20 December 2003

Surf's Up

I'll be posting at The Road to Surfdom while Tim goes off and does Xmas stuff. I'll still do things here, but certainly not as much. I might even venture out into the big blue at some stage. I understand there are actually people who step away from their comp long enough to shoot the breeze and smell the roses for, well, hours at a time. It all sounds a bit too spontaneous and unprocessed but I'm determined to try it out.

America's credibility gap: U.S. image, ideals take a hit

Today it is the United States that finds itself alone. In recent weeks, there were two votes on the Middle East in the U.N. General Assembly. In one, the vote was 133 to 4, and in the other, it was 144 to 4 - the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Japan and all of our NATO allies, including Great Britain and the so-called 'new' Europe, voted with the majority.

The loss of U.S. international credibility and the growing U.S. isolation are aspects of a troubling paradox: American power worldwide is at its historic zenith, but American global political standing is at its nadir. Maybe we are resented because we are rich, and we are, or because we are powerful, and we certainly are. But I think anyone who thinks that this is the full explanation is taking the easy way out and engaging in a self-serving justification.

Since the tragedy of 9-11, our government has embraced a paranoiac view of the world summarized in a phrase President Bush used on Sept. 20, 2001: 'Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.'

I suspect officials who have adopted the 'with us or against us' formulation don't know its historical origins. It was used by Lenin to attack the social democrats as anti-Bolshevik and justify handling them accordingly. This phrase is part of our policymakers' defining focus, summed up by the words 'war on terrorism.' War on terrorism reflects, in my view, a rather narrow and extremist vision of foreign policy for a superpower and for a great democracy with genuinely idealistic traditions.

Our country suffers from another troubling condition, a fear that periodically verges on blind panic. As a result, we lack a clear perception of critical security issues such as the availability to our enemies of weapons of mass destruction. In recent months, we have experienced perhaps the most significant intelligence failure in U.S. history. That failure was fueled by a demagogy that emphasizes worst-case scenarios, stimulates fear and induces a dichotomous view of world reality.

John Ralston Saul wrote in 1995 (using neoconservative to mean the New Right rather than the Wolfowitz claque) that:

Neo-conservatives are the Bolsheviks of the Right. (�) The first step in the advancement of a Bolshevik movement is the establishment of intellectual respectability. This was achieved by hiring bevies of ACADEMIC CONSULTANTS to lay out a marginal idea - that the West should revert the rough capitalism of nineteenth century - as if were not only an historic necessity but a natural inevitability.

It's a sad joke on both the intellectual pretensions and the historical ignorance of the neocons that by using the with us or against us argument they prove the Saul thesis. All they have done is added a second rough idea - the white man's burden - to their first rough idea that everything in Victorian capitalism was wonderful until it became even more wonderful.

Axis of Avarice

Speaking of marvels of hypocrisy, the U.N.'s books on who dealt with Iraq are not all that shrouded. For example, one of the disgusting companies actually making profits from dealing with the despicable dictator in the 1990s - long after his depravities had become evident to even the less attentive sectors of the world - was, well, golly, look at this, Halliburton. Between 1997 and 2000, while Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton, the company sold $73 million worth of oilfield equipment and services to Saddam Hussein.

At least Halliburton was not selling luxury cars to the Baathist elite. Halliburton, the oilfield equipment company, merely kept Saddam Hussein's oil fields pumping, the only thing that allowed the s.o.b. to stay in power. Halliburton cleverly ran its business with Saddam through two of its subsidiaries, Dresser Rand and Ingersoll-Dresser, in order to avoid the sanctions.

Unlike the Germans, the French and the Russians, Halliburton was not punished by the Bush administration for dealing with the dictator. Instead, it got the largest reconstruction contract given by this administration, with an estimated value between $5 billion and $15 billion. And the company got the contract without competitive bidding.


The Death of Horatio Alger

Put it this way: Suppose that you actually liked a caste society, and you were seeking ways to use your control of the government to further entrench the advantages of the haves against the have-nots. What would you do?

One thing you would definitely do is get rid of the estate tax, so that large fortunes can be passed on to the next generation. More broadly, you would seek to reduce tax rates both on corporate profits and on unearned income such as dividends and capital gains, so that those with large accumulated or inherited wealth could more easily accumulate even more. You'd also try to create tax shelters mainly useful for the rich. And more broadly still, you'd try to reduce tax rates on people with high incomes, shifting the burden to the payroll tax and other revenue sources that bear most heavily on people with lower incomes.

Meanwhile, on the spending side, you'd cut back on healthcare for the poor, on the quality of public education and on state aid for higher education. This would make it more difficult for people with low incomes to climb out of their difficulties and acquire the education essential to upward mobility in the modern economy.

And just to close off as many routes to upward mobility as possible, you'd do everything possible to break the power of unions, and you'd privatize government functions so that well-paid civil servants could be replaced with poorly paid private employees.

It all sounds sort of familiar, doesn't it?

Where is this taking us? Thomas Piketty, whose work with Saez has transformed our understanding of income distribution, warns that current policies will eventually create 'a class of rentiers in the U.S., whereby a small group of wealthy but untalented children controls vast segments of the US economy and penniless, talented children simply can't compete.' If he's right--and I fear that he is--we will end up suffering not only from injustice, but from a vast waste of human potential.

Goodbye, Horatio Alger. And goodbye, American Dream.

Untalented children inheriting America from their dear old dad? There's no way that could ever happen? Is there? Um...

British Royal Mail sticks it to Australia rugby fans

Australians with friends or relatives in the United Kingdom should brace themselves for some unwelcome reminders of last month's Rugby World Cup final defeat at the hands of England.

On Friday Britain's Royal Mail issued a set of commemorative 68 pence ($1.63) stamps featuring scenes from England's nail-biting 20-17 victory in Sydney.

'In case you hadn't realised, the 68p stamps are just the right value to send to any friend you might have in Australia,' helpful Royal Mail bosses pointed out.

We should ignore this. The Brits would gloat less if they were more used to winning.

Hutton Inquiry

[Inquiry Secretary] Hughes said: 'Lord Hutton is well advanced with the writing of his report but it now looks likely, as he indicated might happen when he last sat on 13 October, that it will not be published until the New Year. We are unable to state the precise date when the Report will be published.'

The tension, the tension...

A year long enough to send you batty

It has been a long year, my 16th here on Saturday. [A reader] of South Penrith is not impressed. In August he wrote, in defence of Pauline Hanson: "You remind me of a fruit bat, the only animal on the planet that doesn't have an anus. Instead it hangs upside down and spews faeces from its mouth." [Another reader] of Panania was of similar mind. "You may have helped crucify Peter Hollingworth," she wrote in March, "but you will never be big enough to crucify our great John Howard, Prime Minister."

[A reader] of South Tweed Heads shreds me often, and after I wrote on November 29 that all Simon Crean had shown, in two years as Labor's leader, was 'barely the ability to find his backside with both hands', she replied furiously: 'I enjoin you to find your backside, with both hands, and shove them up it as far as they can go.' She regularly denounces what she sees as my 'giving the worst PM we have ever had an easy ride to the next elections', an observation that would bemuse him.

Alan Ramsay on the agony of the long distance political reporter.

Parents prey and unto them a chick is born

In July this year the raptors tried again and, from a distance through binoculars, Mrs Harrington watched their progress. After a 40-day incubation a chick was born. In mid-November Harrington saw it perched on the edge of its eyrie, ready to fly.

'It has definitely flown and there have been reports of the young eagle,' she said. Now Sydney Olympic Park is calling on residents near the Parramatta River to report any sightings of the teenager. Its size would already be identical to its parents but its plumage will not yet be as snow white as the adults'. Instead, its wings will be covered in brown blotches and its life will be hanging in the balance for the next few months while it learns to hunt and fend for itself.

Its parents will feed it for at least the next couple of months, during which time the young bird will keep a low profile - perhaps hidden somewhere deep in the vast mangrove forests along that reach of the river. 'There's a lot of pollution and contamination but a lot of that has also been cleaned up,' Mrs Harrington said. 'It may still be a problem for the young bird.'

In its favour is the dramatic recovery of the area's wetlands and fish stocks for the eagle family to feed on. If it survives, the eagle will find its own mate and a new home, hopefully expanding the range of the species.

'The young bird is huge, unmistakable,' Mrs Harrington said. 'It's not as big as a wedgy. But the species is the biggest eagle we have around here.'

And you thought this blog was obsessed with bad news...

Rumsfeld Visited Baghdad in 1984 to Reassure Iraqis, Documents Show

Donald H. Rumsfeld went to Baghdad in March 1984 with instructions to deliver a private message about weapons of mass destruction: that the United States' public criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons would not derail Washington's attempts to forge a better relationship, according to newly declassified documents.

Rumsfeld, then President Ronald Reagan's special Middle East envoy, was urged to tell Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that the U.S. statement on chemical weapons, or CW, 'was made strictly out of our strong opposition to the use of lethal and incapacitating CW, wherever it occurs,' according to a cable to Rumsfeld from then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

The statement, the cable said, was not intended to imply a shift in policy, and the U.S. desire 'to improve bilateral relations, at a pace of Iraq's choosing,' remained 'undiminished.' 'This message bears reinforcing during your discussions.'

The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit National Security Archive, provide new, behind-the-scenes details of U.S. efforts to court Iraq as an ally even as it used chemical weapons in its war with Iran.

The press really shoud start hotlinking items they take from the blogosphere. And Rumsfeld really should explain why he's never mentioned the 1984 visit before now.

Who needs WMD when you've got Saddam?

The effort so far has taken two forms: the suggestion by administration officials, including Bush himself, that ousting and capturing Saddam were ample justifications for going to war; and the quiet dissolution of the nearly billion-dollar effort to find WMD in Iraq.

In a nationally televised interview earlier this week, Bush appeared to dismiss the relevance of whether Iraq actually had WMD and the possibility that Saddam might eventually have moved to acquire them. 'So what's the difference?' asked Bush, who later added that he was persuaded Saddam constituted 'a gathering threat, after 9/11 [September 11] ... that needed to be dealt with. 'And so we got rid of him, and there's no doubt the world is a safer, freer place as a result of Saddam being gone,' he went on.

At the same time, the reported decision by David Kay, director of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), to step down as early as next month appeared to confirm that US intelligence agencies have concluded there are no WMD to be found in Iraq.

Is the world actually a safer, freer place? Did abandoning the UN charter really enhance safety and freedom? Has exacerbating Islamist hatred fro the West by invading Iraq really achieved very much?

I am not objectively pro-Saddam. I am tempted to say that Bush, Blair and Howard are objectively pro-Hu Jintao because they are doing nothing to remove him from power. They are objectively pro-Kim Jong-il because they are doing nothing to remove him from power. The idiocy of with us and against us arguments can run a long way.

Starting a war without reasonable prospects of success is wrong. Baghdad has been occupied and the Ba'ath has been driven from power. Whether a new and better Iraq emerges is yet to be seen. I do not think anyone still claims that Iraq is going to be a shining beacon of democracy or that the road to peace runs through there.

And, if WMDs make no difference, why did Bush not go before Congress and ask for a war resolution to liberate the Iraqi people? Why did Howard specifically disavow liberation as a war aim?

Howard's deft political decision on Iraq

As November passed with the greatest number of coalition troops lost in the war since the commencement of hostilities, Howard's commitment of Australian forces to the invasion of Iraq - but not the occupation - emerged as a decision of considerable political foresight. Howard minimized damage both to his domestic political standing and to the long-term security relationship. His handling of the Iraq crisis warrants further study as an adept play of alliance politics.

Every alliance involves a cost-benefit relationship. In security alliances, states forgo a certain level of sovereignty, entailing a political cost in return for the benefit of a security assurance. Committing armed forces to alliance operations is one example of cost. Successful alliance management necessitates minimizing the perceived cost to alliance partners. This can be partially achieved through ensuring that the national interests of all alliance partners are perceived to be served in coalition operations.

The administration of US President George W Bush failed to do this. The failure to organize a convincing raison de guerre prior to the invasion of Iraq resulted in allied support coming at a much greater political cost - a cost far too great for most leaders in Asia. The complexity of the occupation has further necessitated the administration putting increased pressure on allies to contribute to a cause they could not support in the first instance, once again increasing the cost of participation in the alliance.

The increased political cost of participation in an alliance relationship inevitably results in the usefulness of the alliance being questioned, particularly at a time when the perception of threat, and hence the need for a security assurance, is declining. This is the case now across the Asia-Pacific, where supporting the US has arguably never been more unpopular.

Howard was deft. His deftness also shows the up the ineptitude of the Bush doctrine. The political cost to allies, whether it's Blair's declining standing in the polls or Musharraf's recent brush with assassination is considerable and the Bush administration ignores that at its own risk. Losing Blair would not end the alliance. Losing Musharraf would be a catastrophe.

19 December 2003

Could 9/11 Have Been Prevented?

Berger had left the room by the time Clarke, using a Powerpoint presentation, outlined his thinking to Rice. A senior Bush Administration official denies being handed a formal plan to take the offensive against al-Qaeda, and says Clarke's materials merely dealt with whether the new Administration should take 'a more active approach' to the terrorist group. (Rice declined to comment, but through a spokeswoman said she recalled no briefing at which Berger was present.) Other senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, however, say that Clarke had a set of proposals to 'roll back' al-Qaeda. In fact, the heading on Slide 14 of the Powerpoint presentation reads, 'Response to al Qaeda: Roll back.' Clarke's proposals called for the 'breakup' of al-Qaeda cells and the arrest of their personnel. The financial support for its terrorist activities would be systematically attacked, its assets frozen, its funding from fake charities stopped. Nations where al-Qaeda was causing trouble-Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Yemen-would be given aid to fight the terrorists. Most important, Clarke wanted to see a dramatic increase in covert action in Afghanistan to 'eliminate the sanctuary' where al-Qaeda had its terrorist training camps and bin Laden was being protected by the radical Islamic Taliban regime. The Taliban had come to power in 1996, bringing a sort of order to a nation that had been riven by bloody feuds between ethnic warlords since the Soviets had pulled out. Clarke supported a substantial increase in American support for the Northern Alliance, the last remaining resistance to the Taliban. That way, terrorists graduating from the training camps would have been forced to stay in Afghanistan, fighting (and dying) for the Taliban on the front lines. At the same time, the U.S. military would start planning for air strikes on the camps and for the introduction of special-operations forces into Afghanistan. The plan was estimated to cost 'several hundreds of millions of dollars.' In the words of a senior Bush Administration official, the proposals amounted to 'everything we've done since 9/11.'

The Rice memory problem strikes again. Perhaps her subordinates minuted the meeting and sent her a memo.

18 December 2003

Tracing the Asian terror links | CNN.com 22 Sep 2001

A chemical fire in his apartment alerted authorities to his hideout and helped uncover three terrorist plots:

-- an attempt to assassinate the Pope during his 1995 visit to Manila;

-- a conspiracy to bomb US airliners in Asia called Operation Bojinka ('loud explosion');

-- and a plan to recruit pilots to hijack US jetliners in the continental United States and slam the planes into government and commercial buildings.

Philippine authorities turned their evidence over to the U.S. government, providing evidence which led to the NY conviction of Yousef and his cohorts for 'Operation Bojinka.'

While in the Philippines, Yousef traveled to the Abu Sayyaf base in Basilan and trained about 20 members in 1994.

A year later, he gathered about 20 men in Matabungkay, near the capital, Manila, and trained them allegedly to help assassinate the Pope.

I guess we can expect to hear a great deal more about Operation Bojinka over the next few months.

Earlier Hijackings Offered Signals That Were Missed

The authorities appeared to draw no lessons from the two attacks in 1994. But one of them, in hindsight, had striking similarities to those of Sept. 11.

That was the December 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight in Algiers. The sponsor of the hijacking was an organization called the Armed Islamic Group, which said it was trying to rid Muslim Algeria of Western influence, specifically from France. Four young Algerians, members of a subgroup called Phalange of the Signers in Blood, commandeered the plane at the airport and ordered it to fly to Marseille, from which they said they wanted to fly to Paris.

But they demanded that it be loaded with 27 tons of fuel -- about three times as much as required for the flight to Paris. The plane was an Airbus A300, which is nearly as large as the Boeing 767's that struck the World Trade Center. The French authorities determined from hostages who had been released and from other sources that the group planned to explode the plane over Paris or crash it into the Eiffel Tower.

Condi's contention looks stranger and stranger. After the Kean statement I suspect a few lights are going to shine into a few gaps in the record. I do not expect them to find conspiracy. I do expect them to find stunning negligence at a level that approaches criminality.

Living with Climate Change

The global climate is changing and there is now strong evidence and international consensus that a significant part of this change is due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Elevated levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases also mean that our climate will continue to change throughout this century and beyond. The question is not will the climate change?, but rather how will it change? and what are the consequences? for regions and sectors.

Adaptation to climate change impacts will require an understanding of projected changes and impacts on regions of Australia, sectors of economy and society. It also requires an understanding of how effective our current approaches to managing climate variability and extremes are, and assessment of the range of management and policy tools available to help reduce future vulnerability to climate change. Adaptation will allow the costs of climate change impacts to be minimised and any opportunities and benefits to be realised. It is therefore important that we move to address the information gaps and uncertainties that exist around potential climate change impacts on Australia and the adaptation tools and options available.

The Government stated in its 15 August 2002 announcement entitled Global Greenhouse Challenge: The Way Ahead for Australia that it will implement policies and programs that will assist adaptation to climate change.

The Australian Greenhouse Office, under the direction of Australia's conservative government, has produced a lengthy and detailed report. I am going to try and summarise it over the next few days and look at how the government is responding. I am bemused that Environment Minister Kemp proudly tells us that Australia is close to achieving its Kyoto targets.

We did not ratify Kyoto. Why, then, are the Kyoto targets worth chasing? If they are worth chasing why is Kyoto not worth ratifying?

Chirac backs ban on headscarves

French President Jacques Chirac has voiced support for a law that would ban the wearing of headscarves in schools.

He was giving his reaction to last week's report by a government commission, which proposed a ban on conspicuous religious signs in schools.

Jewish skull-caps and large Christian crosses would be affected, as well as headscarves worn by Muslim girls.

Some religious leaders have objected to the idea, but polls suggest a majority of voters would back it.

'Discreet' medallions and pendants which merely confirm a person's religious faith would be allowed.

This is a truly bad idea. Secularism does not mean privileging one religion or culture over another. Chirac should be ashamed of himself.

Jet crash on stadium was Olympics nightmare | Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sep 2001

The claim that no-one imagined a hijacked jet being used as a weapon is belied by planning for precisely that eventuality at the Sydney Olympics. The Sydney Morning Herald reported (charge applies) on 20 September 2001:

A fully loaded, fuelled airliner crashing into the opening ceremony before a worldwide television audience at the Sydney Olympics was one of the greatest security fears for the Games, the Olympic Security Commander, former chief superintendent Paul McKinnon, says.

Mr McKinnon said that Osama bin Laden had been the number one threat.

The combined security forces had also prepared for marine hijackings or a hijacked plane smashing into the central business district.

Mr McKinnon said there was a constant aviation security overlay during the Games if a hijacked or wayward plane strayed into restricted airspace.

'We did not have the authority to shoot at it, but the plan was to run something in its path and we had a collection of aircraft in the sky at any time ready for that.'

The alternative argument would be that the intelligence resources available to the government of the United States are less than those available to the state of New South Wales. Now I like my state a lot, but I'm not sure I'd take my loyalty to NSW that far.

9/11 Chair: Attack Was Preventable

For the first time, the chairman of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is saying publicly that 9/11 could have and should have been prevented, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston.

'This is a very, very important part of history and we've got to tell it right,' said Thomas Kean.

'As you read the report, you're going to have a pretty clear idea what wasn't done and what should have been done,' he said. 'This was not something that had to happen.'

Appointed by the Bush administration, Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, is now pointing fingers inside the administration and laying blame.

'There are people that, if I was doing the job, would certainly not be in the position they were in at that time because they failed. They simply failed,' Kean said.

To find out who failed and why, the commission has navigated a political landmine, threatening a subpoena to gain access to the president's top-secret daily briefs. Those documents may shed light on one of the most controversial assertions of the Bush administration - that there was never any thought given to the idea that terrorists might fly an airplane into a building.

Well, this should set the cat among the stool-pigeons.

New find, old tomb, and peeks at early Christians

Like Puech and Zias, he says the building is from the 1st century and the inscription is from the 4th century. But Jim Strange, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, says the recovery of the inscription is 'quite amazing.'

'Here you have something showing 4th-century Christians were trying to locate the traditional places of the gospels,' he says. 'We don't know if it actually is Zacharias's tomb ... but it is clear someone in the 4th century was convinced it was. This suggests that the Byzantine Christians had some piece of intelligence to make the identification. They spoke to locals who told them, 'We know where Zacharias and Simeon are buried.' '

He is calling for more searches for inscriptions nearby. 'The Kidron Valley could be full of sites offering insights about what 4th-century Christians believed.'

Zias says his discovery also tells us about the futility of disputes over sacred sites in the Holy Land. 'If the Absalom Memorial is not Absalom's tomb, but rather Zacharias's Tomb, then we could ask, What about David's Tomb, or Rachel's Tomb, or Joseph's Tomb in Nablus? The question of whether we are killing each other over something authentic is highly relevant.'

When the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem they convinced themselves that the Dome of the Rock, built 684 CE, was the actual Temple of Solomon (of which no evidence has ever been found) and promptly converted it to a palace.

I'm not sure which armband theory of history that fits but it clearly shows that ascriptive history can be problematic.