...Views from mid-Atlantic
09 October 2004

Classics teacher Victor Davis Hanson is always a pleasure to read, but a particular pleasure when he seems upbeat about US chances of winning the peace in Iraq. In the National Review, he asked himself, rhetorically, whether the United States was winning its engagements on the ground.

"The answer is an overwhelming yes - whether we look, most recently, at Samarra or at the thrashing of the Mahdists in Najaf. The combination of armor incursions, constant sniper attack, and GPS bombing in each case has led to decisive tactical defeat of the insurgents. Our only setback - the unfortunate pullback from Fallujah - was entirely attributable to our wrongheaded constraint, as if we somehow felt that releasing the terrorists from our death grip would either placate the opposition, empower the Iraqi government, or win accolades from the international community...

"In fact, our retreat achieved the opposite effect. Thus the withdrawal from Fallujah will be taught for decades as a textbook case of what not to do when suppressing insurgents. Nevertheless, we have reestablished the fact that we can crush all the opposition on the ground, our willingness to restart real hostilities dependent only on how much flak from our critics in the Middle East and Europe we are willing to take."

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a project launched by the World Bank in Washington in 2001, has detailed alarming increases in nitrogen emissions because of fertilizer use and the burning of fossil fuels. In a first draft of its report, the Assessment group speaks of damage to bodies of water that occur when nitrogen run-off makes rivers and lakes too rich in nutrients. Algae and other life can grow out of control, eventually stripping oxygen from the water which fish and other aquatic life need. Dead zones, the group says, have already begun to appear, notably in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen-rich water from the Mississippi river. The effects will be worst, they say, in the US, Europe and south-east Asia.

08 October 2004

BBC coverage of the news is under scrutiny again, this time after criticism that its religious coverage is inadequate, and that its coverage of the EU is unduly pro-Europe. I'm not sure that many people need convincing any more that the BBC cooks the books, but it is helpful to be able to see the issue outside the emotive Iraq War arena.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas takes a lot of knocks, perhaps especially from other black people in the US. Is the criticism fair? Not according to this Christian Science Monitor story: "Does the court's lone black jurist have a responsibility to his race? The question is all the more timely because White House lawyers, as I learned in my reporting, have consulted Thomas about succeeding Chief Justice William Rehnquist should Mr. Rehnquist, who turned 80 on Oct. 1, step down. Based on my conversations with Thomas, I believe he would answer the race responsibility question strongly in the affirmative. But Thomas has chosen to fulfill that obligation in a way that differs dramatically from that of his predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, and many of his contemporaries who came of age during the civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s.

"On the Supreme Court, Thomas is the strongest advocate of school vouchers because they allow black parents to send their children to parochial schools. Born to a teenage mother, Thomas credits the Catholic schools he attended with pulling him out of poverty and launching him to college.

"Thomas is the harshest Supreme Court critic of policies and laws that he believes perpetuate racist stereotypes. He thinks affirmative action presumes that black Americans can't compete with whites unless their college admissions applications are adjusted. Thomas has voted against forcing schools to integrate because he sees an assumption that black kids can't learn unless they sit next to whites, or that any school that is all black must be all bad."

I was wrong in my guess that Doris Lessing might have been chosen as this year's Literature Nobelist. Instead, they've chosen someone I have never heard of.

I'm apparently not the only one.

Coverage of the publication of the final report of the Iraq Survey Group - the Duelfer report, has focused on the fact that Saddam Hussein did not possess large stockpiles of WMDs when Coalition forces invaded in March 2003. But as the Wall Street Journal points out, "Mr. Duelfer explicitly rejects the facile conclusion that therefore sanctions were working. Among his other findings, based in part on interviews with Saddam himself and other senior regime figures:

1. Saddam believed weapons of mass destruction were essential to the preservation of his power, especially during the Iran-Iraq and 1991 Gulf wars.

2. He engaged in strategic deception intended to suggest that he retained WMD.

3. He fully intended to resume real WMD production after the expected lifting of U.N. sanctions, and he maintained weapons programs that put him in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions including 1441.

4. And he instituted an epic bribery scheme aimed primarily at three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, with the intent of having them help lift those sanctions.

The New York Times, meantime, is reporting on the "relative ease with which Mr. Hussein was able to buy weapons - working directly with governments in Syria, Belarus, Yemen, North Korea, the former Yugoslavia and possibly Russia, as well as with private companies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East - is documented in extraordinary detail, including repeated visits by government officials and arms merchants to Iraq and complicated schemes to disguise illegal shipments to Iraq."

There's nothing wrong with naming those French citizens who gained from Saddam Hussein's largesse, but the report should have been even-handed. If US law prevented US citizens from being named, then others shouldn't have been named, either. After all, it is perfectly easy to find the names elsewhere.

07 October 2004

The President of the Heritage Foundation, writing in the Washington Times this morning, suggests Kofi Annan was trying to change the subject when he told the BBC recently that the war with Iraq was "illegal". "It makes sense," he said, that "Mr. Annan would rather make such a ridiculous charge than talk about Oil-for-Food. His son was a consultant for a company that later won a questionable $4.8 million UN contract. Plus, the UN has completed at least 55 confidential internal Oil-for-Food investigations. Mr. Annan should release all those reports so we'll know what he knew and when he knew it.

"The world deserves a full and fair investigation of Oil-for-Food. If any UN officials engaged in wrongdoing, they should be fired and prosecuted under American or Iraqi law. But we won't get that investigation unless we keep up the pressure. Congress must make sure a United Nations cover-up doesn't obscure a $10 billion crime scene."

Meantime, the Guardian is highlighting those sections of the final report of the Iraq Survey Group which it says contain the "most combustible" allegations - that France and Russia were essentially bought off by Iraq. They were accused, the Guardian says, of accepting oil revenues from Saddam Hussein in expectation that they would use their influence on the UN security council to help Iraq.

"The central allegation is that Saddam creamed off Iraq's oil revenues under a programme set up by the UN to alleviate the impact of sanctions. Iraq's oil was intended to buy food for its population. Instead, Saddam used it to try to secure influence to block moves hostile to Iraq by the US and Britain on the UN security council and to promote resolutions favourable to Iraq. Both France and Russia, as permanent members of the security council, were in an ideal position to influence deliberations."

Columnist Max Boot is recalling, in the Los Angeles Times this morning, that little SpaceShipOne has, in a sense, settled an argument that the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager and the US Air Force had with NASA years ago. Yeager thought modified airplanes were the best way to get into space. NASA went with rockets. Boot says it was appropriate that SpaceShipOne took off from an airstrip in the Mojave Desert just a few miles from Edwards Air Force Base. "For it was at Edwards that a postwar generation of test pilots with ice water in their veins - members of what writer Tom Wolfe called the 'Brotherhood of the Right Stuff' - took up one experimental rocket plane after another to push the envelope."

A 25-year-old private soldier is to be court martialed by the British Army next week for faking those pictures, published by the Daily Mirror, that purported to show Iraqi prisoners being tortured by British soldiers. The Mirror's editor, Piers Morgan, was fired after refusing to acknowledge that the pictures were a hoax.

That $100 million gift given to the US Poetry Foundation two years ago is starting to bear fruit. At a dinner in Chicago, two American poets, Sam Menasche and Billy Collins, were given awards of $50,000 and $25,000 to help them continue their work. John Barr, president of the foundation, says that on the way are a host of projects, from a national recitation contest for high school students to "the biggest and baddest Web site for poetry out there." The projects are likely to comprise the most sweeping effort to promote poetry in the history of the United States or any other country.

In Britain, today, it is National Poetry Day. To celebrate, the Guardian invites you to answer some mostly nonsensical questions to be matched to a poet who matches your mood. It would be difficult to resist on any day, but downright churlish on National Poetry Day.

06 October 2004

CBS seems already to be fudging its promise to allow complete independence to those probing the Dan Rather story about forged George Bush National Guard papers. Newsday is reporting that Viacom's co-president, Leslie Moonves, said on Tuesday that the findings should probably not be announced until after Election Day. "Obviously, it should be done probably after the election is over so it doesn't affect what is going on," Moonves is alleged to have said in response to a question at a Goldman Sachs investment conference in Manhattan.

Newsday says that "Some media analysts and conservative critics challenged that view, asking why such a delay would be necessary. 'It makes sense to let the review committee decide when it comes out,' said Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University. 'Why is Les even talking about it? It would be fairer and better for CBS to say, 'Hey, when we said hands off, we meant hands off, and that means when it comes out, what it says, how long it is. It's not up to us.'"

There's no shortage of takers for Richard Branson's just-announced holiday in space. Spacedaily says that "Around 125 hard-line space junkies have already paid more than 100,000 dollars for tickets for a short trip on the world's first commercial spaceliners, years before the first passengers will be ushered aboard."

A book just published in France says that the country was ready to send 10 or 15,000 troops into Iraq until Jacques Chirac decided the US was moving too quickly towards invasion. This Washington Post story also highlights some fascinating information about the relationship between President Chirac and the two George Bushes.

A series of Congressional probes into the UN's Iraqi Oil-for-Food programme are beginning to have a positive effect on media coverage of the scandal. There was a real drought for two or three weeks at the end of September, but coverage has now spread all over the world. The Telegraph is reporting this morning that senior executives from Cotecna and Saybolt were yesterday summoned before the United States Congress to help to explain how Saddam managed to divert money from the oil-for-food programme. The witnesses also included a senior manager from BNP Paribas, the French bank that controlled the escrow accounts into which oil revenues were paid. The paper's story leads with an allegation that Iraqi oil officials have accused a United Nations inspector of taking almost $100,000 in bribes from Saddam Hussein's regime as his henchmen and foreign business partners siphoned millions from the UN's oil-for-food programme.

And the Washington Times this morning is covering testimony that France, Russia, China and Syria blocked efforts within the UN to stop Saddam Hussein misusing the programme. "Through cynical yet subtle manipulation, he and an undeclared coalition of the venal on the Security Council exploited structural flaws in the program and institutional naivete at the U.N. to transform a massive humanitarian aid effort into a multibillion-dollar, sanctions-busting scam," one legislator told another committee. The committee was told that Saddam was able to use money he obtained illicitly from the program in any way he wanted, and that he probably bought weapons and military technology with some of the $10 billion he was able to skim.

British archaeologists have discovered evidence that a century before the Norman invasion of 1066, a doctor or itinerant healer was able to delicately remove scraps of skull from a 40-year-old Yorkshire peasant who had been struck on the head. The Guardian says "It was such a skilful operation that a large depression on the man's brain was relieved and fractures in the bone healed. According to English Heritage archaeologists, the patient lived for many years after the operation, finally dying of unrelated causes." This has disturbed a lot of notions about how things worked in those days. It would be interesting to find out how this man paid for his operation, for a start.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is to be announced tomorrow. This New York Times story suggests it might be a woman's turn. And of the list of likely candidates the newspaper lists, I'd say Doris Lessing stands well clear of the pack.

This Wall Street Journal editorial attacks Paul Bremer's 'we didn't have enough troops in Iraq' speech because it was an inaccurate attempt to shift blame away from himself and onto others. If true, that says volumes about Paul Bremer, certainly. But there is another dimension to it. In a broader sense, it was a distinctly un-viceregal lapse which badly let the American cause down. His failure poses the question: is the American system capable of producing the kind of self-effacing mandarins who, history shows, are most effective in the kind of role Bremer undertook?

05 October 2004

One of the attributes that allowed that stubby little spaceship to snag the $10 million prize for two trips outside the earth's atmosphere in two weeks, was its ability to transform its shape at will. Spacedaily reports that the rocket's tail and wings fold, allowing it to transform itself into three different configurations during the course of its flight, and adopt the aerodynamic qualities of a shuttlecock when it re-enters Earth's atmosphere. That slows it down enough to pass gently and easily through the natural barrier that has, until now, been one of the greatest dangers posed to large manned spacecraft like the space shuttle, which is covered with special tiles to prevent it from burning up on re-entry. The ship can then glide downwards before deploying the 'feather' configuration that allows it to land gently on an ordinary aircraft runway.

The Washington Times is reporting this morning that Congressional investigators have uncovered new information showing how Saddam Hussein's government systematically purchased military-related goods for the seven years of the UN oil-for-food program. According to officials involved in ongoing probes, the newspaper says, motorcycles bought by Saddam under the United Nations' food program were used by the Fedayeen to attack US forces in Iraq, for example.

The New York Sun (subscription required) is reporting that the final report of the American team of weapons inspectors in Iraq is going to be released officially tomorrow. It will show that Saddam Hussein calculated UN sanctions would erode and become sufficiently ineffective to allow him to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction programs. The Iraqi ministry of oil, with the personal approval of Saddam Hussein, used a secret oil voucher distribution system to attempt to influence other nations and individuals to support Iraq's goals,' the report says.

At the same time, the inspectors conclude that Iraq had significantly dismantled its nuclear program and was not producing chemical weapons at the time the American-led coalition launched the campaign in March 2003 to oust him from power. Their report does say, however, that Saddam preserved the intellectual capital of his old nuclear program and was only six months away from producing mustard gas.

Does this man's elevator go all the way to the top? First Thabo Mbeki said AIDS was a Western plot to take over the continent of Africa, and now he's saying that complaining about violent crime in South Africa is a white racist plot to make the country fail.

With their penchant for turning every day into Doomsday, it's hard to know whether British media coverage of American politics is accurate or not, but I sense that this story about waning Republican influence in Little Havana might well be correct. In purely political terms, getting tough with Cuba may translate into a net gain in votes next month. But that seems an unnecessarily short-term view to me.

Stories like this one poison the well, not just with Cuban voters in the US, but with the Caribbean region, particularly, and with the rest of the world. If Fidel Castro were committing some overt act of hostility towards the US at the moment, I could understand this refusal to allow Cuban scholars to attend a meeting in Las Vegas. But America and Cuba are not lobbing bombs at one another. One assumes that if the US felt there were some in this group who were a threat to US security, it would say so. Instead, it simply says the trip would be "detrimental to US interests". In the absence of anything stronger than that, refusing to let these people in comes across as unnecessary and bloody-minded.

Larry Summers is the president of Harvard University, and a heavy hitter in the world of ideas. The Guardian sent Will Woodward to Boston to talk to him. There's certainly no false modesty about him. "One of the great differences between working at Harvard and working in Washington is that the time frames are very different," Summers said. "In Washington the long run is the next news magazine, Monday. Here, scholars are trying to write books that will influence thought 50 years from now. I don't think the fundamental importance of what we do is much affected by who is in power at any particular moment."

As far as I'm concerned, Christmas has come early with the release tomorrow of a new Tom Waits album, Real Gone. If you don't know who this is, find out. In the world of music, where powerful forces for conformity are always arrayed, he's as fresh and original as an ice-cream cone in a butcher's shop. There was no one like him before he arrived, what he does has re-shaped some boundaries in contemporary music, and I doubt there will be anyone like him again.

For years, it has been taboo in Lebanon to talk about its occupation by Syrian troops. But now, posters praising a United Nations resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon appear in Christian districts of Beirut, and prominent opposition figures are showing up on television to denounce Syrian interference in Lebanon's affairs. The catalyst for this change was a bluntly-worded UN report released late last week that condemned Syria and Lebanon for failing to comply with Resolution 1559. The US- and French-sponsored resolution passed last month calls on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and for the dismantling of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, a reference principally to the Hizbullah organization.

04 October 2004

Blogger is still not working...hasn't even acknowledged it has a problem, as far as one can tell from its website. So I'll be back soon, I hope.


Art in Bermuda
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Helen Lives!
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OECD's Unfair to Competition
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On Collecting Books - Part Two
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