Friday, September 30, 2005

Miller Finally Testifies

New York Times reporter Judith Miller was released from jail after agreeing to testify before a Washington grand jury investigating the exposure of a former CIA operative. Miller spent 86 days in prison for refusing to reveal her source of the CIA agent's name, citing First Amendment protection of the anonymity of news sources. (Financial Times: Miller testimony to end grand jury CIA probe).

The much abused First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Nowhere in that article does it give the press the right to withhold the source of their news. In my view, claiming "unnamed sources" only serves to weaken the validity of the news item. It lessens the credibility of the source and the news agency.

The courts were correct in the decision to imprison Miller for contempt. She has every right under the First Amendment to publish an article, but she has no right to withhold the source of that article. (Ironically, Miller never did publish the name of the CIA agent - Robert Novak did, but he's not the one that served time.)

The Grand Jury investigation continued today with Miller's testimony. According to the New York Times, Miller's source was Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis Libby. Prior testimony by Time Magazine's Matthew Cooper allegedly named his source as Karl Rove, however Cooper stated today that he told the Grand Jury that neither Rove nor Libby was his source.

What may ultimately decide this issue is not who said what to whom, but rather the definition of an undercover CIA agent and the status of Valerie Plame (the CIA agent in question) at the time her name was released. The argument has been posed that Plame was not under cover at the time, and therefore the entire investigation is moot. A technicality for sure, but it may be a very important point. Following the indictment of DeLay and the investigation into Frist's stock sales, the GOP can ill afford another indictment of a high level official. An indictment against either Rove or Libby would be devastating going into the 2006 mid-terms.

The grand jury is expected to conclude next week. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes out of the investigation. Grand jury proceedings are secret, so we may never know for sure what evidence was presented, but one thing is certain. The results of this investigation may have a tremendous impact on the control of congress following the elections. Stay tuned. This is one to watch.


Bennett's Remarks Beyond Offensive

Regardless of which side of the aisle you support, remarks made by conservative talk show host and former Education Secretary William Bennett are beyond offensive. He was quoted Wednesday as saying on Morning in America, "But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down." (ABC: White House criticizes Bennett's remarks on blacks).

President Bush sought to quickly distance himself from the remarks, issuing a statement through White House spokesman Scott McClellan that calls Bennett's commentary "inappropriate." Bennett has tried to dance around the comments, claiming they were taken out of context and were merely a hypothetical proposition. Personally, I can't think of a single context in which those remarks would be anything but offensive, racist, and outright deplorable.

There is absolutely no justification for comments of that nature in any forum. Were any one of us to make comments so inflammatory in the workplace, we'd be unemployed before the end of the day. Let us hope the stations that carry his show take the appropriate action and toss him out on his ear. That type of hatred is not - and should not be - protected speech under the First Amendment and the first response to Bennett should be the immediate removal of his microphone. His words are inexcusable.


Property Rights Victory in House

The House of Representatives passed H.R.3824 by a vote of 229-193 yesterday, authorizing sweeping modifications to the 1973 Endangered Species Act. (Seattle Times: House approves major overhaul of Endangered Species Act). The measure is a major victory for property owners that have at times found their personal property rendered useless by the 1973 legislation.

Under the new legislation, which faces a rough road in the Senate, property owners must be compensated if the Endangered Species Act blocks development plans on their property. Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) summed it up nicely, "You've got to pay when you take away somebody's private property. That is what we have to do. The only way this is going to work is if we bring in property owners to be part of the solution and to be part of recovering those species."

Of course, I thought this was already guaranteed by the 7th Amendment: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." That clause alone should have rendered the original 1973 version of the legislation unconstitutional.

The new measure is not without its critics. Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) asked, "What is a fish without a river? What is an Endangered Species Act without protection?" I can answer that, congressman. It's unconstitutional, is what it is. An example of the absurdity in the old law was a thwarted development effort by the Wachusett Mountain ski area in Princeton, MA. Their plans to expand the slopes were blocked when a handful of trees in the area were found to be "old growth." There's no doubt that Wachusett should have been compensated for their loss of revenue.

Opponents are looking to Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) to hold the bill up in committee when it reaches the Senate. Chafee has, not surprisingly, already voiced his opposition to the bill, and he heads the committee that oversees the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists are certain this legislation will be an 2006 campaign issue, something that may help Republicans in the northwest. States like Oregon and Washington are still seething over the Spotted Owl fiasco and would definitely benefit from the new legislation.

At the heart of the issue is private property rights versus environmentalist concerns. I almost always come down on the side of the property owner in such conflicts. Preserving endangered species is all well and good, provided it does not put people out of work (as in the Spotted Owl case) or infringe on the rights of property owners (as in the Wachusett Mountain case.) Some balance is needed, and I believe this legislation goes a long way towards providing it.


Thursday, September 29, 2005

House Urges Supreme Court to Approve Pledge

The House of Representatives today approved H. CON. RES. 245, urging the US Supreme Court to rule that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is permissible in schools. As they point out in the resolution, the US 4th Circuit and 9th Circuit courts have issued contradictory rulings with the 4th approving of the pledge and the 9th ruling against it. The resolution is an opinion submitted to the US Supreme Court, but it has no legal weight.

Support for the resolution passed 383-31 with 8 congressmen responding "present" to the roll and 11 not voting at all. The overwhelming passage in the house shows the tremendous support in Congress for the pledge of allegiance. While voicing their support to the Supreme Court is worthwhile, Congress does have the ability to end the debate once and for all. A constitutional amendment including the full text of the Pledge as it exists today, coupled with verbiage permitting the recitation in all public forums would render any court rulings moot. By definition, what is in the Constitution is constitutional.

As we saw the first time the Pledge was challenged, there is overwhelming support for the Pledge in both the House and Senate. A constitutional amendment should be easy enough to pass. Similarly, there is more than enough support in the state legislatures to ratify such a constitutional amendment. So my advise to congress is just that. Add the Pledge of Allegiance to the US Constitution and end this nonsense once and for all.


Hughes Trip Exposes Huge Culture Gap

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, on a five-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey got some unexpected on the job training that highlighted the major issues facing US involvement in the Middle East. What Hughes learned first-hand was the enormous breadth of the cultural gap that separates East from West. (Reuters: U.S. image a tough sell for Hughes on Mideast trip).

Her first lesson, ironically enough, was one that Jimmy Carter had to learn the hard way. When you target a speech towards foreigners, be sure that speech translates well into their language. Her "Four E" slogan of engage, exchange, educate and empower simply didn't come across well in Arabic, and the effectiveness was lost on her target audience.

She faced an even bigger problem when talking about gender oppression to women in Saudi Arabia. The common American perception is that women are treated as second class citizens in that country, citing as evidence the prohibition against women driving and laws that weigh a woman's testimony in court as worth only 1/2 that of a man's. What Hughes encountered, however, was quite the opposite. Women she interviewed described how good they had it there and how they really didn't want their culture to change. That's the danger of judging other cultures by our own standards.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was outspoken against the current diplomatic effort in the Middle East. "Quite frankly, when I look at what we've done in the field we've turned democracy into a four-letter word." Sadly, he's right. There is a miss-perception that democracy is something everyone yearns for, and given the opportunity they will gladly embrace it. That is hardly the case. As supportive as I am of our war in Iraq, I will be shocked if democracy can ever succeed there. Converting countries in the Middle East to a democracy overnight has about the same chance of success as convincing Americans to start speaking Icelandic next week.

There are many reasons for which I support our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of them have anything to do with promoting Democracy, freeing the people, ending oppression, or any of the other justifications used to appeal to our sensitive side. Here's a suggestion for future presidents: before deciding to free an oppressed people, first make sure they see themselves as oppressed and truly want to be freed. As Karen Hughes learned in her Middle East classroom, our view of freedom does not always match the views of other cultures.

The State Department now has a clearer understanding of the challenges facing us in the Middle East. Hughes' trip provided some valuable and shocking lessons. It underscored a cultural divide far wider than any of us would have believed. It gave us - hopefully - a better understanding of the perceptions the average Muslim has of the US and our efforts in the Middle East. It also exposed the many areas in which we must improve our image; areas that we thought were our strengths less than a week ago. Her trip showed that our cultural knowledge of the Middle East is not adequate for the task we are trying to accomplish. We now see the problem. Let's see the State Department take steps to correct it.


Israel Takes Fight to Hamas

In a long overdue move, Israel broadened its fight against Hamas yesterday by shutting down numerous charities accused of funneling funds to the terrorist organization. (Boston Globe: Israel increases pressure on Hamas). Continuing their five-day offensive, Israel also sent troops into Jenin and Burqin, killing three militants tied to Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. The action comes despite pledges by Hamas to halt rocket attacks against Israel; a pledge that rings hollow, given the history of Hamas and their mission statement seeking the total eradication of Israel.

Hamas continues to be the greatest roadblock in the quest for long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For the moment, Israel appears to have the terrorist group on the run and it certainly does not make sense to let up now. Cutting off funding, closing Hamas' offices, and taking the fight directly to Hamas strongholds is not only in Israel's best interests, but is also in the best interests of the PA. Hamas is a common enemy, effectively negating many agreements reached between the two sides.

Sharon issued a statement yesterday in which he emphasized the need to stay true to the US backed "Road-map for Peace." Progress on the road-map has been extremely slow, with both sides failing to meet a number of objectives. Hamas continues to be the major stumbling block. In an effort to halt the escalating violence, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Cairo to seek assistance from Egypt, and PA officials also intend to meet with President Bush in October.

This is an opportunity for Egypt to support the peace process. It is also an opportunity for President Bush to follow through on his pledge to target all terrorist organizations of international reach - in this case, Hamas. There can be no end to the violence until Hamas is neutralized. Let's see how committed Egypt (and the rest of the Arab world) and the US truly are to the Road-map. For that matter, let's see how committed the PA is to it, since disarming militant groups is one of the tasks assigned to the Palestinians. So far, I've been less than impressed, and I expect very little to come of Abbas' visit to Egypt or to the US.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Line Item Veto Amendment in Senate

Senators Jim Talent (R-MO) and George Allen (R-VA) proposed an amendment to the US Constitution, today, that would provide the president with line-item veto authority to eliminate or reduce appropriations in any bill passed by the Congress. The measure is listed as S.J.RES 25, and currently resides in the Senate Judiciary Committee. In announcing the proposal, Senator Talent said, "The line item veto is a time-tested, time-honored tool. Our amendment will strengthen the hand of the executive by giving the President the discretion to remove items from appropriations bills that may have been logrolled in by the Congress but are considered wasteful on a national perspective."

This is not the first time a bill was introduced to give the President a line-item veto. Congress passed a similar measure in 1996, and President Clinton used the authority on 82 separate occasions before the Supreme Court declared the measure unconstitutional in 1998. Amending the constitution is the only way to circumvent that problem.

I'm of mixed emotions about the concept of a line-item veto. On one hand, I do like the idea that undue pork can be eliminated from bills without killing the entire bill. The problem, though, is that the line-item veto can completely change the complexion of a bill. Giving the President the ability to eliminate portions without sending the entire measure back to Congress upsets the overall balance of power between the coequal branches of government.

Without provisions to send the entire bill back to Congress, I need to stand against this constitutional amendment. The way I see it, allowing the President to change the contents of a bill without sending it back to Congress is too fundamental a change to the legislative process. This one needs to go back to the drawing board. The Supreme Court was right to throw it out in '98 and I really don't want to see the constitution modified to overturn that decision.


UN Dues - Why Do We Pay Them?

With UN reforms discussions proceeding at a snail's pace, Congress has threatened to withhold our allocation of dues owed to the world body; a move others in the UN caution the US not to make. (China View: US Congress urged not to withhold UN dues). The subtle threat from developing nations is that a delay in US dues allocation may result in a less-than-desirable definition of terrorism. Rather than discuss whether or not to withhold dues until reforms are approved, we should really be discussing a permanent reduction in the US allocation of funds to an organization that has already overstayed its welcome in New York City.

The US already is assessed 25% of the UN's general budget. In fact, 46% of the budget is handled exclusively by the US, Japan, and the UK. 31.7% of the cost of UN peacekeeping is paid for by the US. Of course, the phrase "UN peacekeeping" is usually synonymous with "US military commitment." When you look at troop allocations in UN peacekeeping efforts, you will find an overwhelming majority of Americans under that blue UN banner.

US supplied logistical support, weapons, NATO flights, intelligence services, ships and manpower are donated, whereas other nations are reimbursed for the same services. When it comes to charity, the US is already the largest donor to UN sanctioned independent agencies.

Forgive me if I think we're already paying more than our fair share. When we start looking at ways to cut the budget, UN dues bubbles to the top of the list. Without significant reforms in the way that organization is run, the way committees are structured, how nations are selected for the Security Council, and the overall weight US opinion has, there is absolutely no justification for the overcommitment of US funds being leeched by the UN. As it stands now, it's a waste of our tax dollars with almost no return on investment. In fact, all we get for our efforts is criticism and increased anti-American rhetoric, even from so-called allies.

Withhold the UN dues? Absolutely. Let's see the UN survive without US funds and US troops. The League of Nations couldn't, and I doubt very well the UN could either. It's high time the rest of the world learned that same lesson.


DeLay Neutralized - Is Frist Next?

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was indicted by a Texas grand jury today on charges of conspiracy in a campaign finance scandal. Under Republican House rules, DeLay was forced to temporarily resign his position as majority leader. GOP congressmen quickly replaced DeLay with Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. (Reuters: No.2 Republican in U.S. House indicted).

While DeLay's resignation was called temporary, it is in all likelihood a career ender for the embattled congressman. The indictment alone is sufficient to do permanent damage to his career. Even if ultimately found not guilty of the charge (which carries a 2-year prison term), it is unlikely that his political career can recover from the scandal. The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" no longer applies in our society, and a simple indictment is sufficient to end a career in any field, not just politics.

DeLay is not the only Republican on the ropes. House Speaker Bill Frist is also being investigated for a questionable stock sale, although he denies any involvement in the decision to sell. Allegations of insider trading by the Speaker, coming in the wake of other high profile stock scandals, may prove costly to Frist. The impact of legal difficulties involving both the Speaker and Majority Leader will be problematic for the GOP heading into the mid-term elections. Given the state of the economy, rising gas prices, and a war in Iraq that is becoming increasingly unpopular, this is not a good time to be an incumbent. Adding two high profile legal problems to the GOP ranks will not make holding control of both houses any easier.

There have already been cries of a political witch hunt. I'm sure there's some measure of politics involved - it would be naive to think otherwise - but both cases are more the result of political stupidity. In DeLay's case, the scrutiny followed redistricting in Texas that resulted in a net increase in Republican controlled districts. Was he foolish enough to think that wouldn't spur an investigation? In Frist's case, the stock sale preceded negative earnings announcements and a 9% drop in stock price. That type of sale is certain to raise eyebrows regardless of party affiliation. So I'm staying out of the political witch hunt conspiracy theory quagmire. Rather, I'm going to wait for the legal system to do its job.

Regardless of how it turns out, my personal opinion is that DeLay is politically finished. I don't believe he can survive this indictment. Frist still has a chance, if he can prove he did not have a hand in either the stock sale or prior knowledge of the earnings announcement. That will be a tough sell, given his brother's first-hand knowledge of the financials. Either way, 2006 is going to be a difficult campaign year for Republicans. Sadly, they only have their own leadership to blame for it.


UN Debates Internet Control

A conference on how best to run the Internet, and who should do it, is set to conclude this Friday with no agreement in sight. (The Register: WSIS: Who gets to run the internet?). The US argues that the internet should continue to be independently run by "companies, organizations, and individuals." As it stands now, ICANN, the existing body responsible for Internet oversight, is independently run.

The other side of the argument is being advanced primarily by Iran and Brazil who favor an Internet run by governments and under the control of the UN. US Ambassador David Gross dismissed that entirely, "The United Nations will not be in charge of the internet. Period."

The thought of any government-based control of the Internet is repulsive. A quick glance at the restrictions imposed in China and the challenges faced even by search engine providers there points out the hazards of allowing government oversight of the Internet. It's no wonder countries with repressive regimes or closed societies that do not permit free speech would like to see a tight leash placed on the Internet. Clearly, the US and our allies cannot allow that to happen.

There has been growing speculation that the concept of a single internet - one large loosely connected super network as it exists today - may be on borrowed time. What may well come out of this debate is the development of two separate and isolated networks with the Internet as we know it today accessible only from nations that have a tolerant view of free speech. A closed, government controlled network may well arise in this nations that seek to limit access to their citizens. In fact, China already appears headed down that path with the extreme censorship they already place on Internet access and the content that can be delivered within their borders.

What I do know is that the Internet does not belong in the hands of any government agency, US or otherwise. It most certainly does not belong in the hands of the UN. That it's even being discussed there is frightening enough. Fortunately, I doubt seriously that the UN is capable of reaching a consensus on this issue, and they certainly are incapable of enforcing any regulations reached without the full backing of the US - something they will not achieve if it includes government or UN oversight.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Brown Dances Before Congress

In his testimony before a congressional panel investigating FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, former FEMA director Michael Brown stated, "Those are not FEMA roles. FEMA doesn't evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications." (BayouBuzz: Hurricane "Brownie" Damages Louisiana). Perhaps Mr. Brown would still be employed had he taken the time to review FEMA’s website and mission statement.

FEMA’s mission statement is to “Lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from disasters.” Well, okay, like most mission statements, that’s suitably vague and can be applied at will to almost any situation. It’s certainly open to interpretation. But FEMA’s official site doesn’t stop there. It lists the organization’s responsibilities in surprising detail:

1. Reduce loss of life and property.
2. Minimize suffering and disruption caused by disasters.
3. Prepare the Nation to address the consequences of terrorism.
4. Serve as the Nation’s portal for emergency management information
and expertise.
5. Create a motivating and challenging work environment for employees.
6. Make FEMA a world-class enterprise.

Well, based on that, I would say FEMA does have the authority to evacuate communities. How better to “Reduce loss of life and property?” The same rule would apply to law enforcement. FEMA doesn’t do communications? Wouldn’t that fall under both “Minimize the suffering and disruption caused by disasters” and “Serve as the Nation’s portal for emergency management information and expertise?”

Sorry, Mr. Brown, but I’m not buying the soft-shoe routine. FEMA is looked upon as the authoritative source for handling national disasters. Trying to dance your way out of responsibility is precisely why you’re unemployed today. At least have the integrity to stand there and admit you dropped the ball. Trying to blame everyone in sight for FEMA’s failings isn’t helping your credibility any. I was fully prepared to give FEMA the benefit of the doubt, provided we as a nation learned from this fiasco and corrected it going forward. The dance routine before congress was uncalled for and embarrassing. You wasted your free pass, in my book.


Gasoline for America's Security Act

Representative Joe Barton (R – TX) introduced legislation entitled the “Gasoline for America's Security Act of 2005” intended to streamline the construction and deployment of additional oil refineries in the US. The measure is listed as H. R. 3893.

Mr. Barton raises some excellent points in the overview of this important piece of legislation. The last new refinery conducted in the US opened in 1976. Since 1981, 176 oil refineries have closed. Much of the capacity being handled by those 176 refineries has been absorbed by more efficient refineries that are in operation today, however it underscores the scope of additional capacity we would enjoy had those refineries remained in operation.

Also problematic is the location of existing refineries which tend to be clustered in areas vulnerable to natural disaster. Geographic dispersement of our oil refining infrastructure is included in the bill submitted to the House on September 26th. As we hopefully learned from the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, our oil producing infrastructure in the Gulf is extremely vulnerable to unpredictable tropical storm activity. Geographic dispersement of refineries is essential to the stability of our economy and to our ability to provide uninterrupted energy across the nation.

I fully support H.R. 3893. While the ultimate solution to our energy problems is to fund and develop alternate energy sources, the need to improve our oil producing capacity in the short term cannot be ignored. This is a measure that should enjoy bipartisan support. All Americans will benefit from increased capacity, and this measure is necessary to ensure we move swiftly in that direction.


Lynndie England - Abu Ghraib Scapegoat

Lynndie England was convicted on six out of seven prison abuse charges, resulting from widely publicized photographs taken of her posing with naked Iraqi POWs at the Abu Ghraib prison facilities. (Reuters: US Army reservist found guilty in Abu Ghraib case). She could face up to nine years in prison for the six counts.

England was photographed with Iraqi prisoners in various poses, all of which were designed to "humiliate" the prisoner. While her actions were both ethically wrong and illegal under the UCMJ, I cannot help but think that she is being made the scapegoat in the entire prison scandal. England, the lowest ranking soldier accused in the scandal could serve prison time, whereas higher ranking officers accused in the scandal were "reprimanded."

What surfaced at the time of the incident were claims that the tactics employed by England and others were at the request of prison interrogators in an attempt to soften-up the prisoners for subsequent interrogations. That defense does not appear to have been used, however. England's defense attorneys tried unsuccessfully to argue that she had a "compliant personality" and was merely following orders given by a superior. Obviously, the argument didn't fly.

The part that I find very difficult to reconcile is the outrage sparked by England's actions contrasted with the "terrorists will be terrorists" shrug-off following the beheadings of several Americans that were detained. It's humiliating to stick panties on the heads of Iraqi prisoners but we're not outraged when Americans are beheaded? While one certainly doesn't justify the other, I'm finding it very hard to feel any sort of anger at Lynndie England's actions. Serving prison time for posing in photographs seems quite absurd, in fact. But then, that's what scapegoats do. She will serve time while her superiors get a "reprimand". Meanwhile, our enemies can have a field day pointing towards the inhumane treatment we savage Americans give Muslim prisoners while they continue lopping off heads and blowing up women and children. I can't quite put my finger on it, but something seems a bit out of place there.

Kannafoot Edit: Lynndie England was sentenced to three years in prison and given a dishonorable discharge. My comments regarding her position as a scapegoat stand as written.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Oil Speculation All Over the Board

Speculation on where oil prices are going continues to run all over the board with some analysts predicting prices as high as $100 per barrel and others predicting a fall-back to the $30 per barrel range. (Asia One: Time to seek alternatives to oil). All this really tells us is that none of the experts really have a feel for where the market is headed.

One thing they all seem to agree on is that corporations are not likely to invest heavily in either improving fuel efficiencies or seeking alternatives to petroleum fuels until they have a better understanding of where prices are headed. Neither of those positions makes any sense at all to me, especially the latter. Regardless of the direction oil prices are headed - and there's no reason to believe they're going anyplace but up - there is a clear and immediate need to seek alternative fuel sources.

There are several avenues open for companies that are pursuing fuel alternatives. The most popular seem to be compressed natural gas, liquid petroleum gas, a hybrid LNG and coal mixture, ethanol, diesel made from coconut and palm oil, and hydrogen fuel cells. Of this entire list, the only one that makes any sense at all to me are hydrogen fuel cells. The first set is still heavily dependent on petroleum based fuels as the base for any synthetics. That doesn't solve the problem, it only prolongs it. Ethanol and synthetic diesel suffer from the same problem. They require on agriculture to generate fuel, thus creating a weather-based uncertainty in the fuel market and also creating direct competition between food based agricultural needs and energy based agricultural needs. That's not a solution, it simply creates a new set of problems.

Of the supplied list of prime research targets, only hydrogen fuel cells makes much sense at all. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and can be separated from a wide variety of compounds here on Earth. It makes sense to explore any technology that utilizes hydrogen as an energy source. To this end, President Bush allocated $1.2 billion to his Hydrogen Fuel Cell Initiative. Given the amount of money we're allocating to other research efforts, this number seems dreadfully low, however. If we can commit $104 billion to NASA to put men back on the moon, I'm sure we can find more than $1.2 billion to fund alternate energy sources!

The bottom line seems to be that the energy consortium does not yet perceive either oil supply or energy costs to be a crisis. Only then will they truly seek alternative fuel sources. That is the way of American business. Long term planning rarely extends beyond the next fiscal year and companies are loath to invest money in projects that are not needed immediately. There's no indication that the energy industry feels immediate pressure to pursue alternate sources. To say the least, they are both short-sighted and misguided.


ElBaradei Approved for Third IAEA Term

The IAEA approved Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the 139-nation nuclear energy oversight commission for his third consecutive term. The US had originally opposed his approval due to ElBaradei's soft stance on nuclear weapons research in Muslim countries, specifically Iran and Iraq. (Syracuse.Com: IAEA chief OK'd for third term). The US withdrew opposition several months ago when it became obvious he would be confirmed anyway.

ElBaradei's prior two terms have been less than impressive. Under his watch, at least three nations successfully joined the Nuclear Club with both Pakistan and India conducting nuclear tests and North Korea announcing they have at least seven nuclear warheads. Meanwhile, Iran continues to pursue nuclear technology despite efforts by the US for the last two years to obtain IAEA intervention.

The IAEA under ElBaradei has been essentially leaderless, and the UN watchdog agency has proven to be ineffective at best. The reappointment of ElBaradei over western objections underscores a major problem with the UN as a whole. It is in the best interests of the non-nuclear bearing nations to have a weak figurehead at the helm of the IAEA, and they have certainly achieved that with the reappointment of ElBaradei. What we can expect over the next four years is more of the same: nothing.

At the very least, the IAEA needs to be run by someone from one of the nuclear bearing nations. Since the goal of the IAEA is nuclear nonproliferation, it simply does not make sense to have the commission run by someone from a nation and culture that would benefit militarily from the development of nuclear technology. As it stands now, the organization is ineffective and all-to-often turns its back on the obvious problem. That won't change, at least over the course of the next four years.


Hamas Alleges Cease Fire

Mahmoud Zahar, senior Hamas leader in Gaza, proclaimed yesterday that the militant terrorist group would stop firing missiles at Israel. The announcement comes in the wake of a series of retaliatory strikes against Hamas in Gaza, the latest of which killed Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Sheikh Khalil. (Boston.Com: Leader says Hamas to stop firing rockets).

Zahar's cease-fire announcement directly contradicts the stated mission of Hamas, which is nothing less than the total annihilation of Israel. Simply put, I'll believe it when I see it, but I'm not betting the house on it. If Hamas is indeed standing down in Gaza, it is only to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. In fact, it may well be a sound strategic move on the part of Hamas, since there is nothing preventing an all out Israeli offensive there now that Jewish settlers have been relocated.

With Jewish settlers removed from Gaza, Hamas may well set their sights on the West Bank. The "land for peace" concept does offer such dangers, since it is akin to paying protection money to a local thug. Now that Israel has demonstrated their willingness to vacate land in exchange for a lull in hostilities, violence in other occupied territories will likely increase. Whether or not Israel was right to hold territory in Gaza or the West Bank isn't the issue. Rather, at issue is the wisdom of giving Hamas and Islamic Jihad the perception that they can drive Israel from occupied territories by engaging in terrorist attacks. The wisdom of that move is at the heart of the up-coming election with Sharon standing firmly behind the deal and Benjamin Netanyahu voicing open criticism against the plan. Who wins that trade-off may well be determined by Hamas, since increased violence will lend credence to Netanyahu's criticisms.

In any event, don't expect a unilateral cease-fire from Hamas unless it turns out to be in their best interests to do so. That terrorist group is the largest inhibitor of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and that is not likely to change in our lifetime.


Sunday, September 25, 2005

Secretary of Flower Power?

Big government may be bad, but naive government is far worse. On Thursday, Senator Mark Dayton (D - MN) introduced legislation to institute a Department of Peace and Nonviolence. While the House version of this bill has the department subordinate to Homeland Security, Dayton's Folly goes so far as to make this a cabinet level position.

In Dayton's own words, these are the responsibilities of the department:

•hold peace as an organizing principle, coordinating service to every level of American society; •endeavor to promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; •strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; •promote the development of human potential; •work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict, use field-tested programs, and develop new structures and nonviolent dispute resolution; •take a proactive, strategic approach in the development of policies that promote national and international conflict prevention, nonviolent intervention, mediation, peaceful resolution of conflict, and structured mediation of conflict; •address matters both domestic and international in scope; and •encourage the development of initiatives from local communities, religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations.

I believe he left out "distribute flowers in airports." Much of what he cites in this job description is already the purview of the US Department of State, the primary mission of which is diplomacy. What Dayton would like to do is create yet another department with the same mission and set them at odds with each other.

What Senator Dayton fails to recognize - or chooses to ignore - is that it takes more than one side to achieve a peaceful resolution in any conflict. Peace in many parts of the world would not be possible were it not for the threat of US military intervention. Peaceful negotiations are all well and good, but that assumes both sides truly want to find a peaceful solution. Short of that, the side with the greatest deterrent will prevail.

We've tried the flower power approach in the past. We endured four years of Jimmy Carter walking on egg shells, hoping he didn't upset our enemies. The net result was almost 70 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days, and being released only upon the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. We endured eight years of Bill Clinton's lack of foreign oversight, resulting in a nuclear equipped North Korea, a nuclear equipped India and Pakistan, a terrorist organization so brazen after 41 unanswered attacks that they dared strike the US mainland.

Sorry, Senator, but if you truly want peace, you must first be prepared to fight. Until you convince your enemy that you are willing to fight to win, there is no hope of finding a peaceful solution to conflict. Flower Power may have been a great slogan on college campuses in 1969, but it has no place in the US Senate. In the meantime, I suggest you read up on the Department of State. I think you'll find that they already encompass your idealistic views and more. Just remember that when all is said and done, it is the overwhelming threat of US military action that truly brings about peace, not the meaningless words of diplomats.


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hillary Opposes Freedom Center

Senator Hillary Clinton (D - NY) voiced her opposition to the proposed Freedom Center at Ground Zero in New York City, citing fears that the museum would detract for the solemnity of the site. (New York Times: Clinton Says She Opposes Freedom Center). I find myself in agreement with the Senator on this one. In fact, I find many of the contents proposed for the museum to be highly offensive.

Rather than serving to commemorate the site where thousands died in a terror attack, and where police, fire and rescue workers from all over the nation brought out the best in all of us, the proposed Freedom Center would harbor exhibits that focus on atrocities and struggles in foreign lands. Such an exhibit does not belong at Ground Zero. In fact, that type of shrine to revisionist history doesn't belong anyplace.

There really is only one way to truly do justice to the former site of the World Trade Center. The best tribute we could do for all those that died in the attacks and for all those that risked their lives in the rescue attempt would be to build the world's largest skyscraper on that site. That is the only way to send the best signal to our enemies that our way of life will not be defeated. Every American that works in that tower will send a loud message every day to our enemies.

There have been a number of proposals for monuments and displays at Ground Zero. I oppose all of them. Don't turn that site into a mausoleum for Americans to lament the dead and for our enemies to visit and celebrate. Rather, return that site to what it was - a monument that breathes the essence of American life. Make it functional, and make it huge. Nothing less than the largest skyscraper ever built would be acceptable.


Iran Referred to Security Council - Maybe

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the UN's nuclear proliferation watchdog agency, voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Security Council. Some day. Maybe. (Y Net: Watchdog refers Iran to Security Council). The watered down resolution submitted by the US and so-called EU3 and subsequently passed by the IAEA highlights the major problems with the UN.

Twenty-two countries voted for the resolution, twelve abstained including China, Russia, and South Africa. Only one country - Venezuela - voted against the resolution, continuing their antagonistic stance against the US. The only positive note to come out of this was India's reversal, finally voting in favor of the resolution. Considered a close ally of Tehran, India sent a very strong signal that their growing economic relationship with Washington outweighed their historic ties with Iran. An India-Iran alliance would be most troubling given India's possession of nuclear technology.

Unfortunately, the resolution as passed has no teeth and carries no weight. While the resolution accuses Iran of failing to prove their nuclear program is only for energy needs, the resolution does not provide any time-line for referral to the UN Security Council. An open ended threat to some day slap Iran on the wrist accomplishes nothing.

The removal of any time-line was a compromise reached by the EU3 - France, Germany, and Great Britain - to obtain China's and Russia's abstention. It's largely irrelevant since a veto from one or both is likely should the matter ever come before the UN Security Council. The net result is that Iran continues to move closer to nuclear capability while the UN does what they do best - nothing.

As I've said several times in the past, this is not a matter we can afford to send to the UN. We don't have the years it takes for the UN to pass a series of resolutions to implement sanctions, inspections, and not much else while Iran continues to develop their nuclear program. The only answer to this situation is a unilateral surgical strike against Iran's nuclear research facilities. We have everything we need already in place to do it, and we already know that a strike will be the ultimate result no matter which route we take. The only question is how long we'll give Iran to develop a weapon before we do it.


Houston Evac Problems Tip of Iceberg

Traffic was snarled for over 24 hours as residents heeded calls to evacuate the city of Houston, TX in preparation for Hurricane Rita. (Herald.Net: Houston evacuation criticized). What the evacuations of both Houston and New Orleans proved is that it is virtually impossible to evacuate a large American city on relatively short notice. What is fortunate in each case is that we had ample warning to evacuate anyone that wanted to leave the city before both hurricanes hit. Not all disasters are as predictable, however.

America's infrastructure is obsolete. The highway systems in almost all sections of the nation date back to the 1950s or 1960s at best. Even new highways being built today barely account for the current flow of traffic, having no provisions at all for either an emergency evacuation or even the projected growth of traffic pressures over the next 10 to 15 years. Boston's infamous "Big Dig" is a classic example of this short-sightedness.

Once again, we do not learn from the past. Imagine a Three Mile Island scenario with any of the nuclear reactors along Philadelphia's waterfront. How would we evacuate a city that cannot handle average rush hour traffic today if an emergency call were made to immediately leave? Anyone driving north on I-95 in the early '90s will remember the large billboard near the New Hampshire border that read "Warning Mr. President. Entering Seabrook Nuclear Area. No Evacuation Possible." The point was valid. Despite several major highway systems in that region, the area is gridlocked every morning and evening with normal commuter traffic. Evacuation plans are a joke.

If we learn nothing else from the events leading up to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we must learn that our infrastructure needs a serious overhaul. Projects to revamp our highway system will take decades to implement. The time to start planning is now. We need to redesign the flow of our highway systems. We need to develop and implement viable high speed mass transit systems that are practical to use for our daily commute. (The subway system in Boston dates back to the late 1800s, and New York's is not much better. Neither would be considered 'high speed'.)

We have a long history of waiting until an issue becomes a crisis before acting upon it. Planning and forethought is not our forte; not in a culture that considers next quarters financial report to be a long-term outlook. We must change this mindset if we are to address the problems facing us, be it Social Security, health care, alternate energy sources, or the nation's infrastructure. That is what I'd like to see from our presidential and congressional candidates in the next election. I'd like to see some vision for the future. I'd like to see some sign that our leadership is capable of looking beyond the next election, beyond what is making the headlines today, beyond what is driving the current poll numbers. I haven't seen it yet in my lifetime. Perhaps Katrina and Rita will be the wake-up call we need. Perhaps.


Friday, September 23, 2005

Bush: Don't Repeat Predecessors Mistakes

Despite increasing pressure from all sides to change US policy in Iraq, President Bush is determined not to weaken national security by repeating the mistakes made by his predecessors. ( Bush asserts troops must stay in Iraq). The President is absolutely correct. Failure to take as harsh a stance as possible against terrorist actions against the US lead directly to the attacks on 9/11.

The President correctly summed it up by stating, ''The terrorists saw our response to the hostage crisis in Iran, the bombings of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the first World Trade Center attack, the killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the destruction of two US embassies in Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole. The terrorists concluded that we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves, and so they attacked us."

From 1990 until 9/11/2001, there were 41 terror attacks against US interests, all of which went largely unanswered. 29 of those attacks were between 1996 and 2000 (Significant Terrorist Attacks Against the United States and its Citizens 1946-2001). Our unwillingness to respond to those attacks lead terrorist organizations around the world to conclude that we were vulnerable and lacked either the willingness or the ability to strike back. Any actions we take in Iraq that even hint of a pull-out will only prove to these terrorist organizations that we lack the nerve, the desire, and the patience to fight back.

Wars are not small, short-term, antiseptic affairs. When going to war, one must be prepared to fight that war to its conclusion. That Iraq is taking longer than the attention-deficit induced media would have preferred is unfortunate, however that does not change the requirement that we remain there and fight there until we have prevailed. Any less is a tremendous victory for every group that would target the US.

President Bush is correct. Pulling out of Iraq would indeed repeat the costly mistakes made by his predecessors when we pulled out of Lebanon and Somalia. We must correct the image terrorists have of the US. We must show them that we simply do not turn and run whenever the war gets a little bloody. We must stay the course in Iraq. The terrorists are in there for the long haul. So must we be.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Authors Sue Google

In a battle somewhat reminiscent of the Great Napster Debacle, an authors guild representing 8000 authors filed a class action suit against Google, claiming copyright infringement. (CBC Business News: Authors Guild sues Google over book search). At issue is Google Prints' plan to scan millions of books and make the contents searchable online. A closer look at the actual offering renders the authors' position somewhat ridiculous, however.

Consider the following:
  • The Google Print plan does not make the entire book - or even large sections of the book - available online.
  • Authors may opt out of the program, excluding their books from the search and online display.
  • The books themselves will become searchable, and the section around the search term will be viewable online.
  • The search will contain a link to several online sellers where the viewer may actually purchase the book online.
  • The search will contain a link to local libraries that have copies of the book in circulation.

How any of this violates US copyright law is beyond me. In fact, use of the Google Print feature will actually increase sales of the books, and render the book accessible world-wide. Any author that chooses to opt out of this program is in need of a Marketing 101 course. Perhaps Google can offer a link to that as well.

Whenever I see foolish lawsuits of this nature, I have to wonder why the public libraries themselves have not been targeted for copyright infringement. After all, they purchase single copies of a book and make that book accessible to entire communities. The authors receive no royalties anytime the book is checked out of the library. Does that concept not cost the author revenue? After all, if the library did not exist book sales would increase.

The Google lawsuit is frivolous at best. Let's hope the courts toss this one out without wasting too much of our tax dollars in the process.


Free Pass to Select Allies

A presidential commission stated that Cambodia, Venezuela, Myanmar, Cuba and North Korea should be sanctioned for human rights violations - specifically with regards to human trafficking - but a free pass was given to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Ecuador. (LA Times: No Sanctions Against Allies With Poor Record). Reasons given for the waiver include the need for cooperation in our war on terror, and a need to further bolster democracy in Ecuador.

US action against human rights violations around the globe is one of the worst hypocrisies we openly commit. With the exception of Venezuela, who has oil that we could use, none of the other countries on the sanctions list has anything of value to the US. One might argue that Venezuela has nothing either since Chavez is actively looking for alternative buyers for their oil in an effort to halt shipments to the US without crippling their economy. Once he accomplishes that, then Venezuela is of no interest to the US either.

Conspicuously absent from the list is both China and Russia. China has never been in line for any humanitarian awards, being one of the worst human rights violators in the world, yet the US continues to bestow "Most Favored Nation" status on that repressive regime. Russia is one of the world's largest exporters of children in the illegal child pornography market, and that country appears unable to stop the trafficking. Like China, however, Russia remains a major US trade partner.

The message seems pretty clear. If you have nothing to offer, then sanctions are justified for your transgressions. If, however, you are a potential trade partner with the US, then here's your free pass. Talk about hypocrisy.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

British Rescue Complicates Iraq Situation

Iraqis took to the streets today, angrily protesting the rescue of two British soldiers from a Basra jail. (ABC: Iraqis in Basra Slam 'British Aggression'). The reaction of local Iraqis is certainly understandable, since the British rescue mission calls into question the sovereignty and legitimacy of the Iraqi government. On the other hand, I fully understand the British response, and would likely support a similar American rescue mission were those our soldiers in that jail.

Unfortunately, this action lends far too much support to the insurgents and the more hard-line Muslim governments that accuse the Iraqi government of being puppets to the US and Britain. It certainly complicates an already difficult mission in Iraq. Discretion being the better part of valor, sacrificing those two soldiers for the greater political good may well have been the better approach. That sounds harsh, but the political fallout resulting from the rescue may prove more costly than one might imagine.

Of more concern is the British claim that the soldiers were not in the jail when their forces raided, but had already been moved to a private home used by the Shiite militia. Shiite militias in that region have close ties to Iran and have become increasingly problematic as Iraq struggles to ratify a constitution. The governor of Basra has threatened to terminate all cooperation with the British - a relationship that has always been tenuous - unless the British government apologizes for the raid. This over reaction on the part of the Basra government is more likely out of deference to the Shiite militia, which poses more of a threat to their well being than do the British troops patrolling the region.

All of this underscores the very fragile nature of the Iraqi government, that status of coalition troops in Iraq, and the viability of the proposed but unratified constitution. Confrontations of this nature are inevitable. The impact they have on a government that has yet to take root can be devastating. Worse yet, confrontations like this in the Shiite controlled regions could drive that faction into the growing Iran versus US / EU confrontation that is brewing over nuclear research. The Shiite faction is already sympathetic towards Iran. Open confrontation with coalition troops as seen yesterday and today may well be all it takes to scuttle any hope of a compromise constitution. At best, it may result in an Iraqi government that is Shiite controlled and hostile to the West.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

FOMC Rushes Headlong Towards Recession

FOMC raised interest rates for the 11th consecutive time, apparently oblivious to energy costs spiraling out of control. (Reuters: Fed raises U.S. rates, one voter dissents). Historically, the Fed manipulates interest rates in an attempt to maintain control over the rate of inflation. Under normal circumstances, this policy is relatively successful. In this case, however, it is more likely to have a detrimental impact on the economy as a whole.

The price of energy has more than doubled in the past year with oil frequently topping $67 per barrel. Rising energy costs impact every aspect of the economy are are always associated with increased inflation. When you look back on every recession we've had since 1970, they all have one common denominator. They were ALL caused by rising energy prices, including the 1974 post-Watergate recession that was caused by the Arab oil embargo.

Increasing the cost of money at the same time the cost of energy is skyrocketing is foolhardy at best. In their statement today, FOMC cited the impact of Hurricane Katrina as being a temporary setback to the broad economy, and signaled further rate increases on the horizon. They have clearly missed the larger picture of outrageous oil prices - a lack of vision that has plagued the entire tenure of Alan Greenspan. He missed the same signals in causing the post Gulf War recession, and also failed to recognize the impact of energy costs when he caused the post Y2K recession. In each case, he lead FOMC into a series of ill advised interest rate hikes that stalled any hope of economic growth.

Greenspan's tenure cannot end soon enough. Let's hope that his successor is capable of learning from history. Let's hope his successor is able to factor in the cost of energy when formulating economic policy. These self-induced recessions are avoidable with proper management. That is something that's been sorely lacking throughout Greenspan's reign.