30 August 2003

Guardian Unlimited | Life | Earth's neighbour passes by:
People in the south Pacific had the best view at the moment of closest encounter: it was their night, and they were nearest to Mars at the magic moment. British astronomers were hardly so lucky. 'Eleven this morning didn't feel any different from any other time. It was cloudy and Mars was the other side of the Earth,' said Robin Scagell, of the Society for Popular Astronomy and one of the promoters of national astronomy week.

This item has no significance except shameless gloating and southern hemisphere chauvinism. It's probably a good thing for all concerned I started this blog some months after watching last year's total eclipse from Cameron's Corner.

Atlantic Unbound | Politics & Prose | 2003.08.21:
That legitimacy hangs by a thread now, an Iraqi journalist told On Point. The U.S. occupation is too weak to restore order or maintain basic services, he says, yet oppressive enough to kill, injure, and inflame Iraqi civilians. In the months since the war Baghdad has become 'another Beirut,' a blow to Iraqi pride for which Iraqis blame the United States. And the situation is likely to get worse. The Financial Times reports that more than 3,000 Saudi young men have 'gone missing' in the past two months. Many crossed over into Iraq to mount a jihad against the occupation. More suicide bombings can be expected. More U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians will die. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan this week, the Taliban offensive against the Karzai government resulted in the deaths of ninety people, the worst span of violence in Afghanistan since the U.S. war against the Taliban ended, just as this week was the worst in Iraq since the war against Saddam. And yet pundits insist that George W. Bush is unassailable on foreign policy. After such success, what failure?

Also written before the Najaf massacre.

Al-Ahram Weekly | Against the occupation:
The focus on 'loyalists' rather than other possibilities seemed to indicate that the US team did not take seriously the claim of responsibility by the previously unknown 'Armed Vanguards of Mohamed's Second Army', a name suggesting an Islamist rather than a secular Ba'thist background.

The notion that the bombing of the Canal Hotel was an 'inside job' was based on the fact that the device exploded beneath the office of the UN's chief representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed along with more than 20 other staff members. However, it is just as likely that the bombers simply chose the only route open to the flatbed lorry which delivered the crude device made of a Russian bomb wired to explosives: the paved roadway into the parking lot alongside the UN compound wall. So far, none of the strikes on foreign troops and military facilities and sabotage operations against infrastructure have involved sophisticated intelligence, great military expertise or equipment beyond that available from Iraq's looted army stores.

It would seem that this is true, also, of the 7 August hit on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad as well as the UN bombing. This means that almost any of the resistance groups now operating in Iraq could have carried out the operation. Since armed resistance began at the time of the regime's collapse in early April, some three dozen groups have either claimed responsibility for attacks on the occupying forces and other targets or issued communiqu�s declaring their determination to take up arms against the occupation.

This was written before the Najaf bombing. Blaming the attacks on loyalists does not cure the problem. Stopping them would. If (as the Bush administration insists) there are enough troops, then it follows that the conduct of the occupation in using those troops must be sadly incompetent. If there are not enough troops then the Bush administration's war planning was ineffectual.

Guardian Unlimited | Shi'ite cleric killed in guerrilla attack:
Paul Bremer, the American leading Iraq's interim administration, pledged the US-British coalition would do 'everything possible' to track down the attackers.

He said: 'The bombing shows again that the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing. Again, they have killed innocent Iraqis. Again, they have violated one of Islam's most sacred places. Again, by their heinous action, they have shown the evil face of terrorism.

'The Iraqi police have our full cooperation in this important investigation. On behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American people and all friends of Iraq, I express my deepest sympathy to the families of those killed and to the injured and their families.'

There has been considerable unrest among the religious communities in the holy city, which lies 110 miles south-west of Baghdad.

Today's bombing comes one week after a device exploded outside the house of one of Iraqi's most important Shia clerics, killing three guards and injuring 10 others including family members.

A gas cylinder, which had been placed along the outside wall of the home of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim in Najaf, exploded just after noon prayers July 22.

The Al-Hakims are one of the most influential families in the Shia community in Iraq, and Iraqi newspapers reported two weeks ago that the cleric had received death threats.

This slaughter is incredibly bad news. Bremer's bromides are not going to reassure al-Hakim's followers in SCIRI. The Shi'a have been relatively quiet. SCIRI and al-Dawa, the principal Shi'a parties, both sit in the nongoverning council. THE CPA cannot protect the UN or its Iraqi allies. Perhaps presidential speeches and press conferences are not enough to establish security in Iraq.

More on this here and here.

Sydney Morning Herald | Lost, even with a map:
Australian political life reacted in silence this week as US military deaths in Iraq reached a melancholy milestone. On Tuesday morning a homemade bomb killed an American soldier north of Baghdad and wounded two others. His death, reported The New York Times, meant more US troops had now died keeping 'the peace' in Iraq than had died fighting 'the war'. The soldier was the 139th to die since May 1. That was the day George Bush declared, to orchestrated fanfare, the end of 'major combat operations'. A total of 138 had died in the six preceding weeks of the US/British invasion. Iraq's casualties, dead and wounded, military and civilian, were estimated to exceed 20,000.

Yet Iraq as an issue has all but vanished here. John Howard and Simon Crean, both burnt by flawed judgement, want to keep it that way. I'm not aware a politician anywhere, state or federal, had anything to say about the significance of Tuesday's death. Most newspapers ignored it, too. The seeming indifference says as much about the degradation of the Iraq debate as it does about perceptions of its electoral dangers. Any weapon of mass destruction (apart from US firepower) has still to be found anywhere. A coherent policy stance by Labor remains just as elusive. Howard's duplicity in taking Australia into the war damaged him as much as Crean's confused, man-for-all-seasons rhetoric hurt the Labor leader.

What will each say when Bush, as he surely must, scales back the US military occupation of Iraq - estimated at 120,000 troops, costing $US4 billion ($6.24 billion) a month - in a presidential election year next year? US policy has been no more successful in securing the peace than ever it was in justifying the invasion. As The New York Times editorialised on Wednesday: 'A stable peace in Iraq cannot be won on the cheap or absent foreign partners. With the death count mounting daily, it is time for Bush to stop pretending otherwise.' You'd like to think someone in the political leadership of this country would say something as sensible.

Instead, absolute silence.

What can I add?

29 August 2003

The Independent | Blair's U-turn as he admits central role in naming Kelly:
What was decided at the meetings set off the chain of events that was to lead to the public exposure of Dr Kelly to an intense media spotlight, to his appearance before two parliamentary committees and to his death.

Mr Blair told the inquiry that he had been guided by senior civil servants over the affair. But he added:

The responsibility is mine, at the end of the day. I take the decision as Prime Minister, but I wanted to be able to say that we had played it by the book.

Just over five weeks ago, on learning of Dr Kelly's apparent suicide during an official flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, the Prime Minister had 'categorically' and 'emphatically' denied he had played a part in revealing the scientist's name.

Mr Blair, his ministers and spokesmen had subsequently declared that the Ministry of Defence had been left to handle Dr Kelly after he volunteered the fact that he had discussed last September's Iraq dossier with Mr Gilligan.

Four days after Dr Kelly was discovered dead in an Oxfordshire wood, the Prime Minister's official spokesman was still insisting that the MoD was the 'lead department' in working out the strategy over Dr Kelly and that this had been done under 'normal MoD procedure'.

The fundamental hurdle to calling John Howard to account in the same way is that his formulation would be:

The responsibility is not mine, at the end of the day. I take the decision as Prime Minister, but I wanted to be able to say that we had played it by the book which no-one told me about and I certainly did not read.

27 August 2003

Dubious Dossier Fueled Bush Deceits:
Britain's independent investigation, led by Lord Hutton, a respected senior jurist, was launched to answer questions about the death of David Kelly, a British expert on chemical and biological weapons, who helped reporters expose the Blair team's manipulation of intelligence data. But it has turned into a broad examination that is considering information not merely regarding Kelly but the whole question of how Blair and his aides made the case for war.

Last Tuesday, Hutton released copies of e-mails revealing that Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, cautioned against using the dossier to claim Iraq posed anything akin to 'an imminent threat.' After reviewing the evidence, Powell e-mailed top members of the prime minister's team to argue that the information 'does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam.'

The prime minister's chief of staff found the evidence on which the dossier was based so thin that he said it would only be 'convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced.'

Blair and his top aides chose to disregard the cautions and hyped the dossier with claims that it confirmed Iraq's WMD program was 'active, detailed and growing.' Even after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that the dossier was of questionable validity, Bush peddled the dubious data.

This week's revelations about the extent to which Blair and his aides massaged and manipulated the intelligence data should suggest to members of the U.S. Congress that it is time for the United States to again follow the lead of Britain. Congress should authorize a full investigation to determine whether, in the midst of a debate about war and peace, Bush and his cohorts chose to deceive Congress and the American people.

Perhaps Australia, as well, should be conducting a slightly more dynamic enquiry than the closed doors exercise in the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD. They might even consider the national security implications of the prime minister's alarming incapacity for getting the memo.

Blog Left: Critical Interventions Warblog | Claims about WMD 'may have been excuse rather than reason for war' :
Here's a British intelligence chief scathingly attacking Blair misuse of intelligence and correctly stating that Bush and Blair were looking for excuses for a war they'd already chosen to carry out, rather than offering reasons for war. He also notes that the war itself in effect began in Fall 2002:
In his note to the committee, written on 2 July, Sir John suggests that the change in the no-fly zone operations from defensive to offensive tactics last autumn was because the US and UK had already decided to 'prepare the battlefield' by removing threats such as Iraq's Silkworm missiles. 'It points to a question that needs to be posed,' he wrote. 'When was the decision taken to go to war? If this thesis bears examination, then the nation was committed to war in the late summer, early autumn of 2002.

Okay, let's all check the dates that the Man of Steel suddenly invented predeployment but promised (cross his heart and spit to die) that predeployment did not mean that we'd decided to join the war.

Link via Bad Attitudes

Salon.com | Joe Conason's Journal:
In the meantime, I will appear on CNN's 'Crossfire' today with guest host Al Franken. Among other things, I hope we can discuss the new slogan I've suggested for Fox News Channel, drawn from the wording of Judge Denny Chin's decision in the network's lawsuit against Franken and his publisher. Instead of 'Fair and Balanced,' why not 'Wholly Without Merit'?

Not quite vitriolic enough to make a snark of the week, but really not too bad.

Sydney Morning Herald | Time came above safety: inquiry head:
The State Rail Authority might have overlooked safety concerns over the Tangara deadman pedal because of concern with 'on-time running and things of that nature', the Waterfall inquiry commissioner, the retired judge Peter McInerney, said yesterday.

Hearing submissions from counsel on the causes of the crash on January 31 that killed seven people, he said he noted that vigilance control devices were now being put on Tangaras operating outside the metropolitan area.

The devices - alarms triggered if controls are not operated within a given time - are being installed as a back-up to deadman system.

Mr McInerney has heard that the authority made on-time running its top priority, disciplining drivers for being late and possibly deciding not to fit Tangaras with vigilance control devices earlier because it would have temporarily taken them out of service.

He said yesterday: 'Now the horse has bolted, they are fitting the devices, so there is no reason for them not to have been fitted in the 1990s.'

Same old, same old. From gungho staff meetings at the SRA to White House idiocies on Iraq and global warming, for some reason unbalanced managerialism produces really bad results. Perhaps we need to be really old-fashioned and fall back to using checks and balances rather than trusting the CEO on everything.

The implicit claim of managerialism is that the moral quality of the leader is the only thing that matters. That is an old, old assertion with surprising roots:

The conscience of a moral personality is a far greater protection against the misuse of an office than is the supervision of parliament or the separation of powers. I know no one who has a stronger conscience, or is more true to his people, than...

26 August 2003

Bush's Messiah Complex | February 2003 issue:
There's also the risk that Bush is so convinced that God's on our side that he may commit a blunder of horrifying proportions.

In a democracy, the fateful decisions of war and peace are not supposed to rest in the hands of one man. Today, they do. And what a man to entrust them with. Lacking intellectual curiosity, he boasts of an infallible gut. Desperate not to be trapped by 'the vision thing' that ensnared his father, Bush embraces a huge global mission and couches it in fundamentalist language. And he has assigned the Pentagon the primary role in carrying out this mission.

This is way too much power to give to anyone, and George W. Bush has the arrogance that comes with such power. 'I do not need to explain why I say things,' he told Woodward. 'That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation.'

When his crusade goes terribly wrong, as it is likely to do, Bush will owe a lot of people an explanation. Meanwhile, we must do whatever we can, nonviolently, to oppose this military messianism.

Neoliberalism is morphing into a new Byzantium. Byzantine emperors were regularly acclaimed as 'isapostolikos' and 'cosmocrator' - equal of the apostles and ruler of the world. Because the emperor was Christ-appointed any unsuccessful attempt at his overthrow was not just treason but apostasy. Success meant only that Christ had elected a new emperor. Bush claims to have been appointed by God.

When Margaret Thatcher first declared that there is no alternative to certain policies she laid the intellectual foundation for this nonsense. Bush effectively declares that there is no alternative to one person, himself. Further he ignores traditional Christian authorities such as the Vatican or the leadership of his own church in favour of his own direct relationship with God. That strikes me, apart from being very bad politics, as simple blasphemy.

Link courtesy of Orcinus.

Fundamental breach of ministerial code! Nation in shock!

It now seems that Leader of the House and Minister of Workplace Relations Tony Abbott founded an organisation called Australians for Honest Politics to bring down Pauline Hanson. In a gross breach of the Man of Steel's extraordinary standards for ministerial conduct AHP has not yet issued the required declaration that whatever it was they thought they were doing they certainly did not inform the prime minister.

Canberra insiders expect Abbott's dismissal within the hour. The embattled minister, ever a man of many parts, is reported to be flogging a screenplay based on this exciting saga.

Whether Baz Luhrmann really wants to be produce a sexed up version of the Alexandre Dumas classic is unknown. Abbott, meanwhile, is reportedly confident that The Woman in the Rubber Thongs will prove a worldwide hit.

Sydney Morning Herald | Rein in that Mars frenzy - it's still 55 million kilometres away:
NSW has a wealth of small observatories open to the public.

The astronomy enthusiasts who run them, inundated with inquiries about viewing Mars, are treading a delicate balance between encouraging excitement at the closest approach of the planet in recorded history and providing a realistic view about what people can expect to see down a telescope.

Peter Neilson, manager of Dubbo Observatory, said he made a point of showing people pictures first, so they knew what to look for. In the case of Mars, this was the glow of the polar caps, and the black marking of three volcanoes.

'Any level of interest in astronomy is good. But it's a matter of expectation,' he said.

Well, Peter's observatory and the Mars perigee are my excuse for visiting Dubbo. Peter told me Dubbo has been hit by Mars frenzy. It was great. And the sheep were nervous.

On Line Opinion 25/8/03 | Graham Young argues that Pauline Hanson got off lightly :
Hanson pleaded not guilty but the jury unanimously disagreed. Once the verdict had been reached the only question left to judge Patsy Wolfe was the length of sentence. She determined it should be three years - the length of a parliamentary term.

In making the sentence the judge had reference to four previous judgements. The most comparable was the decision of the Appeal Court in The Queen v Karen Lynn Ehrmann. Ehrmann falsely enrolled 24 people on the state electoral roll with the intention of using them in an internal ALP ballot. Ehrmann pleaded guilty. She was sentenced to three years with a recommendation for early release after nine months.

In terms of proportionality, Hanson's crime was greater. Ehrmann pleaded guilty and showed some remorse, Hanson did neither. You'd have to say that Patsy Wolfe's call was a pretty fair one. She even allowed Hanson's position as a Member of Parliament as a mitigating factor. I would have thought that it should have been the reverse - Hanson should have been held to a higher standard. Hanson's supporters say she should have escaped sentence because she repaid the money. Well, yes, she did, but only when she had been caught. If she hadn't repaid then she may have been sentenced to six years in jail, as in the case of Lockhart (see who misappropriated $390,000.

Hard as it is to argue with Young's opinion on the Hanson sentence the Australian media has succeeded in doing it. For example on the ABC's Insiders last Sunday we heard breathless speculation that if a major party figure had received a similar sentence...

Well, sadly for the researchers at the ABC a major figure has. The same factual bungle has dominated the airwaves since the Hanson sentence was first announced.

25 August 2003

Sydney Morning Herald | Don't cry for a sleazy grub:
And for the record, remember that Hanson, when elected to the Federal Parliament in March 1996, did so still as the candidate of the Liberal Party, even though John Howard, in a panic, insisted she be disendorsed after some of her blunt views on Aborigines and Asians surfaced in a local newspaper interview during the campaign. But her expulsion had come too late to affect her official status on the 70,000 ballot papers which already had been printed. And on these she was still listed, on polling day, as the Liberal candidate. The nonsense later that Hanson was elected as an independent has only been just that: nonsense.

The Liberals might have disowned her but she went into the ballot box on polling day as the Liberals' only identified candidate. And that is what got her elected. Thirty-one months later, in the October 1998 general election, Hanson switched from the outer Brisbane seat of Oxley to the nearby seat of Blair under the One Nation banner. It didn't help. She led on primary votes but lost on preferences to the Liberal candidate. In 2001 Hanson ran for a Queensland Senate seat and failed there, too. And in the recent NSW state election she was defeated a third time.

The national convulsion over Hanson's imprisonment shook even the remote fastnesses of the Golden West of New South Wales, where I've been for the last week. The one thing that I suspect has not been said is that if you commit a crime out of sheer idiocy, the forensic tactic is clear - you plead guilty, throw yourself on the mercy of the court, and try to make a case that there are actually people in the world capable of defrauding half a million dollars by mistake.

Hanson always struck me as more a vehicle for disaffection than anything else and the most extraordinary part of the Hanson saga is that the idiocy defence might well have been a true account of events.