Friday, November 30, 2007

US withdraws Mideast resolution at UN

Associated Press Writer

In an about face, the United States on Friday withdrew a U.N. resolution endorsing this week's agreement by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to reach a Mideast peace settlement by the end of 2008, apparently after Israel objected.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Alejandro Wolff informed the Security Council that the United States was pulling the resolution from consideration less than 24 hours after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad introduced it.

Khalilzad had said he needed to consult with the Israelis and Palestinians on the text of the resolution to ensure that it was what they wanted following the decisions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md.

Wolff said the U.S. had held intensive consultations in the past few days "and the upshot was that there were some unease with the idea" of a resolution.

Diplomats said Israel, a close U.S. ally, did not want a resolution, which would bring the Security Council into the fledgling negotiations with the Palestinians. The diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Khalilzad introduced the draft resolution without getting broad support from the Israelis, Palestinians and the Bush administration.

[Keep reading...]

"It's not the proper venue," Israel's deputy ambassador Daniel Carmon said after Friday's council meeting. "We feel that the appreciation of Annapolis has other means of being expressed than in a resolution.

"We were not the only ones to object," Carmon said.

He added that the Americans had told the Israelis that the Palestinians also objected.

Abbas, speaking to reporters in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, said Friday that while he didn't know the details of the draft resolution it was a sign of the seriousness of the United States, which he also perceived at the Annapolis conference.

"This means, if what we have learned is verified, that there are serious steps that speak to the existence of an American position supporting the negotiations," Abbas said.

Wolff said the United States realized that "the focus, we all realized again, should be placed and remain on Annapolis and the understanding that was reached there."

"It's a momentous decision ... and rather than dilute from that and in respect to both parties in terms of what they thought would be most helpful, we reached a conclusion that it would be best to withdraw it," Wolff said.

Normally, the United States would have consulted Israel in advance of introducing a Security Council resolution, as well as the Palestinians, to gauge their reaction.

But on Thursday, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he knew "very little" about the proposed resolution, adding "we will be discussing it, and no doubt in very good spirit."

The State Department said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had decided such a resolution was unnecessary.

"We have looked at this and, at the end of the day, the secretary believes that the positive results of Annapolis speak for themselves and there is really no reason to gild the lily," spokesman Sean McCormack said. "I am not sure that we saw the need to add anything else to the conversation. Sometimes, the results and the event speak for themselves."

Two U.S. officials, who on condition of anonymity described Rice's decision to withdraw the draft document, said there were several concerns about the resolution, including the failure to consult the Israelis and Palestinians on the language and the possibility that some on the Security Council might try to add anti-Israeli language to it.

Ambassador Nassir Al-Nasser of Qatar, the only Arab member on the Security Council, said Thursday "we are happy with the language as it is" in the U.S. draft resolution. "I am happy that the council is dealing with this issue," he said. "For me, this is the main thing."

The Annapolis conference drew 44 nations, including Israel's neighboring Arab states. A joint understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians, in doubt until the last minute, was salvaged and Abbas and Olmert reiterated their desire to reach a peace settlement by the end of 2008.

Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa, the current council president who had hoped the resolution would be adopted Friday, said he wanted to highlight the strong support in the council for the Annapolis conference. Council members were "welcoming, supporting and encouraging the parties to diligently follow up," he said.

"We are more focused at this time on the substance, that there is an absolutely clear message of council unity in supporting Annapolis conference and its achievements," he said.

Deputy Ambassador Konstantin Dolgov of Russia said it was the U.S. right as the sponsor to withdraw the resolution.

"What is important is that discussions showed that there is a lot of support for the outcome," he said. "We think that it would be important, of course, for the Security Council to express itself on this issue because the discussions showed that all Security Council members supported the outcome of Annapolis meeting."

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Marines to cut armored vehicle orders

A Category I mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle,
is driven on a test course during a media demonstration at
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. in this Aug. 24, 2007 file photo.
The Marines plan to buy fewer bomb-resistant vehicles
than planned despite pressure from lawmakers who are
determined to spend billions of dollars on the vehicles

The Marines plan to buy fewer bomb-resistant vehicles than planned despite pressure from lawmakers who are determined to spend billions of dollars on the vehicles.

The Marine Corps' requirement for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles would drop from the planned 3,700 to about 2,400, The Associated Press has learned. The Marines would not comment on the decision, but defense officials confirmed the cut. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced.

About a month ago, Marine Commandant Gen. T. James Conway signaled the possibility of a new examination of the commitment to the vehicles, saying he was concerned his force was getting too heavy. "I'm a little bit concerned about us keeping our expeditionary flavor," he said.

At the same time, an independent study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington questioned whether the Pentagon was buying too many of the pricey vehicles, which can cost as much as $1 million each. The study found that in some cases, the heavily armored vehicles, with their bomb-deflecting V-shaped hulls, might not be the answer that many believe they are.

Military officials and other experts have said that while the vehicles, known as MRAPs, are lifesavers in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not as useful or mobile in some terrain.

The Marine Corps was criticized this year for not responding quickly enough to urgent requests for the vehicles from troops in Iraq. In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the vehicles were the military's highest priority acquisition program.

In his comments last month, Conway said the Marine Corps has emerged as a "second land Army," assigned to secure Iraq, and must buy heavy equipment, including the mine-resistant vehicles, for protection against roadside bombs.

"Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we're going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not," Conway said at an event sponsored by the Center for a New American Security. "Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point. And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers money."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, buoyed by the vehicle's solid record - to date no troops have died in one - have consistently said the military must buy more and must buy them faster.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ex-Iraq commander says bring troops home

Associated Press Writer

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq shortly after the fall of Baghdad, said this week he supports Democratic legislation that calls for most troops to come home within a year.

His comments come as welcomed ammunition for the Democratic-controlled Congress in its standoff with the White House on war spending. This month, the House passed a $50 billion bill that would pay for combat operations but sets the goal that combat end by Dec. 15, 2008. The White House threatened to veto the measure, and Senate Republicans blocked it from passing.

The Pentagon on Tuesday said that as many as 200,000 civilian employees and contractors will begin receiving layoff warnings by Christmas unless Congress approves a war spending bill that President Bush will sign.

"The improvements in security produced by the courage and blood of our troops have not been matched by a willingness on the part of Iraqi leaders to make the hard choices necessary to bring peace to their country," Sanchez said in remarks to be aired Saturday for the weekly Democratic radio address.

"There is no evidence that the Iraqis will choose to do so in the near future or that we have an ability to force that result," he said.

Sanchez added that the House bill "makes the proper preparation of our deploying troops a priority and requires the type of shift in their mission that will allow their numbers to be reduced substantially."

Critical assessments on the war from former Pentagon brass are nothing new. But Sanchez's newfound alliance with Democrats is particularly noteworthy because he was directly in charge of combat operations in Iraq, from 2003 to 2004.

He also is somewhat controversial. The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal happened under his watch, and some have pointed to leadership failures as a contributing factor. While he was not charged with any misconduct, Sanchez said upon retiring from the military in November 2006 that his career was a casualty of Abu Ghraib.

In October, the three-star general told a group of reporters that the U.S. mission in Iraq was a "nightmare with no end in sight." He also called Bush's decision to deploy 30,000 extra forces to Iraq earlier this year a "desperate attempt" to make up for years of misguided policies in Iraq.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iraq says 2 American guards detained

Iraqi soldiers detained two American security guards along with several other foreigners traveling in a private security convoy after they opened fire Monday in Baghdad, wounding one woman, an Iraqi military spokesman said.

U.S. military and embassy officials had no immediate information about the report, which follows a series of recent shootings in which foreign security guards have allegedly killed Iraqis. Last month, the Iraqi Cabinet sent parliament a bill to lift immunity for foreign private security companies that has been in effect since the U.S. occupation began in 2003.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the convoy was driving on the wrong side of the road in the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah when the shooting took place about midday.

Those arrested included two American guards, along with 21 people from Sri Lanka, nine from Nepal and 10 Iraqis, the Baghdad military spokesman said.

"We have given orders to our security forces to immediately intervene in case they see any violations by security companies. The members of this security company wounded an innocent woman and they tried to escape the scene, but Iraq forces arrested them," al-Moussawi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The role of private security guards has become particularly controversial following a Sept. 16 shooting in which Blackwater Worldwide guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Baghdad's Nisoor Square.

The FBI is continuing its investigation into the shootings, although the Iraqi government has concluded that the security guards were unprovoked when the began shooting at an intersection at Nisoor Square in western Baghdad. The North Carolina-based company, the largest private security firm protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has said its security convoy was under attack before it opened fire.

The Iraqi Cabinet's initiative to lift immunity for private security companies would not be retroactive and therefore not affect the Blackwater employees who were involved in the Sept. 16 shooting. Parliament has yet to act on the measure.

A top U.S. commander, meanwhile, said violence in northern Iraq has declined at a slower rate than it has in other regions, as al-Qaida and other militants move there to avoid coalition operations elsewhere.

As a result, the north is now more violent than other regions. Most of the 27 U.S. deaths this month were north of Baghdad.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who commands U.S. troops in the region, said al-Qaida cells still operate in all the key cities in the north.

"What you're seeing is the enemy shifting," he told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Tikrit. "The attacks are still much higher than I would like here in the north but they are continuing to decrease in numbers and scale of attacks."

He said 900 roadside bombs were placed in his region last month, compared with 1,830 in June.

Sporadic violence nationwide left at least 22 people were killed or found dead Monday.

The deadliest attack occurred near the southern city of Basra when a rocket slammed into a house, killing five children and their mother, police said. Police said they believe the rocket was targeting the nearby airport, which is the headquarters of the British military in the area, but fell short.

British-led forces plan to hand over security responsibilities to Iraqis in the predominantly Shiite province in mid-December, saying the levels of violence have dropped despite fears of escalating rivalries between Shiite militia fighters battling for power.

In another mostly Shiite province, Qadisiyah, U.S. and Iraqi troops detained about 70 suspected extremists and seized weapons caches, Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanimy said.

In other developments:

- Iraq's chief prosecutor said a trial would begin "within days" for two former Health Ministry officials accused of letting death squads use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings and siphoning millions of dollars to the Mahdi Army, a case that will test the government's commitment to crack down on Shiite militias.

- The head of Iraq's largest Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, returned home from Iran after undergoing another round of chemotherapy there for lung cancer.

- U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker, said several Iranians who have been detained by U.S. forces in Iraq were being allowed family visits starting Monday.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Army to review Iraq contracts for fraud

A 105mm M1 Abrams tank is shown outside the
Tank-Army Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM)
at the Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Mich., in this Aug. 24, 2005 file photo.

Associated Press Writer
This article was posted to
The Kansas City Star Website
26 October 2007

A team of specially trained investigators will hunker down in an Army office north of Detroit on Monday to begin poring over hundreds of Iraq war contracts in search for rigged awards.

This team of 10 auditors, criminal investigators and acquisition experts are starting with a sampling of the roughly 6,000 contracts worth $2.8 billion issued by an Army office in Kuwait that service officials have identified as a hub of corruption.

The office, located at Camp Arifjan, buys gear and supplies to support U.S. troops as they move in and out of Iraq. The pace of that operation has exploded since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

Based on what the team finds, the probe may expand and the number of Army military and civilian employees accused of accepting bribes and kickbacks could grow, U.S. officials told The Associated Press. Nearly two dozen have been charged so far.

Signs of trouble include contracts continually awarded to vendors without the usual competition and awards that were competed but went to the bidder with the highest price rather than the lowest. A mismatch between the original product to be purchased and what was actually delivered is another red flag.

"Is there anything in there that might indicate to us that there might be some potential fraudulent activity?" Jeffrey Parsons, director of contracting at Army Materiel Command, said in an AP interview. "If there are patterns that we start to identify, then we're going to do further review."

Contracts with significant problems will be forwarded to the Army Audit Agency and the Army Criminal Investigation Command. If there's credible evidence of wrongdoing, the FBI and prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department are called in.

In Warren, Mich., home to a large Army acquisition center, the contracting review team will examine 314 of the Kuwait contracts, each worth more than $25,000 and issued between 2003 and 2006.

In Kuwait, a separate team of 10 at Camp Arifjan is already going through 339 contracts of lesser value and awarded during the same time period, according to Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Both reviews are to be finished before the end of the year.

A probe of 2007 contracts out of Kuwait has been completed; investigators found numerous problems with the office, including inadequate staffing and oversight, high staff turnover, and poor record-keeping.

In the midst of those shortcomings came billions of dollars in war funding, creating an environment ripe for misconduct and malfeasance.

The teams in Michigan and Kuwait will go through paper records and also use data-mining tools to electronically search data stored on computers.

"Do we have contractors with different names but the same address?" Parsons said. "That would cause some suspicion."

Tips from individuals familiar with the contracts are another tool for finding flawed awards, he said.

The contract review process isn't foolproof, however.

If a contracting officer and a vendor are determined to break the rules for personal gain, it can be difficult to pinpoint corruption, according to Parsons, who also is serving as senior adviser to a contracting task force recently established by Army Secretary Pete Geren.

"You can have a contract file that is pristine - all the documentation is there," Parsons said. "Just going through the contract files doesn't necessarily give you 100 percent assurance that something else might not have been going on."

The efforts in Michigan and at Camp Arifjan are parts of a broader inquiry being conducted by the task force, which was formed by Geren following a spike in the number of criminal cases related to the acquisition of gear and supplies for U.S. troops.

Many of the cases stemmed from fraudulent or mismanaged contracts issued by the Kuwait office, prompting Geren to call for a detailed probe of the work done there.

The Army Criminal Investigation Command has 83 ongoing criminal investigations related to contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, according to spokesman Chris Grey.

Grey said 23 individuals have been charged with contract fraud and more than $15 million in bribes has changed hands.

One of the largest cases involves Army Maj. John Cockerham, who is accused of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction. Prosecutors allege Cockerham, along with his wife and sister, took at least $9.6 million in bribes in 2004 and 2005 while Cockerham was a contract officer stationed in Kuwait

From the 6,000 Kuwait contracts flowed 18,000 transactions - numerous orders could be placed on a single contract - for items such as bottled water, laundry services, barracks, food, transportation, and warehouse services.

In 2005, Lt. Gens. Steven Whitcomb and John Vines, then both top Army commanders in Iraq, became so concerned over allegations of corrupt contracting that the Criminal Investigation Command established field offices in Iraq and Kuwait.

Deceiving the checks and balances in the federal procurement system takes careful planning, Frank Anderson, president of the Defense Acquisition University at Fort Belvoir, said in a separate interview.

"You had some smart bad apples," said Anderson, who leads the organization that trains the military's acquisition officials. "It had to be someone who understood the business well enough to figure out how to get around the system."

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Where do we go from here?

First of all, thanks to everyone who has been reading. Looking at the numbers at the end of every day was definitely validating!

Two years ago, I started reproducing columns and reports that I was going to link to in blog posts, because a lot of stuff disappears behind a subscription wall after a certain amount of time elapses. I hate clicking a link and finding the reference now hidden, so this place was born.

Then came "Times Select" which really infuriated me - but I am a print subscriber, so the "mission" morphed into one of access for all.

Now the pay-wall is coming down at midnight, and everyone who wants to read will have unfettered access to the Times columnists. "Mission" accomplished.

Now, I ask you, the thousand or so readers who visit here daily, would you like to see this site, where you can leave comments on articles and columns, and where cookies are not collected, continue?

For the mildly curious, anyone interested in reading my original stuff can find it all over Left Blogsylvania...I write the blog Blue Girl, Red State, I am a front page diarist at Show Me Progress, and I am one of the founding bloggers at both the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus/Caucus Central and my real pride and joy, the important, often-linked, and growing-in-prominence-every-day Watching Those We Chose.

--Blue Girl

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G.O.P.’s Dirty Tricks Begin


Published: September 18, 2007

The folks who gave us the Willie Horton ads, the Swift boat campaign, the purges of black voters in Florida and endless other dirty electoral tricks are at it again.

Like crack addicts confronting the irresistible vial, the evil geniuses of the G.O.P. can’t seem to help themselves. This time — with an eye toward seizing the White House again next year, even if they lose the popular vote — they’re trying to rewrite the rules for the distribution of electoral votes in California.

Under current law, all of California’s 55 electoral votes go to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote statewide. This “winner take all” system is the norm in the U.S. It’s in place in all but two states, Maine and Nebraska, which have just four and five electoral votes, respectively.

Now comes a move, from lawyers with close ties to the Republican Party, to scrap the current system in California and replace it with one that would divide up the electoral votes in a way that would likely give 20 or more of them to the candidate who loses the popular vote in the state.

Democrats fear, correctly, that this maneuver could checkmate even their best efforts to win back the White House next year.

California is widely expected to go Democratic in the presidential election. Its 55 electoral votes are a hefty chunk of the 270 needed to win, and thus crucial to Democratic hopes.

Under this new proposal, the 20 or more electoral votes that would be denied the winner of the statewide vote in California, could well be enough to hand the White House to a Republican candidate who loses the popular vote nationally.

“Their idea is to have California be the only big state to do this,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who is supporting Senator Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. “If the Republicans can poach 20 electoral votes from the Democrats in California, that’s the same as winning all the electoral votes in Ohio. You’re basically giving them the election.”

The effort to change the way Californians vote for president has been cloaked in the typically deceptive garb that the G.O.P. pulls out for its underhanded maneuvering. The proposal has been dubbed the “Presidential Election Reform Act.” It is being led by Thomas Hiltachk of Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk, a law firm that has represented both the state Republican Party and G.O.P. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to The Associated Press, the firm was also linked to a political committee, largely funded by Bob Perry, that targeted Democratic candidates in 2006. Mr. Perry, a longtime supporter of George W. Bush, contributed millions of dollars to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose intense and deceptive campaign in 2004 was so damaging to the candidacy of John Kerry.

This crowd is no more interested in genuine electoral reform than Britney Spears is.

Mr. Hiltachk and his operatives are trying to gather enough signatures to get their proposal before the voters as a California ballot initiative next June. If they succeed, and the voters approve the initiative, the rules for apportioning the state’s electoral votes would be changed for the 2008 presidential election.

Instead of “winner take all,” 53 of the state’s 55 electoral votes would be apportioned according to the winner of the presidential popular vote in each of the state’s 53 Congressional districts. A single vote would be awarded to the winner in each district. (The other two votes would still go to the statewide winner.)

John Kerry defeated George W. Bush in California in 2004 and collected all of the state’s electoral votes. But Mr. Bush won the popular vote in 22 of the state’s Congressional districts. If this proposed system had been in effect, 22 electoral votes would have been withheld from Mr. Kerry and given to Mr. Bush.

“This clearly is a power grab by the Republican Party,” said John Travis, a longtime political science professor at Humboldt State University in California. Mr. Travis believes that while there may be problems with the Electoral College system, this is not the way to fix it.

“This is simply a way for the Republicans to manipulate California’s electoral votes to their advantage,” he said.

Democrats do not have perfectly clean hands when it comes to this sort of thing. A similar effort by Democrats in North Carolina was scrapped at the insistence of national party leaders, and not a moment too soon.

What the Democrats need to do now is make sure that California voters understand that they are the latest targeted pawns in the G.O.P.’s longstanding efforts to undermine not just the Democrats but democracy itself.

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Hillary Clinton, From Revolution to Evolution


Published: September 18, 2007

Health care reform isn’t only about covering the uninsured. It’s about reorganizing one-seventh of the U.S. economy. It’s the issue that will redefine the role of government in the 21st century. So when I spoke with Hillary Clinton yesterday, I asked what her newly unveiled plan revealed about her political philosophy.

The word she kept coming back to was “partnerships.” She described an array of different social entities — individuals, the federal government, insurance companies, doctors and hospitals — coming together and exercising shared responsibility for creating a better system.

It began to sound like a health care loya jirga — indicative of the political vision that has marked so much of her thinking over the years. When some politicians are asked to describe systems that really work, they think of the competitive marketplace. Others think of political combat — good defeating evil. But Clinton, at her most hopeful moments, is a communitarian. When she’s asked to describe a system that works, she describes diverse people coming together around a big table to reach a consensus.

That’s the sort of national community her plan is supposed to foster and that’s the sort of process she used to create it. Clinton is hard to interview because her answers are often just chunks of her stump speeches, but I thought I detected real warmth when she described the way she and her staff came up with the plan.

“It was an exhilarating process!” she enthused, describing how all sorts of different people came together to talk through issues. “There were countless meetings,” she remembered fondly, “with business leaders who were surprised to find themselves sitting next to me” and a long parade of academics, nurses, experts and friends.

As she spoke, memories of the Clinton years wafted through my head — government by seminar running into the late hours. But as she will tell you (before you even have a chance to ask), she has learned a lot since the early 1990s, and while the conversations may still be endless, they are also more restrained.

And it’s true. The plan she unveiled yesterday is much simpler than the one she came up with 14 years ago. Back then, she and her staff were like technocratic engineers, one of her advisers told me, trying to patch every last gap in their edifice. This time they were content to leave the details of the plan to Congress.

Last time, they threatened people who were satisfied with their health coverage. This time they reassure them that nothing will change. Last time, they were out of touch with the American values of choice and individual freedom. This time they emphasize those values every chance they get, never seriously considering a Canadian-style single-payer system.

This time the change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The private insurance/employer-based system will still remain the heart and soul of the social contract — it’s just that more people will be given tax credits so they can afford to buy in.

The Clinton plan makes life politically difficult for Mitt Romney. She relies on an individual insurance mandate. So does his plan in Massachusetts. The Clinton plan also takes the brave step of taxing the wealthy for gold-plated health care benefits — a reform that almost every Republican health expert endorses. Meanwhile, the plan seems to have driven John Edwards around the bend. The statement he issued yesterday qualifies as the shrillest statement issued by a major presidential candidate this year.

But the Clinton plan does have the weaknesses of the communitarian approach. She creates a magic circle of companies, providers, government entities, all interlocked in a system to provide health security. But there will still be forces outside the magic circle that will be adapting and innovating in ways that might upset the plan.

First, there will be state governments. One of the virtues of welfare reform is that while the national government set certain goals, it was up to the states to innovate and compete to reach them. Clinton says she’s not averse to creative solutions from the states, but she doubts that they’ll be able to lead the way since they rely on money from Washington. Hers is not a decentralized, federal approach.

Then, there are the insurance companies, the designated bêtes noires of her plan. They are commanded to insure everybody, but they’ll probably be extremely creative in finding ways to not insure high-risk people who will cost them money.

Then there are patients. The Clinton plan aims to lower health care costs through a variety of measures. But if the cost of an M.R.I. comes down, people will just want more of them. Americans spend more on computers as those machines get more efficient.

Finally, there is posterity. Our children face a gigantic tidal wave of debt as a result of our current health care system. If health care reform doesn’t fundamentally adjust benefits while using available tax increases to help the uninsured, then the system will still be unaffordable in the long run.

Hillary Clinton’s health care plan is a huge step forward from 1993. It’s better than the G.O.P. candidates’ plans (which don’t exist). But there are still complexities in the health care system that no loya jirga, no matter how smart, can fully anticipate and control.

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Becoming an American Citizen, the Hardest Way

Maria Alcántara, center, and her daughter Fredelinda Peña, in striped sweater,
took the citizenship oath on Monday for Ms. Alcántara’s son,
Cpl. Juan Alcántara,
who died in Iraq.
Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Published: September 18, 2007

On an August day when some Iraqi’s homemade bomb tore through him, Cpl. Juan Mariel Alcántara became an American. He never got to appreciate the honor.

A little-discussed detail of this war is that some of those fighting in it as soldiers of the United States are not American citizens. Over all, about 21,000 noncitizens are serving in this country’s armed forces, the Defense Department says.

Until death claimed him on Aug. 6, one of them was Corporal Alcántara of the United States Army.

He did not live long enough to acquire a richly textured biography. He was born in the Dominican Republic, reared in Washington Heights. He was 22 when the bomb — an improvised explosive device, in military-speak — ended his life and the lives of three fellow soldiers from the Second Infantry Division while they searched a house in Baquba, north of Baghdad.

At 22, Corporal Alcántara was old enough to have talked about going to college and maybe becoming a New York police officer, old enough to have a fiancée, old enough to have fathered a baby girl he never saw, Jaylani, 6 weeks old when he was killed. He was old enough, too, to have sought American citizenship.

Every year, thousands of noncitizen soldiers do that, through an accelerated naturalization process offered to those who put themselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us can go about our lives untouched by war. And every year, some of those soldiers become citizens only after they have literally been wrapped in the flag.

No other war has produced anywhere near as many posthumous citizens as this one, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Corporal Alcántara is the latest, No. 103. He is the 12th from New York, an honor roll that reflects today’s city: 10 men and 2 women born in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Myanmar and Nigeria.

The Americanization of Juan Alcántara came at his family’s request. Representative Charles B. Rangel of Manhattan helped shepherd the application through the bureaucracy in a matter of days. Officially, the corporal was declared an American from the day he died.

There was a formal ceremony yesterday in the colonnaded Great Hall of City College of New York. Corporal Alcántara’s relatives accepted his certificate of posthumous citizenship. They sat somberly in a front row: his mother, his two sisters and his fiancée, Sayonara Lopez, who fed Jaylani from a bottle.

Like scores of others filling the rows behind them, they carried small American flags. Yesterday was Citizenship Day across the country, a celebratory day for newly minted Americans. In the vaulted majesty of the Great Hall, used on occasion for such ceremonies, 242 people from 51 countries took the oath of citizenship. They were men and women like Lance Whitely, 32, formerly of Jamaica, now of the Bronx. “It’s everybody’s dream to become an American citizen,” he said before the ceremony began.

The new citizens listened to speeches on America’s grandeur and watched a large-screen video of President Bush offering congratulations.

Mr. Rangel, a critic of the Iraq war, left politics at the door. He spoke of a country that is hardly perfect but is ever working to make itself better. Once a combat soldier himself, part of the same Second Infantry Division during the Korean War, he talked about Corporal Alcántara’s sacrifice and America’s debt to him.

Throughout, the Alcántara family sat disconsolately. They applauded with the others and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and waved their little flags. But their hearts were elsewhere.

Maria Alcántara, the soldier’s mother, is clearly a woman of stricken soul. She holds Mr. Bush responsible for her son’s death. Corporal Alcántara’s Iraq duty was supposed to have ended on June 28, a day before his daughter was born. But his tour was extended as part of the president’s troop “surge.”

“If my son had been allowed to return, he would be alive,” Ms. Alcántara said in Spanish, “and he” — meaning the president — “is guilty.”

“My happiness, my everything, is gone,” she said.

The mother, who is not an American citizen, also spoke of being grateful for her son’s naturalization. Still, gratitude does not bring peace of mind, said one of her daughters, Fredelinda Peña. “It’s not a happy moment,” Ms. Peña said.

Unlike others on this day of celebration, the family wiped away tears. When the president’s image appeared on the screen, Ms. Alcántara kept her head down. She could not bring herself to look at the man who she felt was the reason her son did not come home.


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Mangini Risks Fury of Scorned Hoodie


Published: September 18, 2007

There is Coach Hoodie, and then there is Coach Hoodwink.

Coach Hoodie is the PatriotsBill Belichick. He answers with growls, is hardwired to be ruthless, and would have lost a congeniality contest to the dearly departed Leona Helmsley. He comes as is: obsessive, cold, and brazen enough to have cheated with his video spy games out in the open of a sideline.

Coach Hoodwink is the Jets’ Eric Mangini (pictured). He replies to questions in his library voice, visits Sesame Street in his downtime and readily reveals his soft, fatherly side. He comes off as duplicitous: paranoid, brutal, and nakedly ambitious enough to have double-crossed the organization that nurtured his career.

Mangini didn’t just flip on Belichick, costing his former mentor a celebrated image that has been reflected in a shelf-full of Lombardi Trophies, as well as a $500,000 fine and a prime draft pick. He did more. He also humiliated the respected Patriots owner and league power player Robert K. Kraft.

That sin has left Mangini toxic to some team executives. After all, would you trust him? Is there anyone — a player, assistant, general manager, owner or mascot — that he wouldn’t betray in a pinch?

Bad karma can be a career killer. It took Ted Nolan years to land his current gig as the coach of the Islanders after he was blackballed, in part because he was labeled a traitor of management during his Sabres days.

False righteousness can boomerang. The track coach Trevor Graham once said he anonymously mailed the syringe that started the Balco circus in an effort to clean up the sport, but a grand jury witness told a different tale: He did it to implicate athletes and coaches that his runners competed against. Graham is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to federal agents about the distribution of performance-enhancing drugs.

Videogate isn’t a criminal issue — it’s more of a punch line by now — but it does cast shadows on the league’s integrity.

There is no doubt Belichick’s video trickery was wrong, hubristic and a below-the-belt maneuver of reckless proportion. Commissioner Roger Goodell — the N.F.L.’s overtaxed moral warden — was right in delivering a punitive blow as a scare tactic to a league full of teams that seek a competitive edge by tapping into their inner MacGyvers. Even Kraft understood Goodell’s logic, even if it took him a while.

“I must tell you I was quite upset and perturbed when I saw the penalty, because I didn’t think that the incident deserved this kind of punishment,” Kraft told NBC on Sunday night. “Over the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking about it and have cooled down. I realized he wasn’t just sending a message to the New England Patriots, he was sending it to all 32 teams.”

Belichick wasn’t alone in this race to the bottom of sports ethics. Mangini was very likely, at one point in his Patriot days, the spy who loved Hoodie.

How will we ever know? Maybe the lens will be the judge. In order to eliminate any competitive advantage Belichick might have tucked away in his film files, the Patriots said yesterday that they would comply with Goodell’s request to provide their videotape archive.

How about popcorn and a movie with Goodell? Imagine what’s on those old tapes. Is that Mangini holding the Cheat Cam in 2004? Is that Mangini wiretapping Bill Parcells’s headset in 2003?

A question to Jets officials yesterday about Mangini’s possible role in New England’s spy ring was greeted with the organization mantra: “It’s a league matter.”

The matter has revealed more about Mangini than Belichick. Already, Mangini was known for attempting to raid the Patriots’ cupboards upon his exit in January 2006. He slithered around Foxborough as if he were pilfering Whoville, trying to lift players, assistants and secretaries.

He wanted everything but the picture hooks on the walls. He also wanted to claim Belichick’s mind as his own intellectual property.

But who knew how far he would go for a gotcha of Belichick? Maybe Mangini’s betrayal was a little something he learned from Belichick’s school of calculated callousness. In a way, the two almost deserve each other. Someday, Belichick and Mangini may look up and realize teams can win — and play in Super Bowls — on the strength of a coach’s humanity, not his ability to humiliate.

Belichick is who he is. Mangini is the one with an identity crisis. He wants to portray himself as the anti-Bill — oozing charm when talking family values — and yet he longs to be Hoodie, to be known as wickedly smart.

Calling out his mentor lacked thought, though. It is not the wisest idea to mess with the N.F.L.’s version of Zeus. The wisdom of Mangini’s decision to flip Bill will play out all season — and maybe beyond. So far, it’s Coach Hoodie, 2-0; and Coach Hoodwink, 0-2.


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The Opinionator: 17 September 2007

Ah, what must we Americans do to tamp down raging French bellicosity?

The world should ‘prepare for war’ with Iran, the French foreign minister has said, significantly escalating tensions over the country’s nuclear program,” reports The Telegraph of London,

“Bernard Kouchner said that while ‘we must negotiate right to the end’ with Iran, if Teheran possessed an atomic weapon it would represent ‘a real danger for the whole world.’ ”

The Dutch blogger Michael van der Galiën is pleased:

One gets the impression that France is finding its old imperial soul back. No, I don’t favor Europe colonizing the world once again, but I do favor a strong and active Europe. We have lived too long in our Kantian paradise, pretending that the entire world is like us. The Americans understand much better that while Europe may live in its Kantian paradise, the world still lives according to the Hobbesian law: it’s all about power. Power is not something to be feared, but to be [pursued] and used.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy magazine’s Passport blog, however, thinks the top man at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, may supply a calming influence. He writes:

I think we know what side of the burgeoning “bomb Iran” discussion Bob Gates is on. Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, who asked about comments by Gen. David Petraeus about Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases thought to be supplying arms to Shiite militants in Iraq, the U.S. secretary of defense indicated that diplomacy remains the Bush administration’s preferred approach to the Islamic Republic.

That Michael Mukasey">Oh, That Michael Mukasey

Have we had a senatorial change of heart? Ed Morrissey at Captain’s Quarters cites a New York Sun article reporting that Senator Chuck Schumer, head of the judiciary committee, may not support attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey. “Schumer, who had openly championed Mukasey as a ‘consensus candidate’ to replace Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General,” Morissey writes, “suddenly appears unsure.” He continues:

Just two years ago, Schumer pushed Mukasey as a contender for the William Rehnquist seat on the Supreme Court. The liberal group Alliance for Justice joined him in endorsing Mukasey as an alternative to John Roberts …. Bush has managed to strip Schumer of his last pretenses of fairness and honesty, and the Alliance for Justice may be next. Uncle Chuck couldn’t give a fig for “consensus.” He used Mukasey as a club to beat Bush two years ago… Schumer just had his bluff called, and one can expect that the confirmation hearings will feature several Republican committee members read into the record over and over again Schumer’s endorsement of Mukasey for the lifetime appointment.

Jeralynn Merritt at TalkLeft is also bemused:

What’s up with Sen. Charles Schumer? First he touts Mukasey to Bush for both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s position, and now he’s promising a tough confirmation hearing and saying Judge Mukasey only has ‘potential’ to be a consensus nominee? … Maybe he should have ascertained the Judge’s positions on these issues before he recommended him for the job.

Merritt may be a proud liberal, but she seems satisfied by the White House choice: “[A]nyone Bush picks for A.G. is going to be a conservative,” she points out. “Mukasey has bucked the government in several cases, and I’ve found nothing to suggest he will be the administration’s water boy. Mukasey is a far better pick than Ted Olson or, for that matter, a career prosecutor who grew up under Ashcroft and Gonzales.”

Note: Jamie Heller at the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog has found some interesting excerpts from articles Mukasey wrote for the Columbia Spectator in the early 1960’s


Judging Mukasey

After much speculation that conservative hero and liberal bete noir Ted Olson would be tabbed to replace Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, it seems the Bush administration has chosen a nominee with a far lower profile: Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge from New York who has presided over several high-profile terrorism trials.

Deven Desai, an assistant professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, notes that “Judge Mukasey has a curious background.” Writing at Concurring Opinions, Desai continues:

He was a federal prosecutor with Rudy Giuliani and has ties to his campaign, served 19 years on the federal bench, and according to some interviewed by the Washington Post, is not well-known or likely to be favored among conservatives. Perhaps his rejection of the claim that Jose Padilla could be held indefinitely as an enemy combatant, which resulted in the case being transferred to South Carolina, upset some folks. Still as the Post notes, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard has written an editorial defending the choice.

Kristol suggests that even though Judge Mukasey denied the government’s motion in Padilla’s case he will be acceptable to conservatives. …

I can’t say I know enough about the man at this point. As Kristol posited, the right may be choosing someone who will not be challenged (Sen. Schumer of New York seems to like the choice) and do little harm from the right’s view in the year and a quarter left in this administration’s term.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Sad Alan’s Lament


Published: September 17, 2007

When President Bush first took office, it seemed unlikely that he would succeed in getting his proposed tax cuts enacted. The questionable nature of his installation in the White House seemed to leave him in a weak political position, while the Senate was evenly balanced between the parties. It was hard to see how a huge, controversial tax cut, which delivered most of its benefits to a wealthy elite, could get through Congress.

Then Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, testified before the Senate Budget Committee.

Until then Mr. Greenspan had presented himself as the voice of fiscal responsibility, warning the Clinton administration not to endanger its hard-won budget surpluses. But now Republicans held the White House, and the Greenspan who appeared before the Budget Committee was a very different man.

Suddenly, his greatest concern — the “emerging key fiscal policy need,” he told Congress — was to avert the threat that the federal government might actually pay off all its debt. To avoid this awful outcome, he advocated tax cuts. And the floodgates were opened.

As it turns out, Mr. Greenspan’s fears that the federal government would quickly pay off its debt were, shall we say, exaggerated. And Mr. Greenspan has just published a book in which he castigates the Bush administration for its fiscal irresponsibility.

Well, I’m sorry, but that criticism comes six years late and a trillion dollars short.

Mr. Greenspan now says that he didn’t mean to give the Bush tax cuts a green light, and that he was surprised at the political reaction to his remarks. There were, indeed, rumors at the time — which Mr. Greenspan now says were true — that the Fed chairman was upset about the response to his initial statement.

But the fact is that if Mr. Greenspan wasn’t intending to lend crucial support to the Bush tax cuts, he had ample opportunity to set the record straight when it could have made a difference.

His first big chance to clarify himself came a few weeks after that initial testimony, when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Here’s what I wrote following that appearance: “Mr. Greenspan’s performance yesterday, in his first official testimony since he let the genie out of the bottle, was a profile in cowardice. Again and again he was offered the opportunity to say something that would help rein in runaway tax-cutting; each time he evaded the question, often replying by reading from his own previous testimony. He declared once again that he was speaking only for himself, thus granting himself leeway to pronounce on subjects far afield of his role as Federal Reserve chairman. But when pressed on the crucial question of whether the huge tax cuts that now seem inevitable are too large, he said it was inappropriate for him to comment on particular proposals.

“In short, Mr. Greenspan defined the rules of the game in a way that allows him to intervene as he likes in the political debate, but to retreat behind the veil of his office whenever anyone tries to hold him accountable for the results of those interventions.”

I received an irate phone call from Mr. Greenspan after that article, in which he demanded to know what he had said that was wrong. In his book, he claims that Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, was stumped by that question. That’s hard to believe, because I certainly wasn’t: Mr. Greenspan’s argument for tax cuts was contorted and in places self-contradictory, not to mention based on budget projections that everyone knew, even then, were wildly overoptimistic.

If anyone had doubts about Mr. Greenspan’s determination not to inconvenience the Bush administration, those doubts were resolved two years later, when the administration proposed another round of tax cuts, even though the budget was now deep in deficit. And guess what? The former high priest of fiscal responsibility did not object.

And in 2004 he expressed support for making the Bush tax cuts permanent — remember, these are the tax cuts he now says he didn’t endorse — and argued that the budget should be balanced with cuts in entitlement spending, including Social Security benefits, instead. Of course, back in 2001 he specifically assured Congress that cutting taxes would not threaten Social Security.

In retrospect, Mr. Greenspan’s moral collapse in 2001 was a portent. It foreshadowed the way many people in the foreign policy community would put their critical faculties on hold and support the invasion of Iraq, despite ample evidence that it was a really bad idea.

And like enthusiastic war supporters who have started describing themselves as war critics now that the Iraq venture has gone wrong, Mr. Greenspan has started portraying himself as a critic of administration fiscal irresponsibility now that President Bush has become deeply unpopular and Democrats control Congress.

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The Nordic Option

Published: September 17, 2007


Think Sweden and what comes to mind is probably not a youthful finance minister, with his long dark hair in a ponytail and a gold ring through his left ear, explaining that his ambition is to make it “more profitable to work” than to sit around on welfare.

But Anders Borg, 39, poster boy of the “New Moderates” who have put the long-governing Social Democrats out of office, does just that, and when the question of his coiffure comes up, the retort is swift: “This is northern Europe, a modern society. Your public deficit or surplus is more important than your hairstyle.”

Right. Sweden, of course, has a surplus that the deficit-ridden United States can only envy, as well as a knack for staying out of wars that borders on the obscene. It’s that reasonable, semi-socialist, Volvo-driving, super-taxed Nordic place that gave the world Ikea’s cheap furniture and Bergman’s dissection of marriage.

Or is it? The ponytailed finance minister — a world first? — is just one sign that something funky is up in the Swedish woods. A government that includes the country’s first black, avowedly gay and bisexual ministers (that’s three distinct people) has set about a radical reform of the generous welfare state that defined the Swedish condition.

In doing so, it has adopted a few core principles. It should be more profitable to work than not to work. Welfare should mean caring for people who cannot care for themselves. Unemployment insurance should be adjustment insurance rather than an open-ended sinecure. Employers should be encouraged to hire through lower taxes.

Hardly rocket science, you might say, but all of this has proved radical enough to make “systemskifte,” or “system shift,” the buzzword in Sweden. The term might be applied to much of northern Europe, where in recent years the welfare state has been upended even as its essence has been preserved.

Europe, at peace and undivided, has not been foremost on the American mind of late. Old images of “Eurosclerosis” — the vacationing worker (or non-worker) stripped of initiative by an overbearing nanny state — have tended to endure. But in countries including Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and to some degree Germany, welfare has ceded to what Borg calls “work-fair.”

The transformation has brought streamlined state sectors; more flexible labor markets; a focus on social fairness through improved education and health care rather than through attempts at income redistribution via high taxes; a restored work ethic (“Make Work Pay” is a Swedish government slogan); and a rediscovery of entrepreneurship and choice.

“Our principle is you should show solidarity with people who have problems for a space in their lives, but they should not be supported permanently by the welfare state,” Tobias Billstrom, the migration minister, says.

Billstrom is all of 33 and sports multicolored buttons on his shirt. He’s a backer of the reforms because Sweden doesn’t want the immigrants pouring into the country to think collecting subsidies and working on the black market are the Swedish way.

Sweden has learned that a rigid labor market is a devastating form of exclusion (France, take note). Its aging population, like others in Europe, needs immigrants to find jobs and so pay the taxes that will fund pensions into the future.

By slashing unemployment benefits, making it easier and cheaper to hire, offering tax credits to employers taking on people who have been jobless for a long time, and providing tax incentives to lure domestic jobs out the black market, Sweden has cut unemployment to 4.4 percent, or about half the French rate.

Growth in 2007 of 3.2 percent will be among the highest in Europe and handily top the U.S rate. Surpluses keep accumulating. All nine million Swedes have health insurance, while 47 million Americans, or the equivalent of five Swedens, do not. And the school system delivers high standards.

Of course, Sweden doesn’t have the world to run, and a top personal income tax rate of 56 percent would make Americans pale. Still, Sweden’s new Nordic model merits attention.

“My idea,” Borg says, “is to combine the entrepreneurial spirit of America with the welfare of Sweden. That’s my ideal world: the creative impulse and restructured welfare. The lowest quarter of our population is well educated. The United States could learn from that.”

It could indeed. Northern Europe has looked to America for some of its reforms. America, Iraq-obsessed, has not looked to a changing Europe. A stagnating middle class, losing jobs and health insurance, holds the key to victory for Democratic candidates next year if they can suggest strong programs for better education and universal health care.

A stop in funky Stockholm is in order for Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama.

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Restoring American Justice

Published: September 17, 2007

In 2006, acting in reckless haste before an election, 65 senators and 250 members of the House defied the Constitution, endangered the safety of American soldiers and hurt the nation’s global reputation by passing the Military Commissions Act. The law created a separate, substandard and clearly unconstitutional system of trial and punishment for foreigners. This week Congress has a chance to begin fixing that grievous mistake.

The Senate is expected to consider a measure that would reverse one of the worst aspects of the 2006 law — the suspension of the right of habeas corpus, the ancient principle that no governing power may lock people up without the chance for a hearing in a court of law.

The protection from arbitrary arrest, embedded in the Magna Carta and in the Constitution of the United States, is one of the most powerful weapons against tyranny in democracy’s arsenal. Before President Bush, only one American president suspended habeas corpus — Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War — and the Supreme Court duly struck down that arrogation of power.

In 2004, the Supreme Court again affirmed habeas corpus, declaring that Mr. Bush had no right to revoke the rules of civilized justice at his whim for hundreds of foreigners he declared “illegal enemy combatants.” But Mr. Bush was determined to avoid judicial scrutiny of the extralegal system of prisons he created after the Sept. 11 attacks. With the help of his allies on Capitol Hill, he railroaded the habeas corpus suspension through the Republican-controlled Congress.

The administration’s disinformation machine portrayed the debate as a fight between tough-minded conservatives who wanted to defeat terrorism and addled liberals who would coddle the worst kinds of criminals. It was nothing of the kind.

There is nothing conservative about expressing contempt for the Constitution by denying judicial procedure to prisoners who happen not to be Americans. A long list of conservatives, including Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman; David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; and William Sessions, a former federal judge and F.B.I. director under the first President Bush, support the reinstatement of habeas corpus for the prisoners of the so-called war on terror.

This issue has nothing to do, either, with coddling criminals. Many, perhaps a majority, of the men subjected to indefinite summary detention at Guantánamo Bay were not guilty of any crime. Beyond that, American justice rests on the principle that the only way to protect the innocent is to treat everyone equally under the law. The argument by Mr. Bush’s supporters that Guantánamo prisoners would clog the courts with appeals is specious.

There are many other things deeply wrong with the Military Commissions Act, which established military tribunals to try any foreigner that Mr. Bush labels an illegal combatant. It also allowed the introduction of evidence tainted by coercion and endorsed “combatant status review tribunals,” kangaroo courts in Guantánamo Bay that declare prisoners enemy combatants without a real hearing or reliable evidence.

All of those issues must be addressed, speedily, by Congress, but restoring habeas corpus would be a good first step. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, must ensure a vote on the habeas corpus restoration measure sponsored by Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Arlen Specter, its ranking Republican.

It is good to see the effort led by Mr. Specter, who as chairman of the committee before the 2006 election shepherded the military tribunal law through Congress at the behest of the White House. We hope similar principle will be on display by the other Republican and Democratic senators and representatives who betrayed the Constitution and the democracy they were sworn to defend by voting for that law.

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On the Ground

Josh Ruxin is a Columbia University expert on public health who has spent the last couple of years living in Rwanda. He’s an unusual mix of academic expert and mud-between-the-toes aid worker.

The RuxinsThe Ruxins

My daughter Maya was born last Friday at 2 a.m. in San Francisco. Maybe I should blame the acute sleep deprivation I’m enduring (yes, thank you, I know I don’t have to get up for every feeding, but I’m doing it anyway), but I am finding fatherhood to be staggeringly hard work. Even with a doting family, electricity, running water, access to quality health care, lactation consultants, an array of parenting books and whatever else we need to ensure our child’s well-being, doing a halfway passable job of parenting requires enormous reservoirs of energy. (Mom, Dad: Respect.)

The past few sleepless days have heightened my appreciation of the daily achievements of the billions of parents who make do without the resources my wife and I are enjoying during our time back in San Francisco. For more than a decade now, my work has brought me into daily contact with parents who are not only among the world’s poorest, but commonly managing four, six, even nine children. Far removed from the luxury of worrying about early stage developmental learning techniques, they’re concerned with just keeping their overflowing household alive with resources too meager to support even a small family.

How do they cope? From my rocking chair here amid the abundance and safety (give or take an earthquake or two) of California, it’s hard to imagine.

In the wee hours, between feeding times, my mind has been dwelling on family planning. (Irony or consequence? You decide.) I wonder how Rwanda can get ahead – economically and educationally — without slowing its population growth. Happily, the Rwandan Government appears to be taking the issue increasingly seriously. (Check out Stephen Kinzer’s revealing piece in The New York Times and his superb analysis of Rwanda in The New York Review of Books).

Even in predominantly Catholic Rwanda, policy makers are focusing on population demographics. In 1994, roughly 15 percent of Rwanda’s population was slaughtered, and yet since then Rwanda’s high population growth has already brought its overall population to levels notably higher than before the genocide.

Today, the nation has one of the highest population densities in the world and an average per capita annual income of only $280. Only about 10 percent
of women utilize modern family planning methods. The average Rwandan woman gives birth to six children – nearly three times the United States rate – and at current rates, Rwanda’s population of 9.7 million will double by about 2032.

With more than 90 percent of the population reliant on agriculture for their livelihoods, the ramifications are staggering. There are already
approximately three people per arable acre, and even with advanced agricultural techniques there is scarcely adequate land remaining to produce subsistence levels of food. A few months ago, a 44-year-old woman came to one of the health centers that my programs support to give birth to her ninth child. In tears after the birth, she said that she had no way to feed any of her children.

Rwanda is fast becoming a perfect Malthusian storm: limitations of food productivity are resulting in stunted growth in kids and, in severe instances, starvation. As a result, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has announced that he is preparing a major initiative to reduce Rwanda’s birth rate by at least half. The model for Rwanda, in this case, comes from the Far East – Thailand in particular.

Between 1965 and 1990, Thailand’s fertility rate dropped from Rwandese levels to roughly United States levels (about two births per woman), and during the same period its per capita income – a crucial factor in improving health care – tripled. The bedrock of Thailand’s success is just what Rwanda is considering today: universal access to free birth control methods; training of health care workers in every setting to provide these options; and a national advocacy campaign in support of access to family planning services.

All of us in the rich world have a stake in ensuring that the children in the poorest countries have the same opportunity to develop and thrive as
our children do. The future families of Rwanda would best be served if their meager assets could be spent nurturing a few children, rather than being forced to watch their many children go hungry and stay poor.

As I look at Maya’s newborn face, and begin to sense the extent to which she already has me wrapped around her little one-inch pinky, I’m more deeply aware of the grief parents anywhere must feel when they can’t support their families. I’m also more acutely conscious, having felt the tug on my parental heartstrings, that every Rwandan child – every child for that matter — deserves a running start at having a quality life.

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Firefighter Was Down, but Not Ready to Give Up


Published: September 16, 2007


The first fall should have been the catastrophe.

Dino Ferraro was at a fire in a largely abandoned clock factory in 1989 when he fell from a fully extended aerial ladder 25 feet to the concrete below, landing on his left shoulder. A different angle, he could have been paralyzed or killed. As it was, small miracle, he hit the ground and bounced up like a rubber ball. He separated the shoulder and was out for two and a half months, but lived to fight fires another day.

But you get to dodge only so many bullets. He didn’t dodge any on Sept. 23, 2000, when he came to work a little early and took a call he would have missed had he showed up five minutes later. This time he was on a ladder breaking open second-floor windows at a bedroom fire in a housing project.

The firefighters inside, not seeing him through the smoke, blasted him with a hose shooting out water at 150 pounds per square inch of pressure. He fell only 12 feet, but when a firefighter at the bottom of the ladder tried to break the fall, Mr. Ferraro landed squarely on the heel of his right foot. “When they pulled off the boot, it looked like scrambled eggs,” Mr. Ferraro said. He suffered what is called a pilon fracture. It is also known as a hammer fracture, which tells you all you need to know.

“They looked at the ankle and told me it was all over,” Mr. Ferraro, 48, recalled. “They told me before the surgery, they told me after the surgery, they probably told me during the surgery, that I was all done with fighting fires. They said there was just no way.”

There were operations, a steel plate and 13 screws in his leg, casts, boots and therapy sessions, all intended to allow him to walk normally, without pain. None were very successful. And when the ankle joint ended up 20 degrees out of alignment, the right leg an inch shorter than the left, that looked like the best that could be done.

But Mr. Ferraro, who at first wanted to become a state trooper but then caught the firehouse bug, wasn’t content with limping around, and, stubbornly, he wasn’t resigned to being a former firefighter, living on disability payments at the impeccably neat split raised ranch he shares with his wife, Annette. He wanted to walk normally. And he wanted to climb ladders, walk on roofs, smash gashes in burning buildings, fight fires.

So through his wife’s contacts as a radiology technician, he began looking for more options. In October 2002 that took him to the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and Dr. S. Robert Rozbruch, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the hospital’s limb lengthening and deformity service, who decided that Mr. Ferraro’s case might not be so hopeless, after all. He could see that in 95 percent of cases it would be a career-ending injury. But between the advances in orthopedics and Mr. Ferraro’s dogged insistence on going back to work, he figured it was worth a shot.

So, using an Ilizarov frame, a scaffold around the leg that looks a bit like a medieval torture device, his treatment consisted of two main elements — returning the ankle joint to something near its normal alignment and using the body’s ability to grow new bone to lengthen the leg to where it had been before the accident. The frame was put on in February 2003. It was removed that July.

After almost a year of therapy, Mr. Ferraro thought it was time to see how close he was to where he wanted to be. He took out his ladder and climbed to the top of his house with its steep-pitched roof. Then several times a week he clambered over its eaves and ridges, first without his gear, then in his heavy firefighter’s outfit.

On June 8, 2005, he was allowed to return to work as a firefighter, and he has been there ever since, back at the New Haven Fire Department’s East Battalion, Truck 3 at the Lombard Street station, where he began work 21 years ago.

This past week all the terrible images came flooding back, of the firefighters rushing into the burning towers, the almost unfathomable dedication, the miracles of bravery, medicine, heart and soul that got people through that week six years ago. Mr. Ferraro marvels and shudders like everyone else about what people did on 9/11. But, though he wouldn’t make any comparisons, he is a reminder of how, in far, far smaller ways, those miracles play out in daily life, too.

“It’s just something in my blood,” he said. “I climb ladders. I walk on roofs. I fight fires. I wasn’t really out to prove anything. I just figured I was 41 years old, and that was too young to quit.”


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Stop Worrying, and Learn to Love the Yanks


Published: September 16, 2007


In a version of the '80s alternative band The Replacements, a young trio of rockin' pitchers has arrived to push out the cranky, arrogant and gluttonous tenets of Yankee loathing.

Go ahead and despise Planet Pinstripe if you must because the franchise of excess has mistake money to absorb debacles like Carl Pavano or because A-Rod is forever precious. Go ahead and sneer at Yankee Inc., because Boss revulsion is part of your DNA or because you'd rather gnaw your arm off than watch the miracle comeback the Yankees produced against Boston on Friday night.

Otherwise, Yankee hate seems so synthetic, so manufactured. Really, you have to force it when the Boss is only venomous in caricature as he slip-slides away into the background.

Odious is so yesterday now that the Yankees' sleepless crossing guard, Brian Cashman, is directing decisions, now that his boy band of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain has arrived as cheap, blissful and innocent members of the team's Happy Meal crowd.

They are so cute at this age — before hubris or entitlement or big money kicks in. They come without baggage or attitude or mercenary labels. They come as a refreshing option to the organization's villainous past. Not long ago, the Yankees possessed a crotchety AARP club of antisocial pitchers who could stare holes — or punch holes — into cinder block walls. The oppressive Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson lorded dark clouds over everyone.

Now, there is the sound of children laughing — or at least 20-somethings having a blast.

"I'm excited about any trip; I'm like a kid in a candy store," Chamberlain said Friday after his first tour of Fenway Park. "I've walked around a little bit. You've got to step back and take it all in."

Among the youth crew, Chamberlain is the overnight sensation of mythic proportions who has managed to keep his luminary status from going Britney Spears.

"We're impressed with Joba, how he has handled everything," Cashman said. "That's part of someone's development, not just the physical side on the field, but how they're doing off the field. And we'll take great care to make sure he stays balanced."

Joba Rule No. 1: Bubble Wrap his Yankee arm from harm. Joba Rule No. 54: Bubble Wrap him from the Manhattan scene.

"A lot of times, as you've seen, the extra attention can go to someone's head and make them someone they prefer not to be," Cashman said. "You see that in pop stars. We don't want that."

They have enough leftover divas, if only in reputation. Mike Mussina, the meticulous pitcher of prickly fits, has been humbled a bit as he battles for his spot in the rotation. Roger Clemens, months removed from his Shakespearean balcony scene, doesn't generate the same antipathy for being a luxury-item bust given the way his body has been breaking down.

Jason Giambi, a confessed steroid cheat whose signing before the 2002 season triggered the new Yankee era of greed, is more of a forlorn figure than a detested one. He remains upbeat — if jagged from his Red Bull devotion — but is lost in the field and sporadic at the plate.

Pitiful lot, right? And yet, here the Yankees are, aboard Alex Rod8riguez's magic carpet ride, whisking toward the playoffs with youth to lighten the mood and brighten the outlook and threaten the Red Sox.

Boston, has its own prodigies with the no-hit wonder Clay Buchholz now in the bullpen and the hot-hitting Jacoby Ellsbury pushing center fielder Coco Crisp from Red Sox memory. And Boston, too, has plenty of petty cash to cover bad investments like J. D. Drew.

Both teams are hybrids — partly built for now, partly assembled for the future. More than with Boston, the Yankees' season has been saved by homegrown additions. It's the way it used to be, back in the '90s, before the Yankees' payroll went from $40 million to a peak of $200 million in '05. Farm figures like Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte alighted to change the staid dynamic of the clubhouse.

Now it's child-friendly again, part of the Cashman plan. His panic signing of Clemens aside — call it a momentary relapse in overspending rehab — the team is heading in a better direction with a Yankee version of The Replacements.

"Our business is baseball," Cashman said, "and all I did was simplify it, which is you've got to get back to basics, and that's the amateur pipeline. You can't spend all the money on the top-level guys. There are way too many perils."

Perils, like collapsing in the playoffs since 2001. The Yankees are still an embarrassment of riches — the envy of every general manager under a thrift-shopping mandate — but there is less to loathe with the Boss as a phantom, with the live-for-now era over.

To conjure genuine hate for the Yanks is becoming more difficult — but, of course, not impossible.


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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Will the Democrats Betray Us?


Published: September 16, 2007

SIR, I don't know, actually": The fact that America's surrogate commander in chief, David Petraeus, could not say whether the war in Iraq is making America safer was all you needed to take away from last week's festivities in Washington. Everything else was a verbal quagmire, as administration spin and senatorial preening fought to a numbing standoff.

Not that many Americans were watching. The country knew going in that the White House would win its latest campaign to stay its course of indefinitely shoveling our troops and treasure into the bottomless pit of Iraq. The only troops coming home alive or with their limbs intact in President Bush's troop "reduction" are those who were scheduled to be withdrawn by April anyway. Otherwise the president would have had to extend combat tours yet again, mobilize more reserves or bring back the draft.

On the sixth anniversary of the day that did not change everything, General Petraeus couldn't say we are safer because he knows we are not. Last Sunday, Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the C.I.A.'s Osama bin Laden unit, explained why. He wrote in The Daily News that Al Qaeda, under the de facto protection of Pervez Musharraf, is "on balance" more threatening today that it was on 9/11. And as goes Pakistan, so goes Afghanistan. On Tuesday, just as the Senate hearings began, Lisa Myers of NBC News reported on a Taliban camp near Kabul in an area nominally controlled by the Afghan government we installed. It is training bomb makers to attack America.

Little of this registered in or beyond the Beltway. New bin Laden tapes and the latest 9/11 memorial rites notwithstanding, we're back in a 9/10 mind-set. Bin Laden, said Frances Townsend, the top White House homeland security official, "is virtually impotent." Karen Hughes, the Bush crony in charge of America's P.R. in the jihadists' world, recently held a press conference anointing Cal Ripken Jr. our international "special sports envoy." We are once more sleepwalking through history, fiddling while the Qaeda not in Iraq prepares to burn.

This is why the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, including those more accurate than Mr. Bush's recent false analogies, can take us only so far. Our situation is graver than it was during Vietnam.

Certainly there were some eerie symmetries between General Petraeus's sales pitch last week and its often-noted historical antecedent: Gen. William Westmoreland's similar mission for L.B.J. before Congress on April 28, 1967. Westmoreland, too, refused to acknowledge that our troops were caught in a civil war. He spoke as well of the "repeated successes" of the American-trained South Vietnamese military and ticked off its growing number of combat-ready battalions. "The strategy we're following at this time is the proper one," the general assured America, and "is producing results."

Those fabulous results delayed our final departure from Vietnam for another eight years — just short of the nine to 10 years General Petraeus has said may be needed for a counterinsurgency in Iraq. But there's a crucial difference between the Westmoreland show of 1967 and the 2007 revival by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Westmoreland played to a full and largely enthusiastic house. Most Americans still supported the war in Vietnam and trusted him; so did all but a few members of Congress, regardless of party. All three networks pre-empted their midday programming for Westmoreland's Congressional appearance.

Our Iraq commander, by contrast, appeared before a divided and stalemated Congress just as an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that most Americans believed he would overhype progress in Iraq. No network interrupted a soap opera for his testimony. On cable the hearings fought for coverage with Britney Spears's latest self-immolation and the fate of Madeleine McCann, our latest JonBenet Ramsey stand-in.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker could grab an hour of prime television time only by slinking into the safe foxhole of Fox News, where Brit Hume chaperoned them on a gloomy, bunkerlike set before an audience of merely 1.5 million true believers. Their "Briefing for America," as Fox titled it, was all too fittingly interrupted early on for a commercial promising pharmaceutical relief from erectile dysfunction.

Even if military "victory" were achievable in Iraq, America could not win a war abandoned by its own citizens. The evaporation of that support was ratified by voters last November. For that, they were rewarded with the "surge." Now their mood has turned darker. Americans have not merely abandoned the war; they don't want to hear anything that might remind them of it, or of war in general. Katie Couric's much-promoted weeklong visit to the front produced ratings matching the CBS newscast's all-time low. Angelina Jolie's movie about Daniel Pearl sank without a trace. Even Clint Eastwood's wildly acclaimed movies about World War II went begging. Over its latest season, "24" lost a third of its viewers, just as Mr. Bush did between January's prime-time address and last week's.

You can't blame the public for changing the channel. People realize that the president's real "plan for victory" is to let his successor clean up the mess. They don't want to see American troops dying for that cause, but what can be done? Americans voted the G.O.P. out of power in Congress; a clear majority consistently tell pollsters they want out of Iraq. And still every day is Groundhog Day. Our America, unlike Vietnam-era America, is more often resigned than angry. Though the latest New York Times-CBS News poll finds that only 5 percent trust the president to wrap up the war, the figure for the (barely) Democratic-controlled Congress, 21 percent, is an almost-as-resounding vote of no confidence.

Last week Democrats often earned that rating, especially those running for president. It is true that they do not have the votes to overcome a Bush veto of any war legislation. But that doesn't mean the Democrats have to go on holiday. Few used their time to cross-examine General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on their disingenuous talking points, choosing instead to regurgitate stump sentiments or ask uncoordinated, redundant questions. It's telling that the one question that drew blood — are we safer? — was asked by a Republican, John Warner, who is retiring from the Senate.

Americans are looking for leadership, somewhere, anywhere. At least one of the Democratic presidential contenders might have shown the guts to soundly slap the "General Betray-Us" headline on the ad placed by in The Times, if only to deflate a counterproductive distraction. This left-wing brand of juvenile name-calling is as witless as the "Defeatocrats" and "cut and run" McCarthyism from the right; it at once undermined the serious charges against the data in the Petraeus progress report (including those charges in the same MoveOn ad) and allowed the war's cheerleaders to hyperventilate about a sideshow. "General Betray-Us" gave Republicans a furlough to avoid ownership of an Iraq policy that now has us supporting both sides of the Shiite-vs.-Sunni blood bath while simultaneously shutting America's doors on the millions of Iraqi refugees the blood bath has so far created.

It's also past time for the Democratic presidential candidates to stop getting bogged down in bickering about who has the faster timeline for withdrawal or the more enforceable deadline. Every one of these plans is academic anyway as long as Mr. Bush has a veto pen. The security of America is more important — dare one say it? — than trying to outpander one another in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate need all the unity and focus they can muster to move this story forward, and that starts with the two marquee draws, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It's essential to turn up the heat full time in Washington for any and every legislative roadblock to administration policy that they and their peers can induce principled or frightened Republicans to endorse.

They should summon the new chief of central command (and General Petraeus's boss), Adm. William Fallon, for tough questioning; he is reportedly concerned about our lapsed military readiness should trouble strike beyond Iraq. And why not grill the Joint Chiefs and those half-dozen or so generals who turned down the White House post of "war czar" last fall? The war should be front and center in Congress every day.

Mr. Bush, confident that he got away with repackaging the same bankrupt policies with a nonsensical new slogan ("Return on Success") Thursday night, is counting on the public's continued apathy as he kicks the can down the road and bides his time until Jan. 20, 2009; he, after all, has nothing more to lose. The job for real leaders is to wake up America to the urgent reality. We can't afford to punt until Inauguration Day in a war that each day drains America of resources and will. Our national security can't be held hostage indefinitely to a president's narcissistic need to compound his errors rather than admit them.

The enemy votes, too. Cataclysmic events on the ground in Iraq, including Thursday's murder of the Sunni tribal leader Mr. Bush embraced two weeks ago as a symbol of hope, have never arrived according to this administration's optimistic timetable. Nor have major Qaeda attacks in the West. It's national suicide to entertain the daydream that they will start doing so now.

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