27 March 2010

Why can't he talk to his friends?

“Arguing against globalization is like arguing against the forces of gravity.”
-Kofi Annan

In 2008, the urban population of the world overtook that of the rural population for the first time, and it is projected to continue to grow so fast that by 2050 two out of every three humans will live in a town or city.
-John McCormick, Comparative Politics in Transition

Social Security to See Payout Exceed Pay-In This Year
This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.

History on President Obama's side in health care debate
At first blush, the spasms of anger over the health care law signed into law by President Barack Obama this week seem strong enough to fuel a years-long argument over government power.

History suggests there is a better chance the passions over the country's new health care regime will cool with an alacrity that seems unthinkable amid the clenched fists and snarling insults of the recent debate.

This has been a familiar pattern since New Deal days: Government programs from Social Security to Medicare that were launched amid incendiary arguments within a short time became sacrosanctprotected by a bipartisan consensus that was nowhere to be found at passage.

In fact, historians of social programs see no correlation between the intensity of controversy at the birth of a program and its ultimate popularity.

That is why "it's damn hard to get things done," in the words of Yale expert Theodore Marmor, "and harder still to get them undone."

"I think that's what the Republicans were frightened of," said Marmor. "They think President Obama has a chance of making health care reform do for him," and perhaps for the Democratic Party, what "the Social Security Act of 1935 did for FDR."

Senate gone, Obama seats nominees
President Barack Obama will bypass the Senate and for the first time since taking office unilaterally install 15 nominees to his adminstration, including two members of the National Labor Relations Board, in a move that infuriated Republicans.

Obama used his executive power to install Craig Becker, who was blocked by a GOP filibuster last month, and Mark Pearce, who Republicans also oppose because of his ties to labor unions.

In announcing the recess appointments Saturday afternoon, Obama presented his decision as a last-resort move forced on him by the Senate Republicans. The president issued a statement in which he blamed “partisan politics” for bottling up 77 of his nominees.

“The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disapprove of my nominees. But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act in the interest of the American people and exercise my authority to fill these positions on an interim basis,” Obama said in the statement.

Obama did not install Republican Brian Hayes, the other pending nominee to the five-member labor board, which some thought he might do to take the partisan edge off the Democratic appointments.

The White House tried to pre-empt the GOP criticism by outlining a detailed defense of the president’s decision. Officials even included the number of days the 15 nominees combined have been waiting: “3204 days or almost 9 years."

The administration was also quick to point out that Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had used the same presidential prerogative. Obama’s 15 recess appointments Saturday do not exceed Bush’s total at the same point into his first term.

For Obama, no buddies abroad
Fourteen months into the Obama presidency, one striking feature of an American president who took office to a swooning world is the absence of any strong personal ties – or even a go-to working relationship – with any other world leader. Where Ronnie had Maggie, and Bill and even George W. had Tony, Mr. Obama has no one leader. Instead, the former law professor has what seems to be a preference for big-themed foreign speeches (think Cairo; Prague, Czech Republic; Moscow; Accra, Ghana) and policy gatherings (his UN nuclear summit, the Pittsburgh Group of 20 economic summit, a White House nuclear nonproliferation summit in May) bereft of the warm and fuzzy.

Obama's cool, all-business demeanor with his global peers is all the more striking because it follows the polar-opposite style of George W. Bush. President Bush's policies were widely reviled overseas, and he was not particularly articulate. But he strove to forge personal links with a few key leaders. He cultivated Tony Blair's friendship on Iraq, and he developed a hierarchy of visit venues – White House, Camp David, his Texas ranch – that signaled where a leader stood in his estimation.

"It really is striking about Obama: Most presidents have had a special or close relationship with a foreign leader they could turn to," says Thomas Henriksen, a US foreign-policy scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But it appears to be his nature or personality, the so-called no-drama-Obama thing."

"Who knows if Sarkozy would have made the same decision if he hadn't suffered some of these slights on the part of Obama," he says. "What it comes down to is that relationships do matter."

Dale says he still has ringing in his ear the words of a senior European diplomat, who recently told him, "[Obama] talks to his enemies. Why can't he talk to his friends?"

S Koreans missing after ship sinks
A South Korean navy ship has sunk near the disputed maritime border with North Korea after an unexplained explosion, leaving 46 sailors missing.

A government source quoted by the South's Yonhap news agency said officials were investigating various possible causes: an attack by a North Korean torpedo boat, a mine laid by North Korea or an explosion of munitions aboard the ship.

Paul Chamberlin, a former US naval attache to South Korea, told Al Jazeera: "If it becomes clear this was an attack from North Korea, a major escalation that would lead to general war is very unlikely."

US and Russia agree nuclear deal
Barack Obama, the US president, and Dmitry Medvedev, his Russian counterpart, have finalised the terms of a new nuclear arms reduction agreement.

The two leaders approved the deal for a successor to the landmark Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start), which will cut the amount of missiles deployed by both countries by one third.

Under the terms of the treaty the two countries will reduce their number of warheads to 1,515 each.

Both countries will also be allowed no more than 700 active nuclear launchers worldwide.

The US has said it currently has about 2,200 nuclear warheads, while Russia is believed to have about 3,000.

Kremlin 'red-squares' with cold war rival
Moscow is gearing up for one of the biggest events of the year, the May 9 parade, the day when Russia rolls out its military hardware over Red Square.

...This year's parade - the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany - a contingent of US troops is being welcomed into the fold.

In the context of the "reset" in US-Russia relations, the Kremlin is more than aware of how striking the image of American and Russian troops marching together on Red Square will be.

2,000 House staffers make six figures
Nearly 2,000 House of Representatives staffers pulled down six-figure salaries in 2009, including 43 staffers who earned the maximum $172,500 — or more than three times the median U.S. household income.

Starting salaries on Capitol Hill are still low — many entry-level congressional jobs pay less than $30,000 a year.

24 March 2010

Facts are stubborn

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
-Leo Tolstoy

Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address

FACT CHECK: Spinning the new health care law
Facts are stubborn, the saying goes. But myths about the legislation are likely to persist as well. And a lot of people don't agree on which is which.

With the U.S. population getting older, and medical science pushing the technological envelope, there's very little reason to think premiums will go down. The best Obama can hope for is to slow the pace of increases.

The legislation sets up a research center to compare the effectiveness of medical treatments, and critics fear that bureaucrats will start issuing justifications for denying patients access to the latest medical technology.

Although some polls show a majority oppose the bill, most surveys find the public about evenly divided. Blendon, the public opinion expert, believes it's premature to say that the public has rejected it. Curiously, many individual components — doing away with insurance denials for pre-existing conditions, tax credits to help pay premiums, insurance purchasing pools — are widely popular.

Health bill may exempt top Hill staffers
[Interesting to note that, contrary to popular myth, members of Congress do, in fact, have to buy insurance through the exchanges. But their senior staffers - the ones who actually wrote the policy - may be exempt. Just goes to show you it doesn't always pay to be on top...]
The health care reform bill signed into law by President Barack Obama Tuesday requires members of Congress and their office staffs to buy insurance through the state-run exchanges it creates – but it may exempt staffers who work for congressional committees or for party leaders in the House and Senate.

Staffers and members on both sides of the aisle call it an “inequity” and an “outrage” – a loophole that exempts the staffers most involved in writing and passing the bill from one of its key requirements.

Disputed isle in Bay of Bengal disappears into sea
[I shouldn't laugh at this, but this struck me as supremely hilarious. But since no one died, I can laugh.]
For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh have argued over control of a tiny rock island in the Bay of Bengal. Now rising sea levels have resolved the dispute for them: the island's gone.

New Moore Island in the Sunderbans has been completely submerged.

"What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming," said Hazra.

Study: Last Supper paintings supersize the food
[Amidst all the news...just remember, this is life for some people.]
The food in famous paintings of the meal has grown by biblical proportions over the last millennium, researchers report in a medical journal Tuesday.

The study is "not very meaningful science," said Martin Binks, a behavioral health psychologist and a consultant at Duke University Medical Center. "We have real life examples of the increase in portion size — all you have to do is look at what's being sold at fast-food restaurants."

21 March 2010

Ask not what America will do for you...

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address

Seek not good from without: seek it from within yourselves or you will never find it.

We shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address

What concerns me is not the way things are, but rather the way people think things are.

Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
-John F. Kennedy, 1961 Inauguration Address

The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Obama White House: a tit for tat
“On the other hand,” he continued, “there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances, and the decorum. The image of having the members of one branch of government, standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court – according the requirements of protocol – has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.

Internet aids terrorist recruiting, radicalization, Pentagon says
Militant groups and some individuals have “maximized” the use of technologies such as the Internet. Government officials say the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly attempted to blow up an American airliner in Detroit on Christmas Day, points to just how fast groups can radicalize an individual. Mr. Abdulmutallab was identified, contacted, recruited, and trained all within six weeks, according to a Pentagon counterterrorism official. That’s much faster than the two and a half years it took for Osama bin Laden to hatch the plan to attack the US nine years ago. While the two plans vary widely in scope, the faster time frame indicates how adaptive radicalized groups and individuals have become, say experts.

Nancy Pelosi steeled White House for health push
A good summary of the health care battle thus far.

Health care reform bill 101:
A good plain-English look at what exactly is in the healthcare bill.

10 March 2010

Allah is on our side

“Putin – and Russia – bitterly regrets that Russia is no longer a world power and that no one is interested or concerned or afraid of them. At present, Russia is not a near-term threat and Russia will not become dangerous to the national security of the US, the Western world, or other allies.”
-Ted Sorensen

We are not intimidated by the size of the armies, or the type of hardware the US has brought.”
-Saddam Hussein

Allah is on our side. That is why we will beat the aggressor.”
-Saddam Hussein

“I am one of the servants of Allah and I obey his orders. Among those is the order to fight for the word of Allah ... and to fight until the Americans are driven out of all the Islamic countries... We are certain - with the grace of Allah - that we shall prevail over the Jews and over those fighting with them.”
-Osama bin Ladin

“God the Almighty has made our nation. By defending its existence we are defending His work.”
-Adolph Hitler

Spanish Muslims issue 'fatwa' against bin Laden
(March 12, 2005) Spain's leading Muslim clerics have issued a religious order declaring Usama bin Ladin an apostate and to have forsaken Islam by backing attacks such as the Madrid train bombings.

"We declare ... that Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation, responsible for the horrendous crimes against innocent people who were despicably murdered in the 11 March terrorist attack in Madrid, are outside the parameters of Islam," the commission said. The fatwa said that according to the Koran “the terrorist acts of Osama bin Laden and his organization al-Qaeda … are totally banned and must be roundly condemned as against Islam.”

It added: “Inasmuch as Osama bin Laden and his organization defend terrorism as legal and try to base it on the Koran --- they are committing the crime of ‘istihlal’ and thus become apostates that should not be considered Muslims or treated as such.” The term “istihlal” refers to the act of making up one’s own laws.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacks US for Afghan 'double game'
Mr Ahmadinejad: "They themselves created terrorists and now they're saying that they are fighting terrorists."

Mr Ahmadinejad criticised the US for its troops' presence, saying: "Your country is located on the other side of the world, so what are you doing here?"

Jihad Jane – Philly Woman Charged With Supporting Terrorists
A Pennsylvania woman known to authorities online as “JihadJane” has been charged in federal court with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country, making false statements to a government official and attempted identity theft according to a Fox News report.

The indictment, unsealed Monday, charges that Colleen R. LaRose and five unindicted co-conspirators recruited men on the Internet to wage violent jihad in South Asia and Europe, and recruited women on the Internet who had passports and the ability to travel to and around Europe in support of violent jihad.

Leaving Afghanistan moves beyond left vs. right
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) plans to use a parliamentary maneuver to force a Wednesday House vote on the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Kucinich’s resolution directs President Obama to remove troops 30 days from the day it is passed or, depending on whether troops can be removed safely in that time frame, no later than Dec. 31.

Don't withdraw troops prematurely

While U.S. Marines continue their offensive against Taliban insurgents in Helmand province — facing snipers, mines, improvised explosive devices and a skeptical Afghan public — the House is expected this week to debate whether American military forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

This ill-timed resolution, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), threatens to undermine the hard-fought gains made by thousands of U.S. troops and their Afghan partners by discouraging Afghans who covet peace and emboldening Taliban fighters and their never-ending cycle of violence.

05 March 2010

...the time has come to inquire seriously...

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.
-Theodore Roosevelt

Stealing America's Secrets
60 Minutes has obtained an FBI videotape showing a Defense Department employee selling secrets to a Chinese spy that offers a rare glimpse into the secretive world of espionage.

Taliban condemn Afghan ban on live coverage of attacks
They banned music, television and education for girls during their rule of Afghanistan, but the Taliban on Wednesday condemned a government ban on live broadcasts of their attacks.
The Western-backed government has banned live coverage of militant assaults in a bid to prevent the Taliban exploiting television news to help their operatives. As the measure -- which applies to domestic and international media -- was criticised by journalists and rights groups, the Taliban joined the fray, calling it an attack on free speech.

"This totally undermines freedom of the press and expression and cannot be justified by any means," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP. The Taliban "respects all those media which are free and independent and support their rights," he said, reading from a statement. "We invite them to cover all our activities against the invaders. Imposing a ban on free media means the government is trying to cover its failures. They have failed... and are trying to hide that," he said.

Abortion could be health bill deal breaker in House

...it looks like the final act in the year-long health care fight could once again come down to abortion – so much so that Pelosi invited a group of women’s rights groups to the Capitol on Thursday, along with a number of her closest allies, for a preliminary discussion to strategize about the way ahead.

And a day after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said he’s willing to derail reform if the bill didn’t block federal funding of abortion, the rhetoric on both sides of the issue was fierce – suggesting that even Pelosi’s usual ability to bridge her diverse caucus might not be enough to salvage President Barack Obama’s top legislative priority.

02 March 2010

Death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations

Despite the international terrorist threat from al-Qaeda, some analysts claim that radical Islam is on the wane. We are already, so they say, in the era of post-Islamism…However, the movement as a whole is still vigorous and exercises a measure of influences in various Muslim societies, including on politics. This influence continues, despite the fact that in most places, the movement is unlikely to take power, either by ballots or bullets.
-Emmanual Sivan, The Clash within Islam

The al-Qaeda dream is that success against the ‘far enemies’ – the United States and Israel – will rebound into the successful toppling of the ‘near enemy’, apostate Arab regimes. But this is the dream of an apocalyptic future, a dream most radical Muslims do not share.
-Emmanual Sivan, The Clash within Islam

[They] envisioned dar al-Harb (“House of War”) as an area torn by perpetual conflict and a constant threat to the peace of the dar al-Islam (“House of Islam”). Although extended periods of truce would be permissible, war between these two abodes was understood to be the normal state, until such time that the dar al-Islam would prevail.
-Assaf Moghadam, Mayhem, Myths, and Martyrdom: The Shi’a Conception of Jihad

God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and Death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.
-The Credo of the Muslim Brotherhood

Beginning in the early 1980s, and continuing until today, Salafi-Jihadists would frame the concept of jihad as the result of a long history of perceived Western subjugation of Islam that includes the occupation of Muslim lands by ‘infidel’ Western countries and ‘apostate’ regimes in the Arab Middle East.
-Assaf Moghadam, Mayhem, Myths, and Martyrdom: The Shi’a Conception of Jihad

Most Muslims, including non-violent Salafis, cite a number of Quranic and hadith sources against the killing of civilians, although mainstream Salafis recognize that innocent civilians may be killed in the course of war, which is an acceptable consequence if the war is just.
-Assaf Moghadam, Mayhem, Myths, and Martyrdom: The Shi’a Conception of Jihad

[I]f Sunni and Shiite governments alike do not curb the belligerent voices in their midst…the struggle might break out of the boundaries of Iraq and engulf other parts of the region. Encouraged by pinpoint Al-Qaeda operations, tensions will likely mount in the Gulf area and in Lebanon. If and when the US decides to recall its forces from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni states will probably get embroiled in the bloody struggle in order to prevent its extension into their own territories, making it necessary for Iraqn to increase its own involvement. What is now a fundamentally political struggle might thus become another set of religious wars within Dar al-Islam.
-Dr. Dror Ze’evi, The Present Shia-Sunna Divide: Remaking Historical Memory

SeaWorld resumes shows with killer whales – but no 'Tilikum'

Shows featuring killer whales reopened at SeaWorld marine parks Saturday, days after the tragic death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau in Orlando, Fla.

Park managers in Orlando decided not to use the male orca, Tilikum, involved in Brancheau's death, on Saturday. And trainers did not get into the water – riding or jumping with the whales – as they have typically done in what has become a signature event for the theme parks.

US Postal Service delivers bad news: No Saturday mail delivery?
The Postal Service’s volume has been declining rapidly. Now its leaders are increasing the pressure on Congress to allow big changes in how the US mail is handled – including the ending of Saturday deliveries.

Ukraine PM's coalition collapses

Ukraine's coalition government has collapsed after Viktor Yanukovych, the newly-elected president, moved to oust the prime minister from parliament.

Yulia Tymoshenko had refused to recognise Yanukovych's victory in polls last month, claiming the vote was unfair and fraudulent, and remained in office. But her majority has now crumbled after a number of politicians from minority parties switched their allegiance following her defeat in the February 7 polls.

"As of today there is no coalition in parliament. Therefore I announce that the coalition has ceased to exist," Volodymr Lytvyn, parliament speaker, said on Tuesday.

Under the Ukrainian constitution, the country's political leaders have 30 days to form a new coalition. If they fail, Yanukovych can exercise his right to dissolve parliament and call snap legislative elections that would otherwise not be due until 2012.