Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Gaza Just a Football for Israeli Electoral Politics?

The Washington Post is offering the first plausible rationale for the Israeli air assault on Gaza - the upcoming elections to pick a new Israeli leader.

The Israeli campaign is being led not by a single commander in chief, but by a triumvirate of politicians. The three are known to mistrust one another deeply, but all have staked their futures on a highly risky military operation aimed at breaking Hamas's capacity to fire rockets at Israel.

With national elections just over a month away, two of the three are vying for Israel's top job. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both have led high-profile but fruitless efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians; now, each is trying to win favor with Israelis by going to war.

All campaigning for the Feb. 10 vote has been temporarily suspended. But Barak, a former prime minister and ex-army commando, is expected to make the case that he can defend the country in times of crisis. Livni, meanwhile, is seeking to overcome concerns that as a woman who never served in the armed forces, she is not tough enough to lead Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be a candidate in the elections and may be indicted on corruption charges. But the Gaza offensive could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel's failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.

Can there be a more crass reason for the aerial bombardment of Gaza? It's no wonder there doesn't appear to be any meaningful military objective to warrant the inevitable fallout because this isn't about Hamas or Gaza or the Palestinians who are getting slaughtered. It's about the political aspirations of two prominent Israelis and erasing the stigma of failure that clings to the outgoing leader.

Now it all makes sense. My god, it's come to this.

There's No Middle Ground Any More

Israel's latest air bombardment of Gaza is being felt throughout the Middle East. At a time when the status quo in the region is coming to an end and Israel's essential sponsor is beset with troubles at home and in South Asia, yet another military blunder by Ehud Olmert may be all it takes to irrevocably shift power away from moderate Arab states.

As with Olmert's misadventure into Lebanon, the Gaza air assault seems to be playing right into the hands of Iran and Syria. Recent reports indicate that the Arab Street, that is to say popular opinion in Arab states, is turning against not just Israel but also the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia which are themselves dependent on American protection.

Olmert, who has repeatedly shown all the tactical brilliance of George Bush, doesn't seem to have any clear political plan for the conflict. If his objective is to weaken Hamas, aerial bombardment of build up areas in Gaza is likely to have just the opposite effect. Fearful of their own people, Egypt and Saudi Arabia may have no choice but to support Hamas. Gaza soon may be the least of Israel's problems if Olmert shatters the quasi-neutrality of the moderate Arab states. There'll be no middle ground any more.

It's unclear why Israel is painting itself into this corner at this point. With the lamest of lame duck presidents in the White House and American military power already frayed, some of Israel's Arab enemies are feeling less threatened, even emboldened.

American domination of the Middle East is being challenged. Russia has begun building a permanent naval base in Syria. There are reports that Iran will soon deploy the Russian-built, state of the art S-300 anti-aircraft, anti-missile air defence system that Western experts claim to be the best in the world. It's even rumoured that Russia and China are considering bringing Pakistan and Iran under the defensive umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a move that would represent a power shift of seismic proportions in the Persian Gulf.

So just what is Olmert playing at? Unguided rockets lobbed out of Gaza that kill just seven people over two years aren't an existential threat to Israel, they're barely a significant annoyance. These rockets may be Olmert's pretext for war but he must have some other, far more compelling reason to risk so much for what seems to be so little gain.

Going to war on a pretext is nothing new for Olmert. The ill-fated invasion of Lebanon was waged on a pretext. Israel and the United States had been planning that for months. Yet, despite overwhelming military superiority, Israel not only failed to destroy Hezbollah, it actually strengthened it and its acceptance and support both within Lebanon and throughout the Muslim world. In the Occupied Territories, Olmert and Bush have also been determined to drive Palestinian support away from Hamas and instead to Fatah but it's hard to imagine how this bombing will further that goal.

Could it be that in its 60-years of existence, Israel still has no clout in the region beyond its military prowess; that the only way it can influence its neighbours is by force or the threat of force? That's a fairly narrow and brittle position to be in, especially during a time of shifting power bases.

If the bottom line for Olmert is some form of capitulation by Hamas, it's hard to imagine this campaign ending well, or at all. Bunglers like Bush, Mubarak and the House of Saud have already radicalized the Arab Street. What can Olmert achieve but to stoke the fires of pan-Arab nationalism? With our backsides still hanging out in Afghanistan and Iraq, the last thing any of us need is a display of solidarity with Israel against the Palestinians. We would naturally say this is about Hamas not the Palestinian people, a distinction that, coming from Westerners, would be meaningless throughout the Muslim world.

No, it is time that we finally pull this thorn from the lion's paw. Time is running out. Israel either can't or won't settle its problems with its neighbours and the repercussions are too great and too far spread to accept the cost of that any longer.

Israel won't accept a one-state solution so a two-state solution it must be. That means rolling Israel back to the 1967 border, including removal of the 430,000 illegal Israeli settlers from the West Bank. The international community will have to step in between the Israelis and the Palestinians, probably for two or three generations at least. Yet, with plenty of aid and support from the West and affluent Arab states and a few decades of peace and prosperity, the Palestinian people will probably bury their grievances with Israel and do what every other human being wants to do - get on with their lives.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Could America's Army Be Unleashed On the American People?

The very idea of the American military being turned on the American public seems so outrageous as to be unthinkable but think again because the US Army War College is thinking about just that. From the El Paso Times:

A U.S. Army War College report warns an economic crisis in the United States could lead to massive civil unrest and the need to call on the military to restore order.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Nathan Freir wrote the report "Known Unknowns: Unconventional Strategic Shocks in Defense Strategy Development," which the Army think tank in Carlisle, Pa., recently released.
("Known Uknowns?" How very Rumsfeldian).

"Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities ... to defend basic domestic order and human security," the report said, in case of "unforeseen economic collapse," "pervasive public health emergencies," and "catastrophic natural and human disasters," among other possible crises.

The report also suggests the new (Barack Obama) administration could face a "strategic shock" within the first eight months in office.

Earlier this year, Pentagon officials said as many as 20,000 soldiers under the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) will be trained within the next three years to work with civilian law enforcement in homeland security.

Ah, There It Is - SEVEN

I had to work my way down to McClatchey Newspapers to find it (even though I know I should have started with McClatchey) and there it is.

The aerial bombardment of Gaza is indeed in response to the deaths of Israelis from unguided rockets fired into Israel from Gaza, rockets that have killed

SEVEN Israelis during the past TWO YEARS
And, as the paper's account reveals, Israel has no idea how to translate its devastating assault into anything meaningful for either side:

"I don't see how this ends well, even if, in two weeks time, it looks like it ends well," said Daniel Levy, a political analyst who once served as an adviser to Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister who's now leading the military campaign against Hamas as Israel's defense minister.

...Israeli leaders haven't explained what could bring the violence to a halt. Once the smoke clears, the rubble is removed and the dead are buried, Hamas is still almost certain to remain in control of the Gaza Strip, and its hard-line leaders are already vowing to strike back.

"To the extent to which there's a scenario where Israel wins a tactical round, it will again lose a strategic round," said Levy, a senior fellow at The New America Foundation, a liberal policy institute in Washington, D.C. that's providing ideas and personnel to the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama."
Seven dead Israelis killed by extremists firing rockets from Gaza. It's amazing how much justification you can milk out of something like that if you carefully frame the argument, scrupulously avoiding mention of numbers and time frames and any other inconvenient facts.
Facts like this. There are now 430,000 Israeli "settlers" living illegally in the West Bank on land stolen from Palestinians. In the first half of 2008 the UN documented 222 settler attacks on Palestinians and Israeli troops, up from 229 for all of 2007.
Using terrorism to fight terrorism isn't about solving anything, it's about revenge and that's all. It's got nothing to do with defence because it only perpetuates the core root of terrorism. All the noble justifications are so much sophistry, distortions and manipulation. This is a matter of revenge and, with deaths now probably well over 400 and as many as 1400 wounded, Israel has had more than ample payback for its own seven dead.

Stopping the Gaza Slaughter

Israel's aerial bombardment of Gaza will end the minute the White House tells them to call it off. Shrub may not have any credibility left in the rest of the planet, but he still calls the shots with the Israelis. Unfortunately as we've seen in his own failed wars and in Israel's botched war in Lebanon, there's no end to Bush's appetite for bloodshed. Killing civilians, en masse, isn't something that's going to cost George any sleep.

It's interesting how the rocket barrages by Palestinian militants are unquestionably taken to be the work of Hamas, the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people. Everybody makes the claim, takes it for granted, and yet I, for one, haven't seen anything directly linking the militants and the Palestinian government.

It's a guilt by association thing that surely ought to cut both ways at the very least. That means Israel is culpable in every atrocity committed by its own extremists, its settlers, in stealing Palestinian land, in destroying their olive groves, in stoning and shooting their innocents. Of course that would mean we'd have to designate Israel as a terrorist regime, something that's unthinkable of a state whose leaders acknowledge a "pogrom" against the Palestinians and yet are no better than Hamas at eradicating their own, in-house extremists, their Jewish fundamentalists who are just as bloodthirsty as their counterpart Islamist fundamentalists.

We have seen what Christian fundamentalism (the radical Rapture reprobates) has done to the United States. We've seen what Islamic fundamentalism (the radical Wahabism reprobates) has done to the Middle East. We've seen what Jewish fundamentalism (the radical Zionism reprobates) has done to the Occupied Territories. There's no point coddling these people because, when it comes to extremism, there's neither floor nor ceiling. None of them put their nations or their peoples ahead of their religious zealotry. They're not interested in freedom of religion because they know other religions are untrue or worse. They're all one gaggle of freebooter Crusaders ironically huddled around the same book.

The international community created Israel. We have seen for far too long that Israel is incapable of managing its own affairs, both unable and unwilling to find peace with its neighbours. No nation, no group in that region has clean hands. It's time to impose peace on Israel and on the Palestinians, the Lebanese and the Syrians. Israel isn't interested in a one-state solution so a two-state solution it must be.

Back to the 1967 borders. A buffer zone established entirely within Israeli territory and occupied by international peacekeepers armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry and technology. Peacekeepers with a mandate to shoot to kill intruders from either side whether they come by land, by air or by sea. It might take two, perhaps even three generations for the ethnic and religious venom to die off but we're at a point where it's either quarantine both sides or allow this nightmare to worsen, perhaps irretrievably.

This madness must end.

"Governor Palin's Office Declined to Comment..."

That one brief sentence in The Guardian report on the birth of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's first (to our knowledge) grandson spoke volumes.

Sarah's unwed, now 18-year old (whew that was close!) daughter, Bristol, delivered a baby boy and the Governess dummied up? You would have thought Sarah would have a stage, complete with podium, American flags and fireworks, ready for a quick photo op.

Palin didn't waste an opportunity to troll Bristol along last fall during the election campaign spinning the whole thing as an example of her daughter's virtue in not seeking an abortion and her intention of marrying the plainly reluctant dad, Levi Johnston.

Sarah Palin whose favourite hobbies, according to Robin Williams, are breast feeding and shooting animals from helicopters, seems to have lost her enthusiasm over the blessed event now that Bristol is no longer a useful stage prop and her co-grandma, Levi's mom Sherry, has been busted for selling oxycontin, better known as "Hillbilly Heroin." I guess she's probably apoplectic at the prospect of being accused of "palling around" with a hard drug dealer.

Good luck Bristol. I think you're going to need as much as you can get.

Monday, December 29, 2008

About That Purity Pledge

One hallmark of the religious fundamentalism of the George w. Bush White House has been the obsessive emphasis on sexual abstinence for American teens. Government funding followed a mantra that abstinence programmes were good and deserving of public funding, birth control and planned parenthood counselling were the work of Satan and deserving of public scorn.

As in so many credos of the fundamentalist knobs, the abstinence platform has backfired. Another study, this one just released by the John Hopkins Medical Center, finds that premarital abstinence pledges simply don't work. From the Washington Post:

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

The study seems to reinforce research showing that Red States have earlier marriages, shorter marriages, more divorces, more unwed prenancies and more STDs. Maybe it has something to do with all that Bible Thumping.

Kudos to Drake Landing

North America's first, solar-powered community is up and running and, surprise, surprise, it's in Alberta.

The Drake Landing Solar Community is a complex of 52 houses all powered by solar energy. DLSC lies within the town of Okotoks, Alberta. From the Environmental News Network and Global Warming is Real:

The system that links the community together is ingenious. It stores the summer months’ excess energy underground for it to be put to use in the extremely cold winter months that Alberta is notorious for. A total of 800 solar panels located on garage roofs throughout the community generate 1.5 megawatts of thermal power during a typical summer day, the project’s organizers say.

DLSC's underground energ7y storage system is unique in the world. Dubbed the Borehole Thermal Electrical Storage (BTES), the unit links all the newly built, single detached homes together. The rest of the building efforts have been as green as possible and the entire community has been awarded gold-certified status under the Built Green Alberta program. That program in turn is modeled on NRCan’s EnerGuide for New Houses Program. All of them have rear garages separated from the houses via a breezeway. The best news is of course the low carbon footprint of the people that occupy the houses. A typical household will generate only 1 to 2 tonnes of greenhouse gas annually, compared to an average Canadian footprint of around 6 to 7 tonnes per home a year, according to a report on

Find out more at the Drake Landing Solar Community website:

What's Wrong With Israel Defending Itself?

In a word, "nothing."

There's nothing wrong with Israel defending itself against rocket attacks launched from Gaza. Nothing. I have the right to defend myself, you have the right to defend yourself, Israel has the right to defend its people.


Does Israel's right to defend itself against terrorist rocket attacks from Gaza give it the right to respond with terrorist aerial bombardment of the Palestinians?


Most of the aerial bombs Israeli jets are dropping into the overcrowded neighbourhoods in Gaza are of the type depicted above. They're American designed, if not American built, and come in 500, 1,000 and 2,000 pound denominations. They're high-explosive bombs that generate not just shrapnel but incredibly lethal blast:

"Blast is caused by tremendous dynamic overpressures generated by the detonation of a high explosive. Complete (high order) detonation of high-explosives can generate pressures up to 700 tons per square inch and temperatures in the range of 3,000 to 4,500ยบ prior to bomb case fragmentation. It is essential that the bomb casing remain intact long enough after the detonation sequence begins to contain the hot gases and achieve a high order explosion. A consideration when striking hardened targets is that deformation of the weapon casing or fuze may cause the warhead to dud or experience a low order detonation. Approximately half of the total energy generated will be used in swelling the bomb casing to 1.5 times its normal size prior to fragmenting and then imparting velocity to those fragments. The remainder of this energy is expended in compression of the air surrounding the bomb and is responsible for the blast effect. This effect is most desirable for attacking walls, collapsing roofs, and destroying or damaging machinery."

"...For purposes of the present discussion, however, let us concede that the bombs and missiles strike with all the accuracy claimed for them. What happens then? As described recently by Newhouse reporter David Wood, the 2000-pound JDAM “releases a crushing shock wave and showers jagged, white-hot metal fragments at supersonic speed, shattering concrete, shredding flesh, crushing cells, rupturing lungs, bursting sinus cavities and ripping away limbs in a maelstrom of destruction.” Hardly anyone survives within 120 meters of the blast, where pressures of several thousand pounds per square inch and 8,500-degree heat simply obliterate everything, human and material. Metal fragments are spewed nearly three-quarters of a mile, and bigger pieces may fly twice that far; no one within 365 meters can expect to remain unharmed, and persons up to 1000 meters or farther away from the point of impact may be harmed by flying fragments. Of course, the explosions also start fires over a wide area, which themselves may do vast damage, even to structures and people unharmed by the initial blast."

Aerial bombardment of residential areas is not a legitimate means of self-defence. Targeting a Hamas police headquarters in a built-up district is quite different than bombing a known site used by rocket launchers. Furthermore, police are considered civilians under the laws of war. But this doesn't hang on fine points about the culpability of any particular agent of the elected Hamas government. It's about the deliberate killing of innocents to avenge the deliberate killing of innocents.

As I've written many times before, we are all deemed to intend the logical consequences of our acts. That applies to you, to me and to governments. The logical consequences of aerial bombardment of residential areas include the deaths and maiming of innocents. This is terrorism.

So, it's not about whether you're pro-Palestine or pro-Israel. Even if you're pro-Israel you're backing a terrorist state. Aerial bombardment of civilian areas is rank butchery, plain and simple. It has nothing to do with self-defence and everything to do with retaliatory terrorism. The fact that Israel is our ally changes nothing.

Gaza, from a Palestinian's Perspective

Israel says it is bombing Gaza in retaliation for recent rocket attacks it blames on Hamas. Israel maintains it is targetting only Hamas installations. Nobody disputes the right of self-defence but just how clean are Israeli hands?

Palestinian author Ali Abunimah, writing in today's Guardian, adds some important perspective:

"Israel says it is acting in "retaliation" for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel's method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people - mostly refugees and children - caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, pleaded that Israel wanted "quiet" - a continuation of the truce - while Hamas chose "terror", forcing him to act. But what is Israel's idea of a truce? It is very simple: Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonise their land."

This is no apologia for the rocket-firing terrorists. It's just a matter of perspective. When the lens is pulled back and you get the larger picture, neither side has clean hands in this one.

Poor Incurious George

This teaser from The Guardian says it all:

"Barack Obama has spoken with Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and other advisers about the situation in Gaza, but he has so far declined to say how he would respond to the crisis. Is he correct to let the Bush administration speak for the US?"

The implications of the question itself are stunningly audacious. When was the last time any media queried whether a president-elect, still nearly three weeks distant from inauguration, is "correct" to allow the sitting president to still speak for his country? I can answer that for you, never.
(Photo caption - "Nice to see you again George. Our bags are in the trunk. Would you mind getting them?")

Why Spending Makes Sense When You're Broke

There's an instinctive tendency when an economy is in meltdown to slash spending. And yet the legitimate economists (the best and brightest who were scorned with contempt by the rightwing louts who spent the past eight years sabotaging the global economy) prescribe massive government spending to get our economies rolling again.

Granted it's not the same sort of chicanery that got the entire planet into this mess. It's not borrowing from strangers to finance tax cuts for the very richest people in the land. No, it's borrowing to spend on investments, it's investing, using government spending to create things that will pay dividends for decades to come. And, no, that doesn't mean more 2,000 pound bombs or more tanks or more military trinkets.

Confused? In today's New York Times, Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman puts it into layman's terms:

"...let’s step back for a moment and contemplate just how crazy it is, from a national point of view, to be cutting public services and public investment right now.
Think about it: is America — not state governments, but the nation as a whole — less able to afford help to troubled teens, medical care for families, or repairs to decaying roads and bridges than it was one or two years ago? Of course not. Our capacity hasn’t been diminished; our workers haven’t lost their skills; our technological know-how is intact. Why can’t we keep doing good things?

It’s true that the economy is currently shrinking. But that’s the result of a slump in private spending. It makes no sense to add to the problem by cutting public spending, too.

In fact, the true cost of government programs, especially public investment, is much lower now than in more prosperous times. When the economy is booming, public investment competes with the private sector for scarce resources — for skilled construction workers, for capital. But right now many of the workers employed on infrastructure projects would otherwise be unemployed, and the money borrowed to pay for these projects would otherwise sit idle.

And shredding the social safety net at a moment when many more Americans need help isn’t just cruel. It adds to the sense of insecurity that is one important factor driving the economy down."

Yes, the United States economy is in meltdown and, yes, it's governments - federal, state and municipal - were responsible for much of the problem through profligate spending and rash borrowing. But it wasn't the spending that was the real culprit but how the money was squandered - stupid spending with no returns save for massive corporate wealth - and how the government went to foreign lenders to fund tax cuts for the most privileged.

Sadly for we Canadians, we're still saddled with a leader who clings to the Grover Norquist/Dick Cheney model of government. What little moderation we've seen from Harper so far is driven by his insatiable quest for a majority that forces him to restrain his basest, ideological urges. The past six months have clearly shown that Harper's ideology doesn't include a chapter on how to actually lead a country in times of trouble. That's why he has given Canadians such a litany of erratic and contradictory messages about what's coming and what he proposes to do in response.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This

First of all, my knowledge of science is very limited. Secondly, I do tend to trust scientists - to a point. Thirdly, the scientific community has been doing some cutting edge experiments lately that carry small risks of mass destruction that are being conducted without the benefit of public awareness or debate.

For example, in 1997 NASA launched the Cassini satellite on a mission to Saturn. Aboard the space probe was a fuel cell consisting of a staggering 72-pounds of astonishingly lethal, weapons-grade plutonium. The concern was that an explosion aboard Cassini could send that plutonium fallout over a huge area and kill an awful lot of people. Given how concerned authorities get when a spy satellite with 20-grams of plutonium comes crashing back to earth, the notion of 72-pounds of the stuff being transformed into high-altitude litter was actually pretty scary.

Flash forward 12-years to the sunny hills of California, home of the Laurence Livermore National Laboratory. Sometime this spring, scientists there are hoping to create an artificial star. An artificial star, how quaint. Think about this, from The Telegraph:

"Its goal is to generate temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Celsius and pressures billions of times higher than those found anywhere else on earth, from a speck of fuel little bigger than a pinhead. If successful, the experiment will mark the first step towards building a practical nuclear fusion power station and a source of almost limitless energy.

At a time when fossil fuel supplies are dwindling and fears about global warming are forcing governments to seek clean energy sources, fusion could provide the answer. Hydrogen, the fuel needed for fusion reactions, is among the most abundant in the universe. Building work on the £1.2 billion nuclear fusion experiment is due to be completed in spring.

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, nestled among the wine-producing vineyards of central California, will use a laser that concentrates 1,000 times the electric generating power of the United States into a billionth of a second.

The result should be an explosion in the 32ft-wide reaction chamber which will produce at least 10 times the amount of energy used to create it."

If this giant physics experiment works and if it leads to a source of almost limitless, clean energy then maybe it's worthwhile. Maybe, but far from definitely or even probably. The question is how do we do a risk/benefit analysis of this and other projects and should it be done behind closed doors without our knowledge or consent?

Sir Martin Rees is England's Astronomer Royal as well as a Royal Society Professor at Cambridge, a Fellow of King's College and the author of an array of academic papers and books. In his 2003 book, apocalyptically entitled "Our Final Hour" he discusses in brilliant logic the threats posed by man to mankind through terror, error and environmental disaster. His discussion of scientific error is particularly compelling. He focused on experimental projects like the CERN accelerator in Geneva:

"However even if one accepted their reasoning completely, the level of confidence they offered hardly seemed enough. They estimated that if the experiment were run for ten years, the risk of a catastrophe was no more than one in fifty million.

These might seem impressive odds; a chance of disaster smaller than the chance of winning the UK's national lottery with a single ticket, which is about one in fourteen million. However, if the downside is destruction of the world's population, and the benefit is only to "pure" science, this isn't good enough.

The natural way to measure the gravity of a threat is to multiply its probability by the number of people at risk, to calculate the "expected number" of deaths. The entire world's population would be at risk, so the experts were telling us that the expected number of deaths (in that technical sense of "expected") could be as high as 120 (the number obtained by taking the world's population to be six billion and dividing by fifty million).

Obviously, nobody would argue in favour of doing a physics experiment knowing that its "fallout" would kill up to 120 people. This is not, of course, quite what we were told in this case: we were told instead that there could be up to one chance in fifty million of killing six billion people. Is this prospect any more acceptable? Most of us would, I think, still be uneasy....

My Cambridge colleague Adrian Kent has emphasised a second factor: the finality and completeness of the extinction that this scenario would entail. It would deprive us of the expectation - important to most of us - that some biological or cultural legacy will survive our deaths; it would dash the hope that our lives and works may be part in some continuing progress. It would, worse still, foreclose the existence of a (perhaps far larger) total number of people in all future generations....

Rees goes on to argue that anytime the risk of extinction is even possible someone, other than those who intend to expose us to that risk, needs to evaluate the threat. He insists that we cannot afford to blithely accept scientific candour in these matters. He's not advocating an end to science or some reversion to the Dark Ages, merely the need for open analysis and informed consent.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a bit of those evaluation thingees before the California kids start building stars on planet earth? Just asking.

And remember. As Rees points out, if we are truly the only intelligent life in the universe, a catastrophic extinction would wipe out the only intelligence in all of creation. Yikes.

The World Has Moved On

It's interesting to see the near total absence of angry resentment as Americans settle in to the idea that the United States' global supremacy is over.

The screeching chants of "USA, USA, USA" and "We're Number One, We're Number One" seem to have had their last gasp at Sarah Palin rallies this fall.

From what I've been reading in the American media, it seems that most US citizens might actually welcome stepping out of the constant spotlight, even if that is for good. And why not? They've seen their country's treasure, even its promise for future generations, squandered on foreign wars which have failed to produce any winners, any victories. They have watched their jobs disappear and working and middle-class incomes stagnate even as those at the very top, who have alone reaped great rewards are now exposed as having sabotaged their nation's economy out of sheer greed.

The word is definitely and clearly getting out that America's unipolar world is over. From the Chicago Tribune:

"There is no return to the time when the United States was the 'indispensable power,' " said Stewart Patrick, a former State Department official at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The world has moved on."

A decade ago, the United States might have been able to bring enough economic pressure on its own to force an end to Iran's disputed nuclear program, said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

But Iran by now has built economic ties to China and India, among others, so the United States has to assemble a much larger group if it hopes to force Tehran's hand.

"Ten years ago, the U.S. was generally the only game in town, and it had the power to close or crack open the door to Iran," Gvosdev said. "Now other countries have more options. … This doesn't mean the United States is weak, but it can't unilaterally impose what it wants."

A report this year by the U.S. National Intelligence Council cites a shift of economic power from the West to the East that is "without precedent," and this will mean that the United States by 2025 will "remain the single most powerful country but will be less dominant."

In every corner of the world, regional blocs are becoming established. No longer is the United States necessarily a welcome presence either. Even the South Americans, so long under the boot of the Monroe Doctrine, are coalescing into economic and defence alliances that exclude Washington.

American power, economic and military, will remain great but the United States is going to have to find better ways of using it. The Bull in the China Shop days are over. Ostracism is also a form of unilateralism, something that the neo-cons stupidly never grasped.

Canada needs to come to grips with this shifting reality because the consequences of what lies ahead for America and how that will bear on our country are far from predictable and only a fool would assume they'll be to our liking, much less benign. The bottom line is that it's going to take somebody a lot less star-struck with all things American than Stephen Harper to chart the course for Canada.

Coming Soon to E-Bay - Roads, Airports, Lotteries?

How can you tell a government on the ropes? One way is to look at what they're trying to flog to raise enough cash to keep going. According to the San Fransisco Chronicle, some states are looking for buyers for everything from roads to arenas to zoos.

Like families pawning the silver to get through a tight spot, states such as Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois are thinking of selling or leasing toll roads, parks, lotteries and other assets to raise desperately needed cash.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering putting the Massachusetts Turnpike in private hands. That could bring in upfront money to help with a $1.4 billion deficit, while also saving on highway operating costs.
In New York, Democratic Gov. David Paterson appointed a commission to look into leasing state assets, including the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City, the lottery, golf courses, toll roads, parks and beaches. Recommendations are expected next month.

Such projects could be attractive to private investors and public pension funds looking for safe places to put their money in this scary economy, said Leonard Gilroy, a privatization expert with the market-oriented Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

"Infrastructure is more attractive today than ever," Gilroy said. "It's tangible. It's a road. It's water. It's an airport. It's something that is — you know, you hear the term recession-proof."

Now a fine beach, there's something I can see dropping a couple of billion to snap up.

Pulling Out All the ...Corks

According to the counter on my desktop, the countdown now stands at just 22 days, 22 hours and a fistful of minutes until George w. Bush is at last relieved of command of the United States.

With Christmas over the Bushies are turning their attention and efforts to rehabilitating the Frat Boy's tattered image and, in true Rovian fashion, the White House is campaigning in a media blitz.

Among those singing the praises of Shrub is America's First (Stepford Wife) Lady, her Lauraness. Preaching from the safety net forum of Fox News Sunday, Mrs. Shrub claimed:

- that the conquest of Iraq wasn't a mistake. No, not at all, not hardly.

- that her husband didn't drop the ball on Afghanistan. "I don't think that's true at all. We've stayed very, very invested in Afghanistan. Not as invested militarily, maybe, and maybe that's what the critics say, that it should have been more military. But I think we stayed very invested."

- that criticism of the federal government's pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina isn't fair and overshadows the heroic efforts of Coast Guard and other "first responders."

Condi Rice, appearing on the somewhat more credible CBS Sunday Morning repeated the dodge that future generations will actually thank George for all he's done for (to) them.

"I think the fact that this President has laid the groundwork for a Palestinian state, being the first president, as a matter of policy, to say that there should be one, and now, I think, laying the foundation that's going to lead to that Palestinian state - I can go on and on."

Condi did point out Georgie's one actual success - programmes to combat AIDS and malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, if you want another point of view about what generations of Americans to come might thing of "w", read Joe Stiglitz' analysis of the ten trillion dollar hole Bush has dug beneath the US in this month's Harpers magazine.

Living on a Disposable Income Tightrope

Las Vegas, the city known worldwide as the place to go to part with cash, was once believed immune to economic setbacks. People would always find money to indulge their appetite for sin, or so the casino crowd thought.

Not this time.

Sin City seems to have fallen prey to America's economic meltdown. According to The Telegraph, gaming revenues in Las Vegas plummeted more than 25% in October alone. The city's formerly robust construction industry has all but ground to a halt. "Lost Wages" now has a brand new meaning.

The party's not over yet, not even close, but it sure has gotten eerily quieter. Don't expect Celine to show up at your table asking for your drink orders anytime soon.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

God Damn It - Two More Dead In Afghanistan

Two more dead Canadian soldiers. Roadside bomb. Panjwai District where we supposedly crushed the Taliban not that long ago. Three others wounded. 106 dead to date, no idea how many hundreds maimed and ruined.

For what?

It's time Stephen Harper explained what we're going to accomplish in Afghanistan, something tangible to give these lost lives meaning. The rate we're losing soldiers is steadily picking up - as our professed objectives wane and blur.

Nobody, not even Harper, is talking about a democratic Afghanistan any more. That was never more than so much political bullshit from a guy whose greatest accomplishment is to deliver political bullshit by the bushel basket straight to your door.

It's 2008. We were supposed to be out of that goddamned mess next year. Now that's been stretched out to 2011 and, even then, there's no reliable assurance we'll have our people out as that deadline proves as irrelevant as those before it.

What exactly are we buying and for whom with all those lives and all the lives that we'll be sacrificing over the next three years plus? Marking time isn't enough.

It's the disease of Western military commands in the post-Soviet era. No clearly defined objectives, constantly shifting goal posts, no time lines - no targets to meet, no targets to miss.

This is classic guerrilla war. If we don't annihilate the enemy, the enemy wins. We have all the watches, they have all the time. Time is on their side, not ours.


It's time for clear, understandable commitments and clear, understandable timelines. We need metrics to define the mission. Without them, incompetent political and military leadership cannot be held to account. Without them we cannot separate victory from failure.

The insurgents know they can't defeat us. They know they don't have to defeat us. All they need to do is to survive long enough to make us realize we have failed. We'll reach the point of failure long before we come to accept it as fact. There's a very good chance we've already passed that point.

We're defending a house that's already been burned to its foundations. The house we're defending is the national government in Kabul. It has become barely more than a criminal enterprise despised by its people for its corruption and for preying on them.

Loathe as our politicians and generals are to admit it, we can't stay forever any more than we can stay the failed course of the past seven years.

Some will say that we cannot leave because that would render meaningless the lives already lost. It would mystically dishonour their ultimate sacrifice. Rubbish! It's not the leaving that will determine the worth of their sacrifice. Staying won't validate the next hundred or two hundred deaths, the next thousand maimed, either.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Of Course Global Warming is a Hoax. Just Ask These Guys

Drawing a Clear Line In The Sand (or Snow)

At least when the Enron/Worldcom scams erupted, culprits were rounded up and sent packing to jail. The little people - folks like you and me - thought the Oligarchs had been taught their lesson about honesty and decency and social responsibility.

It seems the fiscal autocrats did learn a lesson but maybe it wasn't the one we wanted them to get. How many of the Wall Street titans who masterminded the greatest scam ever seen on this planet are under arrest? How many of these agents of the influence of affluence who were the toxic pushers of Asset-Backed Commercial Paper and Credit Default Swaps have been run out in disgrace, reduced to poverty? None. In the U.S., they were even able to find a bit of loose-change in the trillion-dollar taxpayer relief package to ensure they didn't have to forego their annual bonuses.

The Oligarchs who, for years, amassed enormous wealth from greed-driven activities plainly detrimental to their countries and to their societies, have achieved a level of economic power to rival, at times supercede, the power of democratic institutions to control their state. They can't take your vote, at least not yet, but they can undermine the power of your democratic franchise.

With Bush and his henchman Cheney in command, the Oligarchy embarked on a ruinous plan to cut taxes for the rich while spending America into abject, crippling penury. It wasn't just an effort to defund the federal government and force it to jettison social programmes they didn't like (as a lot of us so benignly thought at the time). It was a wholesale transfer of economic and political power from the blue and white collar working classes to the rentier class. Wealth steadily concentrated in the top few percent of Americans while the gap between rich and poor rapidly widened and middle class incomes stagnated as the government debt for which they would be held accountable skyrocketed. It was undeclared class warfare on multiple fronts waged by the agents of the Oligarchy who wangled their way into power by any means necessary.

Even as their reign is coming to an end, Bush and Cheney are furiously introducing regulations to damage America, its people and their environment. As Graydon Carter put it in the latest Vanity Fair:

"Bush and Cheney have been working feverishly to write as many as, by one count, 130 new regulations undermining federal laws protecting not just our environment but also our civil liberties and personal safety. And with the nation's attention ping-ponging between Obama-mania and Dow-phobia, the White House is hoping we won't notice. ...The New York Times and the Washington Post have been particularly diligent in shedding light on these final, grasping acts of an administration that can be described only as a widespread criminal conspiracy."

The time has come for a renewal of democracy and the democratic franchise. Part of that will come from burying Cowboy Capitalism in the deep, deep grave it deserves. Part of it will require paying a bit of respect to our democratic freedoms once again because if we don't defend our democracy and make it paramount, the Oligarchs will surely win.

Turning Up the Heat in Baghdad

For the past year and a bit, Iraq has seemed relatively peaceful - relatively - for post-Saddam Iraq that is. Corpses haven't been stacked up like firewood in Baghdad morgues for a while and that's been enough for George w. Bush to declare victory, if not quite at hand, then just around the corner.

What Bush and his rightwing cheerleaders have succeeded in ignoring (as only they can) is that none of the hot button issues that could plunge Iraq into a multi-faceted civil war(s) has been resolved - not one. The Shiite versus Shiite conflict (nationalist Sadr, Mahdi Army versus pro-Iran Maliki, Badr Brigades) is waiting to be played out. The Shiite versus Sunni conflict remains unresolved. The Arab versus Kurdish separatist struggle awaits what appears to be inevitable violence. Syria, Iran and Turkey watch closely from the sidelines and wait.

A report in today's New York Times indicates that the simmering disputes are beginning to heat up:

Iraq appears to be plagued by political troubles that seem closer to Shakespearean drama than to nascent democracy.

There is talk of a coup to oust the prime minister. The speaker of the Parliament has abruptly resigned, making angry accusations on his way out the door. And there have been sweeping arrests of people believed to be conspiring against the government, both in Baghdad and Diyala Province.
Beneath the swirl of accusations and rumors is a power play in which different factions within the government — and some outside it — are struggling to gain ground as American influence in the country wanes and elections approach that could begin to reshape the political landscape here.
The real struggle is for the country’s identity: how much the government will be controlled from Baghdad and how much from the provinces, who will hold power and who will have to give it up.

Iraqi legislators of all strips have been gathering to plot ousting Maliki by a no-confidence vote. This time they may just have the numbers to pull it off. Worst of all - for Maliki that is - he doesn't have his very own Michaelle Jean to lock down the Iraqi parliament.

Just Like Reagan, Only In Reverse

It's not true but Americans like to believe their idol, Ronald Reagan, vanquished the Soviet Union by forcing Moscow into a ruinous arms race that left the country bankrupt. It was actually a nation with a feeble manufacturing sector and broad fiscal deficits that became entirely dependent on oil exports at high world oil prices that toppled when oil prices collapsed.

Today we're confronted with another superpower with a gutted manufacturing sector and broad fiscal deficits - federal, state, municipal, corporate and individual - that may just have fallen prey to a predator entirely of its own making. The United States of America and the People's Republic of China.

A couple of years back I wrote of how diabolical it would be if China's communist dictatorship had schemed to use its adversary's weapon, capitalism, to bring its rival down and clear the way for its own ascendancy. What a perfect scheme - soak up your enemy's wealth, use it to grow your own economy and undermine your opponent's economy, and then wait for victory to arrive at your doorstep with nary a cannon being fired. Lull your opponent into crafting his own demise.

Whether that was a deliberate plot by Beijing or just the inevitable result of the Reign of Greed crafted by Ronald Reagan and embraced by America and its economic oligarchy ever since probably doesn't make a lot of difference at this point. After all, no one really forced American companies and their key investors to shift all those plants and all those manufacturing jobs to China did they? No one forced the American government to sit by while America's wealth was drained away to grow the economy of its main rival, did they? And no one forced America, its government and its industries and its people, to become addicted to foreign loans, did they? Who forced any American or American institution to consistently spend more than they made?

Finally Americans are waking up and beginning to wonder if they've been had. From The New York Times:

"In March 2005, a low-key Princeton economist ...coined a novel theory to explain the growing tendency of Americans to borrow from foreigners, particularly the Chinese, to finance their heavy spending.

The problem, he said, was not that Americans spend too much, but that foreigners save too much. The Chinese have piled up so much excess savings that they lend money to the United States at low rates, underwriting American consumption.

Today, the dependence of the United States on Chinese money looks less benign. And the economist who proposed the theory, Ben S. Bernanke, is dealing with the consequences...

In the past decade, China has invested upward of $1 trillion, mostly earnings from manufacturing exports, into American government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt. That has lowered interest rates and helped fuel a historic consumption binge and housing bubble in the United States.

China, some economists say, lulled American consumers, and their leaders, into complacency about their spendthrift ways.

“This was a blinking red light,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard and a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund. “We should have reacted to it.”

In hindsight, many economists say, the United States should have recognized that borrowing from abroad for consumption and deficit spending at home was not a formula for economic success. Even as that weakness is becoming more widely recognized, however, the United States is likely to be more addicted than ever to foreign creditors to finance record government spending to revive the broken economy."

...Today, with the wreckage around him, Mr. Bernanke said he regretted that more was not done to regulate financial institutions and mortgage providers, which might have prevented the flood of investment, including that from China, from being so badly used. But the Fed’s role in regulation is limited to banks. And stricter regulation by itself would not have been enough, he insisted.

...The inaction was because of a range of factors, political and economic. By the yardsticks that appeared to matter most — prosperity and growth — the relationship between China and the United States also seemed to be paying off for both countries. Neither had a strong incentive to break an addiction: China to strong export growth and financial stability; the United States to cheap imports and low-cost foreign loans.

...Mr. Greenspan and the Bush administration treated the record American trade deficit and heavy foreign borrowing as an abstract threat, not an urgent problem.

Mr. Bernanke, after he took charge of the Fed, warned that the imbalances between the countries were growing more serious. By then, however, it was too late to do much about them. And the White House still regarded imbalances as an arcane subject best left to economists.

...By the early part of this decade, the United States was importing huge amounts of Chinese-made goods — toys, shoes, flat-screen televisions and auto parts — while selling much less to China in return.

“For consumers, this was a net benefit because of the availability of cheaper goods,” said Laurence H. Meyer, a former Fed governor. “There’s no question that China put downward pressure on inflation rates.”

But in classical economics, that trade gap could not have persisted for long without bankrupting the American economy. Except that China recycled its trade profits right back into the United States.

It did so to protect its own interests. China kept its banks under tight state control and its currency on a short leash to ensure financial stability. It required companies and individuals to save in the state-run banking system most foreign currency — primarily dollars — that they earned from foreign trade and investment.

America continues to pressure China to revalue its currency, something that might have been done in boom times. But, with American consumption waning, China's economy is feeling the pinch and suddenly forcing an already restive Chinese people to endure employment insecurity and higher prices at the same time is risky business.

Throughout the Cold War we were taught that democracy was ours and capitalism was ours too and that they went hand in glove. Communism, by contrast, was dictatorship and vile socialism. We never imagined how well capitalism could thrive under communist rule but, as it turns out, capitalism seems to like political certainty over the messy and fickle business that is our cherished democracy.

How will America get out of this genuinely Made in America mess? That all depends on whether the America people want to merely fix the symptoms or are willing to actually cure their disease.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pardon Me?

George w. Bush has been many things to many people over the past eight years but the Grinch Who Stole Christmas? He bagged that honour today when he rescinded, revoked, folded, mutilated and stapled the pardon he granted just yesterday to one Isaac Robert Toussie of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Toussie had been slammed up making false statements to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and of mail fraud. Apparently Rob Jr. can thank Rob Sr. and the press corps for his short reprieve.

The media began digging into Toussie's past and quickly discovered that his dad, Rob Sr., had donated nearly $30,000 to the Republican Party just a month after Junior's pardon petition was filed. Dad also threw a couple of grand John McCain's way during the election campaign.

C'mon, admit it. You're going to miss this bozo when he's gone in a scant, let me check - 25-days, 20-hours and 24 minutes!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Arms Race Update - Russia to Deploy More ICBMs

Russia has announced plans to deploy another 70-intercontinental ballistic missiles over the next three years. At least some of the new missiles will be the multiple warhead RS-24 that the Russians claim can defeat American anti-missile defences.

Despite falling oil prices, Russia is set to implement a 28% increase in the country's defence budget which will see the introduction of new tanks, ships and aircraft.

Russian generals have recently disclosed plans to supply Iran with the latest Russian S-300 anti-aircraft, anti-cruise missile batteries that Western experts say could alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

What - Or Who - Killed Mike Connell?

The conspiracy theorists are having a field day over the Friday night death of Mike Connell, Karl Rove's IT guru.

Connell died when his light plane crashed near Akron, Ohio.

What has everybody worked up is that Connell was due to testify in a case alleging election tampering in Ohio in 2004. Before the crash, Connell was worried that his life was in danger and had his lawyer contact US attorney general Mukasey to ask for protection. The lawyer also asked the Ohio attorney general and the court to have Connell taken into protective custody.

It is reported that Connell played some role in the vote count in Florida in 2000, in the count in Alabama in 2002 (when then governor Siegelman was ousted) and in Ohio in 2004 where the Bush win propelled him to a second term in power. The suggestion is that Connell was involved in "electronically shaving" the vote counts to favour Republican candidates.

It is being reported that Connell's lawyer, Cliff Arnebeck, told Mukasey that his client had been threatened by Rove.

Obama versus Harper, No Comparison

Four weeks before he'll even be sworn into office, Barack Obama has hammered out an agreement with Congressional Democrats on a massive, emergency spending bill.

The draft legislation is intended to kick start the American economy and create three million new jobs in just two years.

If Obama can do this before he even takes office, what does that say for the leader of the Canadian government who's still twiddling his thumbs waiting for a few tips from a hand-picked crew of business moguls who may, or may not, have some working knowledge of the federal government and the role it's supposed to play in recessionary times? It says, no it screams that "Stephen Harper is not a leader."

Obama is set to sign America's stimulus plan just as soon as he gets his hand off Lincoln's bible on January 20. Hapless Harper is expected to unveil some sort of proposed legislation about ten days later. Judging by statements Harper and Flaherty have made recently, don't expect much by way of infrastructure investment. It seems Harper doesn't have the stomach for much more than half-measures of doubtful benefit.
(pictured - Stephen Harper discussing just how many shits he doesn't give about the recession facing Canadians)

Playing With Matches in Afghanistan

The United States may be embarking on its biggest blunder of the 7-year old Afghan war. In a move widely opposed by the Afghan legislature, leaders of the country's several ethnic minorities and America's NATO allies, the US military command has decided to arm local militias to aid in the fight against the Taliban.

The move reeks of desperation and failure. Failure comes in the form of a rapidly spreading insurgency despite seven years of conflict. It's now widely reported that the Taliban (to use the generic name given the much more expansive insurgency) have established a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year earlier. Desperation comes in the "Hail Mary" quality of arming tribal militias instead of relying on the Afghan National Army and the Afghan security services. From The New York Times:

American commanders say that while they would prefer to field Afghan Army and police forces, they are simply not available.

We don’t have enough police,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, the deputy commander of American forces in the country. “We don’t have time to get the police ready.”

The Americans are hoping to apply to Afghanistan the somewhat successful "Awakening Movement" they used in Iraq. There are several differences. In Iraq the Americans armed and paid the existing Sunni insurgency to fight foreign Sunni al-Qaeda terrorists. What they're seeking to do in Afghanistan is to set Pashtun against Pashtun, tribesman against fellow tribesman.

Other Afghan ethnic groups fear the Americans may unwittingly be launching the next civil war:

"...the plan is causing deep unease among many Afghans, who fear that Pashtun-dominated militias could get out of control, terrorize local populations and turn against the government. The Afghan government, aided by the Americans, has carried out several ambitious campaigns since 2001 to disarm militants and gather up their guns. A proposal to field local militias was defeated in the Afghan Senate in the fall.

“There will be fighting between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns,” said Salih Mohammad Registani, a member of the Afghan Parliament and an ethnic Tajik. Mr. Registani raised the specter of the Arbaki, a Pashtun-dominated militia turned loose on other Afghans early in the 20th century.

“A civil war will start very soon,” he said."

In a nation beset by a spreading insurgency and riven with ethnic tension and suspicions, arming Pashtun militias is bound to destabilize the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities. Afghanistan's non-Pashtun warlords have been sitting on the fence the past few years, watching and waiting to decide who to back, the government or the insurgency. It's more than possible that this move could push them closer to the insurgent side. Karzai has already lost the trust and support of a large proportion of Afghans. In a nation literally built on duplicity and betrayal, it's hard to imagine something like this not backfiring.

A recent article in The New Yorker focused on an Afghan police unit working with Canadian forces in Kandahar. The police unit was comprised entirely of Hazara. Canadian liaison officers praised the Hazara for their effectiveness, complaining that previous experience of Pashtun police and Pashtun army forces showed them often unwilling to fight the Taliban.

Pashtun fighting Pashtun does not seem to be a very popular pastime in southern Afghanistan. Canada, having learned a great deal about the Pashtun from operating in Kandahar, opposes the American initiative. President Hamid Karzai, whose options are steadily shrinking and whose future is looking a tad dim, has signed off on the move despite the opposition of his legislature.

Another interesting aspect of this is that as recently as a couple of days ago the United States was flatly denying any intention to actually arm the militias. Curious how abruptly that changed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Caught in the Jaws of a Vice - Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recently released two reports - one on excessive violence by the country's pro-government forces (Afghan National Army, the U.S. forces and the NATO forces or ISAF). This report caught the attention of Western media because of the by now standard condemnation of excessive resort to air strikes and night raids on Afghan villages.

The report I found far more cogent was the AIHRC's report on insurgent abuses against Afghan civilians. It addresses the standard litany of Taliban and other insurgent abuses - kidnappings, shooting, hangings, decapitation and mutilations.

In an attempt to weaken the Afghan government, insurgents in Afghanistan are systematically terrorizing the civilian population with “night letters,” kidnappings, executions (often by beheading) and other crimes. Their targets include doctors, teachers, students, government aligned elders, Ulema Council members, civilian government employees, suppliers and day laborers of public-interest reconstruction work and military bases, as well as former police and military personnel. Others, such as unassociated relatives of civil servants, have also been targeted. (See, From Intimidation to Murder, below.)

In an attempt to further weaken public support for the government, insurgents have also begun violent campaigns of intimidation against schools, medical services, humanitarian aid and commercial supply lines. (See, Far Reaching Consequences of Insurgent Abuses, below.)

Such abuses by insurgent are part of an overall strategy to coerce entire communities into not cooperating in any way with the government, the international community or international military forces. Insurgents take the view that nearly all displays of government strength and support, no matter how insignificant, are legitimate military targets. The simple act of being a civil servant or being friendly with government officials is enough to justify an attack.

There really wasn't too much of significance in this aspect of the report. It detailed basic guerrilla terrorist tactics, the stock in trade of typical insurgencies. The critical part isn't the atrocities but how the government and its forces respond.

Insurgents use terror to undermine the civilian population's trust in their government. They seek opportunities that will show the government unable or unwilling to protect the public or that cause the government forces to go to the other extreme, to overreact and cause added death and suffering to the civilian population.

The AIHRC offered this anecdotal evidence of what their field studies found:

During the research for this report, Afghans voiced a wide spectrum of complaints about the government’s failure to provide them with adequate security. Some also aimed their anger at international military forces. Lack of willingness, resources and training as well as abuses of power topped the list of complaints.

Corruption and poor communication between different security agencies were also mentioned. People said that besides undermining their security, these problems limited their access to justice and left them outside the protection of the law.

"We complained to the police about the night letters. Their response was, 'We cannot do anything to help.' We repeatedly approached the head of the Kandahar provincial council and asked him to assist us with our problems […] but he can do nothing either […]"

"We are not satisfied with the performance of Afghanistan National Army. During night they stay in their check posts and don’t dare to move out of their check posts and patrol. The international forces do not patrol in our area either."

Interview with 35 year old man from Kandahar City 13 February 2008

"My father did not attempt to inform police that he was intimidated because the police are very scared and are not able to move and operate in the villages. They just stay in their compound inside the district center. Furthermore, police cannot be trusted since they are involved in harassing and bribing people."

Interview with a 20 year old man whose father was first intimidated, and then assassinated, by the Taliban in Paktia Province

In June 2007, a villager named T killed his nephew in a personal dispute. T’s great-nephew approached the district authorities of Zurmat complaining about the incident and asked for police assistance and justice. The authorities said, “We will send police to the village provided that you guarantee our security. If you cannot do this, we will not send police.

Interview with a 27 year old farmer in Paktia Province
25 February 2008

My brother was farming in late October when a roadside bomb blast hit a nearby U.S. supply convoy that was being escorted by police. After the explosion, police wearing their uniforms got out of their pickup trucks and started firing indiscriminately. Two police came and fired at my brother but missed him. They were three to four meters away from him. My brother stood and raised his hands, yelling at them, “I am innocent I did not exploded the bomb. I am a professional military officer working for the government. How is it possible for me to do such an action?” Despite all of this, during this argument one of police shot him, putting three bullets in his chest, and killed him.

A community elder phoned the district commissioner, informed him of the
incident, and asked for legal action. The district commissioner told the
community elder, “Why are you complaining? There was a mine explosion a few months ago that resulted into the killing of district police. Did I complain to you about this?”

Interview with a 28-year-old man in Paktia Province
26 February 2008

"…The security situation has deteriorated a lot in Zabul. There is no rule of law and police lack professional training. Many of them themselves have been involved in crimes and misuse of their power…"

Interview with a 59-year-old tribal elder from Zabul in Kandahar City
13 February 2008

These anecdotal comments, if representative of the true situation, reveal that the insurgency is succeeding. The focus is on the failure of the Kabul government and its forces to secure and defend the civilian population. That is compounded by a widespread fear and resentment of the government's security forces as abusive and predatory of the public.

For the last several years there have been clear warnings coming from Afghan organizations and credible foreign observers that we've allowed the national government to degenerate into a criminal enterprise. The country has fallen under the ruinous hold of warlords, drug barons and thugs.

The American solution is to double their ground force by adding 30,000 reinforcements. It sounds impressive but it's far too little, far too late. It also shows the enormously flawed approach the Americans are taking.

Doubling their force to 60,000 in a country as large as Afghanistan does little beyond expanding the American's ability to conduct a military war. The insurgents are fighting, and winning, their war - the political war. The witness comments in the report all point to that same, unanswered problem - the people are losing faith in and have come to fear their government and its security forces.

The Afghan public want security. That means keeping an effective presence in their communities capable of repelling insurgents day or night, 365 days a year. That would take many hundreds of thousands of troops for the security mission alone. And it would mean giving the public security not only against the insurgents and terrorists but also against their own government.

With Friends Like This

And we wonder what drives moderate Muslims into the arms of Islamist extremism.

In Saudi Arabia, a court has refused to grant a divorce for an 8-year old girl sold by her father to a man an even half-century older than his bride. From The Guardian:

Lawyer Abdu Jtili said the divorce petition was filed by the unnamed girl's divorced mother in August after the marriage contract was signed by her father and the groom. "The judge has dismissed the plea because she [the mother] does not have the right to file, and ordered that the plea should be filed by the girl herself when she reaches puberty," lawyer Abdullah Jtili told the AFP news agency.

A spokesman for Human Rights Watch says this case matches a pattern of divorced fathers using their children to exact revenge on their former wives.

If we in the West are serious about bringing reform to the Middle East we're going to have to start with our supposed friends - Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We've chosen, instead, to back anti-democratic, repressive regimes because we fear democracy. That's right, we fear democracy. We fear democracy would lead to the election of governments that hold a resentment toward us. So, better than a democracy we don't like, no democracy at all suits us just fine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Deja Vu

The Bush/Cheney Reign of Error (h/t Robin Williams) may be ending but their memory lives on, safely embedded within our own neo-con, would-be prime monster, Stephen Harper.

Seriously, the Ghost of Delusion Past will live on. I saw it with my own eyes today when CTV (a.k.a. the Conservative Television Network) ran its year end interview with the prime minister hosted by the cryongenically enhanced Lloyd Robertson.

I couldn't bear to watch Lloyd swallow that stuff for very long. Yet, from what I did see, it resembled nothing so much as Cheney being interviewed by Hannity on Fox News. Sad really, but comforting proof that there aren't a lot of great Canadian minds going to waste in the newsrooms of this once sober country.

Sarah Palin "Pals Around" with Hard Drug Traffickers

From what I've read I guess you could safely say that of any former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the crystal meth capital of the state. But, for Sarah Palin, her contacts in the hard drug world may be a lot closer than that.

Palin's lovely daughter, Bristol, is due to give birth this weekend to a baby boy whose grandmothers will include the governor of his state and, apparently, a hard drug trafficker.

Yep, you betcha'. Gramma Johnston, poppa Levi's mom, will be in court on January 6 on charges of manufacturing and/or distributing oxycontin, Rush Limbaugh's own favourite Hillbilly Heroin.

During the US election campaign, Palin didn't waste an opportunity to smear Obama for "palling around" with 60's radical/terrorist William Ayers. If Palin does run for the Republicans in 2012, you can be sure that little stunt will come back to haunt her.

Meanwhile, Sherry L. Johnston's arrest is bound to be good news for someone - either her son Levi or the American people. Levi who described himself as a "f___king redneck" and earlier wrote that he never wanted kids might no longer be the husband Sarah wants for Bristol. On the other hand, maybe Levi will still marry Bristol which ought to put a real damper on Sarah Palin's 2012 aspirations.

Those as live by the sword... well, you know.

Why Are Harper & Flaherty So Damned Clueless?

A lot has been written lately of the succession of astonishingly erratic and offmark economic statements we've been getting these past months from what passes for a prime minister in Canada today and his diminutive finance patsy, L'il Jimbo.

It's gotten to the point that, whenever either of them pronounces on the economy, you know that, if what they're now telling you is right, it'll be a first. Time after time after time they've weighed in and got it wrong.

So, what gives? Harper is supposedly a trained economist. Flaherty is a veteran finance minister with both federal and provincial experience. The two of them sit atop a sea of accountants and actuaries and economists and all other manner of financial wizardry.

My guess? There's a deliberate disconnect between the political side and their advisors. I think Harper and Flaherty have been discarding the forecasts and clarion calls of their staffers and, instead, shaping their public statements to conform to their political purposes. I think they've been telling us only what they wanted us to hear.

When it comes to respecting the public and treating them with candour, Steve feeds them a diet as lean on truth and rich on fantasy as he thinks he can get away with. And these days, with such complacent, even collaborative Canadian media cartels, he's pretty much got a blank cheque to lie his ass off without being called on it. And so he does. Who needs to worry about honesty when you've got CanWest Global, Bell Globemedia and SunCor curled up around your feet before the hearth?

It was obvious in what L'il Jimbo was saying yesterday that one of two things is going on with Harper/Flaherty. Either they've been getting really lousy advice or they've been getting good advice but ignoring it so they could game the forecasts for their political advantage. From Toronto Star:

"Just three weeks after saying that the federal budget was on track for modest surpluses, Flaherty admitted there will now be a deficit of at least $5 billion next year.

"It's quite clear on the basis of the forecasts and the continuing declines in the forecast that there will be a deficit," said Flaherty in Saskatoon after meeting with his provincial counterparts at a brainstorming session.
He also admitted for the first time the economy would suffer an outright contraction in 2009 – the first in 18 years. He said economic growth next year would decline by 0.4 per cent. In his November economic statement, he said the economy would show slight but positive growth of 0.3 per cent in 2009.

Come on Jimbo. Three weeks to go from "modest surplus" to billions in deficits next year? At this rate what is Harper's fiscal leprechaun going to drop on us after the new year? I'll bet we haven't heard the truth yet from Flaherty or Harpo.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Great Game - Wake Up Canada

Afghanistan. Forget everything you heard. It's not about 9/11. It's not about democracy. It's not about the Taliban and al-Qaeda very much either.

It's about America and Europe and Russia, it's about China and India and Iran. Washington knows it, so does Moscow, Beijing and Mumbai.

Fighting insurgents and terrorists is the subplot at best, the story line for the folks at home. It's an essential narrative because it's the only one that remotely justifies countries like Canada and the Netherlands and Australia slogging it out there. If it was ever viewed by the public according to the main plot, the geopolitical struggle for regional dominance and the containment, by America, of both Russia and China the fairy tale would explode. We would be compelled to see our forces as something of an American Foreign Legion unwillingly ensnarled in a high-stakes, high-risk and potentially volatile wrestling match among powers in transition. And we're not backing the country on its "way up" either.

It's all about oil and gas. Not so much about ownership of those resources but who gets to control them and who gets shut out. Those who win control can prosper. Those who lose endure a big setback. The control part is a very aggressive game and, right now, we're just a pawn playing our role.

Do you really believe that Washington gives a fig for what Georgia and the Ukraine can contribute to bolster NATO? Bush/Cheney have been positively rabid about shoehorning these two dubious democracies into NATO for how that will help with encircling and containing Russia. It's like those missile batteries in Poland ostensibly intended to shoot down rogue ICBMs from Iran. Oh please! Sarkozy and Merkel know what's up and they don't like the Americans using their backyard to poke the Bear with sharp sticks.

As I've written several times before, there's a great store of oil and natural gas in what's called the Caspian Basin, mainly in Turkmenistan. Getting at the stuff isn't the real problem. Getting routes that are free from Russian control or influence is the key. There are but two options. One is the Black Sea route but that requires an "independent" Georgia and Ukraine, preferably under NATO protection. The other is via Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now, with all the vexing problems of warlords and insurgents and terrorists and common criminals in Afghanistan, the western route through Georgia and Ukraine would seem a no-brainer, right? But there are other considerations that keep the Afghan-Pakistan option alive. One is the prospect of an overland route to supply America's new BFF, India. Another is the possibility of controlling pipeline routes through the southern Pakistani Balochistan region. That's where the seaport to transport Caspian oil and gas by tankers to Europe is being developed.

America and India aren't the only countries eyeing Balochistan either. This is where China comes in. The Chinese are openly discussing a pipeline of their own through Balochistan that would give them overland access to - wait for it - Iran. The very notion of a China-Pakistan-Iran corridor is a prospect the Americans don't even want to mention.

In case you haven't heard of it, China and Russia have been busy building a NATO-style alliance of their own, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 1996. The official languages of the SCO don't include English, French or German. Try Russian and Chinese.

At the moment the SCO comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Guess who's also nudging their way in? Pakistan and Iran. Oh mama, mama.

Sorry to keep dragging you all over the map, but imagine a line running from China through Pakistan and into Iran. Okay, who's contained now? In terms of overland access to oil and gas, that would be India, America's new ally. Not only would India be entirely dependent on sea lanes but its transit through the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf would pass by the combined coastlines of Pakistan and Iran. Suddenly India's and the West's access to Persian Gulf oil becomes astonishingly insecure, especially if Pakistan and Iran have a mutual defence pact with Russia and China.

See how something as simple and straightforward as fighting the Taliban gets blindingly complex? But don't take my word for it. Here's an interesting piece from today's Asia Times:

"The measure of success of president-elect Barack Obama's new "Afghan strategy" will be directly proportional to his ability to delink the war from its geopolitical agenda inherited from the George W Bush administration.

...It is obvious that Russia and Iran's cooperation is no less critical for the success of the war than what the US is painstakingly extracting from the Pakistani generals.

But then, Moscow and Iran will expect that Obama reciprocates with a willingness to jettison the US's containment strategy towards them. The signs do not look good. This is not only from the look of Obama's national security team and the continuance of Robert Gates as defense secretary.

On the contrary, in the dying weeks of the Bush administration, the US is robustly pushing for an increased military presence in the Russian (and Chinese) backyard in Central Asia on the ground that the exigencies of a stepped-up war effort in Afghanistan necessitate precisely such an expanded US military presence.

...It seems almost inevitable that Moscow and Tehran will join hands. In all likelihood, they may have already begun doing so. The Central Asian countries and China and India will also be closely watching the dynamics of this grim power struggle. They are interested parties insofar as they may have to suffer the collateral damage of the great game in Afghanistan. The US's "war on terror" in Afghanistan has already destabilized Pakistan. The debris threatens to fall on India, too.

Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, General Nikolai Makarov, just about lifted the veil on the geopolitics of the Afghan war to let the world know that the Bush administration was having one last fling at the great game in Central Asia.

Makarov couldn't have spoken without Kremlin clearance. Moscow seems to be flagging its frustration to Obama's camp. Makarov revealed Moscow had information to the effect that the US was pushing for new military bases in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Coincidence or not, a spate of reports has begun appearing that Russia is about to transfer the S-300 missile defense system to Iran. S-300 is one of the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems capable of intercepting 100 ballistic missiles or aircraft at once, at low and high altitudes within a range of over 150 kilometers. As long-time Pentagon advisor Dan Goure put it, "If Tehran obtained the S-300, it would be a game-changer in military thinking for tackling Iran. This is a system that scares every Western air force."

...Moscow is maintaining an air of "constructive ambiguity" as to what is exactly happening. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov commented in October that Moscow would not sell the S-300 to countries in "volatile regions".

But, on Wednesday, Russia's Novosti news agency cited unnamed Kremlin sources as saying that Moscow was "currently implementing a contract to deliver S-300 systems". Again, on Wednesday, the deputy head of the Federal Service of Russia's Military-Technical Cooperation, Alexander Fomin, publicly defended Russian-Iranian military cooperation as having a "positive influence on stability in this region". Fomin specifically commented that systems such as the S-300 benefited the whole region by "preventing new military conflicts".

The US thrust into the Russian backyard in the Caucasus and Central Asia will most certainly have a bearing on the Russian-Iranian tango over the S-300. Moscow and Tehran will be on guard that despite the stalemate of the Afghan war and the mounting difficulties faced by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, the cold warriors in Washington continue their great game in the Hindu Kush.

There's more to this story, a lot more. You can read the whole article here:

It might be nice to believe that Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to avenge the atrocities of 9/11 and defeat the Taliban. In fact it would be nice, very nice to believe that. It would be great if we were fighting the war that John Manley and Stephen Harper have painted for us. Unfortunately, reality just keeps getting in the way.