In the USA...
October 15, 2012
U.S. to Help Create an Elite Libyan Force to Combat Islamic Extremists
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and State Department are speeding up efforts to help the Libyan government create a commando force to combat Islamic extremists like the ones who killed the American ambassador in Libya last month and to help counter the country’s fractious militias, according to internal government documents.
The Obama administration quietly won Congress’s approval last month to shift about $8 million from Pentagon operations and counterterrorism aid budgeted for Pakistan to begin building an elite Libyan force over the next year that could ultimately number about 500 troops. American Special Operations forces could conduct much of the training, as they have with counterterrorism forces in Pakistan and Yemen, American officials said.
The effort to establish the new unit was already under way before the assault that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya. But the plan has taken on new urgency as the new government in Tripoli tries to assert control over the country’s militant factions.
According to an unclassified internal State Department memo sent to Congress on Sept. 4, the plan’s goal is to enhance “Libya’s ability to combat and defend against threats from Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” A companion Pentagon document envisions that the Libyan commando force will “counter and defeat terrorist and violent extremist organizations.” Right now, Libya has no such capability, American officials said.
A final decision on the program has not been made, and many details, like the size, composition and mission of the force, are still to be determined. But American government officials say they have discussed the plan’s broad outlines with senior Libyan military and civilian officials as part of a broader package of American security assistance.
“The proposal reflects the security environment and the uncertainty coming out of the government transition in Libya,” said a senior Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the program has not been officially announced. “The multimilitia fabric that’s providing security there needs to be brought into a more integrated national security system.”
A spokesman for Libya’s new president, Mohamed Magariaf, did not respond to detailed inquiries by e-mail, and other Libyan military officials did not return phone calls. Its transitional government continues to be in a state of flux as a newly chosen prime minister prepares to appoint defense and interior ministers.
Libyan commentators have expressed hope that a Western power would help train the country’s fledgling national army, so the proposal might be well received. But it still faces many challenges, including how to get the powerful militias to buy into it while taming their influence, and vetting a force to weed out Islamic extremists.
“Over all, it’s a sound strategy, but my concern is that in the vetting they make sure this doesn’t become a Trojan horse for the militias to come in,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who visited Libya recently and wrote a paper last month on security in the country, “The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya.”
Mr. Wehrey cautioned that many Libyan officers and soldiers would also need training in English to help them understand various manuals. Other officials warned that any program must be transparent to the Libyan people to avoid starting rumors of ulterior American motives for wanting to train the new commandos. Also, trainers would have to build the professionalism in the officer corps that was lacking under the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Wehrey said.
The internal State Department budget document to Congress states that the program will also be “encouraging increased professionalism and respect for human rights.” It also proposes using some of the money to buy unspecified equipment for the commandos.
The document also describes an additional $4 million to help Libya improve control of its borders. After the revolution, vast arsenals of the Qaddafi-era army were looted, and Western officials are particularly worried that thousands of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles were spirited out of the country, possibly into the hands of extremist groups.
The proposed Libyan commando force springs from an unusual partnership between the State Department and the Pentagon. Just last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the defense secretary at the time, Robert M. Gates, agreed to pool resources from their departments in a fund approved by Congress to respond more quickly to emerging threats from Al Qaeda and other militants in places like Libya, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
The program, the Global Security Contingency Fund, is small as government projects go with a budget of up to $250 million a year, mostly from the Pentagon, but it is meant to address many of the government’s counterterrorism and broader security challenges over several years.
American officials have had an eye on helping Libya since the NATO-led operation toppled Colonel Qaddafi’s government last year, and new civilian leaders began trying to bring order to the country.
In the first visit by an American defense secretary to Libya, Leon E. Panetta pledged last December that the United States “stands ready to offer security assistance cooperation once the government identifies its needs.” Mr. Panetta did not discuss the commando force during the visit, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Under Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan Army had special forces units, but they were not particularly well trained or trusted by the government, American officials said. Members of the special forces in the east were among the first to defect, and American officials now envision a new, properly trained commando force as the core around which to rebuild the Libyan military.
The $8 million is considered seed money to begin building and equipping the commando force. One American official who formerly served in Libya said the initial vetting would probably be conducted by American and Libyan officials, and would include screening for physical skills, mental aptitude and ties to extremist groups that were hostile to the Libyan government.
American trainers would likely focus on basic skills, like marksmanship and small-arms tactics, and then move on to more advanced counterterrorism, reconnaissance and hostage-rescue skills.
“It’s basically a quick-reaction force at first,” said the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the planning.
Officials in Washington said they were expecting a final decision on the plan by the end of the year, with trainers fielding the initial units within 12 months.
The fluid, shifting security landscape is driving both American and Libyan officials to speed up the planning.
“The bad guys are making plans and organizing,” said the American official who formerly served in Libya. “It’s a footrace between the extremist groups and the Libyan government that’s trying to get organized.”
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya.
October 15, 2012
Clinton Takes Responsibility for Security Failure in Libya
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — On the eve of the second presidential debate, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday night that she took “responsibility” for the failure to successfully defend against the Sept. 11 attack on the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
“I take responsibility,” she said in an interview with CNN. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha.”
Mrs. Clinton made the comments shortly after she arrived in Lima, Peru, for a diplomatic visit, and they appeared to be an effort to inoculate President Obama from criticism for any security lapses in Libya as he prepared for Tuesday’s debate with Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.
In a speech on Friday, Mrs. Clinton argued for continued American engagement in the volatile regions of the Middle East. She said it was the State Department’s responsibility to make sure that diplomats had the resources to carry out their duties abroad. But she stopped short then of taking responsibility for the events in Benghazi that led to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Over the past week there has been an escalating debate over the security measures that the Obama administration established for the American Embassy in Tripoli and its diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
In a hearing last week, the embassy’s former security officer contended that the State Department had rejected his requests to extend security arrangements that were in place at the time.
Republican lawmakers have sought to focus on the White House’s role. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. sought to blunt that criticism during his debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, by asserting that he had not been informed of security requests from the field.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in an interview on Monday that he had sent two letters to the administration. One asked leaders of Mr. Obama’s national security team if they had informed the president of attacks against the Benghazi compound carried out in April and June and, if so, what action they had recommended. He said he had sent a separate letter to the president asking if he had been informed of those attacks and, if so, what actions he had taken.
“If he was informed, it is nobody’s responsibility other than the commander in chief to take corrective action,” Mr. Graham added, using the sort of arguments that Mr. Romney is expected to make on Tuesday.
In the CNN interview, Mrs. Clinton sought to explain why the administration had asserted that the attack in Benghazi was preceded by a demonstration over an anti-Islamic video, but later reported that there appeared to have been no such protest.
She said there is often confusion after such an attack. The State Department was involved in an “intense, long ordeal” to find out what had occurred, Mrs. Clinton said. She said her goal was to ensure that such attacks did not happen again.
“We can’t not engage,” she said. “We cannot retreat.”
October 15, 2012
Election-Year Stakes Overshadow Nuances of Libya Investigation
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — After a month of conflicting statements and partisan criticism, the circumstances surrounding the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, have become clouded in ambiguities and questions: Did the attack grow out of anger against an American-made video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, or was it waged by an affiliate of Al Qaeda out to mark the 11th anniversary of its attack on United States soil?
To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence.
“It was the Ansar al-Shariah people,” said Mohamed Bishari, a 20-year-old neighbor who watched the assault and described the brigade he saw leading the attack. “There was no protest or anything of that sort.”
United States intelligence agencies have reserved final judgment pending a full investigation, leaving open the possibility that anger at the video might have provided an opportunity for militants who already harbored anti-American feelings. But so far the intelligence assessments appear to square largely with local accounts. Whether the attackers are labeled “Al Qaeda cells” or “aligned with Al Qaeda,” as Republicans have suggested, depends on whether that label can be used as a generic term for a broad spectrum of Islamist militants, encompassing groups like Ansar al-Shariah whose goals were primarily local, as well as those who aspire to join a broader jihad against the West.
But in the heated election-year American political debate such distinctions have been lost, scholars said, as the administration has framed the attack around the need for American outreach to the Arab world, while Republicans have focused on the perils of American weakness there.
And the result has produced accounts at great variance with what witnesses said they saw.
To those on the ground, circumstances of the attack are hardly a mystery. Most of the attackers made no effort to hide their faces or identities, and during the assault some acknowledged to a Libyan journalist working for The New York Times that they belonged to the group. And their attack drew a crowd, some of whom cheered them on, some of whom just gawked, and some of whom later looted the compound.
The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day. The assailants approvingly recalled a 2006 assault by local Islamists that had destroyed an Italian diplomatic mission in Benghazi over a perceived insult to the prophet. In June the group staged a similar attack against the Tunisian Consulate over a different film, according to the Congressional testimony of the American security chief at the time, Eric A. Nordstrom.
At a news conference the day after the ambassador and three other Americans were killed, a spokesman for Ansar al-Shariah praised the attack as the proper response to such an insult to Islam. “We are saluting our people for this zeal in protecting their religion, to grant victory to the Prophet,” the spokesman said. “The response has to be firm.” Other Benghazi militia leaders who know the group say its leaders and ideology are all homegrown. Those leaders, including Ahmed Abu Khattala and Mohammed Ali Zahawi, fought alongside other commanders against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Their group provides social services and guards a hospital. And they openly proselytize for their brand of puritanical Islam and political vision.
They profess no interest in global fights against the West or distant battles aimed at removing American troops from the Arabian Peninsula.
Nevertheless, the group’s motivation became a source of disagreement. At last week’s Congressional hearing, Mr. Nordstrom tried to contradict lawmakers who insisted the group was at least “loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda.”
Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, cut him off. “Don’t split words,” he said. “It is a terrorist organization.”
Some analysts argue that the White House, meanwhile, sought to play down any potential characterization of the assault as a Qaeda attack, because that would undercut its claims to have crushed Al Qaeda.
Libyan guards at the Benghazi compound and other witnesses told journalists working for The New York Times as early as Sept. 12 that the streets outside the mission were quiet in the moments before the attack had begun, without any prior protests.
Other Benghazi militia leaders who know Ansar al-Shariah say it was capable of carrying out the attack by itself with only a few hours’ planning, and as recently as June one of its leaders, Mr. Zahawi, declared that it could destroy the American Mission. But in the days after the attack the Obama administration’s surrogates said it grew out of a peaceful protest against the video.
Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who advised the Bush administration on the domestic politics of its foreign policy, said, “The line was ‘Osama bin Laden has been killed, the war on terror has been won,’ so why muddy that?” He added, “Faced with a range of possibilities, they went with the one that was politically convenient.”
On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told CNN, “I take responsibility” for protecting diplomats. “I want to avoid some kind of political gotcha,” she said.
But in a speech at the United Nations 10 days after the attack she became the first administration official to suggest that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb might have had some role. “They are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi,” she said.
United States intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said they intercepted boastful phone calls after the fact from attackers at the mission to individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But they have also said that so far they had found no evidence of planning or instigation by the group. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, described the participation of individuals “linked to groups affiliated with or sympathetic with Al Qaeda” — acknowledging, at best, a tenuous or indirect link.
“It is a promiscuous use of ‘Al Qaeda,’ ” Michael Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation, said of those charging that Al Qaeda was behind this attack. “It can mean anything or nothing at all.”
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya.
October 14, 2012
There are many unanswered questions about the vicious assault in Benghazi last month that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. And Congress has a responsibility to raise them. But Republican lawmakers leading the charge on Capitol Hill seem more interested in attacking President Obama than in formulating an effective response.
It doesn’t take a partisan to draw that conclusion. The ugly truth is that the same people who are accusing the administration of not providing sufficient security for the American consulate in Benghazi have voted to cut the State Department budget, which includes financing for diplomatic security. The most self-righteous critics don’t seem to get the hypocrisy, or maybe they do and figure that if they hurl enough doubts and complaints at the administration, they will deflect attention from their own poor judgments on the State Department’s needs.
At a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last Wednesday, Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California and the committee’s chairman, talked of “examining security failures that led to the Benghazi tragedy.” He said lawmakers had an obligation to protect federal workers overseas. On Sunday, he said more should be spent on diplomatic security.
But as part of the Republican majority that has controlled the House the last two years, Mr. Issa joined in cutting nearly a half-billion dollars from the State Department’s two main security accounts. One covers things like security staffing, including local guards, armored vehicles and security technology; the other, embassy construction and upgrades. In 2011 and 2012, President Obama sought a total of $5 billion, and the House approved $4.5 billion. In 2009, Mr. Issa voted for an amendment that would have cut nearly 300 diplomatic security positions. And the draconian budgets proposed by Mitt Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, would cut foreign affairs spending by 10 percent in 2013 and even more in 2016.
Since 9/11, the United States has spent millions of dollars building new embassies and consulates around the world and fortifying existing ones. But despite the investment, there is still a lot of work to do to bring all facilities into compliance with safety standards that were set in 1985 after the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and then updated after the attacks on the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Maybe now Congress will see fit to provide more money to do it.
Clearly, there is much we don’t know about what happened in Benghazi or what changes could have saved the four Americans. The former security chief at the embassy in Tripoli has been critical of the administration and said he had requested more security from State Department officials. However, he also said that a higher wall or a half-dozen more security guards would not have been enough to respond to the attack. (In the last debate, Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. said of the consulate in Benghazi, “we did not know they wanted more security.”)
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has appointed a panel of outside experts to investigate. More spending on security improvements will certainly help, but there will still be threats and risks. America’s diplomats must be protected, but they cannot do their jobs and interact with the world if they operate only behind fortress walls. There will always have to be a balance. Ambassador Stevens knew that.
October 15, 2012
Debt Impasse Shadows Race for Presidency
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Mitt Romney will again debate their visions for the next four years on Tuesday night, and if the campaign so far is any guide, they will not acknowledge that the winner’s agenda could depend on the fiscal showdown between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
If Mr. Romney wins, Republicans say they would seek to delay the year-end deadline for a bipartisan deal by up to a year to give him time to flesh out his budget plans and get Democrats to agree. But even if Democrats and the financial markets go along with the delay, the months before Mr. Romney’s swearing-in could be as crucial to his presidency as the transition period was for Mr. Obama four years ago, when the economic crisis led him to draft a big stimulus package while President George W. Bush still occupied the White House.
Mr. Romney’s ability to foster cooperation at the outset could determine his success on a range of issues. Yet Democrats have been dismissive, at best, about his budget plans, which have few specifics on how Mr. Romney would reduce deficits. He has mostly spoken about cutting taxes and increasing military spending.
Mr. Obama, if he loses, would still be president for the lame-duck Congress, but he would have limited leverage. If he gets another four years in the White House, he already has plans to go right back on the campaign trail to build support for his deficit-reduction framework, Democrats say, and administration officials are debating whether Mr. Obama should make some concession to Republicans to spur negotiations.
Without agreement of some kind, more than $700 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts would occur after Dec. 31, scheduled by a mix of coincidence and bipartisan agreement. How the re-elected president navigates this “fiscal cliff” could determine how much political clout and budget resources he will have.
“I think it’s the whole ballgame for the second term,” said John D. Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, who led Mr. Obama’s postelection transition planning four years ago.
Politically, Mr. Obama would have to build trust with Republican leaders who had hoped to make him a one-term president, even as he remained in campaign mode, seeking to assert his claim to a mandate to make the necessary trade-offs on spending and taxes. And the strength he shows in dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill could also set the tone for the debate on other knotty issues, like immigration and climate change.
Substantively, any agreement in Congress, which opens a week after the election, could define the terms for how Mr. Obama and lawmakers move next year on efforts to contain the long-term costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the programs that are driving forecasts of unsustainable debt. And it would determine how much money is available to address Mr. Obama’s priorities like education, energy and health care through his term.
“Absent this kind of a deal, I really don’t see what his second term does,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former House member.
To begin his fight for that deal, Mr. Obama would revive his dormant year-old deficit-reduction plan, which relies on tax increases on high incomes as well as spending cuts.
“He believes he has to play the outside game, so he’ll go all around the country and say, ‘Look, we need revenues,’ ” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
Mr. Obama, advisers say, will seek to mobilize Americans behind his argument that his plan is a balanced and more economically prudent alternative than to simply allow automatic across-the-board spending cuts to take effect and all Bush-era income-tax rate cuts to expire.
He will reinforce his vow not to sign another extension of the Bush tax cuts — which expire on Dec. 31 — except for taxable income below $250,000. The Democrats hope that will force Republicans to drop their demand to continue tax cuts for high incomes, lest they get the blame for an impasse that causes taxes to go up for everyone.
“I think back in the vault is an Obama plan to put on the table,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. “He’s not going to let that opportunity on Nov. 13” — when Congress returns — “come and go without asserting some leadership.”
If Mr. Obama fails to win a broad budget compromise, Mr. Podesta said, his domestic agenda in a second term could be limited to finishing the main achievement of his first four years, his health care law. Its final stage takes effect in 2014, expanding private insurance to about 30 million uninsured Americans.
“He’s got to win a battle for a fiscal framework that gives him the ability to make the kind of investments that he’s out on the campaign trail talking about — whether that’s education, innovation, science and tech, infrastructure,” Mr. Podesta said. “He can’t go from one draining budget battle to the next.”
Because the budget impasse “has become emblematic of Washington’s dysfunction to people, I think their capacity to trust us here on a whole range of issues — on energy, immigration, education — is at risk if we don’t figure out how to come together in a bipartisan way to solve this problem,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado.
People in both parties say much would depend on Mr. Obama’s margin of victory and how Republicans would interpret a loss. “Do they take that as, ‘Well, Obama won and he really took it to us on the issues, and we lost so we need to be reasonable?’ ” said a senior House Republican aide, who did not want to be identified discussing party strategy. “Or is it an all-out blame fest — ‘Mitt Romney was a horrible candidate. We didn’t really lose. Romney lost.’ ”
At the center of Republicans’ calculations would be two leaders who have had rancorous relationships with Mr. Obama: Speaker John A. Boehner in the House and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader.
“By the time the polls have closed on election night, if it’s decided that Obama gets re-elected, both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner will be saying to each other, ‘We’re going to clean up in the 2014 midterms,’ ” said Mr. Weber, the former Republican congressman.
Typically the president’s party loses Congressional seats in midterm elections. Mr. McConnell is also up for re-election in 2014 in Kentucky. If he negotiates a tax-raising deal, it would all but ensure a Tea Party challenger in the Republican primary. More immediately, Mr. Boehner will need the support of antitax House Republicans to win another term as speaker in January.
And Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mr. Romney’s running mate, would return as House Budget Committee chairman, his conservative following there intact and his antitax instincts likely to be sharpened by the ambition he is said to have for the presidential nomination in 2016.
October 15, 2012
China and Its Trade Practices Are Coming to the Debates
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Halfway through the fall debates, the sparring between President Obama and Mitt Romney and their running mates has been notable for the absence of an issue Mr. Romney has pressed on the campaign trail and in his television advertising: China.
When American policy toward Beijing does come up Tuesday night — or next week, when it will be one of five designated topics in a debate focused solely on foreign affairs — Mr. Romney will have plenty of arguments to draw on.
In one recent ad, he accused the Obama administration of letting hundreds of thousands of American factory jobs vanish in the face of what he calls China’s unfair trade practices. “It’s time to stand up to the cheaters,” he says in the ad, “and make sure we protect jobs for the American people.”
And that is just part of a fusillade of soft-on-China accusations that Mr. Romney has leveled at Mr. Obama, who he says has allowed the Chinese to manipulate their currency, distort fair trade, steal American technology and hack into American government and corporate computers.
The Obama campaign has hardly been silent. In an ad earlier this month it said that while Mr. Romney ran a private equity firm, it invested in a Chinese company that exploited low-wage labor. “Mitt Romney tough on China? Since when?” the ad asks.
Many Asia experts say Mr. Romney’s comments are indeed tough. They begin with a pledge to brand Beijing a currency manipulator on his first day in office, and end with promises to increase America’s already formidable military presence in the western Pacific and sell new American fighter jets to Taiwan. Analysts say such moves would amount to a profound shift in a policy toward China that has remained remarkably constant for decades across Republican and Democratic administrations. And they would be virtually certain to upend relations with Beijing’s leaders.
Whether a President Romney would carry out such pledges, however, is another matter. ”There is a lot of game playing on both sides,” said Uri Dadush, director of the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Once in office, presidents tend to recognize that the Chinese don’t react well when you point a gun to their head.”
Even some of Mr. Obama’s own current and former aides acknowledge that Mr. Obama went too far to accommodate China’s leaders during his first year in office. The White House hardened its approach after the Chinese gave the cold shoulder to the United States on issues ranging from climate change to Iran’s nuclear program. The president then pursued trade grievances, firmed up diplomatic and military ties with Beijing’s neighbors and designated the western Pacific as a central focus of American military strategy.
Mr. Romney promises to display even more spine.
“The policy that Obama has adopted of constantly acquiescing to China, constantly giving China more room in the hope that China will grant us some concessions, simply hasn’t worked,” said Alex Wong, the campaign’s foreign policy director.
Mr. Romney often promises to officially declare that China is deliberately weakening its currency, the renminbi, to make its exports more competitive, thereby costing American jobs. That action would only trigger bilateral consultations. But should Beijing refuse to bend, he has said, he would instruct the Commerce Department to impose duties on Chinese imports.
In the 2008 presidential campaign Mr. Obama also promised to label China a currency manipulator. But once in office, he opted for behind-the-scenes pressure on Beijing to let the renminbi strengthen. So has every president since 1994. Many economists argue that the pressure, combined with China’s own desire to rebalance its economy, has worked. The renminbi is no longer grossly undervalued, they say, although other powerful hidden subsidies, like artificially low interest rates, remain. Since 2005, the renminbi has appreciated about 30 percent, the International Monetary Fund concluded in July, revising its status from “substantially” to “moderately undervalued.”
Similarly, China’s current account surplus — which measures in part how much more money China makes from exports than it spends on imports — has fallen to three percent of gross domestic product, down from 10 percent in 2007. That suggests a stronger renminbi has reduced the trade imbalance between China and its partners.
”I think we should declare victory,” said Nicholas R. Lardy, a senior economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The Carnegie Endowment’s Mr. Dadush asserts that Mr. Romney’s pledge makes “no economic or trade policy sense, given what China has done and given its importance.”
Grant D. Aldonas, Mr. Romney’s trade adviser and a Commerce under secretary for international trade during President George W. Bush’s first term, acknowledges the renminbi’s gains but argues the government recently has been suppressing its value.
The renminbi has indeed weakened one percent against the dollar since February, according to Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment. But Mr. Pettis argues that the reason for the renminbi’s fall is capital flight, not government intervention. So many Chinese are taking money out of the country that Beijing is “actually forcing the renminbi up, not down,” he said.
Mr. Romney is threatening to use the Commerce Department’s powers to unilaterally impose tariffs on Chinese products, while the Obama administration’s main tactic against unfair trade practices has been to bring cases before the World Trade Organization. Mr. Romney argues there is no need to hold back because a trade war is already under way. But many economists say the current battles are mere skirmishes, not a real trade war. They warn that unilateral sanctions could trigger Chinese retaliation that would more than offset any economic benefits.
Consider 2009, when the Commerce Department imposed a duty on imports of Chinese tires — a move sought by the United Steelworkers Union and widely criticized by economists and by Mr. Romney as politically motivated. Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert with the Peterson Institute, said the action protected at most 1,200 American jobs but last year alone cost American consumers $1.1 billion in higher-priced tires.
China responded with tariffs on imports of American chicken parts that cost American poultry producers an estimated $1 billion in lost sales. Last month, the Obama administration let the tire tariff quietly expire.
On the military front, Mr. Romney’s aides have said he wants to build up the American military presence to counter China’s influence in the western Pacific. The Obama administration has moved in that direction, expanding an Australian base to 2,500 Marines and stationing four combat ships in Singapore. Mr. Romney has also criticized President Obama’s 2011 decision to sell Taiwan $5.85 billion in military hardware to update its air force instead of approving Taiwan’s request for 66 new and more advanced F-16 fighters. As president, an aide said, Mr. Romney would approve such a request.
“There would be a tough Chinese reaction,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who described China’s opposition to the sale as an unofficial red line. “The question is how tough.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 16, 2012
An earlier version of this article misidentified the region that Mr. Obama designated as a central focus of American military strategy. It is the western Pacific, not east Pacific.
October 15, 2012
Justices to Review Voter Law in Arizona
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether Arizona may require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in federal elections. The federal appeals court in San Francisco blocked the state law in April, saying it conflicted with a federal one.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case early next year, and the law will remain suspended in the meantime.
The state law requires prospective voters to prove that they are citizens by providing copies of or information concerning various documents, including birth certificates, passports, naturalization papers or Arizona driver’s licenses, which are available only to people who are in the state lawfully.
The federal law, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, allows voters to register using a federal form that asks, “Are you a citizen of the United States?” Prospective voters must check a box for yes or no, and they must sign the form, swearing that they are citizens under penalty of perjury.
The question for the justices is whether the state was entitled to supplement those federal requirements with its own.
A divided 10-judge panel of the appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ruled that the two sets of requirements “do not operate harmoniously” and “are seriously out of tune with each other in several ways.”
The federal law requires state officials to “accept and use” the federal form, Judge Sandra S. Ikuta wrote for an eight-judge majority, while the additional requirements sometimes make that impossible.
The requirements were also at odds with the federal law’s attempt to streamline the registration process, she wrote.
In a concurrence, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said he found the case “difficult and perplexing,” largely because the Supreme Court has not set out principles for how to reconcile federal and state responsibilities for conducting federal elections.
In dissent, Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson wrote that the federal law specifically contemplated the use of a different form developed by the state, one that could itself test eligibility requirements, including citizenship.
The appeals court upheld a second part of the Arizona law that required registered voters to show identification in order to vote. That aspect of the decision is not before the Supreme Court.
In June, over the dissent of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the justices declined to stay the appeals court’s decision while state officials prepared their appeal. The effect of that order was to allow next month’s elections to proceed without the state law’s proof-of-citizenship requirement.
The law was a result of a 2004 voter initiative, and it has given rise to tangled proceedings ever since. Under the Voting Rights Act, Arizona was required to obtain federal approval before it changed its voting procedures. The Justice Department granted approval in 2005.
The next year, the Supreme Court unanimously voided an order from the Ninth Circuit that would have blocked the state law’s requirements in that year’s elections.
The recent decision from the 10-judge panel effectively affirmed a 2010 ruling from a three-judge panel that included Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2006 but occasionally acts as a visiting appeals court judge. She joined the majority in ruling that the state law was inconsistent with the federal one and so could not survive.
In urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, No. 12-71, state officials said the federal form amounted to an inadequate “honor system.”
October 15, 2012
F.D.A. Warns of Further Risk From Tainted Drugs
By DENISE GRADY and SABRINA TAVERNISE
Health officials are warning that more people may be at risk from contaminated drugs made by a Massachusetts company linked to a growing meningitis outbreak.
The Food and Drug Administration reported on Monday that the company’s products may have also caused other types of infections in patients who have had eye operations or open-heart surgery.
The new warning is based on only two cases, and it was not known for sure whether the company’s drugs had caused the infections. Officials did not say how many people may be at risk, but the number is potentially significant, and a statement from the agency warned doctors, “The F.D.A. recognizes that some health care professionals may receive a high volume of calls from patients or be concerned about having to notify many patients as a result of today’s announcement.”
The company, the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass., has already been linked to a meningitis outbreak that has killed 15 patients and infected 199 others in 15 states. The drug implicated in that outbreak is methylprednisolone acetate, a steroid used in spinal injections for back and neck pain. The drug is believed to have been contaminated with a fungus called Exserohilum, which causes a type of meningitis that is severe but not contagious.
Now, several other drugs made by the company are also possible suspects in infections. A heart-transplant patient exposed to a product that is used during open-heart surgery developed a chest infection with a different fungus, Aspergillus, the Food and Drug Adminstration said. The product is a cardioplegic solution, which is chilled and poured into the opened chest to stop the heart while surgeons work on it. Such solutions have caused problems in the past, according to the F.D.A., which reported that it issued a warning letter in 2006 to a firm that had produced a solution that caused fatal infections in three heart-surgery patients.
The agency emphasized that the heart case was still being investigated, and that it was possible that the infection had come from a source other than the cardioplegic solution. A second heart-surgery patient who had an Aspergillus infection and was initially reported to have received a solution made by the New England Compounding Center had been treated with solution made by another company.
Another patient contracted meningitis after receiving a spinal injection of another one of the company’s steroid solutions, triamcinolone acetonide.
The statement from the F.D.A. also warned of possible contamination in drugs made by the company that are injected into the eye or used during eye surgery.
The agency is recommending to doctors that all patients exposed to any of these products from the New England Compounding Center be notified of the risks and told to be on the alert for signs of infection, even though it is not clear whether the products caused the two additional infections.
Meningitis symptoms that patients are being told to watch for include fever, headache, neck stiffness, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and altered mental status.
Symptoms of other infections may include fever, swelling, increasing pain, and redness and warmth at the injection site. Eye infections may cause vision problems, pain, redness in the eye or discharge from the eye. Patients infected during heart surgery may have chest pain or drainage from their incisions.
The New England Compounding Center has shut down and recalled all its products. At least five states, besides Massachusetts, have suspended the company’s license: Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said on Monday that the fresh information “further underscores the need for an immediate criminal investigation.” The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the New England Compounding Center said on Monday that the company would “continue to cooperate with the F.D.A.”
The meningitis outbreak has opened a debate among legal scholars about how much authority the Food and Drug Administration has over the compounding industry.
Compounding — traditionally a practice in which pharmacies mix medicine for an individual patient — is regulated by states. But in recent decades, some pharmacies began to push the legal limits, becoming mini-drug companies largely out of reach of federal authorities. Federal officials say they do not know what share of the compounding market large-scale pharmacies represent.
“Our drug experts went into some of these operations, and they said, ‘Whoa, these don’t look like ordinary pharmacies,’ ” said Gary Dykstra, who was the F.D.A.’s deputy associate commissioner for regulatory affairs in the 1990s.
Some scholars argue that the agency had more power than it is willing to admit and simply failed to use it.
“They have adequate authority to act, full stop,” said Peter Barton Hutt, a lawyer at Covington & Burling L.L.P. in Washington, who has written extensively on compounding law. “The issue is priorities and resources. Large-scale compounding expanded because the F.D.A. was focusing on other things.”
Even when the United States Supreme Court overturned the first clear legal definition of compounding in 2002, the F.D.A. could still invoke the 1938 Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which forbids new, unapproved drugs to be sold across state lines, Mr. Hutt argued. The act was passed after more than 100 people died from an antibiotic that was prepared using a poisonous solvent.
But others contended that the agency had been more timid in pursuing compounders since the Supreme Court decision, in part because building a case meant figuring out how to defend it in court, and anchoring an argument is difficult because there are no laws or regulations formally defining compounded medications.
“There’s no bright line in statute distinguishing what the F.D.A. can regulate,” said Daniel Carpenter, a political scientist at Harvard University who specializes in regulatory law. “The only real attempt to draw one was in 1997, and that was struck down. Now to make a case they have to confront an army of industry lawyers.”
Politics were also important. Mr. Dykstra said the industry was adept at applying political pressure, which combined with the litigation, he argued, drained the enthusiasm in F.D.A. leadership to investigate.
“All the inspection work and the amount of time the F.D.A. was putting into it started to dry up,” said Mr. Dykstra, now a professor at the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the main trade association, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists has spent about $1.1 million on lobbying since 2000. It has also contributed, through a political action committee, to lawmakers’ campaigns.
October 15, 2012
After a Childhood Pouring Refills, Reaching Beyond the Past
By DAN BARRY
Bridgette the waitress glides through morning at Donna’s Diner with an easy, familiar air, as though she were born somewhere between the cash register and the coffee maker. She is a constant, like pancakes on the menu.
It has been this way since her hardworking grandmother, Donna Dove, opened the modest diner a dozen years ago here in the small Ohio city of Elyria. At 9 years old, Bridgette was taking phone orders, reciting daily specials and saving her tips for the princess canopy bed she had seen in a store window on Broad Street. Customers just loved little “Bridgy.”
Her mother and grandmother each became pregnant at 16, but little Bridgy Harvan, now almost 21, broke that emerging pattern. When not working, she attends Lorain County Community College, Elyria’s academic marvel. She studies her textbooks during the breaks in diner action, like a cartographer charting a path through the unknown.
All the while, though, she keeps an eye on her customers — especially the older regulars known as the Breakfast Club. They drink their coffee and reminisce about the days when Elyria was in ascent. She pours their coffee and tries to imagine such a place.
“More coffee, Jim?” she asks, wielding a coffeepot. “Dale, a refill?”
It is a small, unifying moment, shared between past and future in present-day Elyria, a city with cascading waterfalls and a declining downtown, Fortune 500 companies and a shuttered Y.M.C.A., upper-middle-class homes and homes in foreclosure, intense local pride and an acute need for economic rejuvenation.
“Speedy,” Bridgette calls to a white-haired man with a hearing aid. “Coffee?”
But as she patrols the narrow diner with coffeepot in hand, Bridgette is also juggling the hopes and obligations of a young woman trying to find her way. She is living with a boyfriend who is out of work. She is slowly inching toward degrees in ultrasound technology and business marketing. She is collecting coupons to save money. And lately she has been feeling tired, even a little woozy.
Bridgette can hardly be faulted, then, for not fully grasping the broad American experience to be found among her customers. With their anecdotes and war stories, these people provide the Elyrian context.
The Breakfast Club
Take the Breakfast Club. It began meeting many decades ago — before Donna was even born — at the old Paradise Restaurant on Broad Street, back when that commercial strip hummed. Its members carried “Birds of Paradise” business cards and flipped a coin daily to see who got stuck with the tab.
The faces changed with time, and so did the venue, as restaurants closed and downtown options narrowed. These days the gathering is at Donna’s Diner, in a 19th-century building on the city square, where the Breakfast Club’s nostalgia can create the illusion that Elyria’s manufacturing base never went away, that its commercial soul never fled to the Midway Mall on the city’s outskirts, near Interstates 80 and 90.
Here at the table, among others, are Jim Dall, who ran the Ford dealership, now gone; and John Murbach, who owned a prominent building-supply business, gone; and Janice Haywood, who with her husband, Tom, sold the finer things at Brandau Jewelers, gone.
Here, too, are Speedy Amos, who saw combat in both World War II and the Korean War; and Bill Balena, a bankruptcy lawyer whose business is hopping; and Connee Smith, who is related to THE Garfords, as in the industrialist Arthur Lovett Garford, the inventor of the padded bicycle seat. They used to say in Elyria that “Mr. Garford saved our butts.”
Bridgette and her mother, Kristy, take their orders, while Donna conducts the grill with her spatula baton, tucking at the whitening edges of eggs as she frets about unpaid bills and fewer customers. She is considering a suggestion by one of her regulars, a judge, to close the diner and run the cafeteria in the nearby county courthouse.
This, of course, would alter life in a small corner of Elyria and disrupt the general continuity of the Breakfast Club, whose daily gatherings are really extensions of the same never-ending meal. Conversations are left on the table, to be picked up like an unpaid tab the next morning, or maybe the next week.
These free-flowing discussions are salted with tidbits of Elyrian pride. The city’s founder, Heman Ely, a New Englander who came here in the early 1800s to build mills along the cascading Black River, is buried not far from the BP Station. The first chartered high school west of the Alleghenies is down the street. The First Congregational Church has stunning Tiffany stained glass.
The expected decorum at the table is the lack of it, reflected in everything from the mismatched plates and mugs to the occasional naughty aside.
“Good morning, ladies,” Dale Price, 70, a retired telephone repairman, says to his two eggs sunny-side up, jiggling them with his fork. But his plate has the last laugh; when he cuts into his sausage, juice squirts onto his blue shirt.
Eccentricities are tolerated. Everyone knows that Jim, 89, a fine athlete in his day, takes morning swims in his backyard pool, nude. That Dale always pays for his check with crisp $2 bills from the Lorain National Bank a few doors down. And that Speedy, 86, will inevitably bring up his battle career, for which he might receive a salute — partly in jest, mostly with deep respect.
As much as anyone, Speedy represents the Elyria that was.
Returning from World War II as a former Marine with shrapnel in his right arm — a piece of Okinawa — Speedy finished college at roughly the age that Bridgette is now, moved to Elyria from eastern Ohio and joined his uncle’s insurance agency, which was right across the street from where he sits in the diner. Was.
He rented a cheap room at the Y.M.C.A., bought a Ford from Jim Dall and joined the city’s upswing. Back then, you had the General Motors plant on Lowell Street, the General Industries factory on Olive and Taylor, and dozens of other manufacturers adding to the city’s prosperous din. Every side street seemed to have a tool and die shop.
From 1940 to 1970, the population doubled to more than 50,000, which meant a housing boom — and good luck finding downtown parking on a Friday night. There were three movie theaters, a J. C. Penney, a Sears, Merthe’s department store, the Paradise, on and on. At one point, Brandau Jewelers needed 24 employees to handle the demand for fine-cut diamonds and exquisite porcelain figurines.
Speedy began to make his mark here in Elyria. But when the Korean War broke out in 1950, he interrupted his insurance-and-golf life to innocently ask whether the Marines needed any reserves. Before he knew it, he was in the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, among some 25,000 anxious, frostbitten troops who were surrounded and vastly outnumbered by Chinese soldiers.
Before making their improbable, heroic escape, fighting through deadly roadblocks and the forbidding cold, the men who came to be known as the Chosin Few were instructed to destroy the contents in their wallets. Gone went Speedy’s family photographs, his golf club membership card, his driver’s license with an Elyria address.
Speedy eventually returned to that address, returned to all that he believed he had been protecting. He married Helen Lou Henderson — Lou, everyone calls her — and joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the V.F.W., the Red Cross, the Rotary. He fathered two daughters and lost a son at birth. He became a deacon at the First Congregational Church, worshiping beneath that Tiffany glass. Retired now, he volunteers with literacy programs and Meals on Wheels.
For many years, his wife says, Speedy never talked about his war experiences. But as time has slipped away, so has his guard. His prior life as a battle-tested Marine is now central to who he is. Every November, he puts on his dress blues — still fits — and leads a birthday celebration for the United States Marine Corps.
Sometimes, when sipping hot coffee just poured by Bridgette, Speedy can feel the ice-hard Korean ground and see the trucks plowing snow over the frozen, contorted American dead. Sometimes, when eating one of Donna’s sweet pancakes, he can recall tucking packets of frozen food close to his chest, so that his body heat might thaw a few beans to be scraped off and eaten.
Sometimes, when the Breakfast Club banter is lively and the diner telephone’s ringtone is playing “There’s no place like home” and here’s another round of refills, Speedy has that isolating sensation known to battle veterans: of being among those who cannot know what it was like, of wondering why he was among those to survive.
How the hidden enemy would taunt with bell rings and bugle bleats. How boots marching on snow made a soul-chilling crunch. And how being on the other side of the world, shivering and scared, can make a place like Elyria seem so improbable.
Keeping Memories Alive
Memories are welcome at the Breakfast Club. Memories are expected. Memories fill the time while waiting for Bridgette to materialize with a refill.
For example, the sight of a rock-solid man who seems off somehow, hustling past the diner’s window with head down, will prompt a “There’s Ike.” This, in turn, will spur wistful memories of that man, Ike Maxwell, as the unstoppable, all-everything running back of the champion Elyria High School football team of 1971, back when high school sports dictated the social calendar.
And, of course, after every high school game, and after every high school reunion, you simply had to go to the Midway Oh Boy restaurant for an Oh Boy: two hamburger patties, cheese and shredded lettuce, with a slathering of a white sauce of secret ingredients. “So that when you bite into it,” says John Haynes, a lawyer — and everyone laughs in anticipation, including Speedy, because they all know the sloppy wonder of eating an Oh Boy.
It’s an Elyria thing. It’s their thing.
Bridgette has been to the Midway Oh Boy, which is still selling its signature burgers on Lake Avenue. But she has no memory of the Breakfast Club’s version of Elyria, her hometown. Heck, she wasn’t even born when the Capitol movie theater was demolished — or was it the Lincoln? — and Speedy got permission to take some of the bricks that now form his backyard patio.
Bridgette graduated from Elyria High School in 2009. Before long, she had joined more than half of her graduating class of 444 students in taking classes at Lorain County Community College, an ever-expanding academic institution on 270 acres in the city’s northeastern end. Everyone, from the mayor on down, sees it as vital to Elyria’s future.
The college’s longtime president, Roy A. Church, says he is committed to helping Elyria — and northeastern Ohio — regain its economic viability, now that its once-dominant manufacturing base has been displaced by the service industry. The low-paying jobs listed by Bridgette’s Facebook friends provide a glimpse into what’s out there now: crew person at McDonald’s, associate at Jo-Ann Fabric, counter sales at Budget Auto, sales associate at Victoria’s Secret, crew member at Burger King.
To change this pattern, Dr. Church has gradually broadened the institution’s scope well beyond what is usually understood by the term “community college.” It offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees through its association with 10 Ohio universities. It provides job retraining. It works with local leaders to attract larger companies seeking to relocate.
The campus looks like the grounds of a large technology company, which isn’t far from the truth. It has an “innovation institute” where would-be entrepreneurs receive start-up money, office space and technical support. It has a “fab lab” where students — and the general public — have access to digital-fabrication tools that can help them design and create products. It has a center that offers packaging solutions for companies that make sensors. It even has a ready-made technology park, with building sites available.
Most of this is directed toward a central goal: to help Elyria and the region find the Next Big Thing.
“We’ve had to raise the aspirations — and the spirit — of the place,” Dr. Church says. “It’s a slow go, but we’re well into it.”
Bridgette is part of these raised aspirations. She sees her grandmother, Donna, working hard every day, without ever seeming to get ahead, and her mother, Kristy, waiting on table after table. “That’s when I decided I’m not doing that,” Bridgette says. “I need sleep! I need insurance! And a 401(k)! I need those things. I need those things.”
The diner days blend together like eggs whisked in a bowl. Then, one midsummer morning, a large birthday cake with white and orange frosting is placed on the long table reserved for the Breakfast Club. Little Bridgy is 21.
“Do you have enough breath to blow those out?” teases Speedy Amos, motioning to the stand of candles plunged into the cake.
Bridgette assures the man who is four times her age that, yes, she can do it. Her familiar air is on display. When two more members of the Breakfast Club walk through the door and into the small commotion, Bridgette calls out:
“Hi, girls. Do you want to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and then I’ll come wait on you?”
Sure, the customers say.
The song is sung, the cake is divided, and Bridgette returns to work. In a few weeks, she will be back at school, plotting a better future for herself and the child she is carrying.