Archives for February 2009

CHAS FREEMAN’S APPOINTMENT AS NIC CHAIRMAN

Despite opposition by Jewish groups, Chas. Freeman appointed intel chief

Despite weeks of behind-the-scenes lobbying by some Jewish groups, the Obama administration yesterday tapped veteran diplomat Chas. W. Freeman Jr. to head the National Intelligence Council in what may be its most controversial appointment yet. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 26

Peace will be achieved only by talking to Hamas

If every crisis is also an opportunity, it is now time to rethink the strategy for achieving peace in the Middle East. The latest and bloodiest conflict between Israel and Hamas has demonstrated that the policy of isolating Hamas cannot bring about stability. As former peace negotiators, we believe it is of vital importance to abandon the failed policy of isolation and to involve Hamas in the political process. [Read more…]

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STATE OF THE NATION

The power of Obama’s oratory

He needed to spell out and defend his plan for stimulating the economy, which his administration has sometimes stumbled in explaining. He wanted to rally support for the rest of his ambitious domestic program, including expensive investments in healthcare, energy and education. And he sought to lift the mood of the nation by promising that better times lie ahead.

The least concrete of those goals, lifting the nation’s mood, was actually the most important — because it will be difficult for Obama to implement any of his plans if Americans lose hope.

That’s why the first lines from the speech that the White House released in advance Tuesday were these: “While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

The obvious comparison is to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who rallied Americans during the Great Depression with his fireside chats, broadcast on the still-new medium of radio.

“There is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people,” Roosevelt said in his first radio speech to the nation in 1933.

But FDR enjoyed a massive, obedient majority in Congress that passed his banking bill in a single day with a minimum of dissent. (As Will Rogers quipped at the time: “Congress doesn’t pass legislation anymore. They just wave at the bills as they go by.”)

With that kind of support, Roosevelt had an easier job, and could aim his speech mostly at persuading citizens to be patient and avoid the urge to withdraw their money from banks.

Obama, in contrast, is asking the public for help in putting pressure on his opponents in Congress.

That’s why the best analogy may not be to Roosevelt but to Ronald Reagan, who turned his presidency into a permanent campaign to rally public support to his side, even when Congress was skeptical. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In a similar sense that Marx understood religion as a product of human suffering, Obama recognizes that his own huge popularity right now is comensurate with the level of fear that pervades America.

Fear is fueling faith as we gamble that our inspirational president is the only hope we have that someone (more than well-crafted policy) can serve as an instrument for our economic salvation.

And since, en masse, human beings have a greater capacity to believe than to doubt, and since an economic turnaround hinges to a significant degree in shifting the balance between pessimism and optimism, there is indeed something extraordinarily fitting that by a simple stroke of luck, America at this particular moment has this particular president.

How spending stimulates

Will the Obama deficit-spending plan work? Will throwing $800 billion—$500 billion in extra government spending, and $300 billion in tax cuts—at the economy produce a world in which production and employment are higher and unemployment lower than would otherwise have been the case?

The short answer is yes. The short reason is that spending works—eras in which some group or other gets excited about future prospects and starts madly spending money are eras in which production and employment are high and unemployment is low. And the government, in this respect, is just like any other group of starry-eyed optimists whose eagerness to spend pulls the economy into a high-employment, high-pressure boom. [continued…]

‘There will be blood’

Heather Scoffield: Will globalization survive this crisis?

Niall Ferguson: It’s a question that’s well worth asking. Because when you look at the way trade has collapsed in the world in the last quarter of 2008 – countries like Taiwan saw their exports fall 45 per cent – that is a depression-style contraction, and we’re in quite early stages of the game at this point. This is before the shock has really played out politically. Before protectionist slogans have really established themselves in the public debate. Buy America is the beginning of something I think we’ll see a lot more of. So I think there’s a real danger that globalization could unravel.

Part of the point I’ve been making for years is that it’s a fragile system. It broke down once before. The last time we globalized the world economy this way, pre-1914, it only took a war to cause the whole thing to come crashing down. Now we’re showing that we can do it without a war. You can cause globalization to disintegrate just by inflating a housing bubble, bursting it, and watching the financial chain reaction unfold.”

Heather Scoffield: Is a violent resolution to this crisis inevitable?

Niall Ferguson: “There will be blood, in the sense that a crisis of this magnitude is bound to increase political as well as economic [conflict]. It is bound to destabilize some countries. It will cause civil wars to break out, that have been dormant. It will topple governments that were moderate and bring in governments that are extreme. These things are pretty predictable. The question is whether the general destabilization, the return of, if you like, political risk, ultimately leads to something really big in the realm of geopolitics. That seems a less certain outcome. We’ve already talked about why China and the United States are in an embrace they don’t dare end. [continued…]

The Obama code

For the sake of unity, the President tends to express his moral vision indirectly. Like other self-aware and highly articulate speakers, he connects with his audience using what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious.” Speaking naturally, he lets his deepest ideas simply structure what he is saying. If you follow him, the deep ideas are communicated unconsciously and automatically. The Code is his most effective way to bring the country together around fundamental American values.

For supporters of the President, it is crucial to understand the Code in order to talk overtly about the old values our new president is communicating. It is necessary because tens of millions of Americans–both conservatives and progressives–don’t yet perceive the vital sea change that Obama is bringing about.

The word “code” can refer to a system of either communication or morality. President Obama has integrated the two. The Obama Code is both moral and linguistic at once. The President is using his enormous skills as a communicator to express a moral system. As he has said, budgets are moral documents. His economic program is tied to his moral system and is discussed in the Code, as are just about all of his other policies. [continued…]

Obama’s faith in ‘non-believers’

Much has already been said about the reference in Obama’s inaugural address to America as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers.” In light of the views of a majority of Americans — who, according to survey data, believe that the United States is a “Christian nation”; feel that it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, and say they would not vote for an atheist to serve in our highest public office — the president’s assertion was, in a word, astonishing.

At the February 5 National Prayer Breakfast, the president expanded on this theme. Acknowledging that faith has too often been used as a pretext for prejudice and intolerance, he focused on “the one law that binds all great religions together… the Golden Rule — the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this earth.”

He pointed out that he wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household. His father was born a Muslim and by adulthood had become an atheist; his maternal grandparents were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists; and his mother was “skeptical of organized religion.” Nevertheless, he revealed that this non-religious mother was “the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known,” and was the one who taught him to love, to understand and to do unto others as he would want done unto him. [continued…]

Obama wants to move the center left

President Barack Obama is taking a beating from liberal critics who think his attempt to court Republican support is a political failure and a policy disaster. Yet this assault on Mr. Obama’s bipartisan instinct is misguided and, ironically, threatens to undermine liberal goals.
[Commentary] Martin Kozlowski

The president has his eye on a bigger prize than winning a few Republican votes for his stimulus package or having a conservative in his cabinet. He aims to move the political center in America to the left, much as Ronald Reagan moved it to the right. The only way he can achieve this goal is to harness the energies and values of both parties.

Left and right mean less nowadays, especially to Americans outside Washington. But broadly speaking, Mr. Obama seeks to use government in new ways to bolster opportunity and security in an era when financial crisis, global competition and rapid technological change are calling into question the political and business arrangements on which our prosperity has rested for decades. This is the task that history has assigned this president. The spat between him and his liberal critics is about the way one makes this happen. [continued…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 25

Al Jazeera: Focus on Gaza: A crime of war?

‘We are such an angry people’

SPIEGEL: Mr. Burg, a majority of Israelis voted for right-wing parties, and now Benjamin Netanyahu is prime-minister designate. As someone who supports the Israeli left, are you feeling a bit lonely these days?

Burg: I feel I am losing my political, ideological and spiritual home. My political home today, the Meretz party, shrank to only three seats in the Knesset. As an Israeli I feel lost because so many of my fellow countrymen are in love with war — as the solution for everything. But the most existential loss is spiritual: For me, being a Jew is being a universalist, a humanist. I can’t understand any Jew who votes right-wing. I can’t understand how a Jew can speak a language of xenophobia. And yet so many of them just did. [continued…]

Avigdor Lieberman’s chutzpah

A reliable friend and colleague swears that he saw the following incident in the Israeli-occupied territories a couple of years ago. A Palestinian physician, in urgent need of permission to travel, was trying to persuade a soldier at a roadblock to allow him to hurry on to the next town. He first tried the stone-faced guard in Hebrew, in which many Arabs are fluent, but he received no response. He then made an attempt in English, which is something of a local lingua franca, yet he fared no better. After an unpleasant interval of mutual noncommunication, it transpired that the only word the Israeli soldier knew was no, and the only language in which he could speak it was Russian. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 24

You don’t deserve to be rich

The sooner we shed our illusion that people end up financially where they deserve to, the faster we’ll fix the economy.

Yes, it should have been obvious before, but now that a seemingly endless parade of bankers have made fortunes while gutting their institutions and sinking the economy, we’re finally having our eureka moment.

Wealth in America increasingly comes not as the proverbial reward of the “free market,” but from rigged compensation systems that reward mediocrity or outright failure. This is causing a brain burp among many professionals — a group I call the Lower Upper Class – because it’s an affront to an idea they’ve cherished since they first started bringing home A’s from school and acing their SATs. [continued…]

U.S. clears path to bank takeovers

The Obama administration yesterday revamped the terms of its emergency aid to troubled financial firms, setting a course that could culminate with the government nationalizing some of the country’s largest banks by taking a controlling ownership stake.

Administration officials said the change, which allows banks to repay the government with common stock rather than cash, is intended to give banks more capital to withstand a continued deterioration of the economy, and not to nationalize the banking system.

But in seeking to bolster investor confidence in troubled companies such as Citigroup, the government said it is willing to acquire large chunks of their shares. [continued…]

Recipe for disaster: the formula that killed Wall Street

A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Li might someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li’s work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 23

Amnesty calls on US to suspend arms sales to Israel

Detailed evidence has emerged of Israel’s extensive use of US-made weaponry during its war in Gaza last month, including white phosphorus artillery shells, 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles.

In a report released today, Amnesty International listed the weapons used and called for an immediate arms embargo on Israel and all Palestinian armed groups. It called on the US president, Barack Obama, to suspend military aid to Israel.

The human rights group said those arming both sides in the conflict “will have been well aware of a pattern of repeated misuse of weapons by both parties and must therefore take responsibility for the violations perpetrated”.

The US has long been the largest arms supplier to Israel; under a 10-year agreement negotiated by the Bush administration the US will provide $30bn (£21bn) in military aid to Israel.

“As the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme director. “To a large extent, Israel’s military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA and paid for with US taxpayers’ money.” [continued…]

Binyam Mohamed returns to Britain after Guantánamo ordeal

Binyam Mohamed, the former UK resident who has been incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay for more than four years, arrived back in Britain today.

The twin-engined chartered Gulfstream jet carrying him from the US detention base in Cuba landed at the RAF Northolt airbase near London at 1.11pm, finally ending a total of seven years in custody abroad.

Shortly beforehand, a welcoming party consisting of Mohamed’s UK lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith and Gareth Peirce, his US military attorney, Yvonne Bradley, and his sister, Zuhra, arrived at the airport to meet the flight. [continued…]

See also: Revealed: full horror of Gitmo inmate’s beatings [Read more…]

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THE DEATH OF CAPITALISM

What we don’t know will hurt us

And so on the 29th day of his presidency, Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. But the earth did not move. The Dow Jones fell almost 300 points. G.M. and Chrysler together asked taxpayers for another $21.6 billion and announced another 50,000 layoffs. The latest alleged mini-Madoff, R. Allen Stanford, was accused of an $8 billion fraud with 50,000 victims.

“I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems,” the president said on Tuesday at the signing ceremony in Denver. He added, hopefully: “But today does mark the beginning of the end.”

Does it?

No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama’s toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — There is a pathological optimism inherent in every colonial enterprise. And while a pillar of America’s founding mythology is that this is nation which cast off the chains of a colonial power, that myth serves to obscure the fact that with or without British oversight, the American project always required that America be conceived as a quasi-divine creation and not a colonial imposition on an already inhabited land.

This image of an immaculate conception has thus always made it difficult for America to develop a healthy sense of the tragic. Yet a fixation on a hopeful future inevitably requires a denial of death.

We want renewal but we hesitate to imagine that first must come destruction. Death precedes rebirth.

As yet another small sick tale of the profligacy of bankers emerges — a 43,000 pound binge on champaigne spent on banker’s night out in London a few days ago — and as growing outcry says that what banking executives call “compensation” is in the eyes of the rest of us simply theft, it might seem hard to imagine that there could be such a thing as a good banking story.

Muhammad Yunus has already been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, but if his message until recently might have seemed quaintly out of sync with the raucous engine of capitalism, now that that engine is not merely sputtering but is emitting the death rattle, there has never been a better time to pay attention to the story of Grameen banking.

How capitalism failed

The granting of the Nobel Prize to Grameen Bank did a lot to focus the world’s attention on microfinance as a tool for alleviating global poverty, and it is encouraging to see so many countries adopting microfinance at the local and national levels. But in other ways, the last two years have been difficult. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: February 22

From captive to suicide bomber

As President Obama takes the first tentative steps toward fulfilling his campaign promise to close Guantanamo, the case of Abdallah Ajmi has become a symbol of the vexing challenge his administration faces in adjudicating the fates of terrorism suspects held by the United States, a process that almost certainly will result in the release of additional detainees among the approximately 245 now in custody there.

What makes Ajmi’s journey from inmate to bomber so disturbing to top government officials is the fact that he never was deemed to be among the worst of the worst. He was not one of the former top al-Qaeda operatives considered “high value” detainees; nor was he regarded as someone who posed a significant, long-term threat to the United States.

Compared with what other Guantanamo detainees were believed to have done, the principal accusation leveled against him — that he fought for the Taliban — was unremarkable. At his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, he was not accused of perpetrating any specific violent acts other than “engaging in two or three fire fights with the Northern Alliance,” according to a summary of evidence presented by the military.

As one former U.S. government official involved in detainee issues put it, Ajmi was “never on anyone’s top 10 list of people we expected to return to the fight.”

Since his death, U.S. intelligence agencies have sought to determine when Ajmi became a hard-core jihadist. Was it in the late 1990s, when he came under the sway of a radical preacher while serving in the Kuwaiti army? Was it in 2001, when he allegedly joined the Taliban? Was it upon his release in 2005, when extremists back home celebrated him as the “Lion of Guantanamo”?

Or is the answer potentially more alarming: Was his descent into unrepentant radicalism an unintended consequence of his incarceration? [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In America immediately after 9/11, if intelligent public debate had not been crushed by fear and national hysteria, a vital question could have been considered and its answer then could then have become instrumental in policy making.

The question: Did the Egyptian government’s sytematic use of torture have a crucial role in molding the jihadist philosophy and psychological outlook of men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri?

This incredibly important question has received amazingly little attention. An exception would be Chris Zambelis’s essay published by the Jamestown Foundation last summer: Is there a nexus between torture and radicalization?

If, as was surely possible, policymakers had concluded very early on, that torture was not merely illegal and immoral but that it actually fuels terrorism, Guantanamo would never have been opened. The “dark side” that Cheney proposed entering would have been seen to be nothing more than an emotive and utterly wrong-headed response to an issue that had to be addressed with intelligence.

Alleged torture victim to be freed from Guantanamo

Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British resident who has been held without charge for seven years, is expected to be released from Guantanamo Bay and return to Britain early this week.

Mr Mohamed’s detention and allegations that he was tortured while subject to the “extraordinary rendition” programme adopted by the Bush administration and yet to be abandoned by the Obama administration, have led to legal proceedings in both the US and the UK. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 21

Our voyage to Brobdingnag

Prepared introductory remarks for the Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate: Torture and the Law, University of California at Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California, February 19, 2009.

This is my second trip to Santa Barbara to speak at your university and the journey itself provides inspiration. I made the drive up this morning from Los Angeles, and coming on the highway to one breath-taking vista of the Channel Islands, I thought about Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a book that I loved as a child, and then in my college years, I read it again and discovered something entirely different and more subtle. If you strain back to remember it, you’ll recall that Swift’s hero follows a curious geography—a combination of the real world and the fantastic. But one of the most amazing passages of the book must, I think, involve the hills, fields and coastline right around us. Lemuel Gulliver travels in part II to the kingdom of Brobdingnag, which Swift tells us with some precision is an island off the coast of California and its adjacent mainland: I make it out to be Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. The voyage provides Gulliver with a number of adventures, but the high point comes when he is introduced to the king and strikes up a conversation with him about Brobdingnag’s society and culture. At one point the king of Brobdingnag tells his visitor about lawyers and their usefulness. The best lawyers are those who can show that black is white as he says, “laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them.” The king places stock in such lawyers because they allow him to rule above the law; he can use it as a tool to achieve his will. But his kingdom is ruled by man not by law. Swift’s book isn’t just for children of course; it is a bitter political satire, and in it he’s pointing to just the problem we face today. What do we do when a government twists the words and purposes of the law beyond recognition, establishing the principle that it is a government of men, not of laws? For Swift this wasn’t a laughing matter. From his whiggish perspective, all of history has been a struggle for the rule of law and for government of principle. It has been a struggle to hold the high and mighty to account before the law. [continued…]

Obama backs Bush: No rights for Bagram prisoners

The Obama administration, siding with the Bush White House, contended Friday that detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights.

In a two-sentence court filing, the Justice Department said it agreed that detainees at Bagram Airfield cannot use U.S. courts to challenge their detention. The filing shocked human rights attorneys. [Read more…]

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Netanyahu to form new Israeli government; US Congressmen visit Gaza

Netanyahu handed reins of a jittery Israel

A decade after being ousted by Israelis entranced by his then rival’s pledges of peace accords and modest governance, Benjamin Netanyahu has won a new lease on power over a country now more given to disaffection and fears of war.

President Shimon Peres on Friday handed him a mandate to form Israel’s next government, and the right-wing Likud leader now has 42 days to put together a coalition. He should manage that with like-minded allies, even if his appeal to centrist and left-wing rivals for a unity government falls on deaf ears. [continued…]

Mitchell: Palestinians’ financial buildup cannot replace diplomatic route

George Mitchell, the US special envoy to Mideast said Thursday that while the development of the West Bank’s economy remains important, it cannot take precedent to the diplomatic route.

Mitchell, who held a conference call with the heads of various Jewish groups in the United States, refrained from answering questions regarding the political situation in Israel, saying he would not address the subject before President Shimon Peres’ tasked one of the parties’ leaders with forming the government. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 19

Laissez-faire capitalism has failed

It is now clear that this is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the worst economic crisis in the last 60 years. While we are already in a severe and protracted U-shaped recession (the deluded hope of a short and shallow V-shaped contraction has evaporated), there is now a rising risk that this crisis will turn into an uglier, multiyear, L-shaped, Japanese-style stag-deflation (a deadly combination of stagnation, recession and deflation).

The latest data on third-quarter 2008 gross domestic product growth (at an annual rate) around the world are even worse than the first estimate for the U.S. (-3.8%). The figures were -6.0% for the euro zone, -8% for Germany, -12% for Japan, -16% for Singapore and -20% for Korea. The global economy is now literally in free fall as the contraction of consumption, capital spending, residential investment, production, employment, exports and imports is accelerating rather than decelerating. [continued…]

Greenspan backs temporary state control of banks

The US government might have to nationalise some banks on a temporary basis to fix the financial system and restore the flow of credit, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, has told the Financial Times. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: February 18

The most dangerous place in the world

When you land at Mogadishu’s international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon. Believe it or not, this disaster of a city, the capital of Somalia, still gets a few commercial flights. Some haven’t fared so well. The wreckage of a Russian cargo plane shot down in 2007 still lies crumpled at the end of the runway.

Beyond the airport is one of the world’s most stunning monuments to conflict: block after block, mile after mile, of scorched, gutted-out buildings. Mogadishu’s Italianate architecture, once a gem along the Indian Ocean, has been reduced to a pile of machine-gun-chewed bricks. Somalia has been ripped apart by violence since the central government imploded in 1991. Eighteen years and 14 failed attempts at a government later, the killing goes on and on and on—suicide bombs, white phosphorus bombs, beheadings, medieval-style stonings, teenage troops high on the local drug called khat blasting away at each other and anything in between. Even U.S. cruise missiles occasionally slam down from the sky. It’s the same violent free-for-all on the seas. Somalia’s pirates are threatening to choke off one of the most strategic waterways in the world, the Gulf of Aden, which 20,000 ships pass through every year. These heavily armed buccaneers hijacked more than 40 vessels in 2008, netting as much as $100 million in ransom. It’s the greatest piracy epidemic of modern times.

In more than a dozen trips to Somalia over the past two and a half years, I’ve come to rewrite my own definition of chaos. I’ve felt the incandescent fury of the Iraqi insurgency raging in Fallujah. I’ve spent freezing-cold, eerily quiet nights in an Afghan cave. But nowhere was I more afraid than in today’s Somalia, where you can get kidnapped or shot in the head faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. From the thick, ambush-perfect swamps around Kismayo in the south to the lethal labyrinth of Mogadishu to the pirate den of Boosaaso on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is quite simply the most dangerous place in the world. [continued…]

Obama’s war on terror may resemble Bush’s in some areas

Even as it pulls back from harsh interrogations and other sharply debated aspects of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda.

In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the “state secrets” doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.”

These and other signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”

We all knew that was a great line when Obama came out with it a year ago but we should all have been wondering: does he really mean it and if he does, does he have the guts to follow through?

The mindset that got us into war was one in which a combination of fear, anger, humiliation and vengefulness offered license for the use of torture, kidnapping, assassination, extra-judicial punishment and led to a belief that the unambiguous defense of human rights posed a threat to America’s national security.

It appears that the president has yet to free himself from that mindset. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: February 17

Israel launches covert war against Iran

Israel has launched a covert war against Iran as an alternative to direct military strikes against Tehran’s nuclear programme, US intelligence sources have revealed.

It is using hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the regime’s illicit weapons project, the experts say.

The most dramatic element of the “decapitation” programme is the planned assassination of top figures involved in Iran’s atomic operations.

Despite fears in Israel and the US that Iran is approaching the point of no return in its ability to build atom bomb, Israeli officials are aware of the change in mood in Washington since President Barack Obama took office. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Stories like this don’t come out of nowhere. There has to be an agenda at play. Is this a story about a covert operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, or an operation designed to undermine a diplomatic initiative?

What does Israel fear more: a nuclear Iran or an Iran that poses no strategic threat?

Suppose the US was to make a grand bargain with Iran and that the Islamic state received security guarantees and full acceptance by the international community in return for abandoning its uranium enrichment program. Where would that leave Israel? [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: February 16

Global financial crisis – Asian view

[Andrew Sheng, former chair of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission,] sees the present crisis as a product of “four historical mega-trends”. The first was the post-Cold War (and post-trade liberalization) integration of the Asian labour forces into the world economy, which flooded Western markets with cheap goods and kept inflation low. The second was Japan’s 1990s’ monetary policy loosening in response to its prolonged asset bubble deflation, which took yen interest rates near zero and spawned the famous “carry trade”, a key element of subsequent bubbles elsewhere, including the mid-1990s’ East Asian financial crisis. Third was the flood of physicists and engineers (a flood swelled by the collapse of the Soviet empire) who propagated quantitative models across the West’s financial industry to assess returns, create complex derivatives and manage risk. Of course, most of these models, based on typical, bell-shaped “normal” distributions for random variables, failed to account for the “long tail, black swan risk” that destroyed Western finance. The last was the mega-trend of global deregulation, of trade, capital controls and financial regulation, which swept across Western finance and paved the way for subsequent excesses.

In essence, as Sheng puts it, “these mega-trends were four arbitrages that created converging globalization — wage arbitrage, financial arbitrage, knowledge arbitrage and regulatory arbitrage”. The mega-trends welded national markets into a networked, global financial market, but without the steadying influence of any global regulator. The “four arbitrages also led to four excesses that were the hallmark of the present crisis — excess liquidity, excess leverage, excess complexity and excess greed.” [continued…]

From Asian to global financial crisis [PDF], Andrew Sheng, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, New Delhi, February 7, 2009

Decade at Bernie’s

The surge in asset values had been an illusion — but the surge in debt had been all too real.

So now we’re in trouble — deeper trouble, I think, than most people realize even now. And I’m not just talking about the dwindling band of forecasters who still insist that the economy will snap back any day now.

For this is a broad-based mess. Everyone talks about the problems of the banks, which are indeed in even worse shape than the rest of the system. But the banks aren’t the only players with too much debt and too few assets; the same description applies to the private sector as a whole.

And as the great American economist Irving Fisher pointed out in the 1930s, the things people and companies do when they realize they have too much debt tend to be self-defeating when everyone tries to do them at the same time. Attempts to sell assets and pay off debt deepen the plunge in asset prices, further reducing net worth. Attempts to save more translate into a collapse of consumer demand, deepening the economic slump.

Are policy makers ready to do what it takes to break this vicious circle? In principle, yes. Government officials understand the issue: we need to “contain what is a very damaging and potentially deflationary spiral,” says Lawrence Summers, a top Obama economic adviser.

In practice, however, the policies currently on offer don’t look adequate to the challenge. The fiscal stimulus plan, while it will certainly help, probably won’t do more than mitigate the economic side effects of debt deflation. And the much-awaited announcement of the bank rescue plan left everyone confused rather than reassured. [continued…]

Nationalize the banks! We’re all Swedes now

The U.S. banking system is close to being insolvent, and unless we want to become like Japan in the 1990s — or the United States in the 1930s — the only way to save it is to nationalize it.

As free-market economists teaching at a business school in the heart of the world’s financial capital, we feel downright blasphemous proposing an all-out government takeover of the banking system. But the U.S. financial system has reached such a dangerous tipping point that little choice remains. And while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s recent plan to save it has many of the right elements, it’s basically too late. [continued…]

Radical surgery is required to save this patient

Maybe the only way to avoid a truly catastrophic global depression and trade war is to nationalise every significant bank in America, Britain and the eurozone – since none could survive without government guarantees.

Many economists now take this view. The bitter disappointment over Mr Geithner’s announcement, which sent share prices on Wall Street crashing back towards the lows they hit just before Barack Obama’s election, now threatens to turn this desperation into a majority view.

I am not yet quite ready to join this growing consensus. For me, dismantling global financial capitalism and replacing it with a neo-Marxist system of capital allocation by the State is too big a mental leap. But the way things are moving, even I will soon capitulate to the inevitability of universal bank nationalisation. The reason is simple.

As the Governor of the Bank of England explained yesterday, neither zero interest rates nor tax cuts can revive economic activity if the credit system remains paralysed. Our politicians and bankers face a simple choice: either normal private banking services are restored quickly or governments take direct control. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — New York Senator Charles Schumer said yesterday: “I would not be for nationalizing. I think government’s not good at making these decisions as to who gets loans and how this happens.” By implication, he’s suggesting — as no doubt his most generous constituents would wish — the task of running the banks should be left in the talented hands of the very same individuals who helped steer us into this global economic crisis. Are we supposed to think that the bankers are simply the victims of rotten luck?

Embedded in the to-nationalize-or-not-to-nationalize ideological debate is the widely unquestioned assumption that opportunities for fabulous personal enrichment necessarily serve as lures for talent. [Read more…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: February 15

Job losses pose a threat to stability worldwide

The International Monetary Fund expects that by the end of the year, global economic growth will reach its lowest point since the Depression, according to Charles Collyns, deputy director of the fund’s research department. The fund said that growth had come to “a virtual halt,” with developed economies expected to shrink by 2 percent in 2009.

“This is the worst we’ve had since 1929,” said Laurent Wauquiez, France’s employment minister. “The thing that is new is that it is global, and we are always talking about that. It is in every country, and it makes the whole difference.”

In Asia, any smugness at having escaped losses on American subprime debt has been erased by growing despair over a plunge in sales among major exporters. On Thursday, Pioneer of Japan said it would abandon the flat-screen television business and cut 10,000 jobs worldwide in response to sagging demand for consumer electronics.

Millions of migrant workers in mainland China are searching for jobs but finding that factories are shutting down. Though not as large as the disturbances in Greece or the Baltics, there have been dozens of protests at individual factories in China and Indonesia where workers were laid off with little or no notice. [continued…]

Israel’s biggest danger

For Israel, handling the relationship with its Arab minority is more crucial even than dealing with Hizbullah or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Israel needs to decide how it will deal with the Arabs in its midst. As extreme as it may sound, Lieberman’s call to disown them seems to have resonated with many of his fellow Israelis. Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that Israel’s Arabs constitute a demographic time bomb. He calls it unacceptable. Benny Morris, the once dovish historian who chronicled the forced expulsion of most Palestinians from the Jewish state in 1948, has turned to arguing that Israel needs to protect itself from the Arabs now living within its borders. “They are a potential fifth column,” he warned five years ago in an interview with Haaretz. “In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state … If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified.” It’s a dangerous spiral: the worse the distrust gets, the less loyalty Israel’s Arabs feel toward their country—and vice versa. Last week’s election has brought the issue into the open. Its resolution will define the future of Israel as a country, as a Jewish state, and as a democracy. [continued…]

Israel’s identity crisis

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, campaigned on a platform of “no loyalty, no citizenship,” arguing that Arabs in Israel should be required to sign loyalty oaths and accept its flag and national anthem. If they refused, he said, they should be stripped of their citizenship. Lieberman also wants to transfer Israel’s Arabs into the jurisdiction of a future Palestinian state, and has proposed the death penalty for Arab politicians who talk with Hamas. In Tuesday’s election, Yisrael Beiteinu became the third-largest party in the Knesset and a likely member of the next governing coalition.

These developments present very basic and very obvious civil rights concerns. But they also raise a deeper, fundamental question that Israelis generally prefer to avoid: Is it possible to be both a Jewish state and a democratic state? Or, put another way: Can a nation founded as a Jewish homeland — with a “right of return” for diaspora Jews but no one else, a Star of David on the flag and a national anthem that evokes the “yearning” of Jews for Zion — ever treat non-Jews as true, equal citizens? [continued…]

I’m a scared Arab in Israel

I remember being scared. Very scared. I remember I was having a conversation with a friend from Haifa who told me about his feeling that something had changed in the city. He talked about a different look he had started to see in the eyes of some people. A look of desire for revenge, he described it. I told him he was wrong and accused him of unnecessary paranoia, especially in an attempt to ally the fears I have. Fears that more than ever before, at least as far as I remember, there is a feeling that it’s legitimate to harass Arabs. [Read more…]

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GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – John Robertson: Mr Obama and Israel’s nuclear arsenal

Mr. Obama and Israel’s nuclear arsenal

In a recent essay, Grant Smith very appropriately hammered President Barack Obama for an omission — or perhaps, a dodge — when he was asked a question by the venerable Helen Thomas during Monday night’s big press conference. (Obama actually recognized the moment as a big one when he called on her, saying with a smile that this was his “inauguration.” She is the dean of White House correspondents, and is well known for asking tough questions and then doggedly pursuing with follow-ups.) Ms Thomas asked him: “Mr President, do you know of any Middle Eastern country that has nuclear weapons?” (This, by the way, after a longish Obama soliloquy on Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon – a pursuit that the Iranian government denies.)

The obvious answer — the ka-zillion-ton gorilla in the room — was, “Yes, Helen, of course — Israel.” Israel has never admitted it up front, but as Smith notes, Jimmy Carter (who certainly was in a position to know) divulged only a few months ago that the Israelis have an arsenal of at least 150 nuclear weapons (not to mention the most powerful military in the Middle East, largely thanks to US taxpayers). But because Israel has never owned up to it, the US has preferred to ignore it, at least in public discussion. All very silly, really, except for the transparent dishonesty. And as Smith also notes, Obama (as well as a long string of his presidential predecessors) conceivably stands in violation of the 1976 Symington Amendment, which, Smith notes,

prohibits most U.S. foreign aid to any country found trafficking in nuclear enrichment equipment or technology outside international safeguards. Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If U.S. presidents complied with the Symington Amendment, they would not deliver yearly aid packages to Israel totaling billions of dollars. Presidents make-believe that Israeli nuclear weapons don’t exist so Congress can legally continue shoveling the lion’s share of the U.S. foreign aid budget to Israel.

Perhaps the president wasn’t ready for the question. Perhaps he sensed that Thomas meant to corner him with that ka-zillion-ton gorilla — I suspect she did — and he may have refused to respond honestly because he didn’t want to deal with any follow-up — which she tried to do (it was quite audible, even over my muttering disbelief as I watched the scene unfold). Or perhaps Obama doesn’t consider Israel to be a country in the Middle East. Evidently the Pentagon doesn’t. In DoD organizational terms, all of the Middle Eastern countries come under CENTCOM’s scope, except Israel, which is included under the European command. (Edward Said would be smiling).

But the bottom line here is that Israel does indeed have a nuclear arsenal. Add to that the following considerations:

  • some commentators have advocated the use of “tactical nuclear weapons” to eliminate Iran’s nuclear installations;
  • Israel has a track record of launching surprise aerial attacks to destroy them in other countries (think of their destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 — which the US applauded — or their destruction last year of a probable nuclear installation that was being built in Syria);
  • this week’s elections in Israel will most likely bring to power a hard-right government under a prime minister who has railed long and loud against Iran’s alleged intention to inflict a second Holocaust upon the Jewish people, and the need to take steps to prevent it;
  • Israel (in distinct contrast to Iran) has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;
  • Iran for several years now has found itself bracketed with powerful US forces to its west (in Iraq), and with the US’s most militarily powerful ally (Israel) just over the horizon; to its east (Afghanistan); and to its south (the US bases and naval forces in the Persian Gulf) — and the US military presence in Afghanistan is even now being ramped up to unprecedented levels, and is likely to remain there for many years;
  • for the past 8 years (at least) the US was intoning a mantra about the need for “regime change” in Iran (where, it was said, “real men” were destined to go after Iraq had been disposed of).

Well, connect the dots. And then maybe we all ought to invite Helen Thomas to confront Mr Obama with another question — in fact, with two of them:

    “Mr President, which country or countries have done the most in recent years to destabilize the Middle East?
    “Mr President, which country or countries are poised to destabilize the Middle East the most in the next few years?”

I would hope that our president would think long and hard about the correct answer — and this time, not dodge her question.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: February 13

Global economy top threat to U.S., spy chief says

The new director of national intelligence told Congress on Thursday that global economic turmoil and the instability it could ignite had outpaced terrorism as the most urgent threat facing the United States.

The assessment underscored concern inside America’s intelligence agencies not only about the fallout from the economic crisis around the globe, but also about long-term harm to America’s reputation. The crisis that began in American markets has already “increased questioning of U.S. stewardship of the global economy,” the intelligence chief, Dennis C. Blair, said in prepared testimony. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Even if the DNI’s warning was not intended as such, the elevation of global economic turmoil to the position of being the most urgent threat to the United States, is much more significant than simply being a reordering of national security threats.

Implicitly, this is a recognition that the greatest threat to the United States is systemic and both external and internal. Instead of facing the psychological comforting prospect of an external enemy — we can come together when we see a threat as intrinsically ‘other’ — we now face a threat that reveals the instability of the social and global order.

The widening gap between the interests of the corporate-state and the interests of ordinary people are becoming ever more glaringly visible. Ultimately and who’s to say how rapidly, this might create revolutionary conditions. Given that we live in a society well inoculated by superficial distractions and pervasive ignorance, the tipping point may not be close at hand. Even so, what seems different at this point in history is that more so than at any other time the conditions seem ripe for the articulation and organization of a global revolutionary movement. Trotsky could only dream of living at such a time.

A world in revolt

The sums involved [in bailing out the global banking system] are massively greater than those required to meet all of the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals; yet the link between the urgent bailouts in one kind of emergency and the neglect and delay in the other has not yet been fully made. This, perhaps, will change with the emergence of transnational radical social movements.

There is evidence for this suggestion in the context of what happened in Mexico on new year’s day, 1994: the launch of the Zapatista rebellion in the southern (and largely indigenous) province of Chiapas. A rebel source outlined the roots of the revolt:

“We have nothing, absolutely nothing – not decent shelter, nor land, nor work, nor health, nor food, nor education. We do not have the right to choose freely and democratically our officials. We have neither peace nor justice for ourselves and our children. But today we say ‘enough’!”

It was little less noticed at the time that the Zapatistas saw their movement and rebellion in global terms, not just as a local or regional revolt. Indeed, their insurrection was timed to coincide with the coming into force of the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta), an agreement they were convinced would make their predicament even worse.

The aspiration to what might be called the internationalisation of dissent has not yet been fully realised. But there are more than glimpses of the phenomenon in social, environmental and workers’ movements – reflecting the fact that one result of globalisation is the much wider understanding of the transnational nature of marginalisation and exclusion. [continued…]

Depressed? No! We’re angry

According to American legend, when the stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929, flocks of stockbrokers jumped to their death on Wall Street, in violent parody of down-trending graphs and ticker-tape parades and calendar pages flung from windows on New Year’s Eve. It never happened.

The fallacy of American capitalism is the equation of our economic status and our mental well-being. In a country where we routinely define ourselves by our job, an economic downturn must lead to a psychological downturn. Right?

It becomes oddly pertinent to observe that, as the country faces an economic calamity unequaled since the Great Depression, the employees of the failed brokerage houses and banks in New York are not clustered on the ledges of skyscrapers above Wall Street. (I am afraid if they were, the cry from below would be “Jump! Jump!”) The pope of Ponzi, Bernard Madoff, is required by a federal judge to wear an ankle bracelet not because he is a danger to himself, but because the judge fears that Madoff will skip town.

Politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, have learned in these last weeks that Americans are not a people listless with dejection. Quite the reverse. Americans are angry at corporate incompetence that is rewarded. Americans are angry at having to bail out the institutions that so efficiently foreclosed on their mortgages. Americans are angry that rich people — rich, smart, educated people who know all there is to know — seem not to know how to pay their taxes. [continued…]

Global recovery rests on a fresh US approach to China

As the previously unrivalled global hegemon, the United States is not used to dealing with other countries as equals. Blatantly the case in Bush’s presidency, it has been true ever since 1945. Obama’s presidency rests on new assumptions: it recognises that American power is not what it used to be and that the country faces a huge economic crisis. But in practice will it be mindful of and sensitive to the interests of other nations? The widely criticised statement by the new Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, that China was manipulating its currency suggests not.

No previous administration has made such a grave accusation. If the US treasury officially decides that China is a currency manipulator, the administration could resort to a range of actions including anti-dumping measures, countervailing duties and various safeguards. It would certainly provoke a response from China, with a trade war drawing in other countries a likely possibility.

In fact, the charge that China undervalues its currency has little foundation. Beyond a point, the Chinese government has little control over the value of its currency, which is largely determined by market forces. Furthermore, since the peg to the dollar was abandoned in 2005, the renminbi has appreciated 21% against the greenback. Geithner’s charge was thus a deliberate provocation. It was also highly insensitive. China, still a poor country it should be remembered, is feeling the effects of the financial meltdown with a declining growth rate and rising unemployment: an appreciation in the value of the renminbi will only exacerbate its domestic impact.

The great danger facing the world is that what looks like a depression will deepen into a slump. In this situation, there can be no salvation in domestic recovery alone; in a globalised world, every country’s domestic recovery will be intimately linked to a wider global recovery. But the latter in turn requires a new kind of global co-operation. [continued…]

Will the relationship change? Yes it can

In mainstream American politics, especially Jewish-American circles, the idea of talking to Hamas has been virtually taboo. This is no longer true. After Mr Obama’s election, a group of senior bipartisan foreign-policy veterans handed a compelling letter, still unpublished, to the incoming president. Its signatories included Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, who headed the National Security Council in Mr Carter’s and George Bush senior’s White House; Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who for many years chaired the House committees on foreign affairs and intelligence; Sam Nunn, a Democrat who chaired the Senate’s armed services committee; Paul Volcker, a long-time chairman of the Federal Reserve; Mr Siegman; and James Wolfensohn, a former head of the World Bank who was more recently entrusted by the younger President Bush with reviving the Palestinian economy.

The letter’s three key demands were that Mr Obama should appoint an even-handed special envoy with real clout (done); that he should spell out a clear vision for a Palestinian state (awaited); and that he should seek to draw Hamas into talks (not so easy). A key member of Mr Mitchell’s staff, Fred Hof, who previously co-drafted Mr Mitchell’s famous report on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2001, is close to the Scowcroft group.

Mr Mitchell’s appointment was warmly applauded by that group and greeted coolly by many in the old pro-Israeli lobbies, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). More to the point, though there have been other recent envoys to the Middle East, none has as much potential influence on the president as Mr Mitchell. General Jim Jones, too, Mr Obama’s new national security adviser, is a tough realist with recent experience in trying to improve security between Israel and Palestine. He is in hock to neither side.

No one is sure how Mrs Clinton, as secretary of state, will relate to Mr Mitchell—or to the Israelis and Palestinians. Since she became a senator for New York, she has ardently echoed more or less whatever AIPAC has said about Israel-Palestine. But some people recall how, when it was still controversial and her husband was president, Mrs Clinton called for a Palestinian state and even kissed Yasser Arafat’s wife after she had castigated Israel, a moment of horror in AIPAC’s eyes. Most probably, if Mrs Clinton sees a chance for a breakthrough to peace, she will go for it, whatever her previous constituents may think. [continued…]

Week before Gaza op, Israel and Syria were ready for direct talks

Israel and Syria were about to announce that they would speak directly a week before the fighting in Gaza broke out, a Turkish official said. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had spoken with Syrian President Bashar Assad during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Ankara, and had mediated in crafting a joint statement.

But a few days later, while still awaiting Olmert’s approval for the statement, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and Erdogan felt betrayed.

“Nobody imagined that Olmert would go behind Erdogan’s back like that and not even hint that he intended to start fighting in Gaza,” the Turkish official said. Erdogan had invited Olmert to his official residence after he met Turkey’s president. He suggested calling Assad and drafting a joint announcement about a direct discussion between the Israeli and Syrian delegations. [continued…]

Israel’s intelligence disaster

Palestinian intelligence agents, working for Israel in its recent “Operation Cast Lead,” were exposed and many of them captured or killed in the aftermath, U.S. officials said.

The ongoing round up is ongoing and expanding, these sources said. In the course of the operation, Israel also failed to find and reclaim Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, and Tel Aviv also failed in its planned targeted killing of Ahmad Haabri, the commander of Hamas’ military arm, the Al-Qassam Brigades, these sources said.

“The use of Palestinian agents to spy on Hamas has been Israel’s operating philosophy for many years,” said former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro. [continued…]

US military loses 222,000 weapons sent to Afghanistan since 2001

The US military has lost track of about 222,000 weapons shipped to Afghanistan since 2001, a leaked report compiled by the US Government Accountability Office revealed.

The report shows that the US military failed to keep proper records of 87,000 rifles, pistols, mortars and other weapons sent to Afghanistan between December 2004 and June 2008. It also failed to track 135,000 weapons donated to Afghan security by 21 other countries. The UN spent more than $100 million (£70 million) on a disarmament programme that sought to remove weapons from the hands of illegal armed groups after November 2003. Many militiamen are known to have handed over antique or faulty weapons and UN officials reported First World War and even 19th-century flintlock rifles surrendered, rather than AK47s and rocket launchers. [continued…]

Secret talks with Taliban gather pace as surge looms

Secret talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, brokered by a Saudi royal who heads the country’s intelligence service, are gathering pace before the US-led military surge in Afghanistan.

Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is said to have been greatly encouraged by meetings he had held with both sides on recent visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, paving the way for a fresh round of negotiations, The Independent has learnt.

The militant groups have appointed a former member of the Taliban regime as their envoy because of his good relations in the past with the Saudi government. He is Aghajan Mutasim, a minister under the ousted Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is believed to have held detailed discussions with Saudi officials and also to have visited the kingdom during Ramadan. [continued…]

Poll: Most Americans want inquiry into anti-terror tactics

Een as Americans struggle with two wars and an economy in tatters, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds majorities in favor of investigating some of the thorniest unfinished business from the Bush administration: Whether its tactics in the “war on terror” broke the law.

Close to two-thirds of those surveyed said there should be investigations into allegations that the Bush team used torture to interrogate terrorism suspects and its program of wiretapping U.S. citizens without getting warrants. Almost four in 10 favor criminal investigations and about a quarter want investigations without criminal charges. One-third said they want nothing to be done. [continued…]

Unredacted documents reveal prisoners tortured to death

The American Civil Liberties Union has released previously classified excerpts of a government report on harsh interrogation techniques used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. These previously unreported pages detail repeated use of “abusive” behavior, even to the point of prisoner deaths.

The documents, obtained by the ACLU under a Freedom of Information Act request, contain a report by Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, who was tapped to conduct a comprehensive review of Defense Department interrogation operations. Church specifically calls out interrogations at Bagram Air base in Afghanistan as “clearly abusive, and clearly not in keeping with any approved interrogation policy or guidance.” [continued…]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: February 12

After Israel’s election, Palestinians weigh a new intifada

Israel’s election and the Gaza conflict have revealed the scale of the challenge facing President Barack Obama in “jump-starting” Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Israeli voters tacked to the right, and the government that results from Tuesday’s poll will be, if anything, even less inclined to conclude a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership than the current government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been. (And, of course, the year of talks-about-talks between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas failed to yield any progress.) Meanwhile, the Gaza war has cemented the stature of Hamas as the dominant political force among Palestinians.

Needless to say, there is not much optimism in the region over the prospects for peace. But the urgency of resolving the conflict may have become greater than ever, because the security situation is likely to see a perilous decline in the coming months. Much of the membership of Abbas’ Fatah movement, seeing themselves steadily eclipsed by Hamas, is urging a break from their president’s strategy of negotiating with the Israelis, and a return to confronting the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Fatah leaders on the ground see the Israeli election as confirming what they already knew: that there’s nothing to be gained by continuing the charade of U.S.-sponsored talks-about-talks with the Israelis. They could not get what they needed from Olmert, and they know his successors will be even more hardline. From the Palestinian perspective, the past eight years of waiting for negotiations with Israel has left Abbas empty-handed, while the latest Gaza conflict has put Hamas in a stronger position than ever in Palestinian public opinion. Despite the violence by Hamas gunmen against Fatah activists in Gaza since the Israeli offensive, many in Fatah view their movement’s only hope of reestablishing its leading role in Palestinian politics as joining a unity government with Hamas — and beginning to directly challenge the Israeli occupation on the ground in the West Bank. [continued…]

Rabin’s legacy: Protesters’ accounts show Israel ‘breaking the bones’ of peaceful demonstrators

Israeli forces are carrying out a policy of shooting at the legs of peaceful demonstrators who protest the Israeli separation wall each Friday in towns across the West Bank, demonstrators are reporting.

The accounts of the Palestinian demonstrators who have been wounded by Israeli fire in recent weeks are raising the legacy of the first Palestinian Intifada, when Israeli then-defense minister Yitzak Rabin ordered his soldiers to “break the bones” of young protesters.

A representative of the Popular Committee against the Wall in the village of Ni’lin, Ahed Al-Khawaja, said that Israeli snipers, shooting from nearby hilltops or from stands of trees, are causing debilitating injuries, especially among young men who come to demonstrate.

In the village of Jayyus, which also holds a weekly demonstration against the wall, protesters said Israeli soldiers put silencers on their guns. When five young men were shot at last Friday’s demonstration, none of the marchers present said they heard the sound of gunshots when they were shot. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — What Obama should be asking himself is this: does he want to grab the flexibility that comes from being in the role of an initiator, or is he willing to accept the constraints imposed on those who can do no more than react. The door for initiatives is closing rapidly. If he waits too long, George Mitchell’s mission is going to turn into a rerun of his task in 2000: an effort to come to grips with another intifada.

As for Mahmoud Abbas, his irrelevance is utterly transparent. One moment he is mounting a campaign for “diplomatic resistance“, while the next he is expressing the sanguine view that pragmatism will prevail, whatever the political complexion of the next Israeli government.

A veteran Middle East reporter shares insights about covering conflict in Gaza

Columbia Journalism Review: Reading about the current conflict in Gaza, it’s been difficult to understand the role of Hamas as an organization. Can you give us some sense of its role in Palestinian society?

Paul McGeough: A hiatus in a crisis like this tends to get locked into broad scripts written by the various players. Now, if you take a helicopter view of the Middle East crisis, you see Hamas in a different light. People keep repeating that Hamas’s charter is opposed to the existence of Israel. Yes it is, but Hamas has not stood by its charter for the best part of the last ten years. Hamas has recognized the Oslo peace process, which it said it would oppose. It has taken part in democratic elections, which it has won. It has de facto recognized the two-state solution by seeking to be elected as the government of the Palestinian Authority. It has not struck outside historic Palestine; it never has. So to dismiss it as a terrorist group that has to be stamped out misses entirely the point of its position in Palestinian society.

Again, take the helicopter view of what’s happened in the Middle East since 1948, with the setting up of the state of Israel. In 1967, the Israelis could have negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan in the aftermath of the Six-Day War; they chose not to. Because they chose not to, Yasser Arafat and the Fatah movement and the PLO all got a huge head of steam [built] up. And because they weren’t negotiated with in a way that gave Palestinians an identifiable outcome, they fell by the way.

And now you have Hamas. Hamas came into being and thrived because there was no breakthrough. There was nothing in the land-for-peace basis—a foundation of the Oslo process—there was nothing in that for the Palestinians. They were negotiating on the basis of land for peace when their land was being consumed by Israeli settlements. So now Hamas is there, and if you take Hamas out of the equation, God knows what you get in its place. [continued…]

We’re heading toward a global Weimar

The global banking system is… on the brink of bankruptcy. So the worst-case scenario is the most likely scenario: a collapse of the banking system followed by world-wide inflation.

This growth of public debt, on top of private debt, can only lead to catastrophe: the bankruptcy of households, banks, even countries. What has happened to Iceland can happen to larger countries as well, if panic seizes creditors. Anything is now possible, including the collapse of the global banking system, whose losses would have grown beyond reach of rescue.

This panic could be set off by the realization of the insolvency of the system. It could also be set off by political or terrorist movements: A number of determined groups, with even limited means, could organize speculative attacks on banks, leading to their collapse.

Then we could arrive at a global depression. It could even be followed by hyperinflation, provoked by the immensity of the monetary means created since the start of the crisis; the depression would allow the debt to be reduced to nothing, to the benefit of the borrowers. The world would then be experiencing a depression ready for inflation, a global Weimar. [continued…]

Popular rage grows as global crisis worsens

About 50 million jobs could be lost worldwide in the next 11 months and more than 200 million people could drift into total poverty, warns the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Guy Ryder, the group’s general secretary, believes that these changes represent a “social time bomb,” and that the resulting instability could become “extremely hazardous to democracy” in some countries.

In the West, the crisis could cost heads of state their jobs, as was recently the case with the prime minister of Iceland. But what does it mean for the giant countries in the East? Could the regime in Beijing falter as the country faces its greatest challenge since the beginning of market reforms? Are the Russian people terminating their political moratorium with the government, because prices are rising while the ruble falls, or could the middle class even be about to rebel?

Cabinets in London, Moscow, Beijing and Paris have been overcome by a sense of helplessness. Self-confessed workaholic Gordon Brown is trying to cope with calamity by taking constant countermeasures, while Putin sends his police officers into the street and Beijing distributes gifts to the poorest of the poor. French President Sarkozy, on the other hand, remained silent for a full seven days after the first major, large-scale demonstration. [continued…]

U.S. now sees Iran as pursuing nuclear bomb

Little more than a year after U.S. spy agencies concluded that Iran had halted work on a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has made it clear that it believes there is no question that Tehran is seeking the bomb.

In his news conference this week, President Obama went so far as to describe Iran’s “development of a nuclear weapon” before correcting himself to refer to its “pursuit” of weapons capability.

Obama’s nominee to serve as CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, left little doubt about his view last week when he testified on Capitol Hill. “From all the information I’ve seen,” Panetta said, “I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.” [continued…]

In Pakistan, U.S. special envoy finds discontent

The American special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, wound down his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan on Wednesday with a brief visit to the lawless tribal areas, and then dinner with liberal intellectuals at a rooftop restaurant here in Lahore.

He had come to listen, not to lecture, Mr. Holbrooke said. What he heard was a familiar list of requests for more money and arms from Pakistan’s top leadership, as well as a litany of complaints about American airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas using Predator drones.

Mr. Holbrooke’s trip to Pakistan, and his four-day tour of Afghanistan, which is scheduled to begin Thursday, was part of a top-to-bottom review of American policy in the region ordered by President Obama. [continued…]

Mumbai attacks partly planned in Pakistan

Pakistan publicly acknowledged for the first time Thursday that last year’s attack on Mumbai was largely planned on its soil and that it had arrested most of the key plotters.

Detailing a strong Pakistani link to the three-day rampage in Mumbai, Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said his investigators had tracked down safe houses and hideouts used by the conspirators and traced the boats that carried the attackers from a seaside Pakistani town to Mumbai using engines boat in the Arabian sea port of Karachi.

“Some part of the conspiracy has taken place in Pakistan,” Mr. Malik told reporters. As for the plotters, “most of them are in our custody.” [continued…]

Continuity of the wrong kind

The Obama administration failed — miserably — the first test of its commitment to ditching the extravagant legal claims used by the Bush administration to try to impose blanket secrecy on anti-terrorism policies and avoid accountability for serial abuses of the law.

On Monday, a Justice Department lawyer dispatched by the new attorney general, Eric Holder, appeared before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The case before them involves serious allegations of torture by five victims of President Bush’s extraordinary rendition program. The five were seized and transported to American facilities abroad or to countries known for torturing prisoners.

Incredibly, the federal lawyer advanced the same expansive state-secrets argument that was pressed by Mr. Bush’s lawyers to get a trial court to dismiss the case without any evidence being presented. It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred. [continued…]

Read Glenn Greenwald for the definitive coverage on the “state secrets” story

The new Fallujah up close and still in ruins

Driving through Fallujah, once the most rebellious Sunni city in this country, I saw little evidence of any kind of reconstruction underway. At least 70% of that city’s structures were destroyed during massive U.S. military assaults in April, and again in November 2004, and more than four years later, in the “new Iraq,” the city continues to languish.

The shells of buildings pulverized by U.S. bombs, artillery, or mortar fire back then still line Fallujah’s main street, or rather, what’s left of it. As one of the few visible signs of reconstruction in the city, that street — largely destroyed during the November 2004 siege — is slowly being torn up in order to be repaved.

Unemployment is rampant here, the infrastructure remains largely in ruins, and tens of thousands of residents who fled in 2004 are still refugees. How could it be otherwise, given the amount of effort that went into its destruction and not, subsequently, into rebuilding it? It’s a place where a resident must still carry around a U.S.-issued personal biometric ID card, which must also be shown any time you enter or exit the city if you are local. Such a card can only be obtained after U.S. military personnel have scanned your retinas and taken your fingerprints. [continued…]

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