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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Democracy falls victim to foreign policy realism

Democracy falls victim to foreign policy realism
By Philip Stephens
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 23 2006 18:55 | Last updated: November 23 2006 18:55

When George W. Bush condemned the assassination of Pierre Gemayel he spoke of an assault on democracy. In murdering another of Lebanon’s politicians, the perpetrators, widely assumed to have Syria’s backing, were also attacking an idea. America’s idea.

Words, though, have become detached from reality. If the US president has not wavered in his rhetorical allegiance to the goal of democratic transformation in the Middle East, the practice has foundered. It is not hard to see why.

The invasion of Iraq was intended as a demonstration of American power sufficient to cow authoritarian regimes across the region. Instead, the civil war in that country has attested to weakness. The Palestinians elected the “wrong” party in Hamas. As US power has ebbed, so too has Washington’s pressure on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to relax his grip. A strategy of democracy promotion that was characterised only last year as a generational challenge has all but collapsed.

Plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic are quietly cheering its demise. There is chaos enough, you hear them say, without the US trying to remake the world in its own image. Idealism is all very well, they add, but what we need now is hard-headed realism. After the defeat of the Republicans in the mid-term elections, that is what we are likely to get. My guess is that celebration will soon enough turn to lament.

Realism has many dimensions. At its simplest, it implies no more than a willingness to treat the world as it is rather than as you might like it to be. That is what foreign policy practitioners mean when they say that the US should engage with enemies as well as friends. It talked to Moscow during the cold war; why not Tehran and Damascus now?

A little way along the spectrum of meanings, realists take a Westphalian view of sovereignty. Governments, democratic or otherwise, must be free to do as they please within their own boundaries. The authoritarian nature of a useful ally should not be seen as an obstacle to co-operation.

Further still, realism merges into cynicism, promoting a realpolitik indifferent to the nature of a regime. Dangerous tyrants are fine as long as they are on the right side. The arming of Saddam Hussein against Iran during the 1980s comes to mind.

During the cold war it was this last form of realism that saw the US jump into bed with some of the nastiest regimes in Latin America, Asia and Africa – a policy that appalled as many Europeans then as does now the pro-democracy “imperialism” of the Bush administration.

I have never quite understood European attitudes. The parents of my generation endured the second world war. Their sacrifices, we learned at school, had been made in the name of freedom. They had been worth it because, unlike the communists, those of us lucky enough to live in the west could say what we liked and, at regular intervals, throw out our leaders. Democracy was the prize.

Yet Europeans – or, more accurately, many in the western half of the continent – are more likely these days to value stability. Freedom is fine for us, but better not challenge despots elsewhere.

This is all the more strange because the European Union has been the world’s most successful agent in supporting regime change – in the former dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece and in the post-communist states of eastern and central Europe.

That said, the US administration has not helped its own cause. In Iraq, democracy building appeared an afterthought, a cloak over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Washington was unprepared for nation building.

There are broader lessons from that conflict – most obviously that armed intervention is unlikely to invite the most propitious conditions for democracy. Another I heard often at a conference last week at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland. Organised by the Ditchley Foundation, this gathering explored a deeper flaw in US policy. The mistake was to see democracy almost exclusively through the lens of elections: to assume the act of voting was what mattered.

Well, it does matter, of course. But elections are not a sufficient condition. The rule of law, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society, political parties, a free press and the habit of participation are also vital pillars. Building them takes time and painstaking effort. Without them elections may legitimise populist autocrats. The cross on the ballot paper, in other words, may be nearer the end than the beginning of democratic state-building.

Such insights come too late for the Bush administration. The popular and political backlash against Iraq has dimmed Wilsonian enthusiasm for nation building. The mood among Americans is that someone else can put the world to rights. The US will use its might to defend itself. In Washington, realism is back in vogue.

For all that some may enjoy the humbling of the superpower, I suspect that America’s allies will find the aftermath less palatable if, as seems likely, muscular idealism now makes way for a unilateralism defined by narrow national interest.

It is not hard to imagine the form a realist US foreign policy might take. A bargain with Russia, for example, might ignore Vladimir Putin’s disdain for democracy. Instead, the US would secure Moscow’s co-operation in countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions and seeking to stabilise the Middle East by ending its already faltering efforts to promote democracy on Russia’s periphery. Ukraine and Georgia would be returned to Moscow’s sphere. As for Syria, why not strike a deal that acknowledges its interests in Lebanon? After all, the US has conspired before in Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

I am not predicting these policy shifts. But it is as well to understand the dark side of a values-blind foreign policy. This was the frame of mind that saw the west arm the jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980s – and then leave that country to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It was realism, too, that saw Europe and the US stand by as the Balkans fell to ethnic slaughter.

The means by which the US has promoted its democracy agenda can be criticised on many counts. But the debacle in Iraq, the inconsistency of application and the failures of understanding have been about means rather than ends. There is no long-term trade-off between realism and idealism. The spread of democracy is the surest guarantor of security and prosperity. That is something we will understand again after a few years of so-called realism.

Putin denies role in death of ex-spy

Putin denies role in death of ex-spy
By Our International Staff
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 24 2006 20:39 | Last updated: November 24 2006 20:39

Vladimir Putin was on Friday forced into a public denial of responsibility for the death of the former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, after British authorities said the ex-spy had been poisoned by highly radioactive polonium 210.

The UK Foreign Office said it had raised the incident with the Russian ambassador after British authorities said they knew of no precedent for such a killing.

Litvinenko died in a London hospital on Thursday night, and a statement he is said to have dictated on Tuesday night blamed the Russian president.

“You succeeded in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” said the statement, read publicly on Friday by a friend, Alexander Goldfarb. “You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.”

As Kremlin officials vigorously denied official Russian involvement, Mr Putin was forced to answer questions about Litvinenko’s death while at an EU/Russia summit in Helsinki.

“There is no grounds for speculation of this kind,” Mr Putin said, adding that talk of his government being involved “has nothing to do with reality”. He expressed his sympathy for Mr Litvinenko’s family, but added that he hoped Britain would not seek to create a “political scandal” over the death.

Mr Putin added: “As far as I understand from the medical statement, it does not say this was the result of a violence.”

He also expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the declaration. He said he was “unclear” why, if the statement had been written while Mr Litvinenko was still alive, it had not been reported at that time.

In a rare televised appearance, a spokesman for Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service also reiterated its denials of responsibility. “Probably someone wanted to make a splash out of this, but it’s difficult to say who,” he said.

Last night, three places in London visited by Mr Litvinenko before he died – a restaurant, his home and sections of a hotel – were sealed off and police said they had found traces of the isotope at each location.

Polonium 210 emits 5,000 times more alpha radiation than radium and a microscopic dose can be lethal if ingested. It has a number of uses, including as nuclear bomb triggers, nuclear batteries and, more frequently, in static electricity eliminators.

The Soviet-era predecessor to Russia’s intelligence services, the KGB, used radioactive substances to assassinate opponents, but British experts said they knew of no precedent for the use of polonium. In 1957, in an incident with reverberations in the Litvinenko case, the KGB tried to kill a defector, Nikolai Kholkhov, using radioactive thallium. He suffered horrific symptoms but he survived.

Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian film-maker and friend of Mr Litvinenko, said that his death was “clearly intentional - no doubt about that”.

He said Mr Litvinenko was convinced it was the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, that had killed him but that there was no proof. Mr Litvinenko had said that “they were threatening him” and that poisoning would be completely in their style.

Mr Nekrasov said that a recent law passed by the Duma allowing Russian intelligence to eliminate Russia’s enemies abroad effectively gave licence to Mr Litvinenko’s enemies. “They hated him for going public on all these issues,” he said.

By Jimmy Burns, Stephen Fidler and Frederick Studemann in London; Daniel Dombey in Helsinki; and Neil Buckley and Arkady Ostrovsky in Moscow

SEC quizzes Ford on ‘terrorist’ state sales

SEC quizzes Ford on ‘terrorist’ state sales
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 24 2006 20:54 | Last updated: November 24 2006 20:54

The Securities and Exchange Commission has raised concern about the investment risks of US companies doing business in countries deemed to be terrorist-supporting states by asking Ford Motor, and possibly others, about its dealings in Iran, Sudan and Syria.

The enquiries emerged in a series of letters dating back to July between the SEC and Ford’s chief financial officer, Don Leclair.

The SEC asked the Detroit-based carmaker to demonstrate that its "reputation and share value" were not at risk as a result of business dealings in the three countries. All three countries are designated as state sponsors of terrorism by the US state Department.

Ford replied that its interests, comprising mainly Ford, Land Rover and Mazda dealerships, were small relative to its worldwide operations. Ford owns 33 per cent of Mazda.

Referring to Syria, the carmaker added that "our limited and lawful business activity is public information, and we have not been able to identify any resulting negative impact on our reputation or share value".

Ford said it had no reason to believe that vehicles sold by its dealerships in recent years had gone to the Syrian government or government-controlled groups.

Referring to Mazda’s business in Iran and Syria, it said “we do not believe that this de minimis business activity by Mazda impacts Ford's reputation or share value, or the value of Ford's ownership interest in Mazda”.

The SEC specifically asked Ford whether the Syrian government or government officials had an interest in the dealerships that sell its vehicles. It also asked the company to confirm that business volumes had not changed significantly in the past three years.

The SEC declined to comment on Friday whether it was satisfied with Ford's responses, and whether it was asking other companies similar questions.

But an industry source said such queries had been directed to several prominent multinationals. The SEC has reportedly asked European and US oil companies to tell investors about the risks they face from operations in countries that Washington has identified as supporting terrorism.

The US has modest direct trade links with the three countries. According to the Commerce Department, two-way trade with Syria totaled $479m last year, Iran $271m and Sudan $126m.

Cars and trucks were the second biggest export to Syria, after farm products. The US’s main export to Iran is tobacco.

Markets rocked by sharp slide in dollar

Markets rocked by sharp slide in dollar
By Neil Dennis and Chris Giles in London and Ralph Atkins in Frankfurt
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 24 2006 20:08 | Last updated: November 24 2006 20:08

A sharpening slide in the US dollar unnerved global markets on Friday as investors sought to protect themselves from the possibility of sustained dollar weakness.

As US markets were closing on Friday , the euro stood at a 19-month high of $1.309, up 1.2 per cent, while sterling gained 0.9 per cent to a 1½-year peak of $1.9333. The yen climbed 0.5 per cent to ¥115.66.

European and Asian stock markets suffered the fallout from the dollar’s decline with exporters to the US the worst performing stocks in all regions. But on commodity markets, dollar-denominated prices tracked higher as gold, copper and oil became cheaper in other currencies.

The euro’s strength could put the European Central Bank under fresh political pressure not to raise interest rates again after the expected quarter percentage point rise to 3.5 per cent on December 7.

The dollar has now fallen this year by more than 10 per cent against the euro and 12 per cent against sterling. Some economists suggest the greenback has further to slide given a weak economic outlook in the US, and the prospect of interest rate cuts there next year.

Steve Saywell, currencies analyst at Citigroup, said: “While the economic data remain soft, the dollar will continue to fall.”

The gaping US trade deficit, the near certainty of a December rise in eurozone interest rates, rising expectations of a cut in US rates in the spring and wariness about borrowing in yen to finance investments in the US all continued to weigh on the dollar, analysts said.

These concerns were heightened by comments from Wu Xiaoling, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, indicating her unease at the rapid build-up of $1,000bn of reserves in China. She said Asian foreign exchange reserves were at risk from the dollar’s fall, although she stopped short of indicating that China was about to stop adding to its pile of reserves.

“The dollar is coming under real pressure and this looks like the beginning of a sustained move,” said Ian Stannard, strategist at BNP Paribas.

Equities markets in Europe and Asia fell sharply. Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 fell 1.1 per cent to 15,734.6, while the FTSE Eurofirst 300 shed 0.8 per cent to 1,451.05.

Commodities tracked higher, with gold climbing 1.2 per cent to $638.50 a troy ounce, while copper added 2.5 per cent to $7,155 a tonne. Nymex crude gained 1.1 per cent to $59.90.

Christianity in Crisis

Christianity in Crisis
Copyright by The Rutherford Institute
By John W. Whitehead

“For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”—Jesus Christ

“Christianity today often resembles an egg into which someone has poked a hole and sucked out all its contents,” writes author Richard Smoley, “and then taken the shell, encrusted it with gold and jewels, and set it up as an object of veneration. In many ways, it remains a beautiful shell, but more and more people are finding that it no longer offers any nourishment.”

Indeed, there is a growing sense that somewhere between the time that Christ walked the earth and the church of the present day, a vital part of Christianity has been lost. In its place is a brand of religion that bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Recent high-profile scandals involving Christians who have had their integrity and morality called into question underscore the crisis in modern Christianity. For example, Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, used his position as head of the NAE and as pastor of a 14,000-member church to condemn homosexuality and campaign for amendments banning same-sex marriage. However, the accuser now finds himself accused of sexual immorality by a homosexual.

Yet such scandals are merely the byproduct of a graver problem. Modern Christianity, having lost sight of Christ’s teachings, has been co-opted by legalism, materialism and politics. Simply put, it has lost its spirituality.

Whereas Christianity was once synonymous with charity, compassion and love for one’s neighbor, today it is more often equated with partisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric and affluent mega-churches. But unlike many Christians today, Christ did not engage in politics, identify with the government or attempt to push an agenda through governmental channels. Indeed, Christ spoke truth to power and made it abundantly clear that his kingdom was not of this world.

Thus, what do the jet-setting preachers and televangelists of modern Christendom have in common with the itinerant preacher whose followers belonged to the lower classes and the despised trades? To the impartial observer, they would seem to have very little in common with Jesus, whose entire focus was on self-denial and helping the poor.

In fact, Christ himself was homeless during his public life and depended on others for shelter. He said it was the meek and the poor who would be blessed—but not with material possessions. As Christ admonished: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Yet the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a materialistic philosophy being touted by mainstream Christians like television preacher and best-selling author Joel Osteen, stands in stark contrast to Christ’s attitude toward materialism.

The disciples of Christ and those of the early church led lives of humility. Unlike the massive church edifices that dot the landscape today, early Christians worshipped in homes. However, annual revenue for Osteen’s Lakewood Church is estimated at some $77 million, a huge amount for a nonprofit organization. In July 2005, Osteen’s church moved into the Compaq Center, once the home of the Houston Rockets. $95 million was spent by the church on renovations, which include two waterfalls and enough carpeting to cover nine football fields. The church also boasts a café with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the donations.

Osteen is far from unusual in his embrace of wealth. Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Paul and Jan Crouch epitomize what it means to wallow in materialism. Founded by this husband and wife team, TBN, which claims nearly all the top names in its stable of televangelists, has used the prosperity gospel as its bedrock selling point since its inception in 1973. Over the years, the Crouches, who own numerous homes across the country, have raised millions through telethon fundraising and regular appearances by popular personalities such as Creflo Dollar. Dollar, pastor of World Changers Church International, has several Rolls Royces, private jets, a million-dollar home in Atlanta and a $2.5 million Manhattan apartment.

So what are the lessons in all this?

The most important is that spirituality quickly drowns in materialism. Can we really practice true Christianity when we worship in lavish churches while several blocks away people are starving?

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to become a disciple, Christ instructed him to give all his possessions to the poor. Christ told his followers that there were certain basic steps in being a disciple—deny oneself and “take up the cross.” This means repudiating a materialistic lifestyle and identifying with the suffering and downtrodden.

People today are starved for spirituality. Failing to find any true “nourishment” in the brand of Christianity offered today, they are seeking spiritual fulfillment in the most unexpected places. The popularity of television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who peddles her own brand of spiritual advice, is a case in point.

Finally, those who call themselves Christians must be mindful of the proper use of power. Its legitimate use does not include imposing one’s will upon others through the government, or otherwise. From the standpoint of Christ, the proper use of power is to speak truth and seek justice for all, regardless of the consequences.

The real tragedy of the Ted Haggard debacle is not that Haggard has been leading a double life. As the evangelical writer David Kuo, author of Tempting Faith, remarked to the Associated Press: “It’s tragedy enough if a pastor falls, but this is not about a pastor falling. This is about a politician falling, and the politician is bringing Jesus down with him.”

New York Times Editorial - Day laborers' rights

New York Times Editorial - Day laborers' rights
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: November 24, 2006

You cannot abuse people through selective enforcement of the law. You cannot single people out for special punishment without cause. You cannot instruct the police to harass people for being Latino and poor.

Cities and towns across the United States have overlooked these basics in their eagerness to punish those they presume to have violated federal immigration laws. But thankfully for all of us, the Constitution still has the final say. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that Mamaroneck, a suburb of New York City, had waged a discriminatory campaign of ticketing and harassment to drive Latino day laborers out of town. In Freehold, New Jersey, last week, advocates for immigrants hailed the settlement of a three-year-old lawsuit sparked by similar mistreatment. Day laborers there will no longer be ticketed for soliciting work in public places. That followed a heartening ruling issued last May, when a federal judge ordered the city of Redondo Beach, California, to stop arresting day laborers for soliciting work in public.

Together, these victories send an important message about basic rights and promise to help stem a tide of local vigilantism.

The underlying problem, however, remains. The righteous ardor of the Mamaronecks and Freeholds of this world has risen in direct proportion to the federal paralysis on immigration. It underscores the urgent need for Congress and President George W. Bush to step up to the perennially difficult task of determining who may cross U.S. borders and how, and of creating a fair and viable path out of the shadows for deserving immigrants who are living and working in the United States illegally.

New York Times Editorial - The spoils of defeat

New York Times Editorial - The spoils of defeat
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: November 24, 2006

The departing Republican majority in the U.S. Congress is about to leave the nation a memorial to its own shameful history as the grand enabler of record debt and deficits. Republican leaders are preparing to walk away from their most basic constitutional responsibility - passing a budget.

Instead of finishing work on government spending bills needed for the next year, they're reported to be planning nothing more than a cut- and-paste, short-term continuing resolution, leaving the mess to the incoming Democrats in January.

Stopgap resolutions create a budget autopilot that does not allow for shifting conditions and costs in education, housing and other major agencies. Conservative Republicans have the gall to portray themselves as principled budget hawks blocking pork- barrel spending "earmarks" - this after years of earmarking and rubber- stamping the upper-bracket tax cuts of President George W. Bush that tossed all budget discipline to the four winds. The Republicans depart leaving the nation in ever deeper hock to China and other potent bankers, with taxpayers stuck with the bill.

The Democratic majority will have more than enough to do in preparing the 2008 budget plan and dealing with an estimated $130 billion supplemental bill from the White House to continue the Iraq war. The new leadership must begin moving the government back toward the "pay- go" discipline that produced budget surpluses a decade ago. In a grim way, it's fitting that a dis-elected majority slink off in a final bit of the budgetary hubris that marked their incumbency. Far from budget hawks, they enter Capitol history as fiscal four-flushers.

Democrats to press for documents on detainees

Democrats to press for documents on detainees
By David Johnston
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: November 24, 2006

WASHINGTON: Seeking information about the detention of terrorism suspects, abuse of detainees and government secrecy, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are reviving dozens of demands for classified documents that until now have been rebuffed or ignored by the Justice Department and other agencies.

"I expect real answers, or we'll have testimony under oath until we get them," said Senator Patrick Leahy, who will head the committee beginning in January when the Democrats take over leadership of the Senate.

"We're entitled to know these answers," the Vermont Democrat said in an interview, "and in many instances we don't get them because people are hiding their mistakes. And that's no excuse."

Leahy, who had said little about his plans for the committee, expressed hope for greater cooperation from the Bush administration, which he described as having been "obsessively secretive." His aides have identified more than 65 requests he has made to the Justice Department or other agencies in recent years that have been rejected or permitted to languish without reply.

Now that they are about to control Congress, what he and other Democrats regard as a record of unresponsiveness has energized their renewal of longstanding requests for information about some of the administration's most hidden and fiercely debated operations.

Little more than two weeks after the elections that gave his party a majority in both houses, Leahy has begun pressing the Justice Department for greater openness. He asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to release two documents whose existence the CIA, in response to a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, recently acknowledged the existence of for the first time.

One is a directive, signed by President George W. Bush shortly after the September 2001 attacks, that granted the CIA authority to set up detention centers outside the United States and outlined allowable interrogation procedures.

The second is a memorandum, written by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department in 2002, that is thought to have given the CIA legal advice about interrogation methods that would not violate a U.S. law on torture.

With Democrats in control, it will be harder for executive branch agencies to sidestep requests for documents. Behind each request will be the possibility of Democrats voting to issue subpoenas that would compel documents or testimony.

Lawyers for the CIA have sought in the past to avoid any discussion of whether the agency has documents related to its detention and interrogation of leading members of Al Qaeda in secret prisons overseas. The lawyers have said national security would be endangered if the agency was forced to tell of its involvement in such operations.

But in September, Bush said 14 high- level terrorism suspects had been transferred from secret locations abroad to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. That effectively confirmed the existence of the prisons, as long reported.

The two documents requested by Leahy are among what congressional aides maintain are perhaps hundreds, crucial to shaping the government's counterterrorism policies, that have never been publicly acknowledged.

Justice Department officials have long said they will resist efforts to require disclosure of classified documents that provide legal advice to other agencies. But in the interview, Leahy signaled that he expected the department to provide a fuller documentary history on issues like detention.

The senator asked Gonzales in a letter for "all directives, memoranda, and/or orders including any and all attachments to such documents, regarding CIA interrogation methods or policies for the treatment of detainees." The letter also sought an index of all documents related to Justice Department inquiries into detainee abuse by "U.S. military or civilian personnel in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison or elsewhe

Fear and anger intensify in Beirut crisis - Businesses call strike to urge a resolution

Fear and anger intensify in Beirut crisis - Businesses call strike to urge a resolution
Copyright by The Associated Press
Published: November 24, 2006

BEIRUT: Lebanon's political crisis worsened Friday, with ministers in the anti-Syrian government fearing for their lives after the assassination of one member, businesses going on strike and all sides ignoring calls for a negotiated resolution.

Beirut was tense after several hundred supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement briefly took to the streets the night before, burning tires and blocking the road to the airport before Hezbollah's leader ordered them home.

But the U.S.-backed government was moving ahead with an issue likely to further anger Hezbollah. The cabinet was due to meet Saturday to give its final approval to an international court created by the United Nations to try suspects in the February 2005 killing of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.

The political standoff in Lebanon pits opponents of Syria, mostly Christians and Sunni Muslims, against its allies, mostly Shiite Muslims, led by the powerful Hezbollah guerrilla group. Those opposing Syria dominate the government and Parliament, but Hezbollah is threatening to bring down the government with a wave of mass protests unless it and its allies are given more power.

The assassination Tuesday of Pierre Gemayel, the industry minister and an anti-Syrian Christian leader, renewed anger at Damascus, which dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades but was forced to withdraw its troops last year over accusations that it was behind the killing of Hariri. Damascus has denied any role in the slayings of Hariri, Gemayel and four other anti-Syrian politicians over the past two years.

An estimated 800,000 government supporters - a fifth of the population - turned out for Gemayel's funeral Thursday, turning it into a political rally against Syria.

"Even at the height of the civil war, Lebanon has never witnessed this level of polarization among its sects, this kind of political mobilization and the crisis at such a dead end," wrote Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the daily As Safir.

Fearing a meltdown if the political standoff continues, business leaders called a two-day strike Friday to urge the rival leaders to "take national decisions," engage in dialogue and "stop making threats of street protests."

Factories, banks and financial institutions closed Friday. Though many small shops remained open, many schools kept their doors closed and traffic was thinner than normal on Beirut's usually bustling streets.

Underlining the atmosphere of fear after Gemayel's assassination, some cabinet ministers have moved to the massive government headquarters in central Beirut to live and work there.

Efforts to break the deadlock, and even the outpouring of grief over the killing of the young politician, have so far failed to soften the entrenched positions. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have mediated in recent days, apparently without results.

Hezbollah ignored a call by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on Thursday night for it to resume dialogue and for six pro-Hezbollah members who quit his cabinet this month to return to their posts. The six quit in protest just before the cabinet gave its initial approval to the international tribunal.

Siniora's call for a cabinet session on Saturday further fueled the tension. That meeting is to approve a UN protocol that will create the court. Several Syrian officials are to be put on trial, and the court's creation is sharply opposed by Hezbollah.

Talal Saheli, one of the Shiite ministers who resigned, said the cabinet session planned for Saturday was unconstitutional, according to the official National News Agency.

Pro-government groups have warned that more ministers may be targeted for assassination in an effort to deny the cabinet the legal two-thirds quorum of 16 needed to approve the court. The cabinet now has 17 members following the Shiites' withdrawal and Gemayel's death.

A year later, little is clear on warrantless U.S. wiretaps

A year later, little is clear on warrantless U.S. wiretaps
By Eric Lichtblau
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: November 24, 2006

WASHINGTON: When President George W. Bush went on national television one Saturday morning last December to acknowledge the existence of a secret wiretapping program outside the courts, the fallout was fierce and immediate.

Bush's opponents accused him of breaking the law, with a few even calling for his impeachment. His backers demanded that he be given express legal authority to do what he had done. Law professors weighed in, civil rights groups sued, and a federal judge in Detroit declared the wiretapping program unconstitutional.

But for all the sound and fury in the past year, not much has changed. The wiretapping program continues uninterrupted, with no definitive action by either Congress or the courts on what, if anything, to do about it. Political brinksmanship has led to what is essentially a stalemate so far over the limits of presidential power.

With legal challenges still percolating through the courts, Bush administration officials say they are concerned they could have to shut down a program they deem vital to national security. Democrats, newly empowered in Congress, want to press for more facts about the operation but appear of mixed mind on the best way to attack it, partly because they do not want to be accused of appearing soft on terrorism. And congressional Republicans, for their part, see a missed opportunity to resolve the many questions hovering over the operation.

"We could've fixed this early on," said Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee and who believes the surveillance program violates the 1978 law requiring a court order for counterterrorism wiretaps.

"For every day that passes," he said in an interview, "there's an invasion of privacy that could be cured."

To understand the nature of the debate over the National Security Agency's wiretapping program, one need look no further than Specter himself.

After the program was first publicly disclosed last Dec. 16, Specter called the program an "inappropriate" usurpation of authority that "can't be condoned." He signed onto a bill written by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, that would effectively ban the program as it is now operated and require a court order for all wiretapping of Americans.

Then, after a series of confidential meetings with the White House, Specter worked out a compromise to bring the program before a secret intelligence court to test its constitutionality. He was promptly criticized by Democrats for giving away too much to the White House.

With that idea stalled, Specter changed course again last week and submitted a proposal that would require court warrants for eavesdropping on communications coming out of the United States, but not into it, and would put the whole issue on a fast track to the Supreme Court.

The lack of a resolution has left many shaking their heads. Some officials said the unanswered questions had cast doubt on the public credibility of broader intelligence operations and had created occasional confusion among intelligence agents over what is and is not allowed in tracking terror suspects.

"There's a lot of uncertainty over this program," said a former senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the wiretapping program remains classified. "We've had a wasted year at this point, and nothing has been done to try to really figure out how or whether we should amend the process."

The program, secretly approved by Bush weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, authorized the National Security Agency, which historically has been restricted from spying within the United States, to eavesdrop without court warrants on the international communications of Americans with suspected links to Al Qaeda and other terror groups.

The program has been used to monitor thousands of telephone calls and e- mail messages, people with knowledge of the operation say. Senior administration officials say it has proved a critical tool in identifying previously unknown plots, but other government officials involved in the operation have expressed skepticism, saying it has led far more often to dead ends and to people with no clear links to terrorism.

The Bush administration has been steadfast in its defense of the program and has warned of the serious threat to national security were it stopped.

The legal authority, the administration argues, rests on both the president's inherent constitutional authorities as commander in chief as well as a congressional resolution, passed days after Sept. 11, authorizing the use of military force against Al Qaeda.

The only judge to rule directly on the question, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of U.S. District Court in Detroit, rejected the administration's claims to broad executive authority, ruling the program illegal in August and ordering it shut down.

"There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution," the judge wrote.

The Justice Department is appealing.

"It would certainly be good to have clarity on this," said a senior Justice Department official, who was given anonymity to discuss the department's internal thinking. "Do people want resolution on a program this important? Sure."

It is also unclear what tack Democrats will take on the program once they take control of Congress in January. Some Democrats favor an aggressive strategy that would brand the program illegal and move to ban it even as the courts consider its legality. Others favor a more politically cautious approach, stressing the rule of law but not giving Republicans the chance to accuse them of depriving the government of important anti-terrorism tools.

A critical first step favored by Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who will take over as House speaker in January, will be an aggressive investigation to determine how the program operated and its legal framework under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, a senior aide to Pelosi said.

"There is a bipartisan interest in seeing whether the administration's claims that the program can't comply with FISA are indeed so," the aide said, noting that the White House has agreed to only limited classified briefings on the program's operations.

"We were legislating on an issue," the aide said, "where the full parameters were not known or well understood."

Before dying, ex-Russian spy accused Putin

Before dying, ex-Russian spy accused Putin
By Alan Cowell
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: November 24, 2006

LONDON: In a day that unfolded with the mystery and menace of a dark political thriller, the British authorities said Friday that Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian KGB officer and foe of the Kremlin, had died of radiation poisoning after he was hospitalized here.

The cause of his death was so unusual, so baffling and so chilling that a senior official called it "unprecedented." With echoes of the Cold War, the government called a high-level meeting restricted to the most senior ministers - code-named COBRA - and the Russian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office. A police inquiry was headed by an officer who normally deals with only the most serious cases of suspected terrorism.

The police said radioactive traces had been found at three London sites where Litvinenko had been, underscoring the highly unusual nature of the whole episode since he first complained of feeling unwell more than three weeks ago.

His family, moreover, issued what they said was his deathbed testament accusing President Vladimir Putin of Russia of "barbaric and ruthless" murder - a charge promptly rejected by the Russian leader. Litvinenko's father, Walter, also accused the Russian authorities of responsibility and said his 43-year-old son had been "killed by a little, tiny nuclear bomb."

It was not the first time that modern- day Russia had been suspected in a prominent poisoning in a foreign land. Doctors said that the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko - who campaigned in 2004 to move Ukraine away from Russian influence and forge closer ties with the European Union - was poisoned with dioxin when was running for office, leaving his face badly disfigured. Russia was suspected in that poisoning, among others, but the matter was never resolved.

Photographs of the dying Litvinenko showed him hairless and gaunt, wearing a green gown and lying in a hospital bed.

His slow and inexorable death was among the most bizarre since Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, was murdered with a jab from a poison- tipped umbrella in 1978.

Word of a possible radiation attack, using what officials identified as a rare and highly radioactive isotope known as polonium 210, sounded alarms across London. "Spy Radiation: Major Alert," said a banner headline in The Evening Standard. But, inured to such scares by terrorism alerts, many Londoners seemed to shrug off the news.

Caroline Crawford, a lawyer visiting her sister in the hospital where Litvinenko died, for instance, said that she was not fazed by the news.

Since the bombings in London in July 2005, "you've just got to live with it," she said. "We live in a world where we can't control anything."

The police searched places where Litvinenko had been in early November - the Itsu sushi bar at Piccadilly Circus, his home in North London and the Mayfair Millennium Hotel near the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square - for radioactive traces. The authorities also said they were trying to find nurses and doctors who had treated Litvinenko since he began to complain of an unspecified illness on Nov. 1.

The police said radioactive traces had been found at both central London places and at Litvinenko's home in the white-collar Muswell Hill neighborhood. Television footage showed plain- clothes officers carrying away a metal box and several tote bags of evidence from the sushi bar.

But at the Millennium Hotel, where the lobby and bar were chock-full, the health and safety manager, Brian Kelly, played down the alarm.

"If we had a radiation problem here, do you think my restaurant and bar would be so full of people?" he said.

Roger Cox, director of the Health Protection Agency's center for radiation, chemicals and environmental hazards, said a large quantity of alpha radiation had been found in Litvinenko's urine. Referring to the effects of polonium 210, he said: "If that enters the body by ingestion, then it will rapidly track through the body and go to most major organs," causing "tissue damage characteristic of radiation."

It was not immediately known why it had taken so long for the source of Litvinenko's poisoning to become clear. The medical authorities denied earlier reports saying that Litvinenko had been poisoned by thallium, a toxic metal.

At a news conference, Dr. Pat Troop, the agency's chief executive, described Litvinenko's death as "an unprecedented event in the U.K. in that someone has apparently been poisoned by a type of radiation."

Polonium 210 is found naturally in low amounts in the human body and the environment, "but the only time it becomes dangerous is if you ingest it or breathe it in," said Dave Butler, a British radiation expert.

Litvinenko was a former operative in the KGB who became a colonel in its successor organization, known by its Russian initials as the FSB. In the late 1990s, he said publicly that he had been ordered to assassinate Boris Berezovsky, an exiled Russian tycoon, but had refused. He fled to Britain, and obtained British citizenship earlier this year. In 2003 he was the author of a book that accused the Russian secret service of orchestrating apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that led to the second Chechen war.

Since his illness became known last week, his friends have depicted his poisoning as an officially sanctioned reprisal for his criticism of the Kremlin and his efforts to investigate the fatal shooting in Moscow last month of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist.

Before news broke of the radiation poisoning, Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko's, read out to reporters what was described as his deathbed statement, addressed largely to Putin. "You may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price," the statement read. "You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed."

"You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value," the statement went on. "May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people."

Litvinenko's death, announced late Thursday, threatened to build diplomatic strains between Britain and Russia, but Britain sought to avert a major crisis. A Foreign Office official, who spoke in return for customary anonymity, said the Russian ambassador to Britain, Yuri Fedotov, was called to the Foreign Office on Friday and told that "police were pursuing their investigations and the situation was now more serious." British officials wanted Russia to help the inquiry with any information they might have about the case, the official said.

Putin found himself on the defensive when he appeared in Helsinki following a meeting with leaders of the European Union, as he was when he traveled to Europe following the death of Politkovskaya.

He called Litvinenko's death a tragedy, but suggested that there was "no indication that it was a violent death," citing what he said was a British medical report. He called for an investigation and pledged the assistance of the Russian authorities.

"I hope that the British authorities will not contribute to the fanning up of political scandals having no real grounds," he said in remarks that were televised in Russia and given unusual prominence in state newscasts.

Putin also brushed aside the significance of Litvinenko's poisoning, suggesting his death was being used for political purposes.

"Those who did it are not the Lord and Litvinenko is not Lazarus," he went on. "It is regretful that even such tragic events as a death of a human being is being used for political provocations."

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Moscow, and Sarah Lyall and Stephen Grey from London.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Yesterday Americans paused to count their blessings By John Authers

Yesterday Americans paused to count their blessings By John Authers
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 24 2006 02:00 | Last updated: November 24 2006 02:00

Yesterday Americans paused to count their blessings.

Thanksgiving is a tradition that goes back to the pilgrims who helped to found the country. So why should investors in the US be thankful?

This year they have more blessings to count than usual. Corporate America continues to produce profits at a prodigious rate and the S&P 500 has gained 15 per cent since July.

The strength of third-quarter results is impossible to dismiss. With the peak weeks of earnings season now over, year-on-year earnings growth looks set to be almost 19 per cent, way in excess of the 15.3 per cent growth predicted when the quarter began, and the 13th consecutive quarter when earnings grew by 10 per cent or more. Companies also surprised forecasters by a greater margin than they had typically done in the past.

Is this sustainable? Corporate America is growing much faster than the US economy. This is partly because of globalisation but also because, put bluntly, capital is beating labour. Wages are not rising at anything like 10 per cent and investors have more reason to be thankful than salaried workers.

According to John Hussman, of the Hussman Funds mutual funds group, corporate profit's share of GDP is approaching 10 per cent. At the beginning of the current earnings expansion, the profit share was less than 5 per cent. He says that, since 1962, whenever the profit share has exceeded 6 per cent (with low unemployment), earnings growth over the following three years has averaged only 2.1 per cent. He suggests that investors should brace themselves for "surprising" wage inflation and weak earnings growth.

But close examination of S&P earnings suggests the headline figures are slightly misleading.

Abhijit Chakrabortti of JPMorgan points out that insurers, buffeted by hurricanes late last year, and blessed by benign weather in 2006, increased their earnings by more than 152 per cent, accounting for a huge 43 per cent of total quarterly earnings growth. Without insurers, growth would have been only 13 per cent. So it seems investors should give thanks for various acts of God. The pilgrims would have approved.

UK troops may hand over Basra ‘by spring’

UK troops may hand over Basra ‘by spring’
By Christopher Adams in London and Steve Negus, Iraq Correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 22 2006 14:32 | Last updated: November 22 2006 14:32

British troops could hand responsibilty for security in southern Iraq, including the city of Basra, to local authorities by the spring, Margaret Beckett, the UK’s foreign secretary said on Wednesday.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Ms Beckett said the process of transferring security to Iraqi forces was “well under way” and that the US-administered province of Najaf was likely to be the next to be handed over to local control.

“In our own area of responsibility we expect Maysan to follow in January and the progresses of the current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province too at some point next spring,” she told MPs.

However, the Ministry of Defence said it was “too early to say” what the impact of handing over control would be on troop numbers on the ground. British forces would still maintain “an overwatch role and training and mentoring role” for the Iraqi forces.

A spokeswoman added that the planned handover was “conditions based” and not certain to take place.

According to a system approved earlier in the year by the Iraqi government and the US-led multinational forces, provinces can be transferred to local control if the authorities there can maintain security in the province under normal circumstances without assistance from either foreign troops or the Iraqi military.

Throughout much of this year, Basra has witnessed frequent clashes between rival militias who are believed to earn considerable incomes from oil smuggling and kidnapping rackets. In addition, a feud between some branches of the radical Shia Mahdi Army and the British military forced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to declare a state of emergency in the early summer.

Since then, British and Iraqi forces have launched Operation Sinbad, an operation to secure the city which, according to a British military source in Iraq, is about halfway complete. “If we can complete Operation Sinbad successfully, when it is finished Basra will be in a state where it is very near to Iraqi provincial control,” he said.

Ms Beckett’s comments appeared to confirm private suggestions that the military is preparing to bring forward a change in its role that would see it conducting operations at Iraqi request and ending regular patrols.

Responsibility for two of the provinces in the British-controlled zone, Dhi Qar and al-Muthanna, has already been transferred to Iraqi authorities. The government has in the past made clear Maysan could follow at about the end of the year.

But Ms Beckett’s comments on the timing for a handover in Basra, where four service personnel were killed in an improvised bomb attack on a patrol boat last week, surprised some commentators.

There were expectations that such a comprehensive handover in southern Iraq was likely to take place later next year.

It is understood that troops would probably withdraw from their bases in the city to camps in the surrounding area, handing many of the current operational duties to their Iraqi counterparts. However, there is unlikely to be any immediate reduction in troop numbers on the ground.

The total number of British troops killed in operations in Iraq rose to 125 after the latest attack in Basra. The UK has 7,200 troops in the south of the country, mostly stationed in and around Basra.

During Wednesday’s debate in the Commons, Ms Beckett said there was “no question of us cutting and running from Iraq. To do so would be an act of gross irresponsibility, abandoning the Iraqi people to bloodshed perhaps even worse than we see today.”

She told MPs the government owed it to British troops and the Iraqi people to “hold our nerve in this critical period”.

The United Nations reported that October was the bloodiest month for civilians since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The monthly total of 3,709 civilian deaths was contained in a summary of the latest human rights report released by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq. It exceeded the previous monthly high of 3,590 in July.

Death toll rises after Baghdad attacks

Death toll rises after Baghdad attacks
By Steve Negus, Iraq correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 23 2006 13:42 | Last updated: November 24 2006 09:26

The death toll in Baghdad rose to 202 on Friday after the single most deadly attack in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. A series of co-ordinated suicide car bomb attacks on Thursday devastated the crowded east Baghdad Shia slum of Sadr City.

According to police sources quoted by wire agencies, at least 257 people were also injured in the bombings - assumed to be the work of Sunni militants - which had last night already sparked reprisals. The attacks will almost certainly disrupt efforts by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister, to oust ministers affiliated to Shia militia from his cabinet.

Senior Sunni, Shia and Kurdish political leaders appeared together on television last night to appeal for calm after an emergency meeting, also attended by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. A joint statement read by vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, called for "a revision of the government's existing security plans for Baghdad to better protect innocent civilians".

Police said that at least three suicide car bombers blew up their vehicles at 15-minute intervals in three markets and squares in Sadr City while mortar rounds landed nearby. The attack coincided with an assault by up to 100 gunmen on the Ministry of Health, which, like Sadr City, is a base for the Shia Mahdi Army militia loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The attacks coincided with the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States and ahead of a planned meeting between Mr Maliki and George W. Bush, US president, in Jordan next week to discuss security and how to quell the sectarian violence that killed more than 3,700 civilians last month alone. Washington has been pressing Mr Maliki to rein inmilitias.

The assault on the health ministry appeared to be an unusually large-scale operation for a central area of the capital. Health ministry sources said thousands of employees were trapped inside during the battle, which only ended when US helicopter gunships and ground forces drove off the attackers.

Both attacks seemed aimed at the Shia Sadrist movement, which Sunni blame for the murder and torture of their co-religionists.

The health ministry assault reflects the growing tendency for ministries in Baghdad, most of which are controlled by sectarian-based parties, to be either the bases for, or the targets of, acts of violence. Sunni complain that they risk kidnap and murder if they stray too near to the sprawling health ministry, and US troops in August raided the compound looking for hostages.

Some initially saw the attack on the health ministry as retaliation for last week's raid on a research institute run by the ministry of higher education, which is controlled by the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic party.

Within hours of yesterday's bloodshed, mortar rounds were reported to have been launched from Sadr City aimed at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiya.

Iraqi state television reported that the interior ministry imposed an indefinite curfew on the city. The city's airport was closed to commercial flights.

The attacks came as Mr Maliki plans a reshuffle of his cabinet, which some government sources say is aimed at removing Sadrist ministers who abuse their position as well as partisan Sunni.

The death toll may still rise, and already exceeds the single worst blast in Iraq's postwar history, a 2005 car bomb in Hilla that killed 125.

US hawk judges ‘war on terror’ a mistake

US hawk judges ‘war on terror’ a mistake
By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 23 2006 22:02 | Last updated: November 23 2006 22:02

Fred Iklé, a Nixon-era arms control veteran and mentor to the current generation of nuclear “hawks”, has an apocalyptic vision of the future.

However, as a contrarian who confounds his neo-conservative admirers, he is also highly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of threats to the US, and calls the “global war on terror” a serious mistake.

Hopefully for mankind, Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat to Nations, his latest book, will not become another classic to follow his 1971 Every War Must End, credited in 1991 by General Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, with inspiring him to bring to closure the first Gulf war. What he calls the “sad message” of his latest work is that the accelerating advance of technology far outpaces the zig-zag development of social and political frameworks that act as controls and brakes.

“We are spreading the dark side of technology,” he tells the FT, describing the “curse of dual use” where, in biotechnology and development of superhuman intelligence in particular, scientists may inadvertently be sowing the seeds of future destruction to be wrought by anarchists or revolutionary groups.

Sixty years ago the US contemplated maintaining a monopoly on nuclear technology, he notes as an example. Just this month the Senate approved giving nuclear assistance to India.

“This is a mistake,” he says.

At 82, still a Washington insider sitting on the Pentagon’s defence policy board, Mr Iklé’s apocalyptic fears focus less on radical Islamists or a nuclear-armed North Korea and more on the danger of a would-be tyrant seizing power by annihilating his government from within, possibly through the use of weapons of mass destruction that would be blamed on others.

He does not see the US as vulnerable to such a coup because of the “powerful influence of its body politic and the hallowed position of the constitution” – but there are likely candidates in the semi-dictatorial regimes of central Asia, the Middle East, or even Russia.

Mr Iklé is worried, however, about the danger of a nuclear attack on the US through a device smuggled into the country. He ex-presses frustration with the Bush administration’s lack of commitment to developing a radiation monitoring system.

Despite his hawkish reputation, Mr Iklé is tough on the White House, calling GWOT – the “global war on terror” – a distraction and a rallying cry that unites enemies of the US, not divides them. As for Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, his speeches warning of a generational GWOT are “defeatist and anodyne”.

Rejecting calls to arms by the same neo-conservatives who advocated invading Iraq, he says a pre-emptive attack on Iran “would be a catastrophic failure”.

Asked if he had been opposed to the war on Iraq, he answers somewhat ruefully: “I wish I could say I was. Enormous and incredible mistakes in Iraq may end up driving us out, but if we handle the exit correctly it will not make the US more vulnerable, and can be made worse for our jihadist adversaries who are killing each other.”

“Pulling out of Iraq will lead to feelings of guilt, with some justification. In some ways we have made things worse than under Saddam Hussein,” he concludes.

Annihilation from Within, published by Columbia University Press

Be realistic about the Bush team

Be realistic about the Bush team
By Jurek Martin
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 22 2006 16:54 | Last updated: November 22 2006 16:54

As every journalist knows but never admits in public, there are some stories that are simply too good to check. Here is a lovely one picked up on the Washington circuit.

It is the Sunday before the midterm elections earlier this month at George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. A small delegation confronts the president of the US. It consists of his wife, Laura, his mother, Barbara, and his father’s consigliere, James Baker. They have a two part message to convey.

First the president must tell Donald Rumsfeld it is time to leave the Pentagon. Second – and this is the delicious part – he must do so without telling his own vice president, Dick Cheney. Three days later the secretary of defence announces his resignation.

I don’t have the sources in the Bush team to confirm this. We do know that the president was in Crawford that Sunday because he told the world his final interview with Robert Gates to succeed Mr Rumsfeld was held that day (Baker probably had him hidden away in a barn). And we do know Mr Cheney was duck hunting many miles away on election day and has not been heard from since.

But mostly the story compels – and sounds plausible – because it fits the generally held perception that the elections meant the demise of the foreign policy hardliners who have held sway since the early days of this presidency and the return to power of the “realist” school so associated with father Bush and so alienated from the son (hence the mother’s presence in the delegation).

After all, it is Mr Baker’s Iraq Study Group that is supposed to come up with a plan soon to pull the American chestnuts out of the Iraqi fire – or at least give the president some face-saving cover for a moderation of policies. In a Wall Street Journal column last week, Reuel Marc Gerecht, an adviser to the group, warned not to expect miracles but, in its current mood, Washington expects rabbits out of the hat.

The trouble with conventional wisdom, though, is that it is sometimes wrong. For all the popular talk of new realism, bipartisanship and moderation, there is not a lot of evidence that it is taking hold at all in the mindset of the administration.

For a start the president himself, on his Asian travels and at home, has not publicly deviated one whit from the “stay the course” policy in Iraq he officially abandoned before the elections. Meeting the Iraqi prime minister in Jordan next week implies greater personal engagement on his part, but Nouri al-Maliki has seemed increasingly impervious to American pressure.

And, whatever else he may be, Mr Bush is stubborn. He also does not easily admit to mistakes. It was one thing for Richard Nixon to change spots and go off to China, but it may be another for this president to make a comparable quantum leap.

Second, the known Iraq options under consideration by the US military brass – in shorthand, “Go Big”, “Go Long” or “Go Home” – have been on the table for months now. And the third of these has already been rejected.

Next, there have been no concessions from the administration in assorted disparate actions reflecting the supposed post-election reality. The president still wants the arch neo-conservative John Bolton permanently confirmed by the outgoing lame duck Congress to the UN ambassadorship he will have to vacate when the new Democratic majority Congress convenes in January. There has even been talk of extra-curricula methods of keeping Mr Bolton in the post.

Unless the Democrats are collectively asleep at the wheel, there is no chance of this happening. Nor is there of Congress, lame duck or otherwise, confirming the long-stalled nominations of four conservative judges to the federal bench – but this did not prevent the administration from putting their names forward again as soon as the last votes were counted.

Finally, Mr Cheney may be lying low but it requires a big stretch of the imagination to conclude that has folded his tent and will, in future, devote himself to duck hunting in undisclosed locations. Power is addictive and he has enjoyed so much of for so long that the better bet is surely that he’ll be back manipulating those levers of power, mostly out of sight but never out of the presidential ear (on John Bolton, for example).

His relationship with Mr Rumsfeld was so close that it is difficult to know how he’ll get on with Mr Gates, though they go back a long time together. One early indication will be whether two influential, and controversial, aides of Mr Rumsfeld, Steve Cambone and General Jerry Boykin, stay or go. If the former, the vice president will have won another one.

He is also a serious poker player. It is worth thinking back to the first nine months of the Bush presidency when he orchestrated some brilliant bluffs, turning an almost non-existent electoral mandate into major changes in policy (tax cuts, unilateralism in foreign policy etc). The calamity of 9/11 merely gave him more cards to play with. Having fewer now does not mean he has folded.

How the Democrats play their hand is the great imponderable. Large questions still hang over the effectiveness of their leadership, not lessened by the clumsy way Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker-elect, has handled two important party leadership positions.

As Barney Frank, the smartest Democrat in the House, has noted, it is not easy to make foreign policy from the legislative branch. It can be influenced, through the budgetary process and by holding hearings, but not directed from Capitol Hill. Thus the emerging Democratic consensus in favour of redeployment of US troops from Iraq, which is what the electorate voted for, cannot be translated into immediate action if the administration baulks.

All of which suggests that the delicious Crawford story, even if true, is not the end of the game by a long chalk. Indeed, the only good option on the American table this week is the Thanksgiving turkey – and it can cause indigestion.

Euro hits 19-month high as dollar sinks

Euro hits 19-month high as dollar sinks
By Neil Dennis
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: November 24 2006 10:22 | Last updated: November 24 2006 10:22

The dollar sank across the board on Friday, with the euro hitting a 19-month high against the US currency on rising eurozone interest rate expectations, while comments from China also caused heavy selling.

The single currency rose as high as $1.3085 against the dollar, exceeding its previous high of the year by more than a cent.

Recent economic data has indicated continuing strength in the eurozone economy, while the US appears to be heading towards a slowdown. German consumer prices looked likely to add to this picture as six of the country’s states reported rising inflation trends.

Added to Thursday’s stronger-than-expected Ifo business confidence survey, interest rate expectations moved in favour of further gains for the euro.

“There is scope for further advances in the interest rate market in our view, with risks to the European Central Bank rate outlook on the upside,” said Henrik Gullberg at Calyon investment bank. “This should further the bullish euro environment.”

The losses were exacerbated by thin trading conditions, helping trigger stop-loss orders around the $1.30 level. By mid morning, the euro was 1 per cent higher against the dollar at $1.3070.

Wu Xiaoling, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, said following Thursday’s suspected central bank intervention in South Korea and India, that Asian foreign exchange reserves were at risk from the fall in the dollar.

“The exchange rate of the US dollar, which is the major reserve currency, is going lower, increasing the depreciation risk for east Asian reserve assets,” said Mr Wu.

The yen gained 0.5 per cent to Y115.68 against the dollar as Toshikatsu Fukuma, Bank of Japan board member, reiterated the central bank’s gradual and cautious stance on monetary tightening.

Sterling surged to its highest in a year-and-a-half, up 0.9 per cent to $1.9313.

What is the point of Iraq deaths?

What is the point of Iraq deaths?
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
November 24, 2006

My mother used to tell me when I was very young a story about the last American to die on Nov. 11, 1918, at 10:59 in the morning. It was an urban folk tale of that era, doubtless, though indeed there was an American who was the last victim of the war. His death was pointless, that was the sentimental irony of the story. But so was the death of everyone else who died in that absurd, insane mass murder. The "Great Powers" of Europe stumbled into the war because of a toxic mix of arrogance and ignorance and couldn't find a way out of it. Nothing was settled, the war went into a recess to be renewed 20 years later with even more demonic fury.

I found myself pondering as I watched the heartbreaking Veterans Day ceremonies on television, what the government will tell the family -- parents, spouse, children -- of the last American to die in Iraq. Or the families of all the men and women who have died there. What was the point in their deaths? They fought bravely for their country. They did their duty. They will be missed. Their courage is an honor to their sacrifice. That should be enough and that's all there is.

They died defending American freedom? But American freedom was never at issue. They died to protect the country from weapons of mass destruction, to create a democracy in the midst of the Arab world, to win a victory that would enhance American credibility, to keep faith with those who had already died, to get rid of Saddam Hussein, because the president said it was the right thing to do, because Iraq was the central front in the war or terror?

Or should they be told the real truth? Their young person died because of the arrogance and the ignorance of the American government, because of mistakes and blunders, because some of our leaders thought the war was a good thing, because it would take pressure off of Israel, because of Arab oil.

What can we say to the additional survivors between now and the day the last American dies there, all those lives erased in a lost war our leaders could not end? Should we tell them what Henry Kissinger said of Vietnam casualties after President Nixon took office -- they died in the name of American credibility?

Every time I hear on the radio of new casualties or see bereaved families on television, or open newspapers with massed photos of those who have died, I want to scream "all these losses, all this suffering, all these shattered families were unnecessary." I sense from a great distance the pain and the grief.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney killed them.

Most Americans agree that the war was mistaken in its inception and mismanaged in its execution. If some of that majority do not also feel the grief and the pain and the rage, the only reason is that they have hardened their hearts in the name of patriotism or party loyalty or the words of the bible. God have mercy on those with hard hearts.

The issue now is whether the new coalition of leaders can find the quickest, safest way out. We must hope and pray that they can, that the hubris that led the country into the war will not prevent us from getting out.

Will God punish the United States for all the deaths, both Iraqi and American? I don't believe that God works that way. However, our intervention in that chaotic, broken country will certainly have created hundreds, perhaps thousands of would-be martyrs who will seek vengeance. We will have brought it on ourselves.

God forgive us for the war, especially those who voted for it in 2004, and especially the pundits, the commentators, the editorial writers who supported the war until almost the last moment and are still willing to accept more casualties so this country and its president can escape with some dignity.

It's a shame there will be no war crimes trials.

A proposal to make Quebec a nation 'within Canada'

A proposal to make Quebec a nation 'within Canada'
By Christopher Mason
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: November 23, 2006

TORONTO: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has proposed that Quebeckers be recognized as a nation within Canada, injecting himself into a growing debate over how to distinguish the relationship between the French-speaking province and the rest of the predominantly English-speaking country.

The surprise motion by Harper and his Conservative Party hinges on a battle between separatist and federalist politicians over four words, "within a united Canada."

The separatist Bloc Québécois on Thursday introduced a motion in the House of Commons that would recognize Quebec as a nation.

Harper on Wednesday tried to pre- empt that motion by introducing a measure of his own, with the same wording but adding "within a united Canada" at the end. The leaders of both federalist parties in opposition, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, support Harper's proposal.

Harper said those four words were meant to prevent separatists from using the motion to promote their cause.

"Do Quebeckers form a nation within a united Canada? The answer is yes," he said in the House of Commons. "Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no, and always will be no."

Harper said the issue of Quebec nationhood should be left to the provincial government but argued that the Bloc Québécois had forced the central government to weigh in on the issue.

The prime minister is trying to position his Conservative Party as the federalist alternative in Quebec as his minority government pushes for a majority in the next election, which could come as early as the spring.

The debate over nationhood largely dates back to Quebec's refusal to ratify the Canadian Constitution in 1982. Since then there have been two failed attempts to amend the document to the province's liking.

Canadian politicians have typically been wary of discussing Quebec's role within Canada because of the tenuous stability that has been established in the province since the last referendum on separation was narrowly defeated in 1995. Since then a federalist provincial premier, Jean Charest, has been elected.

But an election could return the separatist Parti Québécois to power, and the party has pledged to hold another referendum if it wins.

Critics say that the concept of recognizing Quebec as a nation - as a separate people though not an independent state - may have short-term benefits for federalist politicians, but that separatists will use the distinction to push for recognition of Quebec as a state separate from the rest of Canada. "Harper will rue the day he went down this road," said Michael Behiels, a historian at the University of Ottawa. "The Bloc Québécois will exploit this to no end."

During its 13 years in power, until January of this year, the Liberal Party successfully positioned itself as the alternative the Bloc Québécois for federalist voters in Quebec. Harper is trying to fill that role because the Liberal Party was weakened by its election loss and the resignation of its leader, Paul Martin.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

JAMA Addresses Men’s Health

JAMA Addresses Men’s Health
by Bob Roehr
Copyright by The Windy City Times

“Optimizing primary care for men who have sex with men” is a prominent commentary in the Nov. 15 focus issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. The focus of that edition is men’s health.

“Primary care for gay men has all too often focused on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases,” but there is also the larger context of delivering health care to gay men, said Ken Mayer in an exclusive interview. He is one of the three co-authors of the commentary and a physician at Fenway Community Health in Boston, which primarily serves the GLBT community. ( Rob Garofalo, deputy director at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center, was another of the individuals who co-authored the article. )

Mayer said it is important that your health care provider “be sensitive and open to your concerns as a gay man or a man who has sex with men.” The patient needs to be “empowered to interview their doctor” and pick up on signs in the waiting room and in the way the doctor asks questions as to whether or not they are inclusive and capable of meeting your medical needs.

“If a doctor is uncomfortable talking about sex, that may be an issue. You don’t have to have a gay doctor to get good health care; you need somebody who is knowledgeable,” said Mayer.

The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association offers a listing service of medical professionals who are comfortable working with GLBT patients. You can search for a provided by city, state, telephone area code and medical specialty.

Mayer said that he and others are working on a textbook for the American College of Physicians called the Fenway Guide to LGBT Health.

The article was directed towards physicians and noted that the last U.S. Census identified same-sex households in 99 percent of the counties in the country. Some jurisdictions only have a few such households, but in urban areas the figure can go as high as 5-7 percent.

Another study has found that “2.8 percent of men identified themselves as gay, whereas 9.1 percent described having had same-sex sexual behavior, desire, and identity in the course of a lifetime.”

Behavior can be as important as identity and the “coming out” process can occur at any age. It is important that men understand how disease can be spread through sexual activity and how those risks can be reduced.

Another article in JAMA explored how mental health issues differ between men and women. While women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, men are four times as likely to commit suicide.

Societal pressures contribute to the under-treatment of depression and other psychological disorders because men are less willing to even acknowledge that they may have such a problem. There is an expectation that men will be stoic and just suck it up.

However, researchers also are discovering that symptoms of depression often differ in men. Rather than feeling blue, they are more likely to feel irritable, become stressed and not sleep well.

While some patients will benefit from medication, a finite program of cognitive behavioral therapy—in which patients come to understand how distorted views of themselves contribute to their problems and how to overcome them—can often be just as effective as drugs.

A review of recent research has found physical and functional differences in the brains of men and women. That is reflected in the fact that some 14 percent of actively expressed genes appear to be expressed or function at different levels in the two sexes.

That is starting to help explain how men and women process certain information differently; how they experience pain differently; and how they react differently to certain kinds of drugs. It may eventually be correlated with expressions of sexual orientation and identity.


Gay and bisexual men may be more prone to compulsive gambling, according to a small study in the Nov.-Dec. issue of Comprehensive Psychiatry. The study involved 105 men who sought treatment for addictive gambling; 15 were gay and bisexual, numbers that are several times higher than what one would expect to see in a cross-section of the population.

The researchers, from Yale University and the University of Minnesota, readily acknowledged that the size of the study was small and it only included those who sought help, so it might not be representative of the overall population.

And it leaves unanswered the question of whether the gambling compulsion is tied to a part of the brain associated with greater risk taking, or whether it is a response to the stress of living in a homophobia society.

Some have asserted that use of crystal meth and Viagra ( and other erectile-dysfunction drugs ) has become a risk factor for HIV infection. But a multidisciplinary conference supported by the NIH ( National Institutes of Health ) and published in the Journal of Sexual Health did not find convincing evidence to support that charge.

“Health care providers should be reminded that individuals infected with HIV frequently have erectile dysfunction from their disease or from pharmacologic agents commonly used in its treatment,” said Journal editor Irwin Goldstein.

However, another concern to be aware of is a recent finding that sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, can worsen obstructive sleep apnea. That condition is the temporary blockage of breathing while sleeping. While it is only rarely fatal, it deprives one of a good night’s sleep and contributes to a general sense of malaise and lack of focus during waking hours.

The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association’s referral service is being upgraded but still can be accessed at

—Additional reporting by Andrew Davis

Catholic Bishops Approve Guidelines Regarding Gays

Catholic Bishops Approve Guidelines Regarding Gays
Copyright by The Windy City Times

In Baltimore—by a vote of 194 to 37 ( with one abstention ) —The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved its latest document on ministry to gays and lesbians, which essentially maintains the church’s instruction that same-sex activity is sinful, according to The Washington Blade.

The bishops engaged in a debate over the draft document “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care,” written by the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. The officials adopted new guidelines for gay outreach that are meant to be welcoming—but also advised gays to be celibate because the church considers their sexuality “disordered.”

To say the least, gay Catholic organizations feel that the bishops’ are wrong. Before the bishops even considered the guidelines, DignityUSA released a statement asserting that it found the recommendations “to be deeply flawed.” As a result, the group united with other organizations to “to ask the bishops not to approve any such guidelines without further consultation with the faithful—especially those LGBT Catholics who are most affected.”

The Rainbow Sash Movement ( RSM ) , a local GLBT Catholic organization, released a sharp rebuke of the bishops’ decision on Nov. 17, stating in part that “in their typical fashion, the Catholic Bishops ... have missed the mark. The [ RSM ] believes the Bishops statement was so contorted and flawed that it would alienate the people it was trying to reach.” The statement went to to say that “to say gay people can merely exist in the shadows and not in the light of day is an attack on the dignity of their personhood.”

Out games debt grows

Out games debt grows
By Gary Barlow
Copyright by THe Chicago Free Press
November 22, 2006

The Outgames, the international gay and lesbian sports festival that drew more than 12,000 people to Montreal in July and August, is about $3.5 million in debt, Quebec government officials said last week.

The debt remains even after the provincial government forgave a $1.4-million loan, the officials said.

The Outgames event was organized after the Federation of Gay Games withdrew the Gay Games from Montreal 2006 following two years of planning and millions of dollars in fundraising. The controversy split the international GLBT sports community in half, with many European and Canadian sports groups aligning with Montreal.

Most U.S. groups, as well as other groups from around the world, remained aligned with the FGG and participated in the 2006 Gay Games, which was awarded to Chicago after the FGG cut ties with Montreal. The 2006 Gay Games drew some 10,000 participants to Chicago last July, with about three-quarters coming from the U.S.

Chicago Games, Inc., which organized the 2006 Gay Games, also ended up in debt, but promises to balance its books before completing its financial report next spring. CGI officials recently acknowledged being $200,000 in debt but said they are making progress in raising the funds to cover that deficit. Other estimates of the debt vary.

Montreal 2006 officials refused to apologize for the group’s deficit last week, saying the Outgames brought unprecedented economic and cultural benefits to Montreal. They also said they expect to pay suppliers. To make up part of the deficit, the city of Montreal and government tourism agencies in Canada could end up forgiving another $1.5 million in credit advanced to Montreal 2006.

City ups HIV prevention budget

City ups HIV prevention budget
By Gary Barlow
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
November 22, 2006

The Chicago City Council passed the City’s 2007 budget Nov. 15, including a $500,000 increase in funding for HIV prevention.

The increase represents the first rise in the City’s HIV prevention funding since 2003. Advocates for the increase had asked for an extra $1.7 million but expressed satisfaction after Mayor Richard M. Daley and the City Council added the $500,000 increase.

“We thank Mayor Daley and the City Council for increasing HIV prevention resources in Chicago,” said AIDS Foundation of Chicago Executive Director Mark Ishaug. AFC led the fight for the increase, arguing that critical prevention programs were being cut by decreases in state and federal HIV prevention funds in recent years.

The City’s HIV/AIDS prevention budget last increased in 2003, jumping from $3.6 million to the current $4.2 million. At the time the city counted 16,377 people living with HIV/AIDS. By last year that number had risen to almost 20,000. The City’s contribution makes up almost 40 percent of Chicago’s overall HIV/AIDS prevention spending, with the remainder coming from the state and the federal government. About half of the money goes to community-based agencies, with CDPH accounting for the other half.

Advocates for the increase said the disease is striking more and more people, including gay and bisexual men, in Chicago’s black and Latino communities.

“Three-quarters of new HIV infections in Chicago today are among people of color,” said the Rev. Doris Green, director of community affairs at AFC. “The new funding will help restore critical and innovative interventions that will reach these groups.”

After the mayor’s initial budget proposal left HIV prevention funding static, AFC and its allies mounted an intensive lobbying campaign, with concerned community leaders and others protesting and testifying at City Hall Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. AFC also enlisted help from Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who sponsored a resolution seeking an additional $1.7 million in prevention funds and quickly rounded up support from 36 of his 50 colleagues on the City Council. After last week’s vote, Tunney said he would continue to keep a close eye on the City’s HIV prevention efforts.

“The City Council recognized that additional prevention funding is needed to curb the rate of new HIV infection,” Tunney said. “I pledge to work closely with Mayor Daley, my colleagues in City Council, the Chicago Department of Public Health and advocates to make sure HIV prevention is a priority in the 2008 budget.”

Black leaders urge action on AIDS

Black leaders urge action on AIDS
By Gary Barlow
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
November 22, 2006.

Black lawmakers, civil rights leaders, medical experts and HIV prevention advocates called on the federal government Nov. 16 to take more urgent action to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans, particularly among black gay and bisexual men.

“It is a national tragedy that the AIDS crisis has continued unabated in the African American community for so many years,” said Beny Primm, chairman emeritus of the National Minority AIDS Council, which released a comprehensive new report detailing the problem and recommending solutions.

In 2004, the most recent year with complete statistics on HIV/AIDS rates in the United States, African Americans accounted for half of all new HIV/AIDS cases, despite representing only 13 percent of the country’s population. African Americans, the NMAC report stated, are 10 times more likely to have AIDS than white Americans.

“In 2006 AIDS in America is a black disease,” said Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute.

Among African Americans, the NMAC report found the same alarming conclusion that other studies have reported in recent years—“the population with the most disproportionate HIV burden is black MSM (men who have sex with men).” Black gay and bisexual men, the report concluded, have much higher HIV prevalence rates than white gay and bisexual men in the U.S.

“In 2004 the HIV rate among black men was more than seven times higher than white men and almost twice as high as black women,” the report stated. “Homophobia and stigma are important contributing factors to this disparity. ÉAdditionally, younger black MSM who identify as gay are often subject to homelessness resulting from rejection in the family and violence, which can contribute to sexual risk-taking, excessive alcohol or drug use and behavior associated with depression.”

The report identified a lack of HIV testing as a critical issue for black gay and bisexual men.

“Black MSM are tested less frequently and at later stages of their HIV infection, and are also less likely to have been previously aware that they were HIV-positive than MSM of other racial/ethnic groups,” the report stated.

The report, written by Dr. Robert Fullilove, of Columbia University, and endorsed by a blue-ribbon panel that included NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, Children’s Defense Fund President Marion Wright Edelman and Urban League President Marc Morial, made five key policy recommendations:

—Eliminate the marginalization of and stigma and discrimination against black gay and bisexual men. Federal programs should be designed specifically to target black gay and bisexual men for HIV prevention and should include capacity-building investments in organizations in that community, the report stated.

—The impact of incarceration as a driver of new HIV infections must be reduced. “Outdated and inconsistently implemented HIV prevention policies have failed to reduce risk behaviors among prisoners,” the report stated.

—Reduce the role of injection drug use in the AIDS epidemic. The report noted that almost one in five new HIV infections among blacks is due to the sharing of contaminated needles and urged drug prevention interventions and more needle exchange programs.

—HIV prevention, diagnosis and care programs should be expanded. “Far too many African Americans lack accurate information about how HIV is transmitted, prevented and treated,” the report said.

—Stabilize communities by increasing affordable housing. The report emphasized that a lack of affordable housing is central to interconnected problems affecting many African American communities.

Several members of Congress said they would work to address the recommendations in the report when Congress reconvenes in January with a new Democratic majority.

“We have to stop the devastation this disease is causing in our community,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Cal.) “The fact is that this administration and the Republican Congress have never paid much attention to the needs of African American or minority communities when it comes to fighting AIDS, and you can bet that we are going to work to change that in the new Congress.”

The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust put it more bluntly.

“Are we willing to sacrifice another half-million African American lives to this entirely preventable disease?” said Rep. Donna Christian-Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands). “It is up to the members of the newly elected 110th Congress to answer this question.”

Enjoying the good life, sans low riders By Garrison Keillor

Enjoying the good life, sans low riders
By Garrison Keillor
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published November 23, 2006

As you get older and you can afford to eat well, your metabolism shrinks to that of a common warbler. A cruel irony. That is why, at pricey restaurants, you see old coots pay $35 for a big white plate with three scallops on it and a dollop of rice and some emulsified celery. That is all the food they need, plus a pipkin of prune pate for dessert. They are not ranch hands after all. They're not NFL linemen. But eating habits die hard, and the holidays roll around, and the old guys shuffle up to the chow line and load up, and around midnight they are whinnying in their stalls, begging to be shot and put out of their misery.

The same happens with sex, not that we need to discuss this or anything. And something similar with work: You try harder than ever and keep falling further behind. So gluttony and lust and pride start to fade late in life. So does anger. You can still work up a lather about the Current Occupant, that narcissistic man with the attention span of a 12-year-old, a national embarrassment whenever he travels abroad, but Bush-bashing is like slapping cockroaches with a slipper. After six years of it, you're done: It's time to find a new pad.

Greed is persistent, of course, maybe worse, but who has time for sloth nowadays? And envy truly fades. Photographers line up behind barriers yelling, "Over here! This way! This way!" and a starlet climbs out of a limo, in a bright red dress with a neckline down to her gall bladder, and she looks this way and flashes her 50-dollar smile, and briefly you envy her and wish you looked that good in bright light, and then you walk on and you try to remember her name and the movie she was in--what was that about?

Last Sunday at church we walked up to Communion as two teenage boys played electric guitars. They were so busy being observed and maintaining their cool, they didn't notice how amazingly out of tune they were. Their pants hung as low as pants can hang as they praised the Lord in several keys at once, all sleepy and full of attitude and their hair hanging down, but I was moved by them, I really got caught up in the moment--you know how it is, sometimes perfection can irritate you and some dopey thing knocks your socks off. They struck me as messengers of grace, possibly angels, though I wouldn't want to carry that too far. I knelt at the altar next to my sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter, who is afraid someone will make her drink the wine, so she crosses her arms and looks forbidding. The lady with the wafers puts her hand on my girl's head and she winces.

It's a good life. A November morning and you walk home under the bare trees, listening to a frenzy of questions--Why do we live here? Why do other people live in California?--and you open the door to the smell of coffee and cinnamon. You make a fire in the fireplace and ease yourself into an old easy chair that has conformed to your own back and haunches, and dutifully you read the paper, but then you look over the top of the front page at the soft light streaming in, the delicate browns and yellows and greens of fall, the quiet street.

If you had some paint, you could make a painting of this, if you were a painter. You could title it "November Morning, 2006" and 50 years from now at the Museum of Old Stuff, a teenage boy on a field trip with his media class might look at it and think, "Cool." Teenage boys will be wearing something like jumpsuits then, with the waist up around their nipples and flared collars and two-tone hair and a pocket watch with a 4-foot gold chain and clear plastic shoes with curly toes. What they see in the painting is exactly what your heart desired, a quiet life among autumnal people. The mess that was on the front page back then is all forgotten, wars, legislatures, judges, trivia, but the lovely world of oaks and yard and boulevard is of permanent interest.

Thank you, dear Lord, for this good life and forgive us if we do not enjoy it enough.


Garrison Keillor is an author and host of "A Prairie Home Companion."