SOCIAL VOX

My thoughts on the world around me

Earmark Ban Doesn’t Really Ban Anything

Interest groups, lawmakers and lobbyists will have to be a little more creative to get funding for their pet projects. With President Barack Obama imposing an earmark ban on the $825 billion-dollar stimulus bill, lobbyists and others will have to seek money through “ready to go” jobs eligible for the stimulus plan.

This brand of politics disgusts me. It’s the very reason why people become so disillusioned by their government and the K Street, fork-tongued crowd that compete for its power and wealth. Some will argue that lobbying is a necessary evil in politics, or perhaps not an evil at all. For every lobbyist seeking to help the “mom and pop” shops, though, there are a million Jack Abramoffs who suck the life and idealism right out of public service.

From his years in law school, Obama should know that if the four corners of a document are not absolutely airtight, clever people will have their way with the fine print. Mr. President, if you truly did not want any earmarks whatsoever, you and your staff should have chosen the stimulus bill’s words more carefully.

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Economics, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ex-Gitmo Detainee Joins al-Qaeda in Yemen

Said Ali Al-Shihri, a Saudi man who spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, is now the No. 2 of the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda. Following President Barack Obama’s executive order to close down the Cuban prison within a year, this news only underscores the complexity of the issue.

Several experts have said that the detainees fall into three categories:

1. Those who can be tried in a U.S. court;

2. Those who can be returned to their home country, or a third country, and be tried there; and

3. Some detainees who cannot be tried in the U.S. or returned to their home or third country (the most difficult category)

Given the difficulty in resolving this issue, it’s no surprise that the Democrats and Republicans have conflicting views on yesterday’s executive order.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), who heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said that Guantanamo prison should still be closed in spite of today’s report:

What it tells me is that President Obama has to proceed extremely carefully. But there is really no justification and there was no justification for disappearing people in a place that was located offshore of America so it was outside the reach of U.S. law[.]

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the executive order as it was “very short on specifics.” He went on to say that former Guantanamo detainees are “back on the battlefield. They are attacking American troops.”

Closing the prison is symbolic and essential to our foreign policy objectives. The prison had become a propaganda tool for insurgents throughout the Middle East. Obama also seems to be keenly aware that it will not be easy to adjudicate each and every one of these cases. Some prisoners are very dangerous, but the extent of the evidence against them is razor thin.

Giving himself a year to handle this issue was a prudent move. Obama will have to proceed cautiously, and be aware that what is at stake is allowing more people like Al-Shihri to take to the battlefield against American soldiers.

That would be an unforgivable mistake.

January 23, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Law, Obama's First 100 Days, Politics, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

U.S. Selling Bomb Parts to Iran

Yes, your eyes have not deceived you. The United States is selling bomb parts to Iran. How?

According to Joby Warrick, Iran is using several front companies, from the United Arab Emirates to Malaysia, to acquire weapons parts. Since Iran cannot buy directly from the US due to strict exporting laws, it’s using dummy corporations, littered throughout the globe, in order to bring western technology into Tehran.

The article notes how complex the issue has become:

While illegal trafficking in weapons technology has occurred for decades — most notably in the case of the nuclear smuggling ring operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan — the new documents suggest that recent trading is nearly all Internet-based and increasingly sophisticated.

Many of the schemes unknowingly involve U.S. companies that typically have no clue where their products are actually going, the records show.

“The schemes are so elaborate, even the most scrupulous companies can be deceived,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and co-author of a forthcoming study of black markets for weapons components.

Albright said the deceptions can be even more elaborate when the target is nuclear technology. “That’s where the stakes are the highest,” he said. “If Iran is successful, it ends up not with an IED but with a nuclear weapon.”

This issue has a sad, dramatic flair to it:

Iran in the past two years has acquired numerous banned items — including circuit boards, software and Global Positioning System devices — that are used to make sophisticated versions of the improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that continue to kill U.S. troops in Iraq[.]

American technology is killing American soldiers.

As I read the article, two things struck me in particular:

1. How much research is going into finding out where these parts are going?

2. Weapons trade is a monster that the US has no control over.

First, do US companies know who they are selling these sensitive materials to? It does not seem as though much research is going into it. The article notes this very same point:

Typically, the new front companies will not be discovered until long after crucial technology has left American shores aboard ships ultimately bound for Iran, Albright said.

Based on the above statement, US companies apparently do discover, at some point, that Iran is the end-user. How long does that process take? Couldn’t they just hold on to the technology until they are absolutely certain where the parts are headed?

Second, the US has no control over their weapons market. According to the article, they’re selling parts out of “California, Florida, Georgia and New Jersey.” Are these plants all operating under the US government, or are they separate private entities. I think that’s an important distinction that needs clarifying.

I find the distinction important because, presumably, the US would be looking out for US interests. The US would have to think in terms of national security, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, a private company is ultimately looking to turn a profit. A private engineering firm will be focused on the bottom line, and not take the risk of losing potential buyers if their turn-around proves too slow.

Ultimately, the article points out the difficulty the US is having in reigning this issue in:

“The current system of export controls doesn’t do enough to stop illicit trade before the item is shipped,” he said. “Having a law on the books is not the same as having a law enforced.”

The article makes a dangerous revelation: the war on terror is escalating, not just in intensity but in complexity. Worst of all, the US is being outmaneuvered.

January 11, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Foreign Policy, International Trade, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Richardson Withdraws Bid, Possible “Pay-to-Play” Scandal

Richardson withdraws bid to be commerce secretary – Yahoo! News.

Man, Obama just can’t catch a break. Multiple bailouts, the corruption scandal in Illinois (we still really don’t know the extent of his transition staff’s involvement), the Israeli-Palestinian escalating conflict, and now Bill Richardson’s possible “pay-to-play” situation — all before he even takes office.

It seems a California-based company that contributed to Richardson’s political activities was later granted a state contract worth over $1 billion.

Secretary of Commerce was a mere consolation prize for Mr. Richardson, at one time thought to be the next Secretary of State. Now, that’s all a moot point. Mr. Richardson has withdrawn his candidacy so that the new administration doesn’t “delay for one day the important work that needs to be done.”

Mr. Richardson, I hope you and your staff have some good attorneys.

January 4, 2009 Posted by | Law, Politics | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Israel, Watch Your Step

According to this NY Times article, Israel is facing a political quagmire: how far should it take this military campaign against Hamas?

Israel’s main concern is addressing the rockets being fired into southern Israel. So the question becomes: can the rockets be stopped for any length of time while Hamas remains in power? If not, then is the operation to remove Hamas entirely, at any cost?

In 2006, Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the terrorist organization was legitimized. Here, it seems that Israel is facing a very similar problem. Aluf Benn, a political analyst for Haaretz, contends that if the war ends in a draw, then Hamas will be legitimized and grow stronger.

Most people, including many Israelis, would prefer that a truce be brokered. Any potential truce would likely have to include an end to the economic boycott that Israel has imposed on Gaza. However, such a result would build up Hamas. If the boycott remains in place, though, 1.5 million Gazans will remain living in poverty.

The article goes on to say that Israel can only achieve victory if it were to once again occupy Gaza.

As several political insiders point out, though, removing Hamas would be unrealistic. Hamas won a democratic majority four years ago, and the group has 15,000-20,000 armed men.

What about the Fatah party? Couldn’t it just take the place of Hamas, as it once did? The article points out that Fatah is likely too disorganized to take over. Complicating this matter further, the longer Israel retains a military presence in Gaza, the weaker Fatah becomes. In the minds of Gazans, it would appear as though Fatah were collaborating with Israel.

Ultimately, the article notes that the destruction of Hamas’ infrastructure would likely result in chaos. With no influx of capital, and no political party to maintain order, Gazans won’t know which way is north.

If Israel’s goal is to reach a peaceful accord with its surrounding enemies, it had better calculate its moves very, very carefully.

January 3, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Law, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment