Monday, December 28, 2009

DHS Announces Mandatory Underwear Inspection

Responding quickly to the Christmas Eve terrorist threat aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit from Amsterdam, the US Dept. of Homeland Security announced new security procedures today in addition to not letting passengers use toilets one hour before landing.

Enhancing its screening passengers at security checkpoints, starting tomorrow all passengers on every flight arriving in, departing from or flying over the US will be required to remove their trousers or skirts at boarding gates for a last-minute underwear check.

According to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, news reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – the man accused of trying to blow up NW253 – concealed explosives in his underpants are accurate “so we want to be sure that, along with making people walk barefoot through check points, and banning shampoo and deodorant, no one is trying to sneak explosives aboard in their knickers.”

She also announced that, as part of the new measure, passengers will be required to put their underwear on the outside of their clothes at checkpoints and, halfway through each flight, flight attendants will have each passenger give their bra’s, panties and briefs or boxers to the person sitting directly in front of them “who will wear them for the balance of the flight.”

Dismissing suggestions that this is a slapstick strategy straight out of Bananas, a 1971 Woody Allen film in which the famed writer-actor accidentally takes over a South American dictatorship, Sec. Napolitano told ABC’s Good Morning America on Monday “this new tactic will absolutely foil anyone from using their own underwear as a terrorist weapon.”

Admitting that some passengers may not wear any underwear at all, Sec. Napolitano insists DHS is prepared.

“Part of the new regulations requires airlines to carry spare underwear on all planes,” she says, “so everyone will be subjected to the same rigorous inspection requirements.”

On Wall St., news of the enhanced security procedures sent stock prices of apparel manufacturers Hanes and Jockey soaring in heavy trading Monday afternoon.

You Can't Fix Stupid

"Sure wish folks would invent something to keep the sun out of my eyes!"

Friday, December 25, 2009

Neo-Con Renews Call to Bomb Iran in NY Times Op-Ed

They’re baaaack.

Having disappeared under a rock after being exposed as frauds during Iraq on a scale matched only by the Wizard of Oz, the neo-con foreign policy lug nuts are sticking their heads out again, looking for a shadow by calling for renewing a policy that totally destroyed America’s moral, ethical and political standing in the world, especially among Moslems: Launch another pre-emptive strike in the Middle East.

T’was the night before Christmas when Dr. Alan J. Kuperman, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas-Austin, penned an Op-Ed in The New York Times urging Pres. Obama to bomb, bomb, bomb Iran in a pre-emptive strike to end its nuclear enrichment programme. Never mind that authoritative sources that actuaIrlly know what they’re talking about, ranging from UN inspectors to the CIA to noted Middle East authority Dr. Juan Cole, say there’s no evidence that Iran wants anything more than to enhance its electrical generating capacity and, possibly, have a stand-by ability to make nuclear bombs in an emergency the same way Japan has such capacity. Phooey, snorts Dr. Kuperman: Drop bombs tonight, insisting “The sooner the United States takes action, the better.”

Sure, why not? The Cheney Doctrine worked so well the last time America shot itself in the foot following it so let’s try again and to hell with any repercussions.

“Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway,” Dr. Kuperman writes dismissively. He’s equally dismissive of history.

Blasé About Facts

In fact, Tehran has been quietly cooperating with the US since 2001 by ensuring Afghan insurgents don’t flee into Iran and trying – unsuccessfully – to stem the flow of option out of Afghanistan. Moreover, the Islamic Republic didn’t start meddling in Iraq to assist various Shiite factions until Civil War broke out with Sunni’s during the US-tolerated ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. In any event, Sunni’s and Shiites have been fighting with each other since sometime around 700, long before there was an Iraqi or Iranian state, more than a full millennia before the US was even created and some 1,900 years before Bush charged head first into Iraq.

You’d think an academic such as Dr. Kuperman wouldn’t be quite so blasé about facts.

In what amounts to a throwaway line, Dr. Kuperman concedes that “bombing might not work” before going on to argue, essentially, “So what?”

For evidence, he reaches back 30 years to cite Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Dr. Kuperman claims it deterred Saddam Hussein from further pursuit of nuclear weapons, “a fact that eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion.”

Still Cherrypicking Facts

What history books does this guy read?

Saddam Hussein didn’t rebuild Osirak because he needed money for his Army to fight a war with Iran. Then, UN sanctions effectively cut him off from funds, supplies and equipment to build any nuclear capability, civilian or military, even if he wanted to do so. Moreover, it’s been well-documented that intelligence agencies in London, Berlin and Washington knew full well that Iraq had no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons long before the 2003 invasion; it’s just that Bush and Cheney cherry-picked the information they revealed to the UN, Congress and the American people.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted on BBC’s Newsnight he knew in 2003 there weren’t any such horrors waiting in Baghdad when he tag-teamed with Bush to invade Iraq.

If Dr. Kuperman wants to cherry-pick facts, as his fellow neo-con’s did all during the Iraq folly, you’d think he would have learned by now to at least pick those that are true.

Not content with one bombing run, Kuperman proclaims “Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Tehran will just sit there and take it, of course, before crying “Uncle.” They won’t fire off a few missiles at Israel, Turkey and US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. They won’t flood either country with arms or maybe even troops. And the Iranian dissident movement won’t collapse, supporting its nation when the US attacks.

The saddest thing about Kuperman is that the Times gave him serious space in a supposedly serious newspaper to spout the same discredited nonsense that got us into a mess in the Middle East at the same time Pres. Obama is trying to extricate the world from the chaos unleashed the last time the neo-con war mongers had their way.

Peace on earth and all of that.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Is GOP Running Possible War Criminal For Congress?

Florida’s 22nd Congressional District is a narrow stretch of heavily gerrymandered coastal land stretching from Ft. Lauderdale north to Jupiter, mostly hugging beach communities but occasionally meandering inland to grab bits of West Palm Beach –Palm Beach’s down-market cousin, home to the black and Hispanic domestics, gardeners and roustabouts who work in the Palm’s posh hotels, luxury condos and gated estates – as well as Coral Springs and Cooper City.

To really see the district, stay off the interstate and crawl through the small towns that blur together along US 1 from Lauderdale to Jupiter. They’re towns where the humidity hangs like a panting dog, school test scores are further south than the state itself, gun shops dot an unending parade of strip malls, and waitresses in small diners wearing big hair and nylon uniforms serve coffee to Lou and Mario and Eudora.

You won’t find many yachts in the harbours; they’re up in Palm Beach or down in Lauderdale. The marinas here mostly berth sea-battered fishing boats, second or third-hand 22’ runabouts with goofy names like “Phil’s Pholly” or “Mary’s Movin,” and little sloops so far past their use-by date that only a fool would dare take them outside the breakwater.

It’s like stumbling into a John D. MacDonald novel; stop for lunch and you half-expect Travis McGee will saunter in right behind you.

The district is also where Allen West, a former lieutenant colonel who was drummed out of the Army for torturing an Iraqi prisoner by holding a mock execution after allowing men under his command to repeatedly beat the detainee, has the GOP endorsement to run for Congress in 2010.

America’s Worst

The military boasts that its personnel are among America’s best. And, for the majority of officers and enlisted people serving bravely, with distinction and without incident, it’s true. But people like West give lie to the boast.

So why did Sid Dinerstein, chair of the Palm Beach County Republican Party and author of a self-published right wing political manifesto, Adults Only, hand the GOP endorsement for Congress in FL22 to a man who effectively admitted to committing two war crimes?

The case against West stems from an Aug. 20, 2003 incident at a military base in Taji, just north of Baghdad, when West was interrogating an Iraqi policeman who was thought to have information about a plot to ambush a US convoy.

In testimony at his Article 32 hearing – a military grand jury – West said the policeman was not cooperating so he allowed four soldiers he commanded to beat the detainee’s head and body. Then joining in the festivities, West admits threatening to kill the prisoner. Military prosecutors said West followed up by taking the blindfolded suspect outside, putting his head in a weapons clearing barrel and firing his 9mm pistol into the barrel one foot from the prisoner’s ear.

According to an August 2009 article in The Washington Post, West told the beaten Iraqi that "this is where it will end," meaning that West would kill him if he did not talk. When faced with another refusal, West said, he took the Iraqi's head under his arm, pushed it into the barrel and shot twice with his pistol a foot from the Iraqi's ear. He said he pointed the gun away.

How thoughtful; West is a real officer and a gentleman.

When West testified that he had "no malice toward (the detainee)" and that he "just wanted information," prosecutors presented West's typed statement prepared after the incident, ordering him to read aloud his report to the court: "In my anger, I couldn't remember how many shots were fired."

In Dec. 2003, the Army took action. West was fined $5,000, relieved of all command responsibilities and allowed to retire in what amounts to a plea bargain. The Army could have held a court martial where, if found guilty, he could have faced 11 years in prison, according to military prosecutors.

West's GOP and tea party supporters in Florida’s 22nd call him a hero. But military prosecutors say he committed torture, violating articles 128 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“By all rights, he (West) should have been put on trial, convicted for war crimes and sent to prison,” says a former Army judge advocate who is familiar with the case. “But (then-Maj. Gen. Raymond) Odierno, the top commander in the area, just wanted the case to go away. All hell was breaking out in Iraq at the time. Although it wasn’t yet public, Abu Ghraib was happening and neither top brass nor the (Bush) administration wanted to risk bad news leaking out about bad officers.”


Trying to short circuit the humiliation of his military record being publicly exposed, West responded to the Washington Post by criticizing coverage of his Army misdeeds, stammering in a news release, “If we continue to have our Country led by … ‘perfumed princes’ the security of our Republic is threatened. I would challenge President Obama and Attorney General Holder to find the intestinal fortitude to make hard decisions, and not be cowards prosecuting those far more honourable.

“I shall not allow the future and legacy of my Country to be left to petulant, intellectual elites who would sacrifice our Liberty and Freedom,” West fumed. Yet for a man who expresses disdain for “intellectual elites” and “perfumed princes” – whatever that means – his election website boasts of the three degrees West earned, including two Masters. Uhm, doesn’t that put him in among the perfumed intellectual elite?

And yet he sidesteps the key issue of the charges against him: Torturing prisoners. The closest he comes is saying, “I made a simple statement at my Article 32 hearing when asked if I would take the same action again, ‘If it is about the safety and lives of my men, I would go through hell with a gasoline can’.”

West doesn’t bother explaining how an unarmed and bound prisoner being held at a secure Army base posed a risk to “the safety and lives of my men” that justified a beating and mock execution.

Yet despite West’s shameful military record and triangulating on his plea deal, neither the Palm Beach County Republican Party nor Dinerstein, its chair, are stepping back from their endorsement.

Cut Taxes, Monger Fear

Florida’s 22nd is represented by Ron Klein, a member of the House’s New Democrat Coalition, a self-described group of “moderate, pro-business Democrats” – read “ConservaDem” business shills – who often vote against much of the party’s platform. First elected in 2006, Klein is seeking his third term in 2010. Yet as marginal a Democrat as Klein might be, West makes him seem like Markos Moulitsas by comparison.

For example, in a campaign appearance that was taped and made its way around the right wing blogosphere, West says repeatedly that the US is fighting “Islamic jihad” – fundamentalist code words calling for a Christian war on Islam. He ignores the reality that even the Pentagon and CIA have concluded the insurgency in both countries is between rival religious factions, tribes, warlords and criminal gangs. Both government and independent investigations have stated unequivocally that many Afghan fighters are farmers with no particular political views who either simply want foreign armies out of their country or are being paid $5-to-$10 a day to plant roadside bombs and lob RGPs out of the hills at US and other forces.

But West’s debunked claim is typical of how the GOP operates, relying on unsubstantiated fear mongering and distorting facts to try scoring points.

Worse, his prescription for fixing America’s broken health care system is more of the same: “Our health care system needs reforms … These reforms can be instituted within the classic conservative principles of limited government, liberty, individual responsibility and accountability, and free market solutions.”

I guess “individual responsibility” means the 47-million people without health care coverage better stay healthy.

He is equally off-kilter on energy, stating on his website that “In the late 70s we were importing some 18-20% of our energy resources from foreign sources. Today we are importing close to 65% of our energy resources from foreign sources, making the failures of the Department of Energy evident to everyone.”

That both the US and its economy grew over the last 30-some years, more than quadrupling the demand for energy, isn’t mentioned nor does West explain the tautology of somehow equating rising consumption with the Dept. of Energy – which has nothing to do with determining how or where oil comes from. Forget about alternative sources. To West, it’s all drill, baby, drill.

Finally, in a district thick with immigrants, he concludes that “furthering the illegal immigrant agenda over that of America, I consider them seditious and treasonous … Talk radio host Michael Savage sums this issue up nicely: Borders, culture, and language.”

Since America is a land of immigrants, I’m not sure what he means by “furthering the illegal immigrant agenda over America.” What is the illegal immigrant agenda, anyway? And why is a black candidate quoting the words of Michael Savage, an avowed racist?

Don Dinerstein

Enter Sid Dinerstein, godfather of the Palm Beach GOP apparatus, who handed the endorsement to West.

According to Pete Corson, a Florida political observer and partially disabled Vietnam veteran, “Palm Beach has the clout on this one, so Sid gets his way. Most of us have had a hard time figuring this one out. Sid is not a racist per se but he is damn close. There has to be a deal in here somewhere.”

In his self-published book, Dinerstein lashes out at immigrants, blaming them for so-called “multiculturalism” by writing “As long as there were many cultures, English was essential. Now that there is one other extraordinarily large culture…the Hispanic culture…English is even more essential. In Canada, they have friends and ‘amis’ – and Separation referenda. If we have friends and “amigos,” our “e pluribus” will stop becoming ‘Unum.’”

Excuse me, Sid, but Canada has had only two separation votes in its long history, both defeated, and Québec nationalism all but died off after the last vote in the early 1990s. And how does someone speaking Spanish destroy the concept of e pluribus Unum?

And when Democrats are in control, Dinerstein is a fiscal hawk, writing “Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Congress and the President are going to chip in $100-billion to help them rebuild that town, and we say “OK.” Where’s it coming from? The answer is, nowhere. It’s Off Budget. That means that it doesn’t change the 200 billion dollars one bit. But it adds $100-billion to next year’s debt. It’s Off the budget and On the debt. Nice!”

Sid conveniently forgets that it was George Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress that did this off-budget sleight-of-hand year after year – including costs for the illegal Iraq misadventure and the botched Afghan war.

Toss Up

According to Corson, “(West’s) appeal has been minimal in the more moneyed ‘white’ areas of the district, so most observers regard his candidacy as a wash. The conventional wisdom is he loses in a close race to Ron Klein because he isn't Jewish and he won't get enough "black" votes to offset the low turnout in the country club areas.

“Otherwise, insiders are sticking tightly to the existing script, believing that they represent truth, justice, and the American Way,” Corson concludes

So Allen West campaigns in FL22 by crying out for taking back the country – but from whom?

I seem to recall rather large elections in 2006 and again in 2008 in which the now-sitting president and Democrats running for House and Senate seats were elected by an overwhelming majority of voters who were dissatisfied by, and fed up with, the other party’s ideas, demagoguery, lack of respect for the Constitution, and a total and complete disregard for American laws, traditions and values.

Candidate West is a living example of why Republicans – those like him as well as those who actually put country ahead of party – were tossed from office in the last two elections. And why he should be kept as far from Congress as possible.

h/t to Steve Kufus

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Joe Lieberman Is “Unbalanced”

According to five clinical psychiatrists who describe themselves as being politically aware, Joe Lieberman’s behaviour over the last few weeks of the Senate health care debate reveals numerous signs that he is increasingly “unbalanced.”

All five caution that, while it is difficult to make a specific diagnosis without seeing a patient in their office, Lieberman’s public statements show growing evidence of an individual who is disconnected with pieces of the reality around them.

“If somebody called me and described the symptoms in their spouse that Joe Lieberman is displaying, I’d recommend they come in for an appointment or two so an initial assessment could be made,” says Dr. Stanley Shapiro, who retired recently from his practice and says he is a lifelong Democrat. “From what I’ve watched on television and read in the papers, he’s acting clinically unbalanced.”

At the same time, senior Senate aides from both sides of the aisle report that while Lieberman has always been unpredictable and difficult to work with, it’s a trait that became magnified after he lost his primary challenge to Ned Lamont in 2006.

The psychiatrists all spoke in their professional capacity and, to ensure I wasn’t inadvertently interviewing only doctors who tilt left, I asked each to identify their political views. Of the five, one described their views as progressive or Democratic, two say they lean towards “conservative” or “Republican” and one refused to indicate their political position. Some would speak for attribution but others requested anonymity, citing professional concerns.

“He contradicts himself from day to day,” notes Dr. Irvin Wolkoff, citing as an example Lieberman’s statement last Friday that he would wait for the Congressional Budget Office to “score” the then-compromise version of the Senate health care bill before deciding whether to support the bill – and then appearing on Face the Nation two days later voicing die-hard opposition.

Dr. Wolkoff, a self-described conservative, summed up Lieberman in two words.

“He’s meshugener,” the psychiatrist stated matter-of-factly, using the Yiddish word for “crazy person.” Asked if this is a personal or professional opinion, Dr. Wolkoff replied half-jokingly, “maybe a bit of both.”

In other words, no one – people working on the Hill, Pres. Obama or people in The White House, voters back in Connecticut or cable news’ talking heads – should be surprised that it’s impossible to negotiate with Lieberman on health care or anything else substantive. He’s simply acting crazy.

The Beytrayed’s Revenge

The question is why; what might explain Lieberman’s behaviour?

“No doubt, Lieberman felt betrayed by voters in 2006,” says a Boston analyst who does not want her name used, “and this is his unconscious acting out a sort of ‘revenge of the betrayed.’ I see it frequently in my practice with patients who are angry that their spouse had an affair or who lost their job in circumstances they consider unfair.”

Several other psychiatrists echo her judgment.

“When he felt cornered, he even abandoned his own long-held policies,” states a Chicago psychiatrist under assurances of anonymity. “He’s favoured a Medicare buy-in since 2000 but dropped (his support) in a day because a liberal Democrat in the House said it was a good idea.

“This is the mark of someone grappling with major psychological issues,” the politically independent doctor concludes. “He needs help and, meantime, he’s damaging himself and the nation.”

Hillside Manner

Senate staffers are as worried about Sen. Lieberman as are mental health professionals.

A half-dozen senior aides interviewed for this article expressed varying degrees of frustration and despair in dealing with the Senator and his staff. None allowed their name to be used because they’re not authorised to speak to the media on-the-record.

“He’s always been a problem child,” says a senior staff member of a Republican senator, “but in the last few years Sen. Lieberman often seems disconnected with what is happening around him.”

When that occurs, said another who works for a long-time Democratic senator, “he lashes out.”

In her Friday column in the New York Times, Gail Collins, who has covered Lieberman since the days when he was a Connecticut state senator, is more colourfully blunt:

“Observers who have known him for a long time feel as though they’re living out a scene in a science-fiction movie when the guy who’s just been bitten by the vampire-moose comes home and sits down to dinner, unaware that he’s sprouting antlers.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bah Humbug! Holiday Films So Cute I Puke

Crank up the schmaltz and mix in a preposterous plot. It’s nearly Christmas and for the next few weeks we’ll be bombarded with movies that give me hives.

We’ve all had the experience of wandering into the wrong bar and immediately realizing that, unless we leave quickly, something horrid will occur. This has happened to me in Toronto, once in Detroit, twice in Jamaica where every local bar seems to have something bad happening in it, and in Manhattan’s meat packing district. In each case, I sized up the situation fast, realised that my life hung in the balance and beat a hasty retreat.

This is exactly how I feel about Christmas movies.

If I turn on television and the words “John Hughes,” “Chevy Chase,” “Tim Allen” and “Dan Aykroyd” pop up on the screen, my blood runs cold, my temples throb and I switch over to Fat Boy Hackeysack on ESPN2, or faux history shows like Ancestors in the Attic and Ice Road Truckers. I’d rather watch more bad news from Afghanistan on BBC World, or even Céline Dion on Ice.

In fact, I’ll watch almost anything other than Christmas movies, which have one of only four plots: Cuddly, cloying, cretinous and cute.

It’s a Wonderful Life, a story about a small-time banker with a heart of gold, manages to combine all four elements as it inexplicably lionises a mulyak who risks the financial health of his entire community by making a series of bad loans to people who are in no position to repay them. Particularly unsuitable for holiday viewing this year, the 1947 Frank Capra-corn film should be re-titled It’s A Wonderful Subprime Life, with Bernie Madoff and the entire AIG board in digitally manipulated cameo appearances.

A Christmas Carol, in any of its myriad versions, perpetuates the myth that the obscenely rich can be made to see the error of their ways and be rehabilitated even though anyone who has ever dealt with someone obscenely rich knows it isn’t true.

Miracle on 34th Street, in which a department store Santa goes on trial to prove that Kris Kringle actually exists, has been tugging at heartstrings for so long that everybody’s heartstrings are completely tugged out.

Where Old Stars Die

More recent Christmas movies resemble elephants’ graveyards where deposed matinee idols go to die. How sad to see Robert Mitchum, at the tail end of his brilliant career, trading one-liners in Scrooged with a smarmy Bill Murray. How distressing to see Jamie Lee Curtis, once the very hottest of the hot, served up as a paunchy sight gag in a skimpy bikini in Christmas with the Kranks. How unsettling to see Robert Duvall in Four Christmases.

These people were genuine stars. Not stand-up comics like Will Ferrell or Chevy Chase or Vince Vaughn who get cast in films only because they sell tickets, but bona fide movie stars. Christmas With the Kranks is so bad that after 20 minutes, I switched the audio from to French from English and SAP’d Korean subtitles hoping it would make Aykroyd seem amusing.

Pas de chance.

The kids in Christmas films don’t help.

The precocious tyke who rides in Santa’s sleigh in The Santa Clause is so overbearing that I keep hoping Dancer and Prancer will leave him behind on an ice floe to get ripped to shreds by polar bears. The moppets in Miracle on 34th Street, Jingle All the Way, and Elf make me ask if there are no orphanages. Even Home Alone, which was entertaining enough when first released, ultimately becomes impossible to watch. Not only did it lead to Home Alone 2, Home Alone 3 and Daniel Stern’s career, but because Macaulay Culkin eventually turned into the kind of showbiz monster the entire planet should forget.

Along with my Aunt Fay, a niece in my ex-wife’s family was born on Christmas morning. Not long after she first drew breath, I began haunting video stores, buying up every copy of Dolly Parton’s A Smoky Mountain Christmas so that she would never witness the holiday depths to which Hollywood could sink. As it turns out, a great advantage of having a niece born on Dec. 25th is that Christmas babies, without exception, revile Christmas movies.

Some Respite

Of course, there are some Christmas movies that do not induce nausea or hives.

Love, Actually is redeemed by Bill Nighy’s memorable turn as a washed-up rocker trying to cash in on the holiday season. Once you get past all the bayonets, tear gas and intestines flying through the air, Joyeux Noël – an odd 2006 French flick about an improbable Yuletide truce during the First World War – is bearable enough. Then there’s the strange Un Conte de Noël, starring Catherine Deneuve. Putting Catherine Deneuve in a Christmas movie is a cheap trick because Catherine Deneuve is France’s Christmas gift to humanity. Merci beaucoup. Merci, mille fois.

Oh. Before I forget, in Un Conte de Noël Deneuve plays a woman dying of leukaemia who hates her kids. This is the French idea of Christmas cheer.

If I could give a gift to Christmas Day itself, it would be the promise that there would never be another Christmas movie. Obviously I can’t do this because Christmas Day is an abstraction that can’t receive gifts and I don’t have the power to make such a guarantee anyway.

Until then, I stick to my all-time favourite Christmas movie: Bad Santa, a vicious, uncompromising attack on the entire genre featuring Billy Bob Thornton as the grumpy old elf in an unrelentingly funny performance almost on a par with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. A particularly acrid feature of Bad Santa is casting child actor Brett Kelly as a dim witted porker who honestly believes that Thornton’s debased department store Santa is the real McCoy. I only wish that my aunt had lived long enough to see this film; she would have loved it.

And if you’re truly in a foul mood from watching too many Christmas movies, there’s always Sarah Silverman’s holiday music video.

To you, the best of the holiday season – which is more likely to happen if you avoid holiday movies. They’re so cute you could puke.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Paul Volcker Body Slams World Bankers

It wasn’t the kind of genteel discussion the world’s highest-level bankers probably expected when a large group of them gathered at a posh Surrey country house hotel in England this week for a conference under the cosy auspices of the very friendly Wall Street Journal and billed as the “Future of Finance Initiative.”

I’ve covered this sort of conference in the past and, other than the topic, they’re all basically the same: A group of mostly-men, nearly all very white, all very wealthy, typically in their late 50s and early 60s, wearing very expensive suits sitting in a comfy room somewhere plush listening to what they want to hear. The meals are lavish, golf outings plentiful, the time convivial and private jets wait at a nearby strip to ferry them home when it’s over.

So they must have been dumbstruck when Paul Volcker, head of Pres. Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board and former chair of the Federal Reserve, rose to his considerable full height to deliver one body slam after another. He scolded them like they were school boys who got caught being naughty and are sloughing off what they did as a harmless prank.

First, he took after the billions in salaries and bonuses bankers in the room are still hauling in, even in the wake of the financial sector meltdown that almost ruined the global economy. Volcker fumed, “Has there been one financial leader to say this is really excessive? Wake up, gentlemen. Your response … has been inadequate.”

The colour must have drained from the assembled faces and pink may not have had time to return to the well-fed cheeks when he delivered another round-house punch. He attacked the rise of incomprehensible products such as credit default swaps, the instrument that brought down AIG and Lehman Bros., and almost took a half-dozen major banks along with it.

“I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth — one shred of evidence,” Volcker slapped.

No Real Innovation

According to a report at TimesOn-Line, no one in the audience disputed him, instead arguing that “innovation” was a necessity for bankers while claiming re-regulating the sector would sound a death knell for any new clever products. A clearly irritated Volcker shot back that the biggest innovation in the banking industry over the past 20 years was the cash machine.

Why didn’t Pres. Obama deliver this speech when he spoke to bankers on Wall St. a few months ago? Better late than never, I suppose, and bankers are slightly more likely to pay attention to Volcker than to Obama as evidenced by the fact that several major US bank CEOs turned down the invitation to hear the president speak.

Volcker went on to note that financial services in the US increased its share of value to 6.5% from 2%, demanding to know whether it’s “a reflection of your financial innovation, or just a reflection of what you’re paid?”

A mighty sigh of relief must have filled the chamber when Volcker sat down. Little did they know that another chilling contribution from Sir Deryck Maughan, a partner in private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and a former head of investment bank Salomon Bros., was awaiting them.

Sir Deryck took after bank’s risk management techniques, warning delegates that many of the flawed mathematical models underpinning the banks failed approaches are still being used, saying that the industry had not “faced up to the intellectual failure of risk management systems, which are still hardwired into many banks and many trading floors.”

He also questioned whether taxpayers should continue to underwrite many of those risks.

“There’s something wrong about large proprietary risks being taken at the risk of taxpayers,” he insisted.

Earlier Baroness Vadera, an adviser to the G20 and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the banking crisis — warned that European lenders had yet to acknowledge the scale of their losses and bad debts, something the Obama administration has been quietly admonishing senior government officials in France and Germany about. She said, “… some of the continental banks still have (serious) issues.”

She said she continues to have nightmares about how close the banking system came to total collapse last year.

Meanwhile, US multi-billionaire investor George Soros told the group the same thing he told Congress earlier this year: Credit default swaps should be banned. The billionaire investor likened them to buying life insurance and then giving someone a licence to shoot the insured person.

A Teachable Moment

It’s too bad that Volcker’s speech wasn’t webcast into the office of every Senator and member of Congress back in Washington. They needed to hear the message as much as did the bankers.

The fact is that while many Democrats in Congress struggle to come up with some kind of meaningful re-regulation of banks and the financial services sector generally, the very same people who were rebuked by Volcker at the conference flew home to the States to lobby on behalf of keeping the status quo. Helped by Republicans and “conservative” Democrats who receive more-than-generous campaign contributions from the very institutions that sunk the economy and millions of individuals, it’s likely that Volcker’s words will be ignored at best, forgotten at worst.

If that happens, then what Pres. Obama likes to call “a teachable moment” will be lost.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Canadian PM Harper Carries On As Bush Lite.

For as long as anyone can remember, Canada has been the world’s warm-hearted, generous friend.

When Mao’s millions were on the long march, Canadian physician Dr. Norman Bethune went to China to care for the sick, wounded and disabled making the trek, regardless of their politics.

Because British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery used Canadian troops as disposable cannon fodder during World War II, the nation’s soldiers liberated places like Central Italy and Holland after ferocious fighting left thousands of Canadians dead and wounded. To this day, the Dutch of all ages revere Canadians. I was in a small café in rural Holland one evening and when people learned I was from Toronto, they insisted on paying for my food and drinks, not taking no for an answer after inviting me to join them rather than eating alone. I felt like Tony Bennett at an AARP convention.

When England, France and Israel tried grabbing the Suez Canal from the Egyptians in the mid-50s, Canada’s then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson rushed to the UN and worked out a peaceful end to the disaster. Blue helmeted Canadian peace keepers became a welcomed site in war-torn nations everywhere since then.

All during the Bush years, countless Americans pasted Canadian flag decals on their luggage or backpacks and wore the Maple Leaf flag in their lapel when travelling the world ‘lest they be taunted, tormented or worse as if they were Yanks, even in friendly nations. No one hates Canada.

But Stephen Harper, prime minister of a minority Canadian government since February, 2006, is doing his Bushian best to change this.


Harper is such a reactionary, so Neanderthal in his outlook, beliefs and world view that he makes Mike Huckabee seem qualified to lead by comparison.

If you’ve never seen a picture of Harper, he’s the guy at the far end of the line of world leaders at G8 summits, usually wearing an ill-fitting, tan sports jacket and looking so out of place, he seems like the bookkeeper who came to do the accounts, stumbled into the wrong room by mistake and ended up in the photo before anyone realised he was there.

Canadians, or at least those who don’t live in Alberta which is Harper’s home and political base, are well aware of his many shortcomings.

For example, as the world economy collapsed last year, he refused to even consider a stimulus package until the three main opposition parties in Parliament – Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois – threatened to gang up and topple his minority government. An election was avoided only because Harper reluctantly supported a robust bill to help relieve the hideous problems facing Canadians. One result is that Canada now owns about 5% of GM, which has several large factories in Ontario and saving thousands of jobs. While many of its people are still struggling, Canada seems to be inching out of the Great Recession more easily than the US, no thanks to Harper’s darkly distorted ideology and widely discredited view of the role of government.

Extreme Naiveté

Like his role model and folk hero George W. Bush, Harper is busy doing as much damage to Canada’s world role as he is to its long tradition of providing a functional social safety net.

Just this week, in a move totally out of character for China – especially for senior government officials – as Harper stepped off his government green Boeing 757 jet at Beijing’s Capitol Airport, he was pointedly and publicly rebuked by both its premier and president for not visiting the country sooner. After the US, China is one of Canada’s largest trading partners and huge numbers of Chinese live here: Toronto has the largest Chinese community outside of Asia and Vancouver is home to the second-largest. The two countries have been strategically important to each other since the early 1960s.

“For some reason, Harper thinks he doesn’t like China, if he thinks about it at all,” a career foreign service officer with decades of experience dealing with the country told me. Although not authorised to speak publicly, I’ve known and trusted this source since 1993 when I made the first of nearly a dozen trips to Beijing, Shanghai and other provinces.

“We’ve been after the (Prime Minister’s Office) to schedule a trip for as long as Harper has been PM,” he continued. “The Chinese embassy here suggested a number of dates and became insulted when Harper’s people kept saying ‘no’.

“It was increasingly embarrassing to both sides, which is why (prime minister) Wen Jia Bao and (president) President Hu Jin Tao both gave him a polite but very public slap when he arrived in Beijing. Anyone who knows Chinese culture grasped that they are really pissed.”

Two other officials in the foreign affairs ministry essentially confirmed the information.

“I don’t know if he (Harper) is extremely naïve or doesn’t like Chinese food or it’s something else,” one of them complained. “It was especially insulting to the Chinese that he made several official trips to Asia since taking office but wouldn’t stop for a day or two in China.”

“In working with the people around Harper, I get the feeling they don’t grasp the diplomatic, business and foreign policy importance of China to Canada,” the third stated in exasperation.

By comparison, each of Harper’s three predecessors made countless trips to China. Jean Chrétien went so often when he was Prime Minister, insiders jokingly wondered if he was hiding a second family in Beijing.

It Gets Worse

As if the Beijing photo-op wasn’t personally embarrassing enough, his nation chastised by an old friend, other Harper foreign policy disasters lie scattered around the world.

Last week, a special Parliamentary committee on Afghanistan – where Canadian troops have been fighting since the beginning – was stunned when a senior intelligence officer testified that insurgents captured by Canadian forces were tortured when they were turned over to the Afghan government. Even more shocking, Richard Colvin revealed that during his 18 months stationed in Kabul, cabinet ministers in Harper’s government knew it was happening.

Colvin directly contradicted three years of assurances by Harper that there was no credible evidence prisoners handed over to local authorities were tortured.

Colvin said the sweeping roundups of prisoners – many of them innocent by-standers – and their subsequent torture drove a wedge between Canada and the people of Kandahar where most Canadian troops are stationed, destroying much of the good will soldiers died to achieve.

"In my judgment, (our) complicity in torture turned local people against us," Colvin told a hushed room, where opposition MPs sat slack jawed and open-mouthed at what they were hearing.

"According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure,” Colvin insisted.

Colvin said he remains concerned because Canada continues to hand over its prisoners to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service.

While the Harper government first denied the claim, within days Foreign Minister Peter McKay admitted Colvin’s testimony was true but only after memos incriminating the government were leaked.

Same At Gitmo

Harper is equally indifferent about a Canadian citizen detained for years at Guantanamo Bay.

Omar Khadr was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan by Americans and shipped to Gitmo where a secret video of him begging for help from someone he thought was a diplomat but was really an intelligence officer was leaked. Khadr has told officials he was a soldier only because his father, now living in Pakistan, threatened to kill him if he didn’t. Evidence indicates that Khadr hadn’t shot or killed any US forces, as his original detention alleged, and now the US wants to send him home.

But Harper is blocking it, forcing the Supreme Court of Canada to intervene and agree to hear the case. Nothing in Canadian law allows the government to refuse entry to a citizen but Harper doesn’t want the boy – who’s now 22 – to be reunited with his family.

O, Canada. Stephen Harper stands on guard for who?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

We Can’t “Train” Our Way Out Of Afghanistan

According to a BBC news report, last week in Kabul “an American service member and an Afghan police officer got into an argument because the American was drinking water in front of the Afghan police, who are not eating or drinking … because of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan … (The policeman) shot the American and seriously wounded him, while other American troops responded by seriously wounding the (policeman).”

This depressing vignette spotlights the problem for American troops in Afghanistan. And it shows the problems Afghans have with ignorant foreigners whose boorish insensitivity would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.

A perceptive American military officer told The Washington Post that “Having US troops enforcing martial law where they don’t understand the people or speak the language — this is a recipe for disaster.” Quite so, although using the phrase “martial law” is a bit disconcerting.

The same applies to training the Afghan army and police, a key component of Pres. Obama’s escalation. Training and “mentoring” of Afghan troops and police by Americans – lush with shades of Vietnam-era condescension – won’t work and we can’t “train” our way out of the country.

Sounds Like “Stripes”

To begin with, along with the US Army, training is conducted by different nations, none of which use similar methods. Indeed, NATO and troops from other nations don’t have compatible rules of engagement, communications or logistics systems, equipment, command structures or domestic political pressures. NATO and the “International Security Assistance Force” have some 65,000 troops there. About half are American, but more than 30,000 other US troops operate under entirely US command, having nothing to do with NATO.

To say this is fucked-up is being polite. Here are the lordly superior nations of the West, intent on bringing law, order and clean government to Afghanistan – a land where none of the three has ever existed – and they do not have a single headquarters responsible for commanding all military operations.

If a young captain at West Point proposed such a structure in a term paper, he would flunk out of the academy. It all sounds like a scene from the Bill Murray and Harold Ramis film, Stripes. Except Stripes was a comedy and we’re talking about the real world.

There is no overall Mission Statement for the 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. As the war intensifies, it is likely that national contingents now operating in comparatively safe areas will be subjected to action by warlords, Taliban, drug barons and other criminal thugs. If this happens – and we’re beginning to see some of it already in the previously peaceful north – there will be even more chaos.

Fiasco Looms

The US says that training soldiers is the responsibility of the Afghan army with our assistance. True, as far as it goes. But at least six countries are involved in training Afghans, a surefire recipe for confusion. So last April, realising that the training process had failed, NATO announced it would create a Training Mission with “a single commander for both the US-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan and the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan.”

Good luck trying, but it won’t work. What is needed is a stand-alone training system that could be designed in detail by a competent major in about a week.

One reason the US Army is so good is because all recruits are functionally literate and speak English, along with whatever other language they may know. The dedication and ingenuity of their instructors is utterly amazing. The logistics system is, for the most part, staggeringly efficient. A former Army drill sergeant once told me about one of his fresh-faced recruits with size 16 feet who showed up at basic training. The Army doesn’t stock size 16 boots so the quartermaster phoned the boot supplier; two pairs arrived the next day.

Afghanistan doesn’t have supply lines efficient enough to deliver food around the country, let alone a constant stream of goods and ammunition to troops in remote outposts.

Beyond supplies, it takes at least a year to produce a reasonably efficient soldier — and that’s with an almost perfect system. It would be criminal to ask a soldier to hazard his or her life before they were competent.

But Afghan army training is only 10 weeks, and 90% of recruits are illiterate. Worse, they seldom speak the same language as either their peers or the foreigners instructing them. Afghan instructors are keen but barely effective. US and other foreign instructors may be good but most are depressingly ignorant of Afghanistan’s language, culture and customs. Moreover, with a desertion rate of 25%, the country’s troops and police have a turnover rate that would cripple even the best training regimen.

Fighters Diverted To Training

It’s reported that, as part of Obama’s surge, one brigade of the 82nd Airborne will be deployed to serve as trainers. But the 82nd Airborne is a regular Army brigade trained hard and tough to fight; unit members are not trained to train.

What a farce.

The training system in Afghanistan won’t work, nor will the absurdly complex new command arrangements being put in place. For example, there will be a “new ISAF Upper Command Structure, (which) will consist of a higher operational Headquarters, ISAF HQ commanded by a 4-star General, and a subordinate 3-star HQ called ISAF Joint Command (IJC) HQ. Both will be located in Kabul …” And so on.

In a marvellous piece of military speak, another bulletin announces that “COMIC-J (emphasis mine) will be exclusively a NATO Commander, as opposed to COMNTM-A who will be double-hatted as NATO/ISAF Commander and Commander of the US-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A).”

COMIC? I couldn’t make it up. But it’s all too real, if barely believable.

Heaven help Afghanistan, our soldiers sent to fight and die there for no good reason, and the rest of us.