Monday, July 31, 2006

The role of USA as arms supplier to israel

Press Overlooks U.S. Role as Arms Merchant in Mideast Conflict
For better or worse, the U.S. has a special role in the current conflict as supplier of the best weapons money can buy to one side. Yet the media nearly always underplays this angle, even though it has enormous consequences, not just for those under fire in Lebanon but for Americans at home.

By Greg Mitchell

(July 27, 2006) -- The cable news networks must be getting attacked, by someone, for offering relentless gavel-to-gavel coverage of the current crisis in the Middle East, for hosts or producers for three different cable news programs have asked me this week if I thought they were going overboard. They all seemed relieved, and surprised, when I answered no, although my reason for saying so included a criticism of their coverage, and that provided by nearly all newspapers.

The conflict would be worth massive attention on its own merits (or demerits), but what really makes it so significant for an American audience is our own deep involvement in that war and the possible dire consequences for our country. The issue does not get much play — Fox News, for example, seems to be more concerned about Hezbollah sneaking agents over the Mexican or Canadian borders into the U.S.

Simply put: Those are largely American made, supplied, and/or paid for missiles falling on Lebanon today, emerging from jets, tanks and artillery linked to the USA. Much of it could be described as your tax dollars at work -- or the best weapons money can buy. In all, Israel has received since 2001 about $10.5 billion in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) from the U.S., the most of any country, while also spending $6.3 billion on U.S. arms deliveries.

While the U.S. press -- and leading liberal bloggers -- pretty much ignores this, the media abroad does not, and none of it is lost on those who live in or near the Middle East. In this country we read or hear countless references to “Iranian-supplied rockets” or “weapons provided by Syria” but when is that last time you heard a reference to a particular Israeli jet or missile that was sent over by our country?

If you think we should be proud of arming the assault on Lebanon’s infrastructure and civilian neighborhoods, fine. If you are appalled, or worried about how others view this, okay. In either case, you might want to read on, because you won’t see much of this in your local paper.

Probably the most publicity this received lately came just days ago when the U.S. announced it would be providing $30 million in relief aid to Lebanon—while at the same time rushing new weapons to Israel. Asked if there were a contradiction between U.S. arms sales to Israel and aid supplies to Lebanon, U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman said Washington's position was based on "two pillars to how we need to deal with the conflict. One pillar is humanitarian assistance. ... The other is to find conditions for a sustainable cease-fire."

Space does not allow a full accounting of U.S. arms shipments to Israel in the past year, but to cite just one current budget line: “100 Guided Bomb Units (GBU-28) that include: BLU-113 A/B penetration warhead.” That only cost $30 million. Another budget line for $319 million cites “5,000 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) tail kits.”

These can be dropped from the air by some of the 102 F-16 aircraft sent to Israel since 2001 (price tag: over $4.5 billion). And those aircraft will stay in the air, thanks to emergency approval last week by the U.S. for $210 million in JP-8 jet fuel to go to the Israeli military. Israel also has from the U.S. over 700 M-60 tanks, 89 F-15 combat aircraft, missiles and bombs of all kinds and scores of attack helicopters.

One of the more obscure items in that arsenal, however, came to the fore this week, although it got little notice in the mainstream press.

Human Rights Watch, which has no dog in this fight – it has storngly condemned the Hamas and Hizbollah rockets attacks, for example – issued a bulletin on Monday, revealing that Israel has used artillery-fired "cluster" bombs in populated areas of Lebanon, producing documented civilian casualties. “Cluster munitions are unacceptably inaccurate and unreliable weapons when used around civilians,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “They should never be used in populated areas.”

Newsweek online confirmed the report today, with photos, adding, "Israel, under pressure from the United States, had not used cluster munitions in Lebanon since 1982."

The cluster shells explode in the air and scatter hundreds of tiny bomblets in a wide area. Because of the high "dud" rate for the bomblets, civilians who step on them are killed months later.

Human Rights Watch researchers photographed cluster munitions among the arsenal of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) artillery teams stationed on the Israeli-Lebanese border on July 23. The photographs show M483A1 Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions which, of course, are U.S.-produced and -supplied. Human Rights Watch "believes that the use of cluster munitions in populated areas may violate the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law,” it said in a statement, calling on Israel to cease and desist. The group earlier established that the use of cluster munitions in Iraq caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the early U.S.-led military operations in 2003.

But all of this leads to a final, perhaps hopeful, angle underplayed by the press. That is: The fact that the U.S. is such a strong patron potentially gives us enormous influence in pressuring Israel to exercise restraint or accept a ceasefire. Newspaper editorial pages, which with rare exception, shamefully gave Israel a blank check to bomb at will during the first two weeks of the air assault, can make up for lost time now.

“The billions of dollars of U.S. arms and aid it provides every year gives the Bush administration substantial leverage,” observed William Hartung and Frida Berrigan of the World Policy Institute in New York this week. “Without at least discussing U.S. military support for Israel, it will be difficult—if not impossible—for Americans to understand the options available to our government in this crisis.”


From The New York Times, July 29:

"A large oil spill and fire caused by Israeli bombing have sent an oil slick traveling up the coast of Lebanon to Syria, threatening to become the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history and engulfing this town in smoke. 'The escalating Israeli attacks on Lebanon did not only kill its civilians and destroy its infrastructure, but they are also annihilating its environment,' warned Green Line, a Lebanese environmental group, in a statement issued Thursday. 'This is one of the worst environmental crises in Lebanese history.'

"The most significant damage has come from airstrikes on an oil storage depot at the edge of Jiyeh on July 13 and 15. Oil spewed into the Mediterranean Sea and a fire erupted that has been burning ever since."

From Reuters, July 29:

"President Bush apologized on Friday to British Prime Minister Tony Blair after Britain complained Washington had not followed correct procedures for sending bombs to Israel via a British airport, a British official said. The British government had formally complained to the United States over its use of a British airport for transiting bombs to Israel.

"Blair's spokesman told reporters traveling with Blair that Bush raised the issue briefly at the start of his meeting with Blair at the White House. 'President Bush did apologize for the fact that proper procedures were not followed,' the spokesman said. British media reported on Wednesday that aircraft carrying 'bunker-busting' bombs from the United States to Israel refueled at Prestwick airport in Scotland over the weekend."

Greg Mitchell ( is editor of E&P.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Your tax dollars at work

July 30, 2006
Audit Finds U.S. Hid Cost of Iraq Projects

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 29 — The State Department agency in charge of $1.4 billion in reconstruction money in Iraq used an accounting shell game to hide ballooning cost overruns on its projects there and knowingly withheld information on schedule delays from Congress, a federal audit released late Friday has found.

The agency hid construction overruns by listing them as overhead or administrative costs, according to the audit, written by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent office that reports to Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department.

Called the United States Agency for International Development, or A.I.D., the agency administers foreign aid projects around the world. It has been working in Iraq on reconstruction since shortly after the 2003 invasion.

The report by the inspector general’s office does not give a full accounting of all projects financed by the agency’s $1.4 billion budget, but cites several examples.

The findings appeared in an audit of a children’s hospital in Basra, but they referred to the wider reconstruction activities of the development agency in Iraq. American and Iraqi officials reported this week that the State Department planned to drop Bechtel, its contractor on that project, as signs of budget and scheduling problems began to surface.

The United States Embassy in Baghdad referred questions about the audit to the State Department in Washington, where a spokesman, Justin Higgins, said Saturday, “We have not yet had a chance to fully review this report, but certainly will consider it carefully, as we do all the findings of the inspector general.”

Bechtel has said that because of the deteriorating security in Basra, the hospital project could not be completed as envisioned. But Mr. Higgins said: “Despite the challenges, we are committed to completing this project so that sick children in Basra can receive the medical help they need. The necessary funding is now in place to ensure that will happen.”

In March 2005, A.I.D. asked the Iraq Reconstruction and Management Office at the United States Embassy in Baghdad for permission to downsize some projects to ease widespread financing problems. In its request, it said that it had to “absorb greatly increased construction costs” at the Basra hospital and that it would make a modest shift of priorities and reduce “contractor overhead” on the project.

The embassy office approved the request. But the audit found that the agency interpreted the document as permission to change reporting of costs across its program.

Referring to the embassy office’s approval, the inspector general wrote, “The memorandum was not intended to give U.S.A.I.D. blanket permission to change the reporting of all indirect costs.”

The hospital’s construction budget was $50 million. By April of this year, Bechtel had told the aid agency that because of escalating costs for security and other problems, the project would actually cost $98 million to complete. But in an official report to Congress that month, the agency “was reporting the hospital project cost as $50 million,” the inspector general wrote in his report.

The rest was reclassified as overhead, or “indirect costs.” According to a contracting officer at the agency who was cited in the report, the agency “did not report these costs so it could stay within the $50 million authorization.”

“We find the entire agreement unclear,” the inspector general wrote of the A.I.D. request approved by the embassy. “The document states that hospital project cost increases would be offset by reducing contractor overhead allocated to the project, but project reports for the period show no effort to reduce overhead.”

The report said it suspected that other unreported costs on the hospital could drive the tab even higher. In another case cited in the report, a power station project in Musayyib, the direct construction cost cited by the development agency was $6.6 million, while the overhead cost was $27.6 million.

One result is that the project’s overhead, a figure that normally runs to a maximum of 30 percent, was a stunning 418 percent.

The figures were even adjusted in the opposite direction when that helped the agency balance its books, the inspector general found. On an electricity project at the Baghdad South power station, direct construction costs were reported by the agency as $164.3 million and indirect or overhead costs as $1.4 million.

That is just 0.8 percent overhead in a country where security costs are often staggering. A contracting officer told the inspector general that the agency adjusted the figures “to stay within the authorization for each project.”

The overall effect, the report said, was a “serious misstatement of hospital project costs.” The true cost could rise as high as $169.5 million, even after accounting for at least $30 million pledged for medical equipment by a charitable organization.

The inspector general also found that the agency had not reported known schedule delays to Congress. On March 26, 2006, Bechtel informed the agency that the hospital project was 273 days behind, the inspector general wrote. But in its April report to Congress on the status of all projects, “U.S.A.I.D. reported no problems with the project schedule.”

In a letter responding to the inspector general’s findings, Joseph A. Saloom, the newly appointed director of the reconstruction office at the United States Embassy, said he would take steps to improve the reporting of the costs of reconstruction projects in Iraq. Mr. Saloom took little exception to the main findings.

In the letter, Mr. Saloom said his office had been given new powers by the American ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to request clear financing information on American reconstruction projects. Mr. Saloom wrote that he agreed with the inspector general’s conclusion that this shift would help “preclude surprises such as occurred on the Basra hospital project.”

“The U.S. Mission agrees that accurate monitoring of projects requires allocating indirect costs in a systematic way that reflects accurately the true indirect costs attributable to specific activities and projects, such as a Basra children’s hospital,” Mr. Saloom wrote.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Reign of Error by Paul Krugman

July 28, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Reign of Error

Amid everything else that’s going wrong in the world, here’s one more piece of depressing news: a few days ago the Harris Poll reported that 50 percent of Americans now believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded, up from 36 percent in February 2005. Meanwhile, 64 percent still believe that Saddam had strong links with Al Qaeda.

At one level, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. The people now running America never accept inconvenient truths. Long after facts they don’t like have been established, whether it’s the absence of any wrongdoing by the Clintons in the Whitewater affair or the absence of W.M.D. in Iraq, the propaganda machine that supports the current administration is still at work, seeking to flush those facts down the memory hole.

But it’s dismaying to realize that the machine remains so effective.

Here’s how the process works.

First, if the facts fail to support the administration position on an issue — stem cells, global warming, tax cuts, income inequality, Iraq — officials refuse to acknowledge the facts.

Sometimes the officials simply lie. “The tax cuts have made the tax code more progressive and reduced income inequality,” Edward Lazear, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, declared a couple of months ago. More often, however, they bob and weave.

Consider, for example, Condoleezza Rice’s response a few months ago, when pressed to explain why the administration always links the Iraq war to 9/11. She admitted that Saddam, “as far as we know, did not order Sept. 11, may not have even known of Sept. 11.” (Notice how her statement, while literally true, nonetheless seems to imply both that it’s still possible that Saddam ordered 9/11, and that he probably did know about it.) “But,” she went on, “that’s a very narrow definition of what caused Sept. 11.”

Meanwhile, apparatchiks in the media spread disinformation. It’s hard to imagine what the world looks like to the large number of Americans who get their news by watching Fox and listening to Rush Limbaugh, but I get a pretty good sense from my mailbag.

Many of my correspondents are living in a world in which the economy is better than it ever was under Bill Clinton, newly released documents show that Saddam really was in cahoots with Osama, and the discovery of some decayed 1980’s-vintage chemical munitions vindicates everything the administration said about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. (Hyping of the munitions find may partly explain why public belief that Saddam had W.M.D. has made a comeback.)

Some of my correspondents have even picked up on claims, mostly disseminated on right-wing blogs, that the Bush administration actually did a heck of a job after Katrina.

And what about the perceptions of those who get their news from sources that aren’t de facto branches of the Republican National Committee?

The climate of media intimidation that prevailed for several years after 9/11, which made news organizations very cautious about reporting facts that put the administration in a bad light, has abated. But it’s not entirely gone. Just a few months ago major news organizations were under fierce attack from the right over their supposed failure to report the “good news” from Iraq — and my sense is that this attack did lead to a temporary softening of news coverage, until the extent of the carnage became undeniable. And the conventions of he-said-she-said reporting, under which lies and truth get equal billing, continue to work in the administration’s favor.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that the Bush administration continues to be remarkably successful at rewriting history. For example, Mr. Bush has repeatedly suggested that the United States had to invade Iraq because Saddam wouldn’t let U.N. inspectors in. His most recent statement to that effect was only a few weeks ago. And he gets away with it. If there have been reports by major news organizations pointing out that that’s not at all what happened, I’ve missed them.

It’s all very Orwellian, of course. But when Orwell wrote of “a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past,” he was thinking of totalitarian states. Who would have imagined that history would prove so easy to rewrite in a democratic nation with a free press?

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The rise of the Super Rich

July 19, 2006
Talking Points
The Rise of the Super-Rich

The gap between rich and poor is unfortunately an old story.

It is the stuff of parables and literature. It is a force in social history and political economy, from electoral campaigns to reform movements and revolutions.

But in the United States today, there’s a new twist to the familiar plot. Income inequality used to be about rich versus poor, but now it’s increasingly a matter of the ultra rich and everyone else. The curious effect of the new divide is an economy that appears to be charging ahead, until you realize that the most of the people in it are being left in the dust. President Bush has yet to acknowledge the true state of affairs, though it’s at the root of his failure to convince Americans that the good times are rolling.

The president’s lack of attention may be misplaced optimism, or it could be political strategy. Acknowledging what’s happening would mean having to rethink his policies, not exactly his strong suit.

But the growing income gap — and the rise of the super-rich — demands attention. It is making America a less fair society, and a less stable one.

I. The Growing Divide

Anyone who has driven through the new neighborhoods filled with “McMansions” that have arisen near most cities, or seen the brisk business that luxury stores are doing, has an anecdotal sense that some Americans are making a lot of money right now.

But there is no need to rely on anecdotal evidence.

Thomas Piketty, of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley recently updated their groundbreaking study on income inequality(pdf), and their findings are striking.

The new figures show that from 2003 to 2004, the latest year for which there is data, the richest Americans pulled far ahead of everyone else. In the space of that one year, real average income for the top 1 percent of households — those making more than $315,000 in 2004 — grew by nearly 17 percent. For the remaining 99 percent, the average gain was less than 3 percent, and that probably makes things look better than they really are, since other data(pdf), most notably from the Census Bureau, indicate that the average is bolstered by large gains among the top 20 percent of households. In all, the top 1 percent of households enjoyed 36 percent of all income gains in 2004, on top of an already stunning 30 percent in 2003.

Some of the gains at the top reflect capitalism’s robust reward for the founders of companies like Microsoft, Google and Dell. But most of it is due to the unprecedented largesse being heaped on executives and professionals, in the form of salary, bonuses and stock options. A recent study done for the Business Roundtable(pdf), a lobbying group for chief executives, shows that median executive pay at 350 large public companies was $6.8 million in 2005. According to the Wall Street Journal, that’s 179 times the pay of the average American worker. The study is intended to rebut much higher estimates made by other researchers, but it does little to quell the sense that executive pay is out of whack. The Journal's Alan Murray pointed out recently, the study’s calculation of executive pay is widely criticized as an understatement because, as a measurement of the median, it is largely unaffected by the eight or nine-digit pay packages that have dominated the headlines of late.

Rich people are also being made richer, recent government data shows, by strong returns on investment income. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, the top 1 percent of households owned 57.5 percent of corporate wealth, generally dividends and capital gains, up from 53.4 percent a year earlier.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, compared the latest data from Mr. Piketty and Mr. Saez to comprehensive reports on income trends from the Congressional Budget Office. Every way it sliced the data, it found a striking share of total income concentrated at the top(pdf) of the income ladder as of 2004.

• The top 10 percent of households had 46 percent of the nation’s income, their biggest share in all but two of the last 70 years.

• The top 1 percent of households had 19.5 percent (see graph).

• The top one-tenth of 1 percent of households actually received nearly half of the increased share going to the top 1 percent.

These disparaties seem large, and they are. (Though the latest availabe data is from 2004, there are virtually no signs that the basic trend has changed since then.) The top 1 percent held a bigger share of total income than at any time since 1929, except for 1999 and 2000 during the tech stock bubble. But what makes those disparities particularly brutal is that unlike the last bull market of the late 1990's — when a proverbial rising tide was lifting all boats — the rich have been the only winners lately. According to an analysis by Goldman Sachs, for most American households — the bottom 60 percent — average income grew by less than 20 percent from 1979 to 2004, with virtually all of those gains occurring from the mid- to late 1990's. Before and since, real incomes for that group have basically flatlined.

The best-off Americans are not only winning by an extraordinary margin right now. They are the only ones who are winning at all.

The result has been, as Andrew Hacker, a political science professor at Queens College, has observed in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “more billionaires, more millionaires and more six-figure families.”

As income has become more concentrated at the top, overall wealth has also become more skewed. According to the latest installation of a survey(pdf) that the Federal Reserve has conducted every three years since 1989, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans accounted for 33.4 percent of total net worth in 2004, compared to 30.1 percent in 1989. Over the same period, the other Americans in the top 10 percent saw their share of the nation’s net worth basically stagnate, at about 36 percent, while the bottom 50 percent accounted for just 2.5 percent of the wealth in 2004, compared to 3.0 percent in 1989.

II. A Brief History of Income Inequality

While it has long been the case that the rich do better than everyone else, it has not always been true that, in the process, the poor get poorer and the middle class gets squeezed. In post-World War II America, between 1947 and the early 1970’s, all income groups shared in the nation’s economic growth. Poor families actually had a higher growth in real annual income than other groups.

Part of the reason was a sharp rise in labor productivity. As workers produced more, the economy grew and so did compensation — wages, salaries and benefits (see graph). This link between productivity gains and income gains was not automatic. Government policies worked to ensure that productivity gains translated into more pay for Americans at all levels, including regular increases in the minimum wage and greater investment in the social safety net. Full employment was also a government priority. And, of course, unions were strong back then, giving workers bargaining power.

From the mid-1970’s until 1995, the trend reversed. The gap between the rich and poor widened at a rapid clip. The upper echelons — generally the top 20 percent of American households — experienced steady gains, while families in the bottom 40 percent were faced with declining or stagnating incomes.

The growing divide coincided with a slowdown in productivity growth and a reversal in the government policies that had been promoting income equality. Legislators balked at raising the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit, a feature of the tax code that rewards the working poor by ensuring that work pays better than welfare. During the “supply side” era in the 1980’s, fostered by the policies of Ronald Reagan, taxes became less progressive. The goal of full employment was eclipsed by a focus on inflation fighting that remains to this day.

As trade began to play an ever bigger role in the American economy, manufacturing jobs diminished and labor unions declined, reducing workers’ clout in setting compensation. Regulatory laxness reached its apex in the fiscal disaster of the savings and loan meltdown, which drained public resources from socially and economically useful programs and polices.

The trend toward increasing inequality was interrupted, briefly, in the late 1990’s. Productivity growth rebounded, and for a half decade, all income groups participated in the prosperity. Even then, the richest Americans had the best run, propelled largely by stock market gains. In fact, when the stock market hit its all time high in 2000, post-war income concentration also peaked.

But government policies of the day helped to ensure that the lower rungs also had a boost. Clinton-era welfare reforms are often cast as a success story of market-based incentives. But in fact, they were supported by a big increase in the earned income tax credit to help solidify the transition from welfare to work. At the same time, budget deficits were conquered by shared sacrifice — a mix of tax increases and spending cuts affecting all groups. The combination of economic growth and fiscal discipline spurred robust hiring and, if it had endured, could also have strengthened the Social Security safety net by allowing the government to pay down its debts.

That seems like ancient history now. Nearly everyone’s income fell in 2001 and 2002, due to the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000, recession in 2001 and the ensuing jobless recovery.

In the last few years, though, the trend toward inequality has reasserted itself — with a vengeance.

III. Inequality During the Bush Years

For the last few years, the tide has been rising again, but most boats have been staying where they are, or sinking. One key reason is that the link between rising productivity and broad economic prosperity has been severed. Take another look at this graph. During the years that George W. Bush has been in the White House, productivity growth has been stronger than ever. But the real compensation of all but the top 20 percent of income earners has been flat or falling. Gains in wages, salaries and benefits have been increasingly concentrated at the uppermost rungs of the income ladder.

The Bush administration would like you to believe that the situation will correct itself. Most recently, the new Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson, Jr., reiterated the administration’s viewpoint at his confirmation hearing in June when he said that “economic growth, job growth, productivity growth, hopefully will be followed by increases in wage income.”

Well, hoping certainly won’t make it so.

Neither will growth alone. As the post-World War II history of income inequality illustrates, productivity improvement is only one piece of the prosperity puzzle. The economic health of most American families also depends greatly on what government does. If it merely “gets out of the way,” inequality is bound to persist and — if recent results are any indication of future performance — worsen.

The Bush administration, though, has not even done anything as benign as get out of the way. The policies it has pursued — affirmatively and aggressively — have widened the gap between rich and poor.

A. The Tax Wedge

Tax cuts are the most obvious example. The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center computed the combined effects of tax cut legislation from 2001, 2003 and 2006. The tax cuts’ contribution to the income gap was significant.

In 2006, the average tax cut for households with incomes of more than $1 million — the top two-tenths of 1 percent — is $112,000 which works out to a boost of 5.7 percent in after tax income. That’s considerably higher than the 5 percent boost garnered by the top 1 percent. It’s far greater than the 2.5 percent increase of the middle fifth of households, and fully 19 times greater than the 0.3 percent gain of the poorest fifth of households.

The disparities are driven by tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the most affluent. In 2006, for instance, a tax cut took effect that allows high income households — those with incomes above $200,000 — to take bigger write offs for their children and other expenses, like mortgage interest on a second home. And increasingly, tax cuts are aimed at allowing America’s wealthiest families to amass dynastic wealth — estates to transfer from one generation to the next virtually untouched by taxes. The most obvious example is the gradual reduction in the estate tax that is scheduled through 2010 (and regular attempts to abolish the estate tax altogether). Another huge, though lesser noted example, is the law passed last May allowing all Americans to shelter money in a tax-favored Roth I.R.A. Under previous law, Roths had been off limits to wealthy Americans, precisely because the government did not want to help people amass big estates under the guise of saving for retirement. That sound principle has now been turned on its head.

B. The Assault on Programs for the Poor and Middle Class

Tax cuts are not the only policies widening the gap between the rich and other Americans. Earlier this year, President Bush signed into law a measure that will cut $39 billion over the next five years from domestic programs like Medicaid and food stamps, and $99.3 billion from 2006 to 2015.

The president and the Republican Congress have also done harm to the finances of the poorest Americans — and to the notion of basic fairness — by not increasing the federal minimum wage — it has been $5.15 since 1997 While C.E.O. salaries have been soaring, the take-home pay of waitresses and janitors has been hit hard by inflation.

The Bush administration has also been trying, with mixed success so far, to pursue other policies that would have the effect of shifting money to the rich. The most ominous is its often-repeated desire to “address our long-term unfunded entitlement obligations.” That’s code for making tax cuts for the wealthy permanent while cutting Social Security, which has for 70 years been a major factor in keeping Americans financially secure in their old age.

Over the objections of Congress, the administration overturned time-and-a-half regulation for overtime. For a brief period after Hurricane Katrina, the president suspended by executive proclamation the law that requires federal contractors to pay workers the locally prevailing wage, until Congress objected. For three months after Katrina, the Labor Department suspended the law requiring federal contractors to have an affirmative action hiring plan — an invitation to discrimination and, as such, to income inequality.

C. The Too-Easy Answer

When confronted with evidence of growing income inequality, Bush administration officials invariably say the answer is more and better education. “We are starting to see that the income gap is largely an education gap,” said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, in a typical retort last January when tax data showed an increasing concentration of wealth among the highest-income Americans.

Education is critically important to individuals, society, the economy and democracy itself, and deserves strong government support. But it is neither a satisfactory explanation, nor a remedy, for today's income inequality.

There is a strong correlation between one's level of education and one's earning power. The Bush administration is assuming that the correlation will continue to hold in an ever more globalized economy. Writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, Princeton economist Alan S. Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, explains why that view may be mistaken:

Other things being equal, education and skills are, of course, good things; education yields higher returns in advanced societies, and more schooling probably makes workers more flexible and more adaptable to change. But the problem with relying on education as the remedy for job losses is that 'other things' are not remotely close to equal. The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via a wireless connection) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that don’t.
There is already evidence that the benefits of education are not as straightforward as many people seem to believe they are. In his review of “Inequality Matters,” a collection of essays from a conference at New York University conference in 2004, Mr. Hacker, the Queens College political science professor, cited findings from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that many college graduates now hold jobs that once required only a high school diploma. Today, according to the bureau, 37 percent of flight attendants have completed college, as have 35 percent of tour escorts, 21 percent of embalmers, and 13 percent of both security guards and casino dealers. Mr. Hacker notes that more people are expected to earn college degrees in preparation for well-paying professions. “But we cannot expect the economy will automatically create better-paid positions to match the cohort acquiring higher education,” he writes.

Underscoring the point, the Bush administration's own Economic Report of the President in 2006 shows that average annual earnings of college graduates fell by 5 percent from 2000 to 2004. In those four years, the difference between the average yearly pay of a college graduate and a high school graduate shrank from 93 percent to 80 percent.

Education is vital. But as Mr. Blinder put it, it “is far from a panacea.”

IV. The Future of Income Inequality

The fast-growing gap between the rich and poor and middle-class Americans is not something that has just happened. The Bush policies are an attempt to dismantle the institutions and norms that have long worked to ameliorate inequities — progressive taxation, the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicaid and so on. The aims that can’t be accomplished outright — like cuts in Social Security — are being teed up by running deficits that could force the shrinkage of government programs, even though the public would not likely condone many such cuts unless compelled to by a fiscal crisis.

Such policies are grounded in an ideology that began taking shape some 30 years ago, when economic policy makers began to disdain the notion of harnessing and protecting society’s collective potential in favor of crafting incentives to align individuals’ interests with those of the market. This campaign has gone by many names — “starve the beast,” or “repeal the New Deal.” Economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, calls that approach “you’re on your own,” or YOYO, and has written a book calling for a new way, dubbed “we’re in this together,” or WITT. (Click here for excerpts from “All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy,” by Jared Bernstein.)

At issue, in economic terms, is the tradeoff between equality and efficiency: It can be difficult to divide the economic pie more equally without reducing the size of the pie. But it’s not impossible, and doing so is crucial for widespread prosperity. A fair and well-functioning economy will always involve some inequality, which acts a motivator and can be explained by differences in risk-taking, ability and work intensity. But inequality is generally deemed to be dangerous — socially, economically, (and, perhaps, politically) — when it becomes so extreme as to be self-reinforcing, as many researchers suggest is currently the case.

The problem now is that most any attempt to reduce inequality — even a measly increase in the minimum wage — is rejected as misguided. And policies that under one set of economic conditions might allow for a justifiable modicum of inequality are pursued beyond all reason. For instance, the rationale for the tax cuts in 2001 was to return the budget surplus that Mr. Bush inherited from President Clinton. The rationale for the tax cuts in 2002 and 2003 and 2006 was to stimulate the economy. The surplus has long since been replaced by big deficits, the jobless recovery ended three years ago and inequality is on the rise. But tax cutting that overwhelming benefits the rich continues because, we’re told, failure to keep cutting taxes would, somehow, shrink the pie. As Mr. Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute has put it: “Economics, once an elegant and sensible set of ideas and principles devoted to shaping outcomes for the betterment of society, has been reduced to a restrictive set of ideologically inspired rules devoted to an explanation of why we cannot take the necessary steps to meet the challenges we face.”

Hear, hear.

Lela Moore provided research for this article.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The real special relationship: two statesmen speaking!

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | 'Yo, Blair, how are you doing?' - overheard chat reveals the real special relationship
'Yo, Blair, how are you doing?' - overheard chat reveals the real special relationship

During a quiet moment at the G8 summit yesterday, Tony Blair and George Bush swapped candid views on the Middle East. Only after several minutes did Mr Blair realise that a microphone had been left on

Tuesday July 18, 2006
The Guardian

Bush Yo, Blair. How are you doing?
Blair I'm just...

Bush You're leaving?

Blair No, no, no not yet. On this trade thingy ...[inaudible]

Bush Yeah, I told that to the man.

Blair Are you planning to say that here or not?

Bush If you want me to.

Blair Well, it's just that if the discussion arises ...

Bush I just want some movement.

Blair Yeah.

Bush Yesterday we didn't see much movement.

Blair No, no, it may be that it's not, it may be that it's impossible.
Bush I am prepared to say it.
Blair But it's just I think what we need to be an opposition...

Bush Who is introducing the trade?

Blair Angela [Merkel, the German chancellor].

Bush Tell her to call 'em.

Blair Yes.

Bush Tell her to put him on, them on the spot. Thanks for [inaudible] it's awfully thoughtful of you.

Blair It's a pleasure.

Bush I know you picked it out yourself.

Blair Oh, absolutely, in fact [inaudible].

Bush What about Kofi? [inaudible] His attitude to ceasefire and everything else ... happens.

Blair Yeah, no I think the [inaudible] is really difficult. We can't stop this unless you get this international business agreed.

Bush Yeah.

Blair I don't know what you guys have talked about, but as I say I am perfectly happy to try and see what the lie of the land is, but you need that done quickly because otherwise it will spiral.

Bush I think Condi is going to go pretty soon.

Blair But that's, that's, that's all that matters. But if you ... you see it will take some time to get that together.

Bush Yeah, yeah.

Blair But at least it gives people ...

Bush It's a process, I agree. I told her your offer to ...

Blair Well ... it's only if I mean ... you know. If she's got a ... or if she needs the ground prepared as it were ... Because obviously if she goes out, she's got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk.

Bush You see, the ... thing is what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hizbullah to stop doing this shit and it's over.

Blair Syria.

Bush Why?

Blair Because I think this is all part of the same thing.

Bush Yeah.

Blair What does he think? He thinks if Lebanon turns out fine, if we get a solution in Israel and Palestine, Iraq goes in the right way ...

Bush Yeah, yeah, he is sweet.

Blair He is honey. And that's what the whole thing is about. It's the same with Iraq.

Bush I felt like telling Kofi to call, to get on the phone to Assad and make something happen.

Blair Yeah.

Bush We are not blaming the Lebanese government.

Blair Is this...? (at this point Blair taps the microphone in front of him and the sound is cut.)

Monday, July 17, 2006

From the Guardian, London

The west must recognise that Israel's agenda is in conflict with its own

The Olmert government, Hizbullah and Hamas are tacitly united in rejection of any moves towards a compromise peace

David Clark
Monday July 17, 2006
The Guardian

Whatever else can be said for or against Israel's escalation of military action against Lebanon, there is little prospect that it will achieve its stated objectives. If Israel couldn't defeat Hizbullah after 18 years in which its army occupied large swaths of Lebanese territory, it is not going to succeed with air strikes and blockades, or even another occupation. The same point applies even more forcefully in the case of Gaza. Every time Israel applies the iron fist in an effort to beat the Palestinians into submission, their resistance simply re-emerges in a more extreme and rejectionist form. Far from fearing Israel's wrath, Hizbullah and Hamas must be rather pleased at their success in provoking it into the sort of over-reaction from which they have always benefited.
Nor does it seem plausible that military action will enable Israel to secure the release of its captured soldiers. The civilian victims of Israel's indiscriminate retaliation have no real influence over the militias that hold them, while the militias themselves are untroubled by the spectacle of public suffering. On the contrary, they thrive on it. In the case of Lebanon, it is possible that acts of collective punishment, such as the destruction of Beirut airport and yesterday's killing of yet more civilians, might divide Hizbullah and its supporters from the rest of the country, but only at the risk of triggering another civil war and creating a vacuum that Israel's enemies in Syria and Iran will find easier to exploit.
In view of all this, it is valid to ask what Israel thinks it is doing. Indeed, this question is implicit in the statements of world leaders at the G8 and elsewhere who have called on Israel to use force proportionately, avoid civilian casualties and refrain from acts that might strengthen Hamas or destabilise Lebanon's fragile political settlement. No one quibbles with Israel's right to defend itself, but doesn't it understand how irresponsible and immoral it is to deliberately escalate the conflict in this way?
The problem is that the premise of the question is false. It assumes that Israel shares our view that a de-escalation followed by negotiation is the best route to a settlement. It assumes, therefore, that when Israeli ministers complain of having "no partner for peace", they actually want one. A much more sensible approach would be to credit them with having the intelligence to know exactly what they are doing and to work backwards from there.
If so, it might become apparent that far from wanting a partner with which to negotiate, the Israeli government is acting with the specific intention of forestalling that possibility. There is nothing particularly new in this. The extremists on both sides have always formed a kind of tacit alliance, with the supporters of "greater Israel" and "no Israel" understanding their joint interest in preventing any moves towards a compromise peace. That is the main reason why Israel encouraged the growth of Hamas as it emerged in the 1980s. Unwilling to negotiate with the secular nationalists of Fatah, even as they were moving towards support for a two-state solution, the Israeli authorities thought it would be a clever idea to promote their Islamist rivals.
In the case of the current crisis, it is no accident that it occurred at precisely the moment when the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was gaining the upper hand in the latest round of that struggle. By using the threat of a referendum to force Hamas to accept the existence of Israel as the basis for a final settlement, Abbas had created the most promising opening for peace in six years. Faced with internal division and the loss of political initiative, Hamas militants understood that the only way to prevent it would be to trigger another cycle of violence. In turn, the Israel government, whose interests were also threatened by the Abbas initiative, recognised that it had an equally good reason to oblige. The effect of Hizbullah's intervention and Israel's over-reaction has been to put peace even further down the agenda.
The plain truth is that Israel thinks that it can get more by imposing a solution through force than by negotiation and is not interested in any kind of peace process. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, pays lip service to the road map, but he has already received American endorsement for his fallback position, artfully dubbed "unilateral convergence". George Bush has described it as a "bold idea". Armed with the knowledge that he will continue to enjoy American patronage if the road map fails, Olmert has set out to ensure that it does just that. Bush's diplomacy has been truly inept.
It's high time western governments grasped the fundamental truth that Israel is pursuing an agenda that conflicts directly with their own. In the context of the fight against terrorism and the need to promote international cooperation, the west's interest must be to remove the Palestinian question as a source of grievance among mainstream Muslims in a way that guarantees justice for the Palestinians and security for Israel. A settlement of this kind is perfectly feasible and has been outlined in countless documents and initiatives over the years, most recently in the Geneva accords. But the main reason it has proved illusive is that Israel is not, and never has been, prepared to make the territorial compromises required. It still believes that it is entitled to the victor's spoils by annexing large tracts of Palestinian land.
This situation will persist as long as the west remains in denial about the reasons for the ongoing conflict and until the Israeli political establishment is forced to pay a price for its obstinacy. Yet the US remains entirely complicit in its role as Israel's main strategic ally. In the midst of last Friday's onslaught, in which Israeli bombers killed dozens of Lebanese civilians, the Pentagon announced the export of $210m of aviation fuel to help Israel "keep peace and security in the region". Even Britain and other European countries indulge in a form of diplomatic misdirection by focusing one-sidedly on the roles played by Syria and Iran.
The key to resolving the situation in Lebanon lies, as it did throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in finding a solution to the Palestinian question. A viable and successful Palestinian state would rob Hizbullah and its sponsors of the conceit that they are defending helpless Muslims and make it easier for those in the region who oppose them to gain the upper hand. Mahmoud Abbas is the only leader currently working for the kind of negotiated two-state solution the Middle East and the wider world desperately need. But he is being let down by the west at the moment when he had earned the right to expect better. The Palestinian president needs a partner for peace. If Israel will not play that role, the international community must.
· David Clark is a former Labour special adviser at the Foreign Office

Too high a price!

Too High a Price

[posted online on July 14, 2006]

With the spreading violence in Lebanon and Gaza, the Israeli doctrine of absolute security and massive retaliation--the notion that any attack or threat of attack on Israel will be met with a disproportionate response--is again proving counterproductive to Israel's own security as well as to the larger stability of the region. It makes no sense for Israel to destroy the civil infrastructure of the Palestinians and of Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of its soldiers, or to further weaken the capacity of the governments of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority while at the same trying to hold them accountable for the actions of groups and militias they cannot reasonably control. This collective punishment of the Palestinian and Lebanese people is not only inhumane and should be condemned but also leads to more radicalization and to more chaos.

That was the lesson of the Israeli siege of the Palestinian Authority in 2002, which severely weakened the PA's ability to govern, helping to pave the way for the political success of Hamas. And it will be the lesson of the increasing destruction of Lebanon. Indeed, the most likely casualty of the latest case of Israel's massive retaliation will be the fragile social peace and the democratically elected government in Lebanon. Ironically, the much-trumpeted Cedar Revolution, the only example of the success of the Bush doctrine that neoconservatives can still point to, could be brought down by the Likudnik policies of Israel that the neocons so champion. It took Lebanon more than twenty years to recover a degree of stability and civil peace after the last major incursion. How long will it take to recover from the unraveling of the stability that American and Israelis policies are helping to bring about?

It is now clear that the American and Israeli strategy of trying to isolate Hamas and Hezbollah, on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other, have backfired. Would the situation in Gaza have gotten so out of hand if Israel, the United States and the European Union had tried to work with the democratically elected Hamas government from the outset? And would Hezbollah have felt the freedom to take the reckless action it took--the deplorable firing of rockets on Israeli civilians? As Juan Cole points out today on Informed Comment, "A Lebanon with no Syrian troops and Hizbullah in the government was inherently unstable. With Syria gone, Hizbullah filled a security vacuum and also was less restrained."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that Syria has a special responsibility to resolve this crisis. But the whole thrust of American policy of the last two years has been to reduce unconditionally Syria's influence in Lebanon so as to leave Lebanon to the Lebanese. By what logic does the Administration now seek to hold Syria accountable for the reckless action of Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon? As Cole suggests, the hasty unplanned departure of Syrian forces may have ironically given Hezbollah more freedom to act than before. A dialogue with Syria together with an effort to have a more careful planned disengagement of Syrian forces would have given the Lebanese government a better chance of establishing control over its sovereignty in southern Lebanon.

The big beneficiaries of American policy have been the more radical wings of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranians, who more and more look like the champions of the Palestinian people. The big losers are the so-called moderate Arab regimes, which again look helpless in the face of what is seen as Israeli aggression, and the moderate Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese who hoped for some normalcy of life with the prospect of peace, especially when the Hamas leadership appeared to be moving toward recognition of Israel. The United States and the larger world, too, are losers, for no one benefits from this mindless escalation of violence, particularly at a time of growing sectarian violence in Iraq and rising oil prices.

The events of the past two weeks should remind us that the peace and stability of the region is too important to be left to Israel and to Washington. There is a need for much greater and more forceful UN and European Union involvement and for the kind of diplomacy that the Europeans and the UN conducted in the late 1980s and the early '90s that led to the mutual release of prisoners and eventually to the Oslo peace process. The UN Quartet--consisting of the UN, the United States, Russia and the EU--has been far too deferential to the Bush Administration's failed road map strategy, and it is time for more active and comprehensive G-8 and UN-led diplomacy. Secretary General Kofi Annan's dispatch of two representatives to the region is a start, but it must be followed up by G-8 and UN Security Council action to rein in forces on all sides. This diplomacy should be aimed first at establishing a cease-fire and a mutual prisoner exchange and second at recognizing Hamas in Palestine and establishing talks with Syria and Iran. The United States must urgently back this diplomacy as well as make clear to Israel that it cannot support its current military action. The price it will pay in Iraq and in the region as a whole for doing so is just too large.

Friends Don't Let Friends Ruin Lebanon

BLOG | Posted 07/16/2006 @ 5:30pm
Friends Don't Let Friends Ruin Lebanon

Congressional "Friends of Israel" are busy making noises about the "need" for the United States to provide that Middle Eastern land with full support as it assaults its neighbors.

But no genuine friend of Israel can be happy with what is being done in that country's name by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his misguided followers.

Israel's attack on Lebanon, which has already killed and wounded hundreds and destroyed much of that fragile democracy's infrastructure--including airports, seaports, bridges and roads--has done nothing to make Israel safer or more secure from threats posed by the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah. Indeed, the terrorist group's attacks on targets in northern Israel have become more brazen--and deadly--since Israel began striking Lebanon.

No serious participant in the contemporary discourse would deny that Israel has a right to protect itself. But no one in their right mind thinks Israel is going about the mission in a smart manner.

As Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress explains, "In Lebanon as in Gaza, it is not Israel's right to protect its civilian population from terrorist aggression that is at issue. It is the way Israel goes about exercising that right."

"Despite bitter lessons from the past, Israel's political and military leaders remain addicted to the notion that, whatever they have a right to do, they have a right to overdo, to the point where they lose what international support they had when they began their retaliatory measures," adds Seigman. "Israel's response to the terrorist assault in Gaza and the outrageous and unprovoked Hizbollah assault across its northern border in Lebanon, far from providing protection to its citizens, may well further undermine their security by destabilizing the wider region."

Seigman's right. Israel's assault on Lebanon won't bring stability to the Middle East. Instead, it makes a bad situation worse.

Unfortunately, President Bush has chosen to direct his anger over the crisis toward Syria, a largely disempowered player, and Iran, an increasingly powerful player but not one that listens to the U.S. By failing to express blunt concern about Israel's over-the-top response to a genuine problem, Bush has encouraged Olmert to continue on a course that has already proven devastating for Lebanon and that, ultimately, will threaten Israel's stability.

Bush should start listening to wise voices from Israel, voices that are saying Olmert is wrong.

Both Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter opposed last week's bombings of Hezbollah headquarters and other facilities in Beirut, a move by Olmert and his allies that dramatically increased tensions and violence.

In the Israeli Knesset there is a good deal of opposition to the current strategy.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, former Israeli Cabinet member Yossi Sarid, a well-regarded veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, argues that Israel -- and the United States -- need to recognize that they are going about things the wrong way. Instead of destroying the economic and physical infrastructure of Lebanon and Palestine, Sarid argues that efforts must be made to improve economies and opportunities for those who now see violence as the only way to demand fairness and opportunity.

"Iraq is destroyed, Afghanistan is destroyed, the Gaza Strip is destroyed and soon Beirut will be destroyed for the umpteenth time, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested solely in the vain war against the side that always loses and therefore has nothing more to lose. And hundreds of billions more go down the tubes of corruption," wrote Sarid.

"Maybe the time has come to put the pistol into safety mode for a moment, back into the holster, and at high noon declare a worldwide Marshall Plan, so that the eternal losers will finally have something to lose," Sarid added. "Only then will it be possible to isolate the viruses of violence and terrorism, for which quiet is quagmire and which in our eyes are themselves quagmire. And once isolated, it will be possible to eradicate them one day."

Krugman in today's NYT

July 17, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
March of Folly

Since those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it — and since the cast of characters making pronouncements on the crisis in the Middle East is very much the same as it was three or four years ago — it seems like a good idea to travel down memory lane. Here’s what they said and when they said it:

“The greatest thing to come out of [invading Iraq] for the world economy ... would be $20 a barrel for oil.” Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation (which owns Fox News), February 2003

“Oil Touches Record $78 on Mideast Conflict.” Headline on, July 14, 2006

“The administration’s top budget official estimated today that the cost of a war with Iraq could be in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion,” saying that “earlier estimates of $100 billion to $200 billion in Iraq war costs by Lawrence B. Lindsey, Mr. Bush’s former chief economic adviser, were too high.” The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2002

“According to C.B.O.’s estimates, from the time U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, $290 billion has been allocated for activities in Iraq. ... Additional costs over the 2007-2016 period would total an estimated $202 billion under the first [optimistic] scenario, and $406 billion under the second one.” Congressional Budget Office, July 13, 2006

“Peacekeeping requirements in Iraq might be much lower than historical experience in the Balkans suggests. There’s been none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another that produced so much bloodshed and permanent scars in Bosnia.” Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense and now president of the World Bank, Feb. 27, 2003

“West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighborhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.” The Times of London, July 14, 2006

“Earlier this week, I traveled to Baghdad to visit the capital of a free and democratic Iraq.” President Bush, June 17, 2006

“People are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse. ... These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.” Ayad Allawi, Mr. Bush’s choice as Iraq’s first post-Saddam prime minister, November 2005

“Iraq’s new government has another able leader in Speaker Mashhadani. ... He rejects the use of violence for political ends. And by agreeing to serve in a prominent role in this new unity government, he’s demonstrating leadership and courage.” President Bush, May 22, 2006

“Some people say ‘we saw you beheading, kidnappings and killing. In the end we even started kidnapping women who are our honor.’ These acts are not the work of Iraqis. I am sure that he who does this is a Jew and the son of a Jew.” Mahmoud Mashhadani, speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, July 13, 2006

“My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.” President Bush, Dec. 18, 2005

“I think I would answer that by telling you I don’t think we’re losing.” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, when asked whether we’re winning in Iraq, July 14, 2006

“Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits for the region. ...Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart, and our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced.” Vice President Dick Cheney, Aug. 26, 2002

“Bush — The world is coming unglued before his eyes. His naïve dreams are a Wilsonian disaster.” Newsweek Conventional Wisdom Watch, July 24, 2006 edition

“It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.” Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, Dec. 6, 2005

“I cannot support a failed foreign policy. History teaches us that it is often easier to make war than peace. This administration is just learning that lesson right now.” Representative Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, on the campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, April 28, 1999

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Telegraph | News | Israel fights West's cause against radical Islam

Telegraph | News | Israel fights West's cause against radical Islam
Israel fights West's cause against radical Islam
By Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor

(Filed: 17/07/2006)


It is an axiom of Israeli military operation that its armed forces must hurry to achieve victory before international pressure forces them to stop.

A copy of the Koran burns amid the debris in Beirut
Yet after bombarding Lebanon for five days, and causing pain to ordinary civilians unseen since the civil war ended 15 years ago, the international outcry is surprisingly muted. If anything, as the conflict has intensified and the regional stakes have risen, Israel has found a degree of international sympathy, or at least understanding.

Lebanon has become the battleground between pro-western and radical Islamic forces. Few governments, even Arab states, want to see Hizbollah win the contest.

America's strategic position in the Middle East - and by extension that of the West - has grown increasingly precarious.

The United States is on the defensive in Iraq, Afghanistan is becoming more unstable, Iran's nuclear programme has not been stopped and the radical Hamas movement has come to power in the Palestinian territories in democratic elections encouraged by America. The last thing Washington needs is for Syria and Iran to win a proxy victory in Lebanon.

Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader who had been a strong foe of Israel during the civil war but then became a powerful critic of Syria, summed up the situation as follows: "The war is no longer Lebanon's … it is an Iranian war. Iran is telling the United States: You want to fight me in the Gulf and destroy my nuclear programme? I will hit you at home, in Israel."

Tony Blair yesterday spoke of the need to confront "an arc of extremism" stretching from the Gaza Strip to Iraq.

There is certainly more evidence for the existence of such an alliance - encompassing the Palestinian Hamas movement, Hizbollah, Iraqi insurgents, Syria and Iran - than there ever was for George W Bush's original "axis of evil" of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

One may debate how strongly the extremist elements co-ordinate their actions, but they certainly feed and support each other.

The latest crisis began three weeks ago with the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, during an attack by Hamas on an army base close to the Gaza Strip.

As the Israelis pounded the Gaza Strip, Hizbollah last week opened up a second front in the north with similar tactics: a cross-border raid that killed Israeli soldiers and captured two of them.

It is no secret that Hizbollah was created, financed and armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and that its operations are facilitated by Syria. Indeed, Hizbollah was the only militia that Lebanon's Syrian overlords allowed to operate after the end of the civil war. It won widespread admiration for driving the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000, but was the largest obstacle to the "Cedar Revolution" that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon last year.

Syria has long been under pressure from the US, which accuses it of sheltering Iraqi insurgents, and from evidence gathered by United Nations investigators of its role in the assassination of the former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

This week, as America and Israel denounced Damascus, Iran joined the fray. "We hope the Zionist regime does not make the mistake of attacking Syria, because extending the front would definitely make the Zionist regime face unimaginable losses," said Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi. Iran may be facing the threat of UN sanctions in the coming months because of growing fears that it is trying to make nuclear weapons. But its confidence has been boosted by the failure of America and Britain to bring stability to neighbouring Iraq.

Experts will debate whether Hizbollah's attack on Israel was co-ordinated with Hamas or was carried out opportunistically to catch the wave of sympathy for the plight of Palestinians.

But the effect has been of benefit to the whole "arc of extremism". It has given Hamas a boost, diverted international attention away from Iran's nuclear programme and may have strengthened the position of Syria as envoys plead with it to help restrain Hizbollah. The militant group, an Iranian ally, may gain most of all in the region. It has taken up the great Arab cause of standing up to Israel.

The Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, on Friday defended the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure by saying: "If we succeed it will be Lebanon that benefits."

The crucial question is how the war will affect the internal balance of power in Lebanon. Will Hizbollah be seen as the only group brave and organised enough to stand up to Israel? Or will it incur the wrath of the Lebanese for dragging the country into a war it did not want?

The outcome of that debate may determine who wins the war, and decide the course of the Middle East for years to come.

Information appearing on is the copyright of Telegraph Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without licence. For the full copyright statement see Copyright

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Real Agenda - New York Times

The Real Agenda - New York Times

July 16, 2006
The Real Agenda

It is only now, nearly five years after Sept. 11, that the full picture of the Bush administration’s response to the terror attacks is becoming clear. Much of it, we can see now, had far less to do with fighting Osama bin Laden than with expanding presidential power.

Over and over again, the same pattern emerges: Given a choice between following the rules or carving out some unprecedented executive power, the White House always shrugged off the legal constraints. Even when the only challenge was to get required approval from an ever-cooperative Congress, the president and his staff preferred to go it alone. While no one questions the determination of the White House to fight terrorism, the methods this administration has used to do it have been shaped by another, perverse determination: never to consult, never to ask and always to fight against any constraint on the executive branch.

One result has been a frayed democratic fabric in a country founded on a constitutional system of checks and balances. Another has been a less effective war on terror.

The Guantánamo Bay Prison

This whole sorry story has been on vivid display since the Supreme Court ruled that the Geneva Conventions and United States law both applied to the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. For one brief, shining moment, it appeared that the administration realized it had met a check that it could not simply ignore. The White House sent out signals that the president was ready to work with Congress in creating a proper procedure for trying the hundreds of men who have spent years now locked up as suspected terrorists without any hope of due process.

But by week’s end it was clear that the president’s idea of cooperation was purely cosmetic. At hearings last week, the administration made it clear that it merely wanted Congress to legalize President Bush’s illegal actions — to amend the law to negate the court’s ruling instead of creating a system of justice within the law. As for the Geneva Conventions, administration witnesses and some of their more ideologically blinkered supporters in Congress want to scrap the international consensus that no prisoner may be robbed of basic human dignity.

The hearings were a bizarre spectacle in which the top military lawyers — who had been elbowed aside when the procedures at Guantánamo were established — endorsed the idea that the prisoners were covered by the Geneva Convention protections. Meanwhile, administration officials and obedient Republican lawmakers offered a lot of silly talk about not coddling the masterminds of terror.

The divide made it clear how little this all has to do with fighting terrorism. Undoing the Geneva Conventions would further endanger the life of every member of the American military who might ever be taken captive in the future. And if the prisoners scooped up in Afghanistan and sent to Guantánamo had been properly processed first — as military lawyers wanted to do — many would never have been kept in custody, a continuing reproach to the country that is holding them. Others would actually have been able to be tried under a fair system that would give the world a less perverse vision of American justice. The recent disbanding of the C.I.A. unit charged with finding Osama bin Laden is a reminder that the American people may never see anyone brought to trial for the terrible crimes of 9/11.

The hearings were supposed to produce a hopeful vision of a newly humbled and cooperative administration working with Congress to undo the mess it had created in stashing away hundreds of people, many with limited connections to terrorism at the most, without any plan for what to do with them over the long run. Instead, we saw an administration whose political core was still intent on hunkering down. The most embarrassing moment came when Bush loyalists argued that the United States could not follow the Geneva Conventions because Common Article Three, which has governed the treatment of wartime prisoners for more than half a century, was too vague. Which part of “civilized peoples,” “judicial guarantees” or “humiliating and degrading treatment” do they find confusing?

Eavesdropping on Americans

The administration’s intent to use the war on terror to buttress presidential power was never clearer than in the case of its wiretapping program. The president had legal means of listening in on the phone calls of suspected terrorists and checking their e-mail messages. A special court was established through a 1978 law to give the executive branch warrants for just this purpose, efficiently and in secrecy. And Republicans in Congress were all but begging for a chance to change the process in any way the president requested. Instead, of course, the administration did what it wanted without asking anyone. When the program became public, the administration ignored calls for it to comply with the rules. As usual, the president’s most loyal supporters simply urged that Congress pass a law allowing him to go on doing whatever he wanted to do.

Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced on Thursday that he had obtained a concession from Mr. Bush on how to handle this problem. Once again, the early perception that the president was going to bend to the rules turned out to be premature.

The bill the president has agreed to accept would allow him to go on ignoring the eavesdropping law. It does not require the president to obtain warrants for the one domestic spying program we know about — or for any other program — from the special intelligence surveillance court. It makes that an option and sets the precedent of giving blanket approval to programs, rather than insisting on the individual warrants required by the Constitution. Once again, the president has refused to acknowledge that there are rules he is required to follow.

And while the bill would establish new rules that Mr. Bush could voluntarily follow, it strips the federal courts of the right to hear legal challenges to the president’s wiretapping authority. The Supreme Court made it clear in the Guantánamo Bay case that this sort of meddling is unconstitutional.

If Congress accepts this deal, Mr. Specter said, the president will promise to ask the surveillance court to assess the constitutionality of the domestic spying program he has acknowledged. Even if Mr. Bush had a record of keeping such bargains, that is not the right court to make the determination. In addition, Mr. Bush could appeal if the court ruled against him, but the measure provides no avenue of appeal if the surveillance court decides the spying program is constitutional.

The Cost of Executive Arrogance

The president’s constant efforts to assert his power to act without consent or consultation has warped the war on terror. The unity and sense of national purpose that followed 9/11 is gone, replaced by suspicion and divisiveness that never needed to emerge. The president had no need to go it alone — everyone wanted to go with him. Both parties in Congress were eager to show they were tough on terrorism. But the obsession with presidential prerogatives created fights where no fights needed to occur and made huge messes out of programs that could have functioned more efficiently within the rules.

Jane Mayer provided a close look at this effort to undermine the constitutional separation of powers in a chilling article in the July 3 issue of The New Yorker. She showed how it grew out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s long and deeply held conviction that the real lesson of Watergate and the later Iran-contra debacle was that the president needed more power and that Congress and the courts should get out of the way.

To a disturbing degree, the horror of 9/11 became an excuse to take up this cause behind the shield of Americans’ deep insecurity. The results have been devastating. Americans’ civil liberties have been trampled. The nation’s image as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about, while other prisons operate in secret. American agents “disappear” people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.

• We still hope Congress will respond to the Supreme Court’s powerful and unequivocal ruling on Guantánamo Bay and also hold Mr. Bush to account for ignoring the law on wiretapping. Certainly, the president has made it clear that he is not giving an inch of ground.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Privacy Policy

Go to Venezuela

Published on Thursday, July 6, 2006 by
Go to Venezuela, You Idiot!
by Jeff Cohen

I don't usually take the advice of rightwingers. But I did this time. After receiving inflamed email messages from dozens of angry rightists that I should get the hell out of the USA and go to Venezuela, I accepted their challenge and flew to Caracas.

"Would you like me to start a fund to ship your ass down there, Comrade Cohen?"

What had provoked the often-abusive emailers was my 2005 Internet column urging U.S. residents to buy their gasoline at Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company. I called for a Citgo BUY-cott, to protest Bush's interventionist foreign policy while supporting innovative anti-poverty programs in Venezuela. (Last winter, Citgo started a program that provided discounted home-heating oil to low-income families in the U.S.)

"Hey moron, if you hate America so much and love Venezuela, why don't you go there?"

I'm glad I listened to the conservative chorus. In late June, I headed to Venezuela with a fact-finding delegation sponsored by the respected U.S. human rights group, Witness for Peace. The grueling trip covered much ground and all sides of Venezuela's social/political landscape. It is a complex country, headed by sometimes volatile President Hugo Chavez, a leftist and harsh Bush critic who was first elected in 1998.

As soon as I returned home, I headed to the nearest Citgo to fill up my tank -- more committed than ever to send a few dollars toward Venezuela's poor.

"You, sir, are as un-American as they come."

For decades, Venezuela's vast oil wealth had been squandered and hoarded by its light-skinned elite, while most Venezuelans -- largely of indigenous, African and mixed descent -- lived in dire poverty. Today, oil revenue from Citgo and elsewhere is funneled into social programs (called "missions") to benefit the country's poor majority. They're reminiscent of FDR's New Deal programs. . .born of our economic bust. But Venezuela's missions are fueled by a boom -- a boom in oil prices that is likely to persist for years.

"Because of Chavez, communism is thriving in South America."

From what I could see, capitalism is thriving. Foreign oil interests continue to profit handsomely from Venezuelan petrol, but they now pay a fairer share of taxes and royalties. So do the 80 McDonald's restaurants in Venezuela, which were briefly shut down last year over alleged tax cheating.

Multinational companies and the old elite are doing fine in today's Venezuela. So well that some Venezuelan leftists denounce Chavez -- despite his talk of building "21st century socialism" -- as a tool of corporate imperialism.

Like other oil-exporting countries, Venezuela in the past allowed its domestic productive economy to atrophy. Besides oil, it produced little -- with food largely imported. Today, people in poor areas are organizing themselves into productive and agricultural co-ops, supported by low-interest government loans. We visited a federal bank that underwrites women-run businesses nationwide.

My guess is that if Chavez succeeds in Venezuela -- a big "if" in a country of endemic corruption, poverty and crime, in the backyard of the U.S. superpower -- its economic system will end up looking more like Sweden than Cuba.

What's not debatable is that the poor have found hope in the Chavez administration -- which is why he's perhaps the most popular president in our hemisphere. So popular that Chavez critics in the U.S. government and Venezuelan opposition concede that they won't be able to defeat him in December when he seeks reelection.

"The trouble with all you liberals is that you're anti-American and hate democracy."

Participation in democracy is booming in Venezuela under Chavez. That's partly due to polarization, but also because so many poor people feel empowered enough for the first time to get active in politics. A massive 2005 Latinobarometro poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries showed that Venezuelans are among the top in preference for democracy over all other forms of government, in satisfaction with how their democracy is functioning, and in belief that their country is "totally democratic."

"The oil money never gets to the poor. . . . You must have been paid by Chavez to write what you wrote."

Across Venezuela, it's hard to miss the new investment in public education. Schools are being upgraded in urban and rural areas and are required to offer free breakfasts and lunches, arts, music and after-school activities. Unlike the U.S., these are well-funded mandates. Illiteracy has been virtually wiped out, according to UNESCO, thanks to adult education that has penetrated the poorest neighborhoods.

In poor communities, federally-subsidized stores called "mercals" sell food at half the market price. In the capital of Caracas, thousands of government-funded soup kitchens offer free lunches every weekday to the indigent; our delegation was headquartered in a church that served 150 free lunches per day. Across the country, new housing is being built to replace shantytown "ranchos" that so many Venezuelans live in.

Thousands of free ("Barrio Adentro") medical clinics have been built inside neighborhoods that never had doctors before -- so many clinics that you can spot them from the highway. These are staffed largely by doctors from Cuba; in return, Cuba receives Venezuelan oil. When we asked a community leader how local residents reacted to the Cuban doctors, he explained that most Venezuelan doctors won't serve in poor barrios: "People in our community don't care whether the doctors are French, German, Canadian, Mexican or Cuban -- as long as they're here to help."

"Go to Venezuela and kiss up to the anti-American dictator."

If Venezuela is a dictatorship, it must be the first in world history in which the opposition controls most of the media. And the first in which demonstrations occur regularly outside the presidential palace (organized by various groups, especially low-income activists complaining about broken promises and government inefficiency).

Dissent is alive and well in Venezuela. Any casual viewer can see anti-Chavez criticism all over TV, the country's dominant medium and largely in the hands of conservative business interests. The opposition used its power on TV to support a short-lived military coup in 2002 (strike 1), an employers' oil lockout in 2002-3 (strike 2) and a failed recall election in 2004 (strike 3). Chavez won nearly 60% in the recall vote -- which was monitored closely by international observers.

Efforts to bring down Chavez -- through democratic and undemocratic means -- have been supported by the Bush administration. Which makes it ironic that the American Family Association, a U.S. religious ultra-right group, has organized a Citgo boycott on the basis of its Internet hoax: "Venezuela Dictator Vows to Bring Down U.S. Government." The headline tends to reverse reality; Chavez has made no such vow. But AFA true believers have targeted my email inbox for months with the hoax.

"Try Jesus. If you don't like Him, the devil will always take you back.. . . .What terrorist group are you affiliated with?"

If you think the U.S. is politically polarized, you haven't been to Venezuela. Clinton's impeachment by the religious right over sex is child's play compared to what's gone on in Venezuela, where Chavez has survived near-death experiences at the hands of a conservative opposition that has never accepted his presidency.

Columnist Paul Krugman talks of a "New Class War" in our country. In Venezuela, it's old-fashioned class war. Political and media confrontation between Chavez and the opposition is vicious, personal and bare-knuckled. While independent human rights monitors in Venezuela complain about isolated cases of government intimidation of opposition figures and journalists, they scoff at claims that democracy is in jeopardy or that dictatorship is coming.

Today, Chavez is popular (his approval ratings dwarf Bush's), rambunctious in whipping up his base against both domestic opponents and Bush, and prone to hyperbole in his hours of extemporaneous speaking each day. He has waged a war of words against U.S. Empire and Bush, whom he calls "Mr. Danger." But that's polite in light of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld having compared Chavez to Adolph Hitler. Or Rev. Pat Robertson having called for Chavez to be assassinated.

"You can write your articles about how great he [Chavez] is, but I know, as well as other true Americans, that he is not a good man and he does need to be taken out of power as soon as possible."

To me, the issue is less about Chavez than about the social initiatives his government has unleashed. When I first wrote about Venezuela 14 months ago, I urged a simple economic action: filling up at Citgo so that our money at the pump helps Venezuela's poor instead of Middle East oiligarchs. That remains a good idea.

Nowadays, I also urge political action: that we contact Congress to demand that the U.S. stay out of Venezuela's political contest. That's up to Venezuelans to decide. Not us. The U.S. should stop its efforts to back the conservative opposition and cease all ("National Endowment for Democracy") funding of Venezuelan groups.

And finally, I want to join my rightwing critics in one recommendation: Go to Venezuela. If you can arrange it, examine the social transformations for yourself. Study Spanish there. See the decades of poverty, neglect and corruption that led to the election of Hugo Chavez -- and whether his government is improving things.

There's an added bonus for anyone who can get down there: gasoline at 18 cents per gallon. Expect to hear Venezuelans complaining that the price is too high.

Jeff Cohen is a media critic and former TV pundit. His newest book, "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media," can be pre-ordered at