Sunday, 30 September 2007

It's time for post-9/11 leadership

Thomas Friedman writes in today's New York Times that it is time for American politics to step out of the scary mindset of 9/11 and move onto "9/12".

Rudy Giuliani presents himself as the 9/11 candidate, after all, he presided over the 11 Sept 2001 attacks upon the World Trade Center when he was mayor of New York. He's still using that tragic event for political fuel for his Republican campaign for the Oval Office. (What's even worse is his political style, but that's a matter for a future post.) As Friedman, with whom I agree almost as often as I disagree, says:

Before 9/11, the world thought America’s slogan was: “Where anything is possible for anybody.” But that is not our global brand anymore. Our government has been exporting fear, not hope: “Give me your tired, your poor and your fingerprints.”

You may think Guantánamo Bay is a prison camp in Cuba for Al Qaeda terrorists. A lot of the world thinks it’s a place we send visitors who don’t give the right answers at immigration. I will not vote for any candidate who is not committed to dismantling Guantánamo Bay and replacing it with a free field hospital for poor Cubans. Guantánamo Bay is the anti-Statue of Liberty.

Too bad Friedman wasn't talking like this when it came time to decide whether or not to invade Iraq (he strongly supported the war), as well as other major ventures in the 'war on terror'. Where was his reasoning then? And why does he now proclaim that "9/11 is over"? What took him so long?

Despite my love-hate relationship with the influential NYT columnist, the points he makes are valid and important for any American to remember as he or she goes to the polls a bit over a year from now.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Carbon footprint tool(s)

Here is an interesting resource on the Earth Day website that calculates your carbon footprint — i.e. amount of CO2 greenhouse gases your activities and lifestyle emits — based on the car you drive, whether you eat meat, the size of your house, and a number of other factors. Not only is it important to take its results with a grain of salt (they're fairly scientific, but I wouldn't bet my life on them), but your impact is probably underestimated due to factors they don't ask about, like what kind of lawnmower you have, or whether you unplug your televisions when they are not in use, or what your electric and water consumption is... there are more things than could be included in a simple quiz.

Still check it out if you want to see which areas that affect your carbon footprint you need work in. One of the more thought-provoking features of the results the calculator gives you is how many planets the world population would need if everyone lived like you. For me, that number is a lot more than two.

But wait, there's more!
There are many more footprint tools out there. Listed below are some of the best I've found on the web. All of them are pretty quick and easy, so feel free to give them a try. (Post your scores and we can compare!)

  • World Resources Institute's carbon footprint tool;
  • Official UK govt. calculator;
  • A pretty good one from BP (go figure);
  • US EPA emissions tool.
    Also see...
    Yahoo! Green;
    Clean Air-Cool Planet.

    More on global warming and the environment soon.

  • Thursday, 27 September 2007

    Chavez makes 'socialism' into authoritarianism

    Chavez: Castro wannabe
    Stifling dissent in the media; making deals with ne'er-do-wells like Ahmadinejad of Iran and Castro of Cuba; stirring up hatred at America (with poor diplomatic results — see 'Bush is the devil' UN speech — and backward progress in, say, Colombia, as a result of hostility and petty stubbornness); performing possibly illegal actions to hold on to power; virtually stating himself as president for life; kicking out any company he doesn't like. These are the actions of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. He has also misused his country's abundant oil resources, often for his own political gain, something we've also seen with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia (natural gas for the lattermost).

    Hailed as an anti-American imperialism and crusader against evil foreign capitalism by the far left, and the epitome of anti-Americanism and collectivist populism in Latin America by the right, Chavez, reelected late last year, has continued his so-called Bolivarian socialist revolution with little concern for democracy.

    ...and he has followers
    Chavez, a follower of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, has his own populist allies in Latin America, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Evo Moralas of Bolivia. Ortega made a paranoid and extreme speech against what he sees as US neoimperialism and the imposition of harmful capitalism — of course, like his Venezuelan pal he paints himself as his country's savior from that evil — at the UN, although Chavez was absent after the events of last year (the aforementioned calling Bush the 'devil'). Ortega, quite the radical, also spoke in defense of North Korea of all despotic regimes, defending its right to nukes!

    How are these anti-American populists getting elected, one might ask? The failure of post-colonial governments, still largely dominated by the rich and controlled by America and Europe is one reason. The US's meddling in the Cold War did not help either. As moderate alternatives to people like Chavez spring up across the (should-be) flourishing region, one hopes they still stand a chance against their power-hungry rivals. It is time for America to be more fair with its neighbors too.

    Wednesday, 26 September 2007

    Burma's march for freedom continues

    Following a dawn-till-dusk curfew yesterday, Burmese protesters braved bullets, tear gas, and police force as they continued their push for democracy today. 10,000 people — many of them monks — demonstrated that they aren't going to stop what looks to be the largest uprising in nearly two decades (see previous post).

    As the international community gets more and more concerned and unsure, China, one of Burma's only allies, remains silent. America is urging China to talk some sense into the illegitimate, despotic government of Burma, also known as Myanmar. The UN is leading the campaign for talks on the issue, and has already sent an envoy to Burma — although it is not known whether he will be allowed into the nation.

    Why are we so unsure about what will happen next in Burma? The military junta rules the country in secrecy; few know its workings and even fewer know its plans. These protests could result in positive change — but what will probably come out of them is either a brutal crackdown like the one in 1988 where thousands were killed, or a less extreme but still hostile response from the government. I doubt they would move to the negotiating table.

    As far as international pressure goes, Russia and China are still insisting the events in Burma are internal matters. Interesting how two nations who intervene and meddle so much in other nation's affairs — mostly for their profit and often resulting in disastrous consequences — would be against using diplomatic force against the regime in Burma. I can understand the impulse some have against intervention, I often share those views, but not only would upholding human rights diplomatically not be a rash measure that disrespects national sovereignty; in today's globalized and interdependent world — where one collapsed state in one far region of the globe can affect the affairs of a nation a hemisphere away — nations need to insure that their neighbors don't collapse... for their own good! That is why we finally saw China move forward with North Korea. If they were too extreme in their punishment of their 'friend', there could be collapse; but if they let the regime go mad with nukes and provoke some of the world's largest powers, instability could also be imminent.

    Self-interest aside, it is important to at least acknowledge the human rights struggle in Burma. China and Russia, two veto-welding members of the UN Security Council, are wreaking of hypocrisy, as we have also seen on the Iran issue and a medley of other geopolitical matters. The need for stability, but also human rights and political legitimacy, should be rallying cries for those who call for change in Burma, and the need for states like China to push for change. Perhaps if Russia and China were more democratic and free, their people could force their governments to not be so stubborn. Alas, the freedom of one nation's people can so easily affect the freedom of another's.

    Tuesday, 25 September 2007

    Global action on climate change (minus America)

    The UN-led summit that concluded yesterday evening was the largest of its kind. Roughly 150 countries had delegations present and tens of heads of state were in attendance. Not surprisingly, the United States sat this and other major international climate change meetings out.

    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged action, stating that the there is now a consensus in the scientific community on global warming, and real action is needed. Britain's environment minister, Hilary Benn, gave a particularly inspirational statement on the matter (h/t FP Passport):

    Nobody is really arguing about the science. Everybody acknowledges the cost of doing something is a lot less than the cost of doing nothing. Everybody acknowledges that each of us has a part to play.
    This [global warming] is not just an environmental problem. It's an economic, it's a political, it's a migration problem. What are we going to do as a world, I would say, when people start fighting not over politics, but water? What are we going to do when refugees turn up on the shores of your country fleeing not political persecution, but environmental catastrophe? Economically, what are you going to do when the markets that maybe your constituents earn their living making goods to sell into are no longer there because they're too busy swimming for their lives because sea levels have risen? In other words, whichever way you look at it—because, the evidence is clear, in the end it's going to have impacts on all of us in lots of different ways. Now, that makes for a very strong moral and a practical case for doing something about it. And again, it's going to affect all of us wherever we happen to live.

    While one should stay clear of hype and sensationalism, especially in a political or unscientific forum, it is important to educate yourself on the truly global issue of global warming. It's something we do have a direct affect on; no amount of money can undo the current and potential environmental damage humans impose upon their planet. I love my six-hour plane rides and stakes off the grill as much as anyone else, but should my luxury cost — whether now or in the future — the well-being of others? Do I have a right as a relatively rich (on global standards) American and human being to contribute to the destruction of my planet and the lives of others? (The same argument can be applied against smoking in public places, with public health substituted for environment.)

    I know some people do not share my view that money and wealth are nothing compared to nature and the health of our environment — something you cannot put a price tag on. For those thinking more about money than anything else — including other people — just think about how much more money would be lost or have to be spent as a result of lack of action on climate change. $50 lost in preventing it now could save you $5,000 and the lives of a person or two 50 years from now. It's important to keep a clear head and not worry; but that does not mean apathy is the answer. As I've said in earlier posts, moderation is key.

    To read more about United Nations action on climate change, see the UNFCCC website.

    Global opinion on global warming

    A BBC World Service poll about the attitudes of the world's people on global warming was released recently. The poll gives some interesting — and surprising — insight on public opinion of such a politicized and scientific issue. India has the most doubt about the effects and apathy on action when it comes to climate change. The Chinese surprise me with their lack of doubt and willingness to take action, as do the Americans, to a lesser extent. The French view the issue as most urgent and the Russians are almost as bad as the Indians.

    Here's a graph of the results:

    The overall results are:

    Major action needed: 65%
    Modest action later: 25%
    No action needed: 6%

    In addition, 79% of the 22,000-some survey participants believe that "human activity, including industry and transportation, is a significant cause of climate change". This is a good sign; if only their governments took more initiative — especially the Bush administration in the US.

    Monday, 24 September 2007

    Burma protests for democracy

    In a rare, albeit impressive, show of unity, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Burma (aka Myanmar) over the weekend. One of the reasons these protests — a special occurrence in a state under such a despotic regime — took place is because many monks and nuns were among, leading in some cases, the march for democracy.More and more are joining in on the protests, as the number of people who feel they can finally display their discontent with the group — bringing less reprisal than it would if they acted alone — increases.

    On Saturday, 1,000 monks visited the house of Burma's should-be leader and key democratic figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for years. Burma is one of those authoritarian states, unlike North Korea and Zimbabwe, that doesn't get much coverage.

    With the world finally taking notice of what is happening in Burma, activists inside the country believe the international community must act if change is to come about. They have long called for the UN Security Council to take up the cause of the country's pro-democracy movement, calls that have been blocked by Russia and China.

    These protests deserve news coverage. The military regime is much weaker than it was in 1988, when the last major uprising occurred. 20 years ago, the protesters were mainly students; the protests quickly quelled with excessive force. However, now the democracy movement has the weight of the nation's spiritual leaders — brave enough to stand up to the military junta and walk through rain-soaked streets to demand freedom for Burma's millions of impoverished people. As a Washington Post editorial stated,
    The global response thus far has been lackadaisical. The U.N. Security Council held a briefing Thursday, but the U.S. representative emerged with no message of particular urgency. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy has yet to announce a date to visit Burma.

    As with other cases involving democracy, but not related to the 'war on terror', the Bush administration has been firm in its rhetoric against Burma — and rightly so. However, it needs to act, particularly in the area of pressuring China. China has influence on Burma, as it does on North Korea, a card it played well when diplomatic sessions over that country's nuclear problems were stalled.

    The fact that these protests took place and are continuing is amazing. However, things might turn ugly.
    Burma's ruling military junta has warned it is ready to "take action" against Buddhist monks leading mounting protests, state media have reported.
    Our correspondent says Monday's marches are a show of defiance unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

    Increased fuel prices and anger over the military harming monks may have been the main causes of the protests, but this series of events has light shed on the freedom movement in the country (of course, another source of the protests) makes these protests all the more important. What started with the pro-democracy protests of hundreds in mid-August, which were quickly halted, eventually snowballed into a spectacular show of solidarity among the clergy and a way for the voices of the Burmese people to be heard, if only for a few days.

    Thursday, 20 September 2007

    Debate over US domestic spying 'costs lives'

    Apparently legislative investigations into the executive's more questionable programs cost lives and allow the terrorists to win.

    More fear-mongering by the Bush administration. Haven't we had enough executive expansion? Too many American civil liberties have been quashed in the name of fighting terror.

    Yesterday, in his usual 'do this or the terrorists win' attitude, President Bush urged Congress to expand and continue to allow the domestic surveillance his administration has fought so hard to keep secret, free of oversight, and far-reaching. Today, his intelligence director laid out more defense for the program.


    A debate in Congress over eavesdropping on terrorism suspects will cost American lives by exposing intelligence techniques, the Bush administration's spy chief said on Thursday.
    "What this dialogue and debate has allowed those who wish us harm to do, is to understand significantly more about how we were targeting their communications," McConnell told the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.

    Asked if debates had cost U.S lives, he said, "They will."

    Normally I'd look past this extreme rhetoric. I've gotten used to this stuff spewing out of the White House — it is politics, after all. However slanting the issue by saying that just the debate over the wiretapping program puts lives at risk is going too far. This emphasizes the need for Congress to act with scrutiny and not turn a blind eye.

    McConnell said a couple days ago that the need for more domestic surveillance was elevated not only because of terrorists, but because China and Russia are allegedly spying at the United States at Cold War levels.

    So yeah, let's get rid of democracy and the tiny bit of oversight over the White House, or else the terrorists win! This is an agreement for security over freedom; it's amazing that President Bush can still stand and say that he is defending freedom. If important, democratic political debate gives information to the terrorists, that is probably information they already know. Plus, that's one of the downsides of democracy: transparency and freedom can cut away at security. But a democracy is founded on the principles of holding the principles of freedom over the often-misused power-gaining excuse of security.

    For now the White House should be happy. Congress rubber-stamped their controversial NSA warrantless domestic wiretapping plan back in August. While the debate continues, the administration will continue to say lives are being lost. It appears it wants no transparency, and no power checks. This is a disturbing thing coming from a branch of a democratic government. This isn't the way to go about securing the nation. It's a way for the administration to once again spin the debate over terrorism for its own gain.

    If terror suspects really need to be monitored — which, I agree, they do — then why not get judicial oversight? I mean, that's what the courts are for. At least true congressional oversight is needed. But the administration has time and time again stopped even Republican lawmakers from doing their jobs and knowing what's going on in their own government. One example: after agreeing to several one-sided deals on a variety of issues, former Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is growing increasingly frustrated with the Bush administration's lack of transparency. When there are probes and investigations, they are overly politicized by both sides, and congresspeople end up with only rhetoric and biased assertions, not statement's telling them how laws like the NSA surveillance program are being carried out. They hear that their investigation costs lives; they are not told the hows or whys.

    It's time for policymakers to stand up to this unitary executive, not in stubbornness or for shallow political reasons, but because it's their job.

    In Perspective featured in Slate article

    In Perspective was featured in yesterday's Slate blog round-up!

    ... liberal "Clearthought" at In Perspective thinks Israel is only blaming victims, not the militants they're most threatened by: "Why do they think Gaza has grown so hostile? It was in part a result of Israel's horrendous policy towards the Palestinian territories. Yes, Hamas has brought Gaza to a new low, but why should regular people pay?"

    Date set for major Pakistani election

    Pakistan's presidential election will take place on 6 October, the official electoral commission stated today.

    Pakistan's election commission Thursday named October 6 as the date for a presidential poll in which embattled military ruler Pervez Musharraf will seek re-election in uniform.

    Musharraf has a history of trickery when it comes to elections. He will probably run in uniform, as the above article says, which directly contradicts a previous ruling by the Supreme Court. If challenged, he will either temporize more, or declare martial law and reshuffle the government only with people he likes. He already deported former PM Nawaz Sharif after he dared to come back to his country earlier this month after the courts ruled he could. Musharraf is like any other dictator: he likes power, and will hold on to power for as long as he can, doing whatever it takes to maintain the presidency.

    General Musharraf will not worry about this. He wants to cling to power, and he has two options. First, he can seal a deal with Ms Bhutto.
    The army, and it alone, is General Musharraf's constituency and the source of his power. By stripping himself of its uniform he reasonably fears that he would be an emperor without clothes.

    His alternative is to go it alone. He already has a simple majority in Parliament, which is sufficient for a presidential re-election. Without the PPP, he will not have the two-thirds majority necessary to make constitutional changes. In effect, that means that if his re-election were challenged on legal grounds—as it surely would be—General Musharraf would be at the mercy of the Supreme Court.

    On recent form, the judges might rule against him. If so, General Musharraf would probably then declare martial law. This would allow him to re-run the events that followed his 1999 coup: he would gut the Supreme Court of dissidents, ask the remaining sycophants to rule on the legality of his suspension of democracy, then hold elections. So long as a fair portion of the opposition participated in these, they would probably pass muster with America. But how would Pakistanis respond?

    Will the election be free and fair, as America and others wish? Don't count on it. What happens next could be more clashes between the courts and Gen Musharraf, but it looks like he will stay in power -- for now. Pakistani politics are notoriously hard to predict.

    A new tale of injustice and racial outrage in the American South


    They called it the White Tree. Not because of the color of its leaves or tint of its bark, but because of the kind of people who typically sat beneath its shade here at Jena High School.

    And when a black student tried to defy that tradition by sitting under the tree last September, it set off a series of events that have turned this town of 3,000 in central Louisiana’s timber country into a flashpoint over the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

    This is a fascinating -- and disturbing -- case of soured race relations in the United States, and how far the country still has to go to see that events like the one that took place in Jena. More importantly, one can see the bias of much of the local and national mainstream media -- mainly TV and radio -- in action. Often consumed by celebrity gossip, and usually turning a blind eye to important or non-sensationalist stories, many stations have been covering stories like that of the Jena 6 from a slanted angle.

    Fear sells -- whether it's an Arab terrorist or a black criminal. Another recent racially-related story is a story that has not received very much coverage. An African American woman was tortured and raped by six men in West Virgina (allegedly). Why is it that when several black teens beat up a white student, it Channel X Local News goes nuts, but when a clear hate-crime is committed it barely breaks into the national news mainstream?

    The other extreme of a race connected crime is the assumption of guilt of people accused of a crime against a black person, and the perceived injustice. Case and point: the Duke lacrosse player case, in which political correctness and the assumption of guilt by the public and news media (the same thing happened in the over-covered Jon Benet Ramsey case with people assuming the automatic guilt of John Mark Karr) ended up leading to false accusations and perhaps a sort of racism of its own.

    The 'Jena 6' case shows more flaws in the American criminal justice system, and society in general, especially in the South. However, it is good to know that there are appeals courts out there that expose these flaws, and people willing to take action in defense of these boys. For now, the protests continue, raising the level of awareness of this racially-divisive incident (I only learned about it yesterday).

    It's a fairly confusing chain of events; NPR has a good wrapup of the Jena story, starting with the 'White Tree' and ending with the current legal action being taken.

    Wednesday, 19 September 2007

    Fallout from Israel's Gaza decision

    Israel's decision to label Gaza as an "enemy entity" has backfired, it seems, in more ways than one. Hamas has called it a 'declaration of war'; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the world's top diplomat, has asked Israel to reverse — for the sake of its image, security, and international law, as well as human rights — what looks to be another big foreign policy mistake.

    “There are 1.4 million people in Gaza, including the old, the young and the sick, who are already suffering from the impact of prolonged closure,” he said. “They should not be punished for the unacceptable actions of militants and extremists.”

    The statement noted that the United Nations has broad humanitarian responsibilities and is mandated to provide assistance to and meet the humanitarian needs of civilians in both Gaza and the West Bank.

    Mr. Ban added that “the continued indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel is unacceptable and I deplore it. I call for it to stop immediately. I understand Israel’s security concerns over this matter.”

    UN officials have expressed concern repeatedly in recent months that the closure of border crossings and other restrictions in Gaza have cut exports and forced factories to shut, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians in the territory without jobs or income.

    As I said in my earlier post, it's time for Hamas to take initative, too. And why hasn't there been much progress — even superficial progress — with diplomacy between the less anti-Israel Abbas and the Israeli government? Since his new emergency government was made earlier this summer, not much seems to have happened. Even with Hamas out of the picture, closed off in Gaza as Abbas' Fatah controls the West Bank, things don't seem to be moving along. Maybe Israel could focus more of its energy (positive energy) on Abbas and let Hamas hurt itself instead of giving the party more fuel for its popularity.

    If it weren't for diplomatic moves like the one Israel made today, I bet Hamas would have already lost popularity. It would have lost the main reason for its existence: to pester and 'destroy' the 'Zionist entity': Israel. If the Palestinian people were not given so many reasons to dislike Israel, Hamas would loose support; and without Israel fighting back, it would probably implode, at least a bit.

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sucked in the attention and meddling of so many foreign powers, and has altered the political and economic composition of the Middle East for decades now. It has had a great and negative effect on international relations and the people of the region. Perhaps it's time for Israel to no longer punish Palestinian civilians, but work with those willing to work towards a peaceful solution to one of the biggest long-term conflicts of our time.

    An update on the tasing incident

    The Andrew Meyer tasing controversy continues. Around 200 people protested today against what they saw as police brutality in the treatment of the University of Florida student.

    The Lede:

    “I am not mad at you guys,” the police report [pdf] quoted him as saying in the ride to jail. “You didn’t do anything wrong, you were just trying to do your job.”
    one of the officers said that “his demeanor completely changed once the cameras were not in sight,” shifting in a matter of minutes from the kicking-and-screaming coiner of the new catchphrase “Don’t Tase me, bro” to “laughing and being lighthearted.” Then, they say, he asked them whether the news media would be on hand when he arrived at the police station.

    Moreover, one of the widely circulated videos of the incident was filmed with his own camera.
    Mr. Meyer has been released from police custody and has yet to be formally charged with either resisting arrest or disturbing the peace. Two officers involved in the incident have been placed on leave pending an investigation of their conduct in the incident.

    State officials are still sorting out the incident to see if there was any wrongdoing by the campus police, who shocked Meyer with a stun gun after he grew rowdy and refused to leave a Q&A session with former presidential candidate John Kerry. This is an interesting incident of alleged police brutality, especially since some use the fact that it happened at a political event to enhance their claims.

    More Israeli twisted logic

    BBC News:

    Israel declares the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity", which may lead to it cutting off vital fuel and electricity supplies.

    Because surely cutting off vital resources and inflicting collective punishment won't increase support for terrorists opposed to Israel...

    Why do they think Gaza has grown so hostile? It was in part a result of Israel's horrendous policy towards the Palestinian territories. Yes, Hamas has brought Gaza to a new low, but why should regular people pay? I hope someone in the Israeli government will recognize the faulty logic of shutting off electricity and other essential utilities from people who have already suffered enough, and are already understandably angry at their overbearing neighbor.

    As far as the legality of collective punishment goes,
    Under international law, Israel is considered an occupying power in Gaza, even though it has removed its troops and settlers. Denying civilians access to the necessities of life is considered collective punishment and a violation of international law under both the Hague and Geneva conventions.

    Of course America rushes to the defense of Israel on this matter. Israel is just in calling the Hamas haven of Gaza 'hostile', but punishing the 1.4 million residents of the entity is no solution -- in fact, it ultimately hurts all parties.

    I understand Israel's dilemma. After all, the most direct way to confront the militants firing rockets into Israel would be to invade or launch a military attack. That would be the worst thing Israel could do; it would draw scorn from foreign powers as well as serve as the perfect rallying cry for the same rebels Israel wishes to defeat. I do not know, however, if it is sending covert special forces to help take down the rocket-firing militants — just the militants. I certainly would not be against that.

    If Israel really wanted peace in Gaza, it would stop fueling the fire paradox (counterintuitive actions in fighting terrorism), and that includes inflaming the already-disconsolate -- and often radicalized -- civilian population of Gaza. Hamas also needs to look at the damage it's doing to its own people, innocent Israelis, as well as its own political standing. If it ever wants legitimacy, it needs to recognize Israel. There are steps for both parties to take, but neither is willing, especially Hamas.

    Tuesday, 18 September 2007

    My opinion on the Meyer taser controversy

    Naomi Wolf writes,

    Today's news shows a recognizable shock moment in the annals of a closing society. A very ordinary-looking American student -- Andrew Meyer, 21, at the University of Florida - was tasered by police when he asked a question of Senator John Kerry about the impeachment of President George Bush. His arms were pinned and as he tried to keep speaking he was shocked -- in spite of begging not to be hurt. A stunning piece of footage but unfortunately, historically, a very familiar and even tactical moment.
    [W]hen ordinary people start to be hurt by the state for speaking out, dissent closes quickly and the shock chills opposition very, very fast. Once that happens, democracy has been so weakened that major tactical and strategic incursions -- greater violations of democratic process -- are far more likely. If there is dissent about the vote in Florida in this next presidential election -- and the police are tasering voters' rights groups -- we will still have an election.

    What we will not have is liberty.

    We have to understand what time it is. When the state starts to hurt people for asking questions, we can no longer operate on the leisurely time of a strong democracy -- the 'Oh gosh how awful!' kind of time. It is time to take to the streets.

    I wrote the following comment in response to the rather extreme and overreaching Huffington Post article quoted above.

    Andrew Meyer acted out, was warned, was warned again, and did not cease his rebellious behavior. The guy threw a temper-tantrum — and wouldn't stop. Even when pleading not to be tasered he was acting aggressively, arms flailing about as the law enforcement tried to restrain the hot-headed questioner of Sen. John Kerry. The police operated according to procedure; stop politicizing what is essentially not a case of police brutality but of someone disturbing the peace and not stopping — for the sake of his security and the security of those around him — when told to. He was warned; he ignored the warnings.

    I agree there should be an investigation into the police tactics used, but this case is hardly a rallying cry for police brutality. If you want police brutality, look at the inner cities, the prisons, and other serious sites of crime and violence. Gruesome as they might be, a University of Florida student bring possibly rightfully administered a shock from a standard-issue law enforcement device, while being filmed on camera, is hardly comparable to the kind of things that go on beyond the lens.

    Watch the video and judge for yourself, but it is my opinion that the Meyer case is vastly over-hyped in order to suit the closed-minded, anti-establishment agendas we often see on sites void of expert opinion and full of self-interested ranting like the Huffington Post (Wolf seems to have written it primarily to help sell her book). I'd rather read commentary from people who know what they're talking about — New York Times op-eds and editorials, The Economist, The Guardian's Comment is Free blog — than slanted news items blown out of proportion.

    Just because Meyer was speaking out against Bush doesn't mean this is an unjust case of politically-motivated police power. If the guy had been, say, harassing a lady on the street and not ceasing even when the authorities were trying to cuff him, would you still be crying 'injustice!'? He was not silenced because of his political beliefs, but because he acted against the law, and ignored all warnings.

    Another thing I'd like to point out was that the cops who stunned Meyer were university campus police — probably not trained enough with their Tasers anyway — not official, US government police. There are plenty of examples of university police misusing their weapons, like in the ridiculous UCLA tasering case, but this University of Florida case doesn't seem to be one of them — at least not at the level of other cases. However this tasering will receive more attention because of pundits wishing to tie it to political bias and the silencing of protesters.

    New Cold War spy scare

    We already know that Russia's assertion of power — with its new, nuclear-strength megabomb; in the Middle East; the energy trade; the Arctic; and international relations in general — has been clumped into the notion of a 'new' Cold War. China has also been accused of hacking US government computers, in addition to its vast economic growth, heightened interest in what's going on in the world, and military claims (e.g. military expansion, anti-satellite missile launch). Who knew the two could be working in concert against American interest, employing espionage as much as they can? Well they are, says US National Intelligence director Michael McConnell.

    Russia and China are spying on US facilities at close to Cold War levels, the head of US intelligence has warned.
    US agencies are battling traditional state foes as well as terror groups, Mr McConnell told a congressional hearing.

    Mr McConnell was defending new legislation allowing the US government to eavesdrop on international phone calls and emails without a warrant.

    "Foreign intelligence information concerning the plans, activities and intentions of foreign powers and their agents is critical to protect the nation and preserve our security," Mr McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee.

    The Protect America Act allows the government to eavesdrop on foreign communications, even if the recipient is a person living in the US.

    These powers are due to expire in January unless Congress extends them.

    The White House wants them made permanent.

    I agree that the maintenance of national intelligence is essential. But the fact that McConnell says the civil liberties-invading wiretapping program is essential to maintaining national security shows the priorities of America's national security services are mixed up. Never mind that the majority of cargo entering the US by sea isn't checked or scanned at all, of course that would be a superfluous and unnecessary security precaution [sarcasm]! They already have Eschelon and FISA; there is little need for additional spy powers, especially if they're complaining about other nations' spying and there are more constitutional, down to earth, and effective policies waiting to be implemented!

    The White House has gone beyond using the omnipresent terrorist enemy to get what it wants, it's invoking Cold War-era scare tactics now! 'They're spying on us, so we better spy on ourselves, and them, and everyone. No need for a warrant either...'

    So not only are the terrorists of the world out to get America, but in addition to its usual enemies, two world powers are snooping like crazy. Some excuse for the even more scary spy program, the NSA wiretapping scheme legalized (sadly) by Congress earlier this year by a piece of legislation with the propaganda-esque name of the Protect America Act. (It better protect something, because it sure doesn't protect the Constitution!)

    It's as if the Bush administration wants another excuse, namely a national security threat or new 'war', to expand its already over-extended powers.

    The 'surge' effect (part 3)

    This is the final installment (for now) in the The 'surge' effect blog post series. This post focuses on the political effects of the term "surge". See also Part 1, which focuses on the origin of the "surge", and Part 2, which looks at the word's connotations.

    In part, the press is to blame for the entrance of "surge" and "war on terror" into the mainstream. As the previously-mentioned CJR article says,

    It’s the prerogative of any president and his spinners to play this kind of word game. But the press has a responsibility not to be taken in by it, to be able to separate out an explication of a thing from the sheen the administration places on it. The consequences are extreme. Look at the “war on terror.” The press, for the most part, absorbed this descriptive term and used it uncritically for the last five years. But, as Jacob Levenson wondered in the pages of CJR two years ago, “It’s reasonable to ask, for instance, that if the war on terror had been called the war on Islamic extremism, would the American public have supported the invasion of a country, like Iraq, with a secular government? Similarly, had it been called the war for global democracy, would the Patriot Act have become law? What if it hadn’t been called a war at all? Journalists, in other words, must resist employing political jargon — it tends to shortcut analysis in favor of mobilization.”
    [The] “surge” has become, in the last few weeks, part of the public discourse on Iraq (i.e., as one anonymous Republican strategist told the New York Times, “They’re going to cast it as a choice between withdrawal and surge”). The word has the benefit of seeming active, strong, and quick - a surge is a lightening strike, over and done, the opposite of, say, a quagmire. The other advantage is the other words that “surge” replaces, like “escalation,” with its Vietnam-era connotation."

    Since that article's publication in November, "surge" has appeared less and less within quotes as it enters the mainstream, like "war on terror" did years ago — and it has made a difference in the Iraq debate in the United States.

    In January 2007, progressive blog Think Progress compiled a list of news articles, mapping out the use of "surge" in the mainstream media. What began in November 2006 as a description for a "temporary" elevation in American forces in Iraq eventually defined a long-term Iraq war strategy. As the article noted, the media "has continued to use the term "surge" even though its definition has fundamentally changed." But does the spin of "troop increase" to "surge" really make a difference in the eyes of the public? A CBS News poll dated around the time that the "surge" buzz peaked showed that 45 percent of Americans were in favor of the "surge" (aka troop increase), and 48 percent opposed. The same survey said that a mere 18 percent of the public were in favor of increasing the number of US troops in Iraq. From those numbers we can infer that just a simple change in wording can result in a difference of 27 percentage points, thus the prevalent use of the term "surge" does work in the White House's favor.

    In the closing of his essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell writes, “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The Bush administration is using that political rhetoric to justify many of its policy decisions, especially when war is involved. Even though the "surge" isn't actually a surge, it will be continued to be used by the news media, political pundits, and some policy-makers, all to the benefit of the White House. Like "war on terror", "surge" is political language at its finest — for those who benefit from its use, that is. However, the labeling of the long-term battle against terrorism as a "war", associating that "war" with the one in Iraq, and the long-term troop escalation and operation in Iraq as a "surge" could all come back to bite the White House. The public might expect the "war" to end like any other and will be skeptical of open-ended plans (i.e., the fear instilled by declaring a war against terror will evaporate and impatience will replace it), and will want the "surge" to show fairly quick results. It is a surge, after all.

    Monday, 17 September 2007

    The 'surge' effect (part 2)

    The tale of how the "surge" became the surge is similar to how the "war on terror" became the war on terror: the political language seeped into the mainstream as commonly accepted expressions. Once the media started using them, those political phrases dominated in the public arena. (Albeit, the 'war on terror' became much more commonly seen outside of quotes than 'surge', and its connotations and political effects have been stronger.) The term "surge" is more than just a neutral catch-phrase used by the White House and the media, though opposed by the Pentagon — probably on technical grounds. Rather, it is a variation of the Bush administration's newspeak and Iraq war spin.

    Presently, the "surge" has gotten to a point where it isn't even within quotation marks in a news article, similar to what happened with the also politically-spun "war on terror". Unlike that "war", the surge has a less evident political bias in favor of the Bush administration. But still, says Gal Beckerman in a very informative Columbia Journalism Review article, words like 'surge' are worthy of labels of Orwellian proportions:

    The Bush administration has aggressively refined the art of distilling any new initiative presented to the public into a single word or phrase that at once defines the idea while obscuring its various downsides. Orwell coined the everlasting expression for this: newspeak. The phrase “war on terror” is perhaps the administration’s crowning achievement in this realm.

    With the post-9/11 "war on terror", the Bush administration created a public mentality of wartime and exploited those fears for its own political gain. The "war on terror" gained widespread usage and allowed the spin-doctors in the White House a great advantage: tilt the debate their way by using phrases like the one implying a global fight against an omnipresent terrorist enemy. In a war there are two sides, and if people didn't support Bush, so the logic went, then they must support the terrorists. The same thing applies to the "new way forward" and the "surge". If one doesn't support the plan, isn't one against progress? The "war on terror", of course, isn't a real war. But presenting it as one allowed the Bush White House more political power and popularity.

    How is using the term "surge" any different from "troop increase" or even "escalation"? Surge implies a short-term effort that produces an effect, not connoting the dryness of 'troop increase'. A surge not only suggests an increase numerically. Surge sounds positive, and its definition implies upward movement, a rush of progress. A linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, George Lakoff, argued against the Bush administration's "framing" of the Iraq war debate for its own benefit: "The word "surge" indicates a short-term increase in force that has an effect and naturally goes back to its previous level. . . . To use the word "surge" is to subscribe to Bush's misleading frame." Furthermore, using "surge" in place of "troop increase" doesn't directly remind people of the fact that more men and women in uniform will have to be sent to a place where reports of deaths flow into the news stream daily. "Surge" also sounds a bit like "insurgent", linguist Deborah Tannen notes. The need to take one's mind off of the fact more soldiers will be sent to Iraq and remembering that the fight is against the insurgents and terrorists is a reminder the White House never ceases to vocalize, making "surge" the ideal word for its Iraq plan.

    On the other hand, "surge" could actually imply a hike in the number of troops sent to Iraq, something Americans are hesitant about. A surge of progress, or a surge of American lives to be lost? The word at least carries a subliminal effect, which explains why few have questioned its use to represent such a unpopular policy. Some in the public may not even realize the political connotations "surge" and other political catch-phrases carry. "New way forward", on the other hand, is obvious in its connotation. "Stay the course" is a warning to those in the anti-war fringe to stick to the plan, or things will get much worse in Mesopotamia, not to mention the terrorists will win. Those "defeatists" who want the terrorists to win are accused by the White House and GOP of advocating "cut and run". By and large, the White House uses the propaganda-esque "new way forward", the media uses the spin-worthy "surge", and the Democrats use either "surge" or the slightly negative-sounding "escalation" to describe the increase of 21,500 US troops in Iraq.

    See also: Part 1.

    Blackwater kicked out of Iraq

    The security contractor was ordered by the Interior Ministry of Iraq to leave the war-torn nation following reports that it used excessive force in a battle in Baghdad that took the lives of at least eight civilians. However, the private defense firm's close ties to the United States government and various legal complexities may prove to be obstacles for those who want Blackwater gone.


    A Post reporter on the scene in Mansour witnessed Blackwater's Little Bird helicopters "firing into the streets."
    Unlike other private U.S. security firms in Iraq, as of May, Blackwater hadn't registered with the Iraqi government to operate in Iraq. The Coalition Provisional Authority -- the now-defunct occupational government -- issued a decree in 2004 (pdf) immunizing security contractors from Iraqi prosecution and placing their operations under the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities.

    Blackwater — which basically operates a large, private militia payed for by the US — has a history of poor conduct. And since it cannot be held to Iraqi law, its workers have gotten away with a lot. In addition, the secretive and controversial firm has been accused of vastly overcharging the US for its services. Like other corporate giants with suspected ties to the Bush administration, Blackwater has been hired through many no-bid contracts.

    Sunday, 16 September 2007

    In the news this coming week...

    Be sure to check out BBC News' highlights of what you'll probably see in the news this coming week. Among the news items are: the verdict of the Microsoft-EU anti-trust case, Petraeus briefing UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, more reform from France's President Sarkozy, political change in Nepal, a nuclear deal between India and the United States, and discussions of further sanctions for nuclear rebel Iran. It's going to be an interesting week.

    Big business wants regulation; my light bulb agenda

    Wow, things sure have changed. American industries now actually want government regulation! Of course, it's not to protect the consumer or increase fair competition — they want Washington to shield them from outside competition, as many markets grow more global.

    See this chart by the NYT (click it):

    I would like to note that one of those sought-after regulatory policies — the banning of wasteful incandescent light bulbs — I heavily support. Look for CFLs, the compact, often swirly florescent (don't worry, they come in all brightness levels and colors and don't make the horrible noise many florescent lights do) at your local store. Not only do they last longer than regular bulbs, but they use less energy, saving you money and causing less harm to the environment. In addition, they do not put out the massive amount of heat regular bulbs release, another helper to Mother Nature. Learn more here, here, and here.

    Friday, 14 September 2007

    Bush's appeasement plan for limited withdrawal

    As expected, President Bush announced Thursday night that 5,700 US troops will be pulled out of Iraq by Christmas time, following the advice of his military commanders.

    President Bush appealed to the nation in a prime time address on Iraq Thursday night -- his latest effort to buy time for his Iraq War strategy and shore up support among Republicans who have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of political progress and stability in Iraq.

    The president framed the Iraq conflict as he has in the past, as a key component of a broader war against al Qaeda and Islamic extremists.

    So basically Bush's eighth address to the nation on the Iraq war was nearly 17 minutes of recycled rhetoric...

    These are superficial changes to appease the increasingly discontent public of America and Iraq. Bush wants to show that he's in charge and he is listening to military advisors as well as popular opinion. This partial-withdrawal plan is, however, deceptive.
    Bush's plan is to withdraw five brigades by mid-July -- approximately 23,000 troops, leaving about 137,000 U.S. troops in place by next summer.

    While Bush portrayed the redeployment as a troop withdrawal, there will actually be 7,000 more troops in Iraq next summer than there were before Bush deployed additional forces to Iraq in January as part of a troop surge plan to quell sectarian violence.

    With spin mode activated, Bush said that as more 'progress' is made, more troops can leave Iraq. This is a way for him to stick to his existing, if questionable, line that progress is being made and also looking like he is bowing to the wishes to experts and the general public alike. He is trying to court the more — for lack of a better word — moderate (naive), on-the-fence anti-war forces in the US with a move like this. Perhaps he can even get the moderate forces that aren't totally against the war to be angry at the stronger anti-war forces' demands for more withdrawal. Some appeasers will argue that Bush has pledged some measure of troop pullout, and we should take what we get. It depends, in part, on how his own Republican Party reacts to this news: will they paint it as a real step forward, or not a step at all?

    We will have to see if this "return on success" plan is actually successful, at home and in Iraq. If all goes wrong, we do know who the administration will blame for future failure in Iraq: the 'defeatists' at home, the al-Qaeda terrorists (which actually comprise a very small amount of the extremists in Iraq), and Iran, the king of diabolical meddlers.

    See also...
  • See here for more on this week's Petraeus-Crocker report on 'surge';
  • See here for some Iraq security statistics.

  • Thursday, 13 September 2007

    Bush's support could mean death for Iraqi leaders

    Among the reasons people don't want to align themselves with Bush: death

    BBC News reports:

    A key Sunni ally of the US and Iraqi governments has been killed in a bomb attack in the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
    Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, 37, led what was known as the "Anbar Awakening", an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes that rose up against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

    US President George Bush met and endorsed the sheikh last week in Iraq.

    The White House, which has held up the movement in Anbar province as an example for the rest of Iraq, condemned his assassination as "an outrage".

    Abu Risha's assassination will be a severe blow to the "Awakening" in Anbar, says the BBC's Hugh Sykes in Baghdad.

    This could be a blow to the progress in Anbar, as well as the stability the Bush administration has said the 'surge' has brought to Iraq. Was Abu Risha killed because of his opposition to al-Qaeda in Iraq, or because he carried George Bush's seal of approval? Is the White House's model province about to see more disarray?

    By dividing groups by sectarian lines, perhaps the US is partially at fault for provoking more of a nationalist rise. Then again, the killing of leaders who have ties to the United States is not a good thing at all. If the fear the perpetrators of such killings hope to bring works, ties to moderate forces and outside parties will be severed and extremist support will be on the rise.

    Let's hope political leaders aren't shaken enough by killings like that of Abu Risha to abandon their causes and the people trying to help, or more imbalance in favor of the extreme will come. Unity and cooperation among forces, not division between sects and isolation from the moderates, need to be stressed for the rebuilding of Iraq. Handshakes shouldn't be a reason for murder.

    Final results of the security v. freedom poll

    Over a period of about one month, 11 votes were cast (see background). Nine voted that freedom was overall more important than security; two voted that security took priority over freedom.

    One reason I suppose the vote count was so low was because of some technical errors. The poll usually didn't work when I tested it on several computers. I think Blogger (i.e. Google) still has some work to do on their Polls add-on. Technical problems and low voter turnout aside, this poll outcome illustrates that the majority of In Perspective readers — at least those who were able to get the poll to work and vote — favor freedom over security, a classic liberal mark. I will find a more functional, non-buggy polling service that works for everyone to use for future polls.

    Semi-rare find: good news about the world!

    According to the UN, global child mortality has dropped dramatically to a record low in recent years, thanks to initiatives against diseases like measles and malaria in developing countries. Sub-Saharan Africa still remains the worst region for child mortality, but things are improving.

    The number of children dying around the world has fallen below 10 million a year for the first time since records began in 1960.

    Figures released today by Unicef showed that global deaths of children fell to an estimated 9.7 million in 2005, down from nearly 13 million in 1990.
    The most important advances, according to Unicef, included:
    · vaccination drives cutting measles deaths by 60% since 1999
    · women breastfeeding rather than using dirty water
    · babies sleeping under mosquito nets
    · babies getting vitamin A drops which reduce the risk of measles, diarrhoea and malaria

    Of the 9.7 million children who die each year, 3.1 million are from south Asia, and 4.8 million are from sub-Saharan Africa. West and central Africa have the highest rates of child mortality, with more than 150 deaths per every 1,000 children under five, which compares to six per 1,000 in North America, western Europe and Japan.
    Dr Salama estimated that the global community would need another £2.5bn in order to achieve the UN's millennium goal.

    Wednesday, 12 September 2007

    Warning signs: Iran and Iraq invasion parallels

    FP Passport has a great post about the similarity between American rhetoric preceding the invasion of Iraq, and the current stance increasingly being taken by Bush administration heavyweights.

    For at least a year and a half, a dangerous conventional wisdom has been percolating within the foreign-policy community and it is this: America ain't gonna attack Iran. Whether ignoring familiar warning signs or waving them away, most mainstream analysts are towing this line, too. ... Too bogged down in Iraq. Just talking tough to Tehran. The generals won't let it happen. These are all convenient forms of denial, and the foreign-policy establishment and media appear to have bought into them big time.

    Nukes plus state support of terrorism, where have we heard that argument for invasion before?

    No nuke strikes
    Even if we're all a bit naive about the chances of it happening, a heavy military attack on Iran would ultimately be neither politically nor strategically feasible for the United States. I wouldn't be suprised if some clandestine work was already under way, though. As common sense has reasoned and studies have backed up, attacking Iran because of its nuclear desires could easily be counter-productive. That would be all the support President Ahmadinejad, whose popularity is falling more every week, would need to continue his weapons program and it would 'support' his claims of American evil. In addition, the blowback from such an attack would be immense, and not just from Islamic terrorists.

    Ruined chances, four years back
    Washington had a chance to settle at least part of the Iran-US dispute back in 2003, a year after the country's nuclear programs were unearthed. Iran put forward a proposal that included making its nuclear program more open and no longer backing extremist groups like Hezbollah; in return the US would have to help fight some anti-Iran terrorist groups.

    Newsnight found this out this a little while ago:
    Iran offered the US a package of concessions in 2003, but it was rejected, a senior former US official has told the BBC's Newsnight programme.

    Tehran proposed ending support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups and helping to stabilise Iraq following the US-led invasion.

    Offers, including making its nuclear programme more transparent, were conditional on the US ending hostility.

    But Vice-President Dick Cheney's office rejected the plan, the official said.

    The offers came in a letter, seen by Newsnight, which was unsigned but which the US state department apparently believed to have been approved by the highest authorities.

    In return for its concessions, Tehran asked Washington to end its hostility, to end sanctions, and to disband the Iranian rebel group the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and repatriate its members.

    Back to today
    Meanwhile, the situation with Iran's nuclear program seems to be getting worse. How far can diplomacy goes until everyone gets frustrated? Germany and the EU are increasingly stubborn about sanctions — a tactic which I myself question — and the hawks and neocons on Capitol Hill, Republican and Democrat alike, are painting Iran as the Reich of the Mideast, with Ahmadinejad as Hitler (fitting, considering the intense anti-semitism); Barack Obama even proposed possible strikes on the country! Iran-bashing has also grown popular with those seeking someone to blame for the failure in Iraq (i.e. the White House); the blame should be targeted more thwards Washington then Tehran.

    Keep in mind, however, that Ahmadinejad is not the top man in Iran's minutely-democratic theocracy — Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say. Radical as he may be, I doubt he'd lead his country into complete war. Plus, he hates nukes.

    As if things were not complicated enough, there's also the matter of oil...

    Technorati technorati tags:

    Measuring democracy: 'The Democracy Index'

    The Economist released an intriguing study on democracy throughout the world late last month.

    The Democracy index is based on the view that measures of democracy that reflect the state of political freedoms and civil liberties are not thick enough. They do not encompass sufficiently or at all some features that determine how substantive democracy is or its quality. Freedom is an essential component of democracy, but not sufficient. In existing measures, the elements of political participation and functioning of government are taken into account only in a marginal way.

    The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. The condition of having free and fair competitive elections, and satisfying related aspects of political freedom, is clearly the basic requirement of all definitions.

    This index provides a snapshot of the current state of democracy worldwide for 165 independent states and two territories. ... Although almost half of the world’s countries can be considered to be democracies, the number of “full democracies” is relatively low (only 28). Almost twice as many (54) are rated as “flawed democracies”. Of the remaining 85 states, 55 are authoritarian and 30 are considered to be “hybrid regimes”.
    More than half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only some 13% reside in full democracies. Despite the advances in democracy in recent decades, almost 40% of the world’s population still lives under authoritarian rule (with a large share of these being, of course, in China).

    Sweden's number one with a score of 9.88 (10 being most democratic, 1 being least), whereas North Korea comes in at 167 with the lowest ranking of 1.03. North America and Western Europe (the sub-region of Northern Europe ranks the best) dominate the top of the table; the whole of Africa along with the Middle East and Central Asia hold many of the least democratic nations. Canada's in 9th place, the United States is ranked 17, the United Kingdom 23, and France 24.

    Japan's tied for 20 at 8.15. In the "flawed" section, Italy ranks 34 with a score of 7.73 followed by India scoring 7.68; Brazil's 42, Mexico's 53, Israel's 47, Palestine's 79. "Hybrid" Turkey's 88 with a score of 5.70, Russia is at 102 scoring 5.02. Pakistan is in the all-out "authoritarian" category ranked 113, China's 138 with a score of 2.97, and Saudi Arabia's 159. Iraq is a "hybrid" government with a score of 4.01. It's ranked 112, with a 0 in "functioning of government" (Chad was the only other state to get a zero in that area).

    What's interesting is that out of all the "full democracies", the US has the lowest ratings on "civil liberties" and "electoral process", and doesn't fare too well on "functioning of government" or "political participation" either. The fact that America has a restrictive two-party system is the primary reason it isn't rated well on its electoral process. The UK scores poorly on "political participation" as Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark do very well on all categories — especially Sweden.

    The Economist/EIU report also includes a watch-list. Hong Kong may move more towards democracy in the next year as Taiwan, Bangladesh, Armenia, Russia, Nigeria, Burundi, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, and Mauritania risk slipping lower in the democratic rankings.

    Read the full report here (PDF).

    In Perspective turns 1!

    It's hard to believe that one whole year has passed since the first post here on In Perspective. Over 530 posts have appeared on this blog, with many more to come. Thanks to all the readers; and here's to another good year!

    Tuesday, 11 September 2007

    The unconstitutional, unPATRIOTic Act

    It's only appropriate on the sixth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks (see my 9/11 post) to publish a blog post about the exploitation of such a tragedy for potential political gain.

    Last week, a judge ruled portions of the controversial Patriot Act unlawful and conflicting the United States Constitution.

    A federal judge...struck down the parts of the recently revised USA Patriot Act that authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation to use informal secret demands called national security letters to compel companies to provide customer records.

    The law allowed the F.B.I. not only to force communications companies, including telephone and Internet providers, to turn over the records without court authorization, but also to forbid the companies to tell the customers or anyone else what they had done. Under the law, enacted last year, the ability of the courts to review challenges to the ban on disclosures was quite limited.

    The judge, Victor Marrero of the Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that the measure violated the First Amendment and the separation of powers guarantee.

    Judge Marrero said he feared that the law could be the first step in a series of intrusions into the judiciary’s role that would be “the legislative equivalent of breaking and entering, with an ominous free pass to the hijacking of constitutional values.”

    According to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general in March, the F.B.I. issued about 143,000 requests through national security letters from 2003 to 2005. The report found that the bureau had often used the letters improperly and sometimes illegally.

    (Read about the FBI's illegal use of the national security letters here.)
    Yesterday’s decision was a sequel to rulings by Judge Marrero in 2004 and a federal judge in Connecticut in 2005, both of which enjoined an earlier version of the law. Congress responded last year by amending the law in reauthorizing it.
    Judge Marrero used his strongest language and evocative historical analogies in criticizing the aspect of the new law that imposed restrictions on the courts’ ability to review the F.B.I.’s determinations.

    (Read the decision in full.)

    Tying the emotional word 'patriot' to an act that conflicts with many areas of fundamental American democratic law was a brilliant political move by the Bush administration and its Republican allies. It allowed them to label anyone who opposed the act unpatriotic, and even if they didn't label so, who's going to oppose something with the word 'patriot' in its name? That is like opposing the "Kittens are Cute Act" or the "America the Great and Victorious Act".

    Its name is yet another one of those slanted catch-phrases — "war on terror", "with us or against us", "cut and run", the "surge" — under the mother of political spin-words: the "war on terror", which has entered most into the mainstream media and the consciousness of a nation, even though it's not a real war and you can't really fight 'terror', or even the intangible ideology of terrorism.

    6 years later: looking back on 9/11

    It's been six years since an act that changed modern history and the world as we knew it. Acts of terrorism were committed on the morning of 11 September 2001 in New York, Washington, DC, and, as it turned out, Pennsylvania. Now, I'm sure you have heard this all and have heard it again, but the political and social effects created by 9/11 have been, suffice to say, enormous. It led to the invasion of entire countries, an international 'war' being declared, the decline in popularity of numerous politicians, the death of many civilians and soldiers, and a shift in the perspectives of both the Muslim world and the West.

    A poll recently released said that many Americans will do nothing special or different on this day — not even watch the news to see what's going on in the world. Considering their nation's place in the world and their fortunate socioeconomic placement, world events is something many Americans are quite ignorant about. I try not to be one of those ignorant Americans.

    I know it sounds cheesy, but in one way or another, 11 September is always a day of reflection for me, a time to remember times past. I remember the morning of 9/11. I had just left the dentist's office after my six month checkup. I turned on the radio and heard that there had been a plane crash, black smoke, New York, World Trade Center. It didn't click in my mind until a little while later. Soon, the towers fell, and the entire world seemed to be in shock. CNN replayed the video for what felt like weeks, immediately a 'war on terror' was declared. I remember how everyone displayed a flag — on their car window, in front of their house, on their clothes. Everyone was soaking in a sea of patriotism that would soon turn into anguish and, for some, war-mongering despair and an opportunistic outlook. Not only did companies capitalize off of that patriotism; politicians did too. I, like most others, went along with President Bush until I realized you cannot fight terrorists by invading nations, implementing poor policies, thus counter-intuitively breeding more terrorism.

    Here are some of the posts from In Perspective I've picked out that are especially relevant to this day:

  • Warping facts and rewriting history: 9/11 conspiracy theories [here]
  • A tale of two viewpoints [here]
  • A look back to a moment in history: 9/11 [here]
  • Course of action: some GWOT recommendations [here]
  • "Freedom isn't free" [here]
  • There's a clash of something(s), but what? [here]

    Osama Bin Laden can continue his little video messages for all I care. What he should know is that, eventually, he will be brought to justice — in actuality or in principle — for masterminding the killings of thousands of Americans on 9/11, and many more in other horrible incidents. He is one person who will go down in history for what he really is: bigoted, militant, murderous scum. His followers receive just as much sympathy (i.e. none) from me for their 'cause' as their twisted leader.

    Technorati technorati tags: , ,

  • Monday, 10 September 2007

    Musharraf's idea of a warm welcome?

    A not-so-inviting homecoming
    According to his PML-N party, the Pakistani government detained thousands of supporters of exiled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif just before he began the voyage home to his country. Sharif arrived as expected today, only to be deported to Saudi Arabia, as had been feared, despite the Supreme Court ruling that he may return. The EU says the court's decision should be respected; the US government has pussyfooted the issue, as it often does on matters pertaining to Pakistan and democracy.

    General disarray
    Pakistani politics are explosive right now — literally. Violence and threats by extremists have been on the rise as the nation's embattled military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is challenged for power. Could the man he kicked out in a 1999 coup be his next challenger? Assuming they aren't rigged or delayed again, elections should be coming soon to Pakistan. There have already been rumors that Musharraf is in political talks with also-exiled ex-PM Benazir Bhutto, leader of the opposition PPP party.

    So why is Sharif returning to the nation whose government threatened to kill, imprison, or deport him last time he overstayed his welcome (in their eyes)? Last month, the Supreme Court ordered that Sharif could return, only a month after Musharraf reinstated the popular and judicial Chief Justice Chaudhry of the court whom he had removed in March because he was one person of power who would actually challenge Musharraf and attempt to put him in check.

    If you take away the center, only the extremes are left
    I'm hoping that Musharraf will give democracy a chance — 'ally' America has been fairly lax on the pressure — and that political freedom will triumph over both military authoritarianism and Islamic extremism. Musharraf's oppression of liberals and moderates has allowed the militants to rise to the top; a political vacuum has been created in Pakistan in which the extremes grow as the moderates sink. In some cases he has had to appease the extremists, but almost never the moderates.

    I agree with Benazir Bhutto in that moderate forces have been driven out and extremists have take hold of a country on the verge of total disarray.

    Upcoming dates:

    14 Sept: Date Ex-PM Benazir Bhutto will announce details of her homecoming
    15 Sep-15 Oct: Timeframe Gen Musharraf has set for his re-election as president by parliament
    October: Parliament expires and general election must be held

    Saturday, 8 September 2007

    What you should and shouldn't worry about

    Here's an interesting article from a humorous but occasionally serious site (their movies section is the best if you want to laugh).

    "The 6 Most Over-Hyped Threats to America (And What Should Scare You Instead)" are:
    1. Al Qaeda in Iraq
    2. Gay marriage
    3. Gas prices
    4. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad
    5. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez
    6. SARS and bird flu, etc.

    The things you should actually worry about, according to the article:
    1. Shia militants (e.g. al-Sadr)
    2. Radical leading homophobes/pedophiles/creeps like Mark Foley and Ted Haggard
    3. Global warming (what's a few extra bucks if your planet's about to flood?)
    4. Iran's real leader, Ayatollah Khamenei
    5. North Korea's Kim Jong-Il
    6. Tuberculosis and other current havoc-wreaking diseases

    Fear is especially prevalent these days, isn't it?

    One caveat of this article I would like to point out: bird flu is something companies, governments, and individuals should prepare for. While it has only killed a negligible amount of people at this point, if it mutates to the point where human-to-human transmission is possible there could be a serious, far-reaching pandemic. In the case of potential disasters like the H5N1 virus, be prepared, but not scared.

    We do need to be prepared for a H5N1 pandemic; we need to continue research into vaccines, monitoring cases worldwide, and getting ready, just in case. However, panicking about something that might happen — i.e. the mass transmission of avian flu world-wide — is something we should refrain from.

    The summer before last I spoke briefly to an official with the WHO or CDC (I cannot remember which; I just happened to meet her in a dining area before seeing a play) said that there is potential for H5N1 to mutate and cause a mass human pandemic. However steps are being taken and need to be continued to prevent the impact of such a pandemic. It's not the end of the world.

    If we worry senselessly and constantly about H5N1, meteor strikes, or global warming, which all have the potential to wipe the human race from the earth, what's the point in living? What we can do is take action on those important issues, and press our governments to do the same. Fear leads to inaction, and if it's action people want, than it's best that the media and groups pushing action on pressing issues don't exaggerate issues to apocalyptic extremes.

    Sometimes satire — like the Daily Show or the Colbert Report — can offer more insight and thought-provoking information than the mainstream (American) news, while remaining entertaining.

    Updated to include more on the whole bird flu issue...

    Thursday, 6 September 2007

    'We will be treated as occupiers'

    If only America's leaders could have foreseen the contempt — at home, abroad, and even in the country they 'liberated' — their long-term presence in Iraq would bring.

    BBC News:

    The US should reduce its troop presence in Iraq so as not to appear an "occupying force", a key 20-member US security commission has recommended.

    The panel of retired police and military officers told the Senate that Iraqi forces should be replacing US troops by early next year.

    But the report also warned Iraqi troops would not be ready to take over fully within the next 18 months.

    It also said the Iraqi police force was ineffective and should be scrapped.

    The report is the latest in a series to be considered by the US Congress as it debates the Iraq war.

    This is another September report on United States progress in Iraq. A GAO study also came out recently; the mother of all reports will be presented to Congress by the lead US commander in Iraq Gen. George Petraeus and US ambassador to the nation Ryan Crocker on Monday.

    The White House is hoping that the "surge", the subject of the Petraeus report, will work or is working, if not in reality than in the minds of the public (i.e. even if it doesn't actually help the conditions on the ground in Iraq, people would think so thanks to the ample spin echoing from the press briefing room).

    American policy in Iraq has been making many headlines lately; I expect more and more pressure will be mounted on the Bush administration from politicians, including from the Republican Party, as well as the American public, nations abroad, and the Iraqis. Will President Bush be forced to the international diplomatic table? Will he have much leverage left or many people willing to cooperate with him by then?

    According to a wide-scale BBC World Service survey, most of the world's people want the United States out of Iraq soon.

    Arrivederci Pavarotti, your voice lives on

    The king of opera passed away last night after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 71. I will always remember the globally-known tenor's rendition of Nessun Dorma. Luciano Pavarotti led an amazing life; he spread the Italian opera to millions — even billions — crossing generational and social lines. He even got younger people like me to listen to the beauty and power of classical opera: he spread the music to the masses. The Maestro will be missed.

    The 'surge' effect (part 1)

    The 'surge' effect: how one word shaped the politically-charged national debate on Iraq in the United States.

    How did "surge" become the de facto term for "troop increase"? Why is that semantic change politically significant? To answer those and other related questions, one must explore the origins and effects of the "surge" — a part of the "new way forward" for "success" in Iraq and the "war on terror". The use of the term "surge" in place of "troop increase" is a way for the George W. Bush administration and its political allies to give a more positive spin on what is really an increase in American troops deployed to a dreary arena of war — Iraq. The common use of "surge", and its entrance into the mainstream media (and even this blog), displays parallels to what happened with the phrase "war on terror" in the months after 9/11.

    Finding the exact origin of "surge" is tougher than it sounds. It seems that the word first had prominent usage in mid-December 2006. In early January 2007, the phrase gained even more popularity. Speculation about President Bush announcing a plan for an increase of American troops in Iraq reached its peak around January 9th, and a day later the president finally announced his plan for a "new way forward" that had been months in the making. However, he did not once use the word "surge" in his Address to the Nation that day. The "surge option" as we know it was first discussed in a New York Times article by David Cloud on November 21st, two days after an article reported Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) hope for a "short-term surge" (he had been pushing for a similar strategy since August). Articles prior to that, notably Thomas Ricks' November 20th scoop, often spoke of a "short-term" troop increase to be recommended to the White House by military experts.

    The godfather of the so-called surge option is neoconservative Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank close to the White House. When interviewed on On the Media about the allegation that the White House is taking advantage of the contradictory "surge", he said that his plan entitles a sustained surge of sorts, a long-term effort — not the kind of action people take the word to mean; he blames the media for being misleading and using the term "loosely". Was the "surge" an invention of the media, not a political tool of the White House? The answer is unclear, but what is known is that the Bush administration definitely took advantage of the word and its connotations.

    Tuesday, 4 September 2007

    F is for failure (in Iraq)

    The long-awaited first in a series of (predictable) September benchmarks paints a disappointing but not surprising picture of Bush-supported Iraqi government.

    Washington Post:

    The Iraqi government has failed to meet 11 of the 18 political, economic and security benchmarks it set for itself, and violence remains high despite the U.S. troop surge, the Government Accountability Office reported today.

    Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Comptroller General David M. Walker, who heads the GAO, painted a mostly grim portrait of the Iraqi government's progress ahead of a crucial report due to be presented next week by the top U.S. military commander and the U.S. ambassador in Iraq.

    "The government is dysfunctional," Walker told the panel in response to a question. He noted that 15 of the 37 ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have withdrawn their support for him and that there are "significant" problems with the capabilities of remaining ministries.

    Formally presenting a GAO report that Congress requested on the benchmarks, Walker said the Iraqi government has met three of the 18, partially met four and failed to meet 11. The benchmarks, based on commitments the Maliki government made in June 2006, were inserted in U.S. legislation authorizing emergency war funding. Under the legislation, the administration must report on progress in achieving them.

    As could only be expected of the Bush administration, the White House has criticized the GAO report.

    General Petraeus, the leading commander in Iraq, is due to release an even more awaited report later this month — 10 September — outlining the military situation in Iraq following the thus-failed 'surge'. (If need some ways to not think about the Petraeus report, see The Daily Dish.) No matter what the report says, the reaction to it is pretty predictable: 'Why are we fighting this war?', 'How can there be progress when there's failure?' — rhetorical questions abound. I doubt the Senate will ask too many meaningful questions; the Republicans will, for the most part, try to make the war sound a bit cheerier than the Democrats and the Democrats will fill their quota of empty emotional blather.

    How do you solve a problem like Iraq? Withdrawal and the country descends into total proxy wars and anarchic chaos; stay and the extremists have a rallying cry against the 'Western occupiers'. Withdrawal equals more terrorism; staying equals more terrorism. Hmm, I'll leave the decision to the highly-competent policymakers on Capitol Hill (*cough*). Or there could be an international force and a massive rebuilding and political reconciliation program that include all major international actors and Iraq's neighbors...

    Well, you know some superficial, perceived, or rhetorical policy shift is being planned in the West Wing when President George W. Bush makes his third ever visit to Iraq.

    Will Thailand go full-circle?

    The new incarnation of the ruling political party the coup ousted might take the lead in expected elections, as military still rules the SE Asian state (which has a surprising 65 million people within its borders). That's some serious irony, and we see the effects of another unnecessary military coup (recently: Fiji, Thailand, Bangladesh). If people had any faith in the democratic system, if would be the people who lead the way to change. Some overthrows of governments are needed, but if people change their entire government every time they're unhappy or the military gets restless, we'd be living in a state of constant volatility and people would still be unhappy, and eventually apathetic. During the latter half of the 20th century, Thais were under a military government off-and-on.

    In areas such as corruption and lack of economic progress — factors that led to the coup — there has been little if any improvement in Thailand under generals as it was under politicians. The turnout for 19 August vote on the charter was low, but the military came out ahead...

    Thailand's military coup leaders have won a referendum on a new constitution by a large margin, taking around 70% of Sunday's vote, exit polls suggest.

    It was the first vote to be held since Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the army last year and replaced with Gen Surayud Chulanont.
    Thaksin supporters had urged a No vote, saying the new constitution had been drafted by an illegitimate government.
    He said that the vote meant elections to restore democracy would be held by the end of the year.

    This referendum was about a lot more than the 194-page constitution which few Thais are likely to have read, the BBC's Jonathan Head reports from Bangkok - it was also a vote on the coup itself.

    Voter apathy will only increase as internal and external political forces collide in Thailand.