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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

IS THERE LIFE AFTER NOVEMBER?

The question of an after-life has puzzled philosophers for millennia. Those supporting the concept inevitably conjure up some sort of out of body entity which like a popular wrist watch “keeps on ticking after taking a licking”. One can only wonder if, “after” the November, 2010 congressional elections, the Congress, especilly the Democrats, will actually have a “life“, based on the usual indicators, like completing tasks, indulging in meaningful communication and accomplishing things. It may take a “Beer Summit” séance in January to determine if intelligent “after (Nov.) life” is actually lurking somewhere in the halls of Congress. Of course, it could be said that the Democrat majorities currently in Congress have already “sold their souls” to unions, environmental activists and whatever immigrant group feels the most victimized. That doesn’t help with an argument that there will indeed be “life after November”. And then there are liberals that argue that the Republican Party in Congress doesn’t have a soul, so if true, things aren’t looking too good for an other worldly spate of accomplishments.

Currently, polls are indicating that the Republicans will dramatically increase their membership in both the House and the Senate. Some are predicting actual majorities in one or both houses. While this is unlikely, significant gains in the House will make the passage of any legislation with even a slight aroma of liberal ideology more difficult. The Republicans need to increase their membership in the Senate by ten to gain a majority. Again, this is theoretically possible but Christmas doesn’t come in November and the current forecast is a gain of seven. This would however, relegate Maine’s two quasi- Republican Senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe back to their previous status of relative insignificance. The Democrats, one short of a filibuster proof 60 votes since the Kennedy dynasty in the Senate ended and Scott Brown sent Teddy’s lackluster, would be Democrat replacement into liberal rehab, has had the habit of courting these two for votes on contentious legislation like the recently passed Financial Reform bill. Those days will be over and these ladies will have to go back to concentrating on Maine’s important issues like lobster research and federal aid for snow removal.

So what signs of legislative life, if any, will be seen in the new Congress starting in January? Probably not much. The unfinished 2010 Democrat agenda included the climate bill also known as the “cap and trade bill”. This bill, a version of which has already been passed by the House, would limit the production of by-product gases, mostly carbon dioxide, and force emitters to buy permission slips to exhaust them into the atmosphere. A “market” would be created to “trade” these allowances. Who knows, clever Wall Street market gurus might even create a “futures market”. Of course that might sound a lot like those “evil” derivatives the Financial Reform Bill seeks to regulate. In any case, this bill has little chance of passing in the “lame duck” session of the current Congress and in the new one in January, has less chance than John Edwards being the guest speaker at a Planned Parenthood convention.

Another bit of unfinished business was an immigration reform bill. No such bill exists but if one did the Republicans would want border enforcement first. The Democrats want “comprehensive” reform. That’s code for amnesty and a path to citizenship for the twelve to fourteen million illegal Democrats currently residing inside the borders. If a bill is actually introduced it will be a “Mexican stand-off” of major proportions and in terms of actually passing something useful, probably do nothing to bring an otherwise comatose Congress back to life.

All this will occur in a political environment in which twenty percent of Americans believe the President is a Muslim. That’s ridiculous but twenty percent is a big number; Nancy Pelosi would love to have an approval rating that high. But it’s a distraction that saps the President’s credibility and puts him on the defensive, making it more difficult for him to do CPR on a dead Congress. Faced with a public relations problem of this magnitude he may want to give up Ramadan dinners, have a bipartisan panel examine his knees for rug burns, then fly to Texas and be seen in public eating pork ribs, knocking back tequila shots and petting large “unclean” dogs.

Then there’s the economy, the number one election issue for November. The problem has two major components: unemployment and deficits. Nobody in Congress has a real clue what to do. The choices are: additional stimulus (the Democrats), but that’s a deficit killer; tax cuts (the Republicans), but that works against the deficit also. Tax increases (the Democrats), especially on the “rich” who according to Obama means anyone with the temerity to make $250,000 or more a year, but that takes money out of the economy, a sort of negative stimulus. Voters are demanding deficit reduction but the only choice left is significant government spending cuts and even the most dedicated deficit hawks only want to cut someone else’s spending.

So the next two years of the Obama Administration aren’t looking too good for life in the Congress. An increased Republican presence in either house will make Democrat sponsored legislation difficult. A Republican majority in the House would run up against Democrat opposition in the Senate. A Republican majority in the Senate would face Democrat filibusters and Obama vetoes. Life in the Congress after November? More likely a lot of moaning and chain rattling producing nothing but legislative gridlock

Saturday, August 28, 2010

ISRAEL-PALESTINE: HOPE AND REALITY

On September 2, direct talks between Palestinian Authority President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will begin. The talks will be hosted by the Obama Administration in Washington D.C. These talks are characterized as “direct” because the two parties will actually be across the negotiating table. Prior talks have been “indirect” because they involved a kind of “shuttle diplomacy” on the part of U.S. special representative George Mitchell who carried positions and concerns back and forth between the parties. Agreeing to “direct talks” has entailed a negotiation process in itself, indicative of the great difficulty in establishing a meaningful process to resolve the sixty-two year old conflict.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demonstrated an optimistic view by her public statements, saying the negotiations should/could lead to a final settlement in one year. Such optimism, as cautious as it was, of course is part of her role since the Obama Administration is both the guiding force and the host for the talks. The reality of the situation portrays a much darker prospect. Cynics, whom abound among the relevant parties and the U.S., have suggested that domestic politics in the U.S. are the driving force behind the talks. In all probability, there is such a component. President Obama, whose job approval hovers around 45% desperately needs a political success and while foreign policy is secondary to American voters concerns over the economy, if significant progress was achieved on the issue of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would help.

There are fundamental issues on both sides as well as significant political issues with the domestic constituencies of both parties. Netanyahu has previously rejected pre-conditions to talks but then he cited two of his own: the Palestinian Authority (PA) must accept the legitimacy of Israel as a permanent “Jewish state” and any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized. These conditions reflect Israel’s basic concern, which is national security, both physical and cultural. An agreement on the nature of Israel as a “Jewish state” in effect concedes the long standing demand for a right of return for over a million Palestinians and their descendents who fled or were forced out of the territory that became Israel in 1948. While this demand has been long standing and argued for passionately by Palestinian officials, it never has had any chance of being part of a final agreement since the demographic reality is that higher birthrates among Palestinians would over a relatively short time turn the Jewish state into an Arab state with a Jewish minority. Thus, Israel will never negotiate itself out of existence. The demilitarization of Palestine is also a basic requirement since the tiny state of Israel cannot tolerate a armed potential enemy on its border.

PA President Abbas, stated early in 2009 that he would not attend direct talks “without” acceptance of preconditions. These included recognition of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders and a freeze of settlement building in the West Bank. Netanyahu agreed on the goal of a Palestinian state, although his enthusiasm for it is much in question. Actual borders remain to be defined but the freeze on settlement building has been temporarily resolved.

Other fundamental issues for the PA include the status of Jerusalem which is now the Israeli capital but whose eastern sector with it’s Muslim holy places is desired by the PA for its own capital once statehood is achieved. Israel wants no divided capital and has been building housing in the eastern sector on a large scale for Jewish residents for several years. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which also would become part of the envisioned Palestinian state is another major impediment to a successful outcome. Such settlement construction is currently under a self-imposed moratorium which expires in September and the PA has said if construction resumes, the new round of talks will be ended.

Previous negotiations have been centered around “interim agreements”, that is temporary structures that depend on more detailed future agreements to become permanent. PA President Abbas has said he wants final settlement negotiations in the current round and will not accept further “interim agreements”. The 2003 “Road Map” was such an interim agreement, and while it was important as a general statement of acceptance of the goal of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it left to subsequent negotiations the difficult issues which will have to be addressed in the current Washington talks if progress is to be achieved.

The Road Map agreement outlined three “phases”. Phase I would end terrorism and violence. Much progress has been made in reducing terrorist attacks from the West Bank, an outcome contributed to by the Israeli security wall which separates much of the West Bank from Israel proper. Under Phase I, Palestinian institutions would be built and this has been the case. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has undertaken an effort to build the institutions of government “from the ground up”, rather than waiting for a Palestinian state to be declared and creating institutions from “above”. Phase II saw the creation of an interim Palestinian state, and a Permanent Status Agreement. Phase III envisioned the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What all this indicates is that there is basic agreement on the broad conditions for a two state solution and a future end to the conflict. Both sides know the non-negotiable issues of the other but are reluctant to make early concessions preferring to use them as negotiating points with which to extract other concessions. But two major impediments to successful negotiations remain and are largely outside the power of the two parties to control. One is the approval of domestic constituencies. This is more a problem for Netanyahu than the Fatah government of the PA with respect to the West Bank. Any agreement to remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank will inevitably run into strong opposition from conservative religious groups and their supporters who make up much of the population of these settlements . Removal of settlements in Gaza in the past resulted in violent physical confrontations between residents and the Israeli army. One possible solution to this problem that has been suggested has been “land swaps” in which the PA would be given land equal in size and quality to the settlements which would remain. Obviously that procedure presents enormous issues and would be difficult to negotiate. But the major impediment to a final settlement is that fact that the Palestinian territories are divided into two non-contiguous parts, Gaza and the West Bank. While the West Bank is under the control of the Palestinian Authority which is currently in the hands of the Fatah party, Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which is both a political party and an armed militia which is committed to armed struggle with Israel and which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist. Hamas, which receives by one report, $500 million a year from Iran, is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the EU. The PA does not speak or negotiate for Hamas which has already condemned the proposed Washington D.C. negotiations. It cannot guarantee Hamas’ conformity with any aspects of a final settlement especially those related to Israeli security and an end to violence. The multi-year rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and the subsequent 2008-09 invasion of Gaza by Israel are stark reminders of the seeming intractability of this issue.

Can the PA sign any agreement on behalf of the Palestinian people without the participation of Hamas? If so would such an agreement have any meaning and would Netanyahu accept any agreement without some requirement that Hamas and the status of Gaza be included? Almost certainly not. Can a “two state solution” be envisioned that does not include Gaza, which would then be relegated to some kind of international dependency? While this is a theoretical possibility, it seems highly impractical given the fact that Gaza would then remain an island of poverty, hostility and a continuing source of Iranian sponsored terrorism. Thus while the Washington D.C. negotiations are vital to future arrangements, they are not likely to produce the short term optimistic result that Secretary Clinton hopes for and President Obama may have to find his job approval boost elsewhere.

Monday, August 23, 2010

THE ENGLISH LESSON

The most important English lesson for the Congress that convenes in January, 2011 will be centered on the phrase “cut spending”; as in “remove”, “eliminate” or “reduce”. Who better than to learn this lesson from than the English themselves. In fact the new British coalition government is taking bold steps to deal with an economic crisis which demands attention. The crisis, like the one currently imposed on the U.S. has two major elements: high unemployment and high government deficits along with all the usual long term negative implications such as higher yields i.e. debt service, on government debt and devaluation of currency resulting in inflation. The strategy is not without risks. Current high unemployment could be exacerbated by reductions in government spending. However, the current British government deficit sits at 11% of gross domestic product (GDP) or approximately $278 billion. By comparison, the U.S. deficit is forecast to be 9.16 % of GDP or $1.34 trillion for 2010. The British government will announce the specifics of major reductions in government spending in October but early estimates indicate that the multi-year budget balancing project will only rely on tax increases for 25% of the effort with government spending accounting for the other 75%. Public spending currently accounts for 51% of GDP. If the British National Health System and the national school system are not to face major cuts as current speculation holds, then the welfare system which eats up 28% of the entire budget, and defense spending are clearly on the block. Other government agencies could face cuts of from 20% to 33%.

It is a fact that Britain’s parliamentary system, even in the new two party coalition mode, makes it easier to implement harsh budget cuts than America’s two house, presidential system with it’s checks and balances and lack of party discipline. But the next Congress and the President should be watching Britain closely and follow it’s lead. If the Republicans increase their numbers significantly in the November elections or even take control of one or both houses, as some pollsters are predicting, they will have to demonstrate much more political courage than they have in the past if they want to live up to their own rhetoric and that of the anti-deficit voters who support them.

The huge gap between rhetoric and reality has already been made evident by the recent announcement by of U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates of his intention to disestablish a military command in Virginia. Gates wants to eliminate the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk. Established in 1999 as the successor to the Atlantic Command, its mission is to facilitate cooperation in war fighting and intelligence amongst the military services. It has grown, as all bureaucracies do, to require a budget of approximately $704 million a year and employs over 6,300 personnel, some 3,300 of whom are civilians. Gates wants to significantly reduce the number of civilian contractors across the military over the next few years. Simply put, the Joint Forces Command could not withstand a cost/benefit analysis by Gates and his staff.
Virginia’s congressional delegation, who are more concerned about local job loss than federal budget deficits and bloated Pentagon budgets are vowing to resist. This pattern of “cut, but not in my state or my donors or constituents, will affect all future attempts at deficit reduction and risks making any new Republican majority look hypocritical. Budget cuts entail real economic pain but historically, members of Congress have not been able to make the distinction between “desirable” expenditures and “necessary” expenditures. Every program, project or institution has a constituency that exaggerates its own importance or downplays the effect on the budget or deficit if it is eliminated or reduced in size.

The British people have rejected the “spend to prosperity” big government philosophy of the Labour Party which created the current crisis. British Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrat Party are willing to make the tough choices for the long term benefit of all British citizens. Hopefully, President Obama and the next Congress will learn the “English lesson".

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

RIGHTS AND RIGHT: MOSQUES AND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

     It’s difficult to know whether President Obama is politically tone deaf, just getting bad advice or simply has an arrogant streak, but he continues to take positions, sometimes unnecessarily, that are out of sync with public perceptions.

     The health care bill was, and is still, opposed by a healthy majority of Americans. Obama said he knows that, but “it’s good for the country” i.e. he knows best. His ridiculous involvement in the local Cambridge, MA misdemeanor police issue involving his “friend” Henry Louis Gates and the subsequent “beer summit” with the police officer, impressed many in the general population as biased meddling. His decision to sue the state of Arizona to overturn a state law passed in a desperate attempt to deal with an onslaught of illegal immigrants only has the support of 45% of Americans , with 55% in favor of the law. Sixty-five percent of Arizonans support the law. His moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has put thousands of Gulf residents out of work and is opposed by 60% of those living in the Gulf region despite the fact that they were directly affected by the BP spill.

     Now comes his latest foray into local politics with his hosting of an Iftar (fast breaking) dinner to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In his remarks at the dinner, Obama took a position on the highly controversial plans to build a huge mosque and “cultural center” two blocks from the 9/11 site at “Ground Zero” in lower Manhattan. This is another local New York City issue primarily between the Muslim developers and proposed imam, and the families of those lost in the World Trade Center attack. The legal issues have been resolved with the approval of the NYC Landmarks Commission to raze the existing building on the site. However, Obama could not resist another of his “teachable moments” by reciting the obvious in a blatant pander to his Muslim audience:
“Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in the country.”

     This has been read as a clear endorsement of the proposed mosque, a position opposed by 70% of Americans according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll. But once again, Obama doesn’t care because the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the free “exercise of religion”. That however, is not the basis for the opposition to the mosque. Republicans have been excoriated by the liberal media for being the voice of the opposition but Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner and Representative Peter King (R-NY) have both acknowledged the legal right of the developers to build the mosque. They question the propriety of it and point out that it is an unnecessary and painful provocation to the citizens of New York City and New Jersey who knew or lost friends and family among the three thousand who perished at the hands of Muslim extremists. Doing what is a protected “right” and doing what is “right” are two different things. The Constitution protects the “right” of the religious crazies from Wichita, KS to disrupt the funerals of fallen soldiers but nothing could be more reprehensible. The Constitution protects the “right” of protestors to intimidate and insult vulnerable women seeking abortions but even many abortion opponents are disgusted by such offensive behavior. In a political afterthought, even Obama said he “wasn’t commenting on the wisdom of making the decision” to choose that particular location for the mosque. But it was too little too late to make amends to common sense and common decency. Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid however, was able to make the distinction between “rights” and “right”. Although his opinion is almost certainly influenced by his tight race for reelection in Nevada, it at least actually reflects a greater “respect for the American people than Obama’s for which the New York Times mistakenly gave him credit. Reid said, “. . those who plan to erect the Islamic center should look elsewhere.”

     Never to be deterred by common sense however, and always ready to demonstrate their single minded political correctness, the editorial staff of the New York Times offered this:

     Obama “ showed his understanding of the Constitution and his respect for the American people” by defending the right of a Muslim community group to build the mosque.

     Besides repeating the “red herring” argument about “rights”, the Times arrogantly implies that Obama and they are among the few that “understand” the Constitution and that the opponents of the mosque at that particular location do not. How Obama showed “his respect for the American people” in this regard or in his implied support for the mosque is hard to discern.

     The Times goes on to issue the absurd warning that “The rest of the world is listening.” How much the 9/11 families and the citizens of New York care what the rest of the world thinks about their grief and their anger is unknown but is probably insignificant. One wonders however, if the Times editorialists include in the “rest of the world”, the citizens of France and Belgium who have passed legislation banning the face covering Islamic niqab in public places, or the citizens of Switzerland who have banned the further construction of minarets associated with mosques.

     The Times has also featured an opinion piece by Scottish historian, literary figure and expert on Asian religions William Dalrymple. Dalrymple offers what can only be described as an unrealistic academic analysis of the controversy; unrealistic in the sense that it ignores the passions of the local citizens, and their lack of expertise in the study of Islam. Before providing his expert insights into the religion however, he can’t resist ideologically based criticisms of the opponents of the mosque. He accuses the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded to oppose discrimination, of “seeking to discriminate against American Muslims.” This is the same attempt to turn the issue into one of “rights” instead of propriety. He attacks Newt Gingrich and former NY Congressman Rick Lazio for their opposition and the questions they raise about the true nature of the group that wants to build the mosque. Valid questions that should be answered.

     But the essence of Dalrymple’s argument is that Islam is not monolithic and contains “many divisions, complexities and nuances” within which reside the “moderate” Muslims. Within those moderate groups themselves are the followers of Sufism which includes the imam of the proposed mosque. Sufism according to Dalyrmple is a “mystical, peaceful form of Islam, which preaches love and reconciliation.”

     But is not the obligation of 315 million Americans or even 16 million New Yorkers to educate themselves about the “nuances” of Islam in order to be able to make the distinction between the “moderates” and the jihadists. That is the responsibility of the moderate Muslims themselves who must adopt a far more public face and a far more forceful public opposition to the radicals here and abroad. So far, despite their protestations to the contrary, this they have not done. The education process of the American people by such groups with respect to “moderate, peace loving Islam” should be based on their support for Western values not academic analysis and come first before potentially provocative acts, thus making such acts not provocative at all.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

ADDICTION, OIL AND THE CLIMATE BILL

     It’s time for politicians and environmental activists to get rid of their addiction to the use of the phrase “our addiction to oil”. This overused cliché implies some sort of unnecessary compulsion which can be cured by therapy. The facts don’t fit the characterization.

     The most common associations that are used with the “addiction” claim are:

     1. The necessity of further developing “renewable energy sources” such as wind and solar power. But wind and solar are only relevant to the production of electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil combustion produced only 1.1.% of electricity in the U.S. in 2008. Wind produced 1.3% and solar, while growing rapidly is still a tiny percentage of U.S. electricity production (globally only .01% in 2009). Clearly U.S. oil consumption/dependence will not be heavily influenced by the continued development of these technologies for some time. One industry analysis predicts that at current rates of growth, solar technologies will produce only 10% of U.S. needs by 2030.

     In fact, transportation of all kinds makes up 66% of U.S. oil use. That includes cars, trucks, trains, boats, ships and aircraft. That means that any large scale decrease in oil use faces enormous technological constraints. Cars that are more fuel efficient can and should be developed; smaller European style cars can be mass marketed; hybrids and totally electric cars can be made a larger part of the automobile market but large trucks and trains are a long way from such uses and electric ships and planes exist only in the imaginations of some researchers. ( Recently a light aircraft with glider-like characteristics made a solar powered low velocity flight. However applying this technology to large, high speed, transport aircraft is not even on the drawing boards and probably never will be.)

     That leaves the other 34% of U.S. oil use as a potential target for reduction. The largest of these uses is industrial production at 25%. This is the production of petroleum based products such as plastics, fertilizer, asphalt, lubricants etc. Research to find replacement raw materials for such products is undoubtedly underway in some quarters but represents an enormous leap in innovation. The other uses of oil are small i.e. residential heating and commercial uses. Thus automobile design is the only medium term source of possible significant reductions in oil use and oil imports. If dependence on foreign oil and the associated massive transfer of wealth to oil exporting nations is the major threat critics say it is, then the medium and long term strategy must include further development of domestic sources, both off shore and in currently politically protected areas such as the Alaskan Nation Wildlife Area (ANWAR).

     2. Critics also say our “addiction” creates a dependence on foreign sources, many of whom are authoritarian regimes that don’t like us ( i.e. unfriendly and undemocratic Middle Eastern states).

     In fact, 42% of U.S. oil consumption is produced domestically. (37% of U.S. production is “off shore”). Of the remaining 58% of U.S. consumption, the top ten oil exporters to the U.S. supply 86% of all our imported oil. The largest exporter to the U.S. is Canada which supplies 21% of imported oil. The second largest exporter is Mexico which supplies 13.4%. In the top ten exporters, only Saudi Arabia, # 3 which supplies 11.3% and the quasi-democratic government of Iraq, #7, which supplies only .4 % of U.S. imports, are Middle Eastern States. Venezuela, #4 and Nigeria, #5 each supply about 10.5% of U.S. imports. (May, 2010 figures.)

     3. Oil consumption contributes large amounts of atmospheric pollutants which need to be reduced to address global warming.

     In fact this is true. Oil consumption from all sources contributes 40% of carbon emissions in the U.S. (2003 figures). However, as the use figures above indicate, it is largely the transportation sector which is involved in this figure. Clearly, new technology in internal combustion engines needs to be developed to produce less harmful emissions but the transportation sector itself cannot be significantly reduced. Indeed, it will continue to grow as the population increases.

     The second major contributor to atmospheric carbon emissions is the use of coal which is used to produce 48.2% of U.S. electricity. Coal exists in abundance in the U.S. One industry analysis estimates a 200 year supply. It would seem logical to advance research to effectively use this valuable resource rather than simply abandoning it. The alternatives are of course, replacing coal burning generators with some combination of solar and wind, which produce no carbon emissions but are still in their application infancy. Natural gas, which currently produces 21.4% of U.S. electricity is “cleaner” than coal but currently (2003) contributes 20% of carbon emissions. That leaves nuclear power, which in the absence of effective “clean coal technology” is the best long term alternative with respect to carbon emissions, because it produces none.

     The problem with nuclear electricity production has been largely political. Anti-nuclear environmental activists concerned about nuclear waste disposal and catastrophic accidents, have succeeded in making applications for new nuclear plants in the U.S. a decades long process and the cost for such plants nearly prohibitive. This may be changing as public concern in the U.S. for carbon emissions grows, and it has an ironic aspect. Currently the U.S. has more nuclear power plants than any other nation but that too is changing and the use of nuclear energy for electricity production is growing across the globe.

     As of June, 2010, there were 438 nuclear power plants in 30 countries and another 61 plants under construction in 16 countries. The U.S. is home to 104 plants with one under construction. France obtains 80% of its electricity from 58 nuclear plants. China and Russia together are constructing 35 new plants. Anti-nuclear activists are clearly on the losing side of this issue. The U.S., as a nuclear weapons state (NWS) has a treaty obligation under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to provide nuclear technology for peaceful purposes to the treaty’s non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). The U.S. has recently expanded this obligation by agreeing to a nuclear technology transfer to India which has not signed the NPT.

     This then, is the energy use context within which the efforts to pass a “Climate Bill” in the U.S. Congress must operate. The political context provides a whole different set of problems.
Currently the House of Representatives has passed a “climate bill”. H.R.2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, a “cap and trade bill” passed in the House by a vote of 219-212.

     This enormous piece of legislation essentially seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nation-wide over time by establishing annual limits (“caps”) on total permissible emissions. It will identify those entities who are considered emitters under the program and then use a system of issuing and auctioning “emission allowances” to them. Total “allowances” will equal the “total annual cap”. The idea is that different emitters i.e. power plants, manufacturers etc. who emit different levels of greenhouse gases and who have different costs in reducing such emissions will create a market for trading i.e. selling these allowances, but all industries will have a market driven incentive to reduce emissions.

     The bill is much broader than this however, but it is still essentially a “climate bill” and has little to do directly with “dependence of foreign oil”. It’s indirect provisions do require electric utilities to “develop a plan to support the use of plug-in electric drive vehicles.” This includes plans for “electric charging stations”, sort of electric service stations. The bill also provides financial assistance to auto manufacturers to facilitate this program as well as federal loans up to $50 billion for technology research for plug-in cars.

     A Senate version of the “cap and trade” bill has been rejected but there will be continued efforts to pass one compatible with the House version. The arguments in favor of such a bill include the claim that restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions will stimulate enormous technological innovation that will create millions of “green jobs” and of course, over time will significantly reduce global warming.

     The opponents of the bill as currently written believe that it will produce significantly higher energy costs which will be passed on to industrial, manufacturing and retail consumers. Such increases will then reduce demand across all sectors of the economy and cost millions of jobs. More jobs will be lost to international competition from those countries that do not impose similar restrictions.

     Currently the debate on “oil dependence” and “climate protection” has more of an ideological than scientific orientation. The science and economics of both the problems and the strategies for dealing with them need to be better explained to voters. Another economy changing, enormous government expansion, health care like episode of “we know what is best for you even if you disagree” is unacceptable.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

ISLAM IN AMERICA

     The struggle for Americans in how to identify and deal with the apparent contradictions between Islam and a democratic secular culture continues unabated. There are those, generally identified as being on the political Right, that identify all contradictions as threats and make overly broad assumptions about both individuals and groups. But if actual threats exist, and it seems obvious that they do, then it is those, generally on the political Left, that attempt to wish away or diminish them to actually dangerous levels.
     Should we listen to the ranting of the likes of Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, or Pat Robinson? Certainly not. Should we accept the view that most Muslims are “moderates” and the Islam is a “peaceful religion” and thus contains no contradictions with secular democracy at all and the violent extremists so visible in the mosques of Europe and increasingly in the mosques of the U.S. are “just a small minority” who can be dealt with in the civilian criminal justice systems? Not at all.

     Civil rights organizations often adopt an absolutist view of the Constitution which denies flexibility, modern circumstances not envisioned by the “founders”, and common sense. Recently, two such organizations filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Treasury and its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were recently retained by the father of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the U.S. born radical cleric who currently resides in Yemen and who holds Yemeni citizenship. Aulaqi has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks, the Ft. Hood massacre, and the Detroit Christmas Day “underwear bombing” attempt. He is a known radical Islamist propagandist who uses the internet as a recruiting tool and has been identified as a “regional commander” for al-Qaeda. He has made a video urging Muslims living in the U.S. to carry out domestic attacks and is currently on the Yemeni government’s “most wanted list”.  In April, 2010, President Obama secured U.S. National Security Council approval to place Aulaqui on the military and CIA target list, the first U.S. citizen to make that list.

     The intent of the lawsuit is to seek relief from the OFAC designation of Aulaqui as a Specifically Designated Global Terrorist. This designation results in a freezing of his financial assets and bars U.S. “entities” from “doing business or providing” him services, including lawyers unless those lawyers or other “entities” first obtain a license from OFAC.

     The fact that Aulaqi has not personally sought representation by the CCR or ACLU, has foreign citizenship also, and resides by choice in a foreign country where he is a fugitive, has not deterred these organizations from filing their lawsuit or attempting to turn the suit into a forum for the issue of Aulaqui’s presence on the target list. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero opines: “The government is targeting an American citizen for death without any legal process whatsoever, while at the same time impeding lawyers from challenging that death sentence and the government’s sweeping claim of authority to issue it.”

     Then comes Romero’s own “sweeping” generalization and typical ACLU “Chicken Little” hyperbole: “Such an alarming denial of rights in any one case endangers the rights of all Americans.” How that would be true goes unsaid because it is absurd. Romero continues: “The Constitution and international law do not permit targeting civilians for killing off the battlefield and can only be used “outside the battle zone and as a last resort when threat is imminent.” Of course the Constitution makes no mention of “targeting civilians off the battlefield” and since Aulaqi is an international terrorist thought to be hiding in the wilds of northern Yemen, he is not susceptible to apprehension by U.S. civilian law enforcement personnel, thus his presence on the target list is indeed a “last resort”. The Congress approved the use of military force against al Qaeda of which Aulaqi is a member and the Obama Administration has declared that Aulaqi does indeed represent an “imminent threat” through his current and on-going terrorist activities.

     The continued efforts of organizations such as the CCR and the ACLU on behalf of international terrorists represents a state of denial that is both dangerous and indicative of a broader mindset as it applies to the nature and practice of Islam in the U.S. While most Muslims in the U.S. are not potential terrorists, the few that exist are integrated into the broader Muslim community and require the attention of political authorities as well an awareness on the part of American citizens as a whole.

     These efforts run up against the denial mindset exemplified by Washington Post guest columnist Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. The Rev. Doctor Thistlethwaite is the former President and current member of the faculty at the Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the politically liberal Center for American Progress. Like so many members of the clergy and political Left she is anxious to assume the role of “conscious of the country.” Her recent commentary entitled “Is Fear of Islam the New McCarthyism ?” attempts to demonize current concern with radical Islam by using the 1950’s bogeyman label “McCarthyism”, just as other commentators in the current political turmoil toss out “Nazi, Communist, Marxist etc. in foolish attempts to excite their readers.

     Thistlethwaite tells us that; “Religious freedom and the right of free expression are the strongest source of power Americans have for combating radicals who use Islam as the excuse for their violent extremism.”

     This is nonsense on its face. Americas is in a continuous struggle to deal with Islamic inspired acts of terror and the demands of radical Muslims to impose their medieval style of Islam on the larger western culture of the U.S. Muslim extremists will not be swayed by the concepts of “religious freedom and the right of free expression” which they deny as part of their interpretation of Islam. The “strongest source of power” we have for dealing with these individuals is active intelligence gathering and tough law enforcement. Thistlethwaite politicizes her views and her absurd McCarthyism parallel by attacking “ conservatives such as Newt Gingrich” who “want us to reject not only violent extremists, but also Islamic ideas, especially ideas on religious law, that is, Sharia law. Gingrich believes that Americans are "at risk" as a nation, not only from the violence of a "militant Islam," but also from the cultural integration of Muslims in the West. The latter he calls "stealth jihadists."

      Gingrich is certainly not alone in his beliefs, they make sense and they deserve attention and debate. Demands have already been made in some Muslim communities in Britain for the use of Sharia law in the areas of divorce and inheritance. Some British official, afraid of confrontation are listening.

     Of course there will always be those, like the ACLU and Thistlethwaite who, as a United Church of Christ minister, is strangely incapable of making common sense distinctions in lieu of moral equivalency of all belief systems. Here is a woman who advocates a military chaplaincy for Pagans a.k.a. Wiccans : “Of course they should have their own chaplain in the military since there are pagan adherents serving their country.”

      A few of these publicity seeking adolecents have somehow gotten into the Air Force Academy and have created “sacred ground” i.e. a circle of rocks out in the woods on the campus grounds. The ever politically correct Air Force has bought into it. While a few witches and warlocks in the military probably don’t represent much of a threat unless their ceremonies get out of hand, the “anything goes” attitude of people like Thistlethwaite has wider implications with respect to Islam whose more devout adherents make no separation of church and state exception and for whom religion trumps national identity or loyalty.

     The tension with American Islam has also been apparent in the recent controversy over plans to build a $100 million Islamic center and mosque in close proximity to the “Ground Zero” site of the 9/11 attack in New York City. Naturally most of the relatives of the victims of that disaster are appalled at the prospect. A Thistlethwaite like rationalizer, the Rev. Robert Chase, of the interfaith group Intersections called the proposed mosque “a really positive example of how we can move forward from 9/11.” Chase obviously had no friends or relatives killed in the attack and presumes to speak for those that did. The developer and prospective imam for the mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf said, after the 9/11 attack; “U.S. policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.” Such comments are not confidence builders, yet the idealists are not deterred. The New York Times editorialists added to the hand wringing on 8/4/10 with this: “It is disturbing to hear and read the vitriol and outright bigotry . . .” “New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted . . .to reaffirm one ofthe basic tenets of democracy, religious tolerance.”

     Of course the Commission did no such thing. They were charged with determining the historical significance of the existing building on the site of the proposed mosque and found none. Thus a ruling to preserve that building would not have survived a court challenge. The issue was not about opposition to religious expression or the building of an Islamic mosque in New York City, of which there are many. The issue was simply the wisdom and sensitivity of the proposal for that particular site which has enormous emotional significance to so many in NYC and throughout the country. Nonetheless the New York Times, like the Reverend Thistlethwaite could not resist taking a cheap political shot regarding the opposition:
     “We expect this sort of behavior from this kind of Republicans. They have been shamelessly playing the politics of fear since 9/11.” The Times doesn’t say what kind of Republicans “this kind” is but the numerous attempted domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11 certainly give cause for concern and stimulate genuine fear. That is not to say that this particular mosque will become a center of radicalism, but all mosques in the U.S. do not follow the “Islam is a religion of peace” assertion. The aforementioned al-Qaeda terrorist Anwar al-Aulaqi was the imam at the Denver Islamic Society from 1994-96; the imam at a mosque in San Diego from 1996-2000; the imam at a mosque in Falls Church, VA and the Muslim chaplain at George Washington University in the nation’s capital before fleeing criminal charges in the U.S. to Britain and then Yemen.

Should we be concerned about Islam in America?