Casual Male's business prospects expand with European waistlines
By Robert P. Walzer
Friday, November 7, 2008
PARIS: About 130 million adults in the European Union, of a total population of 490 million, are considered obese by the World Health Organization. About half of them are men. At the current growth rate, that number will reach 150 million by 2010, the agency says.
For Europe, the data represent a health epidemic. For Casual Male Retail Group, they are an opportunity.
The biggest U.S. specialist, both by revenue and by number of stores, in clothing for oversized people, Casual Male started unfurling its brand in five continental European countries - Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands - in October.
Casual Male, which is traded on the Nasdaq and is based in Canton, Massachusetts, has a London shop, which is one of the highest-grossing outlets among 500 in the chain.
Small shops in Europe have long catered to big and tall men. But David Levin, president and chief executive of Casual Male, asserts that mainstream European retailers have largely ignored this clientèle.
"They can buy apparel at the end of the size run that traditional retailers carry," Levin said a recent interview. "But the selection is limited for the end-of-rack shopper. This is what we do, as opposed to an afterthought."
The World Health Organization, part of the United Nations, defines a person as obese if he or she has a body mass index, which is a measure of body fat based on height and weight, of more than 30. Obesity rates vary greatly by country, from 10 percent of the population in France to 22 percent in Britain and 25 percent in Greece.
How does Levin define a large man? In the United States, he has a waist of at least 42 inches, or 107 centimeters, or a height of at least 6 feet 2 inches, or 1.9 meters. In Europe, the parameters are still unclear, Levin said, but the company hopes to determine them through Internet and catalogue sales, which Casual Male will study before opening brick-and-mortar stores.
"There will be different size curves going on in different countries," Levin said.
In Britain, Casual Male has little direct competition, apart from N Brown Group, a Manchester-based catalogue company. On the Continent, mainstream retailers like Inditex, which owns Zara, the Spanish chain that is the world's biggest clothing retailer, and the French retailer Carrefour also offer extra large sizes. Zara, for instance, says it sells men's trousers with waistlines as large as 122 centimeters. But both companies, which declined to speak about the subject at length, focus on average-size shoppers.
Scott Krasik, an analyst with the securities firm CL King in New York, wrote in a recent research note that department stores "cannot offer the assortments Casual Male does." Levin said some popular styles made by Casual Male come in as many as 49 size combinations, something traditional retailers find unprofitable to manage.
Levin, who has held senior positions at Revlon and Coleman, in 2000 acquired Casual Male's predecessor company out of bankruptcy through another apparel company he led. He changed the name to Casual Male XL from Casual Male Big & Tall after marketing studies showed a stigma attached to the big and tall brand. He also added Rochester Big & Tall, a high-end chain.
Since then, Casual Male has improved its technology to pinpoint what clothes and sizes are popular in various locations. This year it acquired its biggest competitor, Dahle's Big & Tall, and started specialty Web sites for footwear and extra-large home goods like towels. It also introduced a blog to address its fastest-growing demographic segment, men 18 to 24 years old.
These aggressive moves have left some analysts concerned. In August, Casual Male reported six-month sales of $221.1 million, down 1.4 percent a year earlier. Net income fell to $2 million from $3.6 million a year earlier.
"While we applaud the company for broadening their customer reach via the Internet, we remain concerned that management may be expanding their strategies too broadly," said Betty Chen, vice president for research at Wedbush Morgan Securities in San Francisco.
The way Levin sees it, though, the members of his oft-maligned but growing customer base need him, and Casual Male, to expand along with them.
"Just because you're big doesn't mean you can't dress fashionably and contemporary," he said. "This guy, our customer, wants to look like his friends."
Regional exchange in China gains clout in global soy trade
By Niu Shuping and Naveen ThukralReuters
Friday, November 7, 2008
BEIJING: In a busy port city in northeastern China, the Dalian Commodity Exchange is quietly coming of age as the reference point for the global soy trade.
Dalian has grown in less than two years from a small regional exchange to a soy futures market that rivals CME Group's Chicago Board of Trade. It is increasingly a hedging tool for foreign-invested soy crushers and a price indicator for Asia.
On Wednesday, NYSE Euronext, the world's biggest exchange, signed cooperation agreements with the Dalian exchange and its smaller rival, the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange. It was the latest in a string of such tie-ups that show the rising stature of Chinese bourses in global markets.
"Our goal is to become the Asian pricing center for agricultural products," Li Jun, vice president of the Dalian exchange, said last month.
His goal is understandable, since China imports half of the soybeans traded on the global market.
Stakes held by multinational trading companies like Wilmar, Cargill and Bunge in most Chinese crushers give the Dalian exchange new utility for hedging soy oil and meal sales and for trading the soybean spread with Chicago.
Monthly soybean trading volumes at Dalian have surged sevenfold over the past 15 months, to more than 14 million lots in October. "The liquidity is very good," said a Singapore-based trader who, like other traders quoted for this story, asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. "You can get in and out of 100,000 to 150,000 tons without too much of a problem."
The shadow of a global slowdown has so far barely crimped the Dalian exchange's ambitions. A new, 53-story building is being built opposite the existing hall, and will be ready next year.
China's futures markets growth may be limited by legal controls that restrict foreign players, although restrictions on domestic financial institutions should fall away under new futures regulations.
Dalian's trading is still dominated by individuals, with only 3 percent of active traders classed as institutional investors.
"Dalian's price impact is still very limited, as it has kept foreign investors outside the door," said Xiaoyue Li, the director of Asia operations for the U.S.-based grain brokerage FCStone Group in China.
Foreigners may hesitate because of the impact of swings in China's state reserves of grains, and - beginning this year - soy oil and soybeans, news of which can leak to well-connected market players and rock the futures markets.
"It is like the stock market; people walk in and walk out," said one trader. "That is why the volumes are high."
But crushers, which hedge soy meal and soy oil sales in Dalian, are a new force. They now account for about 20 percent of total trades, although they are careful to stay below the radar, since Beijing can make its feelings known if prices move too quickly in the wrong direction.
"You don't flash too much in the market," a trader said. "You restrict yourself and stay within certain limits which we self impose, beyond what the exchange or the government does."
In an effort to broaden its horizons, the Dalian exchange has signed 15 pacts with foreign partners, including the CME, Bursa Malaysia, Japan's TFX and India's NCDEX.
It is trying to establish more farm futures in which China has a big market influence, like rice and hogs.
But it has tough competition, with the Bursa Malaysia Derivatives exchange, based in Kuala Lumpur, remaining the global benchmark for palm oil, despite strong volumes in Dalian.
"The reality is that in terms of volume, Dalian refined palm oil futures has more volume, but Bursa Malaysia crude palm oil futures will continue to be the benchmark because it is based in a major producer country," said a trader with foreign commodities brokerage in Kuala Lumpur.
There's also limited interest in Dalian's corn contract. Despite China's being the world's second largest consumer and producer, China is entirely self-sufficient and has banned exports, leaving little room for arbitrage trade.
The Zhengzhou exchange has an even tougher path ahead, as it has developed a reputation for erratic price movement.
Chinese leader calls for sacrifice from rich nations on climate change
Friday, November 7, 2008
BEIJING: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said Friday that rich nations must abandon their "unsustainable lifestyle" to fight climate change and expand help to poor nations bearing the brunt of worsening droughts and rising sea levels.
Wen said at the opening of a conference that the financial crisis was no reason for rich nations to delay fighting global warming.
"As the global financial crisis spreads and worsens, and the world economy slows down apparently, the international community must not waver in its determination to tackle climate change," Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.
The two-day meeting is to push China's call for rich nations to fund a huge infusion of greenhouse gas-cutting technology for developing countries. But foreign officials at the meeting raised doubts about Beijing's proposal, which could stoke contention over who pays and how much.
China is widely believed to be the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. But Wen threw the onus back on rich nations, with their much higher emissions per person and long history of polluting the air.
"Developed countries shoulder the duty and responsibility to tackle climate change and should alter their unsustainable lifestyle," he said.
Chinese officials have said wealthy nations should divert as much as 1 percent of their economic worth to pay for clean technology transfers and help the developing world overcome damage from the rising temperatures.
This would mean $284 billion a year if members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development paid up based on the size of their economies in 2007.
China aims to land moon-buggy by 2012
The Dutch seek to claim more land from the sea
By John Tagliabue
Friday, November 7, 2008
LELYSTAD, Netherlands: In this tiny, low-lying country, where much of the land has been clawed from the sea, people like to say that while God may have created the world, it was the Dutch who created Holland.
Consider this seaside town of brick homes huddled behind steep dikes. In the 1960s, Lelystad was mostly shacks housing workers who erected dikes and drained water to create land for farming, industry and homes. Since then, Lelystad has grown by leaps and bounds, to 73,000 people - and it is growing still.
Today, just as they have for centuries, the Dutch need more land to house an expanding population. They also need to confront a new threat to their lands, roughly two-thirds of which lie below sea level: the specter of rising ocean levels associated with global warming.
So a government commission recently proposed pushing out the Netherlands' shoreline to meet the challenge of an increase in the ocean's levels; another commission proposed the construction of islands off the Dutch coast, like barrier reefs in the North Sea.
One such commission, inspired by Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which built several islands off its coast to form giant palm trees as part of a major urban development plan, suggested a bit whimsically that the Dutch islands be given the shape of plants, specifically tulips. One waggish blogger, alluding to the Netherlands' traditional tolerance of marijuana, suggested cannabis leaves instead.
"It was a joke, a metaphor," Hans de Boer, a commission member, said of the tulip design for the proposed islands. "We came up with a metaphor, and everybody wanted to take part in the discussion."
The idea, de Boer went on, would be not only to gain land and protect the coast, but also to showcase Dutch engineering skills. At the same time, an island could be an energy powerhouse, shaped like a ring to create so-called blue energy by using the contrast of fresh and salt water to generate electricity, or the ebb and flow of the tides. Wind turbines could also produce even more energy, he said.
Of course, there are skeptics, especially among those who have most experience building islands. "Funny shapes like tulips, clogs and windmills are a good way to start a debate, but they should not be considered as realistic," Bert Groothuizen, marketing manager at Van Oord, the largest Dutch dredging contractor and the builder of Dubai's palm trees, told Reuters.
"Islands offer protection against waves, since on the lee side of the islands there is less wave action," Groothuizen explained in a follow-up interview by telephone from his office in Rotterdam. But unlike in Dubai, they would have to be positioned many miles out to sea. "It's far more costly," he said.
Such work is expected to cost billions of dollars - no one has estimated just how much - and take decades. Yet the government commissions insist that their proposals for islands or an expanded coastline are quite serious, and thrifty taxpayers have not revolted.
The pumping station here in Lelystad is one of the largest dotting the reclaimed landscape, and it provides an example of how the Dutch learned to live below sea level.
"There were food shortages in World War I, and Holland wanted food independence," said Evert van der Horst, chief engineer at a station near Lelystad that drains the reclaimed land.
So the Dutch built a dike separating a body of water then called the Zuiderzee from the ocean. They called the body of water formed by the dike the Ijsselmeer, after a nearby river, van der Horst said, and drained its eastern stretches to cultivate and live on. He was one of thousands of Dutch mainlanders who settled there.
All winter long, the pumping station's four big diesel pumps, which are being converted to more efficient electricity, run on and off.
But "in summertime, every tree sucks up 300 liters of water a day," almost 80 gallons, said van der Horst, 64, making pumping unnecessary. "You can smell it in the trees," he said.
One of Lelystad's worst crises hit as recently as 1994.
"We had plenty of rain just before Christmas, so we started the pumps," he said. After months of continual pumping, he added, "we ended in April."
Dutch companies have gained renown in recent years by helping other countries reclaim lands from the sea. In addition to Dubai's islands, the island for Hong Kong's international airport was built by Van Oord, the dredging company. So, the Dutch government is asking its engineers and builders to come home and help battle the sea.
The growth of towns like Lelystad goes on unabated, crowding an already packed country. With a population of 16.5 million, the Netherlands has about 1,270 people crowded into every square mile. As subdivisions sprout around old Dutch cities and broad new highways connect them, the growth gobbles up forests and farmland.
"The number of farms, about 80,000, is decreasing, while production is increasing. But if we want to realize and continue production growth, we need acreage," said Joop Atsma, a local member of Parliament involved in planning.
But whether to build islands or push out the shoreline, he could not say.
Groothuizen of Van Oord has no doubts.
"It is better and more economical to extend the coast one kilometer," or 0.6 of a mile, "into the sea and strengthen the dunes along the seashore by dumping in a lot of sand," he said.
"In the old days," he mused, "the dikes were rigid, of concrete, but now we favor a soft coastline, in harmony with nature. It's a return to the 17th century."
Atop the dike protecting Lelystad stands a restaurant, 't Dijkhuysje, or Dike House, one of many that once stocked supplies to help the dikes' overseers deal with emergencies. "We have no problem with water," said Rob Sengers, 24, who has cooked in the restaurant's kitchen for eight years. Was he concerned about the possibility of sea levels rising from climate change?
"Maybe sooner or later it will happen," he said. "Maybe my children will see it."
Ford and GM are leaking cash
By Bill Vlasic and Nick Bunkley
Friday, November 7, 2008
DETROIT: General Motors is edging closer to running out of money after slumping sales and deteriorating economic conditions pushed it to a larger-than-expected loss of $4.2 billion in the third quarter, excluding a one-time gain.
GM results, issued Friday, came after similarly dismal quarterly earnings from Ford Motor, raising new concerns about the prospects for survival of the two largest U.S. automakers.
GM said its revenue in the third quarter fell 13 percent, to $37.9 billion from $43.7 billion a year ago, because of weak demand in its core North American and European markets.
Including the one-time gain, the loss was $2.5 billion, or $4.45 a share, compared with $42.5 billion, or $75.12 a share, a year earlier, a period that included a noncash charge of $38.3 billion on deferred tax assets.
The company also reported that it burned through $6.9 billion in cash during the quarter and ended the period with just $16.2 billion in cash reserves.
The rapid depletion of its cash position puts GM perilously close to dropping below the level needed to finance its operations.
The company said it has identified new actions to conserve another $5 billion in cash, in addition to an earlier plan to bolster its liquidity by $15 billion.
Still, GM said that it "will fall significantly short" of the cash needed to run its business in the first half of 2009 unless economic conditions improve and the company gets aid from the federal government.
"Even if GM implements the planned operating actions that are substantially within its control," the company said, "GM's estimated liquidity during the remainder of 2008 will approach the minimal level necessary to operate its business."
Earlier Friday, Ford Motor said it burned through $7.7 billion in cash in the third quarter, leaving it with $18.9 billion at the end of September. During this period, vehicle sales in the United States plunged as consumer confidence sank to historically weak levels and tight credit markets prevented some consumers from obtaining loans.
Ford said its automotive business lost $2.9 billion in the third quarter as it announced more cuts to conserve cash, including an additional 10 percent reduction in salaried payroll costs and lower capital spending.
Over all, Ford reported a loss of $129 million for the quarter, or 6 cents a share, helped by a $2 billion gain as it shifted some retiree health care liabilities to a trust run by the United Automobile Workers union. A year earlier, Ford posted a loss of $380 million, or 19 cents a share.
Excluding the gain and other one-time items, the company had a loss of $2.7 billion. Its revenue was $32.1 billion, down from $41.1 billion in the third quarter of 2007.
"The global auto industry is facing unprecedented challenges," said Alan Mulally, the Ford chief executive. "But we are absolutely convinced that we have the right plan and are taking the right actions to weather this difficult period. In these challenging times, our plan is more important than ever."
Ford said it expected to increase its cash on hand by $14 billion to $17 billion in the next two years with its new round of cutbacks. The company will eliminate as many as 2,200 salaried jobs by January and end merit-based raises, bonuses and matching contributions to retirement accounts for those who remain. It also plans to reduce global vehicle inventories, delay development of "a few select vehicles" and sell more noncore assets. The company said it remained on track to reduce fixed costs this year by $5 billion.
Mulally said the additional actions were necessary because "we now believe the industry downturn will be broader, deeper and longer than previously expected."
Underscoring the dire circumstances facing the industry, the chief executives of GM, Ford and Chrysler met on Thursday with Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, about an emergency loan package. The meeting focused on a request by automakers for as much as $25 billion in loans to help the companies get through the worst vehicle market in 15 years and avoid going into bankruptcy protection.
Mulally said Ford was hopeful that the government would step in but was not factoring that into its planning. "We are not assuming that kind of help from the U.S. government at this time," he said Friday.
"We are absolutely going to continue to dialogue with the government and others, if things deteriorate, to keep this very important industry going."
The loan request is in addition to $25 billion in low-interest loans administered by the U.S. Energy Department to assist automakers in developing more fuel-efficient vehicles.GM opens Russian assembly plant
General Motors opened its first Russian assembly plant on Friday, The Associated Press reported from St. Petersburg. The factory, just outside the city, cost $300 million to develop and has a capacity of 70,000 cars per year.
GM, which has various joint manufacturing ventures in Russia, joins many major carmakers that have opened domestic plants to tap the growing Russian market.
BP drops plans for UK wind farms
Friday, November 7, 2008
LONDON: Oil major BP has dropped plans to build wind farms and other renewable energy projects in Britain and will focus renewables spending on the United States, the Guardian newspaper said on Friday.
The United States is more attractive due to government incentives for clean energy projects there, the newspaper said.
"The best place to get a strong rate of return for wind is the U.S.," the Guardian quoted a BP spokesman as saying.
The group has shelved ideas of building a UK onshore wind farm at the Isle of Grain in Kent and will not bid for any offshore licences, the newspaper added.
China's Goldwind Science & Technology Co said on Thursday BP Alternative Energy has pulled out of a partnership in a wind farm project.
Goldwind, China's largest maker of wind turbines, said BP had decided to suspend its wind power business in Asia, according to a statement posted on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
(Reporting by Eric Onstad; Editing by Gary Hill)
U.S. expands Utah oil and gas leasing
By Felicity Barringer
Friday, November 7, 2008
The Bureau of Land Management has expanded its oil and gas lease program in eastern Utah to include tens of thousands of acres on or near the boundaries of three national parks, according to revised maps published this week.
National Park Service officials say that the decision to open lands close to Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument and within eyeshot of Canyonlands National Park was made without the kind of consultation that had previously been routine.
The inclusion of the new lease tracts angered environmental groups, which were already critical of the bureau's original lease proposal, made public this fall, because they said it could lead to industrial activity in empty areas of the state, some prized for their sweeping vistas, like Desolation Canyon, and others for their ancient petroglyphs, like Nine Mile Canyon.
The bureau's new maps, made public on Election Day, show not just those empty areas but 40 to 45 new areas where leasing will also be allowed.
The tracts will be sold at auction on Dec. 19, the last lease sale before President George W. Bush leaves office a month later. The new leases were added after a map of the proposed tracts was given to the National Park Service for comment this fall. The proximity of industrial activity concerns park managers, who worry about the impact on the air, water and wildlife within the park, as well as the potential for noise, said Michael Snyder, a regional director of the park service who is based in Denver.
The service is usually given one to three months to comment on leases, he added. "This is the first time," he said, "where we have not had sufficient opportunity to comment." He said that he had asked the Bureau of Land Management's state director, Selma Sierra, to pull the new tracts from the December auction for more study. She refused.
Kent Hoffman, a deputy director of the land management bureau's Utah office, said the park service had ample opportunity to review the broad management plan under which the leases were developed, even if it was not given the usual notice of which leases were being offered for sale. He added that 37 days remained to air any protests and review the decision about which tracts to lease.
If any leases are sold Dec. 19 and subsequently delivered to the buyers before Inauguration Day, however, it will be difficult for the new administration to reverse those decisions.
The perennial struggle over the use of public lands in the West, which traditionally pits ranchers, miners and oil and gas interests against environmentalists and groups interested in historic preservation, has been particularly acute in Utah.
Many in the state, where resentment of the federal government runs deep, remain angry about the Clinton administration's decision in 1999 to set aside for protection 3 million acres deemed to have "wilderness qualities." The state sued; in 2003, the Bush administration settled and removed protections from those acres.
Before the new lands could be opened to leasing, the land management bureau had to revise its resource management plans designating which areas are appropriate for mining, drilling and motorized recreation and which should remain free of such activity. Last week, six such plans, covering the central and eastern portions of Utah, were approved. The Dec. 19 auction was expected to include energy leases of some land previously off limits, like Desolation Canyon. But not until Tuesday did the bureau release the final maps containing the new leases near park boundaries.
Kathleen Sgamma, the government affairs director of the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States, said of the new lease proposals, "If you can't develop oil and natural gas in this part of rural Utah, we might as well concede the United States has lost all interest in energy security."
But David Nimkin, the southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said, "It's very clear that there's a time clock, and they are anxious to move these out for sale, for obvious reasons."
The leases, he said, seem to be "profoundly in conflict with the direction of the new administration and the new Congress."
By Jonathan Mahler
Friday, November 7, 2008
This article will appear in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.
Ask a long-serving member of the United States Senate — like, say, Patrick Leahy of Vermont — to reflect on the Senate's role in our constitutional government, and he will almost invariably tell you a story from our nation's founding that may or may not be apocryphal. It concerns an exchange that supposedly took place between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in 1787, the year of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Jefferson, who had been serving as America's ambassador to France during the convention, asked Washington over breakfast upon his return why he and the other framers created a Senate — in addition to the previously planned House of Representatives and presidency — in his absence.
"Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" Washington reportedly replied.
"To cool it," Jefferson answered.
"Even so," Washington said, "we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."
The United States Senate has been called the world's greatest deliberative body. By serving six-year terms — as opposed to the two-year terms in the more populist and considerably larger House of Representatives — senators are supposed to be able to stand above the ideological fray and engage in thoughtful and serious debate. What's more, the filibuster rule allows a single senator to halt the creep of political passions into the decision-making process by blocking a given vote.
Perhaps nowhere is the ethos of the Senate, this commitment to principle over politics, more memorably captured than in the classic 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," when Jimmy Stewart, who plays an idealistic freshman senator wrongfully accused of graft, refuses to yield the floor until he has cleared his name. (After almost 24 hours, he winds up passing out from exhaustion but is ultimately exonerated.)
"We're supposed to be the conscience of the nation," Senator Leahy told me recently in his Washington office, which is decorated with New England folk art, including a print of a dog and cat cuddling on a throw rug that looks as if it could be on loan from a bed-and-breakfast in his home state.
Leahy is one of Congress's so-called Watergate babies. He was elected to the Senate following Nixon's resignation in 1974, and his arrival on Capitol Hill coincided with thesweeping bipartisan effort to investigate the Nixon administration's abuses of executive power. "There was a sense inside the Senate among both Republicans and Democrats that the government had gotten off course and that we had a responsibility to find out what happened," Leahy recalled.
Weeks after the 34-year-old Leahy was sworn into the Senate, his Democratic colleague from Idaho, Frank Church, began his legendary probe into domestic spying during the cold war. Church's bipartisan Senate committee interviewed more than 800 officials and held 21 public hearings, uncovering widespread abuses by the CIA and the FBI "I had just come from eight years as a federal prosecutor," Leahy told me, "so I knew a little something about convening grand juries and issuing subpoenas. But this was on a scale magnified a thousand times anything I had ever seen."
If Leahy speaks about that era with a certain nostalgia, it's because he recognizes that the power of the Senate, which blossomed during his early years in Congress, has now withered. The story of the United States is in many ways the story of the push and pull between the executive and legislative branches. Consider just the last half-century or so. In the late 1940s, Congress moved aggressively to recoup some of the power it had lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took full advantage of his presidential prerogative during a 12-year tenure that spanned both the Depression and World War II. (Among other things, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, which limited future presidents to two terms in office.) President Harry Truman and other cold warriors pushed back; the '50s and '60s were dominated by the high-stakes diplomacy and covert overseas operations of the Soviet Union-United States conflict, shifting the balance of power back to the executive — until the aforementioned Nixon reaction. Yet much of the authority that Congress recaptured during the post-Watergate and post-Vietnam administrations of Carter and Ford it gave back when Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency and flexed his presidential muscle to push through an ambitious agenda that included massive tax cuts and an escalation of America's global struggle against Communism.
During Bill Clinton's tenure, what was shaping up as a strong presidency was brought to heel by an independent counsel and impeachment hearings. By the time Clinton finished his second term, it looked to many experts as if the White House would be working with diminished authority for years to come: the presidential historian Michael Beschloss called George W. Bush "the first truly postimperial president."
As it turned out, the power of the president soared to new heights under Bush. Many of the administration's most aggressive moves came in the realm of national security and the war on terror in particular. The Bush administration claimed the authority to deny captured combatants — U.S. citizens and aliens alike — such basic due-process rights as access to a lawyer. It created a detention facility on Guantánamo Bay that it declared was outside the jurisdiction of the federal courts and built a new legal system — without any input from Congress — to try enemy combatants. And it argued that the president's commander-in-chief powers gave him the authority to violate America's laws and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions.
The assertion and expansion of presidential power is arguably the defining feature of the Bush years. Come January, the current administration will pass on to its successor a vast infrastructure for electronic surveillance, secret sites for detention and interrogation and a sheaf of legal opinions empowering the executive to do whatever he feels necessary to protect the country. The new administration will also be the beneficiary of Congress's recent history of complacency, which amounts to a tacit acceptance of the Bush administration's expansive views of executive authority. For that matter, thanks to the recent economic bailout, Bush's successor will inherit control over much of the banking industry. "The next president will enter office as the most powerful president who has ever sat in the White House," Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale and an influential legal blogger, told me a few weeks ago.
And yet the issue of executive authority scarcely reared its head in the presidential campaign. It wasn't addressed directly in any of the debates, and aside from a Boston Globe questionnaire on executive authority given to all of the primary candidates in December of last year, neither Obama nor McCain had much to say on the stump or in interviews about the power of the office he aspired to occupy.
"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," James Madison wrote, meaning that America's divided system of government would depend on both the president and Congress forcefully pursuing their respective roles — and in so doing, acting as a natural check on each other. Why did that fail to happen during the Bush years, and will a new president and newly elected Congress act to undo the excesses of presidential power over the past eight years?
Senator Lindsey Graham, the baby-faced South Carolina Republican who first stepped onto the national stage as a House manager of Clinton's impeachment trial, has not been an easy figure to pin down in the struggle over presidential power. At times, he was one of the Bush administration's most reliable allies in the Senate, notably when it came to the executive branch's assertion that it could block enemy combatants from challenging their detentions in federal court. In the fall of 2005, days after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Guantánamo detainee's lawsuit against President George W. Bush, Graham came to the administration's rescue with a bill devised to kick the case off the court's docket and to make all pending and future detainee challenges illegal. (The bill passed, but the justices nevertheless refused to dismiss the case, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.)
But Graham, a former Air Force lawyer, was also one of a handful of Republican senators who resisted the executive branch's claim that the president could authorize coercive interrogations of detainees. He memorably accused Alberto Gonzales, then the nominee for attorney general, of "playing cute with the law" in order to justify that claim and was a member of the triumvirate of so-called Republican mavericks — along with Senators John McCain and John Warner — who drafted a bill aimed at preventing the torture of enemy combatants.
"The Bush administration came up with a pretty aggressive, bordering on bizarre, theory of inherent authority that had no boundaries," Graham told me one day last summer in his Senate office. "As they saw it, the other two branches of government were basically neutered in the time of war."
As has now been widely noted, the chief architect of the Bush administration's expansive view of executive power was Vice President Dick Cheney, whose interest in pumping up the presidency dates from the mid-1970s, when, as President Ford's chief of staff, he had a front-row seat for Congress's post-Watergate crusade against the executive branch. Ten years later, as a member of the House of Representatives, Cheney dissented from the majority of his colleagues in the Iran-contra affair, arguing that President Ronald Reagan possessed the power to provide arms to the contras — even though Congress had expressly prohibited him from doing so.
Yet even absent a Cheney, it's very likely that any president, Republican or Democrat, would have accrued more authority in the aftermath of 9/11. The president needs the flexibility to move quickly and forcefully to protect the country during wartime, even if this entails concealing information from the public and encroaching on civil liberties. "It is of the nature of war," Alexander Hamilton wrote, "to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority."And Hamilton was speaking about conventional warfare — not the war on terror with all its novel challenges.
In a sense, it's hard to fault Congress for the historic surrender of its authority during the Bush years. Like the Iran-contras arms deals, many of the actions that the administration undertook after 9/11 — like the rendition of suspected terrorists to "ghost prisons" in foreign countries and the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens — were kept secret, even from lawmakers, which made oversight impossible. The administration also did everything it could to block unwanted disclosures about its policies, routinely invoking the formerly obscure "state-secrets privilege" to avoid revealing details of its treatment of enemy combatants.
When the administration did choose to pass on information to Congress, it did so selectively, not always reliably, and with a very clear political goal in mind. In "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," Barton Gellman, a reporter at The Washington Post, wrote that when Cheney was lining up support for the invasion of Iraq, he met with Representative Dick Armey, the Republican majority leader. Behind closed doors, he told Armey, who had been skeptical, that Saddam Hussein had made "substantial progress" toward building a miniature nuclear weapon. Armey duly voted for the invasion.
Still, Congress was hardly unaware of what was going on. Many of the most aggressive positions that the Bush administration staked out after 9/11 — from the creation of Guantánamo to what amounted to the suspension of America's Geneva Conventions obligations governing the treatment of captured combatants — were a matter of public record. Not only did Congress not flinch at such unilateral actions, but it also helped enable the expansion of presidential authority by passing the USA Patriot Act, which gavethe executive sweeping new law-enforcement powers.
It wasn't until the fall of 2005, a year and a half after the detainee-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib became public, that Congress passed a piece of legislation intended to limit, rather than expand, the president's wartime authority — the torture bill. I asked Graham why he and his fellow senators waited so long to try to reclaim their place in the constitutional order. "The Congress was intimidated after 9/11," he answered. "People were afraid to get in the way of a strong executive who was talking about suppressing a vicious enemy, and we were AWOL for a while, and I'll take the blame for that. We should have been more aggressive after 9/11 in working with the executive to find a collaboration, and I think the fact that we weren't probably hurt the country. I wish I had spoken out sooner and louder."
Graham's explanation — that the 9/11 attacks threw Congress off its game — tells only part of the story. Congress, like the White House, was in Republican hands from 2003 to 2006; it's impossible to ignore the role politics played in the institution's passivity.
Single-party rule in Washington has not always translated into a timid Congress. In 1941, Harry Truman, then a largely unknown Democratic senator from Missouri, drove his Dodge across the country to expose profiteering by private military contractors under FDR, who was supplying weaponry to the Allied powers. During the Carter administration, the Democratic Congress aggressively investigated among other things the shady financial dealings of the president's brother, Billy.
The Senate is a different place now, though. Consider this telling bit of institutional history, as related by Robert Caro in his continuing biography of Lyndon Johnson. When Johnson was elevated to the vice presidency in 1961, he suggested to Senator Mike Mansfield, his successor as Senate majority leader, that he be permitted to continue presiding over the Democratic caucus. Mansfield initially agreed — but the rest of the caucus revolted. The vice president might be the ceremonial president of the Senate, they argued, but to empower him to attend their caucuses, let alone run them, would create a dangerous precedent.
By contrast, in recent years, you could set your watch by the arrival of Vice President Cheney's motorcade on Capitol Hill for the Republican caucus's weekly strategy sessions. He was at times known to bring Karl Rove with him as well. "You can imagine the amount of dissent that goes on with the two of them sitting there," Leahy told me.
As Leahy sees it, these weekly trips to Capitol Hill were part of the administration's strategy to marginalize Congress by encouraging Republican senators to put party loyalty ahead of institutional loyalty. He draws a sharp contrast between Cheney and vice presidents like George H.W. Bush and Walter Mondale, who made an effort to get to know members of both parties and ensure that their voices were heard inside the Oval Office. "I think in a way this administration set out to make the Republican Party on the Hill an arm of the White House," Leahy told me.
But the politicization of the Senate didn't begin with Bush. Norman Ornstein, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, traces the roots of the trend to the congressional elections of 1994, when the Republicans took back the House after 40 years in the minority. Led by Newt Gingrich, a new group of fire-breathing freshman lawmakers arrived on Capitol Hill with an ambitious, highly partisan agenda. Finally in the majority, the House Republicans gleefully wielded their newfound subpoena power to harass the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, by, for example, taking dozens of hours of testimony on whether he abused the White House Christmas-card list for the purposes of fund-raising.
According to Ornstein, the Senate, and in particular its leader through 1996, Bob Dole, was at first skeptical of Gingrich and his ideological minions in the House. But Dole's successor, Trent Lott, was more partisan and thus more willing to engage in the politicization of Senate actions like the confirmation of Clinton's judicial appointments.
It was the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, though, that finally pushed the Senate into the trenches of political warfare and polarized the institution once and for all. Senators now saw themselves as members of their respective political parties first — and representatives of their constituencies second. After George W. Bush's election in 2000, many Republicans on Capitol Hill saw it as their duty to protect him from their Democratic colleagues. "The Republican leaders in both houses of Congress made the decision that they were going to be field soldiers in the president's army, rather than members of an independent branch of government," Ornstein says.
Next year, the Senate will lose one of its most beloved and respected figures, the 81-year-old Virginian John Warner, who decided not to seek re-election to a sixth term. The son of a World War I field surgeon, Warner served in both the navy and the Marines and then did a tour as President Nixon's secretary of the navy before joining the Senate in 1979. He has been on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee for decades and has served as its chairman on three occasions.
Scanning the framed photographs in Warner's office in the Senate's Russell Building — on horseback with Ronald Reagan; in the Gulf with John Glenn; conferring, pipe in mouth, with Barry Goldwater — you can't help feeling that an era is passing with his retirement. A tall, courtly and dapper man with a thick mane of white hair, Warner is the model of the senator as elder statesman, a man who isn't swayed by the mercurial moods of the nation or the ideological passions of his party. Over the years, this has produced some memorable acts of apostasy. In the 1994 Virginia Senate election, for instance, Warner refused to support the conservative hero Oliver North in his run against the incumbent Democrat, Senator Charles Robb.
Warner's Senate career began improbably, after Virginia's Republican nominee, Richard Obenshain, died in a plane crash weeks before the general election. When he got the phone call inquiring if he'd be willing to run for Senate, Warner and his wife at the time, Elizabeth Taylor, were getting ready to leave for Ireland, where Taylor was to serve as grand marshal at the Dublin Horse Show. "There were about 10 big bags of her luggage sitting in the front hall," Warner told me recently. Instead, he stayed behind and kicked off his Senate campaign — "Liz Taylor's Next Role: Senator's Wife?" asked a headline on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post — and wound up winning.
The popular perception of Warner when he first arrived on Capitol Hill in 1979 was hardly generous: a Doonesbury cartoon portrayed him as a "dim dilettante who managed to buy, marry and luck his way into the Senate." But Warner soon established himself as a shrewd politician and a powerful defender of the importance of the Senate's role in our constitutional government, a role that he now worries the Senate is in the process of ceding. "The tripod has got to stand on these three legs," he told me, referring to America's three coequal branches of government, "and if one leg gets weak, the tripod begins to not supply the support this country needs. I see this institution getting weak."
I met with Warner on a Friday in late September, the day after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson first announced that the government was working on a massive financial bailout plan. Warner was annoyed that the executive branch hadn't given the Senate a heads-up about its intentions. "Until about 8 o'clock last night I didn't know a damn thing about what these guys were doing," he told me. "I had to pull over to the side of the road so I wouldn't have an accident listening to the secretary of the Treasury's press conference on the radio." What bothered him even more, though, was the fact that the Russell building was largely deserted: "Where is everybody? We've got a major crisis facing America."
The central problem, as Warner sees it, is the soaring cost of Senate elections. By political necessity, senators spend as much time as possible back in their home states building up their treasuries for their next race. To accommodate this need, most Senate votes are scheduled between Tuesday and Thursday. "When I came here, the Senate would work Mondays through Fridays," Warner recalls. "Old Bob Byrd was the majority leader, and if he was not happy, you stayed here all weekend, without a lot of notice."
The fact that many senators have to spend so much time away from Capitol Hill means less time for Senate work. It has also eroded the fabric of the institution. It's now common for senators to leave their families back home and basically commute to Washington. "In my days here the Senate was kind of a family," Warner recalls. "It was a lot easier to cross the aisle because you just had dinner the night before with the senator and his wife or your kids were in school together. Now the relationships between senators just don't develop."
Even the most independent-minded senators are still members of a political party. When that party also happens to be in control of the White House, senators often find themselves trying to balance their party loyalty with their duty to keep a close eye on the executive branch. This can be especially tricky for those in leadership positions, as Warner was during his last term as chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 2003 to 2006.
As a veteran of the Senate, Warner was hardly a stranger to dealing with presidential administrations eager to impose their will on Congress. But he was nevertheless surprised by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's highhanded approach to the Legislature. "Warner was bewildered by Rumsfeld's way of doing his business, his attitude that the Senate should just confirm his people, validate his programs and shut up," one former senior staff member of the Armed Services Committee told me. (The senator himself declined to discuss the specifics of his relationship with the former defense secretary.)
Still, apart from the occasional sternly worded letter, Warner tried assiduously to prevent his relationship with Rumsfeld from becoming openly hostile. When the defense secretary publicly snubbed one of Warner's longtime staff members, Les Brownlee, leaving him as acting army secretary for months on end, another one of Brownlee's Senate mentors, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Ted Stevens, directed his staff to find one of Rumsfeld's pet Pentagon projects so that he could withhold financing for it. (Rumsfeld still refused to relent.)
Warner, too, had a powerful lever to use against the defense secretary: the Armed Services Committee has to confirm all high-level appointments to the Pentagon. Warner could have held up any number of Rumsfeld's nominees, yet he declined to do so. "Look, I've got to work with this guy," the senator would say, according to the former staff member, whenever one of his aides urged him to move more aggressively against Rumsfeld.
Warner was also a captive of his own background. As a former secretary of the navy, Warner had a powerful reverence for the institution of the defense secretary and the Pentagon in general. This, combined with his loyalty to the Republican Party, made him at times deferential. When Warner requested a full committee briefing with a press conference to follow on the activities of the Lincoln Group, a public-relations firm under contract with the United States military that was paying to have stories placed in Iraqi newspapers, Rumsfeld instead asked him to come to the Pentagon for a private briefing to prevent one of the committee's Democrats, Edward Kennedy, from exploiting the issue. Warner acceded.
When Warner was determined to challenge the Republican administration, he had to contend with his right flank inside the Senate. After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004, Warner was taken aback to learn that the Pentagon had known about the detainee abuse for months but had never so much as informally briefed him on it. Many of Warner's Republican colleagues urged him to let the administration deal with the scandal on its own, but Warner insisted on convening public hearings and summoned Rumsfeld to testify as the first witness. He even ordered that Rumsfeld be sworn in, a breach of common practice that infuriated the defense secretary.
To Warner, if anything cried out for aggressive congressional oversight — not simply a hearing room filled with news cameras but an independent bipartisan probe — Abu Ghraib was it. But opening a special investigation would have required the approval of the majority of the Senate. In the days of Iran-contra, this was not a problem; the creation of the special Senate subcommittee that investigated the illegal transfer of arms to the contras passed overwhelmingly. Warner knew he wouldn't be able to get enough support from his fellow Republicans for a similar probe into Abu Ghraib. So he instead resigned himself to conducting oversight on the Pentagon's own internal investigations into the scandal.
Yet even this was too much oversight for many of Warner's fellow Republicans. As the hearings moved forward, several conservative senators turned up the heat on Warner, both publicly and privately. Ted Stevens, a longtime friend and colleague, angrily confronted Warner one afternoon in the Senate cloakroom. "No more hearings," he said. "Their attitude was that these hearings were just going to provide propaganda for the insurgents and be politically embarrassing for the Republican president during an election year," says the former Armed Services staff member.
Things reached a head in late May 2004, when a handful of Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee came to Warner's office with an ultimatum: if he continued with the hearings, they warned, they were no longer going to be able to support his chairmanship. To underscore their seriousness, they presented him with a letter signed by all of the committee's Republicans save for Senators McCain, Graham and Susan Collins of Maine. It was unprecedented for a group of junior senators to take such a confrontational posture toward a senior figure like Warner, effectively threatening to strip him of his chairmanship; Warner was convinced they had been put up to it by Rumsfeld himself.
Warner refused to stop the hearings, but the focus of his inquiries subtly shifted. He was less confrontational and more concerned with trying to prevent future abuses than with assigning blame for those that had already occurred. He and his colleagues eventually passed the torture bill, which was devised to address what they considered to be the root cause of Abu Ghraib — the murky interrogation standards promulgated by the administration. But Warner never urged the president to fire or even censure the official ultimately responsible for those standards, the secretary of defense.
Warner told me that Rumsfeld's successor, Robert Gates, has been much more cooperative with Congress. Nevertheless, he says that today's Senate is still no match for an executive branch that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and for a president who, from the day he is sworn into office, has a vested interest in increasing his authority at the expense of Congress. "Every president, as he leaves the Capitol steps and gets into his limo proceeding to the inaugural, is calculating, How soon can I put that place behind me?" Warner says.
You need not look any further than Senator John McCain's efforts to give Congress a voice in the treatment of detainees to grasp the difficulty that the legislative branch faces trying to push back against a determined president.
McCain first got involved in the torture fight in early 2005, when it was by no means a popular cause, particularly inside his own party. "At a time when there was not a single person in the United States who had any influence who was willing to take this issue on, he took it on," says the executive director of Human Rights First, Elisa Massimino, who worked with McCain on the torture bill.
The White House did everything it could to stop McCain, Warner and Graham from going forward with their torture bill. Bush repeatedly threatened to veto the legislation, and Cheney met behind closed doors with the three senators on three separate occasions to persuade them that limiting the president's power to authorize coercive interrogations would hurt the war against terror.
McCain dug in his heels, though. When Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, called Warner to urge the senators to at least soften the language of the legislation, a Warner aide alerted a McCain staff member. In a matter of minutes, McCain was bounding down the hall toward Warner's office. He emerged triumphantly a few minutes later, joking to Warner's staff, "I had to go in there and waterboard him."
After months of work, the senators succeeded in getting the torture bill passed with a vetoproof majority, 90-9. But the president subsequently undid all of their efforts with a stroke of the pen. The language of the bill required that all military interrogations be conducted according to the United States Army Field Manual, which defines what methods can and can't be used and outlaws "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment of prisoners. When Bush signed the bill into law at the end of 2005, he issued a presidential signing statement asserting the right, as commander in chief, to determine what constitutes "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment. For good measure, he reserved the power to violate the torture bill itself if he thought it necessary for the purposes of national security.
McCain's experience with the Military Commissions Act, another bill governing the treatment and trial of detainees, followed a similar arc. Once again, he took the lead in drafting the legislation. Once again, the White House leaned on him. And once again, the president had the last word.
The stickiest issue was how to deal with the Geneva Conventions. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2006 in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the Geneva Conventions were applicable to America's conflict with Al Qaeda. But the White House argued that the treaty's prohibition against "outrages upon personal dignity" was too sweeping, placing too many restrictions on the CIA's methods of interrogation. The president wanted Congress to define, narrowly, what would constitute such outrages.
To an extent, McCain, Warner and Graham were legislating in the dark. They were trying to place limits on how far interrogators could go, but to do that, they needed to know what techniques had been used in the past and with how much success, and the White House wouldn't tell them.
In late September 2006, after a weekend-long negotiating session, the two parties reached a compromise. The bill came under fire from many Democrats but passed. For their part, the three senators were happy with the deal they struck. They had made a lot of sacrifices but had stood their ground on the all-important question of the Geneva Conventions. The bill did not restate America's obligations under the international treaty. Rather, it put the onus on the administration to issue an executive order listing the interrogation techniques it considered legal under the existing language of the Geneva Conventions. This, the senators believed, would force the administration's hand by requiring it to publish its interrogation techniques while also allowing Congress to hold the administration accountable going forward.
Nine months after signing the bill into law, the president issued his executive order. Not only did it fail to address specific interrogation techniques, but it also created more wiggle room for CIA interrogators by barring only "willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual." (In other words, outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of gathering intelligence were permissible.) No sooner had the order been issued than the CIA revived its program of coercive interrogations, which had been dormant since the Supreme Court's ruling that all detainees must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
"It was frustrating," one of McCain's aides told me. "We were expecting the administration to lay things out there in a good-faith way." Still, the three senators did not publicly press the president to rescind the order.
In as much as McCain spoke to the issue of presidential power during the campaign, his attitude appeared to shift. In the Boston Globe's 2007 questionnaire, he articulated a less expansive view of the White House's authority than Bush. McCain said he would never issue a signing statement if elected president and that he didn't believe the president had the authority to violate any laws. He also said that he would "do his utmost to accommodate congressional requests for information."
Yet as the campaign progressed, McCain seemed to tack toward a more robust view of the president's authority. Last spring, he voted against a bill that would have restricted the CIA's interrogation techniques — explicitly outlawing waterboarding, among other things — and in so doing siphon power away from the president. And in June, one of his top aides wrote in National Review magazine that the senator believed that Bush's warrantless-wiretapping program, which bypassed the special court established by Congress in 1978, was both constitutional and appropriate.
Senator Arlen Specter plays squash almost every day, usually before dawn in the basement of the Federal Reserve building, one of the few remaining courts in Washington designed for hardball, the largely outdated form of the game that he prefers. He keeps a record of the scores of all of his matches against a rotating group of opponents, including a 27-year-old staff member whom the senator has been known to call at 5:30 a.m. with directions to get dressed and meet him on the court in half an hour. Even now, at the age of 78 and having recently survived Hodgkin's disease, Specter is enormously competitive. During a recent match, when he suspected that I might be easing up a bit, he barked at me to play harder.
After our match, over breakfast in the Senate dining room, I asked Specter, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 2005 to January 2007, how he thought Congress had fared vis-à-vis the executive branch during the Bush administration. "Decades from now," he answered, "historians will look back on the period from 9/11 to the present as an era of unbridled executive power and congressional ineffectiveness."
Having risen to the Senate from the courtrooms of Philadelphia, Specter is a stickler for process. Even now, he becomes visibly angry when he recalls reading in the newspaper that the National Security Agency was illegally wiretapping United States citizens. "I was madder than hell," he told me. "It was a flat violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and it violated the well-established custom of briefing the chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee on matters like this."
When I asked Specter whether he thought he had done everything he could to prevent the executive branch from expanding its authority, he became a little indignant: "I fought it every step of the way — I'm still fighting it."
There is truth to this, though the story is more complicated. During the Bush years, Specter did write numerous pieces of legislation intended to bolster Congress's role in the war on terror. In February 2002, he introduced a bill that would have established a system of trials for suspected Al Qaeda detainees. It never made it out of the Senate Armed Services Committee, leaving the administration to devise the trial system itself. In 2006, Specter proposed the Presidential Signing Statements Act, which would have empowered Congress to file suit to have a signing statement declared illegal by a federal court. This, too, never went anywhere.
As Specter sees it, the very same rules that are intended to ensure thoughtful deliberation inside the Senate put it at a disadvantage with respect to the White House. "The executive branch requires the decision of one person, as opposed to the legislative branch, which requires 10 votes just to get my bill out of committee," he says.
But Specter also missed his share of opportunities to stand up for Congress in the battle over the president's wartime powers. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Judiciary Committee in early 2006 about the illegal wiretapping, Specter didn't require that he be sworn in, nor did he ask for any of the Justice Department's internal legal memorandums on the secret surveillance program. What's more, Specter's own legislative response to the warrantless-wiretapping scandal, which he proposed in 2006, was widely seen as a capitulation to the White House.
Like Warner, Specter was no doubt torn between his obligations to the Senate and his duties to the Republican Party. And Specter's hold on the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, a job he had coveted since being elected, was more precarious than Warner's. Because of Specter's support for Roe v. Wade, the Republican leadership had agreed to give him the job only if he agreed not to block the president's judicial nominees. He was basically on probation from the moment he took over the chairmanship.
Specter's most noteworthy concession to the executive branch came when he voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Despite McCain's and Warner's enthusiasm for the bill, Specter strenuously opposed it because it empowered the White House to strip detainees of their ability to challenge their imprisonments in federal court. He argued that the Constitution permitted the president to suspend this particular right — the right to habeas corpus — only in times of rebellion or invasion. Specter drafted an amendment to the act to preserve the habeas rights of detainees and delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in defense of habeas corpus, tracing its roots back to Magna Carta of 1215. After his amendment was narrowly defeated, he vowed to vote against the legislation. Yet when the Military Commissions Act came up for a vote less than 24 hours later, Specter supported it.
One former Judiciary Committee staff member told me that his change of heart was animated partly by his loyalty to Rick Santorum, the conservative Republican who held Pennsylvania's other Senate seat at the time. To the displeasure of the right wing of the party, Santorum helped rescue Specter during a tough primary fight against a more conservative opponent in 2004. At the time of the Military Commissions Act vote in the fall of 2006, Santorum was engaged in a difficult re-election battle of his own. Fearing that Specter's opposition to the bill would hurt his own cause among conservatives — who still blamed Santorum for Specter's re-election — Santorum made a personal plea to Specter to vote for it.
Specter told me that he was anguished over the Military Commissions Act vote. "I've voted about 9,000 to 10,000 times in the Senate, and that was the most agonizing vote I've ever had," he said. "Bork and Thomas were nothing compared to that one," he added, referring to the confirmation battles of the two Supreme Court nominees, "and Bork and Thomas were toughies."
Specter said he would not have voted for the bill if he hadn't thought that the Supreme Court would strike down the section that dealt with habeas corpus. His instincts there were correct. Last June, the Supreme Court concluded in Boumediene v. Bush that the Military Commissions Act did indeed represent an unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus.
In the long history of the court before Bush, it ruled against a sitting president only a handful of times during a period of armed conflict; the Boumediene decision represented the fourth time that the court rebuked Bush in the war on terror. Perhaps nothing better sums up both the ambitions of the administration and the passivity of Congress, which left its duty to oversee the prosecution of the war largely in the hands of a judiciary that has historically been loath to interfere with the president's war-making power.
Several weeks ago, I met with Warner's Democratic successor as Armed Services chairman, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. A rumpled-looking man with gold-rimmed glasses and a gray comb-over, Levin pulled a document out of a beat-up briefcase to illustrate, as he put it, "what happens when you have a majority of Congress protecting the president."
Levin explained that in early 2003, before the war in Iraq began, he asked George Tenet, the director of the CIA, at a public hearing if the CIA had given the United Nations its list of so-called high-level suspect sites where United States intelligence officers thought it most likely that inspectors would find weapons of mass destruction. Tenet answered yes. Levin told Tenet he thought he was wrong.
In a private setting later that day, Levin brought up the subject again. "I said: 'George, I'll tell you, I've looked at your report, and there is a significant number of sites that haven't been shared. This is a pretty important issue in terms of whether or not we should be going into Iraq.' " Tenet agreed to double-check. Soon after, at another public hearing, Levin again asked Tenet about the high-level suspect sites. Tenet said that he had double-checked and that the CIA had indeed shared its complete list with the UN
Levin told me he urged the Armed Services Committee, then in Republican hands, to press the issue, but he didn't get anywhere, and as a member of the minority party, he lacked the power to convene hearings or issue subpoenas. Levin then showed me the document, a Senate Intelligence Committee report dated almost two years later, pointing at one of the few lines that wasn't redacted: "Public pronouncements by administration officials that the Central Intelligence Agency had shared information on all high- and moderate-priority suspect sites with United Nations inspectors were factually incorrect."
To Levin's way of thinking, the Democrats have made great strides toward restoring the balance of power since retaking Congress in 2006. There's no question that they have engaged in more vigorous oversight. Levin has been behind one of the Senate's most significant probes, investigating how tactics from the CIA's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, which was established to train American troops in surviving capture and resisting torture by enemies who don't abide by the Geneva Conventions, were adopted by United States military interrogators in the war on terror.
Not all of the Democratic Congress's oversight efforts have been as successful, though. A number of administration officials have invoked executive privilege rather than answer questions at hearings; others have simply refused to show up altogether, often ignoring subpoenas in the process. While hardly pleased, the Democrats have yet to issue a single contempt-of-Congress citation.
Nor has the Democratic Congress made much use of the rest of its tools against the executive branch. Take, for instance, the Senate's power to confirm appointments. When Bush nominated Michael Mukasey to serve as attorney general in the fall of 2007, the Senate could have easily insisted on any number of conditions before confirming him, even something as simple as a public statement that the president is bound by the laws passed by Congress. There was a clear precedent for such deal making. In 1973, the Senate refused to confirm President Nixon's attorney general nominee, Elliot Richardson, until Richardson agreed to name a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. The Senate even insisted that it be allowed to sign off on the name of the special prosecutor before moving ahead with Richardson's confirmation. The Senate made no such preconditions with respect to Mukasey. In fact, he was confirmed even after stating during his confirmation hearing that the administration's secret surveillance program was not illegal because the president has the right to ignore statutory law if he thinks it's necessary to defend the country.
When I asked Levin what needs to happen for Congress to take back the rest of the ground that it ceded to the executive branch during the Bush years, he replied predictably, "We need a Democrat in the White House."
For those concerned about the expansion of presidential power, Barack Obama's answers to the Boston Globe's 2007 questionnaire were encouraging. Among other things, he said the president can't conduct surveillance without warrants or detain United States citizens indefinitely as unlawful enemy combatants. He also said that it's illegal for the president to ignore international treaties like the Geneva Conventions and that if Congress prohibits a specific interrogation technique by law, the president cannot employ it. "The president is not above the law," Obama said.
It would be a mistake, though, to view presidential power as a left-right issue. Historically, Democratic presidents have been no less eager than their Republican counterparts to leverage the authority of their office. Recall that the last Democrat to occupy the White House, Bill Clinton, launched airstrikes on Kosovo in a war against Yugoslavia without congressional authorization and liberally invoked executive privilege during the various investigations into his private life and financial dealings.
History has shown that where you stand on executive authority is largely a matter of where you sit. Before his election, Abraham Lincoln criticized President James Polk for provoking the Mexican War; as president, Lincoln unilaterally suspended habeas corpus and ordered a blockade of the ports of rebel states. As a senator, Richard Nixon — of all people — criticized President Truman's frequent invocations of executive privilege.
Bruce Fein, a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration who is now a critic of presidential power, told me a few weeks ago that he expects the next president to "take everything Bush has given him and wield it with even greater confidence because Congress has given him a safe harbor to do so with impunity." This may be overstating the point, but it's worth keeping in mind that in the final year of Bush's presidency — while facing a Democratic Congress and historically low approval ratings — he was able to push through a federal bailout bill that vested almost complete control over the economy in the Treasury secretary (who reports to the president), not to mention a major rewriting of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that will make it easier for the White House to spy on American citizens.
At the president's urging, the new FISA bill, which Obama and McCain supported, also went a step further, granting immunity to telecom companies that cooperated with the government's secret surveillance program. As a result, we will probably never know how many people were spied on, what criteria were used to select them and what was done with the information gleaned from the wiretaps.
These are just a few of the many unanswered questions raised by the White House's policies in the war on terror. Presumably, as more detainee lawsuits make their way through the federal courts, we will learn additional details about the mistreatment of enemy combatants, particularly because the new administration's lawyers won't have the same incentive to suppress such information. But there has been no talk of the newly elected Congress undertaking a sweeping investigation of the Bush administration's activities along the lines of the Church Committee.
During my conversations with the senators, I sometimes had the impression that their irritation with the White House's arrogance toward Congress had overshadowed their concerns about the administration's policies themselves. I wondered if along the way they had lost sight of their duty to represent the interests of their constituents.
For all of the legislature's complaints about being excluded from the political process during the Bush years, it seems fair to question whether Congress really wants to be a full partner in America's government. Senators may not like being kept in the dark, but they seem to prefer to leave the big decisions — especially those concerning national security — to the executive. "There's a psychology of vassalage to the president," Fein says. "They don't want to be out there on a limb."
Given these diminished ambitions, even if the legislative branch does reassert itself in the next administration, what exactly will that mean? Will Congress simply insist on being asked for its blessing before empowering the president to do whatever he sees fit? And if so, what will it take for what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. identified as democracy's greatest virtue — "its capacity for self-correction" — to kick in and restore the constitutional balance?
U.S. jobless rate at highest level since 1994
Europe asks U.S. to help bolster IMF on deadline
Turkey resists IMF bailout - but it may have no choice
Acclimated to bad news, Wall St. climbs higher
Europe asks U.S. to help bolster IMF on deadline
U.S. jobless rate at highest level since 1994
European countries put their hands on banks, hoping to revive lending
British expect more rate cuts
Cash-starved Las Vegas Sands seeks help in Asia
U.S. pending home sales slip in September
GM stumbles to a $4.2 billion loss
DBS to cut 900 jobs
HSBC faces hit on U.S. bad loans and Asia slowdown
Daimler's October sales fall 18%
Pound eyes record low against euro
Company liquidations rocket
Galliford Try in 50 million pounds housebuilding writedown
Rentokil Q3 profit down 72 percent
Investors divided over conflicting news
South Korea cuts rates again
IMF warns of deepening recession in rich countries
Oil rises as U.S. jobs data hits dollar
Mattel cuts about 1,000 jobs
Americans stocks retreat
By Souren Melikian
Friday, November 7, 2008
NEW YORK: Of all the economic sectors, the art market alone is beating a fairly orderly retreat from the wild excesses that characterized it in the last four or five years.
The major evening auctions of Impressionist and Modern art that began this week at Sotheby's on Monday and ended at Christie's on Thursday delivered two unequivocal messages. First, money is still available in abundance when rarities of stellar importance or, more simply, very beautiful works of art turn up. This is because, unlike the manufacturing sector or financial services, the actors here are driven by desire. And as anyone who ever yearned to acquire a coveted picture or object knows, the fear of missing an opportunity unlikely to come back is powerful enough to overcome awareness of economic difficulties.
The second message should come as a sobering thought to auction house managers who had better respond there and then if they are to avoid big trouble. The waves of newcomers loaded with money and playing the auction field as if works of art were chips in a poker game have vanished, leaving the floor to traditional buyers who know something about the art they chase.
Suddenly Alice-in-Wonderland estimates are no longer seen as final words of wisdom dispensed by experts who translate as often as not the demands of consignors in search of profit. More importantly, mutton dressed as lamb no longer impresses a public with eyes to see. Gone are the days when greenhorns holding center stage could be nudged into passive acceptance of the most outrageous displays of hype regarding mediocrities.
Both points were illustrated by some of the highest prices paid this week.
At Sotheby's sale on Monday, a world record for the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich was set when his "Suprematist Composition," painted in 1916, rose to a staggering $60 million.
No such work had turned up on the open market in decades. Seen by admirers of 20th-century art, the Malevich was the equivalent of a major Leonardo or Vermeer being miraculously released from its museum cache. Someone, somewhere, decided that miracles rarely repeat themselves.
The next big lot was "Danseuse au repos," done in pastel and gouache by Degas around 1882-1883. A young ballet dancer bends in exhaustion. This is the quintessential Degas icon. It also happens to be one of superlative splendor within its range. It, too, established a world record for the artist as it danced all the way up to $37 million.
Seven lots down, there came a third top museum-level picture: "Vampire," painted by Edvard Munch in 1894 in a manner indebted to French Symbolism that heralds the mood of later Expressionism. It made $38.16 million.
By contrast, works that did not live up to the names attached to them ran into trouble. A pastel drawing of ballet dancers was stamped with the signature of Degas, informing buyers that the artist had left it lying in his studio, the contents of which were sold off by his estate. A bit confused, and empty in the center, it remained unsold. Bidding stopped at $4.7 million, making the $7 million to $10 million estimate look rather silly. Another undistinguished pastel stamped with the Degas signature, estimated at $3 million to $4 million plus charges, went unsold at $1.9 million.
Rejections extended to pictures that were O.K., no more, and might have aroused interest at half the estimate. Two Modigliani portraits, displaying varying degrees of clumsiness, flopped. One estimated at $7 million to $10 million was bought in at $5.5 million. The other, "Homme assis appuyé sur une canne," bordering on ridicule, was expected to sell between $18 million and $25 million plus 12 percent. Naturally, it did not.
Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti and others likewise fell victims to errors of judgment on the part of their consignors and the specialists who obliged by printing estimates reflecting their wishes.
Widespread awareness of the new rejectionist mood that dooms any work suspected of having been arbitrarily overestimated had interesting consequences. Sotheby's experts had done their utmost to persuade consignors to bring down their reserves and assorted estimates and largely succeeded. This allowed 45 of the 70 lots to sell for a very substantial $223.18 million. But that also made it possible for alert connoisseurs to make coups.
"La Seine à Bougival," signed by Pissarro in 1871, ranks among a few dated landscapes signaling the emergence of early Impressionism. The $2 million to $3 million estimate was excessive for this subtle picture in a melancholy mood. It went for $1.2 million, which was a steal.
The two evening sessions that followed at Christie's were different. Yet they, too, bore out the trends now prevailing. The Wednesday session included few works of great significance even though Christie's tried to dress it up as a grand occasion by printing two hardback catalogues respectively dealing with "The Hillman Collection" and "The Collection of Alice Lawrence," as they were solemnly titled.
"The Hillman Collection" opened with an extremely beautiful drawing in Seurat's black manner. Out of the market since 1948, the rarity shot up to a whopping $1.08 million.
The few other drawings or paintings of high quality, ambitiously estimated, only found takers wherever Christie's had been able to persuade the consignors to bring down their estimates and assorted reserves.
A fine Cubist Fernand Léger, "Etude pour le modèle nu dans l'atelier," went for $3.33 million, a good price for a work on paper, even if the printed estimate claimed it to be worth $3.5 million to $4.5 million. Giorgio de Chirico's "Composition métaphysique" of 1914 realized a very satisfactory $6.13 million. Here, too, initial ambitions were higher.
On a day when the Dow Jones lost nearly 500 points, bidders were not going to squander their dollars on works of zero interest carrying extravagant estimates. Manet's unfinished portrait of a girl, "Fillette sur un banc," for which the printed estimate stood at $12 million to $18 million, died an instant death, and so did Renoir's "Femme à la mandoline" done shortly before the much weakened artist died in 1919. Clumsy and crude, it is one of the worst pictures from the master's last phase, when he painted women with arms like hams and with obtuse expressions. Later, a very good but harsh portrait of a little girl clutching a doll confirmed the continuing interest in Chaim Soutine, the Russian-born heir to Germanic Expressionism. It sold for $1.17 million, which in the current revised price scale is quite an achievement.
The uneven artistic possessions of the late Alice Lawrence performed accordingly. One of René Magritte's better Surrealist landscapes, "L'Empire des lumières," exceeded the upper estimate at $3.55 million.
Christie's second evening session on Thursday clinched the conclusion to which previous sales led. The economic context was appalling. In just two days, the Dow Jones had dropped by 10 percent. Yet Christie's was able to post a $146.71 million score and gigantic prices were paid for truly major works.
A 1915 still life in the best Cubist style of Juan Gris, "Livre, pipe et verres" set a world record for the master of the Paris school at $20.8 million. Picasso's 1934 picture, "Deux personnages (Marie-Thérèse et sa soeur lisant)," mixing memories of his Cubist period with Surrealist touches, brought $18 million.
True, the next three highest prices failed to match the low estimate, some by a big margin, like Giacometti's bronze "Trois hommes qui marchent I" which sold for $11.5 million, far below the $14 million to $18 million plus 12 percent estimate. But this merely reflects the long overdue revision of the price scale of art down across the board by 30 percent to 40 percent from the artificial extravagant level to which it had been raised over the last two years by auction houses and consignors working in unison.
The 36 lots that fell unsold point to a fierce rejection of undesirable mediocrities with fancy estimates. The Degas pastel "Après le bain, femme s'essuyant" with a stamped signature, which carried a $5.5 million to $7.5 million estimate, never stood a chance.
Seemingly disappointing when looked at by outsiders, the Thursday evening sale was actually a remarkable performance. It revealed the unique strength of the art market when allowed to function as it used to, before being twisted out of shape by speculation.
By Alan Cowell
Friday, November 7, 2008
PARIS: When the democratic world veers into a new era, as it did this week in America, it is worth trying to decipher the signals it sends to others.
Last Tuesday, after the most compelling of campaigns, the world's only superpower exercised its cherished right to choose a new leader - the culmination of a long and grueling process.
The massive turnout extended democracy's embrace to many who had previously shunned it, or been shunned by it, and who now stood in line to vote. The ballot absorbed the energies and attention of a nation - and many more across the globe - yearning for new leadership, for rejuvenation and, above all, for a departure from the acrimony inspired among his critics by President George W. Bush.
The choice of Senator Barack Obama was a towering signal that coaxed forth as many superlatives as pundits and columnists could muster from a political lexicon grown dog-eared and weary in the many months of electoral drama.
And perhaps the most telling moment came when it was all over. In gracious speeches, victor and vanquished acknowledged each other's struggle, drew a line under their rancorous contest and moved forward - Obama to the White House, the defeated Senator John McCain to the sure recognition that his last chance for the presidency was over. No one left the battlefield without respect.
It was hard to tell where America's message to the world began and ended.
Here, surely, was an antidote to the bitterness of the Bush years, to the bellicose unilateralism that Europeans and others argued had ignited illegitimate wars, in Iraq particularly.
Here was the rebuttal of those outsiders who insisted the United States would not overcome the legacy of race, or fall back on a default setting of its familiar dynasties. Obama's election was, and remains, a gamble by a nation convinced it has placed its bets judiciously.
And here, too, perhaps in the gentlest, least overstated of ways, was a rebuke to others: if, as Obama insisted in his victory speech, he was "never the likeliest candidate for this office," then his ascent to the White House had carved a new benchmark that others would struggle to equal or surpass.
From the very beginning of America's long electoral process, Europeans have been fascinated by his campaign - not simply because of Obama's youthful looks and the color of his skin, or because of his roots and upbringing.
The very process that lofted him to the White House - the primaries and caucuses, the titanic struggle for his party's nomination - seemed so remote from politics defined as the rotation of the familiar faces as practiced in many parts of Europe and in some parts of America, too.
This was not solely about the triumph of a slick, well-financed political machine run by a charismatic figure, an artful performer, an articulator of dreams - although it was all those things. Beyond the record-setting $640 million war chest gathered from donors, beyond the crafted maneuvers and the prime-time campaign advertising, it was a time for Obama's supporters to feel pride and to boast that they shared in their candidate's triumph.
As the president-elect told his supporters, with characteristic oratorical flourish, "above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you."
Perhaps that was why, in the time of his victory, the attempts elsewhere to play power games by different rules seemed somehow anachronistic or even tawdry, born of an era when change had far less currency than continuity.
Some might think the comparisons unwelcome, capricious or inappropriate.
But consider some of the other lesser news items that made their way into the headlines at around the same time as the American election, and consider, too, how they measured up.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg succeeded in securing the City Council's approval for a bill permitting himself a chance to run for a third term in office, defying two referendums among New Yorkers in the 1990s insisting that the mayor be limited to two terms.
In Britain, Peter Mandelson, forced twice to resign from Labour governments, was not only brought back to office by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month but even ennobled, given a place in the House of Lords in order to meet the parliamentary requirements for a seat at the cabinet table.
In Russia, President Dmitri Medvedev proposed this week that Russian presidential terms be extended from four years to six years, giving Russian leaders the chance to serve 12 years - four years longer than is currently permitted.
It is most unlikely that Bloomberg would want to see his democratic credentials weighed against those of the Kremlin. Nonetheless the arguments in Moscow and New York were essentially the same: office-bearers need time, in these difficult days, to produce results.
(In New York, people were probably less inhibited about criticizing the decision than in Moscow. "You have exploited the power of your office to overturn the express will of the people," Judi Polson, a New York resident, told the mayor at a public ceremony shortly before he signed into law the bill extending the mayoral term limits.)
Cataloguing these coincidences, it is easy enough to hear the indignant chorus of voices from New York and London: All right, all right, enough already - we are different; we are steeped in democracy; if we redraw the limits of the permissible it is for the good of all. Trust us.
Yet democracy is not simply about the sanctity of rules that protect the ruled. It is about mechanisms - checks and balances - to ensure that trust is neither taken for granted nor abused.
It is about building and preserving a culture, about a compact between those who are governed and those in whom they place their faith to govern fairly. It is about a sense of common values bonding those in office to those whose votes put them where they are. It is about the rightful expectations of the governed to demand high standards of those who seek power in their name.
The challenge for Obama will be to maintain that covenant once the hoopla and the rhetoric and the euphoria subside, and those who placed him in office clamor for redemption of the expectations he has raised.
Friday, November 7, 2008
I have dreams. I may seem like a boring pundit whose most exotic fantasies involve government policy reports, but deep down, I have dreams. And right now I'm dreaming of the successful presidency America needs. I'm dreaming of an administration led by Barack Obama, but which stretches beyond the normal Democratic base. It makes time for moderate voters, suburban voters, rural voters and even people who voted for the other guy.
The administration of my dreams understands where the country is today. Its members know that, as Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center put it on "The NewsHour," "This was an election where the middle asserted itself." There was "no sign" of a "movement to the left."
Only 17 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing most or all of the time, according to an October New York Times/CBS News poll. So the members of my dream Obama administration understand that they cannot impose an ideological program the country does not accept. New presidents in 1932 and 1964 could presuppose a basic level of trust in government. But today, as Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution observes, the new president is going to have to build that trust deliberately and step by step.
Walking into the Obama White House of my dreams will be like walking into the Gates Foundation. The people there will be ostentatiously pragmatic and data-driven. They'll hunt good ideas like venture capitalists. They'll have no faith in all-powerful bureaucrats issuing edicts from the center. Instead, they'll use that language of decentralized networks, bottom-up reform and scalable innovation.
They will actually believe in that stuff Obama says about postpartisan politics. That means there won't just be a few token liberal Republicans in marginal jobs. There will be people like Robert Gates at Defense and Ray LaHood, Stuart Butler, Diane Ravitch, Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Jim Talent at other important jobs.
The Obama administration of my dreams will insist that congressional Democrats reinstate bipartisan conference committees. They'll invite Republican leaders to the White House for real meetings and then re-invite them, even if they give hostile news conferences on the White House driveway.
They'll do things conservatives disagree with, but they'll also show that they're not toadies of the liberal interest groups. They'll insist on merit pay and preserving No Child Left Behind's accountability standards, no matter what the teachers' unions say. They'll postpone contentious fights on things like card check legislation.
Most of all, they'll take significant action on the problems facing the country without causing a mass freak-out among voters to the right of Nancy Pelosi.
They'll do this by explaining to the American people that there are two stages to their domestic policy thinking, the short-term and the long-term.
The short-term strategy will have two goals: to mitigate the pain of the recession and the change the culture of Washington. The first step will be to complete the round of stimulus packages that are sure to come.
Then they'll take up two ideas that already have bipartisan support: middle-class tax relief and an energy package. The current economic and energy crisis is an opportunity to do what was not done in similar circumstances in 1974 - transform the country's energy supply. A comprehensive bill - encompassing everything from off-shore drilling to green technologies - would stimulate the economy and nurture new political coalitions.
When the recession shows signs of bottoming out, then my dream administration would begin phase two. The long-term strategy would be about restoring fiscal balances and reforming fundamental institutions.
By this time, the budget deficit could be zooming past $1.5 trillion a year. The U.S. will be borrowing oceans of money from abroad. My dream administration will show that it understands that the remedy for a culture of debt is not more long-term debt. It will side with those who worry that long-term deficits could lead to ruinous interest-rate hikes.
My dream administration will announce a Budget Rebalancing Initiative. Somebody like Representative Jim Cooper would go through the budget and take out the programs and tax expenditures that don't work. "If we have no spending cuts, then we're saying government is perfect. Nobody believes that," Cooper says.
Having built bipartisan relationships, having shown some fiscal toughness, having seen the economy through the tough times, my dream administration will then be in a position to take up health care reform, tax reform, education reform and a long-range infrastructure initiative. These reforms may have to start slow and on the cheap. But real reform would be imaginable since politics as we know it would be transformed.
Is it all just a dream? I hope not. In any case, please be quiet and let me have my moment.
Friday, November 7, 2008
PRINCETON, New Jersey: Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, is a date that will live in fame (the opposite of infamy) forever. If you're an American and the election of the first African-American president didn't stir you, if it didn't leave you teary-eyed and proud of your country, there's something wrong with you.
But will the election also mark a turning point in the actual substance of policy? Can Barack Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies? Yes, he can.
Right now, many commentators are urging Obama to think small. Some make the case on political grounds: America, they say, is still a conservative country, and voters will punish Democrats if they move to the left. Others say that the financial and economic crisis leaves no room for action on, say, health care reform.
Let's hope that Obama has the good sense to ignore this advice.
About the political argument: Anyone who doubts that America has had a major political realignment should look at what's happened to Congress. After the 2004 election, there were many declarations that we'd entered a long-term, perhaps permanent era of Republican dominance. Since then, Democrats have won back-to-back victories, picking up at least 12 Senate seats and more than 50 House seats. They now have bigger majorities in both houses than the Republican Party ever achieved in its 12-year reign.
Bear in mind, also, that this year's presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies - and the progressive philosophy won.
Maybe the best way to highlight the importance of that fact is to contrast this year's campaign with what happened four years ago. In 2004, President Bush concealed his real agenda. He basically ran as the nation's defender against gay married terrorists, leaving even his supporters nonplussed when he announced, soon after the election was over, that his first priority was Social Security privatization. That wasn't what people thought they had been voting for, and the privatization campaign quickly devolved from juggernaut to farce.
This year, however, Obama ran on a platform of guaranteed health care and tax breaks for the middle class, paid for with higher taxes on the affluent. John McCain denounced his opponent as a socialist and a "redistributor," but America voted for him anyway. That's a real mandate.
What about the argument that the economic crisis will make a progressive agenda unaffordable?
Well, there's no question that fighting the crisis will cost a lot of money. Rescuing the financial system will probably require large outlays beyond the funds already disbursed. And on top of that, America badly needs a program of increased government spending to support output and employment. Could next year's federal budget deficit reach $1 trillion? Yes.
But standard textbook economics says that it's O.K., in fact appropriate, to run temporary deficits in the face of a depressed economy. Meanwhile, one or two years of red ink, while it would add modestly to future federal interest expenses, shouldn't stand in the way of a health care plan that, even if quickly enacted into law, probably wouldn't take effect until 2011.
Beyond that, the response to the economic crisis is, in itself, a chance to advance the progressive agenda.
Now, the Obama administration shouldn't emulate the Bush administration's habit of turning anything and everything into an argument for its preferred policies. (Recession? The economy needs help - let's cut taxes on rich people! Recovery? Tax cuts for rich people work - let's do some more!)
But it would be fair for the new administration to point out how conservative ideology, the belief that greed is always good, helped create this crisis. What FDR said in his second inaugural address - "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics" - has never rung truer.
And right now happens to be one of those times when the converse is also true, and good morals are good economics. Helping the neediest in a time of crisis, through expanded health and unemployment benefits, is the morally right thing to do; it's also a far more effective form of economic stimulus than cutting the capital gains tax. Providing aid to beleaguered state and local governments, so that they can sustain essential public services, is important for those who depend on those services; it's also a way to avoid job losses and limit the depth of the economy's slump.
So a serious progressive agenda - call it a new New Deal - isn't just economically possible, it's exactly what the economy needs.
The bottom line, then, is that Barack Obama shouldn't listen to the people trying to scare him into being a do-nothing president. He has the political mandate; he has good economics on his side. You might say that the only thing he has to fear is fear itself.
By Benedict Carey
Friday, November 7, 2008
This was supposed to be the election when hidden racism would rear its head. There was much talk of a "Bradley effect," in which white voters would say one thing to pollsters and do another in the privacy of the booth; of a backlash in which the working-class whites whom Senator Barack Obama had labeled "bitter" would take their bitterness out on him.
But lost in all that anguished commentary, experts say, was an important recent finding from the study of prejudice: that mutual trust between members of different races can catch on just as quickly, and spread just as fast, as suspicion.
In some new studies, psychologists have been able to establish a close relationship between diverse pairs black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino in a matter of hours. That relationship immediately reduces conscious and unconscious bias in both people, and also significantly reduces prejudice toward the other group in each individual's close friends.
This extended-contact effect, as it is called, travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust.
"It's important to remember that implicit biases are out there, absolutely; but I think that that's only half the story," said Linda Tropp, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. "With broader changes in the society at large, people can also become more willing to reach across racial boundaries, and that goes for both minorities and whites."
Obama's election notwithstanding, institutional and individual prejudice still infects many areas of modern life, all experts agree. And this year, worries about the economy may have trumped any persistent concerns about race.
Yet to the extent that race played a role at all, it seemed to break more in Obama's favor than against him. In voter surveys, most of the 17 percent of white voters who said race played some part in their decision pulled the lever for McCain; but among all voters who took race into account, Obama won the majority.
"I'm a Republican, and for me to vote for Obama I had to have a certain level of trust, that he was going to do the right thing, that he wasn't going to be small-minded, that he wasn't going to take care of one group of people over another," said Nelson Montgomery, 50, a white sales executive in Buffalo who lived in a black neighborhood in Houston early in his career.
"What it came down to," Montgomery said, "is that we're so polarized right now, we're only hearing from the fringe on either side, and we need more than anything to build trust. And I felt he could do that."
In studies over the past few years, researchers have demonstrated how quickly trust can build in the right circumstances. To build a close relationship from scratch, psychologists have two strangers come together in four hourlong sessions. In the first, the two share their answers to a list of questions, from the innocuous "Would you like to be famous? In what way?" to the more serious, like "If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?"
In the second session, the pair competes against other pairs in a variety of timed parlor games. In the third, they talk about a variety of things, including why they are proud to be a member of their ethnic group, whether Latino, Asian, white or black. Finally, they take turns wearing a blindfold, while their partner gives instructions for navigating a maze.
Trivial as they may sound, those exercises create a relationship "that is as close as any relationship the person has," said Art Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University who developed the program with his wife, Elaine Aron.
The new relationship can last months or longer, and it almost immediately lowers a person's score on a variety of prejudice measures. Moreover, it significantly reduces anxiety during encounters with other members of that second group, as gauged by stress hormone levels in the saliva.
In a series of studies, Art Aron and others have found that, by generating a single cross-group friendship, they can quickly improve relations between cliques that have been pitted against one another in hostile competitions. In a continuing study of some 1,000 new students at Stony Brook, Aron has found that merely being in the same class where other interracial pairs were interacting can reduce levels of prejudice.
The reason such changes emerge, some psychologists argue, is that people have a selfish urge to expand their own identities through others to make themselves a part of others' lives, and vice versa, as lovers, parents, colleagues, friends. Studies find that that is exactly what happens in a relationship: people are not merely aware of their closest friends' problems but to some extent feel the sting, the humiliation, the injustice.
Psychologists can manipulate this need for self-expansion. In one recent experiment, led by Stephen Wright, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, researchers had 47 students describe their workloads and activities and made each student feel either overextended or in a rut, based on bogus personality tests.
"It's easy enough to do, because students always feel both overwhelmed and in a rut," Wright said. Those led to feel in a rut, he went on, "were more interested than the others in having a friendship with someone with a name that is clearly from a minority group."
This impulse pushes against any implicit or subconscious bias a person may have. When larger issues are in play, race can shrink quickly in importance. In the late 1960s, when the black politician Richard Hatcher was vying to become mayor of Gary, Indiana, one neighborhood near the steel mills was running nearly 90 percent against him, said Thomas Pettigrew, a research professor in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who helped do the polling. It turned out that many people there were most concerned about a nearby city dump that cast a bad smell over the neighborhood.
After he was elected, Hatcher closed the dump, and the next election he got nearly 40 percent of the vote from the neighborhood.
"A lot of people living there cared a lot more about the dump than the color of their mayor," Pettigrew said. About Obama's election, he added, "the economic crisis I think has had the same impact."
By Eric Pfanner
Friday, November 7, 2008
PARIS: "Why are books the last bastion of analog?" Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.com, asked last November as his company unveiled the Kindle, a portable, electronic book-reading device. Long after other media had joined the digital revolution - in some cases only after suffering its ravages - book publishers clung to the reassuringly low-tech tools of printing press, paper and ink.
A year later, that bastion is starting to yield. The world of books is going digital, too.
Last week, American authors and publishers reached an agreement with Google to settle lawsuits over the company's Book Search program, under which Google is scanning millions of books and making their contents available on the Internet. The deal allows Google to sell electronic versions of copyrighted works that have gone out of print, a category that includes the vast majority of the world's books.
"So almost overnight, not only has the largest publishing deal been struck, but the largest bookshop in the world has been built, even if it is not quite open for business yet," wrote Neill Denny, editor of The Bookseller, a trade publication based in London, on his blog.
The settlement remains subject to approval by a U.S. court, and the bookshop would operate only in the United States for now. But the agreement is only one of many initiatives under which books are making what may be the biggest technological leap since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
This month, a group of European national libraries and archives plans to open Europeana, an online database of two million books and other cultural and historical items, including films, paintings, newspapers and sound recordings. Letters from Mozart to his friends, from the Austrian National Library in Vienna? They're there. Early printings of his work, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France? They are, too.
Meanwhile, publishers are moving ahead with a flurry of digital initiatives, tapping the Internet for the marketing, distribution and even the creation of books. In some cases they are racing against Internet startups that have similar ideas.
"The book business model is under siege, just as the music industry earlier came under siege," said Eileen Gittins, chief executive of Blurb, a Silicon Valley company that helps people publish their own books, using the Internet. "The book publishing business has had a front-row seat to see what happened to the music industry."
So far, book publishing has been spared that fate. As the music business was decimated by digital piracy over the last decade, book sales continued to rise, aided, in fact, by the ability to browse and buy from online emporiums like Amazon.
But there are some worrying signs. Book sales in the United States, for example, fell 1.5 percent in the first nine months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Among the few bright spots in the publishers' figures were sales of so-called e-books, the kind that are read on devices like the Kindle, on personal computers or on mobile phones. U.S. wholesale sales of e-books were up 55 percent from a year earlier, with growth accelerating to 78 percent in September.
Questions remain over the best way to deliver digital books to readers. In the United States, the recent surge in sales followed the introduction of the Kindle and upgrades in rival devices like the Sony Reader, which allow users to download books wirelessly or from an Internet-connected computer.
But in Europe, where such devices are only slowly becoming available, sales of e-books remain in their infancy. The price of these gadgets - the Kindle, for example, costs $359 in the United States - may put off readers, analysts say.
In Japan, another hand-held device, the mobile phone, has so far proved to be the most popular way to read e-books, according to the Digital Content Association of Japan. Sales of digital versions of manga comic books are leading the way. Penguin said it also had high hopes for selling e-books to mobile phone users in places like India.
About half a million people in more than 50 countries have downloaded Stanza, an application that lets them read e-books on the iPhone, said Michael Smith, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum in Toronto.
"The adoption is happening," he said. "It's not theory. It's happening."
A survey published in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair last month showed that 40 percent of book publishing professionals thought digital sales, regardless of the format, would surpass the ink-on-paper kind by 2018.
That would be a big leap. Revenue from e-books and other digital sources remain tiny - less than 1 percent of the worldwide sales of Penguin Group, for example, according to Genevieve Shore, digital director for Penguin in London.
But the Google deal with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild could be a catalyst, analysts say. Under the proposed settlement, Google would share revenue from online sales with publishers and authors.
"We're very excited about it," Shore said. "What it means is that a very important player in our online lives, we're not in conflict with anymore."
Publishers are also looking at other new ways to sell books in digital form. Shore said Penguin was considering subscription plans, under which readers would pay a monthly fee for online access to best sellers. Another possibility, she said, would be to offer free or reduced-price online versions of books, supported by advertising - an approach adopted by most newspapers on the Internet.
"We will have some interesting new business models on the market in 2009," she said.
Free electronic versions of some books have been available for years. Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to archive books, has more than 25,000 works available for download. Feedbooks, a start-up company in Paris, is formatting many of these books for use on mobile devices.
But there are limits to what readers can find on Feedbooks. The Orwell book "1984," for example, is available; the latest best sellers are not. That is because Project Gutenberg archives mostly books that are in the public domain, meaning their copyrights have expired.
The Google settlement with U.S. rights holders largely concerned another kind of works, those that are still under copyright but no longer in print. Many analysts say this is where digitization could make the biggest difference, allowing publishers to offer readers vast numbers of additional books - the so-called long tail of the Internet.
In Europe, Google has refrained from including such works in Book Search. But it has signed up seven prominent European libraries, including the Bodleian at Oxford University and the municipal library of Lyon, to its book-scanning project.
"This illustrates how important European content is for us," said Santiago de la Mora, head of European partnerships for Google Book Search. "We want to offer content that is relevant to our users in every country."
Efforts to build online libraries or bookstores remain more complicated in Europe than in the United States. In showing portions of copyrighted U.S. works in Book Search, Google had argued that it was protected by the "fair-use" provision of U.S. copyright law, which permits limited copying. In a position paper this summer, the European Commission argued that no similar defense should be permitted for commercial Internet activities in Europe.
The commission does want to make it easier to clear copyrights for "long tail" works, which can be a cumbersome task in Europe. Commission-sponsored talks among European copyright groups, publishers and others is set to begin next week.
Even as online business models are still evolving, publishers are using the Internet to promote books in more imaginative ways. Publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins have set up online social networks aimed at specific groups of readers, like travelers or teenagers, to let them share opinions about books. Penguin this summer joined Match.com, a creator of online dating services, to set up a site dedicated to helping book lovers hook up.
"What the technology brings is the ability to connect with other readers," said Shore, the Penguin digital director. "It's important that books are seen as a medium that's worth talking about.'
By Jeffrey Gettleman
Friday, November 7, 2008
NAIROBI: An emergency summit meeting on the crisis in Congo began here Friday with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, holding talks with seven African presidents in an attempt to shore up a tenuous cease-fire that seemed close to unraveling.
Over the past two weeks, hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by intense fighting between rebels and government forces, threatening to plunge a broader swath of central Africa back into war.
As the summit meeting got under way in Nairobi, Congolese soldiers and rebel forces exchanged fire near Goma, a provincial capital almost seized by rebel forces last week. UN officials described the episode as an "accident," and by Friday night the shooting had stopped.
UN diplomats have stressed that a political solution - not a military one - is the only way to end the violence, and they are urging the presidents of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and the Congo Republic to work together to enforce peace treaties that have already been signed.
"The talks are going on, and that's a start," said Alan Doss, head of the UN mission in Congo, on Friday.
Ban met one-on-one with several presidents in the morning and scheduled a group session with all of them later in the day.
The summit meeting will most likely just scratch the surface of the deep and tangled issues haunting Congo.
Over the past decade, Congo's wars have killed five million people, mostly from hunger and disease. The instability, along with Congo's vast mineral riches, has frequently drawn in neighboring armies, which have turned the heart of Africa into a never-ending battle zone.
The recent round of fighting has laid bare precisely how weak Congo's institutions are, especially the military. UN peacekeeping troops in Congo have not proved much better. One complaint Ban was sure to face at the meeting was why the peacekeepers have not done more to protect civilians.
The UN has 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo, its biggest peacekeeping mission. But UN officials said that their capacity was stretched to the limit.
"We've asked for more battalions," Doss said Friday.
Many civilians have been killed by rebel and government forces. On Thursday, human rights groups accused rebel forces of war crimes after more than a dozen bodies were found in a village rebels captured in the past week.
The accusation was the latest in a catalogue of alleged crimes in recent years.
The first case handled by the International Criminal Court in The Hague was a war crimes case against a Congolese warlord. Earlier this year, Congo's top opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was jailed in The Hague over allegations that his soldiers went on a killing and raping spree.
Bemba's predicament has created an opportunity for Laurent Nkunda, leader of the rebel forces in eastern Congo, to emerge as a national opposition figure.
Reviewed by Manohla Dargis
Friday, November 7, 2008
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (U.S.)
There's a nuttier, generally more diverting entertainment creeping, crawling and waddling along the edges of "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" than the larger one lollygagging on screen.
This central story of this new animated movie, written by Etan Cohen and the directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, involves Alex (Ben Stiller in low gear), a lion who in 2005 journeyed from New York captivity (i.e., a zoo) to the jungle in the first "Madagascar" with the usual mix of celebrity-voiced racial and ethnic stereotypes: a motor-mouthed zebra, Marty (Chris Rock); a nice if woefully neurotic giraffe, Melman (David Schwimmer); and the token girl, a hippo with a sizeable caboose named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith).
Three years later Alex and company are literally ejected from Madagascar in a rickety plane operated by a penguin crew that's led by the supremely confident, quite possibly insane Skipper (McGrath), a sleek ball of feathers and fat who simultaneously brings to mind Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, John Wayne and a cue ball. Along with his two sidekicks, a couple of stooges called Kowalski and Private (Chris Miller and Christopher Knights), Skipper keeps first the plane and then - after crash-landing on an African savannah - the movie moving with his deadpan delivery and with some surrealistic nonsense involving a barrel of laughing monkeys. (I see a big future for Mason and his silent partner, Phil, the two-chimp team whose lah-di-dah manners and sartorial flair recall that of the 1970s television ape, Lancelot Link.)
With King Julien, a deranged lemur whose daft non sequiturs and bon mots are dropped and dribbled with dexterity and control by an unrecognizable Sacha Baron Cohen (at times sounding like a less frantic Robin Williams), the penguins and chimps could have skittered into something memorable. Alas, the filmmakers, who clearly are having as much fun visually with these scene stealers as they are aurally, stick by the contemporary American animation playbook: Alex has a dream (gotta dance), father issues (with Bernie Mac as the pride of the pride) and a requisite baddie rival (Alec Baldwin, who else?).
There's also an unfunny old lady with a Jackie Mason accent who deserves a violently cruel end, but this is a family-friendly film. (It began its worldwide opening last week.)
Darnell and McGrath don't appear especially committed to these stale conceits and character dynamics, which may explain why they spend so much time playing with the penguins, chimps and King Julien, who may not roar but certainly rules.
There's true playfulness here whenever this wacky animal pack takes over, a suggestion of delirium echoed by the zippy, at times overly zooming camerawork with its roller-coaster dips and swoops. And while the filmmakers throw the camera around almost as much as Brian De Palma does, every so often they slow down, giving you a chance to scan the softly muted colors of the landscapes and explore how the exaggerated character designs create a nice visual contrast with the photorealistic details and flourishes.
It's unsurprising that Alex's mane registers as more realistic than any of his words or emotions, but it's also a bummer.
"Escape 2 Africa" is good enough in patches to make its distracting star turns, storybook clichés and stereotypes harder to take than they would be in a less enjoyable movie. Casting Stiller and Schwimmer may sear their brands onto under-age cerebral cortices but does nothing for the movie. And, really, did the hippo (voiced by will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas) who courts Gloria with a low rumble and a suggestive shimmy have to sound like Barry White rather than, say, Marc Anthony or Justin Timberlake? I laughed, but honestly, if this country can vote colorblind surely its movie studios can animate colorblind too. (Can't they?)
By Phil Clark
Friday, November 7, 2008
While Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in eastern Congo and the European Union considers sending troops to North Kivu Province, the international community must recognize the role it has played in fomenting the conflict and the need for new, long-term peace strategies.
Two international interventions - the UN peacekeeping mission that has operated in Congo since 1999 and the UN- and EU-backed elections in 2006 - badly misjudged the volatile ethnic politics of the region. Both interventions exacerbated ethnic tensions, leading to mass violence. Sending EU troops to North Kivu to support MONUC, the acronym for the UN mission in Congo, may temporarily quell the conflict and allow the flow of aid to the estimated 200,000 civilians. But lasting peace can be achieved only by addressing deep-seated ethnic antagonisms - especially between Hutu and Tutsi.
Much of the violence in North Kivu stems from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. General Laurent Nkunda, leader of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), the rebel group responsible for the recent escalation of violence, is driven by the need to protect the Tutsi minority in North and South Kivu.
For many Tutsi, the Rwandan genocide never ended. In mid-1994, more than one million Rwandan Hutu refugees poured into the Kivus, fleeing the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the predominantly Tutsi rebel force that ended the genocide. Thousands of Hutu refugees were still armed and, with the help of Congolese Hutu, began killing local Tutsi.
In 2000, tens of thousands of Hutu militiamen combined to form the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), which has maimed, raped and killed thousands of Tutsi civilians in eastern Congo. Congolese government forces have been widely accused of supporting the FDLR in attacking Tutsi. While Nkunda may manipulate the fears of Tutsi civilians for his own gain, those fears are real and must be addressed.
The international community has ignored the plight of Tutsi in the Kivus. The 2006 elections increased Tutsi fears and led to mass violence. While UN and EU policymakers declared that the elections - the first since Congo's independence - would be a guarantee of long-term peace, they ignored the reality that the minority Tutsi were bound to lose at the ballot box. In early 2005, soon after the elections were announced, Nkunda's forces deployed to North Kivu and began attacking non-Tutsi civilians. After the voting, the violence increased.
The UN and the European Union complacently equated the vote with a peaceful transition to democratic governance. But an electoral process that failed to address the issue of minority representation was bound to create more conflicts than it resolved.
The second form of misguided international intervention in Congo was the deployment of 17,000 UN troops, the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, which for the first time in the UN's history was given a mandate that allowed it to use force to protect civilians. While MONUC has proven effective at securing peace in the Ituri district in north-eastern Congo, it has had much less success in the Kivus. Late last month, the commander of UN peacekeepers in Congo, Lieutenant General Vicente Diaz de Villegas of Spain, resigned only seven weeks into the job, citing the mission's lack of strategic clarity, particularly in North Kivu. UN troops were recently attacked by civilians in the North Kivu town of Rutshuru because of the mission's failure to protect them. Moreover, MONUC has maintained rhetorical and military support for Congolese government forces in North Kivu, despite the fact that those troops have committed some of the worst atrocities against civilians. In the eyes of many Tutsi, UN peacekeepers and the government have become a dual threat.
The key to securing peace in North Kivu is to take seriously the Tutsi concerns that lie at the heart of Nkunda's military campaign. International leaders must pressure the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to cease all support for the FDLR and other Hutu militias.
At a summit meeting in Nairobi in November 2007, Kabila and President Paul Kagame of Rawanda, agreed to disarm and repatriate all Hutu militias in eastern Congo. So far, Rwanda has held up its end of the bargain by repatriating thousands of former Hutu militiamen. But Kabila has reneged on the deal and must be pressured to deliver. In the past, he has shown little tendency toward compromise, preferring to play to a virulent anti-Tutsi constituency in the Kivus and Kinshasa. He initially refused to invite Nkunda and the CNDP to the Goma peace conference in January and only did so after concerted international pressure.
Until the Congolese president displays a willingness to talk peace and the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers move to protect all civilians, including Tutsi, the conflict could escalate rapidly, with violent repercussions for the entire region.
Phil Clark is a research fellow at the Center for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, and a central Africa specialist.
By Neil Campbell
Friday, November 7, 2008
On Oct. 29, widespread looting broke out in the eastern Congolese town of Goma. Members of the Congolese Army, whose job it is to protect civilians, helped themselves to whatever they could find. A number of killings and rapes were reported.
News that the army is causing havoc among its own people is no surprise. In the North Kivu region a few weeks ago, I saw firsthand just how demoralized and undisciplined these troops are.
In the town of Sake, on one of the front lines between the Congolese Army and Tutsi rebel forces under the command of Laurent Nkunda, groups of government soldiers were milling about in various states of undress, weapons slung over their shoulders, showing no evident interest in the rebel installations on the hill above. This absence of military order has contributed to the maelstrom in the region.
Granted, eastern Congo has not been stable for a decade, but the last few days have shown all actors in the region at their violent worst.
There was a glimmer of hope in January, with the Goma agreement, which called for a cease fire and voluntary demobilization of combatants, and the ensuing "Amani" peace process. But this was short lived.
Even though the United States and the African Union supported the agreement and the preceding November 2007 Nairobi declaration - which provided for a normalization of relations between Congo and Rwanda, the disarming of Rwandan Hutu rebels, including some perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, and ending Rwandan support to Nkunda and his Tutsi rebels - they quickly delegated responsibility for enforcement to the UN Mission in the Congo.
None of the guarantors of these accords had the courage to press Rwanda or Congo to respect their commitments.
Even before the recent escalation, countless cease-fire violations by Nkunda's forces, the Congolese Army, pro-government Mai-Mai militias and Rwandan insurgents were undermining the process. Very little was done in response, by the UN or anyone else. In particular, nobody made clear to Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that launching a new military offensive against Nkunda in August would only lead to another humiliating defeat with catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
An international response is now even more urgent; preventing a regional escalation of the crisis should be the priority. Rwanda must not be given a legitimate reason to re-enter Congo and start a new regional war. The Hutu rebels must be kept at bay, and external military support from southern African to the Congolese Army must be stopped.
There is no military solution to the Tutsi insurgency. Nkunda's only goal is to maintain the status quo, keeping Congolese Tutsi civilians hostage to his political and economic interests while claiming he is their protector. His CNDP is a rogue militia led by former Congolese Army officers and financed by businessmen who profit from war.
All the communities in North Kivu have suffered from Nkunda's atrocities over the past five years and require as much protection as the Tutsi he purports to protect. There is no need for new and lengthy negotiations. The Nairobi and Goma agreements and the UN peacekeeping mandate provide all the necessary instruments on both the national and international level.
The CNDP will have to be dismantled and disarmed together with the other militias. This will require an end to the passive support provided by Rwanda. The Congolese Army will also have to stop collaborating with the Hutu rebels and to support their forced disarmament.
It is imperative for the European Union to push Rwanda and Congo to honor their commitments. The EU should not be distracted by internal negotiations on military assistance - any force will have to work with UN peacekeepers in support of a clearly defined political process. A diplomatic role for the EU is the more feasible and effective option.
The priority for the EU and the rest of the international community should be heavy pressure on both Rwanda and Congo to implement the Nairobi declaration; on Nkunda to retreat to his bases in Masisi and Rutshuru; and on President Joseph Kabila to remove all army commanders collaborating with the Hutu rebels. The parties must then proceed with the unconditional implementation of the Goma agreement.
On Oct. 30, Nkunda, a man responsible for displacing more than 300,000 people, threatened to enter Goma to "protect the civilians" from the army. The protection of civilians will not come from more military assistance but from a sustainable political process. This time, the international community has to see it through.
Neil Campbell, EU advocacy manager of the International Crisis Group, recently returned from eastern Congo.
The Associated Press
Friday, November 7, 2008
PETIONVILLE, Haiti: A hillside school where about 500 students crowded into several floors collapsed during classes Friday, killing at least 30 people and injuring many more. Rescuers used bare hands to pull bleeding students from the wreckage.
More children were believed buried in the rubble of the concrete building, and the death toll was likely to go higher, Yphosiane Vil, a civil protection official, said at the scene.
Neighbors suspected the building was poorly rebuilt after it partially collapsed eight years ago, said Jinny Germain, a French teacher at the school. She said people who lived just downhill abandoned their land out of fear that the building would tumble onto them and that the school's owner tried to buy up their vacated properties.
The concrete building's third story was still under construction, and Mayor Claire Rudie Parent of Petionville said she suspected a structural defect caused the collapse, not the recent rains.
Parent said about 500 students from kindergarten through high school attend the school, College La Promesse, in the hills above Port-au-Prince. She did not know how many were inside when it collapsed late Friday morning.
The aid group Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out 85 people, half with life-threatening injuries, said Max Cosci, the group's director in Haiti.
Volunteers arrived with shovels and axes and said they would try to deliver water to people trapped inside.
A swelling crowd erupted with wails and prayers as the injured were carried away and emergency vehicles raced up a winding hill to the school.
"My child, my child!" one mother yelled.
"There are no words for this," the mayor said as the search for survivors intensified.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, was sending two helicopters to help, said the Dominican health minister, Bautista Rojas.
United Nations peacekeepers and the Haitian police also arrived, trying to clear a path for three battalions of military engineers from Brazil, Chile and Ecuador to assist in the rescue.
Major General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, a UN military commander, had to walk uphill to get through the crowd.
"This is going to be an all-day affair," said Matt Marek, a Red Cross official.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been struggling to recover from widespread riots over rising food prices, a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that killed nearly 800 people.
The UN peacekeepers were sent to Haiti following the bloody ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and have improved security by fighting gangs and training local police
Martin van Creveld doesn't like bleeding hearts. Nor does he care for mollycoddlers or snobs or pointy-headed intellectuals whose only knowledge of war comes from books, or men who won't defend themselves or women who refuse to "behave as women." Those unwomanly women in particular get under his skin: they are a major reason our society is becoming soft, weak, unmanly. Blustering like a present-day Colonel Blimp, harrumphing his way toward a possible heart attack, he writes: "I want to put any number of assorted 'ists' - such as relativists, deconstructionists, destructivists, postmodernists, the more maudlin kind of pacifists and feminists - firmly in their place."
Think of Jack Nicholson snarling "You can't handle the truth" through 485 pages.
Van Creveld has been an adviser to both the U.S. and Israeli militaries, and "The Culture of War," his 18th book, is a survey of conflict in societies throughout history and around the world. His observations range across weaponry, military training, literature, even video games. Van Creveld knows a lot about a lot, and almost no aspect of how human beings have proceeded to kill one another over the ages escapes his notice (though one missing topic is homosexuality in the military).
But if he doesn't have much time for postmodernists and feminists, neither does he have much regard for his readers. He pummels them with his encyclopedic knowledge, bullying them into submission with a cannonade of esoterica.
It's not enough for him to make the point that ornamentation and adornment have always played a role in conflict, and then to back it up with a few examples. In a chapter titled "From War Paint to Tiger Suits," he scorches the earth with comments on the Catawba Indians of the Carolinas, who painted their faces asymmetrically to frighten enemies, and the Meru of Kenya, who wore special hairdos into battle.
We get the idea, you want to say, but he is already on to Japanese samurai, who were fond of Darth Vader-style helmets with antlers, and French soldiers, who dyed their mustaches with shoe polish.
"The Culture of War" is not so much informative as demoralizing. It engenders hostility. It's the kind of book that gives war a bad name.
Which is too bad, because van Creveld has something important to say that won't be found in many of the books by pointy-headed intellectuals. He accepts the reality of combat. He is interested in teaching us not how to avoid war but how best to engage in it. He celebrates the warrior ethos as a necessity in a hostile world. Who, given current circumstances, could disagree?
If there's one thing van Creveld has learned from a lifetime of study, it's that war is a constant of history, never to be eradicated.
"A world without war is not in the cards," he writes.
Peace is the aberration, pacifism a quixotic ideal. Insofar as Christianity has presented itself as a religion of peace, it has been a notable failure. Early Christians may have refused to serve in the military, but in the Middle Ages "the Church itself either instigated war or waged it as intensely as anybody else." We all know that in America today the most fervent hawks are often those who proclaim themselves the most fervent Christians.
Pacifism is doomed to fail, van Creveld explains, because making war is part of human nature, as evidenced by the joy that men - and it is only men he is talking about - take in combat. There is a kind of ecstasy in fighting, a pleasurable engagement of the entire personality, a heightened awareness brought on by rushes of dopamine and adrenaline. Combat veterans will tell you that some of the most joyful moments of their lives came from their experiences on the battlefield.
Moshe Dayan said, "I know of nothing more exciting than war," and Robert E. Lee remarked, "It is well that war is so terrible: we would grow too fond of it."
And of course, as van Creveld keeps reminding us, warfare is intrinsically linked to male sexuality, even down to the thrusting and penetrating motions of much weaponry. (Mines and poison gas, exceptions to this rule of thumb, may be disliked, van Creveld suggests, precisely because they don't resemble penises.) Soldiers commonly equate killing with having sex, their guns with their genitals. Van Creveld quotes an American fighter pilot who says warfare is "the most fun you can have with your pants on."
Give van Creveld credit for looking squarely at some uncomfortable truths. But because he is convinced that peace can never be achieved through moral importuning, he has to seek elsewhere for a way of controlling mankind's penchant for violence and killing. He turns in a surprising direction.
It's an odd, gloomy kind of hope that van Creveld holds out, and you can't avoid the suspicion that he offers it because he has painted himself into an intellectual corner. If war is a fact of life, and nuclear weapons no less so, then the logic of the argument seems to dictate a future of inevitable nuclear destruction. Deterrence is his way out of this quandary, his deus ex machina.
Readers may reach a different conclusion. The world came perilously close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, and as more and more countries acquire nuclear weapons, it requires a real leap of faith to believe that deterrence will continue to work at all times in all places. And that's not to mention nuclear terrorism. In truth, it's hard to finish "The Culture of War" without feeling that van Creveld has left us all sitting out on a limb - and that the noise we hear is the sound of sawing.
Friday, November 7, 2008
BAGHDAD: Iraqi and U.S. officials are concerned about an apparent surge in "sticky bombs," explosives fixed to vehicles with magnets or glue, as a tactic for assassinating Iraqi officials.
The use of such small explosives by Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militiamen is not a new phenomenon in more than five years of war in Iraq.
But U.S. and Iraqi security officials are paying renewed attention on the bombs in the last two months, especially in the capital Baghdad.
"It seems we have had an uptick, 21 sticky bombs in the last month of October (in Iraq)," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover said.
Personnel were being told to check their vehicles before driving and to be alert while they travelled, he said.
Bombs are usually stuck to the target's car while it is parked then is triggered by remote control.
It is not clear whether the "sticky" bombs mark a shift in tactics for militants as violence drops to sharply in Iraq.
They may be an efficient way to target politicians or low-level officials for assassination but they are too small to be used for mass killings that have been a favourite tactic of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
"It is an easy method for them because the sticky bombs are a small size, easy to carry and plant. We have noticed this in the last two months," Iraqi security forces spokesman Qassim Moussawi said.
A sticky bomb killed one member of the provincial governing council in Kerbala, south of Baghdad, last month, and wounded two others. The explosives have also targeted police.
Moussawi said a bomb-making factory that Iraqi security forces discovered in Baghdad last month contained 187 sticky bombs and 43 roadside bombs.
Last week, Iraq police captured 12 militants trying to smuggle sticky bombs into the western city of Ramadi.
(Reporting by Tim Cocks and Aseel Kami; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
By Pir Zubair Shah and Alan Cowell
Friday, November 7, 2008
ISLAMABAD: Missiles fired from a remotely piloted U.S. aircraft hit a village in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan along the Afghan border on Friday and killed at least 10 people, according to local officials and the media.
State television put the death toll at 10 while other news reports said the dead included eight Afghans and five foreigners.
The deaths were the latest in a string of U.S. missile attacks that have drawn increasingly irate protests from Pakistan to senior U.S. officials, including the head of the U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, and the American ambassador here, Anne Patterson.
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani condemned the attack.
Since a U.S. commando raid on Pakistani soil in early September, there have been reports of more than 15 U.S. strikes directed at militants hiding in the tribally ruled Waziristan region.
The authorities accuse militants of using Waziristan as a base to launch attacks both in Pakistan and against the U.S.-led coalition fighting an intensifying war against Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. But Pakistan insists that the U.S. strikes undermine its own efforts to curb the violence.
It also says that the American attacks are violations of its sovereignty.
Pakistani state television said the latest attack had hit the village of Kumshaam in the Razmak area of North Waziristan. Four missiles struck a compound and adjoining guest rooms belonging to a man identified as Alif Khan.
A Pakistani television station said remotely guided aircraft had been seen flying over several parts of North Waziristan. The strike was close to the border of North and South Waziristan, the intelligence official and television channels said.
While the missile strikes have caused many casualties, there have been no reports of fatalities among the most senior Al Qaeda and Taliban figures.
Pakistan is a close ally of the United States in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but Washington has paid little evident heed to Pakistani leaders' demands to halt the strikes.
In late October, the Pakistani government lodged a formal protest over the missile attacks and told the U.S. ambassador the strikes should be "stopped immediately," the Foreign Ministry said at the time.
The protest came after a missile strike by a drone in South Waziristan killed 20 people, including several local Taliban commanders.
This week, Petraeus met top Pakistani officials, who told him the airstrikes were unhelpful.
Apart from the campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan, Pakistani forces say they have been conducting a separate offensive against militants in the Bajaur region of northwest Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan. The militants have responded with bomb attacks, most recently on Thursday.
Pir Zubair Shah reported from Islamabad and Alan Cowell contributed from Paris.
By Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi
Friday, November 7, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan: As Afghan officials reported more civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes on Thursday, witnesses to a strike that apparently hit a wedding party earlier this week said the civilian death toll could be more than double the 40 reported so far by Afghan officials.
The United States military said Thursday that it would conduct a joint investigation with the Afghan authorities into the strike on the wedding party, which took place Monday in the Shah Wali Kott district of the southern province of Kandahar, where the Taliban insurgency has been strong.
But on Thursday American officials offered their first account of the events, saying that insurgents had prevented civilians from fleeing the area, trapping them in a firefight between coalition and Afghan Army forces and the militants who had ambushed them.
Referring to the fatalities in both that incident and another strike reported on Thursday, which killed at least seven civilians in the northwestern province of Badghis, Colonel Greg Julian, a spokesman for United States forces, said, "We hope that it's not from our fire, but we suspect it may well have been."
In a telephone interview, Julian accused Taliban forces of "immersing themselves" among civilians on Monday to deter American forces from using airstrikes.
"Our close air support has been so devastating with the Taliban that they are trying to stop us using it" by provoking situations in which civilians are caught up in fighting and killed, he said.
Pressure on the Karzai government has mounted this year from Afghans angry over prominent incidents of civilian deaths, including coalition strikes in August in Herat province, in western Afghanistan, that killed more than 30 civilians.
Since then, the senior American military commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has tightened the rules around when NATO troops here may use lethal force. But he and other military officials have acknowledged having to rely more heavily on air power due to a shortage of troops in the country.
A report by Human Rights watch in September said that 119 Afghan civilians had been killed in coalition air strikes the first seven months of this year.
Witnesses to the wedding party attack said the death toll among civilians was much higher than the official figure of 40. "I counted 90 dead bodies," Abdul Rahim, 26, who described himself as a survivor of the family who hosted the wedding party, said in a telephone interview from Kandahar province. "I saw them with my own eyes. I discovered them under the debris."
He said he lost 15 members of his own family, including two brothers aged eight and 10, and several women and children. Rahim said he was in a neighboring village collecting more food for the wedding party when the airstrike happened.
Taliban insurgents, he said, had fired some shots from the top of a hill toward a convoy of American vehicles, and the Americans returned the fire, calling in an airstrike about one hour later. Four houses, including the house where the wedding party was underway, were destroyed, Rahim said.
A tribal elder of Shah Wali Kott, who spoke in return for anonymity because he feared for his safety if identified by name, said he could not confirm the exact death toll, but he also insisted that the casualties were higher than the government's estimate of 40.
The United States military, in its statement, made no reference to airstrikes, saying only that militants had "ambushed a coalition security patrol using rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and mortars" and that Afghan and coalition forces "responded with a variety of weapons fire."
"Civilians reportedly attempted to leave the area, but the insurgents forced them to remain as they continued to fire" on Afghan and coalition forces, the statement continued. It quoted a local police commander as saying there had been reports of several civilians being injured while attempting to leave the area.
The United States statement said nine insurgents were killed, but did not refer to civilian casualties. However, in an earlier statement the United States command did seem to leave open the possibility of civilian deaths.
"Though facts are unclear at this point, we take very seriously our responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan and to avoid circumstances where noncombatant civilians are placed at risk," the command said. "If innocent people were killed in this operation, we apologize and express our condolences to the families and people of Afghanistan."
The American military used almost identical language in a statement Thursday about the latest reported attack on three villages in northwestern Afghanistan.
In that incident, Abdullah Waqif, the district governor of the Ghormach area of Badghis Province, said a firefight with coalition and Afghan Army forces had provoked coalition airstrikes and seven civilians and 15 Taliban fighters were killed.
Qari Dawlat Khan, the provincial council leader in the area, said up to 20 civilians may have been killed as they slept in their homes in three villages. One provincial council member, Tawakal Khan, said he lost two sons, aged 35 and 12, and a grandson aged seven in the attacks.
Julian, the United States spokesman, said the incident early Thursday happened after a Taliban ambush when two quick reaction units came to the assistance of the force under attack and called in air strikes.
Friday, November 7, 2008
By Jonathon Burch
Abdul Matin was resting under a tree with seven fellow Afghan soldiers this week when three U.S. helicopters opened fire.
Matin was shot in the abdomen, one arm and both legs. He is lucky to be alive. Four other soldiers were also wounded.
Scores of Afghan civilians have been killed in air strikes by international troops in Afghanistan this year, Afghan officials say, feeding a perception that NATO-led and U.S. coalition forces do not take enough care when using air strikes.
Though it is rare for foreign troops to hit their Afghan army allies, the latest incident is the second reported case of friendly fire in less than two weeks. Foreign troops killed nine Afghan soldiers in an air strike in the southeast last month.
"We had been on patrol and were coming back to our base. I said to my friend, 'let's go fetch some water', because we were thirsty," Matin told Reuters.
The soldiers set off Sunday to collect water some 500 metres (yards) from their base in northeastern Kunar province, a hotbed for insurgents near the Pakistan border.
"On the way, three helicopters passed overhead. We were a little tired so we sat down under a tree. When the helicopters saw us, they started shooting at us," Matin said.
"One of my friends became angry and shouted, 'I want to shoot at the helicopters', but I said, 'No! If you shoot, maybe they will start firing at us again'," he said. The soldiers then radioed their commander, who managed to stop the attack.
The Defence Ministry condemned the attack, saying such incidents would weaken the spirit of the Afghan army, which is trained mostly by U.S. troops.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) issued a statement the same day. "ISAF troops fired on what they suspected were anti-Afghan Forces within the area," it said.
ISAF launched an investigation to determine why the attack took place and how future incidents can be prevented, the alliance said. U.S. troops make up ISAF forces in Kunar.
An ISAF spokeswoman could not provide any further details regarding Sunday's incident but said the results would be released when the investigation was completed.
"WHO IS THE ENEMY?"
Matin, 25, lost his job as a carpenter and joined the army nine months ago, for the same reason as many other young Afghans.
"There was no work so I joined the army," Matin said.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with unemployment around 40 percent. Soldiers earn the equivalent of $100 per month.
In a twist of fate, Matin was evacuated by a U.S. helicopter to a state-of-the-art trauma hospital in Bagram, the main U.S. base in the country, where he is recovering after surgery.
Matin speaks slowly and grimaces as he retells his story. "I'm in severe pain," he says. He does not understand why he was attacked, but insists he is not angry at those who shot him.
"I wanted to fight the Taliban, but in fact, I was shot by my helpers. I don't know who is my enemy, the Taliban or those who shot at me," he says.
(Editing by Paul Tait)
Friday, November 7, 2008
BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces supported by U.S. firepower killed a senior al Qaeda leader who made car bombs and ran Islamist militant cells throughout northern Iraq, the U.S. military said Friday.
A statement said the Iraqi army and members of a U.S.- backed Sunni Arab neighbourhood patrol shot Abu Ghazwan as he hid in the grass near a house they were searching Thursday in Tarmiya, north of Baghdad.
The patrol had been attacked with guns and a bomb in the house.
"While further searching the area, a (neighbourhood patrol) member discovered a trail booby-trapped with grenades and an identified individual lying in the grass ... Ghazwan was killed as a result of ... small arms fire," the statement said.
U.S. forces later determined the dead man was the wanted militant who had been involved in financing al Qaeda operations and recruiting child soldiers, the statement said.
Al Qaeda militants have been in retreat since Sunni Arab tribal leaders turned against them and formed U.S.-backed neighborhood patrols that drove the Sunni Islamist group out of strongholds in western Iraq and Baghdad.
But they have kept a presence in northern Iraq and have shown themselves still capable of staging large-scale attacks.
(Reporting by Tim Cocks; editing by Michael Roddy)
Friday, November 7, 2008
In a stroke of self-satire, Pentagon officials tried to block Stars and Stripes - the U.S. military's respected independent newspaper - from covering the troops' plain and honest reactions to the election night news about their new commander in chief. The Department of Defense once again made news by smothering news.
The boneheaded muzzling of the newspaper, which is protected by First Amendment guarantees against editorial interference, barred reporters assigned to do simple color stories from the public areas of military bases in order to "avoid engaging in activities that could associate the Department with any partisan election."
Partisan? By that rationale, the civilian news media's coverage of the spontaneous celebrations on Tuesday night was an act of journalistic bias. It's ludicrous that Pentagon brass feared men and women in uniform might be caught smiling, frowning or exclaiming "Whoopee!" or "Rats!" at voting results from the democracy they defend with their lives.
The good news is that Stars and Stripes found commanders in the Middle East and Europe that ignored the foolish directive. When other commanders clamped down in Japan and South Korea, the paper properly took the ban as illegal under long-standing congressional and military policies. Its reporters did their jobs until forced to stop.
By law, troops are allowed to express their political opinions in a nonofficial capacity. These days, they do so nonstop by name in blogs and newspaper letters. Even so, a Pentagon spokesman told the newspaper there's no obligation to "assist with a story that chips away at the fundamental apolitical nature of the military."
Inane is more apt than apolitical. The Pentagon should retreat from its head-in-the-sand posturing.
By Kirk Johnson
Friday, November 7, 2008
DENVER: Sales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the past week, according to gun store owners around the United States who describe a wave of buyers concerned that an Obama administration will curtail their right to bear arms.
"He's a gun-snatcher," said Jim Pruett, owner of Jim Pruett's Guns and Ammo in northwest Houston, which was packed with shoppers on Thursday.
"He wants to take our guns from us and create a socialist society policed by his own police force," added Pruett, a former radio personality. He was talking about President-elect Barack Obama.
Pruett said that sales on Saturday, before the election, ran about seven times higher than a typical good Saturday.
A spot check by reporters in four other states easily found Pruett's comments echoed from both sides of the counter.
David Nelson, a co-owner of Montana Ordnance & Supply, in Missoula, Montana, said his buyers were "awake and aware and see a dangerous trend."
Nelson said that sales at his store had risen about 30 percent since Obama declared his candidacy. "People are concerned about overreaching legislation from Washington," he said. "They are educating themselves on the Internet."
In Colorado, would-be gun buyers set a record Saturday with the highest number of background check requests in a 24-hour period, according to figures from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
"We're not really sure who is promoting the concept that a change in federal administrations might affect firearms possession rights, but we do know that it's increased business considerably," said an agency spokesman, Lance Clem.
Federal law-enforcement officials cautioned that gun sales were extremely volatile. Nationally, rifle and handgun sales surged 17 percent, for example, in May, compared with May 2007, according to FBI figures. That was before Obama had clinched the nomination. Sales then fell and were essentially flat by September compared with the year before, even as the campaign heated up, before rising 14 percent in October. November figures were not yet available.
What is clear is that every gun seller - not to mention every advocacy group for gun ownership that depends on dues - has an incentive to stoke the concern that can prompt a gun sale.
Political uncertainty, gun dealers say, is great for business.
"Clinton was the best gun salesman the gun manufacturers ever had," said Rick Gray, owner of the Accuracy Gun Shop in Las Vegas. "Obama's going to be right up there with him." Sales doubled on Wednesday, Gray said, to more than 20 guns from three to 10 on a typical day.
Asked whether that made him root for Democratic candidates, Gray said no, noting he had supported Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, dismissed the notion that the group had any incentive to increase gun sales or membership. "Ridiculous," LaPierre said. "I hope President-elect Obama keeps his promises and protects gun rights. If he does that, we'll be cheering."
The political battle over guns raged fiercely throughout the campaign in many states where gun ownership is common. On Monday, home-delivered copies of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arrived in NRA-sponsored plastic bags that said, "Vote Freedom First" and "Defend Freedom - Defeat Obama."
Democrats fired back, with mail campaigns in many states with fliers stating that as president, Obama would respect an individual's right to own guns.
But some gun buyers and sellers never forgot, or forgave, Obama's comment in April that some Americans "cling to guns or religion" in times of adversity.
"It was an annoying comment, and it showed there's a lot more to him," said Mike Warner, 38, of Las Vegas, who said he was an NRA member and an owner of two guns but wanted at least one more.
Others, even some shopping for guns, said they thought some gun enthusiasts' fears about Obama were unjustified.
Thayer Evans contributed reporting from Houston; Steve Friess from Las Vegas; Dan Frosch from Lakewood, Colorado; Sean D. Hamill from Pittsburgh; and Pamela J. Podger from Missoula.
By C. J. Chivers and Ellen Barry
Friday, November 7, 2008
TBILISI, Georgia: Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.
Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia's inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.
The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia's insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion.
President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia has characterized the attack as a precise and defensive act. But according to observations of the monitors, documented Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions, and within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area. The monitors have also said they were unable to verify that ethnic Georgian villages were under heavy bombardment that evening, calling to question one of Saakashvili's main justifications for the attack.
Senior Georgian officials contest these accounts, and have urged Western governments to discount them. "That information, I don't know what it is and how it is confirmed," said Giga Bokeria, Georgia's deputy foreign minister. "There is such an amount of evidence of continuous attacks on Georgian-controlled villages and so much evidence of Russian military buildup, it doesn't change in any case the general picture of events."
He added: "Who was counting those explosions? It sounds a bit peculiar."
The Kremlin has embraced the monitors' observations, which, according to a written statement from Grigory Karasin, Russia's deputy foreign minister, reflect "the actual course of events prior to Georgia's aggression." He added that the accounts "refute" allegations by Tbilisi of bombardments that he called mythical.
The monitors were members of an international team working under the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. A multilateral organization with 56 member states, the group has monitored the conflict since a previous cease-fire agreement in the 1990s.
The observations by the monitors, including a Finnish major, a Belorussian airborne captain and a Polish civilian, have been the subject of two confidential briefings to diplomats in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, one in August and the other in October. Summaries were shared with The New York Times by people in attendance at both.
Details were then confirmed by three Western diplomats and a Russian, and were not disputed by the OSCE's mission in Tbilisi, which was provided with a written summary of the observations.
Saakashvili, who has compared Russia's incursion into Georgia to the Nazi annexations in Europe in 1938 and the Soviet suppression of Prague in 1968, faces domestic unease with his leadership and skepticism about his judgment from Western governments.
The brief war was a disaster for Georgia. The attack backfired. Georgia's army was humiliated as Russian forces overwhelmed its brigades, seized and looted their bases, captured their equipment and roamed the country's roads at will. Villages that Georgia vowed to save were ransacked and cleared of their populations by irregular Ossetian, Chechen and Cossack forces, and several were burned to the ground.
Massing of Weapons
According to the monitors, an OSCE patrol at 3 p.m. on Aug. 7 saw large numbers of Georgian artillery and grad rocket launchers massing on roads north of Gori, just south of the enclave.
At 6:10 p.m., the monitors were told by Russian peacekeepers of suspected Georgian artillery fire on Khetagurovo, an Ossetian village; this report was not independently confirmed, and Georgia declared a unilateral cease-fire shortly thereafter, about 7 p.m.
During a news broadcast that began at 11 p.m., Georgia announced that Georgian villages were being shelled, and declared an operation "to restore constitutional order" in South Ossetia. The bombardment of Tskhinvali started soon after the broadcast.
According to the monitors, however, no shelling of Georgian villages could be heard in the hours before the Georgian bombardment. At least two of the four villages that Georgia has since said were under fire were near the observers' office in Tskhinvali, and the monitors there likely would have heard artillery fire nearby.
Moreover, the observers made a record of the rounds exploding after Georgia's bombardment began at 11:35 p.m. At 11:45 p.m., rounds were exploding at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between impacts, they noted.
At 12:15 a.m. on Aug. 8, General Major Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of Russian peacekeepers in the enclave, reported to the monitors that his unit had casualties, indicating that Russian soldiers had come under fire.
By 12:35 a.m. the observers had recorded at least 100 heavy rounds exploding across Tskhinvali, including 48 close to the observers' office, which is in a civilian area and was damaged.
Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said that by morning on Aug. 8 two Russian soldiers had been killed and five wounded. Two senior Western military officers stationed in Georgia, speaking on condition of anonymity because they work with Georgia's military, said that whatever Russia's behavior in or intentions for the enclave, once Georgia's artillery or rockets struck Russian positions, conflict with Russia was all but inevitable. This clear risk, they said, made Georgia's attack dangerous and unwise.
Senior Georgia officials, a group with scant military experience and personal loyalties to Saakashvili, have said that much of the damage to Tskhinvali was caused in combat between its soldiers and separatists, or by Russian airstrikes and bombardments in its counterattack the next day. As for its broader shelling of the city, Georgia has told Western diplomats that Ossetians hid weapons in civilian buildings, making them legitimate targets.
"The Georgians have been quite clear that they were shelling targets the mayor's office, police headquarters that had been used for military purposes," said Matthew Bryza, a deputy assistant secretary of state and one of Saakashvili's vocal supporters in Washington.
Those claims have not been independently verified, and Georgia's account was disputed by Ryan Grist, a former British Army captain who was the senior OSCE representative in Georgia when the war broke out. Grist said that he was in constant contact that night with all sides, with the office in Tskhinvali and with Wing Commander Stephen Young, the retired British military officer who leads the monitoring team.
"It was clear to me that the attack was completely indiscriminate and disproportionate to any, if indeed there had been any, provocation," Grist said. "The attack was clearly, in my mind, an indiscriminate attack on the town, as a town."
Grist has served as a military officer or diplomat in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kosovo and Yugoslavia. In August, after the Georgian foreign minister, Eka Tkeshelashvili, who has no military experience, assured diplomats in Tbilisi that the attack was measured and discriminate, Grist gave a briefing to diplomats from the European Union that drew from the monitors' observations and included his assessments. He then soon resigned under unclear circumstances.
A second briefing was led by Young in October for military attachés visiting Georgia. At the meeting, according to a person in attendance, Young stood by the monitors' assessment that Georgian villages had not been extensively shelled on the evening or night of Aug. 7. "If there had been heavy shelling in areas that Georgia claimed were shelled, then our people would have heard it, and they didn't," Young said, according to the person who attended. "They heard only occasional small-arms fire."
The O.S.C.E turned down a request by The Times to interview Young and the monitors, saying they worked in sensitive jobs and would not be publicly engaged in this disagreement.
Grievances and Exaggeration
Disentangling the Russian and Georgian accounts has been complicated. The violence along the enclave's boundaries that had occurred in recent summers was more widespread this year, and in the days before Aug. 7 there had been shelling of Georgian villages. Tensions had been soaring.
Each side has fresh lists of grievances about the other, which they insist are decisive. But both sides also have a record of misstatement and exaggeration, which includes circulating casualty estimates that have not withstood independent examination. With the international standing of both Russia and Georgia damaged, the public relations battle has been intensive.
Russian military units have been implicated in destruction of civilian property and accused by Georgia of participating with Ossetian militias in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Russia and South Ossetia have accused Georgia of attacking Ossetian civilians.
But a critical and as yet unanswered question has been what changed for Georgia between 7 p.m. on Aug 7, when Saakashvili declared a cease-fire, and 11:30 p.m., when he says he ordered the attack. The Russian and Ossetian governments have said the cease-fire was a ruse used to position rockets and artillery for the assault.
That view is widely held by Ossetians. Civilians repeatedly reported resting at home after the cease-fire broadcast by Saakashvili. Emeliya B. Dzhoyeva, 68, was home with her husband, Felix, 70, when the bombardment began. He lost his left arm below the elbow and suffered burns to his right arm and torso. "Saakashvili told us that nothing would happen," she said. "So we all just went to bed."
Neither Georgia nor its Western allies have as yet provided conclusive evidence that Russia was invading the country or that the situation for Georgians in the Ossetian zone was so dire that a large-scale military attack was necessary, as Saakashvili insists.
Georgia has released telephone intercepts indicating that a Russian armored column apparently entered the enclave from Russia early on the Aug. 7, which would be a violation of the peacekeeping rules. Georgia said the column marked the beginning of an invasion. But the intercepts did not show the column's size, composition or mission, and there has not been evidence that it was engaged with Georgian forces until many hours after the Georgian bombardment; Russia insists it was simply a routine logistics train or troop rotation.
Unclear Accounts of Shelling
Interviews by The Times have found a mixed picture on the question of whether Georgian villages were shelled after Saakashvili declared the cease-fire. Residents of the village of Zemo Nigozi, one of the villages that Georgia has said was under heavy fire, said they were shelled from 6 p.m. on, supporting Georgian statements.
In two other villages, interviews did not support Georgian claims. In Avnevi, several residents said the shelling stopped before the cease-fire and did not resume until roughly the same time as the Georgian bombardment. In Tamarasheni, some residents said they were lightly shelled on the evening of Aug. 7, but felt safe enough not to retreat to their basements. Others said they were not shelled until Aug 9.
With a paucity of reliable and unbiased information available, the OSCE observations put the United States in a potentially difficult position. The United States, Saakashvili's principal source of international support, has for years accepted the organization's conclusions and praised its professionalism. Bryza refrained from passing judgment on the conflicting accounts.
"I wasn't there," he said, referring to the battle. "We didn't have people there. But the OSCE really has been our benchmark on many things over the years."
The OSCE itself, while refusing to discuss its internal findings, stood by the accuracy of its work but urged caution in interpreting it too broadly. "We are confident that all OSCE observations are expert, accurate and unbiased," Martha Freeman, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message. "However, monitoring activities in certain areas at certain times cannot be taken in isolation to provide a comprehensive account."
By Jesse McKinley
Friday, November 7, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO: A week before Election Day, Christopher Burnett's floral shop filled an order for one of the many same-sex weddings he has worked in the last five months: eight corsages, a dozen boutonnieres and two bouquets for the two brides, each with three dozen roses.
Now, Burnett said, since voter approval Tuesday of Proposition 8, which amended the state's Constitution to recognize marriages only between men and women, that type of business is gone.
"I have done a gay wedding every week," he said. "And so it's very disheartening, because other business is very slow."
Even as opponents of the measure officially conceded defeat on Thursday, California business owners - particularly those in the marriage business - were trying to determine how many wedding cakes would go unsold and how many tuxedos unrented.
Arturo Cobos, a manager at Kard Zone in the city's traditionally gay Castro neighborhood, said he had done "big sales" of same-sex wedding cards and other trinkets since marriages began in June, but had recently stopped stocking new goods.
"We were afraid that they would pass Proposition 8," Cobos said, "and that's exactly what happened."
In Palm Springs, another gay-friendly city, Mayor Steve Pougnet said he had performed 115 same-sex weddings since June, when such ceremonies began, some of which had as many as 180 guests. By contrast, this week the city has canceled eight planned ceremonies.
"That's a huge economic impact, which is gone in these difficult economic times," said Pougnet, who is openly gay and married his partner in September.
Another mayor, Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, was blunt.
"It's a great day for Massachusetts," Newsom said, referring to one of only two remaining states to allow same-sex marriage. The other, Connecticut, legalized such unions in October.
The approval of Proposition 8 comes even as the state is suffering another bout of bad economic news. On Thursday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposed Proposition 8, in part on economic grounds, announced that the state's budget deficit had already swelled to $11.2 billion for the coming year, and he called the Legislature back into session and proposed higher taxes to address the budget problems.
David Paisley, a San Francisco-based marketing executive with a specialty in gay tourism, said California had four of the nation's top 10 destinations for gay travelers: San Francisco, Palm Springs, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Paisley said that it was too early to speculate on the exact economic impact of Proposition 8, but that some public relations damage might have already been done.
"California has always been perceived on the vanguard of gay-friendly destinations," he said. "Well, when a ballot measure passes says it's not, it's terrible publicity for gay and lesbian tourism."
Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for Protect Marriage, the leading group behind Proposition 8, said any potential impact, or the specter of bad press, was overstated.
"This is an issue of restoring the institution of marriage as it always existed," said Schubert, noting that same-sex marriage had only briefly been legal. "I can't imagine that returning to the history of 4,000 years before that is going to cause an economic upheaval."
In June, the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which studies sexual orientation and the law, estimated that legalizing same-sex ceremonies in the state would result in about $63.8 million in government tax and fee revenue over three years.
Several civil rights and gay rights groups said Thursday that they had asked the State Supreme Court, which legalized same-sex marriage in May, to bar the carrying out of Proposition 8, which went into effect as soon as the result of the referendum was known. San Francisco tourism officials, meanwhile, said they would continue to push the city as a destination for "commitment ceremonies and other celebrations of partnership."
All of which gave a small measure of hope to merchants like Burnett, who said he would miss the extra work. "Unless," he said, "we get gay marriages back."
Saturday, November 8, 2008
MEXICO CITY: Investigators have ruled out the possibility that a bomb caused the fatal crash of a senior minister's aircraft in Mexico City this week, the Mexican government said on Friday.
Many in Mexico feared sabotage could have been involved in Tuesday evening's crash, which killed Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino, but the government has gone to some effort to show that it was more likely an accident.
"The investigation has not found any sign of any explosive substance. An explosion did not cause the aircraft to crash," Transport Minister Luis Tellez told a news conference.
The government Learjet carrying Mourino -- President Felipe Calderon's right-hand man -- and Mexico's top drug war adviser Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, smashed into rush-hour traffic killing all nine people on board and five on the ground.
Evidence recovered from the crash site, where taco stands were turned to ash, showed that the executive jet's two engines were both working at the time of the accident and were operating at a high speed, Tellez said.
Mexico's history of political assassinations and spiraling violence since Calderon launched an army crackdown on drug cartels has driven speculation about foul play in the crash.
Mexican media have also quoted air traffic controllers as saying the aircraft may have been adversely affected by turbulence from a large Boeing jet in front of it.
The government has been unusually forthcoming as it seeks to dispel suspicions, playing audio tapes and radar images of the plane's descent towards Mexico City airport, and has sent its in-flight recorders to a specialist U.S. lab for analysis.
U.S. and British aviation accident experts are also helping Mexican investigators, and Tellez said initial results of the probe should be ready within a week.
(Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Eric Walsh)
By John Burns
Friday, November 7, 2008
LONDON: Only weeks after predictions of his political demise were making headlines in Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown bounced back on Friday with a stunning by-election victory that had political commentators revising forecasts of how the governing Labour Party may fare in a general election within the next year and a half.
The Labour candidate in the Scottish constituency of Glenrothes won the seat with a majority of 6,737 votes, trouncing a challenge by the Scottish National Party.
The nationalists, with a program calling for Scotland's independence, had been on a long winning streak and were confidently predicting victory in the by-election right up to the voting Thursday.
Local factors played a strong role, prompting caution in extrapolating wider lessons for Labour's prospects across Britain in a general election that must be held by June 2010. The Glenrothes constituency, in a former coal-mining area, borders Brown's constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and Brown, a Scot who is a strong advocate of Scotland's remaining part of Britain, broke with patterns for prime ministers by campaigning personally. He visited the constituency three times during the campaign.
But the most powerful factor in turning the tide for Labour, whose party officials had warned of a likely defeat, appeared to have been Brown's steadying role in the economic crisis sweeping Britain.
The 57-year-old prime minister, who was finance minister for 10 years until he stepped up to the top job 17 months ago, has been widely credited in recent weeks for taking steps to stabilize Britain's banks that have influenced similar measures elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.
Winning the by-election easily, after four successive by-election defeats since Brown became prime minister, further buoyed Labour officials already scenting a wider upturn in the party's fortunes in the wake of Barack Obama's victory Tuesday in the U.S. presidential vote.
Speaking on a background basis, senior government officials have spoken of a shared "progressive agenda" with Obama on a wide range of issues and suggested that the setback for conservatives in John McCain's defeat could have implications for politics in Britain.
Labour's hopes for defeating the Conservatives in a general election that Brown can call at a time of his choosing have also been bolstered by national opinion polls.
After months in which Labour trailed the Conservatives in a wide range of surveys by margins of 20 percent and more, polls taken in recent weeks, as the economic crisis worsened, have shown the Conservative lead halved to less than 10 percent.
Brown lost no time in proclaiming the Glenrothes result a triumph for his government's handling of the banking crisis, which has centered on a program to re-capitalize British banks with direct government investment and other provisions designed to encourage bank lending and ease a growing mortgage crunch for homeowners.
On Thursday, the Bank of England cut its prime lending rate by 1.5 percent, to 3 percent, the sharpest cut in Britain in 50 years.
The Labour candidate in Glenrothes, Lindsay Roy, the 59-year-old headmaster of the secondary school in the town of Kirkcaldy that Brown attended as a boy, won 19,946 votes, against 13,209 votes for the Scottish Nationalist candidate, Peter Grant.
As expected, the two major political parties that will face Labour in a general election, but have scant support in economically depressed areas of Scotland, finished distant runners-up.
Maurice Golden of the Conservatives won 1,381 votes and Harry Wills for the Liberal Democrats won 947.
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