Saturday, January 26, 2008

Israel’s Experimental Pressure Backfires

In this space I published the opinion that Bush's peace tour should not encourage hope or expectations. One reason given was the political status of Bush, Olmert, and Abbas. This NYTimes article below further upholds the premise in my earlier opinion.

A riveting slide show of events at the Gaza - Egypt border can be seen here (<-- click)

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Hamas undermined the chances that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Fatah faction could succeed in negotiating a peace treaty — let alone by the time President Bush leaves office.
Mr. Mubarak will work something out with Mr. Abbas and Israel to allow a regulated border crossing. But even that will resound as a Hamas victory.
The daily newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial on Friday, “The siege of Gaza has failed.”

“The experiment blew up in their faces,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University. “The whole theory of putting pressure on a population to put pressure on their government doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Lebanon in 2006, and it didn’t work now.”

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President Bush Seeks Broader Wiretapping Authority

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President Bush Seeks Broader Wiretapping Authority
President Bush wants Congress to broaden the government's powers to eavesdrop on private conversations without court approval. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, a controversial public surveillance law is set to expire February 1.
President Bush speaks at a Republican lawmakers luncheon in Sulphur Springs, W.Va, 25 Jan 2008

He wants legislation that permanently extends that authority, grants broader powers to wiretap without court approval and gives legal immunity to telephone companies that have helped the government monitor communications.

After months of resistance, the White House agreed Thursday to give Congress access to internal documents on the wiretapping program and the legal basis for its establishment.

 blog it

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Subprime Mortgage and Lending Crisis

Financial developments such as Citibank's $18 bn write down, Meryl Lynch's 11.5 bn 4th quarter loss, that opened the way for China and Abu Dabi to buy up America like a blue light special leave many wondering how could such a thing happen.

Of course it is all tied to what has been called the "subprime" scandal, but even this leaves many not closely involved in financial matters trying to understand what it's all about.

Watch this video to get a clear understanding of how financial markets actually work:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Bush Middle East Tour: No sadly, not a joke

The founder and board chairman of one of America's largest restaurant chains sitting beside me on a NY bound jet was fascinated to learn of my work for religion and peace on the international level. "What do you think of Bush's trip to the Middle East? I mean I voted for the guy, but it's a joke isn't it?" "Don't expect progress from this tour," was my answer. The first and main reason to abstain from hope from this tour is related to the powerlessness of the players posing in the pictures.

President Bush hovers at the lowest approval ratings of any US President in recent memory, recently presided over the unqualified repudiation of his policies through the midterm electoral loss of both houses, and now struggles to manage massive indicators of economic downturn (including China and Abu Dabi in deals for Citibank's $18 bn shortfall, Merril Lynch's $ 8 bn fourth quarter loss, the Morgan Stanely $5.6 bn 4th quarter loss, and much else). President Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas in democratic elections, and whose Fatah party are in shootouts and violent confrontations with Hamas in Gaza, and Olmert gasps for air in the thin and unforgiving political atmosphere following the Lebanon attack-and-military-debacle, as well as investigations related to personal, corruption scandal.

One might imagine Abbas to be the most courageous of these three considering the extreme risk any Muslim figure - especially one from the region - takes when engaged in real or imagined collaboration with US and/or Israel. But apart from the possible courage of Mr. Abbas, and whatever good might be ascribed to Messrs Bush and Olmert, the fact is that none exercises sufficient sovereignty, enjoys sufficient positive good will, or commands a sufficient, domestic majority to implement anything they might agree upon with one another. None (save perhaps Mr. Abbas) are even in any way remotely identified with peace. All three currently suffer under the persistent weight of military misadventures (Lebanon for Olmert, Iraq for Bush, and Gaza skirmishes for Abbas).

Poor Abbas was humiliated and Olmert mocked by Egypt's willingness to transport 2,000 Gazan Hajjis directly into the strip contra the Abbas-Olmert plan for their return to Gaza from Mecca. Thus the political, economic, and military insufficiency of these dialogue partners preclude the possible expectation of peace or progress from these conversations.

The second reason the Bush, Middle East tour bodes no hope for peace, is due to the addled and unfocused agenda for the journey. It was called a peace mission though a major purpose what to foment enmity and belligerence toward a major country in the region (Iran). Bush was overt and unashamed in his effort to rally Gulf Arabs into an anti-Iran bloc. He was bent on further isolating Tehran diplomatically and economically, without giving up the option of a military attack on Iran. This bellicose, anti-Iran quality of the tour, defines the word peace out of proper analysis of the tour. And even this met with no success. "The Arabs are afraid of Iran, especially the Saudis and the emirs who rule the small oil-rich states situated just across the Gulf from the Persian giant," writes Scott McLeod out of Cairo for Time, but while "they are inclined to agree with Bush's worries about Iran's nuclear intentions. But they are even more concerned about another U.S. war in the Gulf. Arabs would never want Washington to get too cozy with Tehran. But they've had enough Texas gunslinging."

The second contaminant to "peace seeking," was the cap-in-hand supplication for more and cheaper oil from Saudi King Abdullah. Bush's plea drew little sympathy from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which said production levels appear normal, despite Bush's odd declaration that he thinks "thinks Abdullah understands the pain Americans are suffering at the pump," Are we talking about the same Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah who gave the Bush family $127,600 in jewelry and other presents last year, including a diamond-and-sapphire jewelry set for first lady Laura Bush that was valued at $95,500. This is the man Mr. Bush is sure understands the pain Americans are suffering at the pump?

The third and most egregious part of the tour that offends the notion of peace is the fact that, far more than behaving like a genuine peace ambassador, Mr. Bush instead resembled most closely an arms merchant. Presently a nuclear nation, Pakistan and US ally Musharaf teeter on the brink of implosion and falling into the hands of radical, militant clergy. Data from Fiscal Year Series report of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the Department of Defense explains that the United States signed arms transfer agreements with Pakistan in excess of $3.5 billion. The late Dr. Bhutto could not see through US efforts and Condi's request to help transition Pakistan from military rule. Now in the name of "peace" president Bush offers Israel a $30 billion arms deal, and Saudi Arabia (the home origin of all 9-11 "bombers") a 20 billion dollar arms deal. In essence the Bush notion of being on a mission for peace is to have the United States arm to the teeth, and intensify internecine "Muslim" hatreds, in the worst tinderbox and most unstable theatre of incurable hatred our race has ever known.

At the end of his negotiations with Abbas and Olmert, his efforts to foment tensions in the region, his supplication for more and cheaper oil, and his efforts to broker 50 billion dollars in US arms sales to the most strife ridden and unstable area in the world, and despite the fact that neither Israel nor its Arab neighbors assured Bush that they will do what the United States asks on issues ranging from democratic reform and unauthorized Israeli housing expansion to high gas prices, Bush nevertheless seemed tickled at the end of his tour. "I'm feeling quite feisty here," Bush said Tuesday, pronouncing himself to be in "a great mood" as the closely watched trip drew to a close. A day earlier he had collected enormous gold medallions in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, accepting the Saudi medal with a slight bow of the head and a double kiss for his host the king.

Feisty perhaps. A joke? No sadly, not a joke.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Turkey should lift the head scarf ban

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing to lift Turkey's "headscarf ban" that forbids the wearing of Muslim head scarves in universities and public offices.

This is not merely and purely an issue of religious freedom. It is also the wedge and icon of the decades long power battle between "the generals" and elected governments in Turkey.

In addition to plain fights over power, there is a genuine ideological dimension as well. The
secular establishment (including the military) sees attempts to lift the ban as threatening Turkey's "secular principles." In the past, Turkey's generals have even staged coups in the name of wanting to "protect the nation's secular traditions"!

One cannot look at this just cynically though. The legitimate points of concern from the side of the secular
elite is the express fear that lifting the headscarf ban could put pressure on women to wear ever more conservative attire, and open new avenues for the government to impose strict versions of Sharia law on public and private life. These are highly sensitive issues that often dominate the national agenda.

Still on principle alone it is necessary to side with Erdogan who insists that
lifting the ban is nothing more than a question of individual liberty.

This claim to simplicity is not true in the context of Turkish power politics, and highly charged questions involving culture, religion, and even Turkey's own directions on policy and international relations. Still, even in such complex and complicated issues of politics and policy, it remains necessary to uphold the ideal of personal liberty, especially in the arena of religious freedom. We cannot be comfortable when governments impose on the free expression of personal faith. We do not want Turkish Muslims barred from their sacred obligations any more than we would hope to see such constraints and impositions on Muslims citizens in Holland, Germany, or France.

Frank Kaufmann

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"I believe there will be a peace treaty by the time I leave office"

U.S. President George W. Bush says he believes Israeli and Palestinian leaders understand the importance of committing to the Middle East peace process and that he's confident there will be a signed deal by the time he leaves office early next year. (Article here)

That's a pleasant belief. Here is what has happened within days of this remarkable declaration:

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Gaza strike hardens Hamas position

Gaza City, Gaza -
Mahmoud Zahar struck a defiant tone when asked in an interview last week how long he thinks Hamas can maintain control in the face of an economic blockade and Israeli pressure.
"We have hard minds and hard wills. After we took control, Fatah and the Israelis thought we'd collapse within three months," he said. "All they are doing – the Americans, the Israelis – is intensifying hatred against them, while we are solidifying our position."
On Tuesday, the resolve of Mr. Zahar and his colleagues, who President George Bush, on a trip to Israel and the West Bank last week, insisted must be removed from power, was tested again: Israeli tanks and helicopters moved on militant positions in the territory, killing 17 Palestinians – among them Zahar's 24-year-old son, Hassam. Zahar's eldest son was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2003.

Faction pulls out of Israel government

Article here

JERUSALEM - A hawkish faction in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition pulled out of the government on Wednesday, weakening him at a time when he needs broad support to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians by the end of the year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gestures as he speaks to Israeli Foreign Ministry personnel in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008. Israeli troops killed the son of Gaza's most powerful leader along with 18 other Palestinians Tuesday in the bloodiest day of fighting in the coastal area since Hamas militants seized control there last summer. (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi, Pool)

"Negotiations on the basis of land for peace is a fatal mistake," Avigdor Lieberman, head of the faction, told a news conference.

Lieberman's decision came just days after Palestinian and Israeli negotiators began tackling the core issues of their conflict — final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel during the war that broke out following the Jewish state's creation in 1948.

"If we pull back to the 1967 borders, everyone should ask himself, what will happen the following day," Lieberman said. "Will the conflict stop, will the terror stop? Nothing will change."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Joint Chiefs Chairman: Close Guantanamo

From ABC News

Mullen Says He Favors Closing Terror Prison As Soon As Legal Issues Are Worked Out

The chief of the U.S. military said he favors closing the prison here as soon as possible because he believes negative publicity worldwide about treatment of terrorist suspects has been "pretty damaging" to the image of the United States.

"I'd like to see it shut down," Adm. Mike Mullen said Sunday in an interview with three reporters who toured the detention center with him on his first visit since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last October.


Here is an investigative report (MSNBC) from as far back as November 2006!

The inside story of criminal investigators who tried to stop abuse
By Bill Dedman
Investigative reporter

Updated: 7:34 p.m. PT Oct 23, 2006

Speaking publicly for the first time, senior U.S. law enforcement investigators say they waged a long but futile battle inside the Pentagon to stop coercive and degrading treatment of detainees by intelligence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Their account indicates that the struggle over U.S. interrogation techniques began much earlier than previously known, with separate teams of law enforcement and intelligence interrogators battling over the best way to accomplish two missions: prevent future attacks and punish the terrorists.

In extensive interviews with, former leaders of the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigation Task Force said they repeatedly warned senior Pentagon officials beginning in early 2002 that the harsh interrogation techniques used by a separate intelligence team would not produce reliable information, could constitute war crimes, and would embarrass the nation when they became public knowledge.

The investigators say their warnings began almost from the moment their agents got involved at the Guantanamo prison camp, in January 2002. When they could not prevent the harsh interrogations and humiliation of detainees at Guantanamo, they say, they tried in 2003 to stop the spread of those tactics to Iraq, where abuses at Abu Ghraib prison triggered worldwide outrage with the publishing of graphic photos in April 2004.


From CBS News

Report: Gates Pushed To Shut Down Gitmo

Defense Secretary Argued For Closing Of Terror Prison During First Weeks On Job

(CBS/AP) In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly tried to shut down Guantanamo.

Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld last year, pushed in his first weeks as defense secretary for closing the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, arguing that its image was so tainted that any military trials there would be viewed as illegitimate, according to The New York Times.

He was overruled, however, after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other government lawyers objected to moving detainees to the United States, the Times said in a report posted on its Web site Thursday night. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed with Gates, but Vice President Dick Cheney's office took the same position as Gonzales, the report said, citing unidentified senior administration officials.


Concerned readers should also pause to take in the year old article to see the political tactics taken by this administration waging legal battles and political smears to maintain its interrogation program at Gitmo.

That article

Gitmo Defense Counsel Stand Accused

By Andrew Cohen
Special to
Wednesday, January 17, 2007; 12:00 AM

Is here

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Watching New Hampshire

New Hampshire, the granite state, is the first on the calendar of the United States to hold party primaries. NY Senator Hillary Clinton edged over Illinois Senator Barack Obama by 3 percentage points 39 - 36. Former North Carolina Senator Edwards came a distant 3rd with 17% of his party's vote. On the Republican side it was McCain 37%, Romney 32, and Huckabee 11. Both Republican and Democrat votes differed from Iowa results (i.e., Obama, Edwards, Clinton (D), and Huckabee, Romney, Thompson (R).

Last night I took note of how the candidates handled the outcome and how they addressed their supporters once the results became clear.

Such on-the-ground politics is a thrilling part of the American political process. Candidates are close among volunteers and the voters, very personal, yet carry out this work under massive national and media attention. This blend of intimate, person to person politics, in high intensity, high-stakes, impassioned activity is a formula for the arising of fervid emotion and can provide a very helpful lens through which to take in candidates.

As numbers became clear each candidate came out to address his or her supporters, responding to victory, something less than victory, or simply defeat. These speeches are at once thanks and good-bye to genuine, loving supporters, but also speeches to the nation. With emotions so high and the personal so close, these make for good speeches to watch closely.

John McAin should have had the most thrilling night of all, since he was the runaway victor in his party after having been left for dead just weeks ago. For some, sad reason McCain acceded to deliver a travesty of a speech prepared by some hack. He stumbled through a poorly written screed so riddled with grammatical negatives that McCain himself ended up confused. Even its compulsory "end-with-a-show-stopper" clattered about, entangled in its 3-parts, the crowd erupting part way through, while McCain had to quiet them down only to get through a deflated, closing zinger, a most unfortunate energy to announce one's resurrection.

Ron Paul, the Ross Perot of 2008 with wildly devoted followers, ended up in his concession speech excitedly reiterating his plan to dissolve the Federal Reserve, excitedly reporting that his supporters are burning up dollar bills. Not exactly the stuff of political gravitas.

New Mexico Governor Richardson (whom I tend to like as a personality) was unprepared, and said as close to nothing as possible.

Of these, the most important two speeches to watch were those of Senators Clinton and Obama.

New Hampshire results pulled Senator Clinton from the jaws of death. Iowa had shown her vulnerability, and Hillary haters and the vapid commentariat raced to write her obituary though not a single American vote had been cast in a single primary (Iowa being a caucus).

Senator Clinton showed an important strength and important weaknesses in her speech to thank and congratulate her supporters. On the positive side, without a prepared speech, she stayed on message. In essence in what should be an extremely emotional moment, Senator Clinton simply continued to campaign. Her degree of focus and purposefulness in an emotional moment of political rescue emits the political maturity of a candidate that must be taken seriously. (Regardless of whether one ascribes this focus to a "healthy" or problematic place).

Obama did the same. He too stayed highely focused while fully engaging and embracing his New Hampshire supporters.

Senator Clinton paused to acknowledge her Democrat competitors, as did Senator Obama, but this act, just as the speeches themselves proved to reveal the colossal difference between these two candidates.

Barack Obama took the stage before a deafening crowd, and after strenuous effort to gain sufficient calm to be able to speak, the very first words from his mouth were unqualified congratulations for Senator Clinton. He demanded of his purely partisan supporters, "give her a hand," and paused with a silent insistence that this crowd summon up that unexpected and unwanted ability. The applause for Senator Clinton at Obama's request gradually swelled almost as though Obama willed it from his people. Only then did Obama turn to yet another example of his superior oratory. What a burden it must be to run against that. But true oratory is not a glued on skill. That only goes so far. The true question is not how hard it is to run against his oratory, but how hard it is to run against him.

Senator Clinton on the other hand, in the fading exhale end of her remarks acknowledged her Democrat opponents beginning her list with even those who'd already withdrawn from the race! At the end of this long list, the END (!), she included mention of Senator Obama, a silly disjunct from reality, as though the Illinois Senator is just another in an insignificant list of primary hopefuls.

It is this difference (namely the manner in which each of these candidates publicly acknowledged the other) that showed in such high relief also in the speeches themselves. Hillary's speech extended her campaign strategies, whereas Obama's speech reprised his vision.

Senator Clinton very clearly continued to shade and shave the campaign strategy and message chiseled by her architects, whereas Obama seemed to need only to draw upon that which sits within. It leads one to feel, or at least to suggest that in Senator Clinton's remarkable discipline to stay on point we experience a menacing political discipline and calculation, whereas with Senator Obama one feels ease, and the relative absence of calculation. Being on point is being himself. The political discipline seems to spray forth in the wake of a harmonizing vision.

If it is true that Obama represents an impassioned presence, and Clinton represents the ultimate political machine and mastery, then we truly have a momentous race to behold, one about which no one should be neutral.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Egypt Permits Pilgrims to Cross Back Into Gaza

This NYTimes article provides an important icon for anyone invested in the prospects of peace in the Holy Land.

In many ways the dynamics harken to the enduring problem of Jerusalem, particularly the pilgrimage site Masjid Al Aqsa.

The religious rite of pilgrimage, when contaminated by religio-political elements including violence and security, make for a very complex set of elements and dynamics.

The Haj takes the same elements beyond Israel's jurisdiction into tense international relations with Muslim-state neighbors.

(Do not forget to click through these reports for access to the full articles.)

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Egypt allowed about 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims to cross back into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday

Israel had demanded that they travel back to the Gaza Strip via an Israeli-controlled border crossing, Kerem Shalom, where they could undergo Israeli security checks. But Hamas refused
saying that its supporters could be arrested by Israel.
Israeli officials suspect that some of the pilgrims brought back large sums of money and other contraband for Hamas.
The Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, which rules from the West Bank, went to great efforts to organize an official quota of about 1,000 Gaza pilgrims, who were to travel to Saudi Arabia and back via Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ministry backtracks on Bhutto sunroof claims

This clip is posted to offset the Bloomberg article posted several days ago.

At the time the official stance of the Pakistani government was that Dr. Bhutto died from a head wound and was not shot.

This article reports the Pakistani government backing down, (as Scotland Yard heads to Pakistan to assist in investigating Dr. Bhutto's death).

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Pakistan's Interior Ministry backtracked Tuesday on its statement that Benazir Bhutto died because she hit her head on a sunroof latch during a shooting and bomb attack.

The government also published a reward offer in several national newspapers to anyone who could identify two suspects from the killing.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told CNN the ministry will wait for the findings from forensic investigators before making a conclusion about her cause of death.