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Sunday, December 31, 2006

International Herald Tribune Editorial - The rush to hang Saddam

International Herald Tribune Editorial - The rush to hang Saddam
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: December 29, 2006

The important question was never really about whether Saddam Hussein was guilty of crimes against humanity. The public record is bulging with the lengthy litany of his vile and unforgivable atrocities: genocidal assaults against the Kurds; aggressive wars against Iran and Kuwait; use of internationally banned weapons like nerve gas; systematic torture of countless thousands of political prisoners.

What really mattered was whether an Iraq freed from his death grip could hold him accountable in a way that nurtured hope for a better future. A carefully conducted, scrupulously fair trial could have helped undo some of the damage inflicted by his rule. It could have set a precedent for the rule of law in a country scarred by decades of arbitrary vindictiveness. It could have fostered a new national unity in an Iraq long manipulated through its religious and ethnic divisions.

It could have, but it didn't. After a flawed, politicized and divisive trial, Saddam was handed his sentence: death by hanging. This week, in a cursory 15-minute proceeding, an appeals court upheld that sentence and ordered that it be carried out posthaste. Most Iraqis are now so preoccupied with shielding their families from looming civil war that they seem to have little emotion left to spend on Saddam or, more important, on their own fading dreams of a new and better Iraq.

What might have been a watershed now seems another lost opportunity. After nearly four years of war and thousands of American and Iraqi deaths, it is ever harder to be sure whether anything fundamental has changed for the better in Iraq.

This week began with a story of British and Iraqi soldiers storming a police station that hid a secret dungeon in Basra. More than 100 men, many of them viciously tortured, were rescued from almost certain execution. It might have been a story from the final days of Baathist rule in March 2003, when British and U.S. troops entered Basra believing they were liberating the subjugated Shiite south. But it was December 2006, and the wretched men being liberated were prisoners of the new Iraqi

Toppling Saddam Hussein did not automatically create a new and better Iraq. Executing him won't either.

Saddam buried; videos grip Iraq

Saddam buried; videos grip Iraq
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: December 31, 2006

BAGHDAD: The body of Saddam Hussein was buried in the town of his birth in the hours before dawn Sunday, after a final journey into the night aboard an American military helicopter that carried him from Baghdad.

The burial was the final act in a grim and turbulent 24 hours that began with Mr. Hussein's execution at dawn on Saturday. But like much else about Mr. Hussein's life and death, his passage back to the otherwise unmemorable town where he grew up, Awja, was marked by bitterness and dispute. It was only under American pressure that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq's new ruler, agreed to surrender the body for burial after his aides insisted for much of Saturday that it would be held in a secret location until the risks of violence or turmoil at the burial site receded.

Taken from Mr. Maliki's office at midnight, the body was shown in a video recording broadcast by the state-run Iraqiya television channel being loaded in a simple wood coffin into the back of a police pickup truck and driven to the American's command's helicopter landing zone a mile away in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. There, it was loaded aboard one of two Black Hawk helicopters and flown north on the 110-mile journey to Camp Speicher, an American military base outside Tikrit.

From the American base, it was driven south to Awja, on the banks of the Tigris River, and laid to rest in the ornate visitors center there that Mr. Hussein ordered built for the townspeople in the 1990's. Local officials and members of Mr. Hussein's Albu-Nasir tribe had broken open the marbled floor in the center of the main reception hall and cleared what they said would be a temporary burial place until the fallen dictator could be moved to a permanent grave in a cemetery outside Awja where his sons, Qusay and Uday, were buried after dying in a firefight with American troops in July 2003.

Accounts relayed by some of those in the large crowd who attended the burial said that American and Iraqi soldiers had set up separate security cordons around Awja, apparently to prevent the occasion from escalating into unrest and possible violence of the kind seen elsewhere in Sunni areas since the hanging. A video recording made inside the hall and played later on Arabic television channels showed several mourners throwing themselves on top of the closed wooden casket. One of them, weeping, cried out: "He has not died. I can hear him speaking to me."

For many Iraqis, the wrangling over the body was another anguishing chapter in the long trauma brought to their national life by Mr. Hussein.

After nearly three decades of living with his brutal repression and the violent aftermath of his overthrow by American troops, they spent the weekend in a mixture of rejoicing, violence and muted reflection over the stark events that unfolded in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, when the former dictator was hanged in one of the grimmest of his own execution chambers.

This nation of 27 million people spent the 36 hours after the hanging crowding around television sets to watch mesmerizing replays of a government-made videotape that showed the 69-year-old Mr. Hussein being led to the gallows at dawn by five masked executioners, and having a noose fashioned from a thick rope of yellow hemp lowered around his neck. In the final moments shown on the videotape, he seemed unnaturally calm and cooperative.

On Sunday, there was even more fascination with another video of the execution, this one unedited, showing what the government recording did not: the moment when the executioners pulled the lever that released the trapdoor, causing several feet of thick yellow rope coiled at Mr. Hussein's feet to tauten as the condemned man fell to his death. The new video, apparently captured by a cellphone camera smuggled into the execution chamber by one of the witnesses or guards, also captures some of the taunting Mr. Hussein was subjected to in the final 50 seconds before he was hanged.

The government recording ended when the chief executioner tightened the noose around Mr. Hussein's neck and stepped back towards the trapdoor lever mounted on the execution block's bare concrete wall. But the cellphone video showed what followed. In the semi-darkness of the chamber, lit only by lights for the government's video camera, voices can be heard from the area in front of the gallows. "May Allah praise Mohammed and his family and curse his enemies," the voices chant, adding, in a provocation to Mr. Hussein, "Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!"

The reference was to Moqtada al-Sadr, the volatile Shiite cleric whose private militia has spawned many of the death squads now terrorizing the Sunni minority community that ruled Iraq for decades until Mr. Hussein's overthrow in 2003. Some of those death squads have recruited men from within the police and prison service. Mr. Hussein, on the gallows, noose around his neck, can be seen with a brief smile crossing his face before he utters his own mocking reply: "Moq-tada," he says, drawing out the name.

"Is this what you call manhood?"

Another voice then calls out, "Please, no. The man is being executed," prompting Mr. Hussein to a denunciation of his persecutors that is mostly drowned out by the hubbub. But one phrase that can be deciphered from the recording is clear. "Gallows of shame," he says.

Still another voice then shouts in the darkness, "Long Live Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr," a reference to Moqtada al-Sadr's grandfather, who was ordered hanged by Mr. Hussein in 1980 along with his sister, allegedly for planning to overthrow Mr. Hussein and found an Islamic state in Iraq. "Go to hell," another voice in the darkness shouts. At this point, with about 10 seconds to live, Mr. Hussein begins intoning the most common of all Muslim prayers. "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger," he says, twice.

At that point, the trapdoor opens with a loud metallic clang, and Mr. Hussein can be seen falling. The grainy images on the cellphone recording become jerky, apparently as the man holding the cellphone struggles for a view among a crowd of people pushing forward. "The tyrant has fallen! May God curse him," a voice shouts. Another, apparently that of one of the officials overseeing the execution, attempts to restore order. "No one touch him for three minutes," the voice says. "Everybody step back."

The cellphone images then show Mr. Hussein in death, dangling from the rope, his neck grotesquely snapped and his head hanging backwards at a 45-degree angle. His eyes are open and glassy, and bruising is visible on the left side of his cheek, where the noose has tautened against his skin.

Moments before the hanging, the executioners had wrapped a black cloth scarf around his neck, telling Mr. Hussein that its purpose was to prevent the rope from cutting through his neck at the Adam's apple. He nodded, almost courteously, though some witnesses said later that he seemed to have gone through his final moments in a daze.

But many who watched the recordings, and certainly his supporters among Iraqi Sunnis, took from the hanging a message quite other than the one that the government of Mr. Maliki seemed to have intended. To them, what the videos showed was that the ousted ruler had lived his final moments with unflinching dignity and courage, reinforcing the legend of himself as the Arab world's strongman that he cultivated while in power.

Seen from this perspective, Mr. Hussein, one of the last century's most murderous tyrants, emerged from the hanging as almost heroic; his executioners as thuggish and cowardly, cursing and taunting a condemned man.

According to accounts given later by some of the 25 people who attended the execution, Mr. Hussein spent much of the last half-hour before being led to the gallows, after arriving at the execution block at the Khadimiyah prison in northern Baghdad, in another sequence of bitter exchanges with the Shiite guards and executioners assigned to hang him and with some of the Shiite witnesses. At one point, on the gallows, Mr. Hussein delivered a final defiance of his old enemies, the United States, Iran and their "spies," a word commonly used at the height of his tyranny to justify the merciless persecution of his domestic opponents.

"Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians," he said, meaning Iran. His mention of Iran seemed to have been intended to provoke the overwhelmingly Shiite gathering in the execution block, since Iran, ruled by Shiite clerics, has been a major backer of the Shiite religious groups that now rule Iraq, and has been accused by American commanders of supplying weapons, including armor-penetrating rockets and bombs, to Iraqi insurgents.

The death sentence on Mr. Hussein, handed down first on Nov. 5, was required under Iraqi law to be to be carried out within 30 days of the rejection of his appeal, which was delivered on Tuesday. The fact that the hanging was carried out within four days of the appeal's denial took some officials in Washington by surprise and left some American legal officials who have worked with the Iraqi court uncomfortable, to the point of complaining privately that the Maliki government had substituted political expediency for justice.

Within hours of the execution, at least 75 people were killed in nine bombing attacks of the kind that Sunni insurgents commonly carry out against Shiites. In the mainly Shiite districts of Hurriyah and Sayidah in Baghdad, separate sequences in which car bombs detonated in close succession caused at least 39 deaths. Two other car bombings hit Baghdad before nightfall, one outside a children's hospital in the Iskan neighborhood, and another that killed two people outside a mosque in the mainly Sunni district of Adhamiya, the Interior Ministry said.

Another vehicle bomb detonated in a popular fish market in the Shiite holy town of Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, killing 34 people and wounding 38 others, the ministry said. In the Kufa attack, an angry mob set on the suspected bomber and beat him to death, the police said. Five more victims died in a suicide bombing in the northern city of Tal Afar, another center of violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

The United States military command announced six more combat deaths, bringing the number of American troops killed in December to 109, the deadliest month for American deaths since November 2004, according to Reuters.

With bombing attacks a long-established feature of the struggle for power across Iraq, it was impossible to say whether the Saturday bombings or the violence today were connected to the execution.

But statements by remnants of the ousted Baath Party, the political vehicle Mr. Hussein rode to power, had promised retaliation, in the form of a new wave of bombings, if the death sentence passed by an Iraqi court eight weeks ago was carried out.

Those threats were repeated in a statement issued by the Baath party's underground headquarters on Saturday. In a statement issued on its Web site, the party called Mr. Hussein "the master of Arab and Muslim martyrs in the current era," and said that it was the duty of every Muslim to respond to his hanging by joining in holy war against his enemies. "Hit the joint enemy Iran and America relentlessly," it said. "Take a stand of honor, and seek revenge for Saddam."

From accounts given by witnesses, the hanging of the former ruler had strong sectarian overtones from the outset. Within minutes of arriving at the execution block from the American detention center near the airport, where he spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement, Mr. Hussein, who may have been the only Sunni present, argued with the guards and executioners.

The men who guided him to the gallows were drawn from the country's Shiite south, identifiable by their darker skins and accents. The Shiites of southern Iraq harbor a strong hatred for Mr. Hussein for his repression of uprisings there, a repression that killed tens of thousands of Shiites.

The execution block scenes offered a grim echo of the sectarian struggle now convulsing Iraq, as Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads engage in a implacable cycle of revenge that has killed as many as 3,700 civilians a month this year, and prompted many Iraqis to say that the killings ushered in by the overthrow of Mr. Hussein are becoming as brutal, and numerous, as anything he inflicted.

Even the decision to hasten Mr. Hussein to the gallows took on a sectarian edge, as Iraq's new Shiite leaders presented the hanging as a message to Sunnis that their days as Iraq's rulers are gone forever. The message was clear in a statement issued by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose "national unity" government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds has splintered into ethnic factions, with the Shiite religious groups that swept last December's elections increasingly assertive of their majority rights.

The statement, which he signed before a battery of Iraqi television cameras, amounted to a warning to the Sunnis that their hopes of ever regaining power are lost. "Saddam's execution puts an end to all their pathetic gambles on a return to dictatorship," he said, referring to the former Baathists at the core of the Sunni insurgency. "I urge followers of the ousted regime to reconsider their stance, because the door is still open to anyone who has no innocent blood on his hands to help in rebuilding Iraq."

At his death, Mr. Hussein had ceased to be much of a major rallying point, even among diehard Sunnis, whose battles in the past three years have been less about restoring Mr. Hussein to power — a chimerical goal, considering that the former leader was America's most closely-guarded prisoner in Iraq — than about reversing the political transition from Sunni to Shiite rule.

Mr. Maliki short-circuited a bitter internal debate within the government over how quickly to send Mr. Hussein to the gallows by signing an order for the execution on Friday night, voiding a procedure that would have required the three-man presidency council — composed of a Kurd, a Sunni and Shiite — to all vote for the hanging.

Mr. Hussein and two of his associates were sentenced to death on Nov. 5 for their roles in the persecution of the Shiite town of Dujail, where an alleged assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein in 1982 was followed by the execution of 148 Shiite men and teenage boys. After the three men's convictions, Mr. Maliki led the push for a hanging before the end of the year. After the sentencing, American officials were confident that appeals might delay the hanging until the spring.

But Mr. Maliki pressed for a speeded appeal process and secured a confirmation of the death sentences within three weeks. A senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Saturday that the Kurds had called for a delay, so the trial of the former dictator for his repression of the Kurds, which began in August, could be completed, probably not until spring. But the White House official said the United States had "no desire" to delay the execution in the face of the urgency pressed by Mr. Maliki, and had cooperated by surrendering Mr. Hussein to his executioners.

Administration officials said President Bush had gone to sleep before Mr. Hussein's hanging, but had been told it was imminent. He awoke Saturday at 4:40 a.m. Central Standard Time, said a White House spokesman, David Almacy, and at 5:55 a.m. received a 10-minute telephone briefing about the execution from his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley. The president and Mr. Hadley discussed the execution and the worldwide reaction to it. "The president remarked that he was pleased with the culmination of the Iraqi judicial process, and justice was done," Mr. Almacy said.

Among Shiites elsewhere in Iraq, there were sporadic eruptions of joy at the hanging, marked by dancing in the streets and the firing of automatic weapons into the air, as the early morning radio and television bulletins carried word that Mr. Hussein was dead. But the more general mood, even among Shiites, was one of subdued reflection, as if millions of Iraqis had exhausted their emotional and psychological reserves during the long years of violence.

Apart from the bombings, the most palpable Sunni reaction to the hanging took the form of scattered protests, some of them violent, that swept through Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown, and across Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, the principal heartland of the Sunni insurgency.

In one major insurgent stronghold, Ramadi, American troops were reported to have fired in the air to scatter demonstrators, who were marching through the streets hoisting portraits of Mr. Hussein and firing automatic weapons into the air. In Falluja, 30 miles west of Baghdad, witnesses said crowds of angry men took to the streets within 90 minutes of the hanging, attacking a police station and a courthouse and setting them ablaze.

Among those Iraqis who watched and re-watched the government's video of the hanging, there seemed to be a widespread view that Mr. Hussein accepted his fate, at the end, with a composure and courage at odds with the psychotic figure he cut during his 24 years in power. In that time, he ordered the killings of thousands of his fellow citizens, many of whom ended up in mass graves scattered across Iraq's oil-rich deserts.

Throughout Saturday, Iraqi government officials put out conflicting signals as to what they planned to do with Mr. Hussein's body. An official in the governor's office in Salahaddin Province said that a delegation led by the governor, Hamad Shegata, and including and the head of Mr. Hussein's Albu-Nasir tribe, Sheikh Ali Al-Nida, had traveled to Baghdad during the day to arrange the handover of the body for burial in Awja. Muslim tradition requires that burials be completed before dusk on the day of death.

But a political adviser to Prime Minister Maliki, Bassam al-Husseini, said there were no plans to hand over the body until the risk of violence over Mr. Hussein's hanging subsided, a period that he said could run for weeks or months. In the meantime, he said, the body would be kept in "a secret place," where it would be secure against desecration by his enemies. "If we bury him in Tikrit, people will dig him up and tear the body apart," he said.

However, in the end, the Maliki government relented, and cleared the way for the helicopter trip that returned Mr. Hussein to his hometown. For the fallen ruler, who often spoke with contempt of his friendless, poverty-stricken childhood, and of Awja, returning there in death would likely have been an embittering thing. But not so embittering, perhaps, as making the final journey aboard a helicopter belonging to the forces of the enemy that overthrew him, the United States.

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting from Crawford, Tex.

We'll always have Paris - A thoroughly biased and rarely factual review of a year best forgotten

We'll always have Paris - A thoroughly biased and rarely factual review of a year best forgotten
By Dave Barry. Retired from his weekly column, Dave Barry returns annually to thoughtfully analyze the year's events
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published December 31, 2006

It was a momentous year, a year of events that will echo in the annals of history the way a dropped plate of calamari echoes in an Italian restaurant with a tile floor. Decades from now, our grandchildren will come to us and say, "Tell us, Grandpa or Grandma, as the case may be, what it was like to be alive in the year that Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Britney Spears and Katie whatshername all had babies, although not necessarily in those combinations." And we will smile wisely and emit a streamer of drool, because we will be very old and unable to hear them.

And that will be a good thing, because there are many things about 2006 that we will not want to remember. This was the year in which the members of the United States Congress, who do not bother to read the actual bills they pass, spent weeks poring over instant messages sent by a pervert. This was the year in which the vice president of the United States shot a lawyer, which turned out to be totally legal in Texas. This was the year in which there came to be essentially no difference between the treatment of maximum-security-prison inmates and the treatment of commercial-airline passengers.

This was the year in which-as clearly foretold in the Bible as a sign of the Apocalypse -Howie Mandel got a hit TV show.

Also, there were many pesky problems left over from 2005 that refused to go away in 2006, including Iraq, immigration, high gas prices, terrorism, global warming, avian flu, Iran, North Korea and Paris Hilton. Future generations are going to look back at this era and ask us how we could have allowed Paris Hilton to happen, and we are not going to have a good answer.

Did anything good happen in 2006? Let me think. No. But before we move on to 2007, let's take a moment to reflect back on the historic events, real and imaginary, of this historic year.

JANUARY -- The month dawned with petty partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., a place where many people view petty partisan bickering as honest, productive work, like making furniture. The immediate cause of the bickering is the Republican ethics scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, both of whom you can tell, just by looking at them, are guilty of something. The Democrats charge that the Republicans have created a Culture of Corruption and should be thrown out of office so the Democrats can return to power and run the scandal-free style of government for which they are so famous. The Republicans respond that the Democrats are soft on terrorism soft on terrorism soft on terrorism softonterrorism. Both sides issue press releases far into the night.

The other big focus of the bickering is the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The bulk of the Senate hearings are spent in the traditional manner, with Democrats trying to trick the nominee into revealing his views on abortion, and Republicans reminding the nominee that he does not have to reveal his views on abortion. The subsequent exchange of press releases is so intense that several government photocopiers burst into flames.

In the War on Terror, Osama bin Laden releases another audiotape, for the first time making it downloadable from iTunes. Bin Laden also starts a blog, in which he calls upon his followers to destroy the corrupt infidels and also try to find out how a person, hypothetically, can get Chinese food delivered to a cave.

FEBRUARY -- President Bush, delivering what is billed as a "major address on energy policy," reveals that the nation has an "addiction" to "foreign oil," which comes from "foreign countries" located "outside of the United States" which are getting this oil from "under the ground." To combat this problem, the president proposes the development of "new technology" in the form of "inventions" such as "a Lincoln Navigator that gets 827 miles per gallon," although he allows that this could take "time."

But this bold energy initiative does not get nearly as much attention as the administration's decision to allow a company owned by the United Arab Emirates to operate six U.S. seaports. This outrages Congress, which briefly ceases partisan bickering to demand that the White House return control of the ports, in the interest of national security, to Anthony Soprano.

Speaking of guys who avoid the limelight: Vice President Dick Cheney, attempting to bring down a quail with a shotgun, shoots attorney Harry Whittington. Local authorities rule the shooting was an accident, noting that if the vice president was going to intentionally shoot somebody, it would be Nancy Pelosi.

In sports, Super Bowl XVXXLMCMII takes place in Detroit, and by all accounts it's a big success for the Motor City, with huge crowds thronging to both of the restaurants. The Pittsburgh Steelers win a game featuring a controversial play in which an apparent Seattle Seahawk touchdown pass is called back after the Steeler defender-in what is later ruled an accident-is gunned down by Vice President Cheney.

But the big sporting event is the Winter Olympics, a glorious quadrennial celebration of world-class virtuoso athletic accomplishment in sports nobody has ever heard of. Surprise winners include Latvia in the 500-kilometer Modified Nordic Combined; the Republic of Irvingkahnistan in the 2,300-meter Slavic Personified; and U.S. skier Bode Miller in Most Nike Commercials Featuring A Competitor Who, In the Actual Competitions, Mainly Falls Down.

MARCH -- The real-estate boom appears to be over, as the government reports that, so far in 2006, only one U.S. homeowner managed to sell his house, and he had to offer, as an incentive to the buyer, his wife. But the employment numbers remain strong, thanks to rapid growth in the sector of people trying to get you to refinance your mortgage for, like, the sixth time.

In the Academy Awards, the overwhelming favorite for best picture is "Brokeback Mountain," the story of two men who discover, while spending many isolated weeks together in the mountains, that they enjoy exchanging instant messages with Mark Foley.

In other entertainment news, a book by two San Francisco Chronicle writers revives suspicions about possible steroid use by San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, alleging, with extensive documentation, that as recently as 10 years ago, Bonds was a woman.

In foreign news, Israeli voters give a parliamentary majority to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because his name can be rearranged to spell "hot eel drum." Throughout the Middle East, tension mounts in response to mounting tension.

APRIL -- Tom DeLay decides not to seek re-election to Congress, making the announcement via audiotape from a cave somewhere in Pakistan. Republican leaders express relief over DeLay's decision and issue a statement pledging that there will be "no more Republican scandals, unless somebody finds out about Mark Foley."

Meanwhile in the Middle East, tension mounts still higher when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has successfully produced enriched uranium, although he claims that his nation plans to use it only for peaceful purposes, "such as cooking." In Iraq, there is good news and bad news for the Bush administration: The good news is that rival Iraqi leaders have finally agreed on a new prime minister. The bad news is that it is Nancy Pelosi.

Domestically, the big story is the price of gasoline, which continues its relentless climb toward an unprecedented $3 a gallon. Responding quickly, Congress, in a rare display of decisive bipartisan action, takes a recess, with both sides promising to resume bickering the instant they get back.

MAY -- On the terrorism front, the Bush administration comes under heavy criticism following press reports that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone records of millions of Americans. Responding to the outcry, President Bush assures the nation that "the government is not collecting personal information on any individual citizen," adding, "Warren H. Glompett of Boston, call your wife back immediately, because your dog has eaten your entire Viagra supply."

In another controversial move, the president announces that he will use National Guard troops to stop illegal immigration. The initial troops are assigned to guard the border between Mexico and Arizona, with California, New Mexico and Texas being covered by Dick Cheney.

In Houston, former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are convicted of fraud by a federal jury, which apparently is not persuaded by the defense's claim that Skilling and Lay could not have been responsible for the collapse of the $100 billion corporation because they were, quote, "both getting haircuts."

In sports, Barbaro, the popular racehorse who won the Kentucky Derby, breaks his leg in the Preakness after a freak collision with Bode Miller. Barbaro is forced to retire, although his agent does not rule out future appearances on "Dancing With the Stars."

JUNE -- In politics, the debate over Iraq continues to heat up, with President Bush insisting that "we must stay the course, whatever it may or may not be," while the Democrats claim that they would bring the troops home "immediately," or "in about six months," or "maybe not for a long time." On a positive note in Iraq, Sunnis and the Shiites agree to try to come up with a simple way for Americans to remember which one is which.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court rules that the Bush administration cannot try suspected terrorists in ad hoc military tribunals, after the court learns that the administration is interpreting "ad hoc" to mean "under water."

Dan Rather, who stopped anchoring the evening news in 2005, announces his retirement from CBS after a career spanning 44 years and several galaxies. Explaining his decision, Rather cites a desire to "explore other options" and "not keep getting maced by the CBS security guard."

On a happier note, the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System, an engineering marvel consisting of 47,000 miles of high-speed roads connecting 157,000 Waffle Houses. A formal ceremony is planned, but has to be canceled when Dad refuses to stop.

JULY -- The Tour de France bicycle race is once again tainted by suspicions of doping when the winner, American Floyd Landis, is clocked ascending the Alps at over 200 m.p.h. Landis denies that he uses illegal drugs, attributing his performance to "gears."

But the month's big story occurs in the Middle East, where violence flares along the Israel-Lebanon border in response to the fact that, because of terrible planning, the two countries are located right next to each other. In another troubling international development, rogue state North Korea test-fires ballistic missiles, including two believed to be potentially capable of reaching U.S. soil. World tension goes back down when the missiles, upon reaching an altitude of 200 feet, explode and spell "HAPPY BIRTHDAY." American military analysts caution that these missiles "could easily be modified to spell something more threatening."

AUGUST -- The International Astronomical Union rules that Pluto will no longer be classified as a major planet, on the grounds that it is "less than half the size of James Gandolfini."

In sports, a French medical laboratory burns to the ground following the catastrophic explosion of Floyd Landis' urine sample.

Fidel Castro is rumored to be seriously ill, but Cuban authorities insist that the aging leader is merely recovering from surgery, and that for the time being government operations are in the capable hands of Nancy Pelosi.

As the situation in Lebanon deteriorates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warns that, if violence continues, the United States will have no choice but to dispatch Vice President Cheney to the region to hunt doves. Within minutes a cease-fire breaks out.

On the weather front, the until-now quiet hurricane season erupts in fearsome fury in the form of Tropical Storm Ernesto, which hurricane experts, using scientific computer models, predict could become a major storm and inflict devastation upon Texas, or possibly Florida, or Connecticut. A state of near-panic sets in as millions of coastal residents jam gas stations, hardware stores and supermarkets, while many schools and businesses close. Tension mounts for days, until finally Ernesto slams into Florida with all the fury of a diseased fruit fly.

SEPTEMBER -- Americans-al-ready on edge because of concern over terrorism, avian flu, AIDS, nuclear escalation and global warming-find themselves facing a deadly new menace: killer spinach. The lethal vegetable is removed from supermarket shelves by police SWAT teams; many units of innocent produce are harmed.

Speaking of vegetables, the United States Congress is rocked by yet another scandal with the publication of e-mails and instant messages sent to male pages by Congressman Mark Foley of Florida, in which he explicitly discusses acts of a sheepherding nature. As the scandal expands, House Republican leaders issue a statement claiming that they "are not aware of any so-called Congressman Mark Foley of Florida." Democrats cite Foley as another example of Republican corruption, declaring that they would never, ever, under any circumstances tolerate such behavior, unless it involved a consenting page.

In other political developments, The New York Times prints a leaked top-secret government report expressing doubts about the war in Iraq. The Bush administration holds a secret meeting to prepare a response, but within hours the Times prints leaked details of the meeting, including who went to the bathroom, and why. The administration then attempts to take out the Times building with a missile, but the Times, using leaked launch codes, redirects it to the Washington Post.

As the debate over Iraq heats up, President Bush pledges to "keep on continuing to stay the present course while at the same time not doing anything different." Democratic leaders declare that they have a "bold new plan" for Iraq, which they will reveal just as soon as The New York Times leaks it to them.

Rumors about Fidel Castro's health continue to swirl following publication of a photograph showing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shaking Castro's hand. The rest of Castro's body is nowhere to be seen.

OCTOBER -- Sen. Barack Obama, looking back on a career in the U.S. Senate that spans nearly 20 months, allows as how he might be ready to move on to the presidency. Obamamania sweeps the nation as millions of voters find themselves deeply impressed by Obama's views, and the fact that he was on Oprah. In a gracious gesture from a potential 2008 rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton sends Obama a good-luck card, which is stapled to the head of a horse.

Opponents of illegal Mexican immigration cheer when Congress authorizes the construction of a 700-mile fence. Their cheers quickly fade when they learn that, because of wording inserted at the last minute by Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), 650 miles of the fence will be constructed in West Virginia and Alaska.

Vice President Dick Cheney again becomes the center of controversy when, appearing on a radio show, he defends the interrogation technique known as "water-boarding" as a legitimate anti-terrorism tool, not torture. At first the host disagrees, but after several "commercial breaks," Dick brings him around.

October ends on a happy note with the celebration of Halloween, a night of magical fun when millions of youngsters, all over America, are kept indoors. The most popular costumes this year, according to retailers, are Power Ranger and Nancy Pelosi.

As the election approaches, polls show that the Democrats have a good chance to regain control of Congress. But then disaster strikes in the form of John "Mister Laffs" Kerry, who, addressing a college audience, attempts to tell a joke, which is like a fish attempting to play the piano. Kerry's "joke" causes widespread outrage, prompting Kerry, with typical humility, to insist that it was obviously humorous, and anybody who disagrees is an idiot. He is finally subdued by Democratic strategists armed with duct tape.

NOVEMBER -- As the campaign lumbers to the finish line, Republicans desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they-once the party of small government-have turned into the party of war-bungling, corruption-tolerating, pork-spewing power-lusting toads, while the Democrats desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they are still, basically, Democrats.

Nobody really knows what will happen as the voters go to the polls. In Florida, nobody knows anything even after the voting is over, because-prepare to be shocked-many electronic balloting machines malfunction. Voters in one district report that their machines, instead of displaying the candidates for Congress, showed "Star Wars Episode IV." By an overwhelming margin, this district elects Jabba the Hutt.

Nationwide, however, it eventually becomes clear that the Democrats have gained control of both houses of Congress. President Bush handles the defeat with surprisingly good humor, possibly because his staff has not told him about it. For their part, future House and Senate majority leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid issue a joint statement promising to "make every effort to find common ground with the president," adding, "We are clearly lying."

The first major casualty of the GOP defeat is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, the day after the election, is invited to go quail-hunting with the vice president. He is never seen again.

In celebrity news, Michael Richards, a graduate of the Mel Gibson School of Standup, responds to a comedy-club heckler by unleashing a racist tirade so vile that even John Kerry realizes it is not funny. A chastened Richards apologizes for his behavior, citing, by way of explanation, the fact that he is a moron.

Speaking of which, O.J. Simpson is once again in the headlines when Fox TV announces that Simpson will be interviewed on a two-night special show in conjunction with his new book, "If I Did It," in which he will explain how, "hypothetically," he would have murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. This idea is so sick, so disgusting, so utterly depraved, that it would undoubtedly get huge ratings. But Fox, faced with withering criticism, is forced to cancel the project.

On the economic front, the holiday shopping season officially kicks off with "Black Friday," and retailers are pleased with the numbers: 2,038 shoppers hospitalized, up 37 percent from last year.

DECEMBER -- The month gets off to a troubling start, with the worsening situation in Iraq worsening faster than ever. The nation's hopes for a solution are pinned on the Iraq Study Group, a presidentially appointed blue-ribbon panel consisting of five Republicans, five Democrats, and the Wizard of Oz. In accordance with longstanding Washington tradition, the panel first formally leaks its report to The New York Times, then delivers it to the president, who turns it over to White House personnel specially trained in reading things.

In essence, the study group recommends a three-pronged approach, consisting of: (1) a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, but not on a fixed timetable; (2) intensified training of Iraqi troops; and (3) the physical relocation of Iraq, including buildings, to Greenland. Republican and Democratic leaders, after considering the report for the better part of a nanosecond, commence what is expected to be a minimum of two more years of bickering.

With the Iraq situation pretty much solved, the world's attention shifts to Iran and its suspected nuclear program, which becomes the subject of renewed concern after U.S. satellites detect a glowing 400-foot-high spider striding around Tehran.

New York City, having apparently solved all of its other problems, bans "trans fats." Hours later, police surround a Burger King in Brooklyn and fire 57 bullets into a man suspected of carrying a concealed Whopper. The medical examiner's office, after a thorough investigation, concludes that the man "definitely could have developed artery problems down the road."

Speaking of health problems, rumors that Fidel Castro is ailing gain new strength when, at an official state dinner in Havana, a waiter accidentally trips over the longtime Cuban leader's urn, spilling most of him on the floor.

In other deceased-Communist news, British police rule that the mysterious death of a former Russian spy in London was a murder, caused by the radioactive element polonium-210. New York immediately bans the element, forcing the closure of 70 percent of the city's Taco Bells.

As the year, finally, nears its conclusion, Americans turn their attention to the holiday season, which they celebrate-as generations have before them-by frantically overbidding on eBay for the Sony PlayStation 3, of which Sony, anticipating the near-homicidal level of demand, manufactured an estimated 11 units. Millions of Americans also head home for the holidays, making this one of the busiest air-travel seasons ever. The always-vigilant TSA responds by raising the Security Threat Level to "ultraviolet," which means that passengers may not board an airplane if they contain blood.

But despite the well-founded fear of terrorism, the seemingly unbreakable and escalating cycle of violence in the Middle East, the uncertain world economic future, the menace of global warming, the near-certainty that rogue states run by lunatics will soon have nuclear weapons, and the fact that America is confronting these dangers with a federal government sharply divided into two hostile parties unable to agree on anything except that the other side is scum, Americans face the new year with a remarkable lack of worry, and for a very good reason: They are busy drinking beer and watching football.

So Happy New Year.



Retired from his weekly column, Dave Barry returns annually to thoughtfully analyze the year's events.

An Open Hand, A Closed Fist By Anna Quindlen

An Open Hand, A Closed Fist
Are we inspired only by personal vengeance, not humanitarian succor? Are we willing to make war in Iraq but not peace in Sudan?
By Anna Quindlen
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Nov. 1 issue - A rare moment of unanimity in the presidential debates came when the candidates were asked about Darfur, the western region of Sudan. As the ruling government has pursued a ruthless policy of ethnic cleansing designed to destroy the village structure there, more than a million people have fled their homes. Women have been systematically raped, children have been kidnapped and turned into slaves and an estimated 70,000 people have died because of the conflict. Both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry used the same word to describe the situation, a word that in semantic currency carries a heavy weight. "It is a genocide," the senator said. "I agree," said the president, "it's genocide."

Then they went on to tussle over Iraq.

Reasonable people can disagree about exactly what the United States ought to do as one group of Sudanese is being intentionally slaughtered by another. Kerry argued that more needed to be done but that the president had overcommitted American troops in Iraq; Bush countered with the $200 million in aid that he said had already been earmarked for humanitarian efforts.

It is not so.

Who are we, we Americans? The answer is murkier at this moment than at any point in our history. Election Day is probably an ideal time to stop and think about that, although it seems we rarely think about it at all.

As the former Soviet Union withered, we became the only real superpower on the face of the earth. What does that mean, apart from arrogance and dominance? The writer Samantha Power, whose book on genocide, "A Problem From Hell," won the Pulitzer Prize, recalled that when she went to Bosnia the people there welcomed the presence of reporters. They believed that if the people of the world, particularly the people of the United States, were told about the murders and the rapes and the brutality, something would be done. She stayed long enough to see the welcome decline into weary cynicism: no one was coming, no one cared. The phrase "never again" was an archival piece of outrage.

Is that who we are? Are we inspired only by personal vengeance, not humanitarian succor? Are we willing to make war in Iraq but not peace in Sudan? What moves us to action?

There have been watershed moments when the citizens of this nation have taken stock of their core beliefs: when the country was founded, when it splintered into warring halves, when it was drawn into world wars. Perhaps it is true that, as James Baldwin once wrote, "an identity is questioned only when it is menaced."

Institutions usually hammer out their core principles when they work on a mission statement. Corporations frequently do it in crisis. A management consultant once complained to me of the search for a CEO at one Fortune 500 firm, "They're doing it backward. They'll pick the guy, then try to get him to take them where they want to go. They ought to decide where they're heading, then pick the guy who is most likely to take them there."

By that definition presidential elections in the modern age are a little backward, too. There's too much about the guy and not enough about the goals. Part of that is because real debate and discussion get lost in election rhetoric that is a dissonant combination of homogenized and calcified, the lowest common denominator set in stone.

We complain that the political process is dominated by platitudes and PACs. That's because it can be, because the American people have too often been spectators, not participants. We ask a guy to lead without really telling him where we want him to take us. Too often elections are a short-term stopgap for long-term problems.

This is a moment when those questions must be asked again, now that the United States so towers over the other players on the world stage. Are we a country willing to match strength with strength of purpose? Are we a country prepared to model free speech for others, or one that will trade its birthright of dissent for national security? Are we a country that cares about the needy and the disenfranchised, or a country of individualists in which self-interest is the ruling ethos? Is our symbol the open hand or the closed fist? Who are we? What do we stand for?

The Economic Mega-Worry By Robert J. Samuelson

The Economic Mega-Worry - It's productivity, which is the wellspring of our rising living standards. Growth has been strong for the last decade, but it may now be slowing.
By Robert J. Samuelson
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc

Jan. 8, 2007 issue - The start of a new year is a good time to take stock, and there are few better indicators of our long-term economic prospects—and also our prospects for political and social peace—than productivity. As anyone who's taken basic college economics should know, productivity is simply jargon for efficiency. It's also what most people think of as economic progress. The good news is that productivity has been growing strongly; the bad news is that it may slow down.

To see why that matters, consult a fascinating government report, "100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending." A century ago, Americans spent 43 percent of their incomes on food and another 14 percent on clothing. By 2002, those shares were 13 percent and 4 percent. Meanwhile, family incomes (after inflation) had tripled. Filling the spending gap are all the things we take for granted—cars, TVs, travel, telephones, the Internet. Home ownership has zipped from about 20 percent to almost 70 percent of households.

This triumph of mass consumption is usually credited to technological breakthroughs, from the assembly line to computer chips. But the whole process is also described as productivity improvement. In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked on farms. If mechanization, new seeds and fertilizers hadn't meant that fewer people could produce more food, we'd still be paying two fifths of our income to eat. Labor productivity is measured as output per hour worked. Whatever enables people to produce more in a given time (machinery, skills, organization) boosts productivity.

That in turn raises our incomes—or gives us more leisure. It also promotes domestic tranquillity by muffling the competition between government and personal spending. Slow future productivity growth virtually ensures a collision between the heavy costs of retiring baby boomers—mostly for Social Security and Medicare—and younger workers' living standards. Higher taxes will bite deeply into sluggish incomes. The reason: what seem to be tiny productivity shifts have huge consequences.

Consider. In 2005, the U.S. economy produced $12.5 trillion of goods and services, or gross domestic product (GDP). Per capita income—the average for individuals—was $35,000. If productivity growth averages 2.5 percent a year, the economy reaches $34 trillion in 2035 (in constant "2005 dollars"), estimates Moody's Per capita income rises to $73,000. Now, suppose productivity growth averages 1 percent annually. Then GDP in 2035 is only $23 trillion, and per capita income is $48,000. That $13,000 gain ($48,000 minus $35,000) may look large, but it occurs over three decades, and for workers part of the gain would be taxed away to pay baby boomers' retirement costs. Typical take-home pay would rise less than 1 percent annually.

Vengeance of The Victors - Saddam Hussein: 1937 - 2006

Vengeance of The Victors - Saddam Hussein: 1937 - 2006
By Fareed Zakaria
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Jan. 8, 2007 issue - The saga of Saddam's end—his capture, trial and execution—is a sad metaphor for America's occupation of Iraq. What might have gone right went so wrong. It is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein was not your run-of-the-mill dictator. He created one of the most brutal, corrupt and violent regimes in modern history, something akin to Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China or Kim Jong Il's North Korea. Whatever the strategic wisdom for the United States, deposing him began as something unquestionably good for Iraq.

But soon the Bush administration dismissed the idea of trying Saddam under international law, or in a court with any broader legitimacy. This is the administration, after all, that could see little advantage to a United Nations mandate for its own invasion and occupation. It put Saddam's fate in the hands of the new Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite and Kurdish politicians who had been victims of his reign. As a result, Saddam's trial, which should have been the judgment of civilized society against a tyrant, is now seen by Iraq's Sunnis and much of the Arab world as a farce, reflecting only the victors' vengeance.

This was not inevitable. Most Iraqis were happy to see Saddam out of power. In the months after the American invasion, support for the Coalition Provisional Authority topped 70 percent. This was so even among Iraq's Sunni Arabs. In the first months of the insurgency, only 14 percent of them approved of attacks on U.S. troops. (That number today is 70 percent.) The rebellious area in those early months was not (Sunni) Fallujah but (Shiite) Najaf.

But during those crucial first months, Washington disbanded the Iraqi Army, fired 50,000 bureaucrats and shut down the government-owned enterprises that employed most Iraqis. In effect, the United States dismantled the Iraqi state, leaving a deep security vacuum, administrative chaos and soaring unemployment. That state was dominated by Iraq's Sunni elites, who read this not as just a regime change but a revolution in which they had become the new underclass. For them, the new Iraq looked like a new dictatorship.

Why Washington made such profound moves with such little forethought remains one of the many puzzles of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Some of the decision making was motivated by ideology: Baathism equaled fascism, so every school teacher who joined the Baath Party to get a job was seen as a closet Nazi; state-owned enterprises were bad, the new Iraq needed a flat tax, etc. Some of it was influenced by Shiite exiles who wanted to take total control of the new Iraq. Some of it simply reflected the bizarre combination of ignorance and naivete that has marked the policies of Bush's "tough guys."

The administration has never fully understood the sectarian nature of its policies, which were less "nation building" than they were "nation busting" in their effects. It kept insisting that it was building a national army and police force when it was blatantly obvious (even to columnists) that the forces were overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish, mostly drawn from militias with stronger loyalties to political parties than to the state. The answer to these fundamentally political objections was technocratic: more training. But a stronger Shiite Army made—makes—the Sunni populace more insecure and willing to support the insurgency.

Iraq's Sunnis are not the good guys in this story. They have mostly behaved like self-defeating thugs. The minority of Sunnis who support Al Qaeda have been truly barbarous. The point, however, is not their vices but our stupidity. We summarily deposed not just Saddam Hussein but a centuries-old ruling elite and then were stunned that they reacted poorly. In contrast, on coming into power in South Africa, Nelson Mandela did not fire a single white bureaucrat or soldier—and not because he thought that they had been kind to his people. He correctly saw the strategy as the way to prevent an Afrikaner rebellion.

It has now become fashionable among Washington neoconservatives to blame the Iraqis for everything that has happened to their country. "We have given the Iraqis a republic and they do not appear able to keep it," laments Charles Krauthammer. Others invoke anthropologists to explain the terrible dysfunctions of Iraqi culture. There may be some truth to all these claims—Iraq is a tough place—but the Bush administration is not quite so blameless. It thoughtlessly engineered a political and social revolution as intense as the French or Iranian one and then seemed surprised that Iraq could not digest it happily, peaceably and quickly. We did not give them a republic. We gave them a civil war.

Down testing advised in all pregnancies

Down testing advised in all pregnancies
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune and The Associated Press
Published December 31, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists this week begins recommending that every pregnant woman, regardless of age, be offered a choice of tests for Down syndrome.

Until now, testing for the common birth defect hinged on whether the woman was older or younger than 35.

The main reason for the change: Tests far less invasive than the long-used amniocentesis are widely available, including some that can tell in the first trimester the risk of a fetus having Down syndrome or other chromosomal defects.

The change promises to decrease unnecessary amnios while also detecting Down syndrome in moms who otherwise would have gone unchecked.

The new guideline is published in January's issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

About 1 in 800 babies has Down syndrome, a condition where having an extra chromosome causes mental retardation, a characteristic broad, flat face and small head and, often, serious heart defects.

Age 35 was always a somewhat arbitrary threshold for urging mothers-to-be to seek testing. The older women are, the higher their risk of having a baby with Down syndrome. But it's a gradual increase in risk--from 1 in 1,200 at age 25 to about 1 in 300 at age 35.

"It's clear there's no magic jump at 35," said Dr. James Goldberg of San Francisco Perinatal Associates, a member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists committee that developed the guideline. "We've done away with age 35 because the screening tests have gotten much better."

The original age-35 trigger was chosen years ago when doctors had less information about the risk of Down syndrome and the only choice for prenatal detection was an amnio, using a needle to draw fluid from the amniotic sac, he said. Amnios occasionally cause miscarriage.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Time to Grow Up by Patricia Nell Warren

Time to Grow Up by Patricia Nell Warren
December 1, 2006
Copyright by Patricia Nell Warren and Free Speech

According to USA Today, the first Muslim elected to Congress, Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, has been blasted for taking his oath of office on a Quran, the Muslim holy book. On every poll I've seen, at least 50 percent of Americans responding are "offended," and feel that Ellison should be compelled to swear on the Christian Bible.

What is the matter with these "offended" Americans? They need to grow up and remember where the country has come from, on this issue of oaths and free speech. I'm offended at such pathetic ignorance about American history.

The original "oath with hand on the Bible" was established in 1559 by Queen Elizabeth I. She did this to ensure that no Catholic could hold public office in a newly Protestant England. Catholics wouldn't swear on the Scriptures in those days. The intolerant practice was imported to the American colonies, and written into most of the original 13 state constitutions to ensure that Protestants would have the same political supremacy in the new nation. It would be a long time before American Catholics and Jews were even allowed to hold office.

As the United States finally grew up, and out of the old religious intolerance, electees found creative ways of complying with the oath requirement. Our first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, swore on a Catholic edition of the Bible. Today American oath practices have quietly begun to reflect that historical diversity of ours. For example, in any courtroom, a person taking the witness stand is allowed to simply swear. I don't swear on the Bible -- to me, it's a venerable collection of historical accounts, nothing more. My personal beliefs were accommodated by the federal district court in 1997 when I testified during the CDA hearings.

I have no problem with taking an oath to tell the truth, or to serve well in government. But no American should be compelled to swear by a religion or deity that they don't hold sacred in their personal life.

Posted by Patricia Nell Warren in Free Speech

Saturday, December 09, 2006

New Words

New Words
Copyright by The Washington Post

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational once again asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are this year's

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.

2. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

11. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

12. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

13. Decafalon (n.): The gruelling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

14. Glibido: All talk and no action.

15. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter, when they come at you rapidly.

16. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

17. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

18. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

Once again, The Washington Post has published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. The winners are:

1. Coffee (n.): the person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted (adj.): appalled over how much weight you have gained.

3. Abdicate (v.): to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade (v.): to attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Negligent (adj.): describes a condition in which you absent-mindedly answer the door in your nightgown.

6. Lymph (v.): to walk with a lisp.

7. Gargoyle (n.): olive-flavored mouthwash.

8. Flatulence (n.): emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.

9. Balderdash (n.): a rapidly receding hairline.

10. Testicle (n.): a humorous question on an exam.

11. Rectitude (n.): the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

12. Pokemon (n): a Rastafarian proctologist.

13. Oyster (n.): a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

14. Frisbeetarianism (n.) [back by popular demand]: The belief that, when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

Chicago Tribune Editorial - Is that $20--or $5?

Chicago Tribune Editorial - Is that $20--or $5?
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published December 9, 2006

Some 3.3 million Americans are legally blind or have very limited vision. Should U.S. paper currency be redesigned to make it easier for that 1 percent of the nation to tell the difference between bill denominations? Yes, it should, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson ruled last week in a case brought by the American Council of the Blind. The judge decreed the U.S. has illegally discriminated against the blind. He gave the government 30 days to come up with a fix.

Before you dismiss this as overkill, consider that 180 countries issue paper currency and the U.S. is the only one that doesn't make some kind of design accommodation to help the blind.

Euro denominations come in different sizes and colors. They also have large raised numerals and foil features located in one place on smaller bills and in another on larger bills. Denominations of the redesigned Japanese yen can be distinguished by touch; the Swiss franc has raised digits and perforated numerals. Canadian dollars have various tactile features; Australia's dollars come in different sizes and colors.

If 179 countries can figure this out, why can't the U.S.? This is not a new issue. Congress has tried to force change more than half a dozen times over the last 27 years. All those efforts fizzled. In that time, Treasury had made major changes to U.S. paper currency twice, in 1996 and 2004. Meanwhile, people with impaired vision struggled to differentiate their bills. Some fold different denominations into various shapes, keep them in separate pockets or parts of their wallets, or rely on the kindness and honesty of strangers. ("Can you tell me if I've given you a $5 bill or a $20 bill?")

The bureau has estimated the one-time costs of making various size or tactile changes to paper currency. It would cost $437 million to $528 million to print bills in different sizes. Other options are to add embossed features ($46 million), foil features ($51 million) or perforate the bills ($75 million). Each option would raise government operating costs, as did the last two redesigns. (They cost a combined $147 million and added $56 million in annual costs.) Making any one of these changes would not break the bank, Judge Robertson pointed out. The bureau has spent an average $420 million a year to make currency over the last decade.

The government's main argument seemed to be not so much cost, but security. These changes would make U.S. currency easier to counterfeit, government attorneys argued. Robertson dismissed that as "utterly unpersuasive." He also called "fairly absurd" the argument that any drastic change to U.S. currency would make it harder for foreigners to recognize and trust it.

The U.S. is the most technologically proficient nation on Earth. It can find a way to make sure that people can distinguish a $5 bill from a $20 bill by sight--or touch.

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Watergate Reform, R.I.P.

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Watergate Reform, R.I.P.
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: December 8, 2006

The table stakes for the next presidential campaign are now estimated by the reigning consultant-croupiers of politics at $100 million for openers. That sad fact suggests that the 2008 contest will likely go down in history for seeing to the effective demise of one of the most encouraging post- Watergate reforms, the creative use of public financing as an alternative to big-money donors.

Public financing had worked well for decades, inviting fresh arrays of candidates. But it was left half-dead in 2004 when President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry declined the $44 million subsidy for the presidential primaries. This freed them to raise more than $200 million each in private, unlimited money. They did opt for public subsidies in the general election, accepting $74 million each as the spending limit. But that formula is expected to be extinct in 2008 as the finalists wage a far more expensive campaign — one that could hit $1 billion.

The breakdown of the public system need not have happened if Congress had acted to update the formula to keep pace with campaign inflation. Larger spending limits and subsidies are needed, along with a more generous checkoff donation than the current $3 per taxpayer.

A strong repair bill is in the works, along with proposals to re- educate taxpayers about the sleaze- free bargain of public financing. The bill is too late for the '08 campaign, but the new Democratic majority in Congress has a good opportunity to rescue the formula for 2012. Otherwise the nation will slip back toward the Watergate era's politics for sale.

Boston Globe Editorial - Violence against women

Boston Globe Editorial - Violence against women
Copyright by The Boston Globe
Published: December 8, 2006

Survival is the first human right. Women around the world who suffer beatings, rape, enslavement, or ritual mutilation cannot hope to access the full benefits of higher education or political empowerment. Every American concerned about a healthy, sustainable world should start with this baseline effort: violence against women must be made illegal and intolerable in even the poorest societies.

Last month the United Nations Population Fund issued a report documenting horrific gender violence in countries from Cameroon to Mexico, sometimes perpetrated under the protective rubric of "traditional cultural practices" or religious customs. The problems are widespread and deeply rooted: rape has become a routine weapon of war, for example; and 80 million girls are forcibly married before their 18th birthdays, an age when pregnancy is the leading cause of death.

The fund, known as UNFPA, is shedding light this year on five under-reported crimes against women as part of its effort to eradicate such brutality. These include so-called bride kidnapping (a "tradition" in Kyrgyzstan and other central Asian countries that amounts to little more than rape and enslavement); child marriage as early as age 11 ; traumatic fistula (a debilitating side effect of violent rape or unsafe childbirth); the systematic disappearance and murder of women; and breast-ironing, a form of mutilation that mothers in parts of Africa perform on their own daughters in a desperate attempt to make them unattractive to violent, predatory men.

The UN Population Fund does for poor women what UNICEF does for children abroad: advocate for their health and protection. UNFPA supports projects in the most difficult settings to transform attitudes about such oppressive practices and enforce human rights. As UNFPA director Thoraya Obaid puts it: "Widespread impunity not only encourages further abuses and suffering, it also sends the signal that male violence against women is acceptable or normal." UNFPA works at the grassroots, in partnership with local men and village elders, to promote alternative futures for women and girls.

Maddeningly, the Bush administration has for five straight years refused to fund the U.S. share of support for UNFPA (roughly $34 million) on the specious claim that the agency promotes coercive reproductive policies overseas, particularly in China. This is so even though a hand-picked State Department team debunked the claim in 2002.

A nonprofit group of volunteers called Americans for UNFPA is working to heal the damage to women created by this administration's ideological blindness. They provide an outlet for Americans to contribute to the crucial work the Bush administration disdains. Advancing the status of women is a human right that will enhance the health, safety, and freedom of all people.

Republican leaders were negligent in House male-page case, ethics finds

Republican leaders were negligent in House male-page case, ethics finds
By David Stout
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: December 8, 2006

WASHINGTON: House Republican leaders were negligent and in some instances "willfully ignorant" of Representative Mark Foley's improper advances toward male pages, but the leaders did not break any rules in handling the case, the House ethics committee said Friday.

The committee said collective failure to look deeply "is not merely the exercise of poor judgment; it is a present danger to House pages and to the integrity of the institution of the House."

Foley, a Republican from Florida, resigned his House seat in late September after it came to light that he had sent improper e-mail messages and other computer messages to some former male pages he had become friendly with while they were serving as assistants in Congress.

The Foley affair was a further embarrassment to a Republican Party already reeling from financial scandals involving some of its lawmakers; and in the view of some political analysts, it may have helped cause the Republicans to lose control of Congress in the November elections.

A subcommittee of the 10-member ethics committee interviewed the House speaker, Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, and dozens of other witnesses to determine whether Republicans were aggressive enough after they first learned of Foley's conduct, long before it became public.

"In its review of this matter, the investigative subcommittee was disturbed by the conduct of some of those who dealt with allegations regarding the conduct of former Representative Foley," the committee said in an executive summary of its 91-page report.

When confronted with the allegations, some lawmakers tried to shift responsibility, while others took more direct action but declined to look deeply or follow up to see if their efforts had any "positive results," the summary said.

"Others tried repeatedly to elevate the matter but encountered obstacles in the chain of command," according to the summary. "In all, a pattern of conduct was exhibited among many individuals to remain willfully ignorant of the potential consequences of former Representative Foley's conduct with respect to House pages."

Representative Doc Hastings, the Washington Republican who heads the ethics panel, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said the report on the Foley affair should remind House members that they have "an affirmative obligation" to speak up when encountering behavior like Foley's — a point the report emphasized in strong language.

"Twenty-twenty hindsight is easy," Hastings said.

Representative Howard Berman, a California Democrat and his party's ranking member on the committee, said the Foley affair had been investigated fairly and without partisan motive. "This is not a jury-rigged result of a series of compromises," he said.

News Analysis: Past versus present, as Baker versus Rice

News Analysis: Past versus present, as Baker versus Rice
By David E. Sanger
Copyright by The International Herald TRibune
Published: December 7, 2006

WASHINGTON: Many of the blistering critiques of the Bush administration contained in the Iraq Study Group's report boil down to this: the differing world views of Baker versus Rice.

Former Secretary of State James Baker 3rd was the architect of the "new diplomatic offensive" in the Middle East that the commission recommended on Wednesday as one of its main prescriptions for extracting the United States from the mess in Iraq. Ever since, Baker has been talking on television, to Congress, and to Iraqis and foreign diplomats about how he would conduct American foreign policy differently. Very differently.

At a midday meeting with reporters on Thursday, Baker insisted that the study group had "rejected looking backward." But he then proceeded to make a passionate argument for a course of action he believed Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state, should be pursuing — while carefully never mentioning Rice by name.

The United States should engage Iran, Baker contended, if only to reveal its "rejectionist attitude"; it should try to "flip the Syrians"; and it should begin a renewed quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that, he maintained, would help convince Arab moderates that America was not all about invasions and regime change.

Meanwhile, Rice remained publicly silent, sitting across town in the office that Baker gave up 14 years ago. She has yet to say anything about the public tutorial being conducted by the man who first knew her when she was a midlevel Soviet expert on the National Security Council. She has not responded to Baker's argument, delivered in a tone that drips with isn't-this-obvious, that America has to be willing to talk to its adversaries (a premise Rice has questioned if the conditions are not right), or his dismissal of the administration's early argument that the way to peace in the Middle East was through quick, decisive victory in Baghdad.

Aides to the 52-year-old Rice say she is acutely aware that there is little percentage in getting into a public argument with Baker, the 76-year-old architect of the first Bush administration's Middle East policy. But all day on Thursday, as President George W. Bush gently pushed back against some of Baker's recommendations, Rice's aides and allies were offering a private defense, saying that she already had a coherent, effective strategy for the region.

Rice has advocated "deepening the isolation of Syria," because she believes much of the rest of the Arab world condemns its efforts to topple the government in Lebanon, they said; and in seeking to isolate Iran, they said, she hopes to capitalize on the fears of nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan that Iran seeks to dominate the region, with the option of a nuclear weapon.

Rice makes no apology for the premium she has placed on promoting democracy in the Middle East, even though that is an idea that Baker and his commission conspicuously ignored in spelling out their recommendations. "I don't think that the road to democracy in Iraq is at all Utopian," Rice said in April. It is plenty Utopian to Baker, who has made clear his view that the quest is entirely ill-suited to the realities of striking a political deal that may keep Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other, and that may extract U.S. forces from Iraq.

Baker said nothing on Thursday about looking for Jeffersonian democrats in Iraq; he would be happy with a few good "Iraqi nationalists" who can keep the country from splintering. "They start from completely different places," said Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator who worked for Baker years ago and left the State Department early in the Bush administration. "Baker approaches everything with a negotiator's mind-set. That doesn't mean every negotiation leads to a deal, but you engage your adversaries and use your leverage to change their behavior. This administration has never had a negotiator's mind-set. It divides the world into friends and foes, and the foes are incorrigible and not redeemable. There has been more of an instinct toward regime change than to changing regime behavior."

To some degree, the Bush administration has softened that approach in its second term, and Rice's aides contend that much of what is recommended in the Baker report, including a regional group to support the country, is already under way.

Bush himself seems uncertain how to handle his always uncomfortable relationship with his father's close friend.

It was Baker who in 2000 ran the strategy for winning the Florida recount, but he has also made little secret in private that he regards the current administration as a bunch of diplomatic go-cart racers, more interested in speed than strategy and prone to ruinous crashes.

At his news conference on Thursday with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush bathed the report in faint praise, though he slipped at one point and referred to Baker as the sitting secretary of state.

The administration has sent out word that it regards Baker's recommendations as more than a little anachronistic, better suited to the Middle East of 1991 than to the one they are confronting — and to some degree have created — in 2006, three years after the invasion of Iraq. It is clearly a criticism that angers Baker, members of the study group say.

Iran and Syria vividly illustrate the differing approaches of Baker and Rice. "If you can flip the Syrians you will cure Israel's Hezbollah problem," Baker said Thursday, noting that Syria is the transit point for arms shipments to that militant Shiite group. He said that Syrian officials had emphasized to him "that they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel's right to exist," and added, "If we accomplish that, that would give Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner."

Rice's allies argue that if it were all that simple, the Syrian problem would have been solved long ago. Stephen Hadley, national security adviser and Rice's former deputy, said recently the problem, "isn't one of communication, it's one of cooperation." Another administration official, who worked on the Middle East during Baker's time as secretary, said he admired Baker but added that "our Arab friends are enormously alarmed by this report, because they think it will be used by the Iranians" to gain advantage.

Now that Baker has taken his differences public, the mystery surrounding him is this: Is he speaking for Bush's father? "We never figured that out," said one fellow member of the commission. "There was always this implication that there was a tremendous amount of frustration from the old man about what was happening. But Jim was always very careful."

The elder Bush was careful, too. Asked if he wanted to offer his insights to the commission, he declined.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Breaking: Articles of Impeachment filed in the House

Breaking: Articles of Impeachment filed in the House
Posted by Jan Frel at 3:46 PM on December 8, 2006.
Copyright by AlterNet

Jan Frel: Rep. Cynthia McKinney charges that President Bush has not upheld the oath of presidential office and is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.

I just got this newsflash from journalist Matt Pascarella:

On Monday, gathering in a conference room in Washington D.C., Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and her advisors worked on a draft copy of the articles of impeachment against President Bush.

At the heart of the charges contained in McKinney's articles of impeachment, is the allegation that President Bush has not upheld the oath of presidential office and is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Article I states that President Bush has failed to preserve, protect and defend the constitution. Specifically cited in this article is the charge that Bush has manipulated intelligence and lied to justify war: "George Walker Bush ... in preparing the invasion of Iraq, did withhold intelligence from the Congress, by refusing to provide Congress with the full intelligence picture that he was being given, by redacting information ... and actively manipulating the intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons programs by pressuring the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies."

This manipulation of intelligence was done, the charge continues, "with the intent to misinform the people and their representatives in Congress in order to gain their support for invading Iraq, denying both the people and their representatives in Congress the right to make an informed choice."

Article II, "Abuse of office and of executive privilege," states that President Bush has disregarded his oath of office by "obstructing and hindering the work of Congressional investigative bodies and by seeking to expand the scope of the powers of his office." The President has "failed to take responsibility for, investigate or discipline those responsible for an ongoing pattern of negligence, incompetence and malfeasance to the detriment of the American people."

This article continues by indicting Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in their actions to manipulate or "fix" intelligence and mislead the public about Iraq's weapons programs. Ultimately, this article calls not only for Bush's impeachment and removal from office but also asks the same actions to be taken against Cheney and Rice.

Article III states that President Bush has failed to "ensure the laws are faithfully executed" and that he has "violated the letter and spirit of laws and rules of criminal procedure used by civilian and military courts, and has violated or ignored regulatory codes and practices that carry out the law."

Specifically, McKinney cites illegal domestic spying as a result of failing to obtain warrants thereby subverting congress and the judiciary in the process: "... by circumventing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts established by Congress, whose express purpose is to check such abuses of executive power, provoking the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to file a complaint and another judge to resign in protest, the said program having been subsequently ruled illegal; he has also concealed the existence of this unlawful program of spying on American citizens from the people and all but a few of their representatives in Congress, even resorting to outright public deceit."

The article continues by citing public statements Bush has made that were blatantly contradictory to his policy and actions regarding domestic spying.

While the staff was editing the document, one advisor told me, "As we sat down and worked on this, a pattern became very clear ... a pattern to specifically undermine the constitution and establish a unitary presidency."

The charges addressed in McKinney's resolution are nothing revelatory or new. Rather, they are issues which have been in the public eye for quite some time and have increasingly been covered in the media over the last year.

Despite winning the congressional majority, the Democrats have yet to put forth a plan to investigate what have become somewhat ubiquitous allegations.

Speaker-elect, Representative Pelosi, dismissed any possibility of impeachment, saying it is "off the table" and that it is "a waste of time ... making them lameducks is good enough for me." Although, in the November election, 60% of the voters in her own district cast ballots in favor of Proposition J, a measure calling for the impeachment of President Bush.

In 2005 Representative John Conyers sponsored a resolution, HR 365, to create a special committee to investigate allegations against the Bush Administration - a move that would likely lead to the discovery of impeachable offenses. This resolution was passed to the House Committee on Rules and was never brought up for a vote.

At that time it was widely believed that if the Democrats took control of congress, Conyers would reintroduce the resolution as would have subpoena power if selected as leader of the House Judiciary Committee.

A few days after the Democrats won control Conyers echoed Pelosi's statement saying, "I am in total agreement with her on this issue ... impeachment is off the table." Last week a spokesperson from Conyers office said that the resolution would not be reintroduced and that the Representative had no intention to pursue the matter.

Will other members of congress support the action Congresswoman McKinney has brought forth?

At the table in what could be considered her impeachment "war room" the question is brought up a number of times.

Mike, an advisor to McKinney, mentions, "Conyers was supposed to have investigations. They were chomping at the bit 6 months ago to do subpoenas."

McKinney quietly replies, "Now they say they aren't even going to issue subpoenas."

Looking up from her papers she takes a deep breath, "I'm going in alone on this one because now it is all about them playing majority politics."

This is McKinney's last week as a member of congress and this act, to impeach the president, is the final resolution she will enter into the Congressional record.

For those who know anything about Cynthia McKinney it may come as no surprise that she would file this resolution as her parting gift to Congress.

McKinney is no stranger to being attacked by the media and has been isolated from her own party.

From her inquiries into election fraud in 2000 to her calls for a transparent and thorough investigation into 9-11, not to mention the widely covered run-in she had with the Capitol Hill Police, the congresswoman is aware that this resolution will likely be ignored and that she will be ruthlessly attacked upon its filing.

"What do you think they are going to do to me this time?" she asks her staff. Everyone uncomfortably shifts in their seats and after no answer comes McKinney explains, "We have to do this because this is simply the right thing to do. The American people do want to hold this man and his office accountable for the crimes they have committed and if no member of congress is willing to do it, than I will."

It is questionable as to how effective this move could be in gaining support because of her reputation as a firebrand congresswoman and because, ultimately, she is on her way out of office.

The Congresswoman and her staff realize this but hope that by filing the articles of impeachment it will, at the very least, open up a discussion on whether or not President Bush and key members of his administration have committed impeachable offenses and whether our officials should be held to account.

"My duty as a member of Congress is merely to uphold and preserve the constitution and to represent the will of my constituency. Ultimately, it isn't up to me or any other member of congress - it is up to the American people to decide."

Matt Pascarella is a freelance journalist & producer who was present during the drafting of the Articles of Impeachment that Congresswoman McKinney filed today.


Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.

US subprime loans face trouble

US subprime loans face trouble
By Saskia Scholtes, Michael Mackenzie and David Wighton in New York in New York
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: December 7 2006 22:40 | Last updated: December 8 2006 00:53

The failure of a small Californian mortgage lender on Thursrday increased nervousness in the credit derivatives market about the large number of US “subprime” mortgages extended this year.

The cost of insuring against default on securities backed by subprime mortgages rose after Ownit Mortgage Solutions, in which Merrill Lynch has a 15 per cent stake, closed its doors.

Its failure is the latest in a series of ominous developments in the market for subprime mortgages – higher interest loans made to borrowers who are seen as risky because of payment problems or large debt burdens.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of borrowers behind on their payments. The loans are often packaged into securities and sold to investors to help lenders reduce risk.

In recent years, this area has been one of the fastest-growing parts of the market for mortgage-backed bonds. So far in 2006, $437bn of such securities have been issued in the US.

The securities have been big business for investment banks which have been buying up mortgage lenders to ensure a continued supply of loans. Merrill last year bought a stake in Ownit, which made $5.5bn of loans in the first half of 2006. Ownit closed down this week after JPMorgan Chase, its main lender, cut off its funding.

Hedge funds and big investors have been using the derivatives market to bet against securities that are backed by subprime mortgages. This activity is measured by the ABX home equity index, in which the cost of credit insurance gives an implied price for the underlying bonds.

As measured by the ABX index, the implied price for bonds backed by 2006 subprime mortgages has fallen dramatically in recent weeks.

“Market opinion is clearly grounded on a fairly negative view regarding the fortunes of the bonds backing the ABX [index],” said Gyan Sinha, mortgage strategist at Bear Stearns.

He said problems are pronounced for bonds backed by 2006 mortgages, which cost almost 100 basis points more to insure than bonds that are backed by 2005 mortgages.

Other signs of weakness include higher delinquency and foreclosure rates for 2006 vintage bonds.

Moody’s put a handful of 2006 subprime deals on watch for downgrade – the first negative ratings activity for bonds originated in these years.

HSBC, the third-biggest bank, has announced bad debts are rising in its US mortgage business.

At last, Bush is presentedwith the obvious truth on Iraq

At last, Bush is presentedwith the obvious truth on Iraq
By Philip Stephens
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: December 8 2006 02:00 | Last updated: December 8 2006 02:00

About one thing George W. Bush is right; though, unsurprisingly, for the wrong reasons. There can be no "graceful exit" from Iraq. America faces a resounding defeat. The eventual cost, in lost prestige and influence in the Middle East and beyond as well as in blood and treasure in Iraq, will be immense. It may seem trivial to Iraqis.

A year ago, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group might have hoped to supply the architecture for a half-elegant US departure. That was always an over-ambitious aim. In any event, it was overtaken some time ago by the rapid escalation in Iraq of sectarian violence.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary-designate, got it right when he told the Senate defence committee this week: "It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq." The study group's task thus became to put existing ideas together in such a way as to oblige Mr Bush to change course.

We cannot be sure the president will listen. The risk is that Mr Bush will seek to cherry pick. But the White House's options are narrowing fast. In this respect the group has fulfilled its mandate. The report is candid and concise in description, pragmatic in analysis. The tone is set by the opening sentence: "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating."

The report's great service has been to state the obvious. America has lost control in Iraq and its influence is diminishing further by the day. If the US administration is to have even a slight chance of salvaging something from the wreckage, it must admit the connections it has so far denied. That means between security, politics and reconstruction within Iraq and, outside, with the array of other conflicts and tensions across the region. Above all, the report says, the Arab-Israeli conflict can no longer be ignored; nor can the influence and interests of Syria and Iran.

Nothing new there, you might say. Britain's Tony Blair and nearly everyone in Washington outside the administration, have been saying something similar. But the timing and provenance of this report matter. The end game is more about US politics than about the grim realities in Iraq.

Last month's mid-term elections saw the American people bluntly reject the administration's approach in favour of disengagement. As co-chairman of the study group, James Baker, a former Republican secretary of state and long-time Bush family consigliere, carries more clout than the president has ever been comfortable with. Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman, gives the report its all-important bipartisan stamp.

The administration's inner torture, meanwhile, has been regularly bleeding into the pages of the New York Times. Every time Mr Bush reaches for another mantra about accomplishing the mission, the publication of another classified memorandum tells the story of an administration bereft of any strategy.

The most chilling example is a leaked Pentagon missive written by Donald Rumsfeld. There could be no better illustration than Mr Rumsfeld's private musings of the hubristic incompetence that has led America into this mess.

The sacked defence secretary recently remarked that the defence department was getting along fine with its "piece" of Iraq, a curious choice of words given his insistence from the outset that he retain full charge of the conduct of the war. His memorandum, which history will surely rate as one of the most shallow documents ever written by a politician carrying such grave responsibilities, tells a different story.

The soon-to-depart Mr Rumsfeld admits that the US is failing: "In my view, it is time for a major adjustment." He then produces a laundry list of alternative approaches. Almost casually, he admits that these putative changes - from US troop withdrawals and redeployments to cash bribes for friendly political and religious leaders in Iraq - may well not work.

No matter. Whatever decisions the US takes, he suggests, should be on a trial basis: "This will give us the ability to readjust and move to another course, if necessary, and therefore not 'lose'." Not lose? Where has Mr Rumsfeld been?

One suggestion for dealing with the upsurge in violence conveys the sheer vacuousness of it all. The US, he scolds in the manner of a parent set to punish a naughty child, must not reward "bad behaviour". It should cut off aid to any towns and villages where there is any violence. In other words, entire Iraqi communities should be punished for the actions of insurgents. Just the way to win hearts and minds.

Yet Mr Rumsfeld has not been alone. Fear of rewarding bad behaviour remains the stated rationale for the administration's refusal to engage Syria and Iran in an effort to stabilise Iraq. That might have had some superficial logic during that brief spell some years ago when American power seemed poised to sweep away all its enemies. Now it simply marries failed ideology with chronic weakness.

The study group has its own laundry list. Its recommendations run to nearly 80. They are strongest in their understanding of the intricate power struggles - between Shia, Sunni and Kurd, the secular and Islamist as well as Arab and Israeli - that now describe the Middle East. Above all, it recognises: "There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace on all fronts."

Other recommendations are less convincing. Many are a reminder that the group's first priority is to map a path for US disengagement rather than necessarily to fix Iraq. Some carry the impression that the Iraqis are being blamed for the shortcomings of the US. The binding thread is a proposed withdrawal from Iraq of all US combat brigades by early 2008. If the carnage in Iraq has shaped the politics of Washington, those politics will now determine America's future in Iraq. In spite of its flaws, though, the report offers an intellectual coherence that has thus far been so sadly lacking.

What all this demands of Mr Bush is nothing less than the complete up-ending of his foreign policy. The goal of spreading democracy remains a noble one. But a crude vision of a world in thrall to America's military might must be replaced by one that recognises both the complexities of foreign policy and the limitations of US power. That may well be too much for this president to grasp. And it may, anyway, be too late for Iraq. But the delusions of the past few years are at last being swept away.