Sunday, February 19, 2006

On Vacation Until March 8th

I will be on vacation without access to the internet until Wednesday, March 8th. The Grapes Vine will continue its daily commentary at that time.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Hamas Abandons Peace

Hamas formally took office today, taking control of the Palestinian Parliament. Mahmoud Abbas, current Palestinian leader, asked the Hamas leadership to recognize existing peace deals with Israel and to continue down the roadmap to peace. Mushir al-Masri, a leading Hamas legislator, rebuffed the call, saying that negotiations with Israel were "not on our agenda." (CTV: Hamas takes power, rejects calls for peace talks).

Israel is expected to respond on Sunday with additional sanctions against the Palestinians and is expected to seal off the Gaza Strip to keep out thousands of Palestinian workers. There can be little doubt that the prospects for peace in that region are now slimmer than they were in 1967 before the 6-day war.

Hamas is also besieged by the US who on Friday warned other Iran and other Islamic nations not to fund Hamas. Iranian support for Hamas may well be another point raised in the UN when sanctions and military action are brought before the Security Council.

What is clear is that Hamas - and by default the Palestinian people - now find themselves isolated. With the US and Israel turning the financial screws, it's questionable how long Hamas can maintain control. It's also almost a certainty that terror attacks will continue against Israel. Now that those attacks will be coming from the legitimate government of the Palestinian Authority, Israel's response will hardly be measured.

The Palestinian people are about to learn a very harsh lesson. With democracy comes responsibility. The Palestinian people have chosen to elect a terrorist legislature. That is certainly their right, but now they will have to live with the consequences of that ill-advised decision. By choosing to put in office a terrorist government, they have chosen to forfeit all funding from the US and allies. They have chosen a path that may well lead to war. They have chosen a path that will isolate them from the rest of the world.

Certainly, that is a risk we take when we promote Democracy in parts of the world that are not accustomed with governing themselves. The Palestinian people are free to choose whatever leaders they wish. That is the right granted by a Democratic government. Now they will learn the consequences of making such an irrational choice, however. Hopefully they will learn this lesson before it's too late.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hussein Starts Hunger Strike

In what is apparently intended to be an act of defiance, Iraq's deposed dictator has announced that he and his fellow defendants are now on a hunger strike. Hussein alleges that he has not eaten in three days, and Barzan Ibrahim, his former chief of intelligence, has not eaten in the past two days. (Scotsman: Saddam and co-defendants start hunger strike).

For some odd reason, investigative judge Raid Juhi is looking into the claims that the defendants have willingly stopped eating. "This is an administrative problem that the court is working to verify, and it will work also to solve it ... with the responsible parties in the custodial authorities," he told reporters yesterday.

Why? If Hussein chooses to hold his breath until he turns blue, then let him. I've never understood the concept of a hunger strike in the first place. Is it supposed to garner sympathy for the accused? Not here, it doesn't! The only reason I would care at all is to make sure we monitor his weight. We do need to ensure there's enough tension on the rope when we hang him.

This is the same absurd tactic employed by a handful of terrorists being held at Camp X-Ray. We're force feeding them - again, for some unknown reason - and naturally the human rights groups scream prisoner abuse. In my view, if they go on a hunger strike, oblige them. Stop sending them food. It serves two purposes in the long run. It reduces the cost of housing them and it brings an end to their problem that much quicker.

One would think that the concept of a hunger strike would be outgrown by, oh, about the age of five. Isn't that around the age that small children finally learn the futility of temper tantrums? Of course, temper tantrums have been the hallmark of Hussein throughout his "trial". This court could learn a valuable lesson from U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, presiding over the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. After an outburst yesterday, Brinkema had Moussaoui removed and ordered him confined to a cell with closed circuit TV where he can monitor the rest of the proceedings and hold his tantrums in private. The same technique would work very well with Hussein, although some would argue that it's cruel and unusual punishment to deprive Hussein of a captive audience for his sideshow.

In the meantime, I'll raise an ale and toast the new Hussein diet. It sounds like an effective way to reduce our war costs and rid the world of a tyrant all at the same time.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

US, Europe Again at Odds Over Trade

Despite the largest trade deficit in US history - $725.8 billion - Europe continues to complain that US legislation unfairly provides subsidies to American exporters. (USA Today: U.S. still gives illegal aid to exporters, Europeans say). European trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson is threatening to impose additional sanctions against US exports unless Washington enacts legislation to curb the subsidies.

At issue with the Europeans is the Foreign Sales Corp (FSC) law that allows the federal government to grant tax exemptions to over 6000 American exporters. That law has since been repealed, but some of the measures to which Europe objected were incorporated into the 2004 American Jobs Creation Act. The WTO is threatening to reimpose sanctions unless Congress repeals portions of the Act.

This latest squabble with the WTO is another skirmish in Europe's attempt to assert European law over American law. Europe has yet to learn that US law, like US foreign policy, is made in Washington, DC, not in Paris, Brussels, or even New York City.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, correctly stated, "If sanctions are resumed, they'll only disrupt our bilateral economic relations. I doubt Congress will revisit this legislation." In fact, Congress should not revisit this legislation. It is Congress' responsibility to safeguard American jobs and American exports. The goal of Congress should be in reducing that $725.8 billion trade deficit, a goal that would not be fostered by adhering to WTO rules intended to give Europe an undue trade advantage.

The steps Congress needs to take would be even less popular than current legislation. Foreign imports should be tariffed at a higher rate so as to improve the sales of American made products. American companies engaging in foreign outsourcing should be penalized via the tax code for every job sent overseas. American exporters should receive significant tax breaks, allowing their products to compete favorably with foreign priced products. No, the WTO would not like those measures whatsoever. But then, the WTO is structured to serve Europe, not the US.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Europe Losing Last Crusade

Make no mistake about it, the Crusades are alive and well in Europe. Unfortunately, Europe is losing. (Yahoo News: ISLAMIC RADICALS TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WESTERN LIBERALISM). While it may be politically correct to state that the west is at war with radical Islam, that is in fact the reality. Or, more accurately, radical Islam is at war with the west. For some reason, the west appears reluctant to take up the fight.

The nonsensical violence over a handful of cartoons in a Danish newspaper are only the latest skirmish. That the violence was incited by the political leaders of the 57 Muslim nations should serve as a wake-up call, but that scarcely caught anyone's attention and drew little interest when the story broke late last week. I don't seem to recall any cars being torched when an art gallery in New York depicted a crucifix and images of the Virgin Mary covered in urine and feces, however. Perhaps that's the difference between living in the 21st century and living in the 7th century.

The trend of appeasement in Europe is most distressing. Consider these examples:
  • A British judge barred Jews and Hindus from the jury when trying an accused Muslim.

  • The Dutch Language Institute now demands that the word "Christ" be written with a lower case "c". Apparently, the proper noun is offensive to Muslims.

  • A government office banned Winnie the Pooh, piggy banks, and other images of pigs so Muslims wouldn't have to see them.

  • In demonstrations last week, British police ignored protesters with signs reading "Exterminate those who mock Islam" and "Be prepared for the real holocaust," yet they arrested two counter protesters for carrying signs with images of Muhammad.
Of course, Europe has a long history of appeasement, despite an equally long history that shows appeasement never works. Make no mistake about it, Muslim extremists smell blood and are pressing the attack. The US lead War on Terror, all political correctness aside, is a Holy War. It's high time the rest of the world woke up and realized that we are all under attack. This war has been waging since the 7th century, yet only one side appears to be fighting in earnest. Wake up, folks. Losing this war is not an option I'd care to consider.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Public Split on NSA Wire Taps

The latest AP-Ipsos poll shows the public evenly split on the legitimacy of the NSA surveillance that has come under fire of late. The same poll last month showed a strong 56% disapproval rating, however it is now 50-50. (ABC: Poll: Surveillance Wins Some More Backers). If nothing else, the polls show that the public is gradually coming to accept the President's message with regards to the need for this surveillance.

I must admit, I'm of mixed emotions, not only with regards to the surveillance itself, but more importantly with the public's acceptance of it. That we need to drastically improve our intelligence gathering is not open for debate. I doubt anyone would disagree with the assertion that our ability to track terrorists and disrupt their plans for further attacks could use dramatic improvement. Rather, what is open for debate - and rightfully so - are the methods used to gather that intelligence.

Certainly, eavesdropping on communications between suspected terrorists is warranted, even if one party is in the United States. That's not the question. It's whether or not it can ever be legal to do so without a court order and that is precisely where I'm of mixed emotions. You see, the law does provide the flexibility to wiretap for up to 72 hours without a court order. After that, however, depending on how you interpret several Executive Orders, it becomes very much debatable. My concern here is that the NSA could easily have obtained warrants in those 72 hours had they chosen to take that route. That they chose not to raises questions in my mind.

More disturbing, however, is the fact that we as a nation seem almost eager to give up basic rights for the illusion of increased safety. The fact that 50% of the people don't even question the wiretapping is disturbing. The fact that the majority of people readily accept surveillance cameras on our highways is disturbing. The fact that people readily accept random searches in subway stations is disturbing. These all constitute a gradual erosion of our rights; each one rather subtle and innocuous, but taken together they represent a very disturbing trend.

Now, before some of my readers harp on the vileness of the Bush Administration, let's not forget that his predecessor issued Executive Orders giving the police the right to conduct warrantless searches. Even Jimmy Carter issued Executive Orders authorizing warrantless wire tapping. This trend is not unique to the Bush Administration, nor is it unique to Republican Administrations. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find an administration in our lifetime regardless of party that did not gradually chip away at our constitutional rights.

That is what disturbs me the most. We as a people have become extremely soft. As comedian Dennis Miller once put it, our founding fathers went to war over a tax on their breakfast beverage. We, however, are perfectly willing to give away all of the rights they won with blood just to have the illusion that we're marginally safer than we were yesterday.

To me, every camera installed at an intersection or on a highway is another skirmish won by the terrorists. Every backpack searched in a subway station is a victory for al Qaeda. Every American that unquestioningly accepts the NSA surveillance without asking "why?" and without questioning the decision not to obtain a warrant within the 72-hour grace period furthers the cause of those that wish to destroy our way of life.

So yes, I'm of mixed emotions. I want to see the scum waging war against this country eliminated from the gene pool. But at the same time, I want to make sure that, in defeating them, we don't also defeat ourselves. There is far more at stake in this war than the potential for more terror attacks. Let's take care that our own quest for safety does not bring about a victory for the terrorists.


Court Blocks Detainee Transfer

A US District Court in Washington, DC blocked the transfer of Shawqi Omar, a Jordanian with US Citizenship, to Iraq. Omar was detained in Iraq and is accused of harboring foreign terrorists in Baghdad and planning kidnappings in Iraq. He is also believed to have served as the personal emissary of Abu Musab Zarqawi. (Washington Post: U.S. Detainee's Transfer Blocked).

Omar was allowing five men, all confessed terrorists, to live in his house while conducting surveillance on potential kidnapping targets. Further, the four Jordanians in the group admitted that Omar was coordinating the activities. The case against Omar certainly appears strong enough for any court.

That the US District Court blocked his transfer is the correct decision, although they did it for the wrong reason. His attorney had requested the blockage out of fear that he would be tortured in an Iraqi prison. For me, that's irrelevant. I really don't care if terrorists are tortured or not. At issue for me, however, is why we would want to transfer him to an Iraqi court in the first place. Iraq is doing such a wonderful job already with the Hussein trial and that of his cohorts.

Omar is a US citizen. He is bound by the US Constitution, which he swore to "defend, honor, and protect" when he was naturalized. That same Constitution clearly defines Omar's actions as treasonous. If nothing else, he should be tried on those grounds. Short of that, he clearly falls into the category of Unlawful Combatant as defined by the Geneva Convention. If his trial is not before the US Supreme Court on a charge of treason, then it must be before a military tribunal as an unlawful combatant. The Iraqi court system has no jurisdiction in this matter. Omar is at war with the United States and must pay the penalty for it.

What must also be answered is how the US District Court in Washington established jurisdiction over this case in the first place. They have none. If he is charged with treason, then only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction. If he is not charged with treason, then no court in the US has jurisdiction and his fate is in the hands of the US military. For any court in the nation to issue a ruling on his status, they must first establish jurisdiction, and the US District Court in Washington has no grounds to do that.

When will we learn the lessons taught both in Iraq and Afghanistan? We cannot delegate justice to other nations. The travesty of the Hussein trial should teach us that. The prison break in Yemen of top al Qaeda operatives should teach us that. The escape of bin Laden from Tora Bora with the assistance of those sent to capture him should teach us that. Once we have our hands on scum like Omar, we must not turn that scum over to any other nation. We have both the ability and the right to bring them to justice and we are obligated to enforce that right. Turning Omar over to Iraq would be a huge mistake. Sometimes the courts do stumble on the right answer for all the wrong reasons. Here's one case where that happened.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Lowery Mars King Service

The "Reverend" Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had nothing Christian-like to say when stooping to politics at the memorial service for Coretta Scott King. Lowery, a critic of the Bush family dating back to the Reagan era, usurped what should have been a tribute to the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, instead turning it into a political farce. (Newsday: Bush gets an earful.

During his remarks, Lowery attempted to rhyme, "We know there were no weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew and we know there are weapons of misdirection right down here." Indeed there were, Mr. Lowery - sorry, you have not earned the right to be called "reverend". The misdirection was nothing more than bait and switch. You promised people a memorial service to Coretta, and instead forced them into a political rally.

Former President Clinton attempted to maintain focus on the dignity of the service and the person allegedly being honored, yet the raucous crowd spoiled even that. His remarks were dignified and respectful, proclaiming that he was honored to be in the presence of "my President, and my former President." Unfortunately, the unruly crowd choose to politicise even that, pointing to Hillary Clinton and shouting "future president." Clinton was forced to chastise them, saying, "I don't want us to forget that there's a woman in there, not a symbol. A real woman who lived and breathed and got angry and got hurt and had dreams and disappointments."

Sadly, even former President Jimmy Carter got swept into the political fray, charging that, "It was difficult for them [the King family] personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretaps." Carter, of course, was taking a not-so-veiled swipe at NSA wiretapping of terrorists. Unfortunately for Carter, he needed a history lesson in this case. Let's see, who was it that tapped Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta? Ah, yes. That would have been the Justice Department under John F. Kennedy. Let me think for a moment, now. Who was the Attorney General then? Wait, it's coming to me. Oh, yes! It was Robert F. Kennedy! The same Robert F. Kennedy that was an adviser to Senator Joe McCarthy, I might add. Did I mention that JFK and RFK were both Democrats? Perhaps I forgot to add that piece. I should point out that Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson, continued this policy of wiretapping civil rights leaders.

If you want to know why the nation is so divided, you only have to look at this shameful memorial service to see first-hand the causes of that division. Black leaders such as Lowery, hiding behind a false cloak of Christianity, use what should be moments of unity to advance their personal political agendas. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr, whom many of them like to quote, their message is a message of hatred, of discord, of segregation. There is no similarity at all between the message King promoted and the one being politicised by his so-called followers. Misguided idealists such as Carter also jump on the racial band-wagon, further promoting this message of hate. The many advances in civil rights over the last three decades have been made despite the public rhetoric of people like Lowery.

There is a time for politics. A memorial service for someone many considered to be a great American is certainly not one such time. Lowery and Carter's shameful outbursts did nothing to advance the cause of Martin and Coretta King. What they did was further divide a nation.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Budget Projections Unrealistic

Federal budget projections going out to 2011 fail to account for known events as well as contingencies for likely events. While the projections assume permanent passage of past tax cuts as well as a decrease in congressional discretionary spending, they fail to take into account any cost beyond 2007 for the War on Terror. (Washington Post: Budget Plan Assumes Too Much, Demands Too Little).

Goldman Sachs has already begun advising clients that the deficit projections included in the budget are unrealistic. Members of Congress are already denouncing this budget as a non-starter. Business analysts find the budget laughable. Said Stanley E. Collender of Financial Dynamics Business Communications, "This budget is not going to happen. Of all the budgets I've seen recently, this is the one going nowhere the fastest."

There are two issues that I have with this budget as proposed. First, it completely ignores necessary spending in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor does it account for the likelihood of military spending in either Iran or Syria. The former, at least, is a solid enough prospect that some provisions must be included in the budget. It's absolutely unrealistic to assume that after 2007 we'll no longer encounter any situation that requires the use of military force.

Second, the budget does not go far enough in eliminating non-military expenses. First and foremost, the responsibilities of the federal government are for national security. Anything beyond that is a benefit that is subject to cuts when the budget is tight. Yet, we consistently see efforts to increase potential revenue (such as opening ANWR to drilling) or efforts to curtail social spending (such as agricultural subsidy cuts) stymied in Congress.

With the cost of energy skyrocketing and interest rates continuing to trend upward, the cost of living for the average American continues to grow far beyond figures quoted by the government in their cost-of-living index. A trip to the local supermarket or gas station tells you that, although food and energy are conveniently omitted from inflation indexes. It's clear that tax cuts implemented to stimulate the economy must be made permanent. To hit the public with an effective tax increase by not making them permanent would have a devastating impact on the economy as a whole.

So if taxes are not going to increase - and they cannot - and we know that military expenses are going to continue to grow, where will we get the funding to support this? Well first and foremost, open ANWR to drilling. There's plenty of potential revenue there and we should be making good use of it. The caribou certainly are not using it. Second, slash all non-military expenses in the existing budget. That's not something any congressman wants to do, especially in an election year, but that is what must happen.

The budget as proposed will not fly. It's not going to make any headway in Congress and it's a very unrealistic and overly optimistic projection out to 2011. Hard cuts are needed in social spending, and the time to start that is now.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Cole Bomber Escapes Yemen Prison

Jamal Badawi, convicted of and sentenced to death for the October 12, 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, escaped a Yemen Prison last week. 13 of the 23 that went with him are known al Qaeda terrorists. (Washington Post: Plotter in USS Cole Attack Flees Jail).

Yemen took its sweet time reporting the jail break in the first place, and thus far have been less than cooperative with the west. They have yet to provide a full list of names and photographs of the escaped terrorists, and it is likely that the escapees have already made it to safety in the mountains. Many of the mountain tribes in that region are sympathetic to al Qaeda and have little or no interaction with the Yemen government.

This is yet another example of why the US should not be using the legal systems in foreign countries for the detention, prosecution, and possible execution of terrorists. People may criticise our use of Guantanamo Bay for the detention of these scum, but the fact is that they are secure there. There's no chance of them escaping Cuba to attack the US again.

President Clinton once issued an Executive Order authorizing the US to use the military for the forceful extraction of any criminal on foreign soil wanted for crimes against the United States. Here's a classic example of where that order should have been implemented. The bombing of the USS Cole was an act of war against the US. There's no excuse for leaving the terrorists behind that bombing in a Yemen prison.

It's about time we learned the lesson that we do not have any Middle Eastern allies in this war on terror. Bin Laden was allowed to escape Tora Bora by Afghan warlords enlisted to assist in his capture. Pakistan continues to look the other way while terror groups train within their borders. Saudi Arabian citizens continue to fund charities linked to terror cells. To consider these nations allies in the war is ludicrous.

The way to deal with these terrorists is quite simple. Bring them before a military tribunal, convict them, and execute them. There is no rehabilitation of a terrorist and long-term incarceration is a financial drain that is simply not worth it. What is obvious is that we cannot afford to leave these terrorists in foreign prisons, especially in nations that are sympathetic to their cause.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pentagon Releases Strategy Document

The Pentagon has released a new strategy document, abandoning the "swift defeat" philosophy that characterized military strategy after the 9/11 attacks. (LA Times: Pentagon Plans for 'Long War' on Extremism).

The new strategy requires an increased focus on special forces and on unmanned drones similar to the Predator used by the CIA. The effectiveness of both have been demonstrated time and again in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Their emphasis in the new strategy document underscores the changing face of warfare in the 21st century.

Also included in the new strategy is language training for American troops, a lesson we should have learned throughout the foreign wars of the last century, but also a 33% increase in psychological operations. The poor performance of current military propaganda in the Middle East and in Europe shows this aspect of military operations to be sorely lacking.

What the new strategy does not contain is any significant increase in troop levels. The document reflects both a desire and a need to rely on foreign allies for long term military operations and peace keeping. If there is any significant weakness in the new strategy, this is it. The US should not and must not be dependent on any foreign power for any aspect of our military operations. Furthermore, the events of the last 5 years should prove beyond all doubt that our military must be capable of fighting multiple opponents in diverse locations and we must be capable of doing it alone.

We have already demonstrated that we are quite capable of quickly defeating an enemy. Both Afghanistan and Iraq took less than two months to topple the government and occupy the capital. What takes time is rebuilding the conquered nation. We're still struggling with that in both of those nations. The length of time it took in the Philippines and Germany after World War II shows just how long that process takes. In my view, unless we plan to permanently occupy the conquered nation, rebuilding is not something our military should be committed to accomplish.

The method of occupation necessary to control a population while the rebuilding is accomplished is not something this nation is willing to undertake. It also requires a much larger military than either the Pentagon or Congress want to authorize. Therefore, don't commit to the rebuilding. Use the military for what it does best and don't force them into a rebuilding effort for which they are not trained, not properly sized, and not authorized to enforce.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

OPEC Threatened by Bush Oil Statement

OPEC and oil industry executives were scrambling to counter President Bush's State of the Union pledge to reduce America's dependency on Middle East oil by 75% over the next 16 years. Feeling the noose tighten around the glutinous industry, OPEC ministers warned of policy changes that would threaten development of new oil production in that region. (MSNBC: Opec warns on Bush oil pledge).

One minister stated, "Comments like that are unrealistic. Everyone knows the world will continue to depend on Middle East imports." He pledged to work with the EU in formulating counter measures, describing the European Union as being "more aligned with Opec's view".

US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman attempted to calm OPEC's fears with some spin of his own. The Secretary said, "The president's goal ... is an improvement in our national security that would come from a more readily available supply of domestic motor fuel." Continuing to backpedal he stated, "It was not meant to suggest anything related to the politics of the situation. ... It was merely meant to give an example." (Washington Post: Mideast Still a Player in Oil Markets).

The Presidents statement in the State of the Union requires no back-pedaling and it certainly does not warrant political spin. We certainly do need to eliminate our dependency on, not only Mid-Eastern oil, but on all oil from unstable regimes including Nigeria, Latin America, and Russia. When you dig a bit deeper, however, you learn that the goal outlined in Tuesday's address is not all that grandiose. Only 60% of US oil demands are imported, and only 20% of our imported oil comes from the Middle East. We're not as heavily dependent on Mid-Eastern oil as popular opinion would have us believe.

Still, the President's stated direction does not go far enough. We need to invest heavily in the development of complete replacements for fossil fuels and petroleum based byproducts. We need to develop a viable long-term fuel strategy that does not rely on international trade. That vision is still lacking in Washington, and it is certainly lacking in the Energy Industry. Rather than leading us into the future, the Energy Industry, like a short-sighted drug pusher, is focused on increasing our addiction, increasing internal profits, and stifling any move to develop alternatives.

In 2005, Exxon posted the largest corporate profits in history. Smart business sense would demand that significant portions of those profits be directed towards alternative energy research, yet that is not happening. The oil industry needs to learn from the tobacco industry. Seeing the wave of anti-smoking sentiment sweeping the world, for the past 20 years the tobacco industry diversified and dropped their total reliance on a single product who's days were numbered. The oil industry would do well to learn the same lesson. They have the ability and the means to develop and move us to the energy solution of the 21st century. Unfortunately, that will take vision, leadership, and initiative - three traits sorely lacking in today's corporate America.