Entries from April 2011

Taliban Enter Summer With Less Territory

April 17th, 2011 at 3:45 am Comments Off

The Washington Post reports:

SANGIN, AFGHANISTAN — Signs of change have sprouted this spring amid the lush fields and mud-brick villages of southern Afghanistan.

In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.

In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.

And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar’s northern fringe where dozens of U.S. soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.

Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.

“We start this year in a very different place from last year,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.

The security improvements have been the result of intense fighting and the use of high-impact weapons systems not normally associated with the protect-the-population counterinsurgency mission.

In Sangin, Zhari and Arghandab — the three most insurgent-ridden districts in the south — the cost in American lives and limbs since the summer has been far greater than in any other part of the country. More than 40 Marines have been killed in Sangin in the past nine months, and three dozen more have lost both legs. The Army brigade responsible for Zhari and part of Arghandab has lost 63 soldiers since July.

The question of the moment for Petraeus and his subordinates is whether the gains will hold as Taliban commanders, laden with cash and munitions, stream across the desert from Pakistan, where there has been considerably less progress in denying them sanctuary.

Senior U.S. officers said they expect the insurgents to shift tactics: Instead of trying to take on American troops directly, as they did in Sangin and Zhari in the fall, the Taliban will attempt to plant more homemade explosives, recruit a new cadre of suicide bombers and assassinate Afghan government officials — as it did late last week,killing the police chief in Kandahar province. The result, according to an internal military projection, could be a far more violent summer for both Americans and Afghans.

Petraeus and other U.S. commanders say they are hopeful that Afghan civilians will feel confident enough to report Taliban activity to U.S. or Afghan troops. They also are optimistic that improvements in the quality of the Afghan army and of U.S. battlefield intelligence will provide a significant boost to counterinsurgency efforts.

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Dems: Fracking Fluids Are Toxic

April 17th, 2011 at 3:43 am 1 Comment

The Wall Street Journal reports:

WASHINGTON — The drilling fluids used to recover natural gas and oil from deep shale formations contain substances identified as human carcinogens, or listed as hazardous under federal clean air or water rules, according to a report issued late Saturday by senior House Democrats.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee described their report as the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by companies that engage in a process known as hydraulic fracturing.

The composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids has become a key point of tension between the oil and gas industry, which has been reluctant to disclose the specific contents of drilling fluids, and those who say such disclosure is necessary to determine whether hydraulic fracturing poses a threat to drinking water.

The gas industry has said it will voluntarily disclose the composition of drilling fluids. The Democratic paper noted that disclosure to this database will be voluntary, and “will not include the chemical identity of products labeled as proprietary.”

Citing data submitted by the companies to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in response to requests from the panel’s Democratic members, the report says that drilling fluids used by the companies contained 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Among these substances, according to the report: Methanol, benzene, sulfuric acid and lead.

The report says the substances used by the companies also include generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid. Some companies also used instant coffee and walnut hulls in their fracturing fluids, the report says.

The Democratic report, says that between 2005 and 2009, more than a dozen leading energy companies have used more than 780 million gallons of drilling fluids containing roughly 750 different chemicals and components.

Hydraulic fracturing and other techniques have unlocked large reserves of shale oil and gas that wasn’t previously accessible, leading to a boom of new wells across the country and a sharp decline in natural gas prices.

President Obama has been promoting greater use of natural gas as a way to help the country reduce its reliance on oil. Mr. Obama in a speech last month, touted legislation in Congress to encourage wider use of natural gas as a fuel for vehicles.

But environmentalists and some residents of areas recently opened to development by hydraulic fracturing have said the process can pollute drinking water supplies. The industry has said these fears are unfounded.

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Raul Castro Wants Term Limits

April 17th, 2011 at 3:41 am Comments Off

BBC News reports:

Cuban President Raul Castro has said top political positions should be limited to two five-year terms, and promised “systematic rejuvenation” of the government.

President Castro was speaking at the start of the first congress of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party in 14 years.

He said the party leadership was in need of renewal and should subject itself to severe self-criticism.

The proposal is unprecedented under Cuban communism.

Mr Castro, 79, made clear the limits would apply to himself.

He took over from his brother Fidel in 2008 and between them they have ruled Cuba for 52 years.

He acknowledged that “the confidence of the majority of Cubans had been tested, with regard to the party and the revolution”.

Cubans, he said, would have to overcome a “mentality of inertia” and said the only thing that could threaten the revolution was “our inability to rectify errors”.

His brother and former leader Fidel Castro, now 84, missed the day’s events. He said he regretted his absence but felt proud of the congress and the military parade that preceded it.

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Bachmann: Obama’s “Not On Our Side”

April 17th, 2011 at 3:39 am 5 Comments

Politico reports:

Michele Bachmann laced into President Barack Obama at a South Carolina tea party rally Saturday, saying his decision to take military action in Libya was “foolish” and that he’s “not on our side anymore.”

Bachmann’s appearance in Bluffton, a coastal town near the Georgia border, was one of several stops she’s making over three days in the key early primary state.

“We still don’t know who the opposition forces are that we’re helping [in Libya],” Bachmann told the Tea Party Patriots rally, according to CNN.

“The only reports that we have say that there are elements of Al Qaeda in North Africa and Hezbollah in the opposition forces,” she added. “Let me ask you this: What possible benefit is there to the United States by lifting up and creating a toehold for Al Qaeda in North Africa to take over Libya?”

She hit the president on a range of topics, including rising gas prices, declaring that “I don’t think he’s on our side anymore.”

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Japanese Search Teams Enter Irradiated Zone

April 17th, 2011 at 3:34 am Comments Off

The Wall Street Journal reports:

NAMIE, Japan—Nearly five weeks after search teams first combed northeastern Japan’s tsunami-devastated shorelines for victims, they have ventured to the coastal town of Namie—once a hamlet of 20,000 people, now a time capsule of the March 11 tsunami’s destruction situated less than five miles from the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

On Friday, 280 police and firefighters descended on the deserted town wearing white head-to-toe radiation suits, waterproof boots, rubber gloves and face masks, belatedly picking through thick mud and the wreckage of homes, cars and boats. Searchers tossed aside mangled pieces of metal looking for bodies. Others they found in plain view.

Coming across an elderly woman lying in the fetal position, a young police officer on one search team placed a red bucket on the end of a six-foot long wooden rod and lifted it into the air, marking the site so a recovery crew could later carry her away. Within a few hours, four such flags could be seen for victims in an area about the size of 10 baseball fields.

Other tsunami-ravaged cities in northeastern Japan launched rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and have brought their land searches largely to a close. But in the coastal towns within a 12-mile radius of the damaged reactors, the area set out by the Japanese government for mandatory evacuation, police and firefighters began only a week ago to look for bodies.

The efforts began in earnest as radiation levels dropped to a level where police felt comfortable sending in search crews, who were told to move from the zone’s north—where the tsunami’s devastation was greatest and radiation readings lower—toward the south. Friday’s search brought police closer to the areas with the highest levels of radiation.

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FAA Revises Air Controller Schedules

April 17th, 2011 at 3:34 am Comments Off

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Starting early next week, the FAA has decided to revamp work schedules for the nation’s air-traffic controllers to eliminate those practices most likely to cause fatigue.

The decision comes as Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt was informed about still another controller nodding off on duty, this time during the late-Friday-to-Saturday-morning shift at the Miami enroute control center. The controller, who wasn’t identified, was suspended early Saturday, according to agency officials.

The latest controller lapse marks at least the eighth instance this year that the FAA has acknowledged one of its controllers fell asleep on duty. One controller fell asleep twice on the same shift in January, the FAA previously disclosed.

The spate of dozing controllers already has prompted the agency to beef up overnight staffing at more than two dozen airport towers and call for a nationwide drive to emphasize controller discipline and professionalism.

The head of the FAA’s traffic-control organization stepped down under pressure last week.

The new work schedules, expected to give controllers shorter overnight shifts and more time to rest between day and night shifts, are expected to be developed with the cooperation of the union representing the nation’s roughly 15,000 controllers.

“We are taking swift action to ensure the safety of our aviation system,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “There is no excuse for air-traffic controllers to be sleeping on the job. We will do everything we can to put an end to this.”

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Two Cheers for the Welfare State

David Frum April 16th, 2011 at 4:28 pm 224 Comments

This is the final installment in David Frum’s series on Yuval Levin’s “Beyond the Welfare State.” Click here to read the entire series.


In the interval since I started this response to Yuval Levin’s important piece in National Affairs, the Ryan budget plan has been approved by the House of Representatives on a near-total party line vote. Ideas like those endorsed by Yuval Levin are now the formal position of the Republican party. My guess is that the party’s presidential nominee will attempt to tip-toe away from that position in 2012, but who knows? Anyway, it will not matter. President Obama’s billion-dollar campaign will ensure that Republicans are thoroughly identified with it.

So Yuval Levin’s proposition is the proposition that Republicans will take to the country. Perhaps that is as it should be. Since the economic and electoral disasters of 2006-2009, Republicans have veered in a sharply libertarian direction. Why not put that new direction to the test of democracy? Perhaps Paul Ryan is right, and Americans (or anyway: voting Americans) have abruptly changed their minds during this economic crisis about their expectations from government.

I’ll admit: I’ve also changed my mind during this crisis, but in the opposite direction.

There’s an interesting rotation of ideologies here between Yuval Levin and me. Yuval Levin is one of the brightest rising stars in the intellectual tradition of Irving Kristol. Kristol famously championed a conservative welfare state, and especially programs of social insurance for the elderly.

I, on the other hand, got my political start urging a doubling-down on the economic libertarianism of the Reagan years. On the eve of the last Republican congressional triumph, 1994, I published a book urging ideas very similar to those now being urged by Yuval Levin and Paul Ryan and many others.

I won’t try here to explain why the conservative mainstream has turned so sharply to the right, although I have my theories.

As for my own turn away, that I can explain:

The radical free-market economics I embraced in the late 1970s offered a trade:

Yes, there would be less social provision. In return, Americans would receive an economy that was simultaneously more dynamic and also more stable.

There would be less inflation (because the Federal Reserve would have one job: price stability).

There would be fewer and milder recessions (because the Federal Reserve would no longer have to extinguish the inflation it did not create).

The financial sector could finance faster growth with less risk (because risks would be cushioned by diversification rather than prohibited by regulation).

Economic growth would accelerate (because the reduced tax burden would induce entrepreneurial innovation).

Faster growth would raise incomes for all (because a rising tide lifts all boats).

More opportunity in the private economy would abundantly offset the curbing of welfare benefits (because the best social program is always a job).

More opportunity would end the caste-like isolation of the poorest of the poor by drawing them out of the underclass into paid employment (because all human beings respond more or less rationally to positive incentives).

This was the trade, and it was engineered jointly by Republicans and Democrats: in fact some of the most important elements of the trade were adopted during the Clinton years.

Some of the terms of that trade were honored. From 1983 through 2008, the US enjoyed a quarter-century of economic expansion, punctuated by only two relatively mild recessions. In the late 1980s, the country was hit by the savings & loan crisis, the worst financial crisis to that point since the 1930s – and although the S&L crisis did deliver a blow, the country rapidly recovered and came up smiling. New industries were born, new jobs created on an epic scale, incomes did improve, and the urban poor were drawn into the working economy.

But of course, other terms of the trade were not honored.

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find work somewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the US for every unfilled job. Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. But some of the most dismal outcomes were endured by workers in their 50s, laid off from middle-class jobs likely never to see middle-class employment again.

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Which does not mean that I have become suddenly indifferent to the growth of government. Not at all. Paul Ryan is absolutely right that the present trend is unsustainable and must be corrected. The free marketeers of the 1980s were right that taxes on enterprise must be restrained to leave room for private-sector-led expansion. Over-generous social insurance has all kinds of negative consequences. Private saving must be encouraged. Work must pay better than idleness. The job of designing the right kind of social insurance state is hugely important and hugely difficult, and the conservative sensibility – with its respect for markets and less sentimental view of human nature – is the right sensibility for that job.

Yet that same conservative sensibility is also properly distrustful of the fantasy that society can be remade according to a preconceived plan. We have to start from where we are, and we have to take people as we find them. Ronald Reagan liked to quote a line of Tom Paine’s, “We have it in our power to make the world new again.” George Will – although a great Reagan admirer – correctly complained at the time, “No, we don’t.”

I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

Those are words I would not have written 15 years ago. I write them now, conscious that I am very far from the first person to write them.  Irving Kristol made the point most memorably at the very onset of the conservative ascendancy:

The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind… they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.

Conservatism’s task is to shape that social insurance state, not repeal it.

Yuval Levin knew this truth when I did not. I’ll preserve it here in safe keeping for him and all his friends until they are ready to remember it again.


Syria To Lift Decades-Old Emergency Law

April 16th, 2011 at 3:46 pm Comments Off

BBC News reports:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he expects a state of emergency to be lifted next week, after weeks of anti-government protests.

He made the comments in a televised speech to his newly formed cabinet.

The lifting of the 48-year-old emergency law has been a key demand of the protesters.

On Friday, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in the capital, Damascus, in one of the biggest turnouts since protests began.

While he repeated his view that his country was facing a conspiracy, Mr Assad said he did not believe the lifting of the state of emergency would destabilise Syria.

The Syrian leader told the cabinet a legal commission asked to examine the lifting of the law had come to its conclusions.

“I think the commission has finished its work, on Thursday, and the recommendations will be given to the government so that they become law immediately. I don’t know how many days it will take you and I think that the maximum deadline for the lifting of the state of emergency will be next week,” he said.

The law bans public gatherings of more than five people.

New security legislation would be introduced in place of the emergency law, he said, adding that the new government should also study ideas for a multi-party system and greater press freedom.

Click here to read more.

Court Dissolves Mubarak’s Party

April 16th, 2011 at 2:50 pm Comments Off

The Washington Post reports:

CAIRO — Former president Hosni Mubarak’s political party was ordered disbanded Saturday by an Egyptian court, the Associated Press reported, in a concession to protesters who have increasingly questioned whether the revolution that toppled Mubarak more than two months ago brought about major change.

The ruling was the capstone to an extraordinary week that also saw the detention and interrogation of Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, over their financial dealings and the killings of protesters in January and February. The trio’s detention had been another key demand of the tens of thousands of protesters who turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this month, outraged that the Mubarak family was apparently living under comfortable house arrest in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The National Democratic Party (NDP), which was founded in 1978 by Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s predecessor, has dominated Egyptian political life for more than 30 years, and the burned-out shell of its headquarters still towers between the Nile and Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

Critics, including many of the protesters who led the movement to topple Mubarak, had said that the party has no place in a new Egypt.

Until the Supreme Administrative Court’s ruling on Saturday, the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood had been the two most potent organized political forces in the country. The ruling also requires that the party’s assets should be liquidated and returned to the government, the Associated Press reported. It was unclear whether the organization’s intangible assets — its ability to get out the vote and to field candidates around the country — would survive under a new name.

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How Hoyer and Boehner Saved the Deal

April 16th, 2011 at 10:44 am 5 Comments

Those of us in politics need to be careful about overreacting to or over-interpreting a single event. As any sports fan knows, an early season victory doesn’t always lead to a winning record, let alone a championship trophy.

With that caveat very much in mind, I am minimally heartened by congressional approval of the FY 2011 budget deal that was worked out, literally at the eleventh hour, late last week. Thursday’s vote on adoption of the package of spending cuts in the House of Representatives was 260 ayes to 167 nays (the Senate vote was a more lopsided 81 to 19). The outcome was, obviously, important. But perhaps just as important in the long run was the composition of the 260 vote House majority: 179 Republicans and 81 Democrats voted yes (compared to the 59 Republicans and 108 Democrats who voted “Nay!”).

While not happy with all of the deal’s provisions (and terribly troubled by two in particular—the zeroing out of all federal support for civic education and the direct attack on the the District of Columbia via a gratuitous ban on abortion funding), I am among those  who felt the deal was the best one possible under the circumstances. As Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) put it in his comments on the floor, quoting the late, great Democratic Representative Mo Udall (AZ), “If you can find something everyone agrees on, you can count on it being wrong.”

House Speaker John Boehner, who was able to bring three-fourths of his Republican colleagues with him, argued for acceptance of the deal by acknowledging the immense challenges presented by current political realities saying, “Welcome to divided government!” Despite his plea and push, however, Boehner couldn’t achieve passage with Republican votes alone. He needed help from Democrats, and he got it.

Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and ranking Democratic member of the Budget Committee Chris Van Hollen corralled enough of their colleagues to vote “Yes!” on a bill that President Barack Obama had helped craft, but that many on the left opposed. Always eloquent, Hoyer addressed the issue of partisan division when he said on the floor, “Our choice in this divided government is whether we will come together, work together, and try to make the best possible agreement together. I think the American people expect us to do that. As Henry Clay, one of the great Speakers of this House, said: ‘If you cannot compromise, you cannot govern.’”

And there, in a few sentences spoken by three experienced politicians and accomplished legislators, we find what might be the adhesive of a “governing party” in the House of Representatives going forward. With so many really tough votes to come—the FY 2012 budget, the debt ceiling and others— no one with an ounce of sense will be betting on  anything but contentious debates and uncertain outcomes. Nevertheless,  if a “governing party” can be cobbled together on an issue by issue basis, with “members” enrolling from each side of the aisle, we may have a chance of avoiding disastrous policy deadlocks, complete political paralysis, and the increased public disenchantment and alienation that are their inevitable consequence.


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