Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Vacation Until September 10th

The Grape will be on vacation through September 10th. I'll be traveling to Machu Picchu in Peru and will be unable to post for the next two weeks. Talk to you all when I return!

US Shakes Up UN Reform

In a much overdue move, the US has sent 750 revisions to the UN reform referendum, sending delegates into a tailspin. (LA Times: U.S. Demands Spur Crisis Talks at U.N.). Some of the changes include the elimination of language supporting the Kyoto treaty and the International Criminal Court, both treaties we oppose and neither of which could possibly be acceptable in their present form.

The question is whether or not the UN reforms go far enough. The organization as it stands now is virtually useless, being nothing more than a siphon for US tax dollars and military spending. Despite the US paying more in UN dues than any other nation, and despite the US comprising the overwhelming majority of troops wearing the UN label, support for the US and our policies is limited to a handful of nations.

The original reform called for all nuclear bearing nations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. This reform was stricken in the US proposal in favor of increased language targeting international terrorism. As evidenced by joint military maneuvers between Russian and China for the past two weeks, reduction of our nuclear arsenal is neither acceptable nor prudent. Inclusion of that clause in the reform document would be sure to force a US veto.

At the heart of the current UN reform charter is an ongoing struggle between the developed nations in the west and third world nations seeking to reshape the UN into their own image. China, which essentially straddles both worlds and has much to gain in a third-world centric UN, outwardly opposes the US reforms. Russia also opposes the US reforms but has their own set of initiatives that are described as being the size of a phone book.

The bottom line is the UN doesn't work. It's nothing more than a debating society, but without tapping into the US military might the organization has no ability to enforce its own resolutions. Without US funding, the organization itself could not exist. UN failures over the years are staggering, as is that organizations ability to permanently prolong a crisis.

The UN does in fact need reform. It needs far less reliance on US funding - and we need to waste far less money supporting a useless organization. It needs far less reliance on the US military. It needs a UN Security Council comprised of nations that are actually capable of setting a commitment and then enforcing that commitment rather than engaging in endless debate and revised resolution after resolution. A rotating security council of nations that have no ability or desire to enforce any decisions serves no purpose whatsoever.

Yes, we should be looking to reform the UN and the amendments submitted by the US are a good start. But at the heart of it, we should also be asking if there's any value to maintaining any commitment to an organization that takes our money, takes our troops, and offers no support in return. The reforms we submitted may be a good start, but without fundamental changes to the UN charter, the organization will remain nothing more than a useless parasite living off US tax dollars.

Technorati: United Nations

Friday, August 26, 2005

Internet Abuse Crackdown

Two separate legal developments represent victories in the ongoing battle against two major issues plaguing the Internet: viruses and spam. In the first instance, Morocco and Turkey both cooperated with the FBI and arrested two individuals accused of writing and spreading the Mytob, Zotob, and RBot worms. (CNN Money: Turk, Moroccan nabbed in huge worm case).

One of the problems that confronts US law enforcement agencies pursuing the creators of worms or viruses is that they often originate overseas. Having both Morocco and Turkey cooperate in arresting these two is encouraging. The economic impact of worms, viruses and denial of service attacks is staggering in developed nations. The business world is heavily dependent on the internet for everything from sales to marketing to banking to stock trading. For good or ill, the internet is now a critical resource in the business world.

The second development involves a federal indictment against three Arizona residents for sending bulk pornographic spam via e-mail. According to the Justice Department, the unsolicited e-mail numbered in the tens of millions. (ZDNet: Three indicted in major spam case). At issue with the Justice Department is the unsolicited burst of pornography. Regardless of the content, however, spam itself is a plague and any ruling that reduces the amount of garbage sent via e-mail is a major step forward.

Companies are forced to go through great pains to reduce the amount of spam hitting their e-mail servers. This drives up the cost of providing e-mail services to employees. In today's business environment, e-mail (like the Internet itself) has developed into a mission critical application.

Home consumers are at even greater risk to the pains of e-mail spam. Many services now offer some form of spam guard, but these services are imperfect and often filter out legitimate e-mails that the consumer wants and needs. As a result of e-mail spam, business use of e-mail for such cost cutting measures as providing customer statements, phone bills, stock confirmations, etc. becomes less practical. Coupled with spams illegal cousin - the phishing scam - it actually becomes risky for business to legitimately contact their customers via e-mail.

In the US, the number of phone solicitations to the consumer have dropped dramatically thanks to the implementation of a federal "do not call" list and legislation designed to punish telemarketers that violate that list. Unfortunately, such measures do not work with something as global as e-mail. Solving the problem of spam is an international problem that requires cooperation between international law enforcement agencies. It is likely legally impossible to stop the spread of spam, worms, or viruses. Still, the actions taken in Morocco, Turkey, and Arizona are a major step in the right direction. We just need a lot more steps taken.


Zimbabwe Refuses UN Aid

The Zimbabwean government has refused a $30 million UN aid program designed to provide food and medicine to over 300,000 people. (World News: Mugabe rebuffs UN plans for $US30m emergency aid). Over 700,000 people lost either their homes or their businesses in a sweeping urban demolition program imposed by Mugabe.

Refusal to accept this assistance underscores the problem with trying to provide aid to African countries. The Zimbabwean government is one of the most racist governments in Africa, and has already been the target of criticism by at least one UN report dealing with the urban demolition program.

That program has left an estimated 250,000 children homeless and has worsened the plight of up to 2.4 million Zimbabweans. Yet Mugabe has rejected UN emergency assistance out of a reluctance to "appear needy". It's important to keep in mind that South Africa recently rebuked the US for comments regarding the situation in Zimbabwe, stating that the affairs in Africa were none of our business.

I'm still at a loss to understand why we're wasting money and aid in a part of the world that either doesn't want it or, through government corruption, squanders it. Poverty is world-wide. Until the African governments are willing to accept our aid and allow that aid to get through to the people that need it, we should be devoting our efforts in other parts of the world. Poverty in Asia and South America need to be addressed as well. Perhaps in that part of the world, the aid will be better received and the people will actually benefit from our assistance. As to Zimbabwe, they're on their own. Until Mugabe's government changes its ways, I wouldn't send a single dime their way.


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Medicare Plan Better Than First Perceived

The Medicare plan opposed by the AARP and admittedly misunderstood by 71% of senior citizens has been given a huge approval boost by a report produced by a coalition of health organizations. (Forbes: Big Savings Seen in Medicare Rx Drug Plan). According to the independent report, 97 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are eligible for the new plan - a huge increase over the 62 percent that are eligible for it today. On top of improved access to coverage, the plan will reduce the out-of-pocket expense for the lowest income seniors from $1657 per year down to $180 per year.

The report also shows that the new plan is gaining support among seniors, despite opposition from the leading retirement organization AARP. This support is accompanied by an increased number of seniors that now feel they understand the plan and are better able to make an informed decision regarding its value and applicability to their situation.

Criticism of the new plan centers around the overall cost to the health industry as a whole and on the tax-payer who must ultimately bear the burden of senior citizen health coverage. The report goes on to state the obvious - that people eligible for Medicare are also those most in need of prescription drug coverage.

At the heart of this issue is the exorbitant cost of prescription drugs in the US. What is not addressed as part of the Medicare plan - or any other plan being seriously discussed in Washington - is the issue of getting drug costs under control. Stop-gap measures being floated by some states that want to allow the import of drugs from Canada or elsewhere both are impractical and fail to address the source of the problem.

Foreign drug import is impractical simply because the source of those drugs is US based pharmaceutical companies. Canada has already threatened to prevent the export of drugs out of fear that their supply would be compromised, and the pharmaceutical companies have already threatened to raise the price of drugs shipped to Canada to compensate for the lost revenue.

At the heart of the problem is the simple fact that the American consumer is paying the full price of pharmaceutical research. The cost of that research is compounded by the rather lengthy bureaucratic process companies must wade through in order to get a drug passed for human trials. The cost also accounts for all the false leads and failed drugs that drain resources with no ultimate income potential. So the cost is high, but instead of passing that cost along to all countries benefiting from US drug imports, the full cost is being absorbed by the US consumer.

The propensity of US physicians to prescribe drugs - needed or otherwise - only compounds the problem. The number of prescription drugs being consumed by the elderly in the US on a daily basis is astounding. In many cases, prescribed drugs are intended to relieve the side-effects of other prescribed drugs, adding to an endless cycle of legalized drug addiction.

The Medicare plan is a great first step in providing prescription drugs to our senior citizens. It's not the ultimate solution, however. Neither are a socialized medicine plan nor a plan to import drugs from Canada. The solution must come from containing both the cost of drug production and an equitable sharing of drug research across all countries that benefit from drugs produced in the US.


Terrorists Target Russian Prime Minister

Two bomb blasts in Ingushetia wounded Ibragim Malsagov as terrorist sponsored attacks continue in the southern province. (Fox News: Bomb Hurts Russian Premier, Kills Driver).
Russia has been plagued by incidents of terrorism targeting government and law enforcement personnel in the North Caucasus region. Putin has linked the rise in terrorist activity in his country to the growing wave of international terrorism and Muslim extremism.

While there is some debate as to whether the actions in Russia are related to terrorist activity against the US and western allies - something that seems dubious at best - Putin's assessment seems contrary to Russia's political posture against US coalition activity. Russian cooperation in Iraq would have made logical sense in exchange for US cooperation in Chechnya, yet that's not a tact Putin chose to pursue.

According to Fox News, authorities in republics throughout the North Caucasus have had battles with reputed "Islamic extremists." With much of that region already predominantly Muslim, it should be obvious that the extremists are not content with simply spreading Islam across the globe. Rather, they are bent on imposing a rigid totalitarian form of extreme Islam, targeting even countries that already have moderate Islamic governments. Cooperative efforts between the US and Russia would make logical sense in fighting Islamic extremism world-wide. Such cooperation between nations and encompassing the mainstream Muslim community is essential if we are to overcome the wave of radicals threatening nations across the globe.


Bush Meets Military Moms

The President met yesterday with 19 families that lost sons or daughters in Iraq and Afghanistan, but received a reaction and show of support that is far different from what is coming out of Crawford. (Houston Chronicle: Bush happy to meet this military mom).

Tammy Pruett, who has 5 sons serving in Iraq, said, "I know if something happens to one of the boys, they would leave this world doing what they believe, what they think is right for our country, and I guess you couldn't ask for a better way of life than giving it for something that you believe in." That view is much more characteristic of families with sons and daughters serving our nation overseas.

Army National Guard Specialist Matt Salisbury said it best, "How can I possibly describe the return of hope and dignity that I saw in these people's eyes?It is worth the sacrifice of leaving families, jobs and a safe life." Living in a neighborhood that has 4 service stars being proudly displayed in windows, I can personally attest to this being the prevalent view.

Certainly, families worry for loved ones overseas, and they grieve when someone is killed in service to our country. But the belief in what we are accomplishing in Iraq and Afghanistan runs very high in these families, as does their unwavering support for our troops deployed on foreign soil. This is a side of the story that must be heard. President Nixon once referred to the "Silent Majority." That phrase could not be more fitting when it comes to national support for our military, their families, and their mission.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Soldier's View of Iraq

The only perspective we get on the war in Iraq is from the news media. The slideshow available on this site is a soldier's view and is a "must see" for all Americans. (VOA: Iraq: A US Soldier's Perspective). All we hear about are the negatives. The small number of insurgents in Iraq get more press time than our soldiers who are not only fighting the insurgency but are also rebuilding the infrastructure, putting up schools, providing police services, and essentially training a nation to govern itself without a totalitarian dictator pulling the strings.

To hear the media's side of the story, you would think Iraq is a total disaster. They focus on the small minority ravings of people like Cindy Sheehan, but ignore the overwhelming majority of gold star parents that are proud of their sons' dedication to our nation and who support our efforts overseas. They cite a US death toll of 1800 in a three year span as evidence of a war that is going poorly, totally forgetful of past wars that would have seen that same death total in a single day. They focus entirely on the negatives in Iraq - which are extremely few, mind you, in a country that was dismantled just three years ago - and refuse to acknowledge the many successes our military is having throughout that region.

Worst of all, they give voice to the fringe element in this country that takes pride in any setback our military experiences. They give voice to those that would like nothing more than to see our efforts in Iraq fail utterly. But then, what should we expect from a media that brought about the first military defeat in US history three decades ago?

Here's some advice to all the small but vocal anti-war crowd. If you want this war to end, then stop your protesting, stop your shouting, and let the military do its job. Stop giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Stop convincing the insurgents that all they have to do is wait us out. By your very act of protesting, you are prolonging the war, you are boosting the morale of the enemy, and you are causing more US deaths overseas.

Your time to protest was before troops were committed. Once boots hit the ground, however, there is only one acceptable course of action and that is to stand unified in our support of our military efforts overseas. Voices of dissent now only serve to bolster the enemy.

Support our troops, support our efforts in Iraq, and if we stand united the conflict will end much sooner than if we continue to give voice to the fringe element that would rather see us fail.


EU suspends Iran Nuke Talks

France announced that talks with Iran over their nuclear program have been suspended. It now appears that Britain, France, and Germany may seek UN sanctions against Iran for breaking the agreement reached in Paris over the suspension of uranium enrichment during the negotiations. (Boston.Com News: Europeans call off nuclear talks with Iran).

What should prove interesting is the tone of any UN sanctions should they actually be submitted. Without the threat of imminent military action, Iran will have no incentive to cease enrichment activities. If Israeli reports are at all accurate, Iran only needs to stall the rest of the world for about three years and the point will become moot. Given that Iraq was able to stall for twelve years, this should pose no real challenge to Iran.

Reports that enriched uranium found in centrifuge parts were not the result of Iran's program appear to embolden that nations strong stance against the west. In fact, media reports point to that finding as proof that Iran is not engaged in a weapons program. (Hindustan Times: Iran gets clean-chit in uranium controversy). All that report really means is they bought used equipment from Pakistan. Drawing any conclusion regarding Iran's intentions based on that report is little more than wishful-thinking.

A nuclear capable Iran is a threat to the West. It appears that even France and Germany can see that. What the west does about it is the only remaining question. A UN sanction is politically necessary, so that's the first step. What must be avoided, however, is the likely potential for a very weak statement by the UN, followed by a series of increasingly strong rhetoric. We saw that nonsense with Iraq, where we went through 17 resolutions (and the three negotiating with Iran wanted yet another resolution.) One resolution should suffice. The timetable for compliance also needs to be extremely short. Given what's at stake, we cannot afford to play the UN sanction game, and we certainly don't have time to hope economic sanctions will bring them in line.

We've seen this act before. The net result will be military strikes against the Iranian nuclear research facilities. The only real question left unanswered is how long we're going to dance with Iran and the UN, and how close we're going to let Iran come to producing a weapon before we take action. If we learn anything from history, we won't delay. But then, I'm betting we haven't quite learned that lesson yet.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Libya Wants off Terror Sponsor List

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader, indicated his country would be removed from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. According to Gaddafi, an agreement was reached with the US after a series of concessions by Libya. The US State Department has declined comment, however there is no reason to believe the statement is inaccurate. (Union-Tribune: Libya says to be taken off U.S. terrorism list ).

Libya is one of the great success stories of US foreign policy in the Middle East. The decision to abandon a nuclear weapons program, improve human rights policies, and cut-off support for terrorist groups in the country is a direct result of US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The raid on Libya during the Reagan Administration taught Gaddafi two valuable lessons. First, he learned that the US could strike Libya at will from bases either in Europe or in the US. Second, he learned that his allies in the Soviet Union (which still existed at the time) would do nothing to prevent such attacks. These lessons were the perfect setup for the display of military might in Gulf War I and in subsequent attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Watching the US systematically dismantle two governments with minimal effort was enough to convince Gaddafi that cooperation with the West was in his best interests. (Before anyone raises it, let me point out that the current difficulties in Iraq are small consolation to Hussein who is only a few months away from a date with the hangman.)

As Gaddafi has shown, the rogue nations in that region do respond to a show of strength. Negotiations are useless if not backed by the threat of military might. One of the major benefits of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is the elimination of Libya as a threat. Now if only Iran and Syria could learn the same lesson before they need a refresher course.


Robertson: Assassination Cheaper than War

In an odd move, Pat Robertson, host of the 700 Club, called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. (Chicago Sun-Times: Robertson: Assassinate Venezuela's president). Robertson called Chavez a "terrific danger" to the US and went on to say, ''You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war . . . and I don't think any oil shipments will stop.''

Calling Chavez a "terrific danger" may be a bit overstated. He's becoming extremely vocal in his rhetoric against the US, but that rhetoric appears to be an act of desperation on the part of the besieged Venezuelan leader. Despite his public outcry, oil shipments to the US from Venezuela have not stopped, nor are they likely to. On the verge of civil war, Chavez needs all the money he can get and he's not about to cut-off supply to one of his largest purchasers.

US policy n Venezuela is one of playing each side against the other. We have been selling arms to Chavez to ward off the rebellion for the last couple of years, now. At the same time, however, we've also been covertly supporting the rebellion on the hopes that Chavez will be overthrown in favor of a more moderate leader. (Chavez has strong ties to both Cuba and Iran, something the US would like to see change under a new government.)

Aside from oil, there is little to interest us in Venezuela. Chavez's fears of a US invasion are largely unfounded. We have enough to keep us occupied in the Middle East and North Korea without looking for action in South America. For now, it would appear that US policy down south will be to let nature run its course. That's bad news for Chavez, who really does need the threat of a US invasion to rally support back in his own country. Without it, he may well find himself on the wrong end of a political coup.


Australian Muslims Voice Terror Opposition

It appear that Australian Muslim clerics get it. They, at least, understand that Islamic extremists are a threat to everyone, themselves included. A group of 14 moderate Muslim clerics in Australia have publicly voiced their opposition to the actions of the extremists and have denounced the actions of the radical terror organizations. (Khaleez Times: Australian Muslims pledge action against terrorism).

This is a significant first step, and one that must be repeated world-wide. As seen in Bangladesh, the actions of the extremists are indeed a threat even to the moderate Muslim world. What it will take to end this wave of extremism is for the overwhelming majority of Muslims that oppose terrorism to rise-up against the extremists. For the moment, the majority of Muslims are silent on the issue, and this is a case where silence implies support.

Ameer Ali, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, on speaking about Osama bin Laden said, “No one supports him. It goes without saying that the majority of the community do not see him as a Muslim leader. He is not in the main group, his activities are not welcome, there’s no reservation in that.” That's a message that must be spoken louder and needs to be driven home to the Muslim youth.

This comes on the heels of an announcement by an influential Islamic seminary in Lucknow, India that limits the situations in which Muslim clerics should issue an edict or fatwa. That announcement states that a fatwa should not be issued on political issues or on matters that do not directly concern Islamic law.

These signs are encouraging. They suggest, at least, that the terrorists are damaging themselves in the eyes of their own communities. Ttargetinging of other Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are serving to alienate the extremist groups from the people that at one time supported them. That, after all, is where this war will be won. That the Muslim people are coming to realize that these terror groups are their enemies as well as ours is a major step forward in winning the war against these extremists.


Monday, August 22, 2005

More Stem Cell Alternatives

Harvard University researchers have announced a new technique that shows tremendous promise in creating cells that have embryonic stem-cell like properties. (Herald Sun: New method of creating stem cells ). This technique, which combines human skin cells with existing embryonic stem cells, produces a new set of cells that appear "re-programmed" to acquire stem-cell properties. Researchers believe the new cells will be useful in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

This announcement comes in the wake of an announcement last week whereby cells with stem-cell like properties were successfully obtained from umbilical blood. Harvesting new embryonic stem cells is controversial in the US and is prohibited in any program receiving federal funding.

What these two discoveries illustrate are the alternatives available capable of producing the same results without requiring the harvesting of embryonic stem cells. While its likely that research along these lines would have occurred with or without the current ban on embryonic harvesting, it's equally likely that such restrictions have spurred interest in researching alternatives. What's clear at this point is that there are alternatives that do not require harvesting embryonic stem cells, and those alternatives must be pursued. Given the current trend, the controversy surrounding stem cell research may well become moot.


Annan Aids Africa; Ignores Asia

Kofi Annan is in Niger today, attempting to maintain focus on that poverty stricken nation. (UN News Center: Annan visits Niger to keep world focused on humanitarian situation). At least, according to the rest of the world, Niger is impoverished. As you may recall, the president of Niger just ten-days ago claimed his nation was not suffering from a famine and that food shortages were normal. (I'm sure he was well fed when he made that comment.)

As I've stated in other posts on this topic, the biggest problem African nations face is themselves. The corruption in the most impoverished nations in Africa is astounding and is a major inhibitor to getting aid where it's most needed. I still maintain that fixing the corruption problem is a prerequisite to getting aid through.

What is most striking, however, is the complete lack of focus on the poverty stricken nations in Asia. (Deccan Herald: Nearly half of Asia's children are in poverty). While Kofi Annan focuses on the 3 million starving in Africa, he ignores the 600 million starving in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, East Timor, Vietnam and the Philippines. Oddly enough, many of those countries are receptive to foreign aid and the money sent would actually benefit the people. Not in all cases, mind you, but in far more than exist in Africa.

I'm a strong believer in sending the money to where it will do the most good. Countries where the aid cannot reach the victims are not countries where that money should be sent. It may sound harsh, but the cold reality is that sending aid countriesies that abuse it effectively takes aid directly away from countries that will use it to benefit their people. In that context, who would continue to advocate sending money to the more corrupt countries in Africa - or to a country who's government denies the need for that aid in the first place (i.e. Niger.)

In the Asia versus Africa debate, if I need to choose which should benefit more from my aid dollars, that choice would be Asia. More people will benefit and the region itself is tryidesperatelyely to help itself. Even China is working hard to overcome its own internal problems (although I wouldn't send them a penny until they change their human rights policies.) Of course, Kofi Annan may disagree. Of course, Kofi Annan is from Ghana, which, just coincidentally, is in West Africa.


Kurds & Shiites Agree

An agreement has been reached between the Kurds and Shiites regarding a draft constitution. Not surprisingly, the Sunnis have yet to agree to it since it appears to pave the way for federalism. (Sky News: IRAQ MAY GO FEDERAL). Efforts are underway now to convince the Sunnis to support the draft constitution.

Sunnis have complained in recent days that their views were not being adequately represented in the constitutional discussions. This should come as no surprise to anyone since the Sunnis boycotted the original election process en masse and hence have very little representation in parliament. Now that parliament is drafting the constitution, the Sunnis do not have much clout to press their views.

Perhaps the Sunnis have just learned the most valuable lesson possible in a democracy. If you want your voice to be heard, then you must participate. The Sunni decision to boycott the initial elections made no sense at all at the time. By choosing not to vote, they deferred all decisions to the Shiites and Kurds. Had they voted, they would have greater representation in Parliament and the constitution would likely have a different flavor.

Will they learn from their own mistakes? Not likely. Already we see a struggle in the Sunni Triangle between the general population trying to register to vote and the insurgent groups trying to prevent that registration. They still haven't figured out that their best option is to participate in that vote and use that voice to set policy and direction. The Sunnis are a large enough group that they can have a significant influence on policy. The problem, though, is they don't want to just influence it, they want to drive it. That's not going to happen.

How all of this will end is still largely in doubt. Technically, today's deadline has been satisfied. A draft constitution is available. The next step, though, is ratification in each province. It only takes rejection in 3 provinces to scuttle the constitution and the Sunnis control 4. Without Sunni support in at least 2 of the 4 provinces, the constitution dies and this process starts all over again. Given the wording in the draft constitution, it appears unlikely that the Sunnis will approve it. Time will tell, but I'm not optimistic that the current version will fly.


Sunday, August 21, 2005

US Army: In it for the Long Haul

Military planners are working on a "worst case scenario" for troop levels in Iraq through 2009. The army is confident they can maintain troop levels at 100,000 for at least the next four years. (CNN: Top general: Army preparing for 4 more years).

This is a far better signal to be sending to our enemies than the "pull out now" refrain we've been hearing from certain quarters. Making it clear to the enemy that we're in Iraq for as long as it takes is precisely what we need to do. The only concern here is that we may not be going far enough. While troop levels at 100,000 may be fine for stabilizing Iraq, far more than that are needed to bring the rest of that region under control. What we should be planning for is the troop level needed to support that initiative.

In our current deployment strategy, National Guard troops comprise 45% of the forces engaged in Iraq. Based on the army's new plan, that number will drop to 25% during the next rotation. That's certainly good news for Guardsman, faced with the uncertainty of a lengthy deployment. Under the new plan, troop rotations will be on a two-year basis, not one.

To support new initiatives, military recruitment must increase. Good news on that front comes in the wake of July recruitment numbers where active-duty Army enlistments surpassed targets for the last two months. Reserves and National Guard enlistments are at 80% of the target, so more work is needed there. All those numbers are refreshingly high three years into a war, however, signaling good news for military recruitment as a whole.

Just looking around the globe, there are plenty of trouble spots to keep us busy. North Korea and Iran are the obvious two, but don't forget Venezuela and Ecuador. Both of those are oil producing countries and Venezuela is openly hostile to the US. Ecuador is politically unstable, resulting in a dramatic drop in oil exports. We also have growing problems on our own Mexican border. An increased push in military recruitment is essential. The need for active-duty soldiers in the coming years will increase, not decrease. Of course, as the price of oil continues to skyrocket, the resulting downturn in the economy may well solve that problem for us. The military is always a very attractive option to high school and college grads that cannot find work.


Saturday, August 20, 2005

Iraqi Constitution Deadlock

With Monday's final deadline rapidly approaching, the three major faction groups in Iraq remain deadlocked in their bid to draft an acceptable constitution. (Al Jazeera: Iraq talks stall over religion, oil).

The one major breakthrough this week is the announcement that Kurdish leaders may be willing to drop their demand for the right to secede. Interestingly enough, the demand for federalism has managed to unify the Sunnis and Shiites. Both groups took to the streets yesterday, marching for a unified Iraq.

Religion remains a contentious issue, however, with the Shiite majority still holding out for an Islamic government. That will likely be the make-or-break issue. If an agreement is not reached by the Monday deadline, then Parliament will be dissolved, new elections held, and the process will start over. One wonders, though, if the Sunnis will learn from last year's mistake and actually participate in new elections. The interests of the Sunnis are being hampered in the constitutional draft since, thanks to last year's boycott, they have a very small voice in Parliament.

Extremists are stepping up their efforts to prevent a constitution from being accepted, however. Three top Sunni leaders were killed yesterday for supporting the voter registration initiative. Voter registration ends on September 1, so insurgent groups are increasing the rate of violent attacks in an effort to prevent Sunnis from voting on any proposed constitution. This may well backfire, though, as seen by the overwhelming turnout on the part of Kurds and Shiites in the last election.

This one is going to come down to the wire. In the end, I still believe they will agree on a draft constitution, especially if the issue of federalism is set aside. It appears that both the Kurds and Shiites believe the constitutional process is in their best interests. Whether or not the remaining issues can be resolved over the next 36 hours remains to be seen, however.


Gaza Pullout - Abbas Wants More

It didn't take long for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmud Abbas to demand more concessions from Israel following the Israeli departure from Gaza. (NewsAsia: Gaza pullout far from enough for peace: Abbas). Neither Abbas nor the radical terrorist group Hamas promise any peace agreements as a result of the Gaza withdrawal. Abbas wants Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories including the West Bank - something Sharon asserts will not happen - and Hamas wants nothing less than the total elimination of Israel.

The "land for peace" concept is a very dangerous path for Israel to tread. Agreeing to withdraw from Gaza is a devastating move on Israel's part and will likely lead to increased violence on the part of Hamas. All Israel succeeded in doing is showing the terrorists that they can be bullied out of their homes.

Demands for additional Israeli concessions will now increase. Hamas has now been rewarded for the repeated rocket attacks and has learned that this tactic is successful in driving Israel out of territories it occupies. The policy Israel once had of not negotiating with terrorists has now been shattered. I fear Israel will pay a dear price for this mistake.


Friday, August 19, 2005

Another Blow to Oil Prices

Oil supplies in Ecuador are slowly coming back online today after the military was sent in to quell protests that disrupted oil production. The army has regained control of a number of sites, however oil production in the 5th largest South American producer remains low. (BBC: Ecuador's army tackles protesters).

The disruption in service means that Ecuador is not able to meet their export quotas and may be forced to request a loan of crude oil from Venezuela. Assistance from Venezuela may be problematic as well since that country's oil production is well below capacity.

Crude Oil closed up .15 today at 65.50 (NYME: New York Mercantile Exchange). The short term news does not look good with oil futures climbing as much as .17 through the end of 2005. Hopes for a post-Labor Day reprieve are diminishing thanks to political unrest in Ecuador, Venezuela and much of the Middle East.

The political outlook in oil producing countries is extremely unstable. Steps are needed now to eliminate our dependence on foreign sources of oil. A number of independent studies estimate that there is a 30-year supply of oil under the permafrost in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Tapping that supply for US needs will buy us sufficient time to research new energy sources that do not depend on petroleum byproducts. Since it will take several years before we are ready to drill in ANWR, we need to approve legislation opening the refuge to oil companies now. The only stipulation I would place on that exemption is a requirement to develop a non-petroleum energy solution. Just as President Kennedy set a target date for putting a man on the moon, so too must President Bush set a target date for the elimination of our dependence on oil. Without that focus, nothing will happen.

We have the oil resources available to us to tide us over until a new energy source is found. All that is blocking us now is partisan politics. Because ANWR is home to the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the left does not want to allow drilling in the arctic. Instead, they would have us remain at the mercy of foreign oil, unstable South American governments, and of course, the good will of our friends in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we cannot afford to maintain the status quo until an alternative source is found. Unless we take control of our own oil supply, the impact on our economy will be dramatic. Put aside partisan politics and start drilling in the arctic. We can't wait any longer.


Passports For All Border Crossings

Although Canada is raising a strong objection, new customs and immigration rules may soon require a US passport for all American citizens returning to the States from any non-US territory. This means that even a return from Canada would require a passport, whereas only a birth certificate is required today. (Arab Times: Americans may get ID cards to travel across the border; Passport rules to bolster security).

Only 20% of Americans have a US Passport, something that has our neighbors to the north concerned. At issue is how a passport requirement would impact trade and tourism between the two countries.

A US passport costs a total of $97.00 and is good for 10-years. $9.70 per year seems a small price to pay for the ability to identify people entering the States. The Canadian and Mexican borders remain porous, despite increased security measures introduced after 9/11. It is still extremely easy to gain access to the US coming in from either the north or the south, especially at the heavily congested tourist crossings on the Northway, at Niagara Falls, and at the San Diego crossing into Tijuana. The crossing at Puget Sound only requires a drivers license for entry, yet they are one of the more vocal opponents of the passport requirement. It seems to me that crossings like that are the very reason we need a passport restriction!

There's no legitimate reason that I can see not to require a passport for entry into the US. Since we have no control over the requirements for entry into either Canada or Mexico from other nations, we must establish our own controls at our borders. While I've openly opposed the fingerprinting and photographing of tourists entering the nation, I do not find the requirement to show a universally recognized proof of citizenship identification form (i.e. a passport) as being a burden. It really boils down to this. Either get a passport or don't cross the border.


Somalia Faces Food, Health Crises

A UN report states that Somalia is facing a food and shelter crises due to a poor harvest and regional fighting. (Reuters Health: UN warns of growing crisis in Somalia). I find it very difficult to sympathize with the plight of people that openly opposed US assistance 1992. A US lead multi-lateral operation was sent to Somalia to crack down on the looting and extortion that was preventing food from reaching the people. As it turns out, though, local support for regional warlords was extremely high and the US met heavy resistance from the population they were there to assist.

Last month, the UN World Food Program suspended operations in Somalia after a ship carrying 850 tons of rice was hijacked by armed gangs north of Bossaso. Armed support of the aid efforts ended in 1995 after a lengthy string of attacks by the Somali National Alliance.

Somalia is clearly its own worst enemy. Support for the local warlords is extremely high. Food and aid programs that have been in existence for decades simply do not work because of armed resistance in the areas that need those programs the most. As harsh as it may sound, we need to leave Somalia to its own devices. We cannot help a people that does not want to be helped, and after 13-years of trying, it's no longer worth the effort.

The food and assistance earmarked for Somalia is also desperately needed in other parts of Africa - parts that do not offer armed resistance to those trying to provide that assistance. It's time to cut Somalia loose and redirect the aid to regions that will actually benefit from it. Continuing to try to assist in Somalia only wastes time, money, and the lives of the workers trying to help the people. It's not worth it.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Microsoft Just Doesn't Get It

Testers running the Beta 1 version of Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system got a very unpleasant shock when they examined their network traffic. It seems Microsoft introduced a new Peer to Peer Networking feature in Vista and actually has it enabled by default. Whenever the beta testers booted their Vista PCs, they would immediately attempt to locate and connect to other Vista operating systems on the net. (ZD Net: Vista feature exposes beta machines).

Despite all of the security exposures exposed in the past three Windows operating system releases, Microsoft still doesn't seem to get it. Their stated policy of "secure by design, secure by default and secure in deployment" is laughable. Using "Microsoft" and "Security" in the same sentence borders on the absurd.

What's most puzzling is the decision to release Vista in the first place. For the home user, XP continues to be an extremely stable operating system, especially when compared to its predecessor (Windows 98). The latest patches of XP SP2 have closed all of the known security holes. Resource demands of the operating system are not too excessive and the operating system does a fair job of preventing applications from stepping on each other.

Vista, on the other hand, already appears to have its own brand new security holes. Initial reports on the resource requirements of the new operating system are staggering. There's also no pressing need on the part of applications or end users to migrate to a new operating system. Applications are not clamoring to support a 64-bit architecture, and with the high memory demands of Vista, end users are going to be hit pretty hard in the wallet when it comes to RAM. Some reports are listing 1GB as the minimum necessary to get even mediocre performance.

Microsoft needs to carefully consider the wisdom of pressing forward with Vista. Right now, they dominate the PC market. But that dominance came about at a time when the only options were Macintosh (which couldn't run most of the applications the PC users wanted - i.e. games) and OS/2 (which IBM couldn't market even to their own internal users.) Today, however, they still face competition from Macintosh (which still can't run the games) but also from Linux. FC4 requires far less resources than any Windows operating system, has virtually all of Windows application software functionality available to it as open source (i.e. free) and, using WINE, is capable of running most games including the popular MMORPGs. That's competition Microsoft would do well to avoid.


China Arrests / Tortures Christian Leaders

Five American church leaders and dozens of Christian worshipers were arrested in China, according to the China Aid Association. (Voice of America: China Reportedly Arrests Five American Church Leaders, Tortures Christians). The CAA also reports that 40 Christians were tortured in Hubei Provence earlier this month.

Let's keep in mind that China continues to enjoy "most favored nation" status. China is one of the third-world countries being used as a primary outsource location for technology infrastructure jobs coming out of the US. Despite all our hollow protests about human rights violations, we still continue to pad China's pockets because they provide cheap labor and cheap products.

China is the primary reason the US rejected the Kyoto treaty. Under that agreement, they would have been largely exempt from all of the provisions in the treaty, generating an even greater imbalance in the cost of doing business. China's consumption of petroleum resources is a major factor in the current surge in oil prices. Despite the tremendous growth in consumption, China has refused all requests for cooperation in controlling polluting emissions, demanding payment from the west before they'll implement any controls.

Why would anyone believe China is either a US ally or a good US trade partner? In practice, they have been neither. There are several steps that must be taken when it comes to China:
  • Economic pressure must be brought to bear against any US company using China for outsourced technology or cheap labor. Simply put, we need to make it more costly for US companies to outsource our technology to China than to actually perform the same function here.
  • The US must revoke "most favored nation" status from China. They've done nothing to earn that status and it works only to their advantage, not ours.
  • Pressure must be placed on OPEC to control the flow of petroleum resources to China. Simply put, we cannot afford to allow China to consume the resources we need. I'm not looking to be "fair" here, I'm looking to control resources that we need ourselves. Yes, that's harsh, but in my view our requirements come first.
  • Economic and political sanctions must be implemented against China to bring their pollution emissions under control and to address their continued human rights violations. As long as China continues to arrest American clergy and Christians for doing nothing more than practicing their religion, China should not receive a dime in aid from the US or US allies.

The problem with China continues to grow. They want the economic benefits of a huge trade imbalance with the US, but they want none of the responsibilities associated with being a US ally. To bring the problem under control, we need to hit them in the pocketbook. They need trade with the west far more than we need trade with China. It's time we leveraged that advantage.


Pakistan Raids Terror School

Pakistani security forces went on the offensive Tuesday, raiding a school believed to be used by terrorists to plan attacks and train members. (Al Jazeera: Pakistani forces raid Islamic school). The raid uncovered a cache of munitions, arms, traps, and notes detailing how to make bombs.

This is a good start, however much more is needed. The South Waziristan region along the Afghanistan border is a breeding ground for terrorist training camps. While Pakistan continues to send its own troops into that region, it has thus far refused to allow entry by US troops. One of the criticisms levied early in the War on Terror claimed that troops from that region were sympathetic with the terrorists. Use of local troops to attempt to corner bin Laden in 2002 were widely criticized when the mission failed to net the figurehead.

Pressing the issue in Pakistan is essential to our eventual victory. While it's virtually impossible to eliminate every group intent on doing us harm, we certainly can make them homeless. To do that, we must apply whatever pressure is necessary to the nations that harbor these enemies of religious freedom.

The Pakistani government has been an ally in the War on Terror since the US went into Afghanistan. Support of the people in Pakistan is more dubious, however. Without a strong US presence in support of Pakistani operations in the border region, it's doubtful much progress would be made against the terror groups operating there. It's essential that the US keep up the pressure on Pakistan to eradicate the camps on their side of the border. If Pakistan is unwilling or incapable of completing that, then the we must take the initiative. Allowing camps to fester in Pakistan is not an acceptable situation.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BTK Killer - Break Out "Old Sparky"

The self-proclaimed BTK killer is due to be sentenced in Kansas for committing 10 murders in grisly fashion. (New York Times: Prosecution Lays Out Case for Tough Sentencing of B.T.K. Killer in Gory Detail). Unfortunately, Kansas does not have a death penalty.

Reading the gruesome details regarding his murder of 11-year old Josie Otero, I'm hard-pressed to find any justification for keeping this scum alive another day. If ever there was someone deserving of death it is Dennis L. Rader.

Under Kansas law, he's sure to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Without the ability to sentence him to death, the best possible outcome in this case is for the guards to release the scum into the general population and walk away. If there's any justice at all, "the rest of his life" will be an extremely short sentence.


Potential Stem Cell Breakthrough

Scientists may have discovered away around the ethical debate surrounding the harvesting of new embryonic stem cells. British and American researches have created cells from umbilical cord blood that appear to have the same properties as embryonic stem cells. (Health Day: Embryonic-Like Stem Cells Found in Umbilical Cord Blood).

While the value of embryonic stem cell research is hotly debated, adult stem cells are already used to treat a variety of diseases including leukemia. Additional information regarding stem cell research may be found at the National Institute of Health's website: Stem Cell Research FAQ.

Embryonic stem cell research poses a major ethical dilemma. Many researches believe embryonic stem cells have the potential to cultivate treatment for many currently incurable diseases. Some scientists believe these cells can be cultivated to replace mature cells that are diseased. While this technology remains unproven, the theory does have a lot of promise and researches are making progress using the existing strains of stem cells.

The controversy arises from the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from aborted fetuses. The more extreme view raises the concern that stem cell research could lead to an increase in abortion, however there is little evidence to support that view. There are already other research techniques already in place that deal with the artificial growth of human tissue. There's nothing to suggest that the use of embryonic stem cells would prompt an increase in abortions, leading me to believe that argument is based more on emotion than hard evidence.

The issue may prove moot if umbilical cord blood is shown to produce embryonic-like stem cells. While that may lead to further ethical questions down the road, at present there do not appear to be any stumbling blocks to continuing this line of research. Given the number of diseases that may not be treatable without a means to correct or manipulate our genetic code, it's not likely this issue will go away. As the age of the average American continues to increase - and with an average lifespan rapidly approaching 80+, there is increasing support for any research that will improve quality of life. Embryonic stem cell research shows promise on that front, hence the dilemma.


The Blame Game - Part Deux

The issue of "Able Danger" identifying an al Qaida cell before 9/11 resurfaced again today. Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer came forward, claiming he alerted the FBI in September 2000. (CNN: Able Danger man identifies himself).

The Able Danger situation is a classic case of 20:20 hindsight in action. The 9/11 Commission summed it up rather nicely: "Weighing this with the information about Atta's actual activities, the negligible information available about Atta to other U.S. government agencies and the German government before 9/11, and the interviewer's assessment of the interviewee's knowledge and credibility, the Commission staff concluded that the officer's account was not sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further investigation."

There have been other recent attempts to link information about bin Laden's whereabouts in 1996 to lapses in the Clinton Administration. Now, I'm certainly no Clinton apologist - far from it, in fact - but attempting to place the blame for 9/11 on any administration is ludicrous. There simply was no way to predict that event, regardless of how much information we attempt to piece together in hindsight.

The blame for the growth of Islamic extremism and our inability to counter that growth can be shared by every administration for the last 35 years. Overt US action in response to terror related events from the taking of US hostages in Iran all the way through the days immediately preceding 9/11 was virtually non-existent. What covert activity may have been taking place, of course, is unknown.

Continuing to play the blame game serves no useful purpose other than to further divide us as a nation. Let's stop looking to the past to assign blame and start looking to the future to assign responsibility. Anything else is counterproductive.