Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pipelineistan Goes Af-Pak

Pipelineistan Goes Af-Pak

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Back in March, Pepe Escobar, that itchy, edgy global reporter for one of my favorite on-line publications, Asia Times, began laying out the great, ongoing energy struggle across Eurasia, or what he likes to call Pipelinestan for its web of oil and natural gas pipelines. In his first report, he dealt with the embattled energy corridor (and a key pipeline) that runs from the Caspian Sea to Europe through Georgia and Turkey -- and the Great Game of business, diplomacy, and proxy war between Russia and the U.S. that has gone with it.

Now, in the second of what will be periodic "postcards" from the energy heartlands of the planet, he plunges eastward into tumultuous Central and South Asia and the great devolving battleground that, in Washington, now goes by the neologism of Af-Pak (for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations). There, the skies are filled with planes and unmanned aerial drones, and civilians as well as combatants die every day in increasing numbers as ever more frequent attacks and expanding conflicts make daily headlines, while, in Afghanistan, Washington continues to build new military bases and ready itself to send in reinforcements.

Those are, of course, the front-page stories. Energy, especially in the form of oil and natural gas, fuels everything from civilization to its various discontents and means of destruction, and yet it remains largely on the business pages of our papers. Even in a time of relatively depressed oil and gas prices, energy runs like an undercurrent just beneath global headlines. Under the carnage of war, that is, courses what Escobar likes to call the Liquid War, and just how the energy flows and through which territories controlled by whom does turn out to make -- quite literally -- a world of difference, even if that isn't what captures our attention most of the time.

Today, let Escobar, whose latest book is Obama Does Globalistan, take you deep into the "New Great Game" that will determine the shape of our future planet. Tom

Blue Gold, Turkmen Bashes, and Asian Grids

Pipelineistan in Conflict
By Pepe Escobar

As Barack Obama heads into his second hundred days in office, let's head for the big picture ourselves, the ultimate global plot line, the tumultuous rush towards a new, polycentric world order. In its first hundred days, the Obama presidency introduced us to a brand new acronym, OCO for Overseas Contingency Operations, formerly known as GWOT (as in Global War on Terror). Use either name, or anything else you want, and what you're really talking about is what's happening on the immense energy battlefield that extends from Iran to the Pacific Ocean. It's there that the Liquid War for the control of Eurasia takes place.

Yep, it all comes down to black gold and "blue gold" (natural gas), hydrocarbon wealth beyond compare, and so it's time to trek back to that ever-flowing wonderland -- Pipelineistan. It's time to dust off the acronyms, especially the SCO or Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the Asian response to NATO, and learn a few new ones like IPI and TAPI. Above all, it's time to check out the most recent moves on the giant chessboard of Eurasia, where Washington wants to be a crucial, if not dominant, player.

We've already seen Pipelineistan wars in Kosovo and Georgia, and we've followed Washington's favorite pipeline, the BTC, which was supposed to tilt the flow of energy westward, sending oil coursing past both Iran and Russia. Things didn't quite turn out that way, but we've got to move on, the New Great Game never stops. Now, it's time to grasp just what the Asian Energy Security Grid is all about, visit a surreal natural gas republic, and understand why that Grid is so deeply implicated in the Af-Pak war.

Every time I've visited Iran, energy analysts stress the total "interdependence of Asia and Persian Gulf geo-ecopolitics." What they mean is the ultimate importance to various great and regional powers of Asian integration via a sprawling mass of energy pipelines that will someday, somehow, link the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, South Asia, Russia, and China. The major Iranian card in the Asian integration game is the gigantic South Pars natural gas field (which Iran shares with Qatar). It is estimated to hold at least 9% of the world's proven natural gas reserves.

As much as Washington may live in perpetual denial, Russia and Iran together control roughly 20% of the world's oil reserves and nearly 50% of its gas reserves. Think about that for a moment. It's little wonder that, for the leadership of both countries as well as China's, the idea of Asian integration, of the Grid, is sacrosanct.

If it ever gets built, a major node on that Grid will surely be the prospective $7.6 billion Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, also known as the "peace pipeline." After years of wrangling, a nearly miraculous agreement for its construction was initialed in 2008. At least in this rare case, both Pakistan and India stood shoulder to shoulder in rejecting relentless pressure from the Bush administration to scotch the deal.

It couldn't be otherwise. Pakistan, after all, is an energy-poor, desperate customer of the Grid. One year ago, in a speech at Beijing's Tsinghua University, then-President Pervez Musharraf did everything but drop to his knees and beg China to dump money into pipelines linking the Persian Gulf and Pakistan with China's Far West. If this were to happen, it might help transform Pakistan from a near-failed state into a mighty "energy corridor" to the Middle East. If you think of a pipeline as an umbilical cord, it goes without saying that IPI, far more than any form of U.S. aid (or outright interference), would go the extra mile in stabilizing the Pak half of Obama's Af-Pak theater of operations, and even possibly relieve it of its India obsession.

If Pakistan's fate is in question, Iran's is another matter. Though currently only holding "observer" status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), sooner or later it will inevitably become a full member and so enjoy NATO-style, an-attack-on-one-of-us-is-an-attack-on-all-of-us protection. Imagine, then, the cataclysmic consequences of an Israeli preemptive strike (backed by Washington or not) on Iran's nuclear facilities. The SCO will tackle this knotty issue at its next summit in June, in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Iran's relations with both Russia and China are swell -- and will remain so no matter who is elected the new Iranian president next month. China desperately needs Iranian oil and gas, has already clinched a $100 billion gas "deal of the century" with the Iranians, and has loads of weapons and cheap consumer goods to sell. No less close to Iran, Russia wants to sell them even more weapons, as well as nuclear energy technology.

And then, moving ever eastward on the great Grid, there's Turkmenistan, lodged deep in Central Asia, which, unlike Iran, you may never have heard a thing about. Let's correct that now.

Gurbanguly Is the Man

Alas, the sun-king of Turkmenistan, the wily, wacky Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Nyazov, "the father of all Turkmen" (descendants of a formidable race of nomadic horseback warriors who used to attack Silk Road caravans) is now dead. But far from forgotten.

The Chinese were huge fans of the Turkmenbashi. And the joy was mutual. One key reason the Central Asians love to do business with China is that the Middle Kingdom, unlike both Russia and the United States, carries little modern imperial baggage. And of course, China will never carp about human rights or foment a color-coded revolution of any sort.

The Chinese are already moving to successfully lobby the new Turkmen president, the spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to speed up the construction of the Mother of All Pipelines. This Turkmen-Kazakh-China Pipelineistan corridor from eastern Turkmenistan to China's Guangdong province will be the longest and most expensive pipeline in the world, 7,000 kilometers of steel pipe at a staggering cost of $26 billion. When China signed the agreement to build it in 2007, they made sure to add a clever little geopolitical kicker. The agreement explicitly states that "Chinese interests" will not be "threatened from [Turkmenistan's] territory by third parties." In translation: no Pentagon bases allowed in that country.

China's deft energy diplomacy game plan in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia is a pure winner. In the case of Turkmenistan, lucrative deals are offered and partnerships with Russia are encouraged to boost Turkmen gas production. There are to be no Russian-Chinese antagonisms, as befits the main partners in the SCO, because the Asian Energy Security Grid story is really and truly about them.

By the way, elsewhere on the Grid, those two countries recently agreed to extend the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline to China by the end of 2010. After all, energy-ravenous China badly needs not just Turkmen gas, but Russia's liquefied natural gas (LNG).

With energy prices low and the global economy melting down, times are sure to be tough for the Kremlin through at least 2010, but this won't derail its push to forge a Central Asian energy club within the SCO. Think of all this as essentially an energy entente cordiale with China. Russian Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Ivan Materov has been among those insistently swearing that this will not someday lead to a "gas OPEC" within the SCO. It remains to be seen how the Obama national security team decides to counteract the successful Russian strategy of undermining by all possible means a U.S.-promoted East-West Caspian Sea energy corridor, while solidifying a Russian-controlled Pipelineistan stretching from Kazakhstan to Greece that will monopolize the flow of energy to Western Europe.

The Real Afghan War

In the ever-shifting New Great Game in Eurasia, a key question -- why Afghanistan matters -- is simply not part of the discussion in the United States. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the liberation of Afghan women.) In part, this is because the idea that energy and Afghanistan might have anything in common is verboten.

And yet, rest assured, nothing of significance takes place in Eurasia without an energy angle. In the case of Afghanistan, keep in mind that Central and South Asia have been considered by American strategists crucial places to plant the flag; and once the Soviet Union collapsed, control of the energy-rich former Soviet republics in the region was quickly seen as essential to future U.S. global power. It would be there, as they imagined it, that the U.S. Empire of Bases would intersect crucially with Pipelineistan in a way that would leave both Russia and China on the defensive.

Think of Afghanistan, then, as an overlooked subplot in the ongoing Liquid War. After all, an overarching goal of U.S. foreign policy since President Richard Nixon's era in the early 1970s has been to split Russia and China. The leadership of the SCO has been focused on this since the U.S. Congress passed the Silk Road Strategy Act five days before beginning the bombing of Serbia in March 1999. That act clearly identified American geo-strategic interests from the Black Sea to western China with building a mosaic of American protectorates in Central Asia and militarizing the Eurasian energy corridor.

Afghanistan, as it happens, sits conveniently at the crossroads of any new Silk Road linking the Caucasus to western China, and four nuclear powers (China, Russia, Pakistan, and India) lurk in the vicinity. "Losing" Afghanistan and its key network of U.S. military bases would, from the Pentagon's point of view, be a disaster, and though it may be a secondary matter in the New Great Game of the moment, it's worth remembering that the country itself is a lot more than the towering mountains of the Hindu Kush and immense deserts: it's believed to be rich in unexplored deposits of natural gas, petroleum, coal, copper, chrome, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, zinc, and iron ore, as well as precious and semiprecious stones.

And there's something highly toxic to be added to this already lethal mix: don't forget the narco-dollar angle -- the fact that the global heroin cartels that feast on Afghanistan only work with U.S. dollars, not euros. For the SCO, the top security threat in Afghanistan isn't the Taliban, but the drug business. Russia's anti-drug czar Viktor Ivanov routinely blasts the disaster that passes for a U.S./NATO anti-drug war there, stressing that Afghan heroin now kills 30,000 Russians annually, twice as many as were killed during the decade-long U.S.-supported anti-Soviet Afghan jihad of the 1980s.

And then, of course, there are those competing pipelines that, if ever built, either would or wouldn't exclude Iran and Russia from the action to their south. In April 2008, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India actually signed an agreement to build a long-dreamt-about $7.6 billion (and counting) pipeline, whose acronym TAPI combines the first letters of their names and would also someday deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India without the involvement of either Iran or Russia. It would cut right through the heart of Western Afghanistan, in Herat, and head south across lightly populated Nimruz and Helmand provinces, where the Taliban, various Pashtun guerrillas and assorted highway robbers now merrily run rings around U.S. and NATO forces and where -- surprise! -- the U.S. is now building in Dasht-e-Margo ("the Desert of Death") a new mega-base to host President Obama's surge troops.

TAPI's rival is the already mentioned IPI, also theoretically underway and widely derided by Heritage Foundation types in the U.S., who regularly launch blasts of angry prose at the nefarious idea of India and Pakistan importing gas from "evil" Iran. Theoretically, TAPI's construction will start in 2010 and the gas would begin flowing by 2015. (Don't hold your breath.) Embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who can hardly secure a few square blocks of central Kabul, even with the help of international forces, nonetheless offered assurances last year that he would not only rid his country of millions of land mines along TAPI's route, but somehow get rid of the Taliban in the bargain.

Should there be investors (nursed by Afghan opium dreams) delirious enough to sink their money into such a pipeline -- and that's a monumental if -- Afghanistan would collect only $160 million a year in transit fees, a mere bagatelle even if it does represent a big chunk of the embattled Karzai's current annual revenue. Count on one thing though, if it ever happened, the Taliban and assorted warlords/highway robbers would be sure to get a cut of the action.

A Clinton-Bush-Obama Great Game

TAPI's roller-coaster history actually begins in the mid-1990s, the Clinton era, when the Taliban were dined (but not wined) by the California-based energy company Unocal and the Clinton machine. In 1995, Unocal first came up with the pipeline idea, even then a product of Washington's fatal urge to bypass both Iran and Russia. Next, Unocal talked to the Turkmenbashi, then to the Taliban, and so launched a classic New Great Game gambit that has yet to end and without which you can't understand the Afghan war Obama has inherited.

A Taliban delegation, thanks to Unocal, enjoyed Houston's hospitality in early 1997 and then Washington's in December of that year. When it came to energy negotiations, the Taliban's leadership was anything but medieval. They were tough bargainers, also cannily courting the Argentinean private oil company Bridas, which had secured the right to explore and exploit oil reserves in eastern Turkmenistan.

In August 1997, financially unstable Bridas sold 60% of its stock to Amoco, which merged the next year with British Petroleum. A key Amoco consultant happened to be that ubiquitous Eurasian player, former national security advisor Zbig Brzezinski, while another such luminary, Henry Kissinger, just happened to be a consultant for Unocal. BP-Amoco, already developing the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, now became the major player in what had already been dubbed the Trans-Afghan Pipeline or TAP. Inevitably, Unocal and BP-Amoco went to war and let the lawyers settle things in a Texas court, where, in October 1998 as the Clinton years drew to an end, BP-Amoco seemed to emerge with the upper hand.

Under newly elected president George W. Bush, however, Unocal snuck back into the game and, as early as January 2001, was cozying up to the Taliban yet again, this time supported by a star-studded governmental cast of characters, including Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage, himself a former Unocal lobbyist. The Taliban were duly invited back to Washington in March 2001 via Rahmatullah Hashimi, a top aide to "The Shadow," the movement's leader Mullah Omar.

Negotiations eventually broke down because of those pesky transit fees the Taliban demanded. Beware the Empire's fury. At a Group of Eight summit meeting in Genoa in July 2001, Western diplomats indicated that the Bush administration had decided to take the Taliban down before year's end. (Pakistani diplomats in Islamabad would later confirm this to me.) The attacks of September 11, 2001 just slightly accelerated the schedule. Nicknamed "the kebab seller" in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, a former CIA asset and Unocal representative, who had entertained visiting Taliban members at barbecues in Houston, was soon forced down Afghan throats as the country's new leader.

Among the first fruits of Donald Rumsfeld's bombing and invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 was the signing by Karzai, Pakistani President Musharraf and Turkmenistan's Nyazov of an agreement committing themselves to build TAP, and so was formally launched a Pipelineistan extension from Central to South Asia with brand USA stamped all over it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin did nothing -- until September 2006, that is, when he delivered his counterpunch with panache. That's when Russian energy behemoth Gazprom agreed to buy Nyazov's natural gas at the 40% mark-up the dictator demanded. In return, the Russians received priceless gifts (and the Bush administration a pricey kick in the face). Nyazov turned over control of Turkmenistan's entire gas surplus to the Russian company through 2009, indicated a preference for letting Russia explore the country's new gas fields, and stated that Turkmenistan was bowing out of any U.S.-backed Trans-Caspian pipeline project. (And while he was at it, Putin also cornered much of the gas exports of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as well.)

Thus, almost five years later, with occupied Afghanistan in increasingly deadly chaos, TAP seemed dead-on-arrival. The (invisible) star of what would later turn into Obama's "good" war was already a corpse.

But here's the beauty of Pipelineistan: like zombies, dead deals always seem to return and so the game goes on forever.

Just when Russia thought it had Turkmenistan locked in…

A Turkmen Bash

They don't call Turkmenistan a "gas republic" for nothing. I've crossed it from the Uzbek border to a Caspian Sea port named -- what else -- Turkmenbashi where you can purchase one kilo of fresh Beluga for $100 and a camel for $200. That's where the gigantic gas fields are, and it's obvious that most have not been fully explored. When, in October 2008, the British consultancy firm GCA confirmed that the Yolotan-Osman gas fields in southwest Turkmenistan were among the world's four largest, holding up to a staggering 14 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, Turkmenistan promptly grabbed second place in the global gas reserves sweepstakes, way ahead of Iran and only 20% below Russia. With that news, the earth shook seismically across Pipelineistan.

Just before he died in December 2006, the flamboyant Turkmenbashi boasted that his country held enough reserves to export 150 billion cubic meters of gas annually for the next 250 years. Given his notorious megalomania, nobody took him seriously. So in March 2008, our man Gurbanguly ordered a GCA audit to dispel any doubts. After all, in pure Asian Energy Security Grid mode, Turkmenistan had already signed contracts to supply Russia with about 50 billion cubic meters annually, China with 40 billion cubic meters, and Iran with 8 billion cubic meters.

And yet, none of this turns out to be quite as monumental or settled as it may look. In fact, Turkmenistan and Russia may be playing the energy equivalent of Russian roulette. After all, virtually all of Turkmenistani gas exports flow north through an old, crumbling Soviet system of pipelines, largely built in the 1960s. Add to this a Turkmeni knack for raising the stakes non-stop at a time when Gazprom has little choice but to put up with it: without Turkmen gas, it simply can't export all it needs to Europe, the source of 70% of Gazprom's profits.

Worse yet, according to a Gazprom source quoted in the Russian business daily Kommersant, the stark fact is that the company only thought it controlled all of Turkmenistan's gas exports; the newly discovered gas mega-fields turn out not to be part of the deal. As my Asia Times colleague, former ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar put the matter, Gazprom's mistake "is proving to be a misconception of Himalayan proportions."

In fact, it's as if the New Great Gamesters had just discovered another Everest. This year, Obama's national security strategists lost no time unleashing a no-holds-barred diplomatic campaign to court Turkmenistan. The goal? To accelerate possible ways for all that new Turkmeni gas to flow through the right pipes, and create quite a different energy map and future. Apart from TAPI, another key objective is to make the prospective $5.8 billion Turkey-to-Austria Nabucco pipeline become viable and thus, of course, trump the Russians. In that way, a key long-term U.S. strategic objective would be fulfilled: Austria, Italy, and Greece, as well as the Balkan and various Central European countries, would be at least partially pulled from Gazprom's orbit. (Await my next "postcard" from Pipelineistan for more on this.)

IPI or TAPI?

Gurbanguly is proving an even more riotous player than the Turkmenbashi. A year ago he said he was going to hedge his bets, that he was willing to export the bulk of the eight trillion cubic meters of gas reserves he now claims for his country to virtually anyone. Washington was -- and remains -- ecstatic. At an international conference last month in Ashgabat ("the city of love"), the Las Vegas of Central Asia, Gurbanguly told a hall packed with Americans, Europeans, and Russians that "diversification of energy flows and inclusion of new countries into the geography of export routes can help the global economy gain stability."

Inevitably, behind closed doors, the TAPI maze came up and TAPI executives once again began discussing pricing and transit fees. Of course, hard as that may be to settle, it's the easy part of the deal. After all, there's that Everest of Afghan security to climb, and someone still has to confirm that Turkmenistan's gas reserves are really as fabulous as claimed.

Imperceptible jiggles in Pipelineistan's tectonic plates can shake half the world. Take, for example, an obscure March report in the Balochistan Times: a little noticed pipeline supplying gas to parts of Sindh province in Pakistan, including Karachi, was blown up. It got next to no media attention, but all across Eurasia and in Washington, those analyzing the comparative advantages of TAPI vs. IPI had to wonder just how risky it might be for India to buy future Iranian gas via increasingly volatile Balochistan.

And then in early April came another mysterious pipeline explosion, this one in Turkmenistan, compromising exports to Russia. The Turkmenis promptly blamed the Russians (and TAPI advocates cheered), but nothing in Afghanistan itself could have left them cheering very loudly. Right now, Dick Cheney's master plan to get those blue rivers of Turkmeni gas flowing southwards via a future TAPI as part of a U.S. grand strategy for a "Greater Central Asia" lies in tatters.

Still, Zbig Brzezinski might disagree, and as he commands Obama's attention, he may try to convince the new president that the world needs a $7.6-plus billion, 1,600-km steel serpent winding through a horribly dangerous war zone. That's certainly the gist of what Brzezinski said immediately after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, stressing once again that "the construction of a pipeline from Central Asia via Afghanistan to the south... will maximally expand world society's access to the Central Asian energy market."

Washington or Beijing?

Still, give credit where it's due. For the time being, our man Gurbanguly may have snatched the leading role in the New Great Game in this part of Eurasia. He's already signed a groundbreaking gas agreement with RWE from Germany and sent the Russians scrambling.

If, one of these days, the Turkmenistani leader opts for TAPI as well, it will open Washington to an ultimate historical irony. After so much death and destruction, Washington would undoubtedly have to sit down once again with -- yes -- the Taliban! And we'd be back to July 2001 and those pesky pipeline transit fees.

As it stands at the moment, however, Russia still dominates Pipelineistan, ensuring Central Asian gas flows across Russia's network and not through the Trans-Caspian networks privileged by the U.S. and the European Union. This virtually guarantees Russia's crucial geopolitical status as the top gas supplier to Europe and a crucial supplier to Asia as well.

Meanwhile, in "transit corridor" Pakistan, where Predator drones soaring over Pashtun tribal villages monopolize the headlines, the shady New Great Game slouches in under-the-radar mode toward the immense, under-populated southern Pakistani province of Balochistan. The future of the epic IPI vs. TAPI battle may hinge on a single, magic word: Gwadar.

Essentially a fishing village, Gwadar is an Arabian Sea port in that province. The port was built by China. In Washington's dream scenario, Gwadar becomes the new Dubai of South Asia. This implies the success of TAPI. For its part, China badly needs Gwadar as a node for yet another long pipeline to be built to western China. And where would the gas flowing in that line come from? Iran, of course.

Whoever "wins," if Gwadar really becomes part of the Liquid War, Pakistan will finally become a key transit corridor for either Iranian gas from the monster South Pars field heading for China, or a great deal of the Caspian gas from Turkmenistan heading Europe-wards. To make the scenario even more locally mouth-watering, Pakistan would then be a pivotal place for both NATO and the SCO (in which it is already an official "observer").

Now that's as classic as the New Great Game in Eurasia can get. There's NATO vs. the SCO. With either IPI or TAPI, Turkmenistan wins. With either IPI or TAPI, Russia loses. With either IPI or TAPI, Pakistan wins. With TAPI, Iran loses. With IPI, Afghanistan loses. In the end, however, as in any game of high stakes Pipelineistan poker, it all comes down to the top two global players. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets: will the winner be Washington or Beijing?


Swine Flu May Be Human Error, Scientist Says

Swine Flu May Be Human Error, Scientist Says; WHO Probes Claim

By Jason Gale and Simeon Bennett

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The World Health Organization is investigating an Australian researcher’s claim that the swine flu virus circling the globe may have been created as a result of human error.

Adrian Gibbs, 75, who collaborated on research that led to the development of Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu drug, said in an interview today that he intends to publish a report suggesting the new strain may have accidentally evolved in eggs scientists use to grow viruses and drugmakers use to make vaccines. Gibbs said that he came to his conclusion as part of an effort to trace the virus’s origins by analyzing its genetic blueprint.

The World Health Organization received the study last weekend and is reviewing it, Keiji Fukuda, the agency’s assistant director-general of health security and environment, said in an interview yesterday. Gibbs, who has studied germ evolution for four decades, is one of the first scientists to analyze the genetic makeup of the virus that was identified three weeks ago in Mexico and threatens to touch off the first flu pandemic since 1968.

A virus that resulted from lab experimentation or vaccine production may indicate a greater need for security, Fukuda said. By pinpointing the source of the virus, scientists also may better understand the microbe’s potential for spreading and causing illness, Gibbs said.

Caution

“The sooner we get to grips with where it’s come from, the safer things might become,” Gibbs said in a telephone interview from Canberra today. “It could be a mistake” that occurred at a vaccine production facility or the virus could have jumped from a pig to another mammal or a bird before reaching humans, he said.

Gibbs and two colleagues analyzed the publicly available sequences of hundreds of amino acids coded by each of the flu virus’s eight genes. He said he aims to submit his three-page paper tomorrow for publication in a medical journal.

“You really want a very sober assessment” of the science behind the claim, Fukuda said yesterday at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has received the report and has decided there is no evidence to support Gibbs’s conclusion, said Nancy Cox, director of the agency’s influenza division. She said since researchers don’t have samples of swine flu viruses from South America and Africa, where the new strain may have evolved, those regions can’t be ruled out as natural sources for the new flu.

No Evidence

“We are interested in the origins of this new influenza virus,” she said. “But contrary to what the author has found, when we do the comparisons that are most relevant, there is no evidence that this virus was derived by passage in eggs.”

The WHO’s collaborative influenza research centers, which includes the CDC, and sites in Memphis, Melbourne, London and Tokyo, were asked by the international health agency to review the study over the weekend, Fukuda said. The request was extended to scientists at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris, as well as the WHO’s influenza network yesterday, he said.

“My guess is that the picture should be a lot clearer over the next few days,” Fukuda said. “We have asked a lot of people to look at this.”

Lab Escape

Gibbs wrote or co-authored more than 250 scientific publications on viruses during his 39-year career at the Australian National University in Canberra, according to biographical information on the university’s Web site.

Swine flu has infected 5,251 people in 30 countries so far, killing 61. Scientists are trying to determine whether the virus will mutate and become more deadly if it spreads to the Southern Hemisphere and back. Flu pandemics occur when a strain of the disease to which few people have immunity evolves and spreads.

Gibbs said his analysis supports research by scientists including Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, who found the new strain is the product of two distinct lineages of influenza that have circulated among swine in North America and Europe for more than a decade.

In addition, his research found the rate of genetic mutation in the new virus outpaced that of the most closely related viruses found in pigs, suggesting it evolved outside of swine, Gibbs said.

Some scientists have speculated that the 1977 Russian flu, the most recent global outbreak, began when a virus escaped from a laboratory.

Other Theories?

Identifying the source of new flu viruses is difficult without finding the exact strain in an animal or bird “reservoir,” said Jennifer McKimm-Breschkin, a virologist at the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization in Melbourne.

“If you can’t find an exact match, the best you can do is compare sequences,” she said. “Similarities may give an indication of a possible source, but this remains theoretical.”

The World Organization for Animal Health, which represents chief veterinary officers from 174 countries, received the Gibbs paper and is working with WHO on an assessment, said Maria Zampaglione, a spokeswoman.

The WHO wants to know whether any evidence that the virus may have been developed in a laboratory can be corroborated and whether there are other explanations for its particular genetic patterns, according to Fukuda.

‘Wild Idea’

“These things have to be dealt with straight on,” he said. “If someone makes a hypothesis, then you test it and you let scientific process take its course.”

Gibbs said he has no evidence that the swine-derived virus was a deliberate, man-made product.

“I don’t think it could be a malignant thing,” he said. “It’s much more likely that some random thing has put these two viruses together.”

Gibbs, who spent most of his academic career studying plant viruses, said his major contribution to the study of influenza occurred in 1975, while collaborating with scientists Graeme Laver and Robert Webster in research that led to the development of the anti-flu medicines Tamiflu and Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

“We were out on one of the Barrier Reef islands, off Australia, catching birds for the flu in them, and I happened to be the guy who caught the best,” Gibbs said. The bird he got “yielded the poo from which was isolated the influenza isolate strain from which all the work on Tamiflu and Relenza started.”

Gibbs, who says he studies the evolution of flu viruses as a “retirement hobby,” expects his research to be challenged by other scientists.

“This is how science progresses,” he said. “Somebody comes up with a wild idea, and then they all pounce on it and kick you to death, and then you start off on another silly idea.”

Actual U.S. Unemployment: 15.8%

Actual U.S. Unemployment: 15.8%

By Frank Ahrens

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This morning's news that U.S. unemployment has hit 13.7 million, pushing the rate to 8.9 percent, tells only half the story of this recession.

The total number of Americans who are not working full-time but ought to be is actually about 22 million, or 15.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Who are those other 8.3 million Americans? Call them the unofficially unemployed.

As The Ticker points out each time the Bureau releases the monthly unemployment figure, it does not include many out-of-work Americans.

There are many reasons for this.

The bureau, which is under the Labor Department, cannot use unemployment compensation records to count the out-of-work, because they are not reliable or up-to-date enough. The bureau also cannot count every out-of-work person.

Instead, as The Ticker reported here in December: "In the case of the monthly jobs report, the Labor Department contacts 60,000 households to determine the unemployment picture for the entire workforce, which consists of about 154 million Americans."

The problem with this methodology is that it does not include millions of Americans who are not working full-time who ought to be. Those, in the bureau's words, who are "marginally attached to the labor force."

Those numbered an additional 2.1 million Americans in the first quarter of this year, the bureau said. Alarmingly, that number was up 35 percent from the first quarter of 2008.

Of this number, the bureau categorized 717,000 as "discouraged" workers, or those that have simply given up looking for work for any number of reasons. That number was up 70 percent from the first quarter of 2008.

"Discouraged" workers include a disproportionate number of young people, blacks, Hispanics and men, the bureau said.

On top of all of this, add an additional 3.6 million unemployed Americans who say they want a job but have not looked for work in the past 12 months.

The remaining 2.6 million or so officially unemployed Americans include part-time workers who would prefer to have full-time jobs, those who have not looked for work because of illness or transportation reasons and those who believe they have other impediments.

But even though these workers don't count toward the official monthly unemployment number, they are nevertheless a true weight on the economy.

They don't pay payroll tax, or as much of it as they would; they don't contribute to Social Security or other government entitlement entitlements and they don't spend as much.

The 15.8 percent figure is the highest since the bureau began keeping these figures in 1994. Excluding the current recession, the highest previous rate came in January 1994, when it hit 11.8 percent.

The number was 8.7 percent in December 2007, when the current recession began. That means the number of the unofficially unemployed has shot up 7.1 percentage points since then.

By comparison, the official unemployment rate has risen 3.9 percentage points since December 2007. This suggests that a greater percentage of people are becoming disenfranchised from the workforce than are getting laid off.

By the way, in February, the White House predicted unemployment would top out at 8.1 percent this year, a figure that was blown through the following month.

It has made no call on how high the unofficial unemployment rate will go.

Becoming What We Seek to Destroy

Becoming What We Seek to Destroy

By Chris Hedges

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The bodies of dozens, perhaps well over a hundred, women, children and men, their corpses blown into bits of human flesh by iron fragmentation bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes in a village in the western province of Farah, illustrates the futility of the Afghan war. We are not delivering democracy or liberation or development. We are delivering massive, sophisticated forms of industrial slaughter. And because we have employed the blunt and horrible instrument of war in a land we know little about and are incapable of reading, we embody the barbarism we claim to be seeking to defeat.

We are morally no different from the psychopaths within the Taliban, who Afghans remember we empowered, funded and armed during the 10-year war with the Soviet Union. Acid thrown a girl’s face or beheadings? Death delivered from the air or fields of shiny cluster bombs? This is the language of war. It is what we speak. It is what those we fight speak.

Afghan survivors carted some two dozen corpses from their villages to the provincial capital in trucks this week to publicly denounce the carnage. Some 2,000 angry Afghans in the streets of the capital chanted “Death to America!” But the grief, fear and finally rage of the bereaved do not touch those who use high-minded virtues to justify slaughter. The death of innocents, they assure us, is the tragic cost of war. It is regrettable, but it happens. It is the price that must be paid. And so, guided by a president who once again has no experience of war and defers to the bull-necked generals and militarists whose careers, power and profits depend on expanded war, we are transformed into monsters.

There will soon be 21,000 additional U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan in time for the expected surge in summer fighting. There will be more clashes, more airstrikes, more deaths and more despair and anger from those forced to bury their parents, sisters, brothers and children. The grim report of the killings in the airstrike, issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which stated that bombs hit civilian houses and noted that an ICRC counterpart in the Red Crescent was among the dead, will become familiar reading in the weeks and months ahead.

We are the best recruiting weapon the Taliban possesses. We have enabled it to rise from the ashes seven years ago to openly control over half the country and carry out daylight attacks in the capital Kabul. And the war we wage is being exported like a virus to Pakistan in the form of drones that bomb Pakistani villages and increased clashes between the inept Pakistani military and a restive internal insurgency.

I spoke in New York City a few days ago with Dr. Juliette Fournot, who lived with her parents in Afghanistan as a teenager, speaks Dari and led teams of French doctors and nurses from Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, into Afghanistan during the war with the Soviets. She participated in the opening of clandestine cross-border medical operations missions between 1980 and 1982 and became head of the French humanitarian mission in Afghanistan in 1983. Dr. Fournot established logistical bases in Peshawar and Quetta and organized the dozen cross-border and clandestine permanent missions in the resistance-held areas of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Badakhshan, Paktia, Ghazni and Hazaradjat, through which more than 500 international aid workers rotated.

She is one of the featured characters in a remarkable book called “The Photographer,” produced by photojournalist Didier Lefèvre and graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert. The book tells the story of a three-month mission in 1986 into Afghanistan led by Dr. Fournot. It is an unflinching look at the cost of war, what bombs, shells and bullets do to human souls and bodies. It exposes, in a way the rhetoric of our politicians and generals do not, the blind destructive fury of war. The French humanitarian group withdrew from Afghanistan in July 2004 after five of its aid workers were assassinated in a clearly marked vehicle.

“The American ground troops are midterm in a history that started roughly in 1984 and 1985 when the State Department decided to assist the Mujahedeen, the resistance fighters, through various programs and military aid. USAID, the humanitarian arm serving political and military purposes, was the seed for having a different kind of interaction with the Afghans,” she told me. “The Afghans were very grateful to receive arms and military equipment from the Americans.”

“But the way USAID distributed its humanitarian assistance was very debatable,” she went on. “It still puzzles me. They gave most of it to the Islamic groups such as the Hezb-e Islami of [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar. And I think it is possibly because they were more interested in the future stability of Pakistan rather than saving Afghanistan. Afghanistan was probably a good ground to hit and drain the blood from the Soviet Union. I did not see a plan to rebuild or bring peace to Afghanistan. It seemed that Afghanistan was a tool to weaken the Soviet Union. It was mostly left to the Pakistani intelligence services to decide what would be best and how to do it and how by doing so they could strengthen themselves.”

The Pakistanis, Dr. Fournot said, developed a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, like the Americans, flooded the country with money and also exported conservative and often radical Wahhabi clerics. The Americans, aware of the relationship with the Saudis as well as Pakistan’s secret program to build nuclear weapons, looked the other way. Washington sowed, unwittingly, the seeds of destruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It trained, armed and empowered the militants who now kill them.

The relationship, she said, bewildered most Afghans, who did not look favorably upon this radical form of Islam. Most Afghans, she said, wondered why American aid went almost exclusively to the Islamic radicals and not to more moderate and secular resistance movements.

“The population wondered why they did not have more credibility with the Americans,” she said. “They could not understand why the aid was stopped in Pakistan and distributed to political parties that had limited reach in Afghanistan. These parties stockpiled arms and started fighting each other. What the people got in the provinces was miniscule and irrelevant. And how did the people see all this? They had great hopes in the beginning and gradually became disappointed, bitter and then felt betrayed. This laid the groundwork for the current suspicion, distrust and disappointment with the U.S. and NATO.”

Dr. Fournot sees the American project in Afghanistan as mirroring that of the doomed Soviet occupation that began in December 1979. A beleaguered Afghan population, brutalized by chaos and violence, desperately hoped for stability and peace. The Soviets, like the Americans, spoke of equality, economic prosperity, development, education, women’s rights and political freedom. But within two years, the ugly face of Soviet domination had unmasked the flowery rhetoric. The Afghans launched their insurgency to drive the Soviets out of the country.

Dr. Fournot fears that years of war have shattered the concept of nationhood. “There is so much personal and mental destruction,” she said. “Over 70 percent of the population has never known anything else but war. Kids do not go to school. War is normality. It gives that adrenaline rush that provides a momentary sense of high, and that is what they live on. And how can you build a nation on that?”

The Pashtuns, she noted, have built an alliance with the Taliban to restore Pashtun power that was lost in the 2001 invasion. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is, to the Pashtuns, a meaningless demarcation that was drawn by imperial powers through the middle of their tribal lands. There are 13 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan and another 28 million in Pakistan. The Pashtuns are fighting forces in Islamabad and Kabul they see as seeking to wrest from them their honor and autonomy. They see little difference between the Pakistani military, American troops and the Afghan army.

Islamabad, while it may battle Taliban forces in Swat or the provinces, does not regard the Taliban as a mortal enemy. The enemy is and has always been India. The balance of power with India requires the Pakistani authorities to ensure that any Afghan government is allied with it. This means it cannot push the Pashtuns in the Northwest Frontier Province or in Afghanistan too far. It must keep its channels open. The cat-and-mouse game between the Pakistani authorities and the Pashtuns, which drives Washington to fury, will never end. Islamabad needs the Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan more than the Pashtuns need them.

The U.S. fuels the bonfires of war. The more troops we send to Afghanistan, the more drones we send on bombing runs over Pakistan, the more airstrikes we carry out, the worse the unraveling will become. We have killed twice as many civilians as the Taliban this year and that number is sure to rise in the coming months.

“I find this term ‘collateral damage’ dehumanizing,” Dr. Fournot said, “as if it is a necessity. People are sacrificed on the altar of an idea. Air power is blind. I know this from having been caught in numerous bombings.”

We are faced with two stark choices. We can withdraw and open negotiations with the Taliban or continue to expand the war until we are driven out. The corrupt and unpopular regimes of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari are impotent allies. The longer they remain tethered to the United States, the weaker they become. And the weaker they become, the louder become the calls for intervention in Pakistan. During the war in Vietnam, we invaded Cambodia to bring stability to the region and cut off rebel sanctuaries and supply routes. This tactic only empowered the Khmer Rouge. We seem poised, in much the same way, to do the same for radical Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“If the Americans step up the war in Afghanistan, they will be sucked into Pakistan,” Dr. Fournot warned. “Pakistan is a time bomb waiting to explode. You have a huge population, 170 million people. There is nuclear power. Pakistan is much more dangerous than Afghanistan. War always has its own logic. Once you set foot in war, you do not control it. It sucks you in.”

US sacks top commander in Afghanistan

US sacks top commander in Afghanistan

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US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sacked the top commander in Afghanistan to make way for "new thinking" in the seven-year-old war that has struggled to halt a widening Taliban insurgency.

Gates, explaining on Monday his decision to replace General David McKiernan after less than a year on the job as the US and NATO commander, said "that our mission there requires new thinking and new approaches from our military leaders."

Stanley McChrystal He said he had tapped Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, to replace McKiernan.

"Today, we have a new policy set by our new president. We have a new strategy, a new mission and a new ambassador," Gates told a news conference. "I believe that new military leadership also is needed."

The change comes as President Barack Obama escalates the war against a spreading Taliban insurgency, approving deployments that will double the size of the US force in Afghanistan before he took office in January to 68,000 by the fall.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama "agreed" with the decision to replace McKiernan but "was grateful for and impressed by the leadership that General McKiernan demonstrated," noting that the general had repeatedly pressed for a boost in troop numbers in Afghanistan.

The new commander will inherit growing instability in neighboring Pakistan and a public outcry among Afghans over rising civilian casualties from US air strikes.

A suspected US drone attack killed up to eight militants in the remote Pakistan tribal area of South Waziristan near the Afghan border Tuesday in the second such strike in days, according to security officials.

Since August 2008, there have been more than 40 such strikes, which have killed more than 390 people.

As part of the overhaul of the US command, Gates said he had named his military adviser, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, to serve under McChrystal in a newly created position. Rodriguez previously oversaw operations in eastern Afghanistan.

The new Afghan war strategy places a heavy emphasis on special forces, the secretive side of counter-insurgency warfare that McChrystal is steeped in, having served as a top special operations commander from 2003 to 2008.

McKiernan's career, however, has been devoted to conventional warfare, including overseeing the US-led ground attack that toppled Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"I would simply say that both General McChrystal and General Rodriguez bring a unique skill set in counterinsurgency to these issues," Gates said.

Beyond the need for "fresh eyes," Gates did not offer more details about his decision, which he said he took after consulting with the president, the top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General David Petraeus.

Gates and Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, viewed the decision as a logical step after the White House arrived at a new strategy, a defense official said.

The decision drew immediate support from key US lawmakers.

McChrystal and Rodriguez "will form a potent team to lead our efforts in Afghanistan," said Representative John McHugh, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

The reshuffle was a rare rebuke of a top wartime commander. The last such high-profile move came when president Harry Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur in 1951.

Gates acknowledged that McKiernan's military career was probably over.

McChrystal was "by all accounts a superstar" with a record of battlefield successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, said analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

"So Gates is perhaps replacing a good general with a very good one," he wrote on the think tank's website.

McChrystal has been credited with targeted operations that hunted down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006 and of devising the still classified tactics used to smash Al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed cells in 2007 and 2008.

But special operators also have been accused of detainee abuses under his command. And McChrystal has been criticized for his handling of the "friendly fire" death in Afghanistan in 2004 of Army Ranger and former National Football League (NFL) player Pat Tillman.

The Afghan war has dragged on since the Taliban were driven from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, launched in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

It Is Getting Very Serious Now

IT IS GETTING VERY SERIOUS NOW

By Chuck Baldwin

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First, it was a Missouri Analysis and Information Center (MIAC) report; then it was a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report; now it is a New York congressman's bill. Each of these items, taken on their own, is problematic enough; taken together they portend "a clear and present danger" to the liberties of the American people. It is getting very serious now.

As readers may recall, the MIAC report profiled certain people as being potential violence-prone "militia members": including people who supported Presidential candidates Ron Paul, Bob Barr, and myself. In addition, anyone who opposed one or more of the following were also included in the list: the New World Order, the U.N., gun control, the violation of Posse Comitatus, the Federal Reserve, the Income Tax, the Ammunition Accountability Act, a possible Constitutional Convention, the North American Union, the Universal Service Program, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), abortion on demand, or illegal immigration.

The MIAC report prompted a firestorm of protest, and was eventually rescinded, with the man responsible for its distribution being dismissed from his position. The DHS report profiled many of the same people included in the MIAC report, and added returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as potentially dangerous "extremists."

As I have said before, it is very likely that when all of the opinions and views of the above lists are counted, 75% or more of the American people would be included. Yet, these government reports would have law enforcement personnel to believe we are all dangerous extremists that need to be watched and guarded against. If this was not bad enough, a New York congressman has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to deny Second Amendment rights to everyone listed above.

According to World Net Daily, May 9, 2009, "A new gun law being considered in Congress, if aligned with Department of Homeland Security memos labeling everyday Americans a potential 'threats,' could potentially deny firearms to pro-lifers, gun-rights advocates, tax protesters, animal rights activists, and a host of others--any already on the expansive DHS watch list for potential 'extremism.'

"Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has sponsored H.R. 2159, the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2009, which permits the attorney general to deny transfer of a firearm to any 'known or suspected dangerous terrorist.' The bill requires only that the potential firearm transferee is 'appropriately suspected' of preparing for a terrorist act and that the attorney general 'has a reasonable belief' that the gun might be used in connection with terrorism.

"Gun rights advocates, however, object to the bill's language, arguing that it enables the federal government to suspend a person's Second Amendment rights without any trial or legal proof and only upon suspicion of being 'dangerous.'"

WND quotes Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt as saying, "By [DHS] standards, I'm one of [DHS Secretary] Janet Napolitano's terrorists. This bill would enable the attorney general to put all of the people who voted against Obama on no-gun lists, because according to the DHS, they're all potential terrorists. Actually, we could rename this bill the Janet Napolitano Frenzied Fantasy Implementation Act of 2009."

Pratt was also quoted as saying, "Unbeknownst to us, some bureaucrat in the bowels of democracy can put your name on a list, and your Second Amendment rights are toast." He went on to say, "This such an anti-American bill, this is something King George III would have done."

Now that DHS has established both a list and a lexicon for "extremists," it looks to Congress to confer upon it police-state-style powers through which these individuals may be disarmed and eventually done away with. Rep. Peter King is accommodating this goal with H.R. 2159.

Let me ask a reasonable question: how long does anyone think it would be, after being profiled by DHS and denied the lawful purchase of firearms, that those same people would be subjected to gun confiscation? And how long do you think it would be before DHS began profiling more and more groups of people, thus subjecting them to gun confiscation?

This was exactly the strategy employed by Adolf Hitler. The Jews were the first people denied their civil rights--especially the right to own and possess firearms. Of course, after disarming Jews, the rest of the German citizenry was likewise disarmed. And we all know where that led.

I'm not sure how many of the American people realize that it was the attempted confiscation of the colonialists' cache of arms in Concord, Massachusetts, that started America's War for Independence. Yes, my friends, it was attempted gun confiscation that triggered (pun intended) the "shot heard 'round the world." And now it would appear that, once again, a central government is on the verge of trying to deny the American people their right to keep and bear arms.

I am told that as of 2004, 50% of the adults in the United States own one or more firearms, totaling some 270 million privately owned firearms nationwide. I would venture to say that the vast majority of these gun owners would find themselves matching the DHS profile of a potential "extremist." I wonder how many gun owners realize the way they are now being targeted by their government, and just how serious--and how close--the threat of gun confiscation has become?

If one doubts the intention of the elitists in government today to deny the American people their right to keep and bear arms, consider what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is purported to have said just a couple of weeks ago. Kissinger attended a high-level meeting with Russian President Medvedev that also included former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz; former Secretary of Defense William Perry; and former Senator Sam Nunn. Included in the discussions was Kissinger's assertion that the American people were now ready to accept a "New Global Order." He is also reported to have told Medvedev, "By September we'll have confiscated all privately owned guns so it really doesn't matter what we do, we'll still be in charge." (Even though the national news media has not reported this statement, the Internet is abuzz with Kissinger having said it. Whether Kissinger actually made that statement or not, he, and rest of his ilk, have repeatedly called for a New World Order, in which there will be no constitutional protection for the right to keep and bear arms.)

This leads to a very serious question: how many of America's gun owners would allow their government to deny them gun ownership? Further, how many would passively sit back and allow their guns to be confiscated?

As humbly and meekly as I know how to say it: as for me and my house, gun confiscation is the one act of tyranny that crosses the line; debate, discourse, discussion, and peaceful dissent cease and desist at that point. I say again, it is getting very serious now.

Democrats Give Wall Street a Big, Wet Kiss

Democrats Give Wall Street a Big, Wet Kiss

By Jim Hightower

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Sam Rayburn, a longtime speaker of the U.S. House, once said, "Every now and then, a politician ought to do something just because it's right."

Recently, 45 U.S. senators dodged an excellent chance to do just what Mr. Sam advised. At issue was a straightforward, common-sense amendment proposed by Dick Durbin, D-Ill. It would have allowed bankruptcy judges to help hundreds of thousands of financially strapped homeowners who now find themselves trapped by exploding, exorbitant interest rates that bankers had attached to their loans.

Here was a conspicuous opportunity for even the most ethically blind of our congress-critters to take a principled stand, for Durbin's bill practically had a flashing red-and-yellow neon arrow attached to it, declaring, "Vote Here for the People Against Greedy Bankers."

Actually, even GBs would've benefited, for the bankruptcy provision would have allowed families to stay in their homes and keep making monthly payments to banks (albeit in reduced amounts). Also, banks could still make a profit (though not a killing), and there would be far fewer vacant homes going on the market, thus giving a badly needed break to America's depressed housing market.

What a sensible idea! So, naturally, the Senate stomped it to death.

The members were prodded to do so by Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and other upstanding members of the hyper-aggressive GB lobby. These are, of course, the same banksters who for years speculated rapaciously on people's homes, created a housing bubble that has since burst and shattered our economy, reduced their own financial fiefdoms to insolvency, then rushed to Washington to unscrew the Capitol dome and help themselves to a taxpayer bailout that is nearing $3 trillion.

Yet, the very idea of allowing bankrupt families to get a small break in bankruptcy courts has caused Wall Street elites to squawk like a banty rooster choking on a peach pit. They dispatched hundreds of well-connected lobbyists to Congress, to the White House and to key government agencies to nix Durbin's amendment (which, ironically, would've been attached to a bill that awards even more billions of taxpayer dollars to the banks).

Among the influence peddlers hired by bailout recipients were more than 100 former lawmakers, top congressional staffers, White House aides and agency officials. Goldman Sachs alone has more than 30 ex-government officials in its lobbying army, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and the former top staffer to house banking chairman Barney Frank.

The first and chief target of this furious lobbying blitz was a guy who had long backed the homeowners protection plan, promising again and again last year that he would lead the fight to pass it: Barack Obama. The banker lobbyists were aided in this effort to back off Obama by two White House insiders who have shown themselves to be shameless Wall Street softies -- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and top economic advisor Larry Summers. Timid Timothy reportedly argued that even a small, tightly targeted bankruptcy provision for common folks would create "uncertainty" for big investors in Wall Street banks.

Never mind that millions of homeowners are facing crushing uncertainty over their mortgages, Obama and team promptly disappeared from the legislative fight, abandoning Durbin.

This let Wall Street's hired guns go after pusillanimous, bank-financed Democrats. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, for example, was a swing vote, counted on by Durbin. But with no pressure from Obama, Bayh was free to sidestep principle and vote his own political pocketbook. Up for re-election next year, Bayh's top campaign donor is Goldman Sachs.

Needing 60 votes for passage, Durbin got 45. In all, a dozen Democrats gave Wall Street a big wet kiss by voting against Durbin's amendment, which also was a vote against America's hard-pressed homeowners -- and against Mr. Sam's sage admonition.

"The banks are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill," sighed Sen. Durbin afterward. He added this sobering note: "They frankly own the place."

The Bankrupt Debate Over Bankrupting Our Children

The Bankrupt Debate Over Bankrupting Our Children

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Suppose that the federal government decided to give every newborn baby $200,000. That might seem like an extremely generous gift. However, by the peculiar accounting of those who claim to be watchdogs for future generations, this policy would be bankrupting our kids.

If that is hard to understand then you haven't been reading The Washington Post or listening to the Blue Dog Democrats or following the work of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. This crew, along with the other deficit hawks inside the beltway, has decided that the way to measure intergenerational equity is to measure the size of the national debt, and this gift to newborns will undoubtedly increase the size of the debt.

With a bit more than 400,000 kids born every year, this plan would add more than $1.6 trillion dollars to the national debt over the next two decades. No doubt the Peterson-Post crew would be decrying the unfairness of handing down this huge burden to our children.

In their quest to cut Social Security and Medicare they have promoted a nonsense worldview in which the metric of how well we are treating our children is the size of the national debt. In the Peterson-Post world view, programs that spend money to better the plight of our children. For example, improving the education system or rebuilding the infrastructure or developing clean energy technology all make our children worse off, since their main measure of intergenerational equity is the size of the government debt.

In reality, what determines the well-being of future generations is the whole world that we hand down to them: the public and private capital stock, the state of technical knowledge and the specific skills and education that we give the future workforce as well as the natural environment and resources.

If we let the capital stock deteriorate or destroy the natural environment, then our children and grandchildren should be furious at us, even if we hand them a country with zero debt. The national debt is not only a bad measure of the burden born by future generations; it is not even a measure of intergenerational equity at all.

At some point, everyone alive today will be dead. At that point, the government bonds that constitute the debt will be owned by our children or grandchildren. In other words, our children and grandchildren will be paying the interest burden to themselves. If future generations both receive and pay the interest on the debt, then how can it be, on net, a burden to them?

There is an issue of foreign ownership of debt. But this is due to the trade deficit, which is a result of the over-valued dollar and has no direct connection with the budget deficit. If we had the same overvalued dollar, but no budget deficit or even national debt, then we would be in the same situation relative to foreign investors, except that they would be buying up more of the private capital stock rather than public debt. The outcome for future generations would be the same; a larger share of future income would be paid out to foreigners.

However the Peterson-Post crowd doesn't want to talk about the overvalued dollar; that would offend the Wall Street crew. A lower dollar would give them less clout in the world, even if it would increase the competitiveness of US manufacturing and improve the economy that we hand down to our children. No, the Peterson-Post crew just wants to talk about cutting Social Security.

The Peterson-Post crew's line on the debt is just straight bad logic and bad economics. If the money being spent today helps boost the economy out of the downturn, then it will lead to more growth, an improved public and private capital stock, better technology and a richer, cleaner world for our children and grandchildren, even if it is a world that comes with more government debt.

Thinking people who care about future generations should be insisting that the government spend whatever is necessary to get the economy back on its feet, just as we spent as much as was necessary to win World War II. There is no serious prospect that we will face the same debt burden as we did after World War II, which happened to precede the most prosperous three decades in US history.

The Peterson-Post crew strongly disagrees with this analysis. But remember, these are people who somehow could not see the $8 trillion housing bubble that exploded the economy. Remember that fact.


US: 12 million children face hunger and food insecurity

US: 12 million children face hunger and food insecurity

By Naomi Spencer

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More than 12 million children are threatened with the risk of inadequate food and hunger in the US, according to a new report from the food bank advocacy Feeding America.

Significantly, the study found that more than 3.5 million children under the age of five face hunger. This figure amounts to fully 17 percent—one in every six—of American children age five and under.

“Child Food Insecurity in the United States: 2005-2007,” released May 7, is the first analysis focusing on the number of babies and young children living in food-insecure households by state.

Feeding America based its analysis on federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Census Bureau data from 2005 to 2007—classified officially as the peak of the last economic recovery period.

As with poverty, homelessness, bankruptcy figures, and many other measures, the rates of food insecurity documented by the study plainly reflect the deterioration of living standards working class households have seen over the past five years. In the years since the 2005-2007 period, food insecurity has rapidly widened along with unemployment and wage cuts.

Feeding America found that for the period preceding the onset of the economic crisis, in 11 states, more than 20 percent of young children were at risk for hunger. Louisiana, with 24.2 percent, had the highest rate of child food insecurity, followed closely by North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Idaho and Arkansas.

In California, the study found 1.6 million children were food-insecure on average in 2005-2007. Texas averaged 1.47 million food-insecure children for the period.

No state had less than 10 percent of its child population exposed to hunger. Sparsely populated North Dakota registered the lowest rate, with 10.9 percent.

Families contending with food insecurity suffer immense stress. Many poor households are regularly forced to choose between paying for utilities or food. Families reduce food amounts at mealtimes, with parents sometimes skipping meals so that their children can eat.

Food insecurity among young children is especially concerning because of the risk of malnutrition and developmental delays. If children do not eat enough or receive only cheap “filler” foods, they are vulnerable to getting sick more often, performing poorly in school, developing diabetes, suffering cognitive delays and psychological distress. Many effects of malnutrition in young children are irreversible.

Hunger is a mounting problem in the US. As millions more working class families face job losses and poverty, the major federal safety net programs—including the food stamps and emergency cash assistance programs—are serving far fewer people than are eligible and in need.

By the latest USDA count, food stamp enrollment has swelled by 1 million people since last September, to a record 32.55 million Americans. The non-profit Food Research and Action Center estimates that 16 million more people are eligible to receive federal food assistance but are not enrolled.

An analysis by the New York Times, published May 9, found huge disparities in the way the food stamp program is administered from state to state. In California, for example, the newspaper noted that only half of those eligible for the program were enrolled. In other states, such as Missouri, where enrollment by those eligible stands at 98 percent, the eligibility requirements are set so severely low that hundreds of thousands of working poor households cannot qualify. Moreover, millions of families enrolled in the program receive far less in aid each month than what is required to maintain a healthy diet.

As a result, rising numbers of families are turning to food pantries and other charity organizations, cutting back on food purchases, and relying more heavily on cheaper staple foods to try to make ends meet.

Pakistan war fuels international tensions

Pakistan war fuels international tensions

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Comments by China’s ambassador in Islamabad last Thursday highlight the reckless character of the Obama administration’s escalating intervention in Pakistan. By pressuring Islamabad to wage an all-out military offensive against Islamic insurgents in the Swat Valley and neighbouring districts, Washington is not only destabilising Pakistan but raising tensions in a highly volatile area.

Speaking to Pakistani business leaders, Chinese ambassador Luo Zhaohui pointedly voiced concern about the growth of “outside influence” in the region. He singled out the US in particular, saying that China was worried about US policies and the presence of a large number of foreign troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. While reiterating China’s support for “the fight against terror,” Luo declared that US strategies needed some “corrective measures”. He added, “These are issues of serious concern for China.”

Luo’s unusually blunt remarks came just one day after US President Obama spoke to his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao. While a number of issues were discussed, the escalating war in Pakistan was clearly high on the agenda. This first publicised phone call between the two men came as Obama met with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents over US strategy in the two countries. While Hu reportedly offered his cooperation, Luo’s comments express China’s underlying fears over growing US influence in South Asia.

Last week’s tripartite summit in Washington signalled a major upsurge in military violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under intense pressure from the US, the Pakistani army has launched a large-scale offensive against militants in the Swat Valley in which hundreds have already died and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee. The summit, however, involved more than discussions on military cooperation, outlining comprehensive plans for the closer economic and strategic integration of the two countries into an American sphere of influence.

China, which has longstanding ties with Pakistan, is obviously disturbed by these developments. As Ambassador Luo told his business audience, more than 60 Chinese companies are involved in 122 projects in Pakistan. He noted the “close liaison” with Pakistan over the security of over 10,000 Chinese engineers and technical experts in the country. In fact, Beijing has previously insisted on reprisals over the abduction and killing of Chinese citizens by Pakistani militants as well as military action against Islamic Uighur separatists from western China taking refuge in Pakistan.

More fundamentally, Beijing regards Islamabad as a crucial partner in its own regional strategy. China devoted considerable resources to building up Pakistan as a counterweight to India after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war. Pakistan is the largest purchaser of Chinese arms and, according to the Pentagon, accounted for 36 percent of China’s military exports between 2003 and 2007. Chinese technical assistance was critical to Pakistan’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

In return, China received the green light to build a major naval/commercial port facility at Gwadar, a coastal town in Baluchistan. The port is the linchpin of Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy to establish access for its expanding navy to a series of ports along key sea routes across the Indian Ocean—above all, to protect oil and gas supplies from the Middle East and Africa. For its part, the US, which regards China as a rising economic and strategic rival, is determined to maintain its military, including naval, predominance.

US-China tensions over Pakistan only highlight the deeply destabilising role of Washington’s aggressive intervention, firstly in subjugating Afghanistan, and now in seeking to bring Pakistan more directly under its sway. The escalating conflict in Pakistan is a direct product of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which the Bush administration forced Pakistan to support under the threat of becoming a military target itself. Widespread opposition inside Pakistan and Afghanistan to US actions has fuelled a growing insurgency that threatens not only the US occupation of Afghanistan, but a full-scale civil war in Pakistan.

US imperialism, under the Obama administration, is determined to exploit the very disasters it has created in order to advance its strategic interests throughout the broader region, especially in energy-rich Central Asia. By doing so, Washington is fundamentally altering the precarious strategic balance and threatening to draw the other major powers into the vortex.

China is not alone in its fear of US designs in Central Asia and the presence of large numbers of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has been seeking to establish military alliances and economic ties with the newly established Central Asian Republics. Washington exploited its invasion of Afghanistan to establish military bases in Central Asia for the first time. Afghanistan and Pakistan also provided a potential alternate pipeline route to extract energy riches from the region. In response, China and Russia, which both regard the region as their backyard, came together in the Shanghai Cooperation Group to counter expanding American influence.

Neighbouring India is also watching events in Pakistan with trepidation. While quietly applauding Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to wage war against “terrorism”, New Delhi is concerned that Pakistan’s closer incorporation under the American umbrella may lead to the downgrading of the US-Indian strategic partnership, which only developed in the late 1990s. The weakening of rival Pakistan, against which India has fought three wars, is no doubt welcomed in New Delhi. But its replacement by a US client state, or worse its collapse into chaos, would only confront the Indian establishment with new uncertainties.

The entire region remains a potential powder keg. The Cold War certainties that divided the world between the Soviet and Western blocs have been replaced by new tensions and rivalries. Tentative steps by India and Pakistan to resolve their longstanding disputes, especially over Kashmir, have all but stalled. Efforts by China and India to improve relations have moved slowly. Each continues to eye the other with suspicion and to intrigue at each other’s expense in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Burma.

The most explosive ingredient in this volatile mixture is the attempt by US imperialism to use its military superiority to offset its long-term economic decline. Far from easing tensions, the installation of the Obama administration marked an aggressive new turn in the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan aimed at advancing US ambitions. Last week’s comments by China’s ambassador are another sign that Washington’s moves will not go unopposed.