Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Jerry Springer: TV critic

Some headlines just grab you immediately. Take this one from The Independent.:

British TV lags behind US, says Springer

That's JERRY Springer.

The British daily reported that Springer praised British documentary-making but quoted the former mayor of Cincinnati as saying, "The rest of your stuff is 10 years behind American television. That's not a criticism - it's just newer to you here. Your talk shows are like ours were 10 years ago; they plod along. It could be radio. Virtually all your live programmes could be on radio."

Monday, May 30, 2005

Humanitarians Day

Today is Memorial Day. It's the day we honor those American soldiers who died in uniform. There is also Veterans Day, where we honor all soldiers; though we tend to do that at Memorial Day as well.

It's fine that we do those things. I just wish people would remember the reverence of Memorial Day when deciding on which random and sundry wars to launch. If people dying in war is such a solemn occasion, maybe we should try to make sure it doesn't happen unnecessarily.

I wish we had a day devoted to diplomats, peacemakers and humanitarian workers. We have one day to presidents and one day to causes like an explorer, a civil rights leader, even the flag. We have two days devoted to soldiers. Why not have a day devoted to those people who, if successful, prevent soldiers from having to fight and die in the first place? Why not have a day to honor those who ingloriously are charged with the task of cleaning up the messes left by soldiers of all nationalities?

Something like a Humanitarians Day would require us to, for one day, think of ourselves as humans, instead of merely Americans. But they deserve to honored too.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

A strange definition of apathy

I was reading a match report in the British paper The Observer on yesterday US-England soccer match. The friendly (exhibition) was won by England 2-1, ending the US' two-year home unbeaten streak. The Americans were missing several of their top players and England even more.

Nearly any time The Observer, or its sister paper The Guardian, writes about American soccer, it does so in a condescending way. They never fail to make snide remarks about how apathetic Americans are for soccer. Or, and this is our most egregious sin in the papers' eyes, we refer to the sport as soccer (just like Australia, Ireland, Canada and several other English-speaking countries) rather than football.

The twin papers feel a juvenile compulsion to pander to British stereotypes about footy... er... "sawker" in the United States.

Today's article was no different.

See if you can so follow this...

The beginning of the story talked about how disinterested Chicago was in this match.

Downtown, three hours before kick-off. On the corner of Clark and Adams, a bunch of lads in England replica shirts asked a couple of cops for directions to 'the Soldier Field'. 'What's goin' on down there?' asked the cops. 'The US are playing a big game at soccer,' replied one. The cops looked at each other and drew a blank, clucked the article.

The match didn't score highly on the television news on a morning where locals were looking forward to the Memorial Day parade and the first day of the year Chicago's beaches are officially open. Over on the sports pages of the major newspaper, the Chicago Tribune , the game was an afterthought. The only mention of 'England' was in the TV listings, tucked away underneath the baseball and Indy 500. A tour ridiculed for its timing, its commercial basis and its dubious usefulness may not have been the talk of Illinois... Bizarre as it seemed for a Sven-Göran Eriksson [manager of England] friendly against a nation that seemed to barely notice this particular event...

So according to this hack, no one in Chicago (let alone the country) even noticed this match.

The middle of the story mentioned that there were 3500 England fans at the stadium.

The total attendance was about 48,000.

So doing the math would suggest that there were over 44,000 American fans in attendance.

Some apathy!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Taking a position

A few days ago, I received a very strange note on my Africa blog. It read:

Brian, why do you label people and call them names. your articles would be much better without the name calling.

I found this anonymous, unsigned comment baffling.

The particular entry had only two things that conceivably be considered name calling. I made reference to:

former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, now an indicted war criminal

For full disclosure, I DO loathe Charles Taylor, who now lives in exile in Nigeria. When I lived in Guinea, I had countless friends and acquaintainces whose lives were destroyed because of Taylor, his troops, his brutality, his wars and the widespread destruction he sowed and continues to sow. Some of my friends and their relatives are suffering to this day because of Taylor and his cronies. So do I have a personal vendetta against him? Absolutely. Do I despise him? Without a doubt. Will I treat him with the same respect I would accord to, say, the mayor of my town? Not a chance!

As for the comment by 'anonymous': that Charles Taylor was a dictator is not only my opinion, it's the widespread consensus of both the international community and the Liberian population. In the past, I've written a several commentaries explaining WHY Charles Taylor was a despicable dictator.

In 2003, the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone issued an indictment against Taylor, accusing him of "the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law" in Sierra Leone's brutal, decade-long civil war.

That Charles Taylor is an indicted war criminal is not the biased opinion of someone who holds him in the utmost contempt. It is a VERIFIABLE FACT.

Now it's worth noting something important. My essays are not articles, they are opinions. I try to be fair, but my essays have a point of view. I make no bones about the fact that I take a position. I do not pretend to be neutral.

In my essays, I do not hesitate to call a spade a spade. Dictators deserve to be labelled as such, with the accompanying scorn. I will not soft-peddle criticism of human rights' abusers. Those whose actions kill, displace or otherwise ruin the lives of millions of people and the economies of several countries, I will not treat them in the same way I would treat civilized human beings. I'm sorry if that bothers 'anonymous' but it would be disingenuous for me to do it any other way.

At the risk of being immodest, I think my blogs are more restrained in the name calling department than 99% of the political blogs out there.

For example, it's no secret that I do not like President Bush. However, I've never referred to him as a liar, a warmonger, a war criminal or a fascist. I've never called him Shrub, Dubya, Junior or any other juvenile nickname. I have friends who've done exactly that and they probably think I'm too timid for not doing so. But I use language in a very careful, considered way. So when I do use a pejorative, it's done in a thought-out, calculated way, not recklessly toward any random thing I dislike.

Calling Charles Taylor a 'former dictator' is remarkably restrained considering what he's done and how many lives he's destroyed. I think there are some people out there who are uncomfortable with any strong opinion being expressed. They do not like the tension of disagreement. If that's the case, then such people probably shouldn't read this blog. While I try to offer intelligent, reasonable, thoroughly-explained essays, I do not shy away from taking a strong positions and I will not shy away from criticizing those things and people that deserve it.

Charles Taylor is a monster and I say that unapologetically. People realizing what he's done and demanding justice apply to him is far more important than them thinking that my essays should win a Pulitzer.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Bravo Scousers!

Wednesday saw the highlight of the European club soccer season: the Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan. Milan are legendary for negative soccer and their impenetrable defense (though flair and defensive fragility seems to be their watchword this year). The overachieving Liverpool side reached the final on discipline and defensive solidity. Suffice it to say, I didn't expect much from the match. A 0-0 or 1-0 result wouldn't have surprised me. Instead, fans were treated to a truly classic match.

In the first half, Milan tore through Liverpool like Brazil playing a team of scared 12 year olds. The Italians scored in the first minute of the game and then added two more right before the break. At halftime, I was betting on a 5-0 final score.

Everyone assumed the game was over. In the previous 49 European Cup finals, only one team had come back to win after trailing by ONE goal. Liverpool was devoid of ideas, looking out of their league and down by three goals at halftime to a world class opponent. So naturally, they engineered one of the greatest comebacks in soccer history.

When the teams came out for the second half, it was Liverpool who were going through Milan like a hot knife through butter. It was as though the teams had switched bodies in the dressing room. Liverpool's captain scored what many figured was merely a consolation goal. Then one of the Reds' forwards hit a blast that the Milan keeper should've stopped, but didn't. Then Liverpool drew a penalty which they missed but scored on the rebound. From 0-3 down against a top class opponent to equality in only six minutes. It was mind-boggling.

Most the second half and extra time was dull, as Liverpool were content with the amazing fightback and Milan in shock after their collapse. Late in extra time, Reds' keeper Jerzy Dudek made a breathtaking double save on Milan's Andrei Shevchenko, the European player of the year. In the penalty shootout tiebreaker, Dudek made two saves while his Milan counterpart only stopped one. Liverpool lifted the European Cup for the fifth time, in the most inconceivable of circumstances.

What intrigues me as a coach is this irony. I suspect that a key to Liverpool's comeback was MILAN's third goal, right before halftime. I do not think the comeback occurs if Milan's up 2-0 going into the break. At 3-0, Liverpool's sense of desperation is far more acute than at 2-0. Also, at 3-0, Milan enters the 2nd half with a complacency that ultimately proves fatal; I don't think that casualness occurs if they're only up by two goals.

Anyways, well done Liverpool. I'm not normally a supporter of theirs, but I was yesterday; I loathe Milan. For all their erratic form in England's domestic league, I don't think anyone could call Liverpool undeserving Champions League winners (especially since the 'Champions League' now constitutes false advertising but that's another essay). In successive rounds, they beat Juventus, Chelsea and Milan, three of the continent's top clubs. They did so by allowing only 4 goals in 5 games against those European giants.

Now all they need is a chance to defend their title next year, as common fairness would dictate.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The first casualty of war

You remember the big story when a soldier named Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan? It was a big story because he'd quit a lucrative career as an NFL football player to join the military. The Army peddled the story that he'd been killed in a hail of enemy fire. The military has concluded that he was killed by "friendly fire" (accidentally by his own troops).

But according to a recent US military investigation, army chiefs were informed that Tillman's death was the result of "friendly fire" within days of his death, but chose not to reveal this fact to his family or friends, according to the BBC.

Curiously, the military held to its public story until weeks after a televised memorial service in which fans paid tribute to the man hailed as an "American hero".

Tillman's parents were scathing about military dishonesty.

"They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realised that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a hand basket if the truth about the death got out. They blew up their poster boy," Patrick Tillman Senior said.

Friendly fire deaths occur in pretty much every conflict. But it shows how paranoid Army leaders were about the potential effect on recruiting efforts, efforts already hindered by an unpopular in Iraq whose justifications have been all but totally discredited.

"Pat had high ideals about the country, that's why he did what he did. The military let him down. The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect," his mother Mary Tillman said.

This administration has played fast and loose with the truth since day one. It's no surprise that this blatant disregard for straight-forwardness has filtered into the military. If they'll lie about a little thing like this that really isn't a big deal in the whole scheme of things (except to Tillman's family), then what credibility will they have on the big things?

Or maybe they just figure they don't have any credibility left.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A real fight against terrorism

This essay is part of a weekly feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

One of the popular myths out there is that ordinary people wake up one day and choose on the spur of the moment to become terrorists. That they suddenly say to themselves, "Gee, I think I'll decide to hate [enemy of the day] and blow some people up."

Another popular myth is that poverty causes terrorism. If it were, then Africa would be the worldwide center of international terrorism because it's the region with the most poverty.

In reality, terrorism is nourished by senses of desperation, powerlessness and hopelessness. Though poverty are contributors to those two sentiments, it is not a cause of terrorism in and of itself.

Fortunately, some people can see beyond those (somewhat self-serving) myths. Such, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, one of the more progressive monarchs in the Arab world (with the notable exception of its unconscionable occupation of Western Sahara).

King Mohammed has launched a program to improve quality of life in the country's urban slums, a prime recruiting ground for radical Islam.

Mohammed VI said the problem was the country's most serious social issue, and made a reference to Islamic extremists preying on Morocco's poor. It was young men from the city slums who carried out the suicide bombings that left 45 dead in May 2003. Their poverty and desperation apparently made them ready recruits for Islamic extremist cells, according to the BBC.

"Any exploitation of social misery aiming at political ends, at nurturing extremist inclinations... cannot be morally accepted," noted the king.

The program, which will cost almost US$115 million, will bring the basics of clean water and schools to the dusty, corrugated iron wastelands, where so many thousands of Moroccans live.

This is one of the realities that the so-called war on terrorism ignores. The fact of the matter is that in many places, Islamist organizations provide services that the corrupt, inefficient or non-existent state does not. For example, the group Hezbollah has run hospitals, schools, orphanages and a television station since the chaotic years of the Lebanon's civil war. The group Hamas also provides welfare and social social services to residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, services which neither the Israeli occupiers or the Palestinian Authority provide. In other words, these groups are filling a vacuum. Thus, it's no surprise that while westerners see these groups as terrorists, many residents of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have a different view.

Morocco's king is wise to try and fill that vacuum before Islamist groups do. And hopefully the 'terrorist warriors' will help him and other progressive-minded leaders do the same. It's not as exciting as blowing (someone else's) stuff up, nor does it cause the adrenaline rush of invading random, non-threatening countries. But it's a heck of a lot more relevant to actually preventing terrorism.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Dems=Hitler and assassinating judges

I've been repeatedly critical of Democrats and progressives who've used phrases like "Bush=Hitler," "Bush is a Nazi," etc. I think such extremist language discredits the speaker far more than it discredits the target.

The debate of judicial nominees has provided some instances of Republicans doing much the same thing, points out Dennis at the Moderate Republican blog.

According to him, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist referred the minority Democrats' blocking of a couple of the president's picks for lifetime federal judgeships as "leadership-led use of Cloture vote to kill, to defeat, to assassinate these nominees."

Dennis comments: Note to Senator Frist: Two appointees who don't get a vote on the full Senate floor is not equal to assasination. In light of the federal judge who lost her husband and mother to a crazed man and also the federal judge in Atlanta who was murdered, this statement is callous. It might please the far right lunatics who you think are the base of the GOP these days, but it will turn off moderates and swing voters-those people you need to keep the Senate GOP.

But in any heated Senate debate, the award for most absurd remark is likely to go to Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum. This debate was no different. Santorum described Democrat actions in these terms: "IT'S THE EQUIVALENT OF ADOLF HITLER IN 1942 'I'M IN PARIS. HOW DARE YOU INVADE ME. HOW DARE YOU BOMB MY CITY? IT'S MINE.'"

Though Dennis himself does make the curious comment, "I don't know if the Dems should be using a tactic that was used by segregationists..."

Isn't this the same tactic as the Bush=Hitler crowd he deplores? One implies that since Bush and Hitler did the same thing on one issue that they are morally comparable. Isn't he doing the same thing with Dems and segregationists? How is blocking a couple of judges on the same moral plane as segreation?

Monday, May 23, 2005

Saddam's skivvies

The British daily The Sun's reputation is comparable to that of America's National Enquirer, except it pretends to be an actual NEWSpaper. It's particularly loathed in the English city of Liverpool after some, well, dubious "journalism" following a soccer disaster in 1989. The paper's circulation figures in the city have never recovered.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned rag caused a controversy last week when it published pictures of detained former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his underpants.

The problem is that it's garbage journalism, which I think most people expect of The Sun. The photos really do nothing to advance anyone's understanding of any issue. Laughably, the paper described the photos as an "iconic news image that will still be being looked at the end of this century."

The other problem is: it's a violation of the Geneva Convention. The treaty prohibits subjecting prisoners of war (which Saddam is classified) to "public curiosity."

President Bush pretended to be upset about the photos' publication. It's curious why far more grave violations of the Geneva Convention, such as at Guantanamo Bay, didn't and don't seem to bother the president. But perhaps it's a step forward that at least he now knows when he should pretend to be upset.

Saddam has decided sue the paper for publishing the images.

Sure, he's being treated 50 times better than prisoners in his regime were treated. I bet more than a few ex-prisoners of his regime who survived would've preferred being photographed in their briefs to the treatment that was meted out.

But I offer a compromise. It's a compromise that preserves what's left of the Geneva Convention while not rewarding one of the century's more ruthless savages.

All involved in the photographs' publication should pay up. And all the money should be used to set up a restitution fund to compensate victims' of Saddam's barbarity.

How's that?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Reality check: filibusters

Some Republicans are portraying the judicial filibuster is the greatest threat to the American Republic (even worse than terrorism or the Civil War). Some Democrats have decided to adopt the GOP's Chicken Little approach and act as though ending the filibuster would terminate the Constitution as we know it, I wanted to insert these two little facts...

1) The filibuster is NOT a constitutional question. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution states quite explicitly: Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings.

Getting rid of the filibuster may be (and is) unwise. But it's not unconstitutional.

2) While the Democrats are threatening to filibuster a few Bush judicial nominees (in contrast to some 200 that have sailed through), how many have the Dems ACTUALLY filibustered?


That's right: zero.


Not a one.

Some threat to the Republic.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Manchester United

[This might be the only entry in the blogosphere on the soccer team Manchester United that doesn't have to do with its takeover by American businessman Malcolm Glazer]

I'm a bit conflicted. The most promising young American goalkeeper, Tim Howard, plays for the English soccer club Manchester United. I loathe Man Utd. They are essentially the Yankees of English soccer. However, as a supporter of the US national team (for which Howard will surely be the #1 keeper in a few years), I want Howard to do well in his career.

Ever since the great Peter Schmeichel retired from the club in 2000, Man U have used 10 goalkeepers. Some believe that their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, doesn't know how to manage keepers or are too impatient with them.

It's not uncommon. Very few managers are former goalkeepers and thus know next to nothing about the position and what it requires. This is in much the same way many baseball managers don't know how to deal with pitchers.

It's a very difficult position and one that is highly dependent on confidence. If a forward messes up, he has 9 players behind him to cover his rear end. If a midfielder screws up, he has 4 or 5 players to cover him. Even if a defender screws up, he might be bailed out by his goalkeeper. But the keeper is alone. He's not allowed to screw up because every mistake made is magnified ten-fold. Particularly in the eyes of people most of whom think the position consists of making acrobatic saves and nothing else.

Contrary to what one might expect, it's harder to play goal for a good team than for a bad team. Why? Much higher expectations and much lower margin for error.

If you play goal for a really good team, the opposition might only get a couple shots on goal the entire game. You might see no action for an hour and then be called on to make a lightning-fast save. Facing only a few shots a game requires far more concentration than being bombarded. Plus, if you're getting shelled, you have more opportunities to redeem yourself if you do make an error.

Additionally, the more action you get, the more chances you have to refine your judgement making, an absolutely critical skill for keepers. Ironically, average goalkeepers make acrobatic saves more often than world class goalkeepers, because the latter put themselves in a position where they don't have to make the acrobatic saves very often.

Tim Howard used to play for the MetroStars (based in New Jersey). They have traditionally had a porous defense. As a result, Howard was regularly challenged to make top class saves and rarely went long spells with no action. Suddenly he moved to Man Utd, one of the giants of English soccer. Now, he's not under siege every game but is expected to never make an error, the stakes being so much higher. It requires a totally different set of skills.

Plus, the pressure in Major League Soccer was less constant because playoffs render the regular season largely meaningless. In England, a contender can only afford to lose a few games in a season.

Howard (who was the English Premier League's goalkeeper of the year last season) and his colleague Roy Carroll have each made a couple of well publicized errors between the sticks for Man U. It's not that they've made a lot more errors than other top keepers in the league, only that they were made in high profile games and (just as importantly) the mistakes were punished. As a result, defense and goalkeeping are widely seens as United's achille's heel. Conventional wisdom has it that United's keepers are mediocre and they need to seriously upgrade the position if they want to challenge for major honors.

But is that the club's real problem?

United's keepers suffer only by comparison to Chelsea's Petr Cech. Chelsea won the English Premier League title and did so by allowing a record low 15 goals in 38 matches. United, by contrast, conceded 26 goals.

You might consider me biased because I like Tim Howard. If so, take a look instead at the numbers.

For historical context, the Premier League established a 38 game schedule in 1995-96, when the league went to 20 teams. So 20 teams times 10 seasons works out to 200 team-seasons.

Of those 200, only two (2) have allowed fewer goals than this year's Man Utd. This year's Chelsea team allowed 15 and the 1998-99 Arsenal side, who only finished second, allowed 17. In other words, only 1% of teams in the last decade allowed fewer goals than this year's Man Utd.

So going into this season, none of the previous 9 English Premier League champions had allowed fewer than 26 goals.

Even counting this year's fantastic Chelsea team, the last 10 Premier League champions have conceded an average of 33.4 goals... 28.5% MORE than this year's Man Utd.

This year's Man Utd conceded the same number of goals as last year's Arsenal team, who were the first English side in over a century to go undefeated. The 1999-2000 Man Utd side who were champions of not only England but Europe, they conceded 45 goals... 73% more than this year's Red Devils.

The difference? That United side scored 97 league goals (including 59 just in home games), while this year's edition could only manage 58 goals during the whole season.

As uncomfortable as it is for me to be defending soccer's version of the Evil Empire, I feel compelled to set the record straight.

Update: such harsh criticism of keepers is not limited to Manchester United. Archrival Arsenal is also considered to have a liability between the sticks. The Gunners' main keeper, Jens Lehmann, has started 74 league matches in the last two years; he's lost only three.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Yet anti-Americanism is all Newsweek's fault?

The New York Times ran a sickening article on the alleged murder of two Afghan detainees by American jailers. And [t]he harsh treatment, which has resulted in criminal charges against seven soldiers, went well beyond the two deaths.

Some will dismiss this article, and me for commenting on it, as anti-troops. Well, I am opposed to torturers. I am opposed to savages. I am opposed to war criminals. And if these soldiers are guilty of that, then I am most unashamedly anti-THOSE troops. And if you don't like it, tough cookies. If you think torture is ok so long as it's done by Americans, then go read Ann Coulter instead of this blog. If you think torture and despicable inhumanity are wonderful things provided the perpetrator has the correct flag patch on his or her uniform, then get lost.

There are lots of soldiers out there doing good things like protecting schools and delivering food aid. I tip my cap to them. But I'll be damned if I call these torturer (and allegedly murderous) criminals 'our heroes'; they're not heroes and they're sure as heck not mine.

And it's not just the 'long-haired hippy' crowded that's condemning these savages.

"What we have learned through the course of all these investigations is that there were people who clearly violated anyone's standard for humane treatment," said the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Larry Di Rita. "We're finding some cases that were not close calls."

So if I'm anti-troops for denouncing the torturers, then so is Donald Rumsfeld's spokesman.

And before some nitwits claim this is nothing more than college frat razzing, consider this:

In some instances, testimony shows, it was directed or carried out by interrogators to extract information. In others, it was punishment meted out by military police guards. Sometimes, the torment seems to have been driven by little more than boredom or cruelty, or both. In sworn statements to Army investigators, [AMERICAN] soldiers describe one female interrogator with a taste for humiliation stepping on the neck of one prostrate detainee and kicking another in the genitals. They tell of a shackled prisoner being forced to roll back and forth on the floor of a cell, kissing the boots of his two interrogators as he went. Yet another prisoner is made to pick plastic bottle caps out of a drum mixed with excrement and water as part of a strategy to soften him up for questioning.

When the two tortured kidnapees died, Military spokesmen maintained that both men had died of natural causes, even after military coroners had ruled the deaths homicides [underlined parts are my emphases]

In reality, this just underlines how difficult and messy it is to occupy a foreign country. People don't like to be ruled by invading foreigners. Occupation troops are put in extremely difficult and stressful situations for long, sustained periods of time (as opposed to combat battles which are intense, but comparatively short). As I've written before many times, if you put people in inhumane situations, they are going to act in inhumane ways. American Exceptionalism nonsense aside, Americans soldiers aren't immune from human nature. It's unreasonable to expect them to be.

It also shows poorly planned the Iraq invasion and occupation were. The article details how inexperienced and hastily trained many of the soldiers were. Unfortunately, when you need 150,000 troops, you can't be overly selective.

The incident also risks being far more damaging than the 'Koran abuse' stories.

As the BBC reported: the US could improve its image in the Muslim world if it started "listening more, speaking in a humbler tone, and focusing on bilateral aid and partnership, while tolerating disagreement on controversial policy issues," according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Admittedly, listening and being humble are not the strong points of American foreign policy.

But it means that we have to be careful. The Times noted that many of the officers and soldiers interviewed in the Dilawar investigation said the large majority of detainees at Bagram were compliant and reasonably well treated. Yet it's hard to ignore a few murders.

This is a chance for us to demonstrate that being humble aspect. Instead of reflexively defending the alleged murderers as 'our heroes,' we need to apply the same standards to these soldiers as to any other accused killers. Charge them and give them trials (something not afford to Guantanamo kidnappees). If found guilty, lock them up for life. Give them public condemnation, not rallies in their honor or hysterical rants in their defense. If they get excused for the inexcusable, it tarnishes the reputation of all other soldiers... and of America as a whole.

Update: while this is going on, it's reassuring to know that our Congress is focused on the right priorities. Such as grandstanding about the steroid policy of a sports' league that doesn't even have a huge problem with steroids.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

'Newsweek lied, people died'

I've never been a big fan of Newsweek magazine. I've always found it very fluffy and lightweight. Though owned by the same company as the excellent Washington Post, The Post's journalistic standards apparently have never transferred to Newsweek.

Newsweek seriously screwed up. In its last issue, it published a story claiming that U.S. investigators found evidence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay prison camp desecrated the Koran. This allegedly caused angry riots in Afghanistan. Newsweek has since retracted the story under pressure from the White House

The magazine has egg on its face, and deservedly so. This was always going to be a controversial story. If you're going to run a controversial story, you need to be darn sure you're right. You need to be extremely confident not just in the gist of the story, but in the details as well. As I wrote before in relation to the Dan Rather case, sloppiness with the details can destroy the credibility of a news article (and news organization), even if the main thrust of the story is true. In journalism, the small stuff matters.

Newsweek fully deserves the public flogging it's received.

That said, it's worth keeping things in perspective. If details did in Newsweek, then the magazine's critics should be wary of details as well.

As I said, Newsweek retracted the story. So that means US 'interrogators' didn't do anything to the Koran, right?

Well, not quite.

Many British ex-prisoners of Guantanamo claim that Koran 'abuse' did occur there.

Is that proof that the offensive actions occurred? No. But they can't be totally dismissed with a wave of the hand since even the military still feels compelled to continue their investigations into the allegations.

Even Newsweek's carefully worded retraction doesn't make that claim.

Editor's Note: On Monday afternoon, May 16, Whitaker issued the following statement: Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qur'an abuse at Guantanamo Bay.

In other words, Newsweek isn't saying now that Koran 'abuse'* didn't occur. The magazine is saying that no internal military investigation discovered Koran 'abuse.'

As Donald Rumsfeld would say, "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."

[*-Though I oppose the gratuitous desecreation of sacred texts, I won't use the word 'abuse' in relation to a book]

But Newsweek's unreliable source led to rioting and death in Afghanistan, right? That's according to right-wing critics, the White House and bloggers who proffer fanciful titles like 'Newsweek lied, people died.'

Two people who disagree with this assessment are the miltiary's top officer, Gen. Richard Myers, and the top US general in Afghanistan itself.

As Voice of America reported: General Myers also told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Carl Eichenberry, disagrees with the reports that protests in the city of Jalalabad were caused by anger over the alleged Koran incident.

"It is the judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet are conducting in Afghanistan. He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine," he explained.

So how did Newsweek mess things up? In the magazine's own words: veteran investigative reporter Michael Isikoff's interest had been sparked by the release late last year of some internal FBI e-mails that painted a stark picture of prisoner abuse at Guantánamo. Isikoff knew that military investigators at Southern Command (which runs the Guantánamo prison) were looking into the allegations. So he called a longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter. The source told Isikoff that the report would include new details that were not in the FBI e-mails, including mention of flushing the Qur'an down a toilet.

Essentially what happened is that, when pressed, Newsweek's source suddenly had doubts about where he saw his evidence. Newsweek clearly needs better sources.

Now, if the potentially inflammatory story was flat out wrong, then surely military and government officials would've rushed to deny it.

But they didn't.

A spokesman for the Southern Command declined to comment during research into the initial, controversial article. A senior Pentagon official contacted by the magazine contradicted a minor aspect of the initial article but said nothing about the part that caused all the controversy.

An administration source says one thing, then changes his mind after the article appears. Officials won't comment when a story's being researched but angrily deny it after it appears. You almost wonder if it was a trap.

Showing that the administration's gall knows no limits, White House spokesman Scott McClellan huffed: "The report had real consequences. People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged. There are some who are opposed to the United States and what we stand for who have sought to exploit this allegation. It will take work to undo what can be undone."

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice added, "Of course, 16 people died but it's also done a lot of harm to America's efforts" to demonstrate tolerance and breed goodwill in the Muslim world.

Of all the things that have had destructive real consequences, of all the decisions that have caused people to lose their lives, of all the things that have damaged America's image abroad, of all the screw ups that require work to undo, of all the things that have damaged the American government's token efforts to demostrate tolerance and breed goodwill in the Muslim world, Newsweek's gaffe ranks somewhere around #982 on the list. Most of the first 981 are related to decisions made by Mr. McClellan's and Sec. Rice's boss.

The BBC reported: The White House has urged Newsweek to take the lead in repairing the US' image among Muslims after its retracted report about desecration of the Koran. McClellan spoke of "lasting damage."

This is a neat trick. Willy nilly invasions and half-baked occupations of random countries for bogus reasons has absolutely nothing to do with America's bad reputation in the Muslim world, but a small blurb in a magazine is the real cause of "lasting damage." Screw up repeatedly and expect others to clean up your mess.

The media needs to be careful. It's clearly in the Bush administration's crosshairs. The administration needs a smokescreen to distract from the messy occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The administration can be totally wrong about its justifications for the Iraq invasion and they get rewarded with re-election; but a news organization can make a small error of detail in one small piece that doesn't affect the gist of the story and be blamed for all of America's problems in the Muslim world. Sure, it's unfair. Sure, it's a double standard. Sure, it's hypocritical. But that's the modern reality. The media needs to be very careful. It needs to be basically perfect, lest give the tiniest opening to a clueless administration looking for scapegoat.

[National Public Radio and particularly PBS are also being assaulted by the administration who is putting the networks' non-partisanship under pressure. they are particularly vulnerable since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and PBS, is headed by a particularly partisan Bush shill appointed by the president.]

It's even more of a neat trick when you consider this observation. Perhaps these specific allegations are true, and perhaps they are not. But people tend to believe them, because there have been so many other allegations of deliberate anti-Islamic acts from Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq - of prisoners being forced against their religious convictions to shave their beards, and even to eat pig-meat. The shaving clearly happened: there is pictorial evidence for that.

Furthermore, a new book by a former US soldier who served at Guantanamo alleged further abuses at the probably unconstitutional prison camp. He claimed that a female interrogator sexually taunted a prisoner and even wiped menstrual blood on the face of a prisoner and then sent him back to his cell.

He volunteered for Guantanamo in 2002. He was a US Army linguist, an expert in Arabic and had high security clearance.

But in his book, Sgt. Eric Saar says what he saw completely changed his attitude towards the camp, and his country.

There were many more suicide attempts in the camp than the US government has ever admitted, Sgt Saar says.

He claims storm trooper-like IRF (initial reaction force) teams were involved in numerous beatings of captives.

And of the 600 or so prisoners there, no more than a few dozen were "hardcore terrorists", says Erik Saar.

"The US Government portrays Guantanamo as a place where we are sending the worst of the worst, but this is not true.

"Guantanamo was the beginning of a mistake. It set a precedent in labelling people as enemy combatants, blurring the line between right and wrong.

"You can see it as the seed that may well have led to the naked human pyramids in Abu Ghraib."

Yet it's Newsweek, not Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, random invasions, counterproductive torture and unconscionable policies, that cause anti-American hatred and violence.

The media used to just get blamed for being "liberal" or for sensationalizing. Now, it's deemed solely responsible for all the anti-Americanism on the planet.

Welcome to our brave new world.

Update: The watchdog group FAIR applauds Newsweek's retraction but wonders why the weekly didn't apply the same standards to its claims on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Further update: The International Committee of the Red Cross reported allegations of 'Koran abuse' to the US authorities "multiple times"... long before the Newsweek story appeared

Yet another update: Far from being unfounded, the claims of 'Koran abuse' made by Newsweek were far from the first such allegations. The Pentagon claimed that it had seen "no credible and specific allegations" about 'Koran abuse.' Yet the exact same allegations were mentioned in FBI documents recently declassified. See no evil...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

More tales from Albany

Inside Albany is a public television show on New York state government. The most recent show had a story on legislative efforts to raise the age at which one can buy cigarettes from 18 to 19.

One of the sponsors defended the bill by pointing out that the average smoker takes their first puff around age 14.


If the average smoker starts at 14, then how will raising the legal purchase age from 18 to 19 make any difference?

Supporters say that raising the age would help get cigarettes out of schools, because few high school students are 19.

Most young teens who start smoking get them not from random upperclassmen but from siblings or friends. Kids tend to have friends around the same age as them. And a 14 year old with an 18 year sibling eventually becomes a 15 year old with a 19 year old sibling. So what's going to change?

And they wonder why New York legislators don't have the greatest reputation.

You can buy alcohol legally when you're 21, cigarattes when you're 18 (or 19 if some people have their way). You can enlist in the military when you're 18. You can drive when you're 16 but with restrictions until you're 18. The state would be better off establishing a single, standard age of majority. The current situation sends a bizarre message to kids: we trust you behind the wheel of a ton of metal before we trust you to defend our country. We trust you to defend our country before we trust you with a cigarette or a bottle of beer.

The same episode of Inside Albany also talked about how a joint legislative committee decided to let each county decide for themselves which voting machines to use. This is in relation to New York's much-belated compliance with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

HAVA was passed to prevent a repeat of the 2000 election debacle in Florida where... each county decided for themselves which voting machines to use.

Darn foreigners!

Our local paper has this 'man on the street' feature. They also have one for teens. I'm not a big fan of the feature; it's shallow, by definition. But people like seeing their photos in the paper. So be it.

For a long time, they always asked teens really vapid, idiotic questions like, "What's your favorite shampoo?" Then someone wrote a letter complaining that this is patronizing. So now, they actually ask real questions.

Today's query was: 'What do you think is the most important issue in the U.S. and why?'

One 16 year old answered: "Too many foreigners in the country. They are taking our jobs."

The kid had the typically American name: Mehmood Sheikh.

He looks South Asian.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Lazy writers

I watched the season finales of the Simpsons last night. The Simpsons is arguably the best show in the history of television; certainly in the top five. Some have argued the show has lost a little of its sharpness in recent years. I'm starting to agree. Last night was a bit disappointing.

The thing that's impressed me most about the Simpsons is the way it packs so much into so little time. The writing is tight, the segueways sharp. Last night's episodes failed in that regard.

In the last episode, Bart got sent to Catholic school and Homer was converted (or was on the road to conversion) too. This set off a battle between Homer and a Catholic priest one one hand and Marge, Ned Flanders and the Rev. Lovejoy together on behalf of Protestantism. The segueways were weak, the cliches lazy.

At one point, Bart gave a quick "Cant' we all just get along?" schpeel and everyone bought it instantenously, as though the previous 15 minutes of squabbling had never occurred. Then Flanders said something like, "We're all Christian. Let's concentrate on our real enemies: gays and stem cells."

The Simpsons has always worked well because of its subtlety and because of its willingness to poke fun at everybody, of all political stripes. Subtlety is the difference between good satire and obnoxiousness. That's why the Simpsons is (usually) funny while Howard Stern is a horse's rear end.

This was not subtlety. It was in your face.

It was unfortunate the way the writers betrayed Flanders. As a writer, you have to make sure to stay faithful to the character you've developed. The Ned Flanders character has been around for most, if not all, of the show's 15 years. He is very nice; some would say naive, others would say honorable. He is not spiteful or bitter or angry. He is probably the least judgemental character on the show (which is ironic, considering the anti-Christian reputation of Hollywood). He lives his life as he sees fit and generally lets others do the same. He's never, to my knowledge, uttered an anti-gay slur since he's been on the show.

I've certainly been very critical of gratituitous conservative gay bashing but it's too bad that the writers decided to betray his character to make a cheap political point. It wasn't fair to the character and insulting to the viewers.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Instability breeds instability

This essay is part of a weekly feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Instability breeds instability. That's one of the core principles of conflict prevention. Better to prevent a mess than have to clean it up. This is why I oppose militarism. That's why, unlike many on the left, I'm not a big fan even of 'humanitarian interventionism' (an uninvited military operation for purported humanitarian reasons) except in the most extreme cases.

West Africa is a case study in this concept. First, there was a brutal civil war in Liberia. Warlord (and now indicted war criminal) Charles Taylor conquered the entire country, except for the capital Monrovia. West African peacekeepers were sent to protect Monrovia from Taylor's forces. Eventually, Taylor took power anyways, following "free" elections where he promised to take the country back to war if he lost. A few years later, the conflict spilled over into neighboring Sierra Leone. There, Foday Sankoh, a Taylor comrade, led a rebel group which quickly became infamous for some of the most sickening, gratituitous atrocities the 'modern' world has seen. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Taylor himself was ousted by another rebel group only two years ago.

Both Sierra Leone and Liberia spent most of the 1990s and early 2000s at war. As a result, there are hundreds of thousands of young people who have known nothing but war and chaos their entire lives. There are tens of thousands of young men who, as mere boys, were forcibly recruited, drugged and commanded to kill. Many were ordered to kill, mutilate or rape their own family members. These tactics were not accidental; they were a conscious effort on the part of rebels to turn the social structure upside down, to force child soldiers to sever all ties with their previous life.

These boys and young men have seen such brutality, much of which they themselves inflicted or were forced to inflict. They are not easy to reintegrate into normal society. Close knit West African villages may not be eager to welcome with open arms people who did such horrible things. Yet these boys and young men are also victims. Many were abducted. Many were drugged before being compelled to commit atrocities.

These countries have all these young men, former soldiers. They have post-traumatic stress syndrome or other mental and emotional problems. They are detested by their former communities. They have known nothing but war. They are used to being in positions of authority, used to getting what they want, when they want, by merely snapping their fingers and flashing their Kalashnakov. And worst of all, they have become desensitized to violence. Combine this with the fact that they have no jobs and they have no skills (because they were at war, rather than in school or learning a trade), no prospects.

This is not a good mixture.

They are a prime recruiting target for troublemakers.

The Liberia conflict spilled over into Sierra Leone, then back to Liberia and then crossed the border into Côte d'Ivoire. Each of those conflicts had their own specific grievances involved but they were made all the more devastating by a large pool of potential recruits. Recruits who had already become detached from and desensitized to the norms of regular society.

Not surprisingly, the human trafficking industry has gotten involved.

Authorities are investigating a Liberian suspected of recruiting child-soldiers to fight in Cote d’Ivoire amid warnings that more and more young ex-combatants are resorting to work as hired guns in West African trouble spots, says Human Rights Watch, according to IRIN.

The report, based on interviews with ex-combatants from more than a decade of West African wars, described the mercenaries as “roving warriors”, or an “insurgent diaspora”, who will continue to fuel regional conflict unless the issue of providing an alternative livelihood is addressed.

Furthermore, it's been reported that Young veterans of West Africa's wars are being recruited to fight new conflicts across the region, according to a report by [HRW]. The New York-based group says poverty is forcing thousands of young men and boys to become mercenaries.

The report warns war will continue to be seen as an economic opportunity unless alternatives are provided... It says many of the migrant fighters began their military careers as child soldiers, abducted to fight in wars, and many are guilty of war crimes and atrocities... Economic hardship and the failure of disarmament efforts have led the men to fight for money and looting opportunities in fresh conflicts further afield, the report says. A veteran of several wars in West Africa said he fought to support his parents. "The commanders said we could pay ourselves, which meant looting," he told Human Rights Watch.

Instability breeds instability.

This is why the International Crisis Group is warning that the worst may be yet to come in the Côte d'Ivoire conflict.

The Ivorian disaster has been exacerbated by political considerations: notably fanatical xenophobia whipped up by the government, its partisans and the hate media in the commercial capital Abidjan.

The ICG notes that: The protagonists of the Ivorian crisis are adept at pleasing diplomats by giving the impression they are cooperating under the peace process framework. However, this has nearly always meant one step forward, two steps back. The explosion of violence that follows a period of relative calm has become more serious each time. Not many more cycles will be needed before the dynamic morphs into qualitatively worse violence, probably including large-scale ethnic cleansing.

It carries an ominous warning for Côte d'Ivoire's neighbors: That would be a tragedy for more than Côte d'Ivoire: Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso would likely be drawn into a regional conflict. The greatest damage could be done to Liberia's fragile peace process, which is meant to culminate in presidential and legislative elections just four days before Côte d'Ivoire's scheduled presidential vote.

Fortunately, there is a fair amount of international attention on Côte d'Ivoire. The UN and African Union need to keep pressure on the parties to the conflict, especially the Ivorian government, to keep to their promises.

Other related articles and links:
-Children at War: the Lost Generation, The Globalist.

-Rebels With a Cause, but No Training, IRIN.

-How Dangerous are the Loyalist Militias, IRIN.

-War Child, 'Helping Innocent Victims of War'

Sunday, May 15, 2005

American soccer fans

The New Zealand Herald had a story on English national soccer team's tour of the United States later this month. Unfortunately, England will be missing many of its top players due to injury and possibly to club committments; the English soccer community is notoriously hostile to the whole concept of friendlies (exhibitions) anyway. I hope England is able to have a strong squad for their 28 May match vs the United States, as there is no national team I dislike more, save Mexico.

Anyway, England boss Sven Goran Eriksson said, "I know soccer has grown immensely in the US... lots of young people are playing but I'm not sure what happens to them when they get to 21."

I beg to differ with Mr. Eriksson. The key age range is 12-14. Many youth soccer programs are run with an overemphasis on winning at all costs, even for young (pre-adolescent) age groups. As a result of messed-up priorities by some coaches and parents, many kids get burnt out before they even hit high school. Fortunately, most major American soccer organizations such the US Soccer Federation and US Youth Soccer have strongly discouraged that counterproductive mentality, but it still persists.

Even so, soccer remains one of the most popular participatory sports in the country. The main challenge remains transforming those avid players into fans of the professional game. As I've mentioned before, many players are usually so busy actually PLAYING on the weekends that they don't have time to watch professional games on television, let alone attend them.

Enlightened self-interest and the 'liberal' media

Dennis, over at The Moderate Republican wonders about recent actions by ABC. It decided to run an ad by the nominally religious right-wing Focus on the Family, run by the country's self-appointed moralized-in-chief James Dobson. Yet the Disney-owned network rejected an ad by the United Church for Christ, a Protestant denomination that showed different types of people were welcomed in their churches, including gays. ABC claimed the ad was "too controversial."

Now it makes you wonder why they would run propaganda by gay-baiting Dobson's group but refuse to run a rather milquetoast ad promoting tolerance.

As a supposed pillar of the 'liberal media,' shouldn't they have been expected to do the opposite?

Or perhaps the member of the CORPORATE media is simply acting in defense of their bottom line. If they'd run the 'gays are decent humans too' ad, ABC would've been savaged by Dobson and his ilk.

The Theocracy Brigade is far more vocal than progressives or, in Dennis' case, even moderate Republicans. In that sense, they are far more politically astute; as we can see, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And the Theocracy Brigade squeaks more often and more loudly than anyone.

In that sense, Dennis hits the nail on the head.

I think it's high time that we not only condemn a network like ABC for this act of hypocr[i]cy, but that we find ways of punishing them as well.

If enough open minded people make a stink about ABC's craven decision, perhaps the network will find that pandering to bigotry is not in their financial interests.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Adirondack Park under assault

Upstate New York's Adirondack Park is the largest state or federal park in the country, outside Alaska. It is protected as 'forever wild' by New York's constitution. The charter is fairly unambigious about the role of state government in environmental conservation.

*-Forest and wild life conservation are hereby declared to be policies of the state. -Article XIV, Section 3 (1)

*-The policy of the state shall be to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty -Article XIV, Section 3 (4)

*-The legislature, in implementing this policy, shall include adequate provision for the abatement of air and water pollution and of excessive and unnecessary noise, the protection of agricultural lands, wetlands and shorelines, and the development and regulation of water resources. The legislature shall further provide for the acquisition of lands and waters, including improvements thereon and any interest therein, outside the forest preserve counties, and the dedication of properties so acquired or now owned, which because of their natural beauty, wilderness character, or geological, ecological or historical significance, shall be preserved and administered for the use and enjoyment of the people. -ibid

Seems pretty straightforward. The state must protect the natural beauty, resources and other environmental factors of the Adirondack state park. That's its constitutional obligation.

The state has set up an administrative body called the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). The stated goal of the APA is to develop long-range land use plans for both public and private lands within the boundary of the Park. Within the framework of the state constitution, it should go without saying.

However, the APA is now run primarily by appointees of long-serving Republican Gov. George Pataki. Under Pataki's APA, reckless development is starting to take hold in the supposedly constitutionally-protected 'forever wild' state park.

On Friday, the excellent North Country Public Radio aired a pair of pieces on a huge vacation home development in Tupper Lake, one of the largest municipalities in the Park (pop.: ~3900 ). One was a news piece about the problems with the development. The other was a commentary by the managing editor of The Adirondack Daily Enterprise, who raised questions about public funding and tax subsidies surrounding the project.

Both are well worth a listen. But the news piece was most interesting. Reporter Brian Mann interviewed APA officials who are so swamped with development permit applications that they can barely keep up. One official admitted that each project was looked at in a vacuum and that neither he, nor the commission, had any idea of the cumulative long-term environmental effects of this avalanche of development.

I wonder how that squares with the APA's mandate to to develop long-range land use plans for the Park.

Perhaps it's time for Park residents to take the APA to court. Contrary to the whinings of 'judicial activism' one might expect, this is specifically authorized in the state constitution (A violation of any of the provisions of this article may be restrained at the suit of the people -Article XIV, Section 5). Neither legislators nor the APA can ignore the constitution merely because of the dubious contention that "the people want it" (ie: they feel like it).

If big developers, Gov. Pataki or his APA don't like 'forever wild,' then they are free to try to change the state constitution. Until that happens, the state needs to control development in the Park very tightly, in accordance with its constitutional obligations.

In the interim, the APA should adopt a sort of 'Hippocratic' principle of development: first, do no harm. If the agency has no idea of the long-term environmental consequences of unfettered development, then maybe permits should be 'fettered' a little more slowly. The APA's primary obligation should be to the popularly approved constitution, not big developers.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Another vote of confidence in John Bolton

More warm words for the Bush administration's nominee to be UN ambassador. One senator had the following kind words to describe Bolton.

"This administration can do better than that."

Bolton is "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be."

"No one really is excited about him."

"I have come to the determination that the United States can do better than John Bolton,"

"What message are we sending to the world community?"

The senator said Bolton would be fired if he was in the private sector.

Some might say that Bolton's obnoxiousness and gratuitous rudeness is merely "frankness" or "openness." Most jobs aren't that of America's #2 diplomat.

Some say that the UN needs an American representative who is "plain spoken." Except people not only tend to dislike bullies, but they tend not to respect them either. America's international credibility has taken a battering precisely because of the Bush administration's contempt for, well, anyone who doesn't lick its boots.

Far from helping our credibility and respect (as Richard Goldstone so eloquently advocates here), nominating a boor like Bolton will only strengthen international perception that the Bush administration is hell bent on spitting on the rest of the world. The American reputation for bad behavior, worsened since Bush took office, will only be further reinforced.

At the end of the day, it really won't matter that much if Bolton is approved or not. If he's voted down, the Bush administration will only nominate someone even more oafish instead.

Bush appointee John Danforth, the most recent UN envoy, was a decent ambassador. He was critical of the UN but more or less fair about it. I didn't always agree with him but I respected him. But perhaps that was his problem, in the eyes of the Bush administration and its lackeys. They don't do fair. [see previous entry]

By the way, the above votes of confidence in Bolton were made not by "obstructionist" Democrats or whiny liberals, but by Republican Sen. George Voinovich.

Update: Even the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Dick Lugar, gushed, "Secretary Bolton's actions were not always exemplary" and "His blunt style alienated some colleagues. But there is no evidence that he has broken laws or engaged in serious ethical misconduct."

He isn't very good but we can't prove he did anything technically illegal.

The administration has such high standards!

And it's worth adding that Lugar is a SUPPORTER of Bolton.

Anatomy of a smear

As some of you may know, Norm Coleman is a Republican US senator from Minnesota. He's also quite ambitious. Most politicians are ambitious. But the paradox about Americans is that while we may expect politicians to be ambitious, we also expect them to not come across as ambitious. If they do, they seem like opportunistic slimeballs. Sen. Coleman is one of those.

The nakedly ambitious Coleman is an eager lapdog for the Bush administration. He earlier led the administration's assault against UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. He called for Annan's resignation for sins significantly less grave than those of his beloved president.

Now, Coleman is continuing his smear campaign against all enemies, real and imagined, of the administration's policies. The Senate permanent subcommittee on investiations, chaired by Coleman, issued a report on corruption in the oil-for-food program. The report accused British member of parliament George Galloway and former French interior minister Charles Pasqua of being paid off by Saddam Hussein's regime in exchange for working against sanctions.

I do not know if Galloway and Pasqua are guilty of Coleman's accusations, though both flat out deny the claims. The idea that there could possibly be corruption and deceit in activities involving the oil industry is almost inconceivable.

But what's most revealing is the methodology used by the committee.

Galloway blasted the Senate investigation, which he said had never written to him, spoken to him, or responded to his offers to testify.

The controversial, and recently re-elected, parliamentarian added that it was "patently absurd" to think that, as an MP being closely watched by UK security services, he could have become an "oil billionaire" on the sly.

Let me get this straight: Coleman's committee accused somebody of serious wrongdoing but flat out refused to let that person formally answer the charges against him. If Coleman had overwhelming evidence of Galloway's guilt, what did he have to fear in letting the British MP testify? Then again, that assumes that getting at the truth was one of Coleman's objectives.

Coleman is focused yet again on scoring cheap political points against anyone who dares disagree with his masters while attacking that person's reputation rather without allowing them to respond. It shows how malevolent types like him and others in Washington are more interested in advancing their agenda via ideologically driven character assassination smoke screens than getting at any semblance of truth.

Update: The committee today finally decided to accept Galloway's repeated requests to testify. This AFTER their report was released and conclusions published. Perhaps even the esteemed Sen. Coleman can be embarassed into doing things in the right way, however unwillingly and belatedly.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Yeah, they're part of these United States too

North Carolina has a 200 year old law banning unmarried couples from living together. That's not North Carolina, Afghanistan but North Carolina, United States.

A female sheriff's department dispatcher claims her boss ordered her to get married, move out or find another job after he [the sheriff] found out she and her boyfriend had been living together for three years. The couple did not want to get married, so the dispatcher quit.

Then again, this is the state that kept re-electing Jesse Helms so obviously they have some 'interesting' standards down there.

NC is hardly the only state where such activity is illegal. The others are Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and North Dakota. North Carolina appears to be the only state where the law is being challenged.

There are lots of old laws on the books that no one has bothered to revisit so you might be forgiven for thinking that the continued existence of such archaic prohibitions is merely a legislative oversight. Amazingly, earlier this very year, the North Dakota House defeated a challenge to its cohabitation law on a 52 to 37 vote.

In its infinite evilness, the dastardly, much-maligned ACLU is challenging in court this wonderful (and surely constitutional) piece of North Carolina legislation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Sierra Leonian in upstate NY university inspires fellow students

This essay is part of a weekly feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

The Glens Falls (NY) Post-Star did a great article on a Skidmore College student from Sierra Leone named Joseph Kaifala. He and his father were caught in Liberia in 1989 when that country's civil war was provoked by now-indicted war criminal Charles Taylor. Kaifala and his father spent six months in a Liberian prison, even though the son was only six years old at the time. Two years later, the war spread across into Sierra Leone; Kaifala and his family (minus his father who'd died) fled to neighboring Guinea.

Years later, he received and accepted a scholarship to attend a United World College high school in Norway, where he initiated his own humanitarian group -- Beatitude International -- as a way to help those whom he left behind physically, but not mentally, writes The Post-Star's Jarrett Warshaw.

Once every term, Kaifala would visit his homeland to deliver donated clothing, money and medical supplies to children. He continues the charitable practice now from Skidmore, where he is a first-year student.

His story has inspired other Skidmore students to help.

"I heard his story and thought we should do something on campus," said Vanessa Ruiz, a third-year student and president of the Newman Catholic club. "A lot of people at Skidmore don't fully realize what's going on in the world. This is a person-to-person relationship, not something you can get out of a textbook."

With the help of Ruiz, the Newman club and the group's adviser, Catholic chaplain Catherine Minnery, Kaifala organized a clothing drive for students to give unwanted clothing to Beatitude International, she said.

"What I marvel at is how people experience these horrible situations and somehow come away hopeful," said Minnery, who coordinated charity efforts with St. Peter's Church in Saratoga Springs and the College of Saint Rose in Albany.

And that is probably the most admirable thing of all.

Note: subscribers to The Post-Star online can read the article here. Others can read it here, though it may only be available for a certain amount of time.

Sometimes in April

For those of you living in the US, PBS affiliates will this month be showing Sometimes in April. The film about the Rwandan genocide follows a Hutu family torn apart by the genocide, the film also explores the world's response to the atrocities and the Rwandan struggle to find justice and accountability 10 years later.

[Click here for local listings]

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Judges worse than terrorists

I've always been critical of the 'Bush=Hitler' crowd because it changes the debate away from legitimate criticism of the president, the administration and their policies and toward whether Bush is exactly as bad as Hitler. Bush is not a very good president, but no reasonable person could equate him with Hitler. Using lazy historical analogies does nothing to advance serious analysis of serious problems. Extreme hyperbole discredits the speaker far more than the target of the speaker's wrath. It makes things too easy on the target's defenders.

Pat Robertson is another person who often makes statements so ludicrous that his own words discredit him more than any critic can. For example, he recently told George Stephanapolus of ABC News that the federal judiciary, as currently constituted, represents the biggest threat to America in its history. He warned: "They're destroying the fabric that holds our nation together."

An incredulous Stephanapolus asked whether Robertson was saying that the threat posed by federal judges was more dire than the Civil War, World War II, and the terrorists who struck on Sept. 11. Robertson replied: "I really believe that. ... I think that the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings."

For the last three and a half years, we've been told by hysterical officials that al-QaedaSaddamUNTheFrench will destroy the American way of life unless we invade random and sundry countries willy nilly. Now, that demon has been officially replaced by judges who demand legislators respect constitutions, even if traditional ways of doing things have done the opposite. Well, not totally replaced, I'm sure; just as public enemy number one.

On the other hand, if a nut case can squeeze a lucrative book deal out of the libel that all liberals are traitors. then perhaps it's not so surprising that Robertson thinks he can get away with something like this.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The intersection of enlightened self-interest and cleaner air

From the invasion of Iraq to the attempts to open up the Arctic to speculative drilling, you'd be forgiven for thinking that oil runs our economy and that nothing can be done about it. While it's true that oil runs our economy, the picture isn't entirely bleak. Take this article in US News & World Report on the rise of environmentally-conscious hybrid cars.

Hybrids get close to 50 miles on a gallon of gas, more than twice what many SUVs get. With gas averaging over $2.20 a gallon nationally, that increased efficiency is starting to get people's attention.

They are expensive; a Honda Accord hybrid lists for over $30,000. But as demand increases and technology is improved, prices will drop. And as gas prices continue to increase, more people are willing to spend money up front to save in the long term.

I think this is the way things are supposed to work. There was a problem: high gas prices (or at least high gas prices in comparison to what Americans have been used to). The real solution isn't President Bush snapping his fingers and offering some half-baked decree, as some would want. The real solution isn't to ruin the Arctic for yet another short-term band aid. The solution is increased energy efficiency.

Sure, the president found that as an excellent smokescreen during the 2002 State of the Union address. He spoke of spending lots of money on hydrogen fuel cells. This was a transparent pre-emptive strike against liberal critics who were waiting to pounce on the other half of that speech: justifying (snicker) the then-imminent Iraq conquest. It was a good idea but have you heard anything about fuel cell research since that speech? Has the president uttered a single word about it since?

But ultimately, the market provided its own solution. I've written a lot about enlightened self-interest. In dealing with the problem of perceived high gas prices, there is no place for punitive measures like gas rationing or mandating that all cars get 80 miles per gallon. Enlightened self-interest works better.

Some people wanted cars like hybrids for reasons of principle. However, demand for hybrids started increasing rapidly once the realities of perceived high gas prices caused people to re-examine their choices. Demand increased when principles and the wallet crossed paths.

The same enlightened self-interest has been shown on the part of auto manufacturers. There was a demand for more fuel efficient alternatives to the gas guzzlers. Those companies that were first to recognize and respond to that demand have been rewarded. There is very high brand recognition and loyalty for the Toyota Prius, the first major hybrid car.

More hybrids on the road will result in cleaner air, which benefits everyone. And as demand increases for non-traditional engine cars, there will be more incentive for automakers to invest in the next step: mass produced hydrogen fuel cell based vehicles.

Now all we need is increased investment in the various public transportation systems in this country so then we could have less congestion, less sprawl AND cleaner air.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The bad neighbor policy

The International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, NY wants to burn some tires. Naturally, the folks across Lake Champlain in Vermont aren't too thrilled, but NY Sen. Hillary Clinton thought polluting the Green Mountain State's air was a nifty idea.

IP wants to conduct a two-week test burn at the plant, and Clinton weighed in on the company's behalf, saying the plant was the source of hundreds of jobs, notes The Rutland Herald.

Vermont Gov. James Douglas has opposed the test burn because data suggest pollution from burning tires would contain harmful levels of zinc and mercury, which would waft on westerly breezes across Lake Champlain to [western Vermont's] Addison County and beyond.

While tire burning is done at other places, IP insists on proceeding with its test burn without installing the kind of technology that has made burning tires acceptable at other sites. It is arguable that the residents of Shoreham won't be seriously injured by two weeks of zinc from the plant. But why not demand adequate technology before giving IP the idea that burning tires might be OK?, editorializes The Herald.

If they are doing a test burn, it can only be because they have designs on something more permanent.

This flap provides the chance for two politicians to advance their political aspirations, with jobs and the environment being the fig leafs.

Democrat Clinton is still under the delusion that she could be elected president in 2008. This is an opportunity for her to pick a fight with environmentalists and side with polluters to demostrate that she's not the raving liberal that most of the country assumes she is (given her record as senator, most New Yorkers know better).

She says she supports IP's tire burn because it's a big employer. The implication is that jobs would be lost if the burn had been blocked. That is what she wants you to infer but she never comes out and says it, let alone specifys how many jobs would be lost. Was she happy to let people draw the wrong conclusion?

Republican Douglas has a different motivation. It is widely expected that he will run for the US Senate in 2006 to fill the seat to be vacated by James Jeffords. Douglas knows that basic respect for the environment is something important to Vermont culture and this is a chance for him to present himself as the defender of clean air.

There is a bitter irony in all this. Ticonderoga is located in New York's Adirondack Mountains. Dozens of Adirondack lakes are now dead, no living creatures can be found in them, as a result of acid rain. Acid rain caused by pollutants from factories in other states, notably the midwest, much to the ire of New York state leaders and Adirondack residents.

Now, with the esteemed Sen. Clinton's complicity, New York is set to perpetrate the very same wrong on Vermonters.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Blair re-elected

Yesterday, Tony Blair's Labour Party won the British general elections. The US isn't the only country whose electoral system produces distorted results. Formerly left-wing Labour won 35.2% of the vote, the Conservatives garnered 32.3% of the vote and the progressive Liberal Democrats obtained 22.1%.

Yet the relative close popular vote totals were not reflected in the seat totals. Labour took 355 parliamentary seats, the Conservatives 197 and the Lib Dems 62. Two are undeclared at present.

Most analysts concluded that the result is exactly what British population wanted: another Labour government, but with a reduced majority (47 fewer seats). The British public was angry at Blair for his role in the Iraq debacle and his close alliance with President Bush but were happy with his handling of the economy.

It's a good result for the Liberal Democrats, who are the progressive alternative to the increasingly right-leaning Labour Party. The Lib Dems benefited from being the only major party to oppose the Iraq aggression.

Results from Northern Ireland were less promising. 14 of the province's 18 seats (and a combined 48%) went to the two extremist sectarian parties: the DUP (of the infamous Rev. Iain Paisley) and Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA). The two traditional moderate groupings, the Catholic SDLP and Protestant UUP, got 3 and 1 seats respectively; percentage wise, they barely outpolled, combined, Paisley's gang.

It's sad reality that the BBC was shaken to core when a single reporter on a morning radio show essentially said that the Iraq invasion was based on false pretenses. As a result of that statement which is now widely acknowledged to be reality, the leadership of the BBC was forced to resign and the corporation restructured. Yet, the three men most responsible for the aggression (Bush, Blair and Australia's John Howard) were each given another term in power.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Vermont may investigate use of Guard

The Iraq occupation is often described in grandiose terms: aggression, liberation, quagmire, spreading democracy. But the effects are deeply personal. If you have friends or family over there, as I do, you tend to have a slightly different focus: will MY friend/relative come back alive?

Given the huge numbers of troops need to occupy Iraq (and Afghanistan), the job can not be done simply with ordinary, active duty soldiers. National Guardsmen are normally under the control of the state governor and typically deployed to deal with local emergencies like flooding and ice storms. Yet lots of them have been shipped over to Iraq.

As a result, the Vermont state legislature is considering a study that would look at the effects on the state of Vermont National Guard deployments to Iraq. This was after 57 towns voted on such a resolution at this spring's town meetings, 49 of which approved the measure.

"I am not concerned about the committee so much as I am about the approach," said Maj. Martha Rainville, head of the Vermont National Guard.

Instead of being based on public forums, she said, the study might be more useful if it was based on statistical information, much of which the Guard already has, reported The Rutland Herald.

A fair enough comment.

Anyone paying attention has read the stories of National Guardsmen getting injured or dying because they were poorly equipped (take this one for example). In fact, the only casualties from my area have been Guardsmen killed (1) or injured (several) because they were forced to ride through dangerous areas in a vehicle without armor plating. With the over $165,000,000,000 spent on Iraq so far, you'd think that such things might be taken care of. But that can never be questioned, lest one 'undermine troop morale'

If that doesn't make your head spin...


I was interested to read this piece in The Atlantic

Following up on a widely read 2003 report on U.S. nation-building efforts, the RAND Corporation has released a study of United Nations peacekeeping missions. It concludes that in many cases the UN is better suited than the United States to lead stability-building operations. The UN has a low cost structure, a high success rate, and, perhaps most important, "the greatest degree of international legitimacy" among possible peacekeepers. It has also done a better job of learning from the past than the United States—which, though it had successful experiences with nation-building in the 1990s (in Bosnia, Kosovo, and to a lesser degree Haiti), failed to apply their lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whereas UN operations are typically led by veterans of earlier missions, the authors argue, the United States "tends to staff each new operation as if it were its first and destined to be its last." And in Iraq, they write, American civil administrators were "late to arrive, of mixed competence, and not available in adequate numbers." The study also faults America for relying on "grandiloquent" rhetoric rather than careful diplomacy to build support for its missions. Of course, UN operations are not without weaknesses; they tend to be undermanned and underfunded, with military personnel of uneven quality, whereas U.S. missions benefit from greater access to donors and funds. In the end the UN may have a better success rate in part because the operations it undertakes are less demanding than those led by the United States. UN missions are limited to countries where no "forced entry" is required, the conflicting parties cooperate with the peacekeepers to some degree, and the number of troops needed is no greater than 20,000. East Timor and Mozambique, in other words—not Iraq. (Also see: The Rand Corporation

This is hardly surprising. The American establishment gives primacy to military force. The UN establishment gives primacy to nation-building. While both may be necessary, to varying degrees, each represents a very different operation. It's not surprising that the UN does nation-building better than the US. The UN gives the task and it has a lot more practice. US nation-building efforts are almost always tied in with military operations. It's those very military operations which necessarily diminish the legitimacy of the nation-building efforts... efforts which are usually given short shrift in planning to the more immediate needs of the military side. Furthermore, the multinational nature of the UN means that no one individual national biases and blinders is allowed to predominate, or at least to go unchallenged. The UN's diversity is its strength.

There are so many valid points made in the article but one in particular stands out: The study also faults America for relying on "grandiloquent" rhetoric rather than careful diplomacy to build support for its missions.

Again, this is because military force (which is seen as 'manly') is given more importance in American society than diplomacy (which is seen as soft).

Thursday, May 05, 2005

I want more crime!

The Glens Falls' (NY) paper The Post-Star has a feature called Don Coyote. Basically, it's a way for Post-Star reporters or editors to take cheap shots or make snide comments behind the veil of anonymity. Sometimes, "Don Coyote" does make interesting points, but ones that aren't of sufficient length for a column. I have no respect for the whole concept.

I've been critical of Ken Tingley, the paper's managing editor, in this blog. But at least Tingley has the guts to sign his name. I was opinion editor for three years of my college newspaper (and a columnist for all four). I often took controversial positions, but I always signed my name too and thus faced public ire for my comments. Even in this blog, I sign my real first name and don't use a pseudonym. Neither my college paper, nor The Post-Star, publishes anonymous letters to the editor. So it seems strange that the daily allows this vehicle that's so out of character with the rest of the publication.

Anyways, Tuesday's "Don Coyote" remarked: I'm not afraid to walk the streets around here. But the taxes -- that's a different matter.

This remark gets to my heart about how the debate over taxes is framed. Or misframed.

Nobody likes taxes, just as no one likes getting a vaccination needle stuck in their arm. But sometimes, unpleasant things are necessary.

The debate has been misframed because only one side has been portrayed. If you ask people, "Do you want lower taxes?", 99.9% of the people will say, "Sure!"

Everyone wants a free lunch!

But this is only one side of the equation. That question should be accompanied by a related query: "In order to compensate for the lower taxes, do you want worse schools, bumpier roads, more crime or less fire protection?"

While some people might still opt for the lower taxes and take the downside, it would at least be a less disingenuous way of framing the issue. You can't talk about tax cuts without talking about service cuts.

If "Don Coyote" isn't afraid to walk the streets around here, could it be because the police department is sufficiently funded by TAX dollars?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Strange bedfellows

This essay is part of a regular feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

After a period of admirable voiciferousness, the Bush administration has been fairly quiet recently about the genocide going in Darfur, western Sudan. Now The Los Angeles Times gives a good indication why.

According to the paper, the genocidal regime in Khartoum is now providing key intelligence in the war against terrorism. The al-Qaeda type of terrorism, mind you. Though, many would contend that genocide is the most extreme version of terrorism.

As recently as September, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of committing genocide in putting down an armed rebellion in the western province of Darfur. And the administration warned that the African country's conduct posed "an extraordinary threat to the national security" of the United States.

The partnership with Sudan is an odd one. Sudan once harbored Osama bin Laden. But in the late 90s, Sudanese strongman Gen. Omar el-Bashir broke his alliance with the Islamist leader and parliamentary speaker Hassan al-Turabi. Since then, Turabi and the Islamists have been vocal opponents of the Bashir regime. This is why the general has denied any cooperation with the United States.

Responding to an uproar over rumors of collaboration with the administration in late 2001, Bashir told a Khartoum news conference, "I swear in God's name that we have not handed and will not hand in any [terrorism suspects] to the United States."

Criticism of Sudan has been led by an unusual alliance of Christian conservatives and human rights organizations. The latter has long been concerned with the regime's poor human rights record. The former have been particularly angered by the mostly Muslim government's treatment of the mostly Christian south during the long civil war in the region.

The regime recently signed a peace agreement with southern rebels and the civil war in the south is hopefully over. However, many feared that the regime settled the war in the south so it could concentrated its military resources on the genocide in the west.

The regime denies any involvement in the Darfur genocide; naturally, it insists that nothing is taking place except a few unfortunate excesses, inevitable during a little chaos. This, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including first hand testimony by a Janjaweed militia leader.

Increasing Sudanese cooperation with Washington on some forms of terrorism makes it increasingly unlikely that the Bush administration will press the regime on the more extreme form of terrorism it's complicit in.

Update: Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times has an op-ed piece damning the Bush administration's about face on Darfur. He opines that, far from being passive silence, the Bush administration is fighting to kill the Darfur Accountability Act, which would be the most forceful step the U.S. has taken so far against the genocide. The bill, passed by the Senate, calls for such steps as freezing assets of the genocide's leaders and imposing an internationally backed no-fly zone to stop Sudan's Army from strafing villages.