24 March 2009

Karzai -- a 21st century Diem?

The United States and its European allies are ­about to demote Afghan president Hamid Karzai. They intend to appoint a new chief executive who will "partner" Karzai and assume whatever decision-making the allies feel appropriate. They also intend to devolve spending power from Kabul to the provinces. They are, apparently, fed up with the corruption around Karzai and intend to bypass him. The diminished role for the president will be unveiled at a special conference on Afghanistan at The Hague on March 31. Top candidate for the new job is Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar, an American favourite.

It seems only yesterday NATO was crowing about the democracy they had brought to Afghanistan, wonderfully illustrated by the election of Karzai as president in 2004. Now he has become a liability, and apparently the allies won't be taking chances on elections this time.

This is yet another echo of the Vietnam war. In 1963 the Americans, led by a charming, young and progressive president, watched as the incompetent leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, steadily lost ground to the Viet Cong insurgency. The Americans acquiesced, therefore, when the South Vietnamese army decided to depose Diem. The U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, was apparently horrified when the military not only deposed him, they executed him. This time the Americans and their allies will do the job themselves.

Karzai will probably fare better than Diem, although there is the problem of what to do if he rejects the allies' plans, an anti-colonial stand many Afghans would support. He recently declared he would resist any dilution of his power. "Afghanistan will never be a puppet state," he is reported as saying, perhaps under the illusion that because he was elected it's his country to run. No doubt Diem felt the same way. Like Diem, he will soon be disabused of that notion. The quagmire deepens.

23 March 2009

Please don't exacerbate me

Exacerbate. The ugliest word in the English language, yet one of the trendiest. A person can't read the daily paper, a magazine or a book without encountering an author who feels obliged to throw in an "exacerbate." To many authors, it seems to be a de rigueur word, essential to establishing their credentials as a modern writer. What he or she usually means to say is "aggravate," a perfectly good word. How then did this unfortunate situation come about?

The problem seems to lie in the double meaning of "aggravate." The common meaning is "to make worse"; however, it can also mean to "irritate" or "provoke." But if "aggravate" is used in the sense of "provoke," how does one intensify the provocation? The writer is deprived of the usual progression from irritation to aggravation. The answer it seems has been to drag in "exacerbate." Then, for some perverse reason, it has become a trendy replacement for "aggravate" in any sense.

I cringe every time I encounter the word. So please, fellow scribblers, do me a favour. If you mean "to make worse," use the sensible, and quite agreeable, "aggravate" and leave "exacerbate" in your thesaurus. As New yorkers would say (and some people blame them for the problem) spare me the aggravation.

20 March 2009

The Guardian or the local rag?

Newspaper readership, we are told, is declining. That may or not be true. No doubt the readership of hard copy newspapers is declining, but I suspect readership of the web versions is increasing. It certainly has for me. I still buy a daily paper -- as I mentioned on a previous post, I'm addicted -- but I also do a lot of newspaper reading online. In fact, I have a routine which I follow most days. Starting with the CBC website, I then do the Guardian, Al Jazeera and the New York Times, in that order. And maybe one or two others if it's a slow morning.

I have little interest in my local papers, the Calgary Sun and the Calgary Herald. Both right-wing, they have little to say to me, and why would I buy a second or third-rate paper when I can read the best in the world such as the Guardian and the New York times -- and for free? This, I suspect, is the case with many readers. They haven't given up on newspapers, they've just given up on their local rag.

Eventually a day of reckoning will come, of course. The papers almost certainly can't make enough money from advertising on their websites to keep their newsrooms going, so presumably one day they will have to charge for reading their online versions. That will be fine with me. At least I'll be able to support a first-rate newspaper rather than a second-rate one. In the meantime, I'll just enjoy the free ride.

19 March 2009

Executive pay: how much is too much?

The U.S. is quite rightly experiencing a flurry of outrage about AIG execs scoffing up healthy bonuses after running their company into the ground, and this on top of the corporation accepting a $170-billion handout from the federal government. Scandals about corporate executives piling up exorbitant incomes from salaries, bonuses and stock options, even if their companies are tanking, are commonplace these days. It prompts the old question: how much should the top guys be paid? How much more reward do they deserve than the people at the bottom?

The usual corporate defense of excessive incomes for executives is that they have to pay these amounts to get the best people. The United States most successful investor, Warren Buffett, disagrees. Mr. Buffet, chairman and chief executive of financial conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway and the world's second richest man after Bill Gates, pays himself, as he has for years, an annual salary of $100,000. Including directors' fees, he makes a grand total of $175,000 a year. He is somewhat more generous with his employees but not excessively so. The highest salary at Berkshire Hathaway is paid to the company's chief financial officer, Marc Hamburg, who made $786,500 in 2008. Buffet is an outspoken critic of lavish executive compensation packages and doesn't offer bonuses and stock options. If Berkshire Hathaway can achieve the outstanding success it has without paying anyone more than a million dollars a year, it's hard to see why any company should have to.

The idea behind generous compensation, particularly with stock options, is that it will improve executive performance and therefore company performance and therefore provide bigger rewards to stockholders. Unfortunately, the compensation seems to have become an end in itself, independent of either improved executive or company performance. That isn't surprising considering boards of directors determine executive pay, and boards of directors tend to be made up of local management and presidents and chairmen of other companies, usually chaired and dominated by the CEO himself. Quite naturally, these incestuous bodies take care of their own. And in doing so they often overlook the fact that all employees contribute to a successful organization, not just the top guys.

In any case, it hasn't worked. Lavish salaries seem to contribute more to greater greed than greater performance. Corporations might all do better following Warren Buffet's example: if it's over a million, it's too much.

17 March 2009

Is this why our government doesn't give a damn about global warming?

Is the mystery unravelling? I have long wondered why our federal government doesn't unduly concern itself with global warming, the greatest threat facing our species. Finally we have a clue. We have a science minister who as much as admits he doesn't believe in evolution. Gary Goodyear, Minster of State for Science and Technology, apparently thinks evolution is a religious matter, not a scientific one, and doesn't care to talk about it.

This certainly explains why the Harper government shows little interest in basic science. Goodyear doesn't agree, of course, saying he is "passionate" about his portfolio and insists that because he experimented with automobile engines in high school, he's "been there on this discovery stuff."

Christian fundamentalists such as Goodyear tend to have trouble with facts about our universe, evolution first among them. If he has trouble with a pillar of science like evolution, is it possible he has doubts about global warming as well? And if Harper's minister of science has doubts, then perhaps others in the cabinet do also? Certainly, Environment Minister Jim Prentice seems more interested in defending the tar sands than in defending the environment. It's hard to believe this could be true, yet there must be some explanation for their cavalier approach.

That Christians had trouble accepting evolution was no great tragedy -- life went on --- but if we don't accept global warming and respond appropriately, life as we know it won't go on. The stakes are very much higher. We can no longer afford scientific ignorance, and that may just mean we can't afford this government.

13 March 2009

Is the world coming to its senses on drug policy?

As the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna this week to set world drug policy for the next decade, a European Commission report claimed the UN strategy over the past decade has been a failure. Ten years of that strategy, operating under the ludicrous slogan "a drug-free world - we can do it," was described in the report as providing, "no evidence that the global drug problem was reduced," and went on to say, "Broadly speaking, the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries while for others it worsened, and for some it worsened sharply and substantially."

In the United States, chief promoter of the hardline approach, half a million citizens languish in prison for non-violent, drug-related crimes, yet drug use persists while prices decline. Last year, 6,000 Mexicans died in wars between the cartels. Recently, yet another leader of a drug-ridden country -- Guinea Bissau -- was assassinated. The United Nations estimates 70 per cent of international crime is fueled by drugs, an industry worth over $300-billion U.S. a year. Millions of victims suffer from HIV contacted from dirty needles. The failure has many faces but most stem from the laws, not the drugs.

The Economist magazine, which refers to past drug policy as "a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world," has proposed an approach that offers a way out of the current morass, arguing for legalization as the least bad solution. "Legalization," the Economist suggests, "would not only drive away the gangsters, it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public health problem, which is how it ought to be treated." The Economist approach would have governments tax and regulate drugs and use the revenues raised, as well as the billions saved on law enforcement, to educate the public about drug use. Prices would be set such that they would encourage neither drug use nor illegal trafficking with its attendant theft and prostitution. Justice systems would save enormous sums, and control of drugs would be transferred from criminals to the state.

As to the argument that legalization would contribute to more drug use, the Economist points out that "citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer." As for addiction, while Sweden's drug laws are harsh and Norway's relatively liberal, the two countries have identical addiction rates. The Economist nonetheless concedes that cheaper, safer, legal drugs might lead to increased use. This would be balanced, however, by the ability to deal with use and addiction properly.

The United Nations admits it is losing its war on drugs, yet the action plan produced in Vienna remains focused on eradicating supply. The plan does, however, include support for "mainstreaming drug treatment and rehabilitation into national healthcare systems; and ensuring accessibility to drug demand reduction services." The intent of the plan is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder. More progressive countries, including Germany, the U.K. and Australia, interpret it as including harm reduction such as needle-exchange programs, while others, including the U.S., Colombia and Russia, object to that interpretation, saying it condones drug use.

While the UN conference showed little progress, developments in the United States show promise. President Obama has appointed a progressive as his new drugs czar. As Seattle's chief of police, Gil Kerlikowske oversaw treatment and rehabilitation replace prosecution as the first choice for dealing with drug abuse. If his nomination is approved by the Senate, Kerlikowske will become director of the office of national drug control policy for a president who has declared that the U.S. war on drugs, now 40 years old, is "an utter failure." A more enlightened approach from the traditional leader of the law-and-order crowd would be helpful indeed.

So small flashes of light are appearing in the darkness that is world drug policy. Legalization remains a distant goal, but we seem to be inching in that direction. No doubt it involves risk, too, but abandoning a policy that only makes things worse justifies a lot of risk.

06 March 2009

The United States and the right to meddle

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently lashed out at Iran for its meddling in the Middle East. "It is clear that Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all of these people [in the region] and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it's Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies," said Ms. Clinton.

This criticism of Iran's machinations in its own backyard exemplifies the Americans' monumental hypocrisy and lack of introspection. They have for many years meddled in the affairs of nations in their region as a matter of course. Nor have they been content to limit their interference to the affairs of countries in the Americas. They make the world their playground.

Yet when Iran involves itself in the affairs of its neighbours, including its quite legitimate support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the U.S. cries foul. It would appear meddling is the exclusive property of the Americans -- and perhaps its allies, at least if they are enhancing American interests.

If American meddling was a positive force, it might have some justification, but in the Third World it is more often negative. A good example is U.S. collaboration in the overthrow of democratically-elected governments, from the Americas, e.g. Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973, to the Middle East, e.g. in Iran in 1953 and in Palestine today. Indeed, it has been meddling in the Middle East for a long time and almost everyone is worse off for it, except Israel and amenable Arab dictators like Arabia's Sauds and Egypt's Mubarak.

Despite Clinton's bellicose statements, the Obama administration does seem to be shifting toward a more constructive and co-operative foreign policy putting, one hopes, the neocon policies of the Bush administration behind them. For example, they have convinced NATO to resume high-level relations with Russia, with Ms. Clinton calling for a fresh start with that country. And, in a very encouraging move, she announced the administration has proposed a conference on Afghanistan that is likely to include Iran, setting up the prospect of a face-to-face encounter between the two countries.

These are good signs. They don't presage an end to American meddling, of course, but they suggest at least a less belligerent, less self-righteous and more consultative approach. Perhaps even including a little more introspection along with more empathy for other peoples. That would be progress ... something to hope for, to borrow President Obama's favourite word.

05 March 2009

Maybe the ICC isn't just "white man's justice" after all

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, accusing him of "directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property." In January, the Court began its first case with Thomas Lubanga, former militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the dock. So far the Court has indicted thirteen individuals, all Africans. This emphasis on Africans has led to suggestions the Court is focusing on Third World leaders while overlooking the sins of Western nations such as the horrors inflicted on Iraq by former U.S. President George W. Bush.

African Union spokesperson Jean Ping, while supporting the Court, has nonetheless said,
"What we see is that international justice seems to be applying its fight against impunity only to Africa as if nothing were happening elsewhere, [such as] in Iraq, Gaza, Colombia or in the Caucasus." Apparently more than 40 African countries are thinking of withdrawing their membership from the Court.

The ICC, the first permanent tribunal set up to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, is a major step forward for international justice, and it would be tragic if it were tarred with the brush of discrimination. A new investigation may put paid to that. The Court is considering whether the Palestinian Authority will be allowed to bring a case against Israel for war crimes committed in the recent assault on Gaza.

Proceeding will not be easy. There is a question of whether the Palestine Authority is sufficiently like a state to qualify for bringing a case. To date, the ICC has not recognized Palestine as a sovereign state and it is not a member of the Court. In addition to members of the Court, cases can be brought by the UN Security Council or the Court Prosecutor. The U.S. would veto the former possibility so hopes for an indictment may very well rest entirely with the Prosecutor. The odds of prosecution are not good, therefore, but the fact the Court is conducting a serious investigation may at least allay concerns that Western nations have immunity.

03 March 2009

Beating crime with research

Sometimes a particular confluence of news items seems to jump out at me. Such is the case with three recent items: first, the Harper government's get tough on crime rhetoric; second, the concern expressed by science researchers about lack of support from that same government; and third, some intriguing research on FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) in the Prime Minister's home province of Alberta.

The Conservative government has introduced new crime legislation that would classify gang killings as first-degree murder, create a new offence and a minimum four-year prison term for drive-by shootings, and toughen Criminal Code sections on assaulting police officers. Even though the Liberals and the NDP have promised to support the provisions, Harper characteristically engaged in a preemptive attack, insisting, "Look, we know we're going to hear these critics. We know we're going to hear the Opposition parrot some of these critics because they all believe in soft-on-crime policies."

While Harper lashes the opposition for a lack of support for his crime legislation, researchers lash his government for a lack of support for scientific research. The connection? Well, as I have mentioned on this blog before, research can can be a critical tool in fighting crime. It can reveal the roots of crime and therefore offer prevention as an alternative to punishment. A good example is research being done on FASD in Edmonton by the Chimo Project. FASD refers to a range of disabilities observed in people whose mothers drank alcohol while they were pregnant, including learning problems, memory loss, short attention spans and difficulty understanding the consequences of actions. These can lead to serious anti-social behaviour. Indeed, not only is fetal alcohol syndrome the leading cause of brain damage in this country, up to 60 per cent of the people in jails are victims of it.

Researchers with the Chimo Project are finding that with animal-assisted therapy, FASD victims show significant increases in their social skills, as well as in their participation and motivation. The researchers use cats, birds, dogs, even a miniature horse, to get children to open up, and to decrease their levels of anxiety and depression. According to Kristine Aanderson, senior program manager for the Chimo Project, "We spent 10 years amassing this evidence about how effective it is. We've really reached a point now where the world is starting to recognize ... this is something amazing and it really can help these clients."

When every pregnancy is a healthy pregnancy and every infancy a healthy infancy, crime will drop like a stone. In the meantime we have to deal with realities like FASD and research is showing us how to do that. By developing ways of treating the victims of FASD and dysfunctional family life generally, we can save many of them from lives of crime and save the rest of us from becoming victims of that crime. Applying methods like animal-assisted therapy early is better for all of us than relying on the Criminal Code later. Hopefully, the Prime Minister and his Minister of Public Safety are paying attention.

02 March 2009

Of course the U.S. is not leaving Iraq

I hate to say I told you so. Well, actually I don't mind at all. This is what I said in a posting on July 4th'08 about Barack Obama's promise to remove U.S. troops from Iraq:
"The United States now has a major military presence at the centre of the largest conventional oil reserves in the world and they are going to walk away from that? Not likely."
Some Americans, and others, weren't paying attention to the fine print of Obama's claim. What he has been saying all along is, to quote from a recent speech, "Let me say this as plainly as I can. By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end." Note the phrase "combat mission." He doesn't mention the occupying mission. He says he intends to leave up to 50,000 troops to advise Iraqi forces and protect U.S. interests. I suspect the emphasis will be on the latter and the major interest will be oil.

Nor, in fact, is he completely forgoing combat. He states that protecting U.S. interests will include "conducting targeted counterterrorism missions." Sounds like combat to me.

He does insist he will adhere to the deal that the Bush administration made with the Iraqis to remove all American troops by the end of 2011. Any bets on that?