Friday, July 27, 2007

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Age appropriate sex education for children

Last week Senator Barack Obama caught the attention a few of the holier-than-thou crowd, including Governor Mitt Romney, when he mentioned he favored age-appropriate sex education for kindergarteners. Putting the words “sex” and “kindergarteners” in the same sentence certainly carries some risk for any aspiring Presidential candidate but what he said was pure common sense. Education, regardless of the subject, should always be age appropriate but within that context information should never be withheld particularly when it comes to sexuality.

I have a little experience with the subject in that my wife and I had the privilege of teaching a sex education program a few years ago at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, Virginia. The course was AYS (About Your Sexuality) that preceded the current OWL (Our Whole Lives) curriculum. Both courses are comprehensive life-span programs starting with kindergarteners and going through adulthood. The main focus in on middle-school kids since this is when puberty kicks in for most kids (actually, young adults at this point). If I learned nothing else from teaching these kids about sexuality it was that they knew a lot more than their parents thought they knew but a lot less than they thought they knew. Sex education for all kids is very important for families, churches and schools to be doing.

Rev. Debra Haffner is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Connecticut who is the Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. She appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show following Senator Obama’s remarks (see below) last week. She explained the need for age-appropriate sex education for children.

Following the interview she wrote on her blog:

Mr. O'Reilly got a little hung up on my using the word "uterus" in describing where babies come from. He said using it would take away children's innocence and would be too complicated. In response, I told him that children needed to know the word penis and vulva too. He looked confused about "vulva." I wonder what he would have done if I had said clitoris or scrotum on air.

He probably still would have looked confused.

(Thanks to Philocrites for the tip.)

Sex education for kids

O'Reilly panics at mention of uterus. Maybe it's not only the kids who need the education.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Southern racism and the Jena Six

Jena, Louisiana is the county seat of LaSalle Parrish. Its population is approximately 3000 of which 86% is white and 12% is black. A majority of Jena’s white voters in 1991 supported white supremacist David Duke.

Last fall a black student asked school officials if black students could sit under a tree on the high school grounds where white students traditionally congregated. He was told they could. The next day three nooses were hanging from the tree as a warning. From that point a whole series of incidents have spun out of control with the brunt of the conflict falling mostly on the black students and their families.

This is from the Chicago Tribune:
The tree was on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the 460 students. But a few of the school's 85 black students had decided to challenge the accepted state of things and asked school administrators if they, too, could sit beneath the tree's cooling shade.

"Sit wherever you want," school officials told them. The next day, the nooses were hanging from the branches.

African-American students and their parents were outraged and intimidated by the display, which instantly summoned memories of the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks across the American South. Three white students were quickly identified as being responsible, and the high school principal recommended that they be expelled.

"Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple," said Tracy Bowens, a black mother of two students at the high school who protested the incident at a school board meeting.
But Jena's white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt and suspended the students for three days, angering blacks who felt harsher punishments were justified.

"Adolescents play pranks," said Breithaupt, the superintendent of the LaSalle Parish school system. "I don't think it was a threat against anybody."

Yet it was after the noose incident that the violent, racially charged events that are still convulsing Jena began.

First, a series of fights between black and white students erupted at the high school over the nooses. Then, in late November, unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school, which still sits in ruins. Off campus, a white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party. A few days later, another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store.

Finally, on Dec. 4, a group of black students at the high school allegedly jumped a white student on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. The victim -- allegedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks -- was not seriously injured and spent only a few hours in the hospital.

But the LaSalle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, opted to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted. All six were expelled from school.

****
"There's no doubt about it -- whites and blacks are treated differently here," said Melvin Worthington, who was the only school board member to vote against expelling the six black students charged in the beating case. "The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided."

And the troubles at the high school are not over yet.
On May 10, police arrested Justin Barker, 17, the white victim of the Dec. 4 beating. He was alleged to have a rifle loaded with 13 bullets stashed behind the seat of his pickup truck parked in the school lot. Barker told police he had forgotten it was there and had no intention of using it.
Charges against one of the students were reduced from attempted murder to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery just prior to his trial. Nevertheless, Mychal Bell – the first of the students to be tried – was convicted by an all white jury and can face up to 22 years in prison at his sentencing hearing on July 31. His court appointed defense counsel called no witnesses to counter the seventeen witnesses called by the prosecution. A number of the other students sit in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail.

The authorities have come down very hard on the black students while going easy on white perpetrators. Who got to sit under the “white tree” as school may have triggered this series of escalating conflicts between blacks and whites but the root causes of go much deeper. After all, why was it a tradition for white students only to congregate under the school’s shade tree? The BBC refers to this as "stealth racism." And the conflict in the town continues.

You can hear a broadcast of a report about the situation on NPR here. You can read a transcript of the Democracy Now! radio broadcast about the incident here. Michael David Murphy has a number of photographs on his blog here and a follow-up post here as well as his video clip here. An op-ed piece by Amy Goodman can be found here and a summary of the case by Bill Quigley here. Color of Change, as well as other organizations, has been organizing on behalf of the families – information about the situation can be found here and information about what you can do, can be found here. A demonstration is planned for July 31 in Jena.

Racism in a small town -- the Jena Six

This is the story about the Jena Six -- six black high school students in Jena, Louisiana caught up in a racial conflict that has been spinning out of control since last fall.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

America’s forgotten war: Afghanistan

The focus of the Bush administration almost exclusively on the war in Iraq means the conflict in Afghanistan is being neglected. Following the September 11th attacks by al-Qaeda in 2001, NATO invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government that had hosted al-Qaeda forces. Taliban and al-Qaeda forces fled across the border of Pakistan months later and have since waged a guerrilla war as they have become stronger and bolder.

However, if the Bush administration isn’t paying attention, our allies are. A report by a committee of members from the British House of Commons has concluded that the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) is two battalions short of what is needed. Isaf, the NATO forces responsible for prosecution of the war, currently has almost 37,000 troops in Afghanistan, but the committee said a far larger force, backed by increased development aid, was needed to stabilize the country.

The report, of course, represents the British perspective but it’s all applicable to the U.S. effort. This is the BBC summary of the report:
With an accumulation of detail, the defence select committee paints a sorry picture - muddled strategy, shirking allies, a lack of helicopters and, stuck in the middle, the servicemen and women who have to make the whole thing work.

Here then are the committee's conclusions, decoded:

1. There are too few troops on the ground to win.

If the mission is to succeed, says the committee, it will require a commitment of size and strength greater than the international community is "willing to acknowledge, let alone to make."

2. If we are not exactly losing, we are not winning either.

The committee said: "Violence is increasing and spreading to the relatively peaceful Kabul and the northern provinces."

3. Too many Afghan civilians are being killed.

The committee said: "Civilian casualties undermine support for (the Nato force) Isaf and the Afghan government and fuel the insurgency, further endangering our troops."

4. There are still not enough British helicopters to do the job.

"UK helicopter operations in Afghanistan are not sustainable at the present intensity."

5. Some of our Nato allies are leaving us in the lurch.

"The reluctance of some Nato countries to provide troops for the Isaf mission in Afghanistan is undermining Nato's credibility and also Isaf operations."

6. You can't fight the Taleban and opium at the same time.

The coalition's strategy lacks "clarity and coherence". "Uncertainty among Afghans about Isaf's role in poppy eradication puts UK forces at risk."

7. The Afghan security forces are a disappointment - some useless, some corrupt, some actually working against us.

"Police failure and corruption alienate support for the government of Afghanistan and add to grievances which fuel the insurgency." Even the Afghan army "are some way off operating independently".

8. So the exit strategy has problems, as in Iraq.

"We recommend that the government clarify its planning assumptions for the UK deployment to Afghanistan and state the likely length of the deployment beyond the summer of 2009."

9. The media war isn't going well, either.

"The Taleban is ahead in the information campaign.
The government (must)...co-ordinate more effectively the presentation of Isaf's
objectives and the way in which developments in Afghanistan are
reported."
The American reliance on air power to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces is simply a symptom of the shortage of boots on the ground. The aerial bombings have resulted in a high level of civilian casualties that may have the unintended consequence of turning the local population against the very forces that liberated them from the Taliban.

If the Bush administration wants to prevent Afghanistan from turning into the unwinnable mess we are witnessing in Iraq and a resurgence of al-Qaeda that would represent then they need to start paying attention now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Iraq: No perfect solution

The situation in Iraq is a mess and is going to be around for some time to come regardless of how much Americans want it to go away. Even the war in Afghanistan is not going well with no end in sight. As former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke explained in an interview in Der Spiegel last month:

President George W. Bush cannot win the war during his presidency, which only has 19 months left. He will then hand over the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan to the next president. The next president of the United States will inherit two wars. That's never happened before in history. In fact, the next president of the United States will inherit the worst opening day position in international affairs of any incoming president in American history.

All the candidates for President have their own plans to resolve the two wars, particularly Iraq. But Anne Applebaum warns in today’s Washington Post that there is no perfect solution to the problem of Iraq and a lot of potential disasters in any plan whether it is escalation, staying the course, limited disengagement, or complete withdrawal:
Out in the world, there are shades of gray. Here inside the Beltway, there are black-and-white solutions. And everybody who is anybody has a plan for Iraq.

Hillary Clinton has a three-point plan; Barack Obama has a "move the soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan" plan. House Democrats have a plan to take most troops out by next March; Senate Democrats have a plan to take them out by April. Some Senate Republicans want the president to shrink the size of the U.S. military in Iraq; other Senate Republicans want to let the surge run its course. Search the Web, listen to the radio and watch the news, and you can hear people arguing that if only we had more troops, fewer troops or no troops at all, everything would be okay again.

What is missing from this conversation is a dose of humility. More to the point, what is missing is the recognition that every single one of these plans contains the seeds of potential disaster, even catastrophe.

More troops? I hardly need to elaborate on what's wrong with that plan, since so many in Congress do so every day. But for the record, I'll repeat the obvious: More troops means more American casualties, maybe many more casualties. Worse, the very presence of American soldiers creates strife in some parts of Iraq -- angering Iraqis, motivating al-Qaeda, sparking violence. Besides, we've tried the surge, and the surge hasn't brought the results we wanted. And, anyway, the surge simply can't be maintained, let alone expanded: There aren't that many more troops to send, even if we wanted to send them.

Fewer troops? This plan sounds like a reasonable compromise: neither surge nor cut-and-run, just leaving a few guys on the ground to train the Iraqis, guard the border and fight the terrorists. It also sounds a touch naive: So, in the midst of a vast civil war, small groups of Americans will withdraw to some neutral outposts and announce that they would no longer like to be shot at, please? Both "guarding the border" and "fighting terrorism" are hard to do effectively without involving ourselves in wider political and ethnic struggles.

There is also trouble with the "train the Iraqis" part of the plan, as Stephen Biddle spelled out in The Post last week, since "training Iraqis" invariably puts us in the middle of military conflict. Besides, fewer Americans could mean more Iraqi violence; more Iraqi violence could mean more American casualties -- not to mention more Iraqi casualties -- which defeats the purpose of the plan altogether.

No troops? Though deeply appealing to the "we told you so" crowd, this plan is clothed in the greatest degree of hypocrisy. How many of the people who clamor for intervention in Darfur will also be clamoring to rush back into Iraq when full-scale ethnic cleansing starts taking place? How many will take responsibility for the victims of genocide? I'm not saying there will be such a catastrophe, but there could be: Mass ethnic murders have certainly been carried out in Iraq before. Other possibilities include the creation of an Iranian puppet state or an al-Qaeda outlaw state; or there might merely be a regional war involving, say, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, just for starters, and maybe Israel and the Gaza Strip as well. Perhaps these things would never have happened if we hadn't gone there in the first place -- but if we leave, we'll be morally responsible.
The current situation in Iraq did not happen over night. It has taken five years of deterioration under the noses of the Bush administration (particularly the disastrous management by Paul Bremer – the administration’s occupation Czar) as well as a history predating the 2002 invasion (that the administration did not seem to be aware) of a country that did not come together naturally with people who shared a common ethnicity, language and religion but put together with pieces of the former Ottoman Empire by the victories Allies following World War I. Outsiders put this country together and outsiders are now holding it together.

There is no perfect solution to this mess.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Arrogance of Power

Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreigh Relations Committee between 1959 and 1974, published The Arrogance of Power in 1966. In that book he attacked the justifications given for the Vietnam War, the impulses that led to it and Congress’s failure to set limits on it. Even though his arguments were in the context of the war in Southeast Asia much of what he had to say remains applicable today.

Jim Lobe provides excerpts at Common Dreams:
On False Historical Analogies: "The second great advantage of free discussion to democratic policy-makers is its bringing to light of new ideas and the supplanting of old myths with new realities. We Americans are much in need of this benefit because we are severely, if not uniquely afflicted with a habit of policy-making by analogy: North Vietnam's involvement in South Vietnam, for example, is equated with Hitler's invasion of Poland and a parley with the Viet Cong would represent 'another Munich.' The treatment of slight and superficial resemblances as if they were full-blooded analogies -- as instances, as it were, of history 'repeating itself' -- is a substitute for thinking and a misuse of history."

On the Arrogance of Power: "[P]ower tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations - to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work."

"The more I puzzle over the great wars of history, the more I am inclined to the view that the causes attributed to them - territory, markets, resources, the defense or perpetuation of great principles - were not the root causes at all but rather explanations or excuses for certain unfathomable drives of human nature. For lack of a clear and precise understanding of exactly what these motives are, I refer to them as the 'arrogance of power' - as a psychological need that nations seem to have in order to prove that they are bigger, better, or stronger than other nations. Implicit in this drive is the assumption, even on the part of normally peaceful nations, that force is the ultimate proof of superiority - that when a nation shows that it has the stronger army, it is also proving that it has better people, better institutions, better principles, and, in general, a better civilization."

"[The arrogance of power is defined as] the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission. The dilemmas involved are pre-eminently American dilemmas, not because America has weaknesses that others do not have but because America is powerful as no nation has ever been before, and the discrepancy between her power and the power of others appears to be increasing."

On Imperial Temptations: "Despite its dangerous and unproductive consequences, the idea of being responsible for the whole world seems to be flattering to Americans and I am afraid it is turning our heads, just as the sense of universal responsibility turned the heads of ancient Romans and nineteenth-century British."

"It is a curiosity of human nature that lack of self-assurance seems to breed an exaggerated sense of power and mission. When a nation is very powerful but lacking self-confidence, it is likely to behave in a manner dangerous to itself and to others. Feeling the need to prove what is obvious to everyone else, it begins to confuse great power with unlimited power and great responsibility with total responsibility: it can admit of no error; it must win every argument, no matter how trivial. For lack of an appreciation of how truly powerful it is, the nation begins to lose wisdom and perspective and, with them, the strength and understanding that it takes to be magnanimous to smaller and weaker nations.

On Unilateralism and Support from Traditional Allies: "One detects in Europe a growing uneasiness about American policy, a feeling that the United States is becoming unreliable and that it may be better - safer, that is - to keep the Americans at a distance."

"We have become a one-issue participant in world affairs, hungering after a kind word or some token of support, for either of which we are more than willing to pay a handsome reward.

"[The United States is willing to defy allied opinion because of] ...an excess of pride born of power. Power has a way of undermining judgment, of planting delusions of grandeur in the minds of otherwise sensible people and otherwise sensible nations. As I have said earlier, the idea of being responsible for the whole world seems to have dazzled us, giving rise to what I call the arrogance of power, or what the French, perhaps more aptly, call 'le vertige de puissance,' by which they mean a kind of dizziness or giddiness inspired by the possession of great power. If then, as I suspect, there is a relationship between the self-absorption of some of our allies and the American military involvement in Vietnam, it may have more to do with American vanity than with our friends' complacency."

On International Law: "Law is the essential foundation of stability and order both within societies and in international relations. As a conservative power the United States has a vital interest in upholding and expanding the reign of law in international relations. Insofar as international law is observed, it provides us with stability and order and with a means of predicting the behavior of those with whom we have reciprocal legal obligations. When we violate the law ourselves, whatever short-term advantage may be gained, we are obviously encouraging others to violate the law; we thus encourage disorder and instability and thereby do incalculable damage to our own long-term interests."

On National Greatness: "I do not think that America's greatness is questioned in the world, and I certainly do not think that strident behavior is the best way for a nation to prove its greatness. Indeed, in nations as in individuals bellicosity is a mark of weakness and self-doubt rather than of strength and self-assurance."

"In her relations with Asian nations, as indeed in her relations with all of the revolutionary or potentially revolutionary societies of the world, America has an opportunity to perform services of which no great nation has ever before been capable. To do so we must acquire wisdom to match our power and humility to match our pride. Perhaps the single word above all others that expresses America's need is 'empathy'."

"The inconstancy of American foreign policy is not an accident but an expression of two distinct sides of the American character. Both are characterized by a kind of moralism, but one is the morality of decent instincts tempered by the knowledge of human imperfection and the other is the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit. …

"After twenty-five years of world power the United States must decide which of the two sides of its national character is to predominate - the humanism of Lincoln or the arrogance of those who would make America the world's policeman."
Thanks to David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal for the tip and who also provides the following quote from George Kennan who testified before Fulbright’s committee:
There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than in the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Nahoul the Bee replaces Farfour the Mouse on Hamas television

The Palestinian children’s program, Tomorrow's Pioneers, has replaced Farfour the Mouse with Nahoul the Bee. Farfour was a large Mickey Mouse look-alike who urged children to fight Israel and for world wide Islamic domination. An episode of the program a few weeks ago showed Farfour beaten to death by an Israeli trying to take his land. The show’s narrator, a little girl, declared him a martyr.

The program is part of the programming by the Hamas television station, al-Aqsa, either targeting children for indoctrination or using children for propaganda purposes.

This past Friday, the Tomorrow's Pioneers, presented a new character: Nahoul the Bee:
Saraa, child host: Who are you, and where did you come from?

Nahoul the Bee: I am Nahoul.

Saraa: Nahoul who?

Nahoul: I'm Nahoul, Farfour's cousin.

Saraa: What do you want?

Nahoul: I want to continue the path of my cousin Farfour.

Saraa: How do you want to do this?

Nahoul: I want to be in every episode with you on the Pioneers of Tomorrow show, just like Farfour. I want to continue in the path of Farfour – the path of Islam, of heroism, of martyrdom, and of the mujahideen. Me and my friends will follow in the footsteps of Farfour. We will take revenge upon the enemies of Allah, the killer of the prophets and of the innocent children, until we liberate Al-Aqsa from their impurity. We place our trust in Allah.

Saraa: Welcome, Nahoul...
You can watch a clip of the program here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

History and Iraq: George W. Bush is no Harry Truman

Listening to President Bush’s press conference Thursday, I was reminded of my high school days and of a kid sitting in the back of the class (not me, of course) who is suddenly called upon by the teacher. He doesn’t know the answer to the question so he just keeps talking as if the teacher can be fooled by the mere fact he keeps talking even though he never really answers the question. Mr. Bush came across yesterday as much less informed than the reporters asking the questions. This, of course, is the President who brags about not reading daily newspapers. Peggy Noonan, the conservative Republican speech writer for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, watched George W. Bush’s dismal performance and pessimistically concluded, “Americans can't fire the president right now, so they're waiting it out.”

This is how Andrew Sullivan summed up the President’s press conference:

He's arguing he didn't decide to go to war; Saddam did. He's saying he agrees with his Republican critics. He's blaming the generals for all the combat decisions that have made this war a failure. His blaming Tommy Franks specifically for the troop levels was particularly piquant. So he gave him a Medal of Freedom anyway? Worse, the president conflated every single radical element in the Middle East into one amorphous anti-American entity. It appears that he sees Shiite militias, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Hamas and the Sunni insurgents as indistinguishable. He has even said baldly that the people bombing and murdering in Iraq are the same people who attacked us on 9/11. The Shiite militias? The Baathist dead-enders? Is he serious? He seems to be still operating under the premise that the fundamental dynamic is one between democracy and radicalism. At some very broad and general level, that's not wrong. But in terms of forming policy, it's close to useless. Actually, it's worse than useless. We have a president who seems unable to understand the critical dynamics of the war he is allegedly waging. Is he capable of understanding the complexity? Does he really think we need another lecture on the evil of al Qaeda? Does he really think that's what we're arguing about at this point?

Either he truly believes that’s what we are arguing about at this point indicating he is just out of the loop or he knows he is responsible for creating a mess but is being evasive because he can’t bring himself to take responsibility. Neither scenario paints a complimentary picture of this President.

Unfortunately, conservatives have put it in this President’s head that he is another Harry Truman so he seems to think the judgment of history will be on his side in the long run. His interpretation of history becomes a story of a leader being unappreciated in the short run but admired for his courage and wisdom over time.

That’s a dangerous delusion and others disagree with the Truman analogy and the President’s interpretation of history. Written before his death in an automobile accident in April and published in the August issue of Vanity Fair, David Halberstam argued that President Bush has a very slight grasp of history that he cites to justify his actions:
We are a long way from the glory days of Mission Accomplished, when the Iraq war was over before it was over—indeed before it really began—and the president could dress up like a fighter pilot and land on an aircraft carrier, and the nation, led by a pliable media, would applaud. Now, late in this sad, terribly diminished presidency, mired in an unwinnable war of their own making, and increasingly on the defensive about events which, to their surprise, they do not control, the president and his men have turned, with some degree of desperation, to history. In their view Iraq under Saddam was like Europe dominated by Hitler, and the Democrats and critics in the media are likened to the appeasers of the 1930s. The Iraqi people, shorn of their immensely complicated history, become either the people of Europe eager to be liberated from the Germans, or a little nation that great powerful nations ought to protect. Most recently in this history rummage sale—and perhaps most surprisingly—Bush has become Harry Truman.

****
Ironically, it is the president himself, a man notoriously careless about, indeed almost indifferent to, the intellectual underpinnings of his actions, who has come to trumpet loudest his close scrutiny of the lessons of the past. Though, before, he tended to boast about making critical decisions based on instinct and religious faith, he now talks more and more about historical mandates. Usually he does this in the broadest—and vaguest—sense: History teaches us … We know from history … History shows us. In one of his speaking appearances in March 2006, in Cleveland, I counted four references to history, and what it meant for today, as if he had had dinner the night before with Arnold Toynbee, or at the very least Barbara Tuchman, and then gone home for a few hours to read his Gibbon.

I am deeply suspicious of these presidential seminars. We have, after all, come to know George Bush fairly well by now, and many of us have come to feel—not only because of what he says, but also because of the sheer cockiness in how he says it—that he has a tendency to decide what he wants to do first, and only then leaves it to his staff to look for intellectual justification…

****
When David Frum, a presidential speechwriter, presented Bush with the phrase "axis of evil," to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, it was meant to recall the Axis powers of World War II. Frum was much praised, for it is a fine phrase, perfect for Madison Avenue. Of course, the problem is that it doesn't really track. This new Axis turned out to contain, apparently much to our surprise, two countries, Iraq and Iran, that were sworn enemies, and if you moved against Iraq, you ended up de-stabilizing it and involuntarily strengthening Iran, the far more dangerous country in the region. While "axis of evil" was intended to serve as a sort of historical banner, embodying the highest moral vision imaginable, it ended up only helping to weaken us.

Despite his recent conversion to history, the president probably still believes, deep down, as do many of his admirers, that the righteous, religious vision he brings to geopolitics is a source of strength—almost as if the less he knows about the issues the better and the truer his decision-making will be. Around any president, all the time, are men and women with different agendas, who compete for his time and attention with messy, conflicting versions of events and complicated facts that seem all too often to contradict one another. With their hard-won experience the people from the State Department and the C.I.A. and even, on occasion, the armed forces tend to be cautious and short on certitude. They are the kind of people whose advice his father often took, but who in the son's view use their knowledge and experience merely to limit a president's ability to act. How much easier and cleaner to make decisions in consultation with a higher authority.

Therefore, when I hear the president cite history so casually, an alarm goes off. Those who know history best tend to be tempered by it. They rarely refer to it so sweepingly and with such complete confidence. They know that it is the most mischievous of mistresses and that it touts sure things about as regularly as the tip sheets at the local track. Its most important lessons sometimes come cloaked in bitter irony. By no means does it march in a straight line toward the desired result, and the good guys do not always win…
If President Bush were the least bit familiar with history of the country the United States invaded and is occupying then he would know that Iraq is less than one hundred years old. The League of Nation formed it at the end of World War I by the merger of the former Ottoman Empire vilayets of Mosul (including much of Kurdistan), Baghdad and Basra into a single nation. It was set up as a British mandate (i.e., de facto colony of an empire of one of the victor nations) and granted independence only in 1932. The country was invaded by the British in 1941 because of the leanings of the government towards the Nazis and occupied until 1947. What native governments ruled the nation called Iraq were either monarchies or military dictatorships.

Perhaps, more importantly, of the four multi-national/multi-ethnic states that were put together following WWI – the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Iraq – only Iraq survives. Of course, the current American policy is to deny the existence of a civil war and fight to avoid the natural partition of the country into three nation-states. The Kurds, the only trusworthy friends of the U.S. in the country, have had their own national aspirations and have already set up a nation within a nation. If President Bush were familiar with history then he would know how easily a country like Iraq can come unravelled if a lot of thought and planning don’t go into an operation like the one the United States is currently engaged. He would know that once civil war starts, it is extremely difficult to end.

Harry Truman surrounded himself with the most qualifed foreign policy advisors of the day, despite his lack of formal education he was widely read and took the opinions of others into consideration, he fired Generals, and he took responsibility for his decisions --“The buck stops here.” George Bush is no Harry Truman.

(Halberstam’s essay is too long to reproduce on this blog and can be read here in it’s entirety here. And I do recommend you read the entire piece – it’s very good.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Iraq: The “surge” was tried before and failed

Operation Sinbad was the operation led by the British in southern Iraq focusing on Basra, the nation’s second largest city. The operation began on September 27, 2006 and concluded February 18, 2007. The goal was to stabilize Basra so local officials could use the time to rebuild. The operation was a success – temporarily. Within months the situation had returned to its previous state.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a report last month warning of the collapse of Iraq and compared Operation Sinbad and the current U.S. “surge” strategy in Baghdad. Given the similarities, the failure of Operation Sinbad does not bode well for the Baghdad surge as a strategy for long-term stabilization in that city let alone the country.

Here are excerpts of a piece written by Robert Malley and Peter Harling of the ICG that appears in the International Herald Tribune:
Iraq is in the midst of a civil war - but before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state.

To imagine what Baghdad will look like after the surge, there is no need to project far into the future. Just turn to the recent past.

Between September 2006 and March 2007, British forces conducted Operation Sinbad in Basra, Iraq's second largest city. At first, there were signs of progress: diminished violence, criminality and overall chaos. But these turned out to be superficial and depressingly fleeting.

Today, political tensions once again are destabilizing the city; relentless attacks against British forces have driven them off the streets, and the southern city is under the control of militias, more powerful and less inhibited than before.

Operation Sinbad, like the surge, was premised on belief that heightened British military power would help rout militias, provide space for local leaders to rebuild the city and ultimately hand security over to newly vetted and more professional Iraqi security forces. It did nothing of the sort.

A military strategy that failed to challenge the dominant power structure and political makeup, no matter how muscular it was, simply could not alter the underlying dynamic: A political arena dominated by parties - those the British embraced, no less than those they fought - engaged in a bloody competition over power and resources.

What happened? While British forces were struggling to suppress the violence, the parties and organizations operating on the public scene never felt the need to modify their behavior. Militias were not defeated; they went underground or, more often, were absorbed into existing security forces.

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In short, Operation Sinbad, at best, froze in place the existing situation and balance of power. Once the British version of the surge ebbed, the struggle reignited.

For Baghdad, the implications are as clear as they are ominous. Basra is a microcosm of the country as a whole in its multiple and multiplying forms of violence. Strife generally has little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance, both of which are far more prominent in the capital or Iraq's center. Instead, it involves the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly are indistinguishable from political actors.

This means that even should the armed opposition weaken, even should sectarian tensions abate, and even should the surge momentarily succeed, Basra's fate is likely to be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic, and more dangerous scale.

Some lessons from Basra regarding the ill-conceived war and mismanaged occupation come four years too late. But others still can be learned.

First, the answer to Iraq's horrific violence cannot be an illusory military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners.

Second, violence is not solely the result of al Qaeda-type terrorism or sectarian hostility, however costly both evidently are.

Third, Basra shows that violence has become a routine means of social interaction used by political actors doubling up as militiamen who seek to increase their share of power and resources.

In other words, perpetuating the same political process with the same political actors will ensure that what is left of the Iraqi state gradually is torn apart. The most likely outcome will be the country's untidy break-up into fiefdoms, superficially held together by the presence of coalition forces. Washington and London should acknowledge that their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down.

Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. But before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state - a country whose institutions and any semblance of national cohesion, have been obliterated.

That is what has made the violence - all the violence: sectarian, anticoalition, political, criminal and otherwise - both possible and, for many, necessary. Resolving the confrontation between Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds is one priority. But rebuilding a functioning and legitimate state is another - no less urgent, no less important, and no less daunting.
The bottom line is seeking an exclusively military solution to a largely political problem is doomed.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Abolish the office of the Vice President

To repeat the worn-out cliché, the Vice President is just a heartbeat away from the Presidency. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at what the American people think of our current Vice President.

According to the New York Times, Vice President Cheney has replaced Dan Quayle as the most unpopular vice president in recent history. Cheney, who never had a job approval rating above 56% polled at 28% in June with 59% disapproving. His favorability polled 13% in May down from a high of 43% just before the 2000 election. To top this off, 54% of Americans and 50% of voters now favor the House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against the Vice President.

This isn’t exactly a man who has the confidence of the American people.

Obviously, the sentiment is to get rid of Cheney but under our system of government that can only be done by impeachment which is sort of like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. Cheney is not the type of leader with the personal decency to step down so where this all is going is anyone’s guess.

However, the Cheney situation does raise an interesting question: Why do we need a Vice President or at least a Vice President with the built-in job security the current office guarantees? Between deaths and successions, this nation has been without a Vice President for 45 years and no seemed to notice or care. Most Western democracies do not have anything comparable to our Vice Presidency. The only official duties of the Vice President are to preside over the Senate, cast the occasional tie-breaking vote in the Senate, and otherwise sit around and wait for the President to die. That’s it.

Maybe it is time for a little Constitutional housecleaning.

Here is the argument Professor Sanford Levinson makes in the Boston Globe to amend the Constitution to either abolish the office of the Vice President or at least make it easier to remove a Vice President:
… why do we need a vice president? The vice president has no particular duties under the Constitution other than to ask after the president's health each morning and to preside over the Senate (and cast the tie-breaking vote if the Senate is evenly split). And yet the vice president -- if he proves himself a liability, or unfit to stand a heartbeat away from the Oval Office -- cannot be dismissed by the president he serves, or be removed by Congress except by impeachment. So how exactly do Americans benefit from this constitutionally ordained office?

These questions, which might seem unduly academic under normal circumstances, have taken on special meaning as a substantial majority of Americans express concern about Vice President Dick Cheney's fitness for his office. Numerous articles, most recently in The Washington Post, and earlier in The Boston Globe and elsewhere, have demonstrated Cheney's unprecedented influence over a variety of policy areas during the past six years, including the decision to go to war in Iraq and, perhaps as important, the authorization of what can only be described as torture in the interrogation of terrorism suspects, or "illegal enemy combatants."

Most Americans believe, justifiably, that Cheney has consistently displayed appallingly bad judgment. On top of this, there is his contempt for democratic accountability and oversight by other institutions of government. Most recently, he defied a presidential order requiring monitoring of classified information, claiming that he is exempt because, as Senate president, he is a member of the legislative branch. (Of course, he also defies congressional oversight by claiming certain "executive privileges.")

To remove Cheney from office, one would have to impeach him -- and there is indeed a small but growing movement among both liberals and conservatives to do just that. And yet, for better or worse, it is difficult to argue that Cheney himself has done anything in his capacity as vice president that rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," as required by the Constitution for impeachment. His only official job, presiding over the Senate, offers few opportunities for scoffing at the law. (And even if his claimed exemption from a presidential order is thought to be illegal, it is a stretch to view that as an impeachable offense, and it would, of course, take at least until the end of his term to get a judicial decision on the claim.)

Exercise of spectacularly bad judgment, alas, is not a criminal offense. If, as in parliamentary systems, Congress could remove Cheney through a vote of "no confidence," he might indeed have reason to fear for his continued employment, but the Constitution provides him job security against such a possibility.

The problem, then, is not only Dick Cheney but the US Constitution. Consider that in a 21st-century world that contains literally dozens of constitutional republics, few with constitutions written after World War II have seen fit to include a constitutionally entrenched vice president. (Most have chosen parliamentary systems, fearing autocratic presidents.) France, which just completed a dramatic presidential election, has no vice president at all. South Africa, when drafting its widely admired 1994 constitution, did provide for a "deputy president," but he serves at the pleasure of the president, which means, by definition, that he has nothing resembling the job security of Dick Cheney.

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History buffs are aware that two 19th-century presidents died in office (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor), while two others were assassinated (Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield). They were succeeded by John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur, respectively -- at best nonentities, and at worst, as with Tyler and Johnson, disasters. Tyler, for example, was insistent on doing whatever he could to strengthen what was called the "slavocracy," while Johnson, as is well known, devoted most of his energies as Lincoln's successor to attempting to torpedo any significant "reconstruction" of the defeated Confederacy.

The 20th century is better on this score, giving us as successors to the Oval Office Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. But consider some of the other possibilities had events taken a different course: One can well argue, for example, that Woodrow Wilson did a disservice to the country by remaining in office following a debilitating stroke in October 1919. But had he resigned, or had the stroke simply been fatal, the amiable but otherwise unqualified former Indiana senator Thomas Marshall would have succeeded him during the crucial period following the Paris Peace Conference and the bitter conflict it generated about US ratification of the Versailles Treaty.

Had anything happened to Franklin Delano Roosevelt early in his tenure, he would have been succeeded at a time of national crisis by former Speaker of the House John Nance ("Texas Jack") Garner, who shared neither Roosevelt's imagination nor his political skills. More recently, of course, we had the spectacle of the ultimately disgraced Spiro Agnew and the remarkably unfit Dan Quayle being one heartbeat away from succeeding Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, respectively.

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If you are part of the majority of the population that cringes at the possibility of a Cheney presidency, the only practical advice is to pray for George Bush's health. Should something happen to the president, and should Cheney succeed to the White House, it could trigger a political crisis of stunning dimensions, given the widespread lack of trust, at home and abroad, in his judgment and commitment to basic notions of the American republic. Nevertheless, he would have gotten to the White House because of the Constitution.

The presidential candidates of both parties should be asked to explain, at least once in their frenzied campaigning, why exactly the country is well served by the current structure of presidential succession and whether they would support a constitutional amendment either eliminating the vice presidency entirely or, at the very least, making the vice president removable, either by the president or Congress, should the prospect of a given vice president's succession provoke more horror than confidence. It should not be necessary to rev up the basically unworkable machinery of formal impeachment in such cases.

We best honor those who declared our independence 231 years ago by having the willingness they exhibited to cast a cold eye on existing political institutions and to decide whether they are suitable to the times. We have good reason to be grateful for much they bequeathed us. But the entrenched vice presidency is an idea whose time has passed; we should amend the Constitution to eliminate it.
You can read his entire piece here.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Rape as a weapon of war

Rape can be more than the act of a sexually aggressive predator – it can be a weapon of intimidation and war.

Judith Todd is the daughter of the late Sir Garfield Todd who was reformist Prime Minister of Rhodesia during the 1950’s and who opposed Rhodesia's declaration of independence and subsequent apartheid-style regime. He was a supporter of the liberation movement that freed Rhodesia (soon to be renamed Zimbabwe) of white minority rule but became disillusioned by the brutal tactics of Robert Mugabe. He and his daughter, Judith, became outspoken critics of Mugabe. Ms. Todd revealed today that the price of their dissent was for her to be raped on orders of Mugabe in the early 1980’s.

But rape as a weapon is used not only against specific targeted women but as a systematic assault against women in general associated with particular ethnic or religious groups that are in conflict. The purpose of the rape is not only to hurt and intimidate but to impregnate. This can be especially true in patrilinial cultures where identity is conferred by fathers alone, not mothers.

Diane E. King, a cultural anthropologist, explains the use of rape in this context in the International Herald Tribune:
Rape is always humiliating, always a violation, always awful. But under patrilineal cultures, it can also be a tool of sectarian discord and even genocide. This is the case in Iraq, where rape is frequently used as a weapon of sectarian conflict. When a Shiite militiaman rapes a Sunni woman, for example, he is seen as potentially implanting a Shiite individual into her womb. He is causing her to suffer dual humiliations: She is sexually violated, with all of the personal implications that that would carry in any culture. But the rape further serves like a Trojan Horse: Thereafter, an offspring bearing the rapist's identity may well be hidden inside her body, an enemy who will emerge in nine months.

So cross-sectarian rape as a weapon of political conflict hypothetically can force a woman to nurture her own enemy. But in actual practice, this rarely happens. Rather, the tragedy of rape is compounded when a member of that woman's group eliminates her and any enemy offspring through an "honor killing." Honor killings are usually carried out by the father or brother of the victim, although they may be committed by others from the group. Alternatively, the woman herself may commit an "honor suicide."

Honor killings have been on the rise in Iraq. The connection these killings have to a corresponding rise in rapes has not been documented, but there seems to be every reason to assume a connection.

Women are not the only ones whose victimization in warfare takes on richer meaning in light of patriliny. In patrilineal logic, a man is not simply an individual with the ability to wage conflict; he is the sole bearer of seed, the sowing of which adds greater strength to his group. A man who is killed is eliminated from producing any further members of his group.

In patriliny, the stage is set for one patrilineal group to inflict maximum harm on another: Rape the women, and thereby inflict one of the awful options of bearing enemy children or killing their own. Kill the men, and thereby eliminate not only combatants, but those with power to produce more members of the enemy. No people with hybrid identities exist.

Inter-group enmity driven by patrlineal logic has already given rise to genocidal conflict from Bosnia to Rwanda, Kosovo to Darfur. Iraq may already justifiably be placed on this list. Who will speak up for the victims? All those in power in Iraq bear a responsibility to stop the madness.
And, as reported here before, many countries in conflict such as Sudan, make prosecution of rape very difficult. For a woman to prove rape under Sudanese law, she needs four male witnesses. This requirement puts undue burdens on women in a traditional society where single women having sex can be sentenced to 100 lashes at the discretion of a judge. A married woman proven to have had sex outside of her marriage can be stoned to death.

The decline of the U.S. Justice Department

The whole concept of American justice, as it is represented and enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, has taken some hits during the past few years. Civil liberties are disregarded. The President (and as former Texas governor) has one set of standards to apply his powers of pardon and commutation for the public at large and one set for his friends. U.S. Attorneys, professionals who are responsible for carrying out the law on the behalf of all of us, are dismissed when they fail to toe the party line as set down by White House political strategists. Torture is rationalized. The United States Attorney General is an embarrassment who has not been fired for the simple reason the administration wants to avoid Senate hearings that would occur with the appointment of a successor.

It is refreshing to realize that there are still public servants with integrity who have the courage to speak out. The piece below (via TPM Muckraker) is from the Denver Post by John S. Koppel who has served as a civil appellate attorney with the Department of Justice since the beginning of the Reagan administration.
As a longtime attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, I can honestly say that I have never been as ashamed of the department and government that I serve as I am at this time.

The public record now plainly demonstrates that both the DOJ and the government as a whole have been thoroughly politicized in a manner that is inappropriate, unethical and indeed unlawful. The unconscionable commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's sentence, the misuse of warrantless investigative powers under the Patriot Act and the deplorable treatment of U.S. attorneys all point to an unmistakable pattern of abuse.

In the course of its tenure since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has turned the entire government (and the DOJ in particular) into a veritable Augean stable on issues such as civil rights, civil liberties, international law and basic human rights, as well as criminal prosecution and federal employment and contracting practices. It has systematically undermined the rule of law in the name of fighting terrorism, and it has sought to insulate its actions from legislative or judicial scrutiny and accountability by invoking national security at every turn, engaging in persistent fearmongering, routinely impugning the integrity and/or patriotism of its critics, and protecting its own lawbreakers. This is neither normal government conduct nor "politics as usual," but a national disgrace of a magnitude unseen since the days of Watergate - which, in fact, I believe it eclipses.

In more than a quarter of a century at the DOJ, I have never before seen such consistent and marked disrespect on the part of the highest ranking government policymakers for both law and ethics. It is especially unheard of for U.S. attorneys to be targeted and removed on the basis of pressure and complaints from political figures dissatisfied with their handling of politically sensitive investigations and their unwillingness to "play ball." Enough information has already been disclosed to support the conclusion that this is exactly what happened here, at least in the case of former U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico (and quite possibly in several others as well). Law enforcement is not supposed to be a political team sport, and prosecutorial independence and integrity are not "performance problems."

In his long-awaited but uninformative testimony concerning the extraordinary firings of U.S. attorneys, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales did not allay these concerns. Indeed, he faced a no-win situation. If he testified falsely regarding his alleged lack of recollection and lack of involvement, he perjured himself and lied to both Congress and the American people. On the other hand, if he told the truth, he clearly has been derelict in the performance of his duties and is not up to the job. Either way, his fitness to serve is now in doubt.

Tellingly, in his congressional testimony, D. Kyle Sampson (the junior aide to whom the attorney general delegated vast authority) expressed the view that the distinction between "performance" considerations and "political" considerations was "largely artificial." This attitude, however, is precisely the problem. The administration that Sampson served has elided the distinction between government performance and politics to an unparalleled extent (just as it has blurred the boundaries between the White House counsel's office and the attorney general's office). And it is no answer to say that U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. The point that is lost on those who make this argument is that U.S. attorneys must not serve partisan purposes or advance a partisan agenda - which has nothing to do with requiring them to promote an administration's legitimate policy priorities.

As usual, the administration has attempted to minimize the significance of its malfeasance and misfeasance, reciting its now-customary "mistakes were made" mantra, accepting purely abstract responsibility without consequences for its actions, and making hollow vows to do better. However, the DOJ Inspector General's Patriot Act report (which would not even have existed if the administration had not been forced to grudgingly accept a very modest legislative reporting requirement, instead of being allowed to operate in its preferred secrecy), the White House-DOJ e-mails, and now the Libby commutation merely highlight yet again the lawlessness, incompetence and dishonesty of the present executive branch leadership.

They also underscore Congress' lack of wisdom in blindly trusting the administration, largely rubber-stamping its legislative proposals, and essentially abandoning the congressional oversight function for most of the last six years. These are, after all, the same leaders who brought us the WMD fiasco, the unnecessary and disastrous Iraq war, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, warrantless domestic NSA surveillance, the Valerie Wilson leak, the arrest of Brandon Mayfield, and the Katrina response failure. The last thing they deserve is trust.
You can read the entire piece here.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Zimbabwe policies spur buying panic as stores run out of basic goods

The government of Robert Mugabe has ordered businesses in Zimbabwe to roll back prices to mid-June levels spurring panic buying as store shelves empty of basic goods. Mugabe’s regime has horribly mismanaged the economy and the people of the African nation face food shortages as prices spiral higher and higher with the highest inflation in the world – 10,000 percent. Mugabe has accused businesses of raising prices in order to topple his government and is using not only the police but a pro-government youth militia known as the “Green Bombers” to beat shopkeepers who have not lowered their prices.

This a report of the dismal situation in today’s Guardian:
Panic buying swept through the streets of Zimbabwe yesterday, as stores ran out of basic goods and shopkeepers complained that they were selling goods at a loss after the government ordered prices to be halved in a last-ditch effort to tackle hyper-inflation.

Shoppers desperate to restock in a country ravaged by shortages cleared out supermarkets in the capital, Harare, and Bulawayo, where shelves were bare of essential items such as maize meal, cooking oil, sugar, milk, soap, bread, chicken, beef and other items.

"I am selling goods at less than what I paid for them. I am selling bread at less than what it costs to bake it," a distraught Harare shopowner said, pleading for anonymity so as to avoid government retribution. "I am following the government's orders. Army soldiers came here this morning to check prices. Mugabe has threatened to seize any business that does not do what he says. I don't know how long this can continue."

Inflation is currently estimated at 10,000% and rising. Armed soldiers and the youth militia are patrolling shops and open-air markets to enforce President Robert Mugabe's price controls. More than 200 retailers have been charged with crimes of charging more than the official prices, police confirmed yesterday.

By making it uneconomic to produce and sell goods and food, Mr Mugabe risks further damaging the country's limping economy, which has shrunk by 50% over the past seven years. Economists warn the move will not control inflation but will simply push goods on to the thriving black market. Analysts say many companies and industries could go bankrupt, adding to Zimbabwe's unemployment, which is already estimated at 80%.

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The price cuts were announced last week after Mr Mugabe gave a vitriolic speech in which he threatened to take over any business or mine that does not adhere to his policies.

"This nonsense of price escalations must come to an end," he said, adding that his government would not be undermined by businesses using "British tactics". "We will nationalise them if they continue with their dirty tricks," he said.

Following the speech the government ordered prices to be cut in half or more.

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The actual level of inflation is unclear as the government has not released its figures for June. The official rate for May of 4,500% is said by economists and major businesses to be far below the actual rate of 10,000%. Many have predicted that inflation will soar, including the American ambassador to Harare, who forecast that inflation would hit 1,500,000% before the end of 2007.

Mr Mugabe's chaotic and violent seizures of white-owned farms provoked a collapse of the agricultural sector that has left poor black farmers even worse off than before, according to agricultural experts. The UN estimates that one-third of Zimbabwe's 12 million people will need food aid over the next year.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

There are "special" Americans and then there are the rest of us

Much as been said about George Bush’s commutation of the sentence of Scooter Libby (not to mention his likely future pardon) and hopefully this is only the beginning. This act illustrates so much about both the constitutional problems with the power of the presidency and especially about corruption of this administration in particular. This was not merely special treatment for a special defendant that runs contrary to this administration’s position on sentencing everyone else – in other words, there are “special” Americans and then there are the rest of us – but this likely indicates Scooter Libby knew before the prosecution he would never be held accountable for any crimes committed on behalf of this administration.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo sees this as what was necessary to keep Libby quiet:
There is a conceivable argument --- a very poor one but a conceivable one --- for pardoning Scooter Libby, presumably on the argument that the entire prosecution was political and thus illegitimate. But what conceivable argument does the president have for micromanaging the sentence? To decide that the conviction is appropriate, that probation is appropriate, that a substantial fine is appropriate --- just no prison sentence.

This is being treated in the press as splitting the difference, an elegant compromise. But it is the least justifiable approach. The president has decided that the sentencing guidelines and the opinion of judge don't cut it.

The only basis for this decision is that Libby is the vice president's friend, the vice president rules the president and this was the minimum necessary to keep the man silent.
Sanford Levison views this is the larger context of the abuse of the power of Presidents to pardon or commute:
…. The most obvious point is that Mr. Bush has been notably uncompassionate in his use of his pardoning power in his first six-years in office; moreover, as Governor of Texas he exhibited almost blithe disregard--enabled, to be sure, by his lawyer Alberto ("Fredo") Gonzales--of the poor wretches condemned to die under a notably slipshod system of Texas criminal justice. And, of course, one might note the silence of the President with regard to draconian enforcement of immigration policy that regularly breaks up families because a (legal) resident alien committed a quite minor crime (usually involving drugs) some years ago or because immigration officials conduct roundups of suspected illegal aliens. Mr. Bush's "compassion" for convicted felons is extraordinarily limited, so one obviously wonders what makes Mr. Libby so special.

…. Interestingly enough, if one reads the so-called "anti-Federalist" papers, collected together some years ago in a magnificent edition by Herbert J. Storing, one discovers that a number of the opponents of the Constitution were quite concerned by the power to pardon. George Mason, a distinguished Virginian who refused to sign the Constitution, noted that "the President of the United States has the unrestrained Power of granting Pardon for Treason; which may be sometimes exercised to screen from Punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the Crime, and thereby prevent a Discovery of his own guilt." Luther Martin, another non-signatory, also objected to the potential "attempt [of the President] to assume to himself powers not given by the constitution, and establish himself in regal authority; in which attempt a provision is made for him to secure from punishment the creatures of his ambition, the associates and abettors of his treasonable practices, by granting them pardons should they be defeated in their attempts to subvert the constitution."

No one, of course, believes that Mr. Libby committed Treason; indeed, his most ardent defenders view him as attempting to save the Republic from the like of Joseph Wilson. But, just as obviously, Mr. Libby was convicted of perjury after an extensive trial, and the judge quite justifiably thought that Mr. Libby's actions demonstrated utter contempt for what the Constitution calls a "Republican Form of Government." Even if one agrees with President Bush that 30 months was "excessive," it is obviously a logical fallacy to assume that the alternative to 30 months is not a single day. More to the point, it is altogether tempting to put the pardon within the framework set out by Mason and Martin: The best explanation of the pardon is not compassion but, rather, fear that Mr. Libby might be tempted to provide more information about the cabal to turn the presidency (and vice-presidency) into "regal," if not out-and-out dictatorial, authorities totally independent from any scrutiny or accountability. This is simply one more illustration of the mendacity and corruption at the heart of the Bush Administration (and, therefore, of the present American system of government).

No one should doubt that we are in a constitutional crisis. And part of the crisis can be found within the Constitution itself. Perhaps it is a good idea that the President can pardon (or commute) convicted criminals. This is the notion that justice should be tempered by mercy. But it is also clear that the pardoning authority can be abused by unscrupulous presidents. Bill Clinton, of course, was roundly criticized for his last-day pardon of Marc Rich, though no one can seriously believe that high issues of the polity were involved. …. As with so much of the Clinton presidency, the act was tawdry but unthreatening to a Republican Form of Government. Mr. Bush's commutation, is such a threat, unless, of course, one defines a "Republican Form of Government" as "Government by the Republican Party." It will be interesting to see if any of those who look to the Founding Generation for wisdom about current realities will give any credence to the timely warnings of Mason and Martin (and others) about the potentially cancerous consequences of the Pardoning Power.
Andrew Sullivan sees it as part of a pattern of abuse of power:
We now have a clear and simple illustration of the arrogance of this president. Tell the American people the core narrative of this monarchical presidency: this president believes he is above the law in wiretapping citizens with no court oversight; he has innovated an explosive use of signing statements to declare himself above the law on a bewildering array of other matters, large and small; he has unilaterally declared himself above American law, international law, and U.N. Treaty obligations in secretly authorizing torture; he has claimed the right to seize anyone in the United States, detain them indefinitely without trial and torture them; his vice-president refuses to abide by the law that mandates securing classified documents; and when a court of law finds a friend of the president's guilty, he commutes the sentence.

Most Americans find this blatant abuse of power repugnant - war or no war. Many find the way in which the commentariat has been coopted in defending this lawlessness to be equally repugnant. When a governing class declares itself collectively above the rule of law, and does so with open contempt for the judicial system, it's time that elite was brought down a peg or two. I think Bush just gave the country a simple reason to rid Washington of him and all he stands for. We will now see exactly what character Americans are made of: supplicants of a feather-bedded aristocracy or self-governing citizens under the rule of law?
And, of course, there are Keith Olbermann’s thoughtful comments on how the Bush administration has again let the American people down. (The transcript can be found at Crooks & Liars.)

This administration believes it has tenure and can act in total disregard of the American people. Unless Congress is able to relieve the United States of this burden we can look forward to more of these kind of antics until January 2009.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Use of rape as a weapon in Darfur

According to a report by Refugees International, the Janjaweed militia backed by the Sudanese government is using rape systematically as a weapon of war in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur. To make matters worse, the laws of Sudan make it nearly impossible for women to pursue prosecution of rapists. The research for the report was cut short when Sudanese government determined it was too sensitive and forced the author of the report to leave the country.

This from today’s Washington Post:
A new report on the crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan has identified rape as a systematic weapon of ethnic cleansing being used by government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, and said Sudanese laws discriminate against female victims, who face harassment and intimidation at local police stations if they try to report the crime.

The report, "Laws Without Justice: An Assessment of Sudanese Laws Affecting Survivors of Rape," by the humanitarian group Refugees International, said rape was "an integral part of the pattern of violence that the government of Sudan is inflicting upon the targeted ethnic groups in Dafur."

"The raping of Darfuri women is not sporadic or random, but is inexorably linked to the systematic destruction of their communities," the report said. Victims are taunted with racial slurs such as "I will give you a light-skinned baby to take this land from you," according to one woman interviewed in the Touloum refugee camp in Chad, recalling the words of a Janjaweed militiaman who raped her.

For a woman to prove rape under Sudanese law, she needs four male witnesses. This requirement puts undue burdens on women in a traditional society where single women having sex can be sentenced to 100 lashes at the discretion of a judge. A married woman proven to have had sex outside of her marriage can be stoned to death, said Adrienne Fricke, an Arabic-speaking lawyer who worked on the report.

The study was compiled following extensive interviews in Khartoum over seven days in March with nongovernmental organization staff members, members of parliament, attorneys and activists. The visit, due to last 14 days, was cut short when Fricke was given 24 hours to leave the country.

"I was denied a permit to go to Darfur," Fricke said in an interview yesterday. She said the government's security officer in charge of nongovernmental agencies "told us pro forma that this research was not necessary and too sensitive for the Sudanese government."

Refugees International President Ken Bacon, who accompanied presidential hopeful and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) to Khartoum in January, said Sudan's Justice Ministry had invited the team to study what the government described as efforts to address sexual violence against Sudanese women and to analyze Sudan’s laws on rape.

"This report clarifies the use of rape as a weapon of ethnic violence and points to the international need to end this impunity," said Jimmie Briggs, who is writing a book about rape as a weapon in Congo.

Sudan's laws grant immunity to members of the military, security services, police and border guard; many Janjaweed members have been integrated into the Popular Defense Forces, which also makes them exempt from prosecution.

Monday, July 02, 2007

This blog is rated NC-17

Vivian Paige’s blog is rated PG-13 and the Richmond Democrat is rated R according to the Blog Rater. However, I have them both beat. According to the fine folks at the Blog Rater, “sex” is mentioned fourteen times, “death” three times, “gay” twice, and “crap” once on this blog qualifying this site for an NC-17 label. Personally, I think they are low-balling it but I’m not going to go through a fifteen months of posts to count. Vivian and the Richmond Democrat are going to have to add a little spice to their blogs to catch up.

The Blog Rater is compliments of Mingle2, an online dating site that offers oddball quizzes and questionnaires. For example, if my family sells my corpse to science they can expect to pocket $4175 according to the Cadaver Calculator. (This is by way of my good friend, Rev. Alane Cameron Miles who is worth $50 more than I am.)

Journalist languishes in Cuban prison

Normando Hernandez Gonzalez is a 37-year-old journalist serving a twenty-five year sentence in a Cuban prison for “crimes against the state.” The offenses for which he has been convicted include writing articles critical of the Cuban government. He was arrested in March of 2003 as part of a Cuban crackdown on journalists they considered dissidents. Gonzalez was honored by PEN, the worldwide association of writers, with the 2007 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. According to IFEX (the International Freedom of Expression Exchange), “Cuba is one of the world's leading jailers of journalists, second only to China.”

But aside from the issue of criminalizing the expression of opinions, Gonzalez is severely ill. His health has seriously deteriorated in recent months amid poor prison conditions and insufficient health care.

This from Bloomberg News:
``Mi hijo esta muy mal. Muy mal.'' Even on the speakerphone from Miami, Blanca Gonzalez's voice is unmistakably choked with emotion. ``My son is doing badly. Very badly,'' she says. ``He said that from there he will leave dead.''

``There'' is Kilo 7, a maximum-security Cuban prison in Camaguey, one of several in which journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, now 37, has been held since April 2003. He is serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against the state that include writing articles critical of the Cuba's health, education and judicial agencies. Suffering from tuberculosis and a chronic parasitic infection, both contracted in prison, Hernandez Gonzalez is perilously underweight at just over 100 pounds, according to his mother, who adds that his illnesses are poorly treated.

In April, at her urging, Costa Rican legislators granted Hernandez Gonzalez a visa that could have gotten him out of prison and the country. But Cuban officials last week refused to honor the visa.

So he continues to deteriorate, limited to one visit every two months from his wife, Yarai Reyes, and Daniela, the daughter from whom he has been separated since her first birthday celebration, on the day before his arrest.

His wife's visits are the only time he is allowed fresh food. There are also occasional examinations by a gastroenterologist, who confirms his condition but cannot or will not provide regular, proper medication and diet.

``The eyes of a doctor won't cure me,'' the writer told his wife when she visited last week, according to his mother.

Hernandez Gonzalez was arrested on March 18, 2003, during a crackdown that netted 75 journalists and other alleged dissidents. After brief trials, most of which reportedly lasted less than a day, they were sentenced to prison terms of as long as 25 years. According to human-rights organizations monitoring the situation, 59 of the 75 remain in prison.

At the time of his arrest, Hernandez Gonzalez was the head of the Camaguey College of Independent Journalists. ``It was a group established by Normando,'' says his mother, who now lives in Miami. ``The headquarters was at my house, in Camaguey. They are all in jail now.''

The group's 10 writers, of whom Hernandez Gonzalez was the youngest, were charged with violating Article 91 of the Cuban Criminal Code for writing stories that tracked government abuses and mismanagement by social-service agencies, according to a report by the PEN American Center, a watchdog group that publicizes human-rights violations against writers around the world.

In April, PEN announced that Hernandez Gonzalez would receive its 21st annual PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. The $10,000 award honors ``international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression,'' according to Larry Siems, director of the project and of PEN's international programs.

``They're going to kill him,'' Goldsmith, a historian, author and philanthropist, said in an interview on June 25. ``The award is emblematic of everything we do, but in this particular case we tried to take the person in the most jeopardy.''

When the award was announced, Blanca Gonzalez journeyed to Costa Rica to make an appeal to legislators there. They agreed to grant a visa, but the Cuban government refused to release him. His wife brought him the news when she visited….
You can read the entire article here.