey the economic landscape–both as it is now, and as it has been in recent months. So here is a summary of many of the points that I have made for the last few months on the outlook for the U.S. and global economy, as well as for financial markets:

–The U.S. will experience its most severe recession since World War II, much worse and longer and deeper than even the 1974-1975 and 1980-1982 recessions. The recession will continue until at least the end of 2009 for a cumulative gross domestic product drop of over 4%; the unemployment rate will likely reach 9%. The U.S. consumer is shopped-out, saving less and debt-burdened: This will be the worst consumer recession in decades.

–The prospect of a short and shallow six- to eight-month V-shaped recession is out of the window; a U-shaped 18- to 24-month recession is now a certainty, and the probability of a worse, multi-year L-shaped recession (as in Japan in the 1990s) is still small but rising. Even if the economy were to exit a recession by the end of 2009, the recovery could be so weak because of the impairment of the financial system and the credit mechanism that it may feel like a recession even if the economy is technically out of the recession.

–Obama will inherit an economic and financial mess worse than anything the U.S. has faced in decades: the most severe recession in 50 years; the worst financial and banking crisis since the Great Depression; a ballooning fiscal deficit that may be as high as a trillion dollars in 2009 and 2010; a huge current account deficit; a financial system that is in a severe crisis and where deleveraging is still occurring at a very rapid pace, thus causing a worsening of the credit crunch; a household sector where millions of households are insolvent, into negative equity territory and on the verge of losing their homes; a serious risk of deflation as the slack in goods, labor and commodity markets becomes deeper; the risk that we will end in a deflationary liquidity trap as the Fed is fast approaching the zero-bound constraint for the Fed funds rate; the risk of a severe debt deflation as the real value of nominal liabilities will rise, given price deflation, while the value of financial assets is still plunging. [continued…]

Depression economics returns

The economic news, in case you haven’t noticed, keeps getting worse. Bad as it is, however, I don’t expect another Great Depression. In fact, we probably won’t see the unemployment rate match its post-Depression peak of 10.7 percent, reached in 1982 (although I wish I was sure about that).

We are already, however, well into the realm of what I call depression economics. By that I mean a state of affairs like that of the 1930s in which the usual tools of economic policy — above all, the Federal Reserve’s ability to pump up the economy by cutting interest rates — have lost all traction. When depression economics prevails, the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply: virtue becomes vice, caution is risky and prudence is folly….

To pull us out of this downward spiral, the federal government will have to provide economic stimulus in the form of higher spending and greater aid to those in distress — and the stimulus plan won’t come soon enough or be strong enough unless politicians and economic officials are able to transcend several conventional prejudices.

One of these prejudices is the fear of red ink. In normal times, it’s good to worry about the budget deficit — and fiscal responsibility is a virtue we’ll need to relearn as soon as this crisis is past. When depression economics prevails, however, this virtue becomes a vice. F.D.R.’s premature attempt to balance the budget in 1937 almost destroyed the New Deal.

Another prejudice is the belief that policy should move cautiously. In normal times, this makes sense: you shouldn’t make big changes in policy until it’s clear they’re needed. Under current conditions, however, caution is risky, because big changes for the worse are already happening, and any delay in acting raises the chance of a deeper economic disaster. The policy response should be as well-crafted as possible, but time is of the essence.

Finally, in normal times modesty and prudence in policy goals are good things. Under current conditions, however, it’s much better to err on the side of doing too much than on the side of doing too little. The risk, if the stimulus plan turns out to be more than needed, is that the economy might overheat, leading to inflation — but the Federal Reserve can always head off that threat by raising interest rates. On the other hand, if the stimulus plan is too small there’s nothing the Fed can do to make up for the shortfall. So when depression economics prevails, prudence is folly. [continued…]



Obama on faith

Alongside my own deep personal faith, I am a follower, as well, of our civic religion. I am a big believer in the separation of church and state. I am a big believer in our constitutional structure. I mean, I’m a law professor at the University of Chicago teaching constitutional law. I am a great admirer of our founding charter, and its resolve to prevent theocracies from forming, and its resolve to prevent disruptive strains of fundamentalism from taking root ion this country.

As I said before, in my own public policy, I’m very suspicious of religious certainty expressing itself in politics.

Now, that’s different form a belief that values have to inform our public policy. I think it’s perfectly consistent to say that I want my government to be operating for all faiths and all peoples, including atheists and agnostics, while also insisting that there are values that inform my politics that are appropriate to talk about.

A standard line in my stump speech during this campaign is that my politics are informed by a belief that we’re all connected. That if there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago that can’t read, that makes a difference in my life even if it’s not my own child. If there’s a senior citizen in downstate Illinois that’s struggling to pay for their medicine and having to chose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it’s not my grandparent. And if there’s an Arab American family that’s being rounded up by John Ashcroft without the benefit of due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

I can give religious expression to that. I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, we are all children of God. Or I can express it in secular terms. But the basic premise remains the same. I think sometimes Democrats have made the mistake of shying away from a conversation about values for fear that they sacrifice the important value of tolerance. And I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive.

Do you think it’s wrong for people to want to know about a civic leader’s spirituality?

I don’t’ think it’s wrong. I think that political leaders are subject to all sorts of vetting by the public, and this can be a component of that.

I think that I am disturbed by, let me put it this way: I think there is an enormous danger on the part of public figures to rationalize or justify their actions by claiming God’s mandate.

I think there is this tendency that I don’t think is healthy for public figures to wear religion on their sleeve as a means to insulate themselves from criticism, or dialogue with people who disagree with them.

The conversation stopper, when you say you’re a Christian and leave it at that.

Where do you move forward with that?

This is something that I’m sure I’d have serious debates with my fellow Christians about. I think that the difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell.

You don’t believe that?

I find it hard to believe that my God would consign four-fifths of the world to hell.

I can’t imagine that my God would allow some little Hindu kid in India who never interacts with the Christian faith to somehow burn for all eternity.

That’s just not part of my religious makeup. [continued…]

Obama’s plans for probing Bush torture

With growing talk in Washington that President Bush may be considering an unprecedented “blanket pardon” for people involved in his administration’s brutal interrogation policies, advisors to Barack Obama are pressing ahead with plans for a nonpartisan commission to investigate alleged abuses under Bush.

The Obama plan, first revealed by Salon in August, would emphasize fact-finding investigation over prosecution. It is gaining currency in Washington as Obama advisors begin to coordinate with Democrats in Congress on the proposal. The plan would not rule out future prosecutions, but would delay a decision on that matter until all essential facts can be unearthed. Between the time necessary for the investigative process and the daunting array of policy problems Obama will face upon taking office, any decision on prosecutions probably would not come until a second Obama presidential term, should there be one.

The proposed commission — similar in thrust to a Democratic investigation proposal first uncovered by Salon in July — would examine a broad scope of activities, including detention, torture and extraordinary rendition, the practice of snatching suspected terrorists off the street and whisking them off to a third country for abusive interrogations. The commission might also pry into the claims by the White House — widely rejected by experienced interrogators — that abusive interrogations are an effective and necessary intelligence tool. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — If Bush grants a blanket preemptive pardon to everyone who might have committed a crime while conducting the war on terrorism, all well and good. The truth is worth more than convictions and having been pardoned, the guilty will not be able to hide behind the Fifth Amendment when they are called to testify.

When the vice president alerted this nation to the fact that it’s government would move to “the dark side,” everyone who said, “OK, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” became complicit. Dick Cheney, John Yoo and David Addington might have been the leading criminal conspirators, but everyone who felt safer not knowing what was being done in their name needs to understand that America as a nation — not just those at the top — has been stained by the crimes of the war on terrorism.

An independent public inquiry needs to be conducted and those questioned should not just include the principals inside the Bush administration, but also those members of Congress who were briefed about interrogation procedures, along with the tortured, the torturers, guards, medical and legal counselors. The goal should not be to hold individuals with ultimate responsibility but rather to expose in all its intricacy the web of complicity.

In this matter, a sense of collective responsibility will be of greater political consequence and more lasting value to society, than the satisfaction that so many of us would feel if we were to see Cheney and his cohorts thrown in jail.

Bush, out of office, could oppose inquiries

When a Congressional committee subpoenaed Harry S. Truman in 1953, nearly a year after he left office, he made a startling claim: Even though he was no longer president, the Constitution still empowered him to block subpoenas.

“If the doctrine of separation of powers and the independence of the presidency is to have any validity at all, it must be equally applicable to a president after his term of office has expired,” Truman wrote to the committee.

Congress backed down, establishing a precedent suggesting that former presidents wield lingering powers to keep matters from their administration secret. Now, as Congressional Democrats prepare to move forward with investigations of the Bush administration, they wonder whether that claim may be invoked again.

“The Bush administration overstepped in its exertion of executive privilege, and may very well try to continue to shield information from the American people after it leaves office,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who sits on two committees, Judiciary and Intelligence, that are examining aspects of Mr. Bush’s policies. [continued…]



Don’t let Barack Obama break your heart

If Iraq remains a sorry tale of American destruction and dysfunction without, as yet, a discernable end in sight, Afghanistan may prove Iraq squared. And there, candidate Obama expressed no desire to wind the war down and withdraw American troops. Quite the opposite, during the election campaign he plunked hard for escalation, something our NATO allies are sure not to be too enthusiastic about. According to the Obama plan, many more American troops (if available, itself an open question) are to be poured into the country in what would essentially be a massive “surge strategy” by yet another occupant of the Oval Office. Assumedly, the new Afghan policy would be aided and abetted by those CIA-run UAVs directed toward Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and pals, while undoubtedly further destabilizing a shaky ally.

When it comes to rising civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes in their countries, both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari have already used their congratulatory phone calls to President-elect Obama to plead for an end to the attacks, which produce both a profusion of dead bodies and a profusion of live, vengeful enemies. Both have done the same with the Bush administration, Karzai to the point of tears.

The U.S. military argues that the use of air power is necessary in the face of a spreading, ever more dangerous, Taliban insurgency largely because there are too few boots on the ground. (“If we got more boots on the ground, we would not have to rely as much on airstrikes” was the way Army Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, put it.) But rest assured, as the boots multiply on increasingly hostile ground, the military will discover it needs more, not less, air power to back more troops in more trouble.

So, after January 20th, expect Obama to take possession of George Bush’s disastrous Afghan War; and unless he is far more skilled than Alexander the Great, British empire builders, and the Russians, his war, too, will continue to rage without ever becoming a raging success. [continued…]

Guantanamo closure called Obama priority

The Obama administration will launch a review of the classified files of the approximately 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay immediately after taking office, as part of an intensive effort to close the U.S. prison in Cuba, according to people who advised the campaign on detainee issues.

Announcing the closure of the controversial detention facility would be among the most potent signals the incoming administration could send of its sharp break with the Bush era, according to the advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for the president-elect. They believe the move would create a global wave of diplomatic and popular goodwill that could accelerate the transfer of some detainees to other countries.

But the advisers, as well as outside national security and legal experts, said the new administration will face a thicket of legal, diplomatic, political and logistical challenges to closing the prison and prosecuting the most serious offenders in the United States — an effort that could take many months or longer. Among the thorniest issues will be how to build effective cases without using evidence obtained by torture, an issue that attorneys for the detainees will almost certainly seek to exploit. [continued…]

Battle in Bush administration over interrogation techniques

As the clock runs down on the Bush administration, moderates within the government are mounting what may be one last drive to roll back many of the harsh detention and interrogation policies pushed through by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The effort, led by officials at the State Department, represents the latest battle in a war between hard-liners and moderates that has raged though most of the Bush administration.

In the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Cheney and his allies won most of the internal contests over the Guantanamo Bay prison, the CIA’s interrogation program, domestic spying, military commissions and other contentious issues.

But internal critics — including the State Department’s legal advisor, John B. Bellinger III — fought against those efforts. Buoyed by congressional action and court rulings, the moderates in recent years have helped break down administration resistance to international agreements and standards. The latest push underscores how deeply unpopular the most hawkish White House stances have proved to be even within the administration itself. [continued…]

Obama will have to go where no other president has dared

Most Americans understand that Barack Obama will be confronted by a host of foreign policy challenges immediately upon taking office. What is less understood is how few options are available to the new President.

Iraq presents the most obvious test, and it is one that Obama will have trouble passing. If he continues Bush administration policy and negotiates a long-term agreement over bases with the Iraqi government, he will be viewed as having betrayed the anti-war, “bring the troops home” rhetoric that catapulted him to the front ranks of presidential contenders. Yet it is equally clear that a decision to withdraw all US forces from the country – rather than just combat forces as he advocated during the campaign – will be strenuously opposed by the military establishment, precipitating a conflict far more severe than the struggle over gays in the military that roiled President Clinton’s first year in office.

Obama’s second big quandary surrounds US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Professor Obama might have befriended a Palestinian academic or two, but during his candidacy, Senator Obama demonstrated little of the political vision or will necessary to revivify a comatose peace process.An aggressive negotiating agenda is needed, one that couples pressure on Hamas to renounce violence with equal pressure on Israel to withdraw from most settlements, accept East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and allow the return to Israel of a small but significant number of Palestinian refugees. [continued…]

Obama’s transition team will employ 450, have $12 million budget

At a briefing before well over 100 reporters, John Podesta, the co-chair of Barack Obama’s White House transition, announced three priorities for the interim period and laid out just how comprehensive the effort would be.

The transition team will operate off a budget of $12 million ($5.2 million has been appropriated by Congress, the rest will be raised separately through individual donations of under $5,000), employ 450 people and operate out of offices in Washington D.C. and Chicago. Already, Podesta reiterated, the team has granted 100 interim security clearances.

As for the priorities – they resembled the same major interests Obama announced repeatedly on the campaign trail. [continued…]

The US can quit Iraq, or it can stay. But it can’t do both

If it ever comes to court it should be one of the more interesting libel cases of the decade. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service is threatening to sue Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi politician, for asking who pays for it.

“It is somewhat curious,” says Mr Chalabi, “that the intelligence service of a country which is sovereign – that no one really knows who is funding it.”

In fact there are very few Iraqis who do not believe they have a very clear idea of who funds Iraq’s secret police. Its director is General Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, who once led a failed coup against Saddam Hussein, and was handpicked by the CIA to run the new security organisation soon after the invasion of 2003. He is believed to have been answering to them ever since.

The history of the Iraqi intelligence service is important because it shows the real distribution of power in Iraq rather than the spurious picture presented by President Bush. It explains why so many Iraqis are suspicious of the security accord, or Status of Forces Agreement, that the White House has been pushing the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Malki to sign. It reveals the real political landscape where President-elect Barack Obama will soon have to find his bearings. [continued…]

Afghan security conference focusing on whether to talk to Taliban

Delegates from Central and South Asia have gathered in Dushanbe — together with a senior official from the U.S. State Department — for talks on how regional cooperation can improve Afghanistan’s security situation.

The talks, hosted by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, have included a debate on whether the Afghan government should negotiate with Taliban fighters — and possibly bring some former Taliban into the central government.

As delegates discussed the merits and shortcomings of such a policy, an official from the U.S. State Department was able to gauge the views of representatives from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Indeed, the two-day conference in Dushanbe is a timely event. It comes as advisers to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama consider a possible new regional strategy for the war in Afghanistan. [continued…]

Pakistanis mired in brutal battle to oust Taliban

When Pakistan’s army retook this strategic stronghold from the Taliban last month, it discovered how deeply Islamic militants had encroached on — and literally dug into — Pakistani territory.

Behind mud-walled family compounds in the Bajaur area, a vital corridor to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s tribal belt, Taliban insurgents created a network of tunnels to store arms and move about undetected.

Some tunnels stretched for more than half a mile and were equipped with ventilation systems so that fighters could withstand a long siege. In some places, it took barrages of 500-pound bombs to break the tunnels apart.

“These were not for ordinary battle,” said Gen. Tariq Khan, the commander of the Pakistan Frontier Corps, who led the army’s campaign against the Taliban in the area.

After three months of sometimes fierce fighting, the Pakistani Army controls a small slice of Bajaur. But what was initially portrayed as a paramilitary action to restore order in the area has become the most sustained military campaign by the Pakistani Army against the Taliban and its backers in Al Qaeda since Pakistan allied itself with the United States in 2001. [continued…]

For Pakistan’s tribesmen, a difficult, deadly choice

The sign above the bed in the surgical ward at Lady Reading Hospital was simple and discreet: Patient #247, Bomb Blast. Beneath the sign lay a man swaddled from the waist down in dirty bandages. His face was pocked with black scars from a suicide bomb attack on a meeting of tribal elders who had decided to fight the Taliban. The man had been in the hospital for nearly a month but was barely conscious.

In that time, more than 120 tribal leaders who decided to take up arms against the Taliban at the Pakistani government’s urging have been killed in suicide bombings. Scores more have been injured in firefights with insurgents. Burned by blasts, wounded by artillery fire and hit by bullets, most have received only first aid from the government. A few have been lucky enough to survive the long ride to the hospital in Peshawar.

Many of the injured tribal leaders at Lady Reading were supposed to form the front line in a government campaign to tame the Taliban insurgency in northwest Pakistan. As the army’s efforts to stamp out the insurgency in the rugged areas along the border with Afghanistan have faltered, Pakistani officials have turned to tribal militias to make up ground in an increasingly complex conflict.

But, so far at least, the tribal militias have been no panacea. Instead, the use of the militias, known as lashkars, has set off a debate over whether such a strategy will contribute to a civil war in the northwest that could engulf all of Pakistan. Yet some tribal leaders say they have little choice but to fight their brothers, cousins and neighbors: The Pakistani military, they say, has threatened to bomb their villages if they do not battle the Taliban. [continued…]

Saudis step into Pakistan’s quagmire

General David Petraeus, the new head of US Central Command with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has turned to Saudi Arabia to act as an middleman between Washington and Pakistan.

Previously, Washington dealt directly with former president General Pervez Musharraf. A London-based Pakistani diplomatic told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, “All aid packages will be routed through Saudi Arabia as a result of Pakistan’s performance in the ‘war on terror’. The Saudis will deal directly with Pakistan to resolve disputes, and that’s why Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Ashfaq Kiani visited Saudi Arabia. These kinds of visits will be seen frequently in the near future.”

The envoy continued, “You can see a new campaign emerging of fatwas [religious decrees] against terrorism [recently, one of the most influential and prestigious seminaries in South Asia, the Darool uloom Deoband of India, issued a policy statement condemning terrorism]. This debate will be enhanced by Saudi Arabia for damage control in Muslim countries as well as to safeguard Western interests.”

This week, the United Nations General Assembly held a session entitled “Culture of Peace” to promote a global dialogue about religions, cultures and common values. This was at the initiative of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia as a followup to an interfaith conference staged in Madrid that was organized in collaboration with King Juan Carlos of Spain in July.

Clearly, Washington has accepted that militancy, at least in Pakistan and Afghanistan, can’t be tamed only through the barrel of the gun, especially given its resurgence in these countries – something that promises to make next year very tough for security forces. [continued…]

Row over claims of Syrian nuclear find

Claims that traces of uranium were found at the site of an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor which was bombed by Israel last year prompted a row about politically-motivated leaks yesterday.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the UN body was taking very seriously allegations that Syria has a hidden atomic programme. But he declined to confirm that uranium had been detected.

Unnamed diplomats said on Monday that samples taken by UN inspectors from Kibar in northern Syria contained traces of uranium combined with other elements. The uranium was processed, suggesting some kind of nuclear link.

“It isn’t enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing, but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation,” said a diplomat with links to the Vienna-based watchdog. [continued…]

Why did the West ignore the truth about the war in Georgia?

Thank goodness, they might be thinking at the US State Department and the British Foreign Office, for the financial crisis. Were it not for the ever-blacker news about the Western world’s economy, another scandal would be vying for the headlines – and one where the blame would be easier to apportion. It concerns our two countries’ relations with Russia and the truth about this summer’s Georgia-Russia war.

Over the past couple of weeks, a spate of reports has appeared in the American and British media, questioning many assumptions about that war, chief among them that Russia was the guilty party. Journalists from the BBC, The New York Times and Canada’s Embassy magazine, among others, travelled to South Ossetia, the region at the centre of the conflict, in an effort to establish the facts.

Not the “facts” as told by the super-slick Georgian PR machine at the time, nor the “facts” as eventually dragged from the hyper-defensive and clod-hopping communicators of the Kremlin. But the facts as experienced on the ground by those who were there: civilians, the local military commander, and the small number of unarmed monitors stationed in the region by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The journalists travelled to the region separately and by different routes. They spoke to different people. But their findings are consistent: Georgia launched an indiscriminate military assault on South Ossetia’s main town, Tskhinvali. The hospital was among the buildings attacked; doctors were injured even as they operated. [continued…]

Greenhouse gases imperil oceans’ web of life

Corals, lobsters, clams and many other ocean creatures — including some at the bottom of the food chain — may be unable to withstand the increasing acidity of the oceans brought on by growing global-warming pollution, according to a report Tuesday from the advocacy group Oceana.

Based on scientific findings of the past several years, Oceana’s report “Acid Test” examines the far-reaching consequences of the accumulation of heat-trapping gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the world’s oceans.

A high level of carbon dioxide in seawater depletes the carbonate that marine animals need for their shells and skeletons. Creatures who are at risk if trends continue include corals, which provide habitats for about a quarter of the world’s fish; things many people like to eat, including shrimp and lobster; and pteropods, or swimming sea snails, which are an important part of the base of polar and sub-polar food chains. [continued…]

The Bretton Woods sequel will flop

I blame it all on Dean Acheson. The long-dead American statesman was a big figure at the original Bretton Woods conference in 1944 and later helped invent Nato. Acheson gave his memoirs the modest title Present at the Creation and, in so doing, he inadvertently fed the grandiose fantasies of the leaders of the Group of 20 leading economies who will assemble in Washington next weekend. Perhaps they too can achieve near God-like status by reordering the institutions of the world?

Some of the leaders who are heading for Washington are surprisingly frank about the fun they are having. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s dynamic president, has congratulated himself on his “luck” in having the chance to remake the global financial system. Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, has visibly revelled in the idea that he is a global intellectual leader.

But like most sequels, Bretton Woods II is not going to be nearly as good as the original. The first conference gave birth to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its successor will be duller and less consequential. [continued…]

The New York Times’s lonely war

Today, the narrative of Iraq has evolved into a complex one of a society taking tentative steps toward some sort of dimly glimpsed future—instead of just bombings and armed combat, the story these days more often involves army units trying to coordinate services with nascent town councils. The differences between hard-liners and insurgents, to say nothing of those between Sunnis and Shiites, can be dizzyingly difficult to understand and explain, and many readers have stopped paying attention.

Add to this an unprecedented decline in the financial condition of the news media and severe restrictions on photographers by the military and it’s no surprise that Iraq has all but disappeared from the front pages. A study conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the war occupied just 3 percent of the mainstream media’s news hole. Compare that with 2003, when 9 out of 10 Americans said they were closely following the situation in Iraq—a higher percentage than were following any other topic—and there were, by some estimates, more than 1,000 Western reporters covering the conflict. There’s an ongoing chicken-and-egg debate about whether lack of interest has led to a decline in coverage or vice versa. For whatever reason, today there are only a few dozen Western reporters in Iraq, which is not many more than were there during Saddam Hussein’s last days in power, when staying in the country meant risking detention, or worse.

The Times is being whipsawed by the same economic woes battering the rest of the industry—earlier this year, the paper eliminated more than 100 editorial positions, which was about 8 percent of the newsroom’s total workforce. (So much for the suit of armor.) But unlike virtually every other news organization on the planet, it has not significantly cut back on the number of staff it has on the ground in Iraq, a commitment which costs upwards of $3 million a year. “You can’t cover a story only when interest peaks,” says Bill Keller, the paper’s executive editor. “You have to walk the beat all the time. This is so integral to what readers expect in The New York Times that if we stopped covering the war in Iraq we should just go out of business.” [continued…]

The Iraq math war

In early 1999, Les Roberts traveled to Bukavu, a city of more than 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (drc). The country’s brutal civil war was in full swing, and a nearby region, Katana, had been largely cut off from the outside world for nearly a year. Roberts, a former Centers for Disease Control (cdc) epidemiologist who’d taken over as director of health policy for the International Rescue Committee, wanted to see how the locals were faring.

Every morning for weeks, Roberts and his team rode into the jungle. After finding a spot they’d selected randomly on a map, they approached the people living in the area and asked them about recent deaths in their households. When Roberts finally crunched the numbers, he determined that the mortality rate in Katana was two and a half times the peacetime rate. The next year, using a similar approach, he concluded that the war’s overall death toll in eastern drc at the time wasn’t 50,000, as widely reported, but a staggering 1.7 million.

Roberts’ results helped boost the reputation of conflict epidemiology, a fledgling discipline that applies the tools of public health research to the surprisingly difficult question of how many civilians die in war zones. Historically, soldiers and journalists have been the main sources of real-time casualty estimates, leaving the truth somewhere between propaganda and a best guess. Researchers are still revising death tolls for wars that ended decades ago; estimates of civilian deaths in Vietnam even now range from 500,000 to 2 million or more. The methods Roberts helped pioneer aimed to end some of that uncertainty. [continued…]