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Latin America on Edge

Peace over Profit in Latin America

July 15th 2012

Vultures

On June 25, Washington set an important precedent in the ongoing battle between hedge funds and the Argentine government. Hidden in the busy final two weeks of the U.S. Supreme Court’s judicial season, the high court ruled in Argentina’s favor to unfreeze over $100 million USD in Argentine assets shored up in the New York Federal Deposit Bank and claimed by Elliott Associates and Dart Management during lawsuits surrounding defaulted bonds. This monumental decision will hopefully allow the Argentine government to gain momentum against the vulture funds that still refuse to participate in restructuring agreements.

With the ongoing fiscal uncertainty surrounding litigation, Argentina cannot fully focus on its own recovery effort, but rather must prepare to defend itself against the work of international financial houses that continue to profit from Argentina’s past chronic financial instability. Nevertheless, Argentina did not have the most to gain in this court ruling, as Buenos Aires still faces considerable obstacles before it can leave the sovereign debt default battle squarely in the past. Indeed, U.S. regional policy goals may have triumphed by aligning itself with the Argentine cause. In this decision, the Obama administration clearly stated that state-to-state international relations would continue to stand above corporate influence. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Iran, Nuclear Weapons, and Tehran’s Regional Role

July 15th 2012

Iran Missiles

Months ago, when it was at its height, I wrote that the hysteria about Israel allegedly being about to attack Iran and the argument by some that Israel should do so were nonsense. Now it is clear that there was never any chance that such a thing would happen. And that idea was a bad one, expressed by non-Israelis who didn’t know what they were talking about.

Now, former Mossad head Meir Dagan, identified, along with former Israel Security Agency director Yuval Diskin, as the main critic of any such preemptive attack, has made some interesting remarks.

Dagan explained that he agreed that the international community wasn’t doing enough to stop the Iranian nuclear project. Israeli threats were made to prompt more action, not as a signal of an imminent attack.

While sanctions are high against Iran, the Obama administration is also granting exemptions to key countries like China, Russia, and Turkey. While the burden on Iran’s economy remains onerous, a regime like that in Tehran is not going to buckle to such pressure, especially since it believes that once it has nuclear weapons that will secure the government’s safety from foreign threats. The ongoing negotiations, which seem eternally able to trigger naive hopes in Western circles, will go nowhere. Read more ..


Counting Palestinians

The UN’s Refugee Machine

July 14th 2012

UNRWA Refugee Camp

The relations between Israel and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA ) have known ups and downs. It’s a story that features familiar UN politics, and most of all, plenty of money. A few weeks ago, UNRWA officials decided to call off summer camps for Gaza Strip children. Israeli officials raised an eyebrow. Every year, the organization runs a loud campaign regarding the need for Gaza summer camps, Israel’s indifference that prevents the transfer of “summer camp goods” and the risk that children will end up turning to radical Islamic camps. Yet summer arrived and UNRWA is silent. The summer camps evaporated, along with the campaigns. I approached the agency recently and asked what happened. They said they ran out of money but asked that I won’t quote the conversation or mention any names. And who’s at fault according to UNRWA? Everyone. The occupation, the blockade, the donors who cut down their aid, and mostly us, the Israelis, who prompted UNRWA to spend so much money to the point where nothing was left of the agency’s annual billion dollar budget. The problem is that this very same organization that called off Gaza summer camps recently started to invest large sums of money in monitoring the security fence; the same fence that on July 9, 2004 was declared illegal by the UN, while suicide bombers were making their way into Israel. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Is Iran Afraid of A 12-Year-Old Girl?

July 14th 2012

12 Year-old girl

A court in Tehran has banned the 12-year-old daughter of jailed Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh from leaving Iran. Sotoudeh's husband, Reza Khandan, who was also banned from traveling abroad, states the court did not provide any reason for its decision. It can be appealed within 20 days.

Khandan argues that even if his daughter, Mehraveh, has committed a crime, she should have been summoned to a court for minors. He describes the ruling as "unexpected," especially since he and his daughter were not planning to travel outside the Islamic republic.

"During the week I spend three of four days going to the prison and to different judicial authorities to follow up on the case of my wife," Khandan says. "Once a week we visit her at the prison, so we really don't even have time for a longer trip inside the country, let alone traveling outside the country. Also, as long my wife is here, we don't have any [reason] to travel outside Iran. Read more ..


Ukraine on Edge

The Coming 'Belarus Situation' in Ukraine

July 14th 2012

Viktor Yanukovich Ukraine, Vladimir Putin Russia
Vladimir Putin (L) and Viktor Yanukovich

If the EU plays its cards badly, a "Belarus scenario" in which Russia would regain influence over the former Soviet Republic is possible in Ukraine, Darius Semaška, a chief government advisor for Lithuania, told journalists on July 10. "Unfortunately, the developments in Ukraine are not those that we wanted to see," Semaška said, speaking to a small number of Brussels journalists invited for a press trip to Vilnius.

Semaška, who leads the foreign policy group advising Lithuania's president, evoked a variety of topics, including the EU's sensitive relations with Ukraine ahead of it parliamentary elections to be held on October 28.

Speaking of Ukraine, the Lithuanian government advisor referred in particular to the "selective justice" against political opponents and the conviction and imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of office. "There is less and less patience left in the West," Semaška said. "And we might really see the Belarus scenario. We had no patience with Belarus, we had no patience with Lukashenko, we shut the door for the dialogue," the high official said, referring to the fact that the EU didn't recognise the election result back then, shutting the door for further contacts. Read more ..


The Edge of Physics

Higgs Boson and God

July 13th 2012

Higgs Boson

In 1964 the physicist Peter Higgs suggested that there had to be a crucial particle (a boson) that helped explain how matter could emerge from the “Big Bang” explosion of gases that is the most popular scientific theory as to how our world came about. Higgs said the so-called “God particle”, which is the building block of the universe, only has a lifespan of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second and I guess that’s why it takes billion dollar accelerators to go looking for it. Now I admit I am a complete dud as far as physics or math are concerned. I can understand atoms and neutrons and protons, but when it gets to bosons and fermions I am lost.

I enjoy reading scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian. I am fascinated by science because it makes our world go round. Thanks to it, we have cellphones, the internet, space travel, and all the technological advances we take for granted. And I believe we have an obligation to try to understand our universe. The Talmud itself insists that if anyone can calculate the way the universe functions and does not, it is as though he cares nothing for the God who made it all. The more we understand, the more we can do. Science is an essential part of our lives. But it is not the only essential element. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

How President Obama Should Start Leading on Syria

July 13th 2012

syria-killing

Here’s a novel notion: Considering what’s at stake in Syria for U.S. interests, how about Team Obama leading for once from the front, rather than from “behind”? After 16 months and nearly 20,000 deaths, it’s past time.

Sure, some don’t mind seeing Syrians spar with each other for nearly a year and a half; it keeps the roguish regime of strongman Bashar Assad from causing tons of trouble outside its borders.

But framing Syria’s future is pretty darn important for us. The country is strategically located in the Middle East’s Levant; that’s why plenty of world leaders have been fawning over the Assad regime for several decades now. Read more ..


The Arab Winter

Is Israel the Winner of the Arab Spring?

July 12th 2012

Israeli Military

Israelis understandably feel imperiled by the misnamed "Arab Spring." Their country's three-decade peace treaty with Egypt is under assault, its strategic alliance with Turkey has dissolved, and its closest regional ally, Jordan, is withering from domestic protests.

The breakdown in political authority has flooded Israel's borders with a slew of dangerous weapons, from Libyan missiles in Gaza to Syrian Scuds in southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear program progresses unabated. Individually, each of these developments is cause for great concern; taken together, Israelis see the walls closing in.

Although the initial flickers of liberalism have been subsumed by the Islamist bonfire, the so-called "Arab Spring" has, paradoxically, made Israel stronger as Israel's enemies have turned on each other. While Arab capitals burn, Jerusalem has calmly and carefully steeled itself against the possible immediate deleterious effects, building fences along its Egyptian and Jordanian borders and accelerating the deployment of its Iron Dome anti-missile system. Whereas Arab states remain mired in internal political, economic, and military turmoil, Israel hums along, its economy intact - tourism is at an all-time high  - its military untested, and its government united. Read more ..


The Economy on Edge

The Real National Security Threat: America's Debt

July 11th 2012

Bundles of Money

Drones, kill lists, computer viruses and administration leaks are all the rage in the current political debate. They indeed merit serious scrutiny at a time when the rules of war, and technologies available for war, are changing fast. That said, these issues are not the foreign policy centerpiece of the 2012 presidential race.

Economic renewal and fiscal reform have become the preeminent issues, not only for domestic and economic policy but for foreign policy as well. As the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, was fond of saying, national debt has become perhaps our top national security threat. And neither major presidential candidate is doing enough about it. This issue needs to be framed as crucial not just for our future prosperity but for international stability as well.

The United States has been running trillion-dollar deficits, resulting in a huge explosion in the country's indebtedness. Publicly held debt now equals 70 percent of gross domestic product, a threshold many economists consider significant and highly worrisome. Making matters worse, half of our current deficit financing is being provided by foreigners. We are getting by with low interest rates and tolerable levels of domestic investment only because they find U.S. debt attractive, which may not last. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Syria's Eastern Front: The Iraq Factor

July 10th 2012

Syrian security forces

For most of the first sixteen months of the Syrian uprising, the eastern border governorate of Deir al-Zour witnessed lower levels of violence than the main western battlegrounds in Homs, Idlib, Hama, Deraa, and Damascus. Since late May, however, escalating regime bombardment has shifted Deir al-Zour to the front lines, accentuating the Iraqi factor in the uprising and opening new options for the antigovernment rebels and their foreign backers. Yet many factors are restraining Iraq's Sunni Arab tribes from fully backing the Syrian uprising, not least Baghdad's opposition to foreign intervention in the conflict. Al-Qaeda in Iraq's potential role is also cause for concern.

Despite being located some 280 miles from Damascus, Deir al-Zour is a key strategic outpost for the Assad regime. The governorate contains oil fields and pipeline infrastructure that feed western Syria's refineries and power stations. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Oil Sanctions Against Iran Will Not Be Enough

July 10th 2012

Iran Missiles

Predictably, last week's "expert level" talks between Iran and world powers were no more fruitful than previous rounds, leaving little optimism for a negotiated resolution to the nuclear crisis anytime soon. Western policymakers, buoyed by their success in reducing Iran's oil exports, appear content to give sanctions more time to work, in the hope that once Tehran feels their full effect negotiators will return to the table, more ready to compromise.

The evidence, however, suggests that sanctions' effect on oil exports will not increase over time.

First, Western policymakers tend to focus more on what Iran has lost than what it has retained or gained. That's fine for a political debate but bad for making sensible policy. It is true that Iran's oil exports have declined from 2.5 million barrels per day to 1.5 million. But that reduced level is hardly meager: Iran is still one of the world's top oil exporters, from which it earns billions in hard currency. And nothing suggests that the drop in earnings has stunted Iran's nuclear program, which is the target of Western ire. Iran is enriching uranium faster and to higher levels than ever before. Read more ..


Broken Government

NRA Pushes Limits of Power

July 10th 2012

Juan Williams 02

Washington got hit by a storm two weeks ago with the first House vote in history to hold an attorney general in contempt of Congress, and the town is still cleaning up. Most of the talk centers on the successful, brass knuckle, unapologetic politics played by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The key legislative tactic used by the NRA was keeping score of every House member’s vote — for or against the contempt resolution for the Attorney General. Until now, NRA scorecards focused on bills directly tied to guns, such as bans on assault weapons, shielding gun manufacturers from liability in lawsuits, and expanding the right to carry guns in national parks.

Of the 21 Democrats who voted for the civil contempt resolution, 19 accepted money from the NRA in the last two House elections. Of the 17 House Democrats who voted in favor of criminal contempt, each one got campaign contributions from the NRA in the last two election cycles.

And every one of those Democrats is in a House district identified by the National Republican Congressional Committee as having a Republican or conservative majority of voters, and thus a likely pick-up for Republicans in the fall elections.

The website Real Clear Politics has pinpointed five House Democrats who it describes as being the most likely Democrats to lose their seats in the fall. Four of those five voted with the NRA position. Rep. John Barrow, of Georgia, one of the last remaining white Democrats in the House from the South, got $9,900 from the NRA in the 2010 mid-term election. He received another $4,000 this year from the NRA for his political action committee.

The NRA’s power to punish politicians who defy them was evident earlier this year when the group threw its money against six-term GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. In the Indiana primary, the NRA supported a Tea Party favorite, Richard Mourdock, because Lugar had voted to ban assault weapons. Read more ..


Israel and Palestine

Is the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process Dead?

July 10th 2012

Arafat, Rabin, and Peres Peace Prizes

Western governments, experts, and journalists have long assumed that an Israel-Palestinian or comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement ending the conflict was near at hand and easily achieved. In fact, the truth is the exact opposite. Indeed, there has not been any real “peace process” or real chance for a diplomatic solution since the Palestinian leadership rejected a deal in 2000. This article examines the factors that, on one hand, make the “peace process” deceased and, on the other hand, inhibit recognition of the fact that a formal Israel-Palestinian peace that ends the conflict is unlikely for many years to come.

The key to understanding the Middle East is to recognize when things change. Alongside the “Arab Spring,” the Turkish campaign to be a regional power, and Iran’s drive to get nuclear weapons is another important development that is, internationally at least, the least recognized of all: Any hope for Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace agreements ending the conflict is dead. There is no more “peace process;” or if you prefer, the possibility of a formal Israel-Palestinian peace that ends the conflict is dormant for a long historical era.

Western, especially European, political leaders, intellectuals, and journalists simply do not in most cases grasp this reality. A fantasy continues to direct their policies, writings, and much of the debate. Yet it is vital to understand that this is a fantasy, why that is so, and how policies should be adjusted in the face of these circumstances.

This article will examine the psychological and structural factors that, on one hand, make the “peace process” deceased and, on the other hand, inhibit recognition of that reality. Read more ..


Healthcare on Edge

Health Care's Community-Based Beginnings

July 9th 2012

medicine and money #2

Back during the debate on the Clinton health care reform proposal, insurance executives tried to convince lawmakers that they were on the same side of health care reform as consumers were, so they embraced the idea of “community rating” in which insurers charge everyone in a given community the same premium regardless of age, gender or health status. In testimony before a House committee in 1993, the president of Cigna’s health care business assured lawmakers that all the big insurers were on board with a return to community rating.

Fast forward nearly two decades and you’ll find that insurance executives have changed their tune, now that they’re actually being required to go back to the good old days when community rating was the norm. Today’s health insurers want nothing to do with it. There’s just not enough profit in it.

Community rating was the original way insurance companies set prices for their policies. The practice began in the late 1920s when the administrator of Baylor University Hospital in Dallas came up with a strategy to deal with his hospital’s mounting expenses. His idea was to have groups of local residents, beginning with the city’s teachers, pay fifty cents a month and receive up to 21 days of hospital care — if needed — during any year. If you were a 21-year-old man who was as healthy as a bear, you paid the same each month as a 42-year-old woman who was not nearly as healthy. Read more ..


Broken Economy

Middle Class Wealth--It's Not as Bad as It Looks

July 8th 2012

Home Foreclosure

Last month, the Census Bureau released its latest data on wealth, updating earlier figures from 2005 to 2010. The numbers confirm findings from a Federal Reserve Board survey showing unprecedented declines in the net worth of the typical American household. The Census figures indicate a drop of 35 percent between 2005 and 2010 in median wealth-the wealth of the household right in the middle-from $103,000 to $67,000. The estimates from the Federal Reserve show a decline of 28 percent between 2004 and 2010. From 2007 to 2010, median net worth declined by an astonishing 39 percent in three years.

This loss of wealth surely hurt many people counting on these funds to pay for retirement, children's schooling, and other needs. Others counted on being able to sell their homes to take advantage of opportunities in other parts of the country but are now underwater on their mortgage and stuck in place. Viewed in context, however, the wealth levels of middle-class Americans are in better shape than these dramatic figures would suggest, though they have not improved markedly over several decades. Read more ..


The Philippines on Edge

Government Corruption and Corporate Greed degrade Human Rights and Environment of the Philippines

July 7th 2012

Subanen people of Philippines

Some thousands of indigenous people all over the Philippines, especially in Mindanao, especially the Subaanen people, on the Zamboanga Peninsula have struggle for years to stop mining corporations from moving in to explore and mine the mountains and hills. They are victims of corrupt government officials and even judges who are captivated by the vested interest of the mining industry.

Some Indigenous people are sadly being forced to turn to armed resistance as the mining corporations move into their lands. The Subaanen people have remained steadfastly non-violent and turned to the rule of law and trust in the constitution to protect them and their rights. But is it enough?

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of ancestral land has been threatened by the illegal and corrupt acts of some officials of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Allegedly some of these officials are not on the side of the people in Mindanao but are for the rich and powerful mining interests and the banks that fund them. They allegedly enrich themselves by giving mining permits to companies over ancestral lands which is forbidden by law. It is at this level in the provinces where the anti-corruption campaign of President Aquino is weakest. He has deposed a former president and a chief Justice but not yet the corrupt officials in Mindanao. While the president is dedicated and honestly trying to clean up the stinking garbage of corruption he cannot seemingly oust these entrenched officials, the henchmen and women of powerful political families. Read more ..


Broken Elections

Watchdog Groups Defend Florida’s Efforts to Purge Voter Lists

July 6th 2012

Voting

A top Inside-the-Beltway public-interest, watchdog group announced this week that it filed a Motion for Intervention with its client True the Vote to defend the State of Florida’s efforts to clean up voter registration lists against an Obama administration lawsuit.

This legal action is in addition to Judicial Watch (along with co-plaintiff True the Vote) filing a federal lawsuit against the State of Indiana in June, for failure to comply with voter list maintenance provisions of the NVRA.

J. Christian Adams, a former civil rights attorney with the Department of Justice, is counsel to the groups on these legal actions. Adams gained the attention of conservatives when he blew the whistle on the Attorney General and the Justice Department regarding their refusal to investigate voter intimidation by members of the New Black Panther Party during the 2008 presidential election.

Florida's Secretary of State's office initiated a full-court press in order to remove ineligible voters—including thousands of suspected illegal aliens—from its voter registration lists after Judicial Watch filed a letter of inquiry with Florida election officials earlier this year.

Judicial Watch alerted the State of Florida that failure to maintain clean voter registration lists violates Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). In response to Florida’s efforts to comply with the NVRA, the Obama administration filed a lawsuit on June 12, 2012, asking a federal court to enjoin the state from continuing its purge of illegal voters.

According to Judicial Watch’s motion, filed jointly with Judicial Watch client True the Vote on June 26, 2012, with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division: “[Judicial Watch and True the Vote] seek to enter this lawsuit in order to demonstrate that, not only are the State of Florida’s list maintenance activities valid, proper, and timely, but that they also are required under federal law. Intervention will ensure that the organizational interests of Proposed Intervener True the Vote and the rights and interest of the members of Proposed Intervener Judicial Watch, Inc. are adequately protected and preserved.” Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

GOP Hopes USA Fails

July 5th 2012

Ask Mitt

While most Americans were celebrating the birth of a nation of patriots, the Republican nominee for president, who made much of his fortune sending American prosperity abroad and sheltering much of his wealth in offshore tax shelters, and Republican leaders in Washington, who would make the practice of firing teachers and police the policy of the state, eagerly await a jobs report they fervently hope will be bad for America.

Mitt Romney is in trouble. The American people do not like him or trust him. They intuitively sense that he’s not on their side. They are right. He is not. And it shows. While the stampeding herd of the media were dramatically overstating the problems of the president, informing the nation about celebrity divorces rather than demanding that the Republican nominee stop hiding his tax returns for reasons that are obvious, Romney was failing to win the trust of the nation. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Why All the Fireworks on the Fourth?

July 4th 2012

lady liberty

I live in Colorado, where rainstorms don’t put out fires. Rainstorms start fires, at least in this parched endless summer of 2012. And the burning question in towns throughout the state, including my home town, is this: fireworks or no fireworks on the Fourth of July?

Common sense tells us to skip the pyrotechnics this year. So does half of most Coloradans’ hearts, the half that bleeds for the victims of the terrible fires we’ve already endured and the ones that are likely to come.

But there’s that other half of the heart -- call it the red, white, and blue half -- that says, “Yes, but, how can you have a Fourth of July without fireworks?”

For a good part of American history, the biggest Independence Day fireworks were verbal. Orations were the centerpiece of the public celebration, extolling the unique virtues of the republic born on July 4, 1776. But that tradition ended long ago. In my own childhood, during the darkest days of the Cold War, the highlight of the Fourth in many towns was a great parade, featuring a massive display of the nation’s military might. I still recall making a bit of pocket change by wandering through the crowd selling little American flags, while tanks rolled down (and chewed up) the streets. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Jordan Turns Away Syrian-Palestinians

July 3rd 2012

King Abdullah of Jordan

According to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, Jordan recently turned away Syrians of Palestinian heritage seeking refuge in the Hashemite Kingdom, while threatening to deport Syrian Palestinians who arrived within the past year. Meanwhile, Jordan has laudably admitted 140,000 Syrian refugees into its country and given fleeing Syrians the right to move freely throughout the kingdom.

Amman has a historically tense relationship with its Palestinian population. Palestinians are said to comprise a majority of the Jordanian population, but are ruled by the minority Hashemite tribe in Amman, which has forced some of its Palestinian population into low-caliber refugee camps, refusing to integrate them into greater society and revoking their Jordanian citizenship in order to perpetuate the "Palestinian question."

However, before Wednesday's report, it seemed that Jordan has recently been making amends with Palestinians. For one, Jordan promised to stop revoking citizenship for Jordanian Palestinians. Amman also recently discussed energy cooperation, specifically linking its electric grid with that of the territories. King Abdullah met with a Hamas delegation last week, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas headed to Jordan Wednesday evening for diplomatic talks. In addition, at an Arab League summit in Cairo on Sunday, Jordan reiterated its support for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Jordan in recent times has also sent delegations to visit the al-Aqsa mosque.
Read more ..


Edge of Bio-Fuel

New Entitlements May bring $14 Billion Windfall for Corn Farmers

July 1st 2012

Grown from Biofuel

The earth has failed to warm at all for 15 years now, and American farmers are afraid of losing the “renewable fuel” mandate for corn ethanol—which has given them record crop prices and incomes since 2007. So, they’re proposing a new entitlement designed to ensure that they’ll never lose money again. Their proposed new federal farm bill would guarantee that farmers’ incomes don’t decline—and if future farm prices rise even more, the Feds’ guarantee would ratchet up too.

Thus, if the congress should decide the planet isn’t parboiling itself after all, the taxpayers would be on the hook for even more farm subsidy than today. Forget about that federal debt problem. Everyone else can pitch in to cut government spending, but farmers shouldn’t have to. Never mind that they’re now earning more than the average American, and have far more net worth. Bruce Babcock at Iowa State says the new program could give farmers $8 to $14 billion per year, compared to the $5 billion they’ve been getting in direct subsidy payments— on top of their ethanol subsidies. And if they lose the ethanol mandate, and crop prices fall, the government direct payments will get even bigger. Read more ..


Environmentalism on Edge

Rio+20 Wrap-Up: How Do Human Beings Figure into Biodiversity Concerns?

June 29th 2012

Earth Day (Hands Holding Planet)

The Rio+20 World Environmental Conference has come and gone. The “Plus 20” comes from the fact that it took place twenty years after the first such conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Between these dates, I was a delegate at the 2002 world environment conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ever since 1992 I have watched the eco-evolution taking place.

There is a good side and a bad side. The good side is that general world environmental awareness has been enhanced. That is definitely good. But there is still so much to be done, especially in poor countries where many people are always on the edge of survival, people must eke out a living off the land, and many will do whatever it takes to earn a little cash, to just survive another day.

Here in South Africa we see the daily international poaching attacks on our elephants and rhinos. It’s disgraceful. For us in the south, on midwinter’s day in June (our winters are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere), the total rhinos shot this year stands at 251, just to get their horns, which are still viewed as aphrodisiacs and medicine in many Asian countries. Last year’s total was 448, more than one a day – so it’s getting worse. Poachers are now using helicopters and machine guns, and often taking chainsaws to still living rhinos. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

Bipartisan Votes for Holder Contempt

June 29th 2012

Eric holder

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to find Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top cop, in contempt of Congress for his and his department's withholding of documents regarding a gun-running sting dubbed Operation Fast and Furious.

While President Barack Obama continuously tells audiences he desires bipartisan cooperation with his Republican rivals, the House contempt vote against Holder was probably not what Obama the campaigner had in mind, said conservative political consultant William Fitzpatrick.

Although the talking points emanating from the White House and the Democrat Party blames the Republicans for playing politics in the Holder case, 17 Democratic congressmen voted for criminal charges to be brought against the Attorney General and 23 Democrats voted for civil charges.

The case involves an operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) allowed guns -- some of them military-grade weapons -- to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border into the hands of Mexican drug cartel members, according to House and Senate investigators. The ATF agents claim they lost track of the weapons and the firearms were used to kill more than 150 Mexicans and at least one American law enforcement officer -- 40-year-old Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry -- before the operation was terminated by Holder's Justice Department subordinates, according to testimony given during the House Oversight Committee probe.

For more than a year, members of the House Oversight Committee, especially its chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, and the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, had verbally requested documents, written letters of request to the Attorney General, and have gone to the news media in their attempt to garner information on the gun-running operation and the identities of those responsible for the snafu. Read more ..


The Edge of Justice

For WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, Ecuador is an Odd Place to Hide

June 29th 2012

Julian Assange

On a personal level, I can understand why WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has chosen Ecuador for his asylum bid. If the request is granted, Assange is likely to be stuck in the country for years.

Ecuador is a great choice. The scenery is stunning, the food fantastic, and the people warm and welcoming. But is this enough to risk being seen as compromising the core WikiLeaks principle of press freedom?

I wonder if, before he walked through the doors of the embassy, Assange had done his homework on the kind of country he was walking into, so that he could understand the damaging effect that this asylum bid could eventually have on his credibility.

Over the last 20 years Ecuador has been marked by serious political instability. A succession of presidents of all political stripes have been ousted from office through a potent blend of popular protest, congressional conspiracy, and military manipulation. It is safe to say that when current President Rafael Correa took office in 2007, the political systems in his country were fundamentally dysfunctional and desperately in need of reform.

Correa has since undertaken a massive and much-needed program to reshape Ecuador’s political institutions, including a new constitution in 2008 that was approved by a two-thirds majority in a national vote. The end goal is laudable and needed: make the country more democratic and inclusive. Debate about Correa’s ideas and the direction he is taking the country has been vibrant. Not surprisingly, the harshest criticism has come from the right, which conveniently owns the major media outlets and actively controls their editorial direction. Unfortunately, the response from Correa to his opposition has been aggressive to the point where organisations such as Reporters Without Borders are raising serious questions about active government repression of the media. Read more ..


Healthcare on Edge

The Best of All Worlds: The SCOTUS Ruling on Obamacare and the Real Victory for its Opponents

June 28th 2012

stethoscope

By now there are many on the right of the aisle who are likely frustrated or angry at the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act – the healthcare mandate.  Similarly, just about everyone on the left is elated at the decision today.  The President declared a huge victory today, and said it in his remarks, and those remarks will be repeated on his road show now throughout the campaign until November.  He did indeed win a PR victory for now and the immediate future, yet there is a possible long term detrimental effect on the so called victory.

President Obama did as expected and touted the decision as a boon for him and the country, and avoided the tax issue completely.  He ignored it, clearly sensing that the news of the law being upheld trumps the nasty matter of the imposition of a new tax on poorer Americans.  The highest court in the land said it was indeed a tax increase, and that will resonate soon with the public. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Use the Facts, Don't Stretch the Truth

June 28th 2012

Ballot Box

There is a cynical view of American voters that they don’t care about the truth — that they can be bamboozled into being persuaded by negative ads. “Negative ads work,” is the trite expression that gets an almost unanimous nod of the head, even among those who hate them.

Well, that might be true if candidates accept the conventional wisdom from their top strategists to ignore the ads (“don’t dignify them — stay on message,” was the advice reportedly given to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 about the “Swift Boat” ads.)

Since most candidates follow this advice, it’s hard to find examples to prove that it is the wrong counsel and that negative ads, when successfully challenged as false or misleading, can be made to backfire. But I have one very good one. In 2005, then-Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine (now running for the U.S. Senate) was subjected to a series of attacks by his Republican opponent in their race for the Virginia governorship.

Beginning in early October, then-Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, consistently ahead in the polls, focused most of his TV ad spending on attacking Kaine for his opposition to the death penalty, which was favored by Virginia voters by more than 2-to-1. Kaine explained that his opposition was based on religious conviction, but that as governor he would follow the law and would exercise his clemency powers sparingly. Nevertheless, Kilgore deluged the TV airwaves with ads, stating that Kaine had said not even Adolf Hitler deserved the death penalty. But Kaine immediately published a full transcript of the interview from which the reference to Hitler was derived, and the transcript said just the opposite — that Hitler “deserve[d] the death penalty.” Then Kaine took to the airwaves with his own ads, making Kilgore’s lies the issue. Read more ..


Counting Refugees

How Many Refugees?

June 28th 2012

Palestinian Refugee Camp

Today the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (or PCBS) commemorated World Refugee Day by releasing new statistics on Palestinian refugees. Therein lies a tale. The PCBS reported that there are now 5.1 million Palestinian refugees. Here is what it said about their age:

The Palestinian Refugees are characterized as young population where 41.7 percent of them are under the age of 15 years for Palestinian refugees in Palestinian territory, 35.9 percent of Palestinian  refugees in Jordan in 2007, and 33.1 percent for Palestinian refugees in Syria in 2009, while 30.4 percent for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 2010.

This means, for example, that more than a third of Palestinian “refugees” in Jordan were born after 1997. That is either thirty years (if after the 1967 war) or almost fifty years (if they fled when Israel was established in 1948) after their parents or more likely grandparents arrived in Jordan. Those in Jordan have full Jordanian citizenship and vote in Jordan, which means this: a young Jordanian of Palestinian origin, whose family has lived in Jordan for thirty years and who has himself or herself always lived in Jordan, is still considered a “refugee.” Read more ..


Obama and Israel

The Incredible Shrinking U.S.-Israel Security Cooperation

June 27th 2012

Netanyahu and Obama
President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu

In light of increased sensitivity to intelligence leaks, it seemed innocuous – or even admirable – when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) asked the Senate to remove a few words from the US-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act: the "sense of the Senate" part of the bill included the sentence, "Expand already close intelligence cooperation, including satellite intelligence, with the Government of Israel;" ODNI wanted the words "including satellite intelligence" to go.

An ODNI spokesman said it was "simply a matter of clarifying the intelligence aspects of the bill and being sensitive to the level of specificity of the language…nothing nefarious here, just more clear language."

Yeah, right.

This is just the latest example of the Obama Administration making clear that it does not want to be seen as Israel's partner in regional affairs – several of them predicated on Turkish desires. Despite Israel's status as a Major Non-NATO ally, a NATO "partner" country, and a member of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, Turkey is increasingly insistent that Israel be isolated and cut out. This surrender to Turkey -- which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for years been aggressively making ever more fundamentalist -- coincides nicely with the Administration's increasingly open courtship of Turkey's Islamist-leaning and virulently anti-Israel Prime Minister and what appears to be the desire of the Administration to enhance security relations in the Arab-Muslim world as it dials back visible cooperation with Israel. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Immigration Thorn for Mitt

June 27th 2012

Ask Mitt

For a Romney presidential campaign hoping to limit damage with Latinos, these past two weeks have been less than kind.

First off was President Obama’s decision to stop deporting the so-called DREAMers — the children of undocumented immigrants who lacked a criminal record and either went to college or joined the military. A top issue in the Latino community, Gallup polling found that more than 80 percent of Hispanics supported the president’s decision. Yet a week later, Mitt Romney has been unwilling or unable to offer any coherent response beyond “I’ll fix the problem when elected!”

Those problems compounded Monday when the Supreme Court invalidated the bulk of Arizona’s detestable S.B. 1070, the law that (among other things) allowed law enforcement to demand papers from people merely suspected of being undocumented (i.e., being brown). On the Romney campaign plane, a spokesman refused a clear answer on the ruling when asked 22 separate times over seven minutes. Read more ..


Philippines on Edge

The Killing Grounds of Coal-Mining in the Philippines

June 27th 2012

filipino coal miner

Death came swiftly suddenly but not it was not unexpected. One day in October 2011the motor bike pulled into the open entrance in front of the church rectory of Italian missionary, environmentalist and human rights defender Father Fausto Tentorio. When he came out of the rectory the killer pulled out his gun and shot the priest dead and drove away. Another shocking murder of a man who gave his life defending the ancestral lands of the indigenous people wanted by the mining company. Crime solved, the trigger was most likely pulled by a unknown mining tycoon.

Hundreds of environmentalists defending the rights of the people to their ancestral homelands forests and agricultural lands that are being stolen by the rich and the powerful, have been killed according to Global Witness, a non-government agency. In the Philippines, as many as fifty Filipino environmental defenders have been killed in recent years allegedly by the money moguls behind the logging, mining and power plant industries.

The UN environmental summit in Rio De Janeiro in Brazil has been declared a failure fizzling out like a damp squib with an insignificant document that failed to reach a clear binding agreement to curb global warming and end fossil fuel for energy production. It has achieved practically nothing to curb CO2 gasses and other harmful human activity that is causing global warming.

It was supposed to get national leaders to agree to a sustainable green energy agenda for the future. The super rich industrialists and multinational oil and fossil fuel corporations have played a sinister role behind the scenes to stymie any progress towards a cleaner safer and happier world. Most come from a financial culture where "Greed is Good" and the only green they want to see is on a thousand dollar bill. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Some Dems Turning on Obama

June 26th 2012

Juan Williams 02

Last week the three most powerful Democrats in the state of West Virginia — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Senator Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall – made a public display of turning their backs on President Obama by announcing plans to skip the Democratic National Convention.

The president lost West Virginia in 2008 and his polling there remains weak. So local Democrats have decided they have no problem embarrassing the man whose name will be on the top of their ticket in November.

The same political distancing act is on display in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district. Conservative Democrat Mark Critz also says he has better things to do than go to the convention. Rep. Critz said he will be working in his district instead of  “focusing on the agendas of the political parties.” In the harsh, polarized world of Washington politics, Republicans take delight in opposing every legislative proposal from President Obama. But when the history of Obama’s first term is written, conservative Democrats will also be remembered for regularly throwing wrenches into any plans coming from this president.

The conservative Democrats — mostly elected from swing states in the anti-President George W. Bush wave elections of 2006 and 2008 — gave the president headaches even when Democrats controlled the House and Senate.

The best example was the fight over healthcare reform. Republicans did not give the president a single vote despite a plan that followed previous GOP proposals — most notably Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts law — and excludes a public option for insurance. That left the president in need of every Democrat’s vote. Note that liberal Democrats who wanted a public option did not abandon the president. But those conservative Democrats squeezed the Obama Team for concessions and amendments that allowed Republican critics to disparage the negotiations as “Chicago-style” bribery used to win support for a bad proposal. Read more ..


Education on Edge

Republicans Missing Chances on Education Reform

June 25th 2012

school kids

Education is one area where blacks realize they need freedom from government control. The chronic failure of public schools to notably improve dismal test scores and high dropout rates of black children has made it clear to many black citizens of good will that there has got to be a better way. Polls show black support for school choice. For example, in a poll done last year in New Jersey by The Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, 54 percent of blacks expressed support for school vouchers compared to 36 percent of whites.

Growing grass-roots support among blacks for education alternatives surely influenced the Obama administration's agreement, this past week, to keep the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The administration opposes the program and would have been perfectly happy to see its funding spigot turned off.

This is a modest program, with federal funds available now for 1,615 scholarships for kids in D.C.'s public schools to attend private schools. Its existence and potential for growth was at stake, with House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., carrying the ball for it. The new agreement will allow it to continue, with a small provision for 85 new scholarships. Read more ..


Israel on Edge

Egypt's Lesson: Incitement is Not a Secondary Issue

June 25th 2012

PLO Flags

On May 31, Israel delivered 91 bodies to the Palestinian Authority. The PA gave them full military funerals, complete with coffins draped in Palestinian flags and a 21-gun salute. While PA President Mahmoud Abbas didn't speak, he laid wreaths on the coffins and presided over the ceremony. The secretary-general of his office, Tayeb Abd Al-Rahim, and the PA's state-appointed mufti, Muhammad Hussein, both gave eulogies, in which they declared that the souls of the dead were urging other Palestinians to "follow in their path."

It could have been any state ceremony for fallen heroes anywhere—except that many of the "heroes" whose path Palestinians were being urged to follow were vicious terrorists who collectively killed more than 100 Israeli civilians. But this blatant state-sponsored incitement elicited no protests from either Israel, the U.S., or the European Union. Read more ..


Broken Government

Judicial Review

June 25th 2012

Obama and Flag

Unlike Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, Barack Obama and John Roberts are not cousins. But like the famous cousins, the current president and chief justice don’t seem to like each other much, and their rivalry has already had a profound impact on our national political discussion.

The whole relationship got off to a rocky start when Chief Justice Roberts had to take a mulligan when he swore in Obama. Because Roberts so badly muffed the words, he had to readminister the oath in private, giving the conspiracy buffs ample ammunition for the theory that Obama didn’t use a Bible to swear himself in.

Obama returned the favor when he used his State of the Union address in 2010 to publicly lambaste the Roberts court for its decision to throw out restrictions on free speech in the Citizens United case. “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections,” he said at the time. “Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities.” Ouch. Read more ..


The New Egypt

Two Economic Priorities for Post-Election Egypt: Macro-stabilization and Corruption Control

June 25th 2012

Egyptian Muslim bros

Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been elected president of Egypt after a long period of uncertainty as the announcement of official results kept being postponed. The chaotic post-election scene was a reflection of the absence of credible democratic institutions as well as the absence of a culture of democracy in a country that has been for all practical purposes under military rule for 60 years. Mr. Morsi’s election is just the beginning of what appears to be shaping up as a long and difficult transition that may be occasionally marred by political instability.

Egypt is sharply divided between Islamists and secularists, it has no constitution, and no one knows exactly what Mr. Morsi’s prerogatives will be. The country has a very strong military establishment that wields enormous powers and its first ever freely elected parliament was recently disbanded by the constitutional court. Under such circumstances, democracy and stability can only be achieved gradually as the institutions that are crucial for democracy (the constitution, the judiciary, free press, civil society, political parties, etc.) are strengthened and in some cases built from scratch. Read more ..


The New Egypt

A Muslim Brotherhood President Doesn't Prove that We are All 'Chimps'

June 25th 2012

Egyptian bannerman

“I just can’t do what I done before/I just can’t beg you anymore/I’m gonna let you pass/And I’ll go last/Then time will tell just who fell/And who’s been left behind/When you go your way and I go mine.”

Bob Dylan, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”

Muhammad al-Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, has become president of Egypt. But what does it mean to be president of Egypt? That’s the current question. Let me divide the discussion into two parts: What does this tell about “us” and what does this tell about Egypt and its future?

First, what does it tell about the West? The answer is that there are things that can be learned and understood, leading to some predictive power, but unfortunately the current hegemonic elite and its worldview refuse to learn.

What could be more revealing of that fact than the words off Jacqueline Stevens in the New York Times: “Chimps randomly throwing darts at the possible outcomes would have done almost as well as the experts”? Well, it depends on which experts. Martin Kramer, one of those who was right all along about Egypt, has a choice selection of quotes from a certain kind of Middle East expert who was dead wrong. A near-infinite number of such quotes can be gathered from the pages of America’s most august newspapers.

These people all share the current left-wing ideology; the refusal to understand the menace of revolutionary Islamism; the general belief that President Barack Obama is doing a great job; and the tendency to blame either Israel or America for the region’s problems. So if a big mistake has been made, it is that approach that has proven to be in the chimp category. Read more ..


The Middle East on Edge

How the Next President Should Re-Orient U.S. Policy in the Middle East

June 22nd 2012

Barack Obama

It seems unlikely that U.S. policy toward the Middle East will get much attention during the 2012 presidential campaign, especially when it comes to the epochal transformations under way in the Arab world, colloquially referred to as the “Arab Spring.” It received painfully little airtime as the various Republican contenders jostled for their party nomination. There may be some discussion of how best to confront Iran. If Iraq slides back into civil war, as seems ever more possible, there may be some painful debates over who “lost” it. And Republicans have routinely attacked Barack Obama for being insufficiently supportive of Israel, and will continue to do so. But there is seemingly little desire to address what are likely to prove the most influential events of all those currently transpiring across the region. This is in stark contrast to the 2008 contest, where Middle East policy figured prominently in the campaigns of most major candidates. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

The Role of Racism and Conservative Media in Small-Town America

June 22nd 2012

West Virginia demo

In a recent opinion piece (“How Racist Are We? Ask Google”) on The New York Times “Campaign Stops” blog by Harvard Ph.D. candidate Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, he writes of his use of Google Insights to determine “racially charged search rates ... in different parts of the United States.” Two “media markets” he compared were Denver, which had one of the lowest such rates, and Wheeling, West Virginia, which had one of the highest.

Based on the presidential votes John Kerry received in 2004 plus the average gain made by Democratic congressional candidates in 2008, he concluded that “Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling.” In fact, however, while winning 57 percent in the Denver area, Obama obtained less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote. The discrepancy, Stephens-Davidowitz believes, is mainly due to racism.

Because of a personal experience four decades earlier, his conclusion came as no surprise to me.

Beginning in the summer of 1967, wife Nancy, I, and our growing family lived in Wheeling for three years, where I taught history at Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University). Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968, some of us in the town formed a human rights council. Through it I and Nancy became involved in Wheeling civil rights activities, including helping a few blacks obtain scholarships to Wheeling College, which in 1967 had zero black students. Read more ..


Asia on Edge

Asian Money Launderers Sent Region-wide Warning

June 21st 2012

money laundering

Law enforcement officials in China, Taiwan, Burma, Thailand, and the Philippines have launched a blitzkrieg targeting money launderers who have been swindling and blackmailing average citizens throughout Asia to the tune of millions of dollars.

The criminals, part of a transnational syndicate, began squeezing funds from companies and individuals in 2007. Phoning their intended victims and claiming to be speaking on behalf of the police, they informed them that their bank accounts were being abused by money launderers and terrorist organizations, then instructed them to transfer funds to “safe accounts“ that were in fact controlled and owned by the syndicate. According to Liu Ancheng, deputy director of China’s Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB), they then withdrew the money via local ATMs in Taiwan and Thailand.

In late May, after a two-year investigation, law enforcement authorities arrested 482 people from Burma, China, Taiwan, and Thailand. Ultimately, they will be accused of defrauding victims of funds totaling CNY 73 million (USD 11.5 million) in at least 510 cases.

Originally, the group operated out of the Chinese mainland. But following a crackdown by China in 2010, operations were move to various locations throughout Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Fiji, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Thailand. According to the CIB, the group attracted recruits by promising high salaries and tourist visas and supplying specialized fraud training.

According to the Philippines police, authorities got one of their big breaks in the case when they tracked and geospatially located the IP addresses of the gang, which made its calls using voice over IP. The criminals reportedly worked in cells that carried out the various aspects of the operation: phone calls; maintenance of the telecom network’s servers and equipment; and withdrawing, transferring, and eventually, laundering money. Read more ..


Broken Government

GOP Must Give In on Taxes, Democrats on Spending to Address the Debt

June 21st 2012

Lobbyist

The basic principle on which negotiations to reduce the nation's towering debt should be based is "Everything on the Table." Even so, powerful forces are trying to keep three major parts of the budget off the table. The refusal by Republicans to increase tax revenue and by Democrats to reduce spending on Medicare are major obstacles to a deal that must be overcome. Another potential source of deficit reduction that receives less attention is spending on means-tested programs. Here is the case for including all three in a grand bargain to reduce the deficit.

Although nearly all Republicans in the House and Senate have signed a pledge not to increase taxes, there are cracks in the dike holding back Republican support for tax increases. The first was the agreement of Senators Coburn and Crapo to increase tax revenue as part of the Simpson-Bowles Commission's deficit reduction plan last year. A second crack was the agreement by Speaker Boehner to increase revenues by $800 billion over ten years as part of another grand bargain on the deficit negotiated last summer between the Speaker, President Obama, and their staffs. We will never know whether Boehner could have convinced his House Republican caucus to go along with the tax increases because the deal blew up prematurely.   Read more ..



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