Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Syrian Revolution 2011 Group and the Elephant That's Still in the Room

Hama, the Syrian city where Bashar al-Assad's father sent his army to kill tens of thousands of insurgents in 1982, is again the target of the Syrian al-Assad regime. Tanks opened fire indiscriminately this weekend, according to eye witnesses, and left 100 dead and many injured. At the same time, Homs and several northern cities, including Deir Essor and Masrib, were also attacked, with deaths reported.
President Obama said he was “horrified” by the attack and would seek tighter sanctions against the al-Assad regime. Turkey, which has been Syria’s closest friend recently, said it was “saddened and disappointed” by the attacks which would serve no useful purpose. Italy has called for a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the unjustified and horrifying attack. The European Parliament president has demanded that Bashar al-Assad begin the process of a transfer of power at once.
SYRIAN REVOLUTION 2011, the name of the group that now seems to be coordinating the Syrian demonstrations against al-Assad, has called for “demonstrations and reprisals” after the Tarawih night prayers that are said during Ramadan. More than 4,000 people descended onto the streets in Harasta, a town near Damascus, in response to the call, in which Syria was described as “bleeding.”
The argument against world action in Syria usually runs along the lines of, “there is no formal and organized rebel governing group calling for outside help and without that, intervention would be interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation and, in addition, the ensuing chaos would be impossible to control or predict.”
One might say that this really means the world has still not decided what to do with the aftermath of intervention - that is, what would the loss of the al-Assad regime mean in terms of control of Hamas and Hezbolleh and the safety of Israel, as well as in the buffering Iran in the region.
The elephant that nobody wants to dance with is still in the room, and somebody really ought to try to dance or push the beast out of the room so that the world can act without being trampled.
Surely, we can find a way to deal with the Syrian problem before chaos results, not from our actions but from our inability to act.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Egypt's Future Is Now in Play and the Egyptian People Must Decide

What everyone has been worried about has finally happened in Cairo. Friday’s march for freedom turned into sectarian marches, led by religious conservatives calling for the Sharia law to be established in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for recognition of the Islamist identity of Egypt.
The marchers were peaceful but noisy as speakers tried to deliver messages to the crowds that have occupied
Tahrir Square
since January.
The laic majority in the Square and the conservatives and Brotherhood had negotiated to hold the Friday rally as usual, that is, to defend their right to a more democratic government. But, some of the laic groups broke away when they learned that the Islamists and Brotherhood would have Islamist banners.
It would be silly to be surprised by these events, because the struggle now in Egypt is between the Islamists and laics. Which group will finally control the Egyptian government is not yet decided, but it makes the adoption of the constitution and first parliamentary elections very important for the future of the country.
What needs to be done now in Egypt can only be done by its citizens. The great debate about the future of the country should be engaged publicly and in a serious manner. Marches are good for breaking the chains of despots but debate is the only way forward from here.
I think that the less western governments try to intervene, the more useful the debate will be. Egyptians know what the alternatives are - laic democratic institutions or creeping religious absolutism. It is for them to decide which path they will choose. All the rest of the world can do is to try to offer the safeguards needed to insure that the debate and votes are fair and representative of the will of the majority of the Egyptian people.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The American Congress Spectacle Is Disgraceful

I am so distressed about the tragedy playing out in Washington last night and today that I wonder whether words can do it justice.
That 500 people could be so stubborn, so unbending, so unfeeling, so unpatriotic as to put their personal or party agendas before the future of their country is impossible to understand. It rings of treason.
I hope no one sitting in Congress now ever says he or she is a patriotic American, because they have forfeited that honor forever. I hope they never ask anyone to help them be re-elected because that would violate all that American democracy stands for.
The fate of the nation is not tied to one debt ceiling or to one attempt to control budgets. It is tied to the ideals and hopes and dreams of all Americans, past and present, who have worked and sacrificed and fought and died to keep America free and strong.
The Tea Party has put on a disgusting display and it should be driven out of our national life, never to be allowed to re-enter. One could almost say the same for the Democrats and Republicans.
We do not need fools to tell us how to manage our future. We need wise men and women who are willing to find a way forward, together, and without destroying all that our great country stand for.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Younes Assassinated But Libyan NTC Forces Slowly Encircling Tripoli and Isolating Qadhafi

Libyan general Abdul Fatah Younes, former head of Qadhafi’s military who defected to the rebel cause early on and became their military chief, was assassinated today. Two aides were also killed. Their bodies were taken by the assassins and have not yet been found. Moustafa Abdeljalil, the NTC president, said the assassins were sent by Qadhafi to kill Younes.
The general had been summoned to Benghazi to answer questions concerning military affairs, but rumors were circulating later today to the effect that Younes had been arrested and was to face questioning concerning his supposed continuing relationship with the Qadhafi regime. The NTC denied this.
In announcing Younes’ death, Abdeljalil said that the head of the group that killed Younes had been arrested. Adbeljalil also announced 3 days of official mourning. During the press conference, armed men tried to enter the NTC room but were turned away by NTC soldiers, and journalists were evacuated.  
While these events were the focus in Benghazi, other NTC military were making progress in western Libya near the Tunisian border. D’Al-Ghazaya was taken. It is the town from which Qadhafi forces had been launching rockets at Nalut, the rebel stronghold near the Tunisian border where refugees from the west of Libya could flee from the regime into Tunisia.
After taking d’Al-Ghazaya, the rebel troops advanced to Om-Al-Far and destroyed a Qadhafi munitions dump.
These victories make it easier for the NTC troops to move toward Tripoli, which continues to be bombarded by UN aircraft.
The Libyan freedom fighters are advancing and it seems that their initiatives are having the effect of forming a circle of sorts around Tripoli, where Qadhafi and his loyalists are becoming more and more isolated.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Everybody's Disfunctional

The world seems to be having a collective case of nerves. There is no news that's not tied to governments or other groups trying to make something dysfunctional work again.
Dysfunctional is the new buzz word.
The Chinese are calling the American government "dysfunctional" because Congress and the President are not able to solve the debt ceiling and national debt problems.
Conservative economic analysts are saying that China is dysfunctional because its export-driven economy will collapse if the rest of the world goes into a new recession and stops buying so many Chinese goods.
Greece's economy is dysfunctional because it cannot possibly repay its government debts even with the handouts provided by Eurozone states and the IMF.
Of course, that makes Ireland and Portugal, and maybe Spain, dysfunctional, which will lead to the entire Eurozone becoming - you got it - dysfunctional, too.
The Arab Spring in Egypt is dysfunctional because the Egyptian army that helped the protesters succeed is now stone-walling to some degree by not getting a new constitution and government into place fast enough and is, instead, playing footsie with some of Mubarak's old cronies, who are in the transitional government controlled by the Army.
Venezuela is dysfunctional because Hugo Chavez is not well and nobody can replace him. Ditto Cuba - substitute Castro for Chavez.
I've got a few suggestions to get rid of all this dysfunction:
1. The American Congress should dip the tea partiers in a big cup of hot water while they pass a debt ceiling increase. Then, all minds should turn to the 2012 elections, because if America doesn't get a Congress and President of the same party, it appears nothing will ever "function" again. I hope it's a GOP win, but anything would be better than what we've got now.
2. If America gets its government into functional order in 2012, all China's dysfunctionality will be solved for it.
3. Shut down the Eurozone for one week, while the Euro is buried and the old currencies reappear. In Europe, the mess they had before was much more "functional" that the dysfunctional mess they've got now.
4. The Egyptian army should be sent to Syria to help the protesters there, and while they're gone, the Egyptian protesters can act with all haste to get a constitution adopted and announce election dates. When the Egyptian army has cleaned up Syria, it can come home and take back its old job of protecting the government.
5. Castro and Chavez - now there is real dysfunction if you ever saw it. Maybe we'll just have to wait them out. Nobody lives forever.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sometimes Morons Are in Charge and We Just Have to Wait Them Out

This is supposedly a true story that happened in America in 2010. A friend sent it to me and I must say I laughed a lot, but then it hit me that the story has a lot in common with the US federal government (I use the word loosely because nobody seems to be "governing" in Washington these days).

Here's the tale, titled the best moron joke of 2010:
"Last summer, down on Lake  Isabella, located in the high desert an hour east of Bakersfield, California, some folks new to boating, were having a problem.  No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't get their brand new 22-foot boat going. It was very sluggish in almost every maneuver, no matter how much power they applied.   After about an hour of trying to make it go, they putted into a nearby marina, thinking someone there may be able to tell them what was wrong.   A thorough topside check revealed everything in perfect working condition. The engine ran fine, the out-drive went up and down, and the propeller was the correct size and pitch.  So, one of the marina guys jumped in the water to check underneath. He came up choking on water, he was laughing so hard. 
Under the boat, still strapped securely in place, was the trailer!"

Now, we could put a spin on these well-meaning morons - the fellow trying to pilot the boat is President Obama. The folks in the boat with him are the Congress leadership. The boat is the federal government. The marina guys are the rest of the world trying to understand what's going on in Washington. The trailer is the national debt ceiling...
And all these elected officials need to do is cut the trailer, eh debt ceiling, loose so they can maneuver again wherever they want to, with the world cheering all the way. It all seems so easy that only morons could mess it up. But, that's Washington for you !

Monday, July 25, 2011

Can Christians and Muslims Work Together against Terrorist Violence

This article was published today in CNN’s Belief Blog site. I think it’s very interesting, because it views the Norway tragedy from a religious perspective, suggesting that now may be the time for Christians and Muslims to address the question of violence in society and to try harder to live in peace together.
By Khalid Latif, Special to CNN  Imam Khalid Latif is a chaplain for New York University and Executive Director of the school's Islamic Center
In the immediate aftermath of 1995’s Oklahoma City bombing, much of the news media rushed to suggest that a Muslim, or at least a Middle Eastern connection, was behind the attacks.
News reports on television and in print featured Middle East terrorism experts claiming the Oklahoma City attack echoed a World Trade Center bombing two years earlier and that it contained parallels to recent Mideast attacks.
The FBI picked up Ibrahim Ahmad, a Jordanian American, for questioning in an initial dragnet.
Of course, it turned out that the attacker was homegrown and named Timothy McVeigh, not a Muslim.
Sixteen years later, not much has changed.
The tragic events that took place in Norway on Friday provoked initial accusations against Muslims worldwide. Of course, that proved to be the farthest thing from the truth.
Anders Behring Breivik, the confessed bomber and shooter in this horrendous act, was not motivated by the teachings of Islam, but by the teachings of those who oppose Islam.
A 1,500-page manifesto that appears to be written by Breivik is an anti-Islamic tirade.
 “Since the creation of Islam in the 7th century and to up to this day, the Islamic Jihad has systematically killed more than 300 million non Muslims and tortured and enslaved more than 500 million individuals,” it says.
“Since 9/11 2001, more than 12, 000 Jihadi terrorist attacks have occurred,” it continues.
“… This trend will continue as long as there are non-Muslim targets available and as long as Islam continues to exist.”
An inappropriate response to Norway’s acts of violence would be the condemnation of Christianity, or a claim that religion itself breeds violence and hatred, though the manifesto repeatedly invokes the defense of Christianity as a primary reason for violently defeating multiculturalism and combating the “Islamic colonization” of Europe.
The expectation shouldn't be that white Christian males should now be scrutinized at airports or profiled by TSA workers. It's wrong when it happens to Muslims and it would be just as wrong if it happened to anyone else.
A more appropriate response would be to expand the conversation around terrorism and violent extremism beyond Islam and the Muslim community. The Norway attacks highlight why congressional hearings should not be held on solely on radicalization in the Muslim community, but should focus on radicalization more broadly.
It's also imperative that training for law enforcement and other governmental offices on Islamic doctrine and law not to be conducted by those who present the normative understanding of Islam to be something that is radical. Our focus should be the safety of all citizens in any country from every act of violence or terrorism.
By cultivating a narrative that says Islam is the problem, we keep ourselves from maintaining that focus. All terrorist acts stem from an idea that it's OK to resort to violence in order to get what you want; that it's OK to kill to get the kind of world that you would like; that if we disagree, we cannot co-exist peacefully.
Over the weekend, #blamethemuslims became a trending topic on Twitter. The purpose of the hashtag was not to blame Muslims for the Norway attack, but show how Muslims are unfairly blamed and singled out regularly these days. The tragic events in Norway remind us that not all terrorists are Muslim and there is no reason that all Muslims should be treated like they are.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Norway. May God make things easy for them and grant us all the strength and courage to stand up against those who preach intolerance and hatred, even if they look like us, align politically with us, or practice the same religion we practice.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Khalid Latif.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Not So Quiet Weekend as the Arab Spring in Libya and Tahrir Square Heat Up

The UN early today bombed the Qadhafi compounds in Tipoli, hitting two command and control stations, as well as anti-aircraft systems and ground-to-air missile launchers.
Saturday, Qadhafi forces attacked Goualich, a village south of Tripoli that has changed hands several times during the Libyan civil war. The regime’s troops were finally forced to retire.
Qadhafi spoke on state television in a recorded audio broadcast, saying that the rebels are lying when they say that his forces have killed more than a thousand Libyans since the conflict began. He asked them to show where the graves are, if they exist, insisting that 8 people have been killed and the regime is investigating their deaths.
Qadhafi also offered support for Hosni Mubarak, whom he qualified as a poor and modest man who loves his people. The freedom marchers are camped out in
Tahrir Square
, meanwhile, protesting against the Egyptian army for driving out Mubarak and then taking over power and including his coterie. They want to force the army to reconsider and give power over to the Egyptian people more quickly.
Meanwhile, Germany has designated 100 million euros for the Libyan opposition to use for humanitarian and civil purposes. The German Minister of Foreign affairs mentioned particularly the east of Libya where people are suffering because of a lack of medical supplies and food.
So, if you thought the Arab Spring was quieting down somewhat, you see that even on weekends a lot is happening - except in Washington, where the debt ceiling drama continues without an end in sight.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Will Somebody Tell Norquist His No New Tax Pledges Are Stupid and Puerile

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist has told Newsmax that the claim that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would not constitute a tax increase and would not violate a pledge not to raise taxes “doesn’t pass the laugh test.” His comment was in reaction to a Washington Post editorial that said that Norquist would not consider letting the Bush tax cuts expire an increase in taxes.
Norquist wrote a New York Times editorial published on Thursday in which he stated that if a politician supported the elimination of the Bush tax cuts it would be “a very bad thing to do.” Norquist used the example of Mitt Romney, saying that if Romney supported the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, he would “denounce him as a tax increaser and a bad guy.”
Let’s be clear about several things:
1. Tax cuts are, in general, not a good way to reduce deficits because they just give Congress more money to spend.
2. Cutting the budget must be based on cutting the budget…right?…and not on finding more money to spend.
3. The enormous debt that America has accumulated will be eliminated, if at all, by a combination of reduced spending (a smaller annual budget) and some tax increases, because there just simply isn’t enough budget to cut to get rid of the deficit. Ever.
So, what are Norquist and his band of merry men trying to do - keep American in a perpetual state of frozen time - no new programs, no new infrastructure, no wars even if the cause cries out for help, no nothing.
And, who elected him to get on his horse and lead the charge anyway? And, what bright-eyed but dim-witted Congress members thought it was a good idea to sign up to his “no tax increases” pledge in the first place.
Is Norquist God, or are they simply in need of a crutch to help them perform their constitutional duties?
Norquist was not elected. Congress members were. And 60% of the people who elected the current Congress are saying that President Obama and Congress should put aside - just this once - partisan politics and solve the debt crisis with a combination of budget cuts and tax increases.
That, dear readers, is pretty plain black-and-white truth.
When is someone in the Senate or House going to find the guts to tell Mr. Norquist to shove his pledges because the Nation’s business is their concern and American citizens’ concern, not his.
And, right now, the debt ceiling MUST be raised. If it takes compromise, that’s just part of what Congress and the President were elected to do.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Terrorist Chatter in Norway

Chatter (terrorist)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Chatter is an old term from signal intelligence, used more generally after the turn of the 21st century in the United States "war on terror". Intelligence officials, not having better metrics, monitor the volume of communication, to or from suspected terrorists, to determine whether there is cause for alarm. They refer to the electronic communication as chatter.
Monitoring "chatter" is an example of traffic analysis, a sub-field of signals intelligence. Intelligence specialists hope to learn significant information by methodically monitoring when and with whom suspects communicate. Even if they cannot decrypt what suspects are saying to one another, a change of traffic may raise alarm, since a large increase may indicate increased preparation for action, while a sudden decrease may indicate the end of planning and the imminence of action. These considerations do not apply when the targets of analysis follow the military practice of maintaining a steady flow of encrypted communications whether they are needed or not."

It was reported on CNN this evening that there has been increased terrorist chatter in Norway recently.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Norway and today’s victims. We suffer with them but our resolve is not broken, nor is theirs. Our sense of justice and common humanity are sickened, but we will prevail.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

To Touch the Face of God

On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a bold announcement before Congress in which he committed “…this nation achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon….”

Alan Shepard made the first manned sub-orbital flight in the Mercury Freedom 7, on 5 May 1961. He answered when asked what he was thinking about just before lift-off, “that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.” Alan Shepard also pirated a golf ball and club onto a later moon flight and hit the first golf shot in space.

Apollo XI took American astronauts to the moon, landing 20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." These first men on the moon were proud to plant the Stars and Stripes on its surface, something most who watched the astonishing feat of the descent and moonwalk will never forget.

Then came Apollo XIII’s famous “Houston, we have a problem” that led to the live-TV solutions that rescued John Swigert, Jr., James Lovell and Fred Haise Jr., when their April 1970 moon flight developed technical problems that threatened their ability to re-enter the Earth’s orbit. They came home safely and it had become clear that manned space flight was dangerous, but manageable for the experts on the ground and in the ships.

But, the American space program has come to an end for the time being. NASA’s Atlantis made its landing at Kennedy Space Center just before 6 a.m. local time, today, 21 July 2011, marking the end of a 30-year space shuttle program, a program that has become a symbol for American space exploration leadership.  

The next phase of America’s space program is said to be to land on an asteroid and on Mars. A precursor of these goals was the Messenger Probe around Mercury, with the announcement of its handlers, “We have orbit” on March 17, 2011.

America’s love affair with space is not over, but President Kennedy’s call was only the first of many. We have put men on the moon, walked in space, built the space station and launched the Hubbell telescope that is bringing back to Earth startling photos of outer space.

We also lost the valiant crew of Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew of 7 during her re-entry on 1 February 2003. And the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger was lost during lift-off. It was on 28 January 1986. That same day, President Reagan gave one of his most memorable speeches. It ended with the lines that will live in the hearts of Americans forever. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

Americans cannot help but be sad today. Yet, we know we will be back in space, for as Ronald Reagan would have said, “If not us, who?”  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Police State Tacticss and Civil Liberties Clash in Syria

In an article published in the Washington Post today, reporter Alice Fordham reveals that Syrian activists living in the United States have been threatened in phone calls made from Syria. Threats were made against family members living in Syria if their activities in the United States did not stop. There were also threats made to their own lives. Fordham also reports that the FBI remains in contact with these Syrians living in America to show support for them.
On July 6, the Washington Post article continues, the American State Department summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to talk to him about the Embassy’s using surveillance techniques against Syrian activists living in Washington. Several days later, the State Department said that it was “investigating reports that the Syrian government has sought retribution against Syrian family members for the actions of their relatives in the United States.”
So, dear readers, the truth is often darker than even the daily headlines report.
And we who live in democratic societies forget that gulags exist, that regimes routinely spy on their citizens, that protesting against tyranny is not only dangerous personally but can bring down the full weight of the regime upon innocent relatives and friends. And, because, as in the case of Syria, these regimes are often accredited and granted ambassadorial status in the West, those who think their activities are safe because they are carried out in Washington or London or Paris, are sometimes mistaken.
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and sometimes even that is not enough to secure basic human rights.
Sometimes it takes extraordinary courage. Think about these activists and think twice before condemning them as rabble rousers. Often, they are patriots of the most elevated kind.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rupert Murdoch Testifies and Casts Doubt on the Multitude of Uninformed CEOs

Rupert Murdoch and his son, James, testified before a British Parliamentary committee today about what they knew concerning the phone hacking that seems to have been widespread among News of the World reporters.
As was expected, I suppose, they said they didn’t know much about the affair until it hit the front pages of other London newspapers. They did say that several years ago, when a civil case was brought against an NOTW reporter, they made a settlement and the case was dropped. They also testified that after that, they and the police made an investigation and found nothing that would have suggested that the practice of phone hacking to get information for news articles was being used.
All of that is just the background for what has become a political scandal of sorts in Britain. Rupert Murdoch has for several decades controlled the political reporting process in Britain and his favor or disfavor could make or ruin a politician’s career. Everyone understood his power and no one did anything to stop his overwhelming capacity to influence elections because everyone was afraid to be put under the microscope of his wrath.
So, politicians and their coteries simply played the game with Murdoch and his power went from grand to great.
But, with the phone hacking allegations, concerning not only politicians but also murder victims and their families, a new light is being shined on the Murdoch media empire.
Today’s first foray into the inner workings of Murdoch’s conglomerate was interesting for its presentation of a man who is aging, a little forgetful and rambling, but even so ready to defend his people and his media outlets. What was most obvious is that he knew little about the daily workings of the newspapers and TV channels he owned. He trusted his managers to do the right thing and “they let me down.”
One is quick to condemn Rupert Murdoch for not knowing what was going on in his own businesses, but considering their size and global scope, perhaps he was telling the truth. He trusted his managers to do the right thing.
For that matter, think about all the CEOs, including those at BP during the Gulf oil spill, who are in charge of businesses so large and far flung that nobody could possibly know, let alone control, all that is happening in their inner systems, whether it’s putting defective parts in an oil rig pumping system or illegal phone hacking.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The US Debt Ceiling Crisis May Be Rsolved

It appears that the US Senate will find a way out of the political hornet's nest created by the House of Representatives and the President. That is as it should be since the Senate is the "elders" branch of Congress. Senators are elected for 6-year terms and so do not have to face re-election every 2 years. This makes it easier for them to make grand gestures, support difficult decisions and generally act as the cool heads when the rest of the federal government is on partisan fire.
The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, are putting the finishing touches on legislation that may save the United States from defaulting on 2 August. McConnell (Republican) first had the idea and presented it in a news conference. Reid (Democrat) said the next day that it seemed worth considering.
Since then, notwithstanding the other games on the table, the two Senators have devoted themselves to the plan. It would give the President temporary authority to raise the debt ceiling almost unilaterally, up to 2.5 Trillion Dollars before the end of 2012 (re-election over by then). At the same time it would agree on about 1.2 Trillion Dollars of budget cuts and form a congressional committee of 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats (the committee that failed to gain support last spring had White House members as well) to present a plan by year's end that would make substantial headway in reducing the deficit by at least 3-5 Trillion Dollars over 10 years.
The committee's report would be treated as a bill requiring only a majority vote to pass, thus avoiding the possibility of a Senate filibuster. It would also prohibit amendments, so a straight up and down vote would be all that is required.
That, dear readers, is American politics at work. You count the votes available, tailor the bill so that those available will vote for it, draft and get it passed with the votes available.
Sound simple? It's not always, especially when the legislature is bi-cameral and there are only 2 political parties so that single-issue coalitions are not possible. But, it can work if the leadership is savvy and willing to compromise.
Compromise, after all, is the essence of the American system. The Constitution is filled with possibilities for compromise, if those elected are willing to do it. Right now, the House of Representatives and the White House are the unyielding groups. That's where the wisdom of the Senate can stand the country in good stead. Compromise - getting the job done in the best possible way by using the ideas, negotiating skills and votes available.  
High time. The ratings agencies - Moody's and Standard and Poor's -  are watching closely and expect more than a budget bandaid. The Reid-McConnell compromise bill provides that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mrs. Clinton Visits Greece to Lend Support - What about a Visit to Washington?

US Secretary of State is in Athens to offer American support to the Greek people and government in their efforts to reduce their debt and get back onto the track to fiscal and economic health.
She compared the Greek government’s actions to a chemotherapy meant to rid the country of its debt and regain the confidence of the international community.
Mrs. Clinton remarked that the country that built the Parthenon and created democracy will surely face its new crisis and prevail. “My country,” she added, “also has a debt to the cradle of western civilization.”
Hillary Clinton offered America’s full support and cooperation to the Greek Prime Minister, saying that he was courageous in his efforts to save Greece from default in the midst of citizen protests and other difficulties.
“The price of inaction would have been much higher,” she declared.
Prime Minister Papandreo thanked Mrs. Clinton and the United States for their support and said Greece would emerge victorious, despite those on both sides of the Atlantic who have bet against Greece.
Mrs. Clinton also met with the new minister of finance and will meet on Monday morning with the leader of the chief group in opposition to the government.
She will move on to India after Monday’s meeting.
Now, if Hillary Clinton could just make a stop in Washington and let her generosity and openness work the same magic on the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, maybe America would find the courage to solve its own debt problem - the debt ceiling matter - before America’s “price of inaction” shakes the entire world.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The American Debt Ceiling and Lincoln's Ominous Prophecy

The Democrats and Republicans, with the assistance of President Obama, are taking the US debt ceiling question right down to the wire. Last week, the idea was to put everyone in the White House and work until an agreement was reached. As we all know, no agreement was reached. In fact, they didn’t even come close, if the media reports and comments from attendees are correct.
So, Friday the Senate and House leadership decided to abandon the White House for the comfort of their offices in Congress and try to beat out a compromise that both Houses of Congress sand the President can agree to.
What are the sticking points?
Obama and the Democrat-controlled Senate want to:
1.    Raise the debt ceiling
2.    Reduce the budget by cutting expenditures
3.    Raise taxes to help lower the already-accumulated 14 Trillion Dollar debt.
The Senate Minority GOP leader, Mitch McConnell and the House Majority GOP Speaker, John Boehner, want to:
1.    Raise the debt ceiling
2.    Reduce the budget by cutting expenditures
3.    Lower the already-accumulated 14 Trillion Dollar debt by making deeper budget cuts instead of raising taxes, which they say will depress an already-weak economic recovery.
So, it’s Item 3 that is the big hang-up. Why?
The House became GOP-controlled last November in the mid-term elections. Many of the new members elected were Tea Party activists who ran on a promise to reduce the budget deficit, but not by raising taxes. To do this, social entitlements (Social Security for retirees, Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans benefits) and some non-essential expenditures will undoubtedly have to be reduced. But, the Democrats will not agree to reduce social entitlements programs. President Obama, on the other hand, seems to be willing to cut entitlements or not cut them just as long as he gets lots of budget cuts to use to his advantage in his 2012 re-election campaign. Thus, there is no way to get a compromise based on points 1-2-3 above.
On Friday, Harry Reid, the Democrat Senate Majority Leader, and Mitch Mc Connell, the GOP Senate Minority Leader, seemed to see that they could end the crisis in only one way. How?
Draft a resolution giving the President the right to ask Congress to raise the debt ceiling up to a fixed amount. He would need only to ask in writing and include budget cuts to accompany the request. There are several options about how the resolution would actually work procedurally, but the important thing to remember is that it would allow the Republicans to avoid voting for tax increases (a bone to the Tea Party) and it would allow the Democrats to protect entitlements to a great extent (a bone to their left wing). The downside would be that the budget cuts would probably be much less than needed.
McConnell had actually suggested the idea ten days ago, but everyone in the GOP said he was caving in to the President and the Democrats were afraid that his proposal would make the budget mess their burden in the 2012 elections.
But, today, with only ten days left before America runs out of 50% of the money it needs every month and with no authority to borrow, the deal looks more and more attractive.
If you are shaking your head and saying, this cannot be so, let me tell you that it is so. These supposedly mature and public-spirited politicians of both parties simply cannot do what is best for the country unless it helps them get re-elected.
It is a sad and dangerous truth that worries most Americans, who wonder what will become of their nation if it continues to be led by such self-serving public officials.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."
Dear readers, we’re getting troublingly close to fulfilling Lincoln’s ominous prophecy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

One Million Syrians March Against al-Assad and his Regime

More than one million people protested in two marches in Hama and Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Friday, against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This is the largest assembly of Syrians yet in protest against the al-Assad dictatorship.
A spokesman for Syrian human rights group OSDH (l’observatoire syrien des doits d’Homme) said that the marches and their numbers were important because they show that the protests are growing.
It was the OSHD which gave the numbers of Syrians rallying on Friday. It reported that security forces opened fire on protesters in Damascus, Idleb and Deraa. It said that in Damascus, 16 protesters were killed, and another five in other cities.  
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Friday protests show that the country cannot go back because al-Assad has lost all legitimacy.
US Syrian Ambassador Robert Ford said that the al-Assad regime now risks being “swept away” by the marchers and that he must now make the difficult decision to begin serious reform.
The official Syrian news agency SANA reported that armed men shot at the security forces, which fired back to protect marchers.
There were also Friday marches in Homs, Raqqa, Alep, Amouda, Ain al-Arab and Douma.
Bashar al-Assad’s Baas party and the security forces are members of a minority tribal group in Syria, and some analysts believe that this is the reason they are fighting back so violently against the marchers, who are members on the majority tribes. Al-Assad’s forces know that they will suffer severely if they retreat. It is something like the shiite-sunni divisions in Bahrain or Iraq.
The opposition has announced a conference in Damascus and Istanbul for Saturday to try to reach a plan for overturning the Syrian regime.
Al-Assad must now be wondering why the repression that has kept the Syrian people under control for 40 years is suddenly no longer working. He should be thinking also about how to extricate himself from what is rapidly becoming a global push to oust him and investigate his terrorist political policies.   

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Robert Solé Has Written a Book about the Tahrir Square Revolution and Mubarak

As I was driving back home from the hospital, where my husband has been for more than two weeks now after suffering a very serious heart fibrillation (he’s coming along and may be able to come home in a few days), I was listening to the Swiss French language radio station. The guest was Robert Solé, a journalist and writer who discussed two of his recent books.
Solé is Egyptian but moved with his parents to Paris in 1973 when he was still a child. His professional interest has always been Egypt and one of his books is about Ramses II, put into the modern context after the discovery of his mummy. The other book is about the January Tahrir Square revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime. The book, Le Pharaon renversé, 18 jours qui ont changé l’Egypte (Editions Les Arènes) is in French, but it will surely soon be translated.
He was clearly immersed in his subject and made interesting ties between the original Pharaoh, Ramses II, and Mubarak, in a sense the last pharaoh. One of his thoughts was that Mubarak had every reason to know that the revolution was coming but, because of his position as a quasi-pharaoh, he ignored the evidence. He also noted that Mubarak paid, in some sense, for the constitution created by Anwar Sadat, who made Charia law the basis of Egyptian law, thus allowing Muslim fundamentalists to direct some Egyptians toward the Islamist world view and creating great divisions in the country.  His comment was that the past two decades have seen the re-veiling of Egypt.
He also sees the Sadat constitution as the reason for recent religious persecution against the Copts, the most ancient of Christian sects still in existence, who were, after all, in Egypt more than 500 years before the Muslim religion arrived.
He told several Egyptian jokes, including one that is circulating in Cairo now.
“Mubarak was close to death and his doctor visited him and said, ‘Hosni, you really should say good-bye to the Egyptians.’ Mubarak looked up and said, ‘Why? Are they all going someplace?’ ”
Robert Solé is an interesting person and his books should provide many insights into what is happening in Egypt and all over the world of the Arab Spring.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It's Friday, Oops Wednesday, the 13th, and the World has Felt its Sting

It’s Wednesday, the 13th, not Friday the 13th, but the feel is the same if you’re at all superstitious. Several dramatic events today have proven once again that almost nobody is safe, and even those few who are will be attacked verbally for trying to make the rest of us as safe as possible.

1. At least 21 people have been killed and more than 100 injured in 3 simultaneous car bomb attacks in Mumbai (Bombay).  The attacks occurred at the evening rush hour when Mumbai’s streets are choked with people trying to get home after their work day. A diamond market near a quiet residential area, a gold market and a train station used by millions of people. The Indian government is asking Bombay residents to remain calm and "maintain the peace." The attacks were all near areas hit in the past by terrorist bombs. The Maharashtra State governor said "Mumbai is a prime target," because it is India’s financial capital, "...Terrorists will obviously attack where it hurts most." Indian authorities have issued high alerts for the Indian capital, New Delhi, as well as for Kolkata (Calcutta). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is keeping her plans to arrive in India later this week.

2. The Arab League's secretary general Nabil al-Araby visited Syria president Bashar al-Assad  on Wednesday, denouncing "foreign interference" in the struggling country's affairs. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, said al-Araby and President al-Assad discussed a wide range of issues, including domestic reform, the agitation in Libya, and the Palestinians. Al-Araby said that he understands Syrian officials who are upset with the United States and other nations for getting involved in Syria's domestic affairs. "Al-Araby voiced the Arab League full rejection to all bids of foreign interference in Syrian Affairs, and support to the bulk of reforms made in Syria, hoping that Syria would emerge stronger given its pivotal role in the region," the SANA report said.

3. Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman Alla Mahmoud has announced that 505 generals and 82 brigadiers were dismissed Wednesday, with 27 of them accused of killing protesters. Over 800 people were killed during the January 25 revolution. Reform of the police and punishment for those who harmed demonstrators are key demands of the protesters camping out at Cairo's Tahrir Square, where the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak and his government began. Monday, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called for public trials for former officials accused of killing protesters. Several days earlier, he had called for the termination of all officers accused of killing protesters during the uprising that ousted Mubarak.

It there a common thread here? I’m not so sure, unless it is that there is a lot of hatred and violence in the world, most of it directed at innocent people who have little voice in what happens around them.
India’s long struggle to be safe from its difficult neighbor Pakistan, the Syrian al-Assad regime’s killing rampage as a mechanism for staying in power and the Arab League’s need to ride the fence until al-Assad is ousted, and the Egyptian military’s efforts to understand and comply with the demands of their citizens who are impatient to be truly free - all these are somehow connected in today’s violent framework of “politics of terror” that many are trying to overcome with “politics of reason.”
The road will be long and dangerous for those who engage, and it will seem at times to be a waste of life and money, but in the end, only political systems organized and supported by the people being governed will survive.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It Is Now Clear that The United States Wants al-Assad to Go

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made America's position very clear yesterday in remarks she made about the Syrian situation. She said that al-Assad is no longer a viable leader and that he should hold no false hopes that the United States thinks he is vital to regional stability. 
Separately, America is considering taking the attack of the American Embassy in Damascus to the UN Security Counsel.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed these sentiments in a CNN interview, saying that he thinks al-Assad should step down.
That leaves little need for word chopping to arrive at meaning. The meaning is clear. Al-Assad must go.
The question then becomes who will replace him? I certainly do not favor the Syrian regime's form of government by terror, and I would not want even one more Syrian protester to be killed or arrested and tortured by al-Assad's security forces. But, there have been more than forty years of Assad family domination in Syria. The protesters want freedom and a better, more responsive government. They want the right to decide their own destiny.
But, where are the political leaders who will make the dreams become reality? This is the critical question all over the Arab Spring countries.
Egypt is easing toward the formation of political parties and agendas. Tunisia is trying to do the same, but it is slow work because the Tunisians don't seem to have the needed political skills or patience. Libya's civil war, while not something to be considered as good, has at least given the freedom fighters time to organize, find leaders, set political agendas and thus be ready to govern when Qadhafi is gone.
What will the Syrian marchers do? Who will they turn to for leadership? How will they keep nearby Iran from co-opting the process and leading them into another despotic situation? Can the UN and the West help the Syrians without provoking a serious dispute with Iran, one that could become a nuclear confrontation? Will Hezbollah stand by and let Syria slip from its sphere of influence?
I hope Secretary Clinton and President Obama have the answers to these questions because they will probably need them soon.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eurozone Debtor Members Will Change the Structure of the Euro

There’s not much else in the news today except the European Monetary Union’s (Eurozone) debt debacle.
Greece is off the front page, overtaken by Italy. Spain and Portugal are closing in on Greece, while Ireland seems to be holding its own, even meeting its commitments made to receive the bailout package last winter from the European Central Bank (ECB), the IMF and the European Commission.
What is the real problem? It’s not so complicated. Greece has a national debt that is about 140% of its annual gross domestic product (GDP). It also has a history of poor economic performance, and with the restrictions being placed on it by the Eurozone in order for it to receive its bailout package, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed and young people, especially, are unemployed and angry.
This combination makes it next to impossible for Greece to repay its bailout loan or, for that matter, to repay the debt holders who bought its national bonds. There is also the problem of Greek’s creditworthiness, which is so bad that most bond purchasers want huge interest rates (15%) just to buy Greek national bonds.
Portugal is trying to correct its financial house and for the moment seems stable, if very weak. Spain’s national debt is only 80% of GDP, but its unemployment rate is above 25%, causing tax revenues to be lower than needed to repay bondholders. But, unlike Greece, Portugal and Spain are still able to borrow money in the open markets.
The international ratings agencies, such as Standard & Poors and Moody’s, are organized to evaluate companies and countries in order to rate their debt as a function of their ability to repay. High ratings mean low interest rates (1-3% average in the US, depending of the term of the bond). Low ratings mean high interest rates (Greece’s 15%), or the decision of potential bond buyers to back off and look for less risky places to put their money.
The Eurozone wants to “restructure” the Greek loans. But, the ratings agencies say this would be a default, much like a homeowner in default who won't continue to pay his mortgage. So, the Eurozone says, let’s call it a “rollover” and avoid the default word. No, say the ratings agencies, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck - it’s a duck. So, rollover, like restructuring, will be equivalent to default and lead to much lower ratings.
There's the problem. How are the Eurozone, the IMF and the ECB going to help Greece recover without putting her in default and forcing all her bondholders to ask for immediate payment of the money they lent, as well as the interest.
There are two possibilities. One would be to let Greece, and eventually other similar countries, leave the Eurozone and return to their original currencies. But, that would require a renegotiation of their debt to put it into the country’s original currency, and since the country is not solvent, the payment schedule would be long and the interest rates would be high, and the currency itself would probably be devalued (by decree or by printing a lot more of it). So, large German and French banks would be stuck with bonds of a weak country which will probably be repaid in devalued currency over a long period. This would go onto their books and lower their capital reserves. They would have to reserve more of their money and that would mean less money to lend, i.e., a less robust recovery from the world financial crisis.  
The other possibility is for the Eurozone, IMF and ECB to continue to bail out Greece and whoever comes after her - Portugal, Spain, Italy. Greece is easy because it’s a small country with about 250-300 million Euros of debt. Ditto Portugal. But, Spain and Italy are the third and fourth largest economies in the Eurozone. Italy’s economy is almost as large as those of Portugal, Greece and Spain combined. There is not enough money to bail Italy out.
That brings us to the unspeakable third solution - let Greece default and withdraw from the Eurozone. Use the bailout funds available to make the French and German banks whole. THEN, organize a two-tier Eurozone. One for the big guns (Germany, France, and several northern European countries) and let the countries in trouble because of the Eurozone's debt rules form a second Eurozone with less strict rules and more flexibility to devalue the new common currency when debt problems arise because of economic hard times.
One thing is sure - the Eurozone and the Euro will not look the same in July 2012 as they look today.