This year offered some truly mind-numbing prose:
On the global economy: "We are mindful of the interrelated nature of the issues surrounding the world economy. We remain committed to promoting a smooth adjustment of global imbalances through sound macroeconomic management and structural policies."
On aid to Africa: "In tackling the development agenda, we will take a multifaceted approach, promoting synergies among MDG-related development sectors."
On rising food prices: "The international community needs a fully coordinated response and a comprehensive strategy to tackle this issue in an integrated fashion."
These communiqués, whose true authors remain anonymous, are the product of months of intense negotiations by aides to the leaders - "sherpas," in G-8 lingo.
Alden Meyer, a climate-change expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who is here this week, summed up the process this way: "They're fighting very hard over who gets to say very little."
Food-themed festivals thrive as growing declines
PATTERSON, California: New York has the Statue of Liberty, and Las Vegas has its inimitable Strip. What Patterson has could be found in a booth run by Boy Scout Troop 8 at the city's Apricot Fiesta, where the Scouts were serving up the last of 111 gallons of homemade apricot ice cream they had mixed at the local fire hall.
From the Garlic Festival this month in Gilroy, California, which attracts more than 100,000 people, to the small Pear Fair, also this month, in Courtland, California, it is the season of the agricultural fair.
"Wooly Bully" and other best-forgotten oldies, played on the bandstand, set the stage for cuisine like garlic ice cream, "asparagus in a blanket" (at the Stockton Asparagus Festival), and artichoke cupcakes with cream cheese frosting (the Castroville Artichoke Festival). "It tastes just like pumpkin," insisted Michele Tottino Pecci, the Artichoke Festival's director.
The tradition hangs on, even as sprawl swallows up orchards. In Patterson, "the apricot capital of the world," the acreage devoted to apricots is dwindling, and farmers blame the influx of dried apricots from Turkey.
In Gilroy, once the aromatic apogee of garlic, the herb is now grown on only about 500 acres. Half of the garlic sold in America now comes from China, and most California garlic comes from the Central Valley, near Fresno.
THE FOOD CRISIS
Shortages are not the problem
Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, is principal of The Albright Group. John D. Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress.
There was a glimmer of good news in the global food price crisis when Japan announced it would release a portion of its imported rice stockpile and the high level UN Food and Agriculture Organization secured financial commitments for short-term food aid and increased research and development into new seeds and the distribution of fertilizer to small farmers.
Nonetheless, the dismal state of affairs in the global food situation underscores the need for U.S. leadership in addressing a world agricultural system that is facing new challenges and a painful transition.
The United States can lead the way in achieving lasting global food security with a renewed commitment to long-term investment in agricultural development in the world's poorest nations. Japan, as the host nation of the Group of 8 summit meeting, and with U.S. concurrence, must go further than its earlier announcements on rice and release up to 1 million tons of its current stockpile.
Key rice producers around the world, including India, Pakistan and Vietnam, should follow suit and fulfill their recent promises to tap their own surpluses to feed the global market.
In the last three years, food prices worldwide have risen 83 percent, sowing the seeds of increased malnutrition, hunger and political instability. Since 2003, the price of rice has been on a steady climb upward and has risen 141 percent in the last year alone. For much of the world, rice is a key component of the daily diet. Three billion people rely on rice for a third of their calories each day.
The recent surge in food prices has had a devastating effect. In much of the developing world, where 60 percent to 80 percent of a family's income is spent on food, every 20 percent increase in food prices pushes 100 million more people into the ranks of the poorest of the poor - those who live on less than $1 a day.
But the problem is not a shortage of rice. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that rice production in Asia, Africa and Latin America will rise 2.3 percent from last year. The problem is that rising prices triggered a range of measures that made matters worse. Governments banned exports and held up their reserves, while middlemen hoarded supplies. Consumers, meanwhile, were left to pay the price despite the fact that their incomes are not keeping pace with the escalating cost of fuel and food.
The roots of the food crisis can be found in a complex cycle of factors, including skyrocketing energy costs, increased demand from emerging economies, financial turmoil, commodity speculation, drought and other weather emergencies.
While the release of rice stocks by Japan and increased food aid may help stave off the immediate crisis, the longer term solution is far more complex. A first and mandatory step is to rationalize our agricultural policies and increase our investments in agricultural production.
In Africa, for example, the portion of development assistance dedicated to agriculture has declined from 15 percent in the 1980s to 4 percent in 2006. By reversing this trend, we can increase both production and incomes.
The food crisis must be a top priority for the G-8. Agriculture continues to experience more trade distortions than any sector in the global economy. For its part, the developed world - particularly the United States, the European Union and Japan - must confront the global impact of our subsidies and tariffs on agricultural products. Barriers to trade between developing countries must also be reduced. The United States should redouble its diplomatic efforts with key food producing countries to discourage government and private sector export restrictions that encourage hoarding.
The evidence is clear that our global agricultural system is broken and that in our interdependent world, food security is a challenge we must tackle together. The actual release of Japan's imported rice will be a welcome step toward ending the immediate crisis. But over the long term, getting the system right will require heavy political lifting, painstaking negotiations, and the modernization of agricultural policies that have not kept pace with globalization.
Cheney's office accused of editing climate change testimony
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's office was involved in removing statements on health risks posed by global warming from a draft of a health official's Senate testimony last year, a former senior government environmental official said on Tuesday.
The former official, Jason Burnett, made the assertion and described similar incidents in a three-page letter to Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who is the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He then stood with her at a news conference at which she excoriated the Bush administration.
"History will judge this Bush administration harshly for recklessly covering up a real threat to the people they are supposed to protect," Boxer said.
Burnett, a lifelong Democrat, resigned in May from his post as an associate deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and chief adviser on climate to Stephen Johnson, the EPA administrator. Burnett has previously criticized the administration's climate policies and endorsed and contributed to Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
In the letter, while declining to name individuals, Burnett said the offices of Cheney and the White House Council on Environmental Quality "were seeking deletions" of sections of draft testimony describing health risks from warming. The testimony was prepared by Dr. Julie Gerberding, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for a hearing last October before Boxer's committee.
Emerging nations join G-8 in climate declaration
RUSUTSU, Japan: Calling climate change "one of the great global challenges of our time," the world's richest nations and emerging powers joined together Wednesday for the first time to commit themselves to pursue long-range cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, but were split on how to achieve that goal.
The declaration grew out of an unprecedented meeting that brought together 16 nations and the European Union — a group dubbed the "major economies" — around the issue of global warning. The 16 are the Group of 8 industrialized nations: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Britain and Russia; the Group of 5 emerging economies: China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa; and three other major trading nations: Australia, South Korea and Indonesia.
The session, organized by President George W. Bush, took place here on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, where leaders of the Group of 8 wrapped up three days of meetings on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, leaders of the Group of 8 pledged to "move toward a carbon-free society" by cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases in half by 2050. But Group of 5 poorer countries refused to sign onto that goal. They are holding out until rich nations like the United States take more aggressive steps to cut pollution over the next decade.
That fissure prevented the 16 countries from "reaching any meaningful understanding" in the special Wednesday session, said one expert, Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But an environmental campaigner, Phillip Clapp of the Pew Environmental Group, said the declaration helped set the stage for the next American president to grapple with climate change when the United Nations conducts negotiations on a binding treaty in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.
"It is good that the developing countries have embraced the principal of a global target that they will participate in," Clapp said. "It would have been better if the United States and the other G-8 countries would have been willing to step up to the plate and make a strong commitment about what they would do over the next 10 years. "
Bush claimed success.
"In order to address climate change, all major economies must be at the table," he said before flying back to Washington. "And that's what took place today."
But the meetings did not produce a long-term emissions goal accepted by all the countries, rich and emerging, which was the goal the Bush administration had sought since announcing the "major economies" effort last year.
CYCLING TOUR DE FRANCE
In late burst, Mark Cavendish wins lengthy 5th stage of Tour de France
Tour de France cycling
CHATEAUROUX, France: On the longest stage of the Tour de France this year, it all came down to the last 75 meters.
It was just that far before the finish line that a charging peloton caught Nicolas Vogondy, the French national road-race champion and the last member of a three-man breakaway that had been in the lead for 221 kilometers, or nearly since the beginning of the 232-kilometer, or 144-mile, stage.
Mark Cavendish, the brash young sprinter for Team Columbia who won two stages in the Tour of Italy earlier this year, was paced to the line by a train of sky-blue jerseys, consisting of nearly all of the other members of his team.
He won the stage that everyone expected him to win here, edging out Oscar Freire of Rabobank and Erik Zabel, the Milram rider who turned 38 this week.
In a post-race press conference, Cavendish, who is 23 and rarely is at a loss for praise for himself, said he had been frustrated that many cycling fans in Britain seemed not to appreciate just how good he is.
"I see myself as being one of the best for the last year," said Cavendish, who hails from the Isle of Man. "I thought of myself as a big name in sprinting, but unless you win a stage of the Tour you can't really consider yourself a great sprinter. That was my aim, to come to the Tour and win a stage. You saw the team's faith in me and how hard they worked and I'm glad I was able to pay them back."
Sarkozy ends threat to boycott Olympic opener
RUSUTSU, Japan: President Nicolas Sarkozy of France plans to attend the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony next month, his office said Wednesday, ending his threat to boycott the event in an apparent attempt to soothe Chinese irritation over French support for Tibet.
Sarkozy was the first world leader to raise the possibility of skipping the ceremony to protest China's violent crackdown in Tibet after riots and protests there in March.
Sudan state media reports 5 peacekeepers killed, 17 missing after Darfur ambush
KHARTOUM, Sudan: Five peacekeepers from a U.N.-African Union force were killed and 17 others remain missing after their patrol was ambushed in northern Darfur, Sudan's official news agency reported Wednesday.
The SUNA agency quoted an unidentified official from the joint force as saying the peacekeepers were attacked Tuesday by a huge convoy of gunmen riding in 40 sport utility vehicles.
Another 18 peacekeepers were wounded, and ten U.N.-AU vehicles were destroyed, the report said.
Among those killed, three were from Rwanda, one from Ghana and one from Uganda, SUNA said. It did not give details about the gunmen.
Dowd: Dreams of Laura
WASHINGTON: The headline on the conservative blog, Townhall, stormed: "Book to Smear First Lady's Sex Life."
Radar magazine proclaimed: "On the gossip front, the novel doesn't disappoint," adding that its steamy and lurid scenes were "sure to send the White House into a fury."
MSNBC.com called the sex scenes "too graphic to reprint."
The cover of this fantasy version of Laura Bush's life, "American Wife," is alluring, a woman's shapely figure in a white gown, with white opera gloves and a diamond ring.
Still, it's not a salacious tell-all, and words like "smear" and "gossip" are misplaced. It's a well-researched book that imagines what lies behind that placid facade of the first lady, a women's book-club novel by a young woman named Curtis Sittenfeld who has written two best sellers, including "Prep."
It's the sort of novel Laura Bush might curl up with in the White House solarium if it were not about Laura Bush. It would be interesting to hear how that lover of fiction feels about being the subject of fiction.
It isn't an invasion of privacy. Art has always been made out of the stories of kings and queens. Fictionalizing historical figures is fine. Fantasies about public figures are inevitable. The question of an ostensibly ordinary girl who lives through extraordinary things will always be gripping. For "Madame Bovary," Flaubert drew on the real-life story of Delphine Delamare, a village doctor's unhappy wife who had lots of lovers and a premature and humiliating death.
During her husband's presidential runs, many reporters shied away from asking Laura Bush about the freakishly horrible accident she had when she was 17. Hurrying to a party, she ran a stop sign in Midland, Texas, one night on Farm Road 868 and ran into a car that turned out to be driven by the golden boy of her high school, a cute star athlete she was believed to have had a crush on. He died instantly of a broken neck.
As Ann Gerhart wrote in "The Perfect Wife": "Killing another person was a tragic, shattering error for a girl to make at 17. It was one of those hinges in a life, a moment when destiny shuddered, then lurched in a new direction. In its aftermath, Laura became more cautious and less spontaneous, more inclined to be compassionate."
Laura has rarely spoken publicly about it, except to say in 2000 that "it was crushing ... for the family involved and for me as well."
How could a novelist not be drawn to such a tragedy? It's easy to imagine all that guilt, shame, conscience, fear, sex and nightmares in the hands of Eudora Welty or Larry McMurtry.
Sittenfeld was not out to sensationalize but sympathize. The portraits of Laura and W. - known as Alice and Charlie Blackwell here - are trenchant and make you like them more. The Barbara Bush doppelganger, dubbed "Maj," for Her Majesty, is as tart as ever.
"When she turned her attention to me," Alice says of Maj, "I always felt, and not in a positive way, as if we were the only ones in the room and total vigilance were required."
In 2004, Sittenfeld wrote a Salon article confessing that despite her "flaming" liberalism and disdain for W.'s policies, she loved Laura Bush. She called the first lady "an easy heroine to root for - smart and nice, but just flawed enough (she still sneaks cigarettes!) to remain likable." She identified with Laura's omnivorous fiction reading.
In the novel, Alice, tormented by the choices her husband has made about the war that she's stood by, blurts out to a grieving father that she thinks the war should end. In life, we can only wonder how Laura feels.
Iran revives query about 4 who went missing in Beirut 26 years ago
UNITED NATIONS, New York: Iran, sharpening its image contest with Israel amid the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, has resurrected questions about the fate of four of its citizens who disappeared in Beirut in 1982 while Israeli forces occupied the city.
Officials in the office of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, said Tuesday that a letter the Iranian Mission released publicly on Monday, asking him to intervene to determine the fate of the men, had yet to arrive. In it Iran accuses Israel of holding the Iranians - two diplomats, their driver and a journalist - as prisoners for 26 years, a charge the Israelis dismiss.
Israel has long drawn attention to its missing soldiers in Lebanon, so analysts believe that Tehran wants to show that it, too, has endured losses.
"It is an attempt to get back at Israel and get some publicity points, to put Israel on the defensive at a time when they think that Israel might be considering attacking them," said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University.
Iran has grown bolder in recent months in highlighting its close ties with Hezbollah, to serve as a kind of warning that forces capable of retaliating against Israel sit right beyond its northern border.
Bombing in Afghanistan prompts Indians to examine world role
NEW DELHI: The suicide bombing outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul this week was the most audacious attack in recent months on Indian interests in Afghanistan, where New Delhi, since helping to topple the Taliban in 2001, has staked its largest outside aid package ever.
India has poured unprecedented amounts of money and people into the reconstruction of Afghanistan, a vital passage into the resource-rich Central Asia. It has spent more than $750 million, building a strategic road across the country's southwest, training teachers and civil servants and working on erecting a new seat of the national Parliament.
That engagement has come at a mounting cost to the 4,000 Indian citizens working in Afghanistan. In the past two and a half years, an Indian driver for the road reconstruction team was found decapitated, an engineer was abducted and slain, and seven members of the paramilitary force guarding Indian reconstruction crews were killed.
Last year alone, the Indian Border Roads Organization came under 30 rocket attacks as it built the 200-kilometer, or 125-mile, stretch of road across Nimroz Province that will ultimately link landlocked Afghanistan to a seaport in Iran.
The embassy bombing on Monday seems to have been the most effective strike: A suicide bomber blew himself up as two Indian diplomats drove into the embassy early in the morning, reducing much of the compound to rubble and blood. Four Indians, including the two diplomats, were killed. The majority of the 58 dead were Afghan civilians who had come for embassy services.
Iran reports missile test, drawing sharp U.S. response
PARIS: One day after threatening to strike Tel Aviv and United States interests if attacked, Iran's Revolutionary Guards were reported on Wednesday to have test-fired nine missiles, including one which the government in Tehran says has the range to reach Israel.
State-run media said the missiles were long- and medium-range weapons, among them a new version of the Shahab-3, which Tehran maintains is able to hit targets 1,250 miles away from its firing position. Parts of western Iran are within 650 miles of Tel Aviv.
6 die in attack on U.S. Consulate in Istanbul
ISTANBUL: A group of unidentified gunmen opened fire Wednesday on Turkish security guards outside the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, the Turkish authorities said, and at least three police officers and three assailants were killed.
A fourth assailant escaped, officials said.
The late-morning attack was the first on a diplomatic mission in the city since 2003, when 62 people were killed in assaults on the British Consulate, a bank and two synagogues. While the motives for this attack were not immediately clear, Turkish officials described the gunmen as terrorists.
"Turkey struggles and will struggle against the mentalities that organize and stand behind these attacks until the very end," President Abdullah Gul said in a statement. "Everyone, after all, has seen that nothing can be achieved through terror."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place on a quiet street lined with apartment houses. But a police official in Istanbul told The Associated Press that the authorities suspected that Al Qaeda had been behind the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists on the investigation.
Bomb attacks in Iraq kill at least 10
U.S. regulator finds questionable practices at ratings agencies
NEW YORK: The analyst at the credit ratings agency was blunt: "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters."
That candid assessment, e-mailed to a colleague in December 2006, referred to the market for certain investments linked to subprime mortgages - investments that were assigned top triple-A ratings from major agencies, only to later plummet in value.
That e-mail message and dozens like it were disclosed Tuesday in a blistering 37-page report issued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which confirmed what many on Wall Street had long suspected: The major ratings agencies, including Fitch, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, flouted conflict-of-interest guidelines and considered their own profits when rating securities, among other suspect practices.
The report represented a definitive dent in the aura of objectivity that has been cultivated for decades by ratings agencies, considered the ivory towers of Wall Street. Investors, public and private alike, often gamble billions of dollars on securities the agencies deem reliable. The assumption was that the companies' analysts - ostensibly disinterested types who assess the financial health of everything from states and cities to complex mortgages - offered a bias-free view of potential investments.
Instead, the SEC found that the agencies became overwhelmed by an increase in the volume and sophistication of the securities they were asked to review. The analysts, faced with less time to perform the due diligence expected of them, began to cut corners.
"It could be structured by cows and we would rate it," an analyst wrote in April 2007, noting that she had only been able to measure "half" of a deal's risk before providing a rating.
"We do not have the resources to support what we are doing now," a managing analyst wrote in an e-mail message in February 2007.
The report also turned up evidence that ratings agencies ran afoul of basic guidelines intended to avoid conflicts of interest. It is common practice for investment banks and other financial outfits to pay agencies to rate assets they will later sell. Agency regulations often require analysts - the people actually rating the securities - to remain unaware of any business interests involved with the products whose safety they are gauging.
The SEC found that this was not always the case. "There does not appear to be any internal effort to shield analysts from e-mails and other communications that discuss fees and revenue from individual issuers," the report said.
For example, in an e-mail message from November 2004, an analyst wrote that he was unsure of providing a particular rating because it could hurt revenue.
"I am trying to ascertain whether we can determine at this point if we will suffer any loss of business because of our decision and if so, how much?" the analyst wrote.
He added that some employees disagreed with a recommended rating "because they believed it would negatively impact business."
The agencies also considered changing their ratings criteria to better compete with their rivals. "We are meeting with your group this week to discuss adjusting criteria for rating CDOs of real estate assets this week because of the ongoing threat of losing deals," a business manager wrote in an August 2004 e-mail message, referring to collateralized debt obligations.
The SEC also found that the agencies did not sufficiently disclose or document changes to their ratings criteria.
All three ratings agencies issued statements Tuesday that expressed a commitment to reforming their ratings practices. None commented directly on the e-mail messages or the report's conclusions. Each business said it welcomed regulatory suggestions from the SEC.
It was unclear whether the findings would result in criminal charges against the agencies. The ratings companies first came under SEC regulation in September 2007, and the commission has few regulations that specifically relate to ratings agencies.