Monday, March 2, 2009

Could Afghanistan be the Next Guantanamo?

When Pres. Barack Obama issued an executive order just hours after taking office announcing that he planned to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo within a year, few were happier than those of us who were down at Guantanamo Bay monitoring the irreparably flawed military commissions. As human rights advocates, we had been lobbying for Guantanamo’s closure for years and hoped the decision would be a precursor to ending other “war on terror” abuses.

But while Obama has signaled a clear break with some of the most abusive Bush Administration practices – halting the unfair military commissions, renouncing torture and directing the CIA to abide by the same interrogation standards approved by the military – the Obama Administration has made a number of disappointing decisions that quietly signaled support for many of Bush's “war on terror” policies.

One of those decisions came late last week, when administration lawyers upheld the Bush Administration position that persons picked up around the world but transferred to Afghanistan and detained by U.S. forces there are not entitled to habeas corpus rights – that is, the right to challenge the grounds of their detention in U.S. courts. The decision would not be so troubling if the detainees being held there had any other legal recourse, such as a functioning Afghan judicial system Unfortunately, they do not.

More than 600 detainees are being held at Bagram, the U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, many for several years. Few have seen lawyers or had access to a court. Although the International Committee of the Red Cross visits Bagram, little public information is available about the detainees. However, some are known to have been picked up in other countries – Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Somalia – and then transferred by the United States to Bagram. These men are no different from the men being held in Guantanamo, but for the fact that they were brought to Afghanistan rather than Cuba. They should be granted habeas rights. The United States cannot use Afghanistan as another Guantanamo in which to hold people from other lands, unbound by any law.

The detainees captured in Afghanistan may not be entitled to habeas rights in the United States, but they still cannot be held indefinitely without an impartial process to review the grounds of their detention. International law provides people detained in civil wars the right to a process to challenge the ground of their detention, ideally before local courts. The United States, however, has not provided any such process. The detainees in its custody – some of whom may have been picked up by mistake – have no way to contest the allegations against them, and often don’t even know what the allegations are.

The dangers of holding terrorism suspects without review have been illustrated all too vividly by Guantanamo, where many of the men turned out to be innocent, the victims of having been turned over to U.S. forces in exchange for bounty. Holding men who had done nothing wrong did not make the United States any safer. To the contrary, it may well have provided ammunition to those who would do harm to the United States. And it also undermined the fundamental right not to be deprived of one’s liberty without legal basis.

As the Obama Administration prepares to send more troops into Afghanistan in the hope of defeating the resurgent Taliban, it needs to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. It can only do that by upholding the valuesfor which it claims to be fighting. A good place to start would be ensure that those in U.S. detention are granted lawyers and a meaningful opportunity to challenge the grounds of their arrest.

Stacy Sullivan is a counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch.

A Call for Truth, Reconciliation and Justice Post-Bush

Now that Bush is gone, some people are insisting upon the truth. Others desire reconciliation. In calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the Bush administration, Sen. Patrick Leahy wants both. However, it is safe to say that many tens of millions of people – particularly those who worked hard to elect President Barack Obama into office – additionally want justice.

If it comes to pass, Sen. Leahy’s commission will reveal some half-truths; will not reconcile the right and left, and will not produce anything resembling justice. That’s the definition of ruling with impunity. Besides, Rep. John Conyers’s Jan. 13 report, “Reining in the Imperial Presidency,” has already provided us with much of the truth about the Bush administration. It examined the issues of unchecked power, torture, renditions, the Geneva conventions, illegal spying, etc. It should be required reading for all.

The Conyer’s Report concludes that since 9-11-2001, Bush operated under the notion of a unitary executive – the idea that all power resided in his office and therefore nothing he authorized could be illegal. This idea that he had inherent, and unlimited powers – particularly during wartime – enabled his administration to, in effect, operate outside the Constitution for seven years and without checks and balances from Congress and the courts.

If Leahy’s commission is to have any credibility, it should also investigate 1) Bush’s notion of the American right to assert and wage a permanent pre-emptive worldwide war; and 2) his administration’s misinformation campaign in foisting a criminal war against Iraq; and 3) his privatization of the war.

An independent commission should also examine: 1) why Congress failed to initiate impeachment hearings, and; 2) the media’s role in facilitating this imperial presidency.

It is counterintuitive, but Sen. Leahy’s main obstacle is not conservatives or the GOP, but President Obama himself and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. It is no longer the Republicans or conservatives who insist on “going forward” and not “looking back.”

The model Sen. Leahy has chosen is South Africa, but also the Americas. The military/political elites that arrogated all power unto themselves and reigned terror on their own citizens – save for a few generals – have escaped justice. Few people from Central America, Chile and Argentina have been satisfied with simply knowing the truth.
Not ironically, it is these wars that contributed greatly to the migration of millions of Central Americans into the United States – a situation (fear of persecution) that to this day has not been satisfactorily resolved.

There are three major problems with President Obama’s views on this issue. Failure to investigate and punish indicted or unindicted criminals can result in their being placed back into positions of power where they can reprise their roles. Such was the case when the Iran-Contra Scandal produced the likes of John Negroponte, Adm. John
Poindexter and Elliott Abrams – only to resurface in the Bush II administration.

The second problem is that Bush’s alleged crimes involve willfully subverting the U.S. Constitution. The third problem is that Bush’s alleged principal crimes are not about sneaking into hotels or enemies lists, but about fomenting wars under false pretenses. This goes contrary to both, U.S. and international laws.

Through U.S. eyes, the war is either a tragedy because 4,000-plus U.S. service personnel have died plus tens of thousands more have been wounded. For others, the tragedy is that the Bush administration executed the war poorly. Some are content in letting history be Bush’s judge.

However, Bush’s alleged crimes have little to do with how the war was executed. Continuous lies to the world to start a war, qualifies as international war crimes. The result of these crimes includes the killing of many hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, the destruction of a nation and the displacement of millions. Historians
rendering a verdict against the Bush administration does not justice make.

Regardless of what President Obama wishes or what Congress proclaims, war crimes can not summarily be dismissed by individual nations; war criminals are routinely chased down decades after crimes have been committed and such a pursuit of justice is not considered “looking back.”

The tragedy behind the failure to pursue justice is that it will invariably lead to denial of criminality. No convictions equals no crimes, thus no crimes against humanity. Worse, it may leave in place Bush’s claim to the right to permanent war – a right that many Americans believe they are both born with and entitled to.

Rodriguez writes columns for New America Media, including Arizona Watch. He can be reached at

Black Broadcasters Sound Off On Covering Black Community

Unfair, unbalanced and the overabundance of negative reporting about the black community has often been a complaint among many. There is concern that not only does such reporting paint an inaccurate portrait of a particular ethnic group, but it also sets a dangerous pattern.

Images shown by the media play a role in influencing attitudes toward blacks. Many in the community believe that the over-use of negative images has resulted in a lack of confidence when it comes to entrusting outsiders to tell the black community’s story.

So the question becomes: Are black journalists the only ones capable of accurately and fairly reporting on the black community? Or is the black reporter caught in a Catch-22, stuck between getting it right for his or community and being professionally pigeon holed? If they cover only the black community, they run the danger of becoming known as a reporter who can only cover black stories. If they cover only the mainstream stories, they’d be entrusting someone else to tell the black community’s story.

Should their loyalties be to their media outlets or to their communities? There are lots of questions and just as many answers. Many find themselves walking a tightrope.

To get a clearer picture of just what black broadcasters are faced with on a daily basis, the L.A. Watts Times went straight to the source, asking local black broadcasters these questions:

As an insider, what is your perspective on how the media covers the black community? Have you attempted to contribute toward covering the black community?
BEVERLY WHITE (NBC4 anchor/reporter) — “I can only speak for the electronic media, which I believe adequately covers the black community but can do much more. The industry should employ more black people (in front of and behind the camera) and encourage diversity in sourcing and in story selection.

The responsibility to cover our community without fear or favor must never rest solely with black reporters. I pitch ideas and handle all manner of assignments. My non-black counterparts should do the same. Anyone who knows my work knows I try to cover the black community every way I can — with contacts who enhance my storytelling beyond race and sports, or entertainment and crime. I keep an eye out for distinct voices from mudslides to market issues, violence to Valentine’s Day. I strive to include people who look like me because it deepens my reporting and often helps defy stereotypes, one sound bite at a time. I see that as my mission as an African American journalist.”

TONY COX (NPR “News and Notes” host) — “How the media covers the black community depends on which media you’re referring to. The mainstream press doesn’t cover the black community at all. It looks for stories of general interest, and if those happen to involve black folks in particular, then chances are you’ll see something written or broadcast.

And even that depends on what market your outlet is in and how large the black audience is. The black press covers the black community all the time. They just don’t have the resources to cover it as effectively as is sometimes warranted. And because the black press has to compete for advertising dollars, like all media, their story selection is often dictated by what sells and will generate the most revenue. That’s when even the black press becomes more selective about what it does and doesn’t cover. In the end, the black community suffers either way.”

CHRIS SCHAUBLE (NBC4 anchor) — “The media does a poor and shallow job of covering the African American community (myself included). However, it’s due mostly to a lack of resources that all newsrooms face, as opposed to a willful disregard. As TV newsrooms shift to the concept of photojournalists (reporters carrying their own cameras while also presenting the story), there will be more of us beating the street. I think there will be more room for the individual newsperson to influence coverage ... more stories, yes the positive ones, will get told.

I find that while I cannot always influence news coverage, I can make sure the African American community knows it has my support. I emcee countless events within the black community and only say no when it conflicts with another engagement (or when my wife tells me to slow it down).”

MARC BROWN (ABC7 anchor) — “Having grown up in Los Angeles, I have watched the evolution of the news media’s coverage of the African American community. It used to be fairly one-dimensional and primarily negative. It no longer is. I feel very good about how ABC7, in particular, covers the black community. We try to cover African Americans, as we do every other community in Los Angeles, with fairness, sensitivity and across a broad spectrum.

We’re able to do it because we have a very diverse staff both in front of and behind the camera. Some of the stories I’ve covered over the last few months include the Eso Won Bookstore and its struggle to survive, an African American funeral director in South L.A. who handles victims of gang violence, and the inauguration of Barack Obama. These stories, while of special significance to African Americans, I believe are important to everyone.”

BOBBY HOWE (KTYM radio – public affairs director) — “Black press should give equal time to the good done by blacks and less to the not-so-good… I am on air 10-15 times a week, and I present the ‘Other Side of War’ and ‘Conversations with the Community.’ There is always the good, the bad and the ugly. I make sure I talk to the good being done in our community, but if I must report on the ugly, I make sure I have some solutions to the bad news.”

HSBC abandons Household

HSBC Holdings plc said Monday it would stop most U.S. consumer lending and raise £12.5 billion ($17.9 billion) by selling new shares to rebuild capital after a mammoth write-down.

The retreat affects the HFC and Beneficial brands and effectively unwinds HSBC's $15.5 billion, 2003 acquisition of Household International Inc., of Prospect Heights, Ill., whose problems with subprime borrowers helped trigger the global economic crisis.

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Video shows sheriff's deputy kicking teen

By Manuel Valdes
Associated Press

SEATTLE — A King County sheriff's deputy kicks a 15-year-old girl, slams her to the floor of a jail cell, strikes her and pulls her hair in violence captured on videotape.

Prosecutors released the surveillance video Friday in the assault case against Deputy Paul Schene, who is accused of using excessive force on the girl. Schene, 31, pleaded not guilty to fourth-degree assault in Superior Court on Thursday.

The incident last November began after the girl was brought in for an auto theft investigation, according to court documents. The footage shows the attack beginning after the girl enters the cell at suburban SeaTac City Hall and kicks off one of her shoes toward the deputy.

"We believe this case is beyond just police misconduct, it's criminal misconduct," King County Prosecutor Daniel Satterberg said. "This is clearly excessive force."

Schene was investigated previously for shooting two people - killing one - in the line of duty in 2002 and 2006. Both times his actions were found to be justified, said Ian Goodhew, prosecutor's deputy chief of staff.

Calls by The Associated Press to Schene's lawyer, Anne Bremner, were not immediately returned Friday. Bremner, however, released a statement to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in which she said the video does not tell the whole story. Bremner had asked Judge Catherine Shaffer not to release the video to the media.

"As we argued to the judge, it will inflame public opinion and will severely impact the deputy's right to a fair trial," Bremner said.

In the video, a deputy kicks the girl, pushing her back toward the wall. The deputy then strongly backs the girl against the wall and slams her to the floor by grabbing her hair. A second deputy enters the holding cell, while the first deputy holds the girl face down to the floor. The first deputy appears to hit the girl with his hands. The girl is then lifted up and led out of the cell while the first deputy holds her hair.

The second officer shown in the video was a trainee at the time and is not under investigation, Goodhew said.

According to court documents, the girl complained of breathing problems after the incident and medics were called to check her. A short time later, she was taken to a youth detention center and booked for investigation of auto theft and third-degree assault, the latter accusation dealing with her conduct toward the deputy. The girl has pleaded not guilty to taking a motor vehicle without permission, Goodhew said Friday, adding she was never formally charged with assault.

Schene told investigators through an e-mail conversation with his lawyer that once he was assaulted by the girl kicking her shoe at him, he entered the cell to "prevent another assault," according to court documents. Schene also said the girl failed to comply with instructions in the holding area.

Prosecutors said Schene did not explain why he struck the girl after he had her in a holding position on the floor.

Microsoft’s Vision For Technology In 2019…

Their latest video - “2019″ - was produced as part of a presentation Microsoft’s Business Division president Stephen Elopat gave at last week’s Wharton Business Technology Conference. It’s an extrapolation ten years into the future of existing technology and trends. While some of it is clearly fanciful, there are some really innovative, practical concepts on display in it as well.

The model of touch based, surface computing is a clear theme of this future vision, along with the concept of having embedded displays everywhere - in walls, tables, and even a coffee cup. I do believe that as the cost and power consumption requirements associated with these types of technologies drop, we will see more ‘computing smarts’ built into everyday objects. A decade is a long time when it comes to technology, so I definitely believe we will see many of these concepts play out in that time frame.

What’s interesting to me is that some of the interface designs on display here could translate directly into software implementations taking place today. That said, anyone that’s seen the latest versions of of Microsoft’s Office, OS, and Mobile software offerings will see the clear disconnect between this vision and the reality of what is being delivered. I’ve never understood why a company that can be this creative in abstract visualization seems to struggle so much in translating that creativity into the products they make.

Whether it be through the efforts of Microsoft, Apple, Google, or a yet to be launched start up, the future of computing will definitely be more organic, intuitive, and pervasive.

This video is just a hint of what could be. The real possibilities are endless…

The Warren Buffett Backlash

First, thanks to Abnormal Returns for a good round up of reactions to Berkshire Hathaway’s bad year. Most of these are pretty much the same, a condemnation for a terrible year and all sorts of scrutinizing in hindsight. Being the optimist that I am, I’d like to address a few things or at least make more of a glass half-full argument.

Lets start with Jeff Matthews and his own thoughts on Berkshire’s performance:

Based on the year-end portfolio presented in the letter (and it has changed only modestly over time, but now excludes two stocks, Burlington Northern and Moody’s, in which Berkshire owns 20% and must report its holdings under the equity method,) Berkshire’s entire equity portfolio, which had a $37 billion cost basis and a $49 billion market value at year-end 2008, was, as of yesterday’s market close, worth only about $37 billion.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, “Warren doesn’t mind, so why should we?”

…Yet Buffett also disclosed what might go down as the second most surprising disclosure in today’s letter: he had to sell some of Berkshire’s stocks to make those headline-grabbing investments in GE, Goldman Sachs and Wrigley:

…Yet the fact is, the value of Berkshire’s equity portfolio is not only of enormous economic importance to Berkshire Hathaway and its shareholders, but to investors around the world who watch what Warren does and frequently imitate his moves.

And the fact that it appears to be right back to its cost basis—after decades of not—is startling.

This sounds really bad, but Matthews mistakenly leaves out dividends. Warren Buffett is not a fan of trading stocks often. Once he builds a core holding, he likes to keep it. Think of companies like American Express, the Washington Post, or Wells Fargo. All of which are over a decade old. Sometimes he makes a mistake of keeping them past their prime, like Coca-Cola but all of these companies feature a pretty good dividend arrangement. Check out page 68 of the annual report, the earnings from dividends and interest payments on fixed income securities are broken out for you.

While Berkshire may have had an equity portfolio that did not move for a year, it received positive dividend payments, that are going to one of the greatest capital allocators in the business. Dividend income actually increased $534 million for the year, but was offset by other declines. In total though, after taxes and minority interests Berkshire received about $3.5 billion in investment income.

The reason I bring up dividend payments is that they’re significant. Buffett is not someone who trades around his biggest holdings, he keeps them. It’s an affirmation of his belief in having a 20 hole punch card for your investments. Find 20 of the best businesses, invest in them, and watch them grow.

Matthews goes on to call Buffett’s selling of stocks shocking and his equity potfolio’s lack of movement startling. But, what if the two are intertwined? One of the biggest and worst performers in Berkshire’s portfolio is Wells Fargo. But if you go back and look, the bulk of the Wells Fargo position was accumulated in the years running up to 2008. Sure, he initially invested in the company back in 1989/1990 but that wasn’t majority of the position. For example, in 2006 to 2007 alone, Berkshire acquired a bit over 80 million Wells Fargo shares. Its arguable that commentators like Matthews are deriding the portfolio’s performance without giving it adequate time. Value investors are, after all, in it for the long term. One year’s performance may not be reflective of the underlying businesses. Wells Fargo is not Citigroup or AIG, it so far has not needed quarter after quarter of government aid. Buffett has already purchased Wells Fargo shares for his personal account, so I’d say he believes that Mr. Market is getting it wrong this time.

Secondly though, I wanted to address Matthews’ shock. If Buffett believes that Mr. Market is having a bout with depression, why wouldn’t he sell stock to find more attractive opportunities? He could be selling cheap to buy cheaper ( “Regardless of the impact upon immediately reportable earnings, we would rather buy 10% of Wonderful Business T at X per share than 100% of T at 2X per share.” - 1981 Letter to Shareholders) The preferred share investments offer Berkshire a steady stream of large dividend payments that can be deployed in the market now. In addition, the fact that he used preferred shares rather than common investments likely indicates that he thinks the market for common stocks will be in flux for a while. This strategy accommodates Berkshire’s size too because Berkshire’s elephant of a cash-horde lacks the nimbleness to acquire positions without alerting the world and raising prices.

If Buffett was a high frequency trader, with tons of turnover, I could maybe accept Matthews’ argument regarding the equity portfolio’s lack of movement. But he’s not. When he acquires some of these big stakes, he keeps them for years, through the bad times and the good. That makes the dividend payments of these securities rather important. Quite a strange omission from someone who sells a book about the annual meeting.

Moving on to Felix Salmon of Portfolio magazine’s Market Movers:

He had to liquidiate some of his stock-market portfolio in 2008 in order to make investments in GE, Goldman Sachs and Wrigley. Which stocks did he sell? “Primarily Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and ConocoPhillips”.

With hindsight, of course, the main stock he should have sold, before it entered a truly torrid 2009, was Wells Fargo. And selling Wells — or American Express, for that matter, which has also sunk like a stone of late — would have made a lot of sense, given that he was loading up on financials in the form of Goldman and GE securities. But instead he chose to go massively overweight financials, and sold instead safe-and-reliable defensive stocks. Weird.

Salmon seems quite certain about what should and should not have been sold and disagrees with Buffett’s increased exposure to financials. We know that Buffett believes Wells Fargo is undervalued and added shares of it to his personal account around the summer of 2008. I don’t think that he particularly cared whether he had X more in financials or Y more in healthcare. It is likely that when Buffett sold these positions, he was not thinking about diversification but rather the bargains available. He has never been a huge proponent of diversification:

The strategy (of portfolio concentration ) we’ve adopted precludes our following standard diversification dogma. Many pundits would therefore say the strategy must be riskier than that employed by more conventional investors. We disagree. We believe that a policy of portfolio concentration may well decrease risk if it raises, as it should, both the intensity with which an investor thinks about a business and the comfort-level he must feel with its economic characteristics before buying into it.

(Berkshire Hathaway - 1993 Chairman’s Letter to Shareholders)

Salmon is really making an apples to oranges comparison when he disagrees with selling JNJ for GE. You should not compare the performance of GE to JNJ. One is an investment in a preferred share deal and the other is simply a common stock investment. The preferred investments are not an investment on the basis of share performance, if they were, Buffett would have bought the common shares. Rather, they’re actually more of a bet on survivability. For Buffett to make money on his GE or GS investment, the companies simply have to survive and be able to pay their dividends to him. In the longer run, he does have warrants that give the ability to acquire shares of the common, but they’re not as important. If GE survives a year and Warren Buffett earns 10% on his $3 billion dollar investment, that return may likely outperform common stocks, especially if the market’s performance stays in this panicked state.

I find the particular passage enlightening:

Our convertible preferred stocks are relatively simple securities, yet I should warn you that, if the past is any guide, you may from time to time read inaccurate or misleading statements about them. Last year, for example, several members of the press calculated the value of all our preferreds as equal to that of the common stock into which they are convertible. By their logic, that is, our Salomon preferred, convertible into common at $38, would be worth 60% of face value if Salomon common were selling at $22.80. But there is a small problem with this line of reasoning: Using it, one must conclude that all of the value of a convertible preferred resides in the conversion privilege and that the value of a non-convertible preferred of Salomon would be zero, no matter what its coupon or terms for redemption.

The point you should keep in mind is that most of the value of our convertible preferreds is derived from their fixed-income characteristics. That means the securities cannot be worth less than the value they would possess as non-convertible preferreds and may be worth more because of their conversion options

(Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s Letter to Shareholders 1990)

Now the new investments aren’t exactly the same as these convertible preferreds, but they both share the fixed income characteristics that Buffett describes. In 1989, Buffett said, “Under almost any conditions, we expect these preferreds to return us our money plus dividends.” He goes on to say that it will be disappointing if they don’t also get to take advantage of the convertibility aspect of these securities. Still, it affirms the idea that one of the prime drivers in these preferred investments is the ability to receive dividend payments, convertibility is less important. The certainty is derived from betting that these companies will survive and be able to pay dividends to Berkshire.

It’s rather foolish to proclaim what mistakes Buffett has made when we’re only 3 months into the new year. Buffett has never been much of a market timer. When I saw his editorial in the NYTimes I thought it was nice but not indicative of any market bottom. In the past he’s exhibited little in market timing ability, yet when looked at over longer periods of time he always manages to come out on top. Maybe he deserves the benefit of the doubt, but at the very least, Berkshire’s performance should be gauged from a period longer than 3 months into the new years.

Rush at CPAC

Ah nothing like my lunch hour during a work-at-home day to blog.

So I finally got an opportunity to listen to Rush Limbaugh’s speech at CPAC. I haven’t heard much Rush before, so going into it I was prepared to hate it all. Coming out of it, I didn’t hate it, but also didn’t find much to which I could nod my head.

To me, his overarching message was basically that of “remain steadfast to core conservative principles,” “oppose bi-partisanship no matter what,” and “Democrats are destroying America.” While I’m flexible on the first element, and might be able to somewhat believe the third (when you add Congressional Republicans to it), the second I believe is the wrong approach for conservatives.

It’s not to say I completely disagreed with Rush. There were a few points where I nodded. Mostly they were his pleas for what I call attitude conservatism, or using conservatism to guide your daily actions. These are things such as thinking through an issue or not worrying so much about offending everyone (as in his anecdote about the 100 point basketball game being called off). He also made good points about how freedom should be a prevailing principle in our life.

What I disagreed with is a much longer list. First off, Rush, like many Americans, can’t seem to separate socialism as an ideology with the autocracy implemented by Joseph Stalin. It might not be his fault, though. For decades, the two were linked by propoganda, after all. Not saying socialism is a good ideology, and yes, its so-called leaders around the world have often used violence used to implement it, but there is a fundamental difference I think more people need to understand.

Anyway, at one point, Rush was talking about bi-partisanship and his problems with it. He derided Democrats for defining it as a call for Republicans to abdandon their principles and flock to the Democratic side. He then gives his definition for it, which is essentially the same thing he just complained about, but this time all the Democrats go to the Republican side. Umm…okay! Sure. So, essentially, he’s saying it’s bad for Democrats to have an “our way or the highway” attitude, but that it’s okay for Republicans to do it.

Here’s my definition for bi-partisanship. Brainstorm a bunch of solutions for a given issue, then take the best parts from those solutions and make them work together if you can. If you can’t, you might have to come up with something else. Yes, I know this is a pipe dream, but I’ll dream about pipes if I want to!

Later on, Rush started attacking those he says want to “re-define conservatism,” including conservative intellectuals. And here I think Rush really doesn’t get it, since conservatism is constantly being redefined. I’d remind Rush that 150 years ago, it might have been “redefining conservatism” to support abolition. 60 years ago, it might have been “redefining conservatism” to support desegregation of the country (though the way it was done is still debated today) or interracial marriage.

What I don’t think Rush gets is that change in society happens all the time. One of his examples of this re-definition was abortion. The trouble is that the debate on abortion is not necessarily a domain of conservatism. Yes, it is a domain of religion and perhaps a domain of the Republican Party’s platform. But being against abortion, homosexuality, contraception, etc. These things are not inherent principles of conservatism as Rush would have us believe. Can secular conservatives oppose abortion and homosexuality? Sure. But there are many branches of conservatism, and not all are socially conservative, at least on those issues.

Finally, his constant suggestions that liberals want to destroy lives. This fear seems to be universal among partisans, no matter which side of the debate they come from. Conservative partisans might say that liberals want to destroy lives by binding people to the state or telling people what they can watch, eat, or wear, which are fair arguments. But liberal partisans are equally as likely to say that conservatives want to destroy lives by not giving them any assistance at all or attempting to legislate morality by banning homosexuality and the like. Which are also fair arguments. My point is that neither side has a monopoly on trying to destroy lives. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress do it all the time. So, in some ways, Rush is right here. He just can’t pretend it only comes from one side. Not without being dishonest.

In the end, listening to his speech was not bad, and I didn’t end up becoming apopletic or anything, which can only be good.

What Obama's Iraq Speech Means for American Foreign Policy

President Obama's speech on Iraq was the culmination of something that many of us had been working towards for years. But it was more than just the beginning of the end of the war. It was also the clearest signal yet of what an Obama administration's foreign policy will look like, what its goals and organizing principles may be, and how this President can use his unique skills to reshape America's position in the world.

First, the speech demonstrates that on issues of foreign policy, communication is vital. Obama's exceptional skills aren't just an asset during a presidential campaign or a domestic policy fight, but they matter when he speaks to the world. The President had a tough speech to give. He had to clearly communicate to the Iraqis that we were in fact leaving, while reassuring them that we would not abandon them. He had to send a message to the Muslim World and to America's allies that our Iraq-centric foreign policy is over. He had to reassure the military and its commanders that he appreciates their sacrifices and that he won't casually endanger the progress that has been made in Iraq over the past year and a half. And he had to communicate to the American public that he was keeping his promise to end the war. He managed to do all of these things and do them brilliantly. Obama's communication skill are another powerful tool in the toolbox of American foreign policy. I'm looking forward to seeing how he uses them in his upcoming speech to the Islamic World or in his attempt to gain broader support from our European allies around Afghanistan.

The new policy also marks the end of America's Iraq-centric foreign policy and the return to strategic balance. For years President Bush focused exclusively on Iraq to the detriment of all our other foreign policy interests. As the man who started the war, he became so vested in its outcome that he lost all sense of other priorities. Bush dealt directly with General Petraeus and his commanders on the ground in Iraq, rather than following the normal chain of command and consulting with all his advisors to think about broader strategic interests. Compare this to Obama's process described by Secretary Gates:
I think that there was a lot of analysis of the risks that were involved. I think that if the commanders had had complete say in this matter that, that they would have preferred that, that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010. And so having a somewhat larger residual or transition force mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner... So it was really a dialogue between the commanders in the field, the Joint Chiefs here, myself, the chairman and the president in terms of how, how you mitigate risk and how you structure this going forward.

This is how things should be and how they will be going forward. It's not all about Iraq. It is about America's interests around the globe and the costs and benefits of pursuing different strategies.

Obama's Iraq plans are also a perfect example of the comprehensive foreign policy approach that he, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates have all been advocating. Rather than focusing solely on the military aspect, the President laid out a three part plan that also focus on issues of political reconciliation and diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors. In fact, now that the military and force posture is complete, the administration will be conducting two additional reviews. The first will examine what role the United States can play in helping facilitate political reconciliation on the tough outstanding issues such as Kurd-Arab tensions in the disputed territories, the division of oil revenues and the question of the displaced. The second review will develop a comprehensive diplomatic strategy for how to engage Iraq's neighbors and the international community in playing a constructive role inside the country.

Furthermore, Obama's speech marks the end of the ideological democracy promotion policy of George W. Bush. President Bush, as late as last March, continued to speak of American goals in Iraq in grandiose terms:
And we have another advantage in our strong belief in the transformative power of liberty...So we're helping the people of Iraq establish a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. A free Iraq will fight terrorists instead of harboring them. A free Iraq will be an example for others of the power of liberty to change the societies and to displace despair with hope. By spreading the hope of liberty in the Middle East, we will help free societies take root -- and when they do, freedom will yield the peace that we all desire.

Obama's approach is much more moderate. He begins:
This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.

He then goes on to explain that:
To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region.

The shift is subtle but clear. To Bush, democracy is an end onto itself and the most effective way to fight terrorism. In Obama's view, elements of liberal democracy including accountability, justice and representation are a means to an ultimate end of stability and the pursuit of American national interests. This doesn't mean giving up on the democracy promotion agenda. It just means being more thoughtful and strategic about it. It's also noteworthy that Obama doesn't actually commit to a just, representative or accountable Iraqi government. Instead, he states that "we will work to promote" one. This is a significant reduction in America's commitment to a much more realistic goal.

Finally, Obama's speech set a constructive tone for how the country talks about the lessons of Iraq going forward. In what was perhaps the most important part of the speech he said:
There are many lessons to be learned from what we’ve experienced. We have learned that America must go to war with clearly defined goals, which is why I’ve ordered a review of our policy in Afghanistan. We have learned that we must always weigh the costs of action, and communicate those costs candidly to the American people, which is why I’ve put Iraq and Afghanistan into my budget. We have learned that in the 21st century, we must use all elements of American power to achieve our objectives, which is why I am committed to building our civilian national security capacity so that the burden is not continually pushed on to our military. We have learned that our political leaders must pursue the broad and bipartisan support that our national security policies depend upon, which is why I will consult with Congress and in carrying out my plans. And we have learned the importance of working closely with friends and allies, which is why we are launching a new era of engagement in the world.

Spencer Ackerman sums up the importance of this statement.
His lessons are sensible. They reflect what the war was and why it was a folly. They're neither truisms nor evasions. They blend well with progressive critiques of the war but they won't grate in conservative ears. Call it truth and reconciliation, a face-saving way out of the mire of not just Iraq, but the discourse of Iraq. "I don't just want to end the war," Obama said on Jan. 31, 2008, "but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place." I've always considered that to be the most important thing he's ever said about the war.

In the end, this speech was about much more than just Iraq. It was about how a new President, through his remarkable communication skills, can shape the way America is viewed by the world. It was about a new and more balanced assessment of the threats we face. It was about using all of the various tools in the toolbox to pursue American national interests. It was about properly defining American foreign policy goals and recognizing that while democracy promotion should be an element of our foreign policy, it cannot be the basis of our foreign policy. And finally, it was about learning the right lessons from the war and applying those to our foreign policy. In short, it was about turning the page to a new era in American foreign policy.

U.S. To Loan AIG An Additional $30 Billion

The federal government will loan American International Group Inc. an additional $30 billion and loosen significantly the terms of its earlier aid to the company, AIG said today.

The decision, which follows a series of loans and stock purchases by the government totaling $150 billion, came as the insurance giant announced a record-setting $61.7 billion quarterly loss.

Government officials and company executives worked throughout the weekend in consultation with the ratings agencies to make the deal.

"Given the system risk AIG continues to pose and the fragility of markets today, the potential cost to the economy and the taxpayer of government inaction would be extremely high," the Treasury Department said in a press release announcing the latest restructuring plan.

AIG provides insurance to more than 100,000 small businesses, municipalities, Fortune 500 companies and other entities that collectively employ more than 100 million Americans, the Treasury Department noted.

The company has more than 30 million policy holders in the United States. It also is a counterparty in transactions with a number of major financial institutions -- including some of the other companies that have received billions in taxpayer capital through the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Under the terms of the new agreement, the government will make available to AIG an additional $30 billion in TARP money, though the company is not expected to take the funds immediately.

To help AIG conserve cash, the government also agreed to change some of the terms of its earlier agreements. Under the new terms, $40 billion in preferred non-voting shares the government bought to help recapitalize the company would be converted into shares that don't require a 10 percent dividend payment. The arrangement would save AIG $4 billion a year.

The deal also includes the government's agreement to lower the interest on its debt to the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), a decrease of 3 percentage points that could save AIG an additional $1 billion a year. In addition, the government agreed to convert some of its debt into equity in two AIG subsidiaries in Asia, American International Assurance and the American Life Insurance Co.

Whether any of these arrangements will pay off for American taxpayers is unclear. AIG has been trying to sell its Asian subsidiaries for some time now, and critics say that the fact that the U.S. government is buying shares in them now suggests they did so at pricier terms than private investors were willing to give.

In addition, none of these agreements touched on AIG's ongoing dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over a $316 million charge related to controversial tax arbitrage transactions. The Wall Street Journal reported today that AIG sued the federal government on Friday over the issue, a move that the paper said "highlights the awkwardness of national control of AIG."

Chris Brown and Rihanna Leave Miami

Despite the negative media attention, Chris Brown enjoyed some fun in the sun this weekend. The “Run It!” singer was seen riding a jet ski on Miami Beach’s Star Island before he and Rihanna jetted off on Sunday.

Brown was with his on-again girlfriend staying at one of Diddy’s Miami homes after the couple reunited last week.

The 19-year-old pop star was seen driving a Jeep Wrangler while an unidentified male shielded his face with an Apple laptop.

Later that night, the couple was sighted boarding a private jet at a Miami airport surrounded by security personnel. Rihanna covered up her face with sunglasses and a sweatshirt. The plane later arrived in Los Angeles.

Sebelius Nominated for Secretary of Health and Human Services

Today President Obama will offically nominate Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for the position of Secretary of Health and Human Services and Nancy-Ann Deparle for the White House Office for Health Reform. According to the offical White House press release:

Sebelius will oversee a department with wide-ranging responsibilities essential to the American people, including the implementation of the President's vision for health care. As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sebelius will work with Democrats and Republicans alike to cut costs, expand access, and improve the quality of health care for all Americans.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, one of the nation’s leading experts on health care and regulatory issues, will serve as Counselor to the President and Director of the White House Office for Health Reform. As commissioner of the Department of Human Services in Tennessee, she saw firsthand the health care system’s impact on workers and families. In the Clinton Administration, DeParle handled budget matters for federal health care programs, and took on the tremendous task of managing Medicare and Medicaid.

“If we are going to help families, save businesses, and improve the long-term economic health of our nation, we must realize that fixing what’s wrong with our health care system is no longer just a moral imperative, but a fiscal imperative. Health care reform that reduces costs while expanding coverage is no longer just a dream we hope to achieve – it’s a necessity we have to achieve, said President Obama. “And today, I am proud to announce key members of my team who will be critical to that effort: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius for my Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Nancy Ann DeParle as Director of the White House Office for Health Reform.”