Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Warfare State

We've all heard the term, "welfare state", bandied about over the years. Mostly, it's conservatives' disdainful term for government-run programs whose primary aim is to help the poor and disadvantaged among us. Welfare is a dirty word to most on the right, even though it has proven to help millions of Americans get back on their feet.

Over the last several years, however, we've begun to see a new type of "state" emerge. But it has nothing to do with helping the poor. In fact, just the opposite. One might even refer to it as the "warfare state".

What is the warfare state?

Top U.S. executives in the oil and defense industry have been able to translate war and rising oil prices into bigger paychecks, according to a study released Wednesday.

Since the war on terror began, CEOs of the top 34 defense contractors have seen pay levels that are double the amounts they received during the four years leading up to the 9/11 attacks, according to the report from the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy.

Rising oil prices have translated into a 50 percent increase in pay for chief executive officers at the nation's top 15 oil companies since 2004.

Last year, defense industry CEOs walked off with 44 times more pay than military generals with 20 years experience and 308 times more than Army privates, the study showed.

The report surveyed all publicly held U.S. corporations among the top 100 defense contractors that had at least 10 percent of revenues in defense. These 34 CEOs combined have pocketed almost a billion dollars since 9/11.

In the oil sector, executives are making nearly three times the pay of CEOs in comparably sized businesses, according to the study.

As one can see, the warfare state is one that takes money from the pockets of the poor and the middle class and puts it directly into the pockets of war profiteers. It's Robin Hood in reverse. Steal from the poor and give to the rich. And it's just plain wrong.

When our government leaders, many of whom have vast personal and family-related financial interests in the industries in question, implement policy that enriches such companies far beyond what most would consider to be a reasonable return, then something is drastically out of whack. Why should a large slice of the three dollars per gallon we pay at the pump and the tax dollars we send to the IRS funnel almost directly into the pockets of multi-millionaire executives?

In effect, this reverse welfare is draining the coffers of workaday Americans, most of whom can little afford it, and grossly enriching those who don't need it. Are the rank and file employees of these companies seeing much additional income? Very unlikely.

So the oil and defense companies continue to rack up record quarterly profits while most Americans sink further into debt. Is that the American way? I don't think so.

No. It's the newest state in the union. The Warfare State.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Separation Anxiety

Why is it so difficult for politicians in our society to grasp the concept of separation of church and state? Lately, political leaders at various levels have shown themselves to be downright ignorant of this fairly basic tenet of our governmental system.

First it was Florida's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Katherine Harris, claiming that a vote against a Christian was akin to a vote for sin.

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) said this week that God did not intend for the United States to be a "nation of secular laws" and that the separation of church and state is a "lie we have been told" to keep religious people out of politics.

"If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin," Harris told interviewers from the Florida Baptist Witness, the weekly journal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. She cited abortion and same-sex marriage as examples of that sin.

With every passing day, Rep. Harris appears to shovel another pile of earth onto the pine planks of her rapidly vanishing, political casket. It's looking more and more like her future Sundays will be spent in church rather than on the political discussion shows. I'm sure her pastor will be tickled pink to see her odd, cosmetically-altered mug gracing the pews of his house of worship come January. Better there than on my television screen, thank you very much!

In another instance of political God-mongering, several cities in Texas are banding together to proclaim September 3rd as an official day of prayer. What will they be praying for?

Deliverance from evil?

A Tom Delay victory in November?

A nuclear holocaust in Iran?

Nope on all accounts. In fact, they will be praying for...rain.

I swear, you just can't make this stuff up!

Conservation hasn't kept North Texas water supplies from dwindling, and waiting for rain hasn't worked.

So Rockwall County's political leaders are looking to a higher power.

"All of us can come together as a county and recognize what we're going through and focus on the issue and then ask God for some relief," Rockwall Mayor Bill Cecil said.

Mr. Cecil, five counterparts – the mayors of Rowlett, Heath, Royse City, Fate and McLendon-Chisholm – and County Judge Bill Bell plan to proclaim Sept. 3 a day of prayer for rain.

They're asking religious leaders throughout the county to lead their congregations in prayer for an end to the drought, for weather patterns to get back to normal and for North Texas reservoirs to be refilled.

"It can't hurt," Fate Mayor David Hill said.

"Way back in time, people used to do rain dances. If we have to get out and do a rain dance, we'll do that, too."

The power of prayer seemed to work briefly during Monday night's Rockwall City Council meeting. Barely an hour after council member Tim McCallum asked for rain during the invocation, the skies opened up.

The brief shower did little but dampen the streets, however.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Dunn chuckled when told of the prayer plans in Rockwall County. If the appeal for reservoirs to be filled is answered, he indicated, people should brace themselves for an extended period of storms.

"We're going to need several months of above-normal rainfall," Mr. Dunn said. "It's not going to be anything that's going to come overnight."

As the drought has continued, reservoir levels have steadily declined. Lake Lavon – one of the primary water sources for the North Texas Municipal Water District, which supplies Rockwall, northeastern Dallas, Collin and Kaufman counties – is about 15 feet below normal. Many other lakes, including Lewisville and Grapevine, are down 10 feet or more.

Mr. Cecil said that although all of North Texas needs rain, he is keeping his focus close to home. Heath Mayor John Ratcliffe said that, if nothing else, the countywide prayer will lead to more awareness of the drought.

"I see a call for prayer as a good thing if it accomplishes nothing other than bringing people together," he said.

Personally, I hope the Christian "rain dance" does some good. My lawn really could use the moisture. However, I'm just not sure that political leaders should be the ones to push a religious solution to such a problem. For one thing, it makes them look ignorant of the very basic tenet of separation of church and state. Secondly - and, perhaps, more importantly - it makes them look downright silly.

But, then, what do I know? I'm a Democrat - and a non-religious one, at that. Perhaps they should be praying for me instead!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Israel quickly becoming insufferable

So, now the Israelis want to dictate which countries can or cannot contribute to the international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. Apparently, they do no want troops from any country with which Israel does not maintain diplomatic relations.

As the decided aggressor in its armed conflict with Hezbollah, Israel hardly has much of a leg to stand on when it comes to selecting who may or may not participate. At this point, very few countries have stepped forward with a commitment. Among the few are Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, none of which maintains diplomatic ties to Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that Israel will not accept the presence of peacekeepers in Lebanon from countries that don't have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, according to officials.

The decision complicated efforts by the United Nations to form a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force to help enforce a truce that ended 34 days of fighting between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

The decision was made at a meeting of Olmert's inner Security Cabinet, meeting participants said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.

What? Is Israel afraid that troops from these countries might actually side with Hezbollah - as most of the rest of Lebanon seems to be doing - and turn against Israel?

Perhaps it's time for Israelis to look in the mirror and understand that many in the world who once were sympathetic to their situation no longer are. They are turning into a belching, farting Uncle Fred who comes for a short visit but never leaves.

In other words, they are overstaying their welcome in the world's consciousness.

Come on, Uncle Fred. It's time to go home and stop being such a pain the ass!

Quote of the Day: “Blacks aren’t the best swimmers or may not even know how to swim.”

That "beaut" was uttered several months ago - but just now is making its way public - by Florida Republican congressional candidate Tramm Hudson, who is running to fill Katherine Harris's 13th district seat in November. The Republican primary is September 5th.

Republican Congressional candidate Tramm Hudson was forced Thursday to explain a controversial racial comment he made during a February speech to the Christian Coalition, after a video clip of the event appeared on an Internet site.

Hudson was relating a military training exercise in Panama from 1984 when his unit had to get across a river. He said his unit was predominantly comprised of black soldiers.

"I grew up in Alabama and I understand, and I know this from my own experiences, that blacks aren't the best swimmers or may not even know how to swim," Hudson said at the event. A black soldier ended up falling in the water and nearly drowned, Hudson said. Hudson attributed the soldier's survival to "divine intervention."

Hudson was talking to the Christian Coalition about his wishes that religion not be kept out of the military.

The video clip on the Internet cuts off a few seconds after Hudson's comments about blacks and swimming.

The release of the clip quickly became more fodder for a growing personal battle between Hudson and Vern Buchanan, another Republican in the 13th District Congressional race who has recently become the target of Hudson campaign mailers, television advertisements and even a Web site entitled "The Real Vern." Hudson, who has made ethics the cornerstone of his campaign, has accused Buchanan of having poor business ethics and faulty resumes and for avoiding paying his fair share of taxes.

While Buchanan said during a candidate's forum Thursday that Hudson's comments revealed that "he does not have the judgment to be a congressman," Hudson issued an apology Thursday and encouraged voters to look at comments from local black leaders that show this to be "much ado about nothing."

"I said something stupid," Hudson said in a statement released Thursday. "I apologize for it. . . . This was a thoughtless remark that does not reflect my lifetime commitment to treating everyone fairly and without bias."

While Hudson's broader message may have been appropriate for his audience, if he's going to play in the political arena, then he absolutely MUST learn to speak more carefully. In an age of sound bites, it's very easy for an off-the-cuff comment to be misconstrued and misunderstood. Hudson's comment about the swimming ability of blacks is a stereotype that he seems to believe, in spite of the fact that former University of Florida All-America and Olympic swimmer Anthony Nesty is, in fact, black. But I guess that would have put a hole in the story he was trying to relate.

On a personal note, Tramm Hudson was a business co-worker of mine many years ago. Even back then, he had a deserved reputation as a loose cannon. He even kept a hand grenade on his desk for good measure. Due to his fervent military ties, his aggressive nature and his short stature, many of us referred to him as "Napoleon". Believe me, the name fit.

Tramm also displayed a penchant for dated customs, such as men repairing to the den for brandy and cigars after dinner while the women stayed in the kitchen doing the dishes. Even in the 1980s, that seemed a bit behind-the-times to those of us who dined in his home.

Tramm Hudson may, in fact, have some very positive attributes he could bring to Washington. However, he appears to be a candidate more attuned to the 1950s than the 2000s. We need leaders in Washington with an eye on the future rather than two feet dug deeply in the past.

Here's hoping Hudson continues his banking career in Sarasota and leaves the governing to more progressive types. And to those who do not so easily stereotype the abilities of others.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Delay's would-be replacement cites "war on terror" as key issue

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the top Republican write-in candidate to replace Tom Delay believes the "war on terror" is the key issue in her campaign. It's about all the Republicans seem capable of running on these days. Since they can't generate support focusing on the important, day-to-day issues facing middle-class Americans, then they might as well try to scare people into voting for them. It's the Republican way.

Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs said Friday her write-in campaign to replace former House Majority leader Tom DeLay will focus on her support for the war on terror.

Republican precinct chairmen in the four suburban Houston counties that make up the 22nd Congressional District endorsed the write-in candidacy of Sekula-Gibbs Thursday and promised her the party's support.

"I have heard from the base that it is critical we support the war on terror and we protect our country from acts of violence against our citizens," she said. "So supporting the president's war on terror is extremely important to me."

She's heard from "the base", eh? Then her base must be comprised mostly of parrots, who have become conditioned to mimic the fear-mongering that eminates constantly from the Bush White House.

But Sekula-Gibbs won't be the only one spewing a campaign of fear between now and November. Get ready for non-stop, 24x7 scare tactics around the country, including frequent embellishment from Bush and company.

After all, they know it works.

And they know no other way.

What do the Israelis not understand about the words, "cease fire"?

Not even one week into the UN-engineered cease fire in Lebanon, the Israelis apparently can't seem to stop their aggression as they pull their troops back into Israel. While Hezbollah is already helping the Lebanese people to salvage and re-build their devastated communities, Israeli Defense Forces continue to blow things up. And the terrorists would be....?

Israeli commandos raided a Hezbollah stronghold deep inside Lebanon Saturday, sparking a fierce clash with militants that killed one Israeli. Lebanon called the raid a "flagrant violation" of the U.N.-brokered cease-fire, while Israel said it was aimed at disrupting arms shipments from Iran and Syria.

Witnesses said Israeli missiles also destroyed a bridge during the raid in what would be the first such airstrike since the cease-fire took effect Monday, ending 34 days of warfare between the two sides.

Israel's month-long assault on Lebanon's burgeoning economy and infrastructure already had turned many, otherwise neutral Lebanese in favor of Hezbollah. Now, with Hezbollah's doling out repair money and Israel's continuing to shell Lebanon's countryside, is it any wonder that this conflict may have done more to hurt Israel's propaganda-driven cause than any other recent event? Hezbollah has come off looking like the good guys while the Israelis look, well, pathetic.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called Saturday's commando raid a "flagrant violation" of the cease-fire, and said he would take the issue up with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Murr said the raid could spark Hezbollah retaliation, which in turn could lead to Israeli reprisals. He suggested Israel might be trying to provoke a response, so it could have an excuse to attack the Lebanese army. "We will not send the army to be prey in an Israeli trap," he said.

Under the cease-fire terms, Israel has said it will conduct defensive operations if its troops are threatened. But the raid took place far from positions of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.

Given that most observers believe Israel was the big loser, both militarily and politically, in the conflict with Hezbollah, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to see a desperate attempt by Israel to reclaim its self-styled "moral high ground". Even if it means creating smoke screens to justify further action. They've done it before. They'll do it again.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese people just want to get their lives back to normal. And the helping hand assisting in that effort appears to be that of Hezbollah. In the age-old tug of war between guns and butter, methinks the Lebanese choose butter. Hezbollah butter.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Quote of the Day: "We can only imagine how much more dangerous this conflict would be if Iran had the nuclear weapon it seeks."

That was George W. Bush during today's press conference, speaking about the armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. And just as Bush and company are wont to do, the President had to go out of his way to bait the Iranians while refusing to place any of the blame at the feet of the Israelis.

President Bush declared Lebanon a front in the "global war on terrorism" Monday, equating the Israeli battle against Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bush said Hezbollah and its supporters in Iran and Syria were responsible for the 34-day war, and called that conflict "part of a broader struggle between freedom and terror." (Watch Bush blame Hezbollah, Iran and Syria for the crisis -- 2:06)

Bush said the U.N. resolution that took effect early Monday was an "important step that will help bring an end to the violence."

He said the conflict was a win for his administration's policy of encouraging democracy in the Middle East and a defeat for Hezbollah, discounting a claim of victory issued by the Shiite Muslim militia's leader earlier Monday.

Encouraging democracy? If what Israel did to Lebanon over the last month can be construed as encouraging democracy, then perhaps communism deserves a makeover and a fresh new look for next spring. Lebanon has been held up as a shining example of democracy and economic development in the Middle East. Its mix of ethnicities and religions was to be an example for the rest of the region of how people could co-exist peacefully.

So what do the neo-cons and Israel do? They, almost literally, bomb the country back twenty years. Members of Lebanon's Shia community, in particular, voted in democratic elections to have members of Hezbollah serve in Lebanon's government on their behalf. I thought that was what democracy was all about, regardless of who the people may vote for. It's their choice, isn't it, in a democracy?

Apparently not if you're the Bush administration and you don't like who they voted for. Of course, this kind of makes some sense when one considers that Bush's very own vice president, Dick Cheney, referred to those who voted for Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman as being supportive of al Qaeda. Maybe the plan is to bomb Hartford next?

The neo-con war machine drones on...and on...and on. Clearly, the stage is being set for eventual armed conflict with Iran, which Seymour Hersh's recent article in The New Yorker would seem to confirm. The actions by Israel and its U.S. supporters were a mere dry run for future action targeting Tehran.

Here we go again.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Did U.S. force the Brits to jump the gun on Liquidati?

NBC News reports that U.S. officials pressured the British to move in and arrest those suspected of plotting the bombing of airliners over the Atlantic. Strangely, according to a UK source, several of the "Liquidati" suspects didn't even have passports. It seems that getting onto an international flight would have been a bit difficult without such a document. But what do I know?

A senior British official knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.

In contrast to previous reports, the official suggested an attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. In fact, some did not even have passports.

The source did say, however, that police believe one U.K.-based suspect was ready to conduct a "dry run." British authorities had wanted to let him go forward with part of the plan, but the Americans balked.

At the White House, a top aide to President Bush denied the account.

Why the rush? Was there a politically expedient reason for the U.S. to push for the bust? Why not wait and continue to surveil the situation?

Recent busts of alleged terrorist cells in Toronto, Miami and Lebanon (related to the NYC threat) all seem to have had somewhat odd timing. A cynic might even suggest that they all were timed for maximum media effect, including the latest event in the UK. None were anywhere near the execution stage, assuming that any of them could have reached that stage in the first place. But they have been spread out nicely over the last few months, perhaps quite purposefully.

At this rate, we should expect another big terror bust by, oh, mid-September. Hmmm. Just in time for the upcoming five-year anniversary of 9/11. I'm sure that will be a good one. I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Quote of the Day: "It was like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' "

That quote came from an anonymous individual who was present in March 2001 at an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And the comment was made in reference to a promise that Mr. Bush made to Mr. Sharon on that day.

So, you ask, what was that promise?

The first President Bush had been tough on Israel, especially the Israeli settlements in occupied lands that Mr. Sharon had helped develop. But over tea in the Oval Office that day in March 2001 — six months before the Sept. 11 attacks tightened their bond — the new president signaled a strong predisposition to support Israel.

“He told Sharon in that first meeting that I’ll use force to protect Israel, which was kind of a shock to everybody,” said one person present, given anonymity to speak about a private conversation. “It was like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ “

That's right, President George "Dubya" Bush made a promise quite unlike any made before when it came to Israel, a promise that his father knew to steer far clear of during his own presidency over a decade earlier. And, one must note, this historically significant promise came a full six months prior to the infamous terror attacks of 9/11/01. Bush had been in office a mere two months when he decided to throw all caution to the wind.

What in the hell was he thinking?

That embrace of Israel represents a generational and philosophical divide between the Bushes, one that is exacerbating the friction that has been building between their camps of advisers and loyalists over foreign policy more generally. As the president continues to stand by Israel in its campaign against Hezbollah — even after a weekend attack that left many Lebanese civilians dead and provoked international condemnation — some advisers to the father are expressing deep unease with the Israel policies of the son.

“The current approach simply is not leading toward a solution to the crisis, or even a winding down of the crisis,” said Richard N. Haass, who advised the first President Bush on the Middle East and worked as a senior State Department official in the current president’s first term. “There are times at which a hands-off policy can be justified. It’s not obvious to me that this is one of them.”

Unlike the first President Bush, who viewed himself as a neutral arbiter in the delicate politics of the Middle East, the current president sees his role through the prism of the fight against terrorism. This President Bush, unlike his father, also has deep roots in the evangelical Christian community, a staunchly pro-Israeli component of his conservative Republican base.

The first President Bush came to the Oval Office with long diplomatic experience, strong ties to Arab leaders and a realpolitik view that held the United States should pursue its own strategic interests, not high-minded goals like democracy, even if it meant negotiating with undemocratic governments like Syria and Iran.

The current President Bush has practically cut off Syria and Iran, overlaying his fight against terrorism with the aim of creating what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls “a new Middle East.” In allying himself so closely with Israel, he has departed not just from his father’s approach but also from those of all his recent predecessors, who saw themselves first and foremost as brokers in the region.

This approach to the Middle East and Israel, in particular, bears all the markings of the PNAC neo-conservative movement headlined by the likes of William Kristol, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Their overtly militaristic approach to the world and the Middle East, especially, is manifested in the United States' involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now in the Israelis' ongoing assault on Lebanon. Clearly, Syria and Iran are next on the their list of conquests, and the rest of the world may be virtually powerless to keep it from happening.

When former presidential aides - on both ends of the political spectrum - begin to seriously question the policies and motives of the current Bush administration, it's high time that the rest of us sit up and take notice. Any reasonable prospects for lasting peace in this crazy world of ours may, quite literally, hang in the balance.