Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What is the G20 anyway?

You’ll hear a lot of talk this week about the G20 meeting, but just who are the G20 anyway?

Simply, it’s a meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies, the members are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union (which itself is a group of 27 countries, the Czech Republic currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency and will represent the EU at this week’s summit).

Together the members of the G20 represent 85% of the world’s economy.

Meanwhile, the meetings haven’t started, but the drama has. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is threatening to walk out of the summit if the group doesn’t come out with a strong plan for a global system of financial regulations. Sarkozy recently has been slamming what he calls the “Anglo-Saxon economies” (read: the US and UK) for causing the global financial crisis in the first place. A spokesman for the French president said that Sarkozy wouldn’t sign on to any final statement at the summit unless it included “deliverables” – concrete ways to implement a global regulation system.

And according to a leading US economist, German Chancellor Angela Merkel “does not get basic economics.” Merkel has been a strong opponent to plans to increase government spending to stimulate world economies. But economist Adam Posen says that Merkel doesn’t understand the positive short term effect stimulus spending has on a nation’s economy and warns that Germany, which so far has weathered the global financial crisis fairly well, could suffer badly unless the global economic crisis eases.

The G20 summit opens on Wednesday.
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Monday, March 30, 2009

Obama's whirlwind tour of Europe

All eyes are on President Obama this week as he embarks on his first major foreign trip. What's on the itinerary? Just the G20 economic forum in London; meetings with key European leaders, not to mention his first sit-down with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev; and then a quick hop over to Istanbul where he’ll make good on a campaign promise - giving a policy speech in an Islamic country during his first 100 days as President. So all in all it’s just another week at the office...

The G20 meeting could provide a rough start to the trip for Obama. There’s a widespread feeling around the globe that the American economic model is to blame for the current global economic crisis. Obama wants the developed nations to spend more on stimulus plans to help get the world out of its financial doldrums, a move some European leaders, like Germany’s Angela Merkel, are dead set against. The Europeans will likely use the forum to propose a sweeping set of international economic regulations, something Wall Street doesn’t like. The developing nations are calling for aid to prevent economic-fueled catastrophes in countries across Africa and Asia; and then there’s China, which is the wildcard at the G20.

And according to a report in Germany's Der Spiegel Obamamania, at least among Europe’s heads of state, is waning. A lot of it seems to boil down to their feeling that the Obama Administration isn’t taking Europe (in their opinion) seriously enough, though frankly, there also seems to be a measure of hurt feelings among the Europeans because Obama has recognized that Asia is starting to surpass Europe in terms of power and importance (as witnessed by Hillary Clinton’s choice of Asia rather than Europe for her first trip abroad as Secretary of State).

Then there’s the meeting with Medvedev, which will be closely watched since Obama has made such a point of saying he wants to ‘reset’ US-Russian relations. While both presidents have talked about wanting better relations they keep getting hung up on the same issues - missile defense, Iran and NATO expansion. And to make matters worse, not everyone on the US side seems to have gotten the reset memo.

Gen. John Craddock, NATO’s top commander and chief of U.S. forces in Europe, doesn’t seem to be in a compromise state of mind. Craddock said that relations with Russia were “turned upside down” by Russia's invasion of Georgia last August. The General seems to have missed this story last week, which provides more evidence that the Georgians actually started the conflict with their attack on South Ossetia.

This is the corner that we seem to have painted ourselves into in US/Russian relations - the Russians are dead set against having Georgia and Ukraine become members of NATO, feeling that it will threaten their security; while the US has staked so much in backing their membership that to not continue down that path would look like a sign of weakness, or if you believe the New York Times piece, the death of NATO itself.

It’s quite an agenda of issues, ones that have the potential to shape global politics and economics for years to come. Instead of Obama, maybe sending King Solomon would be a better choice.
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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Coming Cold War in the Far North?

I hate how the term ‘Cold War’ is thrown around anytime there’s the least bit of tension between the West and Russia, but this time it’s at least a somewhat apt description. A day after Russia announced plans to create a new Arctic military force, Canada replied that they “will not be bullied” in the Far North.

It’s an exchange that shows how tensions are rising over the Arctic region. It’s thought that a quarter of all the undiscovered oil and natural gas deposits left on the planet are under the Arctic ice. Now, thanks to global warming and the melting of the polar ice pack, these deposits may finally become commercially viable to explore.

That has the countries that ring the Arctic Ocean thinking about their policies towards the polar region. In 2007 Russia sent an expedition far into the Arctic Ocean. The expedition made news for planting a miniature Russian flag on the seabed at the exact spot of the North Pole, but the real focus of the expedition was gathering geological information to bolster a Russian claim that an undersea mountain chain called the Lomonosov Ridge is a geologic feature of the continental shelf. If proven true (a decision will be made by 2011), it would give Russia territorial rights to much of the Arctic Ocean and a potential windfall in oil and natural gas reserves.

But the Russians aren’t waiting for 2011. A new strategic paper says that by 2020 the Arctic will be Russia’s “top strategic resource base”, and with that in mind the Kremlin has announced the creation of a new military force to protect their Arctic interests. The strategy, published on the internet with no fanfare, suggests giving the Federal Security Service (FSB) responsibility for the region, drawing on a collection of Russian military units to provide security forces as-needed (in practice this would likely include elements of the Air Force and ships from Russia’s Northern Fleet).

This quiet announcement brought a very vocal response from Canada, with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon making his ‘we won't be bullied’ remark on Friday. The view in Canada is that Russia will try to use military force to push other countries out of disputed areas in the Arctic; Cannon was following up earlier statements by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the Arctic belongs to Canada too and that they intend to make their presence felt as well. Canada has previously announced plans to build a deep-water port in the Arctic and build a new, modern icebreaker that will be the flagship of their northern naval forces.

And while Canada and Russia are trading barbs, keep in mind that the United States and Denmark (Greenland is a territory of Denmark) also have claims on portions of the Arctic and NATO is saying that they intend to have a role in the Arctic as well. It seems like global warming isn’t the only thing heating up the Arctic.
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Peace offer won't last forever - Arab League

The members of the Arab League, which starts a summit meeting tomorrow, warned that time is running out for a proposed peace deal with Israel.

Back in 2002 Saudi Arabia put forward an idea - that the Arab nations of the Middle East would all recognize Israel’s right to exist and open diplomatic relations if Israel would withdraw from the occupied Palestinian lands and return to the borders that existed before the Six Day War in 1967. As recently as last November Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel should seriously consider the Saudi offer.

But then Israel launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’, their military incursion into the Gaza Strip, and relations between Israel and the Arab world sunk. The Arab League is basically repeating a statement made by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal in January, that the peace offer is not open-ended and that seven years of consideration is probably long enough.

Israel is still in the process of forming a new government following general elections in February and so far has not had a response either to the Saudi or Arab League statements, but there is a lot of concern that a new right-wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the past has opposed an independent state for the Palestinians, will be far less open to peace negotiations.
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On the lam? Then stay off Facebook

Here’s some advice, if you’re running from the law, you might want to not post ‘status updates’ on your Facebook page.

A judge in New Zealand ruled that lawyers could use a man’s Facebook page to serve him with court papers. Craig Axe is alleged to have taken more than $200,000 from his family’s business before skipping out of New Zealand. His father, who is suing him, doesn’t know the younger Mr. Axe’s current whereabouts, besides thinking he is hiding somewhere in England, making serving him with a lawsuit for the missing money impossible.

But Craig Axe has been posting updates to his Facebook page, and since he was regularly using the page, the judge in New Zealand ruled that Facebook would be a reliable way to inform Mr. Axe that he was being sued.

And though it’s a novel approach, this case is not the first time that Facebook has been used to serve legal notice - recently a court in Australia let a company inform a couple that their house was going into foreclosure via their Facebook page as well.

Facebook praised the Australian case, saying that it validates Facebook’s role as “a reliable, secure and private medium for communication.” Something to keep in mind if you happen to be on the lam.
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Friday, March 27, 2009

Israel army punishes one Gaza soldier

The Israeli Defense Force has punished one soldier for “accidentally” shooting a Palestinian woman in the leg during January’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ military incursion into the Gaza Strip. The solider in question has been demoted and put on probation.

It’s the first official punishment handed down by the IDF against its soldiers for causing civilian casualties during the Gaza operation. Though so far it looks like this soldier’s punishment will be the exception rather than the rule. Despite well-researched reports by the United Nations and other human rights groups recounting hundreds of incidents of Israeli soldiers deliberately causing harm to Palestinian civilians – including accounts of IDF snipers shooting women and children, and of a squad of soldiers using a Palestinian boy as a human shield – the Israelis are continuing to push the ‘few bad apples’ explanation: that any alleged abuses were caused by a small number of ‘rogue’ troops within a very ethical and professional army.

Richard Falk, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories in a report issued on Tuesday, accused Israel of wide-spread abuses in Gaza, and suggested their conduct rose to the level of a “crime against humanity” – a term first used against Nazi leaders during the Nuremburg war crimes trials following World War Two. Falk used the term in describing Israel’s policy of sealing the borders of the Gaza Strip – home to a million and a half people – before launching Operation Cast Lead, thus preventing civilians from leaving the combat zone.

Israel (and to a lesser degree the United States) have criticized Falk’s report and its findings. But if you look at the Israeli argument it boils down to this: since they were fighting terrorists who don’t respect the laws of war or the well-being of civilians, the Israelis didn’t have to either. Aharon Leshno Yar, Israel's ambassador to the UN rights council, said Falk’s report “[it] willfully ignores and downplays the terrorist and other threats we face,” before discussing how Hamas has no problem operating from urban areas, in effect using civilians as human shields.

But I would argue though that respecting human rights and striving to protect civilians is exactly the thing that separates civilized nations from the terrorists, and isn’t that the point of fighting terrorism in the first place?
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Somali Pirates grab two ships

The Somali pirates are back. After a fairly quiet start to the year, pirates operating from the lawless Somali coast grabbed two ships in the Indian Ocean in the span of 24 hours. Both ships are described as chemical tankers – the Greek-owned 9,000-ton Nipayia and the Norwegian-owned 23,000-ton Bow Asir. No word was immediately available on what cargoes either ship was carrying. The owners of the Nipayia said the last contact they had with the ship was on Thursday when the crew sent an e-mail to say 16 to 18 armed pirates had seized control of the ship; there has been no contact with the Bow Asir, but satellite photos show it changing course, presumably headed for the Somali coast.

Pirates have managed only managed to capture a handful of small ships so far this year. Vessels from 20 different navies are patrolling off the Somali coast and have taken credit for the dip in pirate attacks, though others say the weather has played a factor – rough seas have kept the pirates, and the small speedboats they usually use, in port. Even naval officials concede that two dozen ships searching for small pirate boats in two million or so square miles of open ocean is like looking for a needle in a very large haystack.

The Nipayia and Bow Asir will now likely be moored off the coast of Somalia and held for ransom. Piracy remains a lucrative business for Somalia since nearly 10% of the world's shipping traffic passes off their coast bound for the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the gateway to the ports of Europe.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Will lingerie lead to reform in Saudi Arabia?

Perhaps. Saudi Arabia is known for its strict segregation of the sexes and laws that prohibit women from leaving their homes without a male relative, non-related men and women who break these rules risk punishment that include jail terms and public beatings. But this creates an odd paradox when it comes to buying lingerie: because salesmen deal with the public, it is a career generally not open to women in Saudi Arabia; intimate apparel stores employ all-male sales staffs. But this means that women, who can't go out in public unless they are covered head-to-toe then have to discuss intimate details of their bodies with strange men in order to buy lingerie or other undergarments. It’s a situation that both customers and salesmen describe as humiliating.

It's also one that's unnecessary. In 2006 the government passed a law decreeing that intimate apparel shops have all-female sales staffs, but it's a law that has so far gone unenforced because the nation's religious police oppose any situations that could result in non-related men and women interacting. Now Saudi women are organizing a boycott of lingerie shops to force the government to implement the 2006 staffing law.

This story made me think of a conversation I had recently with a friend who has experience with the Saudis. I brought up the Saudi laws that oppress women; he talked about the efforts by some Saudis at reform (including proposals like allowing women to drive cars). His point was that you couldn’t talk about the Saudi government as a monolithic thing. There are around 2,000 Saudi princes who run the gamut from very conservative to those with progressive views who want to reform the notoriously oppressive Saudi laws regarding gender and allow women to fully participate in Saudi society as they do in some of the neighboring Gulf States.

But reform is a slow process in Saudi Arabia. The ruling House of Saud is intimately intertwined with the very conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam (an 18th century alliance with Wahhabi leaders helped the House of Saud to eventually gain control over the pastiche of tribes that once ruled what's now the modern state of Saudi Arabia). And as the custodians of Islam’s two holiest sites - the cities of Mecca and Medina - the Saudis trend towards a traditional interpretation of Islamic law and custom.

Still, there are influential members of the Saudi ruling family who are actively trying to modernize Saudi society. Women's apparel just may help the reform process along.
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Why not to worry about North Korea's missile test

Sorry but I’m having a little trouble getting as worked up about this possible North Korean missile test as some people are, since North Korea has been threatening to launch this thing for the past two months. It’s starting to sound like the stereotypical cranky dad driving on a long roadtrip who turns to his misbehaving kids and yells, “if you don’t knock it off, I’m pulling this car over…I’m serious this time…I’ll pull over and then you’ll be sorry…just keep it up and I’ll do it…”

The thought of North Korea, the secretive Stalinist state led by the odd Kim Jong-Il, possessing a missile that could reach the United States is a scary idea – the reality of the situation though, isn’t. The Taepodong-2 missile failed in its first, and so far only test, and getting the missile ready for launch has already taken the North Koreans two months – not exactly something you can fire off in a surprise attack.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of tension surrounding North Korea these days. Last year, the world thought for awhile that Kim Jong-Il was dead though now it’s widely believed that he had a stroke and spent months recuperating; there’s now talk of a struggle among North Korea’s upper echelon to become the Dear Leader’s designated successor. Relations between North and South Korea have sunk to a low point not seen in years, and Japan is threatening to make North Korea’s Taepodong-2 missile test also a test of their anti-missile interceptor system.

North Korea says that the Taepodong-2 is meant to carry a satellite into orbit, which is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, back in 1957. Sputnik’s launch was not only a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, but it was also a bold way of telling the United States that their R-7 missile could carry a nuclear warhead from the Soviet heartland straight to the US. The launch quickly spurred talk of a “missile gap” between the US and Soviet Union (that really didn’t exist) and sparked an arms race as the US tried to ‘catch up’. Luckily for the Soviets the US didn’t know just how long it took them to get an R-7 ready for launch, a process that included a full day just to load the missile with fuel – making it basically useless as a weapon of war.

The North Koreans don’t have the luxury of satellite-free skies though; intelligence agencies around the world have been able to follow the many weeks of preparation they’ve put in to getting the Taepodong-2 ready to fly. If the Taepodong-2 were being readied during a time of war, there would have been ample time to destroy the thing on the launch pad, long before it ever flew.

The Taepodong-2 isn’t an effective weapon, whether its an effective propaganda tool depends on whether or not North Korea’s neighbors and other interested parties (like the United States) allow them to once again use threats of military force as a bargaining chip in negotiations to provide aid and lift sanctions against North Korea that have dragged on for years.
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Verdict on the first Nano test drive

Now a follow-up to Monday's story "World's cheapest car hits market", via the BBC: Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of Autocar India magazine became one of the first journalists to actually drive a Tata Nano. His verdict? It's a surprisingly good car.

Sorabjee had the chance to drive the Nano not on a test track, but on actual roads. He said that the car was solid, well put-together and provided a relatively smooth ride even on rough roads - the Nano's tiny size and small wheel-base made it especially agile in tense city traffic. Given the Nano's two-cylinder 33-horsepower engine and top speed of roughly 60mph though, its probably best to keep it in the city and not venture out onto the highway.

Sorabjee said that overall the Nano was a good car that feels more expensive than its $2,000 sticker price. More than that, he praised it as a car designed to meet the specific needs of the Indian consumer, a concept of a car, he argued, that a foreign-maker would not have been able to develop.
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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

NATO's Serbia campaign, ten years later

Tuesday was the 10-year anniversary of a milestone event in world history since the end of the Cold War - the start of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia.

NATO launched the aerial campaign in 1999 after then-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic refused to halt military action against separatists in the Kosovo region, amid reports of atrocities committed by Serbian forces against the Kosovars. The European Union and United States were still smarting from allegations that the Western powers didn't do enough (really anything) to stop similar atrocities during Bosnia’s war for independence from Serbia in the mid-1990’s - in particular the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 ethnic Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces. Determined not to let history repeat itself, NATO organized and led a bombing campaign to compel Milosevic to stop Serbia’s Kosovo campaign.

Not surprisingly the Serbians view this whole thing a little differently. Russia Today did a half-hour special yesterday on their TV newscast (which is excerpted here) that focused on the Serbian side of the bombing campaign and its aftermath. The Serbians argue that the evidence of alleged atrocities committed by Serbs in Kosovo is flimsy and that NATO’s self-described “humanitarian intervention” actually killed 1,200 Serbian civilians (Western estimates put the civilian casualty toll at less than 500 Serbs).

Then there are the conspiracy theorists who speculate that NATO’s campaign was less about intervening on behalf of the Kosovars and more about completing a plot to dismantle Yugoslavia. The theory goes like this: that a strong, independent, socialist Yugoslavia stood in the way of the European Union’s expansion plans and that after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Western powers (namely the US, UK, France, and Germany) didn’t want Russia to have a strong ally in the strategically-important Balkan region of South Eastern Europe. So the West set about exploiting ethnic tensions to break up Yugoslavia, starting with Slovenia and Croatia, then Bosnia; the 1999 bombing campaign was the final act in ending Yugoslavia’s reign as a regional power.

While I’m not much for conspiracy theories, some questions remain from the 1999 campaign – like why a mission to stop military action in Kosovo focused so much on Serbia’s capital Belgrade, where factories, government agencies and bridges were all primary targets of the bombing campaign and the cause of many of the civilian casualties. It is also odd how quickly the Kosovo Liberation Army (the main insurgent group in Kosovo) was adopted as a band of brave ‘freedom fighters’ by the West after only a few years earlier being identified by most Western governments (particularly by the United States) as a ‘terrorist organization’, one likely with ties to al-Qaeda.

Whether or not the grand conspiracy existed, its stated results did come to pass. The 1999 NATO campaign did bring the end of the last vestiges of Yugoslavia – the last two former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Montenegro would split in 2006, and Kosovo would declare its independence from Serbia in 2008. Slobodan Milosevic would die in jail in The Hague while on trial for war crimes; Serbia meanwhile is now on the path for EU membership.

One lasting, and overlooked, effect of the campaign was the souring of NATO-Russian relations. Throughout the 1990’s Russia’s fears of their old Soviet-era military nemesis’ eastward expansion were played off, particularly by Pres. Bill Clinton, with the explanation that NATO was “strictly a defensive alliance”, and Russia didn’t have any plans to attack, right? So then there was nothing for Russia to worry about from NATO. But then in 1999, for the first time in its history, NATO went on the offense – bombing Serbia on behalf of Kosovo (neither of which was a NATO member). The whole “defensive alliance” idea went out the window.

Think about that next time you read about Russia’s complaints about bringing their neighbors Ukraine or Georgia into the NATO fold.
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Neoconservative view: Obama's a Commie (and he'll destroy America)

I’m happy to read commentary from all sides on a given topic; I think that’s how you get a full picture of what’s really going on in the world. Even if I don’t agree with your point of view, I’m willing to be swayed if you make a good, fact-based argument.

Unfortunately the arguments from the Right coming out against Barack Obama have been light on facts on heavy on rhetoric, and some very confused rhetoric at that. The Right has been describing the Obama administration by turns as Communist, Socialist, Fascist and McCarthyist – apparently forgetting (or not knowing) that Communists and Fascists are ideologies inherently opposed to each other and that Sen. Joe McCarthy made his name as an anti-Communist crusader (not to mention his being viewed as a hero of sorts by right-wing commentators like Ann Coulter).

So into this confusing mess, enters Frank Gaffney, one of the more vocal Neoconservative backers of the George W. Bush worldview. In an opinion piece for the Washington Times, Gaffney informs us that Barack Obama is really a Communist bent on destroying the military and political power of the United States and who will surrender to Islamic extremists (seriously).

Mr. Gaffney offers few facts, or reasoned arguments, to back up his allegations, which in a sense is good since the few facts he offers he gets terribly wrong…Gaffney claims that Russia is “squeezing our supplies lines into Afghanistan”, when in reality Russia just opened a new supply route after NATO was unable to protect the main one up from Pakistan against Taliban insurgents. He accuses Obama of planning to abandon our allies in the Czech Republic by backing out of our pledge to base a system to protect them against “Iranian nuclear-armed missiles” – this ignores the fact that Iran posses neither nuclear warheads, nor missiles that can reach the Czech Republic (nor does he explain why the Iranians would want to nuke the Czechs…), and that the majority of the Czech people don’t want our ABM system in the first place. Finally Frank says that Obama will give the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights region to Syria; bypassing the fact that Israel and Syria have been negotiating the return of Golan to Syria for months now.

While I think the Obama administration is off to a good start in international affairs, I’m concerned about some of his decisions – like putting Richard Holbrooke in charge of Afghan-Pakistan relations, and I’m reserving judgment on how effective the Obama foreign policy is until we move from the talking phase to the action one. So I’m willing to listen to critiques, I just expect them to be of a far better quality than the screed Mr. Gaffney offers.
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A survivor's tale from Japan

Depending on how you look at it Tsutomu Yamaguchi is either the luckiest, or unluckiest, man in the world.

Back in 1945 Mr. Yamaguchi was a businessman visiting the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6th, the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb. Yamaguchi survived the attack with severe burns and set out the next day for his home - Nagasaki. He arrived just in time to experience the nuclear bombing of that city on August 9th.

The Japanese government has now finally certified the 93-year old Mr. Yamaguchi as the only known survivor of both atomic bombings. Mr. Yamaguchi hopes that his status will enable him to tell younger generations about the horrors of atomic weapons.
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Monday, March 23, 2009

Picture of Gaza atrocities emerges

Reports from the Israeli media, human rights groups and even Israeli soldiers paint a truly disturbing picture of the Israeli military’s recent actions in the Gaza Strip during January’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’.

Perhaps the most damning words though come from the testimonies of Israeli soldiers involved in Operation Cast Lead who describe instances of what they themselves call “cold blooded murder.” Israeli snipers are said to have shot a woman and her children who were just crossing the street, bulldozed a house with civilians inside and bombed a residential building after ordering Palestinian civilians to take refuge there. This morning the United Nations announced they had verified a story of Israeli soldiers using an unarmed Palestinian boy as a “human shield” to enter buildings where Hamas fighters were thought to be hiding.

One infantry squad leader, in a testimony published by the military academy of Israel’s Oranim College, summed up the military’s attitude this way: “the lives of Palestinians, let's say, are much, much less important than the lives of our soldiers.” Of course, under international law, occupying armies are required to do everything possible to limit civilian casualties, doing anything else can be considered a war crime in itself.

What’s perhaps even more disturbing than these reports though is that many Israeli soldiers seem to be proud of these atrocities. A popular item among IDF units are T-shirts that basically celebrate war crimes, like the one pictured – a drawing of an obviously pregnant Palestinian woman, a sniper’s bull’s eye over her belly with the slogan: “one shot, two kills.”

The Israeli military, not surprisingly, was quick to condemn the stories. “I can say that the IDF is the most moral army in the world,” said Israel Defense Forces Chief Gabi Ashkenazi. He went on to say that any incidents like the ones described were “isolated.”

Not so, says United Nations special envoy Radhika Coomaraswamy, who visited Gaza as part of a UN investigation. She claims to have “hundreds” of verified accounts of Israeli atrocities.

In his statement the IDF’s Ashkenazi fell back to the excuse that Israel was fighting a terrorist organization (Hamas) that has no regard for the well-being of civilians – as if this justifies the IDF’s own disregard for civilians as well. Israeli troops who have spoken out say that they were told anyone left in Gaza City was a terrorist, since the IDF told all the civilians to flee, meaning anyone they saw was a fair target to be killed. Of course where the civilians in Gaza City were suppose to go given that Israel had sealed the Gaza’s borders and military actions were already underway throughout the entire Gaza Strip is a question that Israeli officials have never answered.

The large numbers of civilian casualties and widespread destruction in Gaza caused by Operation Cast Lead is an indication of one thing – the corrosive effects the 40+ years of occupation of the Palestinian Territories has had on Israeli society. One soldier, Amir Marmor, a 33-year-old military reservist, talked about the changes he had seen in his 12 years of service in the reserves. “This is very, very different from my usual experience,” Marmor said, “it was always an issue how to avoid causing civilian injuries,” adding that this time his commander told his squad to “shoot and don't worry about the consequences.”

Invariably when one people subjugate another, whether it’s under the banner of military occupation, colonialism, or any other title, the experience of oppressing the weak erodes the character and values of the occupier, H. G. Wells and George Orwell wrote last century about the effects of Empire on the British psyche. It’s a lesson the Israelis seem not to have learned.
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"World's cheapest car" hits the market

India’s Tata Motors will begin sales of the Nano - often billed as “the world's cheapest car” - this week, making the dream of new car ownership a reality for millions of Indians.

The Nano, which looks like the offspring of a golf cart and a ladybug, manages to reach its 100,000 rupee (just under $2,000) price point by cutting corners, a lot of them. The Nano doesn’t have any of the equipment now standard in just about any new automobile - no air conditioning, power windows, power steering or airbags. The Nano makes use of a lot of plastic for the body panels and is powered by what’s really a two-cylinder motorcycle engine tucked into the rear of the car.

The launch of the Nano has been controversial. Tata Motors is taking the optimistic view - they say that the low price means that many Indians will be able to finally afford their own automobile, Tata says the price is designed to get Indians to trade-up from motorcycles, which are a popular form of transit in India's cities - a change Tata claims will make the roads safer. Others say though that the last thing the chronically-clogged streets of cities like New Delhi needs is to have tens of thousands of new automobiles, many piloted by inexperienced drivers, dumped onto the roads.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the Nano, again saying that India’s cities need fewer cars, not more adding to the dense air pollution in urban areas. In fact the Nano, as currently designed, will only be able to be sold for the next few years. One way the Nano cuts costs is by leaving off any pollution-reduction equipment, meaning the car won’t meet India’s automobile emission laws, which are scheduled to become more strict in 2012.

Even the construction of the Nano caused controversy. Tata Motors abandoned a nearly-completed factory to build the Nano in India’s West Bengal region in the face of growing protests from local farmers who felt their land was unfairly taken by the state and given to Tata. The Nano is now being built at other Tata Motors plants around India until a new Nano factory is finished.

Still, Tata expects they can build 50,000 Nanos a year. The first cars should be delivered in July.
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Beachfront property, new to market

Though you may have to wait until the eruption stops to move in.

The South Pacific island nation of Tonga just got a little bigger this week. A volcanic eruption 40 miles south of Tonga's capital created a new island, several hundred square yards in size. Tonga is home to several dozen active volcanoes.

In addition to the volcanic eruption, Tonga was also rattled by a powerful earthquake; neither caused any damage.
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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Now recognized, the deligate from Caprica

I’m sorry that I missed this one on St. Patrick’s Day – the United Nations is accustomed to having visitors from around the world, but on Tuesday they had guests from farther away, much, much farther – namely the planet Caprica.

Yes, the UN invited the principles of the television sci-fi program Battlestar Galactica to a forum that included discussions of human rights and the ethics of war. [Just in case you haven’t been watching BSG the show is the story of humanity’s last remnants, fleeing across the stars to escape a genocidal nuclear war that destroyed their home and most of the human race.]

Of course some of the comments I read on the stories about the BSG event slammed the United Nations for inviting actors and TV writers to speak about weighty issues like war crimes, saying it was another example of how the organization is a waste of time. But I think the UN deserves a lot of praise for holding this forum since it helps to shake the (American) image of the UN as just a collection of diplomats and policy-wonks collected in a fancy building on the East River and uses pop culture to bring their important work to a much wider audience (this forum was the second in the UN’s new Creative Community Outreach Initiative, the cast of Law and Order was on hand for the first).

Battlestar was an excellent choice for the Initiative, it is a show that has shaken the notion of sci-fi as ‘kid’s stuff’ and used their story of humanity’s plight as a way to tackle head-on such weighty issues as freedom of religion, reproductive choice and even the ethics of suicide bombing. Take for example the character played by actress Mary McDonnell, a.k.a. President Laura Rosyln – one of Battlestar’s heroines. She was a sympathetic character, a school teacher who unexpectedly became president, yet she was also someone who ordered the summary execution of prisoners, forged an alliance with a known terrorist and attempted to rig her own re-election. They were actions, McDonnell argued that should be considered when viewing this world’s autocratic leaders. “People who are taking these actions — that are unacceptable — are sometimes in positions where they don't see the solution,” she said at the forum, presenting a much more nuanced worldview than the black-or-white, good-or-evil one popular during the past eight years.

Her co-star, actor Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama in Battlestar) took the UN to task for their use of the term ‘race’ in key documents like their Universal Declaration of Human Rights (he argued there is only one ‘race’, the human race, other racial terms are artificial ones that just promote division among people) and questioned why UN troops haven’t been dispatched to provide security in Mexico – which the United States has identified alongside Pakistan as the two most endangered countries in the world.

Not bad arguments, I’d say, from ‘just some actors from a sci-fi show’…
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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Far fewer terrorists at Gitmo than thought

The allegations that innocent men are locked up in the US terrorist detention camp at Guantanamo Bay are getting worse.

Though largely ignored by the mainstream press, the US government has admitted for quite some time now that there are men locked up at Gitmo who, in fact, did nothing wrong – the story of the 17 Uighur Muslims from China - a group the government says are not ‘enemy combatants’ nor were they training to become terrorists when caught – is one we’ve covered here for several months. But, according to Lawrence B. Wilkerson, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Wilkerson said that of the 240 men still locked up at Gitmo, only 24 are actually terrorists – in other words 90% of the people we have detained for the better part of a decade, and decry as being the ‘worst of the worst’ are, apparently, innocent.

So who is Lawrence Wilkerson and why should we listen to him about Guantanamo Bay? Because he was chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell when the detention camp at Gitmo was set up in the first place. How we got into this mess, according to Wilkerson, is basically due to a perfect storm of incompetence, arrogance and stubbornness.

In the early days of the campaign in Afghanistan, the US military swept up suspected terrorists by the bushel; others were turned over to the US for the $5,000 per head reward being offered. But US forces in-country had little or no training on how to tell ‘terrorist’ from ‘local insurgent’ or ‘innocent guy being turned in by his angry brother-in-law for the reward money’, so they were all shipped off to Cuba. Wilkerson claims the Bush administration quickly realized that many of the men arriving at Gitmo had no ties to al-Qaeda and no information to offer, but that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney fought efforts to admit their error since they feared this would undermine their leadership in the War on Terror.

So in other words, hundreds of apparently innocent people were shipped off to an American ‘gulag’ and kept there for years all just to avoid embarrassing Cheney and Rumsfeld. To make matters worse, Wilkerson says the two dozen actual terrorists at Gitmo can’t be put on trial in the United States for their crimes because the Bush administration allowed them to be tortured and then didn’t even bother to keep an evidence trail of what information they gave up.

Of course this is just one man’s opinion - but it is one man with inside knowledge of the situation, who was there from the beginning and who’s accounts have been at least partially confirmed by released detainees (not to mention how it jibes with the story of the 17 Uighurs still locked up).
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Medvedev promises to rearm Russia

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday that Russia would boost its military spending by 50% over the next three years; he explained it was a necessary move to counter NATO efforts to encircle Russia. The speech came as a surprise to many since just two weeks ago Russia welcomed US intentions to ‘reset’ (albeit with a wrongly-worded button) relations between Russia and the West, Medvedev’s speech, of course, sparked talk of a ‘new arms race’.

But let's not go too overboard on the rhetoric just yet. First, look at the audience; Medvedev was speaking to a gathering of Russia's to generals. This speech came shortly after he announced a plan to trim about 200,000 officers from Russia’s military as part of a reform package, so a rousing “let’s spend on the army” speech is probably what the generals needed to hear to boost morale.

Second, Russia’s military has been under-funded since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and even for sometime before that); it is in desperate need of modernization. Only 10% of the equipment in the Russian military is deemed ‘modern’; even with the jump in spending by 2015 that number will still be just 30%. The Russian Navy will take delivery this year of a frigate named the Yaroslav Mudry, construction of the ship started way back in 1990 - a lack of funds meant it's taken almost 20 years to get the Yaroslav Mudry into service. Russia has announced plans to build several aircraft carriers in the next decade; the one problem is that Russia lacks any shipyards that can build a ship that large. One official talked about contracting with Ukraine to build the ships (they built the Soviet Union’s aircraft carriers), though given the poor state of Russian-Ukrainian relations this seems like a pretty bad idea.

The conflict with Georgia last summer showed the problems faced by the Russian military, the army that went into Georgia had no unmanned drone aircraft, precision-guided weapons, reactive vehicle armor, or any of the other gee-whiz technology routinely fielded by the United States; in terms of gear the army that rolled into South Ossetia was basically the same as the Soviet one that entered Afghanistan in 1979.

So when you read excited pieces in the press about a new arms race or new Cold War, don't get too worked up over it. Yes Russia is planning to spend a lot more to modernize their military, but they need to just to keep up with the top Western armies (the US, UK, France and Germany) and to not fall behind the rising power of China. And also expect to hear a Medvedev much more interested in a partnership with the West when he meets with Barack Obama at the G20 summit two weeks from now.
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Near miss #2

It turns out that today the Earth had another close call with an asteroid this morning.

A 20-meter wide asteroid, 2009 FH, passed within about 52,000 miles of the Earth (or about 1/5th the distance from the Earth to the Moon). This comes only two weeks after a 100-meter asteroid came within 40,000 miles of the Earth. And just like that earlier near miss, astronomers didn't see 2009 FH until the last minute, it was only discovered on Tuesday.

Scientists estimate that had either rock hit the Earth, it would have impacted with the force of a large nuclear bomb.
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African leaders warn of economic 'chaos'

African leaders are sounding a stark warning about the global financial crisis. In a meeting on Monday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the heads of several African states said that Africa could “go under” and warned of widespread chaos and violence if the developed world doesn’t also provide aid to the continent as part of their efforts to rebuild the world economy.

The leaders, including Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said that Africa was suffering badly because of the fall in the price of natural resources (like oil), a decline in tourism, and a sharp drop in money sent home by Africans abroad who are losing jobs in developed countries. The leaders noted that while Africa had no part in cooking up the financial schemes that led to the crisis, they are feeling the effects.

The argument they made was that giving African nations money now to help their economies would only be a fraction of what developed nations would likely spend in the future on emergency humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations if Africa did in fact plunge into chaos because of the global economic slowdown. “The cost of sustainability in reform and recovery is much, much less than the cost of peacekeeping were the crisis to engender a return to conflict,” said Pres. Johnson-Sirleaf. They also warned that widespread conflict in Africa would also likely cause a refugee crisis in Europe as millions of Africans tried to flee the crisis.

Brown apparently agreed to take their concerns to the G20 global economic summit early next month, a gathering of the group of the world’s top industrial and developing nations where economic reform is expected to be the main topic of discussion.
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Bush legacy tour hits Canada

George W. Bush took his first foreign trip this week, giving a speech about his presidency in the friendly confines of Calgary, Canada. Alberta is basically Canada’s answer to Texas - a conservative place where cowboys are a common sight and wealth flows from the oil industry, so it was pretty much a home game for Dubya. But still several hundred protesters turned up, including one dressed in Guantanamo-prisoner orange and another who brought along his shoe-flinging “cannon”, all of which prompted Bush to scurry into the convention center via an underground tunnel.

So what did Bush say to the folks who spent $4,000 per table to hear him speak? We’re not entirely sure - no cameras were allowed and no official transcript was released, though through reports published by Canadian news outlets the Toronto Globe and Mail and Maclean’s magazine, we can piece together the highpoints.

We learned that Bush (unlike Rush Limbaugh) wants Pres. Obama to succede; even if Obama wasn’t his first choice as successor, Bush now sees the historic importance of his presidency to the country. We also learned that Bush thinks Canada’s banking system is better than the United States’, given the recent meltdown on Wall Street (which Bush said “got drunk”), and that he thinks global warming “could” pose a major threat to the planet.

When it comes to foreign policy though, Bush stuck to his guns. Saddam Hussein was a grave threat to the world (even though at the time of the 2003 US invasion he only controlled about half his own country), Iraq is better off without him and Iraq’s democracy could be an inspiration for Iran. As for Afghanistan, Bush brushed off suggestions that the Iraq war negatively affected US efforts to capture Osama bin Laden. Of course the story of Tora Bora basically contradicts Bush on this one. In December 2001 US troops cornered bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership in a cave complex called Tora Bora. But there weren’t enough US forces to completely surround him, so Afghani warlords were called on to fill in the gaps. Al-Qaeda bribed the Afghans (the ones who weren’t star-struck just being so close to bin Laden in the first place) and slipped across the border into Pakistan - with the help of the Pakistanis. It’s a pretty clear example of what happens when you don’t send enough troops into a war zone, though the administration never fully staffed the Afghan war, largely because they were already gearing up for the invasion of Iraq.

But the revisionist history campaign is well underway by the Bush inner circle and his supporters - last week on MSNBC's Hardball Ari Fleischer stated that it was Saddam Hussein, not bin Laden, who attacked the US on 9/11; while Fox's Bill O'Reilly said that Bush has “basically won” the War on Terror - which must have come as news to the 150,000+ US troops currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as part of that war.

Dubya might be looking to forget about the whole War on Terror thing though if his official Presidential Library biography is any indication - it has no mention of Iraq, Afghanistan or the WOT, though it does mention Bush’s dogs Barney and Miss Beazley.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Freeman rebuts 'Likud Lobby'

Speaking of Israel (see the story below), I happened to catch former National Intelligence Chair nominee Charles Freeman Sunday on Fareed Zakaria GPS. If you read this earlier post, you know that Freeman pulled his name from consideration after what he called a smear campaign by the “Israel Lobby” over his alleged bias against the state of Israel.

My impression of Freeman is that he’s an intelligent and reasoned individual, the kind of person you’d want to have in charge of gathering intelligence assessments from the United States’ collection of 16 different intelligence agencies. Freeman made a point of saying to Fareed that he thought the term “Israel Lobby” was a false one and that “Likud Lobby” was more accurate - he said there is a vocal group of think tanks and politicians who continually push the United States to support the most hawkish elements of Israeli politics, embodied by the right-wing Likud party. Freeman noted that within Israel there is a diverse range of opinions on Palestine, the Middle East and the Peace Process, a far broader spectrum than you find expressed in America.

I think he is onto something – I’ve read articles in Israeli media, like in the newspaper Haaretz, and statements from Israeli peace and human rights groups that are far more critical of anything you’d find in the American mainstream media or from our politicians - the type of comments that here would bring the accusations that you are ‘anti-Israel’ or worse ‘anti-Semitic’.

Its odd that Israelis would be more critical of their nation that Americans, especially when we are not shy about being critical of other countries like France, Russia, or Mexico to name just a few (though disturbingly we seem to be less and less willing to take a critical view of China). Freeman spoke his mind and paid the price for it. But as he explained, in his view, he was just trying to question the ‘conventional wisdom’ of various foreign policy positions (something I admire since it is what I try to do here). Sadly he won't have the chance to do that as chair of the National Intelligence Council.
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Gaza fishermen net little under Israeli siege

You can count Gaza's fishing industry as the latest casualty of the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian territory this past January. Despite having a 40-mile coastline along the rich Mediterranean Sea, the fish markets in Gaza are practically bare. Under the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 between Palestine and Israel, the Palestinians were granted access to an economic zone that extended 20 miles out into the Med from the Gaza shoreline.

But after Hamas’ takeover in Gaza in 2007, the Israelis cut this zone down to six miles; when they launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in January, they again cut the Zone down to three miles. Now Palestinian fishermen report being intercepted, and even shot at by the Israeli Navy, just one mile off the coast.

To make matters worse, a combination of over-fishing and pollution runoff from Gaza's crippled sewage system have caused fish stocks along the shore to collapse. Fishermen working from the shore catch little. The fishing industry, which once employed more than 40,000 Gazans (when you counted fishermen, people who fixed and supplied their boats and workers at the fish markets), has basically shut down; the only fish for sale in the markets are smuggled in from Egypt through tunnels under the border, a fact that makes them too expensive for most Gazans to buy.

“How do they (Israel) expect us to live and breathe while they impose a siege on us from all three directions, land, air and sea?” one fisherman asked.
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Cesar, Hugo and Fox News

I admit, I’m a news junkie; I watch all of the cable news channels, for a little while at least, every day. And I will admit that even the much-maligned Fox News has some decent correspondents on their roster. One thing I can’t stomach though is Fox’s painfully amateurish morning show “Fox & Friends”.

That’s why I missed this doozy from Fox morning host Steve Doocy. He was talking with Fox analyst Peter Johnson about the newly-elected leftist government in El Salvador, when Johnson said the new government has “strong ties to Cesar Chavez”, a claim that Doocy backed up after getting in a dig at CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Of course you would assume that host Doocy and analyst Johnson were talking about Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, not California immigrant labor leader Cesar Chavez…

It all reminded me of a scene from The Simpsons when the ghost of Cesar Chavez appeared to Homer. Homer asked him “then why do you look like Cesar Romero? [The actor who played The Joker in the 60’s-era Batman TV series]. The Ghost replied: “Because you don’t know what Cesar Chavez looks like.”

I don’t expect a morning chat show host to know the leaders of every country in the world, but if you’re going to try to insult someone, you ought to get the names right.
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Happy St. Pat's!

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day I thought it would be good to link back to this BBC story from November that explores President Obama’s Irish roots.

It seems that Barack’s great-great-grandfather, Mr. Fulmouth Kearney, emigrated from the little Irish town of Moneygall in 1850. Moneygall (population about 300) was quick to capitalize on the quirk of history, billing itself as “the ancestral home of Barack Obama” (or Barack O’Bama as they have taken to spelling his name).

Of course they say everyone’s Irish on St. Patty’s day...
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Monday, March 16, 2009

Maldives president vows to create carbon neutral nation

President Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldives, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, has vowed that his will become the world’s first carbon-neutral country in the world. Pres. Nasheed said that his goal was to swear off oil and other fossil fuels and for the Maldives to get all of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar within ten years. “Going green might cost a lot but refusing to act now will cost us the Earth,” Nasheed said in a written statement.

Nasheed’s motivation is the expected rise in sea levels over the next century due to global warming. The Maldives are perhaps the country most at-risk in the world to global warming since much of the island chain is only five feet (or less) above sea level; the highest point - if you can call it that - is only about eight feet high, two feet lower than a regulation basketball hoop. So even a modest rise in sea level means a big loss of land in the Maldives.

Nasheed in fact is so concerned about the future effects of global warming that back in November he pledged to create a Sovereign Wealth Fund - the financial instrument used by resource-rich states like Saudi Arabia to invest the revenue generated by selling oil on behalf of the government - to one day buy a new homeland for the 300,000 citizens of the Maldives if (or when) their islands become uninhabitable. The Maldives Sovereign Wealth Fund will be supported by the islands’ billion-dollar tourism sector. Nasheed suggested that India or Sri Lanka could be a good future home for the Maldivians because of similar cultures and climates, though Australia could also be an option because of the vast amounts of open land available.

“Kuwait might invest in companies; we will invest in land,” Nasheed said.
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Bennett tells of Zimbabwe jail horrors

In the latest news from Zimbabwe, would-be Deputy Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett was finally let out of jail after the Supreme Court ordered his release last Wednesday. Bennett, a leading figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party was arrested on allegations of plotting terrorist attacks almost immediately after MDC party leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Prime Minister - a move that threatened to derail the precarious power-sharing agreement struck between Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was widely believed to have ordered the arrest of Bennett as a way of undermining the power-sharing deal. Twice lower courts ordered Bennett released on bail, orders Mugabe ignored. Now out of jail, Bennett described the horrid conditions he found inside.

“I would not wish it on my worst enemy,” he said, adding that some prisoners, routinely deprived of food, looked like photos of inmates from the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz. Bennett said several prisoners died while he was locked up, their bodies lying in their cells for days before being removed.

In a sign though of the growing discontent for the Mugabe regime, Bennett's jailers were sympathetic towards him, bringing him extra food and asking members of the MDC who visited him for “Free Roy” T-shirts, ‘Ten for the day guards, and eight for the night guards,’ according to reports.

Stories like that and the sudden, wide-spread belief in Zimbabwe that the traffic accident which injured PM Tsvangirai and killed his wife Susan last week wasn’t an accident at all, but rather an assassination attempt seem to be making Mugabe realize that he has a weak (and growing weaker) hold on power in Zimbabwe. Mugabe rushed to visit Tsvangirai in the hospital and made a show of sitting with him at a state funeral for a former military leader this weekend. Afterwards Mugabe described their coalition government as being “between us, brother to brother.” Mugabe called for factions within the ZANU-PF and MDC to “stop fighting” and be united, before adding in his usual digs against the British (Zimbabwe’s former colonial masters).

Perhaps its a hopeful sign that Mugabe is finally getting the message and will actually be an honest participant in the coalition government rather than trying to undermine it like he has been doing ever since it was proposed last year in the wake of his disputed reelection as president.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

UN chief tries to smooth over 'deadbeat' quip

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ Secretary General, is trying to bounce back from an unfortunate choice of words while visiting Capitol Hill. On Thursday Ban accused the US of being a “deadbeat” because of its often late payments of its UN dues - the United States currently owes $1 billion in back payments to the UN, a figure Ban said will soon climb to $1.6 billion. Ban said that in these economically trying times, the UN needs its full support of all its members, which led to the deadbeat remark.

Of course the term ‘deadbeat’ got tongues wagging all over DC, with opinion running from it being an ‘unfortunate’ choice of words, to others taking “great umbrage” at the term, even though a number of Senators apparently privately agreed with Ban. In the past the United States has withheld its UN payments as a way of trying to pressure the body into conforming to America's worldview. President Obama has pledged to change the US relationship with the United Nations, another relationship that declined under the Bush administration. President Bush viewed the UN as more of a hindrance than a help in international affairs, and tried to build international coalitions outside of its influence (like the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ put together in 2003 to force Iraq to comply with UN mandates - rather ironic if you think about it).

While we’re on the topic, this is another example of the odd relationship the United States has with foreign development aid. Many politicians in Washington will be quick to point out that the US gives more in foreign aid than any other country in the world, which is one of those type of facts that is both true and false at the same time. It is true that the US gives more in dollars than any other country, of course the American economy is also larger than any other on Earth, so in a sense this is to be expected. As a portion of Gross National Income (GNI) though, the US is at the bottom of the list, in a tie with Greece; Norway and Sweden are tops (as of 2007, the most recent figures available). GNI is the preferred way of assessing these sorts of things since it is based on a percentage of a given country’s national income, a way that takes the relative size of national economies out of the equation.

The UN has suggested that donor countries set a target of giving 0.7% of GNI in foreign development aid by 2015. By that measure the US, at 0.16% of GNI, has a long way to go.
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Friday, March 13, 2009

Final toll shows 960 civilians killed in Gaza

That’s the tally compiled by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights on the human cost of Israel’s Gaza campaign in January. The Centre found that out of 1,434 Palestinians killed in Gaza, only 235 were identified as ‘fighters’ (Hamas or otherwise), with policemen making up another 239 of the casualties - that means four out of every six people (or five of six depending on how you count the cops) killed in the conflict were non-combatants.

The Israeli military continues to claim that they made “every effort to minimize harm to the civilian population,” though that seemed to amount to their calling homes in Gaza and suggesting that people evacuate to safer places. The problem with that concept is that Israel (and in the south Egypt) closed all of the border crossings, and even maintained a naval blockade off the coast, effectively preventing the Gazans from getting to ‘someplace safe’ - it's a lot like suggesting to a goldfish that it might want to consider leaving its bowl.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights adds that along with the 1,400 killed more than 5,000 more Gazans were injured in the fighting, according to the Ministry of Health, with the bulk again being civilians. They also called for an international war crimes investigation into the Israeli military’s actions.
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Australian minister rejoins Midnight Oil

Back in my college radio deejaying days one of my favorite bands to play was the Australian group Midnight Oil, so I had to post this story about their reuniting this weekend for a concert to benefit victims of the massive wildfires that swept through Australia’s south earlier this year.

What makes the story interesting is that front man Peter Garrett left the band in 2002 to pursue a career in politics and is now serving as Australia's Minister of the Environment; Midnight Oil, meanwhile, made their career on songs that, shall we say, attacked the establishment - including ones that dealt with hot-topic issues like the mistreatment of Australia's aboriginal population, and the environment (Midnight Oil once played an impromptu set in front of Exxon's headquarters to protest a massive oil spill in Alaska). Fans are wondering if Garrett will still be willing to sing songs critical of the government now that he's part of it (for the record, Garrett's said that he is).

The wildfires in Australia's Victoria state last month were some of the worst in the country's history, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than 200 people.
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nominee Freeman's Israel problem

Scratch another Obama nominee. Charles (Chas) Freeman, the would-be chair of the National Intelligence Council withdrew his name from consideration yesterday. And while the NIC might be a seldom-discussed agency, they produce the National Intelligence Estimates - compilations of data collected by US intelligence agencies on the world’s hotspots (like Iran for example).

Freeman, in withdrawing, cited “libelous distortions” of his record by pro-Israel US politicians and organizations often referred to collectively as the “Israel Lobby.” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took some of the credit for Freeman's withdrawal saying that he “was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top.”

I looked at some of those statements - Freeman said in 2007 that “American identification with Israel has become total,” he also accused Israel of not being interested in a peace process with the Palestinians and said that “the brutal oppression of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending.”

Frankly, recent events show that it’s hard to objectively argue with the first two statements, and, even if you disagree, I don't see how they can be considered “over the top.” As for the last, ‘brutal’ is a loaded word, no question about it, but it’s also clear that Israeli policy against the Palestinians has been, shall we say ‘forceful’ for the past several years, even George W. Bush, that great supporter of Israel, was taken back by the toll Israeli checkpoints take on the average Palestinian during a trip he took to the West Bank last year. Perhaps ‘brutal’ was a bad word to use, it was certainly not a diplomatic one, but whether it was inaccurate is at least debatable.

The bigger problem though is that Freeman felt he was forced to withdraw because of opposition from a small group of people based on comments they didn’t like about one country near and dear to their hearts. Maybe if Freeman was up for a diplomatic spot somewhere, I could agree. But a person in charge of national intelligence, someone making assessments about potential threats to this country, should feel free to speak his/her mind without worrying about stepping on anyone’s toes, or offending anyone’s cultural heritage.

The Bush administration gave us too many examples of the problem of seeing the world as you want to see it rather than the way it actually is (for more evidence see Wednesday’s appearance by former Bush spokesman Ari Fleisher on Chris Matthew’s Hardball, where Ari said that Saddam Hussein, not Osama bin Laden, attacked the US on 9/11). Assessing threats and giving a clear picture of global security require honest assessments - Freeman seemed like someone willing to speak his mind, something the national intelligence chair position cries out for. Too bad people like Schumer put their personal offense ahead of the country’s best interests.
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The US, International Criminal Court, and Cheney war crimes?

The United States should reengage with the International Criminal Court, that’s the opinion of former Clinton and Bush administration official David Kaye.

Just to recap, the International Criminal Court is the international body empowered to charge and try individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other such atrocities committed anywhere in the world. In the past international tribunals have been convened to deal with war crimes associated with conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but these tribunals sat for limited periods of time and only had jurisdiction over one specific region. The ICC is a permanent body that can try individuals charged with war crimes, etc., committed anywhere in the world. They made news last week by indicting Sudan’s President Bashir over atrocities committed in Darfur.

Pres. Clinton was a strong supporter of the ICC idea and helped to get the ball rolling on its creation. But Clinton also knew it would be a nearly impossible sell to Congress, who would eventually have to ratify any agreement he signed on behalf of the United States. Before leaving office, Clinton did sign a measure to keep the US ‘engaged’ with the actions of the court.

Once in office Pres. Bush ‘unsigned’ the statement, leaving the US with no official connection to the ICC. His argument, and the argument of some in Congress, was that the Court infringed on US sovereignty. It’s the argument usually trotted out by our government anytime it is faced with some international agreement it doesn’t like (of course you could argue the free trade agreements Bush signed also infringe on US sovereignty, but he didn't seem to have a problem with those).

Kaye argues that now the United States has no way of influencing the further development of the court, and that it only makes sense to at least go back to the Clinton-era level of engagement. It would also be a way for the Obama administration to again signal their desire to be a global leader in human rights and international relations.

Of course if the allegations put forward by journalist Seymour Hersh are true, the first American to face charges at the ICC could be former VP Dick Cheney. At an event at the Univ. of Minnesota on Tuesday night, Hersh talked about a covert military operation, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which reported directly to VP Cheney. Their mission, according to Hersh, was to carry out secret assassinations around the world. Hersh explained the JSOC would fly into a country, without the knowledge of US officials like the ambassador to the country, or the CIA, carry out execution(s) and leave, reporting, apparently only to Dick Cheney. The JSOC was apparently causing so much ‘collateral damage’ (a.k.a. killing innocent civilians) in that the officer in charge, Admiral William McRaven, ordered a halt to JSOC operations.

Hersh later said that he was working on a book about the Bush administration on topics including the JSOC and didn't want go into further detail right now. Hersh though has a good reputation for accuracy, especially in the military and intelligence circles.

Secret hit squads carrying out covert assassinations around the world? Sounds like the kind of thing we use to accuse Saddam Hussein of doing. It also sounds like the type of crime the ICC would be very interested in.
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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

MSNBC tows the WOT party line

I happened to be watching MSNBC this afternoon, when the topic of Barack Obama's decision to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay came up. Their military analyst, the normally quite insightful Col. Jack Jacobs, repeated the oft-quoted line that Gitmo is home to the "worst of the worst" terrorists...Of course Col. Jacobs, like most commentators when they talk about the folks locked up at Guantanamo, failed to mention the innocent men also imprisoned there, like the 17 Chinese Muslims who have been cooling their heels in Cuba since we scooped them up in Afghanistan in 2002 - the ones we long ago decided never committed, or planned to commit, any terrorist acts, against the US, or troops or our interests.

It sounds good to go on TV and paint Gitmo as a pit of vile terrorists, unfortunately the facts don't quite fit the picture.
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The Soviets who stayed behind in Afghanistan

Yesterday the BBC ran an interview with two Red Army soldiers who stayed behind after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan twenty years ago. The men were both teenage draftees from Ukraine who were thrown into the brutal guerilla war. Their reasons for staying in-country were vastly different - Alexander deserted his unit to escape an abusive army commander, Gennady was captured by Afghans and given a choice – either convert to Islam or be killed.

Today both men live quiet lives in Afghanistan - then grew beads, adopted (in Alexander’s case) Islam, took Afghani wives and started families; they give no indication of their former lives as Soviet troopers. And while their story is unusual, it is not unique, a small number of troops did stay in Afghanistan after the Soviets left - some defectors like Alexander, others captured converts like Gennady.

It's a fascinating story, definitely worth a read. And while we're on the topic of Afghanistan and the Soviets, after a recent commemoration of the 20th anniversary of their withdrawal - the Red Army's last foreign campaign, a group of Army veterans offered their advice to the United States. It boiled down to: the war is unwinnable and the United States is kidding itself if it thinks otherwise.

“It's like fighting sand,” said one Soviet vet, remarking on the Afghan insurgents' uncanny ability to blend into the rugged landscape after launching hit-and-run attacks. Another said “it's their holy land, it doesn't matter to them if you're Russian, American. We're all [foreign] soldiers to them.” And the vets noted that the more troops the Soviets poured into Afghanistan, the stiffer the Afghani resistance became (Pres. Obama has signaled that he will be sending up to 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan this year).

So far the United States, particularly officials at the Pentagon, have been dismissive of such talk from the Russians. But the Russians say that the US is making the same basic mistake they did - trying to force a group of diverse ethnic groups, with their own long history of hostility between them, into one national government.

The US has said our involvement is different, because we are bringing democracy. But one of the Soviet vets said that their side went in with the same good intentions - they, of course, though that communism was the system that would turn Afghanistan into a peaceful, prosperous, modern nation. The Soviet Union went into Afghanistan to prop up a weak Communist government facing wide-spread insurrection across the country, today the United States is (for now) backing the government of President Hamid Karzai, who is sometimes called the ‘Mayor of Kabul’ since his control doesn't really extend far beyond the capital, with the Taliban controlling perhaps as much as 70% of the rest of the country.

Maybe the two situations aren't that different after all.
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Monday, March 9, 2009

Clinton hits the wrong ‘reset’ button on US-Russia relations

By now you’ve probably heard about the little gag gift goof this weekend between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. To recap just in case: as a sign of the Obama administration’s desire to repair the relationship between our two countries, Clinton presented Lavrov with an actual button labeled “reset” in English and Russian – at least that was the plan, except the Russian really read “overcharge” (peregruzka) instead of “reset”, something Lavrov pointed out to Clinton.


Two things bugged me about this whole story. When I saw the picture of the button (before learning about the mis-translation) I wondered why the Russian wasn’t written in Cyrillic (the Russian alphabet)? Then there was the translation error. I looked in my Pocket Oxford Russian-English Dictionary and didn’t find a translation for reset, so I checked “peregruzka” (take it from someone who has worked on translated documents, it is always a good idea to back-check the translation in the native language) and easily found the root word “peregruzhat”, which was defined as overloaded or overworked – “reset” was nowhere to be found. Clinton said to Lavrov that the State Dept. “worked hard” on the translation, all of which makes me think that there aren’t many Russian-speakers working at State. Frankly that’s pretty disturbing given the global importance of Russia and the importance of the US-Russian relationship.

Of course after 9/11 we discovered that the US government and military had a severe lack of Arab-speakers, again troubling since the United States is deeply involved in the Middle East; so maybe it’s no surprise to discover that the government also seems to have a lack of Russian speakers as well. It is something we had better address, quickly, since the world is becoming far more, not less, interconnected, and sometimes it helps to be able to talk to folks in their native tongue, or at least give them properly-labeled gag gifts.
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As for the meeting itself, it was underwhelming, though really the purpose of the get-together was little more than a meet-and-greet for Clinton and Lavrov. The big issues all still remain – NATO expansion, anti-missile defense, Iran, and Georgia. On that last point, Clinton again expressed the United States support for the “territorial integrity” of Georgia, which to the US includes the quasi-independent regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – though the government in Abkhazia at roughly the same time signed a 49-year deal with Moscow to allow the Russians to establish a military base within Abkhazia and the two sides are negotiating a possible port for some of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet. The two also differed over Kosovo, Clinton congratulating them on one year of independence, while Lavrov said that Kosovo is in violation of international law and sets a precedent that could destabilize other parts of Europe and the world.

But in signs of a thaw, NATO just resumed contacts with Russia, something they suspended in the wake of last summer’s Russia-Georgia conflict, and outside observers say that despite the tensions, the US needs Russia’s help in dealing with problems like Iran and Afghanistan, so the two sides will have to learn to work together.
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Amnesty International calls Gaza destruction 'wanton'

Amnesty International said that Israeli forces engaged in “wanton destruction” in their recent military campaign in Gaza. At the center of Amnesty’s claims were the estimated 14,000 homes destroyed by Israeli forces during the campaign, something the human rights group says could be a war crime.

Israel admits that they destroyed many Palestinian homes in the fighting, but claims that “operational needs” dictated their destruction – for example, they say, the homes were booby trapped, or were being used by militants to fire on troops – making their destruction permissible under international law.

Amnesty International though casts doubt on the official Israeli explanation. Their in-depth investigation, which included statements from Israeli soldiers, found that many houses were destroyed after the area they were located was under Israeli control – which contradicts the argument that the houses were being used by militants. Amnesty also found that a preferred method for Israeli forces to destroy a house was by planting a mine beneath it, something that made the soldiers planting the mines more vulnerable to enemy fire, not less as the Israelis claimed.

In addition to homes, schools, mosques and police stations all appeared to have been deliberately targeted by the IDF during the conflict, their report found.

The BBC also did an in-depth piece into some of the weapons used by the Israelis during the conflict – another accusation from the international community is that Israel may have committed war crimes through their use of certain weapons in Gaza (like white phosphorous artillery rounds). The basic conclusion from the BBC piece is that while it is ‘legal’ to use the various weapons the IDF employed during the Gaza campaign, the legality of firing such weapons in a built-up, urban area packed with civilians is a far more murky issue. Under international law a military must take reasonable steps to prevent civilian casualties. But many of the weapons used by the Israelis are not precision instruments and spread destruction over a wide area, so using them in a crowded urban setting (and Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth) almost insures there will civilian casualties, leaving open the question on whether Israel committed war crimes in Gaza.
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Tsvangirai rules out foul play in car crash

Zimbabwe’s new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai narrowly escaped death this weekend in a car crash that sadly killed his wife and sparked a wild run of conspiracy theories in the southern African nation.

Tsvangirai was traveling in a three-vehicle motorcade south of the capital Harare when a truck approaching from the opposite direction suddenly swerved into Tsvangirai’s car, causing it to rollover three times, injuring Tsvangirai and killing his wife of 31 years, Susan. Observers say that had Tsvangirai’s driver not reacted instantly, the truck likely would have crashed into them head-on.

In the past few years a number of prominent Zimbabwean politicians have died in automobile accidents on the nation’s roads, that fact plus the ill-will between Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe and the presence at the hospital that received him of three prominent members of the Joint Operations Command – a security force that previously led secret operations against the opposition MDC party – all sparked rampant speculation that the “accident” wasn’t an accident.

Mugabe himself quickly sensed this and rushed to the hospital to visit his injured Prime Minister (a man Mugabe had arrested and beaten on numerous occasions in the past). The United States overseas development agency, USAID, also acted promptly to release a statement that the truck that caused the accident belonged to them, and was transporting HIV medicines to Harare – a move perhaps to shift suspicion away from Mugabe.

This morning Tsvangirai himself finally publicly said that he believed the crash was indeed an accident (even though his MDC party had called for an independent investigation over the weekend), and pledged to quickly get back to work. It is a statement that should quiet the conspiracy theories, at least somewhat. But that the rumors circulated so wildly and that Mugabe himself felt the need to act so quickly is a sign of just how fragile is the situation in Zimbabwe today.
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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sudan leader charged with war crimes over Darfur

Striking a blow for human rights around the world, the International Criminal Court handed down an indictment against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region of his country. Since 2003 the Arab-led government of Sudan has allowed a civil war to rage in the western region of Darfur, which is populated largely by non-Arab, non-Muslim Africans. Brutal militias known as the jinjaweed have killed 300,000, mostly civilians in Darfur and driven roughly 3 million others from their homes. Rape, torture and mutilations are commonplace. In their decision, the Court found that Bashir was responsible for the terror campaign in Darfur.

The ICC’s indictment of Bashir is the first ever handed down by the court against a sitting head of state – previously there was a general principle that heads of state enjoyed legal immunity so long as they were in power. And while the decision is being hailed by human rights groups around the world, it isn’t going over so well in Africa, where other government heads fear that the arrest of Bashir could destabilize the entire region and bring an end to a fragile peace between Sudan’s government and rebels in South Sudan, where another civil war recently ended.

The Chinese also condemned the ICC ruling. While China is quick to tout the fact that they have 350 peacekeepers currently serving in Darfur, they have also blocked all serious attempts at economic sanctions against Sudan for the past several years. Why? Because Sudan exports oil, and about two-thirds of it wind up in China. Resource-hungry China doesn’t want to cut off a supplier, so they have squashed attempts by the United Nations and others at economic sanctions. Of course you could argue that this led to the indictment of Bashir, since if real sanctions had gone into place, Sudan likely would have had to change their behavior in Darfur, which would have taken away the reason the ICC indicted Bashir in the first place (though I don’t think China will agree with me on that one).

One more note – the atrocities in Darfur have been well-publicized, with many Hollywood stars and other celebrities speaking out against the rape, torture and genocide going on there, and that’s great that they would do that. But at the same time ten times as many people have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in situations just as brutal, yet that civil war has raged with little notice from the Western world. Its basically the same thing in Tibet, where many have spoken out about China’s attempts to crush the local culture and religion, yet nothing is said about Xinjiang where China is pursuing the same policies against the Uighur ethnic minority.

So I’m all for raising public awareness about these atrocities and I tip my hat to the people who speak up for those who are suffering. I wish though that rather than focusing on a couple of high-profile locations (Darfur, Tibet), the focus was on stopping the behavior no matter where it’s occurring.
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Eye-for-eye justice in Iran

In 2004 Ameneh Bahrami turned down a marriage proposal. Her would-be suitor responded by throwing acid in her face, blinding and disfiguring her. Now an Iranian court ruled that her attacker, himself will be blinded by acid in response under a principle in Islamic law known as ‘qisas’, literally, especially in this case, an eye-for-an-eye justice.

These sorts of attacks are not unknown in Iran and other places in the Islamic world. If acid attacks are even prosecuted, the attacker usually is only required to pay a fine to the victim. Bahrami, who now lives in exile in Spain, surviving only on a small monthly stipend provided by the Spanish government, said that she pursued the judgment under qisas not out of a sense of revenge, but rather to send a signal to other would-be attackers that they cannot get away with disfiguring women they feel ‘shamed’ them merely by paying a fine.

The court in Iran ruled in her favor a few months ago, but recently amended their judgment ruling that her attacker, identified by the court only as ‘Majid’, would be blinded in only one eye since, under Iranian law the genders are unequal with men being worth two women (thus blinding Majid in one eye while Bahrami was blinded in both). They would blind Majid in both eyes if Bahrami paid a sum of 20,000 Euros apparently to make up for her being a woman and thus less in value.

The sentence will be carried out by a medical technician who will put several drops of acid put into one of Majid’s eyes, while he is under sedation – an option Ameneh Bahrami didn’t have.
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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hillary backs “President” Abbas

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped off in the West Bank to declare the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas as “the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people,” totally overlooking the fact that Abbas’ term as president actually ended last month.

I don’t mean to keep picking on Abbas, he seems like a decent fellow, but my point is that in a democracy you can’t just make up the rules as you’d like them to be. You are elected for a pre-determined period of time, and when that time is up, so is your time in office, unless you happened to win re-election, that’s the way democracies work (just imagine if in October 2008 George Bush decided because of the economic crisis he should just stay in office ‘til, say, the end of 2009).

Abbas’ term ended on January 9, but he continues to act in the role of President of the Palestinian Territories. Abbas didn’t hold elections as scheduled, and is dragging his feet on holding them in the future, because he knows he’ll lose and Hamas will almost surely win. Hamas won legislative elections in Gaza in 2007 because the Palestinians were fed up with Abbas and years of negotiations with Israel that failed to make their lives better. The Palestinians opinion of Abbas has only gone downhill since then.

Clinton’s visit to the region has been disappointing so far. She isn’t helping the situation for the Palestinians long-term by supporting Abbas’ sit-in in the president’s office. Really what’s needed is an emergency unity government in Palestine, something we (the US) oppose since we don’t want to have anything to do with Hamas – a fine moral stand to take, but one that ignores the facts on the ground, that Hamas is today the de facto leadership of Palestine and is in control of Gaza, which just got $5 billion in pledges of international humanitarian and reconstruction aid.

Clinton did again voice her (and America’s) support for an independent state of Palestine, a position that is going to bring us into conflict with the incoming Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. He opposes the two-state solution, backing only some limited ‘self-rule’ for Palestine; the far-right/orthodox parties that will join him in a coalition government don’t even want that much.

And apparently there is talk building within Israel for military strikes against Iran. The Jerusalem Post ran a piece today on the topic of military action, citing at length a new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (based in DC) that recommends, among other things, providing Israel with more US-made advanced weaponry in case the Iranians improve their anti-aircraft defenses. Of course the problem with Israel striking Iran is that they don’t have the capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear program outright and that Iran’s response would be to turn to the hard-line elements within their government, redouble their nuclear efforts, and launch a wave of terror attacks across the Middle East (with our forces in Iraq being a prime target).

The situation in Israel/Palestine needs bold, new leadership; so far I’m not convinced we’re up for the challenge.
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No text for Lent

The Catholic Church in Italy has a suggestion for observant congregants this Lent – give up texting.

Part of the observance of the 40 days of Lent is to give up something you enjoy; the Church’s suggestion about texting has two goals. First it’s a way, the Church suggests, for people to place value on real, not virtual, relationships; the second is to promote awareness of the years of civil war in the Congo in Africa – fighting fueled in part over the control of valuable deposits of coltan in the country, coltan is a source of tantalum, a rare element that is vital for the production of small electronics (like cell phones, hence the texting ban idea).

The Church had other Lenten suggestions – ride a bike or bus to work instead of driving, or give up your iPod and enjoy the sounds of the world around you. The reactions to the Church’s suggestions have been mixed, with some saying that the decision of a Lenten sacrifice should be a personal decision.

And before you start to think that the Church is run by a bunch of luddites, keep in mind that this year Pope Benedict XVI launched his very own YouTube channel.
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