27 May 2006

A more secure America

Yesterday the US Capitol and surrounding buildings were locked down due to suspected gunshots in the parking garage of the Rayburn House Office Building. It was later revealed that Rep. Jim Saxton (R - New Jersey) had called in the noise, saying it sounded like a 9mm handgun had gone off. The representative was so specifice in his claim because he grew up with guns (easy enough to understand) and served for 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee (what?).

Um.... If anyone knows when the last time somebody actually fired a gun in a hearing before the Armed Services Committee, please let me know. Honestly, I don't think that committee service makes one qualified to indentify weaponry, at least not by their sounds.

Turns out that it was really a pneumatic hammer that made the noise and that the massive shut down only caused a bunch of House staffers to get hungry.

That's really all I have to say.

22 May 2006

A common sense return to the Constitution

On Friday, the UN released a report that called for the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. This isn't the first time such a call has been issued, and it won't be the last. But the fact that the Administration continues to ignore such calls bothers me considerably.

There are several issues at stake with Guantanamo Bay, and how the way the prison is run actually weakens U.S. anti-terror policy. First, the prison is a bastion of injustice where detainees have no opportunity for any sort of legal assistance whatsoever. They are just swept up, locked up, and kept there, without charge or trial. That's not the American way. You see, even if 90% of the detainees actually are terrorists who have planned to attack the United States, that still leaves 10% who aren't. Further, terrorists fight ideological battles. You don't convince somebody that democratic institutions are the way to go by throwing them in the slammer to rot. Gulags were Stalin's forte - American presidents have no business reproducing such institutions.

Next we have the whole martyrdom thing. Let's be honest here. What better way for a terrorist to go than at the hands of the great satan? The more of these guys in Cuba we screw over, the more terrorists we create globally. And I'm not just talking Afghanistan and Iraq here. Terror movements are growing in places like Indonesia and Darfur, and will be fierce in their own right soon enough. We actually reap dividends by giving these detainees a fair and public trial in a civil court. We gain nothing by treating them like dirt, no matter how criminal they are.

Finally there are the claims that the detainees are valuable sources of information. So great, we can find out where Osama bin Laden (OBL) was hiding six months ago. That kind of information doesn't do us a damn bit of good. Of course al Qaeda and other groups are planning attacks on the U.S. and its allies. That's a given, because it's just what they do. But, we can gain better intelligence by increasing the operations side of the CIA and refocusing the NSA on tracking foreign, rather than domestic, communications. Once upon a time there were operatives who followed OBL around and reported back on what he did. Now, not so much. Thus we've lost that valuable means of intelligence and we can't replace that with botched prison interrogations.

Basically, the U.S. needs to treat the Guantanamo prisoners like criminals: arrest them, charge them, try them, and carry out the sentence. I don't believe in going easy on them and I don't believe in letting them off with no contest. I just want to see some due process here. Just leaving them down there like pigs in an East Carolina hog farm, wallowing around in misery, does nothing to promote American interests.

18 May 2006

Let's make friends! Somalia edition

(Sidebar: what's with all the posts about non-West Africa?)

The news from the State Department just gets better and better. Today's revelation is that the United States is paying off Somali warlords in return for their help catching terr'ists. Ain't that a gem?

I first got wind of this in a UN report a month or so ago that said that at least one country was violating sanctions by paying warlords for this purpose, and figured it was the U.S. (see article above). But today it's official.

Now I realize that the whole Somalia thing is just one massive mess and that the "Somali government" is pretty much a joke. But please. How does paying guys that terrorize whole cities count as fighting terror? Is there some scale of terror we're working from here? As in "well, that low-life self-destructing scum bag isn't quite as nasty as the one that we're after, so let's work with him."

No, wait. I've figured it out. The actual anti-terror policy is to only go after those terrorists that target Americans. After all, the rest of the world's population is disposable.

Yeah. I should shut up and go to bed.

16 May 2006

Let's make friends! Libya edition

I am officially lodging my low level grumble towards the restoration of diplomatic ties with Libya. Specifically, my concern comes from removing Libya from the lists of states that sponsor terrorism. Now I don't know whether or not Libya has al Qaeda connections or anything else. But here's what I do know: Libya trained and financed the various rebel groups in West Africa during the 1990s, and was likely involved in the various Central African conflicts as well. The country also has a pretty pourous border with Sudan, especially northern Darfur, where there are known terrorist training camps.

That sounds like state sponsored terrorism to me.

All Libya has had to do to get normal relations is to renounce its WMD programme, pay off the PanAm flight survivors and open up to Western investment. That's right friends, Libya has lots of untapped oil.

Bush administration foreign policy can thus be described as follows: "To hell with democracy. Terrorism only bothers us in Iraq. Now, where's that black gold?"

10 May 2006

Hurricane hits me

In the Target parking lot today, I encountered a woman who had lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit back in August. She was pregnant, looked dead tired, and had some sort of bruise on the side of her face that had been stitched up. She carried a manila file folder, and in it she had her medical records for her and her children, and a few photos. She had several children, one of whom she described as having been swept out of her window by gushing water before she could get to him. She managed to find his body, and showed me the death certificate. She had thought her mother was dead too, but apparently got a call a few days ago to let her know that her mother was in fact alive, and living somewhere in Texas, I think. This woman was simply asking for $5 to help buy the bus ticket to get her mother up to DC so she could be reunited with the family. I didn’t have any cash on me, and felt horrible. She was so sweet, and so tired, but at the same time so respectful and calm. She had been through a huge catastrophe, and was just trying to survive it.

As I said, I felt horrible for not having anything on me. I don’t usually give money to people on the street, but she had a legitimate need, and even had the paperwork to back it up. I hope she can raise enough. She only needed a few more donations to get the ticket.

But as I roamed the aisles of the grocery store across the street, I grew increasingly angry. Not at her, because I could never do that. I was angry at my country.

The United States is the richest country on earth. The State of California is, by itself, the fifth largest economy in the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually pays farmers to not grow anything.

And yet this woman who lost everything, including one of her children, in a massive natural disaster on our own soil, has to beg for money. That’s an injustice if I ever saw one. But it’s not just hurricane victims this country neglects. Veterans, people with AIDS, senior citizens, and even teachers struggle to get by, and government assistance is insufficient. The unemployment rate has declined only marginally. There are whole families that spend the night without food or shelter. There is a whole swath of the population, including children, that is simply neglected by our government and our society.

It’s not just wrong. It’s criminal.

Granted, there isn’t much I can do about it. In spite of the tremendous privilege I enjoy – I’m currently sitting in an air conditioned, fully furnished apartment typing on my relatively new computer with my car parked right by the door of my building – I go into debt at a huge rate each year, and can’t give to all the causes I would like to give to. In fact, in the past year, I don’t know that I’ve really helped anyone with anything. I guess I should be careful to not be hypocritical. But still, one day I hope to be able to give back tons to the world, and not just monetarily.

We need real relief for those who survived the Gulf Coast hurricanes last year. And we need real social programs that actually help people. Paying farmers to not grow corn so the price can be kept low for corporations is ridiculous. We could pay those farmers to grow that corn (or something else), and use it for humanitarian aid, while still keeping prices down for the corporations.

Instead, this country takes its wealth and blows stuff up. What a painfully childish use of resources. We can and must do better.

09 May 2006

That whole Darfur thing...

As someone who follows African conflicts basically all the damn time, I feel obliged to weigh in on the Darfur issue right off the bat.

The conflict is Darfur is absolutely miserable. There are multiple factions, multiple agendas, multiple interpretations of history and the present, and multiple attempts to either end or ignore the conflict itself. I'm one of those that believes that genocide is in fact taking place, and that this has been the case for at least two years now. Finally, a peace deal was signed late last week between the Khartoum government and the largest rebel faction, the SLM/A. Even though this has allegedly opened the door for UN peacekeepers, I'm still not terribly hopeful about the situation.

My primary concern is that the peace deal was signed by only one of three major factions. See, for things like ceasefires to work, you kinda have to get all sides to cease firing. Further, I have absolutely no confidence in the Khartoum government. Even though it has been relatively faithful to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that it signed with forces that had been fighting in Southern Sudan, there is still evidence that President Bashir and his cronies still try to sidestep the South, while taking in part of its oil money.

But part of my concern lies with the rest of the world too. Thanks for your protest last week. That was important. But it was a little late, no? Where were you two years ago? What kind of world is it that genocide takes two years to get a response?

Oh wait, we're talking about Africans being slaughtered. See the Rwanda example.

Why the Western interest now? We realized there might be oil in them there desert hills.

I'm not trying to be overly cynical. There are, in fact, boatloads of people who have expressed their concern over Darfur from the very beginning. I applaud those people, and I wish that I had been more vocal myself. But what we haven't seen in two years is real international action.

The African Union stepped up when nobody else did or would. They have fielded a peacekeeping operation in Darfur since 2004, although that mission is too small and lacks key equipment and essential funding. The mission should and now likely will be replaced by a UN operation. Yet this won't be any ordinary UN peacekeeping mission.

A peacekeeping operation in Darfur must be massive. After all, we're talking about a place the size of France. It took 21,000 peacekeepers in Sierra Leone to secure a peace that was more stable and in a country far smaller. It took 17,000 in Liberia. There are 17,000 more in Democratic Republic of Congo, and they can only cover about a third of that vast country. There are 10,000 coming to Southern Sudan, but again, that peace is more stable. In Southern Sudan, the war had raged for 20 years and it ended as much out of exhaustion as it did a real desire for some sort of peace.

So what should a UN mission in Darfur look like? Personally, I think you need at least 50,000 troops, complete with tanks and lots of helicopters. Those fighting in Darfur have not shown signs of exhaustion and don't seem terribly keen on this peace deal. This will be more peace enforcement than peacekeeping. It will be the biggest thing the UN has ever done. It will be ridiculously expensive. It will require huge logistical support. And it is entirely necessary. One of my former co-workers half-jokingly referred to this as "the invasion option." I don't think that's quite accurate. We don't need to conquer anything, we just have to stop the massive bloodshed. The whole original concept behind peacekeeping was to simply stand between two parties and refuse to let them kill each other.

A gentleman I met with tonight suggested that we first needed to buy off some of the parties in Darfur. However, with the discovery of oil wealth in the region, it will be impossible to buy off the spoilers unless they are promised a cut of the revenues. But wealth and power sharing can also be ensured by expanding the Government of National Unity to include Darfur representatives, and in short, some sort of political voice for the disenfranchised. It won't be perfect, but it's a start.

The fact of the matter is that Sudan is crumbling. In five years, the South will likely exercise its secession option. I think those in Darfur would like a similar option. There is also brewing conflict in Eastern Sudan that will likely lead to calls for independence, or at least autonomy. That leaves the Khartoum dominated center, which, by the way, has no resources at its disposal.
Thus the best we can do is make the disintegration a relatively calm one. Bashir and company are going to fight tooth and nail to stop it, and thus must be contained. The situation therefore requires a tremendous show of international resolve if we are to prevent further slaughter.

08 May 2006

The Time Out Chair of British Politics

He's done it again, folks. Tony Blair is punishing people. This time, it's Jack Straw that gets the "chair."

You see, Tony Blair has a curious way of dispensing with unruly Cabinet secretaries, and it forms a neat little pattern. Sure, various people have been shuffled around over the years, most recently last week. But there's one demotion in particular that means you are no longer in favour.

Congratulations, you've just been named Leader of the House of Commons. You will lose all substantive responsibilities, and simply be a paper-pusher/scheduler.

Let's look at previous demotions:

The late Robin Cook was the unruly foreign secretary (and Straw's predecessor), who began to chafe under Tony's cronyism with one George W. Bush. Thus, Cook became Leader of the House, where he could do little damage. Ultimately though, Cook resigned that position in opposition to the Iraq war, and gave a damn long speech about it too. Turns out people can ruffle your feathers even from politically weak positions.

Then there John Reid, now Defence Secretary, and Peter Hain, who was concurrently Secretary of State for Wales. They were really more warm bodies to fill the job, and Hain has since been made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as well.

Then came Geoff Hoon, the bumbling idiot who served Secretary of State for Defence, yet who couldn't defend himself on the Commons floor. He became a liability, and was forced to push paper.

Now Jack Straw gets the chair (and Geoff Hoon got demoted again, probably just for kicks). Straw's problem (I guess) is that he was starting to steal the spotlight. He recently did a UK tour with Condi Rice where they apparently had great success, even though the country loathes the Iraq war that they both pushed. Word on the street is that Straw is too close with Gordon Brown (aka Heir Apparent), and thus got shoved away. Don't worry, he'll be back.

Honestly, I think that next up for Leader of the House is none other than TB himself.