Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Disintegration of Fractured Democracies

The Disintegration of Fractured Democracies

In America, the Fracturing results from the Economic System

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Consider this paraphrased account of a famous nation's demise:

The death of the nation was both violent and natural. The fatal agents were the organic disorders of the system. The government had proven incapable of solving problems: it failed to preserve domestic order or an effective defense; it discovered no way of reconciling local autonomy with national stability and power; and its love of liberty failed to interfere with its passion for empire and war. The class struggle had become bitter beyond control and had turned democracy into a contest in legislative looting. The legislature degenerated into a mob, rejecting all restraint, voting itself every favor, and crushing initiative, industry, and thrift.

Education spread, but thinly; it stressed knowledge more than character and produced masses of half-educated people. The old problem of ethics and morals found no solution in religion, statesmanship, or philosophy. Religious superstition spread even while science reached its apogee. The growth of knowledge secularized morals, marriage, parentage, and law, and the pursuit of pleasure prevailed. Public games degenerated into professional contests; the people, who had once been athletic, now became spectators, content to witness rather than to do. Sexual morality was relaxed, and human life was portrayed as a round of triviality, seduction, and adultery. . . . The nation had destroyed itself; it died of its own tyrannous anarchy.

What nation do these paragraphs describe? It could be the United States of America, but it is not. These paragraphs come almost word for word from Will Durant's The Life of Greece where he describes the demise of Athenian democracy.

Madison, in The Federalist, No. 10, writes,

The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to [factions]. . . . Complaints are everywhere heard . . . that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and . . . rights. . . .

The latent causes of faction are . . . sown in the nature of man. . . . A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well . . . ; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. . . . But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. . . .

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. . . .

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS. . . .

By what means is this object attainable? . . .

Madison believed that "[A]s each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens . . . it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters." Unfortunately he was wrong, but he was right in writing that "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. . . ."

When the number of contentious factions in a society becomes large, society becomes ungovernable; it literally implodes. All appearances indicate that the United States has reached this point. A recent poll found that only 21% of Americans believe that the government functions with the people's consent, and nearly six in ten Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in the United States.

Aside from the government's being paralyzed, violence is ubiquitous and uncontrollable and the incarcerated are routinely freed to make space for others. Worse, the judicial system often convicts the innocent. Many laws are routinely ignored by even those who are generally law abiding citizens. Religious and racial intolerance is prevalent and often justified by untrue historical claims often taught to students in "history" classes.

Primitive societies are unified by common ancestries and beliefs, but current "advanced" societies lack both. The claim is often made, however, that there are fundamental beliefs that underlie even "advanced" societies. Unfortunately, these claims are always made on some level of generality. For instance, some claim that America was founded on "Christian" principles, but 'Christian' today is an abstract noun. It specifies nothing concrete. Yes, many of those who colonized America did so for religious reasons, but not all did, and those who did did not exhibit much "Christian" charity in dealing with others, even other Christians. The Constitution would never have been ratified by this disparate group had no assurance been given that the federal government would not attempt to impose a "state" religion upon the new nation, and even that did not placate all: Clifton Olmstead, in his History of Religion in United States quotes a Congregationalist minister about the separation: "It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable," and many today hold similar views. So, if someone had asked the colonists what "Christian" principles they all agreed to, I suspect that "None!" Would have been the answer.

But the same is true of what are called "American values" or, as it is often put, "what America stands for." No one ever specifies what those values are or attempts to verify that Americans really hold them. Sen. David Vitter said, "I'm on the side of conservatives getting back to core conservative values," but no one ever provides a specific list of them. As a matter of fact, the Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project found that "American adults from young to old disagree increasingly today on . . . values ranging from religion to relationships, creating the largest generation gap since divisions 40 years ago over Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation." So appeals to America's core values are appeals to nothing real. No group of traditional beliefs exists to unite America's disparate groups. America is a fractured society.

But how did this fracture come about? Many causes can be cited, but the ultimate cause is clear. The fracturing results from the economic system. Madison had that right, too: "the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. . . ."

Think about it. Virginia was planned as a commercial venture by businessmen, operating through a joint-stock company, who wanted to get rich. Southern colonies were founded on the distinctly medieval concept of landed estates populated by masters and slaves, and Pennsylvania attracted an influx of immigrants with its policy of freehold ownership which meant that farmers owned their land free and clear of leases. This disparity of colonial economic systems brought about the Civil War.

American society is fractured by differing religious groups, racial groups, groups based on national origin, political groups, and economic groups. Waves of immigration were and still are being fostered to provide needed labor for America's industrial enterprises, and although these waves of immigration are encouraged, the immigrants in each wave suffer racial and cultural discrimination. Assimilation, if it takes place at all, is slow and painful. So, economic motives have a role in every aspect of creating what passes for American "society."

Some Americans have a silly-putty view of human nature. They believe that persons who come to America from other cultures can be squeezed here and there and molded into Uncle Sams. They are to be assimilated by learning English and adopting American customs and "values." But what the Americans who hold this belief don't realize is that if immigrants can be so squeezed to become model Americans, Americans can be squeezed to become as "un-American" as the others.

Americans often reject ideas because they are termed "foreign." For instance, socialism to Americans is a foreign ideology, but, although it goes unacknowledged, so is capitalism. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the grandfathers of America's capitalist economic system, were not Americans. In fact, hardly any ideologies that have taken root in American have American origins. Certainly not Christianity, democracy, or hegemony. And the one American idea often boasted of has been totally ineffective—the melting pot. It never got hot enough to melt anything. Fractious groups created by the needs of the economic system make up America's uncivil society. Andrew Arena, head of the FBI's field office in Detroit, has said "radical and extremist fringe groups . . . can be found throughout our society." But the factions prevalent in American society are not limited to the "radical and extremist fringe."

The fractiousness of these groups is fostered by America's elite. The strategy is one of divide and conquer. Politicians prey on hot-button issues to generate antagonism between groups: women's righters against pro-lifers, environmentalists against developers, social liberals against social conservatives, labor against management, union organizers against right-to-work advocates, the poor against the wealthy, Republicans against Democrats and both against anyone else, hegemonists against pacifists, believers against atheists and often against each other, heterosexuals against homosexuals, whites against other races, Tea Parties against Coffee Cuppers, state's rightists against federalists, and on and on. These group disparities are promoted to the point that they are not just ideological disputes. Many in these groups genuinely dislike those in other groups, and although overt display of this dislike is often disparaged, it is nevertheless quietly accommodated. These antagonisms make unity unattainable. Divide and conquer has become divided we fall.

In the days immediately following September 11, 2001, the mainstream press touted America's "coming together" in response to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But that coming together was quickly sundered. The Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation were soon at odds over how to redevelop the site. With much fanfare, a cornerstone was laid and secretly removed. Legal disputes over the attendant costs of illnesses related to the attacks are still in the court system. On the day of the attacks, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani proclaimed, "We will rebuild. We're going to come out of this stronger than before, politically stronger, economically stronger. The skyline will be made whole again." But it hasn't. Any many now doubt that Americans have been told the truth about what really happened on nine/eleven. Not only is America a society at war with itself, there is little that Americans can even agree on.

Madison claims "that the causes of faction cannot be removed." Perhaps! But factionalism can be minimized, and the way to do it is not difficult to discern. All that needs to be done is for governments to enact legislation that enhances the well being of people rather than institutions and special interests. Promoting an economic system that exploits the people and impoverishes them at fairly regular intervals, restrictions on freedom, and corruption of the political system are not effective ways of making friends and influencing people. They are, however, effective ways of promoting anger, sometimes to the point of hatred. Any government anywhere, regardless of its form, democratic or authoritarian, that governs for the few rather than all generates factions. Such governments sooner or later lose their legitimacies and their societies implode.

During the Revolutionary War, John Dickinson composed the Liberty Song. Its last stanza reads, "Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all, by uniting we stand, by dividing we fall; in so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed, for heaven approves of each generous deed." Nations and the institutions they support fall unless governments, like decent men and women, exhibit compassion, generosity, and a concern for the welfare of real, living people. That's all that saving America requires.

Obama nominates cost-cutting advocate as Medicare and Medicaid chief

Obama nominates cost-cutting advocate as Medicare and Medicaid chief

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President Barack Obama will appoint Dr. Donald Berwick as the new chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. If approved by the US Senate, Berwick will oversee the health care needs of approximately 100 million people, or 1 in 3 Americans, and be tasked with implementing the changes to Medicare and Medicaid laid out in the health care legislation which passed last month, including a cut of hundreds of billions of dollars to the Medicare budget.

Although he presents himself as a champion of common sense and more effective health care, a little probing reveals that Berwick belongs to the layer of health care professionals pushing for cost-cutting and rationalization of care, in line with the reactionary findings and thinking of the Dartmouth Medical School’s Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. The WSWS has recently commented on the Dartmouth study. (See“The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care study: Shoddy science in support of health care cuts”. )

Berwick is a pediatrician and serves as clinical professor of pediatrics and health care policy at the Harvard Medical School and is professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health. From 1990 to 1996, he was vice chair of the US Preventive Services Task Force, the organization which in 2009 recommended that women under the age of 50 not undergo annual mammogram screenings, drawing condemnation from large numbers of specialists in the treatment of cancer.

Currently, Berwick is President and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), a non-profit organization whose stated aim is the improvement of patient care and the reform of the health care industry through lowering costs and reducing waste. Both Berwick and the IHI have been widely praised in the media since Berwick’s nomination became public.

Berwick has been hailed as a major innovator and a defender of “patient-centered care.” His efforts to combat medical errors have been cited repeatedly in the media this week, including his campaign against infections acquired in hospitals due to neglect of sterilization procedures.

However, an examination of IHI studies reveals their policies are not patient-centered, but cost and profit-centered, along the lines proposed by the Dartmouth Institute.

The Dartmouth group’s analysis of the health care industry places blame for the high cost of care on doctors and medical facilities which it claims put their patients through unnecessary or excessive tests and treatments. In calling for cuts and penalties for the costliest facilities and financial incentives for the least expensive, Dartmouth’s reforms amount to a call for a rationing of health care services which will deprive poor and working class patients of vital tests and medical procedures. Meanwhile the rich will go on getting tested to whatever extent they feel necessary.

Berwick has called the “spending and outcomes” research of the Dartmouth Institute “the most important health-service research of this century.” He lamented in Dartmouth Medicine that “Not a single leader of a health-care system or a single visible policy-maker has had the courage to take those findings to the next logical step, in either corporate or public-policy planning.”

The connection between Berwick and the Dartmouth group is very close. In fact, the co-founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Dr. Paul Batalden, is the director of the Health Care Improvement Leadership Development (HCILD), part of the Dartmouth Institute.

In a 2009 white paper called “Increasing Efficiency and Enhancing Value in Health Care,” the IHI outlines some of its basic conceptions. The paper’s executive summary begins, alarmingly, “Until recently, the rationale for health care providers to undertake quality improvement (QI) initiatives rested largely on ‘doing the right thing’”. The summary goes on to lay out a strategy in which cost-cutting is the central concern of the reform of health care, calling for “the systematic identification and elimination of waste, while maintaining or improving quality.” The paper goes on to say, “Here, the aim is primarily financial; any positive impact on quality, while desired, is secondary.”

Another IHI white paper on the “Appropriate Use of Special Services” also takes up this theme, saying “Most physicians are driven by doing what is right for the patient and are not aware of possible overuse in their own practices.” This paper repeats the oft made assertion that “as much as 30 percent of health care costs, or approximately $700 billion, could be eliminated without reducing quality,” if only cuts to high-cost “overtreating” facilities were made. This is the myth that the Dartmouth researchers, the New York Times and Obama’s budget director Peter Orszag assiduously spread. (See, “An interview with Dr. Richard Cooper, critic of the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care research”)

Like Dartmouth, the IHI points to data regarding the difference between spending in high-cost and low-cost hospitals in which the quality of care was supposedly the same. Both Dartmouth and the IHI use the dubious numbers at which they arrive, ignoring differences in social conditions and the state of health of poor and wealthy patients, to argue that medical procedures are being overused, patients are being over-tested and over-treated. Hospitals, according to this logic, should be stripped of funding to bring them into line with their more “efficient” competitors.

In a major speech Berwick delivered December 15, 2009 to open the 21st annual National Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Orlando, Florida, he “urged policymakers to create a new system of care that’s sustainable.” (AMN Healthcare web site) The world has limits, he told his audience, according to the news account.

Berwick claimed, in effect, that while it would be wonderful to provide top quality health care for everyone, that was not a realistic possibility. He alleged that by demanding what is best for each one of them, “rational healthcare stakeholders are eroding a common good, simply doing what makes sense to them individually. In the short term everyone wins, but in the long term, everyone loses. … Healthcare is not entitled to everything it has, and it is surely not entitled to everything it can get.”

The AMN Healthcare web site continued, “Berwick encouraged people to determine what it is they truly want, and felt that system could be sustainable in the future. More healthcare does not equal better health. Berwick discussed the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which showed a regional variation in Medicare spending per capita that did not equate spending more with better outcomes.”

Then it cited this revealing comment by Berwick: “The best healthcare is the very least healthcare we need to gain the long, full and joyous lives that we really, really want. … The best hospital bed is empty, not full. The best CT scan is the one we don’t need. The best doctor visit is the one we don’t need to have.”

At no point does either Berwick or the IHI suggest that access to quality health care is a basic democratic right. Their work, while claiming to be patient-centered, dutifully lines up on the side of insurance companies and private hospital chains.

Given the views central to the IHI and the recommendations for reforms outlined in their research, one must say that Donald Berwick is the perfect man for the job of cutting Medicaid and Medicare. And in Barack Obama, Berwick has finally found the man with the political will to “take those [Dartmouth] findings to the next logical step.”

Like Obama before him, the liberal press, with the New York Times in the forefront, will hold Berwick up as an agent of rational and progressive reform, when, in reality, he will play a leading role in implementing a reactionary assault on health care in the United States.

No economic recovery for the working class

No economic recovery for the working class

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Last Friday’s US unemployment report, which showed a net payroll gain of 162,000 jobs in March, has been seized on by the Obama administration and much of the media as confirmation of official claims that the recession is over and a recovery in the jobs market has begun.

Calling the Labor Department report for March “the best news we’ve seen on the jobs front in more than two years,” President Obama said, “We are beginning to turn the corner.” The New York Times began its report on the jobs data with the words, “The clouds have parted.”

A closer look at the figures, however, leads to far less sanguine conclusions. The net gain in non-farm payrolls was far less than the 200,000 to 300,000 that had been predicted by most economists. Moreover, 88,000 of the new hires were temporary—including 48,000 brought on to conduct the US census survey.

The so-called underemployment rate, which includes those involuntarily working part-time and those who have given up looking for work, rose to 16.9 percent, the third straight monthly increase. The ranks of people seeking full-time employment but forced to work part-time increased to the staggering level of 9.1 million.

Perhaps most ominous, the number of long-term unemployed—those laid off at least 27 weeks—shot up by 414,000 to reach 6.5 million. This category accounts for more than 40 percent of jobless workers, a far higher percentage than in the deep recession of 1981-82. The average length of unemployment in March rose to 31 weeks, the highest level on record going back more than six decades.

Average hourly wages continued their protracted decline.

In the 27th month of a recession that has wiped out over 8 million jobs, the US economy produced fewer new full-time jobs than are needed to keep pace with the normal monthly growth in the labor market. Despite a slight uptick in manufacturing and construction—following months of contraction—the report reflects an economy mired in slump with no prospect of bringing unemployment down to pre-crisis levels for years to come.

To the extent that a slight increase in production in the real economy has occurred, it has been bound up with a massive assault on the jobs, wages, benefits and living standards of the working class. The ruling elite, spearheaded by the Obama administration, is using the economic crisis to effect a permanent reduction in the conditions of workers.

New and lower benchmarks for wages and working conditions are being set that will remain in place. They are not temporary. On this basis, corporate profits have soared despite near double-digit unemployment and depressed consumer spending.

The deterioration in the social position of the working class is reflected particularly sharply in productivity figures. In the fourth quarter of 2009, when the US gross domestic product (GDP) surged by 5.6 percent, productivity—the amount of production squeezed from each worker—rose at an annual rate of 6.9 percent. Unit labor costs fell sharply, by 5.9 percent. Inflation-adjusted hourly wages fell by 2.8 percent from the prior quarter.

These figures document a sharp rise in the intensity of the exploitation of the labor force.

Another indication of the class character of the so-called recovery is the divergence between GDP and a measure of national income—gross domestic income (GDI). In the third quarter of 2009, the GDI was still contracting even as the GDP rose 2.2 percent. The current gap between GDP and GDI is the biggest on record.

This statistical divergence reflects the fact that the present recovery is largely a rebound in corporate profits and the wealth of the financial elite, while the living standards of the vast majority of Americans are continuing to fall. This is a recovery in which class divisions and social inequality are widening.

This can be seen further in a list published Sunday by the New York Times of the 30 highest-paid US corporate CEOs. Fully 10 of the 30 preside over firms that registered declines in revenue and net income in 2009, yet recorded gains in total return—a measure linked to the change in the company’s stock price. All but three of these CEOs saw their compensation increase over 2008.

The “success” of these corporations, and of their chief executives, was due overwhelmingly to cost-cutting measures that, even in the face of reduced revenues and income, drove up the firms’ share value. This provides a snapshot of the degree to which the “recovery” has been based on ruthless downsizing, wage-cutting and speedup.

To give a few examples:

* The third highest-paid CEO, Ray R. Irani of Occidental Petroleum, received $31.4 million, an increase of 39 percent. His firm suffered a 37 percent decline in revenue, a 57 percent decline in net income, but a 38 percent increase in total return.

* Susan M. Ivey, number 27 on the list, got an 84 percent increase in pay to $16.2 million. Her company, Reynolds American, recorded declines in revenue and net income of 5 and 28 percent, respectively, while its total return soared by 40 percent.

* Andrew N. Liveris of Dow Chemical, number 28 on the list, received $15.7 million, a pay hike of 23 percent. His company’s revenue fell 22 percent, its net income fell 61 percent, but its total return jumped 87 percent.

Alongside cost-cutting and increased exploitation of labor, the recovery has been sustained by government bailouts of the banks and a virtually unlimited supply of cheap credit by central banks in the US and around the world. This has driven up stock prices all out of proportion to the state of the real economy and fueled even greater speculative excesses than those which precipitated the 2008 financial crash. Recent weeks, for example, have seen an explosive growth in the junk bond market.

Far from resolving the underlying contradictions of world capitalism, this plundering of public resources has intensified them. Massive, structural imbalances in the global economy—particularly between deficit countries, led by the US, and exporting, surplus countries, led by China and Germany—have grown more pronounced.

Facing record levels of state debt and budget deficits, the US is seeking to increase its exports at the expense of its rivals, but so are all of the other major deficit countries, while surplus nations such as China and Germany fiercely defend their export markets. At the same time, the emptying of state treasuries to rescue the financial elite has increased the pressure for draconian austerity measures to reduce government outlays. This, in turn, can only further depress consumption, making the competition between countries for export markets all the more ferocious and increasing the likelihood of outright trade and currency wars.

The Obama administration, which has pledged to double US exports in five years, appears to be basing its economic strategy on driving down American labor costs to the point where US manufacturing can be at least partially revived as a cheap labor center for export abroad.

Under conditions of long-term mass unemployment, declining wages, growing poverty, record personal bankruptcies and soaring home foreclosures, the entire economy increasingly resembles a house of cards. The revival of the housing market, which is key to any genuine recovery, appears highly problematic with home foreclosures expected to rise from 1.7 million in 2009 to 2.2 million this year.

U.S. Approves Targeted Killings of American Citizens

U.S. Approves Targeted Killing of American Cleric

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The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.

Mr. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and spent years in the United States as an imam, is in hiding in Yemen. He has been the focus of intense scrutiny since he was linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, and then to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25.

American counterterrorism officials say Mr. Awlaki is an operative of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terror network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They say they believe that he has become a recruiter for the terrorist network, feeding prospects into plots aimed at the United States and at Americans abroad, the officials said.

It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said. A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.

But the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a House hearing in February that such a step was possible. “We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.” He did not name Mr. Awlaki as a target.

The step taken against Mr. Awlaki, which occurred earlier this year, is a vivid illustration of his rise to prominence in the constellation of terrorist leaders. But his popularity as a cleric, whose lectures on Islamic scripture have a large following among English-speaking Muslims, means any action against him could rebound against the United States in the larger ideological campaign against Al Qaeda.

The possibility that Mr. Awlaki might be added to the target list was reported by The Los Angeles Times in January, and Reuters reported on Tuesday that he was approved for capture or killing.

“The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,” said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity. “He’s gotten involved in plots.”

The official added: “The United States works, exactly as the American people expect, to overcome threats to their security, and this individual — through his own actions — has become one. Awlaki knows what he’s done, and he knows he won’t be met with handshakes and flowers. None of this should surprise anyone.”

As a general principle, international law permits the use of lethal force against individuals and groups that pose an imminent threat to a country, and officials said that was the standard used in adding names to the list of targets. In addition, Congress approved the use of military force against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. People on the target list are considered to be military enemies of the United States and therefore not subject to the ban on political assassination first approved by President Gerald R. Ford.

Both the C.I.A. and the military maintain lists of terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and its affiliates who are approved for capture or killing, former officials said. But because Mr. Awlaki is an American, his inclusion on those lists had to be approved by the National Security Council, the officials said.

At a panel discussion in Washington on Tuesday, Representative Jane Harman, Democrat of California and chairwoman of a House subcommittee on homeland security, called Mr. Awlaki “probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us.”

The American Economy and the American Dream

The American Economy and the American Dream

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The American economy has undergone tremendous changes over the past several decades. Presently, we are in an acute phase of a chronic condition that has been festering for years. In the past 18 months, trillions of dollars have gone to Wall Street and the mega-banks, while state and local governments continue to slash their budgets, and millions have lost their jobs. The LAT has a must read piece regarding devastating cuts to public transit and their impact, not in LA, but in Georgia. Clayton County is majority black abutting Atlanta. The bus service is going to be canceled, according to the article:

A large number of suburban working poor may now be stranded: A survey of riders in April 2008 found that 65% of them do not have access to a car. In a survey last month, 3 out of 4 said they may lose their jobs when the buses stopped rolling.

Can you imagine people in the US not having a car, and not having a car living in a suburban area? Why don’t they have a car? They can’t afford it. Why, isn’t a car an essential aspect of the last half of the 20th century American Dream? The article further states:

Since 1995, public transportation use is up 31%, more than twice the U.S. population growth rate, according to the American Public Transportation Assn., the nonprofit that represents the nation’s commuter systems. Last year, Americans took 10.2 billion public transit trips.

People didn’t increase their public transit use out of environmental concern, no, solely for economic reasons. Two years ago, when gasoline was plus $4 a gallon, and with every wisp of news the economy is strengthening the price heads quickly back, public transit use greatly expanded. Thinking we’re going to rebuild the auto-industry at 35 mpg is stupid, whether looked at from an environmental, economic, or war and peace perspective. Cutting public transit is the last thing we should be cutting, we should be doing just the opposite, investing more, yet:

In a survey of 151 (public transit) member agencies released Thursday, the association found that about 9 in 10 of them reported flat or decreased local and state funding. Nearly 3 in 5 had already cut service or raised fares.

Understand, when the economy fails tens of millions of people on an essential element like transportation, it is failing grandly. So, when you see all the anger being vented, remember what really underlies it: an American economy that increasingly works for fewer and fewer people. Eldrin Bell, a black Commissioner of Clayton County put it best, “I’ve lived with racism, But this is a new one — it’s called classism. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

When class becomes permanently entrenched in America, that will truly be the death of the American Dream.

Profits Over Safety

Who Killed the Miners? Profits Over Safety?

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All coal mining safety laws have been written in miners' blood.

My grandfather, who barely survived an explosion in a coal mine in southern Illinois, taught me this phrase. He also taught me about the 150-year-old battle in the coalfields over reckless production at the cost of responsible safety measures.

As our prayers and condolences go out to the many coal mining families in Raleigh County, West Virginia, I think about the needless safety violations and subsequent disasters that have taken place over the past century.

Over 104,000 Americans and immigrants have died in our coal mines. According to one inspector, many, if not a majority of those "accidents" should not be considered mishaps, but acts of negligent homicide.

As a coal miner's widow from Raleigh County, West Virginia told me on the phone last night, every time she sees a miner just off his shift, draped in coal dust, standing at the convenience market, she knows that mine is rife with violations.

Three coal miners still die daily from black lung disease--one of the most flagrant safety issues and scandals overlooked in our nation. [1]

While we are still waiting for the details on the Performance Coal Co. Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, and whether methane gas buildup--the release of highly flammable and toxic gas that has haunted coal miners for centuries--led to the explosion that has taken at least 25 lives, reports are now coming out of the mine's history of safety violations. According to Ry Rivard in the Daily Mail:

In March alone, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited the mine, which is owned by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., for failing to control dust; improperly planning to ventilate the mine of dust and the combustible gas methane; inadequate protection from roof falls; failing to maintain proper escapeways; and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials.

Since 1995, there have been more than 3,000 violations at Upper Big Branch, though it was not immediately clear how that compared to other mines of its size.

Of the $1.5 million in penalties MSHA proposed since 2007, Massey has actually paid less than $300,000.

The proposed fines for this year alone amount to about $190,000. Last year, the mine faced $900,000 in fines for more than 450 violations, including 48 "unwarrantable failure orders," which are considered serious.

Many of those citations and fines are being contested.

The violations appear "quite relevant" to Monday's explosion, said Scott Simonton, a professor of environmental science and environmental engineering at Marshall University.

"The fact that these seem like to me to be some serious violations and not just some paperwork violation - these are serious violations, especially in light of what has happened," he said.

Massey, of course, has become infamous for its devastating mountaintop removal operations [2].

But the company also pleaded guilty to criminal violations for a January, 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine in Logan County, WV, which took the lives of two miners. As Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward noted:

a huge problem at Aracoma was also that Massey officials had removed key ventilation walls, or stoppings, allowing smoke to enter that primary escape tunnel in the first place -- a move that U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver later said "doomed two workers to a tragic death.

In a now infamous internal memo to employees [3] that was used in the Aracoma mine trial, Massey's CEO Don Blankenship openly declared: "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. -- build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal," the complaint quotes the memo. "This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills."

Nonetheless, Massey is ramping up its mine productions and profits, [4] especially in its hurry to export coal to India and China. Last year, nearly 3,000 coal miners died in China's own mines.

When my grandfather was in the mines in southern Illinois, a group of UMWA miners from Centralia, Illinois, outraged by the political machinations in the Department of Mines and Minerals, wrote a letter in 1946 urging the governor to take action on clearly dangerous buildups of coal dust. The letter described the mine's situation, the politics, and then made a desperate request for intervention:

"In fact, Governor Green, this is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the Department of Mines and Minerals enforce the laws at No. 5 mine of the Centralia Coal Company at Centralia, Illinois, at which mine we are employed, before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West WV."

Despite numerous inspections, recommendations, and noted violations, the mine owners did not consider the dust situation to be of imminent danger. On March 25, 1947, an explosion ripped through the Centralia mine and killed 111 miners. Half of them died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Three of the four men who had written the governor also died in the explosion.

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out, a crime was committed at Centralia. Just like modern operators, the Centralia Coal Company had made it a habitual practice to violate mining safety laws and simply pay the fines.

And the violations and the deaths continue today.

I can't get the words of an old Welsh coalfield ballad out of my mind:

"Oh what will you give me, say the sad bells of Rhymney
Is there hope for the future, say the brown bells of Merthyr
Who made the mine owners, say the blackbells of Rhondda
And who killed the miners, say the grim bells of Blaenau. . . "

U.S. military goes hungry in Afghanistan

U.S. military goes hungry in Afghanistan

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The United States Military is in the midst of a troop surge in Afghanistan, but the surge has caused the ratio of resources to troops to widen. Many American Forward Operating Bases are experiencing food and water shortages.

Sgt. Hill, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, has been in Afghanistan only a few months as part of the new troop surge into the country. The troops are mainly focused on training and promoting the Afghanistan army and police force. The training is the United States' attempt to "teach a man to fish," in the security department of the ever turbulent country, a country which is still undecided if it wants to break free from Taliban influence. With these larger issues at hand the need for proper amounts of food and water have fallen by the wayside. Initially it was expected that resources for surging troops would be low, as many bases were unprepared for the push ordered by the Obama administration. The surge, it is argued, was far too swift and did not give the military time to lay the proper infrastructure and provide housing and other amenities for the troops. The reality of the lack of preparation has been felt by Sgt. Hill and other troops currently in Afghanistan. Over weeks of correspondence Sgt. Hill has informed Digital Journal of the conditions the logistics of just being able to eat. General McChrystal announced that fast food places like Burger King and Pizza Hut were going to be shut down and moved to make more room for essentials the troops will need for war. As reported on Digital Journal:

"Supplying non-essential luxuries to big bases like Bagram and Kandahar makes it harder to get essential items to combat outposts and forward operating bases, where troops fighting every day need to be resupplied with ammunition, food and water." By closing up the outlets, the FRAGO’s design is intended to free up storage space, provide secure areas for equipment, and reduce flight and convoy traffic across the country.
This action may have made matters worse for soldiers who are on missions during designated chow hall times. At Camp Mike Spann some soldiers have been forced to skip up to three meals a day, and are forbidden to eat Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) unless they are on an evening mission to save on the lack of available rations. The Chow Hall at Camp Mike Spann is not open 24 hours and civilian and military workers are not happy if anyone attempts to even serve themselves prepackaged bowls of cereal when the cafeteria is not open. The infrastructure has not been freed up a significant amount to allow for the proper shipping of food and beverages, Sgt. Hill says. At Camp Mike Spann, in particular, there have been times when they have run out of drinks and other food items. There is no potable water available so troops rely on bottled water for hydration. The Camp chow hall is now closed for lunch and only serving breakfast and dinner to be able to stretch out the available food since another troop wave hit. Today Sgt. Hill casually mentioned the situation behind being able to get food. To be able to speak with me, he has to wait up to a half an hour in a line for 10 minutes on the computer.
Sgt Hill: The chow hall just now opened. While I'm here and the line is already (an hour and a half long). Guess I am not eating again.. Digital Journal: Wow. Somebody should do something about that. Maybe call congress? Sgt. Hill: Nah. Conservatives think we should just suck it up because we are in a war zone, and Liberals want us all to die anyway. Nobody gives a F***.
Camp Mike Spann is not the only place dealing with a shortage of food and water. An article in Stars and Stripes brought to attention the hardships of one Marine Encampment. At Marine Combat Outpost Contu ,"there are no beds, no showers, no toilets and no electricity. Chickens and ducks roam the bare dirt yard amid scraps of trash and rotting animal dung. Fleas, flies and filth are the grunts’ constant companions." They doubt they will see permanent living crates or even cots. They sleep with flees and chiggers and have very little food available to them. They say living like pioneers in the 1800s has given them a new appreciation for things like a bath or a shower and clean clothes.

Judge dismisses scores of Guantanamo habeas cases

Judge dismisses scores of Guantanamo habeas cases

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A federal judge has dismissed more than 100 habeas corpus lawsuits filed by former Guantanamo captives, ruling that because the Bush and Obama administrations had transferred them elsewhere, the courts need not decide whether the Pentagon imprisoned them illegally.

The ruling dismayed attorneys for some of the detainees who'd hoped any favorable U.S. court findings would help clear their clients of the stigma, travel restrictions and, in some instances, perhaps more jail time that resulted from their stay at Guantanamo.

U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan wrote that he was "not unsympathetic" to the former detainees' plight. "Detention for any length of time can be injurious. And certainly associations with Guantanamo tend to be negative," he wrote.

But the detainees' transfer from Guantanamo made their cases moot. "The court finds that petitioners no longer present a live case or controversy since a federal court cannot remedy the alleged collateral consequences of their prior detention at Guantanamo," he wrote.

Hogan's ruling, issued last Thursday, but not widely publicized, closed the files on 105 habeas corpus petitions, many of which had been pending for years as the Bush administration resisted the right of civilian judges to intervene in military detentions. The U.S. Supreme Court resolved that issue in 2008, ruling in Boumediene v. Bush that the detainees could challenge their captivity in civilian court. Since then, judges have ordered the release of 34 detainees while upholding the detention of 12.

Attorneys for the ex-detainees were deciding Monday whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said Shayana Kadidal, an attorney at New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, which has taken the lead in championing Guantanamo habeas petitions.

The former prisoners who'd filed the dismissed suits ranged from "people who disappeared in Libyan prison to people who are home living with their family and can't get a job," Kadidal said.

The "vast, vast majority" of former Guantanamo prisoners are under some form of travel restriction, he said, as a result of either transfer agreements between the United States and where they now live or the stigma of having spent time in U.S. military custody.

"If you want to do haj at some point in your life," he said, referring to a Muslim's duty to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, a freed detainee would need to get those restrictions lifted.

Moreover, he added, CCR affiliated attorneys have tracked former captives to prison at Pol-i-charki, Afghanistan, that was once run by the U.S. military. He said "the U.S. may be pulling the puppet strings" of their continued captivity.

In the case of two men sent home to Sudan, according to an affidavit filed by an investigator with the Oregon Federal Public Defender's office, which is representing them, the United States required as a condition for their release that Sudan seize their travel documents and prevent them from leaving the country.

Hogan said the attorneys for the former detainees hadn't offered enough proof that other countries were operating essentially as U.S. proxies. "Petitioners are short on examples, except for the fact that former Guantanamo detainees from Afghanistan transferred back to Afghanistan have been detained at a detention facility built by the United States," he wrote.

Of the 183 men currently held at Guantanamo, 22 have had their habeas cases resolved — 10 who were ordered released but are still being held and the 12 whose detentions were upheld.

It was unclear, however, how many of the other 161 might have cases pending. Some detainees have refused American lawyers' offers to sue on their behalf, apparently rejecting the authority of any U.S. court to sit in judgment on them. An Obama administration panel has determined that about 50 of those should be held indefinitely without charges.

D.C. Circuit Abruptly Closes Courtroom in Guantanamo Case

D.C. Circuit Abruptly Closes Courtroom in Guantanamo Case

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A federal appeals court in Washington was prepared to hear a Guantanamo Bay detainee case in open court today, though the lawyers involved in the dispute were prohibited from talking about the confidential record.

A minute into the argument, Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had heard enough and abruptly closed the courtroom to the public. That meant about a dozen people in the courtroom were barred from sitting in court to hear oral argument.

Sentelle said from the bench that an accidental disclosure of confidential information in an open courtroom presented “too much danger.” Another panel member, Senior Judge Laurence Silberman, noted that it was going to be tough ask questions of the lawyers. The third member of the panel, Judge Merrick Garland, whose name is reportedly on a short list as a possible Supreme Court pick, did not express a view from the bench.

The abrupt closure of the courtroom was unusual since the lawyers for the opposing sides—Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner John Ewald for the detainee and, for the government, Justice Department attorney August Flentje of the Civil Division appellate staff—had agreed to argue the case in public, according to court papers filed last month.

Ewald and Flentje suggested in a joint filing March 25 in the D.C. Circuit that the court could hold a brief, closed-door session in the event the panel members wanted to explore the confidential record in the case. The D.C. Circuit has done just this in other cases—hearing part of the case in public and part of it behind closed doors. In some instances, the entire argument is heard in a closed courtroom.

Ewald was barely into his presentation today when Sentelle interrupted him. Ewald had noted one of the government’s main contentions—that the detainee, Adham Awad, a native of Yemen, knew Al Qaeda fighters who had taken over a hospital in Afghanistan. That information appears in the public, redacted versions of the briefs in Awad’s case.

Awad is appealing Senior Judge James Robertson’s denial of a petition for habeas corpus. Robertson found Awad was being lawfully detained at Guantanamo under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that granted war powers to the president in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Awad was detained during a siege on the hospital that was led by the United States and affiliated forces. The siege ended in January 2002. Awad’s lawyers at Orrick said in court papers that there is nothing incriminatory about Awad’s presence in a civilian hospital.

Ewald said in court papers that the Justice Department has failed to identify “substantial evidence” that Award was a part of al-Qaeda’s command structure. “The government did not present any evidence, and the district court did not find, that Awad committed a single act—much less a violent act—on al-Qaida's behalf,” Ewald wrote.

Justice lawyers said in court papers that Awad told interrogators he traveled to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks to receive military training and to join the fight.

Making Aggressive War OK, for Some

Making Aggressive War OK, for Some

Editor’s Note: After World War II, U.S. leaders helped construct an international legal framework designed to prevent a recurrence of that unprecedented global calamity, which had been touched off by Adolf Hitler’s Nazis finding excuses to invade weaker neighbors.

So, the crime of aggressive war was deemed the “supreme international crime” because it unleashed so many of the other evils of warfare. But more recent generations of American leaders have found their own uses for aggressive war and don’t want rules to get in their way, as David Swanson notes in this guest essay:

Blair and Bush were asked about the document at a White House press conference in June 2005 and did not deny its authenticity. But that document is one of the lesser pieces of evidence showing how we were lied into the Iraq War. I have laid out the overwhelming case in my book, Daybreak.

The worst damage done by our continuing to imagine that there's some sort of debate over whether the war was really based on lies, is that we haven't been able to focus on something more important.

Whether the war was based on lies (as of course it was) or on gospel truth or on the mistakes of a bunch of morons, has absolutely no bearing on the indisputable fact that the war was a criminal act of aggression.

Of course, lying to Congress or defrauding Congress is a felony, but it is one of the lesser crimes committed during this particular spree. Attacking another country, whether or not it has weapons of any kind, is the most serious crime on the books.

If, as all serious studies suggest, over a million people have been killed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, then there have been over a million murders. Whether anyone ever lied about anything has no bearing on that fact. The same goes, on a smaller scale thus far, for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

Following World War II, the victors prosecuted the vanquished for the crime of aggression. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg concluded that aggressive war is "not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

The Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson who made many statements stressing universality and opposing justice only for the currently vanquished nations. Jackson said:

"The common sense of mankind demands that law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power and make deliberate and concerted use of it to set in motion evils which leave no home in the world untouched. The Charter of this Tribunal evidences a faith that the law is not only to govern the conduct of little men, but that even rulers are, as Lord Chief Justice Coke put it to King James, 'under ... the law.'

“And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment."

Slowly, over the decades since Nuremberg, first with U.S. assistance and later despite U.S. resistance, progress has been made toward establishing international enforcement of the ban on aggressive war to which the world's nations agreed in the United Nations Charter in 1945.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted in 1998, places the crime of aggressive war under the court's jurisdiction. However, the ICC is not to try anyone for the crime until the nations that are parties to the court agree on a definition and details. Those nations, which do not include the United States, will likely iron out those details this year.

Whether the court will then find the independence and integrity to prosecute the world's most powerful empire will remain to be seen.

The Washington Post, which famously dismissed the Downing Street Minutes in 2005 as "old news" but now prints not one word opposing Rove's "complete fabrication" comment, on Friday published a column by a former Bush-Cheney administration official arguing that the ICC should never prosecute wars of aggression. Doing so, he warns, might make it harder to commit such crimes in the future.

Hmm. Well, exactly.

Think I'm kidding?

Go read "International Criminal Court doesn't need power over 'aggression'" by Stephen G. Rademaker. He was an assistant secretary of state from 2002 to 2006 and now works for a lobbying company that has represented weapons companies and foreign nations in Washington, D.C., including the nation of Serbia.

Rademaker begins his free advertisement for international criminality thus:
"The International Criminal Court's member countries will gather in May in Kampala, Uganda, where they will spend most of their conference considering whether to expand the court's jurisdiction to include the 'crime of aggression.' This is a bad idea on many levels."

Those quotation marks around "crime of aggression" have arisen in the United States since the days of Nazi prosecutions, of course, as Robert Jackson's rhetoric has faded from memory. Skipping down a little, Rademaker writes:

"Proponents say that previous efforts to prevent war, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the U.N. Charter of 1945, failed because they were toothless. Empower this court to prosecute national leaders who order acts of aggression, they contend, and aggression finally will be deterred."

Has anyone made that promise? I haven't seen it. But we prosecute petty crimes by little people without demanding proof that all such future crimes will be deterred. We take the serious possibility that some of them might be deterred as sufficient grounds to prosecute.

And if certain individuals declared that they would not be parties to our body of domestic law, they would not gain immunity. On the contrary, they would be carefully watched and aggressively prosecuted. If, on the international level, the ICC had existed at the time of Nazi Germany, and that nation had chosen not to support the court, the court could still have prosecuted Germans.

In fact, we invented a court out of nothing purely for the purpose of prosecuting Germans. Yet Rademaker's concern is that the world's leading criminal aggressors might be prosecuted in the future despite choosing not to support the ICC:

"The ICC would be empowered to prosecute the leaders of any country that commits aggression on the territory of a member. In the future, then, although Russia is not a member, its leaders could be prosecuted for acts of aggression against a member, such as Georgia.

“Likewise, the leaders of Israel (another non-member) could be prosecuted for future operations on the territory of members such as Jordan. For the United States, a non-member, there would be implications any time the use of force was contemplated on the territory of a member.

“To put this in perspective, consider some of the countries where we have used force in the past two decades: Panama, Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan. All are ICC members today."

And Iraq joined in 2005 and then un-joined under U.S. pressure, pressure that will not always remain, pressure to prevent prosecution of a crime for which there is likely to be no statute of limitations.

Rademaker is apparently concerned that the United States would have to cease invading countries. He is remarkably honest about the status quo he hopes to preserve:

"Washington is confident that it did not commit aggression in those countries. But Washington has always been the sole judge of whether a particular use of force was justified under international law. If the ICC acquires jurisdiction to prosecute aggression, the court would be responsible for deciding whether it agrees, say, that a Manuel Noriega or Slobodan Milosevic provoked U.S. action against him."

Actually, this would only be the case if, bizarrely, the national parties to the ICC decide to add a loophole for cases of "provocation." The U.N. Charter does not. The ICC would not have to judge whether irrelevant U.S. excuses justified U.S. crimes. The ICC would simply have to prosecute the crimes.

Rademaker continues: "Should it disagree with the U.S. judgment, the court would be empowered to prosecute the 'perpetrators.' Certainly these would include the president, the secretary of defense and other top officials such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Members of Congress who voted to authorize or fund the operation also would be potential defendants."

This is supposed to sound very different in American ears from how it would sound if written about top Nazi officials. Justice Jackson's wise point a half century back was that it shouldn't. It should sound like a resounding warning to members of Congress faced yet again in the coming weeks with the demand to further fund two wars of aggression and various aggressive strikes by unmanned drones.

It should even sound like a warning, a moral if not a legal one, to those of us who vote for those Congress members and fail to pressure them to obey the law.

Rademaker adds: "The Obama administration took office eager to ease U.S. hostility toward the ICC. But the potential effects of this proposal have prompted the administration to argue against it. At a minimum, U.S. officials have said, a U.N. Security Council finding that aggression occurred should be required before the ICC could act."

At a minimum? The United States has veto power in the U.N. Security Council and has never been shy about using it. Obama (and Rademaker) are asking for the power to veto the prosecution of U.S. officials. If that's a minimum request, I'd hate to imagine what the maximum would have been.

Rademaker goes on: "With such pleas apparently falling on deaf ears, the administration reportedly is debating whether to seek some sort of compromise in Kampala. It would be a mistake, however, for Washington to bargain on the margins of the conference. While empowering the ICC to prosecute aggression would be bad for the United States, it would be worse for the court itself."

Ahhh. Yes, of course. Our concern is for the well being of the court, not our own immunity. We wish the court well and want to look out for it. We'd be willing even to "liberate" it, perhaps, if needed.

Rademaker then cites how complicated these matters are: "The ICC is manifestly incapable of exercising the responsibility and making the judgments that would come with jurisdiction over aggression.

“If Russia were to attack Georgia again, would the ICC really indict Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev? Or would it concoct a reason to look the other way? Which would be worse for the court's credibility and prospects for long-term success?"

The answer to that one is easy. If the court is to gain credibility and succeed, it must be authorized to prosecute the most serious international crimes, and it must do so.

And those steps must be taken in that order. If there were no possibility of the second step following the first, then nothing of what Rademaker has written above about dangers to U.S. officials would make any sense.

But because there is a possibility of the second step following the first, Rademaker's warmhearted concern for the court expressed here is a steaming pile of yellowcake.

Obama Threatens Iran with Nukes

Obama Threatens Iran with Nukes

However, since North Korea already possesses at least a limited nuclear arsenal, Obama’s exception singles out Iran as the only non-nuclear-weapons state that faces a threatened nuclear attack from the United States.

“The Nuclear Posture Review states very clearly, if you are a non-nuclear weapons state that is compliant with the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty], you have a negative assurance we will not be using nuclear weapons against you,” Obama told the New York Times on Monday, outlining his changes in American policy toward the use of nuclear weapons.

Iran is a signatory to the NPT and has vowed to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only, but has not complied with some punitive resolutions that the United States has pushed through the United Nations Security Council. Iran also is in apparent technical violation of some requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

For instance, Iran has been criticized for failing to disclose a planned enrichment site near Qum before construction began. Iran revealed the site last September, arguing that the disclosure was adequate since the plant was not operational, but the delay appeared to fall short of the IAEA rules.

Thus, In Obama's view, Iran is not "compliant" and can still be targeted for nuclear annihilation by the United States.

What is perhaps even more extraordinary about Obama’s comments – and the nonchalant response from the U.S. news media – is that the President appears to be exploiting technical disputes to overturn a broader principle that nuclear states should not threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear destruction.

One of the reasons for that principle -- beyond simple human decency -- is to reduce the incentive of non-nuclear countries to secretly develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent against such threats.

Yet, apparently wanting to look tough on Iran, Obama created this loophole by inserting the “compliant” language in the Nuclear Posture Review. All that would be required for the United States to threaten to nuke a non-nuclear state would be to catch it in some alleged technical violation of the NPT.

And such trickery is not hard to imagine. President George W. Bush exploited claims about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs to justify invading in 2003.

The mainstream U.S. press corps also can be counted on to exaggerate some ambiguous situation – whether aluminum tubes going to Iraq or Iran’s delay in telling the IAEA about construction of an enrichment facility – as a casus belli.

Arguably, Obama’s comments to the New York Times – and the language in the Nuclear Posture Review – could even be viewed as ratcheting up the threats against Iran by making clear that past vague language from the Bush administration, saying “all options are on the table,” did include a possible nuclear strike.

Before Obama’s interview, that was an implicit understanding, now it is explicit.

Building a Case for Nukes

The 72-page Nuclear Posture Review, which was unveiled by the Pentagon on Tuesday, states that the “negative assurance” from the United States refraining from launching nuclear strikes against non-nuclear-weapons states only applies to countries acting in compliance with the NPT. But the document does seek to soften the threatening implications slightly by adding:

“That does not mean that our willingness to use nuclear weapons against countries not covered by the new assurance has in any way increased. Indeed, the United States wishes to stress that it would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about the nuclear warning to Iran is that Iran is on the opposite side of the world, has a relatively weak military, and has made no direct threats against the United States.

U.S.-Iranian relations have surely been strained for the past three decades, from the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979 through the anti-American rhetoric of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but Iran does not pose any strategic threat to direct U.S. interests.

The only plausible scenario for the United States engaging in a war with Iran would be if Israel conducted a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear and military facilities, with Iran retaliating against Israel possibly with chemical or other exotic weapons. The United States might then step in to destroy Iran’s military capabilities and to eliminate any remaining nuclear sites.

In other words, the United States would be acting as part of an offensive alliance with Israel in an aggressive war against Iran. That Obama would consider escalating such a conflict into a nuclear assault on an essentially defenseless nation represents one of the more stunning examples of nuclear brinkmanship, not the reasonable narrowing of nuclear threats that is being touted by the media.

So, Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review may not be as much of a break from President Bush’s more belligerent approach as advertised. After all, Obama retained Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, who has been a hardliner on nuclear policy since his CIA days in the 1980s and who underlined the nuclear warning against Iran on Tuesday.

"There is a message for Iran and North Korea here," Gates told reporters. "If you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you."

Friendly Hypocrisy

Though Iran stands out in the Nuclear Posture Review as the only non-nuclear state that is now facing nuclear threats from the United States, an objective reading of the document might more reasonably apply to Israel and two other rogue nuclear-weapons states, Pakistan and India. Those three nations have refused to sign the NPT and actually did develop nuclear bombs in secret.

However, all three are U.S. allies. So, in the hypocritical world of big-power politics, they get a pass, their transgressions not even mentioned in the Nuclear Posture Review, even as it repeatedly references the alleged proliferation threats from North Korea and Iran.

“In pursuit of their nuclear ambitions, North Korea and Iran have violated non-proliferation obligations, defied directives of the United Nations Security Council, pursued missile delivery capabilities, and resisted international efforts to resolve through diplomatic means the crises they have created,” the Nuclear Posture Review says, adding:

“Their illicit supply of arms and sensitive material and technologies has heightened global proliferation risks and regional tensions. Their provocative behavior has increased instability in their regions.”

Typical of the selective outrage in these U.S. government reports, no mention is made of Pakistan, which not only developed an atomic bomb with the acquiescence of the Reagan administration but served as a leading proliferator of nuclear technology. Pakistan’s nukes are also the ones most likely to fall into the hands of terrorists.

Yet, without even mentioning the three rogue nuclear states of Israel, India and Pakistan, the Obama administration hammered away at non-nuclear Iran – along with North Korea – as the chief culprit.

“The potential for regional aggression by these states raises challenges not only of deterrence, but also of reassuring U.S. allies and partners,” the Nuclear Posture Review says. “Some U.S. allies are increasingly anxious about changes in the security environment, including nuclear and missile proliferation, and desire reassurance that the United States will remain committed to their security.

“A failure of reassurance could lead to a decision by one or more non-nuclear states to seek nuclear deterrents of their own, an outcome which could contribute to an unraveling of the NPT regime and to a greater likelihood of nuclear weapon use.”

However, in addressing that concern, the Obama administration ignores the most positive option, i.e. seeking a denuclearized Middle East (presumably because to push that goal would require speaking the unspeakable, admitting that Israel has nuclear weapons, a fact that no U.S. President has ever dared acknowledge publicly).

Instead, Obama has chosen to brandish nuclear weapons in the face of Iran, a country that has just been given an added incentive to build its own.

Court Says F.C.C. Cannot Require 'Net Neutrality'

U.S. Court Curbs F.C.C. Authority on Web Traffic

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A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that regulators had limited power over Web traffic under current law. The decision will allow Internet service companies to block or slow specific sites and charge video sites like YouTube to deliver their content faster to users.

The court decision was a setback to efforts by the Federal Communications Commission to require companies to give Web users equal access to all content, even if some of that content is clogging the network.

The court ruling, which came after Comcast asserted that it had the right to slow its cable customers’ access to a file-sharing service called BitTorrent, could prompt efforts in Congress to change the law in order to give the F.C.C. explicit authority to regulate Internet service.

That could prove difficult politically, however, since some conservative Republicans philosophically oppose giving the agency more power, on the grounds that Internet providers should be able to decide what services they offer and at what price.

More broadly, the ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could raise obstacles to the Obama administration’s effort to increase Americans’ access to high-speed Internet networks.

For example, the national broadband plan released by the administration last month proposed to shift billions of dollars in money from a fund to provide phone service in rural areas to one that helps pay for Internet access in those areas. Legal observers said the court decision suggested that the F.C.C. did not have the authority to make that switch.

The F.C.C. will now have to reconsider its strategy for mandating “net neutrality,” the principle that all Internet content should be treated equally by network providers. One option would be to reclassify broadband service as a sort of basic utility subject to strict regulation, like telephone service. Telephone companies and broadband providers have already indicated that they would vigorously oppose such a move.

The appeals court’s 3-0 decision, which was written by one of the court’s more liberal members, Judge David S. Tatel, focused on the narrow issue of whether the F.C.C. had authority to regulate Comcast’s network management practices.

But it was a clear victory for those who favor limiting the F.C.C.’s regulation of the Internet, said Phil Kerpen, a vice president at Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates limited government. “The F.C.C. has no legal basis for imposing its dystopian regulatory vision under the net neutrality banner,” he said.

As a practical matter, the court ruling will not have any immediate impact on Internet users, since Comcast and other large Internet providers are not currently restricting specific types of Web content and have no plans to do so.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, had a muted reaction to its victory. The company said it was gratified by the court’s decision but added that it had changed the management policies that led it to restrict access to BitTorrent, a service used to exchange a range of large data files, from pirated movies to complex software programs.

“Comcast remains committed to the F.C.C.’s existing open Internet principles, and we will continue to work constructively with this F.C.C. as it determines how best to increase broadband adoption and preserve an open and vibrant Internet,” Comcast said in a statement.

The company is currently seeking federal approval for its proposed acquisition of a majority stake in NBC Universal, the parent of the NBC broadcast network and a cadre of popular cable channels. Some members of Congress and consumer groups have opposed the merger, saying that it would enable Comcast to favor its own cable channels and discriminate against those owned by competitors — something the company has said it does not intend to do.

After the ruling on Tuesday, consumer advocates voiced similar concerns about Comcast’s potential power over the Internet, saying that the company could, for example, give priority to transmission of video services of NBC channels and restrict those owned by a competitor like CBS.

“Internet users now have no cop on the beat,” said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a nonprofit organization that supported the F.C.C. in the case.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C., had said previously that if the agency lost the Comcast case, he would seek to find other legal authority to implement consumer protections over Internet service. In a statement, the F.C.C. said it remained “firmly committed to promoting an open Internet.”

While the court decision invalidated its current approach to that goal, the agency said, “the court in no way disagreed with the importance of providing a free and open Internet, nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end.”

The concept of equal access for all Internet content is one that people who favor some degree of F.C.C. regulation say is necessary not only to protect consumers but also to foster innovation and investment in technology.

“You can’t have innovation if all the big companies get the fast lane,” said Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, which advocates for consumer rights on digital issues. “Look at Google, eBay, Yahoo — none of those companies would have survived if 15 years ago we had a fast lane and a slow lane on the Internet.”

The court’s ruling could potentially affect content providers like Google, which owns YouTube, a popular video-sharing service. Content providers fear that Internet service companies will ask them to pay a fee to ensure delivery of material like high-definition video that takes up a lot of network capacity.

Google declined to comment directly on the ruling but pointed to the Open Internet Coalition, of which it is a member. The coalition’s executive director, Markham Erickson, said the decision “creates a dangerous situation, one where the health and openness of the Internet is being held hostage by the behavior of the major telco and cable providers.”

Sam Feder, a lawyer who formerly served as general counsel for the F.C.C., said that the court’s decision “is the worst of all worlds for the F.C.C.” He said the opinion was written narrowly enough that it was unlikely to be successfully appealed, while also raising enough possibilities of other ways that the F.C.C. could accomplish the same goals that it was unlikely to inspire Congressional action to give the agency specific regulatory authority over the Internet.

Under the Bush administration, the F.C.C. largely deregulated Internet service. But in 2008, the final year of the administration, the agency decided to impose the net neutrality order on Comcast. Under President Obama, the F.C.C. has broadened that initiative, seeking to craft rules governing the entire industry.

Tuesday’s ruling was the latest in a string of court decisions that rebuffed efforts by the F.C.C. to expand its regulatory authority, noted Eli M. Noam, a professor of finance and economics at the Columbia University graduate business school and the director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information.

“The F.C.C. is going to have to be more careful in how it proceeds,” he said, suggesting that the agency would have to structure policy decisions that were more broadly acceptable to the major telecommunications industry players in order to give them some legitimacy.

Andrew M. Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has served as director of the university’s Digital Technology Center, said that while some service providers might jump at the opportunity to establish toll roads for broadband, the biggest companies, including Comcast and Verizon, have said they do not intend to do so.