Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thatcher Walks

Colin Thatcher has been given full parole. After spending 22-years behind bars for the murder of his ex-wife, Jo Ann Wilson, the National Parole Board has decided his risk to offend is 'manageable within the community.'

Thatcher says he's learned the importance of keeping his temper in check, "I'm not going back to prison for some silly violation."

Are We Ready for a Spring Offensive?

We'd better hope America has a contingency plan to throw tens of thousands of soldiers into Afghanistan on short notice.

The dismal failure of the NATO summit showed that the Afghanistan mission is to remain desperately undermanned. Even retired general Lewis MacKenzie has repeatedly urged NATO to reinforce its numbers by at least another 30,000. Fat chance.

The International Herald Tribune's Ahmed Rashid writes from Peshawar, Pakistan that the NATO summit portends a larger war:

"In the future annals of the spread of Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda, the NATO meeting this week will almost certainly be considered a watershed. Germany, Spain, Italy and France, which refused to allow their troops in Afghanistan to go south to fight the Taliban, and other member states who refused to commit fresh troops or equipment, may well be held responsible for allowing Afghanistan to slip back into the hands of the Taliban and their Qaeda allies.

"Such desperately depressing considerations arise from the fragile state of the Afghan government, the massive surge in Taliban attacks this year, the collapse of civil authority in wide swathes of the country and the rise in opium production, which is funding not just the Taliban, but a plethora of Afghan, Kashmiri, Central Asian, Chinese and Chechen Islamic extremist groups based on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

"Last summer the Taliban planned to capture Kandahar - the second-largest Afghan city - and set up an alternative government. They were only just thwarted by the sacrifices of NATO British, Canadian, Dutch and American troops and their Afghan allies, who fought pitched battles with battalion-size Taliban units - battles the likes of which the West had not experienced since the Korean War.

"Tribal leaders in Peshawar and along the border now say that the Taliban are recruiting thousands of fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan for a full-scale, multipronged offensive in the spring, which will open so many fronts in southern Afghanistan that present NATO forces will be unable to cope. This time the target is Kabul and the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban will fully understand and exploit NATO's failure to respond to these threats. NATO's inaction will also cause massive demoralization among the Afghan people and encourage warlords and drug traffickers to prepare for the coming anarchy.

"Most significantly, NATO's decision will pave the way for further interference by neighboring states, which helped fuel the civil war in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s.

"Pakistan's military regime, which provides clandestine support to the Taliban and has refused to accept NATO and U.S. plans to arrest the Taliban leaders on its soil, has long calculated that in time the West will walk away from Afghanistan. Pakistani officials are already convinced that the Taliban are winning and are trying to convince NATO and the United States to strike piecemeal deals with the Taliban in the south and east, which eventually could develop into a Pakistani- brokered Taliban coalition government in Kabul."

Rashid's assessment of conditions on the ground on Afghanistan is pretty grim. If the Taliban are massing a force of many thousands to swarm Afghanistan in the spring, somebody - Pakistan, the US or NATO - needs to attack them pre-emptively and very soon.

Japan Flirts With Nukes

"Japan is capable of producing nuclear weapons, but we are not saying we have plans to possess nuclear weapons."

That's what Japanese foreign minister, Taro Aso, told a parliamentary committee today. This message comes at a time when the Japanese government is looking at rewriting the country's constitution that prevents it from creating an offensive military capability.

Aso called for a renewed debate on Japan's anti-nuclear stance but added that the constitution does not prohibit Japan from acquiring nuclear weapons for defensive purposes.

"Possession of minimum level of arms for defence is not prohibited under Article 9 of the constitution," he said. "Even nuclear weapons, if there are any that fall within that limit, they are not prohibited."

A Real Career-Ender

Poor Dr. Kendal Myers. He's finished, done. From Whitehall to Washington they want his head. Myers has commited the mortal sin - of stating the obvious.

At an academic forum in Washington the senior State Department analyst said that for all Britain's attempts to influence US foreign policy, "we typically ignore them and take no notice. It's a sad business."

Other observations from Dr. Myers:

"It was a done deal from the beginning, it was a one-sided relationship that was entered into with open eyes ... there was nothing. There was no payback, no sense of reciprocity."

"What I think and fear is that Britain will draw back from the US without moving closer to Europe. In that sense, London's bridge is falling down."

Tony Blair has repeatedly justified his pro-Washington stance by claiming Britain had an essential role to play by co-operating in order to influence American policy. Myers certainly burst that balloon.

It's now reported that Dr. Meyers is contemplating early retirement. Quelle surprise.

So if ever faithful ally Tony Blair gets nothing from Bush, just how much do you think Harper is going to achieve by kneeling at Shrub's feet?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NATO Versus Democracy

If the Afghanistan experience accomplishes nothing else, it may provoke a thoughtful analysis of what the alliance is and, more importantly, what it is not.

Politicians and pundits alike moan that a failure of the Afghan mission will doom NATO. Unfortunately they don't tend to explain why that fate must befall the alliance.

From the outset, Afghanistan wasn't a natural fit for NATO intervention. Yes, the United States had been attacked but not by Afghanistan. The attackers were a gang of Islamic radicals, mainly Saudi, and not a single Afghan among them. What blame fell to the Taliban is simply that they tolerated al-Qaeda training camps in their territory. Remember, al-Qaeda was all too welcome in Afghanistan, even by the US, when it first arrived to fight the Soviet forces. It played a significant role in ousting the Soviet occupation and, as such, it would have some standing with the Taliban afterwards.

Five years later and no one has shown the slightest participation in or even knowledge of the 9/11 plot by the Taliban nor, for that matter, their participation in any other al-Qaeda skullduggery.

So the United States was not being attacked by Afghanistan or by the Taliban but, by virtue of the attack alone, we all agreed to intervene in the ongoing civil war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, siding with the northern warlords.

After routing the Taliban and al-Qaeda into the mountains of Tora Bora, the United States showed gross negligence in failing to finish them off. Instead it diverted its forces into a contrived war of choice against Iraq.

When the US invasion toppled Saddam and destabilized Iraq, al Qaeda took full advantage of the opportunity to regroup and redeploy into this fertile territory. Note that there's been no similar Taliban insurgency or terrorism in Iraq. The hard truth is that the Taliban is no more threat to America in Iraq today than it ever was in Afghanistan prior to the American intervention.

The Taliban is, however, a very real threat to the government of Hamid Karzai, America's handpicked President of Afghanistan. I suspect the northern warlords might be an equal threat to Karzai were he to move to control their provinces, disarm their militias and meddle in their affairs. This raises the difficult question of whether the Taliban resurgence is an actual insurgency or merely a civil war in which the West is, again, taking sides.

These unanswered, often unasked, questions run through the public aversion to the Afghanistan mission in several NATO nations. Without answers it is very difficult to weigh the true merits and necessity of this intervention and it creates the appearance that NATO is simply doing George Bush's bidding.

If a NATO member's populace strongly oppose a mission such as Afghanistan where no member is genuinely under attack, does the alliance have any business trying to coerce support? Surely that will doom NATO more certainly than the success or failure of the Afghan mission. The strength of NATO rests in it not being called to action except when it is absolutely necessary to defend another member state. That is what it was intended to do and nothing more. We stray from that path at our peril.

NATO cannot be allowed to trump democracy.

Was Litvinenko a Nuclear Smuggler?

According to the Italian who met Alexander Litvinenko on the day he fell ill, the former Russian spy confessed during their meeting to having smuggled nuclear material out of Russia for his masters at the FSB, formerly the KGB.

Mario Scaramella, an academic and examining magistrate in Rome and Naples, came to London to meet Litvinenko to discuss a death threat aimed at both of them.

Scaramella says he has been investigating the smuggling of radioactive materials by the KGB and its successors. He has claimed that the Soviet Navy laid 20 nuclear torpedoes in the Bay of Naples where they supposedly remain to this day.

Superpower Canada - A Sure Thing?

What is a superpower except a nation that enjoys dominance over most other nations? If that's close to right, Canada may be on a path to superpower glory.

How's that you say? Well, according to climate change guru and creator of the Gaia Theory, James Lovelock, we may be headed for a world in which the population of earth will drop to around 500-million, all of them living in the Arctic:

"'We are not all doomed. An awful lot of people will die, but I don't see the species dying out,' he told a news conference.'A hot earth couldn’t support much over 500 million.'

“'Almost all of the systems that have been looked at are in positive feedback ... and soon those effects will be larger than any of the effects of carbon dioxide emissions from industry and so on around the world,' he added.

"Lovelock said temperature rises of up to 8C were already built in and while efforts to curb it were morally commendable, they were wasted.'It is a bit like if your kidneys fail you can go on dialysis -- and who would refuse dialysis if death is the alternative. We should think of it in that context,' he said. 'But remember that all they are doing is buying us time, no more. The problems go on,' he added.

"In London to give a lecture on the environment to the Institution of Chemical Engineers, he said the planet had survived dramatic climate change at least seven times.

“'In the change from the last Ice Age to now we lost land equivalent to the continent of Africa beneath the sea,' he said.

“'We are facing things just as bad or worse than that during this century. There are refuges, plenty of them. 55 million years ago ... life moved up to the Arctic, stayed there during the course of it and then moved back again as things improved. I fear that this is what we may have to do,' he added.

"Lovelock said the United States, which has rejected the Kyoto Protocol on cutting carbon emissions, wrongly believed there was a technological solution, while booming economies China and India were out of control."

Will This Man Rule Iraq?

In an interview with MSNBC yesterday, Washington Post Pentagon reporter, Thomas Ricks, said the Pentagon is seriously weighing dropping its support for the existing, multi-ethnic Iraqi government in favour of Shia strongman rule under Muqtada alSadr.

Ricks said the Pentagon has concluded that alSadr's star is rising in Iraq. It is believed that, if an election was held today, he would win almost all seats in the Shia region, including Baghdad. The inability of the Maliki government to control terrorism and lawlessness in Iraq has led the Pentagon to now favour Shia rule under alSadr even to the exclusion of Sunni Iraqis.

There have been rumours for months that Washington was rethinking its commitment to democracy for Iraq and mulling over the benefits of a return to strongman rule.

Meanwhile, ignoring their own responsibility for the violence that besets Iraq today, all manner of Americans are freely laying the blame on the Iraqis themselves which many believe marks the prelude to withdrawal of US troops.

"Thomas Donnelly, a hawkish defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he considers blame a legitimate issue. 'Ultimately, just like success rests with the Iraqis, so does failure,' he said. 'We've made a lot of mistakes, but we've paid a huge price to give the Iraqis a chance at a decent future.'

"The blame game has also been playing out somewhat divisively within the secretive Iraq Study Group. The bipartisan commission, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), is deliberating policy recommendations to put forward next month.

"'I'm tired of nit-picking over how we should bully the Iraqis into becoming better citizens of their own country,' former CIA Middle East expert Ray Close wrote in an e-mail to the other advisers to the study group.

"Several other experts of various political stripes said this tendency to dump on Baghdad feels like a preamble to withdrawal.

"'It's their fault, and by implication not ours, is clearly a theme that's in the air,' said retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and longtime skeptic of the war in Iraq. It reminds him, he said, of the sour last days of the Vietnam War, when 'there was a tendency to blame everything on the 'gooks' -- meaning our South Vietnamese allies who had disappointed us.'"

The days of the Maliki government may be numbered in months, perhaps weeks. alSadr has already begun his moves by withdrawing from the Baghdad government. At the end of the day, Washington may have no choice but to annoint him strongman ruler of Iraq.

The Pakistani View - NATO's Losing

One factor that bedevils NATO's Afghanistan mission more than any other is neighbouring Pakistan. It has a sizeable population, a heavily-armed military, even nuclear weapons. It is politically unstable and its military and security services are heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalism. The central government has been unable to control Pakistan's border regions with Afghanistan where Pashtuns and Baluchs feed the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Although George Bush has named Perves Musharraf a key ally in the Global War Without End on Terror, Musharraf himself isn't safe even in his own capital.

Pakistan is invested heavily in Afghan politics. It has long favoured the Taliban, if only as a means of ensuring its own influence in Afghanistan especially over Indian overtures. Pakistani forces seem much more willing to go after al-Qaeda agents than Taliban leaders.

NATO is already on the defensive in southern Afghanistan. It doesn't have nearly enough troops to do more than try to keep the Taliban at bay in selected parts of the southern provinces. It can't begin to deploy the size of force that would be needed to seal off the Afghan/Pakistan border, the Taliban lifeline. Any notion of pre-emptive strikes against insurgent strongholds within Pakistan is out of the question.

It isn't particularly surprising then to read Ahmen Rashid's report from Islamabad in today's Sidney Morning Herald claiming that Pakistan's foreign minister has urged his NATO counterparts to recognize reality and negotiate with the Taliban:

"SENIOR Pakistani officials are urging NATO countries to accept the Taliban and work towards a new coalition government in Kabul that might exclude the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.

"Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, has said in private briefings to foreign ministers of some NATO member states that the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and NATO is bound to fail. He has advised against sending more troops.

"Western ministers have been stunned. 'Kasuri is basically asking NATO to surrender and to negotiate with the Taliban,' said one Western official who met the minister recently.

It is inconceivable that NATO has reached the point where its leaders would entertain Kasuri's suggestion. One person to whom the idea isn't that outlandish - Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. He's been sending diplomatic peace overtures to the Taliban for quite a long time. Of course, Karzai is hardly independent of Washington as he would need to be to cut a deal with the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine any American government, Democratic or Republican, countenancing an Afghan coalition government that incorporated the Taliban.

Kasuri's comments, however, may be seen as a wake-up call by NATO. If the Pakistanis genuinely perceive the Taliban to be winning, we'd better not count on this supposed ally to go beyond hedging its bets. What our generals have identified as the key to winning in Afghanistan - Pakistan itself - may already be lost to us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Even Surprise Visits are Too Dangerous Now

When President Bush gets together with Iraqi PM Maliki on Wednesday, they'll be meeting in Jordan. It's reported that Baghdad is now considered far too dangerous for Bush to visit. It makes you wonder why he refuses to admit that Iraq is in the grip of a civil war?

According to Mr. Bush, al-Qaeda is responsible for the sectarian violence now spreading through Iraq. Does that mean that Shia Iran is now off the hook?

Acknowledging the fact of civil war would be awkward for the American president. It would bring into question the viability of the Maliki administration and possibly leave the US in a position where it had to take sides. Of course it would also be lethal to the little support George Bush can muster at home for the Iraq occupation.

The question is how long the United States can sit this one out?

We'd Better Get Busy - We've Got a Lot of Killing to Do

Let's see - Spring, 2008. That's just a year and a half from right now. By then, we're told, the Afghan Army will be ready to start taking control of the country's security. This from Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO Secretary General. Of course, Jaap has left himself a world of wiggle room. He qualified his prediction by saying the Afghan Army will "be gradually taking control."

That could mean anything from safeguarding the presidential latrine to securing some of the tame provinces in the north. Just don't expect them to be taking over in Helmand or Kandahar provinces by then. No, we'll probably still be there for that job.

It looks as though President Bush and de Hoop Scheffer were successful in strongarming some concessions from France, Germany, Italy and Spain, albeit begrudgingly. They've sort of said their troops might be authorized to take part in combat in the south in certain circumstances.

France said it will decide on combat deployment on a case by case basis. Spain and Italy said their contingent might be made available to fight "in extreme circumstances." Ditto for Germany.

Now you would have thought the NATO leaders would feel secure in Riga, Latvia but guess again. According to the Times of London, the summit is defended by 7,000 Latvian troops and 2,000 NATO soldiers backed by helicopters and two warships in Riga's harbour.

The NATO Secretary General's remarks about handover are a sop to those who need to tell their constituents that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Actually wishy-washy seems an apt description of the summit so far.

It would be interesting to know how much damage we need to inflict on the Taliban and rebellious peasants before Afghanistan will be safe to hand over to any Afghan Army. At the end of the day, can we kill enough of them to make a difference?

A "Fixer" for Afghanistan?

The Australian reports sources at the NATO summit in Riga as saying they want a high-powered "international fixer" to sort out the mess in Afghanistan.

While NATO concentrates on holding the Taliban at bay, they want backup in the form of a heavyweight political initiative to push through democratic reforms and an anti-drug policy.

"Our problem is that we're getting on with the security and reconstruction, but there's no one person appointed who can make sure the Afghan Government gets on with issues such as disarming the warlords," the senior source in Riga said.

Bush Looks for the Sunni Side of the Street

The guy can't help himself. Everytime he hears Shia he sees Iran and then he sees red. That's preventing George Bush from finding any useful solution to his problems in Iraq.

The White House seems to be courting the Sunni world to somehow take over and sort things out in Iraq. That overlooks two huge problems - a Shia majority that will no longer tolerate Sunni interference and their Shia benefactor, Iran. Even the Kurds in northern Iraq are unlikely to welcome an Arab Sunni intrusion.

President Bush is never going to get the answers he wants to hear on Iraq. They simply don't exist. Getting Saudi Arabia and Jordan involved is all well and good but there's little they can do to quell the civil war without the agreement and support of Iran and Syria. So long as Washington has Tehran in its sights, getting the essential Iranian co-operation is unlikely, if not out of the question.

Now there's a proposal for quasi-partition in the form of a 3-state federalism for Iraq. That would leave the oil-rich Shia south and the oil-rich Kurdish north and the resource barren Sunni middle. It would also entail sorting out who will control several key cities, including Kirkuk, and an awful lot of ethnic adjustments. The Shia would probably go for it and the Kurds already have that degree of autonomy and more. Neither group, however, is in the mood to share their resource wealth with the minority associated with their decades-long repression.

Much as he doesn't want to, much as he would been seen as humbled, George is going to have to negotiate an Iraqi peace package with Iran and with Syria and he's going to have to come bearing gifts. Right now he's throwing a diplomatic tantrum, giving both the cold shoulder. Let's hope he gets over that and pretty quickly.

Now It's Howard's Turn

The past year has seen the Western media begin to stand up and say what's long needed saying about our far right leaders. They all seem to be afflicted with the same disorder - a profound detachment from reality.

The Aussie newspaper, The Australian, is no bastion of leftie sentiment so I found columnist Philip Adams' screed against John Howard pretty bold.

"One can only wonder what form of the ailment our poor Prime Minister has developed. Or is it something else? Not dementia, but a different dimension. Is he living in one of those parallel universes? Are we glimpsing him through wormholes? Whereas every sane person in the US - including members of the administrations damaged or destroyed by the war - acknowledge that the Vietnam conflict was both a folly and a calamity, Howard still says it was the right thing. And he said it in Vietnam, as a guest of the Government, sitting beside the well-known draft dodger George W. Bush. That millions died as a consequence of Western stupidity doesn't seem to concern him. If not barking madness, Howard's utterances were very bad manners.
Howard and his friend were there to discuss even greater fiasco, another US-Australia joint misadventure. The US has now been bogged down in Iraq for longer than they were in World War II. The casualties and costs soar, yet in George and John's parallel universe, things are going well.

"But the real world - particularly the American electorate - disagrees. The fiasco began in shared dementia about weapons of mass destruction, Baghdad links to 9/11, a fantasy about blossoming democracy. Reagan's blurring of realities was never so destructive. The Iraq war will have consequences immeasurably more damaging to its region and the world than three Vietnams. Even Tony Blair knows that. But not the US President and certainly not the Australian Prime Minister.

"In Howard's dimension or dementia, the strangest things happen. Refugees try to drown their babies and asylum-seekers are terrorists. Again and again, one tries to connect the PM's beliefs or actions with any objective reality.

"Consider other madnesses appearing from the wormholes or as symptoms of dementia. While the war on terror has been stoking up terrorism, the infinitely more terrifying prospect of climate change was ignored. Worse still, both Howard and Bush ridiculed it. While choosing or pretending to believe the tawdriest intelligence on Iraq from debased agencies, they chose to neglect the collective intelligence of the entire scientific community.

"Yes, the Hawke government deserves a decade's blame, but in Howard's decade the facts were incontrovertible. Now we've a dangerously belated and deranged response. Nuclear power might, just might be a factor in 20 years. That's a grand total of four decades of denial and delay. This is not policy. It is further procrastination. Even more shamefully, like Tampa, it's wedge politics.

"No matter how sorry the state of affairs, Howard is never sorry. Not about the stolen generation, not about the Vietnam War. Not about WMDs and the other excuses for Iraq. Not about his secret collusions with Bush that had Australia committed to invasion months before we were told - and not about the squalid backroom dealings of the AWB with Baghdad of which, of course, he claims to have known nothing. Howardism means never having to say you're sorry.

"In Howard, Australia has had its most reckless leader. In Howardism we've had an insane approach to local politics and international affairs that has shamed the nation and continues to put it in harm's way. The electorate increasingly understands this yet shrugs it off. That's Howardism too."

Is it any wonder that Stephen Harper has embraced John Howard so warmly?

Isotopes - Bargain Prices!

The hunt is on to find out who slipped polonium-210 to Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko. Fingers have been pointed at Russia as the source of this isotope but the Russians are flatly denying it.

Maybe we should be blaming the internet. Polonium-210, said to be 100 billion times deadlier than cyanide can be bought freely on the internet. United Nuclear Scientific Equipment and Supplies in New Mexico offers a small amount of the isotope in a small, disc shaped container for - get this - $69.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Nuclear Scientific's website warns the company:

"... will occasionally terminate and refund orders if we feel you are juvenile posing as an adult, inexperienced with the materials ordered, or using our products to make any sort of explosive device." How thoughtful.

Too Risky to Say "Sorry"

Canada decided to apologize and generously compensate the children of Chinese immigrants from many decades past who were forced to pay a head tax to get in. Now it's Britain's turn.

Tony Blair is about to apologize to the victims of Britain's once-flourishing slave trade. Well, actually it's more of a lament than an apology because we know how expensive apologies can become.

In his typical "oh gosh" manner, Blair deftly skirts the sticky part of this business: "It's hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time." I guess it was legal because the government of the day made it so in the Slave Trade Act, and that's good enough for Tony.

It's estimated that somewhere between 10 and 28-million Africans were sent to the Americas and sold into slavery over nearly four centuries. Britain alone managed to transport upwards of 300,000 Africans a year in its fetid, disease-ridden slave ships.

Harper's Best Shot? I Hope Not.

Stephen Harper had better make a much stronger argument to his fellow NATO leaders in Riga than he did in this morning's Globe & Mail. If not, we're screwed. Harper, together with the Dutch P.M., wrote an op-ed piece extolling all their successes in Afghanistan to date and their claims were overwhelmingly unimpressive.

Glossing over any suggestion of setbacks and outright failures, Harper used the classic Orwellian language of his mentor in Washington, the standard "war is peace" thing. How are we doing in Kandahar, Steve? "There is still hard work to be done there with boots on the ground." Is that Harperese for the bad guys are taking control of more of the province because we don't have remotely enough troops there and our policies are driving the locals into the arms of the insurgents? "Still hard work to be done." Yeah, right Steve. Lots of it and more every day.

How 'bout this one? "We will continue to vigorously support Afghan efforts to strengthen the rule of law, tackle corruption, and take action against illegal narcotics." So, we're already vigorously supporting the effort to strengthen the rule of law. I guess we're doing that by leaving those kids in prison down the road in Kandahar for refusing their fathers' attempts to sell them, right? And how we must be vigorously supporting the efforts to tackle corruption. How's that going, Steve? Are we rounding up the corrupt cops who are driving the peasants over to our enemy? I mean these cops are helping the guys shooting at us.

Then there's the vigorous effort against illegal narcotics. I assume these would be the same narcotics, raw opium, by which the Afghan farmers put food in the mouths of their kids, right Steve? So what are we doing to give them another way of sustenance, of survival, before we wipe out their crops? Doesn't just destroying their poppy crops simply drive them into the all too welcoming arms of the Taliban?

So Steve's got three points: security, corruption and drugs and the record belies his claims of progress. In fairness he hasn't rolled out the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Much as I'm sure he'd like to, that wouldn't help his effort in Riga to get other nations to jump into this mess.

Maybe the Globe piece is just for the benefit of people at home. Maybe he's keeping his A game for the leaders in Riga. He'd better hope he's got a much more convincing pitch to deliver in Latvia because those leaders know better than to buy this nonsense.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Extremists And Other Vermin

As the name of this site suggests, I don't like extremism - political, religious, social or economic. Extremist philosophy is, by its very nature, the view of cranks, the shrill voice of a malignant minority. In politics, extremists don't try to embrace the moderate majority or even move them toward their radicalism. What they do has been repeatedly shown by the Bush regime, now being aped by the Harper regime. They try to intimidate moderates, instil fear in them, appeal to every base instinct they can provoke in the majority. They work outside the moderate majority, work around them, because that is the only way they can prevail. Their tactic is to use deceit to sow confusion and fear. They don't persuade, they manipulate and they're masters at it.

Bush and Rove believed they could transform Republican rule into a right-wing dynasty that would carry on far past the political horizon. Stephen Harper, to begrudgingly give him his due, is far shrewder. He knows he isn't going to shift the political centre in Canada. He knows his radical view has a limited shelf life. He knows he'd better loot the till before the boss returns.

Harper is a man of seemingly limitless contradictions and hypocrisy. He speaks of principle, he's been doing that since he came to Ottawa. He seems to have a set of principles to suit any circumstance, every occasion. In opposition, Harper had one set of principles. He often displayed missionary zeal in denouncing supposedly arrogant overreaching by the Martin, minority government. When Harper managed to fool a bare minimum of Canadians needed to win the keys to 24 Sussex Drive, all those old principles were tossed into a cardboard box and stowed in the closet to make way for a new set of principles that reflected an arrogance the Libs never even dreamed of.

I don't like Stephen Harper. I really doubt whether he's emotionally balanced. I fear for the damage he may leave Canada in his wake. Let's hope he's gone soon, very soon.

The Diabolical Nature of the Far Right

Prisoner Just Loaded with Secrets

I think people of reason and good faith have a hard time digesting what they hear from the far right, whether that be George Bush, Stephen Harper or any of the loons who lead either Christian or Muslim fundamentalism. That's not to say that they don't understand each other. They do that perfectly. Witness how Harper apes Bush in much that he says and does. Those two are on the same page, joined at the hip.

Here's one example of their sort of thinking. It surfaced in US court proceedings involving a Muslim captive who was held in a secret, CIA prison and subjected to "alternative" interrogation techniques. This fellow would like to discuss that experience with the court but the US government objects.

The United States says that, by subjecting people to torture - er, these "techniques", they're letting the detainees/victims in on top secret, classified information and, therefore, should be forever forbidden from talking about their experiences.

In one affidavit filed on behalf of the CIA it said that the government feared Mr. Kahn might reveal, "the conditions of detention and specific alternative interrogation procedures."

Of course, if you gag detainees, they'll have little or no chance of keeping out incriminating statements they made under torture. Neat trick, eh? To the far right, this makes perfect sense. Ask yourself, does it make sense to you?

First Kelowna, Now the UN

Canada's first nations haven't had much luck with the Conservative Reform Alliance Party of Stephen Harper. Harp doesn't seem to care very much for the natives or their issues.

First he kicked over the Kelowna accord, an agreement reached by the last Liberal government after a year and a half of negotiations with the provinces, territories and five aboriginal groups. The money to finance the deal was even set aside in the budget.

"Not signed" screamed the Tories on assuming power. No deal, it was just nonsense, and so on. Kelowna was dead and will stay that way unless we get rid of the Harpies.

Not content with reneging on the Liberal promises, Harper is taking action at the United Nations also where Harper Canada is joining the usual suspects - the US, Australia, New Zealand and Russia in trying to undermine the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The declaration, which the Liberal government helped push through the UN, is, according to the Toronto Star: "...aimed at setting minimum standards for the dignity, survival and well-being of the world's indigenous people, who are the poorest and least advantaged in their countries."

The non-binding declaration was the product of negotiations that took 20-years but Harper complains that it's "unclear" and should be renegotiated. Now there's a statesman for you.

This Should Help You Sleep at Night

The radiation poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has renewed interest in the theft of radioactive material from poorly-guarded nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. According to The Observer:

"More than anything, the death of the London-based former KGB spy has placed Russia's still thriving trade in radioactive material under scrutiny. 'From the terrorism threat standpoint, these cases are of little concern but they show security vulnerabilities at facilities,' said an IAEA spokesman.

"One of the few figures available, on a database compiled by researchers at Stanford University in the US, revealed that about 40kg of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium were stolen from poorly protected nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union between 1991 and 2002. Although the IAEA has no confirmation of polonium finding its way into the underground trade, there have been several unconfirmed reports of thefts.

"In 1993 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that 10kg of polonium had disappeared from the Sarov, which produces the rare radioactive material and is described as Russia's own version of Los Alamos, the US government's nuclear research base in New Mexico.

"Globally there have been more than 300 cases during the past four years where individuals have been caught trying to smuggle radioactive material. In 2005 there were 103 confirmed incidents of trafficking and other unauthorised activities involving nuclear and radioactive materials, many involving Russia."

A Warning About John McCain

I'm one of those who likes John McCain even though I often part company with his ideas - on Iraq for example. However my fondness for the guy has turned a bit shakey after reading an article on McCain by Matt Welch in today's L.A. Times which depicts the Arizona senator as a wolf in sheep's clothing:

"Sifting through McCain's four bestselling books and nearly three decades of work on Capitol Hill, a distinct approach toward governance begins to emerge. And it's one that the electorate ought to be particularly worried about right now.

"McCain, it turns out, wants to restore your faith in the U.S. government by any means necessary, even if that requires thousands of more military deaths, national service for civilians and federal micromanaging of innumerable private transactions. He'll kick down the doors of boardroom and bedroom, mixing Democrats' nanny-state regulations with the GOP's red-meat paternalism in a dangerous brew of government activism. And he's trying to accomplish this, in part, for reasons of self-realization.

"'A rebel without a cause is just a punk, ' he explains. 'Whatever you're called — rebel, unorthodox, nonconformist, radical — it's all self-indulgence without a good cause to give your life meaning.'

"What is this higher power that ennobles McCain's crankiness? Just as it is for many soldiers, it's the belief that Americans "were meant to transform history" and that sublimating the individual in the service of that "common national cause" is the wellspring of honor and purpose. (But unlike most soldiers, McCain has been in a position to prod and even compel civilians to join his cause.)

Liberals and conservatives alike fail to truly reflect his views, McCain writes, because 'neither emphasizes the obligations of a free people to the nation.' His main governmental inspiration is Teddy Roosevelt, the 'Eastern swell who became a man of the people,' whose great accomplishment was 'to summon the American people to greatness.' In Roosevelt's code, McCain writes approvingly, it was 'absolutely required that every loyal citizen take risks for the country's sake.' This is an essentially militaristic view of citizenship, one that explains many of McCain's departures from partisan orthodoxy. Unlike traditional Republicans, he will gladly butt into the affairs of private industry if he perceives them to be undermining Americans' faith in government; unlike Democrats, he thinks the executive branch generally needs more power, not less.

"If his issues line up with yours, and if you're not overly concerned by an activist federal government, McCain can be a great and sympathetic ally. But chances are he will eventually see a grave national threat in what you consider harmless, or he'll prescribe a remedy that you consider unconscionable. Nowhere is that more evident than in his ideas about the Iraq war.

"McCain has been banging the drum from nearly Day One to put more boots on the ground in Iraq. 'There are a lot of things that we can do to salvage this,' he said on "Meet the Press" on Nov. 12, 'but they all require the presence of additional troops.' McCain is more inclined to start wars and increase troop levels than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. He has supported every U.S. military intervention of the last two decades, urged both presidents to rattle their sabers louder over North Korea and Iran, lamented the Pentagon's failure to intervene in Darfur and Rwanda and supported a general policy of "rogue state rollback." He's a fan of Roosevelt's Monroe-Doctrine-on-steroids stick-wielding in Latin America. And — like Bush — he thinks too much multilateralism can screw up a perfectly good war.

"The price of all this war-making, in money and manpower, would be staggering; it's hard to imagine without a draft (McCain has long been a fan of mandatory national service, at the least). But the costs to his political ambitions may even be greater. The nation is in no mood for the war we've got now, let alone a doubling-down on Iraq and ramped-up unilateralist tough talk in the Middle East. The trend lines of public opinion on these counts are not pointing in McCain's direction."

Cloud Mysteries of the Far North

Scientists in Eureka, Nunavut Territory, are trying to figure out a mystery in the local clouds. Less than a thousand miles from the North Pole, they're finding droplets of water in the clouds when, that far north, they should be ice particles. From the Associated Press:

"With NASA reporting that 2005 was the warmest year on record worldwide, the debate over global warming marches on, but not here. The American and Canadian scientists at the Eureka Weather Station in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, like the Inuit who are seeing their native habitat thaw, are beyond questioning the existence of climate change.

"'If we compare the debate over the theory of evolution with the debate over the theory of global warming - global warming's a whole lot more certain at the moment,' said Jim Drummond, a University of Toronto physics professor and chief investigator for the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change.

"...water clouds are more likely to warm the Arctic atmosphere than ice clouds, since the liquid clouds retain more heat radiated by the Earth's surface. "This means that the ice-to-water ratios in clouds may be very important in controlling the Arctic surface temperatures and how it melts."

"In Nunavut, the melting is keenly felt. 'In the old days, we used to have 10 months of winter; now it's six,' said Simon Awa, an Inuit leader and deputy minister for the environment of Nunavut who was on the trip to Eureka. 'Every year we're getting winter later and later.'

"For these 155,000 people of Canada, Greenland, Russia and the United States, it means less time to hunt caribou, walrus and polar bear. Studies show that average winter temperatures have increased as much as 7 degrees in the Arctic over the last 50 years. The permafrost - ground that is continually frozen for at least two years - is thawing, imperiling polar bears and forcing other animals to migrate farther north.

"The walrus have moved farther away, said Awa. 'So you're taking more time out, away on the land hunting.' Meanwhile, families back home are forced to eat store-bought food that is costlier and less healthy.

"'The majority of the world's population hasn't really felt the global warming,' said Awa. 'But right now in the Arctic and in Nunavut, we're really worried because it's already affecting us. We are a thermometer of the world for what could happen.'"

Peace Triggers Fight

Lisa Jensen is about to discover that peace comes with a price. Jensen's Christmas decor includes a wreath styled as a peace sign and that's got her neighbours in Pagosa Springs, Colorado up in arms.

The Loma Linda Homeowners' Association has told Jensen to remove the wreath or face fines of $25 a day. Apparently the peace symbol offends some residents who have children in Iraq and feel the wreath is an anti-war protest. Others complain the wreath is satanic.

The President of the Homeowners' Association, Bob Kearns, ordered the architectural control committee to direct Jensen to take down the wreath. When they refused, Kearns simply fired them. So far Jensen is digging in her heels.

To the Scots, "Nation" Means Nation

Scotland and Britain seem to be nearing the point of departure. A recent poll conducted for the Daily Telegraph revealed that 52% of Scots want independence and 59% of the English would like Scotland gone. That's getting close to concensus.

Here's Peter Preston's take on the problem in today's Guardian:

"Voters aren't stupid. They have absorbed the lessons of European union, of Czech and Slovak plumbers, and seen national borders and currencies lose their old salience. Of course, Scotland may endure a bumpy ride, but not an impossible one. If the Scots want to push off, let them, because they can't go far. And meanwhile England would like some of its money back, as well as a decent answer to the West Lothian question.

"The debate may petrify the political classes, but it barely makes it through the door of the saloon bar. Quite simply, we have ceased to care as much as we did. A free Scotland? Sure, if they vote for it. A united Ireland? Why not, on the same terms? The world is a more malleable place."

Best Stick With Pups and Kittens

Want a pet for the kids? Do them a favour and stick with dogs or cats instead of the exotics. You may regret it if you don't.

The Associated Press reports that, "..exotic animals captured in the wild are streaming across the US border by the millions with little or no screening for disease."

More than 650 million critters - from kangaroos and kinkajous to iguanas and tropical fish - were imported legally into the United States in the past three years, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

``A wild animal will be in the bush, and in less than a week it's in a little girl's bedroom,'' said Darin Carroll, a disease hunter with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Zoonotic diseases - those that jump to humans - account for three quarters of all emerging infectious threats, the CDC says. Five of the six diseases the agency regards as top threats to national security are zoonotic, and the CDC recently opened a center to better prepare and monitor such diseases.

"The Journal of Internal Medicine this month estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died.

"U.S. experts don't have complete totals for Americans, but partial numbers paint a serious picture:

-Hantavirus, which is carried by rodents and can cause acute respiratory problems or death, has sickened at least 317 Americans and killed at least 93 since 1996.

-More than 600 people have been sickened since 2000 with tularemia, a virulent disease that can be contracted from rabbits, hamsters and other rodents. At least three people have died.

"Some of the scariest diseases to emerge since 2001 also have been tied to exotic animals: One of the first times the deadly Asian bird flu reached the West was in eagles smuggled aboard a plane to Europe. Likewise, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is believed to have jumped to people from caged civet cats in a Chinese market. The cats are believed to have gotten the virus from bats."

The End Game Begins

I'm drawn a lot to Iraq lately because what's about to happen there will have a tangible, if threatening, impact on the West, Canada included.

The media in Britain and the US have pretty much pronounced Iraq a lost cause, so you can expect an already leery public to become even more disenchanted with this adventure. Despite the best plans of the generals and the resolve of a few politicians, the collapse of public support dooms any hope, albeit unrealistic, of staying to salvage Iraq.

In today's Guardian, Gary Younge writes that the lying that precedes withdrawal has already begun:

"Those in the west who fear that withdrawal will lead to civil war are too late - it is already here. Those who fear that pulling out will make matters worse have to ask themselves: how much worse can it get? Since yesterday American troops have been in Iraq longer than they were in the second world war. When the people you have "liberated" by force are no longer keen on the "freedom" you have in store for them, it is time to go.

"So the crucial issue is no longer whether the troops leave in defeat and leave the country in disarray - they will - but the timing of their departure and the political rationale that underpins it.

"For those who lied their way into this war are now trying to lie their way out of it. Franco-German diplomatic obstruction, Arab indifference, media bias, UN weakness, Syrian and Iranian meddling, women in niqabs and old men with placards - all have been or surely will be blamed for the coalition's defeat. As one American columnist pointed out last week, we wait for Bush and Blair to conduct an interview with Fox News entitled If We Did It, in which they spell out how they would have bungled this war if, indeed, they had done so.

"So, just as Britain allegedly invaded for the good of the Iraqis, the timing of their departure will be conducted with them in mind. The fact that - according to the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett - it will coincide with Blair leaving office in spring is entirely fortuitous.

"More insidious is the manner in which the Democrats, who are about to take over the US Congress, have framed their arguments for withdrawal. Last Saturday the newly elected House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, suggested that the Americans would pull out because the Iraqis were too disorganised and self-obsessed. "In the days ahead, the Iraqis must make the tough decisions and accept responsibility for their future," he said. "And the Iraqis must know: our commitment, while great, is not unending."

"It is absurd to suggest that the Iraqis - who have been invaded, whose country is currently occupied, who have had their police and army disbanded and their entire civil service fired - could possibly be in a position to take responsibility for their future and are simply not doing so.

"Iraq has suffered decades of colonial rule, 30 years of dictatorship and three years of military occupation. Most recently, it has been trashed by a foreign invader. The troops must go. But the west has to leave enough resources behind to pay for what it broke. For that to happen, the anti-war movement in the west must shift the focus of our arguments to the terms of withdrawal while explaining why this invasion failed and our responsibilities to the Iraqi people that arise as a result of that failure.

"...the problem with Vietnam was not that the US invaded a sovereign country, bombed it to shreds, committed innumerable atrocities, murdered more than 500,000 Vietnamese - more than half of whom were civilians - and lost about 58,000 American servicemen. The problem with Vietnam was that they lost. And the reason they lost was not because they could neither sustain domestic support nor muster sufficient local support for their invasion, nor that their military was ill equipped for guerrilla warfare. They lost because it takes a while to complete such a tricky job, and the American public got bored."

Even Israelis Get the Global Warming Thing

Just to be an Israeli is to live with danger, real or imagined, from Iran to Syria, Hezbollah to Hamas, rocket barrages to terrorist suicide bombings. Odd then that some, such as Danny Rabinowitz, writing in Haaretz, see a greater danger looming for all Israelis:

"The struggle to save mankind from global warming is first and foremost a battle for awareness. The evasive human consciousness specializes in denial, and in denial of widespread dangers. We know how to devote ourselves to the sweet joys of life and to transfer responsibility for mending the world to technology or to politicians. Sometimes this denial is naive and sometimes it is fed by economic interests; but it imprisons mankind in a situation that is reminiscent of a critically injured person who is being taken to the operating theater on a stretcher, rushing through the hospital corridors. A doctor runs alongside the patient, talking all the while. The doctor realizes that the patient must remain conscious to survive and begs him not to fall asleep.

"The environmentalist movement, which for 20 years now has been playing the part of the doctor pleading with the patient not to fall asleep, has been joined by another strong and important player - the British Stern report, which was embraced in full by the Blair government. The report found that the economic price to be paid for damages caused by climate changes that have already occurred is several times higher than the price involved in lowering the emission of greenhouse gases and stopping the process of global warming.

"Just as in the case of Andrew Marshall, the senior Pentagon futurist who several years ago wrote a secret report warning that global warming was threatening world peace, this time too it is worthwhile for the injured man to open his eyes and ears.

"It is difficult to listen, and the material is complicated, but internalizing it and translating it into political decisiveness are the only chance. Instead of driving ourselves crazy with fears about the next war or terror attack that will kill one in a thousand of us, instead of worrying about the price of the Playstation 3, it is worth our while to start thinking seriously about how children and grandchildren will survive the 21st century."

Where Cops Are Hunted

Establishing anything resembling a functioning government in Iraq ultimately depends on creating a viable security force, that is to say an effective army and an equally effective police service. So, how's that going? You guessed it.

Will Weissert of the Associated Press interviewed an Iraqi policeman named "Kalid":

"The 22-year-old police officer wraps a black scarf around his face when on patrol. He sleeps in the station and sees his new bride only a few hours a month. He watches his colleagues get shot and blown to pieces and wonders if he will be next.

"'I have to wear a mask because I'm from the city. When I do my duty the guerrillas can recognize me,'' said Kalid, who said having his last name appear in print would put his life in danger.

"'If they find out who I am, they will kill me within the hour. I hope they don't do it in front of my wife. I hope they don't make her watch.'

"Insurgents who cannot get to U.S. forces often attack Iraqi policemen instead. Officers have been shot while praying in mosques, killed by grenades lobbed into their living rooms, tortured and dumped in riverbeds, and obliterated by roadside bombs that shred their pickup trucks.

In October, 18 police officers were slain in Fallujah and its outskirts. That was down from the summer months, when an average of one policeman was killed every day.

"'I'm a cop in Philly, but being a cop in Fallujah isn't like being a cop in Philly,'' said Maj. Brian Lippo, a Marine reservist from Philadelphia who heads a police transition team in the city. 'These guys aren't doing accident reports or domestic violence calls. They are hunted.'''

Okay, You Can Go Home Now - Even the Energy Giants Now Accept the Fact of Global Warming

Things have taken a turn for the worse for the well-paid micro industry of global warming deniers.

The 'good times' have stopped rolling now that the Democrats have retaken control of Congress and the oil industry leaders have wasted no time in learning the right steps to the Dem's tunes as reported by the Washington Post:

"'We have to deal with greenhouse gases,' John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., said in a recent speech at the National Press Club. 'From Shell's point of view, the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who is Shell to say, 'Let's debate the science'?'"

"Hofmeister and other top energy company leaders, such as Duke Energy Corp.'s chief executive, James E. Rogers, back a proposal that would cap greenhouse gas emissions and allow firms to trade their quotas.

"Paul M. Anderson, Duke Energy's chairman and a member of the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, favors a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. His firm is the nation's third-largest burner of coal.

"Exxon Mobil Corp., the highest-profile corporate skeptic about global warming, said in September that it was considering ending its funding of a think tank that has sought to cast doubts on climate change. And on Nov. 2, the company announced that it will contribute more than $1.25 million to a European Union study on how to store carbon dioxide in natural gas fields in the Norwegian North Sea, Algeria and Germany."

Sorry guys, it must've been great while it lasted. Still, the Dems didn't pick up any seats in Canada where they're still living with a far-right, ideology-driven government. Maybe the denial game still has a future in Canada.

Is Denial Contagious?

Time columnist Joe Klein writes that his president's only remaining option in Iraq is how to withdraw 'creatively.' Klein cites recent testimony of CIA Director Michael Hayden as proof that there is nothing left to win and precious little left to salvage in Iraq:

"Iraq no longer exists as a coherent governmental entity. It is being atomized, according to CIA Director Michael Hayden, into 'smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues over smaller and smaller pieces of territory.'

"Hayden's testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee a few weeks ago was largely overlooked, but it is stunning. He called the level of violence in Iraq 'satanic.' He said that as the violence increases, 'the center disappears, and normal people acting not irrationally end up acting like extremists.' In other words, if you're a resident of Baghdad, the most rational response is to seek protection from one of the militias—al-Qaeda if you're Sunni, the Mahdi Army if you're Shi'ite—or to get out of town. 'It's impossible to get your teeth fixed in Baghdad,' a U.S. intelligence official told me recently. 'All the dentists have left the country.'"

Klein points out that the CIA Director's assessment isn't shared by many military leaders if, for no other reason, that they simply are not trained to think that way, to brook any idea save for victory:

"Now, finally, the uniformed brass seem poised to speak more candidly. But that doesn't make a military solution to this disaster any more plausible. 'You know, we're trained to complete the mission,' a senior military officer told me. 'And that's our reflex reaction, to come up with a can-do plan—'Here's how you fix it, sir!' But we may lack perspective now. The situation may be reaching the point of no return.' Indeed, the best advice for the military to give the President at this point may not be how to "win" in Iraq—but how to withdraw creatively, how to limit Iran's influence in the Shi'ite regions of the south, how to keep special-operations and quick-strike units based in the region, poised to attack al-Qaeda operations on a regular basis. The United States has lost the war in Iraq, but the "long war" against Islamist extremism will surely continue. The most pressing issue now is how not to lose the battles to come."

The dismal reality on the ground in Iraq will be on everyone's mind, save perhaps Stephen Harper's, at this week's NATO summit in Riga. Washington's obsession with Iraq has undermined the effort in Afghanistan and the strained alliance. A month ago intelligence reports told of foreign jihadis now choosing Afghanistan over Iraq because it offered the chance to kill infidels instead of attacking other Muslims. NATO needs and deserves relief in the form of a transfer of large numbers of US and British troops now being tied down in Iraq. How America responds to the situation in Afghanistan may well hinge on the strength of denial afflicting not only George Bush but also his generals.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Face of Leadership

In a recent Guardian column, William Keegan wrote a terrific passage about former US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, on globalization and leadership:

"At the end of a year when the world has seen the death of champion of the inside left JK Galbraith and champion of the outside right Milton Friedman, Summers invokes the wisdom of Galbraith declaring, 'In the US, the political pendulum is swinging left. The best parts of the progressive tradition do not oppose the market system; they improve on the outcomes.' He adds: 'Galbraith was right when he observed: "All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership".'

"Summers concludes that 'meeting the needs of the anxious global middle is the economic challenge of our time'."

There Goes the Neighbourhood

And they had money and everything! Islamist candidates swept into office in the latest runoff in Bahrain, the super-rich island state in the Gulf. That spells trouble for the ruling Sunnis in a nation in which two-thirds of the people are Shia. Oh, oh.

Other candidates, women and secular liberals, got thrashed. One woman got elected and no libs although there are four libs still awaiting runoff votes. The voter turnout was 72%.

According to The Guardian: ``It looks like our parliament will be dominated by people who see themselves only as Sunnis or Shiites,'' said Fowad Shihab, a political science professor at Bahrain University. ``These are the same Islamists that are gaining control across the Arab world.''

No Regrets

He's dodged it for years from Europe to South America, always just slipping through the fingers of justice. Now, former Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet took the opportunity of his 91st birthday to take responsibility for everything that happened during his brutal dictatorship. Augusto seems to have adopted the policies of George Bush and Don Rumsfeld - accept responsibility so long as it doesn't come with any consequences.

Pinochet, in his acceptance speech, accepted responsibility but with no apology or regret. What he did, he said, including the assassination of democratically elected President Salvadore Allende, was simply for the good of Chile. Along the way his regime subjected the Chilean people to arrest and torture and a good measure of murder to boot. More than 3,000 Chileans died at the hands of his security forces.

While he held power Pinochet wasn't a complete pariah. Henry Kissinger was a pal, Ronald Reagan liked him and so did this tart:

Augusto didn't miss the opportunity to explain that it was necessary to murder President Allende (23 bullets in the back if memory serves) to protect the country's "integrity" which is a funny word for copper mines.

He also sent greetings to his homeboys, " comrades in arms, many of whom are imprisoned, suffering persecution and revenge." Oh, those poor butchers. Imagine, made to stand trial. Now what kind of guy can feel sorry for such animals? Here's a younger Augusto and the boys from the good old days:

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hidden Costs of the Tar Sands

The Athabasca Tar Sands are a huge boon to the province of Alberta. One of the greatest blessings for the province's politicians and oil execs is that the tar sands are so far north - out of sight, out of mind. You wouldn't want that mess in your back yard, you wouldn't want it within fifty miles of your back yard.

The tar sands are literally the world's filthiest oil source. Extracting synthetic oil from the sandy tar produces vast amounts of GHG, other air pollutants, water pollutants and soil contamination. Harper likes to talk about "principle trumping the almighty dollar" - yeah sure, Steve, just so it's not at home, eh?

There are problems associated with tar sand mining and refining that will cause significant effects to your pocketbook in years to come. One of these is natural gas prices. If you've got a gas-fired water heater or furnace of fireplace, you can expect to face hefty increases in your utility bills in coming years because of the tar sands' insatiable appetite for natural gas.

Let's see - we take the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas, and squander it in a filthy process to produce a dirty fossil fuel, oil, to fill America's gas tank. You gotta like the logic there. Oh yeah, right, I forgot - the almighty dollar.

Here's moe detail on the tar sands/natural gas conundrum from

"Production of "oil" from the tar sands is a very energy-intensive process. Production estimates for 2025 are that the energy input will require between 1.6-2.3 billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas per day, approximately equal to the planned maximum capacity of the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline (1.9 bcf/d) out of northern Canada, or about one-fifth of anticipated daily Canadian gas production. Pipelines or no, the energy requirements of the projects planned for tar sands development already exceed the amount of available natural gas from the entire Mackenzie River project. Virtually all estimates for natural gas usage in tar sands operations by 2015, just 10 years hence, exceed the projections for available amounts of natural gas. Something has got to give.

"In another respect, using natural gas for tar sands development creates a political issue for Canada due to its obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The NAFTA issue arises because if Canada uses natural gas for tar sands development, that nation will have that much less gas available for export to the U.S. But also under the terms of NAFTA, Canada cannot reduce natural gas exports to the U.S. unless it also reduces natural gas consumption within Canada. And because sometimes it gets cold in Canada in the wintertime, there may be a domestic Canadian political issue wrapped up in all of this."

Maybe Stevie ought to take some time out of "nation building" to start giving us some straight talk about how he's going to protect our natural gas supply. He won't because he isn't.

Then, as the report points out, there's the issue of water:

"Another limitation on tar sands expansion is that processing capacity is limited by water supply. Much water is already being recycled using current technology, but current production techniques require 1-2 barrels of "makeup" water per barrel of product. It will be imperative to develop technology that uses less water or that recycles even more of the water being used. And doing this is not nearly as easy as you might think.

"Surface water flows, principally from the Athabasca River, are simply inadequate to meet forecast needs. And deeper water, from underground aquifers, is saline and must be diluted with fresh water or otherwise desalinated. Whoops. This will require more of that energy input stuff.

"Immense amounts of water are currently being discarded into settlement ponds, in which it may take 200 years for the smallest particles to settle down to the bottom. Meanwhile, the water is toxic, and mixed with exceedingly high levels of heavy metals and other exotic elements that you probably do not want to eat. Some of these impoundment ponds are many miles in area, and will pose an environmental problem or hazard for many centuries."

Lots of room for principles here but don't hold your breath. Rona ain't ridin' to the rescue.

Wouldn't it be grand if we told the tar sands companies to find ways to resolve these problems before they go digging for any more bitumen? They tell us all the answers are just around the corner, the technology is coming. Is it?

The technology may in fact be developed but how willing will producers be to foot that substantial bill on an energy project that already has unbelievably low "energy return on investment" ratios of somewhere between just 5-10%? With those margins there's not much incentive to take responsibility for cleaning up tar sand extraction.

The worst part is the EROI (return on investment) only recognizes the producers' costs. It makes no allowance for the environmental and social costs inflicted by the tar sands project but, then again, why should it? You and I will be footing that bill.

Hey Steve, stop shoving that Chinese fella around and let's talk about your principles.

It's a Civil War

All we've heard for months is how Iraq is teetering on the edge of civil war or is descending into civil war or risks civil war. That's all nonsense. Iraq is in a state of civil war. There is underway in Iraq an actual civil war and there's no point dodging that reality.

Here's a useful discussion of the meaning of "civil war" from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University:

"Politics aside, however, the definition of civil war is not arbitrary. For some -- and perhaps especially Americans -- the term brings to mind all-out historical conflicts along the lines of the U.S. or Spanish civil wars. According to this notion, there will not be civil war in Iraq until we see mass mobilization of sectarian communities behind more or less conventional armies.

But a more standard definition is common today:

1) Civil war refers to a violent conflict between organized groups within a country that are fighting over control of the government, one side's separatist goals, or some divisive government policy.

By this measure, the war in Iraq has been a civil war not simply since the escalation of internecine killings following the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, but at least since the United States handed over formal control to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004.

Here's why: Although the insurgents target the U.S. military, they are also fighting the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and killing large numbers of Iraqis. There is little reason to believe that if the United States were suddenly to withdraw its forces, they would not continue their battle to control or shape the government.Political scientists who study civil war have proposed various refinements to this rough definition to deal with borderline cases. One issue concerns how much killing has to occur -- and at what rate.

2) For a conflict to qualify as a civil war, most academics use the threshold of 1,000 dead, which leads to the inclusion of a good number of low-intensity rural insurgencies.

Current estimates suggest that more than 25,000 Iraqis have been killed in fighting since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 -- a level and rate of killing that is comparable to numerous other conflicts that are commonly described as civil wars, such as those in Lebanon (1975-1990) and Sri Lanka (beginning in 1983).

The organization -- or rather, disorganization -- of the warring communities in Iraq means that a large-scale conventional conflict along the lines of the U.S. Civil War is unlikely to develop. More probable is a gradual escalation of the current "dirty war" between neighborhood militias that have loose ties to national political factions and are fighting almost as much within sectarian lines as across them.

This is roughly what happened in Lebanon and at a lower level in Turkish cities in the late 1970s. Ethnic cleansing will occur not as a systematic, centrally directed campaign (as in Bosnia), but as a result of people moving to escape danger."

There, that resolves it. There's no more 'descending' or 'teetering' necessary. There's no reason to hush up to avoid recognizing yet another failure by the U.S. and British. This specious argument that they can't leave lest Iraq descend into civil war is utter nonsense. Iraq is in a full-blown civil war. Now, we can start figuring out how this will end. A good start would be to get the coalition forces out of there if only to stop fueling the insurgency.

Lawrence Martin Cuts Harper To The Bone

Interesting piece by Lawrence Martin in today's Globe. He analyses whether Harper's bold initiatives are driven by the wellbeing of Canada or merely vote-pandering. On issues such as Quebec as a Nation, GST cuts, the softwood lumber sellout, environmental protection and global warming, the Afghanistan mission and day care, Martin shows that they're all pretty much political maneuvering.

Martin lays a lot of the blame at the feet of our media:

"Higher standards might prevail if the media focus was less on the politics of every government action and more on how the decisions affect the wellbeing of the country. It used to be that when politically driven considerations superseded the national interest they were exposed and scorned, not saluted."

Yes Lawrence but that was before Ibbitson, Marcus Gee and their ilk were appointed Harper cheerleaders at your paper.

Harper Cuts More Climate Change Programmes

According to The Globe, Harper is about to take the axe to government climate change programmes again. With the integrity of a nest of pit vipers and the nerve of a canal horse, the Tories are even "...asking public servants to help manage the 'fallout' by explaining why their positions should disappear." I'd love to know the carrot and stick behind that sleaze.

Speaking of sleaze, the article also reveals that - surprise, surprise - Rona Ambrose hasn't been terribly honest about this business. E-mails obtained by the Liberals under FOI confirm that government officials were directed to excise references to Kyoto from the government's global warming site. When asked directly about this in June, Ambrose claimed the question was "ridiculous." Rona Ambrose is a sleaze.

Simply Beautiful

This Isn't Going to Please the Neighbours

The Toronto Star reports that a Canadian may have assumed command of the insurgency within Iraq. The man, who apparently goes by the name Abu Abdul Rahman, left Canada in 1995. He's being associated with a new and bolder insurgency that is confronting American troops in Iraq.

According to The New York Times, insurgent camps are now training their recruits in military tactics so the can stand and fight U.S. forces instead of relying on hit and run attacks. This sounds similar to what has been experienced by NATO forces in Afghanistan in recent months.

This Should Help Settle Things Down

I thought I'd explore the Shia/Sunni divide and where it stands today. The Iraq civil war is being fought along Shia/Sunni lines and, if partition comes, it will also probably be along those same religious lines. But what of the state of Shia and Sunni faiths in the rest of the M.E.?

Things aren't great between them, even outside Iraq. The Shia world is primarily non-Arab. They're a minority sect throughout the Islamic world and the majority faith in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and parts of Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Sunni dominate the balance of the Islamic world. Here's a map:

Dark Green = Shia

There is a bitter rivalry underway between al-Qaeda (Sunni) and Hezbollah (Shiite). Al-Qaeda leaders are said to be alarmed at the growing prestige of Hezbollah among the people of the Sunni M.E., especially after Israel's last failed invasion of Lebanon. There is speculation that this factor played a role in the Palestinian uprising four months later but there is no proof of that.

The tensions between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are a threat to both of them but there is much that they share in common. Both believe that Israel must be destroyed. Here's the hook - militant Shia and militant Sunni believe the conquest of Israel will usher in the "End of Times" and bring paradise on earth.

No one is sure how this rivallry will play out in the next couple of years but is expected that the civil war in Iraq will have a ripple effect in parts of the Arab M.E. One thing that is certain: a lot of civilians are going to be caught in the middle of these extremists.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Do I Have to Tell You Again? Stop Eating the Cats!

Beijing has finally let the cat out of the bag. Okay, I'm sorry. Remember SARS? Who doesn't? Well a joint China-Hong Kong research team has announced they've determined that SARS spread to humans from civet cats.

Hong Kong scientists have long speculated that the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus was spread to humans by the civet cat, a popular delicacy in parts of China, and then developed the ability to rapidly spread from human to human.

So, next time when they pass the kitty platter, just say "no".

Just What Did Tony Blair Say to David Frost?

Has Tony Blair gone mad? Alistair Mant speculates in the Sidney Morning Herald in an article entitled "The Madness of King Tony":

Tony Blair's recent interview with Sir David Frost got a few observers quite worried about the Prime Minister's state of mind. His response to Frost's observation that Iraq has been "so far pretty much of a disaster" was so far removed from reality as to be alarming. It is worth noting the Prime Minister's reaction in full:

"It has [been a disaster] but, you see, what I say to people is: 'Why is it difficult in Iraq?' It's not difficult because of some accident in planning, it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy - al-Qaeda with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."

It's not easy to deconstruct this statement. It seems to say: "It's not our fault. Our plan was excellent. It's just that the bad guys didn't do the right thing - it's so unfair."

Note also his difficulty with the word "disaster" - in his mind, Iraq is "difficult". And note too that Blair doesn't tell Frost what he actually believes, only what he says to people.

Blair has worried some observers before. As long ago as March 2003, the distinguished former politician Matthew Parris wrote an astonishing piece for The Times entitled: "Are we witnessing the madness of Tony Blair?"

In it, he drew attention to the "fierce intensity" of Blair's self-belief and to his wild optimism and grandiosity, quite out of step with messy reality. He also, in passing, linked this messianic quality with the Prime Minister's well-known religiosity. Alistair Campbell, then Blair's press secretary, always insisted "We don't do religion!" But the press corps knew better.

Those who work with Blair refer to his frequent rumination "it's all very difficult!" - which they take to mean "we don't do difficult". So Parris's observation that Blair prefers a kind of vague but well-meaning optimism to admitting to and grappling with failure, is supported by Abse's experience nearly 20 years earlier. He observes that Blair's rhetoric is of "trust and honour; of compassion, conviction, vocation; of humanity, integrity, community, morality, honesty and probity; of values, standards, faiths and beliefs". He is a politician but he aspires to be more than that.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington during the Iraq build-up, reminds us in his book DC Confidential that Blair doesn't "do" detail either.

If it is true that prominent politicians are often impelled to act out private grief in their public lives, this may explain their frequent recourse to bizarre or self-destructive behaviour. In retrospect, Blair's personal decision to take Britain into Iraq seems to verge on the suicidal, politically speaking. But perhaps the need for approval and acceptance by a powerful father figure swamped all other considerations.

Once that decision was taken, in opposition to all the most expert advice, the Prime Minister was launched on a sea of "bullshit". But not lying - his moral code will not condone a deliberate lie. What's the difference?

Professor Harry Frankfurt, the eminent Princeton philosopher, explains the distinction between lying (the deliberate attempt to deceive) and bullshitting (which the bullshitter is likely to believe - and which may well be true). The point of bullshit (as Frankfurt explains in his important monograph On Bullshit) is not concerned with truth or falsehood but with the carrying forward of an impression which supports a general thesis about the world at large and especially about the "bullshit artist" himself. The admirable thing about the liar is that he has a kind of respect for the truth, because he must apprehend it in order to contradict it. For the bullshit artist, truth is an irrelevance.

So when politicians tell untruths they are frequently expressing a deeper truth which is embedded in their wounded self-view. And of course the fact that both Blair and Bush are religious means that they are both capable of faith in the undemonstrable. Bush is also probably quite sincere in what he says - Frankfurt might argue that his particular line of bullshit serves the underlying purpose of demonstrating to an extended, and sceptical, Bush family, that he is not a stupid failure burdened by an addictive personality after all. So, terrifying as it may seem, he probably believes every word he says. The US Vice-President is another matter.

So, are we just unlucky to have two important political systems led by people damaged in this way? Not really. The point is that people like Blair and Bush are impelled to strive for the top and, given a surface plausibility and unlimited self-belief, often achieve it. Never forget the wise words of the great 17th-century French essayist Jean de la Bruyere: "Men fall from great fortune because of the same shortcomings that led to their rise."

Carbon Trading Snake Oil

A scam fostered with good intentions.

Western nations are rich compared to the rest of the world. Thus it's almost irresistable when faced with a threatening problem to opt for paying a modest price to make it go away.

That's the essence of the carbon trading racket. If you pollute too much, you can fix everything by simply paying some needy third world bugger to curb his pollution or to do something "carbon friendly" like planting trees. He cleans up his act and you get to take credit for it by sending him a few bucks. You can just keep going at it because there'll never be a shortage of poor folks ready to take your money.

It sounds okay - not great but okay - in theory but the policy is riddled with holes in practice. The tree planting business, for example, is really dodgy. It is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty how much carbon is going to be absorbed by each tree. Then the carbon captured by that tree will, of course, simply be spewed back out when the tree is felled, naturally or by logging, and the tree either decomposes or is burned. This assumes that the parties to the programme are actually honest and their effort verifiable.

The biggest problem, however, is that this deludes us into believing we can keep riding this merry-go-round instead of actually slashing our own carbon production. We have to break that delusional dependency and there's no magic solution.

Are Americans Turning a Corner?

Sometimes you find inspiration in unusual places. I did today in an article written by columnist Rami Khouri in Lebanon's Daily Star:

"I've just spent seven weeks in the United States and encountered hundreds of students, professors and other ordinary citizens all around the country who share a set of powerful ideas - personal liberty, pluralism, and equal rights and opportunities guaranteed by the rule of law. Yet America also runs into great difficulties when it takes its ideals around the world on the back of its army trucks and air force planes. Consequently, American society is tempered today by some humility, anchored in genuine perplexity.

"The militant arrogance and aggressive self-assuredness that often defined American public and foreign policy in recent years have given way in places to a more humble spirit of inquiry. Everywhere I went, Americans asked the same questions: Why does the world resist American attempts to promote democracy? Why do so many people all over the world criticize the US? Why is the American "noble" mission in Iraq going so badly?

"Based at Stanford University in northern California, then at Northeastern University in Boston, I traveled throughout the land and heard citizens everywhere ask honest questions about how the US should best behave in the world. I encountered only the rare wild accusations about Arabs and Muslims or equally jingoistic assertion that "America knows best." If the world changed for Americans after 9/11, it seems to be changing again these days, and for the better.

"Typical were the questions I had from a class of over 300 students at Northeastern University on globalization and international affairs - itself a sign of the growing interest here in learning about the world, rather than sending the troops abroad to rearrange it. A few energized students slammed me as a "raving fanatic" and asked how I dared to deliver my "ideologically skewed views in a society with freedom of thought," and I thanked them for their candor and for keeping me on my toes."

Khouri's comments deliver a ray of hope that many Americans have finally broken free of the 9/11 trauma and subsequent propaganda that fueled their confusion, fear and anger and are willing again to approach the world and its problems with a broader, more balanced and yes, nuanced, outlook. There is hope.

The Definition is Irrelevant

The debate over whether Quebec should be recognized as a nation is too often focused on what we mean by "nation", how we define it, the word's significance. The real issue, from everything I've witnessed in the past, isn't in the definition but in the expectations the word unleashes.

This isn't like the way we once gave beads to Indians. No, the gift of "nation" to many Quebeckers brings with it expectations of some degree of genuine sovereignty and the trouble arises when they realize we have no intention of delivering that. Nobody likes crass manipulation for political advantage, especially not if they come to realize they're the targets of it.

If you stir up the embers, you're likely going to rekindle the fire.

This Is What Our Soldiers Are Up Against

You won't get this unvarnished reality from Stephen Harper or any other Afghanistan cheerleaders but we need to understand the rot that is today's Afghanistan, the rot we're expecting our soldiers to give their lives to defend.

Here's a very different look at what's going on over there from Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press:

"But government help hasn't reached many Afghans, and much of the country has returned to the same 1990s anarchy and lawlessness that gave rise to the Taliban's iron-fisted rule.

"Taliban fighters defend villagers against criminal gangs which often are linked to the government, he said. They don't perform the arbitrary arrests and searches that are conducted by the Western troops who occasionally patrol the region. Also boosting their ranks are Western air strikes that often kill civilians along with combatants.

"If this is all they are going to do for us, is kill us, they should get out," shouted Ghulab Shah, a middle-aged man from Ashogho in southern Kandahar after nine of his neighbors were killed as they slept when a NATO bomb blasted their home.

"Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid shares the frustration. "How are we supposed to bring security to the country with this kind of thing happening?" he asked.

"The government, he said, can replace the houses destroyed in the raids. "But who do you build a house for if they are all dead?"

"The Taliban defeat in 2001 provoked a backlash against their harsh rule and a surge in support for the new government. From Zabul province in southeast Afghanistan, 2,000 young men went to Kabul to sign up for the new national army or police forces.

"All returned, police officials say, frustrated by poor salary or perceived ethnic bias in the new government. All but four joined the Taliban, they said.

"And to the common people, criminal gangs abetted by the police and military are as big a threat in many areas as the fundamentalist militia, said Noor Mohammed Paktin, Zabul's police chief.

"'Many times when they say Taliban attacked cars on the highway, it is thieves, sometimes ... with the help of the police,' Paktin said in his office in Zabul's provincial capital, Qalat.

"Roads through the province are dangerous. Even the highway between Kabul and Kandahar, built with U.S. money and hailed as a symbol of Afghanistan's post-Taliban rebirth, is normally empty by early afternoon because of checkpoints run by the Taliban, thieves or rogue police.

"Today, local officials say, most of Zabul province is under Taliban control. In Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, government influence is restricted to the capital cities and a few district headquarters, according to Najibullah, a career police officer who asked that his full name not be used, for fear of being disciplined.

"Rather than try to defend the village of Musa Qalat in Helmand Province, Najibullah said, British soldiers and their Afghan army allies pulled out in mid-October. They handed villagers 200 rifles and, in essence, wished them luck.

"'In Musa Qala the government is there only in name,' Najibullah said.

"Police morale is low, he said, and officers have not been paid in months. About 70 of his 350 men have quit. "Why am I fighting?" Najibullah said. "Because I am a career military man and I should defend the government. But I know that from the ministers right down to the soldiers they are all thieves."

"Some Afghans who welcomed the U.S.-led troops five years ago now resent them. Even after years of operating in Afghanistan, Najibullah said, NATO and U.S. forces still get caught in the middle of tribal feuds and ancient grudges, raiding homes or attacking villages on dubious tips.

"The Taliban have also made an ally of Afghanistan's endemic poverty.

"They recruit many disaffected and unemployed young men within Afghanistan and in places like the Qari Jangel refugee camp in Pakistan's remote southern Baluchistan province, said Christopher Alexander, deputy special representative of the U.N. secretary general in Afghanistan.

"Pakistani authorities ordered the camp closed in April, but it remains open. Local officials say the order comes from the United States, and they refuse to enforce it.

Alexander called cross-border support for the Taliban "very strong."

"He said only a few of the fighters in southern Afghanistan are ideologically committed Taliban, or foreign jihadists. Most, he said, are simply Afghan villagers drawn to the movement by tribal honor, frustration or the need for a job."

And our answer to this is to muster another 2,500 troops? These are problems that are endemic to Afghanistan and they're fatal to everything we're trying to accomplish there. Odd, isn't it, that our leaders can't bring themselves to debate this?

Times Toons

From the Times of London