Sunday, December 31, 2006

They Couldn't Even Hang Him Decently

Immediately following the execution of Hussein, Iraqi officials assured the world that the procedure had been conducted properly and that Saddam had been treated with dignity.

It turns out that wasn't true. Someone used a cell phone camera to video the grisly event and the soundtrack shows Saddam was taunted and demeaned in the final minutes of his life. The witnesses mocked Saddam even as he was uttering his final prayers.

It's no skin off my nose but I'm not a Sunni. To the Iraqi Sunnis this adds profound insult to the injury of the victors' justice meted out to their own. Those stupid, gratuitous insults and provocations will now have to be paid for in blood. In Iraq there's no other way.

Hanging Saddam decently should have been a simple task. That the government couldn't even do that right bodes very poorly for the future of the country. It also does nothing to improve the safety of American soldiers who have to prop up this wobbly administration.

Of course the cell phone video is at large on the internet so those who will be seeking Shia victims will be able to stoke their fury anytime they please. Why was anyone allowed in their with a cell phone? That's just plain stupid, utterly incompetent.

Bush Dropping the Ball - Again

You might remember Richard Clarke, former White House anti-terrorism czar who couldn't get the time of day from the Bush administration before 9/11.

In an article in today's Washington Post, Clarke portrays a White House so totally obsessed with Iraq that other pressing issues are being ignored:

"National Security Council veteran Rand Beers has called this the "7-year-old's soccer syndrome" -- just like little kids playing soccer, everyone forgets their particular positions and responsibilities and runs like a herd after the ball.

"Without the distraction of the Iraq war, the administration would have spent this past year -- indeed, every year since Sept. 11, 2001 -- focused on al-Qaeda. But beyond al-Qaeda and the broader struggle for peaceful coexistence with (and within) Islam, seven key "fires in the in-box" national security issues remain unattended, deteriorating and threatening, all while Washington's grown-up 7-year-olds play herd ball with Iraq."

Clarke identifies 7 key security issues that Bush advisors are failing to address:

1. Global Warming
2. Russian Revanchism
3. Latin America's Shift Left
4. Africa's Wars
5. Arms Control Freeze
6. Transnational Crime
7. the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Issue.

"As the president contemplates sending even more U.S. forces into the Iraqi sinkhole, he should consider not only the thousands of fatalities, the tens of thousands of casualties and the hundreds of billions of dollars already lost. He must also weigh the opportunity cost of taking his national security barons off all the other critical problems they should be addressing -- problems whose windows of opportunity are slamming shut, unheard over the wail of Baghdad sirens."

So, There's My Problem

Toxoplasma Gondii. I'm sure I've got it and you might have it too but, if you do and you're female, give me a call.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, 40% of us have got this parasite that turns men dumb and women, well really hot:

"A common parasite can increase a women's attractiveness to the opposite sex but also make men more stupid, an Australian researcher says.

"About 40 per cent of the world's population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii, including about eight million Australians.

"Until recently it was thought to be an insignificant disease in healthy people, Sydney University of Technology infectious disease researcher Nicky Boulter said, but new research has revealed its mind-altering properties.

"'Interestingly, the effect of infection is different between men and women,' Dr Boulter writes in the latest issue of Australasian Science magazine.

"'Infected men have lower IQs, achieve a lower level of education and have shorter attention spans. They are also more likely to break rules and take risks, be more independent, more anti-social, suspicious, jealous and morose, and are deemed less attractive to women.'

"'On the other hand, infected women tend to be more outgoing, friendly, more promiscuous, and are considered more attractive to men compared with non-infected controls.'

"'In short, it can make men behave like alley cats and women behave like sex kittens'".

Happy New Year! - I think, or maybe not

The Globalization of Organized Labour

Multinational corporations were quite successful at bringing organized labour to its knees. If they found labour demands unacceptable, they often just moved to another corner of the world more to their liking.

Now labour is fighting back - by turning multinational themselves:

"British, American and German unions are to forge a pact to challenge the power of global capitalism in a move towards creating an international union with more than 6 million members.
Amicus, the UK's largest private sector union, has signed agreements with the German engineering union IG-Metall and two of the largest labour organisations in the US, the United Steelworkers and the International Association of Machinists, to prevent companies playing off their workforces in different countries against each other.

"The move, to be announced this week, is seen by union leaders as the first step towards creating a single union that can present a united front to multinational companies.
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, said: 'Our aim is to create a powerful single union that can transcend borders to challenge the global forces of capital. I envisage a functioning, if loosely federal, multinational organisation within the next decade.'

"Simpson added that multinational companies 'trade off countries and workforces against each other' and that forging such solidarity agreements as have been signed with German and US unions is the best way to combat such practices."

Essential Reading for Harper, Hillier & O'Conner

It's entitled "FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency" and there should be a copy on the desk of each MP when parliament reconvenes.

There aren't many nations that have had as much experience at losing to insurgencies as the United States. That's why, when the Pentagon takes stock and comes up with what they were doing wrong, those new to the counterinsurgency business - such as Canada - should stand up and take notice.

I posted an item about FM 3-24 a couple of months back but The Economist recently published an article on it:

"These days, ...American commanders are reaching for the history books as they discover that high-tech firepower is of little use—and can often be counter-productive—in the streets of Baghdad. Some have sought inspiration in classics such as T. E. Lawrence's “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, published in 1922, or the Marine Corps' rediscovered “Small Wars Manual” of 1940. On December 15th they got some official help in the form of a new joint army and marines field manual.

"FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency” makes awkward reading for those trained in the notion of out-manoeuvring and annihilating an enemy force. Now American troops must be “ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade” and must be “nation-builders as well as warriors”. Under the new doctrine, fighting insurgents involves “armed social work”.

“Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction,” says the manual. The best weapon is sometimes none at all. The prime objective is not to kill as many insurgents as possible but to maximise support from the local population. Above all, troops must adapt quickly.

"Instead of isolating themselves in large camps and driving around in armoured vehicles, the manual advises American troops to live “close to the populace”, move on foot, sleep in villages and patrol by day and night. Each company should have a political as well as a “cultural” adviser. Platoons should assign their best soldiers to intelligence and surveillance, even at the cost of firepower. Forget the chain of command: decisions should be taken by consensus where possible.
Soldiering is only one strand. It must be entwined with others—including providing essential services, promoting good governance, building up local security forces and devising an information policy to counter insurgents' propaganda.

"The 282-page manual reads at times like a litany of the things America has done wrong in Iraq. But those arguing for withdrawal will find little solace. Insurgencies, it says, “are protracted by nature”. America and its allies must show the “ability, stamina, and will to win”.

"Moreover, counter-insurgency cannot be done on the cheap. It requires large amounts of manpower—some 20 to 25 members of security forces for every 1,000 civilians. The 483,000 combined coalition and Iraqi forces (of dubious quality and loyalty) fall well short of the 535,000 to 670,000 required to secure Iraq.

"If American commanders' response to Vietnam was to foreswear nasty small wars, their reaction to the fiasco in Iraq seems so far to be quite different: to learn to fight them better. The new manual is a first step, but America's military culture may stand in need of deeper change. A start might be to rewrite the first words of its “warrior ethos”, whereby every soldier declares: “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America.”

What's the cardinal rule for Canada's mission in Afghanistan? Simple, you cannot do this on the cheap. Kandahar province has a population of 886,000 and an area of just under 21,000 square miles. For the counterinsurgency mission Canada fields a battle group of one thousand soldiers, or one rifle for every 20-square miles of bandit country.

Using the American recommendation of 25 security forces per 1,000 locals, we should be deploying a battle group of roughly 22,000. 22,000, not 1,000! Do the math Steve, you too Rick. Our force is less than 5% of the number required for effective counterinsurgency in Kandahar province.

Remember, the forces arrayed against our soldiers are probably the most-experienced and successful insurgents in history. They drove out the Brits twice and they mauled the Soviets until they left. These are not enemies we can afford to take lightly.

Oh yeah, just in case Steve or Rick or Gord are reading this post, they should check out the final release of FM 3-24 which is available, in its entirety, here:

Anyone else who is "gung ho" on the mission would do well to pore over this also.

Another Glimpse Into For-Profit Health Care

America's health care model is viewed enviously by those on the right here in Canada. That's why it can be helpful to have a reality check every now and then at just how well the system actually works in the United States. Today's LA Times reports on how American health insurers turn their backs on all but the fittest:

"Insurers have wide latitude to choose among applicants for individual coverage and set premiums based on medical conditions. Insurers say medical underwriting, as the selection process is known, is key to keeping premiums under control.

"'Our goal is to extend affordable coverage to as many people as we can,' said Cheryl Randolph, a spokeswoman for PacifiCare Health Systems Inc., a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. 'But because of the medical underwriting, we do not accept everybody.'

"Consumer advocates see the practice as cherry-picking — a legal form of discrimination that is no longer tolerated in schools, public accommodations or workplaces — and a way to guarantee profits.

"'The idea is to avoid all risk,' said Bryan Liang, executive director of the Institute of Health Law Studies at California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"Jerry Flanagan, an advocate with the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights, said it wouldn't take much to be left out of the private-insurance market. 'A minor asthma condition or a surgery 10 years ago that requires no further medical care is enough to get you blacklisted forever,' he said.

"As a result, some people forgo treatment so as not to tarnish their health records. Others withhold information from doctors or ask them to leave details out of their records. For those who are uninsurable, healthcare often is the chief reason they stay in or take a certain job.

"Claudine Swartz enjoyed running her own consulting business but had been rejected for individual insurance. After a scare over a benign cyst in her breast, the San Francisco resident closed her business and got a job with the University of California's health system, where she enjoys guaranteed coverage.The episode made her realize that without insurance, she would have been on the hook for catastrophic expenses if her diagnosis had been more serious.

"'I wasn't willing to take that risk,' said Swartz, 35. 'It's a real problem for people trying to be entrepreneurial and work on their own.'

"Uninsurable individuals pose a significant challenge for the state, which expects to spend more than $10 billion this year on people who lack adequate coverage."

Access to health care must be seen as a basic social need. Those who advocate a privatized health care regime or a mixed private/public model undermine that principle. Their arguments are intriguing until you take a look at the dark side of privatized medicine so readily on display south of the border.

Has Mugabe Finally Hit a Wall?

The name Robert Mugabe has become synonymous with "excess" and "abuse." For years he's thumbed his nose at the world while brutally repressing the people of Zimbabwe.

Recently there were reports that Mugabe had decided to extend his term in office, at first by two years and then, it seemed, by ten. Everyone just expected this to be rubber-stamped by his governing party, the Zanu-PF.

Turns out that didn't happen. The Zanu-PF delegates at the party's mid-December conference refused to pass the measure. As The Guardian reports, Mugabe may finally be running out of steam - and allies:

"Zanu-PF insiders say the stiff resistance within the party to Mugabe's proposal is the first sign of the vulnerability of the 82-year-old leader, who has been in power for 26 years. It is the first time a party conference has failed to adopt a resolution supported by Mugabe, who will succeed in amending the constitution only if his proposal is passed by the central committee.

"The party's rebuke to Mugabe exposes growing dissatisfaction with his continued rule. The two major factions within Zanu-PF vying to succeed Mugabe are led by Vice-President Joice Mujuru and former Speaker of the House Emmerson Mnangagwa. The bitter foes have set aside their differences to oppose Mugabe.

"'Neither side wants to see Mugabe extend his rule. They want elections in 2008,' said John Makumbe, political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. 'They united against Mugabe at the party conference and they found that the owl has no horns. That is a Shona saying meaning that they found Mugabe to be a paper tiger. Mugabe is going to have a difficult time keeping his party in line in the coming year.'

"Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's rapidly declining economy has shrunk by nearly 50 per cent since the year 2000. Inflation is the world's highest at 1,100 per cent, unemployment is estimated at 80 per cent and life expectancy has fallen to 34 years for women, the world's lowest.

"Mugabe has also alienated his strongest ally, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and leaders from other neighbouring countries who do not welcome his continued rule, according to reports in South Africa. An estimated three million Zimbabweans - a quarter of the country's population of 12 million - have fled to South Africa and Zimbabwe's collapse has slowed economic growth across southern Africa."

When brutal tyrants, like Mugabe, fall out of favour with their own it rarely ends well for them. Things tend to get ugly as the boss clings on to what once was and his rivals struggle to pry his fingers off the levers of power. 2007 could be the year of Mugabe's obituary.

What They Buried With Saddam

When Saddam Hussein was lowered into his grave, he carried with him a lot of information that Washington and London are relieved to see buried.

In today's edition of "The Independent", Robert Fisk reports on how the West armed Saddam, fed him intelligence on his 'enemies', equipped him for atrocities - and then made sure he wouldn't squeal:

"The moment Saddam's hooded executioner pulled the lever of the trapdoor in Baghdad yesterday morning, Washington's secrets were safe. The shameless, outrageous, covert military support which the United States - and Britain - gave to Saddam for more than a decade remains the one terrible story which our presidents and prime ministers do not want the world to remember. And now Saddam, who knew the full extent of that Western support - given to him while he was perpetrating some of the worst atrocities since the Second World War - is dead.

"Gone is the man who personally received the CIA's help in destroying the Iraqi communist party. After Saddam seized power, US intelligence gave his minions the home addresses of communists in Baghdad and other cities in an effort to destroy the Soviet Union's influence in Iraq. Saddam's mukhabarat visited every home, arrested the occupants and their families, and butchered the lot. Public hanging was for plotters; the communists, their wives and children, were given special treatment - extreme torture before execution at Abu Ghraib.

"There is growing evidence across the Arab world that Saddam held a series of meetings with senior American officials prior to his invasion of Iran in 1980 - both he and the US administration believed that the Islamic Republic would collapse if Saddam sent his legions across the border - and the Pentagon was instructed to assist Iraq's military machine by providing intelligence on the Iranian order of battle.

"Iran's official history of the eight-year war with Iraq states that Saddam first used chemical weapons against it on 13 January 1981. AP's correspondent in Baghdad, Mohamed Salaam, was taken to see the scene of an Iraqi military victory east of Basra. "We started counting - we walked miles and miles in this fucking desert, just counting," he said. "We got to 700 and got muddled and had to start counting again ... The Iraqis had used, for the first time, a combination - the nerve gas would paralyse their bodies ... the mustard gas would drown them in their own lungs. That's why they spat blood."

"At the time, the Iranians claimed that this terrible cocktail had been given to Saddam by the US. Washington denied this. But the Iranians were right. The lengthy negotiations which led to America's complicity in this atrocity remain secret - Donald Rumsfeld was one of President Ronald Reagan's point-men at this period - although Saddam undoubtedly knew every detail. But a largely unreported document, "United States Chemical and Biological Warfare-related Dual-use exports to Iraq and their possible impact on the Health Consequences of the Persian Gulf War", stated that prior to 1985 and afterwards, US companies had sent government-approved shipments of biological agents to Iraq. These included Bacillus anthracis, which produces anthrax, andEscherichia coli (E. coli). That Senate report concluded that: "The United States provided the Government of Iraq with 'dual use' licensed materials which assisted in the development of Iraqi chemical, biological and missile-systems programs, including ... chemical warfare agent production facility plant and technical drawings, chemical warfare filling equipment."

"Nor was the Pentagon unaware of the extent of Iraqi use of chemical weapons. In 1988, for example, Saddam gave his personal permission for Lt-Col Rick Francona, a US defence intelligence officer - one of 60 American officers who were secretly providing members of the Iraqi general staff with detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning and bomb damage assessments - to visit the Fao peninsula after Iraqi forces had recaptured the town from the Iranians. He reported back to Washington that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons to achieve their victory. The senior defence intelligence officer at the time, Col Walter Lang, later said that the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis "was not a matter of deep strategic concern".

"In 1989, Britain, which had been giving its own covert military assistance to Saddam guaranteed £250m to Iraq shortly after the arrest of Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft in Baghdad. Bazoft, who had been investigating an explosion at a factory at Hilla which was using the very chemical components sent by the US, was later hanged. Within a month of Bazoft's arrest William Waldegrave, then a Foreign Office minister, said: "I doubt if there is any future market of such a scale anywhere where the UK is potentially so well-placed if we play our diplomatic hand correctly... A few more Bazofts or another bout of internal oppression would make it more difficult."

"Even more repulsive were the remarks of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe, on relaxing controls on British arms sales to Iraq. He kept this secret, he wrote, because "it would look very cynical if, so soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales".

"The whole truth died with Saddam Hussein in the Baghdad execution chamber yesterday. Many in Washington and London must have sighed with relief that the old man had been silenced for ever."

Say What, Israeli Refugees in Canada?

One doesn't expect to find a story involving Canada when readin the Israeli paper, Haaretz. But there it was, an account of Israeli citizens seeking refugee status in Canada. According to the report, 679 Israelis sought asylum abroad in 2005, most of them in the True North:

"Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has asked Israel's National Council for the Child for information on immigrant children in Israel. Canadian authorities want to know whether immigrant children in Israel are being harassed or abused, in order to evaluate political asylum cases.

"In 2005, 679 Israeli citizens sought asylum abroad, mainly in Canada. Some 200 requests were approved, mainly of citizens of the former Soviet Union who came to Israel but left claiming they were persecuted, because of their origin or religion.

"In a letter last month, the IRB asked the council whether it could provide examples of mistreatment of immigrant children; whether children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were subject to harm at school or violence in their neighborhoods, and whether certain groups of immigrant children were more at risk of abuse than others. The Canadian authorities also sought to understand how the Israeli government has been responding to reports of abuse of immigrant children, and how effective their response has been thus far.

"The head of the Council for the Child, Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, said in response that official bodies do not have clear policies that put immigrant children at a disadvantage, but that these children encounter problems typical of an immigrant population. For example, the number of immigrant children involved in crime and substance abuse is proportionally high, and investment in education and welfare programs to deal with these crises is insufficient.

"Kadman further responded that immigrant children are not particular victims of violence or abuse in the schools. With regard to immigrant children as an at-risk group, he reported that children from the Central Asian republics have had an especially hard time adjusting, as do children arriving in Israel on tourist visas who do not have legal residency in Israel."

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Drawing Power of a Tyrant

What is so captivating about the death of Saddam Hussein?

He's a lead story in every newspaper, online new site and TV news broadcast. All Saddam, all the time.

Is there a "mission accomplished" element to it for Americans and others who supported the Iraq conquest? Does this man's death somehow justify the carnage of the past three years and of the years to come?

Is it that we're all voyeurs to a thoroughly grisly event? We sit in the comfort of our homes and offices pondering what it must be like to be Saddam this very minute, waiting for the hangman to appear?

Is Saddam already swinging on a gallows? Is he for the drop in a few hours? Will he meet his fate tomorrow or maybe the day after? Is it his death watch that captivates us?

Isn't it odd that we don't think of even more predictable deaths that will occur today. The men, women and children who will be in the wrong place when a car bomb detonates or when we drop a bomb on a suspected insurgent hideout or those who will be swept up off the streets, taken away to a place to be tortured then executed and finally dumped on some roadside? There are plenty of those people sitting in someone's custody right now going through the same mental anguish Saddam is experiencing right now.

Do we even think of all these others who will die today? Not really. Oh there'll be some tabulation in tomorrow's news as surely as the sun will rise. We may actually notice the number and say to ourselves, "Oh 25, not so bad compared to last week." 50 or 25 or 60 or more, almost all of them more deserving to live than the Butcher of Baghdad and we really don't give a tinker's dam about any of them.

No, Saddam is a celebrity and that means his execution matters. As for all the unknowns, their slaughter doesn't.

Wet Coast Worries

Okay, all you global warming disbelievers go back to your crayons. This isn't for you.

The breakup of the Ayles ice shelf on Ellesmere Island announced yesterday is the sort of thing that gets noticed by us coastal denizens. There are places not too far away from my home where a sea level increase of just a foot or two would have a truly major impact. How far off is that day?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not panicking. My home sits well back from the shoreline on high ground about sixty feet above current sea levels on low tide. At my age, I'll be gone long before the house even gets wet. But there are plenty of places I have to go that probably wouldn't survive even a modest increase in sea levels.

Make no mistake about it. Ocean levels have already risen. All three of New York's airports are subject to seasonal flooding. A once-inhabited island recently disappeared in the Bay of Bengal and there are plenty more that will soon follow.

We're now told that the Arctic will be ice-free and open to summer navigation within the next thirty to forty years. Time and again we've seen scientists surprised that changes are occuring much faster than they predicted.

So what lies ahead. It's estimated that a melt of the Greenland ice sheet would cause a sea level rise of 23-feet.

The good news is that most of Canada's ice shelves are already 90% smaller than when they were surveyed a century earlier. The bad news is that the remainder aren't just gradually melting away but are breaking up much more quickly than predicted.

The winter storms we've been having out here lately are a stark reminder of the reality of climate change. Massive concrete seawalls that have held back the sea and sand for decades are now being overwhelmed. Low-lying lands are flooding with greater frequency. It's pretty hard to deny what you can see with your own eyes.

How To Win in Afghanistan

How can we win in Afghanistan? That all depends on how you define "win."

At the moment we're taking a very broad approach which means somehow defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Maybe we need to rethink that. The Taliban are really just another bunch of Islamists - Islamic fundamentalists - in a region chock full of Islamic fundamentalists.

Tackling Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan is one thing but the greater challenge to "the mission" NATO has taken on is the Islamist reality in neighbouring Pakistan which the Sydney Morning Herald notes could be our next nightmare:

"IT HAS more than twice as many people as Iran, six times more than Iraq, many primed for Islamic extremism by a legacy of poverty and illiteracy left by decades of misrule by corrupt secular leaders, civilian and military.

"It already has nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles made with North Korean help. It shelters jihadists battling Western forces across its border, and fanatical cells training Muslim youth in Western countries to put bombs on buses and metros.

"If Iraq has turned into a nightmare for the US President, George Bush, think about Islamists gaining power in Pakistan, population 166 million, and their hands on its nuclear arsenal.

"Across the border in Afghanistan, 31,000 US, Canadian, European and Australian troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in the country's south.

"The British-led forces can outbattle the Islamist fighters, but the constant fighting and presence of foreign troops is steadily undermining local support for the government of President Hamid Karzai. Frustratingly for the British and Afghan commanders, the Taliban are able to operate out of neighbouring Pakistan with little hindrance.

"The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is said to live in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province, hold his "shura" or council meetings openly in the city, and train his fighters at two camps on the city's outskirts.

Before an attack by 1500 Taliban fighters in early September, the Taliban streamed across the border into Afghanistan cheered on by Pakistani border guards.

"Pakistan's President and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has been confronted several times this year, by Karzai, the British and the Americans, who have supplied addresses and phone numbers for Omar and his cohorts in Quetta.

"Musharraf throws up unconvincing bluster. He claims that Pakistan has done all it can to prevent cross-border military activity, with its army losing 750 killed in campaigns since September 11, 2001, along its frontier with Afghanistan.

Yet Musharraf and his government are deeply ambivalent in their commitment to supporting the Western campaign, in return for which about $US4 billion ($5 billion) in US aid has flowed their way over the past five years.

"With the leaders of the country's two main secular parties, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in exile and opposing military rule, Musharraf relies on Islamists for domestic political support.

"Principal among these is the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, which explicitly supports the Taliban and reinforces it with recruits from its madrassas (Koranic schools), and which the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency helped join ruling coalitions in both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province."

So there, in a nutshell, you have the core problem that the NATO mission cannot hope to overcome. Pakistan, 166-million strong, is the world's first Islamist nuclear power. So long as Islamic extremism prevails in Pakistan there can be no hope of defeating it in its impoverished and feeble neighbour, Afghanistan. Major Islamist tribes such as the Baluchs and the Pashtun don't even see the border between the two states.

Genuine, secular democracy in Kabul is a pipedream. If we cannot defeat the Islamists we need to find some terms on which we can deal with them. Can they be both accommodated and restrained? Can we drive a wedge between theocrats and terrorists? If not, are we prepared to fight Pakistan? How else can we hope to win in Afghanistan?

It's On - Maybe

Tensions between Islam's major sects, Sunni and Shia, are increasing as Iran stirs up the Middle East pot. Today these tensions just got worse according to the Associated Press:

"A top Saudi Arabian Sunni cleric on Friday declared Shiites around the world to be infidels who should be considered worse than Jews or Christians, the latest sign of increasing sectarianism in the Middle East.

"Abdul Rahman al-Barak, one of the top several Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia and considered close to the Kingdom's royal family, also urged Sunnis worldwide to oppose reconciliation with Shiites. The Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam that is followed in Saudi Arabia is conservative and views Shiites as heretics.

"'By and large, rejectionists (Shiites) are the most evil sect of the nation and they have all the ingredients of the infidels,' Abdul Rahman wrote in a fatwa, or religious edict, that was posted on his web site Friday.

"'The general ruling is that they are infidels, apostates and hypocrites,' he wrote. 'They are more dangerous than Jews and Christians,' he wrote in the edict, which Abdul Rahman said was in response to a question from a follower.

"Earlier this month, about 30 prominent Saudi Wahhabi clerics called on Sunni Muslims around the Middle East to support their brethren in Iraq against Shiites and praised the anti-American insurgency.

"Thousands of Iraqis have been killed this year in sectarian bloodshed between the majority Shiites and the Sunni Arab minority, who lost their dominance after the fall of Saddam Hussein."

For the West the issue is can we somehow avoid having to take sides? Is it in our best interests to simply get out of the way and watch from the sidelines?

Can We Wait Out Iran?

A form of Cold War is being played out in the Middle East today. Arrayed on one side are Israel, the West and various Sunni Arab states. Facing them are Iran and the Shia Muslim movement as well as Iran's proxies: Hezbollah and Hamas.

There are three reasons to fear Iran. One is its open hatred of Israel, at least among Iran's leaders. Another is Iran's persistent drive to acquire the ability to enrich uranium, a precursor to development of nuclear weapons. The third is Iran's drive to extend Shiite influence throughout the region, not only into Iraq but even into Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan. This Pan-Shiite expansion is often manifested in conflicts that destabilize areas of Sunni influence. Iran's approach isn't solely aggressive. It also pours massive amounts of money into reconstruction and development projects in regions it seeks to influence, if not dominate.

As David Rhode writes in The New York Times, Iran is running a mini-Marshall plan in neighbouring Afghanistan:

"Two years ago, foreign engineers built a highway through the desert of western Afghanistan, past this ancient trading post and on to the outside world. Nearby, they strung a high-voltage power line and laid a fibre-optic cable, marked with red posts, that provides telephone and Internet access to the region.

"The modernization comes with a message. Every 10 to 15 kilometres or so, road signs offer quotations from the Qur'an. "Forgive us, God," declares one. "God is clear to everyone," says another. A graceful mosque rises roadside, with a green glass dome and Qur'anic inscriptions in blue tile.

"The style is unmistakably Iranian.

"All of this is fruit of Iran's drive to become a bigger player in Afghanistan as it exploits opportunities to spread its influence and ideas farther across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah, with Iran's support, has demonstrated Tehran's sway in Lebanon, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein has allowed it to expand its influence in Iraq.

"Iran has been making inroads into Afghanistan, as well. During the tumultuous 1980s and '90s, Iran shipped money and arms to groups fighting first the Soviet occupation and later the Taliban government. But since the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban in 2001, Iran has taken advantage of the central government's weakness to pursue a more nuanced strategy: part reconstruction, part education and part propaganda."

Iran's Ambassador, Muhammad Reza Brahimi, claims Iran has no grand objectives in Afghanistan: "Our strategy in Afghanistan is based on security, stability and developing a strong central government. It not only benefits the Afghan people, it's in our national interest."

"Still, there are indications of other motives. Iranian radio stations broadcast anti-American propaganda into Afghanistan. Moderate Shiite leaders in Afghanistan say Tehran is funnelling money to conservative Shiite religious schools and former warlords with longstanding ties to Iranian intelligence agencies.

"And as the dispute over Iran's nuclear program has escalated, leading the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the country just days ago, U.S. and Afghan officials claim Iranian intelligence activity has increased across Afghanistan.

"Iranian officials cast themselves as a counterweight to the U.S., which they say has mishandled opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq.

"'U.S. policies, particularly under the current administration, have created a huge amount of resentment around the world,' said a senior Iranian official, who requested anonymity.

"'I'm not saying Iran is gaining power all over the world. I'm saying the U.S. is losing it fast.'

"Afghanistan, a fragile mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, has long been susceptible to intervention from more powerful neighbours. As the world's largest predominantly Shiite country, Iran is the traditional foreign backer of Afghanistan's Shiites, roughly 20 per cent of the country's population.

"During the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, Iranian Revolutionary Guards financed and trained fundamentalist Shiite militias as well as Sunni fighters. In the civil war after the Russian withdrawal in 1989, Iran became a patron of the Northern Alliance, while Pakistan supported the ultimately victorious Taliban."

When the US conquered Iraq it had Iran sandwiched between US forces in Afghanistan to Iran's west and in Iraq to Iran's east. Now with Iraq perhaps hopelessly destabilized and Afghanistan very much in doubt, Iran has slipped these restraints.

What to do? Can the west afford another Middle East adventure? Probably not. The political will for it doesn't exist among Western constituencies. Voters in Western nations have lost confidence in their leaders' judgment and in their ability to win these sorts of wars.

There is another option and that's to simply contain Iran and wait it out. Some months ago the Asia Times ran an article claiming that Iran's oil reserves are fast running out. I checked that against sources such as the CIA Fact Book which seemed to openly dispute that conclusion. Recently, however, the story resurfaced via the Associated Press:

"Iran is suffering a staggering decline in revenue from its oil exports, and if the trend continues, its oil income could virtually disappear by 2015.

"That is according to an analysis published Monday in a journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Iran’s economic woes could make the country unstable and vulnerable, with its oil industry crippled, said Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Johns Hopkins University, the report’s author.

The key to outwaiting Iran almost certainly lies in containment and there lies the rub. Containing Iran would almost certainly depend on the existence of a unified, stable Iraq, an increasingly doubtful prospect.

"Iran earns about $50 billion a year in oil exports. The decline is projected at 10 percent to 12 percent annually. In less than five years, exports could be halved and then disappear by 2015, Stern predicted.

"The report said the country could be destabilized by declining oil exports, hostility to foreign investment to develop new oil resources and poor state planning, Stern said.

"Iran produces about 3.7 million barrels a day, about 300,000 barrels below the quota set for Iran by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"The shortfall represents a loss of about $5.5 billion a year, Stern said.

“'What they are doing to themselves is much worse than anything we could do,' he said.

“'The one thing that would unite the country right now is to bomb them,' Stern said. 'Here is one problem that might solve itself.'”

What Would that Other George Do?

The Los Angeles Times asked scholars to consider what renowned military leaders from the past would have made of the quagmire George Bush has created in today's Iraq. They looked at the Iraq dilemma from the perspectives of Julius Caesar, Genghis Kahn, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Of the four, I found the Washington analysis the most interesting. Written by Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author of "His Excellency, George Washington" the assessment is genuinely eerie. Here are some excerpts from the article:

Ellis begins by asking Washington this question; "Can a powerful army sustain control over a widely dispersed foreign population that contains a militant minority prepared to resist subjugation at any cost?"

"Washington would recognize the strategic problem immediately, because it is a description of the predicament facing the British army in the colonies' War for Independence.

"And, more than anyone else, Washington's experience during the war as the leader of an American insurgency allowed him to appreciate the inherently intractable problems that faced an army of occupation in any protracted conflict.

"Until the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, Washington thought of the war against Britain as a contest between two armies. When the British army presented itself for battle, as it did on Long Island in the summer of 1776, Washington felt honor-bound to fight — a decision that proved calamitous on that occasion and nearly lost the war at the very start. That's because the British had a force of 32,000 men against his 12,000. If Washington had not changed his thinking, the American Revolution almost surely would have failed because the Continental Army was no match for the British leviathan.

"But at Valley Forge, Washington began to grasp an elemental idea: Namely, he did not have to win the war. Time and space were on his side. And no matter how many battles the British army won, it could not sustain control over the countryside unless it was enlarged tenfold, at a cost that British voters would never support. Eventually the British would recognize that they faced an impossibly open-ended mission and would decide to abandon their North American empire. Which is exactly what happened.

"The implications for U.S. policy in Iraq are reasonably clear, and they pretty much endorse the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Like the British decision to subjugate the American colonies, the Bush decision to democratize Iraq has been misguided from the start. The administration never appreciated the odds against its success, and it disastrously confused conventional military superiority with the demands imposed on an army of occupation.

"No man in American history understood those lessons better than Washington, who viewed them as manifestations of British imperial arrogance, which he described as "founded equally in Malice, absurdity, and error." If dropped into Baghdad, he would weep at our replication of the same imperial scenario. "

Thanks, George, we needed that.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Risks We Run on Global Warming

Here's some food for thought on the likely impact of global warming on Western capitalism. These excerpts from an article by Anatol Lieven in today's International Herald Tribune.

"For market economies, and the Western model of democracy with which they have been associated, the existential challenge for the foreseeable future will be global warming. Other threats like terrorism may well be damaging, but no other conceivable threat or combination of threats can possibly destroy our entire system. As the recent British official commission chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern correctly stated, climate change "is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

"The question now facing us is whether global capitalism and Western democracy can follow the Stern report's recommendations, and make the limited economic adjustments necessary to keep global warming within bounds that will allow us to preserve our system in a recognizable form; or whether our system is so dependent on unlimited consumption that it is by its nature incapable of demanding even small sacrifices from its present elites and populations.

"If the latter proves the case, and the world suffers radically destructive climate change, then we must recognize that everything that the West now stands for will be rejected by future generations. The entire democratic capitalist system will be seen to have failed utterly as a model for humanity and as a custodian of essential human interests.

"If this comes to pass, what will our descendants make of a political and media culture that devotes little attention to this threat when compared with sports, consumer goods, leisure and a threat from terrorism that is puny by comparison? Will they remember us as great paragons of human progress and freedom? They are more likely to spit on our graves.

"Underlying Western free-market democracy, and its American form in particular, is the belief that this system is of permanent value to mankind: a "New Order of the Ages," as the motto on the U.S. Great Seal has it. It is not supposed to serve only the short- term and selfish interests of existing Western populations. If our system is indeed no more than that, then it will pass from history even more utterly than Confucian China — and will deserve to do so.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington and the author, with John Hulsman, of "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World."

Gerry Ford Saw Through Iraq War Scam

In July, 2004, Bob Woodward interviewed former president Gerald Ford about George Bush's pretext for invading Iraq. Ford wasn't impressed with Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld according to this interview published in today's Washington Post:

"In a four-hour conversation at his house in Beaver Creek, Colo., Ford "very strongly" disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously. In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief.

"'Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction,' Ford said. 'And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.'

"In a conversation that veered between the current realities of a war in the Middle East and the old complexities of the war in Vietnam whose bitter end he presided over as president, Ford took issue with the notion of the United States entering a conflict in service of the idea of spreading democracy.

"'Well, I can understand the theory of wanting to free people,' Ford said, referring to Bush's assertion that the United States has a "duty to free people." But the former president said he was skeptical 'whether you can detach that from the obligation number one, of what's in our national interest.'

"He added: 'And I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.'"

And on the topic of Dick Cheney, Ford offered this assessment:

"He was an excellent chief of staff. First class," Ford said. "But I think Cheney has become much more pugnacious" as vice president. He said he agreed with former secretary of state Colin L. Powell's assertion that Cheney developed a "fever" about the threat of terrorism and Iraq. "I think that's probably true."

"Describing his own preferred policy toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Ford said he would not have gone to war, based on the publicly available information at the time, and would have worked harder to find an alternative. "I don't think, if I had been president, on the basis of the facts as I saw them publicly," he said, "I don't think I would have ordered the Iraq war. I would have maximized our effort through sanctions, through restrictions, whatever, to find another answer."

Villain of the Year - And the Winner Is...

Why, it's George Walker Bush. OMG! According to an AP-AOL poll, Bush is America's first choice as villain of the year:

1. If you were asked to name a famous person to be the biggest villain of the year, whom would you choose?

-George W. Bush, 25 percent

-Osama bin Laden, 8 percent

-Saddam Hussein, 6 percent

-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, 5 percent

-Kim Jong Il, North Korean leader, 2 percent

-Donald Rumsfeld, 2 percent

-John Kerry, 1 percent

Now, in fairness, the same guy topped the list of hero of the year.

2. If you were asked to name a famous person to be the biggest hero of the year, whom would you choose?

-George W. Bush, 13 percent

-Soldiers/troops in Iraq, 6 percent

-Oprah Winfrey, 3 percent

-Barack Obama, 3 percent

-Jesus Christ, 3 percent

-Bono, 2 percent

-Angelina Jolie, 1 percent

-Al Gore, 1 percent

-Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1 percent

-Colin Powell, 1 percent

-Mel Gibson, 1 percent

-George Clooney, 1 percent

-Bill Gates, 1 percent

-Donald Rumsfeld, 1 percent

There you have it.

The Great Strategerist Formulates a New Plan

Relax, he's not there yet. But, according to the man who calls himself "The Decider", George W. Bush, he's making real progress toward devising a new Iraq strategy. President Bush and his brain trust are working hard - real hard - on this problem at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. No word yet on whether Bush intends to return to Washington.

According to the Associated Press, Bush identified the focus of his deliberations:

"We've got more consultation to do until I talk to the country about the plan," he said. "The key to success in Iraq is to have a government that's willing to deal with the elements that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding."

That's the key alright. The trick is what to do with a government that comprises the very "elements that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding?" Hmmm - better ponder that one a mite.

We'll Get Back to You on That

Saddam Hussein's top lawyer is imploring world leaders to push to have his condemned client treated as a prisoner of war deserving protection.

Prisoner of war? What war? Saddam wasn't really in a war when he committed the crimes for which he's been sentenced to hang. Nice try but it just doesn't fit.

Right now Saddam remains in custody in an American military prison. He'll stay there until he's handed over to the Iraqis on the day of his execution. Why on earth Saddam wasn't handed over a long time ago is a mystery. Now the Americans will needlessly be directly connected to Hussein's execution.

Time to Cull the Herd

Okay, I wanted a big engine, Dodge Durango but settled for a VW Beetle. I've cut way back on my driving. I turn out my lights and keep my smallish house quite cool. I try not to waste too much water. Hey, I'm trying to do my bit.

Now it seems what I put in my fridge may be as environmentally important as the vehicle I drive. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has released a report entitled, "Livestock's Long Shadow" (available for $60) which paints a vivid picture of the impact of all those critters we want for our tables. Here's a commentary from the New York Times:

"Global livestock grazing and feed production use “30 percent of the land surface of the planet.” Livestock — which consume more food than they yield — also compete directly with humans for water. And the drive to expand grazing land destroys more biologically sensitive terrain, rain forests especially, than anything else.

"But what is even more striking, and alarming, is that livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of the global warming effect, more than transportation’s contribution. The culprits are methane — the natural result of bovine digestion — and the nitrogen emitted by manure. Deforestation of grazing land adds to the effect."

Easy answer? Forget it, there isn't one. This is a problem that is going to be with us until nature culls the herd - and I'm not talking about cattle.

When the Good Guys Are the Bad Guys

The idea of sending thousands of additional US soldiers to Baghdad to secure the city from Iraq's maurading militias would be a good idea if only American forces weren't working with those same thugs in one guise or another every day.

The government, the army, the police and the 145,000 gunmen with the Facilities Protection Services are heavily infiltrated by the militias and their sectarian leaders. With friends like these...

Consider this eye-opening account of what American forces are up against from today's The New York Times:

"The car parked outside was almost certainly a tool of the Sunni insurgency. It was pocked with bullet holes and bore fake license plates. The trunk had cases of unused sniper bullets and a notice to a Shiite family telling them to abandon their home.

“'Otherwise, your rotten heads will be cut off,' the note read.

"The soldiers who came upon the car in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad were part of a joint American and Iraqi patrol, and the Americans were ready to take action. The Iraqi commander, however, taking orders by cellphone from the office of a top Sunni politician, said to back off: the car’s owner was known and protected at a high level.

"For Maj. William Voorhies, the American commander of the military training unit at the scene, the moment encapsulated his increasingly frustrating task — trying to build up Iraqi security forces who themselves are being used as proxies in a spreading sectarian war. This time, it was a Sunni politician — Vice Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie — but the more powerful Shiites interfered even more often.

“'I have come to the conclusion that this is no longer America’s war in Iraq, but the Iraqi civil war where America is fighting,' Major Voorhies said.

For the American commanders their role is limited. They stay out of the civil war and instead intervene, when and where they can, to prevent atrocities against civilians. Of course, all the King's horses and all the King's men still can't help Iraqis being butchered at a rate of roughly a hundred each day. It is enough to know the numbers would be considerably higher without their presence.

How long can America babysit this civil war? What are the greater, regional risks of allowing the Shia/Sunni bloodbath to play itself out? It is claimed that Iran is already interfering on behalf of the majority Shiite population. How long before the Saudis intervene on behalf of their Sunni brethren and to staunch the current spread of Shia influence throughout the Arab Muslim world?

Can this civil war, if allowed to play itself out, end other than by ethnic cleansing in traditional mixed areas such as Baghdad followed by partition? If the Shiite and Sunni cannot co-exist in a unified Iraq, what hope is there of avoiding a breakaway of the Kurds in the north? If the Kurds take advantage of the chaos in the south to fulfil their historic dream of an independent Kurdistan, will Turkey and perhaps even Iran move against them?

Each question begets more questions of ever more complicated uncertainties and deepening instability. The worsening sectarian butchery in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities is the manifestation of destabilizing power vacuums that go back to the invasion when the Hussein administration was toppled and nothing was available to replace it.

There are so many issues interwoven in this civil war that it defies any clear much less good answer. One thing is obvious: Washington's vision for a future Iraq is not going to be realized by having American forces sitting on the sidelines and protecting the bleachers.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

If He Spins Any Faster, He'll Burst

The tanks were rollin' and the guns were firin' and we had the buggers this time for sure. Or at least that's what Canada's military leaders and embedded journalists were joyously proclaiming to all and sundry just about a week ago. We had the Taliban this time, the same insurgents that somehow slipped through our fingers during Operation Medusa when we had them surrounded last September. This time the crafty devils wouldn't be so lucky. This time we really had them. This time it really was surrender or die, either way they were done for.

Here's how Bruce Hutchison of CanWest, with a patriotic thump of his chest, brought us the story three days before Christmas:

"HOWZ-E MADAD, Afghanistan -- There is no place to hide, and nowhere to run for hundreds of Taliban insurgents now squeezed into a box near here by NATO forces.

"They only have two options: Surrender, or attempt to fight their way out."Such is the situation in and around Howz-e Madad, a farming village 40 kilometres west of Kandahar city.

"Once tight-lipped about their objectives, and their chances of success, Canadian officers leading their army's effort in the campaign are practically boastful of its swiftness and its efficacy.

"This is the first time we've projected (this) much combat power forward," said Canadian battle group commander Lt.-Col Omer Lavoie. "(NATO) and Afghan forces are surrounding them, 360 degrees."

"The Taliban are hemmed inside 10-square-kilometres of mud fortresses and walled farm compounds, terrain that is well-suited to their guerrilla tactics but which also makes it difficult -- if not impossible -- to escape."As Lavoie noted with satisfaction, British and American troops sit approximately 10 kilometers south of Howz-e Madad.

"More British soldiers line the west, sealing that corridor, and Canadian combat teams rolled on Wednesday through Howz-e Madad."About 30 vehicles and hundreds of soldiers now hold the northern flank.

"To the east, running in a straight line to the Arghandab River, is impenetrable Route Summit, the 4.5 kilometre roadway established in September, during Operation Medusa."

So, where are all the prisoners, where are all the bodies of the dead Taliban? What if I was to tell you that, when it comes to certain Canadian colonels and media correspondents "on the scene", your guess is every bit as good as theirs? For, you see, a week ago they gleefully claimed to have 900 of these fanatics surrounded, boxed in. Now they can't find them.

I began worrying that this whole thing had, once again, been ginned up when the day following the initial estimate of 900 insurgents, it was revised downward to 400. Remember a few months back when we were told our people had won a massive victory over the Taliban, killing 80 or more of them? You might even remember when, several weeks later, they corrected that figure to 8. Mathematical error is the excuse they used for that one.

But I digress. What is the latest on Operation Falcon's Feathers or whatever they're calling this one? Turns out we can't find them. Now, according to the same Bruce Hutchison, the "surrender or die" guy, the fact that we can't find anyone to shoot is proof that we've won:

"Central to the operation is the release of material and financial assistance to local Afghans, in an attempt to stop men of fighting age from serving as Taliban mercenaries and help instead with the reconstruction of this war-torn region.

"That’s the official “hearts and minds” strategy behind Operation Baaz Tsuka, as devised by the NATO and Afghan coalition.

"To date, it seems to be working. Now two-weeks-old, the campaign has seen few head-on battles waged against the Taliban, and none involving Canadian troops.

"Boxed into a swath of territory 10 kilometres west of Mas’um Ghar, in Panjwaii District, and surrounded by a massive gathering of coalition war machinery, 700 to 900 insurgents seem indisposed to do more than launch the odd — and, to date, harmless — rocket attack.

"Canadians have not fired a single shot at enemy positions in Panjwaii District during Operation Baaz Tsuka.

"But Canadian troops have advanced, taking more ground from the Taliban and suffering no casualties in the process."

I guess so long as we can redefine the objective to match the result, we can declare great victory even when we come up empty handed. A two-week campaign that, despite massive superiority in men and firepower, hasn't engaged a ragtag enemy and we call that victory?

Saddam's Toast - So What?

Depending on who's right, the conquest of Iraq has claimed the lives of a few score thousand of innocent civilians or several hundred thousand. Now, Saddam is in line to join them. Actually, his fate was sealed a couple of years before the first American tank rolled across the border into Iraq.

Once 9/11 gave George Bush the flimsy pretense he needed to deceive the American people into supporting his illegal war of aggression against Iraq, Saddam was far too grave a threat to be allowed to live, even under a life sentence. He simply had to go and so he shall. Imagine the embarrassment he would pose were he allowed to speak candidly about the course of his relationship with the West.

But let's put this into perspective. Does the life of this unquestionable thug matter more than the life of one innocent child among the thousands of innocent children killed in this insane butchery? If you had the choice between sparing one six year old or pulling the handle to rid the world of this tyrant, what would it be? I know the answer to that question and you damn well do too. There's your perspective, your starting point.

I'll not argue clemency for Saddam. He doesn't deserve it. The sad reality though is that Saddam deserves to die every bit as much as each of those thousands of innocents deserved to live. How is it we're so much better with one issue than the other?

Time For Your Campaign Slogan Ideas.

Canada may have a general election within the next six months. The Libs are holding onto their lead in the polls. Stephen Harper's autocratic rule seems to have run its course but, even so, the outcome will be very close.

The Libs haven't been very effective with their campaigning lately. They just don't seem to get how to reach middle-Canada, that great majority within which the Liberal Party thrives.

Little Stevie has been very cautious not to show his true colours to the Canadian people but he's left enough of a trail that he can be vulnerable on it. Let's help the Liberal Party. Why not come up with campaign slogan ideas - free of charge - that the party can use in the next general election?

Starting today, I'll be posting ideas that come to me. Why not join in and post your own?

Kick Stephen Harper's Ass

Defeat David Emerson


How 'bout Fortier?

Let's have an elected cabinet

before we worry about

an elected senate!

More Time, Not More Soldiers?

US Marine Corps Commandant, General James T. Conway, says what his force really needs in Iraq is more time instead of more soldiers. Conway, speaking to 2,500 troops gathered at Camp Fallujah said he's worried that US forces in Iraq are running out of time - with the American people.

"I fear there are two timelines out there. One is how long it's going to take us to do the job. One is how long the country is going to allow us to do the job. And they're not syncing up."

Poll after poll and the November elections have shown a sizeable majority of Americans have had enough of the Iraq war. Who can blame them? One general after another has promised them victory in a performance worthy of encyclopedia salesmen. Only one general, only one, Shinseki has told the American government and people the truth and put his job on the line to do that. The rest have been a succession of sycophantic flunkies long on promises but very, very short on results.

Those of us who remember the Vietnam fiasco have seen this game played out before. It's not so much the "blame game" that the inmates of the Bush asylum like to chant about when they fall into their catatonic stupor. It's actually a game of "dodge the blame" where, one by one, the culprits try to make the blame they've earned stick to others. Now it's the American people who are going to get it.

The American people have supported the Iraq war. Let's be honest, the American people have faithfully supported a number of Iraq wars. They supported the war to topple Saddam. They supported the war to neutralize Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. They supported the war to sever Saddam's ties with Islamic terrorists. They supported the war to liberate the Iraqi people. They supported the war to secure Persian Gulf oil from Saddam's domination. They supported Rumsfeld's war against the "dead enders" and Cheney's war against the terrorists. They supported the war to ensure Iraqis were able to vote for a government of their choosing.

The American people supported the wars they were asked to support even though those wars were often based on a tissue of deliberate lies and distortions. However, having obtained their consent - BY FRAUD - the White House and Pentagon leaders want to construe that as some sort of indefinite blank cheque to keep this shell game going until they can step aside and let someone else preside over the very failure they've already achieved.

If the American people aren't willing to be conned any more, blame them for America's defeat in Iraq. How perverse is that?

If the American people had been told the truth at the outset, they would deserve some blame for rejecting this war now. That, however, is not what happened. No, it's important that, this time, the blame remains with those who deserve it - a thoroughly dishonest and criminally negligent administration and a sycophantic general staff who put their careers above their duty to their soldiers and sat mute to allow this disaster to happen.

How Many Will Die For Saddam?

It's a foregone conclusion that Saddam Hussein will be executed very soon. His appeal from his death sentence conviction dismissed, Iraqi law seems to say he must be hanged within 30-days.

This is a curious law that seems to place execution ahead of considerations of justice. For example, what if the condemned's presence is necessary for the resolution of another court case? What if the government services have some further need of the person? The Iraq law doesn't appear to leave any judicial discretion in the matter. Your appeal is dismissed, you swing.

Of course when Saddam is dropped, his death will probably be the first of many triggered by his executioner. There is no shortage of Iraqis spoiling for a fight, including many Sunni. They're already at each other's throats and Saddam's death will afford just the sort of provocation needed for a wave of killings.

Then there's Saddam's old gang, the Baath Party. Since Saddam was toppled, the Baath Party has been outlawed and many of its leaders fled into exile. Now, on a web site believed to be run out of Yemen, Baathists are threatening to retaliate against US interests worldwide if Saddam is killed.

Appeals have gone out to the leaders of other Arab states to intervene on behalf of clemency for Saddam but it's not very likely that he'll be alive long enough for that to make any difference to the outcome.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Sister's Plea for Her Soldier Brother

This letter from Emily Miller appeared in today's Washington Post. She writes of her brother who is on active duty in Iraq but it could as easily be written about any of our own soldiers in Kandahar:

"My brother told me that he takes his oath to defend the Constitution seriously and that he will fight and die if necessary to honor his commitment. When I asked him if he would be offended if I participated in activities opposing the war, he replied that it was not only my right but my obligation, and the obligation of all civilians opposing this war, to try to change bad policy. "Give us good wars to fight," he said.

"For the record, he believes that the war on terrorism is necessary to deal with real threats facing the United States. He is not convinced of what Iraq has to do with the matter, which puts him fairly well in the mainstream of American opinion.

"So it is terribly upsetting to me to hear that some people despair that there is "no point" to their soldier's death or wounding in the Iraq war. America does not have to be right in order for our soldiers' service to have meaning.

"What I find offensive is the idea that we have to "follow through" in order to give their deaths meaning post hoc. It is dreadfully apparent from the Iraq Study Group report that Iraq isn't going to have a democracy in any meaningful time frame. Even if this administration does everything perfectly, the best-case scenario is that we might maintain the barest outlines of order.

"Victory being out of the question at this point, the only democracy my brother is fighting for in Iraq is our democracy. The only constitution he is in Iraq fighting to defend is our Constitution. If my brother dies, it will not be for a mistake but rather because of his deeply held belief that the time it takes us as a people to figure out through democratic processes that we are wrong is more important than his own life.

"This places upon us an obligation. My brother and other service members living and dead have given us the sacred responsibility to use the democratic means we have at hand to bring judgment to bear on whether any given war is worth our soldiers' lives.

"It's not too late for us to honor the almost 3,000 U.S. service members who have died defending the principles of our democracy. It is morally imperative for us to honor our living service members and to do what is demanded of us by our democracy and by common decency. We have taken a small step by changing some of our leadership in Washington, but now it is upon us to follow through at home and demand accountability from our leaders.

"What are you, fellow citizens, willing to do to defend our Constitution? Will you dignify the sacrifices of our soldiers? Will you honor my brother's faith in our system? Will you let my brother or others die to eke out a slightly smaller disaster in Iraq? These are the questions we face in the wake of the Baker-Hamilton report.

"My brother is betting his life that you are not going to ask this of him. He has placed his trust in the idea that we will not ask him to die for anything less than the necessary defense of our democracy. Reasonable people may at one time have disagreed about the necessity of the Iraq war, but now that it has become abundantly clear from every quarter that we cannot win, will you be responsible for asking my brother to stay?

"My family begs of you: Do not ask this of him. Do not ask this of us. My brother is doing his constitutional duty. Now it is time for us to do ours."

Afghanistan Still Killing Within America

Afghanistan will always be tightly linked to the attacks of 11 September, 2001 on the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon. Sure the attackers themselves weren't Afghans but mainly Saudis however al-Qaeda operated out of Afghanistan with the acquiesence of the Taliban. For that the fundamentalist regime was driven from power.

The Taliban may be gone but Afghanistan is now responsible for a growing number of American deaths each year. The cause is the growing importation of top-grade, Afghan heroin into the United States.

Most heroin sold in the US is low-grade product brought in from Mexico. While the Taliban were in power and suppressing their country's opium trade, Afghanistani heroin accounted for 7% of the American supply. By 2004 that had doubled and a Drug Enforcement Agency report obtained by the LA Times suggests the amount coming in from Afghanistan to be significantly higher today.

LA County law enforcement officials believe the influx of high-grade Afghan heroin is responsible for the 75% increase in heroin overdose deaths in the past three years. Afghanistan now provides 90% of the world's supply of illicit opium.

Bunker Bush

The New Year approaches and it will bring a new day to Washington, one not to the liking of the frat boy president. Time and events have caught up to George W. Bush.

It's interesting to imagine what George Bush will come up with for his New Year's resolution. Of course to play that game you would have to put yourself in his position with all the events past and the looming prospects factored in. You have to dig yourself a hole, chin deep, and jump in and that's just your starting point. My guess is that you would wish the hole wouldn't get any deeper, that you could find a way to stop yourself from the constant digging. For George Bush, that might be pretty tough to pull off.

It's only natural for those who find themselves beset, surrounded, besieged to go on the defensive, hunker down and dig in. That appears to be pretty much what president Bush has decided to do now that he's facing the prospect of a Democratic congress where even a lot of Republicans are sharpening their skinning knives. Come January, George Bush is not going to have a lot of friends in Washington and those who do remain won't wield nearly as much clout to sustain him as they did before.

Looking back, the highlight of George W. Bush's presidency was not even of his own doing but that of a bunch of fundamentalist Islamic nutbars. Osama bin Laden catapulted George Bush to unprecedented popularity and influence. Guided by a vice president who believes the American presidency ought to resemble nothing so much as a monarchy, Bush sailed through five years ruling over a complacent congress almost by fiat. When presented with laws he didn't like, legislation that might restrain him, he simply scribbled "signing statements" on the bottom, exempting himself from their effect. His seizure of power was breathtaking although not many Americans noticed.

Five years that will be forever etched in American and world history. That marks the span of time in which a president fell victim to his own hubris and malignant advisors and toppled from unparalleled popularity and power into the very abyss of presidential derision. Five years in which he abused the support and sympathy of the world's leaders and peoples and turned his nation into a pariah in their eyes. Five years in which he exploited the weakness and fear of his people, often instilled in them by his own cabal, to strip them of their democratic and constitutional rights, to place himself above international and domestic law, and even to launch an illegal war, a war of aggression and of whim from which he cannot now retreat no matter the worsening failures that he cannot avoid. Five years in which he has destabilized not only the Middle East but also, to a lesser extent, Africa and Asia. Five years in which he has transformed his nation and the world into a darker, vastly more dangerous and volatile place. The man's very legacy is ruin.

Looking back on this, what must this frat boy see? I suspect he sees very little of what he has done. Accepting responsibility was never in his makeup. If it had been, he wouldn't have acted as rashly as he has so persistently since being given the presidency by a complaint court. He avoids reality by retreating into a bubble where all are excluded save those who say what he wants to hear.

George Bush has retreated to his bunker deep within which he can screw shut his eyes and chant his mantra of "victory in Iraq, victory in Iraq" as though the saying of it will make it happen.

What remains to be seen is how powerfully the Democratic congress will assault the bunker to winkle Bush to the surface. There is much they can do if they have the will which, sadly, is not assured. There are some who may be able to lob grenades into the bunker in the form of spending curbs, taxation impasses and enquiries that strip away the deceit, excesses and abuses that genuinely characterized the last five years of imperial rule. Theirs is a target whose lifeblood, his public support, has already largely drained away, leaving him weakened and vulnerable. What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats will have the courage to do the dirty work necessary to restore integrity to their nation's highest office and that, unfortunately, is a very open question.

And Then What?

Pakistan says it's going to build fences and establish minefields along parts of its border with Afghanistan. The Karzai government wasted no time dismissing the effort as an empty gesture.

Given accounts from US and NATO forces as well as Western and Asian reporters that Taliban insurgents already simply walk freely through border checkpoints this measure does indeed seem little more than window dressing.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Iraqi officials have confirmed that Saddam Hussein and two co-defendants have had their death penalty conviction appeals dismissed. Iraqi law requires the condemned to be executed within 30-days. This may be the end of the road for Sad Man. Oh dear.

This Is Rich

He sounds like a beauty pageant contestant telling the judges what she wants most is world peace and an end to hunger.

Peter MacKay, former leader and scuttler of a now extinct Canadian political party, says he wants to revive the Middle East peace process.

"I would love to, in some fashion, be able to facilitate a coming together and a discussion," MacKay told CTV in a report broadcast from Ottawa on Sunday. "And that's not to set unreal expectations – but I think we have to constantly try."

"We hope to, in some way, be able to reconstitute that discussion and perhaps find a niche where Canada can make a contribution" to the refugee situation, MacKay said.

Earth to MacKay. That "niche" you're looking for is the very one Canada spent years nurturing, the one your boss instantly torched months ago when he couldn't restrain himself from leaping straight into Israel's lap in the dust-up with Lebanon last summer.

It's nice Peter that you want to play "honest broker" but it's far too late for that now. Our credibility in that region is shot and we don't have the military or economic prowess there to get anyone to listen. Your government has placed us in America's back pocket. That's our niche now. Don't screw this up, Peter, the judges are watching.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Great Cranberry Sauce

A quick and easy way to really pick up your cranberry sauce. Substitute orange juice (with pulp if possible) for the water. Once the berries are cooked stir in the zest of one navel orange. It's an awesome addition.

Now, Merry Christmas!

the Mound of Sound

Caught Flat-Footed Around the World

The United States emerged from the Cold War as the world's sole superpower. Unfortunately it took that status for granted.

The US with its global-reach bombers and carrier battle groups thought itself safe because there was no place on earth that couldn't be attacked within 12 to 24 hours. It created a perception of a virtual empire and promptly began ignoring places like Afghanistan and most of Africa. Washington was blinded by its own might and failed to see tensions and threats mounting.

Then, as much to show the little countries American power as anything else, it invaded Iraq and quickly became trapped in the shifting sands. The Bush administration truly believed - for no plausible good reason and despite sage advice - that they could invade, topple Saddam and be out of the place within 60-days. It was foolhardiness on an epic scale. It exposed America's weakness to the very sort of warfare that little countries can usually wage. It revealed the true limits of America's military muscle.

America wasn't paying attention to the little lands but they were certainly watching America, watching and waiting. Jeffrey Gettleman, writing in the International Herald Tribune, reports that anti-Americanism is sweeping Africa:

"Somalia may be the place that best illustrates a trend sweeping across the African continent: After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States concluded that anarchy and misery aid terrorism, and so it tried to re-engage Africa. But anti-American sentiment on the continent has only grown, and become increasingly nasty. And the United States seems unable to do much about it.

"A number of experts on Africa trace those developments to a sense not of American power, but of its decline — a perception that the United States is no longer the only power that counts, that it is too bogged down in the Middle East to be a real threat here, and so it can be ignored or defied with impunity.

"American officials, for example, acknowledge that they are at a loss about what to do about the on-again, off-again Somali crisis, which cracked open last week when the two forces dueling for power blasted away at each other in their first major confrontation. In this case, there are a lot of reasons why many of the people don't like Americans, starting with the United States' botched efforts to play peacemaker in the early 1990s to its current support for Ethiopia, which is taking sides in Somalia's internal politics.

"But the broader issue playing out here — the sense that the United States is not the kingmaker it once was — goes beyond Mogadishu. It is Africa-wide. And it is based on a changed reality: the emergence of other customers for Africa's resources and the tying down of American military forces in Iraq have combined to reduce American clout in sub-Saharan Africa, even as the United States pumps in more financial aid than ever — about $4 billion per year — and can still claim to be the one superpower left standing."

"When Washington turned its glance away from Africa other nations saw their opportunity and moved in: China, various European states, Russia, even Brazil.

"'We learned that we don't need the Americans anymore,' said Lam Akol, Sudan's foreign minister. 'We found other avenues.'

"The ceaselessness of Baghdad's bloodshed has greatly undermined the United States' credibility, fanned anti-American feelings in Muslim regions like the Horn of Africa, and drained resources that might otherwise have been available to address other problems.

"'There is significant blowback coming from our catastrophic decisions in Iraq that is affecting our ability to do anything about Sudan or Somalia,' Mr. Morrison said."

America's delusion of its own power and influence has left it flat-footed around the world: South America, Asia, Africa and even Europe. Washington has to get Iraq off its back before it can even try to play catchup or risk being marginalized in areas very crucial to America.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf says his government isn't aiding the Taliban. He says the Taliban aren't moving freely across Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. He says all the troubles are in Afghanistan.

Why then are Western and Asian journalists regularly going to Quetta in Waziristan to interview Taliban leaders? Why are Taliban madrassas training insurgents in the Pakistan mountains? Why are Taliban fighters to be seen wandering openly and freely in Pakistan towns?

Why? Because General Musharraf is feeding us a load of nonsense. Why? Because he calculates that Washington won't interfere lest that tip this nuclear state into the hands of Islamic extremists. No one wants to be responsible for unleashing the "Islamic Bomb", an ominously loaded phrase that was coined in Pakistan after its weapons programme was first discovered.

Pakistan is being treated like nitro-glycerin, unstable and ready to explode if handled roughly. So Musharraf won't deal with the Taliban problem and we can't either, at least not until they bring their battle to NATO and American forces on their terms.

In the meantime Musharraf is allowed to utter silly assurances and nobody, except Hamid Karzai, is willing to call him a liar.

The Sadr Dilemma

Muqtada al-Sadr is giving Washington fits. The radical Shia cleric walked out of the faltering Iraq government, undermining the authority of Prime Minister Nouri Malaki. Sadr's Mahdi army is also believed to be instrumental in the sectarian violence plaguing Baghdad.

The US thought it had Sadr marginalized. It tried to divide the Shiites by persuading Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani to join a Kurd and Sunni governing coalition, effectively ostracizing Sadr. It didn't work. al-Sistani, probably realizing how badly that could backfire on him, opted for Shia solidarity and refused to play.

That effectively set the majority Shia against the minority Sunni and Kurds. The failed American gambit has provoked a backlash from Iraqi legislators angry at what they see as Washington's meddling. Sadr, his influence now bolstered by the collapse of this ploy, is returning to the Supreme Council where he's expected to renew demands for American troops to be withdrawn.

Garrison Keillor - A Perfectly Adequate Christmas Letter

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

I suspect we all get them - Christmas letters. Here's Garrison Keillor's take:

"I love reading Christmas newsletters in which the writer bursts the bonds of modesty and comes forth with one gilt-edged paragraph after another: "Tara was top scorer on the Lady Cougars soccer team and won the lead role in the college production of 'Antigone,' which, by the way, they are performing in the original Greek. Her essay on chaos theory as an investment strategy will be in the next issue of Fortune magazine, the same week she'll appear as a model in Vogue. How she does what she does and still makes Phi Beta Kappa is a wonderment to us all. And, yes, she is still volunteering at the homeless shelter."

"'Chad is adjusting well to his new school and making friends. He especially enjoys the handicrafts.' How sad for Chad. There he is in reform school learning to get along with other little felons and making belts and birdhouses, but he can't possibly measure up to the goddess Tara. Or Lindsay or Meghan or Madison, each of whom is also stupendous.

"I come from Minnesota, where it's considered shameful to be shameless, where modesty is always in fashion, where self-promotion is looked at askance. Give us a gold trophy and we will have it bronzed so you won't think that we think we're special. There are no Donald Trumps in Minnesota: We strangled them all in their cribs. A football player who likes to do his special dance after scoring a touchdown is something of a freak.

"So here is my Christmas letter:

"Dear friends. We are getting older but are in fairly good shape and moving forward insofar as we can tell. We still drink strong coffee and read the paper and drive the same old cars. We plan to go to Norway next summer. We think that this war is an unmitigated disaster that will wind up costing a trillion dollars and we worry for our country. Our child enjoys her new school and is making friends. She was a horsie in the church Christmas pageant and hunkered down beside the manger and seemed to be singing when she was supposed to. We go on working and hope to be adequate to the challenges of the coming year but are by no means confident. It's winter. God is around here somewhere but does not appear to be guiding our government at the moment. Nonetheless we persist. We see kindness all around us and bravery and we are cheered by the good humor of young people. The crabapple tree over the driveway is bare, but we have a memory of pink blossoms and expect them to return. God bless you all."

And a Very Merry Christmas to You All from The Mound of Sound

It May Not Be Much, But

It's a welcome change from a standoff that's caused nothing but misery in recent months.

Israeli President Olmert and Palestinian Abbas held a mini-summit last night aimed at easing tensions between the two states and, in particular, releasing funds to Palestine for badly-needed humanitarian purchases.

Olmert has agreed to release $100-million, about a fifth of the Palestinian monies Israel has withheld since Hamas was elected 10-months ago. Israel is dealing with Abbas directly in order to circumvent the Hamas-led Palestinian authority.

Now it remains to be seen how Hamas will react to the Palestinian president's moves.

A Global Warming Milestone

The name of the island is Lohachara not that many of us are going to remember it for long. We'll probably recall it as that little island off India, the first once inhabited island to disappear from the surface of the earth due to rising sea levels attributed to global warming.

Lohachara was a small island that supported a population of 10,000 in the Bay of Bengal near where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers meet the sea. It is believed that other islands in the area will soon also be submerged displacing some 70,000 more islanders.

Several uninhabited islands have disappeared in recent years, notably in the South Pacific. Lohachara is unique because it was inhabited.

We Were Only Following Orders

That little phrase was brought to infamy during war crimes trials at the end of WWII. Now there's word the defence will be revived in the trials of 8 US marines charged with murdering 24 Iraqis including children and the elderly in the town of Haditha in November last year. From The Independent:

"'We're going to drag every single, two-star and full-bird colonel and general into this thing,' said Kevin McDermott, a California-based lawyer representing Captain Lucas McConnell, the commander of Kilo Company, which carried out the Haditha killings. The defence lawyers say their clients were following official policy on the rules of engagement.

"In all, 24 Iraqis, including six children, several women and an old man in a wheelchair, were killed in Haditha as the Marines responded to the death of a colleague in a roadside bombing in November 2005. Only five of the dead Iraqis have been identified as militants, while the rest appear to have been innocent civilians.

"Many critics have argued that the Haditha incident might have been written off as business as usual, were it not for graphic Iraqi documentation of the massacre that made its way into Time magazine last spring. The military initially claimed, erroneously, that the roadside bomb killed 15 of the Iraqis, and nominated Staff Sgt Wuterich for a medal for bravery.

"Responding to the charges against his client, Mr McDermott said the top brass was well aware of what had happened, but condemned it only after it became glaringly public. 'A lot of lieutenant colonels and colonels and generals knew what happened that day, and nobody said, 'let's do a thorough investigation of what happened', he said. 'By the end of the day, [my client's] superiors recognised the situation was so significant that they brought in air support.

'There were Harriers dropping 500lb bombs on buildings. If they're dropping 500lb bombs without knocking on the door first, how can you argue the troops on the ground did anything wrong?'"

It's an almost inevitable recipe for disaster: conventional armies fighting insurgencies often in the midst of residential areas full of civilians. It's a lot like using a sledgehammer to drive a picture hook into a wall and then wondering why the broken plaster is all over the floor. the worst part is this reality isn't new, we've seen this before. We know this stuff happens and we know the many reasons why.

Were these marines only following orders? Does it even matter?