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Saturday, January 06, 2007

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Negroponte's newest job

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Negroponte's newest job
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: January 5, 2007

The No. 2 job in the State Department is technically a step down from John Negroponte's present post of director of national intelligence. But the reported return to the foreign- policy fold of this former ambassador to Baghdad, and, before that, to the United Nations, has a certain logic to it.

The diplomacy-challenged Bush administration could surely use the help. We hope that Negroponte can provide Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the intellectual and bureaucratic reinforcement she so desperately needs to help guide the administration to a wiser course on Iraq.

Negroponte certainly has experience. In a 40-plus year career — including an early stint as a political officer in Vietnam — he has also served as ambassador to Honduras (during Ronald Reagan's Contra war), Mexico and the Philippines. He is known as a canny, and sometimes ruthless, bureaucratic player. What he doesn't have, unfortunately, is much of a reputation for challenging the unwise policy presumptions of his bosses.

In his 10 months in Baghdad from mid-2004 to mid-2005, Negroponte undoubtedly saw the yawning gap between Iraq's grim reality and the delusional claims of success issuing from Washington. While President George W. Bush and other top officials trumpeted effective military training programs, a flowering Iraqi democracy and an insurgency ever on its last legs, anyone on the ground had to see paper Iraqi battalions, the rise of sectarian militias and ever- expanding chaos.

If Negroponte made a serious effort to jolt his bosses back to the real world, there is no public record of it. That will have to change if he is to have any chance of improving things. Before confirming him, the Senate should make sure he understands that asking hard and unwelcome questions is an essential part of the job.

Negroponte's switch will mean another wrenching shift in the top ranks of America's deeply troubled intelligence agencies. One of the main problems that the national intelligence director's job was created to solve was the destructive rivalries between intelligence agencies run by the Defense Department and their civilian counterparts.

That infighting reached a crescendo during the reign of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert Gates, a former director of central intelligence, will have the credibility — and we hope the will — to calm those rivalries and improve interagency coordination. Even then, Bush must quickly find a credible replacement for Negroponte, preferably one who is willing to jolt his bosses with the truth. This administration's record of failures in Iraq is matched only by its failures on intelligence.

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Rethinking the death penalty

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Rethinking the death penalty
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: January 5, 2007

New Jersey could take the lead among states in abolishing the death penalty if it follows the recommendation that a legislative commission made this week. It is the right thing to do, and not just because capital punishment is barbaric and a poor deterrent. It has become increasingly clear as the use of DNA evidence has grown that there is simply too great a risk of making an irreversible mistake.

While we would have used stronger language, we applaud the 13-member panel for having the courage to recommend that New Jersey become the first state to abolish the death penalty since states began reinstating it 35 years ago. The commission included two prosecutors, a police chief, members of the clergy and a man whose daughter was murdered in 2000. Only one member, a former state senator who wrote the death penalty law, dissented.

Although it has nine people on death row, New Jersey has had a moratorium on executions since 2005 and has not put anyone to death since 1963. Nevertheless, the panel's recommendation that the death penalty be replaced with life imprisonment without parole is likely to have significant influence both inside and outside the state. It comes as about 10 of the 38 states with death penalties, including New York, have suspended executions and as recent developments, like DNA exonerations and a botched lethal injection in Florida last month, have created a growing unease about executions.

With Governor Jon Corzine opposed to the death penalty, and substantial numbers of capital punishment opponents in both houses of the Legislature, there is a reasonable chance the commission's recommendations will become law. That would make New Jersey's criminal justice system more civilized and fair. It could also prod other states to abandon their own use of what Justice Harry Blackmun called the "machinery of death."

Images of hanging make Hussein a martyr to many

Images of hanging make Hussein a martyr to many
By Hassan M. Fattah
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
January 5, 2007.

BEIRUT: In the week since Saddam Hussein was hanged in an execution steeped in sectarian overtones, his public image in the Arab world, formerly that of a convicted dictator, has undergone a resurgence of admiration and awe.

On the streets, in newspapers and over the Internet, Saddam has re- emerged as a Sunni Arab hero who stood calm and composed as his Shiite executioners tormented and abused him.

"No one will ever forget the way in which Saddam was executed," remarked President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and republished by the official Egyptian news agency. "They turned him into a martyr."

In Libya, a government official declared that Libya would erect a statue of Saddam near the site of a monument to Omar al Mukhtar, a Libyan national symbol who resisted the Italian invasion of Libya and was hanged by the Italians in 1931.

Here in Beirut, hundreds of members of Lebanon's Baath party and Palestinian activists marched Friday behind a symbolic coffin representing that of Saddam, praying for his soul. Photographs of Saddam standing up in court, against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem were pasted on city walls, praising "Saddam the Martyr."

A banner across one major Beirut thoroughfare cursed "America and its spies."

"Our Condolences to the Nation for the Assassination of Saddam and Victory to the Iraqi Resistance," it read.

By standing up to the United States and its client government in Baghdad, and dying with seeming dignity far from the hole where he was captured, Saddam appears to have been virtually cleansed of his murderous past.

Just a month ago, Saddam, who ruled Iraq in a brutal 27-year reign of terror and destruction, was widely dismissed as a criminal who deserved the death penalty, even if his trial was seen as flawed. But shortly after his execution Saturday, when a video apparently filmed with a cellphone showed Shiite guards taunting Saddam and him responding calmly but firmly to them, many across the region began looking at him as a martyr.

"The Arab world has been devoid of pride for a long time," said Ahmad Mazin al-Shugairi, host of a television show on the Middle East Broadcasting Center, which promotes a moderate version of Islam in Saudi Arabia. "The way Saddam acted in court and just before he was executed, with dignity and no fear, struck a chord with Arabs who are desperate for their own leaders to have pride, too."

Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of the independent Jordanian daily Al Ghad, said: "The final scene for many was of Saddam taken out of a hole. That has all changed now."

At the heart of the surprising reversal of opinion is the contrast between the official video aired on Iraqi TV last Saturday, of Saddam taken to the gallows and fitted with a noose round his neck, and the grainy, shaky recording of Shiite militiamen taunting the deposed leader with his hands tied, telling Saddam to go to hell, praising the militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and opening the trapdoor before Saddam had completed his prayer.

Far from a solemn proceeding by a dispassionate state, Saddam's execution has been framed as an act of sectarian vengeance shrouded in political theater and overseen by an American occupation that has resulted in little more than humiliation and tragedy for Iraqis.

"If Saddam had media planners he could not have planned it better than this," said Daoud Kuttab, an Arab media critic and director of the online radio station "Nobody could ever have imagined that Saddam would have gone down with such dignity."

In the days since, writers and commentators have stopped short of eulogizing the dictator but looked right past his bloody history as they compared Iraq's current circumstances with Iraq under Saddam.

In Jordan, long a bastion of support for Saddam, many are lionizing him and decrying the timing of the execution and the taunts as part of a Sunni- Shiite conflict.

"Was it a coincidence that Israel, Iran and the United States all welcomed Saddam's execution?" Hamadeh Faraneh, a newspaper columnist, wrote in the daily Al Rai. "Was it also a coincidence when Saddam said bravely in front of his tormentors, 'Long live the nation,' and that Palestine is Arab, then uttered the declaration of faith? His last words express his depths and what he died for."

"For the vast majority Saddam is a martyr, even if he made mistakes in his first years of rule," wrote Mohammad Abu Ruman in Al Ghad on Thursday. "He cleansed himself later by confronting the Americans and by rejecting to negotiate with them."

Even the pro-Saudi media, normally critical of Saddam, chimed in.

In the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, Bilal Khubbaiz, commenting on Iranian and Israeli praise of Saddam's execution, noted, "Saddam, as Iraq's ruler, was an Iron Curtain that prevented the Iranian influence from reaching into the Arab world" as well as "a formidable party in the Arab-Israeli conflict." And Zuhayr Qusaybati, also writing in Al Hayat, noted that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki or Iraq "gave Saddam what he most wanted; he turned him into a martyr in the eyes of many Iraqis, who can now demand revenge."

Top Democrats oppose more troops in Iraq

Top Democrats oppose more troops in Iraq
By David E. Sanger and Jeff Zeleny
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: January 5, 2007

WASHINGTON: The new Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House warned President George W. Bush on Friday against sending additional troops to Iraq, setting the stage for what could become a major confrontation over a new war strategy.

Bush is expected to call for more troops in a speech as soon as Wednesday, as part of a renewed effort to secure Baghdad. But Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, the new Senate majority leader, dismissed that approach as a strategy "that has already failed."

"Adding more combat troops will only endanger more Americans and stretch our military to the breaking point for no strategic gain," Pelosi and Reid wrote in a letter to Bush. "We are well past the point of more troops for Iraq," they added, urging Bush to begin a "phased redeployment," or gradual withdrawal.

Not all Democrats agree with the position their leaders staked out in the letter on Friday, just days before Bush is expected to announce a broad strategy involving more troops, accelerated training of Iraqi forces and a large increase in economic and reconstruction aid to Iraq. But the release of the letter suggests that a major political battle may be brewing.

Bush appeared to be trying to head off any confrontation when he invited 13 Democratic and Republican senators to the White House for what administration officials called a "consultation" on Iraq.

At a later meeting, Bush met with the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, who cautioned that Congress would want to take time to consider the strategy before Bush began implementing it.

"The president has had this opportunity now for some weeks, and I think Congress is entitled to an opportunity to independently look at the situation," Warner said.

Bush has begun to put parts of his plan in place, making official on Friday some changes that will ensure new faces are associated with a new approach.

He announced the nomination of Lieutenant General David Petraeus as the new commander in Iraq, to succeed General George Casey Jr., whom Bush said he intended to elevate to Army chief of staff.

Bush praised Casey, who spent much of 2006 pressing for a gradual withdrawal of troops, as "strong and effective"; he hailed Petraeus, who has reportedly backed an increase, as "a soldier of vision and determination."

Bush is also remaking his diplomatic team, nominating John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, to be deputy secretary of state.

Ryan Crocker is expected to be nominated ambassador to Iraq. His nomination would for the first time place an Arabist with experience in sectarian conflicts, mostly in Lebanon, at the head of the embassy in Baghdad.

Administration and congressional officials said they expected the military and diplomatic nominations to receive Senate approval, though senators might use the hearings to air dissent about any troop increase and draw attention to the perceived failings of Iraq strategy.

The bigger question is whether Congress will seek to stop the troop increase. In theory, it could cut off financing, the only way it could actually interfere with the commander in chief's plans. But Democrats have said they would not take such a step, largely out of fear of being accused of undercutting the troops.

That leaves them with only one option: the confirmation hearings, which are to start next week immediately after the president's expected speech. The hearings could expose the divisions within the military over the wisdom about an increase in troops.

Many senior officers, including Casey, have argued that adding U.S. troops will undercut the effort to get the Iraqi government to defend itself.

Some Republican leaders insisted that Congress should not go down that path. "I don't think that we should be dictating military strategy in Iraq from Capitol Hill," said one of them, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader in the House.

In addition to the 13 senators, Democrats and Republicans, invited to the White House on Friday afternoon, those attending included Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Peter Pace; and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser.

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, who both are considering a Democratic presidential candidacy, arrived at the White House at nearly the same time. After the meeting, Clinton did not issue a statement, while Obama spoke to reporters about his conversation with Bush.

"I personally indicated that an escalation of troop levels in Iraq was a mistake and that we need a political accommodation, rather than a military approach to the sectarian violence there," he said. "I think he recognizes that the status quo is unacceptable and has to change."

Another Democrat, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, said she would consider supporting an increase in troops for a short time if the president could articulate "specific opportunities for success," particularly cities that troops would be dispatched to and how long they would stay. Landrieu also said she would need to be convinced that there was a broader solution to limit U.S. involvement in Iraq.

"The American people's patience is wearing thin with the vagueness," she said, speaking to reporters as she left the White House. "

In interviews after the meeting, several senators said they could not tell whether Bush had made a decision whether to call for a troop increase. The senators described the meeting as frank but not confrontational. But even those who have supported the administration's Iraq policy said it was time for a change of course.

"I don't know that the American people will see the surge as a new direction," Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, said. "The American people want to see a change in direction, not just a change in slogans."

Senator Blanche Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas, said at the meeting that an increase in troops would face considerable scrutiny in Congress from Democrats and Republicans.

"I asked the president, 'Where would that surge come from?'" Lincoln said. "He said that was a very good question."

Thom Shanker and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting

Friday, January 05, 2007

Chicago Sun Times Editorial - Legislature ought to renew cap on property tax hikes

Chicago Sun Times Editorial - Legislature ought to renew cap on property tax hikes
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times Editorial
January 5, 2007

The Legislature this spring has one last chance to renew a worthwhile program that has brought a small measure of sanity to an otherwise crazy property tax system in Cook County. A law pushed by Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan has for the last three years capped the growth in homeowner property tax assessments at 7 percent a year, or 21 percent for three years, which in turn protected residences from massive tax hikes. That law, however, will expire unless lawmakers take action.

We think it merits renewal, even as we acknowledge the law isn't perfect. It's perhaps for that reason that the Legislature has so far been reluctant to act. As with any program that lessens the tax for some, it necessarily means that others will pay more than they otherwise would have paid. In this case, those "losers" are commercial properties and apartments, and homeowners whose home values fell, held constant or grew slowly.

Owners of commercial property and apartments have been among the law's harshest critics, arguing that the program unfairly shifts the property tax burden to them. That's one way to look at it. As Houlihan points out, however, another way to look at the law is that it slows the shift that has been going the other way. Residential property assessments have soared in Cook County in recent years, far exceeding the growth in commercial assessments, and residential tax increases have outpaced business class bills as a result. A Civic Federation report determined that residential properties paid 10.1 percent more in 2003 under the program but would have paid 16.8 percent more without it. Other classes paid 2.4 percent more, but would have paid 2 percent less without it. That supports Houlihan's contention that the law has helped to maintain the proportion of taxes paid by each class of property.

Homeowners whose property values fell or held constant still saw a reduction in taxes, but that cap limited the reduction. And homeowners in slow-growth areas probably paid a bit more than they would have without the program.

In the triennial reassessment of Chicago last year, the median increase for residential property was a staggering 41 percent. Unless the program is renewed, the full bore of that reassessment will hit Chicagoans' tax bills this year. If it is renewed, the increase will be no more than 7 percent a year, or 21 percent for three years, with a limit on the benefit for extremely wealthy homes.

There's a lot of unfairness and unpredictability inherent in our property tax system. It needs major reform, but at least this program makes the process a bit more predictable. Until the entire system is reformed, we'll take the Band-aid solution over no solution at all.

International Herald Tribune Editorial - New Congress, old challenge

International Herald Tribune Editorial - New Congress, old challenge
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: January 4, 2007

The real test for the 110th Congress will be its willingness to clean up its own act by adopting forceful and credible ethics reform. That is what the Democratic leadership promised voters. Any hesitation will be rightly seen as a cynical re-endorsement of the Capitol's lobbyist-enabling, corruption-steeped business as usual.

Congress's ethics rules have been rife with loopholes and wrist-slapping punishments that grease rather than police the quid pro quo world of Washington. Fixing some of these problems requires nothing more than a majority vote on the House or Senate rules.

House Democrats appear ready to start with a firm, and long needed, ban on gifts, entertainment and junket travel — including low-cost VIP rides on corporate jets — arranged by lobbyists or their clients. The ban should cover staffers as well, and the Senate should match it. Even that will require wary monitoring, particularly of a provision that would allow members preapproved day trips for speeches, with travel paid by nonlobbying groups.

Both houses should also bar congressional alumni and other lobbyists from the debating floors and other Capitol inner sanctums. And members of Congress with other ambitions should be blocked from slyly negotiating lucrative private jobs while they're still on the public's payroll and sworn to defend the public's interest. There should be early disclosure of all job feelers.

The back-scratching closeness of politicians seeking campaign donations and deep-pocket interests seeking favors is a capital disgrace. Part of the solution is to douse their dealings with sunshine through prompt and detailed filing disclosures. And there should be full disclosure of the cornucopia of "earmarks" — costly favors inserted without debate or any requirement to disclose authorship in mammoth spending bills. Earmark authors and beneficiaries should be unmasked in time to be mocked by taxpayers.

Broader reforms will require longer legislative debate, not just a rule change. American voters are watching, and lawmakers dare not slip away from the promise to clean up their act.

Bush won't end Iraq war on his own By Molly Ivins

Bush won't end Iraq war on his own By Molly Ivins
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune and Molly Ivins, a syndicated columnist based in Austin, Texas: Creators Syndicate
Published January 5, 2007

The president of the United States does not have the sense God gave a duck--so it's up to us. You and me.

I don't know why President Bush is just standing there like a frozen rabbit, but it's time we found out. The fact is we have to do something about it. This country is being torn apart by an evil and unnecessary war, and it has to be stopped now.

This Iraq war is being prosecuted in our names, with our money, with our blood, against our will. Polls consistently show that less than 30 percent of the people want to maintain current troop levels. It is obscene and wrong for the president to go against the people in this fashion, and it's doubly wrong for him to send 20,0000 more soldiers into this hellhole, as he reportedly will announce next week.

What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny? Where have we gone? How did we let these people take us there? How did we let them fool us?

It's a monstrous idea to put people in prison and keep them there. This administration has done away with rights first enshrined in the Magna Carta nearly 800 years ago, and we've let them do it.

This will be a regular feature of mine, like an old-fashioned newspaper campaign. Every column, I'll write about this war until we find some way to end it. STOP IT NOW. BAM!

So let's take a step back and note, for example, that before the war, one of the architects of the entire policy, Paul Wolfowitz, testified to Congress that Iraq had no history of ethnic strife. Sectarian and ethnic strife is a part of the region, and the region is full of examples of Western colonial powers trying to occupy countries, take their resources and take over the administration of their people--and failing.

The sectarian bloodbath we see daily completely refutes Wolfowitz. Now, Bush has given him the World Bank to run. Wonder what he'll do there.

Let's keep in mind that when the Army arrived in Baghdad, we, the television viewers, watched footage of a bunch of enraged and joyous Iraqis pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein, their repulsive dictator, in Firdos Square. Only one thing was wrong: The event was staged. Taking down the statue was instigated by a Marine colonel, and a psychological operations unit made it appear to be a spontaneous show of Iraqi joy.

When we later saw the whole square in which the statue was located, only 30 to 40 people were there (U.S. soldiers, press and some Iraqis--and one of several U.S. tanks present pulled the statue down with a cable). We, the television viewers, saw the square being presented as though the people of Iraq had gone into a frenzy, mobbed the square and spontaneously pulled down the statue. Fake images and claims have been a part of this fiasco from the beginning.

We need to cut through all this smoke and mirrors and come up with an exit strategy, forthwith. The Democrats have yet to offer a cohesive plan to get us out of this mess. Of course, it's not their fault--but the fact is we need leaders who are grown-ups and who are willing to try to fix it. Bush has ignored the actual grown-ups from the Iraq Study Group, the generals and all other experts who are nearly unanimous in the opinion that more troops will not help.

So, like I said, it's up to you and me. We need to make sure that the new Congress curbs executive power, which has been so misused, and asserts its own power to make this situation change. Now.



Consider the irony of Guantanamo Bay

Consider the irony of Guantanamo Bay
By Thomas P. Sullivan
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published January 5, 2007

What an irony, what a contradiction! Although the trial may have been flawed and the execution precipitous, the Iraqi government afforded a mass murderer, Saddam Hussein, basic rights before judgment was pronounced. Hussein was presented with written charges, provided the assistance of lawyers, the government was required to introduce proof to support its charges through competent witnesses, whom his lawyers were permitted to cross-examine, and he was allowed to produce evidence in his own defense.

Compare this to the way our government has handled the cases of more than 400 men, most of whom have been held almost five years in a prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Not a single one has been given a hearing at which the government has been required to produce evidence explaining why he is being held, or had the assistance of a lawyer, or an opportunity to produce evidence in his own defense. No so-called classified evidence has been revealed. No independent judges have presided.

It now appears clear that virtually none of these men will ever receive these kinds of trials. United States officials have announced that only a handful of the prisoners will be tried before the newly created military commissions, while the others will continue to languish indefinitely in their tiny cages.

Army and Navy brass have become accessories to this scandalous state of affairs by continuing to claim that the prisoners are dangerous, the "worst of the worst," as though this provides justification for continuing to jail them without hearings. Even more shameful, a congressional majority mindlessly succumbed to White House pressure by voting to deprive the prisoners of the right to seek relief in federal courts.

It has been argued that "military necessity" precludes providing legal protections to the prisoners and that to do so will interfere with conduct of the "war on terror." But these men are not held on or near a battlefield. They are isolated on a remote island; almost none has been questioned within the past two years; they no longer have unplumbed "intelligence" value.

The cost to maintain this prison, and the need to provide round-the-clock supervision, is clearly inconsistent with our national interests. Far better to charge and try those where there is solid evidence they committed punishable offenses and release the others without further delay, expense and diversion of military and civilian personnel. Those found guilty should be sentenced appropriately, and those not charged or found not guilty after trial should be returned to their native countries. The least we should do for them is what was done for Saddam Hussein.

Refusal to afford due process of law to these men is a national disgrace. If compliance with fundamental principles is insufficient to motivate our leaders--if they require selfish reasons to move them to action--they should bear in mind the precedent they are setting for how other nations may treat our citizens taken into custody abroad.


Thomas P. Sullivan, who represents a number of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, is a partner in the law firm Jenner and Block and was co-chair of the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment. He was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1977 to 1981.

Financial Times Editorial - Budget balancing acts

Financial Times Editorial - Budget balancing acts
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 5 2007 02:00 | Last updated: January 5 2007 02:00

The 110th US Congress, which met for the first time yesterday under Democratic control, wants a balanced budget by 2012. So does Republican President George W. Bush. That is good news. But before we offer congratulations, two things need to happen. First, Mr Bush needs to outline credible tax and spending plans and, second, the Democrats have to agree to them.

Republican control of both the White House and Congress did not deliver -fiscal responsibility. Taxes were cut, spending swelled, and the budget deficit peaked at $413bn. Divided control of the executive and legislature can only be an improvement, particularly as Mr Bush has belatedly woken up to the need to control spending.

Mr Bush's problem is his determination to keep cuts in income and estate taxes, plus the priority he gives to defence spending. That leaves only two routes to a balanced budget: spend less on entitlements such as Medicare - politically risky - or squeeze discretionary spending on things such as agriculture, transport and scientific research.

But cuts to non-defence discretionary spending alone will not balance the budget. Such expenditure is less than 20 per cent of the total, so cutbacks would have to be vicious to make any difference. Even if that were desirable, and even if the Democrats agreed, a future Congress and president would be unlikely to stick to the plan.

Mr Bush's budgetary plan must therefore set out initial steps to contain growth in the cost of entitlements as well as specific and plausible cuts in discretionary spending, all timed to take effect now, while Mr Bush is in office, rather than pencilled in for his successor to worry about in 2008. In addition, Mr Bush must be willing to compromise on his tax cuts.

With majority control of the House for the first time in a decade, the Democrats want to appear fiscally responsible and are determined to avoid the dread "tax-and-spend" label. Bipartisan consensus on making "earmarking" - via which a congressman can commandeer cash for projects in his constituency - more transparent bodes well. A deal that repeals tax cuts for the very rich but keeps them for everybody else should appeal to both sides.

All of this is tenuous: it is too soon to tell whether such a pact is possible. But it is important because there are bigger fiscal problems on the horizon.

The alternative minimum tax, a -parallel income tax aimed at the very rich, needs to be reformed. Its thresholds are not linked to inflation, so every year more Americans fall into its bureaucratic clutches.

Most of all, there is the challenge of an ageing population and its effect on the fiscal position in years to come. That will require either profound reform to spending or large tax increases. Debate on this is needed sooner rather than later, but sensible, balanced budgets are surely the first condition for wider change.

Optimism back in New York as office rents soar

Optimism back in New York as office rents soar
By Jim Pickard in London
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 4 2007 17:24 | Last updated: January 4 2007 17:24

Office rents in New York are soaring again – more than five years after the 9/11 attacks prompted a fall in confidence in the city.

In just one year average occupancy costs have soared by 63 per cent in downtown Manhattan, which includes the financial heartland of Wall Street, according to a survey by agents DTZ. There, the cost of providing space for a typical worker has jumped from $7,560 (€5,729, £3,872) to $12,300 a year

Meanwhile, the office vacancy rate in Manhattan is below 7 per cent for the first time since the summer of 2001, before the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The US has been in the grip of an investment boom for several years, with buyers paying ever higher prices for commercial property. Sales in New York alone are thought to have hit $50bn in 2006, compared with $31bn in the previous year.

The relentless rise in prices came despite a previous lack of confidence in the underlying occupier market, where many employers were reluctant to take on new space in the wake of 9/11 and the stock market crash of that period.

Yet the last year has finally seen a recovery in most US office locations, according to the latest DTZ annual Global Office Occupancy Costs survey.

The cost of space in midtown New York rose 30 per cent, pushing it ahead of Washington DC as the most expensive US location at $16,400 a year per work station. Washington itself rose 8 per cent to $14,580.

In all, 87 per cent of the 39 locations surveyed by DTZ saw an increase in office costs.

These included Denver, Orange County and San Francisco, which had all remained stubbornly flat in previous years.

The only exceptions were Detroit, Columbus and northern New Jersey and Raleigh/Durham.

According to separate research by Reis Inc, a research company, the vacancy rate for office space in the 72 largest American markets has fallen to 13.5 per cent, its lowest since late 2001.

The upward drive in office markets would appear to vindicate a spate of recent takeovers of US real estate investment trusts.

This trend peaked in November with the $20bn takeover of Sam Zell’s Equity Office by Blackstone, the private equity firm. Blackstone and others have justified the prices paid for such deals by predicting further rental increases.

Europe remains the most expensive region in the world in which to rent office space, according to DTZ, although this may reflect the euro’s strength.

London’s West End, at $23,260 per work station, is the most expensive followed by Hong Kong at $19,730, Paris at $17,770, the City of London at $17,690 and Midtown New York.

Fears of US slowdown recede

Fears of US slowdown recede
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 5 2007 15:36 | Last updated: January 5 2007 16:08

US employers added workers to their payrolls at a record rate last month, according to fresh data which sent shockwaves through financial markets.

The record job creation makes the Federal Reserve less likely to consider cutting interest rates, as the monthly government survey of non-farm payrolls showed that 167,000 jobs were created in December - defying economists’ predictions that the pace of hiring would slow.

The biggest monthly payrolls increase of the last year will be viewed by the Fed as a sign the US economy is heading for a soft landing. The data adds weight to the central bank’s forecast of moderate economic growth this year, despite an ongoing slowdown in the housing sector.

A senior official in the Bush administration said the strong job creation last month showed the Fed had “gotten it right”.

Al Hubbard, an adviser to President George W. Bush, said: “It looks like we’re going to have that soft landing we’ve all been hoping for.”

The data sent Treasury bonds diving and the dollar surging as investors sharply scaled back expectations of US interest rate cuts.

Job creation was also stronger than previously thought in November, with an increase of 154,000 compared to earlier estimates of a rise of 132,000.

The biggest employment gains were in the service sector, with mass hiring in professional and business services, health care, and food services offsetting weakness in construction and manufacturing.

“The report shows that weakness in the housing market has not translated into other areas of the economy,” said Drew Matus, economist at Lehman Brothers. “We still have a drag on the economy from housing and some parts of the manufacturing sector but we are making up for it in other areas.”

“This is another sign of the vibrancy of the US economy and its ability to respond to new challenges.”

Rob Carnell at ING Financial Markets, said: “Barring any dramatic turnarounds next month, the Fed will probably opt to play it safe with unchanged rates at forthcoming meetings.”

The data undermined the more pessimistic expectations priced into bond markets that the Fed would be forced to cut interest rates in the coming months as weakness in the housing and manufacturing sectors dragged economic growth well below trend.

The data produced a rapid sell off in US Treasuries, pushing yields on the benchmark 10-year bond up by 8.4 basis points to 4.69 per cent in the first hour after the report.

The two-year note yield added 10.4 bp to 4.81 per cent.

The payrolls report also prompted investors to adjust their bets in the interest-rate futures markets. Short-term interest rate futures fell, bringing the implied odds of a 25 basis point cut by the end of the first half of this year to 25 per cent, down from 50 per cent before the data.

The euro fell from around $1.3080 before the data, to $1.3002. Sterling fell from around $1.9400 to $1.9310.

Alan Ruskin, strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital said the data “will force the market to further defer rate cut expectations well into” the second half of the year.

The government data will add to Fed concerns about underlying inflation pressures as the survey showed average hourly earnings rose by 8 cents, the strongest rise in eight months.

Government data also showed the unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.5

per cent, signalling a tight labour market, with 6.8m Americans unable to find work.
The Fed has cited the tight labour market as a key reason it retains a bias towards raising interest rates to counter rising prices.

By Tony Tassell and Peter Garnham in London, Eoin Callan in Washington and Saskia Scholtes in New York.

Democrats to ‘issue toughest ethics reform’

Democrats to ‘issue toughest ethics reform’
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 4 2007 20:33 | Last updated: January 4 2007 20:33

The Democratic party took full control of America’s legislative branch on Thursday for the first time since 1994, promising to clean up US politics by introducing the “toughest ethics reform in [America’s] history”.

Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House of Representatives and the first woman to hold that job, and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, both said that tackling the congressional “culture of corruption” would be their chief priority during the next few days.

The proposals, which are aimed at weakening the notorious links between lawmakers and so-called “K Street” lobbyists that have ballooned in recent years, include a ban on accepting gifts or air tickets from lobby groups and forcing lawmakers to declare their names when they insert in legislation “earmarks” that are sponsored by special interest groups.

According to one widely cited poll, concern over corruption came second only to worry about the war in Iraq among voters at mid-term elections last November. The Democrats also plan to reintroduce the “pay-go” system of budgeting that would compel Congress to fund any tax cut or spending increase with offsetting measures.

“The American people told us that they expect us to work together for fiscal responsibility with the highest ethical standards and civility,” Ms Pelosi told the new house, shortly after she was sworn in on Thursday.

“Let us join together in the first 100 [legislative] hours to make this Congress the most open and honest in history.”

The two leaders also promised to extend the kind of bipartisan courtesies that they claim Republicans denied them during their 12 years in opposition.

Many commentators have labelled the outgoing Congress as one of the most bitter and divisive in history.

However, Republicans claimed Ms Pelosi had already breached that pledge by announcing she would short-circuit the committee process to push her party’s six key electoral promises straight to a vote on the floor of the house within the next two weeks.

These include raising the minimum wage by $2.10 to $7.25 – the first increase since 1997 – and a bill to promote federal funding of stem cell research. They also plan to abolish recent tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies.

“If you look at the rules changes the Democratic leadership are proposing, they are mostly very positive and long overdue,” said Scott Lilly at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “But it is hard to understand why the leadership is by-passing normal procedures to push through its “100-hour” promises.”

Both Democratic leaders also issued thinly veiled warnings to George W. Bush, US president, to desist from announcing a “surge” in the level of US forces in Iraq.

Mr Bush is expected to announce his “new way forward in Iraq” next week.

Ms Pelosi, whose party commands a 31-seat majority in the 435-strong house, called for a plan “that allows us to responsibly redeploy American forces” out of Iraq.

Mr Reid, whose party holds a precariously narrow 51-49 seat majority in the Senate, said: “The president’s new plan must ensure the Iraqis take responsibility for their own future, and it must remove our troops from a dangerous civil war.

“Completing the mission in Iraq is the president’s job, and we will do everything in our power to ensure he fulfils it.”

Concern as spy chief quits to join Rice

Concern as spy chief quits to join Rice
By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 4 2007 17:43 | Last updated: January 5 2007 00:22

John Negroponte’s abrupt shift from being the first US director of national intelligence to number two at the State Department reflects continued troubles in the intelligence community and a further concentration of power around Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state.

Analysts see the return of the career diplomat to the State Department as part of a broader and somewhat confused reshuffle of the Bush administration that began with the sacking of Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary and has Iraq and the wider Middle East as its focus.

Mr Negroponte’s expected replacement by a retired admiral, Mike McConnell, would also mean that key intelligence posts would all be filled by active or former military personnel – an issue of concern to civilians in the community.

Officials said President George W. Bush would announce the changes on Friday, possibly including his nomination of Zalmay Khalilzad, ambassador to Baghdad, as the new US envoy to the UN.

There was also speculation on Thursday night that Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Pakistan, would replace Mr Khalilzad in Baghdad, and that David Petraeus would replace George Casey, the senior US general in Iraq. Gen Petraeus’s appointment would be taken as a signal that the US military could change course in Iraq to emphasise a “hearts and minds” approach, designed to isolate the insurgents and reduce support for sectarian groups.

According to leaks put out by Reuters and ABC on Thursday night, Mr Bush is also expected to replace John Abizaid with Admiral William Fallon as head of central command, which oversees the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

With a week to go before Mr Bush is expected to announce his “new way forward in Iraq”, the president spoke on Thursday for nearly two hours by video conference with Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.

Less than two years ago, Mr Negroponte was elevated to co-ordinate all 16 distinct spy agencies following the 9/11 commission probe into the intelligence failures surrounding al-Qaeda’s attacks. However, former intelligence officials say that the overhaul only succeeded in creating another layer of bureaucracy with inadequate powers.

Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst who has accused the Bush administration of ignoring the agency’s findings before invading Iraq, said Mr Negroponte had been unfairly criticised by some in Congress and that he did not have enough control over the defence department’s intelligence operations.

Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA officer and a critic of the agency, called the creation of the director of national intelligence (DNI) a “lame idea”.

“It has only made an overstaffed intelligence establishment even fatter,” he said.

Another former CIA operative who asked not to be named said Mr Negroponte had never wanted the job and had clashed with Mr Rumsfeld, who controlled more than 80 per cent of the intelligence budget. “Negroponte gave in,” he said.

Tensions between the DNI and the Pentagon may ease with the replacement of Mr Rumsfeld by Robert Gates, a former CIA director who has said he wants to yield important Pentagon intelligence activities.

Mr Gates is expected to appoint Lt-Gen James Clapper, who had fallen out of favour with Mr Rumsfeld, as his top intelligence official.

Former intelligence officials said Mr Negroponte was tired of bureaucratic turf wars and wanted to return to his diplomatic career.

Mr McConnell, a former head of the National Security Agency, is tipped to leave his consulting job to replace Mr Negroponte.

Members of Congress expressed dismay at Mr Negroponte’s early departure, concerned at the apparent disarray at the top of the intelligence apparatus.

Mr Negroponte, who was the first post-occupation ambassador to Iraq, brings his experience to the State Department at a time when Ms Rice is focused on shoring up Iraq’s government while building alliances among Arab allies to contain Iran and moderate the Palestinian leadership.

At a press conference, Tony Snow, White House spokesman, rolled his eyes at a suggestion that Ms Rice, perhaps the closest in the cabinet to the president and now no longer challenged by Mr Rumsfeld, was set to move on.

Additional reporting by Edward Luce in Washington

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Saddam's ugly death

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Saddam's ugly death
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: January 4, 2007

Saddam Hussein deserves no one's pity. But as anyone who has seen the graphic cell phone video of his hanging can testify, his execution bore little resemblance to dispassionate, state-administered justice. The condemned dictator appeared to have been delivered from U.S. military custody into the hands of a Shiite lynch mob.

For the Bush administration, which insists it went to war in Iraq to implant democracy and justice, those globally viewed images were a shaming embarrassment. Unfortunately, all Americans will be blamed, while the Iraqi people are now likely to suffer still more. What should have been a symbolic passage out of Iraq's darkest era will instead fuel a new era of spiraling sectarian vengeance.

The ugly episode shows why Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is never likely to produce the national unity government that Washington keeps demanding and that Iraq so desperately needs. On Wednesday, Maliki's office announced the arrest of a guard who allegedly took the unauthorized video. But the fundamental blame belongs to Maliki, who personally orchestrated the timing and circumstances of last Saturday's execution.

Maliki ignored U.S. pleas for delay niceties of Iraq's constitution. He rushed to deliver Saddam's death as a holiday gift to his hard-line Shiite constituency, especially followers of the radical cleric and militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, who were allowed to chant abuse at the condemned dictator while he stood at the gallows with the noose around his neck.

Maliki's usual cheerleaders, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, have distanced themselves from this repellent spectacle. Yet the Bush administration again finds that it has little credibility to lecture anyone on the basic dignity due to detainees. The Washington Post reported Wednesday on an internal FBI investigation that revealed a pattern of deliberate taunting of the religious beliefs of Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo.

As Bush prepares his latest plan for Iraq, he must face up to bleak realities. As of January 2007, Iraq lacks an army capable of standing on its own. It lacks a justice system that puts the rule of law over political expediency, while its police force is dominated by sectarian militias and thugs. Most crucially, it lacks a government committed to protect the rights and personal safety of all Iraqis.

Most Americans, whatever their view of the war, understand that the rule of Saddam Hussein brought a murderous curse and untold suffering upon the Iraqi people. Saddam has now gone to his grave. But the outrageous manner of his killing, deliberately mimicking his own depraved methods, assures that his cruelty will outlive him.

US employers add jobs at record rate

US employers add jobs at record rate
By Eoin Callan in Washington, Tony Tassell and Peter Garnham in London, and Saskia Scholtes in New York
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 5 2007 14:24 | Last updated: January 5 2007 17:00

US employers added workers to their payrolls at a record rate last month, according to fresh data which sent US government bonds sharply lower as investors scaled back expectations of interest rate cuts.

The record job creation prompted a surge in the dollar as government statistics showed non-farm payrolls rose 167,000 jobs in December - defying economists’ predictions that the pace of hiring would slow.

The biggest monthly payrolls increase of the last year will be viewed by the Fed as a sign the US economy is heading for a soft landing. The data adds weight to the central bank’s forecast of moderate economic growth this year, despite an ongoing slowdown in the housing sector.

A senior official in the Bush administration said the strong job creation last month showed the Fed had “gotten it right”.

Al Hubbard, an adviser to President George W. Bush, said: “It looks like we’re going to have that soft landing we’ve all been hoping for.”

The data sent Treasury bonds diving and the dollar surging as investors sharply scaled back expectations of US interest rate cuts.

Job creation was also stronger than previously thought in November, with an increase of 154,000 compared to earlier estimates of a rise of 132,000.

The biggest employment gains were in the service sector, with mass hiring in professional and business services, health care, and food services offsetting weakness in construction and manufacturing.

“The report shows that weakness in the housing market has not translated into other areas of the economy,” said Drew Matus, economist at Lehman Brothers. “We still have a drag on the economy from housing and some parts of the manufacturing sector but we are making up for it in other areas.”

“This is another sign of the vibrancy of the US economy and its ability to respond to new challenges.”

Rob Carnell at ING Financial Markets, said: “Barring any dramatic turnarounds next month, the Fed will probably opt to play it safe with unchanged rates at forthcoming meetings.”

The data undermined the more pessimistic expectations priced into bond markets that the Fed would be forced to cut interest rates in the coming months as weakness in the housing and manufacturing sectors dragged economic growth well below trend.

The data produced a rapid sell off in US Treasuries, pushing yields on the benchmark 10-year bond up by 8.4 basis points to 4.69 per cent in the first hour after the report. The two-year note yield added 10.4 bp to 4.81 per cent.

The payrolls report also prompted investors to adjust their bets in the interest-rate futures markets. Short-term interest rate futures fell, bringing the implied odds of a 25 basis point cut by the end of the first half of this year to 25 per cent, down from 50 per cent before the data.

The euro fell from around $1.3080 before the data, to $1.3002. Sterling fell from around $1.9400 to $1.9310.

Alan Ruskin, strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital said the data “will force the market to further defer rate cut expectations well into” the second half of the year.

The government data will add to Fed concerns about underlying inflation pressures as the survey showed average hourly earnings rose by 8 cents, the strongest rise in eight months.

Government data also showed the unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.5 per cent, signalling a tight labour market, with 6.8m Americans unable to find work.

The Fed has cited the tight labour market as a key reason it retains a bias towards raising interest rates to counter rising prices.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Toyota shows Deroit no mercy

Toyota shows Deroit no mercy
By Bernard Simon in Detroit
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 3 2007 21:59 | Last updated: January 4 2007 07:34
Toyota underlined its onslaught on the Detroit motor industry by posting its 11th consecutive year of record sales in the US.

The Japanese automaker’s Camry sedan was the US’s top-selling car in 2006 for the fifth year in a row. Its Lexus brand led the luxury market for the seventh consecutive year.

In contrast to Toyota’s 12.9 per cent sales surge, General Motors sold 8.7 per cent fewer light vehicles in its home market last year than in 2005. Toyota’s worldwide shipments are expected to overtake GM this year.

Toyota shares hit a record high of Y8,140 on Friday morning in Tokyo trading before closing up 1.6 per cent at Y8,090 by midday.

Ford Motor’s US sales slid 7.9 per cent in 2006 but it hung on to its number-two spot. Toyota overtook DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler division as the number-three carmaker in the US in 2006, and is expected to surpass Ford this year.

Both GM and Ford posted sales declines of almost 13 per cent in December. Chrysler reported a 7 per cent drop in US sales last year, in spite of incentives to cut inventories., a pricing service, estimates Chrysler offered incentives valued at an average of $4,416 per vehicle in December, almost 8 per cent higher than a year earlier.

GM on Wednesday announced a further 1.7 per cent cut in first-quarter North American output, equal to 20,000 vehicles, mainly to cut dependence on low-margin sales to the rental industry. Paul Ballew, GM sales analyst, said it had cut sales of daily rental cars by about 100,000 vehicles in recent years on the way to its target of reducing these by “a couple of hundred thousand units”.

A big disappointment at Ford was a 12 per cent drop in demand for the F-Series pick-up truck, the US’s top-selling vehicle.

Ford sales were also pushed down by its decision to stop producing the Taurus, once the US’s best-selling car, and the Freestar minivan.

Alan Mulally, Ford’s chief executive, said Wednesday that his last month’s visit to Toyota was just to show his respect of the Japanese carmaker, and not an effort to bring the companies any closer.

Commenting on the visit, which sparked investor hopes about a potential alliance, Mr Mulally said Toyota was “the finest machine in the world, the finest production system in the world. So we went to study with the master”.

George Pipas, Ford’s sales analyst, said demand for pick-ups would remain under pressure this year, due to the weakening construction market. But the launch of new GM, Toyota and Ford models might slow the slide.

Mr Ballew described 2006 as “a challenging one [for the industry] that came in a bit below expectations”, with some improvement in recent months.

But Jim Lentz, executive vice-president at Toyota’s US marketing unit, said 2006 was a “respectable year for the industry if you consider the strain of erratic fuel prices and a housing bubble on an industry weaning itself from incentives”.

He cautioned that future growth may be more modest.

Toyota projects a 6 per cent increase in US sales in 2007.

Most analysts forecast a contraction in the overall market.

Failure in Iraq was not inevitable

Failure in Iraq was not inevitable
By Jacob Weisberg
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 3 2007 22:35 | Last updated: January 3 2007 22:35

That the war in Iraq has been a vast mistake virtually everyone now agrees. But what, exactly, is the nature of that mistake? The isolationist left and the realist right – George McGovern and Brent Scowcroft – emphasise that the US’s error was intervening in the absence of overwhelming national interest. At the opposite end of the foreign policy continuum, the neo-conservatives contend that invading Iraq was a good idea undermined by incompetent implementation. In the space between are liberal hawks who originally supported the war and a variety of sceptics who did not. They now tend to agree that the war was a mistake in theory and a disaster in execution.

What makes this backward-looking conversation more than academic is its implications for American foreign policy beyond Iraq. The US defeat in Vietnam left a disinclination to use military force that lasted many years. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” President George H.W. Bush declared at the height of his apparent Gulf war triumph in 1991. “And I’ve brought it roaring back,” his son might well respond. But if the invasion of Iraq is mainly a case of bungled execution – a war that, whether justified or not in principle, could have left behind a peaceful, functioning Iraqi state at a tolerable cost – then the isolationist/realist lesson is the wrong one to draw.

The easiest view to dismiss is the 20/20 hindsight of the neo-conservatives, who blame the Iraqi tragedy on President George W. Bush, former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the temporary viceroy Paul Bremer – on anyone, in short, other than themselves. In the January issue of Vanity Fair, several of the neo-cons patiently explain that incompetent Republicans spoiled their picnic by failing to rein in Mr Bremer, not trusting fully in Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi opposition leader, and so forth. Some believe the US did not send enough troops. Some believe it did not remove them quickly enough.

Blame-shifting aside, what is irritating in this exculpation is the continuing fantasy that war in Iraq could have dependably followed any preconceived plan. Mr Rumsfeld is right about one thing – stuff happens. Military decision-making demands improvisation and entails error. The problem in Iraq has not been too much military flexibility. It has been too little. It is absurd for the war’s neo-con architects to stand around now complaining that the builders rendered their masterpiece poorly. Their idealised conception, in which Mr Chalabi would have been installed, remained a blueprint for good reason. It might well have produced an Iranian super-state or a quicker plunge into anarchy and ethnic cleansing. There is little basis for thinking it would have produced a better outcome.

Yet the arguments at the other extreme – that no occupation could have been successful because Iraq is an artificial country, or because we do not understand it, or because the ethnic and religious factions there prefer war to peace – are also unpersuasive. Much criticism of the war sees US intervention as a kind of original sin. Born arrogant, it cannot help screwing up other countries when it tries to fix them. Yes, blaming incompetence can be a way for those of us who endorsed the war to dodge responsibility. But nothing that went wrong in Iraq, including the Sunni-Shia civil conflict, was fated or inevitable. The difference between Kosovo and Iraq is not between a country that was ready for peace and one that was not. It was a matter of better management and better luck.

Closer to the truth, it seems to me, is the broad middle ground occupied by various supporters, opponents and journalistic neutrals, who – whatever their views on the war’s original merits – think that the catastrophe in Iraq was contingent rather than preordained. Reading Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco, Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory, James Fallows’ Blind into Baghdad or George Packer’s Assassins’ Gate, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mr Bush and the Pentagon made a series of avoidable, catastrophic errors in the run-up to the war and the first year of the occupation. These errors were so significant that they virtually ensured the US’s defeat.

The litany of failure has become familiar. Mr Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Dick Cheney’s White House simply rejected the notion of planning for a hostile occupation. They disregarded basic counter-insurgency and stabilisation theory, which suggests that you need to send 20 troops for every 1,000 civilians and that they need to operate with a light hand. The US sent approximately one-third the appropriate number with no counter-insurgency strategy to speak of. Mr Bremer’s early decisions to disband the Iraqi army and security forces and proceed with radical de-Ba’athification alienated the Sunni minority and fuelled the insurgency. As Iraq descended into mayhem, a disengaged US president continued to declaim the absurd goal of establishing liberal democracy in a catastrophically damaged country where it had no root.

There is, of course, no way to know what might have happened if the US had not made these mistakes and others. Defeat would still have been possible with better planning, sufficient troops, realistic goals and sound strategy. But even in this mistakenly chosen war, America’s failure was not inevitable. It is the product of Mr Bush’s blunders along the way – and the blunders he is making still.

The writer is editor of

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Evasions and obfuscations By Paul Varnell

Evasions and obfuscations By Paul Varnell
Copyright by Chicago Free Press and Paul Varnell
January 3, 2007.

It is amazing how many politicians claim they support equal rights and oppose discrimination against gays, but then favor a ban on same-sex marriage, oppose allowing gays to serve openly in the military, even oppose adoption by gay couples.

Exactly what is equal about letting heterosexuals marry the person they love, but not gays; letting heterosexuals serve openly in the military, but not gays; and letting heterosexuals adopt children, but not gays—not even let them adopt gay youths?

I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little tired of people who say they are for gay legal equality—except when they are against it, or say they are against discrimination—except when they are for it, and then use all sort of verbal evasions to wriggle out of acknowledging how anti-gay they are.

My favorite evasive phrase is “unjust discrimination.” Take outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Please. Romney says, “I’ve opposed same-sex marriage, but I’ve also opposed unjust discrimination against anyone, for racial or religious reasons, or for sexual preference.”

Romney not only opposes same-sex marriage, he also opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Yet he says he is against “unjust discrimination.” Romney advisor Barbara Comstock says he defends traditional marriage and opposes “unjust discrimination against anyone” but doesn’t see a need for “new or special legislation” on DADT or ENDA.

It is worth noticing that the Pope uses the same phrase—saying he opposes “unjust discrimination” against “homosexuals.” And we all know how gay-friendly the Pope is. Clearly people using the phrase hope to sound moderate and tolerant by creating the impression that they think discrimination is unjust—and many gullible people do take them to mean that.

But what they actually mean is that they think only some forms of discrimination are “unjust”—and those are the ones they oppose. But they think other forms of discrimination are entirely just—and those they fully support. And, of course, they get to decide which kinds are which. In other words, the term has no objective meaning. It is utterly empty. It means…nothing.

Romney is not the only presidential aspirants emitting evasions. Consider the nearly incoherent obfuscation by Arizona Senator John McCain: “I do not believe that marriage between—I believe in the sanctity and unique role of marriage between man and woman. But I certainly don’t believe in discriminating against any American.”

Asked by George Stephanopoulos if he were for civil unions then, McCain continued: “No, I’m not. But (the Arizona anti-gay marriage initiative which he supported) did allow for people to join in legal agreements such as power of attorney and others.” Question: “So you’re for civil unions?” McCain: “No. I am for ability of two—I do not believe gay marriage should be legal. But I do believe that people ought to be able to enter into contracts, exchange powers of attorney, other ways that people who have relationships can enter into.”

But signing contracts, exchanging powers of attorney and “other” arrangements are rights that friends, business partners and every adult already has, so McCain is actually saying that he is not for anything beyond what already exists. But he is trying to seem “moderate” by saying what he is for, even if it is nothing new. Thanks for, literally, nothing, Senator.

Moving to the other side of the aisle, consider former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Edwards described same-sex marriage as “the single hardest social issue” for him and said he had had a lot of “personal struggles” over the issue. Oh, John, John, we feel your pain! How hard it must be for you to grant others the same right you have to marry the person you love.

Edwards said he favored civil rights for gays but that it was a “jump for me to get to gay marriage … I am not there yet.” So Edwards favors civil rights but opposes civil marriage. Apparently a civil marriage is not a civil right.

And he has the effrontery to teasingly imply that he might change his position (“I’m not there—yet—”) but suggests no sorts of reasons or criteria he would use in reevaluating his position. Apparently it is all just a mucky ooze of subjective feelings.

And where is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation? The gay organization that should be monitoring these statements, publicly pointing out contradictions, obfuscations, and evasions, sensitizing the news media to detect them and advising how to ask follow-up questions to force candidates to answer more clearly? GLAAD is off partying with television and film personalities—“Dancing with the Stars.”

Many of Paul Varnell’s previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum ( His e-mail address is

The cheapening of justice

The cheapening of justice
By Clarence Page
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published January 3, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Although I oppose the death penalty, I toyed for many years with the notion that all executions should be televised. The video of Saddam Hussein's hanging that has popped up on Internet sites has disabused me of that notion. Too many viewers appear to be enjoying it too much.

I found at least one video-sharing Web site that was offering the event as a download in two portable formats. Web-savvy kids can share Hussein's last moments with each other on the video iPods Santa brought.

Video originally released to Iraqi television stations shows the rope being looped around Hussein's neck and stops short of the actual hanging. But a second video, apparently shot with a cell phone camera, includes Hussein falling through a trapdoor as he was in the middle of praying.

As he waited to be hanged, men in the room chanted the name of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. Hussein seemed to respond sarcastically by repeating Sadr's name. If anyone, particularly among Hussein's fellow Sunnis, could feel any sympathy for the mass murderer, the video offers it.

I used to think that the public would be so horrified at the sight of a state-sponsored murder in progress that people would rise up as one to call for an end to the barbaric practice. The buzz generated by Hussein's video persuades me of quite the opposite. After all, there once was a time in this country when hangings were public events. Some were formal. Some were lynchings. Each was treated as public entertainment long before a steady diet of television violence further desensitized us.

Today's media-market incentives might actually encourage executions instead of reducing them. A substantial number of viewers might well race to see if an actual killing was as spine-tingling as the dramatized versions that they already have seen.

Marketing executives would race to secure exclusive rights and sell advertising for the big events. Court TV might not be enough to handle viewer demand. Someone would spin off a new Capital Punishment Channel. States like Texas and Florida, where executions have been plentiful, might find a new revenue source in auctioning off TV rights in much the way that the sports franchises do.

For those of us who oppose the death penalty, a justice system should honor victims by making sure the right killers are punished. At least there's no question about that in Hussein's case. There is only the question of why he was not prosecuted for more of the deaths that so many people know he ordered.

Many feared that Hussein's execution would lead to more violence. But, if it did, how would we tell? Iraq has experienced increasing amounts of violence with each passing month. Immediately after Hussein's hanging, more than 70 civilians were killed in a series of car bombs in Shiite neighborhoods, according to news reports. Almost 2,000 civilians were killed in December, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry, nearly three times the number of deaths the ministry reported in January 2006. (The United Nations and other outside organizations reported even higher casualty figures.) And at least 112 U.S. soldiers died in December, the deadliest month for American troops in more than two years, pushing the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq past 3,000.

Nevertheless, the video of Hussein's execution sends a warning to other despots that they, too, might be held accountable for their atrocities with swift justice, if and when the international community gets its moral act together. Unfortunately, the video also gives the unsavory impression of a sectarian lynch mob, which is not the form of justice with which Americans should want to be associated.

The Iraqi government says investigations are under way to find out who shot the video and how it was released. It certainly didn't do the regime any favors. It serves to further inflame sectarian conflicts. It exposes an appalling lack of discipline on the part of the guards and officials at the execution. It also makes you wonder whether Hussein's savage rule might be replaced with something worse.


Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board. E-mail:

You can search for more columns in our archives.

Gay-marriage foes win in Mass. - Legislators take step to put ban on ballot in '08

Gay-marriage foes win in Mass. - Legislators take step to put ban on ballot in '08
By Ellen Barry,
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune - Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times; The Associated Press contributed to this report
Published January 3, 2007

Massachusetts legislators on Tuesday took a first step toward a ballot initiative against same-sex marriage, raising the possibility that gay marriage could be phased out in the only state that allows it.

Massachusetts has allowed same-sex couples to marry since 2004. Gov. Mitt Romney ordered town clerks to begin issuing licenses to comply with a decision of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, which found that it was unconstitutional to limit marriage to heterosexuals.

Opponents have sought a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. They collected more than 170,000 signatures, more than the number required to submit the question to voters.

But many state legislators resisted the idea, arguing that a referendum on gay marriage would hurt the state.

Massachusetts' initiative process requires at least a quarter of state legislators to approve the ballot question in two consecutive sessions. Last fall, the legislature voted to adjourn the session without voting on the gay-marriage initiative, which would have killed it.

The stalling tactic angered Romney, a gay-marriage opponent, who joined in a lawsuit against the legislators seeking to force a vote on the initiative. Then, last week, the Supreme Judicial Court weighed in with a scathing judgment: "Those members who seek to avoid their lawful obligations ... ultimately will have to answer to the people who elected them." The justices acknowledged, however, that they had no authority to force action.

Under increasing pressure, lawmakers convened Tuesday for a final, tumultuous day of political brinksmanship. In a morning vote, the initiative won the support of 61 legislators, more than the 50 needed. But the vote was cast into question when a member proposed a reconsideration. Hours later in a second vote on the issue, the initiative gained the backing of 62 legislators, with 134 lawmakers opposed.

A quarter of the legislature will have to approve the measure again in the next legislative session in order for it to appear on the ballot in 2008.

If the amendment makes it onto the ballot and residents approve it, it would leave Massachusetts' 8,000 gay marriages intact but ban any new ones.

When the result was announced, gay-marriage advocates "struggled mightily not to lose their cool and break into tears," said Arline Isaacson, co-chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"If we don't save marriage equality here, we may well be doomed to not have it anywhere," she said.

Lisa Barstow of, which proposed the initiative, said she was "thrilled" at the outcome.

"It's unfortunate that citizen initiative petitions have to go through hell and high water to advance, but at the end of the day we say that democracy was served," she said. She said she expects the initiative to pass again, "hopefully with a little less angst."

But it was also clear that more resistance awaits. Hours before the vote, incoming Gov. Deval Patrick called the ballot measure "irresponsible and wrong."

"This is a question of conscience," said Patrick, who will be sworn in on Thursday. "Using the initiative process to give a minority fewer freedoms than the majority, and to inject the state into fundamentally private affairs, is a dangerous precedent, and an unworthy one for this commonwealth."

Since the Massachusetts high court decision set off a national debate over gay marriage in 2003, voters in 26 states have passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. No other state has allowed gay couples to marry, though Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut allow civil unions, and California's domestic partnership law guarantees many of the rights of marriage.

On Tuesday, crowds of gay-marriage supporters and opponents returned to the Statehouse to press lawmakers on the issue.

Proponents of the amendment stood at the foot of the Statehouse steps with signs reading "Let the People Vote."

Opponents stood on the opposite side of the street, in front of a Civil War memorial, with their own banners. "Let the people marry," read one.

Chicago Free Press Editorial - Normal people

Chicago Free Press Editorial - Normal people
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
January 3, 2007.

Around dawn on New Year’s Eve, as reported in a news story in this newspaper, two masked gunmen kicked in the door of a South Side apartment full of people partying and opened fire with semiautomatic weapons.

Six people were shot; amazingly, none of the wounds was life threatening and no one was killed.

The evidence isn’t in yet, but it appears that the party was targeted because most of the people there, along with the people renting the Avalon Park apartment, were gay. The people who lived there had moved in last April and reported being constantly harassed by area residents over being gay.

In the wake of the shooting, TV news crews even interviewed neighbors who complained that the gay men living in the apartment shouldn’t have been there—one said matter-of-factly that the neighborhood was for “normal people, you know, straight people.”

Wow—so this is still, in 2007, what some people believe? Wasn’t it just a few decades ago that white people in Chicago were saying the same sort of thing whenever black people attempted to move into some neighborhoods?

And what—are we to believe that this then is how “normal people” react toward gay people? By getting out the guns and firing away?

We’re waiting to see how Chicago responds to this.

Specifically, how will official Chicago react? One supposes that if members of one ethnic group had fired away at a gathering of members of another ethnic group, the city’s political leaders would be up in arms. There would be City Council members and County Commissioners on the scene demanding some type of action. State senators and representatives would be there to console the victims and their families and to denounce the hate that had spawned such a crime.

None of that has happened. We wonder why.

We would also expect a response from other leaders, especially religious leaders. There’s no shortage of noted religious figures with large constituencies in the area where the shooting occurred—people such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. James Meeks and Bishop Larry Trotter. These are leaders who’ve shown their concern when similar events involving hate have taken place in their communities; we’d hope they’d be aghast at people being targeted for such violence just because they’re gay and we’d expect to hear them voice those concerns publicly.

That also hasn’t happened yet. We wonder why.

We’d also expect people to wake up and realize that our schools need to get involved and do more to teach this generation of young people in that neighborhood that gay people are just as “normal” as anyone else, and that anti-gay hate has no place in a civilized society. We’d expect to hear educators at Chicago Public Schools say they’re ready to meet that challenge, and we’d expect our political and community leaders to demand that they do so.

That hasn’t happened either. We wonder why.

Finally, we’d expect gay people throughout Chicago to be outraged. This type of vicious, premeditated hate crime should provoke our community groups to take to the streets. We’d expect a vigil or march in this neighborhood to show those who would try to kill us that we belong everywhere, that we will not be intimidated or silenced.

We haven’t heard of that happening yet. We wonder why.

Maker no mistake—this was a horrible crime. The people who carried it out believe that they can get away with it because nobody cares about gay people living on the South Side.

We’re waiting for someone to prove them wrong.

On marriage By Carlos T Mock

On marriage By Carlos T Mock
Copyright by Chicago Free Press and Carlos T Mock
January 3, 2007

Recently I had an argument with a close friend about the practicality of the GLBT community abandoning the “M” word and just going for civil unions and the rights and responsibilities that they would convey.

I politely disagreed with my friend and reminded him of the similarities between the African American civil rights movement and the GLBT struggle for equality.

Until June 12, 1967, in some American states it was illegal for African American adults to marry white ones. In, Loving v. Virginia the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (9-0) that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional within the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Warren said: “There can be no question that Virginia’s miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race. …Marriage is one of ‘the basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. …To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Civil unions for interracial marriages were never part of the equation.

I raise the query because there’s a lot of conversation in the aftermath of the New Jersey decision that legalized civil unions instead of marriage in the Garden State.

The story line has not just caused a much-needed debate about how Democrats must frame their values. It’s also caused a queasy argument about whether the gay rights marriage movement was too much, too fast. The conversation is even going on in the gay community where every small dissenting voice is amplified like a family fight.

At heart are the old questions: Do you wait for people to be more comfortable to make change? Or do people only become more comfortable in the wake of change? Do you sacrifice incremental benefits by going for the whole enchilada? Or do small changes merely sustain the status quo?

Evan Wolfson, the author of “Why Marriage Matters,” says, “The classic American pattern of civil rights advances is a patchwork of advances, resistance, regression, all at the same time.” Today the map of America looks decidedly like a patchwork quilt.

The gay rights movement is not solely about marriage, and there are real gains in pursuing health benefits and Social Security. Activists, as Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois says, need to tell the everyday stories of couples barred from hospital rooms and from health coverage.

But if we waited for comfort levels to rise, would we still have laws against interracial marriage? Would we be issuing civil unions for segregated marriages?

Six years ago, Vermont took the radical step of legalizing civil unions. Now civil unions are the moderate position. Does anyone think this shift in thinking would have happened without marriage on the agenda?

When same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, a huge uproar was predicted. But the sky never fell, and the uproar became a low hum. In Massachusetts, same sex couples now look like any other SUV couple with two parents, a kid, and a golden retriever on a quiet suburban street. We’ve even begun the next, less cheerful, chapter in equality: same-sex divorce.

There is nothing that the GLBT community can do to appease its opponents except, perhaps, disappear. But in one of the exit polls in the 2004 presidential election that got the least attention, 60 percent of voters favored either gay marriage or civil unions. The younger the voters, the more likely they are to favor marriage. To me, that is reason enough to fight for same-sex marriages instead of civil unions.

Carlos T. Mock
Letters to the Editor

Gay teens reluctant to come out to doctors

Gay teens reluctant to come out to doctors
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
January 3, 2007.

LOS ANGELES—A survey of lesbian, gay and bisexual teenagers found that 70 percent said most people they knew were aware of their sexual orientation, but only 35 percent reported that their doctor knew, according to a new study released last week by the RAND Corporation and UCLA.

Dr. Garth D. Meckler, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics with the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Ore., said the survey results surprised researchers because the subjects were interviewed at an empowerment conference for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth.

“We knew that the sample that we chose was going to be a very ‘out’ sample,” Meckler said. “We figured they would have a higher disclosure rate than most youth, and yet, despite being out to almost everyone in their lives, only 35 percent had told their doctor about their sexual orientation.”

The study by RAND—a nonprofit research organization—and UCLA was published in the December issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Researchers surveyed 131 participants at the Models of Pride Youth Conference hosted by a southern California campus in October 2003 for this study. Of those teens whose physician knew their sexual orientation, only 21 percent said their doctor had raised the topic.

Hate crime? - Masked gunmen wound six at South Side party

Hate crime? - Masked gunmen wound six at South Side party
By Gary Barlow
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press
Januarey 3, 2007

Two masked gunmen armed with semiautomatic weapons burst into a predominately gay party on Chicago’s South Side early Dec. 31 and opened fire, injuring six people.

The shooting happened about 5:30 a.m. at the basement apartment of a house in the 7900 block of South Woodlawn Avenue, and people at the party said it came after the gay men living at the house had complained of anti-gay harassment from area residents.

The six victims, between the ages of 19 and 35, were all shot in the chest, with two initially listed as being in critical condition. By the afternoon of Jan. 1, Chicago Police spokeswoman Monique Bond said, all the victims were in stable condition, with none of the wounds considered to be life threatening. Two victims were released from area hospitals the afternoon of Dec. 31.

Bond said witnesses didn’t report any anti-gay words said by the gunmen, who fled into a gangway. She also said because the gunmen were masked, no one could offer a facial description of the shooters.

Those factors, Bond said, might make it difficult for the crime to be classified as an anti-gay hate crime. She said the Police Department’s civil rights division had been called in to assist detectives.

A police spokesman said Jan. 2 that investigators were still looking for leads in the case.

Neighbors told reporters that the home was the site of frequent parties. The men who rented the apartment had lived there since April. One of the men’s brothers told the Chicago Sun-Times that his brother had complained of being harassed for being gay since moving into the neighborhood.

This is a good time for a heart-to-heart chitchat By Garrison Keillor

This is a good time for a heart-to-heart chitchat
By Garrison Keillor
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published January 3, 2007

As the new Congress convenes this week and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ascends to the rostrum, you have to wish them all well. These are the kids who got up in school assembly and spoke on Armistice Day and were captains of teams and organized class projects to do good works, a different breed from us wise guys who lurked in the halls and made fun of them, and in the end you want them and not us running your government. Yes, they had serious brown-nose tendencies and a knack for mouthing pieties, but you could count on them to do what needed doing. They were leaders.

You wonder, however, what this earnest bunch can do when things are so far out of whack as they are in Iraq. The gangland-style execution of Saddam Hussein was visible reality, a token of the bloodlust and violence that swirls around Iraq, where our forces are mired, sitting targets, aliens, fighting a colonial war in behalf of a Shiite majority that is as despotic and cruel as what came before except messier.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the limousines come and go, memoranda are set out on long polished tables, men in crisp white shirts sit at meetings and discuss how to rationalize a war that was conceived by a handful of men in arrogant ignorance and that has descended over the past four years into sheer madness.

Military men know there is no military solution here, and the State Department knows that the policy was driven by domestic politics, but who is going to tell the Current Occupant? The word "surge" keeps cropping up, as if we were fighting the war with electricity and not human beings.

Here we have a slacker son of a powerful patrician father who resolves unconscious Oedipal issues through inappropriate acting-out in foreign countries. Hello? All the king's task forces can gather together the shards of the policy, number them, arrange them, but it never made sense when it was whole and so it makes even less sense now.

American boys in armored jackets and night scopes patrolling the streets of Baghdad are not going to pacify this country, any more than they will convert it to Methodism. They are there to die so that a man in the White House doesn't have to admit that he, George W. Bush, the decider, the one in the cowboy boots, made grievous mistakes. He approved a series of steps that he himself had not the experience or acumen or simple curiosity to question and that had been dumbed down for his benefit, and then he doggedly stuck by them until his approval ratings sank into the swamp.

He was the Great Denier of 2006, waving the flag, questioning the patriotism of anyone who dared oppose him, until he took a thumpin', and now, we are told, he is re-examining the whole matter. Except he's not. To admit that he did wrong is to admit that he is not the man his daddy is, the one who fought in a war.

Hey, we've all had issues with our dads. But do we need this many people to die so that one dude can look like a leader?

The earnest folk in Congress are prepared to discuss policy issues, to plant their butts in hard chairs and sit through jargon-encrusted reports and long dry perorations thereupon. They're trained for that. That's one good reason they're there and not you or me. But to address the war and the White House, you're talking pathology.

It's time for 41 and 43 to work something out, and they can't do it by way of James Baker or Brent Scowcroft. Pick up the phone, old man, and tell 43 you love him dearly and it's time to think about sparing the lives of American soldiers, many of whom have sons too.


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

Want to respond? Don't even go there

Want to respond? Don't even go there
By Joel Stein
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times
Published January 3, 2007

That address on the bottom of this column? That is the pathetic, confused death knell of the once-proud newspaper industry, and I want nothing to do with it. Sending an e-mail to that address is about as useful as sending your study group report about Iraq to the president.

Here's what my Internet-fearing editors have failed to understand: I don't want to talk to you; I want to talk at you. A column is not my attempt to engage in a conversation with you. I have more than enough people to converse with. And I don't listen to them either. That sound on the phone, Mom, is me typing.

Some newspapers even list the phone numbers of their reporters at the end of their articles. That's a smart use of their employees' time. Why not just save a step and have them set up a folding table at a senior citizen center with a sign asking for complaints?

Where does this end? Does Philip Roth have to put his e-mail at the end of his book? Does Tom Hanks have to hold up a sign with his e-mail at the end of his movie? Should your hotel housekeeper leave her e-mail on your sheets? Are you starting to see how creepy this is?

Not everything should be interactive. A piece of work that stands on its own, without explanation or defense, takes on its own power. If Martin Luther put his 95 Theses on the wall and then all the townsfolk sent him their comments, and he had to write back to all of them and clarify what he meant, some of the theses would have gotten all watered down and there never would have been a Diet of Worms. And then, for the rest of history, students learning about the Reformation would have nothing to make fun of. You can see how dangerous this all is.

I get that you have opinions you want to share. That's great. You're the Person of the Year. I just don't have any interest in them. First of all, I did a tiny bit of research for my column, so I'm already familiar with your brilliant argument. Second, I've already written my column, so I can't even steal your ideas and get paid for them.

There is no practical reason to send your rants to me. If you want to counter my opinion publicly, write a letter to the editor. If you want me fired, write a letter to the publisher. If you want a note back, write a letter in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Or you could just write mean things about my column on some blog. Don't worry, I'll see them. I have a "Joel Stein" RSS feed that goes straight into my arteries.

A lot of e-mail screeds argue that, in return for the privilege of broadcasting my opinion, I have the responsibility to listen to you. I don't. No more than you have a responsibility to read me. I'm not an elected servant. I'm an arrogant, attention-needy freak who pretends to have an opinion about everything. I don't have time to listen to you. I barely have time to listen to me.

Part of the problem is that no etiquette has yet been established for the hyper-interactive world. And I, born before MySpace and e-mail, don't feel comfortable getting a letter and not answering it. And then, if I do, suddenly we're pen pals, with all those pen pal responsibilities. So I'm going to establish a new etiquette. I'm asking my editors to build a page on where, instead of e-mailing me, you can write about how arrogant I am. And maybe on this site, one brave person will write about how I'm right to stand up against this world of false, easy community, where columnists pretend they think their essays are no more valuable than yours, and friendship is a stranger who thanks you for the MySpace add.

And I hope that this brave someone else is smart enough to think of a username and IP address that doesn't reveal that it's obviously me.


Joel Stein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. E-mail:

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Rising opposition to US troop increase

Rising opposition to US troop increase
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: January 1 2007 17:33 | Last updated: January 1 2007 17:33

George W. Bush is facing mounting opposition to plans to reinforce America’s military presence in Iraq, as he prepares to unveil his administration’s new strategy for dealing with a conflict that has now claimed the lives of 3,000 US soldiers.

The US president is expected to announce a “new way forward in Iraq” sometime before his annual State of the Union address to Congress in late January.

According to a spate of leaks to the US media, Mr Bush is looking at a proposal to increase the number of US troops by between 20,000 and 30,000 as a short-term boost to the existing 140,000 level, with the aim of stabilising the violence in Baghdad and surrounding provinces.

But criticism of the planned “surge” in US forces is growing from within his own party as the death toll of US troops in Iraq rises. The figure last month passed the toll from the September 11 attacks and at the weekend independent groups confirmed the death of the 3,000th US soldier in the country.

In the past two days, a number of prominent Republican senators, including Arlen Specter and Richard Lugar, the outgoing chairmen of the Senate judiciary and foreign relations committees, have voiced strong scepticism about an increase in troops.

Although Mr Bush could expect the support of John McCain, the 2008 presidential hopeful, and Lindsey Graham, another Republican senator, the Republican tide appears to be moving against boosting troop levels. A number of Republicans have pointed out that Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, is also opposed to a beefed-up US military presence.

Mr Bush is also likely to face implacable opposition to any increase in US troop levels from the Democratic party, which controls both houses of the new US Congress that commences on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration faces the likelihood of tough senate hearings throughout January that Joseph Biden, the new Democratic chairman of the foreign relations committee, plans to hold from next week.

Democratic leaders have also hinted that they could use their control over the budget process to make life difficult for the Bush administration if it chooses to step up the US military presence in Iraq. This would require higher funding than the estimated $110bn (€83bn, £56bn) the war will have cost in the fiscal year ending in April.

Mr Bush is also expected to push for more funding to expand the overstretched US army, which senior generals have warned is close to breaking point. However, any permanent increase in size would take years to come on stream.