Monday, December 15, 2008

US military prepares for Obama’s expansion of Afghan war

US military prepares for Obama’s expansion of Afghan war

By James Cogan

Go To Original

The US military and allied forces in Afghanistan are making feverish preparations for an influx of tens of thousands more American troops during the first months of the Obama presidency. Most of the reinforcements will be in place by the end of the harsh Afghan winter, in anticipation of a "spring offensive" in March and April by the burgeoning anti-occupation insurgency led by the Islamist Taliban movement.

General David Petraeus, the architect of the US troop "surge" in Iraq in early 2007 and now head of US Central Command (Centcom), is presiding over the preparations. This week, during a press conference in Italy, he confirmed that at least another "20,000 or so" American military personnel would be deployed to Afghanistan.

The intention is to have at least 55,000 to 60,000 US troops in Afghanistan, as well as the 33,000 troops from various NATO states and other US allies. The head of the NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), US General David McKiernan, told journalists: "I don't like to use the term ‘surge' here, because if we put these additional forces in, it's going to be for the next few years, this three- or four-year period. It's not a temporary increase of combat strength."

McKiernan's deputy, General Michael Tucker, told a Pentagon press briefing this week that an infantry brigade would be sent in January, followed by an air combat brigade to provide more attack and lift helicopters, as well as engineering units, logistics and extra surveillance and intelligence units. Several brigade-size marine formations are expected to make up the main frontline combat reinforcements.

Tucker said: "There's a very huge building campaign that has already begun. We're pushing dirt as we speak to prepare for the arrival of these forces. The Army, Central Command, the Joint Staff is working very closely with us so that we can set the conditions to receive these soldiers and provide adequate housing and infrastructure for them so that it's all set up prior to their arrival...

"For about the last month-and-a-half, we have done in-depth studies on specifically, to the man, how many billeting spaces, how many helicopter pads, how much force protection we're going to need, how many latrines, how many dining facilities, things of that nature, down to the actual number of boots on the ground, what would be required."

The first US reinforcements, a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, will be deployed in the vicinity of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The rest, however, are slated for operations in the ethnic Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan where US, Canadian, British, Dutch and Australian forces have been engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban throughout the year.

The UK press reported this week that British commanders expect at least 5,000 additional US combat troops to arrive in Helmand province over the next several months. Additional British troops are being sent following the announcement that the British force in southern Iraq will be reduced from 4,100 to just 400 by June. Special Air Service units are already redeploying to Afghanistan, along with helicopters.

US reinforcements will also be sent to Uruzgan province, where Dutch and Australian troops are fighting, and Zabul, where American units are operating.

The largest boost will take place in Kandahar, the province considered to be Taliban heartland. At the NATO base near Kandahar city, Canadian and American engineers are working overtime to prepare the facilities for as many as 10,000 extra US troops. Within 12 months, according to an engineer officer interviewed this week by the Canadian Globe and Mail, the base will have doubled in size. The airport runway is being extended and hangers erected to house dozens of helicopters and aircraft. The expansion will make the airfield the largest in the country, bigger even than the sprawling base that has been constructed at Bagram, in central Afghanistan.

As well as the military reinforcements, the Obama administration will make greater use of private security companies, or mercenaries. On November 26, the US Army began advertising for contractors to provide hundreds of armed guards to protect US bases in Afghanistan, as well as supply routes and transport convoys. The five provinces where the mercenaries will be operating are Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, Zabul and Nimruz—the most volatile in the country. The initial contracts are to begin on January 1 and last for 12 months, with the option of them being renewed for a further three years.

A war without end

The extra troops and mercenaries will be battling an Afghan guerilla force that has been able to increase its activities substantially.

Afghan war analyst Sami Kovenan recorded 11,820 insurgent "violent incidents" this year as of November 23—a 51 percent increase over the same time period in 2007. Attacks in the Kabul area have increased by 62 percent, while even in the predominantly ethnic Tajik and Uzbek north, which had been relatively stable, attacks are up by 54 percent. Taliban operations extend throughout the ethnic Pashtun tribal region of Pakistan. As the year draws to an end, US supply lines from the port of Karachi through the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan are under threat.

More US and NATO troops have been killed in 2008—277 so far—than in any other year of the now seven-year war. The army and police of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and despised puppet government have suffered well over 1,000 fatalities.

This month's report on Afghanistan by the European-based International Council on Security and Development (ICOS—formerly known as the Senlis Council) made a grim assessment of the US-led occupation. It claimed that Islamist insurgents have a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country and are "closing a noose" around Kabul, exerting a degree of control over the main highways out of the city to the east, south and west.

ICOS commented: "Crucially, the Taliban appears to be winning on another front—the battle for hearts and minds. By tapping into a variety of local grievances against NATO-ISAF and the Kabul government, from [opium] poppy eradication and bombings leading to civilian casualties, to high levels of unemployment and chronic underdevelopment despite billions of dollars of aid, the insurgency has succeeded in attracting sympathy beyond its traditional support base and gained a measure of political legitimacy among many Afghans....

"Underlying the expansion of Taliban presence is the international community's failure to deliver on the many promises of a better life made to the Afghan people in the wake of the invasion. Seven years on, most of the country still lacks basic amenities and the majority of the population struggle to secure necessities such as food and shelter, let alone a sustainable livelihood. Field research by ICOS has presented a picture of acute hardship and deep uncertainty, with the majority of respondents worried about feeding their families."

General Petraeus outlined this week the tactics that will be pursued to try to crush the resurgent Taliban. As was done during the Iraq surge, he intends to order his subordinates to use cash bribes to buy off as many insurgent commanders as can be bought, and systematically seek to slaughter those who cannot. It was important, the general declared, "to separate the irreconcilables from the reconcilable".

Petraeus told journalists: "If they are truly irreconcilables then they must be killed, captured or run out of the country... others, if you do it right, can be embraced, can be made part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem, and that means sometimes sitting down across from a negotiating table with people who may have your blood on their hands."

For their part, the Taliban and other anti-occupation groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami have not given any signal that they are prepared to enter into talks with either the US military or Karzai's government.

Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a statement to Karzai on Tuesday that read: "Do not ever presume that in the presence of the occupation forces, the followers of the path of Islamic resistance will ever abandon their legitimate struggle merely on your empty and farcical pledges, material privileges and personal immunity."

Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, told the Canadian press: "If the Americans are going to send more troops, we are ready for that. They will have to send more coffins as well for taking their dead bodies back."

In countries that have committed troops, the intractable character of the war in Afghanistan has generated disillusionment in ruling circles as public opposition continues to grow. The Netherlands and Canada have announced that they will be pulling out their forces by June 2010 and December 2011 respectively. Other European states may soon follow.

The despair is shared by figures in the American political establishment. Joe Klein, a well-known correspondent for Time magazine and member of the influential Council for Foreign Relations, wrote on Thursday:

"The war in Afghanistan—the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win—has become an aimless absurdity. It began with a specific target. Afghanistan was where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda lived, harboured by the Islamic extremist Taliban government. But the enemy escaped into Pakistan, and for the past seven years, Afghanistan has been a slow bleed against an array of mostly indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces that we continue to call the ‘Taliban'."

The reality is that curbing terrorism was never the motive for the invasion of Afghanistan. The September 11 attacks were seized upon as the pretext for an intervention into the very heart of Central Asia, a resource-rich region that was part of the former Soviet Union until 1991. Far from being "aimless", the purpose of the ongoing occupation is to establish a US client state and major military bases in a region that is vital for American economic interests.

Obama represents the factions of the American establishment most committed to this neo-colonial agenda. Throughout the election campaign, his candidacy became the political vehicle for a tactical shift in policy—the redeployment of US military assets from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the grounds those nations were the "central front" in the fraudulent "war on terror".

Defense Secretary Robert Gates—chosen by the president-elect to remain in that job and head the seamless foreign policy transition from the Bush to the Obama administration—described the Afghan war on Thursday as "an ideological conflict with violent extremists" that could only be compared with the Cold War. "The last ideological conflict we were in lasted about 45 years," he declared.

Senate torture report confirms Bush, top officials guilty of war crimes

Senate torture report confirms Bush, top officials guilty of war crimes

By Bill Van Auken

Go To Original

A report issued Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee has provided official and bipartisan confirmation that the infamous acts of torture carried out by US personnel at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were planned, ordered and orchestrated by the highest-ranking officials in the US government. Based on the Senate's own conclusions, those named in the document, including President George W. Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are guilty of war crimes.

The key findings of the Senate panel's report on "Treatment of Detainees in US Custody" [PDF] are summed up in the introduction to its 29-page executive summary:

"The abuse of detainees in US custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples' acting on their own. The fact is that senior US officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."

The product of multiple hearings and interviews carried out by committee staff members with more than 70 people over the course of 18 months, the final report was approved late last month. While the panel has not identified the 17 (out of 25) members present for the vote, given the committee's composition, at least four Republicans voted to endorse the findings, while none sought to register opposition.

Most of the information contained in the report had previously been made public, either through official testimony or media exposures. Nonetheless, the compilation of this information in a report endorsed by a Senate committee without dissent has undeniable significance. It amounts to official recognition that the US government followed a deliberate and systemic policy of torture.

The report begins by placing principal responsibility for torture on Bush himself in a section somewhat delicately entitled "Presidential order opens the door to considering aggressive techniques."

The reference is to a February 2002 memorandum signed by Bush, which announced to the world that Washington would not be bound by the Third Geneva Convention in its treatment of prisoners taken in its war in Afghanistan.

Bush's unilateral and extralegal proclamation that those captured in the so-called "war on terrorism" were not covered by the Geneva Conventions was the essential preparation for a regime of torture directed from the top. The administration was signaling that it would not be bound by the terms of an international statute that stated explicitly, "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war."

The timeline provided by the report makes clear that Bush's declaration followed less than two months after Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had initiated a program to "reverse engineer" techniques used by the Pentagon's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, an outfit assigned to train military personnel to hold out against interrogation by regimes acting in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

These methods were derived largely from the experience of US POWs captured during the Korean War, whose treatment Washington at the time denounced as "torture" and "brainwashing." The Senate report comments: "It is particularly troubling that senior officials approved the use of techniques that were originally designed to simulate abusive tactics used by our enemies against our own soldiers and that were modeled, in part, on tactics used by the Communist Chinese to elicit false confessions from US military personnel."

The training used in the agency's Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) course, as the Senate report recounts, includes "stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures." The Navy's SERE course also included waterboarding.

These are precisely the methods that became "standard operating procedure" at Guantánamo, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some of which were captured in the Abu Ghraib photographs that provoked worldwide revulsion and outrage.

White House discussions of torture techniques

The report goes on to establish that these torture methods were discussed and approved by Bush's cabinet members and other senior officials during White House meetings of the National Security Council's "principals" in the spring of 2002. Leading these sessions was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser. Also participating were Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and others.

Reviewing the manner in which this policy was implemented, the report turns to the Justice Department's "redefining of torture."

It cites the memo issued by then-Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Jay Bybee (now a US appeals court judge) in consultation with then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, then-White House Counsel (and subsequently Attorney General) Alberto Gonzalez, and David Addington, who was counsel to Vice President Cheney.

The document, which became known as the "Bybee memo," cleared methods of interrogation that had long been defined as torture by declaring that for an act to rise to the level of torture it had to produce pain equivalent to "organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death," or result in psychological damage "lasting for months or even years."

The Senate report cites the assessment of Bybee's successor at OLC, Jack Goldsmith, who noted that under this legal finding "if you do torture, you probably have a defense; and even if you don't have a defense, the torture law doesn't apply if you act under the color of presidential authority."

A second Bybee memo, issued in August 2002, remains classified, but, as the report indicates, it approved specific methods of interrogation for use by the CIA, including waterboarding.

The rest of the report documents how these methods were first introduced at Guantánamo and then disseminated—including through Power Point presentations—throughout the US military's sprawling detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq under the direction of Rumsfeld and with the full support of the administration. It points out that this policy was implemented over the strenuous objections of US military lawyers and other uniformed officers who warned that it violated both US and international law and could expose American military personnel to prosecution.

Much of the report remains classified and undoubtedly contains still undisclosed and even more damning revelations of the criminal methods utilized in the US torture program. Photographic images and videos from Abu Ghraib—some of them reportedly showing rapes of women and children, savage beatings and other acts of violence—have still been withheld by the Pentagon, with the full cooperation of the Democrats in Congress.

In his statement on the report's findings, the Senate Armed Services Committee's Democratic chairman, Carl Levin of Michigan, commented: "Attempts by senior officials to pass the buck to low-ranking soldiers while avoiding any responsibility for abuses are unconscionable." He continued, "America needs to own up to its mistakes so that we can rebuild some of the good will that we have lost."

The reality, however, is that "low-ranking soldiers," were court martialed, stripped of their ranks and military careers and, in some cases, sent to prison. One of them, Charles Garner, who was photographed tormenting naked prisoners and giving a grinning thumbs-up over the body of a murdered detainee at Abu Ghraib, is still in the military stockade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, having spent 29 months in solitary confinement over the last four years, much of it in shackles.

Eight other reservists, enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers were sentenced to jail time.

While the soldiers who carried out these heinous acts deserved to be punished, how much more so those at the top who devised these methods and ordered their implementation? Yet they have suffered no consequences whatsoever.

The Senate panel specifically found that "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there" and "influenced and contributed to" the use of the same methods in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Rumsfeld has not been indicted or even investigated. He is free and writing his memoir.

Neither the committee nor its Democratic chairman nor any other leading member of the Democratic Party has proposed rectifying this situation by means of criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Talk of "owning up to mistakes" and "rebuilding good will" is utterly cynical without proposing such action.

The reality is that the United States remains in violation of the Geneva Conventions. There is every reason to believe that torture continues, if not in the military-run detention centers, then in the secret prisons of the CIA.

Moreover, the conventions demand that those responsible for violating its provisions be punished. It calls on its signatories, which include Washington, to "undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches" of its statutes. These include proscriptions against "torture or inhuman treatment" and "willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health" of prisoners.

There is no indication that the incoming Obama administration is planning to abide by these terms of the treaty.

As Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reported in the magazine's December 1 issue: "Despite the hopes of many human rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible."

In other words, the most that can be expected is a pseudo investigation—like that of the 9/11 commission—deliberately designed to produce a cover-up.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press last month cited two unnamed senior Obama advisers as affirming that "there's little—if any—chance that the incoming president's Justice Department will go after anyone involved in authorizing or carrying out interrogations that provoked worldwide outrage."

Leading Democrats have tried to explain the refusal to pursue these matters as a question of "moving forward" and not becoming enmeshed in "partisan" warfare. The reality is that Democrats in Congress are entirely complicit in the torture policies of the past seven years. Any real war crimes investigation and prosecution would inevitably ensnare Democratic leaders who were briefed on and gave their assent to the criminal methods referred to in the Senate committee's report.

Obama's recent declaration—echoing those of Bush and Rice—that "America does not torture" notwithstanding, there is every reason to believe that these methods will continue under the incoming Democratic administration.

Significantly, Texas Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday not only urged Obama to retain Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael Hayden at their posts, but also advised him to allow the CIA's "alternative interrogation program," i.e., torture, to continue.

"We don't want to be known for torturing people," said Reyes. "At the same time we don't want to limit our ability to get information that's vital and critical to our national security." This Democratic approach could be summed up as: Keep torturing, but keep it quiet.

Fear triggers gold shortage, drives US treasury yields below zero

Fear triggers gold shortage, drives US treasury yields below zero

The investor search for a safe places to store wealth as the financial crisis shakes faith in the system has caused extraordinary moves in global markets over recent days, driving the yield on 3-month US Treasuries below zero and causing a rush for physical holdings of gold.

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Go To Original

"It is sheer unmitigated fear: even institutions are looking for mattresses to put their money until the end of the year," said Marc Ostwald, a bond expert at Insinger de Beaufort.

The rush for the safety of US Treasury debt is playing havoc with America's $7 trillion "repo" market used to manage liquidity. Fund managers are hoovering up any safe asset they can find because they do not know what the world will look like in January when normal business picks up again. Three-month bills fell to minus 0.01pc on Tuesday, implying that funds are paying the US government for protection.

"You know the US Treasury will give you your money back, but your bank might not be there," said Paul Ashworth, US economist for Capital Economics.

The gold markets have also been in turmoil. Traders say it has become extremely hard to buy the physical metal in the form of bars or coins. The market has moved into "backwardation" for the first time, meaning that futures contracts are now priced more cheaply than actual bullion prices.

It appears that hedge funds in distress are being forced to cash in profits on gold futures to cover losses elsewhere or to meet redemptions by clients. But smaller retail investors – and perhaps some big players – are buying bullion in record volumes to store in vaults.

The latest data from the World Gold Council shows that demand for coins, bars, and exchange traded funds (ETFs) doubled in the third quarter to 382 tonnes compared to a year earlier. This matches the entire set of gold auctions by the Bank of England between 1999 and 2002.

Peter Hambro, head Peter Hambro Gold, said the data reflects a "remarkable" shift in the structure of the market. The rush to safety reflects a mix of fears about the fragility of world finance and concerns that the move towards zero interest rates could set off an inflationary surge further down the road, and possibly call into question the worth of some paper currencies.

The near paralysis in the "repo" markets may prove to be no more than pre-Christmas jitters as banks square their books.

However, there are some signs that extreme monetary stimulus by the US Federal Reserve and other banks is starting to have unintended consequences.

The Bank of Japan is it is reluctant to cut its rates to zero again because of the damage this causes to the money markets, which serve as a key lubricant of the credit system. The US is now starting to face the same dilemma.

Jim Rogers Calls Most Big U.S. Banks "Bankrupt"

Jim Rogers Calls Most Big U.S. Banks "Bankrupt"

By Jonathan Stempel

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Jim Rogers, one of the world's most prominent international investors, on Thursday called most of the largest U.S. banks "totally bankrupt," and said government efforts to fix the sector are wrongheaded.

Speaking by teleconference at the Reuters Investment Outlook 2009 Summit, the co-founder with George Soros of the Quantum Fund, said the government's $700 billion rescue package for the sector doesn't address how banks manage their balance sheets, and instead rewards weaker lenders with new capital.

Dozens of banks have won infusions from the Troubled Asset Relief Program created in early October, just after the Sept 15 bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc (LEHMQ.PK: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz). Some of the funds are being used for acquisitions.

"Without giving specific names, most of the significant American banks, the larger banks, are bankrupt, totally bankrupt," said Rogers, who is now a private investor.

"What is outrageous economically and is outrageous morally is that normally in times like this, people who are competent and who saw it coming and who kept their powder dry go and take over the assets from the incompetent," he said. "What's happening this time is that the government is taking the assets from the competent people and giving them to the incompetent people and saying, now you can compete with the competent people. It is horrible economics."

Rogers said he shorted shares of Fannie Mae (FNM.P: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Freddie Mac (FRE.P: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) before the government nationalized the mortgage financiers in September, a week before Lehman failed.

Now a specialist in commodities, Rogers said he has used the recent rally in the U.S. dollar as an opportunity to exit dollar-denominated assets.

While not saying how long the U.S. economic recession will last, he said conditions could ultimately mirror those of Japan in the 1990s. "The way things are going, we're going to have a lost decade too, just like the 1970s," he said.

Goldman Sachs & Co analysts this week estimated that banks worldwide have suffered $850 billion of credit-related losses and writedowns since the global credit crisis began last year.

But Rogers said sound U.S. lenders remain. He said these could include banks that don't make or hold subprime mortgages, or which have high ratios of deposits to equity, "all the classic old ratios that most banks in America forgot or started ignoring because they were too old-fashioned."

Many analysts cite Lehman's Sept 15 bankruptcy as a trigger for the recent cratering in the economy and stock markets.

Rogers called that idea "laughable," noting that banks have been failing for hundreds of years. And yet, he said policymakers aren't doing enough to prevent another Lehman.

"Governments are making mistakes," he said. "They're saying to all the banks, you don't have to tell us your situation. You can continue to use your balance sheet that is phony.... All these guys are bankrupt, they're still worrying about their bonuses, they're still trying to pay their dividends, and the whole system is weakened."

Rogers said is investing in growth areas in China and Taiwan, in such areas as water treatment and agriculture, and recently bought positions in energy and agriculture indexes.

Catastrophe for Gaza

Catastrophe for Gaza

An Israeli blockade curtails food, fuel, medicine and travel.

By Eyad El-Sarraj

Go To Original

From my home in the Gaza Strip, I followed the American election season with interest. Many times I heard the personal stories of Americans without access to healthcare and the toll illness has taken on their lives. I can relate. For months, I waited in Gaza, unable to leave (despite the fact that I carry a British passport) and increasingly desperate to secure a medical appointment about 45 minutes away in Israel.

The advanced medical treatment I need is not available here. But although it is readily available just up the coast in nearby Tel Aviv, I was not allowed to visit my doctor there without permission from the Israelis, who still control our borders and, as the occupying power, remain responsible for the welfare of our civilian population.

In the end, I waited three months for a medical permit to travel to treat my multiple myeloma. My requests were denied repeatedly until an Israeli friend who teaches at Tel Aviv University intervened and helped me secure a one-day permit. That there are still Israelis willing to promote the rights of Palestinians provides me with what little hope I have these days. The majority of Palestinians want only to live with peace and equality, accepting Israelis as our neighbors but not as our superiors or as our jailers.

The situation in Gaza got worse early last month when Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza. Our food, fuel and medical supplies have been severely limited. The blockade has ruined our economy and reduced many among us to a level of economic desperation that has alarmed United Nations officials.

According to Karen Koning Abu Zayd, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the human toll of this siege is terribly grave. Gaza has "been closed for so much longer than ever before ... and we have nothing in our warehouses. ... It will be a catastrophe if this persists, a disaster," she said. And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently called for the immediate easing of the closure because of "deprivations of basic supplies and human dignity."

The secretary-general rightfully condemned Palestinian rocket fire at civilian targets in Israel. Such rockets are morally wrong and strategically inept. Yet the blockade that Israel has clamped on 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza is a collective punishment that harms men, women and children who have no power to control those firing the rockets. Rather than turn Gazans against Hamas, the blockade's effect has been a humanitarian catastrophe that alienates Gazans young and old from both Israel and the West. Even I, a practicing psychiatrist for decades and a longtime advocate of coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, am having trouble coping with the hardships to which we are subjected.

Travel is crucial to me, not just for medical reasons but for reasons of basic sanity. I long to see dear friends, to see the world again, to breathe fresh air and, most of all, to reassure my senses that there are normal things and normal people outside Gaza's debilitating confines. The last time I left Gaza, before this most recent medical trip, was several months ago, and the time I spent with friends in Ramallah and Jerusalem was rejuvenating. This time, however, I was only granted permission to leave for a day.



At the Erez checkpoint, where I left Gaza along with four other medical patients, Israeli soldiers spoke through loudspeakers and looked down at us through cameras. "Open your bag," one shouted. When the woman in front of me asked a question, the soldier ordered her to take everything out of her suitcase. She was humiliated as she had to hold even her underwear up to the camera. I was made to walk through the X-ray machine three times, even though I told the soldiers it was dangerous because of my medical condition. The soldiers seemed intent not only to determine that we were not bombers but to shame us. What good can come of exercising such domineering power over medical patients?

When one of the soldiers approached us, he was grinning and carrying a huge machine gun across his massive body. I thought that he must feel the power of his muscles and his gun as well as my weakness, with my frail body and my obedience to his orders. But the psychiatrist in me could not escape the question, "Who is frightened?" -- because I was not. I was angry, but not afraid.

On my way back to Gaza, I decided to buy some little plants with flowers to bring home. A soldier shouted at me: "Flowers are not allowed."

The best hope at the moment for the region is that Barack Obama and American politicians will veer away from knee-jerk support for Israel's actions against Palestinians in favor of evenhanded policies that recognize that Palestinians have a right to freedom, to travel, to healthcare and even to simple daily pleasures like freely carrying flowers home.

Eyad El-Sarraj is the founder and president of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and a commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Catastrophe for Gaza

An Israeli blockade curtails food, fuel, medicine and travel.
By Eyad El-Sarraj

December 14, 2008

Reporting from Gaza — From my home in the Gaza Strip, I followed the American election season with interest. Many times I heard the personal stories of Americans without access to healthcare and the toll illness has taken on their lives. I can relate. For months, I waited in Gaza, unable to leave (despite the fact that I carry a British passport) and increasingly desperate to secure a medical appointment about 45 minutes away in Israel.

The advanced medical treatment I need is not available here. But although it is readily available just up the coast in nearby Tel Aviv, I was not allowed to visit my doctor there without permission from the Israelis, who still control our borders and, as the occupying power, remain responsible for the welfare of our civilian population.

In the end, I waited three months for a medical permit to travel to treat my multiple myeloma. My requests were denied repeatedly until an Israeli friend who teaches at Tel Aviv University intervened and helped me secure a one-day permit. That there are still Israelis willing to promote the rights of Palestinians provides me with what little hope I have these days. The majority of Palestinians want only to live with peace and equality, accepting Israelis as our neighbors but not as our superiors or as our jailers.

The situation in Gaza got worse early last month when Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza. Our food, fuel and medical supplies have been severely limited. The blockade has ruined our economy and reduced many among us to a level of economic desperation that has alarmed United Nations officials.

According to Karen Koning Abu Zayd, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the human toll of this siege is terribly grave. Gaza has "been closed for so much longer than ever before ... and we have nothing in our warehouses. ... It will be a catastrophe if this persists, a disaster," she said. And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently called for the immediate easing of the closure because of "deprivations of basic supplies and human dignity."

The secretary-general rightfully condemned Palestinian rocket fire at civilian targets in Israel. Such rockets are morally wrong and strategically inept. Yet the blockade that Israel has clamped on 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza is a collective punishment that harms men, women and children who have no power to control those firing the rockets. Rather than turn Gazans against Hamas, the blockade's effect has been a humanitarian catastrophe that alienates Gazans young and old from both Israel and the West. Even I, a practicing psychiatrist for decades and a longtime advocate of coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, am having trouble coping with the hardships to which we are subjected.

Travel is crucial to me, not just for medical reasons but for reasons of basic sanity. I long to see dear friends, to see the world again, to breathe fresh air and, most of all, to reassure my senses that there are normal things and normal people outside Gaza's debilitating confines. The last time I left Gaza, before this most recent medical trip, was several months ago, and the time I spent with friends in Ramallah and Jerusalem was rejuvenating. This time, however, I was only granted permission to leave for a day.



At the Erez checkpoint, where I left Gaza along with four other medical patients, Israeli soldiers spoke through loudspeakers and looked down at us through cameras. "Open your bag," one shouted. When the woman in front of me asked a question, the soldier ordered her to take everything out of her suitcase. She was humiliated as she had to hold even her underwear up to the camera. I was made to walk through the X-ray machine three times, even though I told the soldiers it was dangerous because of my medical condition. The soldiers seemed intent not only to determine that we were not bombers but to shame us. What good can come of exercising such domineering power over medical patients?

When one of the soldiers approached us, he was grinning and carrying a huge machine gun across his massive body. I thought that he must feel the power of his muscles and his gun as well as my weakness, with my frail body and my obedience to his orders. But the psychiatrist in me could not escape the question, "Who is frightened?" -- because I was not. I was angry, but not afraid.

On my way back to Gaza, I decided to buy some little plants with flowers to bring home. A soldier shouted at me: "Flowers are not allowed."

The best hope at the moment for the region is that Barack Obama and American politicians will veer away from knee-jerk support for Israel's actions against Palestinians in favor of evenhanded policies that recognize that Palestinians have a right to freedom, to travel, to healthcare and even to simple daily pleasures like freely carrying flowers home.

Eyad El-Sarraj is the founder and president of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and a commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

What Does Letting Our Own War Criminals Go Free Tell Us About Ourselves?

What Does Letting Our Own War Criminals Go Free Tell Us About Ourselves?

By Nat Hentoff

Go To Original

Since I live in the Village, my Congressman is Jerrold Nadler, a civil libertarian for all seasons. Unlike many of his Democratic colleagues, he has never been in fear of being targeted as "soft on terrorism" for opposing the Bush-Cheney war on the Bill of Rights. Nadler certainly does not underestimate the jihadists: The 9/11 attacks exploded in his district.

In The Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone describes Nadler's reaction to that day of terror: Securing "$20 billion for the cleanup and eventual rebuilding, he spearheaded numerous actions on behalf of affected families . . ." but "Nadler remained true to his civil libertarian views. He vigorously opposed the USA Patriot Act and the Iraq War Resolution." And since 2007, he has chaired the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.

In that subcommittee, and on the floor of the House, he fought Bush (and some Democrats) in order to give "enemy combatants" their habeas corpus rights. (The Supreme Court has agreed.) And, unlike many Democrats, he has worked to narrow the very definition of "enemy combatant," which is especially important. Under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, voted for by too many Democrats, anyone held as a captured "detainee" in a military prison can be charged with giving "material support" to the enemy and can be locked up indefinitely. American citizens have also been held on this charge—which could include giving money to a charity they weren't aware was on some secret government list—and thus accused of having "links," however tenuous, to terrorism.

Now, in House Resolution 1531—introduced on November 20—Nadler is the first member of Congress to urge Bush, in his final 90 days, not to pardon "senior members of his administration." This is intended to prevent Bush from giving immunity from prosecution to those "senior members" responsible for the torture policy and other violations of U.S. and international laws that could make Dick Cheney, for example, a defendant.

As of this writing, a November 25 Wall Street Journal headline indicates that the "White House Is Disinclined to Grant Clemency to Officials Involved in Terror Policies." I doubt that Bush—his legacy already in irredeemable shambles—would want to add, as he left, a firestorm of abuse far greater than what engulfed President Ford for pardoning Nixon. But, conceivably, Bush could change his mind, pressured by senior colleagues and CIA officials who would dread learning, firsthand, what prison conditions are actually like. Nevertheless, although the section about a pardon in Nadler's resolution may well not be necessary, it's good to have it as a preemptive way to prevent Bush from issuing, in the last hours of his reign, pardons for his accomplices.

The rest of Nadler's resolution concerns President Obama and the next Congress, with its stronger Democratic majority: Will they exempt the upper levels of Bush's chain of command, and Bush himself, from any accountability for their serial war crimes? Details of this can be readily found in Beyond The Law: The Bush Administration's Unlawful Responses in the "War" on Terror (Cambridge University Press) by Jordon J. Paust, professor of international law at the University of Houston.

The climax of the Nadler resolution—which can and, I expect, will be introduced in the next Congress—continues: "It is the sense of the House of Representatives that a special investigative commission, or a Select Committee, be tasked with investigating possible illegal activities by senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush, including, if necessary, any abuse of the President's pardon power . . . [that] the next Attorney General of the United States appoint an independent counsel to investigate and, where appropriate, persecute illegal acts by senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush."

There will, of course, be searing resistance by Republicans and more than a few Democrats to these attempts which would show the world and, far more importantly, present and future Americans that "The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men" (Chief Justice John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, 1803).

Among President Obama's advisers (and, seemingly, in the man himself), there is a division as to what, if anything, should be done to the chief rapists of the Constitution since 9/11. On one hand, with so much for the new president to do, he'll need public support, so why distract the citizenry with old news? Also, for many of us, there's much more concern about keeping our jobs (or scrambling to find new ones) than finding out who ordered waterboarding or gave the CIA blanket permission to hide away suspects in secret "black-site" prisons.

The answer to this quandary—and I think Barack Obama is capable of understanding this—is provided by Scott Horton, former president of the International League for Human Rights, and a Tom Paine of our time, in a story in Harper's December issue, called "Justice After Bush": "If the people wish to retain sovereignty, they must also reclaim responsibility for the actions taken in their name. As of yet, they have not. . . . Pursuing the Bush administration for crimes long known to the public may amount to a kind of hypocrisy, but it is a necessary hypocrisy. The alternative, simply doing nothing, not only ratifies torture (among other crimes), it ratifies the failure of the people to control the actions of their government" (emphasis added).

It took too long, but we the people finally recognized that the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II were un-American. It took two centuries for us to elect our first black president.

But if we now absolve ourselves from the need to pierce the most secret administration in our history to find out and account for all the rampant lawlessness and savagery that has been done in our name, the legacy we leave will encourage future administrations to ignore the law.

Back in June 2007, I heard a caller from Germany speaking on Tom Ashbrook's WBUR radio show in Boston: "I was an exchange student in America years ago, where I learned most of what I know about the rule of law and democracy in the United States. I am dismayed at what has happened to the American rule of law, giving up what we're fighting for."

What has happened to the rule of law, and what has happened to Americans?

New Rapid-Response Forces to Bolster Homeland Defense Mission

New Rapid-Response Forces to Bolster Homeland Defense Mission

By Gerry J. Gilmore

Go To Original

Pentagon officials have established a new rapid-response joint task force and plan to create two more in coming years to bolster assistance to civil authorities following potential chemical, biological or nuclear attacks or natural disasters, a senior U.S. official said here yesterday.

The new units will team with other federal agencies in support of local responders following chemical, biological or nuclear terror attacks on the homeland or during natural disasters, Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas’ security affairs, told American Forces Press Service and Pentagon Channel reporters.

The establishment of the new units “builds upon a decade of improving [Defense Department] capabilities to deal with a domestic terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction,” McHale said.

The first new 4,700-member task force was assigned to a component of U.S. Northern Command on Oct. 1, McHale said. The new unit, he said, is built around a core of active-duty soldiers from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team based at Fort Stewart, Ga. This task force, he said, falls under the control of Northcom’s Joint Force Land Component Command, U.S. Army North, in San Antonio.

Plans are to stand up the other two new joint task forces in 2010 and 2011, respectively, McHale said. These units, he said, mostly will comprise reserve component personnel from all the military services.

Each task force will be capable of performing tasks such as medical response, decontamination, technical rescue, patient evacuation, and communications and logistics support, to include air and land transportation assets for transport of supplies, people and equipment, according to U.S. Army North documents.

The task forces would be ordered into action by the president, McHale said, following requests for disaster-relief assistance from state governors.

The new units, he emphasized, do not conduct law-enforcement missions. In the event of civil disturbances and some other types of national emergencies, he said, other designated U.S. military units could be ordered by the president to help civil authorities establish order as part of the Garden Plot domestic security plan.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States prompted U.S. officials to consider whether existing National Guard-staffed civil support teams could provide enough resources to support civil authorities during multiple catastrophic events, McHale said.

McHale said 9/11 also “was the genesis for the creation of U.S. Northern Command.” Northcom, he said, is responsible for homeland defense of the continental U.S. and Alaska, while U.S. Pacific Command is responsible for Hawaii. Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr. commands Northcom as well as North American Aerospace Defense Command, which are co-located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colo.

National Guard-staffed civil support teams were developed through a Pentagon initiative dating to the mid-1990s. Today, there are 53 civil support teams distributed across the United States, McHale said. These 22-member units, he said, are trained to test for chemical, biological or nuclear contamination in the event of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-attack on the United States.

Additionally, Marine Corps-operated emergency-response units that specialize in relief operations are available during chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, he said.

Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders

Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders

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An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag — particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army — the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.

In one passage, for example, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the Defense Department “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.’ ”

Mr. Powell’s assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator until an Iraqi government took over in June 2004.

Among the overarching conclusions of the history is that five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the United States government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a program on anything approaching this scale.

The bitterest message of all for the reconstruction program may be the way the history ends. The hard figures on basic services and industrial production compiled for the report reveal that for all the money spent and promises made, the rebuilding effort never did much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the convulsive looting that followed.

By mid-2008, the history says, $117 billion had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including some $50 billion in United States taxpayer money.

The history contains a catalog of revelations that show the chaotic and often poisonous atmosphere prevailing in the reconstruction effort.

¶When the Office of Management and Budget balked at the American occupation authority’s abrupt request for about $20 billion in new reconstruction money in August 2003, a veteran Republican lobbyist working for the authority made a bluntly partisan appeal to Joshua B. Bolten, then the O.M.B. director and now the White House chief of staff. “To delay getting our funds would be a political disaster for the President,” wrote the lobbyist, Tom C. Korologos. “His election will hang for a large part on show of progress in Iraq and without the funding this year, progress will grind to a halt.” With administration backing, Congress allocated the money later that year.

¶In an illustration of the hasty and haphazard planning, a civilian official at the United States Agency for International Development was at one point given four hours to determine how many miles of Iraqi roads would need to be reopened and repaired. The official searched through the agency’s reference library, and his estimate went directly into a master plan. Whatever the quality of the agency’s plan, it eventually began running what amounted to a parallel reconstruction effort in the provinces that had little relation with the rest of the American effort.

¶Money for many of the local construction projects still under way is divided up by a spoils system controlled by neighborhood politicians and tribal chiefs. “Our district council chairman has become the Tony Soprano of Rasheed, in terms of controlling resources,” said an American Embassy official working in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood. “ ‘You will use my contractor or the work will not get done.’ ”

A Cautionary Tale

The United States could soon have reason to consult this cautionary tale of deception, waste and poor planning, as troop levels and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are likely to be stepped up under the new administration.

The incoming Obama administration’s rebuilding experts are expected to focus on smaller-scale projects and emphasize political and economic reform. Still, such programs do not address one of the history’s main contentions: that the reconstruction effort has failed because no single agency in the United States government has responsibility for the job.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the history concludes, “the government as a whole has never developed a legislatively sanctioned doctrine or framework for planning, preparing and executing contingency operations in which diplomacy, development and military action all figure.”

Titled “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” the new history was compiled by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, led by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., a Republican lawyer who regularly travels to Iraq and has a staff of engineers and auditors based here. Copies of several drafts of the history were provided to reporters at The New York Times and ProPublica by two people outside the inspector general’s office who have read the draft, but are not authorized to comment publicly.

Mr. Bowen’s deputy, Ginger Cruz, declined to comment for publication on the substance of the history. But she said it would be presented on Feb. 2 at the first hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which was created this year as a result of legislation sponsored by Senators Jim Webb of Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both Democrats.

The manuscript is based on approximately 500 new interviews, as well as more than 600 audits, inspections and investigations on which Mr. Bowen’s office has reported over the years. Laid out for the first time in a connected history, the material forms the basis for broad judgments on the rebuilding program.

In the preface, Mr. Bowen gives a searing critique of what he calls the “blinkered and disjointed prewar planning for Iraq’s reconstruction” and the botched expansion of the program from a modest initiative to improve Iraqi services to a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

Mr. Bowen also swipes at the endless revisions and reversals of the program, which at various times gyrated from a focus on giant construction projects led by large Western contractors to modest community-based initiatives carried out by local Iraqis. While Mr. Bowen concedes that deteriorating security had a hand in spoiling the program’s hopes, he suggests, as he has in the past, that the program did not need much outside help to do itself in.

Despite years of studying the program, Mr. Bowen writes that he still has not found a good answer to the question of why the program was even pursued as soaring violence made it untenable. “Others will have to provide that answer,” Mr. Bowen writes.

“But beyond the security issue stands another compelling and unavoidable answer: the U.S. government was not adequately prepared to carry out the reconstruction mission it took on in mid-2003,” he concludes.

The history cites some projects as successes. The review praises community outreach efforts by the Agency for International Development, the Treasury Department’s plan to stabilize the Iraqi dinar after the invasion and a joint effort by the Departments of State and Defense to create local rebuilding teams.

But the portrait that emerges over all is one of a program’s officials operating by the seat of their pants in the middle of a critical enterprise abroad, where the reconstruction was supposed to convince the Iraqi citizenry of American good will and support the new democracy with lights that turned on and taps that flowed with clean water. Mostly, it is a portrait of a program that seemed to grow exponentially as even those involved from the inception of the effort watched in surprise.

Early Miscalculations

On the eve of the invasion, as it began to dawn on a few officials that the price for rebuilding Iraq would be vastly greater than they had been told, the degree of miscalculation was illustrated in an encounter between Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, and Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general who had hastily been named the chief of what would be a short-lived civilian authority called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

The history records how Mr. Garner presented Mr. Rumsfeld with several rebuilding plans, including one that would include projects across Iraq.

“What do you think that’ll cost?” Mr. Rumsfeld asked of the more expansive plan.

“I think it’s going to cost billions of dollars,” Mr. Garner said.

“My friend,” Mr. Rumsfeld replied, “if you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.”

In a way he never anticipated, Mr. Rumsfeld turned out to be correct: before that year was out, the United States had appropriated more than $20 billion for the reconstruction, which would indeed involve projects across the entire country.

Mr. Rumsfeld declined to comment on the history, but a spokesman, Keith Urbahn, said that quotes attributed to Mr. Rumsfeld in the document “appear to be accurate.” Mr. Powell also declined to comment.

The secondary effects of the invasion and its aftermath were among the most important factors that radically changed the outlook. Tables in the history show that measures of things like the national production of electricity and oil, public access to potable water, mobile and landline telephone service and the presence of Iraqi security forces all plummeted by at least 70 percent, and in some cases all the way to zero, in the weeks after the invasion.

Subsequent tables in the history give a fast-forward view of what happened as the avalanche of money tumbled into Iraq over the next five years.

Dashed Expectations

By the time a sovereign Iraqi government took over from the Americans in June 2004, none of those services — with a single exception, mobile phones — had returned to prewar levels.

And by the time of the security improvements in 2007 and 2008, electricity output had, at best, a precarious 10 percent lead on its levels under Saddam Hussein; oil production was still below prewar levels; and access to potable water had increased by about 30 percent, although with Iraq’s ruined piping system it was unclear how much reached people’s homes uncontaminated.

Whether the rebuilding effort could have succeeded in a less violent setting will never be known. In April 2004, thousands of the Iraqi security forces that had been oversold by the Pentagon were overrun, abruptly mutinied or simply abandoned their posts as the insurgency broke out, sending Iraq down a violent path from which it has never completely recovered.

At the end of his narrative, Mr. Bowen chooses a line from “Great Expectations” by Dickens as the epitaph of the American-led attempt to rebuild Iraq: “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us.”

Obama and US-Russia Tensions

Obama and US-Russia Tensions

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With U.S.-Russian relations already at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, President-elect Barack Obama has picked two key foreign policy officials who are likely to continue the Bush administration’s confrontational policies that have aggravated Russia and disrupted European security alignments and transatlantic relations.

Incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are major proponents of two U.S. initiatives, which are deepening divisions between the U.S. and Russia, as well as between the U.S. and its traditional European allies. The issues are NATO expansion and promotion of the Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense system.

Keen on playing the role of mediator, French President Nikolas Sarkozy – who also holds the presidency of the European Union – recently endorsed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for “a new security architecture” for the continent that is intended, at least in part, to counter NATO expansion and the U.S. missile defense system being developed on Russia’s border.

Both NATO expansion and the anti-missile system are fiercely opposed by Moscow and are highly controversial in Europe, reopening some continental divisions that were seen in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq – between “Old Europe,” generally Western European nations that oppose isolating Russia, and “New Europe,” namely Great Britain and Eastern European nations that are backing the United States.

As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made clear following a recent NATO summit, Germany would continue to oppose rapid NATO membership for the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine.

Steinmeier also described the tensions between Europe and Russia in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war in August as an “unnecessary domestic European conflict.”

NATO Expansion

On the thorny issue of NATO expansion – and its mutual-defense umbrella – many consider Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton as a sign that the U.S. will continue pushing ahead with its efforts for rapid membership for Georgia and Ukraine.

Analysts note that the idea of NATO expansion has its roots in Bill Clinton’s administration, which reversed the first Bush administration’s policy of treating Moscow with caution. President Clinton moved quickly to expand the alliance eastward into areas that Russia had long considered its sphere of influence.

In January 1994, Clinton announced it was no longer a question of if NATO would expand but when. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all became NATO members in March 1999, and five years later, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia followed.

Hillary Clinton has indicated that her approach toward Russia and NATO will largely be an extension of her husband’s. As senator she voted in favor of NATO expansion and co-sponsored a resolution in favor of NATO entry for Ukraine and Georgia.

She also has articulated a global role for the United States that is based on “American pre-eminence,” the prevailing ideology of the second Bush administration in seeking to maintain a uni-polar world dominated by Washington.

Russian leaders have challenged this notion in favor of a multi-polar world in which other powers, such as Russia, would have an equal say. On this point, Moscow has sympathy from many other nations that agree the concept of “American pre-eminence” is obsolete and unhelpful in dealing with current challenges.

Regarding U.S.-Russian relations in general, Hillary Clinton has advocated a nuanced approach that doesn’t necessarily view the Russian Federation as an adversary, but stops short of treating it as an equal.

Writing recently in Foreign Affairs. Sen. Clinton argued that the U.S. should “engage Russia selectively” on issues of “national importance,” but that this engagement should depend on “whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism.”

Those sorts of statements irritate Russians who associate “democracy” with the social and economic chaos of the 1990s. Last year, former President Vladimir Putin told the Munich Conference on Security Policy that statements such as Clinton’s reflect “ideological stereotypes, double standards and other typical aspects of Cold War bloc thinking.”

Russia is “constantly being taught about democracy,” he said. “But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.” He criticized the United States for overstepping its national borders “in every way” and undemocratically imposing its “economic, political, cultural and educational policies” on other nations.

Gates and the Missile Shield

When it comes to the controversial – and expensive – project for a missile defense shield stationed along Russia’s border, Obama’s pick of Robert Gates for Defense Secretary may also signal a confrontational path ahead with the Russian Federation.

From his early career at the Central Intelligence Agency through his current position as Bush’s Defense Secretary, Gates has been a major proponent of the Star Wars missile defense system. With such a long record of advocacy, it is hard to imagine him switching his position now under Obama.

As deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s, Gates was known as an anti-Soviet hardliner and occasionally gave substantive policy speeches in favor of missile defense, a practice that was criticized at the time as inappropriate for an individual tasked with independent intelligence-gathering, not policy-making.

In 1986, for example, Gates gave a speech called “The Soviets and SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative],” in which he argued that the Soviets were far ahead of the U.S. in the development of strategic missile defense and that the United States had no choice but to invest heavily in its own program in order to catch up.

In the speech, Gates incorrectly predicted that the Soviets would launch their own missile defense system by the late 1980s. But even after the Soviet Union collapsed and his dire predictions of Soviet supremacy were exposed as farcical, Gates continued his support for the development of a U.S. missile defense system.

During his Senate confirmation hearings in 2006, Gates testified, “I have believed since the Reagan administration that if we can develop that kind of capability [missile defense], it would be a mistake for us not to, and especially when we now have several dozen countries that either have or are developing ballistic missiles, and you have at least two or three that are developing longer-range missiles.”

Following his confirmation as Defense Secretary, Gates lobbied European governments on the wisdom of deploying a missile defense system to protect against possible attacks from rogue states. In April 2007, he traveled with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Europe in an effort to persuade governments to support the missile system.

Rice and Gates, as part of this European lobbying effort, co-signed an article for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, writing that 16 years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S., Europe and Russia are facing common security threats.

“One of the most threatening of these challenges is the possibility that a dangerous state will deploy ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, and take our citizens hostage – or inflict worse on them,” the two wrote. “Do not deceive yourselves: This is a real threat.”

Gates seemed to be trying to reassure Russia that the U.S. was only concerned about a threat from so-called “rogue states,” but in the past he has made clear that he considers the offensive capabilities of Russia and other former Soviet states as a top justification for the missile defense system.

In 1992 congressional testimony, for example, Gates stated that “Only China and the Commonwealth of Independent States, the former Soviet Union, have the missile capability to reach U.S. territory directly.”

However, Gates’s current position – expressed as recently as Nov. 13 – is that “Russia has nothing to fear from a defensive missile shield.”

Those reassurances have not quieted the concerns of Russian leaders, who see the deployment of the U.S.-backed missile shield in Eastern Europe as a provocative move that could reduce the deterrent effect of Russia’s missile force.

Dubious Benefit

Some prominent academics agree, arguing that the American missile shield could disrupt the existing equilibrium among nuclear powers.

The University of California’s Robert Powell has said a national missile defense “would give the United States somewhat more freedom of action and make a rogue state more likely to back down in a crisis,” but it also could increase the risk of a nuclear attack on the United States by contributing to “a greater U.S. willingness to press its interests harder in a crisis.”

In other words, because the United States may feel that it and its allies are less vulnerable to missile attacks, Washington may act more aggressively, possibly touching off a conflict that might otherwise be averted.

Besides its dubious strategic benefit, there is also the technological question of whether the system works at all. While the Defense Department points to several “successful tests” as proof of its ability to intercept missiles, at least some of these tests have turned out to be rigged.

In some tests, the Pentagon has equipped the target missiles with global positioning satellite beacons to make them easier to intercept -- or doesn't deploy countermeasures that would confuse an anti-missile missile -- and thus the tests generate press reports about successes in the costly program.

Despite doubts and controversies, the missile defense project continues to move forward. There are now a total of 21 missile interceptors fielded in Alaska and California, and the Bush administration has solidified plans for stationing 10 missile interceptors in Poland and missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic by 2014.

The missile defense program has received $110 billion in federal money since its inception in 1983 and today is the Pentagon’s single biggest procurement program. Some have criticized it as being a huge boondoggle, with several defense contractors and lobbyists involved in missile defense recently pleading guilty on corruption charges related to the program.

Yet even considering the staggering economic costs of the program, the diplomatic costs may be higher. The insistence on moving ahead with missile defense compelled the Bush administration to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2001, in a major reversal of longstanding U.S. policy.

For 30 years, Soviet leaders and their Russian successors had viewed the ABM treaty as the cornerstone of strategic stability. The treaty upheld the central pillar of nuclear deterrence by guaranteeing that a first strike would be met with an overwhelming retaliatory response, the so-called doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

For this reason, Moscow has always been opposed to the Star Wars plan, seeing it as a camouflaged attempt to achieve strategic supremacy for the United States.

Obama Flip-Flop?

Early on in his presidential campaign, Obama promised to “end misguided defense policies” and in particular “cut investments in unproven missile defense systems,” but he has since modified that pledge with statements ambiguously endorsing missile defense.

He said, for example, at the first presidential debate with John McCain, “I actually believe that we need missile defense because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.”

Obama didn’t offer any specifics on what sort of missile defense system may be needed or where it should be stationed, leaving it open to interpretation whether his reference was to missile defense in Eastern Europe or elsewhere.

His campaign’s Web site made no mention of a missile defense shield on Russia’s border, offering only a vague promise of “continuing U.S. cooperation with Israel in the development of missile defense systems.”

Nevertheless, after Obama’s election, Medvedev toughened Moscow’s stand against the U.S. anti-missile plan in Poland and the Czech Republic by threatening to position Russian missiles near the Polish border.

“We might reverse this decision,” Medvedev said, “if the new U.S. administration is going to once again review and analyze all the consequences of its decisions to deploy missiles and radars.”

But with Obama’s tapping of Robert Gates as Defense Secretary it is hard to imagine any major shift on the issue of missile defense. This is also the case when it comes to Hillary Clinton regarding U.S. support for rapid NATO membership for former Soviet states.

As Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign relations committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, recently said, “These nominations inspire no optimism whatsoever.”

Combined with Medvedev’s threats to deploy missiles close to the Polish border, it is clear that Russia’s patience on these issues is wearing thin.

While Obama may be focused more on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he soon may find himself dealing with a resurgent Russia – angered by what it sees as provocations – and a European continent divided over fundamental security arrangements and the very nature of the transatlantic partnership.

Banks and consumers brace for new credit card rules

Banks and consumers brace for new credit card rules

By John Poirier

Go To Original

The U.S. credit card industry, harshly criticized for imposing surprise fees and interest rate hikes on consumers, may face a day of reckoning on Thursday..

The Federal Reserve is to vote on credit card reforms that may bring some relief to customers who face a variety of ways for being hit with late fees, universal defaults, shorter payment periods and confusing payment allocations for different balances.

Credit card users likely also would see easier-to-read tables in their monthly statements as a result of the changes.

The new rules, which were proposed earlier this year, are expected to total some 1,000 pages. They need approval of the Federal Reserve, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration, which all are expected to act on Thursday.

Consumer groups say practices of credit card companies blindside consumers and U.S. lawmakers have threatened legislation if regulators did not use their consumer protection powers to reform the industry.

With Democrats strengthening their control of the next Congress that convenes in January and the financial services sector in turmoil, credit card companies that resisted the changes increasingly have accepted them as inevitable.

They have warned that interest rates charged on credit cards will rise for all borrowers and that borrowing limits may be reduce because of the changes.

The industry maintains that credit cards provide a service to consumers with convenience and sometimes free loans.

"The new rules will be a challenge to the business," said Peter Garuccio, director of public relations at the American Bankers Association trade group.

POTENTIAL SWEEPING IMPACT

In 2007, Americans were using an estimated 694.4 million credit cards with Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover logos, according to the Card Industry Directory.

Banking regulators have been using focus groups to test the impact of changing credit card rules for the past couple of years and on Thursday are expected finalize some changes.

They are expected to prohibit credit card companies from increasing rates at will, with some exceptions such as those that apply to people who fail to pay a bill within 30 days.

So-called universal default, which permits changing card terms if the borrower defaults on another bill such as utilities or a gym membership, also is expected to be banned.

Double-cycle billing, in which card companies reach back to earlier billing cycles to help calculate interest charged in the current cycle, also is expected to be eliminated.

With the U.S. economy in recession, the market that trades in credit card asset-backed securities faces increasing stress as more consumers fall behind on payments.

As delinquencies and charge-offs -- balances written off as uncollectible -- on credit cards rise, investors demand higher yield spreads for credit card-backed securities.

The ABA represents the biggest issuers of Visa and MasterCard. Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase enjoyed almost 70 percent of the credit card market at the end of 2007, according to the Card Industry Directory.