Tuesday, April 28, 2009

S.P.E.C.T.E.R.


The bombshell of today: Arlen Specter switches political party. This will not only give the Democrats the magic 60 vote Democratic majority (once the other shoe drops, that show is Al Franken), it also bring the per capita jowl of the party substantially higher.
Obviously, the Republican party wasn't too happy, and it fell on hapless RNC Chairman Michael Steele to respond:
Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. Let's be honest -- Sen. Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record.

This statement is illogical on many levels. If Specter did have a "left-wing" voting record as Michael Steele claims (left-wing is a very odd word to apply to Arlen Specter) than he did leave the party based on principle, the only way he betrayed his principles was being in the party in the first place. Second, why is it that Steele wouldn't be happy about this? If Specter is an opportunistic left-wing politician, shouldn't the party be glad to have him out?
Steele did get one thing right though, Specter's flip clearly wasn't based on principle, Specter said as much himself. He was oddly forthright in his explanation of why he switched parties. Like Senator Joseph Lieberman, Specter has certain views that are best characterized as centrist, chief among these that it is most important to look out for number 1. This is what ultimately drove Specter out of the part, he was completely forthright about this: he saw the poll, and promptly jumped.
The Republicans brought this one on themselves by running wing-nut Pat Toomey against Specter. What we've seen is the dynamic of "big tent" versus "little tent". The Democratic party is not rigidly orthodox, allowing many politicians who take positions different from, or even hostile to, the supposed Democratic consensus. The party is a coalition of moderates, center liberals and left-liberals. The Republican party on the other hand, is far more disciplines, and deviating too far from the party lines risks a primary challenger. This strategy just blew-up in the face of the Republicans, GOP purists aren't going to like how little clout they'll have as an ideologically pure party.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Debate Over Torture

In the past, I've read Michael Scheuer, and been favorably impressed by some of his analysis, but his recent op-ed in Washington Post strikes me as off of the deep end, indeed, if a moron like this was responsible for catching Bin Laden (Scheuer was "chief of Bin Laden issue station") it's no wonder the terrorist chieftain has eluded US capture.
Now, in a single week, President Obama has eliminated two-thirds of that successful-but-not-sufficient national defense troika because his personal ideology -- a fair gist of which is "If the world likes us more we are more secure" -- cannot tolerate harsh interrogation techniques, torture or coercive interviews, call them what you will. Surprisingly, Obama now stands alongside Bush as a genuine American Jacobin, both of them seeing the world as they want it to be, not as it is. Whereas Bush saw a world of Muslims yearning to betray their God for Western secularism, Obama gazes upon a globe that he regards as largely carnivore-free and believes that remaining threats can be defused by semantic warfare; just stop saying "War on Terror" and give talks in Turkey and on al-Arabiyah television, for example.
Americans should be clear on what Obama has done. In a breathtaking display of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance, the president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families.

The last part reminds me of the scene in Dr. Strangelove where Buck Turgidson tells the president "Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books" when the president says he refuses to go down in history as the greatest murder since Adolph Hitler.
What Scheuer misses is that Obama's belief is that these techniques don't protect America. Even if you disagree, it is a bogus charge to say he is putting his personal beliefs before protecting the country.
Scheuer's version of events is contradicted by his agencies own finding that torture is not helpful in providing intelligence. Even so, the agency has greatly squandered its credibility. Unlike the FBI, the CIA was ready to violate the law by torturing prisoners. The agency has no background interrogation, but were chosen clearly because they can operate in the darkness outside the rule of law and accountability.
The kind of information that can be obtained from torture is generally what one already wants to hear. This should be no surprise, the forms of torture we use are in many cases cribbed from Maoist practices explicitly designed to illicit false confessions (such torture tactics were stored in US army manuals for resistance to torture), and this seems to be what they've been used for.
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would've provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime.

The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush's quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them.

Generally, we hear torture justified by people pointing to a "ticking time bomb", and arguing that torture will save American lives. In this case, torture was used in order to attempt to justify US policy and provide political cover for an administration, after all, even if such links existed (they didn't) they were hardly a pressing national security priority, and certainly didn't merit abusive treatment.

Pork and Swine Flu

It appears that Republican's removed $900 million from the Stimulus Package dealing with a flu pandemic. Karl Rove, he of the of the supposed political genius, mocked the fact that flu preparedness was considered inserted into the bill. Susan Collins insisted that the spending be cut out of the bill
.
Collin's for her part disputes that the money would have helped:
's office dismissed the stimulus-linked criticism as "blatantly false and politically motivated," and claimed that she's long been a leader on pandemic flu preparedness as part of her work to fight bioterrorism in the Senate. Plus, as Collins' communications director, Kevin Kelley, wrote me in an email: "There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds," today.
...
But when Collins' spokesman goes on to explain what the government could be doing differently to prepare itself for the outbreak, the tone suddenly changes. "Senator Collins does, however, believe that it is a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services still do not have top positions filled," Kelley said. "She hopes the Senate will move promptly to confirm Governor Sebelius for HHS Secretary." So after pushing back against her liberal critics, Collins explicitly puts herself to the left of her GOP colleagues who have been trying to obstruct Sebelius's nomination. At the least, Collins hasn't given up on trying to redeem herself as a genuine centrist.

Even if this is the case, pandemic spending seems pretty important, yet Collin's played politics with its appropriation. More broadly, this illustrates a more general problem with theose who crusade against government "waste". Whenever crusaders identify programs that should be cut, the programs don't seems so useless. An example is when Bobby Jindal took a whack at volcano monitoring. Isn't that self evidently useful? Jon Chait pointed out a pattern of this during the McCain campaign.
No one would dispute that some of our money is wasted by the government, but I wish the "anti-pork" crusaders would identify the real wastes (agribusiness subsidies and useless military projects, to name two) and stop hamstringing useful spending.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Shadow of Torture Part III

Greg Sargent is worried that Cheney has succeeded in shifting the torture debate from whether torture is ethical to whether it is effective. I don't share that view. To begin with, I'm not sure if the ethical question is completely clear cut, torture is horrible, but is it morally worse than collateral damage? Its hard to say what principle says it is.
Second, there's lots of good evidence that torture is ineffective, and any worth it might have is outweighed by massive down-sides of using it. This is the position of Dennis Blair in a classified memo. He acknowledged the US had gained information from torture (though one cannot say certainly that these results could not be obtained by other methods), but pointed out the downside outweighed any benefit. Tortures biggest critics have generally been those with the most experience with interrogation. the British, for example, have shied away from the rough-tough interrogations because they've already learned that this is ineffective in Northern Ireland, and further inflames terrorist violence.
Another quarter that criticism of the torture regime has come from is the FBI. In an article well worth reading, special agent Ali Soufan lays out the case.
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

Parenthetically, the op-ed adds
It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.

I would hope that contractors wouldn't be allowed in these situations, and them setting policy is stunning. I suppose we see a link between privatization and human-rights abuse here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dick Cheney on the Torture Memos

I hope satan has a sweat-shirt, because today is a cold day in hell. Dick Cheney wants to see more torture documents released.
Mr Cheney said that the decision to publish the memos was a mistake.

And it was misleading, he said, because the documents did not include those demonstrating that harsh interrogation delivered intelligence "success".

"One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is that they put out the legal memos... but they didn't put out the memos that show the success of the effort," Mr Cheney told Fox News.

"There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified. I formally ask that they be declassified now."

The American people should have a chance to weigh the intelligence obtained alongside the legal debate, he said.

Mr Cheney made his comments as US President Barack Obama visited the CIA headquarters just outside Washington.

If we're going to release the documents on the torture policy, it makes sense to release the documents that would be pertinent in evaluating the policy made by the Bush administration, if such documents do exist (that is a big if). Evidence suggests that Bush's "harsh interrogation" policy was not effective, so probably documents don't exist Up till now, Bush administration officials have assured us that "harsh interrogation methods" are effective, but they have shown no evidence. Perhaps Cheney knows no documents of this description exist, but is calling for their release to make it appear that Obama is with-holding these documents for political reasons.
Even if they exist, it would be hard to determine whether the torture is in fact an effective method. Even if Khalid Sheikh Muhammed broke under the 183 water-boardings he received, there's no way of knowing that another tact wouldn't have worked just as effectively.
My opinion: take up Cheney's challenge, and declassify as many documents as we can on the results of our torture policy. Whatever these documents show, it is better to have fuller transparency on what occurred.

Monday, April 20, 2009

In the Shadow of Torture Part II

Stephen Walt has some thoughts on the the impunity seems to be being offered for the torture committed by the United States.

First, a lot of countries (including the United States) have expended considerable diplomatic effort to hold people like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Liberia’s Charles Taylor accountable for their crimes. Apparently Obama feels that this principle can be jettisoned when it might be politically expedient to do so. At a minimum, we ought to remember this incident the next time we get upset that some other country is declining to prosecute a former leader, turning a blind eye to some other ruler's depredations (think Robert Mugabe), or cutting a deal with some warlord or terrorist leader. Maybe they were making pragmatic calculations too, and we holier-than-thou Americans ought to be a bit less judgmental.

Second, does our failure to prosecute open the door to other efforts to do so? A number of states (France, Canada, Belgium, Spain, etc.) have incorporated a principle of “universal jurisdiction” into their own domestic legal systems, when dealing with genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity (including torture). This principle can be invoked when the home country of the alleged perpetrator is "unwilling or unable to prosecute" Earlier reports suggesting that Spanish officials were going to indict six former Bush administration officials eventually led Spain's attorney general to say that U.S. courts would be the proper venue, but Obama has now made it clear that this isn't going to happen. I don’t know what the practical implications might be, but if I were Dick Cheney or David Addington, I wouldn’t be planning a summer vacation in Spain.

Third, for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States. Not only does power corrupt, but it allows people who sanction torture to get away with it, albeit at some considerable cost to America's image and reputation. Those reputational costs will be borne by all Americans, who ought to be furious at the crimes that were committed in their name.

I'm somewhat disappointed by the lack of accountability for administration members, but not surprised. I would hope that a country like the United States, which has been a democracy (of sorts, at least) throughout its existence, would be politically mature enough to prosecute people who break international laws. Sadly, this is not the case now, nor has it ever been. Walt writes that "for those of you who think that power is of declining relevance in world politics and that normative and legal standards are becoming increasingly important, I'd just point out that the various officials who sanctioned these abuses would be in a lot more trouble if they came from a weak and vulnerable state, as opposed to a global power like the United States". This has also always been the case. Germany and Japan were rightly held accountable for war-crimes after World War II, but the US, Britain and the Soviet Union were not. Curtis LeMay, who had engineered the firebombing of Tokyo (killing roughly 100,000) commented that if we'd lost the war, he'd be tried as a war criminal.
In a similar vein, Telford Taylor (a chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) commented in 1971 that if we applied the same standards to the architects of Vietnam that we did at Nuremberg and Tokyo, the leaders of the US would likely meet the same fate as General Tomoyuki Yamashita: hanging. I don't think this is any less true of the architects of the "War on Terror", who among other things have organized secret "black sites" in which to torture people, and have purposely sent people to be torture. The men who wrote the torture memo are no less callous and banal than Eichmann in Jerusalum. The difference is Eichmann got caught.
Fortunately, there is hope. The administration expressly ruling out prosecution of certain individuals opens the door (as Walt points out) to universal jurisdiction. Phillipe Sands, a longtime critic of the torture team, pointed out a year ago that this should be taken care of by the United States, or else we'd be face with international prosecution of US citizens. Though this would be far from the ideal solution, (the ideal being accountability for these individuals here in the US) I hope the international community takes action. It's time that citizens of powerful countries, not just two-bit dictatorships, be held accountable for their actions.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Shadow of Torture

The Obama team has published the notorious "torture memos". The author of the memos, James Bybee, remains obscenely remains a federal judge. Jeffrey Toobin:
Bybee is generally the forgotten man in torture studies of the Bush era. The best known of the legal architects of the torture regime is John Yoo, who was a deputy to Bybee. For better or worse, Yoo has been a vocal defender of the various torture policies, and he remains outspoken on these issues. But whatever happened to his boss?

Today, Bybee is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He was confirmed by the Senate on March 13, 2003—some time before any of the “torture memos” became public. He has never answered questions about them, has never had to defend his conduct, has never endured anywhere near the amount of public scrutiny (and abuse) as Yoo. It is an understatement to say that he has kept a low profile since becoming a judge.

It would be nice to see an impeachment, though his appointment would sadly be upheld.

It appears Obama has reversed the Bush course on what is euphemistically called "tough interrogations". The big question now is whether there will be accountability for the abuses. Obama has shut the door on prosecuting low-level interrogators who acted in "good faith", while leaving a the door a crack open on prosecuting the Bushies. To me, the good faith defense is suspiciously close to the Nuremberg Defense (I'm pretty sure acting in "good faith" is code for doing what you were told to). It's also unclear whether the interrogators did in fact act in good faith. The memos specify one can be waterboarded 60 times a month (6 times a session, 2 sessions a day, sessions 5 days per month), yet Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month, and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was waterboarded a whopping 183 times in one month. It would also seem that Obama's offer of immunity is against our legal obligation to prosecute torture.
I can understand why we've let accountability fall by the way side, but it's sad, nevertheless.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How to Solve the Pirate Issue, more thoughts

In the face of piracy, there has been disagreement about how best to respond. One solution suggested is to arm merchant ships. If I were unfamiliar with this, I'd be surprised that anyone would be heading into pirate waters not armed to the teeth. Unfortunately. there are issues with this strategy. The New Republic:
Among other issues, ship owners fret about the fact that most merchant sailors lack combat training, that a large cache of guns might make their vessels a target for marauders specifically trolling for weapons, that on-board firefights could lead to accidental fires or other disasters, that any move toward arming ships could provoke an unwinnable arms race with well-funded pirates, and that many ports' severe restrictions against vessels' docking with on-board arsenals could complicate shipping routes.

The post suggests that some of these problems would be easier if snipers were hired instead of handing out guns to the untrained merchant marine.
The most ridiculous objection to arming merchants ships comes from rush Limbaugh, who fears that arming sailors will lead to class-based fragging of captains (the captain is the CEO of the ship, you see). If this were the case, one would expect to see, and the left indoctrinates people to hate CEOs). If this is the case, why aren't people in our heavily armed nation shooting real CEOs?
This post discusses the entire crisis, and this one examines the trade-offs of appeasing the pirates vs confronting them. To me (and I think most other people), paying the ransom is the worst possible strategy , because it would provide reward that make the piracy business worthwhile. The post seems to concede that.
One significant problem is the low cost of entry into the piracy business. It would be much better if a single pirate leader controlled entry. Then we could do business with him, paying him a tribute (we might prefer to call it a “toll”) in return for a promise not to molest our ships. As a monopolist, he would have an incentive to limit “production” of piratical activity, relative to the unregulated market we currently live in. The monopolist essentially would be selling passage off the coast of Somalia, and would be constrained by competition from people who control alternative routes (which, unfortunately, seems limited). We might even expect the pirates to start organizing, or fighting among themselves, in an effort to establish a single firm that could obtain these monopoly rents. In the happy event that an organization emerged, we could call it a “state” and deal with it as we deal with any other state—paying it or pressuring to act as we want it to act, in light of its interests and capacities. We could even call this state “Somalia.” If the gains from rational management of this newly discovered resource—the power to block important sea lanes—provide sufficient incentives for Somalia’s warring clans to make a deal and reestablish a state that can control entry into the market, we should be sure to keep paying Somalia money (we might call it “foreign aid” if “tribute” or even “toll” is too irksome) rather than yield to the temptation to smash it to pieces. In the state system, sometimes you do better with an enemy than without one.

But that outcome is a long way off. In the meantime, governments will have to employ an unsatisfactory combination of carrots and sticks—mounting expensive patrols that spot and pick off pirates on occasion, while paying ransoms to those pirates who succeed.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pirate Standoff Ends

From the Christian Science Monitor:
The dramatic Navy rescue Sunday that freed an American cargo ship captain from his Somali captors could begin to change the calculus of the rampant piracy in some of the world's most traveled and dangerous waters.

Snipers aboard the USS Bainbridge shot the three pirates aboard a lifeboat with Capt. Richard Phillips 100 feet away. Mr. Phillips was seen to be in "imminent danger" – with at least one of the pirates pointing an AK-47 at his back, said Vice Adm. William Gortney in a Pentagon briefing. A fourth pirate surrendered and was taken into custody.

The operation apparently brought to a close the remarkable story of the Maersk Alabama, a US-flagged cargo vessel that was set on by pirates Wednesday hundreds of miles east of Somalia. Though the crew of the Alabama fought off the pirates, Mr. Phillips offered himself as a hostage to save his crew, according to several news reports.


pirate miscellany:
Q & A on the Somali Pirates

The Case treating Terrorists like Pirates

2003 LRB Article on "The New Piracy"

Happy Zombie Jesus Day
















Also, remember the Easer bunny is a symbol of "fertility", so those of you too old for receiving Easter baskets, remember to practice wild and crazy "fertility rites".



















To me, the bunnies coming out of the egg are even more creepy than Jesus as a zombie.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Right-wing Teabaggery

Tax revolt has a long and often proud history. This is not one of one of those times to be proud of. This is one of those movements to be embarrassed or amused by, depending which side of the ideological spectrum you sit on. I'm referring of course to the "Tea Parties" occurring supposedly across the nation on the 15th, covered so amusingly by Rachel Maddow here (highly recommended).
The Tea Parties, despite how it has been sold as a "populist" revolt, are nothing of the kind. Besides running completely contra general public opinion, Think Progress documents clearly how these represent prefabricated protest:
Despite these attempts to make the “movement” appear organic, the principle organizers of the local events are actually the lobbyist-run think tanks Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. The two groups are heavily staffed and well funded, and are providing all the logistical and public relations work necessary for planning coast-to-coast protests:

– Freedom Works staffers coordinate conference calls among protesters, contacting conservative activists to give them “sign ideas, sample press releases, and a map of events around the country.”

– Freedom Works staffers apparently moved to “take over” the planning of local events in Florida.

– Freedom Works provides how-to guides for delivering a “clear message” to the public and media.

– Freedom Works has several domain addresses — some of them made to look like they were set up by amateurs — to promote the protests.

– Americans for Prosperity is writing press releases and planning the events in New Jersey, Arizona, New Hampshire, Missouri, Kansas, and several other states.

The "movement" unsurprisingly, is being hyped by FOX news. There's also the little matter of what the hell they're actually protesting. By some accounts, they're protesting "pork-barrel spending", which is somewhat different from protesting taxes. Steve Benen:
The stickers, signs, and shirts have a simple enough message: "T.E.A. Taxed Enough Already."

And that's where I start to get confused about why these events are occurring. Obama already passed the largest middle-class tax cut in history. Yes, he's proposing increasing the top rate back to where it was when our economy was healthy, but that only means that folks with household income below a quarter-mil aren't really in a position to whine about the administration's agenda.

...
Which brings us back to where we started: what are these people whining about again? They don't like economic recovery efforts, but the stimulus has already passed and it's a little late to rally opposition to it. They don't like budget deficits, unless they're run by Republican presidents. They don't want their taxes to go up, but Obama has already passed a significant tax cut.

Andrew Sullivan summarized this nicely: "These are not tea-parties. They are tea-tantrums. And the adolescent, unserious hysteria is a function not of a movement regrouping and refinding itself. It's a function of a movement's intellectual collapse and a party's fast-accelerating nervous breakdown."

It's useless to try to find any intellectual merit to the position of these "Tea Parties" whatsoever, they represent no more than a brain-dead movement babbling to itself incoherently. Expect more coverage from this blog on Wednesday, when these protests are scheduled.

Socialism Resurgent

Rasmussen:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

20% of Americans polled preferring socialism to capitalism is a big thing, I'm not sure what the percentage has been historically, but I suspect it is considerably lower. The polling of my age-group (adults under thirty) is even more surprising. It's almost evenly matched, with socialism trailing capitalism by only a few percentage points. Not bad for an ideology all but declared dead almost two decades ago.
What exactly is going on? Part of it may seems to be an increasing disenchantment with free-market ideology, and a willingness to consider other options. Another dynamic at work here is the end of the Soviet Union. No longer does "socialism" translate to ruthless men wearing bad suits lording themselves over the populations of Eastern Europe and Russia. Now socialism is associated in the mind of most Americans with European social democracy. At least our affluent classes have visited Europe and know that this is nothing to be afraid of. We now associate socialism with France and Germany. Often, liberals (justifiably) hold up the Nordic Model as providing a higher standard of living than our own society: Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland (Iceland is rarely mentioned in this context anymore, for obvious reasons).
This poll bodes will for Obama's agenda. Conservatives can shout all they want about how Obama is a socialist, but what they don't realize is that socialism is the bogeyman it once was. Thank god.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Pirates of Aden

The big news story of the day seems to be the dramatic take-over of an American ship by pirates, and the even more dramatic retaking of the ship. The situation remains a nail-biter, as the pirates still hold the captain. This led the crew captured one of the pirates themselves, and he was then released in an attempted prisoner exchange for the captain, however the pirates appear to have not negotiated in good faith.
The pirates, still holding the captain, made off in a life-boat... it seems pretty likely they'll be captured... those things don't move too fast.
The problem of piracy in this area seems very substantial. According to the AP:
The Maersk Alabama was the sixth vessel seized by Somali pirates in a week. Pirates have staged 66 attacks since January, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur.

An article
by Jeremy Scahill tries to put a different perspective on these pirate attacks, explaining piracy in part as a response to the greedy foreigners despoiling the sea around helpless Somalia.
Consider what one pirate told The New York Times after he and his men seized a Ukrainian freighter "loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition" last year. "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits," said Sugule Ali:. "We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard." Now, that "coast guard" analogy is a stretch, but his point is an important and widely omitted part of this story. Indeed the Times article was titled, "Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money." Yet, The New York Times acknowledged, "the piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago... as a response to illegal fishing."

Take this fact: Over $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are "being stolen every year by illegal trawlers" off Somalia's coast, forcing the fishing industry there into a state of virtual non-existence.

He further quotes an article from the Independent
As soon as the [Somali] government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

As shocking as this is (and, in my opinion, this seems a more important story even than the pirate attacks), I rather doubt that the attacks which we are focusing on are the work of sea militiamen acting to protect defenseless Somalia against the rapacious west. Still, it's good to bring attention to the way Somalia is taken advantage off.
In the long run, the best way to solve this is for the international community to get involved in sorting out the troubles of Somalia. Unfortunately, that will take to long, so a more short term solution will have to be the Second Amendment on the high seas: armed and trained crews. Countries (with the exception of Russia and Israel) have been resistant to arming their ship's crews, but it seems like the logical way to deal with it. This particular incident shows how important the initiative of the crew can be: the ship was retaken without the help of any Navy. Perhaps pirates will think twice if they face a potentially fatal struggle every time they attempt to board a ship.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ted Stevens is not Don Siegelman

If you're wondering who Don Siegelman is, he spent time in prison because of a political prosecution engineered by Karl Rove. This is not his story.
The charges against Ted Stevens have been dropped. What's more, the judge is targeting the original prosecutor's from the Department of Justice for contempt of court... to me this looks like another botch from the Bush-era DOJ. They're even bringing it military lawyers, you can tell the department is in bad condition when they need to do that.
The most amusing part is the outpouring of sympathy that Stevens has gotten. Mainly, these come from the usually beltway insiders and Republicans. Chris Matthews made the howler that "the charges should never have been brought." Don Young would like to see Stevens as governor of Alaska... watch out Sarah Palin. Palin for her part maintains that Begich should resign because this "tainted" the election.
Nonsense. Ted Stevens is not a martyr, indeed, this is a very lucky break for him. There is nothing "alleged" about the floor his crony's added to his house, and he should be thanking his lucky stars that he's not doing time thanks to the mess the DOJ is in.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Afghanistan Rape Law

One of the crazier crises, a law in Afghanistan legalizing marital rape.

The law eliminates the need for sexual consent between husband and wife, tacitly approves child marriage and restricts a woman's right to leave the family home. Some Nato countries have threatened to withdraw troops and withhold aid unless the law is repealed.

Last night it emerged that the United Nations was quietly seeking emergency funds from donors to provide bodyguards, cars and safe houses to protect MPs who had dared to speak out against the legislation. Wenny Kusuma, the head of the UN Development Fund for Women in Afghanistan, said a number of activists had already received death threats. "There's no other country in the world where working for women's rights puts you at a higher risk of death," she said.

Analysts believe Mr. Karzai signed the legislation to win support from Afghanistan's minority Shia leaders, but instead he scored a spectacular own goal as talk of its draconian clauses dominated Nato's 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg, alienating his already-weary Western backers.

One has to wonder how much change we can make in such a society... and one must consider that this is the government that we installed that is doing this.