Wednesday, April 30, 2008

One woman dies every 27 minutes in Afghanistan due to complications in childbirth

If you combine one of the world’s most impoverished economies with years of war and a culture that is dismissive of the needs of women you have Afghanistan. More precisely, you have a health crisis in the Afghanistan.

The opportunities to receive health care in Afghanistan for much of the population – particularly outside the cities – is not great as it is. Afghan men prefer their women to consult only women doctors, but there are few female doctors and nurses and little emphasis is placed on educating girls. The result is many women do not receive adequate pre-natal care and an alarming number are dying in childbirth. Between 1,600 and 6,500 women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 live births across the country. And, of course, this doesn’t take into account the health care of the surviving mothers and children.

This from Reuters:
A woman haemorrhages to death as she lies screaming in agony in a spartan hut in a remote region of Afghanistan. There is no doctor or midwife to help and the hospital is several days journey away.

Women die this way every day in Afghanistan, a country with one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates.

About 1,600 Afghan women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 live births. In some of the most remote areas, the death rate is as high as 6,500. In comparison, the average rate in developing countries is 450 and in developed countries it is 9.

Virtually everyone in Afghanistan can recount a story about a relative dying in childbirth, often from minor complications that can be easily treated with proper medical care.

Sharifa's sister, a mother of six, bled to death after giving birth at home.

"There is no clinic, no cars, no proper roads. It is a remote village, we could not take her to hospital. She remained at home for one day and one night, then she died," recalled Sharifa, who identified herself only by her first name.

Afghanistan's government aims to reduce maternal mortality by 20 percent by 2020 but there are many obstacles to overcome such as a reluctance by women to be examined by male doctors and a lack of female doctors, nurses and midwives.

Then there are the vast distances in this war-torn country where hospitals are generally poorly equipped and medical help is inaccessible to those living in remote locations.

It is an age old practice for Afghan women in rural areas to deliver babies at home. Trained midwives are rarely in attendance. If there are complications, it might take hours, even days to reach the nearest clinic.

Even when women with labour complications get to hospital alive, there are often no doctors or medical equipment to perform caesarean sections and other life saving procedures.

"In some places, there aren't even operating theatres and women just wait for their death," said Rona Azamyan, who coordinates the Midwifery Education Programme in Faizabad.

Among the prime complications of childbirth in Afghanistan are bleeding, infection, hypertension and obstructed labour.

It is not uncommon for girls as young as 13 to marry in Afghanistan and there are often complications when they give birth.

"The mothers are very young, so their (pelvic) bone development is immature," said Karima Mayar, a family planning team leader at the Ministry of Public Health.

Poor and malnourished, many pregnant women in Afghanistan are severely anaemic.

"If they get post-partum haemorrhage, they will die 100 percent of the time," said Mayar.

Women's access to healthcare has generally been poor in deeply conservative Afghanistan.

Afghan men prefer their women to consult only women doctors, but that is easier said than done in a society where there are few female doctors and nurses and little emphasis is placed on educating girls.

The problem got worse during the Taliban regime, when girls were banned from schools and there were severe restrictions placed on women leaving their homes.

During those years, from 1996 to 2001, there were only around 1,000 female healthcare workers in the whole country, staffing female-only hospitals.

But the situation is still far from ideal now, more than six years after the fall of the Taliban, even in places such as the northeastern province of Badakhshan where the town of Faizabad is located. The area is far from fighting with Taliban insurgents.

Only 66 percent of basic healthcare centres have at least one female health worker.
Women make up only 23.5 percent of the country's healthcare workforce and 27 percent of its nursing staff.

"One woman dies every 27 minutes in Afghanistan due to complications in childbirth and the tragedy doesn't stop with the mother's death," said Mayar.

"When the mother of a newborn dies, 75 percent of these babies die. Who will feed them, keep them warm? There's an Afghan saying: 'When the mother dies, the child is sure to die'."

The government plans to distribute the drug misoprostol to pregnant women in 13 provinces this year.

"We will distribute this to women in their seventh month of pregnancy and they must take it right after delivery. It will remove the placenta and prevent haemorrhage," Mayar said.

In the pipeline are plans to set up more midwifery schools and assign more female students to medical and nursing schools.

"To reduce maternal mortality, we need 8,000 midwives by 2010 to cover needs of all pregnant women," said Mayar. There are 2,143 midwives in the country of 26 million people.

But years of neglecting girls' education is taking its toll.

"In the provinces, the maximum level of education is the 10th grade, but the minimum requirement for entry into nursing school is 12th grade," said Fatima Mohbat Ali of the Aga Khan Foundation, an aid group in Afghanistan.

Some progress has been made in recent years, owing to government and NGO efforts to improve rural healthcare.

In Badakhshan's Eshkashem district, which borders Tajikistan, Afghan women have been frequenting the health clinic, the most modern looking facility in a town where most of the 13,000 residents live in mud houses.

From headaches to prenatal checkups, childbirth and advice on contraception, women have been bringing their complaints to the clinic's female doctor for the last
three years.

"Ever since we got an ambulance, a lady doctor, two midwives and an operating theatre three years ago, we have not had a single case of maternal mortality," said Abdi Mohammad, head of the Eshkashem health clinic and an obstetric surgeon.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Democratic superdelegates and making of a Democratic super mess

Senator Clinton lost the race for elected delegates in February. Unlike the other candidates in the crowded (at that time) Democratic field she has refused to accept the inevitable and have the common decency to set aside her personal ambitions in favor of what is best for the party and the country. Her only hope is to damage Senator Obama to the point he no longer is a desirable candidate by the time the Democrats reach Denver in August. (Alternatively, she can hope to damage him enough and split the party so Obama loses in November leaving her in a strong position to run in 2012 against an elderly President McCain.) Senator Clinton cannot win with elected delegates so her hopes rest on the so-called superdelegates to overrule the voters and the plurality of elected delegates in her favor.

Under the party’s rules of proportional allocation of delegates and with only a handful of states left to hold primaries or caucuses neither candidate can achieve the majority needed to win the nomination with elected delegates alone (even though Senator Obama has an insurmountable lead in elected delegates). Therefore, the party’s superdelegates will eventually determine the winner. These are delegates given automatic delegate status by the Democratic National Committee. It includes sitting Democratic Senators, Representatives and Governors. The reasoning for their super status is that they are the officials who will run on the same ticket as the Democratic presidential nominee and will then work with the newly elected Democratic President. These super delegates are well known to the public, the public elected them and they will remain accountable to the public. The designation of superdelegate status to these elected representatives makes all the sense in the world. As of this writing they are roughly evenly split in their support for the candidates with 100 backing Senator Clinton, 106 for Senator Obama and 92 undecided.

The other large group of supers – slightly over half - is members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). (This includes two members of the College Young Democrats who have been advertising on YouTube soliciting advice on how they should vote.) The reasoning for the DNC special status is a little murky. They achieved membership as members of the DNC, the ultimate party insiders, by election from other party insiders. They are essentially unknown to the public and are not accountable to the public. They are responsible for devising and approving the nomination system we have all been suffering through. Since they were writing the rules they were in a position to reward themselves with special super status and did so. Thus they are superdelegates and this year may be the group that is responsible for who the candidate will be. Being party insiders they tend to favor the establishment candidate. It is among this group that Senator Clinton hopes will rally to her. So far she leads with commitments from 143 DNC supers while 119 are backing Senator Obama and 136 remain uncommitted.

Regardless of their makeup, the failure of superdelegates to come out of the dark and commit themselves – 239 remain uncommitted as of this writing – is the engine keeping this race alive and thus denying the Democrats a nominee with time to unite the party and focus on the November election.

The Jed Report has this assessment of the superdelegates:

For most of this campaign, the Democratic Party has been unified by optimism that our eventual nominee would trounce the Republican candidate in November, 2008. That began to change towards the end of February, when the contest between Senators Clinton and Obama began to turn sharply negative.

The media and the Clinton campaign deserve their share of blame for this. And Obama is not perfect, either. But the people who deserve the most blame are the superdelegates, for it is their indecision that has made this mess possible in the first place.

Since late February, it has been clear that the Clinton campaign's only hope for victory rested in their hands. Over the past two months, the sole uncertainty about the campaign has been whether or not superdelegates will stage a coup against the voters.

At any point during the last two months, superdelegates could have made it clear that they would support the will of voters. Instead, by declaring their indecision, they provided Clinton with a new rationale for her campaign. Effectively, they encouraged her coup attempt. It was if they said to her: if you can prove to us that Barack Obama is unelectable, we will overturn the judgment of voters.

It is now clear just how foolish and unwise the superdelegates were for offering Clinton such a destructive path to the nomination, for she has tried to meet it with unrestrained vigor. Two months later, a party that was once unified is now divided. The septuagenarian Republican presidential candidate who devised the Iraq war strategy and wants to stay there for one hundred years is leading or tied in most polls.

And the ultimate blame for making this possible rests with the very people who are supposed to lead the Democratic Party: the superdelegates.

It's important to remember the state of the campaign in late February. At that point, 70% of the pledged delegates had been chosen. Barack Obama had 1,210 pledged delegates and Clinton had 1,044, a lead of 166. It was clear that Obama's pledged delegate lead was insurmountable.

Now, after two months of nastiness on the campaign trail, voters have selected another another 573 pledged delegates, 20% of the total. With just 10% remaining, the pledged delegate margin is virtually identical heading into May as it was in late February: Obama leads by 161. (He has has 1,494 and Clinton has 1,333.)

(I focus on pledged delegates because they are the only way to to measure the will of voters. The "popular vote" is just as misleading the number of states won. Moreover, delegates select the nominee -- 2,024 of them, to be exact.)

The point is clear: Hillary Clinton took the superdelegates up on their irresponsible challenge and tried to prove that Obama is unelectable. Meanwhile, Obama could not respond as forcefully to Clinton as he would have to John McCain. He knew that unlike Clinton, he had to worry about unifying the party after her superdelegate gambit. He couldn't afford to attack her the way she attacked him.

Moreover, the media created a new Clinton-friendly narrative in order to support a continued campaign. Between Clinton's attacks, his measured response, and the media's pile-on, Obama endured his worst two-month stretch of the campaign so far. Making matters more difficult, the key primaries were on Hillary Clinton's home turf.

Yet through it all, Barack Obama won just five fewer delegates than Clinton. In short, nothing much changed. Hillary Clinton failed in her mission. And now, with just 408 delegates left to be chosen, the superdelegates remain sidelined. They remain the only uncertainty left in this campaign.

It is certain that Barack Obama will end up with a solid majority of pledged delegates. It is also certain that when the voting is done, he'll need just 30% of the undecided superdelegates to vote for him at the convention. And it's overwhelmingly likely that he will win those superdelegates.

Until the superdelegates formally make their views known, however, there will be uncertainty. And as long as that uncertainty remains, the media and the Clinton campaign will be able to exploit it -- further dividing the Democratic Party.

For two months, the superdelegates have had all the information they needed to make a decision. Yet they continue to dither about. The media and the Clinton campaign do deserve blame for exploiting the environment of uncertainty. But the environment was created by the superdelegates, and for that we have nobody to blame but the superdelegates themselves.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Congressional funding for abstinence-only education continues despite ineffectiveness

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs censor information about birth control and the health benefits of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence-only sex education emphasizes complete abstinence from sex until marriage. Discussion of contraceptives is restricted to their failure rate.

Abstinence education began during the Clinton administration in the late 1990’s and became the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s sex education program for American youth. Studies showed it was ineffective but the funding by Congress endured. When the Democrats took control of the Senate and the House of Representatives last year many hoped the abstinence-only programs would be scrapped in favor of comprehensive sex education. However, House Democrats kept the abstinence funding as a trade-off to promote other legislation.

Matthew Blake has this report in the Washington Independent:
A congressional hearing Wednesday by the House oversight committee promised to "assess the evidence" on abstinence-only sex education.

That evidence includes two independent reports that abstinence-only programs have no effect on teenage sexual activity and do not meet a basic scientific standard. These studies have led to a growing momentum in Congress to eliminate abstinence-only funding.

But instead of analyzing these studies, a four-hour hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform rarely moved beyond championing the value of pre-marital abstinence. The discussion played into the central tenant of abstinence-only education: only abstinence, not condoms or contraception, can prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

The hearing showed that social conservatives continue to shape the public debate on this. Abstinence-only education, one plank of Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America," is now a big part of the Bush administration's public-health agenda, receiving $1.3 billion since 1997. Despite the current calls to end funding, the conservatives who framed the abstinence-only policy have created a formidable obstacle for opponents to overcome.
"It's going to be hard to make inroads," said Heather Boonstar, a senior fellow at the Guttmacher Public Policy Institute, an organization that conducts sexual health research, "Social conservatives are going to fight it tooth and nail.

"The oversight hearing looked like the next step toward ending a program that only discusses condoms and contraception in terms of their failure rates, and teaches, "A mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.

"The effort to end it gained steam after a 2006 Government Accountability Office report on abstinence-only programs, funded by the federal government's Dept. of Health and Human Services. GAO, an auditing arm of Congress, found that the programs were exempt from the HHS's usual requirement that its programs must give medically accurate information about condoms. In addition, the three abstinence programs studied weren't producing clear results and lacked any self-evaluation for success.

Last April, the Dept. of Health and Human Services-funded Mathematica Policy Research Group did its own evaluation of abstinence education. Beginning in 1997, when the federal government first gave states a total of $50 million toward abstinence-only education, Mathematica researchers followed students in four abstinence-only programs. They found that "abstinence-only programs had no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth."

Since Mathematica's findings, 17 states have said no to federal abstinence-only money. "Forty-two percent of teens now live in states that have turned down funding," Guttmacher said.

But the $50 million to state government's is only part of the $176 million in this year's federal budget for abstinence-only education. Of that money, $113 million is federal grants given directly to Community Based Abstinence Education, or CBAE, programs.

Following the reports, congressional Democrats have pushed to eliminate this money. But Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, kept the program in this year's health spending bill, saying it would make President George W. Bush less inclined to veto programs Democrats wanted -- like reproductive health clinics. "Abstinence-only was in jeopardy," said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution Center on Children and Families. "But Obey cut a deal."

Last month, 76 House members wrote to Obey, urging him to expend political capital on eliminating the state and CBAE programs from next year's budget. "Our tax dollars should be used to fund programs that benefit the public good," wrote Rep. James Moran (D-Va.), "not on unsuccessful, ideologically driven boondoggles."

A group of legislators, including Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), have introduced the Responsible Education About Life or REAL Act. It would move abstinence-only education dollars to abstinence-plus, or comprehensive sex-education. These would emphasize that abstinence is the sure way to prevent STD's and pregnancy, but would also explain the use of condoms and other contraceptives.

Shays, the last New England white shoe Republican in the House, tried to explain his position on Wednesday. "Sometimes I think we're trying to repeal the laws of gravity here," Shays said Wednesday, "There are natural instincts that young people will have and the REAL Act provides medically accurate information about both safe sex and contraception."

But despite the reports and the shifting political winds, his GOP colleagues refused to see the debate as one about medical accuracy. "This is a deep disagreement among competing values," said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). "Abstinence-only education is the only holistic approach to teach about the distressing elements of premarital sex."

Rather than ignore these emotional appeals, comprehensive sex-education proponents spent much of the hearing trying to prove they are pro-abstinence. "There is a broad consensus," Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the committee chairman, said in his opening statement, "that the benefits of abstinence should be part of any sex-education effort."

The concession that the federal government should value abstinence seemed to enable conservatives to stick with their tried-and-true logic. "There is no more scientific fact," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), "that abstinence is the only way to prevent STD's and pregnancy."

Foxx and other social conservative's uncompromising stance gained traction in 1994, when the Republicans took control of Congress. Gingrich, as House Speaker, emphasized abstinence-only laws as a way to reduce the number of out-of-wedlock teenage mothers. The Republican Congress slipped $50 million for abstinence education into the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, after the bill had passed the House and Senate.

The provision laid out clear eight-point or "A-H" guidelines of what must be taught in order to receive funding. These include assertions like, "Sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

Abstinence funding increased by $13 million in 1999, when Congress created the CBAE federal grants. The grants then grew exponentially under the Bush administration, going from $20 million in 2001, to its current level of $113 million in 2005.

Marcella Howell, a vice-president for Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization devoted to sex education, said abstinence education was an early priority of Bush's social agenda. "He kept saying during the 2000 presidential campaign he was going to triple abstinence funding," Howell said. "It was a component of his faith-based initiatives."

With Bush on his way out, Howell said that prioritizing abstinence education might be as well. "Democrats on the appropriations committee may feel enough pressure to eliminate the program," Howell said

But Howell said that for the funding to end, the debate must shift away from conservative ideology and toward accurate information.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jack Welch (D-Mass.) offered a brief glimpse of one such discussion. "The GAO when they do this report is a neutral arbiter," Welch said. "And the GAO has concluded these abstinence-only programs are not achieving results."
Philosophically, the bottom line of the abstinence only education approach is that knowledge is bad and ignorance is necessary for the preservation of innocence. This line of thinking simply runs counter to the Enlightenment concept that knowledge is power. Abstinence only education is not education; it is indoctrination…that doesn’t work. Sexual abstinence for teenagers is desirable but the reality is significant numbers of teens are sexually active and need to know how to protect themselves and their partners. Regardless of whether they are sexually active or not they need to know what is going on with their bodies and the changes brought on by puberty. And assuming they remain abstinent until marriage, they still need the knowledge of how to have a fulfilling and safe sexual relationship with their spouse. Common decency demands comprehensive sex education for our kids, not out-and-out quackery and barely disguised religious dogma.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cannonball Adderley: “Jive Samba” (1963)

This is the Cannonball Adderly Quintet performing one of their big hits, ‘Jive Samba” in 1963. The quintet consisted of Cannonball Adderley - alto sax; Nat Adderley – cornet; Yusef Lateef - tenor sax, oboe, flute; Joe Zawinul – piano; Sam Jones – bass; and Louis Hayes – drums.

Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley (1928-1975) was a jazz alto saxophonist of the small combo era of the 1950s and 1960s. The nickname "Cannonball" was a childhood nickname for the portly saxophonist, a corruption of "cannibal". An articulate speaker with an easy manner, Cannonball educated, amused, and informed his audiences in clubs and on television about the art and moods of jazz (he was a music teacher before beginning his jazz career).

You can watch and listen to him perform “Straight No Chaser” here.

Burmese army reign of terror against Karen people targets women

While the world’s attention has been on the protests in Burma’s cities against military rule, a government campaign to wipe out the country’s ethnic minorities has been underway in the countryside in the northern and eastern provinces of Myanmar.

The Karen people, an ethnic group with ancestral ties to Tibet, have been particularly targeted by the Burmese military. Burmese soldiers have “shoot-on-sight” orders as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Karen have been forced to flee their homes to refugee camps in Thailand or hide in the jungle.

Reports now from the Karen Women’s Organization are that women have become targets of rape and slave labor by the Burmese army. This from Reuters:

Soldiers in eastern Myanmar are raping with impunity, according to a rights group.

Their victims, villagers from the Karen minority, have reportedly included children and nuns.

Activists say that in one case a young woman was gang-raped by four soldiers in her home. They then killed her by shooting into her vagina. No action was taken against the soldiers.

The Karen, a predominantly Christian minority, make up about seven percent of Myanmar's population. Karen rebel groups have been fighting for greater autonomy in the east for decades. But Myanmar's military junta is widely accused of targetting civilians as well as rebels in a campaign of terror which has forced many thousands to flee for their lives.

Many of the rapes are perpetrated by senior military officers or done with their complicity, according to the
Karen Women's Organisation. They say the perpetrators know that most villagers will be too afraid to complain.

Evidence of the systematic rape and abuse of villagers is highlighted by the KWO in the latest issue of
Forced Migration Review which is devoted to the massive displacement crisis in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The KWO says village chiefs risk abuse and torture if they fail to comply with the military. When women take on the role - as happens in the absence of men - they face the added risk of rape. Some are forced to have sex with soldiers as the price of protection for themselves, their families and communities.

Women and girls from across Karen State have also been forcibly recruited to help build roads and bridges, clear landmines and carry military supplies, the KWO says. Recruits include elderly women, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and schoolgirls as young as 11.

One woman told KWO how she has been forced to work as a porter for the army. "Every day we had to carry up the mountain and down again," she said. "I was sweating and couldn't breathe because I am very old and the soldiers prodded me with their guns because I am slow. I felt like my heart was breaking."

The KWO works in refugee camps on the Thai border and with people displaced inside Myanmar. Last year it published a report called
State of Terror which drew on thousands of documented cases of murder, rape and torture of Karen women at the hands of the junta.

The army has designated Karen State and neighbouring Karenni State as black zones. Black areas are 'free-fire' zones where the army can kill anyone it comes across, says David Eubank, director of
Free Burma Rangers, which provides help in conflict areas.

Writing in Forced Migration Review, Eubank describes how the army regularly launches sweeping operations in which soldiers often mortar and machine-gun a village before looting and raping. They then lay landmines in and around the village. Sometimes they burn down entire settlements.

A Karenni pastor quoted in the article asks: "Why do the Burmese soldiers come to burn our villages? We do not go to burn theirs. Why do they want to come and bother us? We only want to have our farms, do our work and live in peace. Our life in the mountains is already very hard. Why do they want to make it harder?"

In the current military offensive - the largest since 1997 - over 30,000 people have been displaced. Many are hiding in the jungle, others have fled to Thailand.

"The disruption of food production, burning of homes and the shoot-on-sight orders of the Burma Army have made staying in their homeland untenable for thousands," Eubank says.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thoughts on the Pennsylvania primary and the race for the nomination

Senator Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary yesterday by a respectable margin. Based on the count as of this morning it appears she will have won by a margin of approximately 9-to-10 percent. That’s a solid win although, as the New York Times points out she won by taking the low road by not engaging Senator Obama on the issues but constantly attacking with negative campaigning. As the Times’ editorial put it, “The Pennsylvania campaign, which produced yet another inconclusive result on Tuesday, was even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering than the mean, vacuous, desperate, pander-filled contests that preceded it.”

What does this Clinton win in Pennsylvania mean? It proves negative campaigning works and we are guaranteed to see more of it as she takes on the role of the Republican attack dog. It means more resources will be squandered and more political bridges will be burned in order to maintain an unsatisfactory status quo. It means in two weeks we will have two more inconclusive primaries with more inconclusive primaries after that.

Due to the proportional allocation of delegates both statewide and by congressional district, Senator Clinton will gain only a handful of delegates once the Pennsylvania count is official. Because of the delegate allocation rule, whoever wins the upcoming primaries will gain only a handful of delegates per race. Senator Obama does not have the number of delegates needed yet to clinch the nomination but does have an insurmountable lead in elected delegates. According to Marc Ambinder, “If Obama keeps his pledged delegate lead to around 150, Clinton needs to win 70% of them on May 6 -- and if not, 80% of them after May 6. That's more than next to impossible….Obama's still won twice as many contests as Hillary, won more of the popular vote, has a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates and has outraised her by some $40 million or so.”

Senator Clinton lost the race for elected delegates a couple of months ago. Unlike the other candidates in the crowded (at that time) Democratic field she lacks the courage to accept the inevitable and the common decency to set aside her personal ambitions in favor of what is best for the party and the country. Her only hope is to damage Senator Obama to the point he no longer is a desirable candidate. Senator Clinton cannot win with elected delegates so her hopes rest on the so-called super delegates to overrule the voters and the plurality of elected delegates in her favor.

The party’s so-call super delegates will eventually determine the winner. These are delegates given automatic delegate status by the Democratic National Committee. It includes sitting Democratic Senators, Representatives and Governors. The reasoning is these are the officials who will run on the same ticket as the Democratic nominee and will work with the newly elected Democratic President. These super delegates are well known to the public, the public elected them and they will remain accountable to the public. The designation of super delegate status to these elected representatives makes all the sense in the world. As of this writing they are roughly evenly split in their support with 98 backing Senator Clinton, 103 for Senator Obama and 97 undecided.

The other large group of supers is members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The reasoning for their special status is a little murky. They achieved membership as members of the DNC, the ultimate party insiders, by election from other party insiders. They are essentially unknown to the public and are not accountable to the public. They are responsible for devising and approving the nomination system we have all been suffering through. Perhaps they felt they deserved a reward for devising such an efficient and fair nominating process or maybe they felt they were too important to have to become an elected delegate to the national convention the way other Democrats have to. The bottom line is since they were writing the rules they were in a position to give themselves a plum and did so. Thus they are super delegates and this year may be the group that is responsible for who the candidate will be. Being party insiders they tend to favor the establishment candidate. It is among this group that Senator Clinton hopes will rally to her. So far she leads with commitments from 143 DNC supers while 115 are backing Senator Obama and 139 remain uncommitted.

So there we have it…a very unsatisfactory and inconclusive election day with more unsatisfactory and inconclusive election days to come.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ten issues that could decide the McCain-Obama election

It would seem by any stretch of reason that given the various disasters the Bush administration has imposed upon this nation that the Democrats should be a shoo-in for the November election. But Democrats would be fools to assume they can sit back and take it easy. Despite the hard feelings many Republicans have against their nominee John McCain, he is most likely the strongest candidate they could have put forth from the field they had to choose from. He is both a conservative who holds some appeal to their party base but has also put the greatest distance between himself and the Bush train-wreck than any of the candidates running for the Republican nomination. It is that distance, and that distance only, that give him some hope of appealing to independents and unhappy Democrats.

Smart Democrats recognize Americans see the November contest as a “change election” and are rallying behind Senator Barack Obama. Yet a significant portion of the party look back on the 90’s as the good old days and yearn for a Clinton third term conveniently overlooking the scandals and triangulation that personified the first Clinton presidency. Senator Hillary Clinton trailing in the polls, delegate count and finances continues her campaign against Senator Obama hoping either lightning will strike and she will win the nomination this summer or, possibly, she can so damage Obama he will lose in November and the Democrats will rally behind her to run against an elderly President McCain in 2012.

Barring some unforeseen event, Senators Obama and McCain will officially become nominees this summer and face off for the White House this November. Ken Silverstein has listed ten factors that will help determine who wins:
… polls show McCain is competitive and there is every indication that the presidential race will be close, whether he is running against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. At this point, no matter what happens in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, the likelihood is that Obama will win the Democratic nomination….

I recently asked Jordan Lieberman, publisher of Politics magazine (formerly Campaign & Elections), for a list of ten factors that will determine the outcome of an Obama-McCain race. He and I discussed his list of ten of items over the phone, and below I’ve added a small amount of commentary to his thoughts.

If Hillary turns things around, I’ll do a similar item on the basis of a McCain-Clinton match up in November.

1. Starting with the obvious–Iraq. As McCain himself recently said, before quickly backing off, if Americans believe that U.S. policy in Iraq is failing, “then I lose.”

2. The economy. A severe downturn before November, while not as fatal to McCain’s chances as would be a return to chaos in Iraq, will badly damage his candidacy, as voters will generally see it as a Bush/G.O.P. recession.

3. The youth vote. Younger voters traditionally vote at lower levels than any other group. Obama has generated a lot of enthusiasm among this sector, but will they actually come out in November?

4. Barack Hussein bin Laden, or, Does negative campaigning still work? McCain will be careful not to directly associate himself with political dirty tricks, but there’ll be plenty of “independent” G.O.P. groups working to portray Obama as an American-hating radical Muslim (and as ABC News recently showed, the media will
lend a helping hand). But there have been signs that the effectiveness of negative campaigning is waning, especially against Obama.

5. How will Obama do with white male voters? (More specifically, how will Obama do with white male voters in the roughly ten states that are actually up for grabs, like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado?) So far, Obama has won significant support from these voters–but up until now, he’s winning it when the other option is Hillary Clinton. Will he win reasonable support from white men when they have as an option John McCain?

6. The Hispanic vote. It had been trending Republican up until 2005, when a new and intense bout of nativism erupted in the G.O.P. But McCain is the one Republican
who could win a decent share of the Hispanic vote, which will be important in some key Western states and Florida. Complicating matters for Obama is that, so far, Hillary Clinton has been beating him handily with these voters.

7. The vice presidential nominee. Obama will probably be looking for a running mate who will provide foreign policy gravitas and “balance” to the Democratic ticket. Things are far trickier for McCain as he has no natural choice for VP. “McCain has problems with conservatives, on the economy, with his age and on other issues,” says Lieberman. “No matter who he picks, someone is going to be mad. Give me six names and I can list problems with all of them.”

8. What happens to Hillary Clinton voters? Many will vote for Obama, of course, but how many will vote for McCain, and how many will stay home, are very much open questions. Furthermore, will Hillary’s key supporters actively back Obama or
merely vote for him without enthusiasm? Hillary’s supporters will be taking their cues from her. How Obama treats her and her candidacy between now and the convention will play an important role here.

9. Simmering Legal Dispute I. Will McCain’s campaign be allowed to opt out of the public election funds program?

10. Simmering Legal Dispute II. This one has attracted less attention, but Democratic fixer Harold Ickes has helped form Catalist, “a for-profit databank that has sold its voter files to the Obama and the Clinton presidential campaigns for their get-out-the-vote efforts.” Catalist, according to a New York Times story:

allows wealthy Democratic donors to help progressive organizations and candidates by investing in the company…But some campaign finance watchdogs say they wonder whether Catalist was established not so much to make money but to find a creative way to allow big-money liberal donors to influence the election without disclosing the degree of their involvement or being subjected to other rules that would govern spending by an explicitly political organization.
Don’t be surprised if the G.O.P. or a G.O.P.-affiliated group files a legal challenge to Catalist. A ruling against Catalist could hurt the Democratic nominee.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Pennsylvania primary: What message will the voters send?

Tomorrow Pennsylvania holds its primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. According to rules that allocates state delegates to the national convention somewhat proportionally, the winner will walk away with a prize only marginally better than what is allocated to second place. Given the lead Senator Obama has in delegates under this system there is no way Senator Clinton can beat him. Senator Obama, on the other hand, despite the lead still falls short of the majority he needs to wrap this nomination up. Therefore, the importance of Pennsylvania will be the impact it has on the remaining uncommitted super delegates.

The party’s so-call super delegates will eventually determine the winner. These are delegates given automatic delegate status by the Democratic National Committee. It includes sitting Democratic Senators, Representatives and Governors. The reasoning is these are the officials who will run on the same ticket as the Democratic nominee and will work with the newly elected Democratic President. The designation of super delegate status to these elected representatives makes all the sense in the world. As of this writing they are roughly evenly split in their support with 97 backing Senator Clinton, 103 for Senator Obama and 98 undecided.

The other large group of supers is members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The reasoning for their special status is a little murky. They are essentially unknown to the public and are not accountable to the public. Perhaps they felt they deserved a reward for devising such an efficient and fair nominating process. The bottom line is they were in a position to give themselves a plum and did so. Being party insiders they tend to favor the establishment candidate. It is among this group that Senator Clinton hopes will rally to her. So far she leads with commitments from 143 DNC while 115 are backing Senator Obama and 139 remain uncommitted.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats will have a clear choice between the politics of the future and the past. It has demographics – older and whiter – that favor Clinton and just a few weeks ago she was leading in polls by 20 points. Yet, as the campaign intensified in the state and voters got to know Obama and Clinton better, her lead has narrowed.

The delegate allocation following tomorrow’s vote will not change the status of the race substantially one way or the other. However, the message Pennsylvania voters send to the undecided super delegates will matter.

Here are Andrew Sullivan’s thoughts on the Pennsylvania race in the Sunday Times:
…the Clintons have turned Pennsylvania into a microcosm of what they think the general election will be in November. And the Clintons are running as the Rove Republicans. If they fail to destroy Barack Obama as effectively as Karl Rove – Bush’s master of the dark arts – destroyed Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, with tactics just as brutal but even more personal, then they will have driven American politics to a critical point. They will have shown that the paradigm that has reigned in US politics for at least two decades has been shattered.

That’s what is being tested this coming week. It may be the most important vote in America until the final one in November.

For a month now, Obama has been pummelled by a Democrat in ways I have never witnessed in a primary campaign. Senator Hillary Clinton has directly argued that he is less qualified to be commander-in-chief than the Republican nominee, John McCain. She has said that she doesn’t know for sure that he is not a secret Muslim. She has said his choice of church is unacceptable to her. She has said he deliberately wants many Americans to continue scraping by without health insurance.

Her campaign has insinuated that he was once a drug dealer. Her husband has equated him with the rabble-rousing preacher Jesse Jackson. The Clintons have publicly associated Obama with domestic terrorist William Ayers, with the militant Palestinian group Hamas, and with antisemitic demagogue Louis Farrakhan. And what is remarkable about all this is that most of it was not done by surrogates, but by a former president of the United States against a senator in his own party, and directly by Clinton herself. Every time you think: “Nah, they won’t go there, will they?” – they do.

Not since the Clintons ran radio ads in 1996, bragging that they had defended American values from homosexuals, had the adoption of pure Republican tactics been so obvious. And this time, it was against a Democrat.

This, the Clintonites tell us, is what the Republicans will do to Obama this autumn. So we’re only showing you! The strategy is to persuade super-delegates that only the Clinton brand can withstand Rove-style attacks, and so foment a revolution before or at the convention to dislodge the candidate with the most pledged delegates and the greatest number of popular votes.

They are, of course, only doing this for the sake of their party, their country and the world. That the tactic also correlates with the Clintons’ recapturing control of a party that was finally moving past them is pure coincidence.

And that’s why Tuesday will be so instructive. Hillary Clinton should win Pennsylvania easily. She had a 20-point lead until relatively recently. And if the Clintons are right about their classic Atwater-Rove tactics, she will win by double-digits after throwing the kitchen sink, the boiler, the couch and the septic tank at her opponent.

However, if Obama keeps her lead to single digits, if he goes on to win in North Carolina and Indiana, if the momentum of the race does not change, something else will be shown.

It will show that the crisis America is in now has made the kind of tactics of the past two decades moot. It will show that the issues of the Iraq occupation, the teetering economy, the unsustainable debt, the collapsing dollar, the constitutional disarray and the moral collapse of the torture programme are now more salient than cultural identity. It will show that the voters actually want to debate something more than lapel pins and who is or is not a secret Muslim or patriot. It will show we are in a new era.

Maybe we’re not. Maybe the old politics and the old patterns have one more turn of the screw to go. Maybe the Clintons are right. And that’s the beauty of democracy. On Tuesday, we will go a long way towards finding out.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Pentagon think tank: war in Iraq “a major debacle”

The conclusion isn’t necessarily news but the fact this report from the Institute for National Strategic Studies is circulating inside the Pentagon is refreshing – at least not everyone in Washington has their head in the sand.

This from the McClatchy news service:
The war in Iraq has become "a major debacle" and the outcome "is in doubt" despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces, according to a highly critical study published Thursday by the Pentagon's premier military educational institute.

The report released by the National Defense University raises fresh doubts about President Bush's projections of a U.S. victory in Iraq just a week after Bush announced that he was suspending U.S. troop reductions.

The report carries considerable weight because it was written by Joseph Collins, a former senior Pentagon official, and was based in part on interviews with other former senior defense and intelligence officials who played roles in prewar preparations.

It was published by the university's National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research center.

"Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle," says the report's opening line.

At the time the report was written last fall, more than 4,000 U.S. and foreign troops, more than 7,500 Iraqi security forces and as many as 82,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed and tens of thousands of others wounded, while the cost of the war since March 2003 was estimated at $450 billion.

"No one as yet has calculated the costs of long-term veterans' benefits or the total impact on service personnel and materiel," wrote Collins, who was involved in planning post-invasion humanitarian operations.

The report said that the United States has suffered serious political costs, with its standing in the world seriously diminished. Moreover, operations in Iraq have diverted "manpower, materiel and the attention of decision-makers" from "all other efforts in the war on terror" and severely strained the U.S. armed forces.

"Compounding all of these problems, our efforts there (in Iraq) were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East," the report continued.

The addition of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year to halt the country's descent into all-out civil war has improved security, but not enough to ensure that the country emerges as a stable democracy at peace with its neighbors, the report said.

"Despite impressive progress in security, the outcome of the war is in doubt," said the report.
"Strong majorities of both Iraqis and Americans favor some sort of U.S. withdrawal. Intelligence analysts, however, remind us that the only thing worse than an Iraq with an American army may be an Iraq after a rapid withdrawal of that army."
You can read the entire article here.

Governments often cannot or will not assist millions of people displaced by violence

Millions of people have been uprooted from their homes because of violence or persecution. But not all displaced people are refugees. Villagers in Sudan's violent Darfur region who have fled to camps within Darfur are strictly speaking known as internally displaced people (IDPs) because they haven't left Sudan. Darfuris in camps in neighbouring Chad are refugees because they've crossed an international border.

The definition of a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality..." (1951 Refugee Convention)

People who are displaced from their homes because of violence, regardless of whether this displacement is within a country’s boundaries or across its borders, are both destabilizing forces in local communities where they camp out and are prone to be victimized by militias or criminals. And, of course, there are the issues of disease, mental stress, and malnutrition. These are people who need significant outside assistance whether meeting short term needs of security, public health and nutrition or longer term needs of resettlement.

According to a report from the United Nations, most governments of countries of countries where large numbers of people are displaced because of violence either cannot or will not help them. In fact, in many of these countries the governments are a big part of the problem behind the violence.

This report is from Reuters:
More than 26 million people around the world are displaced by violence inside their own countries but many of their governments either cannot or will not help them, a United Nations-backed report said on Thursday.

And in 21 of 28 countries where large numbers of people fled their homes last year, action by governments or allied groups was the main cause, according to the report from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

"Governments are often part of the problem," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news conference to launch the report, which said 52 countries in all had significant populations of internally displaced, or IDPs.

"Although they are responsible for the well-being of their citizens within their territory, many governments are also unwilling or unable to prevent people being forced from their homes," said NRC Secretary-General Elisabeth Rasmusson.

Rasmusson and Guterres, who heads the UNHCR refugee agency, said many IDPs had no help from their governments, some of whom, declared Rasmusson, also barred or restricted international humanitarian help as violating their sovereignty.

Of the global total, 11.3 million in at least 13 countries had no significant humanitarian aid from their governments, while 9.3 million in at least 10 countries were "faced with governments indifferent or hostile," the report said.

The report showed that Sudan -- where civil conflicts raged in the South until recently and are rife across the western region of Darfur -- with 5.8 million has by far the largest number of displaced.

Second is Colombia, with nearly 4 million, and third Iraq, at 2.5 million. Overall, Africa with 12.7 million has almost half the entire global totals, with numbers surging in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as Zimbabwe.

The current total of IDPs -- a term used to distinguish them from refugees who have crossed an international border -- is the largest since the peak crisis in 1993.
That year hundreds of thousands in Europe and the Caucasus were added to standing totals on other continents amid fighting that erupted with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the old Soviet Union. The 2007 total was six percent up on 2006, largely because of continuing displacement in Iraq, according to the report.

Guterres said that IDPs -- many of them fleeing to cities and large towns where they lived on the margins of society -- were suffering more than any other group from rising global food and fuel prices.

"These are the world's most vulnerable people," he said. While refugees had the UNHCR to help them under a U.N. mandate, IDPs had no-one and were largely left to the often inadequate protection of their own governments.

The report, drawn up by the NRC's Geneva-based International Displacement Monitoring Centre, said IDPs "frequently fall victim to the gravest human rights abuses ... attacks, arbitrary arrests and detention". Women and girls faced sexual violence, including rape and forced prostitution, while those guilty of offences against them often went unpunished. IDP children were at high risk of forced recruitment by armed groups.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Barney Kessel: "Recado Bossa Nova"

Guitarist Barney Kessel playing "Recado Bossa Nova" on a CBC Vancouver broadcast from the early 1960s. Featuring Don Thompson on bass and Terry Clarke on drums.

Barney Kessel (1923 – 2004) was an American jazz guitarist. Kessel is known for his innovative work in the guitar trio setting. In the 1950s, he made a series of albums called "The Poll Winners" with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. He was also responsible for the prominent guitar on Julie London's definitive recording of "Cry Me a River".

Kessel was also a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown in the early 1950s and went on to play with Sonny Rollins in the late 50s and can be heard on Sonny Rollins' recordings of songs like "How High the Moon". Kessel became one of the most in-demand session guitarists in America, and is considered a key member of the group of first-call session musicians now usually known as The Wrecking Crew. In this capacity he played on hundreds of famous pop recordings.

Bossa Nova is a style of Brazilian music evolved from samba and is related to the American jazz style known as “cool jazz”. Although the Bossa Nova movement only lasted six years (1958-63), it contributed a number of songs to the standard jazz repertoire.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict and the sex-abuse scandal

Pope Benedict XVI arrived at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday for a six-day tour of Washington and New York. This is his first visit to the United States since becoming Pope in 2005.

Before he arrived he did touch on the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal. Aboard the papal plane, the Benedict told reporters he was "deeply ashamed" of the scandal and assured Catholics that seminaries will not tolerate pedophiles. Of course, he failed to say anything about those in the church hierarchy who did tolerate various sexual abuses of children by priests and did not placate critics from such organizations such as Bishop Accountability and SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) who complain he has done nothing about the issue since becoming Pope.

Christopher Hitchens has these thoughts in Slate
…Why is the Vatican continuing to shelter Cardinal Bernard Law?

It will be remembered that Law resigned his position as head of the Archdiocese of Boston in late 2002. He had little alternative. A series of lawsuits and depositions and disclosures had established beyond doubt that, as my Slate colleague Dahlia Lithwick phrased it, "Law was not only aware of egregious sexual misconduct among his subordinates but was apparently engaged in elaborate efforts to cover up incident after incident of child rape." (I pause to praise her for employing that latter term instead of the grubby all-purpose euphemism abuse.) To be specific, the cardinal admitted in a deposition that he knew that the Rev. John Geoghan had raped at least seven boys in 1984 before he approved Geoghan's transfer to another parish where other boys were at risk. Further disclosures revealed that the Rev. Paul Shanley, who at one point was facing trial for 10 counts of child rape and six counts of indecent assault and battery, had been moved from ministry to ministry in what amounted to an attempt to protect him. Law himself lied to a West Coast bishop about Shanley's history and certified in writing that another rapist priest, the Rev. Redmond Raux, had "nothing in his background" to make him "unsuitable to work with children."

A vast majority of Americans told the polls at that stage that they favored prosecution of any clerics who had knowingly failed to act on the exposure of child rape in the church. In certain jurisdictions it nearly did come to that, but in Massachusetts, as Lithwick dryly pointed out, there was no mandatory reporting law. In other words, a person with information about child rape was not obliged to come forward with the facts. Or that, at least, was the shame-faced excuse of the Massachusetts district attorney. However, suppressing information about a crime can also be a crime in itself, and Cardinal Law and seven of his bishops were at one stage subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.

The whole question became moot after his resignation because Law thereupon abruptly moved to Rome and took up a series of positions in the Vatican. He resigned only as head of the Boston archdiocese he had so gravely outraged and was allowed to retain his cardinal's hat. He was appointed as archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and made a member of the congregations of Oriental Churches, Clergy, Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Evangelization of Peoples, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Catholic Education, and Bishops, as well as the Pontifical Council for the Family! He took a full part in the conclave that selected Ratzinger as the successor to John Paul II.

So, I think that we are entitled to hear, as the vicar of Christ and holder of the Keys of Peter favors us with his presence, whether he regards his brother Bernard Law as an honored guest in the holy city or as someone who has been given asylum. And even if we cannot get a satisfactory answer, it is essential that we hear the question. Will the press do its job, and will our elected representatives remember their responsibilities to so many thousands of tortured and exploited children? Some of us will be watching and keeping an account.
You can read the entire piece here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

U.S. war planners move further from goals of democracy in Iraq

Despite the lofty rhetoric out of the White House about democracy in Iraq, there has been a quiet shift by American military commanders on the ground away from attempts to help the Iraqis build a more representative government in favor of security and stability. Whether this trade-off has or will produce the desired effects of relative peace is an open question. What is clear is that any goals for the democratization of the Iraqi state are being left to whither on the vine. Expectations have been lowered. The so-called benchmarks for the Iraqi government have been abandoned. While the central government attempts (and fails) to crush Shiite militias in Basra, the U.S. military commanders have put Sunni militias on U.S. payroll thus denying the Iraqi state a “monopoly on violence” – the standard prerequisite for anything coming close to resembling democratic rule.

U.S. military commanders cannot be blamed. Given the lack of direction or minimal involvement by the civilian sector of our executive branch of government (specifically, the State Department) they are simply doing the best they can. The necessary political work the White House seems unwilling to do has been dropped in the laps of the military who are not trained in the nuances of diplomacy or building political infrastructure. Their expertise is taking control of a battle zone and establishing security so it is no surprise this is the way policy is drifting. Perhaps “victory” will be the establishment of an authoritarian (albeit weak) government in Baghdad but isn’t it time the American people were told this is what U.S. blood and treasury are being expended for? Of course, someone might then point out that it was authoritarian Middle East governments that produced the disillusioned souls who took out their frustration by flying airliners into buildings on September 11th.

This is from the L.A. Times:
For President Bush, creating a peaceful democracy remains the overarching U.S. goal in Iraq. Last week, he again described his vision for a "stable democracy" that can "promote our common interests in the Middle East."

But in two days of exhaustive testimony before the House and Senate, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said conspicuously little about democracy in that nation.

That's because, without saying so publicly, U.S. war planners have moved further from those idealistic goals.

They are now pursuing a strategy aimed at a more modest outcome, one that emphasizes keeping the peace over democratic reforms.

In fact, as military officials acknowledge, some of the newer tactics may make democracy more unlikely than ever.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has always championed Bush's Iraq strategy and has never clashed publicly with the president. But the last week made clear the growing divergence between political rhetoric and the reality of the war.

When it comes to defining victory, Petraeus told lawmakers last week, he and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker consider themselves minimalists.

"We're not after the Holy Grail on Iraq," Petraeus said. "We're not after Jeffersonian democracy."

Meeting with reporters two days later, Petraeus said that it was important to foster democratic practices but that U.S. aspirations had been "tempered by experience."

"There's not a desire for what people might see as perfection," Petraeus said. "Adequate is good enough, if you will."

Over the last 15 months, a shift to more modest expectations has been built into U.S. military operations and planning in Iraq, current and former officers said.

"We are more focused on security and stability than we are on other lofty democratic goals," said a senior officer who has served in Iraq but who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing military planning. "The longer we are there, the more pragmatic we become."

As last year's troop buildup was being planned, the Joint Chiefs of Staff began pushing for a more pragmatic -- and modest -- approach that de-emphasized democracy, according to military officers.

A Joint Campaign Plan for Iraq developed by Petraeus and Crocker also adopted a more realistic approach. That document, setting out U.S. military and diplomatic strategies, emphasizes security over good government, said John R. Martin, a retired colonel who worked on it.

"I hate to say it was pushed off, because democracy is such an important thing. But, in effect, that was what happened," Martin said. "We said we have got to get security first, and then some of the political progress can occur. So in that sense, it was pushed to a lower priority.

"The troop buildup has been credited with reducing violence across Iraq. But many current and former military officers said that even more important were a series of decisions to reach cease-fire agreements with former insurgents, allow them to organize into armed groups, and put them on the U.S. payroll.

U.S. support for these "concerned local citizens" or "Sons of Iraq," armed groups headed by tribal sheiks, has dramatically reduced violence. But it also has empowered the sheiks at the expense of local government authority.

And the existence of newly armed groups that are not under the control of Iraq's central government has done little to enhance the power of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

"The Iraqi security forces do not have a monopoly on violence; it's been outsourced to these groups," said the military officer who has served in Iraq. "It's not Maliki's government controlling security."

Martin said the Iraq command had worked hard to ensure that the Sons of Iraq did not undermine the Maliki government.

"We tried very hard to reinforce the government's monopoly on force," Martin said. "It was not an attempt to establish militias."

But Martin acknowledged that the Maliki government had resisted U.S. requests that it bring the Sons of Iraq groups into the Iraq security force.

The Shiite government is reluctant to share power with the Sunni minority, which dominated Saddam Hussein's regime.

That reluctance has been the largest stumbling block to meaningful democratic reforms.

Besides the difficulty of trying to strengthen democratic institutions, reforms could actually threaten security gains.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The world’s growing food crisis

The world is facing a growing food crisis. Biofuels are causing shortages of grain and forcing food prices up in general. Climate change resulting in flooding and droughts in different parts of the world causes loss of many crops and contributes to food shortages. Increased consumption of food – particularly in the booming economy of China – is a factor in food shortages and higher food prices elsewhere in the world.

This crisis can threaten local and global peace and security as the losers in this equation resort to violence. The problems arising from climate change, the shift to biofuels, and increased food consumption in formerly impoverished nations are all complex but need to be addressed because this is obviously not a short term problem.

This is from Sunday’s Observer:
… Across the world, a food crisis is now unfolding with frightening speed. Hundreds of millions of men and women who, only a few months ago, were able to provide food for their families have found rocketing prices of wheat, rice and cooking oil have left them facing the imminent prospect of starvation. The spectre of catastrophe now looms over much of the planet.

In less than a year, the price of wheat has risen 130 per cent, soya by 87 per cent and rice by 74 per cent. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, there are only eight to 12 weeks of cereal stocks in the world, while grain supplies are at their lowest since the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, these swiftly rising prices have unleashed serious political unrest in many places. In Dhaka yesterday 10,000 Bangladeshi textile workers clashed with police. Dozens were injured, including 20 policemen, in a protest triggered by food costs that was eventually quelled by baton charges and teargas. In Haiti, demonstrators recently tried to storm the presidential palace after prices of staple foods leaped 50 per cent.

In Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal and Cameroon there have been demonstrations, sometimes involving fatalities, as starving, desperate people have taken to the streets. And in Vietnam the new crime of rice rustling - in which crops are stripped at night from fields by raiders - has led to the banning of all harvesting machines from roads after sunset and to farmers, armed with shotguns, camping around their fields 24 hours a day.

But what are the factors that led to this global unrest? What has triggered the price rises that have put the world's basic foodstuffs out of reach for a rising fraction of its population? And what measures must be taken by politicians, world leaders and monetary chiefs to rectify the crisis? Not surprisingly, the first two of these questions tend to be the easier ones to answer. Economists and financiers point to a number of factors that have combined to create the current crisis, a perfect storm in which several apparently unconnected events come together with disastrous effects.

One key issue highlighted at the G7 meeting was the decision by the US government, made several years ago, to give domestic subsidies to its farmers so that they could grow corn that can then be fermented and distilled into ethanol, a biofuel which can be mixed with petrol. This policy helps limit US dependence on oil imports and also gives support to the nation's farmers. However, by taking over land - about 20 million acres so far in the United States - that would otherwise have been used to grow wheat and other food crops, US food production has dropped dramatically. Prices of wheat, soya and other crops have been pushed up significantly as a result.

As to the other factors that have combined to trigger the current food crisis, experts also point to the connected issue of climate change. As the levels of carbon dioxide rise in the atmosphere, meteorologists have warned that weather patterns are becoming increasingly disturbed, causing devastation in many areas. For several consecutive years, Australia - once a prime grower of wheat - has found its production ruined by drought, for example. Scarcity, particularly on Asia's grain markets, has then driven up prices even further.

Some campaigners see climate change as the most pressing challenge facing the world while others now say that biofuels - grown to offset fossil fuel use - is taking food out of the mouths of some of the world's poorest people. The net result will be eco-warriers battling with poverty campaigners for the moral high ground.

On top of these issues, there is the growing wealth of China and its 1 billion inhabitants. Once the possessor of a relatively poor rural economy, China has becoming increasingly industrialised and its middle classes have swelled in numbers.

One impact has been to trigger a doubling in meat consumption, particularly pork. As the country's farmers have sought to feed more and more pigs, more and more grain has been bought by them. However, China has only 7 per cent of the world's arable land and that figure is shrinking as farmland has been ravaged by pollution and water shortages.

The net result has been to decrease domestic supplies of grain just as demand for it has started to boom. Again the impact has struck worst in the Third World, with wheat and other grain prices soaring.

And finally there is the issue of vegetable oils. Soya and palm oils are a major source of calories in Asia. But flooding in Malaysia and a drought in Indonesia have limited supplies.

In addition, these oils are now being sought as bio-diesel, which is used as a direct substitute for diesel in many countries, including Australia. The impact has been all too familiar: an alarming drop in supplies for the people of the Third World as prices of this basic commodity have soared.

One such victim is Kamla Devi. She has already had to abandon dhal, a central, protein-rich dish of lentils that was a key part of her family's diet for several months. Now the cooking of fried food - in particular, pooris: hot, puffed, oil-soaked bread - has had to follow suit for the simple reason that cooking oil has become unaffordable.

'It has affected my health,' she says. 'The rich are becoming richer. They go to shopping malls and they don't need to worry. The problem with prices only matters for the poor people like me.'

Four key factors behind the spreading fear of starvation across the globe

Growing consumption

Six months ago Zhou Jian closed down his car parts business and launched himself as a pork butcher. Since then the 26-year-old businessman's Shanghai shop has been crowded out - despite a 58 per cent rise in the price of pork in the past year - and his income has trebled.As China's emerging middle classes become richer, their consumption of meat has increased by more than 150 per cent per head since 1980. In those days, meat was scarce, rationed at around 1kg per person per month and used sparingly in rice and noodle dishes, stir fried to preserve cooking oil.

Today, the average Chinese consumer eats more than 50kg of meat a year. To feed the millions of pigs on its farms, China is now importing grain on a huge scale, pushing up its prices worldwide.

Palm oil crisis

The oil palm tree is the most highly efficient producer of vegetable oil, with one acre yielding as much oil as eight acres of soybeans. Unfortunately, it takes eight years to grow to maturity and demand has outstripped supply. Vegetable oils provide an important source of calories in the developing world, and their shortage has contributed to the food crisis.

A drought in Indonesia and flooding in Malaysia has also hit the crop. While farmers and plantation companies hurriedly clear land to replant, it will take time before their efforts bear fruit. Palm oil prices jumped nearly 70 per cent last year, hitting the poorest families. When a store in Chongqing in China announced a cooking-oil promotion in November, a stampede left three dead and 31 injured.

Biofuel demand

The rising demand for ethanol, a biofuel that is mixed with petrol to bring down prices at the pump, has transformed the landscape of Iowa. Today this heartland of the Midwest is America's cornbelt, with the corn crop stretching as far as the eye can see.

Iowa produces almost half of the entire output of ethanol in the US, with 21 ethanol-producing plants as farmers tear down fences, dig out old soya bean crops, buy up land and plant yet more corn. It has been likened to a new gold rush.

But none of it is for food. And as the demand for ethanol increases, yet more farmers will pile in for the great scramble to plant corn - instead of grain. The effect will be to further worsen world grain shortages.

Global warming

The massive grain storage complex outside Tottenham, New South Wales, today lies virtually empty. Normally, it would be half-full. As the second largest exporter of grain after the US, Australia usually expects to harvest around 25 million tonnes a year. But, because of a five-year drought, thought to have been caused by climate change, it managed just 9.8 million tonnes in 2006.

Farmers such as George Grieg, who has farmed here for 50 years, have rarely known it to be so bad. Many have not even recovered the cost of planting and caring for their crops, and are being forced into debt. With global wheat prices at an all-time high, all they can do is cling on in the hope of a bumper crop next time - if they are lucky.
You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sonny Rollins: “St.Thomas” (1968 )

This is Sonny Rollins (born 1930) performing “St.Thomas” in Denmark in 1968. Rollins is a tenor saxophonist. He is still touring and recording today, having outlived most of his contemporaries such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Art Blakey, all performers with whom he recorded.

Rollins is usually credited as the composer of “St. Thomas” but the tune is actually based on an old nursery song from the Virgin Islands that his mother sang to him as a child. Rollins made the piece famous on his 1956 album, Saxophone Colossus. It has become a jazz standard recorded by many other artists.

You can watch (and listen to) Rollins perform “Weaver of Dreams” here.

What will a Hillary Clinton presidency look like?

Carl Bernstein has these thoughts on Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president:
What will a Hillary Clinton presidency look like?

The answer by now seems obvious: It will look like her presidential campaign, which in turn looks increasingly like the first Clinton presidency.

Which is to say, high-minded ideals, lowered execution, half truths, outright lies (and imaginary flights), take-no prisoners politics, some very good policy ideas, a presidential spouse given to wallowing in anger and self-pity, and a succession of aides and surrogates pushed under the bus when things don’t go right. Which is to say, often.

And endless psychodrama: the essential Clintonian experience that mesmerizes the press, confuses the citizenry, confounds members of both parties in Congress (not to mention the Clintons themselves, at times) and pretty much keeps the rest of the world constantly amused and fixated.

Such a picture of Clinton Redux is, by definition, speculation. But it is speculation based on the best evidence at hand: the demonstrable and familiar record of Hillary and Bill Clinton coupled together in Permanent Campaign-mode for a generation, waging a continuous fight on the national political stage since 1992, an unceasing campaign for the White House, for redemption, for their ideas (sometimes) and for themselves (almost always), especially in 2008.

The basic dynamics of the campaign, except for the Clintons’ vast new-found personal wealth and its challenges, have been near-constant since they arrived in Washington: through Whitewater, health care, the battle of the budget, the culture wars, the tax returns released only under duress, the travel office, Monica, impeachment, the pardons and through Hillary Clinton’s often repugnant presidential campaign.

The latest transmutation of leadership in the campaign of Hillary Clinton for president –- Mark Penn’s departure or non-departure, be it window dressing or window cleaning –- is perhaps the best index we have of the more absurd aspects of her candidacy and evidence of its increasing bankruptcy.

The Clinton folks asserted to donors and reporters alike that this second “shake-up” in eight weeks at the very top of the campaign apparat represents some kind of great electoral moment, an opportunity for Hillary to state her case “more positively,” as if the negative approach had been forced on her; the beginning of yet another “turnaround” as if Penn, rather than Hillary (and Bill), has been the big problem. As if Penn were not an appendage of his two patrons, as if he were some kind of independent contractor twisting the candidate’s arm to do what comes unnaturally to her. The willingness of so much of the press, sensitized to the Clintons’ off-center complaints about one-sided coverage, to buy into this line is stunning.

In fact, the demotion of Penn –- like the departure of Hillary’s acolyte Patty Solis Doyle as campaign manager –- is a confession that, for all her claims of “experience” and leadership abilities, Hillary Clinton has now presided over two disastrous national enterprises, the most important professional undertakings of her adult life, both of which she began with ample wind at her back: the healthcare reform of her husband’s presidency, and now her own campaign for the White House. These two failures -– and the demonizing of her opponents in both instances –- may be the best indication of the kind of President she would be, especially when confronted (inevitably) by unanticipated difficulty and/or entrenched opposition to her ideas and programs.

It is exactly under such circumstances that she usually resorts to the worst excesses that mark her in full warrior-mode — and all its scorched-earth, truth-be-damned manifestations. Bosnia, anyone? Smearing the women involved (or even thought to be involved) sexually with her husband. Responding to Barack Obama with the same mindset, disdain, and arsenal as she did Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, as if Obama’s politics and methodologies were as mendacious and vicious as theirs–and her own. Tax information kept secret (in 1992 to hide her profits from trading in cattle futures; in 2008 to shield the identities of Bill’s foreign clients.) A campaign that openly boasts of throwing “the kitchen sink” at her opponent.

The assumption of many senatorial colleagues, former Clinton aides, and reporters (including this one) was that her presidential campaign would be much different from the one she and Bill Clinton waged through the White House years.

In A Woman in Charge, I wrote about her ability to evolve, observable especially in the years before she met Bill Clinton and in the Senate: to learn from her mistakes. Events have proven me wrong on that count.

The 2008 Clinton campaign, in fact, has been an exercise in devolution, back to the angry, demonizing, accusatory Hillary Clinton of the worst days of the Clinton presidency, flailing, and furtive, and disingenuous; and, as in the White House years, putting forth programs and ideas worthy of respect and deserving of the kind of substantive debate she claims she wants her race against Barrack Obama to be based upon.

Bill, meanwhile, has taken up Hillary’s old role as defender and apologist, with disinformation and misinformation, but (far less effectively than she defended him). Also with near-apoplectic tirades that have left their friends worried and wondering.

In the process of their search-and-destroy mission against Barack Obama, the Clintons have pursued a strategy that at times seems deliberately aimed at undermining Obama’s credibility if he becomes John McCain’s opponent — heresy in the view of an increasing number of the Clintons’ former suppporters and aides, a suprising number of whom now back Obama.

The choice ahead -– in Pennsylvania, and the remaining primary states, and for the super delegates, and perhaps even the arbiters of a deadlocked convention -– is clear enough at this point, at least in terms of what the 2008 Clinton campaign is about: the Clintons — plural. Theirs is a campaign for Restoration to the White House, not simply the election of Hillary Clinton. Theirs is, has always been, a joint enterprise, a see-saw routine in which the psyches and actions of each balances the board according to the personal dynamics of the moment.

A long-time associate of the Clintons, with whom Hillary has consulted in their quest to return to the White House, said early in her campaign: “She has a very plausible case for president. She had an eight-year super-graduate course in the presidency, a progressive platform…” He paused, and added: “[But] I’m not sure I want the circus back in town.”

That is what the Hillary for President campaign has become: the whole Clinton three-ring circus, with little evidence that moving back to the White House will alter that most basic fact.
You can read the entire piece here.