Thursday, May 5, 2011

NATO in Libya

A Fire That Could Burn Everyone

By FIDEL CASTRO

You may agree or not with Gaddafi’s political ideas, but no one has the right to question the existence of Libya as an independent state and member of the United Nations.

The world has not yet reached the point which, in my view, is an essential condition for the survival of our human species: access by all the peoples to the material resources of this planet. There is no other in the Solar System that we know that has the most elemental conditions for life.

The United States itself always tried to be a melting pot of all races, all beliefs and all nations: white, black, yellow, the Indians and mixed races, with no other differences than those between the masters and slaves, the rich and poor; but all within its borders: To its North was Canada; to the South, Mexico; to the East, the Atlantic Ocean and to the West, the Pacific Ocean. Alaska, Puerto Rico and Hawaii were simple historical accidents.

What makes the issue complicated is that it does not imply the noble wish of those fighting for a better world, which deserves as much respect as the peoples’ religious beliefs do. It would only take some kind of radioactive isotopes that stemmed from the enriched uranium used by thermonuclear plants in relatively small amounts—since they do not exist in nature—to put an end to the fragile existence of our species. Keeping those wastes in increasing volumes, under reinforced concrete and steel coffins, is one of the major challenges for technology.

Events like the Chernobyl accident or the earthquake in Japan have revealed those mortal risks.

This is not the issue I’d like to address today, but how amazed I was yesterday to see, on Walter Martinez’s show “Dossier” on Venezuelan television, the filmed images of the meeting between the chief of the US Department of Defense Robert Gates and the U.K. Defense Minister, Liam Fox, who visited the United States to discuss the criminal war unleashed by NATO against Libya. It was something difficult to believe, the British minister won an “Oscar”; he was a bundle of nerves, he was tense and spoke like crazy; and he gave the impression that he was just spitting out the words.

Of course, he first got to the entrance of the Pentangon, where Gates was awaiting him with a smile. The flags of both countries, the one of the ancient British colonial empire and that of its stepson, the United States Empire, flew high on both sides as the two national anthems were played. Right hand on chest, the rigorous and solemn military salute of the ceremony given by the host country. This was the initial act. Later, the two ministers stepped into the US Defense building. They are supposed to have spoken for a long time, given the images I saw, as each of them returned with a speech in hand, undoubtedly prepared in advance.

The context of this entire scenario was made up by personnel in uniform. On the left I could see a tall, slim young soldier, who seemed to have a shaved redhead, wearing a cap with the black peak pulled nearly down to his throat, presenting his bayoneted rifle. He did not blink nor seem to breathe, like the figure of a soldier ready to shoot a rifle bullet or a nuclear rocket with a destructive capacity of 100 thousand tons of TNT. Gates spoke showing the smile and natural manners of a host. The British man, however, did so in the way I explained.

I have not often seen anything more horrifying than this; he was releasing hatred, frustration, fury and using threatening language against the Libyan leader and urging his unconditional surrender. He looked indignant because the powerful NATO warplanes had not been able to crush the Libyan resistance in 72 hours.

He was only missing the exclamation: “blood, sweat and tears,” just like Winston Churchill when he calculated the price to be paid by his country in the fight against the Nazi warplanes. But in this case, the Nazi-fascist role is being played by NATO with its thousands of bombing missions by the most modern aircraft ever known by the world.

To cap it all came the decision by the US administration to authorize the use of drones to kill Libyan men, women and children, like in Afghanistan, thousands of kilometers from Western Europe, but this time against an Arab and African country, before the eyes of hundreds of millions of Europeans and no less than in the name of the United Nations Organization.

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday said that these acts of war were illegal and they are outside the framework of the accords adopted by the UN Security Council.

The crude attacks against the Libyan people, which have taken on a Nazi-fascist character, may be used against any Third World nation.

I am really amazed at the resistance posed by Libya.

The belligerent organization now depends on Gaddafi. If he resists and does not yield to their demands, he will enter history as one of the great figures of the Arab nations.

NATO is poking a fire that could burn everyone!

Obama's Broken Guantánamo Promise

Betraying the Constitution

Obama's Broken Guantánamo Promise

By SHELDON RICHMAN

IThe latest leaks of classified documents, which show that the U.S. government imprisoned hundreds of men at Guantánamo Bay on the most dubious "evidence," brings to mind the question, Why hasn't President Obama kept his promise to close the infamous prison that will forever stain America's honor?

As the UK Guardian, one of the newspapers that disclosed the documents, reported, "The U.S. military dossiers ... reveal how, alongside the so-called 'worst of the worst', many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds, or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment.... More than two years after President Obama ordered the closure of the prison, 172 are still held there.... The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence."

Many men were detained on the basis of hearsay after the U.S. government paid bounties for information. Some detainees had traveled to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban in the civil war, then were declared enemies of the United States after its invasion in October 2001. After years in custody hundreds of men whom the Bush administration had branded as the monsters were released, indicating they were no threat at all. For this reason Guantánamo is an international symbol of American criminality.

In March Obama signed an executive order permitting him to hold detainees indefinitely without charge or trial. The administration wishes to keep some prisoners in custody even though the supposed evidence against them would not be admissible in a court or even in a military tribunal, which has far less protection for defendants. Some of that evidence was obtained by methods most would regard as torture.

More than a year after Guantánamo was to be closed it remains open. Why, and why has Obama largely escaped criticism for breaking such an important pledge?

Previously the president's defenders have claimed that his efforts to close the prison were thwarted by members of Congress, mostly Republicans. Is that true?

Obama signed an executive order calling for the closure two days after he was inaugurated in 2009, when the facilities held 241 prisoners. But "the fanfare never translated into the kind of political push necessary to sustain the policy," reports the Washington Post. "The White House, often without much internal deliberation, retreated time and again in the face of political opposition."

Obama did not want to risk political capital on the matter, and no leader in Congress was willing to go out on a limb without presidential backing.

The Post reports that Obama was shocked to learn that only 20–36 of the detainees could be brought to trial: "White House officials were in such disbelief that they asked Justice Department participants to write up a memo explaining exactly why they couldn't bring more of the men to trial. In many cases, the intelligence gathered on the men was not court-worthy evidence."

Administration officials claim to be surprised that in May 2009 the Senate voted overwhelmingly against an appropriation to close Guantánamo. But how could they really have been surprised when they did little or nothing to support the objective? The Post makes clear that public opinion polls running against closure also played a role in Obama's retreat. His advisors warned that the issue would imperil his larger agenda.

Thus President Obama, the man heralded as a new kind of politician, is revealed as just another officeholder looking out for his own political fortunes. The United States had betrayed its commitment to due process and the rule of law, but rectifying that shameful record could not be allowed to impede the president's political objectives. That demonstrates a perverse set of priorities.

It's par for the course with Obama. Since taking office he has escalated the covert wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia and has doubled down on Afghanistan. The resulting casualties and destruction have fueled further anti-American resentment. Now he is using drones over Libya, recklessly endangering the innocent. He has done what few once thought possible: out-war-mongered the Bush-Cheney gang.

And for the most part, the phony anti-war activists of the Bush years have lost their voices.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation and and editor of The Freeman magazine.

Why are We Still in Afghanistan?

If This is Victory, Shouldn't US Forces Go Home?

Why are We Still in Afghanistan?

By ROBERT FISK

So why are we in Afghanistan? Didn't the Americans and the British go there in 2001 to fight Osama bin Laden? Wasn't he killed on Monday? There was painful symbolism in the Nato airstrike yesterday – scarcely 24 hours after Bin Laden's death – that killed yet more Afghan security guards. For the truth is that we long ago lost the plot in the graveyard of empires, turning a hunt for a now largely irrelevant inventor of global jihad into a war against tens of thousands of Taliban insurgents who have little interest in al-Qa'ida, but much enthusiasm to drive Western armies out of their country.

The gentle hopes of Hamid Karzai and Hillary Clinton – that the Taliban will be so cowed by the killing of Bin Laden that they will want to become pleasant democrats and humbly join the Western-supported and utterly corrupt leadership of Afghanistan – shows just how out of touch they are with the blood-soaked reality of the country. Some of the Taliban admired Bin Laden, but they did not love him and he had been no part of their campaign against Nato. Mullah Omar is more dangerous to the West in Afghanistan than Bin Laden. And we haven't killed Omar.

Iran, for once, spoke for millions of Arabs in its response to Bin Laden's death. "An excuse for alien countries to deploy troops in this region under the pretext of fighting terrorism has been eliminated," its foreign ministry spokesman has said. "We hope this development will end war, conflict, unrest and the death of innocent people, and help to establish peace and tranquility in the region."

Newspapers across the Arab world said the same thing. If this is such a great victory for the United States, it's time to go home; which, of course, the US has no intention of doing just now.

That many Americans think the same thing is not going to change the topsy-turvy world in which US policy is framed. For there is one home truth which the world still has not grasped: that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt – and, more pressing, the bloodbaths in Libya and Syria and the dangers to Lebanon – are of infinitely graver importance than blowing away a bearded man who has been elevated in the West's immature imagination into Hitlerian proportions.

Turkish prime minister Erdogan's brilliant address in Istanbul yesterday – calling for the Syrians to stop killing their people and for Gaddafi to leave Libya – was more eloquent, more powerful and more historic than the petty, boastful, Hollywood speeches of Obama and Clinton on Monday. We are now wasting our time speculating who will "take over" al-Qa'ida – Zawahiri or Saif al-Adel – when the movement has no "leadership" as such, Bin Laden being the founder rather than the boss.

But, a day being a long time in the killing fields of the Middle East, just 24 hours after Osama Bin Laden died, other questions were growing thicker yesterday. If, for example, Barack Obama really thinks the world is "a safer place" after Bin Laden's death, how come the US has increased its threat alert and embassies around the world are being told to take extra precautions against attack?

And just what did happen in that tatty compound – no longer, it seems, a million-dollar "mansion" – when Bin Laden's sulphurous life was brought to an end? Human Rights Watch is unlikely to be the only institution to demand a "thorough, transparent investigation" into the killing.

There was an initial story from Pentagon "sources" which had two of Bin Laden's wives killed and a woman held as a "human shield" dying too. Within hours, the wives were alive and in some accounts, the third woman simply disappeared.

And then of course, there's Pakistan, eagerly telling the world that it participated in the attack on Bin Laden, only to have President Zardari retract the entire story yesterday. Two hours later, we had an American official describing the attack on Bin Laden as a "shared achievement".

And there's Bin Laden's secret burial in the Arabian Sea. Was this planned before the attack on Bin Laden, with the clear plan to kill rather than capture him? And if it was carried out "according to Islamic rights" – the dead man's body washed and placed in a white shroud – it must have taken a long time for the officer on the USS Carl Vinson to devise a 50-minute religious ceremony and arrange for an Arabic-speaking sailor to translate it.

So now for a reality check. The world is not safer for Bin Laden's killing. It is safer because of the winds of freedom blowing through the Middle East. If the West treats the people of this region with justice rather than military firepower, then al-Qa'ida becomes even more irrelevant than it has been since the Arab revolutions.

Of course, there is one positive side for the Arab world. With Bin Laden killed, the Gaddafis and the Salehs and the Assads will find it all the more difficult to claim that a man who is now dead is behind the popular revolutions trying to overthrow them.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.

Obama Kills Osama

What a Difference a Consonant Makes!

Obama Kills Osama

By Dr. SUSAN BLOCK

What a difference a consonant makes: "b" instead of "s" makes you President as opposed to dead. Together they spell BS.

Of course, there's a lot more to the death of Osama bin Laden. First, it is, as of this writing, only vaguely verified, since the body was buried "out at sea" within 24 hours after the killing is said to have occurred. I'm not big on conspiracy theories, so I guess the 6'4" bearded dude American Navy Seals say they axed and tossed in the waves was probably "Geronimo" (code for Osama), but http://bloggamy.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifI have to say something smells fishy about the whole heroic tale, and it’s not just because they turned OBL into fish food.

Supposedly, American high command decided to bury the guy right away in "accordance with Muslim custom." Umm...since when has America bowed to "Muslim custom" when it comes to dealing with so-called "enemy combatants," let alone Public Enemy #1? I'm sure we're breaking all kinds of rules and customs when we bomb Muslim villages and wedding parties, not to mention incarcerate, torture and kill innocent people, but that's never stopped us from doing those things. Why suddenly so much respect for Islam for Osama's sake? Why not even a routine autopsy? Is it because the bin Laden family has clout? Or because somebody doesn't want everybody to see that body?

For these reasons, I'm about as convinced that we're getting all the facts about this Osama killing as I am sure that he was the mastermind of 9/11.

Again, I'm not claiming conspiracies, and I know, there's that tape of the guy who seems to be Osama praising the flamboyant, devastating and psychologically castrating attacks on the World Trade Centers, America's great phallic towers of power: Dick 1 and Dick 2. The organization Osama helped create, Al Qaeda, has done tremendous and despicable harm in multiple places around the world. No doubt, he was responsible for the deaths of many innocents. Still, without hard evidence, a trial, a conviction, etc., I can't be sure of exactly how OBL was involved in 9/11.

Obviously, all those folks who favored invading Iraq "because of 9/11" were confused enough that they were willing to lay the blame on Saddam Hussein and his mob without any evidence whatsoever. Not that most of America's war-mongering elite were genuinely confused; they just wanted an excuse to invade Iraq.

At the time, some people, myself included, decried the Bush administration for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and didn't even harbor Al Qaeda at the time (though now Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq practically runs the place), as well as for bombing innocent people who happened to live in Afghanistan as opposed to focusing our best intelligence and the legendary courage of our Navy Seals to somehow getting this guy Osama.

So now it seems that the "mission" has been "accomplished" (maybe). Obama got Osama (I guess), and he announced it on the 66th anniversary of the announcement of Hitler's death (did the White House PR team have a hand in choosing the date for this attack?). Well, at least the Navy Seals don't appear to have murdered too many others in the operation, so kudos for that. But please no huzzahs. Even assuming OBL was indeed the evil mastermind of 9/11, this is a time for reflection, not rejoicing, and the crowds around the White House and elsewhere celebrating and shouting "USA!" are, to say the least, rude and unseemly, reminding the world of what insensitive jerks Americans can be, giving fuel to the fire of Al Qaeda's fatwas and its supporters' passionate determination to destroy America and Americans.As I see it, this is a time for us to take a moment to reflect on the devastation of this so-called War on Terror that has evolved into our current State of Perma-War, this endless carnage and occupation which our power-loving leaders of mobs, great nations and rebel gangs around the world have wrought. This is a time to contemplate all people who have been murdered in the many perma-wars that have plagued human civilization throughout history and, I believe, a time to resolve to help bring about a more peaceful, cooperative, pleasure-oriented future for our world, a path I call the Bonobo Way.

I won't say "Rest in Peace, Osama" (like some Twitterites who don’t appear to know what RIP means). But I will not join the celebration (and as those of you who know me know, I'll use almost any excuse to celebrate!). I won't pray either, since I'm not religious in that way. I'll just think and plan and hope…and wonder.

The elites sometimes give a "present" to the people on May Day to take their minds off revolution; this year it was the death of Osama. But that gift is often a Trojan horse filled with stuff we really don't want, so let's be wary of being pushed further and deeper into perma-war on the coattails of "victory."

And that reminds me: It’s May! Merry Masturbation Month! Here's my mantra for the month: Masturbation Not Occupation! But first, like I said, a little contemplation. We've got the rest of the month--and our lives--to wank. And that's no BS.

© May 2, 2011. Dr. Susan Block is an internationally renowned LA sex therapist and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. Commit Bloggamy with her at http://drsusanblock.com/blog/ Follow her on Twitter @DrSuzy. Email comments to her at liberties@blockbooks.com

The Libyan War Crime

Did the UN Security Council Authorize Assassination?

The Libyan War Crime

By ISRAEL SHAMIR

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced on Thursday that he would soon stand before the United Nations and report on alleged Libyan war crimes. We can only hope that his brief will include the latest war crime, the murder of Qaddafi’s family, his son and three grandchildren, and the assassination attempt on the life of the Libyan leader on May Day, 2011. Cameron, Sarkozy, the NATO field commanders and the Danish air crew should all be indicted for this crime.

UNSC Resolution 1970 is not a licence to commit mass murder. The resolution simply established a no-fly zone; it was designed to stem the violence, not turn Tripoli into a killing field. This is a clear case of coldly calculated targeted murder, as ruthless and brutal as any other form of political assassination. The date of the operation was known well beforehand, and had already been openly discussed in late April by the Russian Secret Service SVR (External Intelligence Service). On April 29th, a Russian netzine published an article by Kirill Svetitsky who quoted an anonymous source within SVR:

“There will be an attempt to kill Muammar Qaddafi on or before May 2. The governments of France, Britain and the US decided on it, for the warfare in Libya does not proceed well for the anti-Libyan alliance: the regular army has substantial gains; Bedouin tribes entered the fight on the government’s side; in Benghazi, a “second front” was opened by the armed local militias who are tired of rebels’ presence, their incessant fights and robberies.

“But the main reason for the timing is that the Italian parliament plans to discuss Italy’s involvement in Libyan campaign on May 3. Until now, decisions were taken by Berlusconi, but there are strong differences of opinion within the government coalition regarding the Libyan war, and they will probably bring the government down on May 3, and Italy will effectively leave the anti-Libyan alliance. It is likely to have a domino effect. For this reason leaders of the UK, the US and France decided to eliminate Qaddafi not later than May 2d, before the session of the Italian parliament on May 3d.”

Unlike many Internet predictions, this one turned out to be timely and exact. On May 1, the US, France and the UK made a failed attempt on the life of Muammar Qaddafi, although they did succeed in killing his son and three grandchildren. Such unusual operative foreknowledge implies that Western leaders had advised the Russians of the planned attack, and that the SVR had then leaked the plans.

The attack itself imitated the Israeli technique of “targeted killings”. The Israeli Air Force is notorious for dropping a one-ton (1800 pounds) bomb on a Gazan house in an attempt to liquidate Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas leader, in 2002. As “collateral damage” 13 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed and many others injured. Among the dead were Shehadeh's wife Layla and his 15-year-old daughter Iman, who happened to be with him in the house at the time. This act of mass murder was publicly described as “a war crime”, and Israeli military personnel were later indicted in Spain and the UK.

If God does not punish Las Vegas then he owes an apology to Sodom, quipped Jay Leno. Likewise, if the initiators of the Qaddafi assassination attempt are not called to justice, then Europe owes an apology to the Israeli military.

This assassination attempt should open the eyes of those in Europe and the US who still believe that this war is ‘just’, or at least ‘justifiable’. The true reasons behind Western neocolonial interventions in the Middle East now stand revealed to all. One small example: the same source in Russian Intelligence also leaked a document, a letter from Libyan rebel leaders promising France 35 per cent of all Libyan oil. So much for humanitarian reasons!

It appears more and more that the whole Libyan affair was done up with smoke and mirrors. Initially the Benghazi Uprising was nothing more than a small local riot; the rebellion was unknown in other cities. Soon, however, the government was destabilized by Al-Jazeera, as the popular Arab network broadcast the “news” that Muammar Qaddafi and his sons had fled the country for Venezuela and that his black mercenaries were about to unleash another holocaust on hapless Libyans. Al-Jazeera’s lies have proven to be more damaging even than NATO’s bombs; they have fought Qaddafi tooth and nail, from the first rebel yell to the last foul scene of murder. Even today, while the bodies of Qaddafi’s family were spread before Libyan churchmen, al-Jazeera continued to broadcast denials from Benghazi. Stephen Lendman correctly notes that “Jazeera has become a more efficient propaganda machine against the Arab minds than the BBC ever was”. The uprising was led by Guantanamo detainees like Abu Sufian Hamuda bin Kumu. Perhaps they should be put onto the next flight back to the USA: thanks, but no thanks.

The Libyan campaign deserves to end like its predecessor,the Suez campaign – with the embarrassing withdrawal of NATO forces, and the sooner the better. Enough is enough! Let the Libyans solve their differences themselves.

First Libya, Then Syria?

Even as Libya settles into the typical intervention quagmire, developments in Syria are starting to heat up. While Russian President Medvedev did manage to override his own Foreign Office and Putin’s government, pulling off an abstention during the UNSC vote on the Libyan intervention, there is not the slightest chance for a similar trick regarding Syria. Syria has a Russian naval base in Tartus, practically the only base Russia has managed to keep out of the many Soviet bases lost, from Cuba to Vietnam. Moreover, Syria has a large Orthodox Christian community that openly supports President Bashar el Assad and is plainly nervous about the possible success of the Dera’a uprising. They believe the rebels are Salafist anti-Christian fanatics armed by the Saudis. Russia has always been the traditional protector of the Christian Orthodox in the Middle East, and is not likely to renege on its responsibilities towards these communities.

The Syrian Christian view of the protesters was expressed by the Latin Patriarch of Antioch:

“… some groups whose main objective is to provoke a violent response from the government are infiltrating the protests that originally grew from social and economic problems. Tension is stoked to the point of gaining the international community’s condemnation. There are criminals involved in the protest; there is a massive introduction of weapons in the country to provoke a confrontation... Sure, there are young, frustrated people, but many say that among them are criminals and even fundamentalist Muslims who cry for jihad. I think the tactics of a phony war are being used against Syria.”

It’s likely that Russia will defend Syria even if its government decides to crush the protesters with an iron fist, just as Hafez el Assad quelled the 1982 Hama revolt. There is a realpolitik basis for this unconditional support: Bahrain is the base of the US Fifth fleet, and that’s why Bahrain’s rulers were allowed to suppress their “freedom seekers”; Syria is the main base for the Russian Mediterranean fleet and Russia intends to keep it that way. But there is an additional reason as well: the Syrians and their Russian friends believe that the riots are instigated by foreign agencies: Saudis, Americans, Israelis. They point out that the border town of Dera’a (besides being the place where Lawrence of Arabia was flogged and abused, by his own account in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom) is a hotbed for militant Islamic radicalism of the al Qaeda variety, and is located close to the Jordanian city of Ramtha, another safe-house for Muslim radicals heavily infiltrated by the Israeli secret services.

A conspiracy theory? Perhaps, but it is a theory confirmed by the conspirators themselves. President Bashar el Assad was offered a deal by the US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy: break your ties with Hezbullah and Iran, and we will end the riots. Mostafa Zein of the knowledgeable Dar al Hayyat summed it up like this:

“The United States has drafted a roadmap for the Syrian regime, so that it may emerge from its worsening crisis, suggesting that it holds the magic key to make the protesters leave the streets. Flournoy said: “Syria must distance itself from Iran and join the Gulf states, as well as move forward in the peace process with Israel”… The Syrian regime considers such a roadmap to be a “conspiracy” targeting it from within, after the failure of pressure on it from abroad.”

As in the case of Qaddafi, the Syrian leader is not totally blameless. But, like Qaddafi, Bashar el Assad can make things better by trusting in the Syrian people, namely:

  • By giving more freedom to the Syrian people and less to his Mukhabarat, the Internal Secret Service;
  • By correcting an unjust distribution of wealth and government positions between the religious and ethnic communities of Syria (the minorities – Jews, Alawites, and Christians – have it too good at the expense of the Sunni majority);
  • By allowing political activity beyond the moribund Baath party;
  • By making peace with Muslim believers;
  • By permitting economic and social mobility and allowing elites to fail.

These goals can be obtained without catastrophic cataclysms and so they should. Granted, the Syrians have become bored with their staple diet; they want more variety. However, this desire must be achieved without destroying the country.

Syria is needed for the Middle East: it is the centerpiece of Mashreq, the Fertile Crescent, the only state in the region not subdued by the US and Israel. It is the defender of Hezbullah and an important partner of Iran. Syria is the home of Hamas émigrés, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Syria is the last refuge for the non-American Arab world.

In Israel, there are two schools regarding Syria development: the conservatives and the adventurers. The conservatives say: ‘we lived for a long time alongside the Assads, and it was safe; let us keep it this way.’ The adventurers say: ‘let us undo Syria, break it to pieces, destroy Hezbollah, eliminate Iran’s forward base and make the world safe for a generation.’ Alarmingly, Netanyahu is developing more and more connections to adventurers. He may even try to attack Lebanon, thinking that Assad has his hands too full to get involved. However, such an attack might tempt Bashar el Assad to externalize his political problem by meeting their challenge. He may decide it is better to die a martyr in a war with the Zionist enemy than suffer the fate of Saddam and Qaddafi. David Hirst, the best British expert on the Middle East, prophesied about this war in his recent (2010) book Beware of Small States. This war may become a turning point for the Middle East, with far-reaching repercussions.

There is a way out: let Turkey don the Ottoman mantle and guide the Middle East to safety. With Russian, Iranian and Chinese support, Turkey will be able to reassert its influence over its former provinces torn away by French and British armies in 1917. Regional problems should be solved regionally, without Western interference.

Israel Shamir can be reached at adam@israelshamir.net. He thanks Paul Bennett for his input.

Contrarian Speculation on Wall Street’s Future

Pride and Prejudice: Contrarian Speculation on Wall Street’s Future

Why Larry Summers’s experience on Wall Street is cause for hope.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Larry Summers is really, really smart. All discussions regarding Summers start with bloodlines: He’s the son of two distinguished economists, and the nephew of not one, but two Nobel laureates in economics (Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow). That said, Summers made the most of genetic good fortune, whizzing through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, becoming at the age of 28 one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history. Working in a variety of fields in economics, he quickly rose to the top of the profession, and in 1993 was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years by the American Economic Association to “that American economist under the age of forty who is judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.” Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that in 1987 Summers became the first social scientist to win the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, made in recognition of “ the talent, creativity, and influence of a singular young researcher.”

This story isn’t intended as a paean to Summers—he hardly needs a testimonial from me—so I’ll not tarry over his long career in public service or his shorter career as president of Harvard. Suffice it to say that, all things considered, no economist in the world can match his résumé. In light of his background and achievements, it was hardly surprising that shortly after vacating the presidency at Harvard he assumed a part-time position with a financial house, in this case the D.E. Shaw investment group in New York. The surprising thing was the way he was recruited, which is what I’d like to focus on here.

As part of the screening process, the folks at Shaw actually asked Summers—one of the world’s greatest economists—to solve math puzzles!

First, a word or two about Shaw. Almost from the time of its establishment in 1988, D.E. Shaw has been pushing the boundaries of computational finance, in so doing, developing a reputation as perhaps the geekiest quantitative investment house in New York, a financial nerdistan populated by scores of brilliant PhDs in math, computer science, economics, and engineering. Since April 2009, when reports first surfaced that Summers pocketed over $5 million in his last year at D.E. Shaw before joining the Obama administration as director of the National Economic Council, the media, when mentioning Summers and Shaw in the same story, have seldom missed an opportunity to highlight the economist’s earnings at the firm. Louise Story’s April 6, 2009, piece in the New York Times, entitled “A Rich Education for Summers (After Harvard)” is somewhat exceptional in this regard, for she focuses as much or more on the knowledge and insights Summers gained by working in such a stimulating environment.

One little tidbit in Story’s article is worth a closer look, for it gives me at least a margin of hope about our much beleaguered financial community going forward. According to Story, as part of the screening process, the folks at Shaw actually asked Summers—one of the world’s greatest economists—to solve math puzzles! Talk about meritocracy (the firm, by the way, is said to accept only 1 of every 500 applicants). Equally impressive to me is the fact that Summers didn’t tell his grand inquisitors to take a hike or just walk out of the interview. He accepted their challenge, solved the math problems posed, and was offered a job. Tell me, where else in America, or, indeed, in the world, would a senior person with Summers’s track record be asked to bring it in this way? Nowhere.

Failure is indispensable to successful design. Problems virtually always arise when engineers innovate.

Now cynics reading this piece might suggest that this story is apocryphal or at the very least made up of cloth almost whole. I had the opportunity to speak with Summers last November when he was down at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for an event sponsored by the UNC’s Global Research Institute, which I direct. While he was down here, we talked a bit about his hiring at Shaw and he confirmed that things occurred pretty much as outlined above. That’s when I started thinking about writing this article.

The financial industry certainly has its problems and it deserves its fair share of the blame for the onset of the Great Recession. Moreover, quants and the innovative financial products they “engineered” were at the center of many of the problems that arose. But quants are human (more or less!) and engineering innovations of all types have always been prone to problems early on. Although one can take the analogy too far—obviously, the innovations produced by financial engineers are not based on physical laws in the same way that innovations in construction, electrical, or chemical engineering are—in all of these areas it is humans doing the innovating. And humans, being mortals, sometimes misjudge, miscalculate, and make mistakes.

To fully realize the potential of recent financial innovations, we need to develop more sophisticated models of financial markets, learn how to evaluate risk more accurately, and better understand the complexities of human behavior.

A quarter century ago, in his classic book To Engineer is Human, Henry Petroski demonstrated rather convincingly that failure is indispensable to successful design. Problems virtually always arise when engineers innovate—think here of collapsing bridges, exploding engines, and crashing airplanes—and, once problems are exposed, engineers have generally set to work on such problems and been able to surmount them over time. In so doing, they have enhanced efficiency and improved people’s lives in many, many ways.

A similar process will likely occur in financial engineering as well. In the past, other types of financial innovations—the discounting of bills of exchange, the creation of futures markets, the advent of non-investment grade (“junk”) bonds, etc.—have had rocky starts and have faced plenty of opposition. Over time, such innovations have generally proved their worth. The same may well hold true even for many of the so-called exotic financial instruments created in recent decades; certainly, some forms of securitization have already shown their value. To fully realize the potential of recent financial innovations, though, we need to develop more sophisticated models of financial markets, learn how to evaluate risk more accurately, and better understand the complexities of human behavior. We will need to make sure that we get right the context in which financial innovation occurs, whether through more effective regulation, better incentive structures, or more training in business ethics, if not all of these things.

But I’m confident that we can do what is necessary, and I’d place my money in particular on places such as D.E. Shaw (which, admittedly, has been having a tough time of late), where brilliant people work and merit rules. Paul Volcker’s line about the ATM being the most important financial innovation of the past 25 years is a good one, but it might not be accurate if Wall Street’s meritorious quants can be tamed. Don’t bet against them.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Economists in the Wild

Economists in the Wild

Far from damaging brains and killing seals, applying basic economics to the environment preserves it.

The industrial revolution that began about 200 years ago has changed humanity’s relation to, and attitudes about, nature completely—and sometimes it has generated new views about God and nature, such as from the Transcendentalists of the 19th century. In the first half of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville reflected that in America, civilization ended where the wilderness began; life along the frontier was one of “wretchedness,” and the wilderness itself generally “impenetrable.” To de Tocqueville, the scattered frontier settlers represented “an ark of civilization in the middle of an ocean of leaves.”i How different from the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” of the 17th century, or de Tocqueville’s rendering of the American frontier, is the Transcendentalist attitude toward the wilderness that quickly emerged along with industry, as best expressed in William Wordsworth’s poem:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.ii

Perry Miller, the great scholar of American Puritanism, reflects on the implications of the Transcendental view of nature:

From vernal wood (along with Niagara Falls, the Mississippi, and the prairies) [America] can learn more from that source more conveniently than from divine revelation? Not that the nation would formally reject the Bible. On the contrary, it could even more energetically proclaim itself Christian and cherish the churches; but it could derive its inspiration from the mountains, the lakes, the forests. There was nothing mean or niggling about these, nothing utilitarian. Thus, superficial appearances to the contrary, America was not crass, materialistic: it is Nature’s nation, possessing a heart that watches and receives.iii

In practical terms, we can see that in wealthy industrialized nations, it became no longer necessary for the vast majority of people to be “tillers of the soil,” securing a tenuous existence through sweaty labor over “cursed” ground. Indeed, in the United States and Europe over the last century, the proportion of the population engaged in farming has fallen from more than 75 percent to less than 5 percent.

The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature.

The rapid material advance of the last 200 years has provided more comfortable lives in several meaningful ways: It has led to longer lifespans, conquest of diseases, and the ability of the human population to grow more rapidly and securely than at any time in previous history. (It also has provided the means of transforming social and family relations, liberating women from historically “women’s work” on the farm or in the home.) In other words, human ingenuity, technology, and innovation have largely succeeded, in wealthy nations at least, in approximating the abundance of the Garden of Eden.

However, no exertion on humanity’s part, and no conceivable innovation in technology, can succeed in re-creating the original innocence of humans in the Garden of Eden. There is perhaps a corollary here: This approximation of Eden still partakes fully of human sin.

The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature: we tear down entire mountains for their minerals; divert rivers and streams and drain swamps to provide water for modern agriculture and urban use; clear large amounts of forests for other uses, often disrupting crucial habitat for rare animal species; and too often dump our waste byproducts thoughtlessly into the air, water, and land.

Human ingenuity, technology, and innovation have largely succeeded, in wealthy nations at least, in approximating the abundance of the Garden of Eden.

But this insight contains a paradox. Environmentalism arose precisely because we have mitigated the material harshness of human life through the Industrial Revolution; as Aldo Leopold, author of the classic environmental book A Sand County Almanac, put it: “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”iv It is no coincidence that environmental sensibility arose first and has its strongest influence in wealthy nations. The affluent society does not wish to be the effluent society. Meanwhile, the poorest and most undeveloped nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America today suffer the worst environmental degradation and have the least public support for environmental protection. The wealth and technological innovation (spurred more by markets than government dictates) of industrialized nations provides the means for environmental improvement and remediation.

Air and water pollution in the United States and Europe, for example, have fallen substantially over the last 40 years (and will continue to abate in the coming decades), although they are still worsening in most underdeveloped nations. Forestlands, according to recent United Nations (UN) data, are expanding in the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia, but are still contracting in underdeveloped nations.

The point is that our conquest of nature through technology and material progress has enabled our increasing appreciation and concern for it. “The wilderness” is now regarded not as an inhospitable realm to avoid or conquer, but as a source of wonder to be celebrated and preserved. This change in outlook, however, extends beyond just our attitudes and sentiments: prosperity has also become the foundation for improving our environment.

The Revolution in Environmental Economics

At first sight, the connection between rising material standards and environmental improvement seems a paradox, because for a long time many considered material prosperity and population growth the irreversible engines of environmental destruction. Paul Ehrlich, the famous author of The Population Bomb, which predicted that runaway population growth would lead to mass starvation and ecological devastation, offered a seemingly scientific formula for this relationship: I = PAT, where I = impact on the planet, P = population, A = affluence, and T = technology. In other words, to minimize our impact on the planet, there need to be fewer humans, we need to be poorer, and we need to have less technology.v

Our conquest of nature through technology and material progress has enabled our increasing appreciation and concern for it.

In the 1970s, the common theme was that the world was in danger of running out of key natural resources perhaps as soon as the year 2000. The 1972 Limits to Growth study, for example, predicted that the world would run out of gold, zinc, mercury, and oil before 1992;vi the U.S. government’s1980 Global 2000 report predicted that the world would face an oil shortage of 20 million barrels a day by 2000 and that oil would cost $100 a barrel. As recently as 1993, David Brower published a full-page ad in the New York Times featuring a headline that read, “Economics is a form of brain damage.” Not long before, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, environmental activist Hazel Henderson suggested that economists should be sent to re-education camps.vii

Today, the “population bomb” looks very different than in 1968, and there has been a revolution in thought about how to regard resource scarcity. Far from experiencing runaway population growth, fertility rates have fallen so fast around the world that the UN now forecasts global population will peak sometime after mid-century—within the lifetime of young adults alive today—and then probably begin declining by the end of the century. There are many factors in the fertility rate decline, but the most powerful correlation appears to be the spread of individual freedom and democracy.

Population growth is still the chief driver of serious environmental problems in the developing world, but it no longer appears that planet is fated to experience runaway population growth and mass starvation because of the simple fact that we have been able to expand food production much more quickly than population over the last two generations. Mass famines—once a regular occurrence in the human story—now seldom occur, and when they do chiefly result from wars or political disruptions rather than an intrinsic shortage of foodstuffs or basic resource constraints. In the light of this experience, the Evangelical Environmental Network’s “Declaration on the Care of Creation” strikes an obsolete note by saying that “these [environmental] degradations are signs that we are pressing against the finite limits God has set for creation. With continued population growth, these degradations will become more severe.”viii

The role of markets and property rights in promoting environmental protection is conspicuously missing from most evangelical literature about the environment.

Environmental economics has undergone a revolution over the last generation as well, such that almost no environmentalist today would repeat Brower’s slogan that “economics is a form of brain damage.” To the contrary, one of the most widely accepted ideas in the field today is a concept known as the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” (EKC), named for Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, who postulated in the 1950s that income inequality first increases and then declines with economic growth as nations develop and grow. Over the last two decades, more and more economists have come to recognize and provide empirical support for applying Kuznets’s concept to the environment.

The EKC holds that the relationship between economic growth and environmental quality is an inverted U-shape, according to which environmental conditions deteriorate during early stages of economic growth, but begin to improve after a certain threshold of wealth is achieved. For example, not a single American city ranks among the World Bank’s ranking of the 50 most polluted cities in the world, and only one European city—Athens—makes the top 50. It is possible to observe the EKC in action in some developing nations where pollution is now falling after decades of growing worse. Air pollution in Mexico City, for example, has been falling for the last decade, though Mexico City still has a long way to go to match the progress of American cities.

Recently surveying this new thinking, University of California physicist Jack Hollander concluded that “the essential prerequisites for a sustainable environmental future are a global transition from poverty to affluence, coupled with a transition to freedom and democracy.”ix Both the World Bank and the UN Environment Program recognize the applicability of the EKC in their latest thinking about sustainable development. The Evangelical Environmental Network’s “Declaration on the Care of Creation” gets this point right in its statement that “We recognize that poverty forces people to degrade creation in order to survive; therefore we support the development of just, free economies which empower the poor and create abundance without diminishing creation’s bounty.”x

Property Rights Preserve Nature

It is no coincidence that environmental sensibility arose first and has its strongest influence in wealthy nations.

At the heart of this economic development rest secure property rights. Just as environmentalists now more widely appreciate the role of economic incentives, the key role of property rights—often very insecure in undeveloped, undemocratic nations—is coming into sharper focus as well. Owning parts of nature—whether habitat or actual rare species—sounds counterintuitive to the secular mind (though plainly not to the Old Testament fathers), but more and more case studies demonstrate the effectiveness of property rights approaches to protecting the environment, from ocean fisheries to African and South American forests and even elephants. The role of markets and property rights in promoting environmental protection is conspicuously missing from most evangelical literature about the environment.xi

A simple thought experiment explains the logic of extending property rights to environmental goods. Suppose our beef cattle industry were organized the same way our ocean fishing tends to operate—a world in which ranchers did not have ranches surrounded by fences, but instead roamed the plains and shot or rounded up as many cows as they wanted. Obviously, we would run out of cows fairly soon because the incentives would be wrong; anyone who left a cow behind would be risking that someone else would get to it next. This is a well-known concept known as the “tragedy of the commons,” arising from the medieval practice in England of allowing anyone to graze as many animals as they wished to on public land. The land quickly became overgrazed. Yet this is exactly how we manage ocean fisheries—fish are a “common pool” resource in the ocean owned by no one, such that the perverse incentive for every individual fisher is to catch as many fish as possible. A fish left behind is a fish for someone else. This is the chief cause of the collapse of so many ocean fisheries.

Air and water pollution in the United States and Europe have fallen substantially over the last 40 years, although they are still worsening in most underdeveloped nations.

Some nations—Iceland and New Zealand are the best examples—have effectively preserved and expanded their fisheries through a property rights system known as “catch shares.” Essentially, this means designating ownership of territorial waters to individual fishers, who can buy, sell, and trade the rights to catch fish in the area. It is the oceanic equivalent of fencing ranchland for the private ownership and cultivation of cattle and sheep on land. In the United States, Maine’s once-threatened lobster industry adopted this approach, and today the lobster beds and lobster fishing industry are both thriving. Nations that have attempted to manage their fisheries through centralized bureaucratic management have been much less successful. Canada, for example, tried to prevent its Atlantic cod fisheries from collapse, starting 25 years ago with a bureaucratic regulatory program; yet the cod fisheries have continued toward catastrophic collapse.

One can find many examples of property rights’ beneficent effects on other areas of environmental concern, such as endangered species and reforestation—often in less-developed nations. While Africa is still experiencing net deforestation, according to the UN’s most recent Global Forest Resources Assessment, significant reforestation is taking place in one African nation: Niger. New studies show that Niger is now greener than it was 30 years ago. “Millions of trees are flourishing,” New York Times reporter Lydia Polgreen noted; more than 7 million acres of land have been reforested “without relying on the large-scale planting of trees and other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification.” What explains this turnaround? Polgreen outlines the role of property rights:

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the trees for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

Far from damaging brains and killing seals, applying basic economics to the environment preserves it.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from his book Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World

Why Isn’t China Democratizing?

Why Isn’t China Democratizing? Because It’s Not Really Capitalist

The presence of markets and economic exchange does not make a country capitalist.

Why isn’t China democratizing? The Chinese Communist Party’s continued firm monopoly on political power is particularly puzzling to policy makers: China was supposed to liberalize after its abandonment of Maoist Communism. For Washington the stakes are high: it made a huge bet on Chinese democratization, assuming that if China was encouraged to enter the international economy it would become capitalist and then democratic. Accordingly, Washington has helped integrate China into the liberal international order. Yet Chinese democracy is nowhere to be found.

Some analysts have tried to explain the absence of Chinese democracy by describing China’s political-economic system as a new form of “state” or “authoritarian” capitalism. This argument holds that the Party has found a way to have its cake and eat it too: it can be wealthy and authoritarian. If this argument is correct, the implications for the future of democracy and capitalism are profound. A new, successful “Beijing Model” of what some call “authoritarian capitalism” would break the relationship between free markets and political liberty. If Beijing has found a way to sever the capitalism-democracy link then the United States should re-think many of its foreign and economic policy assumptions. But fortunately for proponents of democracy and capitalism, China has not invented a new political-economic system of “authoritarian capitalism.” China is definitely authoritarian but it is not really capitalist at all.

Washington has helped integrate China into the liberal international order. Yet Chinese democracy is nowhere to be found.

At first glance, the notion that China is not capitalist seems preposterous. Much of China’s economy is organized around market principles and the country is deeply embedded in the international trading and production system. But the presence of markets and economic exchange does not make a country capitalist. The “founding fathers” of capitalism conceived of it as a moral and social order—a way of ordering economic as well as social life.

At base, the capitalist order is supposed to provide its citizens with three things. First, it provides the opportunity for all citizens to become wealthier. Second, capitalism encourages maximum individual liberty. Citizens are free to pursue the work they want and are rewarded based on enterprise and initiative rather than birthright. At the core of this idea is the notion that property rights are sacrosanct. Individuals own what they buy or make, and are then free to invest, save, and give away charity as they please. Third, capitalism is supposed to ennoble public virtues by encouraging free exchange among citizens and opportunities for self-betterment. Capitalism frees individuals to develop the “better angels of their nature”—sympathy, generosity, integrity, self-reliance, and self-restraint. All of these virtues are conducive to a system of political liberty and democracy. That is why democracy theorists and policy makers assume that free markets are a necessary if not sufficient condition of democracy.

Some analysts have tried to explain the absence of Chinese democracy by describing China’s political-economic system as a new form of ‘state’ or ‘authoritarian’ capitalism.

But the Chinese system has made good on only one of these promises, albeit on a massive scale. Almost all Chinese citizens are better off since the abandonment of Maoism. This is no small achievement. Since Chinese leaders allowed markets to operate in the Chinese economy, hundreds of millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. But individual liberty consistent with a capitalist order is severely curtailed. Physical and intellectual property are owned by the state and the Party puts stringent restrictions on where a Chinese citizen can invest and save money or give away acquired wealth. “Private” entrepreneurs are at the whim of the Party for the resources they require to form and run enterprises: financing, land, and the enforcement of contracts. Most remarkably, a Chinese citizen is even told how many children to have. A state that engages in forced family planning is shockingly at variance with capitalism’s core tenets.

The last of capitalism’s promises—the ennobling of virtue—has also been undermined by the Chinese state. Absent freedom of association, freedom of religion, and the protection of individual rights, it is very difficult for citizens to be virtuous. The Chinese state prohibits the formation of organizations that it cannot control, thus suppressing charity. In capitalist societies, virtues such as generosity, public spiritedness, and sympathy are often expressed through religious practice. But the Chinese state has repressed religious institutions as well. Moreover, without the protection of property rights or contracts, it is difficult for a Chinese entrepreneur to maintain integrity. It is therefore no surprise that corruption and cheating are endemic to China. And since the state controls the resources the entrepreneur needs, self-reliance cannot flourish.

A state that engages in forced family planning is shockingly at variance with capitalism’s core tenets.

The Chinese people are obviously very enterprising and capable of great generosity. Indeed, under China’s repressive social and economic arrangements, it is remarkable that Chinese entrepreneurs have done as well as they have. And the outpouring of charity after the Sichuan earthquake showed that the Chinese people can be animated by public-spiritedness. The growth of religion in China despite efforts to repress it means Chinese are searching for deeper meaning and values beyond Deng Xiaoping’s famous admonition to his people that “to get rich is glorious.” For many Chinese, getting rich is not enough. But China’s repressiveness is corrosive of the spirit of capitalism—the empowering of citizens to better themselves morally as well as materially. This is not just a problem for Chinese people searching for greater meaning in their lives. It is a problem for capitalism. Masses of people have become cynical about a “capitalist” system that makes good on only one of capitalism’s three promises.

Recently, Premier Wen Jiabao has taken to mentioning his admiration for Adam Smith, capitalism’s most prominent theorist. But if Premier Wen wants China to remain a dictatorship, then Smith’s teaching should scare him. Smith never used the word capitalism in his writing—he spoke of “a system of natural liberty.” This system, today called capitalism, has been a successful training camp for self-government precisely because it has permitted citizens the liberty to pursue self-betterment and self-reliance tempered by virtues such as restraint and sympathy. Capitalists have thus played leading roles in democratic transitions. They have been powerful forces for change, making ever greater claims against state injustice and rapaciousness. But in China, entrepreneurs are dependent upon or given special privileges by the state. The incentive or even opportunity to form a distinct “class” of burgeoning democrats does not yet exist. Absent the existence of such a class whose interests sometimes clash with the state, the formation of democracy is very unlikely.

The Chinese Communist Party has managed to benefit from the employment of some market principles to grow the Chinese economy and essentially buy off many of its people through the provision of material gains. But this social compact is increasingly unsatisfactory to many Chinese, who are searching for meaning beyond riches. The current economic arrangements in China are not capitalist—“authoritarian,” “state,” or otherwise. Rather, China mixes markets with heavy doses of mercantilism and corporatism. This socioeconomic order is meant to strengthen the state rather than the individual. Until Premier Wen and his comrades allow Adam Smith’s capitalism to take root, China will simply remain a more prosperous dictatorship.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Fed vs. the FDIC on Lehman’s Failure

The Fed vs. the FDIC on Lehman’s Failure

A recent FDIC report on Lehman Brothers’s financial condition before its failure puts in doubt the Federal Reserve’s account of its decision- making, and raises significant questions about the nature of the financial crisis.

As we all know, the 2008 financial crisis began in earnest when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. It has always been a question why Lehman was allowed to fail when Bear Stearns—a smaller firm—was rescued with $30 billion of Federal Reserve financial support to JP Morgan Chase. Questions were even more pointed when the Fed rescued AIG only days after it let Lehman descend into bankruptcy. Now the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has shed its own light on the issue. In a report last week, the FDIC claimed that the losses would have been far smaller than initially estimated if Lehman Brothers had received government financial support to avert its bankruptcy and eventually been wound down or sold.

The trigger for the financial crisis, in other words, appears to have been the market’s loss of confidence in a solvent firm.

After the calamitous market reaction to Lehman’s failure in September 2008, the Treasury Department and the Fed initially argued that the Fed did not have the legal authority to rescue Lehman. This turned out to be a bit of obfuscation when a Fed lawyer testified to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that it was only necessary for the Fed’s Board of Governors to have adopted an appropriate resolution. In his testimony to the FCIC, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke did not dispute this fact, but said it would not have been responsible to rescue Lehman because it was so far under water that the Fed would simply have been throwing good money after bad. “There was not nearly enough collateral to provide enough liquidity to meet the run [on Lehman]. The company would fail anyway, and the Federal Reserve would be left holding this very illiquid collateral, a very large amount of it.” In other words, the Fed did not save Lehman the way it saved Bear because Lehman simply did not have enough available collateral to protect the Fed against losses if it attempted, with liquidity support, to stop the run.

In its new report, however, the FDIC claims that if it had been able to use the resolution powers later granted under the Dodd-Frank Act, losses to Lehman’s creditors would have been limited to three cents on the dollar—far less than the losses Bernanke had suggested. Given the uncertainties associated with the facts of the Lehman case and the FDIC’s own inexperience with resolving nonbank financial institutions, one should take this estimate with a large grain of salt.

The FDIC’s contention that Lehman’s creditors would have lost only three cents on the dollar again calls into question the U.S. government’s decision to let Lehman fail.

Still, if it is anywhere close to reality, the FDIC’s contention that Lehman’s creditors would have lost only three cents on the dollar again calls into question the U.S. government’s decision to let Lehman fail. Clearly, after Bear Stearns’s rescue, the financial markets were assuming that the United States would rescue all larger firms. This was confirmed by Anton Valukas’s report as an examiner for the U.S. bankruptcy court. Most market participants, he reported, including Lehman, could not imagine why the Fed would rescue Bear Stearns and not Lehman. When Lehman was allowed to fail, market participants realized that they did not know who would survive and who would not. A massive panic ensued as financial institutions hoarded cash.

Indeed, in the Valukas and FDIC accounts, Lehman does not look like the basket case Bernanke portrayed. According to the Valukas report, Lehman had raised at least $10 billion dollars in additional capital in April and June 2008, and the FDIC noted that in September 2008—the month Lehman filed for bankruptcy—the firm had equity and subordinated debt of $35 billion. It also had $50 to $70 billion in impaired assets of questionable value, most of which had been identified by the diligence examinations of various suitors. Assuming a loss ratio of 60 to 80 percent on these assets, the FDIC estimated that Lehman in liquidation would have lost about $5 billion.

When Lehman was allowed to fail, market participants realized that they did not know who would survive and who would not. A massive panic ensued as financial institutions hoarded cash.

The difference between the FDIC and the Fed about the financial condition of Lehman before its failure is no small matter. It not only puts in doubt the Fed’s account of its decision-making, but it also raises significant questions about the nature of the financial crisis. If Lehman’s creditors would have lost only 3 percent in a liquidation, the firm might actually have been solvent as a going concern. As difficult as it is to imagine, the trigger for the financial crisis, in other words, could have been the market’s loss of confidence in a solvent firm.

The financial crisis was triggered by the meltdown of the U.S. housing bubble, which in turn caused the collapse of the market for mortgage-backed securities. With that market gone, mark-to-market accounting required the write-down of asset values on the balance sheets of financial institutions around the world. In many cases, these losses turned out to be temporary accounting losses. U.S. banks today are adding back into their earnings the heavy provisions that they had made for losses on mortgage-backed securities. Was the financial crisis, then, a recognition of real losses and weaknesses in the financial system—as initially portrayed—or only a world-class panic induced by investor uncertainty about the scope of housing losses, made worse by a series of major policy-maker errors?

Peter J. Wallison is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Paul Craig Roberts: Osama bin Laden's Useful Death 2/2

Paul Craig Roberts: Osama bin Laden's Useful Death 1/2

War, Ron Paul, and Conservatism

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Assange: Facebook 'an appalling spying machine'

In Afghanistan, No Time to Celebrate


In Afghanistan, No Time to Celebrate

Commentary: A Soldier Writes

Osama bin Laden is dead. The news was announced in tickers, as I entered my office at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Monday morning. Everyone was gathered around the television, intently sitting on the edge of their black swivel chairs. “All right, let’s pack up now — it’s time to go home,” one of the sergeants in the room said. “I want to see a death certificate,” our chiseled former infantry first sergeant said. “We all know Donald Trump is going to demand to see one.” The blond newscaster described how Bin Laden had been hiding in a luxurious compound 60 miles outside of Islamabad. She exclaimed, “Who would have thought he would be hiding in Pakistan all along?” One sergeant jumped up, muttering, “I would have thought that.” We all laughed.

It is difficult to watch some of these news stories. President Hamid Karzai’s reaction to the capture was to say: “Every day we have said that the war on terror is not in Afghan villages, not in Afghan houses of the poor and oppressed. The war against terrorism is in its sources, in its financial sources, its sanctuaries, in its training bases, not in Afghanistan.” And yet I am still here. Here in Afghanistan, a country that by its president’s own admission is “war weary.” This is my first deployment; I have been here 10 months, and I can assure you I am tired of working every day. Weekends don’t exist in war zones. It is difficult to fathom the degree of exhaustion for a country continually at war for years.

Read more…

May 4, 2011, 8:54 am

Bin Laden’s Killing Helps President’s Poll Numbers

Our colleagues James Dao and Dalia Sussman report that the operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden has given President Obama a sharp bump in his job performance approval rating among both Republican and Democratic voters, climbing to 57 percent from 46 percent in April. Many more Americans now approve of the job he is doing as president and of the way he is handling foreign policy, the war in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The New York Times Click here for poll results.

However, the poll also revealed that the euphoric response to Bin Laden’s death was hemmed in by worries that his killing could set off retaliatory attacks from terrorist groups in the short term. More than 6 in 10 Americans said that killing Bin Laden was likely to increase the threat of terrorism against the United States in the short term. A large majority also said that the death of the leader of Al Qaeda did not make them feel any safer. Just 16 percent said they personally felt more safe now.

The New York Times/CBS Poll found that while nearly half of Americans thought the nation should decrease troops levels in Afghanistan, more than six in 10 felt that the American mission there was not finished, despite Bin Laden’s death. That would suggest that public opinion is not clear on when or how the United States should leave Afghanistan.

Read more…

May 3, 2011, 12:28 pm

‘We’ Got Him

People gathered in New York's Times Square on Sunday night to  celebrate the news of Osama bin Laden's death.Chip East/ReutersPeople gathered in New York’s Times Square on Sunday night to celebrate the news of Osama bin Laden’s death.
Voices

In early November 2004, I kissed my husband goodbye as he left for his first deployment to Afghanistan. I told him, my voice trembling as he walked toward the war, “Go and kill Bin Laden.”

Seven and a half years later, after three deployments to Afghanistan and five elsewhere, we learned with the rest of the world that the terrorism mastermind was dead. We watched on television as people around the country waved flags and sang the national anthem, celebrating the end of a man who had caused so much pain for so many.

It was a very good day, a day that stood in stark contrast to that day in November 2004 when my and my husband’s portion of the war began.

I tried to look brave that day as I bid goodbye to the love of my life, wondering if I would ever see him again. Just three weeks earlier I had given birth to our first child and, with that tiny baby hanging from the crook of my arm in his infant carrier, I watched my lifeline walk away. I had no idea how to be a mother or what to expect from the coming months. I was alone in a military town where I had very few friends and no family members, and I didn’t want my husband to know that I was scared. Read more…

May 3, 2011, 6:48 am

Bin Laden’s Death Expected to Have Little Impact on Al Qaeda in Iraq

Baghdad Bureau

BAGHDAD — Eight years ago Osama bin Laden called on his followers to head to Iraq to fight the United States. Within months, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia took form, eventually allying itself with militants from the country’s Sunni minority. The group took a leading role in the insurgency that plunged Iraq into a bloody sectarian war.

Today, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a shell of the organization that was once led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the one that beheaded hostages on camera and controlled significant portions of the country.

Although the group still conducts attacks across Iraq — typically roadside bombs, suicide bombings and assassinations — the number of violent incidents the group has been involved in has plummeted since the height of the sectarian war in 2006.

“We hear about a few operations here or there of Al Qaeda trying to send a message that it is still in” Iraq, said Samir al-Mahemdi, a lawyer in Falluja and an expert on extremist groups. Read more…

May 2, 2011, 8:08 am

Thoughts on Bin Laden’s Death After 10 Years at War

Voices

It has been nearly a decade since Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda carried out the most devastating attack on American soil. Many of our readers are in the armed forces and have had their lives changed profoundly since that day in September 2001. We would like to hear from you. Share your thoughts about the news of Bin Laden’s death and how the post-9/11 world has affected your life.

Whether you’re in the armed forces or are a civilian in America or in Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan, At War is interested in knowing how much and in what ways your life was changed by the events of Sept. 11. Were you at school a decade ago? Were you in a different career? Did you enlist in the armed forces after Sept. 11 — because of the events of that day? Where has it taken you? What have you learned? Has it directly affected your family? And what do you think America and its allies should do now, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere?

Post a comment below.

May 1, 2011, 10:51 pm

Bin Laden Is Dead, President Obama Says


Osama bin Laden has been killed, President Obama announced Sunday night, almost 10 years after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The text of the president’s television address is here. The Times describes the scenes at the World Trade Center, Times Square and Washington. Our colleagues on The Lede blog are also following reaction from around the world, here, and political reaction on The Caucus blog, here.

From Kabul, The New York Times’s bureau chief Alissa J. Rubin writes, ‘Afghans Fear West May See Death as the End’:

KABUL, Afghanistan — In Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was based for many years and where Al Qaeda helped to train and pay insurgents, there was relief and uncertainty about how his death would play out in the fraught regional power politics now shaping the war.

While senior political figures welcomed the news of his death, they cautioned that it did not necessarily translate into an immediate military victory over the Taliban, and urged the United States and NATO not to use it as a reason to withdraw…

Former members of the Taliban who are now part of the reconciliation efforts with the movement said they believed that Bin Laden’s death would drive the Taliban to make a deal to stop fighting and become a political force in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban had no immediate statement.

Of Pakistan’s role, Times correspondent Jane Perlez writes:

The killing of Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan in an American operation, almost in plain sight in a medium-sized city that hosts numerous Pakistani forces, seems certain to further inflame tensions between the United States and Pakistan and raise significant questions about whether elements of the Pakistani spy agency knew the whereabouts of the leader of Al Qaeda.

The presence of Bin Laden in Pakistan, something Pakistani officials have long dismissed, goes to the heart of the lack of trust Washington has felt over the last 10 years with its contentious ally, the Pakistani military and its powerful spy partner, Inter-Services Intelligence.

April 28, 2011, 9:54 am

Stanford Debates R.O.T.C.’s Return

April 29, 10:18 a.m. | Vote Results After two hours of debate, the Stanford faculty senate voted to bring ROTC back on campus: 28 members voted for its return, 9 voted against it and 3 abstained. During the faculty senate meeting, Former Secretary of Defense William Perry discussed how bringing ROTC back to Stanford could help the military by providing better trained and educated leaders. Much of the debate was centered on the military’s posture toward transgendered people and also on whether academic credit would be granted to ROTC courses. An amendment to the resolution of bringing ROTC back to campus was added that stated the faculty senate’s objection concerning the military’s treatment towards transgender people.

Commentary: A Soldier Writes

Since Congress voted to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, several “elite” universities, including Harvard and Columbia, have decided to reinstate R.O.T.C. programs. Stanford might be next. Last week, an ad hoc R.O.T.C. committee at the university unanimously recommended that President John L. Hennessy invite the program back on campus. Today, the Stanford Faculty Senate is expected to support the idea as well.

R.O.T.C., the Reserve Officers Training Corps, is a program for college students. R.O.T.C. cadets supplement their undergraduate academic curriculum with military and leadership training. Upon graduating and successfully completing the program, college seniors are commissioned as second lieutenants. Roughly 60 percent of newly commissioned officers in the Army come from R.O.T.C. programs, and more than 40 percent of general officers in the Army are R.O.T.C. graduates. The military pays for many cadets’ entire undergraduate education. Read more…

April 27, 2011, 5:34 pm

Court Rules Against V.A. on Fiduciaries

A federal appeals court has told the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to loosen its grip on benefits decisions for veterans who have been declared incompetent.

The department appoints fiduciaries to manage the benefits of veterans who are no longer able to take care of themselves. There are 110,000 veterans’ accounts under fiduciary management, and the total value is about $3.2 billion.

Veterans’ families have argued in several recent cases that they do not want the financial minders appointed by the department, as an article in The New York Times reported earlier this month.

When families have sued, however, the department has generally argued that while families may have input in the decision to appoint a fiduciary, once the minder is in place the relationship is solely within the jurisdiction of the Department of Veterans Affairs and is not subject to judicial review. Read more…

April 27, 2011, 8:43 am

NATO Officials Acknowledge Frustration in Libya Campaign

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stood on the steps of the Pentagon late Tuesday alongside Liam Fox, his counterpart from Britain, America’s closest ally. Questions swirled here, in Europe and across North Africa whether NATO was specifically trying to find and kill Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, with airstrikes.

Mr. Gates patiently repeated the alliance’s longstanding policy that it was attacking only legitimate military targets in Libya in order to degrade the ability of the government’s forces to threaten its civilian population. There was no targeted assassination effort under way.

“We have considered all along command-and-control centers to be a legitimate target, and we have taken those out elsewhere,” Mr. Gates said. Read more…

April 25, 2011, 8:26 am

War, Wives and a Near Suicide

Voices

“If you are reading this, you should know that I am dead,” began the blog of a 27-year-old Army wife named Jessica Harp. “At least I hope I’m dead,” she added. “It would be awful to fail at your own suicide.”

The entry, posted to the blog “(Mis)Adventures of an Army Wife” on April 11, was titled “A Final Goodbye.” Its broad outlines, though not dramatic conclusion, are recognizable to many in the post-9/11 generation of military spouses. In 4,100 words, Ms. Harp chronicled her husband’s severe depression after his unit’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, and her own subsequent depression, for which she sought counseling and medication.

After her husband’s return and their cross-country move to Fort Jackson, S.C., so he could attend an eight-month officers’ course, she was told she could not join the base’s family support group because her husband was only a student there. She tried to put to use her master’s degree in financial counseling, but was told she was unemployable because she would be leaving the area before the year’s end. Her husband’s erratic behavior, coupled with his drinking, convinced her that he was an alcoholic, and she encouraged him to get help.

“The doctor immediately put him on antidepressants and sleeping pills,” she recounts. “And that was it. No counseling. No getting to the root cause of the issue. Just drugs.” She writes that he mixed his prescriptions with alcohol and at times became violent.

Read more…

April 22, 2011, 2:41 pm

Service Held for Combat Photographers and Doctor Killed in Misurata

Sidney Kwiram, right,  of Human Rights Watch, and Alexander Dziadosz of Reuters leave candles in a bouquet next to a pair of cameras placed in rememberance of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, at a small memorial service held by colleagues in Benghazi on Thursday.Bryan Denton for The New York Times Sidney Kwiram, right, of Human Rights Watch, and Alexander Dziadosz of Reuters leave candles in a bouquet next to a pair of cameras placed in rememberance of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros at a small memorial service held by colleagues in Benghazi on Thursday.

This is an e-mail sent this morning from C.J. Chivers to the editors at Getty Images and Vanity Fair, describing events in Benghazi, Libya, since the remains of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros arrived at the Benghazi port Thursday night. Mr. Hetherington, the conflict photographer and director of the Afghan war documentary “Restrepo,” and Mr. Hondros, one of the top war photographers of his generation, were killed Wednesday in Misurata, Libya.

The editors of Getty Images and Vanity Fair shared this e-mail with the men’s families, who, after slight redaction (of e-mail addresses and of some internal discussion about with whom to share this) approved it for public release. Sebastian Junger has written a moving tribute to Mr. Hetherington, his co-director on “Restrepo,” for Vanity Fair.


Tim Hetherington in 2008.<br />” /><span class=Eddy Risch/European Pressphoto Agency Tim Hetherington in 2008. Read Sebastian Junger’s remembrance of Mr. Hetherington on the Vanity Fair Web site.

Pancho, Hugh, David,

This morning the bodies of Chris and Tim, along with that of a Ukrainian doctor killed in Misurata the same day, were blessed in a small, private ceremony at the Benghazi Medical Center, where the three spent the night.

The ceremony was organized by the British consular office here, and attended by about eight people.

The blessing was administered by Sylvester Magro, the Bishop of Benghazi. Father Magro leads the Roman Catholic diocese of eastern Libya, a spiritual footprint remaining from the decades of Italian presence here.

The bishop was kind and soft-spoken, and clearly touched. He began by asking the Lord to, “Hear our prayers for these, our brothers, who you have called in peace.” His primary reading was a set of excerpts from the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, on the death and resurrection of Lazarus.

The lines I remember most from it were these:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”

Chris Hondros was killed Wednesday in Libya.Getty Images Chris Hondros was killed Wednesday in Libya.

After the gospel reading, the bishop led the group in prayer and sprinkled the three with holy water.

We then went outside, where the Human Rights Watch representative present (who with Peter Bouckaert arranged Chris’s and Tim’s swift exit by sea from Misurata) picked flowers from the hospital grounds and passed them around.

We all took care to thank the attending diplomat for arranging all of this and for allowing us to be there. It’s worth noting here, even though I’m sure you all know this from your own bittersweet experiences these past days, how deeply Chris’s and Tim’s deaths have resonated among even those who did not know them. After the ceremony, the bishop and John (last name not given), one of the diplomat’s security escorts, lingered. They very much wanted to hear stories of the two, and how they had died, to provide some sense and meaning to the loss. Even among these men, no strangers to war, there were reddened eyes.

This was the second service for Chris and Tim since their arrival in Benghazi port last night. Shortly before midnight a candle-lit public event was held at one of the local hotels, and attended by 35 or 40 people, including Christopher Prentice, the UK envoy here, and Chris Stevens, the American envoy. After each attendee was handed a lit candle, both men were invited to speak, and they did. Mr. Prentice noted in particular the powerful words of condolences he has heard from Libyans, who see Chris and Tim as heroes.

There were also readings.

David, at your recommendation we opened with the inscription from Tim’s book: “For He Who Gives His Life Shall Always Be My Brother.” This, appropriately, allowed our friends to be the guides in. It also, in its way and perhaps more appropriately, had Tim and Chris shepherding us. Thank you for pointing us to it.

Next came a few more.

The first was from Gustave Mahler, 9th Symphony, 4th Movement. This was recommended via Stephanie Sinclair of the VII photo agency. Bryan Denton received an e-mail yesterday with a note saying Chris had sent this to her when she was grieving a family death. Marc Burleigh, from Agence France-Presse, read it in the sort of rich voice I wish I had. Marc had bunked with Tim and Chris on the sea passage to Misurata early in the week, and had come back to Benghazi with them on the Ionian Spirit.

Here is the selection of verse:

Often I think they’ve gone outside!
Soon they will get back home again!
The day is lovely! Don’t be anxious,
They’re only taking a long walk,
They’ve only gone out before us,
And will not long to come home again.
We’ll catch up with them on yonder heights
In the sunshine!
The day is fine on yonder heights!

After Marc sat down, Bryan read this from Plato:

The souls of people, on their way to Earth-life, pass through a room
full of lights; each takes a taper — often only a spark — to guide it in
the dim country of this world. But some souls, by rare fortune, are
detained longer — have time to grasp a handful of tapers, which they
weave into a torch. “These are the torch-bearers of humanity — its
poets, seers, and saints, who lead and lift the race out of darkness,
toward the light. They are the law-givers, the light-bringers,
way-showers, and truth-tellers, and without them humanity would lose
its way in the dark.

And then Chris Stevens, the U.S. envoy, gave a brief speech about Tim and Chris’s work, and discussed the need to respect and protect journalists. He ended with a reading from Isaiah, (25:6, 7-9), that Bryan had chosen in the afternoon.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples. On
this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web
that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The
Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces; the reproach of his
people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
On that day it will be said: “Behold our God, to whom we looked to
save us! This is the LORD for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be
glad that he has saved us!”

We thought we were finished, and would light more candles, but a representative from the rebel government rose and asked to say a few words. I am half-deaf and he spoke softly, so I missed his name but will get it later. His words focused on the appreciation, even wonder, that many eastern Libyans feel that foreign journalists have come to live within another people’s struggle, and that people like Chris and Tim would give their lives to record what is happening here.

When he finished, the attendees gathered around the pair of cameras on the table and lit bouquets of candles.

Evan Hill of Al Jazeera wrote something of the ceremony. In a very brief update, I linked to it here.

As for next steps, Chris and Tim are in the good hands of the medical authorities here and their arrangements are being looked after by the diplomats. I sense that all of you have a strong sense of the schedule for bringing them home. So I will leave the logistics to others, and sign off.

If any of you have questions, Bryan and I are ready and happy to answer them. As for photos, AFP filed from the memorial last night. We have other images if you wish to see them.

On the matter of unfinished business, I will try to find more on the Ukrainian doctor. His name, we believe, taken from the small slip of paper that accompanied him as he was blessed, is Anatoly Nagaiko. We want to provide you more information of a man who died on the same day, in the same city, and was prayed over together along with two men you love.

With respect, and sorrow,
Chris

April 22, 2011, 6:00 am

Coming Home, as an Interpreter

Commentary: A Soldier Writes

It was 1 in the afternoon. I was looking through the mess hall in Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, scanning the faces to find Parween. I had met her a few days before as she commented on a book I was reading about Afghanistan; her first name was the same as that of the main character. The book was “Lipstick in Afghanistan” by Roberta Gately, a fictional account of an American nurse volunteering in Bamiyan Province after 9/11. Unlike the nurse in my book, Parween had grown up in Kabul in a highly educated family. Her father had attended Columbia University and worked as an ambassador for Afghanistan to Ethiopia. Now, she worked as a translator for American military forces in Afghanistan.

I found her sitting at a small table, her black hair combed neatly back from her forehead. She smiled at me and invited me to sit across from her. Parween, who was perhaps in her late 40s, had beautifully distinctive features highlighted by wrinkles of happiness. “I’m so glad you had time to get lunch with me today,” I told her. “It is a pleasure,” she said, rising from her chair to hug me. We settled back into our seats, picking up our utensils to eat.

I asked her what it was like growing up in Afghanistan. “Well, my father wanted to leave this country, but the government wouldn’t let him,” she said. “My father was always abroad, but he raised us in the Western tradition.” The government would not have allowed him to leave again had he returned home, she said, so he stayed away, traveling for the foreign service, until he finally settled in the United States.

But the Afghan government “kept us, his family, imprisoned here,” she said. “My mother was incredible. She kept our entire family together, all seven of us, raising us all without him.”
Read more…

April 21, 2011, 11:51 am

The Challenge of Covering Iraqi Justice

Former Baath Party officials on trial for the 1994 murder of Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail sat in a Baghdad courtroom on Thursday. Front row, from left: Tariq Aziz, Abud Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, Farooq Abdullah Yahya and Hadi Hassoun Najim. Back row, from left: Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saber Abdul Aziz Hussein and Ahmed Khudair Sabah.Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times Former Baath Party officials on trial in a Baghdad courtroom on April 21. Front row, from left: Tariq Aziz, Abud Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, Farooq Abdullah Yahya and Hadi Hassoun Najim. Back row, from left: Sabawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saber Abdul Aziz Hussein and Ahmed Khudair Sabah.
Baghdad Bureau

BAGHDAD — Iraq has been castigated of late by human rights groups for violently cracking down on journalists at protests.

Photographers, in particular, have an especially difficult time here taking pictures of government proceedings and scenes of violence — as a blog post last year by my colleague Joao Silva described in detail.

But like nearly everything in Iraq, the issues of press freedom are never simple. Sometimes it’s a matter of showing up and schmoozing to gain access in a way that would be unheard of back home.

On Thursday morning, I, our photographer Ayman Oghanna and our Iraqi newsroom manager visited the criminal court in the heavily guarded Green Zone, just across from the American Embassy, to see the verdicts delivered in a case against several defendants on trial for the 1994 murder of Sheik Taleb al-Suhail, then an Iraqi exile living in Lebanon.

Initially, we were told that taking photographs in the courtroom was forbidden. But that was just the first answer, and we knew from experience that it was subject to negotiation.

We spoke to the security officials and then popped into the presiding judge’s office. And before we knew what was happening, court security officers were shuffling the eight defendants into the courtroom for a quick and private photo shoot, before the judge entered the room to read out each of the men’s sentences. (I immediately recalled a similar experience last year when we visited Samarra. After chai and polite conversation with the police colonel, we were ushered into a room to meet the prisoner we had been hoping to see, a young man who had just killed his father. )

Some of the men in the courtroom, including Tariq Aziz, the former foreign minister, and Abed Hammoud, a presidential secretary, were on the famous American deck of cards of the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s government after the invasion in 2003.

One of the men, Abed Hassan al-Majied, the brother of the former government official known as Chemical Ali, who was executed in January 2010, asked about us, “What are they doing here?”

“This is just for the memories,” said the head of the court’s security detail.

Mr. Hammoud, who covered his face with a notebook as the pictures were being snapped, asked, “Why are these Americans taking pictures of us?”

After a few minutes, the court session was about to begin and we were asked to go to the spillover room in the back. As we walked out, Mr. Hammoud looked at me and shouted an expletive to describe former President George W. Bush in particular and all Americans in general.

As the proceedings began, Mr. Majied, before hearing that he would be sentenced to hang for his role in the murder, rose and addressed the court.

“Just 10 minutes ago, there were two Americans here,” he said. “By what right can they come into this court and photograph us? Who are they, and what is behind this?”

The judge replied, “They are from the press, so just be quiet.”

Tariq Aziz awaiting the judge's verdict. He was acquitted, but has already been sentenced to death for crimes committed during the administration of Saddam Hussein.Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times Tariq Aziz awaiting the judge’s verdict. He was acquitted, but has already been sentenced to death for crimes committed during the administration of Saddam Hussein.

Then, one by one, the judge read the sentences for each man in the trial, which began in 2009. Three were sentenced to death, two to life sentences, one to 15 years in prison. Two others, including Mr. Aziz, were acquitted. Mr. Aziz, however, has already been sentenced to death in another case involving crimes of the former government.

After the defendants were taken from the courtroom, Safia al-Suhail, the daughter of the victim who became an international symbol of Saddam Hussein’s repression as a guest of the Bush White House at the State of the Union address in 2005, stood in the lobby.

“Justice is there, after 16 years,” said Ms. Suhail, who is now a member of Parliament and a prominent activist.

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad.

April 20, 2011, 6:32 pm

‘Restrepo’ Director Is Killed in Libya

Tim Hetherington, a British photographer based in New York who was a director and producer of the film “Restrepo,” was killed in the besieged Libyan city of Misurata on Wednesday, our Times colleague C.J. Chivers reports. Three photographers were wounded in the same attack, and one of them, Chris Hondros of Getty Images, died.

The four had reached the city by sea from Benghazi, the rebel capital. “Early reports said they had been working together near the front lines when they were struck by a rocket-propelled grenade,” Mr. Chivers wrote.

During the making of “Restrepo,” Mr. Hetherington and his co-director Sebastian Junger spent 14 months with a platoon of United States soldiers in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A Times review of “Restrepo” can be read here.

Our colleagues on the Lens blog have a slide show of Mr. Hetherington’s work and one of images by Mr. Hondros. The pictures by Mr. Hondros were taken earlier Wednesday. Also, the photographers Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown were wounded in the attack.

April 20, 2011, 9:13 am

Pentagon Is Quiet on ‘Three Cups of Tea’ Questions

Pentagon officials continued their silence on Tuesday about allegations against Greg Mortenson, the co-author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” after a fellow best-selling author and mountaineer, Jon Krakauer, released an article on byliner.com raising his own questions about the accuracy of Mr. Mortenson’s book and the management of his charity.

But Col. Christopher D. Kolenda, one of the United States military officials who first reached out to Mr. Mortenson because of the book’s inspirational lessons about girls’ education in Central Asia, said that Mr. Mortenson’s work had been vital to the American war effort in Afghanistan.

“My personal and professional interaction with Greg and his organization has proved invaluable in terms of contacts with elders from across the country and support for education in some critical areas,’’ Colonel Kolenda, now a senior adviser to Michele A. Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a brief phone conversation on Tuesday.

Colonel Kolenda declined any comment on the allegations against Mr. Mortenson, first by the CBS News program “60 Minutes” on Sunday and then by Mr. Krakauer in his article on Monday.

Both CBS and Mr. Krakauer said that the central, inspirational anecdote of the book was false: Mr. Mortenson, they said, never stumbled disoriented into the warm embrace of the village of Korphe in northeast Pakistan after failing to reach the summit of K2 and then in gratitude returned to build a school. CBS and Mr. Krakauer also said that Mr. Mortenson had grossly mismanaged the finances of his charity set up to build schools, mostly for girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Mortenson has forcefully countered the allegations.

Colonel Kolenda, who read “Three Cups of Tea” in late 2007 when his wife sent it to him while he was commanding 700 American soldiers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, was so taken with a central lesson in the book – reaching out to the local residents – that he contacted Mr. Mortenson. By June 2008, Mr. Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute had built a school near Colonel Kolenda’s base, in Kunar Province, close to the border with Pakistan. Although CBS and Mr. Krakauer said that some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools were empty, or did not even exist, Colonel Kolenda said that the school near his base, at least as of 2010, had students and was operating.

By 2009, Mr. Mortenson had become an unofficial adviser to the United States military in Afghanistan. That summer, Colonel Kolenda has recalled, Mr. Mortenson was in meetings in Kabul with him, village elders and at times Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then President Obama’s top commander in the country.

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