Saturday, April 30, 2011

What a Lovely Royal Wedding Kate and William Gave Us

There are moments that transport the world, that make all our troubles disappear, if only for a day. Yesterday was such a day.
There is really nothing I can add, except to say that I watched, I smiled, I cried, I laughed, and I marvelled at the enduring power of the British royal family to mesmerize us.
The Queen as calm and steady as ever, splendid in yellow, and making us wish that our political leaders were at least a little bit like her.
Kate, we’ll call her that forever no matter what Buckingham Palace wants, in her lovely Grace Kelly dress, wanting no more than to marry her Will. He, in royal red, waiting, a little nervous, and being teased by his younger brother, Harry. We all can identify with that.
Charles, perhaps found his perfect role. He was attentive, steady, and seemed to be ready if some small thing required his years of undergoing the rigors of royal protocol.
Camilla, whom I must say I do not like very much, has possibly found her role at last. She was relaxed, helped Kate and Charles, and seemed to fit into the role of step-mother of the groom with an unaccustomed ease.
And the last word for Kate’s parents, Carol and Michael. They were tossed into the royal whirlwind without much warning. And they did so well that they seemed to have been there all their lives. Carol, for me, was the best-dressed woman at the Abbey. Her pale blue outfit and matching hat were elegant. Maybe we now know why Kate has a timeless style. Michael, he was a rock, smiling at his daughter, and if you noticed, steadying her hand when she gripped his so tightly that her knuckles were white as she walked to the altar.
Well done, everyone.
God bless and lots of luck, Kate and Will. You’ll need every bit of it, but I think you’re up to the task.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The US Debt Ceiling and Political Issues

Soon, the Congress and President Obama are going to have to agree on how much to raise the American government's debt ceiling above its present $14.3 trillion.
It's clear that the debt ceiling will have to be raised, but all sorts of political agendas are being attached to the decision-making process. The most talked-about is the GOP demand for budget reductions. Republicans, and now Democrats, are taking the position that serious budget cuts must accompany the rise in the debt ceiling to get their votes. This is commendable, despite former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's comment that these people are "terrorists," which is a mighty exaggeration, if there ever was one.  
My suggestion is that not only should there be budget cuts attached to the debt ceiling bill, there needs to be a meaningful control of the Federal Reserve's actions.
I know that the Fed is independent and that politicians are not supposed to mingle in its actions. But, if there is to be any real progress in getting control of the American debt mess, it must include controlling the now out-of-control Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Bank.
First, Congress should take "veto control" over any Fed action that would lead to "money-printing," such as the Fed QE2 program of buying US Treasuries to fund US debt and expenses. Funding expenses and debt is the constitutional prerogative of Congress and it ought to stop the Fed's unauthorized intrusion. 
Second, Congress should vote to force the Fed to raise its basic interest rate above its present zero percent level. This is the single most crucial factor now destroying the fiscal credibility of the United States. It is also the reason why the Dollar is tumbling like a waterfall and will lose its reserve currency status. Unless Bernanke is stopped, the Dollar will become a third-world currency. This may permit Obama to pay for his huge expenditures in devalued Dollars, but it will finally lead to the excessive inflation that will destroy the American Dollar and with it, the savings and retirement benefits of EVERY American. EVERY American, not just the rich or Republicans, but EVERY American.
Congress, act now. Do not wait for a total collapse of the Dollar before trying to do something.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Obama Produces His Birth Certificate

President Obama released his full form birth certificate yesterday.
Most Americans already knew what it showed, that he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii.
But, the people who first raised the issue are still not so sure. These birthers now want to verify that the certificate is not a forgery, that it is an exact copy of the original, and so forth. This is partly because the certificate made available yesterday was a pdf file and not a paper copy, although a congressperson has said that that she saw the original copy and felt the raised seal marks of the State of Hawaii.  A Texas birther has raised the question whether Obama was a dual-citizen of the US and Kenya at birth, and whether that might in itself invalidate him under the Constitution, which says “natural born” citizens only may be President. The argument here, I suppose, is that he would have had to choose his country of citizenship at age 18, and thus, was not really a full citizen when he was born.
As we can see, the issue is not going away.
What amazed me yesterday was the President’s statement that “we have better things to do and should stop this silliness.”
I suggest that it is he who behaved in a silly manner, letting the issue become major - until half of Republicans and one-third of Independents believe he is not American and therefore not eligible to be President.
President Obama could have put the question to rest long ago, years before it became an issue of critical importance to his re-election effort. It would have been easy to follow in the footsteps of former presidential candidates and simply make available his birth certificate during the 2008 campaign.
He didn’t do that. Instead, he shadow-boxed with the issue and its supporters until he was boxed into showing the certificate.
Mr. President, that is no way to make Americans believe you are honestly telling everything you know about your birth facts.   

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Porter Stansberry's Analysis of the American Debt Problem

Porter Stansberry, a conservative financial and societal analyst wrote an analysis yesterday in his S&A Digest that puts America’s financial cards on the table.
1. The Federal Reserve’s QE2 program has bought back US Treasuries in a scope equal to about 70% of all the Treasuries issued during the QE2 period. The effect is to pay our international creditors with paper money created by Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke for just that purpose.
2. Stansberry’s view is that President Obama has ordered an investigation of the oil industry to hide the fact that the US Federal Reserve has, by creating all the above Dollars, started an inflationary spiral upward that will make petroleum, gasoline, food, clothes, and almost everything we use more expensive. The price of gold, silver and most other commodities is rising because investors and ordinary people are buying them to try to protect themselves from inflation and the weakening US Dollar.
3. Stansberry wrote: “We spent $2.3 trillion on direct benefits to taxpayers last year, while the government's total income was only $2.2 trillion. Roughly 60% of all Americans now receive some significant financial benefit from the government. Meanwhile, less than 50% of all people pay any federal income taxes. And roughly 10% of all taxpayers foot virtually all the significant income taxes levied.” But, 75% of Americans continue to agree that the “rich” should pay more taxes.
4. In order to stop the collapse in the value of the US Dollar and the inflation that accompanies it, real budget control must start now.
5. Stansberry’s figures show that “even if you collected 100% of the income of all the people who make more than $250,000 a year, the U.S. government would have still run a deficit last year. Even if you doubled the entire amount of income taxes collected, the Federal government would have run a deficit last year. There is no way to balance our budget, no way to prevent the literal bankruptcy of our country and the runaway hyperinflation that would result, unless we dramatically cut the government's budget. We have no choice.”
6. Stansberry analyzes the problem of taxes and spending as follows: “GDP is roughly $14 trillion today. So no matter how you organize the tax base, you end up with $2.8 trillion to spend….[But]…you've got interest payments and debt repayments ($500 billion per year) to make….That leaves us with roughly $2 trillion to spend. Here are our current expenses: Medicare and Social Security are now spending $1.5 trillion and will quickly grow…. The military spends over $700 billion each year. Domestic social programs (food stamps, Department of Education, etc.) cost $500 billion. Federal pensions cost more than $200 billion a year. So... we've got $2 trillion to spend....but our bills are running to $3 trillion per year, and they're scheduled to increase, substantially.”
If Stanberry’s analysis is correct, and I have no reason to doubt it, then my conclusion is that we have to cut $1 trillion from the budget NOW. Not the $60 billion that Democrats and Republicans are bickering over, but real money, and if we don’t step up to our responsibility, we will be the generation that destroyed America forever. Stansberry said that if we don’t do it now, “there's no longer any doubt our currency will be destroyed, our savings lost, and the assets of our country stripped by foreign creditors.”
As Tea Party founder Rick Santori keeps asking, how bad do things have to get before we wake up and do what has to be done? The clock is ticking and there is much less time left to act than President Obama would like us to believe.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Difference between Afghanistan and North Africa and the Gulf States

Yesterday, I talked about the embarrassment the Kandahar prison break caused to the United States and its allies who spent the winter trying to eliminate the Taliban in their southern Afghanistan strongholds.
I also have talked a lot recently about Libya and its freedom fighters.
It may seem a bit illogical for me to support the Libyan freedom effort and at the same time state that the West ought to get out of Afghanistan and let it sort out its political and religious problems itself.
If you look back over my comments in the past 3 months about the “Arab Spring”, I’ve been largely supportive. Too supportive, some may say. But, in Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen the revolts have been spontaneous and have cut across many of each country’s social and age strata. Bahrain may be the work of agitators funded by Iran, but we really have little proof of this except for the Saudi and Bahraini governments’ statements.
Afghanistan is an entirely different problem. On February 2nd, I wrote the following and I think it is more true than ever today:
Frankly, the West ought to be getting out of Afghanistan. The British used up a large part of the 19th century trying unsuccessfully to “pacify” them. The Soviet invasion and occupation in the 1980s failed spectacularly and probably was a cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union….The truth is that Afghanistan is an ancient country made up of several tribal components which have more or less always waged bloody wars against each other when they were not united to defeat invaders….The Allies freed Afghanistan from the Taliban, but without Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan muhajhideen guerrilla leader credited by the Wall Street Journal with winning the Cold War by his rout of the Soviet Union, nothing would have been accomplished. He was a guerrilla warfare genius, and a sunni Muslim who rallied his countrymen with his winning military tactics and his less fanatic interpretation of Islam….It was Massoud who tried to warn the West that an imminent attack on America was in the making. It came just two days after his assassination….I mention Massoud because he represents the type of leader who can win in Afghanistan. All the military technology and fire power in the world will not win if it is not used by a new Massoud.
When people are willing to put their own lives on the line for freedom, we should support them. But, when a client state milks us for money and uses it to perpetuate their corrupt power, it is time to get out and let them work out their problems themselves.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Afghanistan Surge in the South Ends in Embarrassment

All winter the American military and White House have been singing the praises of the winter surge that was supposed to rout the Tailban from the south of Afghanistan and make the summer of 2011 easier for the US and coalition troops on the ground. This was also going to pave the way for the US to withdraw troops under a vague timetable beginning in late summer 2011.
Well, the Taliban have shot a big hole in both the theory and reality of these policies.
Last night, 500 Taliban prisoners were freed from a Kandahar prison (in the south) by other Taliban who dug a 1000-ft tunnel under the prison, right under the noses of the military and prison officials. And, copies of cell keys were provided by someone inside the prison so that the prisoners could be freed.
So much for the surge and an imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Let's review the facts.
1. The Taliban are being courted by both Afghan President Karzai and the Pakistan government. 
2. The Taliban have no intention of forming a coalition and joining the Afghan government. Their goal is to take back the country.
3. American troops will be needed in the long term if Afghanistan is to be helped to become a functioning government (a democratic one is not really anything but an American dream for the present).
4. The cost to the United States in military and infrastructure funding, and in the lives of young Americans, will be high at a time when America is already living on borrowed funds.
Mr. Obama wants to have a serious debate about the US budget. That debate will undoubtedly never occur.
Perhaps he ought to consider a serious debate about the value of staying in Afghanistan. If he put the question to a vote today, Americans would overwhelmingly vote to withdraw and let Afghans solve their own problems - without the confusing mix of American troops and money to complicate things

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Day for Reflection about Peace

Easter Sunday is for Christians a day of family and a day of reflection about the promises that life offers.
Easter Sunday, 2011, is also a day in which people who love and seek liberty are being killed, and children and families are being driven from their homes and towns by tyrants.
Alone, I can't do much to stop the killing, establish peace and liberty and save children from war. But, together we can.
So, today, I ask all of us to think about the killing and the displaced innocents.  Let us do what we can to make it clear that we do not support the tyrants who cause it.
Let us be clear that we believe that liberty is important and that we want people to be free.
Let us say, as often as we can, that we want children to play and laugh and go to school so that tomorrow will be a better place for children and for all of us.
Let us remember that Jesus loved children and told adults to be kind to them because they were what heaven is all about.
Happy Easter, dear readers.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

John McCain's trip to Benghazi

Senator John McCain visited Benghazi this week. He toured Freedom Square with Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, deputy chairman of the opposition Transitional National Council.  
John McCain is the senior Republican on the US Senate Armed Services Committee and is recognized as one of America’s most influential Senators concerning military affairs.
That he was able to visit Benghazi without being in danger, that he could walk about freely with TNC senior officials beside him, that he could stop and talk to ordinary citizens about their dilemma - all this suggests that the TNC is not an extremist group, that Libyans in the Benghazi region are free to speak, that American and European elected officials could, and should, also visit Benghazi to give support to the Libya freedom fighters. He challenged critics of the NATO intervention to go to Benghazi and see a "powerful and hopeful example of what a free Libya can be."
McCain said that the fight for Libya is at a "significant degree of stalemate" and that the West must provide not only humanitarian aid but military assistance. For McCain, the drones jut sent by the US to Libya are not enough to overcome Qadhaffi’s superior military power.
The Senator is not in favor of putting western troops on the ground but he said, "We have prevented the worst outcome in Libya…now we need to increase our support so that the Libyan people can achieve the only satisfactory outcome to this mass protest for universal rights -- the end of Qadhaffi's rule and the beginning of a peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy that will benefit all Libyans."
Although McCain insisted that he would not have traveled to Benghazi without White House approval, there has been no presidential confirmation of this. But, it is clear that his trip will pressure President Obama to do more to help the Libyan freedom fighters. 
Senator McCain also said that the ouster of Qadhaffi, already the stated goal of the NATO action, should end in either his removal to Venezuela or to the International Criminal Court. He noted that Qadhaffi would massacre the rebels if he remains in power and is able to overcome them.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday and the Human Search for Innocence

It is always hard to know what to think or say about Good Friday. It is the cornerstone of the Christian belief in redemption and eternal life, but its events are painful in the extreme.
Good Friday, in its unrelenting focus on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, is also an excruciating reminder of the capacity of human beings for cruelty and vengeance.
But, perhaps, the most important message of Good Friday is that true innocence may suffer, may be brutalized and tortured, may even be killed, but it perseveres.
Innocence arises again and again in the hearts and minds of every human being ever born. That only a tiny minority become the torturers is proof that innocence is the real bond that unites us. We recognize it in babies and young children, and in the very old. Its poetry speaks to all of us in a way that does not require language or common cultural bonds.
To get to the joyful feast of Easter, we must pass through Good Friday.
That, is, to find the peace that comes with recapturing innocence, we must suffer its absence and long for it. Peace, faith in eternity, love of our fellow human beings, all begin with a search for innocence in the midst of brutality, and a hope for a return to "good" as the rule that governs the world.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just Christian. It is found in every religion and philosophy seeking to explain human existence.
The human search for innocence can bring us together, if we are willing to try.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Obama Again Tries to Muzzle Political Free Speech

The Washington Post reported today that the White House is drafting an Executive Order that would require potential federal government contractors to report their political contributions as part of the procurement procedure. The use of an Executive Order would circumvent the congressional approval process.

President Obama wants this obligation to be placed on federal contractors because he thinks it is crucial to allow taxpayers to learn more about the contractors seeking federal contracts, i.e., money.

Obama has tried this before, and failed, as part of what he has called a push for “transparency” in the electoral process.

Democrats have tended to support such a measure in the name of greater transparency.

Republicans have denounced the proposed executive order.
“Just last year, the Senate rejected a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress,” according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky.) “Now, under the guise of ‘transparency,’ the Obama administration reportedly wants to know the political leanings of any company or small business, including those of their officers and directors, before the government decides if they’ll award them federal contracts.”

The US Supreme Court has already ruled that corporations, labor unions and interest groups may not be constrained in their political contributions if they operate independently.

Obama’s newest foray into transparency, otherwise known as manipulation of the political process to favor his own interests, would almost surely find its way to the Supreme Court where yet another of the President’s ideas to constrain political activity will undoubtedly be squelched - in yet another legal blow for the President who prides himself on being a constitutional law expert.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

France Continues to Help Tunisia and Libya

France is moving to help the democracy movements in North Africa.
Today, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé was in Tunis to meet with the Interim Prime Minister Essebsi. Juppé told the press that it was a very important visit, because the friendship between Tunisia and France is old and enduring. He said that he hoped the difficulties that occurred by France’s slow reaction during the first days of the revolution were over and that the French-Tunisian relationship would continue as before. Juppé also brought with him the promise of French aid, about 350 Million Euros during 2011-2012, to be dispensed through the French Development Agency.
Meanwhile, French President Sarkozy and the French Defense Minister met for three hours today with Moustapha Abdeljalil, the president of the Libyan insurgency movement called the CNT - National Council of Transition - and his delegation.
While the CNT is seeking military assistance on the ground in Misrata, France made it clear that no French or European troops will be put on the ground in Libya. Instead, the French offered technical, logistic and organizational help, along with medicine and other humanitarian aid. The French also promised to intensify the aerial attacks against Qadhaffi forces.
Importantly, the French became the second European country, after Great Britain, to promise to put liaison officers on the ground in Benghazi. The American CIA has operatives in Benghazi, but they are operating undercover.
Abdeljalil promised to create a democratic government in Libya, with its leaders being elected at voting places and not by tanks. He also asked for more humanitarian help for the many Libyans displaced or homeless because of Qadhaffi’s attacks.
Abdeljalil thanked France for her courageous step in being the first country to formally recognize the CNT, and thanked Qatar and Italy as well for their formal recognition.
Things seem to be on the right course in North Africa. Let us all work to keep them moving in the right direction.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Fiscal Clock Starts Ticking in America

The fiscal shoe has finally dropped, and it was more a boot than a shoe. Yesterday, Standard and Poor’s (S&P) placed a negative watch on United States debt, i.e., US Treasuries, saying that it was concerned that America would not take the steps needed to bring its debt under control. S&P also noted that it thinks it is very unlikely that any meaningful measures to control US debt will be possible before the 2012 presidential election. That would leave about one year, under the normal S&P timetable after issuing a negative watch, before US Treasuries are given a lower rating. This would mean much higher borrowing costs for America, and the long-talked-about but ignored public worry may come true, that is, China and the rest of America’s creditors may simply stop lending the US money by buying its Treasuries. 
It was a bombshell all over the world, but President Obama’s White House spokesmen said that it was only a political move that had little real meaning.
I am not alone in hoping that the disastrous S&P analysis of America’s debt problem and lack of political will to resolve it will be proven wrong long before the 2012 presidential election. But, with the President and the Democratic Senate refusing to make any effort to help the House Republican majority, elected in 2010 on the basis of its promise to come to terms with the enormous debt burden, one may actually wonder what will change before a new President is elected.
Is Barak Obama such an ideologue that he cannot see the problem, but simply his desire to spend and spend in order to make of America the socialist state he would love to create? Or is he just so naive that he cannot imagine that anything would derail America. 
One thing is sure. The S&P negative watch will make a second Obama presidency much less certain. And, if the GOP can keep from shooting itself in the foot, a Republican ought to be elected in 2012.
It should be someone with lots of financial experience and savvy, something that only Mitt Romney and Donald Trump can show on their resumés. Perhaps, if they can come together, that would be the best possible GOP 2012 ticket. It would be a ticket that has the depth and experience in governing and in financial matters to help America get its fiscal house in order.
Trump - Romney. Trump as president because America needs a president who is dynamic and not afraid of challenges, and Romney as vice president because that will cement the Republican support they will need to be elected.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Italy and France at Loggerheads over Illegal Immigrants

Sunday, France took the unprecedented step of closing its border with Italy in an effort to prevent illegal Tunisian immigrants from entering French territory.
The immigrants regularly land on the Italian island of Lampedusa and Italian immigration authorities process and find shelter for them in Italy.  Last week, the Italian government felt overwhelmed by the continuing flow of illegal Tunisian and other North African immigrants using the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than it is to the Italian mainland, to enter the European Union (EU). So, exasperated with unsuccessful attempts to pay the Tunisian government sufficient funds to take back the illegal immigrants and care for them in Tunisia, Italy issued 6-month visa and residency permits to more than 20,000 of them. This in principle authorizes them to cross the Italian border and enter France and other EU countries. And, that is exactly their goal - to head north out of Italy into France and other northern EU countries where they have family or expect to find better job opportunities.  
France responded by closing it border with Italy at Vintimille, the last Italian town before the French border leading to Nice and the Cote d’Azur. This is, in strict legal terms, forbidden because a person holding a visa and residency permit for one EU country can freely travel and stay in any EU country.
French militants on the Italian trains with the immigrants protested when the trains were stopped and finally sat on the rail tracks. The French said they had closed the frontier because the local French regional government had asked them to do so in an effort to avoid manifestations and public disorder. The French also said they normally demand passports and proof of means of support for entry, which the Tunisians could not supply.
Late in the afternoon, the Tunisians dispersed southward back into Italy and the French border at Vintimille was re-opened. The French estimated that 20 of the immigrants entered France.
This incident illustrates several points :
- The explosion in the number of illegal immigrants coming to Italy’s Lampedusa in order to enter EU territory has swamped Italian authorities who cannot possibly care for them.
- The EU policy of open borders among its member countries works well when there is no outside pressure, but when floods of illegal immigrants push to enter EU territory, the rules do not work because they were never meant to deal with such situations.
- Italy has exploded the myth of open EU internal borders by issuing temporary permits to the Tunisian illegal immigrants, in the hope of ridding itself of the problem and foisting it onto France, which would not honor the Italian documents.
The situation has reached crisis level and we can expect the EU to try to do something to accommodate Italy while protecting its other member countries from being overrun with immigrants they cannot afford to care for and who cannot possibly find proper housing or work in the EU.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sometimes Burkas Stand for Freedom

For the second day in a row, thousands of Yemeni women marched in Sanaa and most of Yemen’s provinces in condemnation of remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which, they said, are an affront to their honor.
Saleh had noted in a speech Friday that women should not mingle with men, except family members, and that instead of marching they should go home and stay there.
The Yemeni women retaliated by taking to the streets in what they called the "Day of Honor and Dignity".
"Look Saleh, at the power of women," said Raiofa Nasser, a female activist who marched in Sanaa on Sunday. "Many women were avoiding the protests, but since Saleh's verbal attack on women, we will not go home and will continue protesting until he is forced to leave the presidency."
"Even conservative women will join the protests now, to prove to anyone who doubts it that women will take part in Yemen's future rule," said Salma Sabra, a human rights activist. "Women have always been strong in Yemen, and we will not accept being degraded by our ruler."
Conservative women were certainly to be seen in the thousands, marching. Their burkas stood out as a sea of black, with protest signs and raised hands demanding that Saleh resign.
Burkas may signify extremism in Europe, but in Yemen they represent women’s demand for equality and democratic government.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

NATO-led European Libya Campaign Force Seems to be Running Out of Bombs

NATO support for the Free Libya advance toward Brega is continuing, with bombardments along the highway leading from Ajdabiya. Brega, already taken once by the freedom fighters, must now be re-taken because of the former lack of UN coalition support.
Meanwhile, Misrata is still being bombarded with fragment bombs by Qadhaffi forces trying to capture the city, while NATO seems to be avoiding any air support for the people of Misrata, preferring to concentrate on opening a humanitarian corridor for the medical evacuation of those wounded in the attack. Logic cries out that bombing Qadhaffi’s forces in the outskirts of Misrata would probably prevent the need for a humanitarian corridor, but diplomacy often works in obscure ways never to be understood by mere mortals.
Thursday night, American and NATO leaders also affirmed reports in the Washington Post that the NATO-led French and British teams lack precision bombs and other munitions. The American State Department again confirmed that the United States will not re-enter the active coalition, but it remains unclear whether this means that America will also not supply munitions.
It makes for interesting reflections about the nature of coalitions, NATO and the UN. If there are not enough bombs and bullets - unless supplied by America - it appears that both the UN coalition and NATO are toothless.
But, don’t forget that America said when the coalition mission began that it was not sure “who we are dealing with” in Free Libya.
Today, we might add that Free Libya is now not sure who it is dealing with in the UN coalition and NATO. Having international support is comforting, but a lot less so if the supporters do not have bombs and bullets.
Instead of worrying publicly about who the Free Libya leaders are, America might ask its own CIA, which has been on the ground in Benghazi since well before UN Resolution 1973 was passed authorizing a coalition. I’m sure the CIA knows who we are dealing with.
I am also sure that the CIA could tell the State Department and Secretary Clinton that the freedom fighters are not extremists, that the Muslim Brotherhood is not welcome, and that they would like to be assured that America will not let them fail for lack of bombs.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The American Debt Problem Is not a Political Game - It Is Deadly Serious

Now that we can visualize the problem in Europe, it’s time to tackle the American debt problem. Here, the story is much simpler to visualize.
- Let’s suppose that America is a family, which has a lot of money because it has a big business that generates lots of cash.
- But, instead of saving some of the cash, America spends all of it, and borrows even more cash, because its tastes are expensive and its business-generated cash isn’t sufficient to cover all its expenses.
- Everything goes along like this for years, because lot’s of American and foreign banks and governments are willing to lend the extra cash America needs to meet its expenses.
- But, suddenly, business sours and there is a lot less cash available.
- Instead of cutting back on its expenses, America says, “Hey, there are lots of banks and governments willing to lend to us so why cut back? Let’s just borrow more.”
- This goes on for several years, but the lenders get nervous and want to know when business will pick back up to its former level. When America says, “I don’t know,” the banks and governments get even more nervous and they begin to demand that America spend less.
- America says, “Cutting back on spending isn’t necessary because things will improve and you know we’re a good risk.” And, anyway, America can’t decide whether it’s necessary to cut expenses, what expenses to cut if cuts are needed, or how to pay for what it has already borrowed. So, it does nothing and continues to spend much more than it can afford.
That is where America is today.
But, finally, if America continues to spend a lot more than its business generates, its debt will grow bigger and bigger, and lenders will lose all confidence that their loans will ever be repaid, realizing that America is no longer a good risk. So, they will stop lending to America, which will no longer be able to pay even the basic expenses for health care, retirement and security.  
That’s why the budget debate is critical.
That’s why the debt ceiling must only be raised if there are clear decisions about how to begin to lower it, while, at the same time, cutting down on annual expenses.
That’s why President Obama must listen to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Paul. They understand that America is on the verge of bankruptcy. He doesn’t.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Greece, Ireland, Portugal and the European Central Bank's Problem

To put the European Union fiscal problem into perspective, vis-à-vis Greece, Ireland and Portugal, let’s imagine that these 3 countries are households.
- They own their home, with a mortgage at a 3.5% interest rate (the average rate for European countries when they sell their government bonds).
- Lately, the parents have been having payment problems - they pay the mortgage each month, but are complaining that the old bank that holds their mortgage (i.e, international investors that buy the government bonds) has raised their interest rate because it has lost confidence that the parents will continue making their monthly payments.
- So, the parents look around for another bank so they can transfer their mortgage at the old rate. They find a new bank (the European Central Bank - ECB), but instead of offering a lower rate, the new bank says, we want 7% interest because we know your household is having problems.  
- The parents think it over, but the old bank hears about their problems and the offer made by the new bank. Soon, the old bank says to the parents, we now want 9% interest to continue to hold your mortgage, because we are taking a big risk to continue with you as a customer.
- The parents, backs to the wall, take the new bank’s offer but the new bank adds other controls (the children have to walk the 12 miles to school instead of paying to take the bus, the parents can serve dinner only 3 times each week, the house has to be repaired without the new bank giving any more money to pay for the repairs, and the mortgage must now be paid off in half the time allowed under the old mortgage).
- In several months, the children revolt because by the time they walk to school the morning classes are half over. The parents revolt because with only 3 dinners a week they and the children are weak and hungry.
- They say to the new bank, we are not going to accept your controls or the 7% interest rate any longer because it is killing us.
- The new bank, not wanting to foreclose, says, okay, we’ll re-finance at a longer payment period , but you have to continue to accept the 7% interest and controls.
- The parents agree, but after a few months under the new regime, they realize that if they simply stop paying the new bank, not much will happen, and they are sure, because they have had other banks approach them with offers, that there are better deals available if they just default on the new bank’s mortgage.
- The parents default, and the new bank loses the money it lent and has no recourse to recover it, or the house.
That is the European Central Bank’s position today - with Greece, which is already threatening to default, and with Ireland or Portugal which know that other banks might help but are waiting because they are sure that finally Ireland or Portugal will default, too.  
That is why the European Union, and Germany in particular, are very worried. If these countries default, the value of the Euro will tumble unless the other European Union countries come up with massive capital injections to cover the ECB’s losses.
And, my friends, the countries of the EU do not have a lot of cash to throw around right now, with the exception of Germany.
You can write the end of the story yourself.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Demjanjuk War Crime Trial Hits a Snag

Associated Press reporter Andrea Jarach reported this week that the most serious evidence incriminating John Demjanjuk, the man accused of Nazi-era war crimes in the Sobibor death camp, was probably made up by the Soviet government, including the Nazi identity card that is the only piece of hard evidence connecting Demjanjuk to Sobibor.
Demjanjuk was born in Ukraine, moved to America after WWII and became an autoworker in Cleveland. He was later stripped of his American citizenship and deported to Israel for war crimes prosecution. The Israeli supreme court released him for lack of evidence and he was returned to the United States. Later, he was again stripped of his American citizenship and deported to Germany, where he is now on trial in Munich.
Demjanjuk has always claimed he is innocent and spent much of the war in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, but German prosecutors seem determined to convict him.
Today, Demjanjuk’s defense attorney filed a request for a stay of the trial while he and the prosecutors can evaluate the new evidence, which was found in a US Department of Justice file that has recently been de-classified. The FBI generated the report and seemed to believe that the identity card and other information supplied by the Soviets were forgeries, but the FBI simply preferred to ignore it.
Defense attorneys have argued to the German judge that the FBI document could make a great difference in the outcome of the 90-year-old’s trial.
German prosecutors say the document is insignificant, that they probably examined it in 2009 while preparing their case, but don't remember it, and that in any event they believe that Demjanjuk is guilty.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Democracy, Civil War, Fort Sumter and Lincoln

Democracy is not just given, it is fought for with blood and loss of life, and often it eludes the most sincere during long years. Democracy is also not simply an American Constitution, or a British Parliament, or a European coalition with a president and assembly.
Democracy is the will of the people of a region or country to govern themselves as they see fit. As long as they permit a free press, the right to petition the government, and a fair court system, democracy will grow and flourish.
I think of democracy today, the 12th of April 2011, because 150 years ago, on the 12th of April 1861, the American Civil war begin with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, a block and granite fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Yankee defenders finally had to evacuate the Fort, and it remained in Confederate hands, despite many northern attempts to re-take it, until the Union's General Sherman took Savannah, Georgia, south of Charleston and began his famous march north, late in the Civil War. Today, Fort Sumter is a national monument and park visited by many Americans each year.
In itself, perhaps Fort Sumter is insignificant, but to Americans it represents the beginning of a long and bloody fight between “brothers” to save the Union from dissolving into small regional governments with no oath of loyalty to the United States. Fort Sumter also represents the Confederacy’s attempt to continue the institution of slavery, even by war against the United States, if need be.
So, when young and nascent democrats, in North Africa or the Middle East, despair, when they feel that they will never win the right to govern themselves, they should remember Fort Sumter, and the brutal five years of civil war that America suffered, including the assassination of President Lincoln, to finally establish the Constitution as America’s governing document, to subdue slavery and those who supported it, and to make the Declaration of Independence and its Bill of Rights a reality for all Americans - north and south, black and white.  
The Civil War cost America more lives than all its other wars combined.
The South, that became the Confederacy, underestimated the resolve of the North to end slavery and to hold the Union together, whatever the cost. President Lincoln was elected on exactly that platform. In his first Inaugural Address on the 4th of March 1861, just a month before the Battle of Fort Sumter, he said :
“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war....You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it.”
Lincoln ended his first Inaugural address with a plea for national unity and a peaceful settlement of the questions separating the North and South :
“We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.”
The South had already seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy when Lincoln spoke. His pleas for peace were ignored and the Union had to be secured on the battlefields of Shiloh, Gettysburg and many others.
Finally, the long and vicious war came to an end when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House on the 9th of April 1865, just a week before President Lincoln was shot on the 14th of April.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The French Law against Burkas and other Veiled Faces

I’m sure we all, at times, get that uneasy feeling in our stomachs and minds when something happens that is perfectly legal, logical and correct, but feels all wrong. I had that feeling this morning.
Today is the first day of enforcement in France of the new law forbidding burkas and other total veiling of the face. The law covers all sorts of masks, except for carnival parades.
The inclusion of masks is the answer to a real problem because often full-face-masked robbers, anarchic gangs that destroy city centers during such events as G20 meetings, and gangs that ride trains attacking and looting passengers are a real problem in France, as well as in many other European countries.
But, the question of forbidding burkas is one that raises many questions.
First, the penalty is a small fine, so it’s not going to be very effective. But, a husband or father who imposes the burka is subject to large fines and prison, and I ask just how a court could prove the intent?
Second, many commentators think it will just unfairly punish French women who wear the burka by forcing them to stay at home, something like the Taliban laws in Afghanistan. And, to begin with, there are estimated to be only 2,000 women in France who wear burkas.
Third, French police say the law is, for all practical purposes, unenforceable since they cannot lift a veil to prove identity before issuing the fine.
France is a laic society. All religions are accepted but none are supported by the state. Recently, the UMP, the political party in power has moved to the right, perhaps in order to hold its voter base for Sarkozy against the extreme right National Front (Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine). Part of this is evident in its introduction of the burka law last year. It was passed by a large majority in the National Assembly controlled by the UMP.
It is a disturbing series of events. I do not support radical Islam, whish is the real target of this law, no matter how loudly the UMP denies it. But, it seems to me that attacking women who are living in radical Islam families is not the way to curb their husbands’ and fathers’ anti-social activities. Once again, women are paying the price for attitudes they probably do not fully support - in the sense that most women do not support violence, suicide bombers aside.
Why are we not going directly after the real culprits - men who hold radical and often terrorist views and who act upon them by violently disturbing civil society in their European host countries? Severely penalizing them, even excluding them from France (their wives and daughters could follow them or stay in France, as they choose), would be fair, but attacking their wives and daughters, who have no power over their lives in the radical family world in which they live, seems mean-spirited.
Please don’t tell me that the women can leave home - go where and do what??

The Masters at Augusta - What a Sports Event

I have NEVER seen a Masters finish like yesterday's. It was better than any Super Bowl.
Too bad Tiger’s putter let him down on the back nine because he really was charging till then.
I felt sorry for McIlroy - but not too sorry - because when he led for the first 3 rounds, he was somewhat complacent and nonchalant. Augusta really bit him yesterday and now I hope he’s learned to respect her as he should have all along.
It is a devil of a course and 4 rounds are the ultimate golf test. Remember that it’s the only major that’s played on the same course - for 75 years now - and no one has ever really tamed Bobby Jones’ design work. The other majors move around and the courses vary, but Augusta is golf’s eternal.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Maybe Genocide Is Easier to Get Away with than Rigging Elections

It always makes me angry when opposing sides of any political battle that has ethnic or religious overtones start murdering supporters of the other side, and the UN and the West look on in disbelief and seem incapable of taking action.
Ivory Coast is just the latest example. Both sides, Gbagbo and Outtarra, have let their partisans and troops burn alive, throw down wells, hack to death, machine gun, and rape people, mostly civilians, on the other side - with only the weakest of efforts to stop the slaughter. The UN is quietly saying, "You've got to control your troops."
Yet, in November, when the election was in doubt and the UN decided that Outtarra had won, there was no hesitation. Gbagbo's funds were frozen, his credentials were lifted, his inner circle was unable ot get visas, i.e., there was a general loud international outcry.
Where is that rigor and search for order now that civilians are being terrorized, displaced (more than 1 million have left their homes and villages and about 130,000 have fled to Liberia) and murdered? It doesn't exist. Why? I cannot answer.
Maybe the world is too busy elsewhere, like in Libya, to muster the effort required to stop the killings.
Maybe somebody will act when the stench of rotting bodies is so overwhelming that somebody finally has to do something (remember Bill Clinton in Bosnia, after Europe had dithered for months while ethnic cleansing was ongoing and the TV images proved it; remember the Holocaust, when we had eyewitness reports, Nazi planning documents, and aerial surveillance as proof and yet it took years to get international action).
Maybe we just expect violence in Africa and aren't shocked by it.
This last would be the worst possible reason for inaction because it would speak massively of prejudice and the international double standard that Africa so often tries to help us understand and rise above.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Few Dictatorial Election Results to Think About

Here are a few presidential election statistics to consider while we are worrying about the legitimacy of governments in the non-western world. They are all dictatorships with negative human rights records.

Algeria - Abdelaziz Bouteflicka was re-elected in 2009 with 90% of the vote.

Azerbaijan - Ilhaim Aliev won with 88,7% of the vote in 2007; he inherited his presidency from his father in 2003.

Burundi - Pierre Nkurunziza was re-elected, with no opponent, in 2010 with 91.62% of the vote.

Dijbouti - Ismail Omar Guelleh won election in 2005 with 100% of the vote.

Equatorial Guinea - Teodore Oblang Nguema Mbasogo was elected in 1989 with 99.9% of the vote, and in 2009 with 96.7%.

Kazakhstan - Noursoultan Nazarbaiev was re-elected in 2011 with 95% of the vote; one of his opponents even said that he voted for Nazarbaiev.

Ouzbekistan - Islam Karimov was elected in 2000 with 91% of the vote and was re-elected in 2007 with 87%.

Syria - Bachar Al-Assad took over the presidency when his father died in 2000; he was elected on 2007 with 97.62% of the vote.

Ruanda - Paul Kagame was elected in 2009 with 93% of the vote.

Turkmenistan - Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was elected in 2007 with 89% of the vote; his predecessor won with 99% in 1995.

To put these results into perspective, the most popular post-World War II American president, Ronald Reagan, won his first election in 1980 by 500,000 votes, and in the second election, he won by one of the largest landslides ever recorded, with a little more than 60% of the vote.  

Friday, April 8, 2011

Now Is the Time for UN Action in Ivory Coast

As we might expect, now that hostilities are greatly diminished, with the collapse of the Gbagbo offensive, the UN and its peacekeepers are taking a back seat in Ivory Coast.
This is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Mr. Outtarra needs all the help he can get if he is to prevent an ethic, tribal bloodbath. There are already signs of it, with a hundred bodies found in the west, apparently killed by mercenaries and either burnt alive or buried after being killed. It is not yet clear by whom or why these people were killed, but the problem is real and seems to be growing.
So, the UN should now begin the work only it can do, with the active effort of its peacekeepers, both the French already on the ground and with additional troops sent in to help.
If Ivory Coast is to be spared the genocide of Ruanda or Congo, there needs to be immediate and firm action from the UN. Without it, Ivory Coast will slip into civil chaos and, later, we will count the bodies to our regret and eternal shame.  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Obama's Birth Certificate - Donald Trump Takes Charge

Newsmax printed on its website today an interview with Donald Trump. The topic was whether he’ll run for president in 2012. He seems to be making all the right noises and moves, but he says that he’ll decide by June if he’s a candidate.
During the interview, Trump was asked, yet again, why he insists that President Obama show his birth certificate. Trump has said often that he thinks the President must show proof of his American birth before the next election campaign, or he will lose on that issue alone.
Trump added, “Frankly, anybody that get’s labeled ‘birther’ — which is a very derogatory term, the way the press uses it — is automatically considered not a very smart person. The fact is: He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or he hasn’t shown it, and I’d love him to show it. Because, if I decide to run, I’d like to beat him straight up, not on an issue like this.”
“But, he shows a certificate of live birth, which is totally different. And I have to say, if this were Bush or somebody else, he would be run out of office,” adding that Obama’s grandmother in Kenya said he was born there.
“The grandmother in Kenya is on record saying he was born in Kenya,” Trump said. “The hospital has, not only no birth certificate — or if they have it they should produce it, maybe there is something on it, who knows — but they have no records that he was there. The family is fighting over which hospital in Hawaii he was born in. There is not one record, in any hospital in Hawaii, that Barack Hussein Obama was born there,” he added.
Mr. Trump seems to be determined to lead the charge to get a birth certificate out of Obama. I hope he succeeds, because (1) it would be so simple to produce his birth certificate that not doing so makes everyone very suspicious that Obama was not born in America, or that the certificate shows his religion as Muslim (that would be fine if he would just admit it), and (2) every US President must be born on American soil and if Obama was not, he is defrauding the America people and should pay for the lie, legally and politically.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

French Intellectuals, American Pragmatists and Libya

I watched the Charlie Rose Show last night. Bernard-Henri Levy and Leslie Gelb were debating whether America and the West should have intervened in Libya.
Gelb, a former New York Times journalist and currently president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, is not one of my favorites, but his position is always clear and generally pessimistic.
BHL the leftist French philosopher and writer whom I've written about before here, always chooses optimism over pessimism.
So, you have the outline. BHL is firmly of the opinion that Free Libya will prevail, that Gadhaffi and his family will be defeated, and that the Arab Spring, generally, will succeed.
Gelb’s opinion was that the Arab Spring, and Libya in particular, are very likely to fail, although he hopes they don’t.
There isn’t anything very startling about these positions, but as the debate played out, I was very surprised that BHL spoke with admiration of the American effort in Libya, and said France and America have common values and goals - in Libya and overall.
Gelb jumped on that with his “we should never put boots on the ground” in Libya or anywhere else in the Arab world again.
BHL said, “I had my own boots on the ground last week in Libya, and they will be on the ground again soon. Let me give you a little information. Gadhaffi will fall without our boots, because he is much weaker than we understand and his regime will collapse of its own weight."
Gelb was adamant, and Charlie Rose finally asked the third guest of the evening, Ben Wedeman, the CNN senior correspondent in the Middle East talking by camera from Cairo, to settle the debate.
Wedeman agreed with Bernard-Henri Levy. He said that Tripoli lacks fuel, food and almost everything else. He feels, as does BHL, that Gadhaffi cannot prevail.   
I like to see the French win. They are true republicans and their intellectuals are more serious than most, including America’s, if there is actually any group that could be called American intellectuals.
While pragmatic America builds armies, intellectual France builds thought. Obviously, the armies are often more useful, but thought is immensely powerful, in the long haul.