Friday, September 5, 2008

"Blinded By Confetti"

Now that the smoke has cleared from the Rethuglican Convention's loudly expressed fascination with colored lights and shiny objects, we return to the more pressing adventures of yesteryear. The recent events in Pakistan, the build-up of naval forces in the Black Sea, George W. Bush's declaration of a permanent state of war and some other odd events may lead one to believe that the results of the coming elections may not be in exact accordance with the wishes of the electorate. And Cheney is still in Georgia (or somewhere else - who knows?). (Emphasis marks and some editing are mine.) _______________________________________________ Those Who Are Tasked to Police This Democracy Are Blinded by Confetti The real problem with the Bush years is not so much what he did but that America's political class enabled him to do it By Gary Younge 01/09/08 The Guardian - "Some nations have a gift for ceremonial," wrote the future third Marquess of Salisbury, Lord Robert Cecil, after watching Queen Victoria open parliament. "No poverty of means or absence of splendour inhibits them from making any pageant in which they take part both real and impressive. Everybody falls naturally into his proper place, throws himself without effort into the spirit of the little drama he is enacting and instinctively represses all appearance of constraint or distracted attention."

What was arguably true for 19th century Britain (Cecil, as it happens, believed that Britain did not possess that gift) is no less so for 21st century America. As one party convention ends and another begins (hurricane permitting), we are halfway through a fortnight of ticker tape, talking points, balloons and bluster. There was a time when these conventions meant something more than mere pageantry. They were the place where arguments were made, platforms thrashed out and delegates wooed with policy. But like British party conferences, conventions are now essentially media events at which the media enjoys neither particular access, information nor, for the most part, insight. The result is two weeks of propaganda rolled out like a well-choreographed marketing campaign and faithfully transmitted by supine outlets. Like most acts of ceremony, form has long surpassed content. The further they have strayed from the substance the more the symbols matter. Strip away the high-minded commentary and you are left with two patriotic parades steeped in electoral rivalry and masquerading as a celebration of democratic culture. As far as pageantry goes, they could certainly be worse. At least in these there are no gilded coaches, crowns, ermine or wigs. And yet despite the slew of historic candidacies - first Barack Obama and now Sarah Palin - it seems as though this year America's political class has less to celebrate than ever. For the conventions do not just mark the beginning of a new presidential cycle, but the passing of an old one. The fact that this administration has been criminally incompetent is now the stuff of water-cooler orthodoxy. The fact that it has been plain criminal is not. But it should be. Under George Bush the US has tortured, disenfranchised, lied, spied and, on more than one occasion, flouted its own constitution. Those who would not go along were fired or demoted. Those rulings it could not garner support for, it simply classified or hid. Those inquiries it could not prevent, it thwarted. When Major General Antonio Taguba tried to pursue his investigation of Abu Ghraib up the chain of command, he was stopped. "I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority," he told the New Yorker. Its violation of international law is ultimately a matter for the international community. But its violation of American laws is a matter for the American public. However, it is now clear that the political consequences of these transgressions will range from negligible to non-existent. The Bush administration should be led away in handcuffs - either indicted or impeached. Instead it is about to leave the scene of the crime in broad daylight, while those tasked to police this democracy - notably politicians and the press - blind themselves with confetti. Those who regard impeachment as merely a vindictive attempt to adjudicate the past display a chronic lack of imagination. True, it is not going to happen. But that makes it no less morally compelling or politically relevant to argue that it should. Trying to look ahead without acknowledging how you got to where you are is a surefire way to end up wandering around in circles. And the last place the Democrats want to be is where they were. Take voter registration. Around this time last year the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, was forced to resign amid allegations of perjury before Congress over his role in the politically motivated firing of seven attorneys. They were replaced by what his then chief of staff referred to as "loyal Bushies" on the advice of the White House. Five of the fired attorneys were in battleground states. They had irritated local Republicans by refusing to bring voter fraud cases targeted at loyal Democratic groups because of lack of evidence. The congressional hearings were a farce. Gonzales said he "could not recall" more than 71 times in one day. Clearly he hoped we would forget too. But in a year when voter rolls are swelling with the expectation of an unprecedented turnout, it is crucial that we remember. A few weeks ago John McCain's campaign attorneys attended a national training session for Republican lawyers on election law, which included a session on identifying and responding to instances of voter fraud. Despite the justice department's own studies showing that voter fraud is extremely rare, Republicans are gearing up for mass intimidation in minority areas on election day. If the election is close, expect to see Florida 2000 replayed from Virginia to Nevada. And if the challenges go to court, Gonzales's "loyal Bushies" will be there to hear the cases. Such are the lasting consequences of Bush's crooked tenure. Casting him as inept and unethical is not difficult. He is the most unpopular president for six decades. Some have been loathed more - but none by so many for so long. But understanding how he managed to do it demands a wider lens. For he could not do it alone. The US is not an elected dictatorship. The president is supposed to stand at the helm of a system of checks and balances. The reason there was no balance was because there were no checks. The real problem with the Bush years is not so much that he did what he did, but that he managed to gain the consent of America's political class in enabling him to do it. His political estrangement is not because he tried, only because he failed. This has more or less been conceded by none other than the leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who voted against the war in Iraq. When asked recently by the Nation why she took impeachment off the table before the 2006 elections, Pelosi answered: "What about these other people who voted for that war with no evidence ... Are they going to be voting with us to impeach the president? Where are these Democrats going to be? Are they going to be voting for us to impeach a president who took us to war on information that they had also?" In other words, for the Democrats to impeach the president they would first have to implicate themselves. This is not to say the Democrats were equally culpable. But they were differently responsible, and cowed by accusations of lack of patriotism most of them abdicated that responsibility. Asked to explain the administration's use of torture, the director of the 9/11 commission, Philip Zelikow, said: "Fear and anxiety exploited by zealots and fools." But there is, it seems, no price to pay for being a zealot or a fool in power. America will no doubt be anxious and fearful again some day. And for all the ceremonial hyperbole of this convention season, there is little to suggest that when that day comes the fools and zealots won't once again come out on top.
____________________________________________ Bush Quietly Seeks to Make War Powers Permanent by Declaring Indefinite State of War By John Byrne 31/08/08 Raw Story - "As the nation focuses on Sen. John McCain's choice of running mate, President Bush has quietly moved to expand the reach of presidential power by ensuring that America remains in a state of permanent war."
Buried in a recent proposal by the Administration is a sentence that has received scant attention - and was buried itself in the very newspaper that exposed it Saturday. It is an affirmation that the United States remains at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban and "associated organizations." Part of a proposal for Guantanamo Bay legal detainees, the provision before Congress seeks to “acknowledge again and explicitly that this nation remains engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated organizations, who have already proclaimed themselves at war with us and who are dedicated to the slaughter of Americans.” The New York Times' page 8 placement of the article in its Saturday edition seems to downplay its importance. Such a re-affirmation of war carries broad legal implications that could imperil Americans' civil liberties and the rights of foreign nationals for decades to come. It was under the guise of war that President Bush claimed a legal mandate for his warrantless wiretapping program, giving the National Security Agency power to intercept calls Americans made abroad. More of this program has emerged in recent years, and it includes the surveillance of Americans' information and exchanges online. "War powers" have also given President Bush cover to hold Americans without habeas corpus - detainment without explanation or charge. Jose Padilla, a Chicago resident arrested in 2002, was held without trial for five years before being convicted of conspiring to kill individuals abroad and provide support for terrorism. But his arrest was made with proclamations that Padilla had plans to build a "dirty bomb." He was never convicted of this charge. Padilla's legal team also claimed that during his time in military custody -- the four years he was held without charge -- he was tortured with sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, forced stress positions and injected with drugs. Times reporter Eric Lichtblau notes that the measure is the latest step that the Administration has taken to "make permanent" key aspects of its "long war" against terrorism. Congress recently passed a much-maligned bill giving telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for their participation in what constitutional experts see as an illegal or borderline-illegal surveillance program, and is considering efforts to give the FBI more power in their investigative techniques. "It is uncertain whether Congress will take the administration up on its request," Lichtblau writes. "Some Republicans have already embraced the idea, with Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, introducing a measure almost identical to the administration’s proposal. 'Since 9/11,' Mr. Smith said, 'we have been at war with an unconventional enemy whose primary goal is to kill innocent Americans.'" If enough Republicans come aboard, Democrats may struggle to defeat the provision. Despite holding majorities in the House and Senate, they have failed to beat back some of President Bush's purported "security" measures, such as the telecom immunity bill. Bush's open-ended permanent war language worries his critics. They say it could provide indefinite, if hazy, legal justification for any number of activities - including detention of terrorists suspects at bases like Guantanamo Bay (where for years the Administration would not even release the names of those being held), and the NSA's warantless wiretapping program. Lichtblau co-wrote the Times article revealing the Administration's eavesdropping program along with fellow reporter James Risen. He notes that Bush's language "recalls a resolution, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001... [which] authorized the president to 'use all necessary and appropriate force' against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks to prevent future strikes. That authorization, still in effect, was initially viewed by many members of Congress who voted for it as the go-ahead for the administration to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban, which had given sanctuary to Mr. bin Laden." "But the military authorization became the secret legal basis for some of the administration’s most controversial legal tactics, including the wiretapping program, and that still gnaws at some members of Congress," he adds.
____________________________________________ Danger grows of NATO-Russian clash in Black Sea By Julie Hyland and Chris Marsden 01/09/08 WSW - "A build-up of naval forces is underway in the Black Sea, involving both NATO and Russian ships. The provocative actions by the US-lead military coalition create the danger of a clash with potentially catastrophic consequences."
Late last week, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian military’s general staff, claimed that 10 NATO warships were in the Black Sea and that more were on the way. “In light of the build-up of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, the [Russian] fleet has also taken on the task of monitoring their activities,” he said. The ships include two US warships, ostensibly in the region to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia. These have since been joined by a third. In addition, NATO admitted that four of its vessels are on a “pre-planned deployment” in the Black Sea, “conducting port visits with Romanian and Bulgarian forces”. The “long-planned routine” exercise Active Endeavor — which is said to involve training in anti-terrorist and anti-pirate manoeuvres — comprises one warship each from Spain, Germany and Poland. They were reportedly later joined by a US frigate for a three-week schedule of port visits and exercises. While denying a build-up, a NATO spokesperson said that other NATO countries may have ships in the sea. “Obviously, there are other NATO-affiliated nations out doing things,” Lt. Col. Web Wright said. These reports confirm that at least six NATO vessels are in the Black Sea, meaning that Russian warnings that warships from the western alliance now outnumber their own fleet anchored off the western coast of Georgia are not as far off the mark as is claimed. Russia has charged the US with using aid as a cover for rearming Georgia. “Normally warships do not deliver aid and this is gunboat diplomacy, this does not make the situation more stable,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Cliff Kupchan at the Eurasia Group, a US-based consultancy, was cited as stating, “It is a clever policy to have chosen military-led humanitarian relief.” He went on, “Given this administration’s consistently aggressive approach to protecting American influence, one has to ask how long it will allow Russians to dictate which Georgian port to use.” On Thursday a US coast guard cutter docked at the Georgian port of Batumi, after the American embassy in Tbilisi had initially stated that it was heading towards the Russian-controlled port of Poti, in line with Georgian requests. According to reports, this statement was later retracted and the Dallas instead unloaded its aid supplies in Batumi. Last Sunday the US destroyer, USS McFaul, docked at Batumi. The US military says a third ship, USS Mount Whitney, the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet, will arrive in Georgia today. The New York Times August 28 admitted the US was “pursuing a delicate policy of delivering humanitarian aid on military transport planes and ships, apparently to illustrate to the Russians that they do not fully control Georgia’s airspace or coastline.” The report continued that this policy “has left American and Russian naval vessels manoeuvring in close proximity off the western coast of Georgia, with the Americans concentrated near the southern port of Batumi and the Russians around the central port of Poti. It has also left the Kremlin deeply suspicious of American motives.” In a further provocative move by the US, the Dallas is to leave Georgia and visit the Ukranian port of Sevastopol the same day. The port is leased by Russia from Ukraine and is integral to its Black Sea operations. In a display of support for the US, Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko has said that the lease will not be extended beyond 2017 and has signed a decree requiring prior notice of all movements by Russian naval vessels and aircraft from Sevastopol. Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper cited Nogovitsyn as claiming that the US ships are carrying nuclear missiles that could hit Russian targets as far away as St. Petersburg. The RIA news agency claimed that the NATO ships were carrying more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, with more than 50 onboard the USS McFaul alone that could hit ground targets. On August 26 Reuters reported that Russia’s flagship cruiser, the Moskva, had re-entered the Black Sea for weapons tests. The assistant to the Russian Navy’s commander-in-chief told Russian news agencies the cruiser had put to sea again two days after returning to its base at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. Russian warships also reportedly arrived in the separatist region of Abkhazia. Russian deputy admiral Sergei Menyailo said they would “support peace and stability”. He said, “Our tasks include the control of Abkhazia’s territorial waters and the prevention of arms shipments.” The leader of the separatist region said he will invite Russia to establish a naval base at Sukhumi, a deep-water port in the territory. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the extraordinary step of accusing the US of instigating the assault by Georgia on South Ossetia. “The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict to make the situation more tense and create a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president,” Putin said, clearly referring to Republican candidate John McCain, whose foreign policy advisor was a lobbyist for Saakashlivi government. Putin also said he had reason to believe US military personnel were working with Georgian forces that fought Russians, a prospect he described as “very dangerous.” The White House dismissed Putin’s assertions as preposterous. At the same time, McCain’s wife Cindy was visiting Georgia and US Vice President Dick Cheney planned to arrive this week, where he is expected to pledge American military assistance. For his part, Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has joined the bellicose threats against “Russian aggression” and said, if elected, his administration would be committed to protecting Georgia. The Los Angeles Times ran an article under the headline, “Why Was Cheney’s Guy in Georgia Just Before the War?” on August 26. The piece named Joseph R. Wood, Cheney’s deputy assistant for national security affairs. It asked, “What was a top national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney doing in Georgia shortly before Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s troops engaged in what became a disastrous fight with South Ossetian rebels — and then Russian troops?” Nogovitsyn has charged that a US national was amongst the Georgian commando units who invaded South Ossetia. He produced a colour photocopy of a US passport belonging to Michael Lee White from Texas, born in 1967. He told a press conference, “There is a building in Zemonekozi — a settlement to the south of Tskhinvali that was fiercely defended by a Georgian special operations squad. Upon clearing the building, Russian peacekeepers recovered, among other documents, an American passport in the name of Michael Lee White of Texas.” There is a growing body of evidence and commentary regarding the US role in building up Georgia’s military, with the aim of provoking a conflict with Russia. Writing in the New Statesman August 14 Misha Glenny noted how the US and Israel had worked to arm Georgia, so that “Saakashvili and the hawks around him came to believe the farcical proposition that Georgia’s armed forces could take on the military might of their northern neighbour in a conventional fight and win.” Glenny noted that the Georgian minister for reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Temur Yakobashvili, had praised Israel for its military assistance. Following the assault on South Ossetia, Glenny stated, Yakobashvili had said “Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers.” Thanks to its assistance, “We killed 60 Russian soldiers yesterday alone,” he said. “The Russians have lost more than 50 tanks, and we have shot down 11 of their planes. They have sustained enormous damage in terms of manpower.” It is known that the US and Georgia held joint war games between July 15-31, codenamed Operation Immediate Response, which involved 1,000 US servicemen. One week later, on August 7, Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia. As to the immediate future, the Times of London reported, “US military planners are now openly considering how to rearm Georgia’s forces” and cited a Pentagon spokesman as stating, “Down the road we will be looking at what may be required to rebuild the Georgian military... right now the mission of the United States military is to provide humanitarian assistance.” The Times quoted the former British ambassador to Georgia Donald McLaren stating that NATO might have to send troops to the region. If Moscow rejected such a proposal, he said, NATO had only two choices: “To give up and surrender and say to the Russians, ‘It’s your backyard, you’ve won’, or to put men on the ground to protect Georgia’s sovereignty and the east-west oil and gas pipeline from the Caspian and Central Asia.” McLaren wrote earlier in the Daily Mail that “Georgia is a part of Europe. It is our gateway to Central Asia and, with Russia and Turkey as neighbours and Iraq and Iran not far to the south, its location alone makes it of strategic significance. “It is a friend and partner in one of the most highly-pressurised parts of the world. Georgia is a vital conduit for energy supplies from the Caspian to its East and the potential of the Central Asian suppliers beyond. “There are few issues more immediate than energy security and Georgia’s fragile oil pipeline offers us one alternative to dependence on Russia.” The US offensive against Russia is destabilising the entire region and inexorably drawing the European powers in its wake. Asia Times reported, “The US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline passes through Georgian territory and letting Russia dictate events in Georgia has a definite implication in terms of energy security, given the fierce pipeline geopolitics in the Eurasian landmass, Europe’s heavy energy dependency on Russia and Moscow’s willingness to rely on the energy card for security bargaining with Europe. “This alone may explain why the European Union, which has been divided over a response to the Georgian crisis, has largely consented to the US’s muscular reaction. The issue has now turned into a defining moment of the post-Cold War era because of its broader implications.” Both Germany and France have signalled they have retreated from their earlier opposition to Georgian membership of the European Union. EU and Ukranian leaders are to meet in France on September 9 and sign as association on closer relations. Although this does not spell out whether Ukraine will get EU accession, a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank(s) argues that the EU cannot afford any more delays in defining and deepening its ties with Ukraine. Tensions between Russia and Georgia continue to worsen. As Tbilisi announced Friday that it would sever diplomatic ties with Moscow, officials in South Ossetia stated they would seek absorption into Russia. As well as pitting Georgia and the Ukraine against Russia, the US has embroiled Turkey in a bitter row with Moscow. Russia argues that the NATO presence in the Black Sea violates the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits the time non-coastal countries can sail military vessels on the sea to three weeks. Under the treaty, Turkey — which controls the straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles — must be notified 15 days before military ships sail into the sea. These can not remain in the area for longer than 21 days. But Turkey only announced its approval of the US passage on August 20. Russia has warned that Turkey will be held responsible if the US ships do not leave when they are supposed to do so.
________________________________________________ Fading Superpower, Rising Rivals By Bernd Debusmann 31/08/08 Kuwait Times - "At the Beijing Olympics, China trounced the United States in the contest for gold medals. In the Caucasus, Russia inflicted a humiliating military defeat on Georgia, America's closest ally in the region. At home, the US economy is in deep trouble. The misery index, a combination of the rates of inflation and unemployment, stands at its highest in 16 years (11.3 percent in July) and there are forecasts of worse to come."
The Olympics marked China's status as a world power and the first time since 1996 that Americans did not win most gold medals. In the Caucasus, Russia showed that it can do as it sees fit in its own backyard, no matter how loudly Washington protests. That includes recognising as independent states the two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that Georgia claims as its own. In the Great Power game in the region, the score so far is Russia 1, US nil. Does all this mean that the oft-predicted end of America's role as the world's only superpower is near? Depends on the definition of "near". Political power grows from the barrel of a gun, as China's Mao Tse Tung observed, and the United States spends more on its armed forces than the rest of the world combined. There are more than 700 US military bases in some 130 countries. And despite its current troubles, the US economy is larger than those of the next three countries put together. Still, the US is no longer number one in all the fields where its dominance was once taken for granted. The world's leading financial center, for example, is no longer New York, it is London. The world's largest investment fund is in Abu Dhabi. The world's tallest building will soon be in Dubai. Predictions of shrinking (or rising) American power have been wrong in the past. In his book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the Harvard historian Paul Kennedy foresaw the imminent decline of the United States. The book was published just before the Soviet Union collapsed, a turn of history that left the US as the world's only superpower. On the opposite end of wrong forecasts was Francis Fukuyama's famous essay "The End of History," written after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It argued that mankind's "ideological evolution" had ended, to be replaced by "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Things didn't quite turn out that way. In an essay for the Washington Post this month, Fukuyama, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, conceded that "today, US dominance of the world system is slipping; Russia and China offer themselves as models, showing off a combination of authoritarianism and modernization that offers a clear challenge to liberal democracy. They seem to have plenty of imitators. Both Russia and China are members of the world's biggest emerging market economies, the so-called BRIC club - Brazil, Russia, India and China. They account for 40 percent of the world's population, sit on vast foreign exchange reserves, and have geopolitical ambitions. BRIC foreign ministers had their first formal meeting in May, in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Given the perils of crystal-gazing into the future shape of the world, it is not easy to find an expert willing to hazard a guess on how long American supremacy will last. But there is at least one, Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University who two years ago correctly forecast the bursting of the US housing bubble and the dismal chain of events that followed. At the time, many of his fellow economists snickered. Roubini thinks that it will take a couple of decades for "US policy mistakes in economic, financial and foreign policies (to) ... erode the power of the American empire." That would make it relatively short-lived. Depending on how you count, the Roman empire lasted more than 500 years, the British 460 or so, the Spanish around 400. One of America's most serious problems, Roubini writes on his website, is the fact that the US is the world's biggest net borrower and net debtor. The countries financing the American deficits are its rivals, China and Russia, and Middle Eastern oil exporters. History, he says, provides lessons on the importance of financial prudence. "Empires ... tend to be net lenders, i.e. run current account surpluses. The decline of the British Empire started in World War II when the British fiscal deficits in the war and the current account deficits turned the empire into a net borrower and a net debtor." The British twin deficits were being financed by a rising power that was a net lender and a net creditor - the United States. Whether it will ever return to that state depends, in part, on the competence, or lack of it, of the next US administration. President George W Bush's team did not set a good example.
_________________________________________ Suzan

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