21 February 2004

Look on the dark side of life

This is lazy, inadequate religion. If we deny the reality of suffering, we will ignore the distress of others. At its best, religion requires the faithful to see things as they really are. In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth that is essential for enlightenment is that life is dukkha: "unsatisfactory, awry". The Buddha's father tried to shield him from sorrow by imprisoning him in a pleasure-palace, walled off from disturbing reality. Guards were posted to drive away any distressing spectacle. For 29 years, the Buddha lived in this fool's paradise, locked into a delusion and unable to make spiritual progress. Finally the gods intervened and forced the young man to confront mortality, sickness and decay. Only then could he begin his quest for Nirvana

The Buddha's palace is a striking image of the mind in denial. As long as we immure ourselves from the pain that surrounds us on all sides, we remain trapped in an undeveloped version of ourselves. Denial is futile: suffering will always breach the cautionary barricades that we erect around our fragile existence. The ideal is to find a still centre within that enables us to face pain with equanimity and use our experience of dukkha to appreciate the sorrow of others.

The failure to confront unpleasant reality can also be politically dangerous. In the Bible, those preachers who told people to look on the bright side, that God would protect Jerusalem and that everything would work out for the best are condemned as 'false prophets'. The prophet Jeremiah has become a byword for excessive gloom, but if people had listened to his dire predictions, the Babylonian army might not have destroyed Jerusalem. He was not being 'negative'; he was right.

In our global world, we can no longer afford to edit out the uncomfortable spectacle of human misery. In the past, we have sometimes pursued policies that have resulted in great suffering, telling ourselves that all would ultimately be well. We have let conflicts fester until they have become intractable. We have supported such allies as Saddam Hussein, ignoring the atrocities they inflict upon their people. We are now rightly outraged by his massacre of his Kurdish subjects, but at the time we ineffectually turned a blind eye. Today we are reaping the reward of our heedless karma. The pain that we ignored in some parts of the world has hardened into murderous rage.

I suspect it is impossible to understand the state of the world that George Bush has wrought without any inquiry into his faith. Armstrong's language about false prophets sounds very like the meme that the US is under the special protection of God. Molly Ivins laid out a record of Bush's obliviousness last year. No administration has ever put quite so much energy into erecting First Amendment zones around the president. I've blogged recently about the Bush administration's assault on empirical fact. A lot of these efforts sound like guards driving unpleasant truth out of sigh of the Buddha's palace.

I've liked Armstrong's stuff since I read her History of God.

Barrier Reef just 50 years from death

The Great Barrier Reef will lose most of its coral cover by 2050, inflicting billions of dollars in damage on Australia's tourism and fishing industries, a study on coral bleaching has warned.

The authors, the head of Queensland University's Centre for Marine Studies, and his father, an economist, predict, at best, reefs will have about 5 per cent living coral cover by the middle of the century, a predicament that would take the reef 50-100 years to recover from.

They blame rising water temperatures for the problem and warn it could end up costing the economy $8 billion and more than 12,000 jobs by 2020. Even under favourable conditions, they said, tourists would only be able to experience real corals in reef 'theme parks' in places as far off as the Whitsunday Shire.

The study, which was commissioned by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Queensland's peak tourism body and partly funded by the Queensland and federal governments, has already been shown to federal ministers.

Gosh, just imagine how bad it would be if the earth really was warming.

U.S. Agrees to Free 5 Britons, Dane From Guantanamo Jail

Peter Goldsmith, Britain's attorney general, has been negotiating with lawyers at the White House and the Pentagon for nearly a year seeking procedures for the tribunals that would be recognized as fair by British standards. Straw said at a news conference that 'some progress' had been made in these talks but that Goldsmith still believed the tribunals 'as presently constituted would not provide the type of process which we would afford British nationals.'

British and U.S. officials have refused to disclose the points in dispute. But one official said on condition of anonymity that Goldsmith had questions about the kind of evidence that might be admissible before the tribunal. British legal authorities say the fact that the men have been interrogated without their attorneys present and that some of the evidence is secret would virtually rule out any chance of a successful prosecution in Britain.

What a pity our own attorney-general did not notice what Britain's attorney-general noticed. Or what Lord Steyn noticed. Or what Major Mori noticed. Or what he himself said about the retropsective prosecution of war crimes in 1988.

British legal experts have been nearly unanimous in condemning the Guantanamo detentions and demanding the return of the prisoners. Justice Johan Steyn, one of Britain's most senior judges, gave a speech last fall condemning Camp Delta as 'a monstrous failure of justice.' He said the detainees were 'beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts and at the mercy of the victors.'"

Polyukhovich v Commonwealth

32. The absence of any similar prohibition in our Constitution against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws is fatal to the plaintiff's argument except in so far as the separation of powers effected by our Constitution, in particular the vesting of judicial power in Ch III courts, imports a restraint on Parliament's power to enact such laws. In this respect the prohibition against bills of attainder has been seen 'as an implementation of the separation of powers, a general safeguard against legislative exercise of the judicial function, or more simply - trial by legislature': United States v. Brown (1965) 381 US 437, at p 442. This doctrine applies to bills of attainder but not to the generality of other ex post facto laws. That is because it is of the essence of the prohibition of a bill of attainder 'that it proscribes legislative punishment of specified persons - not of whichever persons might be judicially determined to fit within properly general proscriptions duly enacted in advance': Tribe, American Constitutional Law, 2nd ed. (1988), p 643. The application of the doctrine depends upon the legislature adjudging the guilt of a specific individual or specific individuals or imposing punishment upon them. If, for some reason, an ex post facto law did not amount to a bill of attainder, yet adjudged persons guilty of a crime or imposed punishment upon them, it could amount to trial by legislature and a usurpation of judicial power. But if the law, though retrospective in operation, leaves it to the courts to determine whether the person charged has engaged in the conduct complained of and whether that conduct is an infringement of the rule prescribed, there is no interference with the exercise of judicial power.

A majority of the High Court shared Chief Justice Mason's conclusion in the validity of the War Crimes Amendment Act 1988. An amendment to that act could easily encompass war crimes committed in Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban.


Substitution of Preamble

3. The Preamble to the Principal Act is repealed and the following Preamble is substituted:


(a) concern has arisen that a significant number of persons who committed serious war crimes in Europe during World War II may since have entered Australia and became Australian citizens or residents;

(b) it is appropriate that persons accused of such war crimes be brought to trial in the ordinary criminal courts in Australia; and

(c) it is also essential in the interests of justice that persons so accused be given a fair trial with all the safeguards for accused persons in trials in those courts, having particular regard to matters such as the gravity of the allegations and the lapse of time since the alleged crimes:'.

Sounds like the Parliament agreed with retrospective prosecutions in 1988. Indeed, so did Philip Ruddock, speaking on this bill in the House on 21 December 1988:

The argument was that the very passage of this War Crimes Amendment Bill could be construed as having overcome or removed the operation of the ordinary rules that the courts might apply, particularly in relation to the question of the passage of time. The courts would be asked to construe the legislation on the basis that the Parliament, by passing this very legislation, intended that these matters should be dealt with, even though they may have occurred 45 years ago and the question that the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N. A. Brown) has raised might well have been relevant.

No polls, but Iraq gets sovereignty - and troops

Bremer also said the Iraqi constitution should acknowledge the Islamic nature of Iraq, but stressed that it not be based solely on sharia, or Islamic law. Instead, he said it should be founded on secular principles that guarantee rights recognized in liberal democracies.

'We said we seek a representative and sovereign Iraqi government. That government should be bound by a transitional administrative law that protects fundamental rights and provides a stable political structure. Under that law, Iraqis will enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the freedom of religious belief and practice,' he said.

UN diplomats say that Brahimi favors a relatively short period between the handover of power and elections, with nationwide balloting possibly late this year.

Asia Times Online reports that serious political horse-trading is now likely to begin: already many of the 25 US-appointed members of Iraq's Governing Council have begun making bids to assume sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Other stakeholders, including Sistani and the country's Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the population, Sunnis, long accustomed to power, and Kurds, hankering after self-rule in the north, will certainly also have something to say.

The US, the UN and Iraqi leaders have just four months to work out how all these groups can be accommodated into an administration which Iraqis will feel deserving of receiving the gift of 'sovereignty'.

The thing is that the new sovereignty without elections plan is just as silly as the previous sovereignty without elections plan. Only by the longest stretch could the caucus plan ever be called an election, although Jack Straw among others tried. Now apparently the idea is for the CPA to transfer power to its own appointees, exactly as under the caucus plan. Will the new government, however appointed, be sovereign enough to ask the US to leave?

20 February 2004

Look back in terror

Some months ago, I blogged that retrospective laws could enable Hicks' and Mamdouh"s trial in Australia according to Australian law.

According to the AgeLatham believes:

Our view is that the two Australians should be bought back to Australia and tried under Australian laws and under an Australian standard of combating terrorism,' Mr Latham said.

The ALP would support government moves to introduce retrospective laws to allow the Guantanamo Bay prisoners to be brought back to Australia.

'We should be saying these Australian citizens who have done the wrong thing they have got to be dealt with the Australian way here in our country,' Mr Latham said.

'If the Howard government hasn't got laws in place to do that the onus in on them to put forward the laws into parliament and I am saying the opposition is there to assist in that task.'

Strangely enough, both Hicks' lawyer and the Honourable sic Philip Ruddock have raced to reject this idea, although from fundamentally different perspectives. Neither provides any critique of making retrospective laws. Ruddock seems concerned to get the ALP associated with backflips and Kenny (not unnaturally) wants his client to get off.

Kenny tells us:

Retrospective legislation doesn't work," he said. "It has never worked and it's not a satisfactory solution.

Ruddock supports him, if unintentionally, with:

Mr Ruddock is calling that a Labor back-flip and says it flies in the face of long-established legal principles.

"It indicates the way Mr Latham departs from the long-standing view of his own party," he said.

Some in Labor are concerned that their leader has floated the idea of retrospective legislation.

Mr Ruddock says it is legally almost impossible to bring in such specific back-dated laws, although now that Mr Latham has suggested it, he will look again at the idea.

He says he is willing to consider all options to strengthen Australia's anti-terrorism laws.

Drafting a bill to allow retrospective activation of the treachery offence with respect to military operations in Afghanistan would be quite easy. Of course, if the government was serious about the War on Terror, as opposed to the war on the opposition, they would have activated the treachery clause 2 years ago and this discussion would now be moot.

But then Grand Inquisitor Ruddock is the legal genius who spect a year telling us the US military commissions guarantee fair trials and when that lie was exposed by Major Mori announced that every advocate starts his case by decrying the impartiality of the court. They do not and Ruddock knows it.

Caveat, if Hicks is guilty of an offence against Australia law he should be tried and punished to the full extent of the law.

Plan for Caucuses In Iraq Is Dropped

The Bush administration is abandoning the core idea of its plan to hold regional caucuses for an Iraqi provisional government and will instead work with the United Nations and Iraqis to develop yet another plan for the transfer of political power by June 30, U.N. and U.S. officials said yesterday.

The decision, forced by rejection of the caucus system by a wide range of Iraqis, means that the Coalition Provisional Authority led by the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, will instead hand over authority to a caretaker government until direct elections can be held, officials said.

In a meeting at the United Nations yesterday, Secretary General Kofi Annan told a gathering of diplomats with interests in Iraq that the Iraqis themselves should determine the participants and form of a caretaker government that will be credible to Iraq's disparate society, according to U.N. officials who attended.

This is good news. It will be better news if the CPA sets up a genuine dialogue under UN auspices. I wonder how this will play in the US election?

Senate hearing debate over FTA benefits

Meanwhile trade officials told the hearing the full text of the free trade agreement should be available in just over a week.

Worth reading, if only for the notable stoush between Senators Conroy and Campbell. It's also good news that we finally get to read the damn thing, almost a month after its announcement.

Man marries dog for luck, then dies

A 75-year-old man in Nepal married a dog in a local custom to ensure good luck only to die three days later, a newspaper reported.

With his son and other relatives by his side, Phulram Chaudhary tied the knot with a dog in Durgauli village in the south-western Kailali district on Saturday.

He was following a custom of his Tharu community, which holds that an old man who regrows teeth must take a dog as a bride.

I hope it was a female dog, otherwise it would have threatened the sanctity of marriage.

Veterans face conundrum: Kerry or Bush?

Bush used his father's political influence to move past many on the Texas Guard's waiting list. He was not required to attend Officer Candidate School to earn his commission. He lost his flight status after failing to show up for a required annual physical. These facts alone raise the eyebrows of those who took a different path in a war that for the Marine Corps brought more casualties than even World War II.

The Bush campaign now claims that these issues are largely moot and that Bush has proved himself as a competent and daring 'war president.' And yet his actions in Iraq, and the vicious attacks against anyone who disagrees with his administration's logic, give many veterans serious pause.

Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence.

There is no historical precedent for taking such action when our country was not being directly threatened. The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves.

At the same time, those around Bush, many of whom came of age during Vietnam and almost none of whom served, have attempted to assassinate the character and insult the patriotism of anyone who disagrees with them. Some have impugned the culture, history and integrity of entire nations, particularly in Europe, that have been our country's great friends for generations and, in some cases, for centuries.

Bush has yet to fire a single person responsible for this strategy. Nor has he reined in those who have made irresponsible comments while claiming to represent his administration. One only can conclude that he agrees with both their methods and their message.

Most seriously, Bush has yet to explain the exact circumstances under which American military forces will be withdrawn from Iraq.

Nor has Kerry given us a picture of how his strategy would differ from the course that has been set.

Once these answers are given, all of us will be able to understand more clearly the true legacy of the past.

James Webb was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, and a Marine platoon and company commander in Vietnam. He also is an author and filmmaker.

Go read the whole thing...

Scientists: Bush Distorts Science

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent organization, also issued a 37-page report, "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking," detailing the accusations. The statement and the report both accuse the Bush administration of distorting and suppressing findings that contradict administration policies, stacking panels with like-minded and underqualified scientists with ties to industry, and eliminating some advisory committees altogether.

The scientists listed various policy issues as being unfairly influenced by the administration, including those concerning climate change, mercury emissions, reproductive health, lead poisoning in children, workplace safety and nuclear weapons. New regulations and laws are necessary to fix the situation, the statement says.

"We found a serious pattern of undermining science by the Bush administration, and it crosses disciplines, whether it's global climate change or reproductive health or mercury in the food chain or forestry -- the list goes on and on," said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

President Bush's science adviser, John Marburger, said he was disappointed in the report, and called it biased.

He said he was troubled by the fact that some very prestigious scientists signed the statement.

A little more detail. I'm also amazed that the White House response merely charges bias without examining any empirical issue. You'd think this one response, of all responses, would contain argument and evidence rather than mere assertion.

19 February 2004

The PM's pork-barrelling protectionism

We know that as an economic rationalist he hates taxes, especially new taxes. But as a prime minister with elections to win he loves a levy. A levy is, of course, not a tax, because it is spelt quite differently. So when the deregulation of the sugar industry began to cause the prime minister political problems in 2002 he went straight for his bag of levies.

Australian consumers are currently paying 3c a kilo of sugar. The deregulation of the industry was designed to lower costs and increase efficiency. The sugar levy was designed to increase costs. Howard might have found it hard to think of a reason to isolate the sugar industry from the reforms faced by the rest of the economy, but his party strategists made sure that he also thought up a reason to keep sugar-farmers in marginal seats happy all the same.

And now he has to worry about the impact of the so-called free-trade agreement on the voting intentions of the sugar-farmers.

While his early proclamations on the benefits of an FTA were designed to shore up his credentials as a free-trading economic rationalist, his ultimate decision to press ahead with a deal that gave up on free trade in sugar was based firmly on domestic politics.

Much has been made of the importance of United States domestic politics in determining the nature of the Australia/US FTA but it was Australian politics that was the major constraint.

There was no real need to wrap up the agreement so quickly. The Australian negotiators took only half the time taken by those of other countries who have negotiated FTAs with the US. The PM is right that such an opportunity comes along only once in a generation, but it was politics, not ideology, that drove him to rush the deal and deliver a disappointing result.

But, having failed to extract a price from the US sugar-farmers, Howard is now determined to extract a price from Australian taxpayers. The fact is, someone has to give the Australian sugar farmers some more money or Howard may lose office.

The problem for the PM now is that having placed the sugar-farmers on the public teat he cannot remove them before the next election, no matter how much they demand.

Ah well, we'll see how bitter the pill is when the fine print, for that matter the gross print, is released. I wonder if anyone's yet told the cattlegrowers about the floor price which allows, even after 18 years, for tariffs and quotas to cut back in?

Apparently the Bush administration will not submit the FTS to congress for ratification until May. Why then was it announced but not published in January? The urgency because of US politics theory was based on the behaviour of US legislators in an election year. Surely that would mandate submitting it ASAP?

Twenty Nobel Laureates Versus Bush

Specific examples follow, such as the suppression of EPA studies that conflicted with administration positions on climate change and the Clean Air Act. I actually found several items on the list of abuses a bit surprising. For example, the scientists note that the administration is 'supporting revisions to the Endangered Species Act that would greatly constrain scientific input into the process of identifying endangered species and critical habitats for their protection.' That's true, but given that it's only a proposed policy and Bush probably won't get the law passed, I found it odd to see it singled out here.

Far more interesting, though, is this complaint:

In making the invalid claim that Iraq had sought to acquire aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment centrifuges, the administration disregarded the contrary assessment by experts at the Livermore, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

And so Bush's abuses of intelligence to justify war with Iraq and his abuses of science finally merge. If the American public realizes that Bush's willingness to twist information to support his policies is systematic and fundamental to the way he operates, he will truly be doomed in the 2004 election. Perhaps more than any other part of this scientist statement, this sentence should terrify the president.

Finally, the statement ends with legislative proposals to prevent such abuses in the future--for example, laws prohibiting the censorship of scientific reports and the packing of scientific advisory panels. Interestingly, there's no discussion of ensuring that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Bush has minimized and shipped out of the White House, plays a much bigger role in future administrations. Maybe the scientists felt it was inappropriate to tell presidents how they ought to staff their own office.

The recent brouhaha over job stats exemplifies the whole thing, as does the Bush approach to fiscal projections. You'll not be shocked to hear I do not plan to vote for John Howard but, with the exception of greenhouse issues, his government has at least been prepared to deal with real facts rather than fantasy.

Our Present Political Mess

Of course I understand the desire to not repeat the error of 2000 that leads to this - but look at what this thinking does: it guarantees that the media gets to choose the candidate of the Democrats. Why? Because you personally are an expert on which candidate actually corresponds to your own ideas, so if you vote on the basis of who represents your own thinking best you might vote for a Dean, a Kuninich, a Sharpton, an Edwards, or a Kerry or a Clark because they hold your ideals and articulate them in a way that appeals to you. But if you vote on the basis of 'who can win?' you have to depend on the media, because only they can tell you what the people elsewhere with whom you have no direct contact are actually thinking and going to do. So, you give them all the power.

I'll have to think about this a little, but on first reading it looks persuasive.

Amid Iraq-Bound Guardsmen, Bush Acts to Blunt Foes' Barbs

In discussing Iraq and its weapons programs, Mr. Bush noted that he was not alone in judging Mr. Hussein to be a threat to the world. 'My administration looked at the intelligence information and we saw danger,' he said. 'Members of Congress looked at the same intelligence, and they saw danger. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence, and it saw danger.'

Some Democrats in Congress say the intelligence they were shown by the administration had been stripped of caveats or ignored dissenting views about the threats it purported to document. The United States was unable to get the votes it needed in the United Nations Security Council to win explicit authorization to invade Iraq just before the war.

Bush is not acting (except in the Martin Sheen sense). Misrepresenting is not action. And the UN inspectors reached a radically different conclusion - that more inspections were necessary.

18 February 2004

Intelligence agency head comes out as newspaper source

FRANK LEWINCAMP: The seminar was conducted under the Chatham House rule, there was a further injunction given clearly to the students, including Mr Forbes, both before and after my presentation that there be no attribution, citing or disclosure of any of the information presented.

I have spoken to Mr Forbes on about four occasions since the seminar, most recently when he called me last Friday to say that an article about intelligence reporting on Iraq WMD would be appearing in the Age the next day. He did not tell me the content of the article.

As to the content of Saturday's article, I have given testimony to this committee in June and November last year about the key judgements which DIO provided to government on the state of Iraqi WMD.

There are similar statements in the article about a latent WMD capability able to be activated at short notice and the degree of weaponisation being unknown, but I have never made and would not make some of the statements attributed to the official in Mr Forbes article.

For example, I have never said that the Bush administration's claims justifying an invasion were exaggerated, nor have I said that the Government was told that Iraq WMD did not pose an immediate threat.

Overall, the article characterises these issues in ways in which I do not. There are judgements in there with which I disagree and views that I do not hold.

This is the second time a high security official has fallen on his sword. It will be interesting when the parliamentary committee report (those parts not yet leaked) is finally released.

Honours list, Public Service Medal

Walter Frank LEWINCAMP, Narrabundah, ACT, for outstanding public service in the provision of high quality intelligence for the strategic planning and conduct of the Australian contribution to the Iraq War.

Lewincamp is director-general of the Defence Intelligence Organisation. He appeared today before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. Clearly he enjoys the confidence of the government in dealing with defence intelligence matters.

George Bush, Make-Believe President

This is an entirely new doctrine of war for the United States. In a Cincinnati speech five months before the start of the Iraq war, Bush described it thusly, explaining why the U.S. had to act 'now' against Hussein: 'America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.'

But we knew then that the Iraqis no longer had a credible nuclear program, and we know now that they also didn't have the weapons about which President Bush said there was 'no doubt.'

It wasn't Iraq that was peddling nuclear technology to rogue nations and terrorists. It was Pakistan, our 'ally' in the war against terror. Clear evidence shows that Washington knew this several years ago. Yes, President Bush knew it when he took the oath of office in January 2001. And he never told us, not even after 9-11.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy - after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by American-trained Cuban exiles - didn't point fingers at the CIA or anyone else. Instead, he told the National Security Council that 'we're not going to have any search for scapegoats . . . the final responsibilities of any failure is mine, and mine alone.'

George Walker Bush, who said he was going to 'restore honor and dignity to the White House,' could learn something from that history. Truth is better than fiction when you're sending your youth into battle.

This is the heart of George's AWOL problem. He claims to be a war president (as though that was an excuse) but his National Guard service turns out to have been an exercise in cronyism and absenteeism rather than any actual danger. The issue's become a proxy for other issues, like the war claims and the fiscal policy, where finding definite facts is so much harder.

No oral sex please, this is clean-living Singapore

Singapore's 77-year-old chief judge has given an earthy defence of his country's notorious prohibition on oral sex - declaring the law should be upheld to safeguard Asian standards of decency.

Sending a 25-year-old former policeman to jail for 12 months for receiving oral sex from a teenage girl, Chief Justice Yong Pung How said that despite growing permissiveness in some countries there were 'certain offences that are so repulsive in Asian culture'.

'There are countries where you can go and suck away for all you are worth,' the judge said.

'People in high places do it for all they're worth. I'm not an expert, but you read about it in the papers. But this is Asia.'

Justice Yong was hearing an appeal by Annis Abdullah against the severity of his two-year prison sentence for receiving oral sex from a girl, originally described by prosecutors as 16 years old, but later revealed to be 15 and a minor. Under Singapore law, oral sex, anal sex and homosexual intercourse are defined as acts 'against the law of nature' and punishable by up to 10 years in jail.

I look forward to the Man of Steel denouncing His Honour's judgment as an example of the distinction between Australian and Asian values. Our prime minister has, after all, never been afraid to put his money where his mouth is on such issues. It's just a pity he didn't suck it up over the FTA when his friend George refused to come across.

17 February 2004

This trade deal could have been better. But Howard blinked

In reality, FIRB is no barrier, and lifting its threshold for approval in non-sensitive areas will have little effect. There is no way we will attract the US manufacturing investment that poured across the border into Canada and Mexico.

The view that a bad deal was better than none implies that if this deal collapsed, the US would never offer the same concessions again. It implies that the US industries that stand to gain so much from this deal - manufacturers, drug companies, service industries, Hollywood - would give up and walk away, rather than pressure the next US administration to produce a comprehensive offer.

I doubt that too. Last year in similar circumstances, the Mexico-Japan trade deal broke down when Japan refused to open its market to Mexican pork exports. Mexico's gutsy President, Vincente Fox, refused to blink. Back in Japan, the impasse whipped up pressure for farm reforms, and now the Japanese are back to the table.

That is what I suspect John Howard should have done: stood tall, and let it be seen that the sugar lobby was blocking the US from a deal that would have benefits for its wider economy.

That would have increased pressure for farm reforms in the US, preserved Australia's credibility as a global fighter for free trade in agriculture, and allowed us to come back in a non-election year to finish the deal.

Hear, bloody hear. But that course would have required a certain amount of political courage and meant starting an election year with a foreign policy defeat. It would also have fed back into the war. As the Miami Herald said, the US has no better friend than Australia, and if that is less important than the US sugar, beef and dairy lobbies it rather weakens the obsessive bowing and scraping that Howard thinks is foreign policy.

The government can easily answer this argument. It can publish the treaty now.

Iraqi Panel Pivots on U.S. Plan

Even so, Sistani's demand -- and the resulting lack of Shiite political support -- stalled implementation of the caucus plan and led the Bush administration to invite a team of U.N. experts, led by former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, to determine whether early elections would be feasible. Brahimi and his team left Iraq over the weekend after spending a week meeting with political, religious and social leaders.

Brahimi indicated last week that he believed nationwide, direct elections could be held late this year, according to people who met with him. Although Shiite leaders would prefer elections to be held sooner and rival Sunni leaders want them to be held later, both sides appear to be willing to embrace the idea of elections at the end of the year, several Sunni and Shiite leaders said.

With expectations running high that Brahimi will support the idea of elections later this year or early next year, Sunni members have been backing away from the caucuses. Talabani, the Kurdish leader who hosted the Nov. 15 meeting in his palatial riverfront villa and had been a staunch supporter of the caucus proposal, said on Sunday that 'elections are the best way to express the opinions of the Iraqi people.'

Ahmed Chalabi, a moderate Shiite who has been an ally of many in the Bush administration, also has rejected the caucus plan, calling for elections before June. If that does not occur, an official of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress said, the organization would also support a handover of sovereignty to the Governing Council.

If Chalabi won't support the caucus plan then it's a dead duck. This is what happens when you put together cleverdick plans to spin a process of effective appointment by the CPA into national elections. The Bush administration ends up arguing an impossible position that everyone knows is driven only by the US electoral cycle.

The least discussed element of the November package is the security agreement between the US and Iraq. In keeping with the retrocolonialism that passes for deep thought in the Bush administration Iraq is required to sign an agreement with the US which will legitimise a continuing US military presence.

2. Agreements with Coalition on Security

  • To be agreed between the CPA and the GC.

  • Security agreements to cover status of Coalition forces in Iraq, giving wide latitude to provide for the safety and security of the Iraqi people.

  • Approval of bilateral agreements complete by the end of March 2004.

Does the Bush administration imagine that after winning the point on the caucus plan the Shi'a leadership is then going to ignore the matter of the security agreements or consent to a Guant�namo on the Tigris?

9/11 Families Valentines Letter to President Bush

We ask you to stop playing politics with the 9/11 attacks. September 11 was many things, but it was a victory for no one but the terrorists. When your administration treats it like a success story and your political party uses the World Trade Center site as the backdrop for the Republican convention this fall, we are offended. We have witnessed the photograph of you on the telephone on September 11 sold by your campaign as a fundraising vehicle. We have read Republican party officials' acknowledgement that the national convention was planned in New York City at the latest possible date in order to 'flow seamlessly into the commemoration of 9/11.' And we have witnessed your administration's lack of cooperation with the Independent Commission investigating 9/11. On November 27, 2002, you stated, 'the investigation should carefully examine all the evidence and follow all the facts, wherever they lead. We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th. It's our most solemn duty.'We ask you today live up to that promise. As president of the United States, you well know that our nation's future is more important than any one person�s political career. We ask you, Mr. President, will you renounce the exploitation of September 11th for partisan political gain?

You claim that September 11th made you a war president. But this is not true. By responding to the terrorism of 9/11 with an unending 'war on terror,'and a doctrine of pre-emptive war, you and your administration chose this path. After September 11, the entire world reached out to the United States with compassion. Rather than building on that good will and ushering the world into a new era of mutual cooperation, an effort that would have required true statesmanship and a willingness to deal honestly with the root causes of terrorism, you appealed to our fears and to the worst in human kind. Your domestic and foreign policies have reduced our nation's leadership, leaving us less secure, less free, less respected and less able to deal effectively with the genuine threat of 21st century terrorism.

Most war presidents, the real ones, have seen war as a somewhat heavier burden than an excuse for poor performace.

On the drawing board

If ever a master plan were needed, it is in Redfern. And good design can help restore something like normalcy, according to Dillon Kombumerri, one of Australia's few Aboriginal architects.

Kombumerri, who is with the Aboriginal Design Unit, Merrima, based in the NSW government architect's office, has been working on a master plan for Redfern and the block, as this Whitlam-era exercise in urban land rights and affordable housing is known.

Most of the original houses - 68 of the 91, according to the Government - have already been demolished. Those that remain are in a poor state, although the drug dealers who have insinuated themselves are not complaining.

Kombumerri once worked for the custodians of the block, the Aboriginal Housing Company, so he knows the dispiriting history of attempts at urban renewal. Even so, he feels there is no choice but to be optimistic. 'I can't see it not succeeding,' he says.

Within weeks the master plan will go to the housing company and the Government. It will offer suggestions not just for new housing on the block but for linkages with public open space and the rail line.

Merrima has a good record. Carr should ensure that their master plan is considered in a hurry.

Spark that fired racial tinderbox

Shane Phillips, of the Tribal Warrior Association, said he knew of two witnesses who were prepared to testify to a coronial inquiry that police were chasing TJ in the minutes before his death.

It is testimony that will be hotly contested.

One eyewitness came forward yesterday to say the suspicion that police had chased TJ to his death was based more on rumour than reason.

The man, an immigrant local who would not give his name, told The Australian he had not seen TJ riding his red pushbike ahead of police when they came hurtling eastward up Phillip Street before eventually finding their way to the crash site.

He saw two officers run towards the impaled boy and lift him from the fence before placing him on the laneway and attempting to resuscitate him.

It is understood a passerby who phoned the ambulance and flagged down police after finding TJ on the fence post holds the key to how police came to find him and why they were travelling so fast.

NSW Police Commissioner Ken Moroney, Area Commander Bob Waites and the two officers who arrived on the scene insist they had not been chasing TJ before he died.

Three inquiries are running, by the NSW ombudsman, the state coroner and the critical incidents team within the police department. The witnesses have conflicting stories. The community has heated opinions. The politicians are trying to impose their own narratives on the event. Perhaps none of the inquiries can out the immediate causes of the riot.

But immediate causes are just triggers fired into a situation that has existed in Redfern for a long time. The story is not all police attitudes, or community failure, or racial tensions. The real story is that parts of Redfern have been a riot waiting to happen for a long time and what the individuals did or did not do was not going to stop it happening.

16 February 2004

The Left Coaster: Bush's Character Problem

People don't necessarily vote for a challenger to an incumbent unless they seriously question whether the incumbent deserves reelection. If enough people believe that Bush had good reasons to lie about Iraq, they won't necessarily see this is enough of a reason to look for someone else. And if they believe the lies about his tax cuts helping the economy (and remember, people have been conditioned to believe taxes are really, really evil so all tax cuts must be good), then they might decide the Bush was wrong on Iraq, but still deserves to be elected. Until enough people really start to see who George W Bush is and until they realize that they have been conned, the 2004 election is destined to be in the hat (and certainly the big money is eager to purchase another round of Bush policies).

Howard v Latham is a slightly different proposition, if only because there is much less of a gap between Howard's image and his actual record that there is between Bush's image and his record. The analysis is interesting because we know the Australian people also believe Howard lied over Iraq, but they do not yet see that necessarily a bad thing.

Certain passionate bloggers (yours truly among them) tend to think exposing the lie is enough. You actually need to expose not just the lying, but the motives for the lying and that is a much harder proposition.

Brogden's riot response: bulldoze Redfern

NSW opposition leader John Brogden today labelled as thugs those who left up to 40 police injured in a violent riot at Redfern and said bulldozers should flatten the inner Sydney suburb.

His comments came as the NSW Premier Bob Carr announced three inquiries would be conducted into the cause of the riots and the death of teenager Thomas Hickey, said today.

Mr Carr said the coroner would investigate how the 17-year-old died after a cycling accident in nearby Waterloo on Saturday, and what police involvement there may have been in his death.

The teenager's death sparked a violent riot in Redfern as members of the community lashed out at police, who they blame for the incident.

Police have denied they were chasing the teenager when he came off his bike on Saturday and was impaled on a steel fence, suffering fatal injuries. He died early yesterday.

Mr Carr said today the police critical incident team also would conduct an inquiry into any police involvement in the incident, which would in turn be overseen by the Ombudsman.

But Mr Carr said police had his full confidence and backing in the way they handled the riots.

'I've got full confidence in the way police tackled this incident ... we have full confidence in the police and they have our full backing,' Mr Carr told reporters.

Carr and Brogden's forthcoming text How not to deal with riots should be an interesting read.

The Brogden statement (I think he means The Block, not the whole suburb of Redfern) grimly exposes the guy's inexperience and his willingness to jump anything, including the shark, for coverage, any coverage. Either that or he's suffering a severe testosterone imbalance this week.

The Carr statement is, in its way, worse. The coroner and a police department internal review will investigate the incident. Couldn't he just wait for the inquiry outcomes?

PM's political plea to church

In a pre-emptive strike this election year, Prime Minister John Howard has asked church leaders not to favour political parties.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper said today Mr Howard had accused some church leaders of indulging in 'partisan' politics which was offending and dividing congregations.

'I think church leaders should speak out on moral issues but there is a problem with that justification being actively translated into sounding very partisan,' Mr Howard told the Telegraph.

'I don't deny the right of any church leader to talk about anything.

'But I think, from the point of view of the unity of the church, it stresses and strains when the only time they hear from their leaders is when they are talking about issues that are bound to divide their congregations.'

Boldface mine. This is getting almost as weird as the super decision. The churches are unlikely to pay much attention (nor should they) and the statement just makes the Man of Steel look like his political touch is getting a little rusty.

15 February 2004

British spy op wrecked peace move

A joint British and American spying operation at the United Nations scuppered a last-ditch initiative to avert the invasion of Iraq, The Observer can reveal.

Senior UN diplomats from Mexico and Chile provided new evidence last week that their missions were spied on, in direct contravention of international law.

The former Mexican ambassador to the UN, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, told The Observer that US officials intervened last March, just days before the war against Saddam was launched, to halt secret negotiations for a compromise resolution to give weapons inspectors more time to complete their work.

Aguilar Zinser claimed that the intervention could only have come as a result of surveillance of a closed diplomatic meeting where the compromise was being hammered out. He said it was clear the Americans knew about the confidential discussions in advance. 'When they [the US] found out, they said, 'You should know that we don't like the idea and we don't like you to promote it.''

The story of the US/UK decision for war gets stranger and stranger. Why were they in such a hurry to get the troops rolling at all costs? The UK certainly can hardly deny the spying operation. It is prosecuting a GCHQ whistleblower for disclosing the operation. We can at least exclude fear that Britain, without action, would face 45 minute WMD strikes.

Africa needs Nile water but Egypt won't share

The Nile Water Agreement of 1929, granting Egypt the lion's share of the Nile waters, has been criticised by east African countries as a colonial relic. Under the treaty, Egypt is guaranteed access to 55.5 billion cubic metres of water, out of a total of 84 billion cubic metres.

The Egyptian Water Minister, Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, recently described Kenya's intention to withdraw from the agreement as an 'act of war'. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary-general of the UN, has predicted that the next war in the region will be over water.

The Nile treaty, which Britain signed on behalf of its east African colonies, forbids any projects that could threaten the volume of water reaching Egypt. The agreement also gives Cairo the right to inspect the entire length of the Nile.

It has been gravely resented by east African countries since they won their independence. Kenya and Tanzania suffer recurrent droughts caused by inadequate rainfall, deforestation and soil erosion. The proposed Lake Victoria pipeline is expected to benefit more than 400,000 people in towns and villages in the arid north-west of Tanzania.

'These are people with no water,' said the Tanzanian Minister for Water, Edward Lowasa. 'How can we do nothing when we have this lake just sitting there?'

Yikes, and I thought the politics of the Murray-Darling were complex. The politics of the Tigris-Euphrates, and for that matter the Colorado, are difficult as well. This also suggests that perhaps empire is not quite as good at settling disputes between colonised nations as some of us would like to believe.

Infertile Crescent: The Decline of Iraq

Iraq sits along a stretch of land once so productive that the whole region � which included present-day Syria, Iran and Jordan � was known as the Fertile Crescent. In ancient times, the area led the world in agriculture and technology. It's hard to reconcile that history with the reality of today, when the term "Infertile Crescent" would seem more appropriate.


The First World can respond to these Third World problems in one of three ways. It can provide humanitarian aid once a crisis has arisen. It can ignore the situation as long as possible and then intervene militarily once the crisis cannot be ignored (at a cost, in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, of an estimated $100 billion per intervention when you add up all the potential costs of military action and rebuilding). Or it can intervene before a crisis to stave off looming problems.

There are lots of other countries teetering on the brink. We will be hearing more from Bangladesh, Haiti, Nepal, Indonesia and others. Even for a country as wealthy as the United States, there is a limit to the number of $100-billion interventions we can afford, and there are many alternative uses at home for that money - improving our schools, say, or fixing Social Security or establishing universal health insurance.

The most effective and least expensive approach would be to help Third World countries solve their basic environmental and public health problems before they cripple societies. The cost of a global program to combat AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis - the world's three most costly infectious diseases - is estimated by public health organizations at about $25 billion, or one-quarter the cost of a single military intervention.

Attacking problems before crises is a policy that differs in motivation (though not in policies pursued) from a traditional humanitarian response that comes out of a moral commitment to address crises. Its motive is selfish. Preventing chaos abroad benefits the United States. President Bush would be on the right track with his policy of pre-emption if he were aiming at pre-empting crises, rather than at pre-empting military aggression.

In today's globalized world, any country can pose a threat: Just look at Somalia and Afghanistan, which rank among the poorest, weakest, most isolated countries on Earth. We can't take on the whole world militarily. Keeping weak countries from getting into the kind of trouble Iraq found itself in would ultimately save the U.S. money - and generate global political capital.

Iraq has been misgoverned for centuries. The reason is not the evil of its rulers (that is a necessary, not sufficient, cause). The real reason is the ecological devastation Jared Diamond is writing about. An impoverished environment produces an impoverished society and impoverished societies tend to have rulers who are bad, mad and dangerous much more frequently than prosperous societies. On the other hand, prosperous societies can get a tad grandiloquent:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims of the earth, son of Cambyses, great king, king of An�an, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of An�an, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of An�an, of a family which always exercised kingship, whose rule [the gods] B�l and Nabu love, whom they want as king to please their hearts.

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities. As to the inhabitants of Babylon who against the will of the gods were [enslaved?], I abolished the corv�e which was against their social standing. I brought relief� to their dilapidated housing, putting thus an end to their main complaints. Marduk, the great lord, was well pleased with my deeds and sent friendly blessings to myself, Cyrus, the king who worships him, to Cambyses, my son, the offspring of my loins, as well as to all my troops, and we all praised his great godhead joyously, standing before him in peace.

As far as I know George Bush has not read the Cyrus cylinder, but it really does sound amazingly familiar. The rhetoric of empire is not distinguished for its originality.

Cyrus occupied Babylon, then the centre of the civilised world, in 539BC. By 330BC the deteriorating ecology of Iraq enabled Alexander to put an end to the Persian empire. Despite growing environmental problems the Persians had retained enough military force to conduct a number of pre-emptive wars in the Aegean in order to keep the world safe from the unruly Greeks. Militarism is not a permanent solution, especially if the soil in the imperial breadbasket is going saline. (BTW, Cyrus' religious policy assumed that the local chief god, Marduk or Yahweh for instance, was always the same as Ahuramazda and that other religions therefore were identical with his own.)

Diamond identifies soil erosion as a major threat to our civilisation, one we are doing nothing about:

He said the media focused on fossil fuel problems, climate change, biodiversity, logging and forest fires, but not on the soil because it was less spectacular.

"There are about a dozen major environmental problems, all of them sufficiently serious that if we solved 11 of them and didn't solve the 12th, whatever that 12th is, any could potentially do us in," he said. "Many of them have caused collapses of societies in the past, and soil problems are one of those dozen."

And if you haven't read Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, you should.

Caveat: Saddam Hussein is guilty of crimes against humanity and should be punished for those crimes.