Saturday, March 24, 2007

Is torture really okay?

There is an interesting Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by Slavoj Zizek entitled "Knight of the Living Dead" that challenges us to think more carefully about society's apparent willingness to embrace physical toture as okay at least in some exceptional circumstances:

SINCE the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's dramatic confessions, moral outrage at the extent of his crimes has been mixed with doubts. Can his claims be trusted? What if he confessed to more than he really did, either because of a vain desire to be remembered as the big terrorist mastermind, or because he was ready to confess anything in order to stop the water boarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques"?

If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.

I agree with much of the sentiment expressed by the writer, except that I would choose to express the sentiment more strongly: only an absolute idiot could believe that torture is even remotely acceptable for even the most extreme of situations.

I myself am personally opposed to the death penalty, but I'm on the verge of allowing it for one exceptional situation: for those who commit, authorize, aid and abet, or even encourage torture. I wouldn't really want to make such an exception, but the breezy way that some people are willing to accept torture "in exceptional circumstances", regardless of whether a court or an attorney general or the president himself authorizes it, is truly an affront to human dignity.

Just say no to torture.

Of course, you could attempt to torture me until I agree to give up my beliefs. It would be interesting.

-- Jack Krupansky

Silly Democrats

Sure, the Republicans do a lot of stupid things, but that is hardly a good excuse for the Democrats to respond by doing a lot of silly things, like the latest vote for an "early" exit from Iraq. Read the article in The New York Times by Jeff Zeleny entitled "House, 218 to 212, Votes to Set Date for Iraq Pullout" and you can get a good idea of silly, lame, and bungled the latest effort by the Democrats to hog-tie President Bush over Iraq has really been.

Even with a fresh, newly-elected, anti-war majority, House Democrats were still completely unable to come up with a broadly-supported measure. Even with a load of "pork", the legislation barely passed.

In my way of thinking, the only successful legislation is that which has broad, bipartisan support. This it was not.

I am no supporter of President Bush and his wars (in Iraq and the overall so-called "Global War On Terrorism (GWOT)"), but I do have to agree when he referred to the legislation and the surrounding debates as mere "political theater." To most of us, that is a very negative, disparaging characterization, but the sad thing is that to many people in Washington (politicians and staffers), "political theater" is the only thing that matters to them. That and aggregating raw, naked power. Getting applause for a rousing speach is what it's all about to most of these people.

I do happen to agree with the sentiment that we need to have U.S. military forces disengage and exit from Iraq ASAP, but I strongly disagree with the way so many people, politicians, staffers, and supporters alike, are using the issue for their own political benefit rather than to do the right thing for all Americans.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Israel and the Pro-Israel Lobby pressure U.S. not to exit Iraq

The role of Israel and the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby in encouraging the U.S. to invade Iraq is still a matter of much debate and dispute, but now we can read in the Israeli press about efforts by Israeli officials and the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby to persuade the U.S. not to leave Iraq any time soon.

First, we see an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz by Shmuel Rosner and Aluf Benn entitled "Israel fears U.S. Iraq exit could topple Jordanian regime" which tells us that "Israel is worried a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq could topple the Hashemite regime in Jordan, one of the reasons why Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and others publicly oppose such a move."

The article goes go to tell us how Olmert issued his marching orders to the key group in the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby, AIPAC, meeting right here in the U.S. in Washington, D.C.: "Olmert voiced his opposition in a live video speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Tuesday, speaking out strongly against a rapid American exit from Iraq." The article does note that "Senior Israeli government officials later said Olmert was expressing his opinion 'solely on the professional aspect' of a pullout and insisted, as did Olmert in his speech, that Israel has no interest in getting involved in America's domestic political dispute over Iraq." Since the whole point of AIPAC is an "interest in getting involved in America's domestic political" debates, this disclaimer is rendered meaningless. AIPAC lobbies the U.S. government... Israel lobbies AIPAC... what's not clear here?

In a blog post by Rosner entitled "Israel's fear: withdrawal from Iraq will destabilize Jordan" we read that "In any case, the Israeli position, as explained by a senior person at the Defense Ministry, is not a political position at all but rather, 'the expression of a position on the professional aspect only,' as though it were clear to everyone exactly where the border between the two runs." In other words, it is an open secret that this form of lobbying of "political positions" goes on.

His blog post goes on to say that:

The decision to express this position in public is not trivial and without a doubt will play into the hands of conspiracy-mongers who want to blame the pro-Israel lobby for dragging America into a war that they think is unnecessary.

Conspiracy-mongers indeed.

The blog post goes on to quote opposition leader Bini Netanyahu as saying "with sourness" that "I don't think that it is proper to intervene in this debate." Rosner also quotes an advisor to a Democratic senator as saying "I hope that [Olmert] has very good reasons for saying what he said."

A key revelation comes when his blog post states that "Israeli diplomats who do in fact understand the strength of the sentiment have consoled themselves with the fact that no senior Democrat has come out publicly against Olmert's remarks."

In other words, even "senior Democrats" in Washington, D.C. are all too willing to go along with whatever party line Israel and the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby feed them. Assuming that this lobbying comes with "matching" campaign donations.

Nominally, most members of AIPAC are American citizens, but undoubtedly quite a number of them have dual citizenship, and hence dual loyalties.

An addendum to Rosner's article, bylined by Amiram Barkat, adds:

Yesterday, Olmert urged a visiting delegation of leaders of the Reform Movement to reconsider a motion urging the U.S. government to set a firm timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq. The movement's executive, representing some 700 Reform congregations across the U.S., approved the motion by a large majority earlier this week.

Olmert reiterated his argument that a hasty withdrawal could endanger Israel's security as well as efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program. But the Reform leaders refused his request, saying they believe a rapid withdrawal would serve Israeli and Western interests better than a prolonged American stay in Iraq.

In other words, we have a foreign official directly lobbying American citizens and encouraging them to either lobby for or refrain from lobbying against geo-political positions taken by the government of a foreign nation. Somehow, this isn't illegal. Maybe dual-citizenship gets around any sticky issues.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, March 17, 2007

More progress in Iraq: economic support from Iran

Despite the ongoing chaos and so-called "civil war" and the stifling presence of U.S. military forces, incremental progress is being made in improving the lot of the people of Iraq. Just today we read an article in The New York Times by Edward Wong entitled "Iran Is Playing a Growing Role in Iraq Economy" about how "The economies of Iraq and Iran, the largest Shiite-majority countries in the world, are becoming closely integrated, with Iranian goods flooding Iraqi markets and Iraqi cities looking to Iran for basic services." This is good news, unless you happen to be a Neoconservative or part of the rest of the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby.

Economic cooperation between neighbors is a key building block for regional stability, anywhere in the world, and most especially in the Middle East.

Personally, I wouldn't characterize the economic relations between Iraq and Iran as "integrated", which implies deeper and more formal and more bi-directional relations, but the reality is certainly more important than how the media labels it.

Certainly much is needed to improve the relations between Iraq and its neighbors, but as they say, "one step at a time."

Now, if only the politicians down in Washington, D.C. (which the locals there know to mean "District of Confusion") can get there act together and simply agree to working with the Iraqi leadership on a phased pull-out of U.S. military forces.

Doesn't President Bush realize that all he has to do is give a speech saying "Mission Accomplished" and sign a simple piece of paper directing his SecDef to "withdraw U.S. military forces from Iraq as expeditiously as possible, working in close consultation with Iraqi authorities, and ignoring the strident pleas of the Neoconservatives and the rest of the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby. Signed, President George W. Bush"? It really is that easy.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Did the Iraq regional conference accomplish anything?

Although it is certainly too soon to know whether the regional conference in Iraq with its neighbors will bear any fruit, at a minimum it does demonstrate that the government of Iraq is not completely comatose and not completely a puppet of the U.S. That's at least a start.

Now, regardless of what happens with the U.S. troop "surge", the important thing to look for is incremental evidence that the Iraqi leadership is making a serious attempt to distance itself from the U.S.

My sense is that the U.S. military leadership in Iraq knows the situation full well and will be very cautious of making any heavy-handed missteps and will give the Iraqi leadership any openings that they want to exploit.

I'm at least semi-optimistic. Expect more chaos for sure, but the willingness of the U.S. to tolerate discussions between Iraq and Iran and Syria is real progress.

All of this said, the really important thing for the U.S. to do is to simply leave ASAP.

-- Jack Krupansky

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lobbying of Congress by the largest contingent of the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby

In less than a week, the largest annual meeting of the largest contingent of the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby will be held in Washington, D.C. The annual "Policy Conference" of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - "America's Pro-Israel Lobby") starts on Saturday, March 11 and runs through Tuesday morning, March 13. The AIPAC web site says:

This year, top Congressional leaders and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will be among numerous speakers at what will be AIPAC's largest ever Policy Conference March 11-13.  6000 delegates are expected to lobby on behalf of issues affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The afternoon of Tuesday, March 11 is dedicated to lobbying of Congress:

Lobbying on Tuesday

Face-to-face meetings with members of Congress are one of the highlights—and most important aspects—of AIPAC's Policy Conference. The conference ends at approximately 11 a.m. on Tuesday, but lobbying appointments will follow immediately after, so please don't make arrangements to leave earlier than 3 p.m. on March 13.

What is AIPAC? According to their own web site:

For more than half a century, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has worked to help make Israel more secure by ensuring that American support remains strong.  From a small public affairs boutique in the 1950s, AIPAC has grown into a 100,000-member national grassroots movement described by The New York Times as "the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel."

AIPAC lists among its "achievements":

As America's leading pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC works with both Democratic and Republican political leaders around the country to ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong and vital. With the support of its members nationwide, AIPAC has worked with Congress and the Executive Branch on numerous critical initiatives, ...

They fail to list among their achievements the inciting of the invasion of Iraq and the inciting of saber-rattling with Iran.

While the media covers the Saudi-Iran meeting and attempts to deal with sectarian violence in the Middle East, AIPAC's main web page has as its top "briefing":

Iran's President Says Israel is a "Manifestation of Satan"

As Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday that "the Zionists are the true manifestation of Satan," Iran's official news service reported.  "Today the Zionist regime is a symbol of hedonism and the manifestation of the ugly soul of some usurper powers that support it," Ahamadinejad exclaimed.  He has previously called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and branded the Holocaust a "myth."  Iran has failed to obey the U.N. Security Council's demand that it halt its efforts to enrich uranium - a key step toward developing atomic arms - and faces additional sanctions if its non-compliance continues.

There is a very serious need for very serious diplomacy in the Middle East, but all AIPAC can bring itself to do is to further fan the flames of passion.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Did the Saudi-Iran meeting accomplish anything?

Whether the Saudi-Iran meeting this weekend accomplished anything tangible is irrelevant. Ultimately, this will likely be considered one of those watershed moments when relations between counties make a significant change in direction. Before this meeting, a lot of things were deeply adrift in the Middle East. Now, after this meeting, there may be the seeds of a sense that the "neighbors" can come together and forge some sense of direction for the region, rather than drift aimlessly and let interlopers such as the U.S. invade and wreak their own form of havoc.

I absolutely do not expect any significant tangible actions in the near term, and it will be very difficult to say with any certainty whether ideas discussed at the meeting will have had any influence on how events unfold over the coming weeks, months, and years, but I have a suspicion that there will be some influence. Whether that influence ends up being a  big net positive remains to be seen.

In any case, I do consider the meeting itself a positive and progress.

-- Jack Krupansky

Do foreign holdings of U.S. government debt pose a threat to the economy?

There is an ongoing debate about whether foreign holdings of U.S. government debt pose a threat to the economy, but there is a complete absence of hard evidence or solid reasoning to suggest that there is any threat at all. Sure, you can concoct artificial scenarios where there might be a threat, but we should focus on realistic and likely scenarios.

Interest rates, foreign exchange rates, foreign trade, levels of government debt, government budgets and budget gaps, and central bank reserve decisions will fluctuate and be all over the map in the coming years and decades. That is normal and an indication of a healthy global financial system.

The only true "threats" that would occur on any of these fronts would arise from either a deep and prolonged recession or a protracted bout of runaway inflation, neither of which is in the cards.

Much of the "threat" worry was concocted by speculators and Wall Street "analysts" who have sought to increase volatility in the financial system to boost their own profits. This is known as "talking your book", and it is not reasonable and not something that sane investors should tolerate or encourage or participate in.

This trumped-up "issue" has taken on a political dimension, rendering the debate even more irrational than it already was.

So, the level of threat posed to the economy by foreign holdings of U.S. government debt is simply: virtually nonexistent.

-- Jack Krupansky

Is the Iraq "surge" working or failing?

It is completely unclear whether the "surge" in Iraq may actually be doing at least a little bit of good, or whether it is a complete failure. To be sure, there is still plenty of chaos, but some of that was inevitable, and it is not clear if the troops are really all in place and actually executing on their "surge" plans.

My own belief is that the "surge" is simply completely irrelevant. It ultimately cannot succeed if Iraq's leaders don't get their act together, and the getting of their act together is in no way dependent on the presence of U.S. troops.

The real bottom line is that I don't sense that Iraq is much worse than a month ago. Not that it is clearly better than a month ago, but at least Iraq's leaders are grinding through the process of evolving towards a consensus about how the country will be led.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, March 03, 2007

United Way "tax"

I've never been into the whole charity giving thing. In my world view, all of these "social" needs should be taken care of by our government, federal, state, county, local. Not that it works out that way in practice given our "divided" government, but that is my preference. Now that I am a full-time employee of "The Evil Empire", I have to deal with something the company calls "the annual 'Giving Campaign'" which is held in the early fall each year. It is completely voluntary and nobody twists your arm or anything and it is not relevant to your performance rating, raises, promotions, or bonuses, but there is still some amount of "pressure" to participate.

I had heard about it long before I joined the company back in May 2006, and knew that eventually I would have to deal with it, and half-expected that I could simply ignore it. I was actually a bit surprised that it didn't come up as a topic at the initial "NEO" (New Employee Orientation) or any of the other initial bureaucratic processes of becoming a new employee. I even went three and a half months before I heard about it sometime late in August. Again, initially I considered ignoring it since it is strictly voluntary, and besides, I was still struggling to cope with the aftermath of bankruptcy six months earlier.

But then I reconsidered, not because I have any interest in giving money (or time) to any of these "charities", but simply because one of my top goals is to simply be a "good corporate citizen." Sure, I'm willing to rock the boat when it's needed, but it gives you a little more credibility when you are a hard-core, solid corporate citizen most of the time.

Although nominally not targeted at any particular charity and not even restricted to a specific list of "approved" charities, the primary focus of the "Giving Campaign" is the local United Way for Kings County. So, I refer to this "giving" as "The United Way Tax."

You can designate your contributions to a variety of charities, including the United Way itself, with any dollar or percentage allocation you want between multiple charities.

The convenient thing is that you can elect to simply have your contribution deducted from your twice-monthly pay check, so even if you make a fairly hefty contribution for the entire year, you hardly even notice it from your paycheck. On a semi-monthly basis, the amount of my contribution corresponds roughly the amount I might spend eating at a fairly decent restaurant. My payroll deductions started  with the first pay period in January.

They have a concept of "Leadership" which is simply a dollar threshold ($1,000 per year) designed to acknowledge and recognize those making significantly higher than average contributions.

Initially, I considered making only a nominal contribution, barely enough to say that I am a good corporate citizen with a straight face, but I eventually decided to do the "Leadership" thing so that it was crystal clear that I was being a rock-solid good citizen, even if I wasn't morally 100% behind the concept of the charities. I even decided to contribute well above the "Leadership" level just to avoid the appearance of trying to barely meet the threshold bar.

Then I had to decide which charity to give to or to just punt and designate the local United Way and let them distribute the money (after spending a chunk of it on "overhead".)

I sifted through the list of suggested charities and ran across something called the "Gates Challenge", which is a relatively small fund set up by the big Bill & Melinda Gates fund, which matches contributions and targets them to an endowment fund for the local United Way which pays for a big chunk of their "overhead" expenses from the income of the endowment. If addition to the company match for my contribution, the Gates Challenge provides an additional match, so that the United Way endowment gets $3 for every $1 I contribute. This seemed like an ideal "contribution" vehicle for me.

My focusing 100% of my contribution to the Gates Challenge is a multi-win for just about everybody:

  1. More of the money of all non-endowment contributors to the United Way goes to their desired charities since less of the money goes to overhead since the income from my endowment contribution pays more of the overhead.
  2. Charities get more of the contributors' money from United Way.
  3. Charities are able to assist more people with that additional money.
  4. Better funding for "overhead" helps United Way provide more efficient and more effective support for the individual charities and their fund-raising efforts.
  5. Not one penny of my own contribution goes towards any of the charities which I may not be supportive of.
  6. Not one penny of my contribution even goes towards United Way overhead which may not be very efficiently or effectively managed since only the income from my endowment contribution gets spent.
  7. My contribution lives on and is not spent to zero within the year. My contribution sits in the endowment, earning interest and investment income year after year.

So, although I have reservations about the whole charity thing, at least I found an approach that works for me, is not a financial burden for me, is satisfying for me, and delivers value to the charities and the people they serve.

If only all "taxes" had this degree of flexibility.

-- Jack Krupansky

Connect the dots intelligence is beginning to lose its appeal

An article in The New York Times by Mark Mazzetti entitled "Latest Reports on Iran and North Korea Show a Newfound Caution Among Analysts" tells us about "a new willingness by American spy agencies to concede the limits of their knowledge." The Neoconservatives' much-vaunted "connect the dots" approach to stretching a few vague tidbits into an elaborate conspiracy theory is quickly losing sway. Until recently, the administration's threshold for intelligence was that "policy makers must assume the worst about the intentions of adversaries, even with imperfect intelligence about their intentions and capabilities." Now, at least some within the administration now accept a new "directive" which states that "the analytic process must be as transparent as possible" and that "analysis must be objective and independent of political considerations."

I don't think we're there yet, especially since Bush and Cheney are still calling the shots, but also because many Republicans in Congress are still addicted to the emotionally seductive allure of "connecting the dots", even if it is unlikely to lead them to the truth.

-- Jack Krupansky