Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Consensus After Big Win

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Pinar Aydinli and Ibon Villelabeitia

2011-06-12T211440Z_1243616371_GM1E76D0ER301_RTRMADP_3_TURKEY-ELECTION

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a slogan reads that “We are Turkey together” in the background, greets his supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara June 12, 2011. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party was set to win Sunday’s parliamentary election with 50.2 percent of the vote, but looked unlikely to get enough seats to call a referendum on a planned new constitution.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will start a third term of one-party rule strengthened by Sunday’s decisive election victory but also burdened by the need for consensus to push ahead with plans for a new constitution.

Erdogan will have to focus first on a pressing foreign policy issue right on his borders: unrest in neighboring Syria has led to nearly 7,000 Syrian fleeing to Turkey to escape a brutal crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, with more coming every day.

But analysts said Erdogan also must find ways to revive a stalled bid for membership of the European Union and break down French and German reluctance to let Turkey in.

Erdogan, whose AK Party has transformed Muslim Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and ended a cycle of military coups, won 49.9 percent of the vote, or 326 seats, in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

The vote was AK’s biggest electoral tally since it first came to power in 2002 but the party failed to win the 330 seats it needed to call a referendum to recast the constitution, written almost 30 years ago during a period of military rule.

Financial markets were cheered on Monday as investors saw the mixed result forcing the AK Party to compromise with others to make the constitutional change. The Turkish lira strengthened against the dollar and bonds also gained.

“The new constitution requires consensus and dialogue with other parties and the society at large,” Cengiz Aktar, a professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, told Reuters.

“We will see if Erdogan is ready for these with his majority or will he go his own way and impose his own views on Turkey — in which case we will have difficult times.”

Turkish newspapers lauded his success.

“Turkey loves him,” “The master of the ballot box,” said front page headlines next to pictures of a smiling Erdogan waving to cheering supporters outside party headquarters.

Critics fear Erdogan, who has a reputation for being intolerant of criticism, might use the victory to cement power, limit freedoms and persecute opponents.

In a victory speech before thousands of flag-waving supporters in the capital Ankara on Sunday night, he pledged “humility” and said he would work with rivals.

“People gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation. We will discuss the new constitution with opposition parties. This new constitution will meet peace and justice demands.”

The new leader of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which garnered its best result in more than 30 years with 25.9 percent of the vote, warned Erdogan that he would be watching his movements closely.

“We wish all success to AKP, but they must remember there’s a stronger main opposition party now,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

Analysts saw scope for political turbulence in Turkey.

“The anticipated preparation of a new constitution has the potential to create significant political uncertainty, as it may well raise profound and controversial issues related to the division of power, secularism, religion, nationalism and ethnic minority rights,” Ed Parker, Fitch’s Head of EMEA Sovereign Ratings, said in a statement issued on Monday.

MODEL FOR ARAB SPRING

Turkey and Erdogan’s party are often are cited as models for supporters of democracy living through the “Arab Spring” series of anti-authoritarian protests in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
But opponents say Erdogan, whose party evolved from banned Islamist movements, is imposing a conservative social agenda.

Since crushing old establishment parties on a wave of support from a rising middle class of religious Turks, Erdogan has challenged the secularist military and judiciary with reforms meant to help Turkey meet EU standards of democracy.

He also has set the long-time NATO member and U.S. ally on a more assertive foreign policy course, building closer relations with Middle East countries, including Iran.

Some financial analysts had warned that too large an AK majority could polarize a country that is deeply divided over the role of religion and ethnic minorities.

A limited majority is seen making the government focus on macroeconomic imbalances, including an overheating economy.

There has been speculation that Erdogan would seek to move Turkey toward a more presidential system of government, with the ultimate aim of becoming president himself.

Besides the economy, Erdogan’s government also will need to tackle a separatist conflict in the mainly Kurdish southeast. A strong showing by the pro-Kurdish BDP in the Kurdish region played a role in denying the AK a bigger vote haul.

On Sunday night, a percussion bomb exploded in southeast Turkey, injuring 11 people celebrating election victories of Kurdish candidates, security and hospital officials said.

The explosion occurred around 11 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) in the province of Sirnak, near the Iraqi border. Casualties were being treated at a nearby hospital.

(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore, Ece Toksabay, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

13-25

Stocks Teetering on ‘Tipping Point’ of a Correction:

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nouriel Roubini

Dr. Doom sees global economic growth stalling; corporate results will disappoint, he predicts.

Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted the global financial crisis, said stock markets are at the “tipping point” of a correction as economic growth may begin to slow.

Companies had ridden a worldwide recovery to boost sales and profits, supporting equity price increases, Roubini told a conference in Budapest today. Now, signs of a global economic slowdown may drag down stock prices, he said.

“Until two weeks ago I’d say markets were shrugging off all these concerns, saying they don’t matter because they were believing the global economic recovery was on track,” Roubini said. “But I think right now we’re on the tipping point of a market correction. Data from the U.S., from Europe, from Japan, from China are suggesting an economic slowdown.”

The world economy is losing strength halfway through the year as high oil prices and fallout from Japan’s natural disaster and Europe’s debt woes take their toll.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. now forecasts global economic growth of 4.3 percent in 2011, down from its 4.8 percent estimate in mid-April. UBS AG has trimmed its forecast to 3.6 percent from 3.9 percent. Downside risks also include a shift to tighter monetary policy in emerging markets.

Roubini, 53, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, predicted in July 2006 a “catastrophic” global financial meltdown that central bankers would be unable to prevent. In October 2008, Roubini said he still saw “significant downside risks to equity markets,” failing to predict the stock market rebound that sent shares soaring around the globe last year. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has almost doubled from its low in March 2009.

Stocks rose today, preventing the fourth straight weekly loss for the MSCI All-Country World Index, and commodities gained after the Group of Eight leaders said the global economy is strengthening. The MSCI index added 0.8 percent at 10:32 a.m. in New York, putting the gauge 0.1 percent higher since May 20. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index climbed 0.4 percent.

Data this week showed Chinese manufacturing expanding at the slowest pace in 10 months, orders for U.S. durable goods dropping the most since October and confidence among European executive and consumers sliding for the third straight month. The MSCI World Index of stocks in advanced economies dropped 4.2 percent this month.

“Until now, equity prices were supported by better-than-expected earnings, sales and profit margins,” Roubini said. “But all three are under squeeze. With slow global economic growth, they’re going to surprise on the downside. We’re going to see the beginning of a correction that’s going to increase volatility and that’s going to increase risk aversion.”

–Bloomberg News—

13-23

Electoral Verdict & Muslims’ Success!

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI: Declaration of results to the five state assembly elections has certainly ended political suspense regarding the fate of candidates and parties engaged in the political battle. It is now imperative to analyse the results particularly in context of electoral success of Indian Muslims. Before elaborating on Muslims’ standing in this political phase, it is relevant to evaluate the overall performance of major parties in the race. Undeniably, the success of Trinamool Congress in alliance with Congress in ousting the Left bloc from power in West Bengal stands out. The Left has been pushed out of power after having headed the state government for 34 years. Trinamool Chief Mamata Bannerjee, popularly known as Didi, has been hailed in most quarters for having succeeded in this mission. Having won 184 seats in polls held in 294 constituencies, the Trinamool has emerged as a major political force in West Bengal, as it has the needed the strength to form the government with or without support from its allies, including the Congress. The Congress has won 42 seats. Credit must be given to both the Trinamool and Congress parties for having fought the elections as allies. It was sensible of Congress not to have insisted on testing its political strength in all the constituencies without reaching any political understanding with Trinamool. The Congress tried this experiment earlier in Bihar assembly elections to only fail and make it easier for its rivals – National Democratic Alliance- to return to power in state with greater success than expected.

In contrast, Congress and its key ally- Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have failed miserably in Tamil Nadu. In polls held to 234 seats, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by J. Jayalalitha has won 150 seats. The DMK has secured only 23 and the Congress – five seats.

The Congress has fared well in Assam by winning 78 out of 126 seats. It is a hat trick for Congress leader Tarun Gogoi to return to power as Assam Chief Minister for the third term. Kerala has also spelt success for Congress but only with the support of its ally, Muslim League. Here, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has been pushed out of power with the Congress-coalition that is the United Democratic Front (UDF) winning 72 seats in the battle for 140. The LDF managed only 68. While the Congress has won 38 seats, the 20 secured by Muslim League have played a major role in helping UDF form the new Kerala government. The elections to 30 constituencies in Pondicherry have witnessed victory for Congress in seven, AIADMK- five, DMK – two and others – 16.

Apart from stunning defeat faced by Left in West Bengal as well as its failure in Kerala to return to power, the political loss suffered by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot be sidelined. The BJP has won only one seat in West Bengal, five in Assam and none in South India. The five seats won in Assam are only half of the 10 BJP had in the preceding assembly. The BJP contested more than 800 seats in the five states’ assembly elections. Undeniably, the Congress has performed better, but it cannot be missed that except for in Assam, the party has not fared too well on its own strength. The Congress has won less than 50 percent of the seats it contested. The party has tasted success in only 170 of the 359 seats it contested. 

The assembly elections are also a crucial indicator of the increasing political importance of Muslim votes as well as Muslim parties. As mentioned earlier, the UDF’s success in Kerala would not have been possible without the state Muslim League as a key ally. The reverse is the case in Assam, where Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF) – led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi – has emerged as the leading party in the opposition. The BJP and its ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have lost their position as the main opposition group to AUDF, which has won 18 seats. Though, nominally, unlike Kerala’s Muslim League, AUDF has not included any religious term in its label, the party is known as a Muslim party. Despite being in the political race only for the second term, AUDF has increased in its tally from 10 in the last assembly to 18 in the new one. What is more amazing is its emergence as the leading opposition party, the second most important party (after Congress) in the Assam assembly.
The percentage of Muslims in Assam is around 31 percent. Against 25 Muslim members in the last Assam assembly, there are 28 in the new one, with 16 from AUDF. West Bengal, with Muslims constituting 28 percent of the state’s population, has elected 59 Muslims, 13 more than in the earlier assembly. Twenty-five percent of Kerala’s population are Muslims. The state has elected 36 Muslims, 11 more than earlier, to the new assembly. Muslims constitute less than 13 percent of the population in both Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. The two states have lesser Muslim members than they had in the outgoing assemblies. While Tamil Nadu has elected six members, Pondicherry has elected one, against the seven and two, both the states respectively had in the previous assemblies.
There is no denying that representation of Muslims in the five state assemblies remains below the mark it should be in keeping with their population. Nevertheless, the assembly elections indicate that their political importance and strength have definitely displayed a decisive increase in states where their population is more than 25 percent, which are West Bengal, Assam and Kerala. Interestingly, BJP’s political card has failed miserably in all the five states against the electoral verdict won by Muslim candidates as well as Muslim parties!

13-21

The Cost of One Man

May 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

$3 Trillion Over 15 Years–Osama bin Laden cost America more than any villain, ever—which is exactly the way he wanted it.

by Tim Fernholz and Jim Tankersley

media.nationaljournal.comThe most expensive public enemy in American history died Sunday from two bullets.

As we mark Osama bin Laden’s death, what’s striking is how much he cost our nation—and how little we’ve gained from our fight against him. By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down.

What do we have to show for that tab? Two wars that continue to occupy 150,000 troops and tie up a quarter of our defense budget; a bloated homeland-security apparatus that has at times pushed the bounds of civil liberty; soaring oil prices partially attributable to the global war on bin Laden’s terrorist network; and a chunk of our mounting national debt, which threatens to hobble the economy unless lawmakers compromise on an unprecedented deficit-reduction deal.

All of that has not given us, at least not yet, anything close to the social or economic advancements produced by the battles against America’s costliest past enemies. Defeating the Confederate army brought the end of slavery and a wave of standardization—in railroad gauges and shoe sizes, for example—that paved the way for a truly national economy. Vanquishing Adolf Hitler ended the Great Depression and ushered in a period of booming prosperity and hegemony. Even the massive military escalation that marked the Cold War standoff against Joseph Stalin and his Russian successors produced landmark technological breakthroughs that revolutionized the economy.

Perhaps the biggest economic silver lining from our bin Laden spending, if there is one, is the accelerated development of unmanned aircraft. That’s our $3 trillion windfall, so far: Predator drones. “We have spent a huge amount of money which has not had much effect on the strengthening of our military, and has had a very weak impact on our economy,” says Linda Bilmes, a lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who coauthored a book on the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Certainly, in the course of the fight against bin Laden, the United States escaped another truly catastrophic attack on our soil. Al-Qaida, though not destroyed, has been badly hobbled. “We proved that we value our security enough to incur some pretty substantial economic costs en route to protecting it,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a national-security analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But that willingness may have given bin Laden exactly what he wanted. While the terrorist leader began his war against the United States believing it to be a “paper tiger” that would not fight, by 2004 he had already shifted his strategic aims, explicitly comparing the U.S. fight to the Afghan incursion that helped bankrupt the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” bin Laden said in a taped statement. Only the smallest sign of al-Qaida would “make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.” Considering that we’ve spent one-fifth of a year’s gross domestic product—more than the entire 2008 budget of the United States government—responding to his 2001 attacks, he may have been onto something.

The Scorecard

Other enemies throughout history have extracted higher gross costs, in blood and in treasure, from the United States. The Civil War and World War II produced higher casualties and consumed larger shares of our economic output. As an economic burden, the Civil War was America’s worst cataclysm relative to the size of the economy. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates that the Union and Confederate armies combined to spend $80 million, in today’s dollars, fighting each other. That number might seem low, but economic historians who study the war say the total financial cost was exponentially higher: more like $280 billion in today’s dollars when you factor in disruptions to trade and capital flows, along with the killing of 3 to 4 percent of the population. The war “cost about double the gross national product of the United States in 1860,” says John Majewski, who chairs the history department at the University of California (Santa Barbara). “From that perspective, the war on terror isn’t going to compare.”

On the other hand, these earlier conflicts—for all their human cost—also furnished major benefits to the U.S. economy. After entering the Civil War as a loose collection of regional economies, America emerged with the foundation for truly national commerce; the first standardized railroad system sprouted from coast to coast, carrying goods across the union; and textile mills began migrating from the Northeast to the South in search of cheaper labor, including former slaves who had joined the workforce. The fighting itself sped up the mechanization of American agriculture: As farmers flocked to the battlefield, the workers left behind adopted new technologies to keep harvests rolling in with less labor.

World War II defense spending cost $4.4 trillion. At its peak, it sucked up nearly 40 percent of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service. It was an unprecedented national mobilization, says Chris Hellman, a defense budget analyst at the National Priorities Project. One in 10 Americans—some 12 million people—donned a uniform during the war.

But the payoff was immense. The war machine that revved up to defeat Germany and Japan powered the U.S. out of the Great Depression and into an unparalleled stretch of postwar growth. Jet engines and nuclear power spread into everyday lives. A new global economic order—forged at Bretton Woods, N.H., by the Allies in the waning days of the war—opened a floodgate of benefits through international trade. Returning soldiers dramatically improved the nation’s skills and education level, thanks to the GI Bill, and they produced a baby boom that would vastly expand the workforce.

U.S. military spending totaled nearly $19 trillion throughout the four-plus decades of Cold War that ensued, as the nation escalated an arms race with the Soviet Union. Such a huge infusion of cash for weapons research spilled over to revolutionize civilian life, yielding quantum leaps in supercomputing and satellite technology, not to mention the advent of the Internet.

Unlike any of those conflicts, the wars we are fighting today were kick-started by a single man. While it is hard to imagine World War II without Hitler, that conflict pitted nations against each other. (Anyway, much of the cost to the United States came from the war in the Pacific.) And it’s absurd to pin the Civil War, World War I, or the Cold War on any single individual. Bin Laden’s mystique (and his place on the FBI’s most-wanted list) made him—and the wars he drew us into—unique.

By any measure, bin Laden inflicted a steep toll on America. His 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa caused Washington to quadruple spending on diplomatic security worldwide the following year—and to expand it from $172 million to $2.2 billion over the next decade. The 2000 bombing of the USS Cole caused $250 million in damages.

Al-Qaida’s assault against the United States on September 11, 2001, was the highest-priced disaster in U.S. history. Economists estimate that the combined attacks cost the economy $50 billion to $100 billion in lost activity and growth, or about 0.5 percent to 1 percent of GDP, and caused about $25 billion in property damage. The stock market plunged and was still down nearly 13 percentage points a year later, although it has more than made up the value since.

The greater expense we can attribute to bin Laden comes from policymakers’ response to 9/11. The invasion of Afghanistan was clearly a reaction to al-Qaida’s attacks. It is unlikely that the Bush administration would have invaded Iraq if 9/11 had not ushered in a debate about Islamic extremism and weapons of mass destruction. Those two wars grew into a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign that cost $1.4 trillion in the past decade—and will cost hundreds of billions more. The government borrowed the money for those wars, adding hundreds of billions in interest charges to the U.S. debt.

Spending on Iraq and Afghanistan peaked at 4.8 percent of GDP in 2008, nowhere near the level of economic mobilization in some past conflicts but still more than the entire federal deficit that year. “It’s a much more verdant, prosperous, peaceful world than it was 60 years ago,” and nations spend proportionally far less on their militaries today, says S. Brock Blomberg, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who specializes in the economics of terrorism. “So as bad as bin Laden is, he’s not nearly as bad as Hitler, Mussolini, [and] the rest of them.”

Yet bin Laden produced a ripple effect. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have created a world in which even non-war-related defense spending has grown by 50 percent since 2001. As the U.S. military adopted counterinsurgency doctrine to fight guerrilla wars, it also continued to increase its ability to fight conventional battles, boosting spending for weapons from national-missile defense and fighter jets to tanks and long-range bombers. Then there were large spending increases following the overhaul of America’s intelligence agencies and homeland-security programs. Those transformations cost at least another $1 trillion, if not more, budget analysts say, though the exact cost is still unknown. Because much of that spending is classified or spread among agencies with multiple missions, a breakdown is nearly impossible.

It’s similarly difficult to assess the opportunity cost of the post-9/11 wars—the kinds of productive investments of fiscal and human resources that we might have made had we not been focused on combating terrorism through counterinsurgency. Blomberg says that the response to the attacks has essentially wiped out the “peace dividend” that the United States began to reap when the Cold War ended. After a decade of buying fewer guns and more butter, we suddenly ramped up our gun spending again, with borrowed money.

The price of the war-fighting and security responses to bin Laden account for more than 15 percent of the national debt incurred in the last decade—a debt that is changing the way our military leaders perceive risk. “Our national debt is our biggest national-security threat,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last June.

All of those costs, totaled together, reach at least $3 trillion. And that’s just the cautious estimate. Stiglitz and Bilmes believe that the Iraq conflict alone cost that much. They peg the total economic costs of both wars at $4 trillion to $6 trillion, Bilmes says. That includes fallout from the sharp increase in oil prices since 2003, which is largely attributable to growing demand from developing countries and current unrest in the Middle East but was also spurred in some part by the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Bilmes and Stiglitz also count part of the 2008 financial crisis among the costs, theorizing that oil price hikes injected liquidity in global economies battling slowdowns in growth—and that helped push up housing prices and contributed to the bubble.

Most important, the fight against bin Laden has not produced the benefits that accompanied previous conflicts. The military escalation of the past 10 years did not stimulate the economy as the war effort did in the 1940s—with the exception of a few large defense contractors—in large part because today’s operations spend far less on soldiers and far more on fuel. Meanwhile, our national-security spending no longer drives innovation. The experts who spoke with National Journal could name only a few advancements spawned by the fight against bin Laden, including Predator drones and improved backup systems to protect information technology from a terrorist attack or other disaster. “The spin-off effects of military technology were demonstrably more apparent in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s,” says Gordon Adams, a national-security expert at American University.

Another reason that so little economic benefit has come from this war is that it has produced less—not more—stability around the world. Stable countries, with functioning markets governed by the rule of law, make better trading partners; it’s easier to start a business, or tap national resources, or develop new products in times of tranquility than in times of strife. “If you can successfully pursue a military campaign and bring stability at the end of it, there is an economic benefit,” says economic historian Joshua Goldstein of the University of Massachusetts. “If we stabilized Libya, that would have an economic benefit.”

Even the psychological boost from bin Laden’s death seems muted by historical standards. Imagine the emancipation of the slaves. Victory over the Axis powers gave Americans a sense of euphoria and limitless possibility. O’Hanlon says, “I take no great satisfaction in his death because I’m still amazed at the devastation and how high a burden he placed on us.” It is “more like a relief than a joy that I feel.” Majewski adds, “Even in a conflict like the Civil War or World War II, there’s a sense of tragedy but of triumph, too. But the war on terror … it’s hard to see what we get out of it, technologically or institutionally.”

What we are left with, after bin Laden, is a lingering bill that was exacerbated by decisions made in a decade-long campaign against him. We borrowed money to finance the war on terrorism rather than diverting other national-security funding or raising taxes. We expanded combat operations to Iraq before stabilizing Afghanistan, which in turn led to the recent reescalation of the American commitment there. We tolerated an unsupervised national-security apparatus, allowing it to grow so inefficient that, as The Washington Post reported in a major investigation last year, 1,271 different government institutions are charged with counterterrorism missions (51 alone track terrorism financing), which produce some 50,000 intelligence reports each year, many of which are simply not read.

ConWe have also shelled out billions of dollars in reconstruction funding and walking-around money for soldiers, with little idea of whether it has even helped foreigners, much less the United States; independent investigations suggest as much as $23 billion is unaccounted for in Iraq alone. “We can’t account for where any of it goes—that’s the great tragedy in all of this,” Hellman says. “The Pentagon cannot now and has never passed an audit—and, to me, that’s just criminal.”

It’s worth repeating that the actual cost of bin Laden’s September 11 attacks was between $50 billion and $100 billion. That number could have been higher, says Adam Rose, coordinator for economics at the University of Southern California’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, but for the resilience of the U.S. economy and the quick response of policymakers to inject liquidity and stimulate consumer spending. But the cost could also have been much lower, he says, if consumers hadn’t paid a fear premium—shying away from air travel and tourism in the aftermath of the attacks. “Ironically,” he says, “we as Americans had more to do with the bottom-line outcome than the terrorist attack itself, on both the positive side and the negative side.”

The same is true of the nation’s decision, for so many reasons, to spend at least $3 trillion responding to bin Laden’s attacks. More than actual security, we bought a sense of action in the face of what felt like an existential threat. We staved off another attack on domestic soil. Our debt load was creeping up already, thanks to the early waves stages of baby-boomer retirements, but we also hastened a fiscal mess that has begun, in time, to fulfill bin Laden’s vision of a bankrupt America. If left unchecked, our current rate of deficit spending would add $9 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. That’s three Osamas, right there.

Although Bin Laden is buried in the sea, other Islamist extremists are already vying to take his place. In time, new enemies, foreign and domestic, will rise to challenge America. What they will cost us, far more than we realize, is our choice. 

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West Bengal Polls: The Muslim Vote

May 5, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI/KOLKATA:  The ongoing multiphase elections to West Bengal Assembly are marked by a new importance being given to the state’s Muslim vote-bank. Will the Muslim-vote play a crucial part in deciding the fate of the Left Front government, led by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)? The state has been headed by left bloc since 1977. The Muslims constitute around 28 percent of the state’s vote-bank. Of late, a lot of hype has been raised about possible chances of Trinamool Congress, headed by Mamata Bannerjee, in alliance with the Congress Party ousting the Left bloc from power in West Bengal. Interestingly, Bannerjee, popularly known as Didi, is not contesting from any constituency in West Bengal. This naturally has raised questions about whether she is sure of her party winning substantial number of seats in the assembly.

The polls to 294-seats, spread over six phases began on April 18. Voting in the last phase will be held on May 10. The counting will take place on May 13. Within less than a fortnight, the political picture in West Bengal will be clearly laid out. At present, the possible impact of Muslim-vote in these elections shall be elaborated on. Out of the 42 members from West Bengal in Lower House (Lok Sabha) of the National Parliament, six are Muslims, with three from Congress, two-Trinamool Congress and one from CPI-M. The state has 15 members in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha), three of whom are Muslims with two from CPI-M and one an Independent.

The Muslim members constitute around 15 percent of the strength of outgoing state assembly. Of these, more than 50 percent belong to CPI-M and less than 30 percent to both the Congress and Trinamool Congress. The Speaker of the outgoing assembly is a Muslim from CPI-M, Hashim Abdul Halim. He has held this office since May 6, 1982.

Though Muslim-legislators’ strength in the assembly falls below their population-percentage in West Bengal, it would be wrong to assume that their concerns and grievances have been ignored or sidelined. A major reflection of this trend is that the state, under the Left-bloc government, has not been witness to any communal riot targeting the Muslims. In fact, Muslims have confided about their feeling secure in West Bengal. Here, one may draw attention to West Bengal government’s reaction, when Muslims were targeted in Gujarat-carnage (2002). A considerable number of the survivors, who decided to leave Gujarat, selected West Bengal as their home. Among these was Qutubuddin Ansari of Ahmadabad, whose picture with folded hands and tears streaming down his cheeks, pleading to rioters for sparing him, was then splashed across the world. He first rushed to Maharashtra, from where he was not spared by riot-mongers and some media persons. Eventually, he found a safe shelter in Kolkata, with initiative taken by some CPI-M leaders, including Mohammed Salim, who was then a minister in charge of secretariat dealing with development of minority communities. Ansari arrived in Kolkata with his wife and children in August 2003.

Electorally, apart from image presented by politicians appealing to Muslims for their votes, it is important to reflect on the picture that certain statistics suggest. More than 1700 hundred candidates are in the fray for contesting the West Bengal assembly polls. Less than 300 of these are Muslims. The Muslim candidates from CPI-M are more than 40, from Trinamool Congress- 38 and the Congress- 23. Interestingly, Muslim candidates trying their political luck are the maximum from small parties (116) followed by Independent candidates (61). Several major parties with minimal influence in West Bengal are also testing their political fate here, with Bharatiya Janata Party having fielded six candidates and Bahujan Samaj Party – 10.

These statistics clearly indicate that only 16 percent of the contesting candidates are Muslims. Interestingly, had Muslims decided not to enter the political fray as Independents and from smaller parties, statistically their participation as candidates would have fallen by more than 50 percent. When only the numbers of Muslim candidates fielded by major political parties, including CPI-M, Trinamool and Congress are added together, they constitute less than seven percent of the total candidates.

Now, the crucial question is whether the Muslims contesting polls as Independent and from smaller parties, will play a crucial part in deciding the fate of major parties in the fray? There is a possibility that a split or even too many divisions in Muslims votes may not prove helpful in helping Muslim candidates win. At the same time, considering that West Bengal is known for its secular harmony, the religious identity of candidates in the fray may not influence the voters in taking their decision. Their vote is likely to be more strongly influenced by their political preferences than religious identity of the candidates. There is a possibility that several Independent candidates may have been deliberately fielded by political players keen to cut into vote-base of rival parties, primarily on ground of religion.

Irrespective of the degree to which the religious card is being exercised by political parties in West Bengal elections, the crucial card is likely to be played by political speculation, apprehension and the trust that the voter displays through his/her vote. And the voters’ decision shall be known only when the results are declared later this month!

13-19

The “Surge” in Iraq & Afghanistan

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

NATO & the Pashtuns–A Misunderstanding of Tribal Identities

By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

Richmond, VA–April 9th–Your narrator finds himself in the (U.S.) Civil War-era (1860s) era capital of the Confederacy (i.e., the South) where he listened to the research of a Michael Yalchi on the lack of understanding between NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the operation of tribal identity within the Southern Afghani battle theater.  This article is written with a considerable amount of your essayists own research, too.

Richmond, from which your author is reporting, is a moderate-sized (American) Revolutionary-era city of a little over 200,000, and is, also, the present-day seat of government of the current (U.S.) Commonwealth (State) of Virginia on the Atlantic seaboard a hundred miles below Washington D.C.  (Most of the American Civil War [1860-1865] was fought within this hundred miles between the two fore-mentioned two cities.)  This War fought on U.S. soil is considered the first “modern” martial dispute.

While in the Middle East, this past week (18th-24th) of the actual physical act of writing (April 23rd –26th) this article, the Libyan Civil War continues to fume, and Colonel Khadafy may even overcome his armed opposition as the battleground is raging back and forth between his divisions along with their African mercenaries against the rebels headquartered in this barren environment second city, Benghazi, the latter’s de facto capital.   Succinctly, there is no way to predict the outcome of this clash.

At the same time, British officers have been on the ground secretly for several weeks now whipping the rag-tag insurgent “military” into a credible resistance as the established government in Tripoli has ordered allied tribal leaders into the fray against a strategic dissident-held urban center.

The European Union (EU) intends to go to the Security Council of the U.N. (United Nations) in New York City to obtain the “legal” permission to plant the soldiers on the Maghreb soil there to, supposedly, institute safe-sanctuaries there.  (There was a great failure by the Dutch Army in the 1990s Bosnian War wherein Muslims were massacred by the failure of Amsterdam to enforce their assigned asylum.)  In Libya, what had started as a “no-fly” zone to protect unprotected non-combatants is, unfortunately, becoming a campaign for regime change in that North African nation.  Fortunately, Washington has pledged not to place land troops on another Islamic territory.  Hopefully, they will keep to their promise!

Concurrently, Ba’athist Syria is teetering toward a civil war; while Yemen “ancient” fissure between the North and South is beginning to crack again.  It was announced on the 23rd that Sana’a head of State was willing to step down, but this had become questionable by the 25th.  The Crown Prince of Bahrain has informed the British Royal family (the 24th) that he would not be able to attend Prince William’s wedding in London because of the unrest on his island.  Most of the other States in the Islamic West (of Dar al Islam) are in the midst of upheaval, too.  Some more dramatically and critically than others.  The end results in this overall region will depend upon how the present elites of their individual nation-states will react to their internal populist challenges.

Back to Michael Yalchi:  Iraq, which he only mentions only in passing, is, also, going through disturbance.  Strangely, if the late Bush Administration had refrained from its aggression, Sadam Hussein’s government’s days were limited anyway without so many Western allied lives lost!  Michael Yalchi did mention the success of General Petraeus’ surge in Mesopotamia, but he spent most of his time on its application on the Afghanistani battlefield.

One cannot talk about the Middle East unless one considers Afghanistan.  The U.S. strategic position is that it is on the eastern limits of American calculated policy regarding the Middle East — along with Pakistan (whose civil society is presently up in “arms” over the U.S.A’s drone [unmanned aircraft] attacks mainly in the tribal areas within their nation that may have caused as many as nine hundred non-combatant Pakistani deaths last year).    On the other hand, if you were in the Kremlin’s foreign office, the Hindu Kush Mountains is definitely part of Central Asia.  To the British and (now) New Delhi and Islamabad, it is unequivocally part of South Asia since it is solidly and historically inter-connected  to the nations across the Khyber.

In one sense, although it has an ancient history as a separate country, modern Afghanistan was a creation of the British and Russian Empires during the Nineteenth Century as a buffer zone between the two.  During the last decade of that century, the border was forced upon the tribes in the desert-like mountains (i.e., the Durand Line) to slow down what was known as the “Great Game.”  The British Indian Army had fought three disastrous wars over that world on the other side of their Line in the Nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, and the War from which Moscow had retreated in 1989 was in effect their Third Afghan War.  All (total) six Afghan Wars fought by the two dissimilar Empires ended disastrously for the European powers.  The current War is an American/NATO adventure with the puppet-placed Kabul government as ally.  The enemy, of course, is the Taliban “army” (whose mass Kandahar prison break-out this past week-end [23rd  through  24th]shows a degree of popular support and effective tactical ability).

Some political scientists have described the current dispute not as a War an Afghani War, but as a revolt of a regional sub-nationality, the Pashtuns, for self governance and unification since they are divided by the arbitrary and ill-delineated Durand Line which currently serves as the border between Islamabad and Kabul.  The War on The Afghani side of the boundary is in the South of their countryside while in Pakistan it is being waged mostly within Peshawar’s Provinces by Rawalpindi‘s army.

Since we are discussing the War about Kandahar, the demographics of Afghanistan show forty percent Pashtun (the highest single element within the total population).  Near 11 and one-half percent are of the Durrani tribal group, and almost 14 percent are Ghilzai.  The Tajiks within the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan are the second largest ethnic group with a little over 25 percent of the population.  The Hazaras stand at 18 percent while the Uzbeks that are ruled from Kabul are at slightly over 6 percent.  The Turkmen there are at 2.5 percent.  The lowest identifiable ethnic group, is the Qizilbash at 1%.  Other minuscule clusters measure about 7 percent all together.  As can be seen the mountainous nation is a multi-ethnic and, further, multi-lingual, and discord has arisen out of these issues.

Within Pakistan, on the other hand, who are divided by the aforementioned frontier from their Pashtun brothers to the north — they make up about  fifteen and one-half percent of the whole of the latter country’s population.   The Pastuns there — besides the Northwest Provinces — are largely settled in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in Baluchistan on the Iranian periphery, but pockets are scattered all over that nation-state.  Also, the Taliban themselves are mainly Pashtun, and are logically located in Afghanistan’s south and the Northwest Provinces in Pakistan’s Hindu Kush.
Back to Michael Yalchi’s comments:  The American-led coalition is attempting a surge in Afghanistan similar to the successful one in Iraq, but the tribal composition and internal identification within the two states are significantly different.  The Wickileaks of last week (18th-24th) has brought the District of Columbia’s faulty assumptions to light.  In Afghanistan, it is a social misunderstanding by NATO in how the various high tribes and sub-tribes relate amongst themselves that creates a problem for the Europeans and North Americans in their counter-insurgency.

Yalchi asserted that “Afghani (tribal) territorial ‘maps’ inform their society.”  That is, the clans are essentially local, and the division of customs, etc. between groups are determined by the harsh landscape, for they are isolated one from another, and, curiously, the same geographical constraints that make travel problematic throughout the region for Brussels (i.e., NATO‘s) armed forces has created shortcomings in the Western alliance’s rush throughout that craggy topography.

Your correspondent, who happens to be an anti-imperialist personally, desires to end this piece by stating, unlike the British in their Imperial times who would be stationed in the Mountains for thirty years, and often would take a Pashtun woman to wife, etc., and was trained to speak the local language fluently.  (In other words, although alien, he was intimate with the culture.)  The American soldiers are posted in Southern Afghanistan for about a year at a time.  Mostly, they depend upon “fixers,” a journalistic term denoting a person native to the country who leads non-indigenous individuals through the landscape, translates and arranges things with the local inhabitants.

This lack of cultural comprehension is the real reason the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s campaign in Helmet and other Provinces in the South of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is going inadequately for the Western offensive in suppressing the Taliban’s insurgency.

Whereas Michael Yalchi regulates his analysis to the NATO alliance’s lack of accomplishment to a deficiency in grasping the lack of cohesion between the clannish customs who are opposing the Western soldiers in the combat zone in the high country, your commentator would go further to say it is a total cultural insensitivity and disrespect for their Pashtun opponent.

13-18

Kandaharis Want Peace Talks

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

2010-05-05T121705Z_1095639419_GM1E6551KBZ01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

Afghan women clad in burqas and a child receive food aid in Kabul May 5, 2010. The Afghan Ministry of Defense distributed food aid such as wheat, cooking oil, sugar and beans to 220 poor families.

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

An opinion survey of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province funded by the U.S. Army has revealed that 94 percent of respondents support negotiating with the Taliban over military confrontation with the insurgent group and 85 percent regard the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers.”

The survey, conducted by a private U.S. contractor last December, covered Kandahar City and other districts in the province into which Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is planning to introduce more troops in the biggest operation of the entire war. Those districts include Arghandab, Zhari, rural Kandahar, and Panjwayi.

Afghan interviewers conducted the survey only in areas which were not under Taliban control.

The decisive rejection of the use of foreign troops against the Taliban by the population in Kandahar casts further doubt on the fundamental premise of the Kandahar campaign, scheduled to begin in June, that the population and tribal elders in those districts would welcome a U.S.-NATO troop presence to expel the Taliban.

That assumption was dealt a serious blow at a meeting on April 4 at which tribal elders from all over Kandahar told President Hamid Karzai they were not happy with the planned military operation.

An unclassified report on the opinion survey was published in March by Glevum Associates, a Washington-based “strategic communications” company under contract for the Human Terrain Systems program in Afghanistan. A link to the report was first provided by the Web site Danger Room which reported the survey April 16.

Ninety-one percent of the respondents supported the convening of a “Loya Jirga,” or “grand assembly” of leaders as a way of ending the conflict, with 54 percent “strongly” supporting it, and 37 percent “somewhat” supporting it. That figure appears to reflect support for President Karzai’s proposal for a “peace Jirga” in which the Taliban would be invited to participate.

The degree to which the population in the districts where McChrystal plans to send troops rejects military confrontation and believes in a peaceful negotiated settlement is suggested by a revealing vignette recounted by Time magazine’s Joe Klein in the April 15 issue.

Klein accompanied U.S. Army Capt. Jeremiah Ellis when he visited a 17-year-old boy in Zhari district whose house Ellis wanted to use an observation post. When Ellis asked the boy how he thought the war would end, he answered, “Whenever you guys get out from here, things will get better.”

“The elders will sit down with the Taliban, and the Taliban will lay down their arms.”

The Kandahar offensive seems likely to dramatize the contrast between the U.S. insistence on a military approach to the Taliban control of large parts of southern Afghanistan and the overwhelming preference of the Pashtun population for initiating peace negotiations with the Taliban as Karzai has proposed.

Ironically, highlighting that contradiction in the coming months could encourage President Barack Obama to support Karzai’s effort to begin negotiations with the Taliban now rather than waiting until mid-2011, as the U.S. military has been advocating since last December.

Obama told a meeting of his “war cabinet” last month that it might be time to start negotiations with the Taliban, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have opposed any move toward negotiations until Gen. McChrystal is able to demonstrate clear success in weakening the Taliban.

The Taliban ruling council has taken advantage of the recent evidence of contradictions between Pashtuns in Kandahar and the U.S. military over the Kandahar offensive by signaling in an interview with the Sunday Times of London that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is prepared to engage in “sincere and honest” talks.

In a meeting in an unidentified Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan reported Sunday, two Taliban officials told the newspaper that Omar’s aims were now limited to the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners, and the restoration of security. It was the first major signal of interest in negotiations since the arrest of Mullah Omar’s second in command, Mullah Baradar, in late January.

The report of the Glevum survey revealed that more people in Kandahar regard checkpoints maintained by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) and ANA and ANP vehicles as the biggest threat to their security while traveling than identified either Taliban roadside bombs or Taliban checkpoints as the main threat.

Fifty-eight percent of the respondents in the survey said the biggest threat to their security while traveling were the ANA and ANP checkpoints on the road, and 56 percent said ANA/ANP vehicles were the biggest threat. Only 44 percent identified roadside bombs as the biggest threat – the same percentage of respondents who regard convoys of the International Security Assistance Force – the NATO command under Gen. McChrystal – as the primary threat to their security.

Only 37 percent of the respondents regarded Taliban checkpoints as the main threat to their security.

In Kandahar City, the main target of the coming U.S. military offensive in Kandahar, the gap between perceptions of threats to travel security from government forces and from the Taliban is even wider.

Sixty-five percent of the respondents in Kandahar City said they regard ANA/ANP checkpoints as the main threat to their security, whereas roadside bombs are the main problem for 42 percent of the respondents.

The survey supports the U.S. military’s suspicion that the transgressions of local officials of the Afghan government, who are linked mainly to President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar province council and the main warlord in the province, have pushed the population into the arms of the Taliban.

An overwhelming 84 percent of the respondents agreed that corruption is the main cause of the conflict, and two-thirds agreed that government corruption “makes us look elsewhere.” That language used in the questionnaire was obviously intended to allow respondents to hint that they were supporting the Taliban insurgents in response to the corruption, without saying so explicitly.

More than half the respondents (53 percent) endorsed the statement that the Taliban are “incorruptible.”

“Corruption” is a term that is often understood to include not only demands for payments for services and passage through checkpoints but violence by police against innocent civilians.

The form of government corruption that has been exploited most successfully by the Taliban in Kandahar is the threat to destroy opium crops if the farmers do not pay a large bribe. The survey did not ask any questions about opium growing and Afghan attitudes toward the government and the Taliban, although that was one of the key questions that Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the head of intelligence for Gen. McChrystal, had sought clarification of.

12-19

The Pakistani (Acting) Consul General For the West Coast of the United States

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

Muhammad Khalid Ejaz

Los Angeles–April 10th–My last two articles came out of a discussion with the Indian (former) Ambassador to Afghanistan.  I was fortunate to hear a speech of the (Acting) Consul-General of Pakistan to the Western United State at the South Asian Studies Association (S.A.S.A) banquet here at U.S.C. (the University of Southern California).  His comments balanced those of Ambassador Maukapadya in Berkeley a month before.

Dr. Ejaz stated that Pakistan was the fifth most populous country in the world, but because of political disruptions over the land, (there has not been an accurate census since 1991, but it is safe to say that in early 1994, the inhabitants of Pakistan were appropriately estimated at 126 million, making it the ninth most populous country in the world although its land area, however, ranks thirty-second among nations.  Thus, Pakistan, then, had about 2 percent of the world’s population living on less than 0.7 percent of the world’s land. The population growth rate is among the world’s highest, officially assessed at 3.1 percent per annum, but privately considered to be closer to 3.3 percent for each year. Pakistan is assumed to have reached 150 million citizens ten years ago, and to have contributed to 4 percent of the world’s growth which is predicted to double by 2022.)  All this past paragraph demonstrates is that the  Consul-General’s approximation of Pakistan’s place in population today in relation to the demographics of the world probably is close to correct.

Strategically, his nation is at the intersection of four vital locales to the U.S. and to the developing world.  That is both Central and South Asia, and the Middle East and with China on its border connected by the Karkoram Highway.  Several of these regions are either oil/gas rich, or require Pakistan’s help to transport this energy to their ever-expanding economies.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Rawapindi was America’s most allied of (trusted) allies.  Now, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) fulfills that function for Washington. 

In the 1980s, the two countries joined forces to help defeat the Russians in Afghanistan, but the District of Columbia deserted not only the Pakistanis, (but the Afghani and foreign fighters in the Hindu Kush Mountains. With the retreat of the Russians, and the collapse of their empire [the U.S.S.R, or [the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic], and [the whole “Second World” with it]), a five-way Civil War developed in Afghanistan, and eventually the rise of Taliban.) 

Thus, (your author consigns the blame the roots of 9/11 on the Reagan Administration ill-advised policy of not providing development aid and skills to Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This, in turn, has lead to our current War in the Pakistani-Afghanistani Mountains.  That is why your writer designates Reagan to have been one of the worst of American Presidents instead of one of the best which the vulgar declare him to be in the Metropole [the Center of Empire] here.  Besides Washington’s airport being named after, there is a movement to put his face on the fifty dollar bill!).

After the ninth of 9th of September 2001 Islamabad was (forced) to become a front line State once again.  Ejaz asserted our allied relationship with the U.S.A. should evolve into a more equitable one.  We should have a “normalized” relationship with both those in the West, (and with the Taliban)!

We (Pakistan) are, also, under the threat of terrorism whose roots reside along the Durand Line.  It is a porous border that dives a subnationality (the Pashtoons) that should have a right to regularly cross that frontier to visit their relatives on the other side!  We cannot seal the borderland where the tribes exist in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It is true, though, many things that happen on the Afghani side of the border deeply impact the Northwest Frontier Provinces.

With this porous borderland, there are fighters who cross into our country for sanctuary.  Thus, despite the West’s accusations, Rawalpindi has suffered high casualties!  Muhammad Khalid Ejaz called on the U.S.A. to become more involved with development in the Af-Pak territories.  There is a serious problem between Pakistan and India, too, over water rights; the great powers could help negotiate this.  Still, Pakistan, as a nuclear power, has issues with nuclear India.  He affirmed that Kashmir can be settled!

He concluded that the U.S.A. has a role in the Afghan conflict, but the tribes have to have their traditional rights of cross-border movement.

12-19

Saudi Youth Unemployment Over 40 Pct

May 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

RIYADH – Unemployment among Saudis rose to 10.5 percent in 2009 from 10 percent a year earlier, and topped 43 percent among men and women aged 20-24, according to government figures cited by Okaz newspaper on Wednesday.

Despite continued economic growth on the back of a massive government spending program, 448,547 Saudis were without jobs, up by 32,197 from a year earlier, a report by the Central Department of Statistics and Information showed.

Joblessness among men was 6.9 percent, slightly up from to 6.8 percent in 2008. Among women, the rate was 28.4 percent compared to 26.9 percent.

The very high figures for youth underscore the problem of a rapidly growing population that, for complex reasons, is not getting jobs despite steady economic growth.

The jobless rate was 43.2 percent for men and women in the 20-24 category, rising to 46.7 percent for men alone.

The report did not give a figure for women in that age group, but said that for those between ages 25 and 29, 45.9 percent lacked jobs.

The study did not cover the eight to 10 million foreigners in Saudi Arabia — a third or more of the total population of 25.3 million.

The country heavily depends on foreign workers for everything from menial jobs, construction and the service sector to work requiring advanced skills like technology and hospital jobs.

Employers often say Saudis lack adequate training and skills, or demand too high salaries. The biggest employer of Saudis is the government, while foreigners dominate private sector jobs at many levels.

The country’s total population is growing about 2.4 percent annually, with the figure significantly higher for native Saudis.

The population is heavily weighted on the young side — more than half the population is less than 20 years old and 40 percent aged 15 or younger.

That places great pressure on the government to create long-term jobs for its citizens, and Riyadh has been pushing strongly a “Saudi-isation” policy to place native Saudis in jobs that foreigners hold.

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12-18

Egypt Welcomes Volcano-Stranded Tourists

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism is determined to keep the good times rolling for stranded visitors.  Although hotels are overbooked by 7 percent in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada and well over 80 percent in Sharm El Sheikh, hotel owners have been ordered not to expel guests who have overstayed their reservations.

Tour companies must continue to foot the bill for tour groups who overstay and if lodgers are traveling solo, hotels are obliged to offer them low rates. If travelers are in financial trouble, they have been advised to contact their embassies.

Stranded Europeans are taking full advantage.

“The travel agent, they pay all for us, room, food, drinks, everything,” said Ulf Daahlbom of Gothenburg Sweden.  He took a five hour taxi ride from Hurghada to take in the sites in Cairo.  “It was beautiful here.  I have been at the Pyramids and the Egyptian museum.”

Two engineers from Ireland and Scotland couldn’t conceal their smiles as they sat in the shade of a tree after a day in 100 degree heat at the Pyramids and Egyptian Museum.  They had been on their way back home from work in the Suez Canal zone when they were obliged to take an all-expense paid vacation.

Charlotte Krum, a stewardess for Scandinavian Air, has nothing to go back for since her airline has been grounded.  She and her husband and four children were on a Red Sea get-away when spewing volcanic ash extended their stay.  “It’s nice for us to have the opportunity to show them [the children] all the sites in Cairo,” she said. “We just came from the Pyramids and now we go to the museum.  We are trying to make the best out of it.”

Krum and her family came to Cairo to try and get a flight to Greece, but seemed in no hurry. Traveler’s insurance covered the first four days of their stay.  “Everything has been working out quite well.  We have some nice rooms here.”

Egypt jealously protects its biggest money earner: tourism.  About 12 million tourists, at least 65 percent of them from Europe, bring in about 11 billion dollars a year and 12.6 percent of the workforce lives off of tourism.  All guests are welcome, even those who overstay.

While many hotels over overbooked, EgyptAir and other regional carriers sit idle on the tarmac.  They are suffering to the tune of 250 million dollars a day.  Before noon on Monday, more than 16 planes were grounded on Cairo’s tarmacs.

But in Egypt’s airports, you won’t find hapless visitors trying to catch some sleep on makeshift bedrolls, or slumped in plastic chairs. Tour guides are under strict orders not to drop anyone off at the airport until they have confirmed their flights.

12-17

Is Iran Running a Bluff?

February 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Patrick J. Buchanan

Did Robert Gibbs let the cat out of the bag?

Last week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the world that Iran, unable to get fuel rods from the West for its U.S.-built reactor, which makes medical isotopes, had begun to enrich its own uranium to 20 percent.

From his perch in the West Wing, Gibbs scoffed: He [Ahmadinejad] says many things, and many of them turn out to be untrue. We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching.

But wait a minute. If Iran does not have the capability to enrich to 20 percent for fuel rods, how can Iran enrich to 90 percent for a bomb?

What was Gibbs implying?

Is he confirming reports that Irans centrifuges are breaking down or have been sabotaged? Is he saying that impurities, such as molybdenum, in the feed stock of Irans centrifuges at Natanz are damaging the centrifuges and contaminating the uranium?

What explains Gibbs confidence? Perhaps this.

According to a report last week by David Albright and Christina Walrond of the Institute for Science and International Security, Irans problems in its centrifuge program are greater than expected. Iran is unlikely to deploy enough gas centrifuges to make enriched uranium for commercial nuclear power reactors [Iran’s stated nuclear goal] for a long time, if ever, particularly if [UN] sanctions remain in force.

Thus, ISIS is saying Iran cannot make usable fuel for the nuclear power plant it is building, and Gibbs is saying Iran lacks the capability to make fuel rods for its research reactor.

Which suggests Iran’s vaunted nuclear program is a busted flush.

ISIS insists, however, that Iran may still be able to build a bomb. Yet, to do that, Iran would have to divert nearly all of its low-enriched uranium at Natanz, now under UN watch, to a new cascade of centrifuges, enrich that to 90 percent, then explode a nuclear device.

Should Iran do that, however, it would have burned up all its bomb-grade uranium and lack enough low-enriched uranium for a second test. And Tehran would be facing a stunned and shaken Israel with hundreds of nukes and an America with thousands, without a single nuke of its own.

Is Iran running a bluff? And if Gibbs and Albright are right, how long can Iran keep up this pretense of rapid nuclear progress?

Which brings us to the declaration by Ahmadinejad on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which produced this headline in the New York Times: Iran Boasts of Capacity to Make Bomb Fuel.

Accurate as far as it went, this headline was so incomplete as to mislead. For here is what Ahmadinejad said in full:

When we say that we dont build nuclear bombs, it means that we wont do so because we dont believe in having it. The Iranian nation is brave enough that if one day we wanted to build nuclear bombs, we would announce it publicly without being afraid of you.

Right now in Natanz we have the capability to enrich to more than 20 percent and to more than 80 percent, but because we dont need to, we wont do so.

On Friday, Ahmadinejad sounded like Ronald Reagan: We believe that not only the Middle East but the whole world should be free of nuclear weapons, because we see such weapons as inhumane.

Now, if as Albright suggests, Tehran cannot produce fuel for nuclear power plants, and if, as Gibbs suggests, Iran is not capable of enriching to 20 percent for fuel for its research reactor, is Ahmadinejad, in renouncing the bomb, making a virtue of necessity?

After all, if you cant build them, denounce them as inhumane.

Last December, however, the Times of London reported it had a secret document, which intelligence agencies dated to early 2007, proving that Iran was working on the final component of a neutron initiator, the trigger for an atom bomb.

If true, this would leave egg all over the faces of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies whose December 2007 consensus was that Iran stopped seeking a bomb in 2003.
The Times credited an Asian intelligence service for having ably assisted with its story.

U.S. intelligence, however, has not confirmed the authenticity of the document, and Iran calls it a transparent forgery. When former CIA man Phil Giraldi sounded out ex-colleagues still in the trade, they, too, called the Times document a forgery.

Shades of Saddam seeking yellowcake from Niger.

Are the folks who lied us into war on Iraq, to strip it of weapons it did not have, now trying to lie us into war on Iran, to strip it of weapons it does not have?

Maybe the Senate should find out before voting sanctions that will put us on the road to such a war, which would fill up all the empty beds at Walter Reed.

12-8

Indo-Iran Diplomacy: Women As ”Cultural Ambassadors”

February 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Notwithstanding all the noise being made against Iran over its nuclear program, Indo-Iranian ties have not backtracked. What is more amazing is the definite impact made by women in this field. This month began with Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao visiting Iran, during which she held extensive discussions with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Economy and Finance Minister Seyed Shamseddin Hosseini and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili. It was Rao’s first visit to Iran as Foreign Secretary. During her visit, both sides emphasized the need for expansion of economic ties. Besides, Rao laid stress that both countries should also give more importance to tourism in keeping with their rich history and tourist attractions.

Rao’s visit is, however, just a minor indicator of the importance India and Iran are giving to strengthen their ties. This point is supported by cultural diplomacy playing a crucial role in bringing the two countries closer. The ministry of cultural diplomacy in the present Indian cabinet setup is one of the few ministries exclusively headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It has not been allocated specifically to any cabinet minister. This also implies that diplomatic steps being taken forward in the cultural field have the direct consent of the Indian Prime Minister.

Interestingly, Iranian women are playing a crucial role regarding cultural diplomacy. The Iranian puppetry troupe- Apple Tree- performed a traditional puppet show, The Bald Hero in New Delhi, Mumbai and Gurgaon. The all-women troupe was invited to the annual Ishara International Festival, which began in New Delhi on January 27 to continue till February 15 in Mumbai. Majid Giahchi, head of Apple Tree group, said: “The group includes four sisters who have been awarded for their brilliant performance of the puppet show throughout the world.” “The traditional play has been forgotten for years, but the Apple Tree troupe was able to revive the art form after carrying out research on it in 2005,” Giahchi said.

Giahchi adds a diplomatic importance to such puppet shows as well expects them to help promote these arts financially. “When a troupe attends an international event, it acts as an ambassador of the art and culture of Iran, so it needs to be supported financially,” Giahchi said.

Against the backdrop of a largely negative image projected about status of women in Iran, The Bald Hero prompts Indians to naturally think otherwise. By visiting India to participate in the puppet show and also other countries of the world, the Iranian women have not simply played the role of diplomatic ambassadors. They have also conveyed the message that Iranian women should not be presumed to be as suppressed as presented largely by the international media.

In an attempt to change this impression, a silent movement has begun. Though there is no denying that women in Iran still face considerable discrimination and are yearning for more rights as well as greater equality, several facts cannot be ignored. Women across the world, including in the so-called liberal, democratic countries, have not gained much prominence in the political arena and similar areas, which continue to be dominated by men. However, their numerical position in Muslim countries such as Iran is tended to be projected negatively as a sign of their being kept backwards by religious extremists. Yet, if facts and statistics released by reliable sources are studied, they convey a totally different picture.

Of these, perhaps the most significant is that the health minister in Iran’s cabinet is a woman, Marziya Vahid Dastjerdi. Besides, Iranian women acquired the right to vote and started becoming members of the Parliament more than fifty years ago. Since then, even though their representation is fairly small, they have managed to secure entry into the Parliament defeating all the speculations raised about the command of fundamentalists in Iranian society. The same point is also proved by women’s population in Iranian universities being 52 percent, more than that of men’s 48 percent.

Several figures also defy the impression that Iranian women’s role – behind the veil- is restricted to being home-makers. The number of women employed by the government in 2006 was 788488, which was 14.53 percent more than in 1997. In addition to Iranian women being employed in government departments, they have moved forward in other areas also. There has been in 2007, 80 percent increase in the number of books published by Iranian women writers in around a decade’s time. During the same period, there has been a 58 percent increase in number of women film makers whose work has been recognized in international film festivals outside Iran. Similarly, the number of women athletes has increased by 47 percent. The last point is further supported by the formation of women’s football team in 2006. The team visited India to participate in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for the first team in October 2007.

Women must certainly be credited for playing a major role in taking forward Indo-Iranian diplomatic relations, culturally and in other areas, including sports. Indian Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Iran is a symbolic indicator of Indo-Iranian ties being on the upswing.

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Qaradawi: Egypt’s Steel Wall “Forbidden in Islam”

January 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

qaradawi1 The president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars has said that the steel wall being built by the Egyptian authorities along their border with the Gaza Strip is prohibited according to Islam. Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi added, “Egypt, which fought four wars for Palestine, should not carry out an act that is 100 percent against the Palestinians.”

In a press statement, Dr. Al-Qaradawi said, “The construction of the steel wall, which Egypt is building along its border with Gaza, is prohibited by the Shari’a, because the intention behind it is to block all exit and entry points for Gazans, to intensify the siege around them, to humiliate them, to starve them and put pressure on them to kneel in surrender to Israel.”
He added that the people of Gaza had to resort to tunnels in order to find an alternative to the border crossing at Rafah, which is closed on most days, even for humanitarian relief convoys. “It is”, he said, “as if Egypt is telling the Palestinians, ‘Die, and let Israel live’.”

Shaikh Al-Qaradawi expressed his shock at hearing the news about the wall: “I denied it at first and thought that the story was intended to drive a wedge between Egypt and the Palestinian people. Even Egypt denied the news.” When the story was confirmed as true he was stunned.

In response to statements by Egyptian officials that the wall is a matter of national sovereignty, Sh. Al-Qaradawi agreed that Egypt is free to preserve its sovereignty over its borders, “but it is not free to help in the killing of its Palestinian brothers and neighbours.”

He stated that it is not permissible, no matter which way it is looked at, for Egypt to construct such a wall. “It is not permissible from an Arab perspective, because of Arab Nationalism; it is not permissible from an Islamic perspective, because of Islamic brotherhood; and it is not permissible from a humanitarian perspective, because of human brotherhood. Egypt must open the Rafah border crossing for Gazans, because it is the only lung for them to breathe through. It is a religious and legal duty for Egypt not to suffocate the people of Gaza and collaborate in their murder.”

While calling on all the friends of Egypt to pressurise it to back down over this unjustifiable criminal act, Sh. Al-Qaradawi also called upon the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to intervene “to stop this tragedy”. Furthermore, he warned Egyptian officials “to fear God when it comes to their oppressed brothers and sisters,” and not do something that is “100 percent against the Palestinians, and 100 percent in the interests of Israel”.

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US Millionaires’ Investment Confidence Falls in Oct

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Even for millionaires, life is not an eternal walk on Easy Street.

U.S. millionaires worried more about money in October than September, according to a survey released on Wednesday.

The Spectrem Group said its millionaire confidence index fell 2 points to -7 in October, marking its first decline since July.

The U.S. millionaire population in 2008 fell by 2.5 million to a five-year low of 6.7 million, as the financial crisis hit real estate and stock prices, Spectrum reported in March.

Spectrem’s survey of affluent households with $500,000 or more of investable assets also showed falling confidence in October, with the confidence index down two points to -15, keeping it in bearish territory.

“Overall, this suggests the nation’s wealthiest investors are reacting cautiously to the stock market … and recent signs that the economy may be coming back to life,’’ said George H. Walper Jr, president of Spectrem Group, a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in the affluent and retirement markets.

Stock market conditions was the single biggest concern affecting investment plans of affluent investors, with 27% citing it in response to an open-ended question, Spectrem reported.

That was followed by the economic environment at 22 percent; the political climate at 7 percent; household income at 4 percent; and household cashflow at 4 percent.

The survey is based on 250 monthly interviews with financial decision-makers in households with $500,000 or more in investable assets.

(Reporting by Edward Krudy; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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US vs. Taliban in Afghanistan

November 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Inter Press Service, News Analysis, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

2009-11-01T035748Z_200158948_GM1E5B10X8201_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct 30 (IPS) – To the west of Peshawar on the Jamrud Road that leads to the historic Khyber Pass sits the Karkhano Market, a series of shopping plazas whose usual offering of contraband is now supplemented by standard issue U.S. military equipment, including combat fatigues, night vision goggles, body armour and army knives.

Beyond the market is a checkpoint, which separates the city from the semi-autonomous tribal region of Khyber. In the past, if one lingered near the barrier long enough, one was usually approached by someone from the far side selling hashish, alcohol, guns, or even rocket-propelled grenade launchers. These days such salesman could also be selling U.S. semi-automatics, sniper rifles and hand guns. Those who buy do it less for their quality—the AK-47 still remains the weapon of choice here—than as mementos of a dying Empire.

The realisation may be dawning slowly on some U.S. allies, but here everyone is convinced that Western forces have lost the war. However, at a time when in Afghanistan the efficacy of force as a counterinsurgency tool is being increasingly questioned, there is a newfound affinity for it in Pakistan.

A survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in July 2009, which excluded the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)—the regions directly affected by war—found 69 percent of respondents supporting the military operation in Swat.

A different survey undertaken by the U.S. polling firm Gallup around the same time, which covered all of Pakistan, found only 41 percent supporting the operation. The Gallup poll also found a higher number—43 percent—favouring political resolution through dialogue.

The two polls also offer a useful perspective on how Pakistanis perceive the terrorist threat. If the country is unanimous on the need to confront militancy, it is equally undivided in its aversion for the U.S. Yet, both threats are not seen as equal: the Gallup survey found 59 percent of Pakistanis considering the U.S. as the bigger threat when compared to 11 percent for the Taliban; and, according to the IRI poll, fewer saw the Taliban (13 percent) as the biggest challenge compared to the spiralling inflation which is wrecking the economy (40 percent).

In 2001, when the United States launched its ‘war on terror’, many among Pakistan’s political elite and intelligentsia supported it, miscalculating the public mood, which was overwhelmingly hostile. This led to the protest vote which brought to power the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in two of the frontier provinces. The MMA had been alone in openly opposing U.S. intervention.

However, as Afghanistan fell, things went quiet and passions subsided. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator, was able to present his decision to participate in the “war on terror” as a difficult but unavoidable choice. Internationally, his isolation ended, and as a reward the various sanctions imposed on Pakistan after the nuclear tests of 1998 were lifted.

The economy grew, so did Musharraf’s popularity. When under intense U.S. pressure in 2004 he sent the Pakistani military into the restive FATA region, people barely noticed. He managed to retain his support despite reports of atrocities, which, according to Human Rights Watch, included indiscriminate use of force, home demolitions, extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances. Indeed, if he was blamed at all, it was for not going far enough.

Things changed when on Musharraf’s orders, soldiers stormed a mosque in Islamabad held by Taliban sympathizers in August 2007, which resulted in the deaths of many seminarians. The Taliban retaliated by taking the war to the mainland and terrorist attacks hit several major cities.

Musharraf was blamed, and with an emerging challenge from the civil society in the form of a lawyers’ movement and an insurgent media, his popularity went into terminal decline. Meanwhile, in the Malakand region, Swat and Dir emerged as new flashpoints. The threat from Taliban militants could no longer be ignored, but opinions differed as to how best to confront it. The majority supported a negotiated settlement.

The turning point came in May, when, after a peace deal between the government and militants had broken down, the military embarked on a major offensive in Malakand. Though the truce had temporarily brought calm to the region, both sides had failed to live up to their commitments.

Yet, in the aftermath the Taliban alone were blamed, and in the media a consensus developed against any further negotiations with the militants. The operation was hailed as a success despite the loss of countless lives and the displacement of up to three million people.

However, in the frontier itself, analysts remained less sanguine. Rahimullah Yusufzai, deemed the most knowledgeable commentator on frontier politics, considered it an “avoidable” war. Another leading analyst, Rustam Shah Mohmand, wondered if it was not a war against the Pakhtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the NWFP, since no similar actions were considered in other lawless regions.

Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary, described it as an “unnecessary war” which was “easy to prevent … difficult to justify and harder to win”. In the political mainstream all major parties felt obliged to support the war for fear of being labelled unpatriotic. The opposition came mainly from religious parties, and from cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice).

Opinions were reinforced in favour of a military solution when militants launched a wave of terrorist attacks in anticipation of the Pakistani army’s new operation in FATA.

While the effects of the terrorist atrocities were there for all to see, the consequences of months of aerial bombing and artillery shelling that preceded the operation were less known.

A third of the total population of South Waziristan—site of the government’s newly launched anti-Taliban offensive—has been displaced, and it has received little relief. When an Associated Press crew met the refugees, they expressed their anger at the government by chanting “Long live the Taliban”.

Instead of winning hearts and minds, the Pakistani government is delivering them to the enemy.

Despite the best efforts of sections of the elite to take ownership of the war, the view persists that Pakistan is fighting an American war. That the military operation in South Waziristan follows an inducement of 1.5 billion U.S. dollars from the U.S. government, and is supported by U.S. drone surveillance, does little to disabuse skeptics of their notions.

Following the bombing of the International Islamic University in Islamabad last week, an Al Jazeera correspondent—a Scot—was accosted by an angry student who, mistaking him for an American, held him responsible for the attack.

Pakistanis are acutely aware that before 2002 there was no terrorist threat, and they remain equally convinced that the threat will vanish once U.S. forces withdraw from the region. But before that happens, some fear, Pakistan will have compromised its long-term stability.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (m.idrees@gmail.com) is the co-founder of Pulsemedia.org.

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School Districts struggling to pay for needs of uprooted kids

September 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

TIDAL WAVE OF HOMELESS STUDENTS HITS SCHOOLS

By Karl Huus, MSNBC

OXNARD, Calif. – Nine-year-old Daniel Valdez is absorbed in “The Swiss Family Robinson,” the fictional story of a family shipwrecked on a tropical island. In real life, he and his family also are marooned, but there is little romance in their tale of survival in this seaside town northwest of Los Angeles. Daniel, his mother and five brothers, ages 1 to 17, live in a garage without heat or running water in a modest, low-lying neighborhood that sits between celebrity-owned mansions in the hills and the Pacific Ocean. Each morning, they arise at 6:30, get dressed and then leave quietly; they return only after dark — a routine born out of the fear that detection could mean the loss of even this humble dwelling. Daniel and his brothers have been sleeping in the garage for more than a year — members of what school officials and youth advocates say is a rapidly growing legion of homeless youth. While the problem may be worse in economically stricken regions like Southern California, where foreclosures and job losses are taking a harsh toll on families, anecdotal evidence suggests it is a growing issue nationally and one with serious ramifications for both a future generation and the overburdened public school system.

Research shows that the turmoil of homelessness often hinders children’s ability to socialize and learn. Many are plagued by hunger, exhaustion, abuse and insecurity. They have a hard time performing at grade level and are about 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers. “Homeless children are confronted daily by extremely stressful and traumatic experiences that have profound effects on their cognitive development and ability to learn,” said Ellen Bassuk, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and president of the nonprofit National Center on Family Homelessness. “They tend to have high rates of developmental delays, learning difficulties and emotional problems as a product of precarious living situations and extreme poverty.” Mary Aguilar, Daniel’s mother, said she believes the family’s tenuous existence is largely responsible for her son’s struggles with his third-grade lessons.

“He’s depressed a lot,” she said of Daniel, whom she says has been the most affected of her sons by the loss of their home. “He does his work for class, but very slowly, like he’s thinking. He worries a lot about living like this.” Under federal law, schools are charged with keeping homeless students like Daniel from falling behind their peers academically. This can mean providing a wide range of services, including transportation, free lunches, immunizations and referrals to family services.. But with insufficient federal funding and budgets that are severely strained, many schools are struggling to meet the rising need. In Vista, Calif., about 35 miles north of San Diego, the population of homeless kids in the local school district reached 2,542 this year — about 9 percent of the student body and nearly 10 times the number just two years ago, said Rebecca Benner, the district’s homeless liaison.

“It’s like a tidal wave this school year,” she said. Benner’s role as homeless liaison — only part of her job providing student services — is now full time, as she scrambles to register homeless students for free lunches, arrange for transportation, provide P.E. uniforms, line up counseling and cover SAT fees. “It was supposed to be one small piece of my day,” she said. “… Now it’s almost insurmountable to get to the bottom of the phone messages.” Hard-to-get numbers – The number of homeless people in the U.S. is the subject of much debate and disagreement. An annual one-night count, performed by social service organizations and volunteers who then report to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, attempts to tally the number of people living on the street, in cars or makeshift tents and in emergency shelters.

The most recent survey — conducted in January 2008, before the full brunt of the recession hit — tallied 759,101 homeless Americans. Roughly 40 percent of them — or about 300,000 — were families with minor children, according to the survey. Advocates for the homeless say a more reliable picture of what is taking place comes through a separate count conducted in public schools, in which the definition of “homeless” is broader. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, “homeless” includes not just children who live on the streets, but “any individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” In addition to those living in shelters or cars or sleeping on the street, that figure includes children whose families are doubled up with other families or living in trailers due to economic hardship, those who live in substandard housing and kids awaiting foster care placement.

In 2007-2008 — the last school year for which data is available — the nation’s 14,000 public school districts counted more than 780,000 homeless students, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. “I think that was the beginning of seeing the foreclosure crisis impact,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. In a voluntary survey late last year by the association and another nonprofit, First Focus, 330 school districts reported that the number of homeless students appears to be far higher, said Duffield, co-author of a report on the survey published in December. She estimated that the number of homeless students is now close to 1 million — exceeding numbers in the period right after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“It’s this year, 2008-2009, that the rug was pulled out from under many school districts,” she said. Stimulus package to boost funding – Federal funding for schools to provide services fo r homeless kids is allocated through McKinney-Vento, a 1987 law that was bolstered by the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002. “Under McKinney-Vento, every district is required to have a liaison with the responsibility to identify homeless kids,” said Duffield. In addition to the staff, the school districts are responsible for providing a number of services, which can include everything from meals and clothing to athletic uniforms and educational field trips. One of the biggest costs in serving homeless kids is providing transportation to and from school, required even if the kids move out of the immediate area, she said.

The law included funding, but school districts must apply for grants to tap into it. Duffield estimated that only about 6 percent of the nation’s school districts received money through McKinney-Vento last year, though many more applied. This year, schools were slated to receive $64 million to aid homeless students under the act. The newly passed federal stimulus package will add $70 million more in funding. That will be a big help, Duffield said, while maintaining that the program “was woefully underfunded” even before the economic crisis pushed more people over the brink. Duffield is now combing through the rest of the $787 billion economic stimulus package to see if funding in other categories might be used to help homeless students.

For instance, the stimulus package includes $79 billion for a “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund” — about 80 percent of which is earmarked for K-12 education and is intended to offset state cuts in education funding. The stimulus also adds $13 billion for Title I, the biggest federally funded education program, for schools that have large concentrations of needy students. Under some interpretations, these funds cannot be used to pay for transportation or liaisons for homeless students. “(But) if the district identifies transportation, liaisons, social workers, gas cards, backpacks or shoes, they ought to be able to use their funds for that, because those are literally some of the needs,” Duffield said. “We’re looking for flexibility.”

Responses to the survey of school districts illustrate the variety of challenges that come with providing for homeless kids. The Wisconsin Rapids Public School District, which serves 5,700 students in the state’s rural heart, counted 160 homeless students, a 50 percent increase over two years ago.

“One of the biggest challenges is transportation,” Heather Lisitza, the school district’s homeless liaison, was quoted as saying in the report. “Our city has only one taxi cab service and no public bus system. Another challenge (is)… we … have long, cold winters, all students need proper outerwear to go outside — snow boots, hat, mittens, snow pants and a winter jacket that has a working zipper or buttons on it. This expense adds up quickly and it is hard to provide to the increasing number of homeless students.”

More families pushed over the edge – School districts also say they are seeing more students from middle-class, working-class and working-poor families being pushed into homelessness. Among them are Martin and Luz de la Rosa, who arrived one recent afternoon at the Ventura County (Calif.) Community Action Center, a facility that primarily serves chronically homeless men, for an appointment with a social worker. The de la Rosas explained that they were seeking government assistance for the first time because they and their eight children — ages 3 to 16 — were just days from being evicted from their apartment. Clutching a Bible, Luz de la Rosa said she lost her job at a small jewelry store as the recession kicked in. Then in November, her husband was laid off from the small Oxnard machine shop where he had been earning $19 an hour.
Martin said that left him with two untenable choices — continuing to collect unemployment benefits of $1,600 a month or taking a job at minimum wage, neither of which would cover rent for a home big enough for his family. The de la Rosas said they wouldn’t mind moving into a two-bedroom apartment, which is all they can afford here, but landlords won’t allow that many occupants. Social worker Delores Suarez said she would like to place them somewhere together, but at the moment, there is simply not enough emergency housing available. “They are probably going to end up split up among relatives” and attending different schools, she said. Other homeless parents said that some schools are either unaware of their obligations to help or aren’t eager to provide the required services because of budget constraints.

Next in Suarez’s appointment book was a 35-year-old woman named Sylvia, who declined to provide her last name. She said that after a divorce three years ago, she lost her home to foreclosure and then couldn’t keep up with rent when she was laid off from her job at a car parts factory. She and her three kids then moved in with a friend. “When the school found out we had moved (away from the neighborhood) … they wanted to remove the kids from school,” she said. Only after she met with district officials were they allowed to continue to attend, she said. Identifying the homeless – Compounding the problem of getting school districts to live up to their responsibilities is the fact that many homeless families are unwilling to acknowledge their living situation and therefore don’t receive services that could help them, said Susan Eberhart, principal of the Sheridan Way Elementary School in Ventura.

“People have to identify themselves as homeless (in order to get help), but that frequently doesn’t happen,” she said. “When the school found out we had moved (away from the neighborhood) … they wanted to remove the kids from school,” she said. Only after she met with district officials were they allowed to continue to attend, she said. Eberhart said she and her staff are accustomed to kids who are struggling at home — nearly all of the school’s 514 K-5 students are poor enough to qualify for free breakfast and20lunch. Although 86 of them were identified as homeless in the last survey, she guesses that, based on telltale signs, at least 100 meet the criteria.

“They have no place to keep stuff, so their backpacks are very full. Their clothes are not clean. They haven’t had a haircut, haven’t seen a dentist,” she said. “… Maybe a kid has asthma and is out of meds.” Eberhart said she is swamped by the scope of the problem. She no longer has the assistance of a county social worker who used to handle much of the load — a budget cut caused the county to eliminate that resource. Now she is urging people to ask for help — and prodding community organizations to help fill the gaps as she identifies them. “Some families are sort of floating, she said. “If we can get them to land, we can provide … continuity.” While the stigma of homelessness prevents some from acknowledging their plight, others have more immediate concerns, said Beth McCullough, homeless liaison for the Adrian Public Schools in economically battered southeast Michigan.

Families with children living in emergency shelters, pop-up campers, cars and tents can be charged with neglect by Child Protective Services workers, and there have been instances where parents have lost custody, she said. Fearing the loss of their kids, she said, “parents call in and say their kid won’t be in school because they are going to Disneyland for a week, when the fact is that (they) don’t have a way to get them to school. Or20parents will tell kids to lie about where they live.” Homework in pandemonium – For Mary Aguilar, the Oxnard woman living with her kids in the garage — which she rents for $150 a month from a cousin — the assistance her kids might receive at school is not worth the risk that other children will ridicule them if their living arrangement becomes known..

So she tries to help them stay on track, though it’s a daily struggle. Daniel recently missed several days of school because of yet another cold — a common ailment, his mother said, because the garage has been especially cold this winter. Normally she walks three of her sons to their elementary school, but some days heavy rains have kept them home. For now, the family has few prospects for better housing. The family became homeless after Aguilar’s boyfriend, father to the two youngest boys, left about a year and a half ago, and Aguilar could not pay rent. When an opportunity came to sign up for emergency housing five months ago, she lined up at the courthouse before dawn. For that, she got her name on a waiting list of about two years.

She has applied for jobs in stores and fast-food restaurants and come up empty-handed. She is exploring a work rehab program offered by the state. Meantime, the family gets by on about $1,300 a month in food stamps and cash aid — but no child support from the boys’ fathers. For now, the routine remains the same. After school, Aguilar and the six boys go to her20mother’s apartment, where her brother and sister also live. Aguilar’s family can’t stay overnight — that would put the others at risk of eviction — but it is a place to eat and for the boys to study.

But Daniel’s 11-year-old brother, Isaac, said he’s sometimes too distracted by the pandemonium of 10 people and the television to do his homework. “Then he tries to do it when we get back to the garage, but the light keeps everyone awake,” said Aguilar. Isaac has fallen behind a grade, and Aguilar’s eldest son, 17-year-old Joshua, is attending a remedial program for drop-outs. Aguilar is pleased that Daniel has so far been able to keep up with his grade level. Unaware of the tough odds he faces, Daniel says he plans to finish high school. Like other boys his age, he still has big dreams — of becoming a basketball star and working at something important someday. But first and foremost, he dreams of “a very beautiful house … with a room of my own.” The walls would be decorated, he said, “with posters, and pictures that I have drawn, and tests that I did in school.”

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Community News (V11-I38)

September 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Muslims least likely to report discrimination

NEW YORK– Despite fears that Muslims in the United States may be unfairly targeted or harassed because fears about terrorism, a new survey by Public Agenda finds Muslim immigrants are less likely than other immigrant populations to say there’s discrimination against immigrants in the United States, no more likely to encounter it personally, and overwhelmingly more likely to say the United States will be their permanent home.

The report released this week  by the nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, Public Agenda, follows up on a groundbreaking 2002 survey and tracks immigrants’ shifting attitudes during a tumultuous period.  Conducted in May 2009, and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, “A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Their Life in America,” utilized landline and cellular telephones along with oversamples to provide the widest perspective possible from more than 1,100 foreign-born adults overall, and including over 100 Muslims.  Of those surveyed, 3 out of 4 Muslims immigrated in 2000 or before.

Some 63 percent of Muslim immigrants say there is no (or only a little) discrimination against immigrants in general in the United States, compared with 32 percent of other immigrants. In addition, Muslim immigrants report encountering discrimination personally at about the same rate as other immigrants, with 27 percent saying they’ve experienced “some” or a “great deal” of discrimination personally compared with 26 percent of all other immigrants.

An overwhelming 92 percent of Muslims say the United States will be their permanent home, (compared with 69 percent among other immigrants).  Sixty-one percent of Muslims report that they’re “extremely happy” in the United States (compared with only 33 percent of other immigrants).  Muslims are more likely to give the U.S. better ratings than their birth country on key questions, such as having a free and independent media (79 percent say the United States does a better job, compared with 54 percent of other immigrants).

Salim Ejaz running for NYC Comptroller

Pakistani-American accounting professional Salim Ejaz is contesting the NYC Democratic Primary on Sept 15 to become eligible to run for the Office of Comptroller.

Salim Ejaz is the only Democrat candidate for the Comptroller’s position who is a professional Certified Public Accountant (CPA) who has worked for more than a decade with the State of New York as Director Audit.

With 40 years of financial expertise, including 12 years as Director of Audit of Nassau County in the State of New York, a multi-billion dollar governmental entity, his performance record is stellar, having exposed waste and losses generating savings which exceed $ 500 million through his audit reports and recommendations.

The NYC Comptroller oversees a budget of $ 60 billion and is also responsible for pension funds of $ 120 billion. In these financial turbulent times, it is imperative that the Comptroller, the City’s fiscal watchdog, has the right professional qualification and experience and a demonstrated record of achievement, says his press release.

His agenda is what every taxpayer wants: eliminate wasteful spending, lower taxes and achieve job growth, the PR adds.

OCU celebrates diversity with Islam Day

EDMOND,OK–Oklahoma City University hosted Islam Day Sept. 10 to encourage cultural diversity with various campus activities, including a charity fundraiser called “iFast.”

Political science professor and Middle East expert Mohamed Daadaoui organized a list of activities for students and faculty in order to foster cross-cultural dialogue and to spread awareness about the world’s second largest religion.

Daadaoui established iFast, an aspect of Islam Day when students, faculty and staff are encouraged to donate money to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

“Instead of spending money on lunch, donors will be contributing toward meals for the hungry,” he said, noting that Muslim followers are encouraged to donate to charitable causes during Ramadan.

“There are many misconceptions and stereotypical views about Islam,” Daadaoui said. “If we can show students and the OCU community what it means to be a Muslim, hopefully it will be a step in the direction of furthering goodwill and understanding.”

Community organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue and the Governor’s Ethnic American Advisory Council have partnered with OCU for some of the activities.

Daadaoui organized lectures and interfaith panel discussions with community leaders including Razi Hashmi of the Oklahoma Council on American-Islamic Relations; Imad Enchassi, Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and Rabbi Abbey Jacobson of the Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City.

“Islam Day is about people of all faiths communicating and learning about the cultures of others,” he said.

Free halal meals at Wayne State U.

DETROIT–The Pakistani Student Association is offering all Wayne State University is offering free halal meals as part of the observance for the month of Ramadan. The ‘cultural dinner’ is intended to create awareness about Islamic beliefs and practices.

PSA President Harris Khan told the South End News, ‘We are hoping to create a bridge between the PSA and other Wayne State students.’

The event has been called “From Fast to Feast’” and took a month of planning to organize.

Interfaith vigil supports Obama plan

BINGHAMPTON, NY–An interfaith vigil was held in Binghampton supporting President Obama’s healthcare reforms. It was attended by people of all faiths.

“It’s not for one group or another group.

This is for all of us, all together, the children of God on the face of the Earth,” said Muslim Speaker Kasim Kopuz.

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President Obama’s 9/9/9 Speech on Healthcare

September 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary
_________________________________________________________________________
For Immediate Release                                                September 9, 2009

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
TO A JOINT SESSION OF CONGRESS
ON HEALTH CARE

U.S. Capitol
Washington, D.C.

8:16 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Madam Speaker, Vice President Biden, members of Congress, and the American people:

When I spoke here last winter, this nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month.  Credit was frozen.  And our financial system was on the verge of collapse.

As any American who is still looking for work or a way to pay their bills will tell you, we are by no means out of the woods.  A full and vibrant recovery is still many months away.  And I will not let up until those Americans who seek jobs can find them — (applause) — until those businesses that seek capital and credit can thrive; until all responsible homeowners can stay in their homes.  That is our ultimate goal.  But thanks to the bold and decisive action we’ve taken since January, I can stand here with confidence and say that we have pulled this economy back from the brink.  (Applause.)

I want to thank the members of this body for your efforts and your support in these last several months, and especially those who’ve taken the difficult votes that have put us on a path to recovery.  I also want to thank the American people for their patience and resolve during this trying time for our nation.

But we did not come here just to clean up crises.  We came here to build a future.  (Applause.)  So tonight, I return to speak to all of you about an issue that is central to that future — and that is the issue of health care.

I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.  (Applause.)  It has now been nearly a century since Theodore Roosevelt first called for health care reform.  And ever since, nearly every President and Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has attempted to meet this challenge in some way.  A bill for comprehensive health reform was first introduced by John Dingell Sr. in 1943.  Sixty-five years later, his son continues to introduce that same bill at the beginning of each session.  (Applause.)

Our collective failure to meet this challenge — year after year, decade after decade — has led us to the breaking point.  Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy.  These are not primarily people on welfare.  These are middle-class Americans.  Some can’t get insurance on the job.  Others are self-employed, and can’t afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer.  Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or too expensive to cover.

We are the only democracy — the only advanced democracy on Earth — the only wealthy nation — that allows such hardship for millions of its people.  There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage.  In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point.  And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage.  In other words, it can happen to anyone.

But the problem that plagues the health care system is not just a problem for the uninsured.  Those who do have insurance have never had less security and stability than they do today.   More and more Americans worry that if you move, lose your job, or change your job, you’ll lose your health insurance too.  More and more Americans pay their premiums, only to discover that their insurance company has dropped their coverage when they get sick, or won’t pay the full cost of care.  It happens every day.

One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn’t reported gallstones that he didn’t even know about.  They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it.  Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne.  By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size.  That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.  (Applause.)

Then there’s the problem of rising cost.  We spend one and a half times more per person on health care than any other country, but we aren’t any healthier for it.  This is one of the reasons that insurance premiums have gone up three times faster than wages.  It’s why so many employers — especially small businesses — are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely.  It’s why so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place, and why American businesses that compete internationally — like our automakers — are at a huge disadvantage.  And it’s why those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it — about $1,000 per year that pays for somebody else’s emergency room and charitable care.

Finally, our health care system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers.  When health care costs grow at the rate they have, it puts greater pressure on programs like Medicare and Medicaid.  If we do nothing to slow these skyrocketing costs, we will eventually be spending more on Medicare and Medicaid than every other government program combined.  Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem.  Nothing else even comes close.  Nothing else.  (Applause.)

Now, these are the facts.  Nobody disputes them.  We know we must reform this system.  The question is how.

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada’s — (applause) — where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everybody.  On the right, there are those who argue that we should end employer-based systems and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I’ve said — I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both these approaches.  But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the health care most people currently have.  Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.  (Applause.)  And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months.

During that time, we’ve seen Washington at its best and at its worst.

We’ve seen many in this chamber work tirelessly for the better part of this year to offer thoughtful ideas about how to achieve reform.  Of the five committees asked to develop bills, four have completed their work, and the Senate Finance Committee announced today that it will move forward next week.  That has never happened before.  Our overall efforts have been supported by an unprecedented coalition of doctors and nurses; hospitals, seniors’ groups, and even drug companies — many of whom opposed reform in the past.  And there is agreement in this chamber on about 80 percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been.

But what we’ve also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have towards their own government.  Instead of honest debate, we’ve seen scare tactics.  Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise.  Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge.  And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned.

Well, the time for bickering is over.  The time for games has passed.  (Applause.)  Now is the season for action.  Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do.  Now is the time to deliver on health care.  Now is the time to deliver on health care.  

The plan I’m announcing tonight would meet three basic goals.  It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance.  It will provide insurance for those who don’t.  And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.  (Applause.)  It’s a plan that asks everyone to take responsibility for meeting this challenge — not just government, not just insurance companies, but everybody including employers and individuals.  And it’s a plan that incorporates ideas from senators and congressmen, from Democrats and Republicans — and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election.  

Here are the details that every American needs to know about this plan.  First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.  (Applause.)  Let me repeat this:  Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.

What this plan will do is make the insurance you have work better for you.  Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a preexisting condition.  (Applause.)  As soon as I sign this bill, it will be against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick or water it down when you need it the most.  (Applause.)  They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or in a lifetime.  (Applause.)  We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they get sick.  (Applause.)  And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies — (applause) — because there’s no reason we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer before they get worse.  That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives.  (Applause.)

Now, that’s what Americans who have health insurance can expect from this plan — more security and more stability.

Now, if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t currently have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you quality, affordable choices.  (Applause.)  If you lose your job or you change your job, you’ll be able to get coverage.  If you strike out on your own and start a small business, you’ll be able to get coverage.  We’ll do this by creating a new insurance exchange — a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices.  Insurance companies will have an incentive to participate in this exchange because it lets them compete for millions of new customers.  As one big group, these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies for better prices and quality coverage.  This is how large companies and government employees get affordable insurance.  It’s how everyone in this Congress gets affordable insurance.  And it’s time to give every American the same opportunity that we give ourselves.  (Applause.)

Now, for those individuals and small businesses who still can’t afford the lower-priced insurance available in the exchange, we’ll provide tax credits, the size of which will be based on your need.  And all insurance companies that want access to this new marketplace will have to abide by the consumer protections I already mentioned.  This exchange will take effect in four years, which will give us time to do it right.  In the meantime, for those Americans who can’t get insurance today because they have preexisting medical conditions, we will immediately offer low-cost coverage that will protect you against financial ruin if you become seriously ill.  (Applause.)  This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it’s a good idea now, and we should all embrace it.  (Applause.)

Now, even if we provide these affordable options, there may be those — especially the young and the healthy — who still want to take the risk and go without coverage.  There may still be companies that refuse to do right by their workers by giving them coverage.  The problem is, such irresponsible behavior costs all the rest of us money.  If there are affordable options and people still don’t sign up for health insurance, it means we pay for these people’s expensive emergency room visits.  If some businesses don’t provide workers health care, it forces the rest of us to pick up the tab when their workers get sick, and gives those businesses an unfair advantage over their competitors.  And unless everybody does their part, many of the insurance reforms we seek — especially requiring insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions — just can’t be achieved.

And that’s why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance — just as most states require you to carry auto insurance.  (Applause.)  Likewise — likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the cost of their workers.  There will be a hardship waiver for those individuals who still can’t afford coverage, and 95 percent of all small businesses, because of their size and narrow profit margin, would be exempt from these requirements.  (Applause.)  But we can’t have large businesses and individuals who can afford coverage game the system by avoiding responsibility to themselves or their employees.  Improving our health care system only works if everybody does their part.

And while there remain some significant details to be ironed out, I believe — (laughter) — I believe a broad consensus exists for the aspects of the plan I just outlined:  consumer protections for those with insurance, an exchange that allows individuals and small businesses to purchase affordable coverage, and a requirement that people who can afford insurance get insurance.

And I have no doubt that these reforms would greatly benefit Americans from all walks of life, as well as the economy as a whole.  Still, given all the misinformation that’s been spread over the past few months, I realize — (applause) — I realize that many Americans have grown nervous about reform.  So tonight I want to address some of the key controversies that are still out there.

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost.  The best example is the claim made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens.  Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible.  It is a lie, plain and simple.  (Applause.)

There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants.  This, too, is false.  The reforms — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  You lie!  (Boos.)

THE PRESIDENT:  It’s not true.  And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up — under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.  (Applause.) 

Now, my health care proposal has also been attacked by some who oppose reform as a "government takeover" of the entire health care system.  As proof, critics point to a provision in our plan that allows the uninsured and small businesses to choose a publicly sponsored insurance option, administered by the government just like Medicaid or Medicare.  (Applause.)

So let me set the record straight here.  My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.  That’s how the market works.  (Applause.)  Unfortunately, in 34 states, 75 percent of the insurance market is controlled by five or fewer companies.  In Alabama, almost 90 percent is controlled by just one company.  And without competition, the price of insurance goes up and quality goes down.  And it makes it easier for insurance companies to treat their customers badly — by cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest, by overcharging small businesses who have no leverage, and by jacking up rates.

Insurance executives don’t do this because they’re bad people; they do it because it’s profitable.  As one former insurance executive testified before Congress, insurance companies are not only encouraged to find reasons to drop the seriously ill, they are rewarded for it.  All of this is in service of meeting what this former executive called "Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations."

Now, I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business.  They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors.  I just want to hold them accountable.  (Applause.)  And the insurance reforms that I’ve already mentioned would do just that.  But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange.  (Applause.)  Now, let me be clear.  Let me be clear.  It would only be an option for those who don’t have insurance.  No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance.  In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up.

Despite all this, the insurance companies and their allies don’t like this idea.  They argue that these private companies can’t fairly compete with the government.  And they’d be right if taxpayers were subsidizing this public insurance option.  But they won’t be.  I’ve insisted that like any private insurance company, the public insurance option would have to be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects.  But by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits and excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers, and would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.  (Applause.)

Now, it is — it’s worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I’ve proposed tonight.  But its impact shouldn’t be exaggerated — by the left or the right or the media.  It is only one part of my plan, and shouldn’t be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles.  To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage available for those without it.  (Applause.)  The public option — the public option is only a means to that end — and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.  And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have.  (Applause.)

For example — for example, some have suggested that the public option go into effect only in those markets where insurance companies are not providing affordable policies.  Others have proposed a co-op or another non-profit entity to administer the plan.  These are all constructive ideas worth exploring.  But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice.  (Applause.)  And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.  (Applause.)

Finally, let me discuss an issue that is a great concern to me, to members of this chamber, and to the public — and that’s how we pay for this plan.

And here’s what you need to know.  First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future.  (Applause.)  I will not sign it if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future, period.  And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.  (Applause.)  Now, part of the reason I faced a trillion-dollar deficit when I walked in the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for — from the Iraq war to tax breaks for the wealthy.  (Applause.)  I will not make that same mistake with health care. 

Second, we’ve estimated that most of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system, a system that is currently full of waste and abuse.  Right now, too much of the hard-earned savings and tax dollars we spend on health care don’t make us any healthier.  That’s not my judgment — it’s the judgment of medical professionals across this country.  And this is also true when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid.

In fact, I want to speak directly to seniors for a moment, because Medicare is another issue that’s been subjected to demagoguery and distortion during the course of this debate.

More than four decades ago, this nation stood up for the principle that after a lifetime of hard work, our seniors should not be left to struggle with a pile of medical bills in their later years.  That’s how Medicare was born.  And it remains a sacred trust that must be passed down from one generation to the next.  (Applause.)  And that is why not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.  (Applause.) 

The only thing this plan would eliminate is the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud, as well as unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies — subsidies that do everything to pad their profits but don’t improve the care of seniors.  And we will also create an independent commission of doctors and medical experts charged with identifying more waste in the years ahead.  (Applause.)   

Now, these steps will ensure that you — America’s seniors — get the benefits you’ve been promised.  They will ensure that Medicare is there for future generations.  And we can use some of the savings to fill the gap in coverage that forces too many seniors to pay thousands of dollars a year out of their own pockets for prescription drugs.  (Applause.)  That’s what this plan will do for you.  So don’t pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut, especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past and just this year supported a budget that would essentially have turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program.  That will not happen on my watch.  I will protect Medicare.  (Applause.) 

Now, because Medicare is such a big part of the health care system, making the program more efficient can help usher in changes in the way we deliver health care that can reduce costs for everybody.  We have long known that some places — like the Intermountain Healthcare in Utah or the Geisinger Health System in rural Pennsylvania — offer high-quality care at costs below average.  So the commission can help encourage the adoption of these common-sense best practices by doctors and medical professionals throughout the system — everything from reducing hospital infection rates to encouraging better coordination between teams of doctors.

Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan.  (Applause.)  Now, much of the rest would be paid for with revenues from the very same drug and insurance companies that stand to benefit from tens of millions of new customers.  And this reform will charge insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money — an idea which has the support of Democratic and Republican experts.  And according to these same experts, this modest change could help hold down the cost of health care for all of us in the long run.

Now, finally, many in this chamber — particularly on the Republican side of the aisle — have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care.  (Applause.)  Now — there you go.  There you go.  Now, I don’t believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I’ve talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs.  (Applause.)  So I’m proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine.  (Applause.)  I know that the Bush administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these ideas.  I think it’s a good idea, and I’m directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today.  (Applause.)

Now, add it all up, and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years — less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration.  (Applause.)  Now, most of these costs will be paid for with money already being spent — but spent badly — in the existing health care system.  The plan will not add to our deficit.  The middle class will realize greater security, not higher taxes.  And if we are able to slow the growth of health care costs by just one-tenth of 1 percent each year — one-tenth of 1 percent — it will actually reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the long term.

Now, this is the plan I’m proposing.  It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from many of the people in this room tonight — Democrats and Republicans.  And I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead.  If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen.  My door is always open.

But know this:  I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to improve it.  (Applause.)  I won’t stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are.  If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out.  (Applause.)  And I will not — and I will not accept the status quo as a solution.  Not this time.  Not now.

Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing.  Our deficit will grow.  More families will go bankrupt.  More businesses will close.  More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most.  And more will die as a result.  We know these things to be true.

That is why we cannot fail.  Because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed — the ones who suffer silently, and the ones who shared their stories with us at town halls, in e-mails, and in letters.

I received one of those letters a few days ago.  It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy.  He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal.  He asked that it be delivered upon his death.

In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, his amazing children, who are all here tonight.  And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform — "that great unfinished business of our society," he called it — would finally pass.  He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that "it concerns more than material things."  "What we face," he wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."

I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country.  One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government.  And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate.  That’s our history.  

For some of Ted Kennedy’s critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty.  In their minds, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.

But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here — people of both parties — know that what drove him was something more.  His friend Orrin Hatch — he knows that.  They worked together to provide children with health insurance.  His friend John McCain knows that.  They worked together on a Patient’s Bill of Rights.  His friend Chuck Grassley knows that.  They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience.  It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer.  He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick.  And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.

That large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling.  It’s not a Republican or a Democratic feeling.  It, too, is part of the American character — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

This has always been the history of our progress.  In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it.  In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — did not back down.  They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind. 

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem.  They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom.  But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited.  And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges.  We lose something essential about ourselves.

That was true then.  It remains true today.  I understand how difficult this health care debate has been.  I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them.  I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road — to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.

But that is not what the moment calls for.  That’s not what we came here to do.  We did not come to fear the future.  We came here to shape it.  I still believe we can act even when it’s hard.  (Applause.)  I still believe — I still believe that we can act when it’s hard.  I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress.  I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.

Because that’s who we are.  That is our calling.  That is our character.  Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)

END                9:03 P.M. EDT

US Consumers Fall Behind on Loans

July 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Soaring U.S. unemployment and a shrinking economy drove delinquencies on credit card debt and home equity loans to all-time highs in the first quarter as a record number of cash-strapped consumers fell behind on their bills.

Delinquencies on the value of all card debt soared to a record 6.60 percent from 5.52 percent in the fourth quarter as more cardholders relied on plastic to meet day-to-day expenses, the American Bankers Association said.

Late payments on home equity loans rose to 3.52 percent from 3.03 percent, and on home equity lines of credit climbed to 1.89 percent from 1.46 percent.

A broader gauge showing late payments on eight categories of loans rose for a fourth straight quarter to a new record, edging up to 3.23 percent from 3.22 percent. That rate actually understates consumer pain because it excludes credit cards. The ABA tracks loan payments that are at least 30 days late.

“The biggest driver is job losses,” ABA Chief Economist James Chessen said in an interview. “When people lose their jobs or work fewer hours, it makes it that much harder to meet their obligations. Unfortunately, we’re going to see higher job losses in the next year, and I expect elevated delinquencies.”

The ABA represents most large U.S. banks and credit card companies. Tuesday’s data are a bad sign for them as they prepare to report second-quarter results starting next week.

While improved capital markets may boost the bottom lines of some, analysts expect lenders such as Bank of America Corp, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Citigroup Inc, Capital One Financial Corp and American Express Co to suffer higher credit losses, especially in cards.

Borrowers are struggling as the nation’s jobless rate sits at a 26-year high of 9.5 percent, with 6.5 million jobs having disappeared since the recession began in December 2007. The Obama administration expects the unemployment rate to hit double digits before declining.

U.S. consumers ended March with $939.6 billion of revolving credit outstanding, a rough approximation of credit card debt, according to Federal Reserve data.

“Consumers tend to rely on credit cards as a bridge to cover their daily needs until they find new jobs,” Chessen said. “It’s taking longer to find those jobs.”

Meanwhile, home prices are down 32.6 percent from their peak in 2006, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices of 20 large metropolitan areas.

The ABA in June said it expects the recession to end this quarter, despite rising unemployment.

The overall ABA delinquency rate includes direct auto, indirect auto, closed-end home equity, home improvement, marine, mobile home, personal, and recreational vehicle loans.

Delinquencies rose to 3.01 percent from 2.03 percent on direct auto loans, to 3.70 percent from 2.96 percent on mobile home loans, to 3.47 percent from 2.88 percent on personal loans, and to 1.52 percent from 1.38 percent on recreational vehicle loans.

They fell to 3.42 percent from 3.53 percent on auto loans made through dealers, to 2.04 percent from 2.35 percent on marine loans, and to 1.46 percent from 1.75 percent on property improvement loans.

11-29

Poll: Most Israelis Could Live with a Nuclear Iran

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Haaretz

“Pretty soon . . . you will have nine weapons states and probably another 10 or 20 virtual weapons states.”–Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

Only one in five Israeli Jews believes a nuclear-armed Iran would try to destroy Israel and most see life continuing as normal should the Islamic Republic get the bomb, an opinion poll published on Sunday found.

The survey, commissioned by a Tel Aviv University think-tank, appeared to challenge the argument of successive Israeli governments that Iran must be denied the means to make atomic weapons lest it threaten Israel’s existence.

Asked how a nuclear-armed Iran would affect their lives, 80 percent of respondents said they expected no change. Eleven percent said they would consider emigrating and 9 percent said they would consider relocating inside Israel.

Twenty-one percent of Israelis believe Iran “would attack Israel with nuclear weapons with the objective of destroying it,” the Institute for National Security Studies, which commissioned the poll, said in a statement.

The survey had 616 Jewish respondents and a margin of error of 3.5 percent, INSS research director Yehuda Ben Meir said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like his predecessors, has hinted that Israel could attack Iran pre-emptively should Western diplomacy fail to curb its uranium enrichment.

The INSS survey found 59 percent of Israeli Jews would support such strikes, while 41 percent would not back the military option. A separate survey, commissioned by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found 52 percent support for pre-emptive Israeli attacks on Iran, with 35 percent of respondents opposed.

Israeli Arabs, who make up some 20 percent of the population and are generally less likely to see themselves as targets of Israel’s enemies, were not included for budgetary reasons, he said.

Israel, the United States and other western nations say Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at manufacturing nuclear weapons. Iran, the world’s fourth largest oil producer, insists its uranium enrichment program is for civilian needs only.

But Iranian leaders’ anti-Israel rhetoric and support for the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah have stirred fears of a regional war.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is expected to devote a more significant part of a major foreign policy speech to the Iranian threat, officials close to the premier said, in the wake of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral win Saturday.

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