November 27, 2012
Undisclosed Finding by Mars Rover Fuels Intrigue
By KENNETH CHANG
The Mars rover Curiosity has found something — something noteworthy, in a pinch of Martian sand. But what is it?
The scientists working on the mission who know are not saying. Outside of that team, lots of people are guessing.
The intrigue started last week when John P. Grotzinger, the Mars mission’s project scientist, told National Public Radio: “This data is going to be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”
And then he declined to say anything more.
Fossils? Living microbial Martians? Maybe the carbon-based molecules known as organics, which are the building blocks of life? That so much excitement could be set off by a passing hint reflects the enduring fascination of both scientists and nonscientists with Mars.
“It could be all kinds of things,” said Peter H. Smith, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona who was the principal investigator for NASA’s earlier Phoenix Mars mission but is not involved with Curiosity. “If it’s historic, I think it’s organics. That would be historic in my book.”
Dr. Grotzinger and other Curiosity scientists will announce their latest findings on Monday in San Francisco at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Do not expect pictures of Martians, though.
Guy Webster, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which operates Curiosity, said the findings would be “interesting” rather than “earthshaking.”
Mr. Webster noted that “a really big announcement,” if one should occur, would most likely be made at NASA headquarters in Washington and not at an academic conference.
Whatever is revealed will be linked to the work of Curiosity’s sophisticated chemistry laboratory instrument, Sample Analysis at Mars — SAM, for short. The rover’s robotic arm dropped the first bit of sand and dust into the instrument on Nov. 9, and the scientists have been analyzing and contemplating ever since.
One of the main goals of SAM is to identify organic molecules, but it would be a big surprise for organics to show up in a first look at a sand sample selected more as a test exercise than with the expectation of a breakthrough discovery.
Curiosity will be headed toward layers of clays, which could be rich in organics and are believed to have formed during a warm and wet era early in the planet’s history. But Curiosity has months to drive before arriving at those locations.
And the Curiosity scientists have learned through experience that it pays to double-check their results before trumpeting them. An initial test of the Martian atmosphere by the same instrument showed the presence of methane, which would have been a major discovery, possibly indicating the presence of methane-generating microbes living on Mars today. But when the scientists ran the experiment again, the signs of methane disappeared, leading them to conclude that the methane found in the first test had come from air that the spacecraft had carried to Mars from its launching spot in Florida.
Mr. Webster, who was present during the interview with NPR, said Dr. Grotzinger had been talking more generally about the quality of data coming back from Curiosity and was not suggesting that the data contained a breakthrough surprise. “I don’t think he had in mind, ‘Here’s some particular chemical that’s been found,’ ” Mr. Webster said. “That’s not my impression of the conversation.”
On Twitter, Curiosity chimed in: “What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission ‘one for the history books.’ ” (The public information staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory writes the posts for the rover.)
This would not be the first time that rumors eclipsed the actual findings from Mars.
In 2002, the Mars Odyssey orbiter found evidence of frozen reservoirs of water beneath the surface of Mars, leading to breathless rumors in the British press that the Bush administration was about to announce a commitment to send astronauts there within 20 years. The White House remained quiet.
Dr. Smith, the Phoenix Mars scientist, had a similar experience in 2008 when Aviation Week reported, “The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the ‘potential for life’ on Mars.”
“The blogosphere lit up,” Dr. Smith said.
At a hastily arranged news conference, Dr. Smith revealed the actual news: chemicals known as perchlorates had been found in the soil. “The public was not interested in that,” he said.
If Curiosity’s pinch of sand indeed contained organics, it would again revive the possibilities of life on Mars. For now, Curiosity scientists are still analyzing the data.
“I do want to temper expectations,” said Mr. Webster, the spokesman. “But then again, I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say they’ve found.”
November 28, 2012
Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?
By NATHANIEL RICH
After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”
Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.
Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.
Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.
One of the paper’s authors, Ferdinando Boero, likened the Turritopsis to a butterfly that, instead of dying, turns back into a caterpillar. Another metaphor is a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken. The anthropomorphic analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus. For this reason Turritopsis dohrniiis often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish.
Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world. You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened.
Some progress has been made, however, in the quarter-century since Christian Sommer’s discovery. We now know, for instance, that the rejuvenation of Turritopsis dohrnii and some other members of the genus is caused by environmental stress or physical assault. We know that, during rejuvenation, it undergoes cellular transdifferentiation, an unusual process by which one type of cell is converted into another — a skin cell into a nerve cell, for instance. (The same process occurs in human stem cells.) We also know that, in recent decades, the immortal jellyfish has rapidly spread throughout the world’s oceans in what Maria Pia Miglietta, a biology professor at Notre Dame, calls “a silent invasion.” The jellyfish has been “hitchhiking” on cargo ships that use seawater for ballast. Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to survive, and proliferate, in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting.
But we still don’t understand how it ages in reverse. There are several reasons for our ignorance, all of them maddeningly unsatisfying. There are, to begin with, very few specialists in the world committed to conducting the necessary experiments. “Finding really good hydroid experts is very difficult,” says James Carlton, a professor of marine sciences at Williams College and the director of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. “You’re lucky to have one or two people in a country.” He cited this as an example of a phenomenon he calls the Small’s Rule: small-bodied organisms are poorly studied relative to larger-bodied organisms. There are significantly more crab experts, for instance, than hydroid experts.
But the most frustrating explanation for our dearth of knowledge about the immortal jellyfish is of a more technical nature. The genus, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult to culture in a laboratory. It requires close attention and an enormous amount of repetitive, tedious labor; even then, it is under only certain favorable conditions, most of which are still unknown to biologists, that a Turritopsis will produce offspring.
In fact there is just one scientist who has been culturing Turritopsis polyps in his lab consistently. He works alone, without major financing or a staff, in a cramped office in Shirahama, a sleepy beach town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, four hours south of Kyoto. The scientist’s name is Shin Kubota, and he is, for the time being, our best chance for understanding this unique strand of biological immortality.
Many marine biologists are reluctant to make such grand claims about Turritopsis’ promise for human medicine. “That’s a question for journalists,” Boero said (to a journalist) in 2009. “I prefer to focus on a slightly more rational form of science.”
Kubota, however, has no such compunction. “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” he told me the first time I called him. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”
I decided I better book a ticket to Japan.
One of Shirahama’s main attractions is its crescent-shaped white-sand beach; “Shirahama” means “white beach.” But in recent decades, the beach has been disappearing. In the 1960s, when Shirahama was connected by rail to Osaka, the city became a popular tourist destination, and blocky white hotel towers were erected along the coastal road. The increased development accelerated erosion, and the famous sand began to wash into the sea. Worried that the town of White Beach would lose its white beach, according to a city official, Wakayama Prefecture began in 1989 to import sand from Perth, Australia, 4,700 miles away. Over 15 years, Shirahama dumped 745,000 cubic meters of Aussie sand on its beach, preserving its eternal whiteness — at least for now.
Shirahama is full of timeless natural wonders that are failing the test of time. Visible just off the coast is Engetsu island, a sublime arched sandstone formation that looks like a doughnut dunked halfway into a glass of milk. At dusk, tourists gather at a point on the coastal road where, on certain days, the arch perfectly frames the setting sun. Arches are temporary geological phenomena; they are created by erosion, and erosion ultimately causes them to collapse. Fearing the loss of Engetsu, the local government is trying to restrain it from deteriorating any further by reinforcing the arch with a harness of mortar and grout. A large scaffold now extends beneath the arch and, from the shore, construction workers can be seen, tiny flyspecks against the sparkling sea, paving the rock.
Engetsu is nearly matched in beauty by Sandanbeki, a series of striated cliffs farther down the coast that drop 165 feet into turbulent surf. Beneath Sandanbeki lies a cavern that local pirates used as a secret lair more than a thousand years ago. Today the cliffs are one of the world’s most famous suicide spots. A sign on the edge serves as a warning to those contemplating their own mortality: “Wait a minute. A dead flower will never bloom.”
But Shirahama is best known for its onsen, saltwater hot springs that are believed to increase longevity. There are larger, well-appointed ones inside resort hotels, smaller tubs that are free to the public and ancient bathhouses in cramped huts along the curving coastal road. You can tell from a block away that you are approaching an onsen, because you can smell the sulfur.
Each morning, Shin Kubota, who is 60, visits Muronoyu, a simple onsen popular with the city’s oldest citizens that traces its history back 1,350 years. “Onsen activates your metabolism and cleans away the dead skin,” Kubota says. “It strongly contributes to longevity.” At 8:30 a.m., he drives 15 minutes up the coast, past the white beach, where the land narrows to a promontory that extends like a pointing, arthritic finger, separating Kanayama Bay from the larger Tanabe Bay. At the end of this promontory stands Kyoto University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory, a damp, two-story concrete block. Though it has several classrooms, dozens of offices and long hallways, the building often has the appearance of being completely empty. The few scientists on staff spend much of their time diving in the bay, collecting samples. Kubota, however, visits his office every single day. He must, or his immortal jellyfish will starve.
The world’s only captive population of immortal jellyfish lives in petri dishes arrayed haphazardly on several shelves of a small refrigerator in Kubota’s office. Like most hydrozoans, Turritopsis passes through two main stages of life, polyp and medusa. A polyp resembles a sprig of dill, with spindly stalks that branch and fork and terminate in buds. When these buds swell, they sprout not flowers but medusas. A medusa has a bell-shaped dome and dangling tentacles. Any layperson would identify it as a jellyfish, though it is not the kind you see at the beach. Those belong to a different taxonomic group, Scyphozoa, and tend to spend most of their lives as jellyfish; hydrozoans have briefer medusa phases. An adult medusa produces eggs or sperm, which combine to create larvae that form new polyps. In other hydroid species, the medusa dies after it spawns. A Turritopsismedusa, however, sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself — assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots. The stolons lengthen and become a polyp. The new polyp produces new medusas, and the process begins again.
Kubota estimates that his menagerie contains at least 100 specimens, about 3 to a petri dish. “They are very tiny,” Kubota, the proud papa, said. “Very cute.” It is cute, the immortal jellyfish. An adult medusa is about the size of a trimmed pinkie fingernail. It trails scores of hairlike tentacles. Medusas found in cooler waters have a bright scarlet bell, but more commonly the medusa is translucent white, its contours so fine that under a microscope it looks like a line drawing. It spends most of its time floating languidly in the water. It’s in no rush.
For the last 15 years, Kubota has spent at least three hours a day caring for his brood. Having observed him over the course of a week, I can confirm that it is grueling, tedious work. When he arrives at his office, he removes each petri dish from the refrigerator, one at a time, and changes the water. Then he examines his specimens under a microscope. He wants to make sure that the medusas look healthy: that they are swimming gracefully; that their bells are unclouded; and that they are digesting their food. He feeds them artemia cysts — dried brine shrimp eggs harvested from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Though the cysts are tiny, barely visible to the naked eye, they are often too large for a medusa to digest. In these cases Kubota, squinting through the microscope, must slice the egg into pieces with two fine-point needles, the way a father might slice his toddler’s hamburger into bite-size chunks. The work causes Kubota to growl and cluck his tongue.
“Eat by yourself!” he yells at one medusa. “You are not a baby!” Then he laughs heartily. It’s an infectious, ratcheting laugh that makes his round face even rounder, the wrinkles describing circles around his eyes and mouth.
It is a full-time job, caring for the immortal jellyfish. When traveling abroad for academic conferences, Kubota has had to carry the medusas with him in a portable cooler. (In recent years he has been invited to deliver lectures in Cape Town; Xiamen, China; Lawrence, Kan.; and Plymouth, England.) He also travels to Kyoto, when he is obligated to attend administrative meetings at the university, but he returns the same night, an eight-hour round trip, in order not to miss a feeding.
Turritopsis is not the only focus of his research. He is a prolific author of scientific papers and articles, having published 52 in 2011 alone, many based on observations he makes on a private beach fronting the Seto Lab and in a small harbor on the coastal road. Every afternoon, after Kubota has finished caring for his jellyfish, he walks down the beach with a notebook, noting every organism that has washed ashore. It is a remarkable sight, the solitary figure in flip-flops, tramping pigeon-toed across the 400-yard length of the beach, hunched over, his floppy hair jogging in the breeze, as he intently scrutinizes the sand. He collates his data and publishes it in papers with titles like “Stranding Records of Fishes on Kitahama Beach” and “The First Occurrence of Bythotiara Species in Tanabe Bay.” He is an active member of a dozen scientific societies and writes a jellyfish-of-the-week column in the local newspaper. Kubota says he has introduced his readers to more than 100 jellyfish so far.
Given Kubota’s obsessive focus on his work, it is not surprising that he has been forced to neglect other areas of his life. He never cooks and tends to bring takeout to his office. At the lab, he wears T-shirts — bearing images of jellyfish — and sweat pants. He is overdue for a haircut. And his office is a mess. It does not appear to have been organized since he began nurturing his Turritopsis. The door opens just widely enough to admit a man of Kubota’s stature. It is blocked from opening farther by a chest-high cabinet, on the surface of which are balanced several hundred objects Kubota has retrieved from beaches — seashells, bird feathers, crab claws and desiccated coral. The desk is invisible beneath a stack of opened books. Fifty toothbrushes are crammed into a cup on the rusting aluminum sink. There are framed pictures on the wall, most of them depicting jellyfish, including one childish drawing done in crayons. I asked Kubota, who has two adult sons, whether one of his children had made it. He laughed, shaking his head.
“I’m not a very good artist,” he said. I followed his glance to his desk, where there was a box of crayons.
The bookshelves that lined the walls were jammed to overflowing with textbooks, journals and science books, as well as a number of titles in English: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” “The Works of Aristotle,” “The Life and Death of Charles Darwin.” Kubota first read Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” in high school. It was one of the formative experiences of his life; before that, he thought he would grow up to be an archaeologist. He was then already fascinated with what he calls the “mystery of human life” — where did we come from and why? — and hoped that in the ancient civilizations, he might discover the answers he sought. But after reading Darwin he realized that he would have to look deeper into the past, beyond the dawn of human existence.
Kubota grew up in Matsuyama, on the southern island of Shikoku. Though his father was a teacher, Kubota didn’t get excellent marks at his high school, where he was a generation behind Kenzaburo Oe. “I didn’t study,” he said. “I only read science fiction.” But when he was admitted to college, his grandfather bought him a biological encyclopedia. It sits on one of his office shelves, beside a sepia-toned portrait of his grandfather.
“I learned a lot from that book,” Kubota said. “I read every page.” He was especially impressed by the phylogenetic tree, the taxonomic diagram that Darwin called the Tree of Life. Darwin included one of the earliest examples of a Tree of Life in “On the Origin of Species” — it is the book’s only illustration. Today the outermost twigs and buds of the Tree of Life are occupied by mammals and birds, while at the base of the trunk lie the most primitive phyla — Porifera (sponges), Platyhelminthes (flatworms), Cnidaria (jellyfish).
“The mystery of life is not concealed in the higher animals,” Kubota told me. “It is concealed in the root. And at the root of the Tree of Life is the jellyfish.”
Until recently, the notion that human beings might have anything of value to learn from a jellyfish would have been considered absurd. Your typical cnidarian does not, after all, appear to have much in common with a human being. It has no brains, for instance, nor a heart. It has a single orifice through which its food and waste pass — it eats, in other words, out of its own anus. But the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, suggested otherwise. Though it had been estimated that our genome contained more than 100,000 protein-coding genes, it turned out that the number was closer to 21,000. This meant we had about the same number of genes as chickens, roundworms and fruit flies. In a separate study, published in 2005, cnidarians were found to have a much more complex genome than previously imagined.
“There’s a shocking amount of genetic similarity between jellyfish and human beings,” said Kevin J. Peterson, a molecular paleobiologist who contributed to that study, when I visited him at his Dartmouth office. From a genetic perspective, apart from the fact that we have two genome duplications, “we look like a damn jellyfish.”
This may have implications for medicine, particularly the fields of cancer research and longevity. Peterson is now studying microRNAs (commonly denoted as miRNA), tiny strands of genetic material that regulate gene expression. MiRNA act as an on-off switch for genes. When the switch is off, the cell remains in its primitive, undifferentiated state. When the switch turns on, a cell assumes its mature form: it can become a skin cell, for instance, or a tentacle cell. MiRNA also serve a crucial role in stem-cell research — they are the mechanism by which stem cells differentiate. Most cancers, we have recently learned, are marked by alterations in miRNA. Researchers even suspect that alterations in miRNA may be a cause of cancer. If you turn a cell’s miRNA “off,” the cell loses its identity and begins acting chaotically — it becomes, in other words, cancerous.
Hydrozoans provide an ideal opportunity to study the behavior of miRNA for two reasons. They are extremely simple organisms, and miRNA are crucial to their biological development. But because there are so few hydroid experts, our understanding of these species is staggeringly incomplete.
“Immortality might be much more common than we think,” Peterson said. “There are sponges out there that we know have been there for decades. Sea-urchin larvae are able to regenerate and continuously give rise to new adults.” He continued: “This might be a general feature of these animals. They never really die.”
Peterson is closely following the work of Daniel Martínez, a biologist at Pomona College and one of the world’s leading hydroid scholars. The National Institutes of Health has awarded Martínez a five-year, $1.26 million research grant to study the hydra — a species that resembles a polyp but never yields medusas. Its body is almost entirely composed of stem cells that allow it to regenerate itself continuously. As a Ph.D. candidate, Martínez set out to prove that hydra were mortal. But his research of the last 15 years has convinced him that hydra can, in fact, survive forever and are “truly immortal.”
“It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not dealing with something that’s completely different from us,” Martínez told me. “Genetically hydra are the same as human beings. We’re variations of the same theme.”
As Peterson told me: “If I studied cancer, the last thing I would study is cancer, if you take my point. I would not be studying thyroid tumors in mice. I’d be working on hydra.”
Hydrozoans, he suggests, may have made a devil’s bargain. In exchange for simplicity — no head or tail, no vision, eating out of its own anus — they gained immortality. These peculiar, simple species may represent an opportunity to learn how to fight cancer, old age and death.
But most hydroid experts find it nearly impossible to secure financing. “Who’s going to take a chance on a scientist who doesn’t work on mammals, let alone a jellyfish?” Peterson said. “The granting agencies are always talking about trying to be imaginative and reinvigorate themselves, but of course you’re stuck in a lot of bureaucracy. … The pie is only so big.”
Even some of Kubota’s peers are cautious when speaking about potential medical applications in Turritopsis research. “It is difficult to foresee how much and how fast . . . Turritopsis dohrnii can be useful to fight diseases,” Stefano Piraino, a colleague of Ferdinando Boero’s, told me in an e-mail. “Increasing human longevity has no meaning, it is ecological nonsense. What we may expect and work on is to improve the quality of life in our final stages.”
Martínez says that hydra, the species he studies, is more promising. “Turritopsisis cool,” he told me. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s interesting that it does this weird, peculiar thing, and I support researching it further, but I don’t think it’s going to teach us a lot about human beings.”
Kubota sees it differently. “The immortal medusa is the most miraculous species in the entire animal kingdom,” he said. “I believe it will be easy to solve the mystery of immortality and apply ultimate life to human beings.”
Kubota can be encouraged by the fact that many of the greatest advancements in human medicine came from observations made about animals that, at the time, seemed to have little or no resemblance to man. In 18th-century England, dairymaids exposed to cowpox helped establish that the disease inoculated them against smallpox; the bacteriologist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when one of his petri dishes grew a mold; and, most recently, scientists in Wyoming studying nematode worms found genes similar to those inactivated by cancer in humans, leading them to believe that they could be a target for new cancer drugs. One of the Wyoming researchers said in a news release that they hoped they could “contribute to the arsenal of diverse therapeutic approaches used to treat and cure many types of cancer.”
And so Kubota continues to accumulate data on his own simple organism, every day of his life.
There was a second photograph on Shin Kubota’s office shelf, beside the portrait of his grandfather. It showed a class of young university students posing on the campus of Ehime University, in Matsuyama. The photograph is 40 years old, but the 20-year-old Kubota was immediately recognizable — the round face, the smiling eyes, the floppy black hair. He sighed when I asked him about it.
“So young then,” he said. “So old now.”
I told him that he didn’t look very different from the young man in the picture. He’s perhaps a few pounds heavier, and though his features are not quite as boyish, he retains the exuberant energy of a middle-schooler, and his hair is naturally jet black. Yes, he said, but his hair hasn’t always been black. He explained that five years ago, when he turned 55, he experienced what he called a scare.
It was a stressful time for Kubota. He had separated from his wife, his children had moved out of the house, his eyesight was fading and he had begun to lose his hair. It was particularly noticeable around his temples. He blames his glasses, which he wore on a band around his head. He needed them to write but not for the microscope, so every time he raised or lowered his glasses, the band wore away at the hair at his temples. When the hair grew back, it came in white. He felt as if he had aged a lifetime in one year. “It was very astonishing for me,” he said. “I had become old.”
I told him that he looked much better now — significantly younger than his age.
“Too old,” he said, scowling. “I want to be young again. I want to become miracle immortal man.”
As if to distract himself from this trajectory of thought, he removed a petri cup from his refrigerator unit. He held it under the light so I could see the ghostly Turritopsis suspended within. It was still, waiting.
“Watch,” he said. “I will make this medusa rejuvenate.”
The most reliable way to make the immortal jellyfish age in reverse, Kubota explained to me, is to mutilate it. With two fine metal picks, he began to perforate the medusa’s mesoglea, the gelatinous tissue that composes the bell. After Kubota poked it six times, the medusa behaved like any stabbing victim — it lay on its side and began twitching spasmodically. Its tentacles stopped undulating, and its bell slightly puckered. But Kubota, in what appeared a misdirected act of sadism, didn’t stop there. He stabbed it 50 times in all. The medusa had long since stopped moving. It lay limp, crippled, its mesoglea torn, the bell deflated. Kubota looked satisfied.
“You rejuvenate!” he yelled at the jellyfish. Then he started laughing.
We checked on the stab victim every day that week to watch its transformation. On the second day, the depleted, gelatinous mess had attached itself to the floor of the petri dish; its tentacles were bent in on themselves. “It’s transdifferentiating,” Kubota said. “Dynamic changes are occurring.” By the fourth day the tentacles were gone, and the organism ceased to resemble a medusa entirely; it looked instead like an amoeba. Kubota called this a “meatball.” By the end of the week, stolons had begun to shoot out of the meatball.
This method is, in a certain sense, cheating, as physical distress induces rejuvenation. But the process also occurs naturally when the medusa grows old or sick. In Kubota’s most recent paper on Turritopsis, he documented the natural rejuvenation of a single colony in his lab between 2009 and 2011. The idea was to see how quickly the species would regenerate itself when left to its own devices. During the two-year period, the colony rebirthed itself 10 times, in intervals as brief as one month. In his paper’s conclusion, published in the journal Biogeography, Kubota wrote, “Turritopsis will be kept forever by the present method and will . . . contribute to any study for everyone in the future.”
He has made other significant findings in recent years. He has learned, for instance, that certain conditions inhibit rejuvenation: starvation, large bell size and water colder than 72 degrees. And he has made progress in solving the largest mystery of all. The secret of the species’s immortality, Kubota now believes, is hidden in the tentacles. But he will need more financing for experiments, as well as assistance from a geneticist or a molecular biologist, to figure out how the immortal jellyfish pulls it off. Even so, he thinks we’re close to solving the species’s mystery — that it’s a matter of years, perhaps a decade or two. “Human beings are so intelligent,” he told me, as if to reassure me. But then he added a caveat. “Before we achieve immortality,” he said, “we must evolve first. The heart is not good.”
I assumed that he was making a biological argument — that the organ is not biologically capable of infinite life, that we needed to design new, artificial hearts for longer, artificial lives. But then I realized that he wasn’t speaking literally. By heart, he meant the human spirit.
“Human beings must learn to love nature,” he said. “Today the countryside is obsolete. In Japan, it has disappeared. Big metropolitan places have appeared everywhere. We are in the garbage. If this continues, nature will die.”
Man, he explained, is intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality. But we don’t deserve it. This sentiment surprised me coming from a man who has dedicated his life to pursuing immortality.
“Self-control is very difficult for humans,” he continued. “In order to solve this problem, spiritual change is needed.”
This is why, in the years since his “scare,” Kubota has begun a second career. In addition to being a researcher, professor and guest speaker, he is now a songwriter. Kubota’s songs have been featured on national television, are available on karaoke machines across Japan and have made him a minor Japanese celebrity — the Japanese equivalent of Bill Nye the Science Guy.
It helps that in Japan, the nation with the world’s oldest population, the immortal jellyfish has a relatively exalted status in popular culture. Its reputation was boosted in 2003 by a television drama, “14 Months,” in which the heroine takes a potion, extracted from the immortal jellyfish, that causes her to age in reverse. Since then Kubota has appeared regularly on television and radio shows. He showed me recent clips from his television reel and translated them for me. In March, “Morning No. 1,” a Japanese morning show devoted an episode to Shirahama. After a segment on the onsen, the hosts visited Kubota at the Seto Aquarium, where he talked about Turritopsis. “I want to become young, too!” one host shrieked. On “Love Laboratory,” a science show, Kubota discussed his recent experiments while collecting samples on the Shirahama wharf. “I envy the immortal medusa!” gushed the hostess. On “Feeding Our Bodies,” a similar program, Kubota addressed the camera: “Among the animals, the immortal jellyfish is the most splendid.” There followed an interview with 100-year-old twins.
But no television appearance is complete without a song. For his performances, he transforms himself from Dr. Shin Kubota, erudite marine biologist in jacket and tie, into Mr. Immortal Jellyfish Man. His superhero alter ego has its own costume: a white lab jacket, scarlet red gloves, red sunglasses and a red rubber hat, designed to resemble a medusa, with dangling rubber tentacles. With help from one of his sons, an aspiring musician, Kubota has written dozens of songs in the last five years and released six albums. Many of his songs are odes to Turritopsis. These include “I Am Scarlet Medusa,” “Life Forever,” “Scarlet Medusa — an Eternal Witness,” “Die-Hard Medusa” and his catchiest number, “Scarlet Medusa Chorus.”
My name is Scarlet Medusa,
A teeny tiny jellyfish
But I have a special secret
that no others may possess
I can — yes, I can! — rejuvenate
Other songs apotheosize different forms of marine life: “We Are the Sponges — A Song of the Porifera,” “Viva! Variety Cnidaria” and “Poking Diving Horsehair Worm Mambo.” There is also “I Am Shin Kubota.”
My name is Shin Kubota
Associate professor of Kyoto University
At Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture
I live next to an aquarium
Enjoying marine-biology research
Every day, I walk on the beach
Scooping up with a plankton net
Searching for wondrous creatures
Searching for unknown jellyfish.
Dedicate my life to small creatures
Patrolling the beaches every day
Hot spring sandals are always on
Necessary item to get in the sea
Scarlet medusa rejuvenates
Scarlet medusa is immortal
“He is important for the aquarium,” Akira Asakura, the Seto lab director told me. “People come because they see him on television and become interested in the immortal medusa and marine life in general. He is a very good speaker, with a very wide range of knowledge.”
Science classes regularly make field trips to meet Mr. Immortal Jellyfish Man. During my week in Shirahama, he was visited by a group of 150 10- and 11-year-olds who had prepared speeches and slide shows about Turritopsis. The group was too large to visit Seto, so they sat on the floor of a ballroom in a local hotel. After the children made their presentations (“I have jellyfish mania!” one girl exclaimed), Kubota took the stage. He spoke loudly, with great animation, calling on the children and peppering them with questions. How many species of animals are there on earth? How many phyla are there? The karaoke video for “Scarlet Medusa Chorus” was projected on a large screen, and the giggling children sang along.
Kubota does not go to these lengths simply for his own amusement — though it is clear that he enjoys himself immensely. Nor does he consider his public educational work as secondary to his research. It is instead, he believes, the crux of his life’s work.
“We must love plants — without plants we cannot live. We must love bacteria — without decomposition our bodies can’t go back to the earth. If everyone learns to love living organisms, there will be no crime. No murder. No suicide. Spiritual change is needed. And the most simple way to achieve this is through song.
“Biology is specialized,” he said, bringing his palms within inches of each other. “But songs?”
He spread his hands far apart, as if to indicate the size of the world.
Every night, once Kubota is finished with work, he grabs a bite to eat and heads to a karaoke bar. He sings karaoke for at least two hours a day. He owns a karaoke book that is 1,611 pages long, with dimensions somewhat larger than a phone book and even denser type. His goal is to sing at least one song from every page. Every time he sings a song, he underlines it in the book. Flipping through the volume, I saw that he had easily surpassed his goal.
“When I perform karaoke,” he said, “another part of the brain is used. It’s good to relax, to sing a heartfelt song. It’s good to be loud.”
His favorite karaoke bar is called Kibarashi, which translates loosely to “recreation” but literally means “fresh air.” Kibarashi stands at the end of a residential street, away from the coastal road and the city’s other main commercial stretches. He’d given me clear directions, but I struggled to find it. The street was silent and dark. I was ready to turn back, assuming I’d made a wrong turn, when I saw a small sign decorated with an illuminated microphone. When I opened the door, I found myself in what resembled a living room — couches, coffee tables, pots with plastic flowers, goldfish in small tanks. A low, narrow bar ran along one wall. A karaoke video of a tender Japanese ballad was playing on two televisions that hung from the ceiling. Kubota stood facing one of them, microphone in hand, swaying side to side, singing full-throatedly in his elegant mezzo-baritone. The bartender, a woman in her 70s, was seated behind the bar, tapping on her iPhone. Nobody else was there.
We sang for the next two hours — Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beastie Boys and countless Japanese ballads and children’s songs. At my request, Kubota sang his own songs, seven of which are listed in his karaoke book. Kibarashi’s karaoke machine is part of an international network of karaoke machines, and the computer displays statistics for each song, including how many people in Japan have selected it in the past month. It seemed as if no one had selected Kubota’s songs.
“Unfortunately they are not sung by many people,” he told me. “They’re not popular, because it’s very difficult to love nature, to love animals.”
On my last morning in Shirahama, Kubota called to cancel our final meeting. He had a bacterial infection in his eye and couldn’t see clearly enough to look through his microscope. He was going to a specialist. He apologized repeatedly.
“Human beings very weak,” he said. “Bacteria very strong. I want to be immortal!” He laughed his hearty laugh.
Turritopsis, it turns out, is also very weak. Despite being immortal, it is easily killed. Turritopsis polyps are largely defenseless against their predators, chief among them sea slugs. They can easily be suffocated by organic matter. “They’re miracles of nature, but they’re not complete,” Kubota acknowledged. “They’re still organisms. They’re not holy. They’re not God.”
And their immortality is, to a certain degree, a question of semantics. “That word ‘immortal’ is distracting,” says James Carlton, the professor of marine sciences at Williams. “If by ‘immortal’ you mean passing on your genes, then yes, it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself.” To complete the Benjamin Button analogy, imagine the man, after returning to a fetus, being born again. The cells would be recycled, but the old Benjamin would be gone; in his place would be a different man with a new brain, a new heart, a new body. He would be a clone.
But we won’t know for certain what this means for human beings until more research is done. That is the scientific method, after all: lost in the labyrinth, you must pursue every path, no matter how unlikely, or risk being devoured by the Minotaur. Kubota, for his part, fears that the lessons of the immortal jellyfish will be absorbed too soon, before man is ready to harness the science of immortality in an ethical manner. “We’re very strange animals,” he said. “We’re so clever and civilized, but our hearts are very primitive. If our hearts weren’t primitive, there wouldn’t be wars. I’m worried that we will apply the science too early, like we did with the atomic bomb.”
I remembered something he said earlier in the week, when we were watching a music video for his song “Living Planet — Connections Between Forest, Sea and Rural Area.” He described the song as an ode to the beauty of nature. The video was shot by his 88-year-old neighbor, a retired employee of Osaka Gas Company. Kubota’s lyrics were superimposed over a sequence of images. There was Engetsu, its arch covered with moss and jutting oak and pine trees; craggy Mount Seppiko and gentle Mount Takane; the striated cliffs of Sandanbeki; the private beach at the Seto Laboratory; a waterfall; a brook; a pond; and the cliffside forests that abut the city, so dense and black that the trees seem to be secreting darkness.
“Nature is so beautiful,” Kubota said, smiling wistfully. “If human beings disappeared, how peaceful it would be.”
Nathaniel Rich is an author whose second novel, ‘‘Odds Against Tomorrow,’’ will be published in April.
Editor: Jon Kelly
In the USA...
November 27, 2012
House Republican Urges Party to Yield on Tax Cuts for Most Earners
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — A senior House Republican on Tuesday urged his party’s leadership to embrace the immediate extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for households earning less than $250,000, then fight out the fate of higher-income tax breaks later.
In a private meeting of the House Republican whip team, the group responsible for vote counting, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma broke with the rest of the leadership and said the party should join with President Obama for now, Republican aides said. The meeting was first reported by Politico.
"The first thing I’d do is make sure we don’t raise taxes on 98 percent of the American people," he said in an interview Tuesday night. "We’ll get some credit for that, and it’s the right thing to do."
The break came after senior Democrats hardened their line on conditions for a deal to head off the automatic spending cuts and tax increases set to kick in this January. Democrats said Tuesday that Mr. Obama would not accept any deficit reduction deal that did not include a long-term extension of the debt ceiling, possibly ensuring that Mr. Obama would not have to deal with another debilitating fiscal showdown for the remainder of his presidency.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, and Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, both said they did not intend to complete a major deficit reduction deal only to have Republicans reopen it each time the government bumped up against its statutory borrowing limit.
“We would be somewhat foolish to work on something on stopping us from going over the cliff, and a month or six weeks later, the Republicans pull the same thing they did before and say, ‘We’re not going to do anything unless this happens or we don’t increase the debt ceiling,’ ” Mr. Reid said. “I agree with the president. It has to be a package deal.”
The stern posture may throw another roadblock in the way of a deal before January, when hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts and tax increases kick in, possibly sending the economy back into recession. Conservative Republicans have said they want the debt ceiling left out of any deal to maintain leverage on Washington to keep trimming the deficit.
But the position taken by Mr. Cole suggested Republicans could be softening. An extension of the middle-class tax cuts would significantly diminish, or erase, any leverage Republicans might have to preserve tax cuts for more affluent households and some small businesses. But the leadership’s political position will grow even more tenuous if prominent Republicans like Mr. Cole say it is time for a quick deal that would preserve the tax breaks of 98 percent of households and 97 percent of small businesses.
"I don’t believe in holding the American people hostage to this debate," Mr. Cole said. "Let’s get what we can now, then go back and try to get the rest. Where there is common ground with the president, we should seize that common ground."
Democrats on Tuesday laid out a series of demands that either showed confidence in the flexibility of defeated Republicans or indicated a brewing stalemate. Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, flatly rejected a Republican proposal to cap tax deductions and credits at $25,000 a household instead of allowing tax rates to rise.
“I just want to point out a $25,000 cap will mean about a quarter of those who will pay more taxes will not be wealthy Americans but middle-income Americans,” Mr. Baucus said. “When that’s fully understood I think the interest in that is going to wane.”
Mr. Durbin said the president would also demand a guarantee that the spending caps in any deal be adhered to and not reopened. Last year, Congress and the president agreed to 10 years of domestic spending caps as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, only to see House Republicans try to impose lower spending levels six months later.
Democrats said they would not accept cuts to Medicare or Medicaid as part of the upfront “down payment” on deficit reduction that would be passed next month along with a broader framework on tax and entitlement changes to be worked over in 2013.
In a speech at the liberal Center for American Progress, Mr. Durbin still expressed confidence that beneath all the public posturing, the White House and Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, were making progress toward averting the so-called fiscal cliff.
Mr. Durbin’s speech itself was a measure of conciliation, laying out the case to liberals for a major deficit deal. He made clear that the parties agreed on what a final deal would look like: an initial deficit-reduction down payment to calm financial markets and avoid most of the fiscal jolt that would otherwise hit in January; instructions to Congressional committees to draft tax, spending and entitlement legislation to save around $4 trillion over the next decade; and some form of fallback deficit plan in case Congress fails to pass those changes.
Mr. Durbin said that Medicare should not be tapped for that upfront down payment but that federal health care programs should be part of next year’s deliberations. And he opened the door for money-saving adjustments to Mr. Obama’s signature health care law, so long as it was not gutted or repealed.
The Democrats’ firm position on the debt ceiling was expected by Republican leaders, who went through a near-crisis in 2011 when House conservatives refused to raise the borrowing limit, nearly sending the federal government into default. The government will reach its borrowing limit again early next year. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said that regardless of how that looming deadline was dealt with, the speaker would insist on his own rule: any increase in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by spending cuts of at least the same magnitude.
Jackie Calmes contributed reporting.
November 27, 2012
Now Touring, the Debt Duo, Simpson-Bowles
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — Theirs is an improbable buddy act that is making for unlikely entertainment from campuses to corporations on a most serious subject: the federal debt. The proof of their appeal: some business groups pay them $40,000 each per appearance. Really. To discuss budgets and baselines.
Ladies and gentlemen, coming soon to your city or town (if they have not been there already, and maybe even if they have) are the latest odd couple of politics: the 67-year-old Democratic straight man, Erskine B. Bowles of Charlotte, N.C., and his corny 81-year-old, 6-foot-7 Republican sidekick, Alan K. Simpson of Cody, Wyo.
Since the perceived failure two years ago next week of the bipartisan fiscal commission they led for President Obama, they have been on the road, sometimes solo but often together, perfecting a sort of Off Broadway show that has kept their panel’s recommendations alive, and made them a little money as well.
That so many people from Bellevue, Wash., to Sanibel Island, Fla., and from Waterville, Me., to Dana Point, Calif., talk about “Simpson-Bowles” (or “Bowles-Simpson”) as if it is shorthand for the solution to the nation’s fiscal woes — even though few know its devilish details on tax increases and spending cuts — is testament to the men’s indefatigable efforts.
And so is the fact, not unrelated, that both the men and their plan could still play a role as Mr. Obama and Congressional leaders negotiate to avert a looming fiscal crisis in January.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bowles and corporate executives he helped recruit to a “Fix the Debt” campaign met privately at the White House with six senior administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
The commission’s report “could have just been put into the dustbin,” said David M. Cote, the chief executive of Honeywell and a panel member. “Instead,” Mr. Cote added, “it’s become the basis for all of this discussion.”
He jokes that Mr. Bowles has achieved a status like Sting or Bono: “He is known by one name — everybody just calls him ‘Erskine’ now.”
Such quirky celebrity is clear evidence that there are second acts in politics.
Mr. Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader who retired in 1997 after three terms, and Mr. Bowles, an investor, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a failed Senate candidate, have created a new model for the afterlife of capital commissions. Instead of playing the usual insiders’ game — in which big-name commissioners report to the Washington big shots, only to see their work buried on a shelf — these two have gone outside the Beltway to maintain pressure for action.
The Washington Speakers Bureau, a stable of politicians and pundits for hire, provided added inducement. It sought to re-sign Mr. Simpson, who had been on contract after leaving the Senate, after the commission reported in December 2010. He, like Mr. Bowles, had been flying weekly to Washington without compensation; Mr. Simpson said he had spent about $25,000 of his own money to upgrade from government-rate coach seating to premium-class seats able to fit his frame. He contacted his pal.
“I said: ‘Erskine, would you want to do any of this? I know that may not be your bag, but I certainly have still embraced the capitalistic system,’ ” Mr. Simpson recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, as long as I do it with you.’ ”
Initially they made up to $32,000 each, Mr. Simpson said, then $36,000 and now $40,000. But they often appear without a fee, including at colleges and city economic clubs. The two men have done countless interviews, for newspaper reporters, doctoral students and middle school report-writers; have sat for rural radio stations and for “60 Minutes”; and have lectured both on campuses and to campuses, as Mr. Simpson did by Skype from Wyoming last week to a class here at American University.
They have addressed Rotary Clubs and corporate conventions; in coming days, they will speak at Bank of America and to investment groups in Manhattan.
“Erskine is the numbers guy; I’m the color guy,” Mr. Simpson said.
The two often mix substance and sarcasm. For instance, in a recent appearance on Bloomberg TV, Mr. Simpson turned to Mr. Bowles for the correct figure on Social Security’s negative cash flow, and then joked that if lawmakers could not compromise on that issue and others, “You should never be in a legislature, and you sure as hell should never get married.”
The night after Mr. Obama celebrated his re-election in a Chicago hotel, Mr. Bowles, solo, was there as the keynote speaker for about 800 financial analysts, members of the CFA Society of Chicago. Keith Cardoza, the chairman, said the $40,000 cost was worth it “for somebody as accomplished and experienced as Mr. Bowles.”
The Simpson-Bowles road show began two years ago when, after months of deliberations, 11 of the 18 commission members — 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans and 1 independent — backed the chairmen’s plan to reduce annual deficits at least $4 trillion in the first decade with tax increases and cuts in military and social spending.
While the support was greater than expected, it was short of the 14 votes needed to force immediate action in Congress. The executive director, Bruce Reed, now chief of staff to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., urged the chairmen to soldier on.
“Together we decided, Let’s don’t let this thing die,” Mr. Bowles said. “Bruce convinced Al and me that the plan we put together could be the gold standard.”
They quickly raised money, including from Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire financier of antideficit efforts, to keep a small staff. They began working with the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators (now eight) to write the report into legislation — “the Cialis project,” Mr. Bowles privately joked, borrowing from the advertising slogan for an erectile dysfunction drug, “When the moment is right, will you be ready?”
In Minneapolis recently, they visited both the newspaper, which then ran a supportive editorial, and business leaders in hopes of influencing Minnesota lawmakers like Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat. They are booked soon at the University of Kentucky in the home state of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.
“It’s an outside game, and it’s been very effective,” said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who was on the commission. “It certainly has been with the business community. And I think a lot of Americans are for it.”
Not all, certainly. Many progressives oppose its proposed savings from Social Security and Medicare. Many conservatives resist proposed tax increases and military cuts. Officials in the White House and in Congress grouse that few Simpson-Bowles fans are aware of particulars, like new gasoline taxes and higher capital gains taxes on inheritances. And critics say the chairmen have oversold the idea, which Republicans have embraced, that Washington can raise revenues by curbing popular tax breaks instead of raising tax rates.
Last February, Mr. Obama was so irked by criticism that he had rejected Simpson-Bowles that he had Mr. Bowles to lunch to explain his long-term strategy for using the $4 trillion framework, if not all the details, to press Republicans to accept tax increases and Democrats to reduce entitlement spending.
Mr. Bowles recounted, “He felt that after the election — if he couldn’t get something done before then — he would have a real chance to negotiate with the Congress on a balanced deal.”
Bernie Sanders Applauds Obama for Taking Social Security Off the Fiscal Cliff Table
By: Jason Easley November 27th, 2012
After the White House took Social Security off the fiscal cliff negotiating table, Sen. Bernie Sanders applauded the move and called it a step in the right direction.
Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Social Security was not on the fiscal cliff negotiating table, “We should address the drivers of the deficit and Social Security currently is not a driver of the deficit.”
In a statement Sen. Sanders said applauded the White House’s decision,
This is a step in the right direction for more than 55 million Americans who have earned Social Security benefits today and every working American who will receive Social Security benefits in the future. The simple truth is that Social Security has not contributed a nickel to the national debt so it makes no sense for it to be part of deficit negotiations.
The American people have been clear that Social Security is enormously important to their well being and that it should not be cut. The election and poll after poll show clearly that the American people want the wealthiest people and the largest corporations in this country, who are doing phenomenally well, to play a significant role in reducing the deficit.
One of the great red herrings that Republicans have successfully injected into the public discourse is that Social Security must be part of entitlement reform. In their lustful desire to privatize the program, the right has lumped Social Security in with the looming Medicare crisis. As Sen. Sanders and now the White House have both pointed out, Social Security isn’t adding to the deficit. In fact, Social Security will remain solvent until 2033. (This number fluctuates from year to year. A boost in economic performance will push the date back a few more years. Generally, the solvency range is 2029-2040.) Even if nothing is done, Social Security could still pay 75% of its benefits after 2033.
In short, there is no Social Security crisis. Social Security is not going broke, and it does not add a penny to the deficit.
The right wing’s manufactured Social Security was created to scare the public into supporting a privatization scheme.
After Harry Reid promised that any deal that cut the beloved program would not pass the Senate, Social Security was for all practical terms, taken off the table.
Republicans planted the seeds for their own demise when they created the fiscal cliff. They never expected Obama to be reelected, and Democrats to gain seats in the House and Senate. The outcome of the 2012 election has left President Obama in a position to dictate the framework of any potential deal. This means that Social Security is off the table, and Republicans will be forced to either swallow a bitter compromise or push America off the fiscal cliff.
Once Obama was reelected, Social Security was probably not going to be on the table, but the advocacy of Bernie Sanders made sure that it never was.
U.S. again says China not currency manipulator
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 27, 2012 23:01 EST
WASHINGTON — The US Treasury on Tuesday again stopped short of labeling China a currency manipulator, noting gains in the value of the yuan, but said the currency remains “significantly undervalued.”
In a twice-yearly finding to answer congressional critics of China’s overwhelming bilateral trade advantage, the Treasury declined to slap Beijing with the currency manipulator tag, a move that could spark US trade sanctions.
The US Treasury argued that Beijing knows that an appreciating currency is in its own interest, and said the yuan, or renminbi (RMB), had gained 9.3 percent against the dollar between June 2010 and November 2012.
It said that when inflation was taken into account, the value of the Chinese currency had increased 12.6 percent since June 2010, when Beijing pledged to allow the yuan to trade more freely.
Nevertheless, it said, based on Beijing’s huge stock of foreign reserves and its strong trade surplus, the yuan’s appreciation has been “insufficient.”
Those and other factors “suggest that the real exchange rate of the RMB remains significantly undervalued and further appreciation of the RMB against the dollar and other major currencies is warranted.”
After hitting a year low in July of around RMB 6.39 per dollar, the currency has steadily climbed in recent weeks to hit a fresh record high of RMB 6.22 per dollar on Monday. It was trading around 6.227 per dollar in late trade Tuesday.
The US Treasury regularly reviews the exchange rate policies of nine economies that account for 70 percent of US foreign trade, with most of the focus on China, the world’s second largest economy.
Critics in Congress accuse Beijing of keeping the yuan artificially low to make Chinese exports unfairly cheap. They want the Asian nation officially labelled a manipulator in order to apply sanctions against the country.
The administration of President Barack Obama has raised trade pressure on China but has refrained from any formal action on the currency front.
In its last report in May, the Treasury also said the yuan was “significantly undervalued.”
Republicans used the issue of China’s currency to batter Obama ahead of the November 6 elections, but the Democratic incumbent handily defeated his Republican rival Mitt Romney.
Romney had accused Obama of going easy on Beijing and promised, if elected, to label China a manipulator on the first day of his presidency.
The US-China Business Council, which has regularly opposed the push to brand China a manipulator, praised the Treasury report.
“The Treasury Department once again made the right call on China’s currency policy in its report to Congress.
“Labeling China a currency ‘manipulator’ would do little to help us reach the goal of a fully convertible currency and market-driven exchange rate for China,” the group said in a statement.
“We need to move on to more important issues with China, such as removing market access barriers and improving intellectual property protection.”
November 27, 2012
California Finds Economic Gloom Starting to Lift
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
LOS ANGELES — After nearly five years of brutal economic decline, government retrenchment and a widespread loss of confidence in its future, California is showing the first signs of a rebound. There is evidence of job growth, economic stability, a resurgent housing market and rising spirits in a state that was among the worst hit by the recession.
California reported a 10.1 percent unemployment rate last month, down from 11.5 percent in October 2011 and the lowest since February 2009. In September, California had its biggest month-to-month drop in unemployment in the 36 years the state has collected statistics, from 10.6 percent to 10.2 percent, though the state still has the third-highest jobless rate in the nation.
The housing market, whose collapse in a storm of foreclosures helped worsen the economic decline, has snapped back in many, though not all, parts of the state. Houses are sitting on the market for a shorter time and selling at higher prices, and new home construction is rising. Home sales rose 25 percent in Southern California in October compared with a year earlier.
After years of spending cuts and annual state budget deficits larger than the entire budgets of some states, this month the independent California Legislative Analyst’s Office projected a deficit for next year of $1.9 billion — down from $25 billion at one point — and said California might post a $1 billion surplus in 2014, even accounting for the tendency of these projections to vary markedly from year to year.
A reason for the change, in addition to a series of deep budget cuts in recent years, was voter approval of Proposition 30, promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown to raise taxes temporarily to avoid up to $6 billion in education cuts.
“The state’s economic recovery, prior budget cuts and the additional, temporary taxes provided by Proposition 30 have combined to bring California to a promising moment: the possible end of a decade of acute state budget challenges,” the report said. “Our economic and budgetary forecast indicates that California’s leaders face a dramatically smaller budget problem in 2013-14.”
And 38 percent of Californians say the state is heading in the right direction, according to a survey this month by U.S.C. Dornsife/Los Angeles Times. For most places, that figure would seem dismal. But it is double what it was 13 months ago.
California’s recovery echoes a rebound across much of the country; the state suffered not only one of the longest downturns but also one of the most severe. Economists say the turnaround, should it continue, is a positive harbinger for the nation, given the size and diversity of the state’s economy.
Democrats here have been quick to argue that the improvements in fiscal conditions that the state is now projecting after voters approved the temporary tax increase may embolden other states, and Congress, to raise some taxes rather than turn to a new round of cuts.
Yet California still faces major problems. The economic recovery is hardly uniform. Central California and the Inland Empire — the suburban sprawl east of Los Angeles — continue to stagger under the collapse of the construction market, and some economists wonder if they will ever join the coastal cities on the prosperity train. Cities, most recently San Bernardino, are facing bankruptcy, and public employee pension costs loom as a major threat to the state budget and those of many municipalities, including Los Angeles.
A federal report this month said that by some measures, California has the worst poverty in the nation. The river of people coming west in search of the economic dream, traditionally an economic and creative driver, has slowed to a crawl.
Still, the fear among many Californians that the bottom had fallen out appears to be fading. Economists said they were spotting many signs of incipient growth, including a surge in rental costs in the Bay Area, which suggests an influx of people looking for jobs.
“I think the state is turning a corner,” said Enrico Moretti, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. He said that the recovery was creating regional lines of economic demarcation — “We are going to see a more and more polarized state,” he said — but that over all, California was emerging from the recession.
Richard K. Green, the director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California, said the foreclosure storm was beginning to subside, and fewer foreclosed homes were flooding the market. That has meant homes are selling faster at higher prices — which means fewer homeowners owe more than their house is worth.
“The most important thing is, if you look at job growth in California for the last 18 months or so, it’s been higher than average for the country,” he said.
Jerry Nickelsburg, an economics professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the resurgence in coastal communities was spreading, if haltingly, to struggling inland communities, creating jobs for long-distance commuters who live in places like the Inland Empire.
In one sign of a new spirit, some Californians are again promoting the idea of their state’s setting the cultural and policy pace for the rest of the country, a meme that, if ever true, appeared at least questionable as California endured cuts that diminished its once-great higher education system. Rick Jacobs, the head of the Courage Campaign, a liberal advocacy group, argued that Californians, by voting to raise their taxes, set a model Washington should follow in negotiations over how to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
“One might argue that what happened in California will set the trend for what will happen in the country, meaning that opposition to taxing the wealthy is opposition to the future,” he said.
Conservatives took a nearly opposite view, arguing that the state’s latest tax increases and its thicket of regulations would drive out businesses and people.
“I was born and raised in California; I love the state, but I think California has been going downhill for quite a while,” said Bradley R. Schiller, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada in Reno. “The ignorance of voters is appalling, not to see their own self-interest in restoring their state.”
California has faced attacks by conservative leaders for much of this presidential election year, as they presented the state as a model of Democratic policies gone awry. Mitt Romney compared California to Greece. Peggy Noonan declared that the “mythic place where Sutter struck gold” had become a symbol of failure. “California is going down,” she wrote. The conservative Manhattan Institute devoted an 8,500-word report to “The Great California Exodus.”
Gray Davis, a former Democratic governor, noted that voters had approved initiatives to begin repairing a notoriously dysfunctional government. It no longer takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to increase spending (the requirement remains for tax increases), and a nonpartisan election system went into effect this month.
“It’s a fair criticism, but somewhat antiquated,” Mr. Davis said. “Help has arrived.”
“We’ve been used to being beat up by the Eastern Seaboard for a very long time,” Mr. Davis said. It was, he said, a case of coastal envy: “I can see the sun glistening off the ocean as I look out my office window.”
Joe Mathews, a co-author of “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It,” said California’s main challenge was its governing structure.
“There’s a great history of trashing on us,” he said. “Just the same way people like to talk bad about the prettiest girl in school. As badly governed as we are, we have our strengths: in trade, venture capital, in weather.”
“There is reason to feel better for the state,” Mr. Mathews said. “I think the economy is coming back.”
Yet the surest sign of a resurgent California might have been captured by observant Twitter posters last week in Southern California. There, Mr. Romney — he of California-is-Greece fame — was spotted one day at Disneyland and another pumping gasoline into his S.U.V. before returning to his beachfront home in San Diego to celebrate Thanksgiving week.
November 27, 2012
For Latino Groups, Grass-Roots Efforts Paid Off in Higher Number of Voters
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
MIAMI — On Election Day, President Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote nationally because, in the end, Latinos preferred his message over Mitt Romney’s.
But how Latinos got that message — the relentless call to register, to vote, to participate — was as important as the message itself: Hispanic television and grass-roots groups working together generated a civic campaign they called Ya Es Hora. Now Is the Time.
In countless households, Latinos tuned their television sets to Univision and heard Jorge Ramos, the host of “Al Punto,” the Spanish version of “Meet the Press,” discuss the candidates’ positions on issues critical to them. They switched on Spanish-language radio and heard myriad reasons their vote could spur change.
And if voters in some battleground areas needed a ride to the polls, television and radio stations owned by Entravision Communications, Univision’s largest affiliate, offered those, too.
The drumbeat lasted months.
Univision, which reaches 96 percent of all Hispanic households; Telemundo, the second-largest network; and their affiliates ran information about the election and the issues regularly. And not just on newscasts, but also on their most popular news programs. They sponsored hundreds of public service announcements, giving Latinos local information on where to register and vote. The effort, by and large, was nonpartisan.
“I invite you to join me, so they can’t say Latinos don’t care what happens to this country,” Natalie Taylor, a Univision news anchor for WVEA-TV in the Tampa Bay area, said in a public service announcement, as she asked viewers to join her at a local voter registration drive.
The television stations even staffed phone banks so people could inquire about finding their precincts or taking the correct form of identification.
“It played a tremendous role,” said Ben Monterroso, the executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a large nonpartisan voter education group that worked closely this year with the networks. “The Spanish media became one of the most informative instruments in our community.”
“We can have as many ground troops as we want knocking on doors; in one hour, I talk to 12 people maximum,” he added. “You know what 30 minutes on TV does? They were giving us not only the time, but the prime time, and the personalities.”
This was not the first time that Spanish-language media has gotten involved in a civic cause. Beginning in 2006, the networks and advocacy groups rolled out similar smaller efforts to encourage citizenship and explain the importance of the census.
But this year the multifront strategy, which included familiar faces at voter registration tables and knocks at the door from volunteers, jelled and forced a tipping point, said organizers, media executives and Obama campaign officials. An estimated 12.5 million Latinos voted in 2012, 1.8 million more than in 2008.
“This was not just a contest between two candidates, but a chance for a community to gain respect,” said Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and the highest-ranking Latino labor leader in the country. The message, he said, was simple: “Our community is in crisis. We are being disrespected. We are not helpless. We can help ourselves by voting. You are representing your community.”
It resonated, Mr. Medina said. Democrats made gains even among more Republican-minded Latinos, like Cuban-Americans in Miami.
Aggressive fund-raising also played a role, elevating Latino influence in the corridors of power. Prominent Latinos like Eva Longoria, the actress; Henry R. Muñoz III, a Texas architect; and Andrés W. López, a Puerto Rican lawyer, led the national effort to raise money for Mr. Obama. The Futuro Fund, the Hispanic outreach and fund-raising committee for Mr. Obama’s campaign, raised $30 million, significantly more than in 2008.
“All this earns us not just respect from the highest levels of the campaign, but also a seat at the table going forward,” said Mr. López, the national chairman of the Futuro Fund and an Obama campaign adviser.
The Spanish-language media were especially effective delivering their message because a vast majority of Latinos say they trust and respect the newscasts, anchors and personalities of networks like Univision and Telemundo — sentiments less often bestowed upon the mainstream English-language news outlets. The networks view themselves as advocates for Latinos, not of a particular party, and, as a result, viewers consider them allies.
“This is part of our DNA, part of our mission, to ensure we are empowering the Hispanic community,” said Cesar Conde, the president of Univision Networks. “We were adding a microphone and shining a light.”
Entravision took the television spotlight one step further, moving out of the studio and onto the street, by working with Mi Familia Vota and giving viewers rides to the polls during early voting and on Election Day.
“It was a 360-degree effort,” said Walter F. Ulloa, the chairman of Entravision Communications. “And it motivated them to turn out.”
Which candidate Latinos would choose in the voting booth was not entirely predictable, at least not earlier in the year. Many had grown disillusioned with Mr. Obama; they were disappointed with his aggressive deportation policies and his inaction on immigration changes. Spanish-language networks were particularly tough on him on both those points.
But enthusiasm began to swell this summer after he announced a temporary stop to the deportation of young illegal immigrants brought here as children.
Mr. Obama also scored points with Puerto Ricans, a crucial voting bloc in the Orlando area, by becoming the first president since John F. Kennedy to visit Puerto Rico and by nominating Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, to the Supreme Court. His policies on Medicare, Social Security, taxes and health care made a difference, as well.
At the same time, Mr. Romney hurt his own chances with Latinos during the primary season, with his talk of self-deportation and his embrace of the man behind Arizona’s tough immigration laws. He softened his tone later, but it was too late, Latino advocates said.
“He couldn’t climb out of the hole he dug,” Mr. Medina said.
Latino leaders said their power in the voting booth was already being felt in Washington. The Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young immigrants, and immigration changes are now high priorities.
If lawmakers need additional prodding, Latinos like to remind them that in the next 20 years, 50,000 Latinos will turn 18 — voting age — every single month.
“The way we describe it is we are getting ready for 2014 so we can start rewarding our friends and punishing those that get in the way,” Mr. Monterroso said.
Senate Republicans ‘disturbed’ by Susan Rice’s Benghazi account
By Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian
Tuesday, November 27, 2012 20:54 EST
Republican senators opened the way for a new showdown with Barack Obama on Tuesday, after an apparently disastrous meeting with UN ambassador Susan Rice that had been intended to smooth her path to nomination as US secretary of state.
The meeting on Capitol Hill had been widely expected to end in rapprochement after one of Rice’s leading senate critics, John McCain, stepped back from a bitter row over the 11 September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
But McCain and his colleagues emerged from the 90-minute private encounter to say they were “significantly troubled” by Rice’s explanation of her earlier accounts of the attack on the US mission.
Four Americans died in the attack on 11 September, including the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stephens. Five days after the incident, the White House put forward Rice to appear on the weekend talk shows in the US to give an explanation for what happened. Rice said the attack occurred after a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim film that had been produced in the US. The White House later said the Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack.
At the meeting with senators on Tuesday, Rice said her earlier version had been based on “incorrect” talking points given to her by the intelligence services. Rice, who is reported to be Obama’s favoured choice to replace Hillary Clinton at the state department, insisted she had not intended to mislead the public.
McCain, who appeared to be even more irritated with Rice than before the meeting, was blunt. “We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get. It is clear the information that [Rice] gave the American people was incorrect when she said it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video. It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case.”
One of McCain’s colleagues, Lindsey Graham, said: “Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before [by] the 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi.”
Graham added: “If you don’t know what happened, just say you don’t know what happened. The American people got bad information on 16 September. They got bad information from President Obama, and the question is should they have been giving the information at all?”
The row is ostensibly over the round of television interviews Rice gave on the Sunday after the attack, when she played down the involvement of al-Qaida elements. Her interviews were at odds with the CIA, which said later it had been convinced from early on that an al-Qaida-related group had been behind the attack.
Republicans argue that Rice, with one eye on the forthcoming presidential election, wanted to diminish the alleged role of al-Qaida because Obama had been claiming it had been defeated. But some leading figures in the GOP, including McCain, are still sore about how Democrats for months held up the appointment of John Bolton as UN ambassador in 2005. President George Bush eventually bypassed Congress to appoint him.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, accused Republicans on Tuesday of having an “obsession” over what Rice said.
Obama has not yet said who he will nominate to replace Clinton after his inauguration on 21 January, but Rice has emerged as a favourite for what is the biggest job in the cabinet. Carney described her Tuesday as being “enormously qualified”, without specifying a particular job.
The president was widely criticised in his first term of failing to stand up to Republicans in Congress, and he needs the psychological boost of early wins over the GOP if he is to hold out any hope of getting through significant legislation in his second term.
The combination of the Rice row and the showdown over taxes and spending offer the president an early opportunity to demonstrate he is going to be tougher in his second term.
Republicans do not have enough votes in the Senate to block a Rice nomination, but they could delay it for months through filibusters. Clinton has offered to remain in place until a successor has been appointed.
In her statement after meeting the senators on Tuesday, Rice admitted her talking points were wrong and there had been no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.
Rice, who was accompanied to Capitol Hill by the acting CIA director Michael Morell, said: “In the course of the meeting, we explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.
“While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved. We stressed that neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in this process, and the administration updated Congress and the American people as our assessments evolved.”
Rice, battling to keep her hopes of the secretary of state job alive, has further meetings scheduled with critical Republicans in Congress on Wednesday and in the coming weeks.
One of the Republicans at Tuesday’s meeting, Kelly Ayotte, hinted she would try to block Rice’s nomination if Obama chooses her. “I would place a hold on anybody who wanted to be promoted for any job who had a role in the Benghazi situation,” Ayotte said.
Rice and senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate foreign affairs committee, are the two main contenders to replace Clinton. Rice has a reputation in the diplomatic community for being abrasive but has the backing of the first lady, Michelle Obama, and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
Originally published Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 8:17 AM
Senate Dems rally for Rice against GOP opposition
By DONNA CASSATA
Senate Democrats rallied to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's defense as Republicans said they were even more troubled by her account of the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and signaled they would try to scuttle her nomination if President Barack Obama tapped her as the next secretary of state.
"The personal attacks against Ambassador Rice by certain Republican senators have been outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who called the criticism unfathomable in light of disclosures from the intelligence community.
As congressional Democrats and the Obama administration delivered a full-throated defense of the possible diplomatic nominee, Rice was meeting Wednesday with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker is next in line for the top GOP spot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"We'll see and we're going to sit down and talk to her," Corker told The Associated Press. "She always delivers the party line, the company line, whatever the talking points are. I think most of us hold the secretary of state and secretary of treasury to a whole different level. We understand that they're going to support the administration, but we also want to know that they are independent enough, when administration is off-base, that they are putting pressure. I think that's what worries me most about Rice."
Rice answered questions Tuesday from Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte about her much-maligned explanations about the cause of the September attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
At the hour-plus, closed-door session, Rice conceded that her initial account - that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video triggered the attack - was wrong, but she insisted she had not been trying to mislead the American people when she made her comments five days later.
"The talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: There was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi," Rice said in a statement after the meeting. "While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case the intelligence assessment has evolved."
She was joined in the meeting by Acting CIA Director Michael Morell.
Rice requested the meeting with the three senators - her most outspoken critics - but she failed to mollify them and they indicated they would try to block her nomination.
"We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn't get concerning evidence that was leading up to the attack on the consulate," McCain told reporters after a session with Rice that he described as candid.
Said Graham, "Bottom line, I'm more disturbed now than I was before that 16 Sept. explanation." He said in a later interview that Rice went "far beyond the flawed talking points" and should be held accountable.
"I'm more troubled today," said Ayotte, who argued that it was clear in the days after the attack that it was terrorism and not a spontaneous demonstration.
Rice's unusual visit to Capitol Hill - typically only nominees meet privately with lawmakers - reflects the Obama administration's campaign for the current front-runner to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton against some strenuous GOP opposition.
The White House remained defiant in its support for Rice, arguing that she was relying on an assessment from the intelligence community and had no responsibility in compiling the information on the cause of the attack. It dismissed what it characterized as a fixation on her national television appearances five days after the raid.
"The focus on, some might say, obsession on comments made on Sunday shows seems to me, and to many, to be misplaced," Obama spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a White House briefing.
House Democrats, including female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have suggested that the GOP opposition to Rice is sexist and racist. Senate Democrats, who will increase their advantage to 55-45 in the next Congress, said Rice could win confirmation if Republicans recognize the unfairness of penalizing her for the intelligence community's talking points.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters "it is so unfair to hold her responsible for something that she didn't produce and which the intelligence community has specifically stood by."
In a statement late Tuesday, McCain, Graham and Ayotte said Morell told them the FBI had removed references to al-Qaida in the talking points to prevent compromising ongoing investigations. Later in the day, the three senators said the CIA contacted them to say Morell misspoke and the CIA had deleted the references.
WalMart earns record profits while supporting Republicans who want to slash their employees’ food stamps
By: Rmuse November 28th, 2012
Businesses succeed or fail based on providing a quality product consumers demand, but they also depend on delivering good service and it is why courteous and proficient employees are as important an asset as product line. In the service industry, employees are a company’s greatest asset and it is why business owners are wise to take care of their workers and provide incentives for them to give customers an experience that encourages return business. Large retailers have an advantage over small businesses because volume buying allows them to reduce prices and still make a profit, but without friendly and courteous service, many customers will pay more to be treated well. In a different era in America, employees were treated with deference according to their worth to the business, and although employee salaries and benefits were a major expense, their value was instrumental to success.
Every business seeks to keep payroll costs to a minimum, and any business would jump at the opportunity for government to subsidize their employee’s salaries, but when a giant profitable corporation uses taxpayer dollars to supplement their payrolls, voters should be outraged. WalMart posted profits of $15.4 billion in 2011, and it enriched 6 WalMart heirs and heiresses whose combined worth is greater than the bottom 41% of American families (48.8 million households). Part of WalMart’s profits come from paying employees below poverty level wages, and to keep WalMart associates from going hungry and falling ill, taxpayers provided food stamps and Medicaid to make up the difference.
Because WalMart pays their employees slave wages, workers are forced to rely on food stamps and Medicaid which is how WalMart siphons money from taxpayers. The taxpayer dollars allow WalMart to pay their workers an average of $8.81 an hour without having them starving and homeless. Last week, WalMart Vice President of Communications, David Tovar, attempted to downplay their associates’ concerns about low pay, and reassure shoppers that WalMart has “got great associates” who are “going to do a great job for us this holiday season.” Tovar claimed WalMart was “working hard every day to provide more opportunities for associates” that included providing “a 10 percent discount card.” With the current poverty level for a family of four at $23,050, the typical WalMart employee is paid $22,100 a year, and because associates get a 10% discount to buy WalMart products, they are investing their below poverty pay checks back into the company that reported a 9% percent increase in third-quarter net income, earning $3.63 billion.
At a time when Republicans are proposing deep cuts to programs like SNAP (food stamps), and WalMart heavily supported Republican candidates in the recent election, it appears they have greater disregard for their employees than just paying them below poverty wages. A fallacy among many Americans, and one Republicans parrot mercilessly, is that food stamp recipients are lazy and living off other taxpayers, but a substantial number of Americans who rely on Food Stamps work full-time but are not being paid a living wage by employers like WalMart. In June, the House Agricultural Committee passed a five-year reauthorization of the farm bill that cuts $16 billion in food stamps, but they kept several subsidies for corporate agriculture intact. The bill, if it became law, would cut 2 to 3 million people from receiving food assistance and 280 million children would lose free school lunches, but the tea party caucus held out for larger cuts and as of yesterday, there is still not a farm bill.
The idea that large profitable corporations like WalMart uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize their payrolls and pad their profits because they pay employees slave wages is an outrage. Very few Americans would deny giving food and healthcare assistance to those in need, but when WalMart earns record profits and supports Republicans working to slash food stamps and Medicaid, taxpayers have a right to demand that WalMart pay their employees a living wage. If WalMart paid every one of their 1.4 million employees an additional $5,000 per year, besides lifting their employees out of poverty and over the low-income threshold, they would still make over $7 billion in profits for themselves and their shareholders. Additionally, by elevating the retail worker’s wages, more dollars would flow into local businesses, tax revenue would increase without raising taxes, there would be lower unemployment, and cities could hire more teachers, fire fighters, and police officers.
However, WalMart will not raise employee wages because they know taxpayers will make up the difference that costs them $2.66 billion annually in food stamps and Medicaid. WalMart’s intentionally low wages cost the country hundreds-of-millions of dollars in payroll tax deductions, restrict communities ability to hire and retain important public service workers, cost over $1.02 billion a year in healthcare costs, and $225 million in free and reduced price school lunches. As WalMart increases its wealth, its workers live in poverty and taxpayers subsidize WalMart’s payroll, and their profits.
In fiscal cliff negotiations, Republicans will demand the poor and middle class shoulder all the responsibility to cut spending, but reducing the number of people who need assistance is a better solution and since WalMart refuses to raise employee pay, increasing the minimum wage will force them to stop using taxpayer money to supplement their payrolls. Republicans have protected businesses from paying a living wage by refusing to consider a minimum wage increase because their ideology is that government exists to benefit corporations. Founding Father and second President of the United States, John Adams, America’s first conservative president had a different vision of government and he said, “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men,” and that includes WalMart.
WalMart is not alone in taking advantage of social safety nets to supplement their employees’ low wages, but they are the worst offenders and the most visible. They pay all of their employees substantially less than other large retailers, and while their employees live below poverty, they are posting huge profits. In a free market system, and without a decent minimum wage requirement, there is little prospect for change and it is troubling that the Walton family donated heavily to Republicans who demand drastic cuts to the programs that keep WalMart employees from starving or going without healthcare. The Black Friday protests were commendable, but until WalMart starts respecting their workers and sharing their obscene profits that employees helped generate, they will continue paying poverty level wages and demanding taxpayers supplement their payrolls. It is time for taxpayers to demand that Congress do what giant corporations like WalMart refuse to do, increase the minimum wage and reduce poverty.
Tea Partiers Refuse to Give Up Their Electoral College Scheme to Elect Romney
By: Jason Easley
November 27th, 2012
Even after Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips’ scheme to elect Mitt Romney president through the electoral college was debunked, the idea continues to gain traction with some reality challenged tea partiers.
On November 19, Phillips wrote,
Is there a way to stop this?
Yes, there is.
And the best part – this is totally constitutional.
The 12th Amendment of the Constitution as well as Article II of the Constitution govern the Electoral College.
According to the 12th Amendment, for the Electoral College to be able to select the president, it must have a quorum of two-thirds of the states voting. If enough states refuse to participate, the Electoral College will not have a quorum. If the Electoral College does not have a quorum or otherwise cannot vote or decide, then the responsibility for selecting the president and vice president devolves to the Congress.
The House of Representatives selects the president and the Senate selects the vice president.
Since the Republicans hold a majority in the House, presumably they would vote for Mitt Romney, and the Democrats in the Senate would vote for Joe Biden for vice president.
Can this work?
Sure it can.
Actually, it can’t. Phillips misread the 12th Amendment. The quorum rule only applies to the House of Representatives, not the Electoral College. World Net Daily updated the Philips post with the correct information. People wrote it, and then everyone went about their Thanksgiving business under the assumption that this crazy, stupid, and incorrect reading of the 12 Amendment was over and done with.
However, Philips’ incorrect reading of the 12th Amendment has found new life in the dark subculture of right wing chain emails. One of these chain emails found their way into the inbox of Idaho state Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, who is urging states to boycott the Electoral College, so that Romney can win the presidency. When Nuxoll was told that Philips had it all wrong, and the scheme to boycott the Electoral College won’t work, she said, “Well, I guess that’s one lawyer. She later went on to tell the Idaho Statesman that, “I think it is very, very sad that we elected our current president, because he is definitely not following (the) Constitution. He is depriving us of our freedoms by all the agencies, and so … what I’m thinking is the states are going to have to stand up for our individual rights and for our collective rights.”
Susan Nuxoll is a perfect example of why the talk among Republican leadership about the need to move the party to the middle is destined to fail. Even when confronted with facts such as Obama’s reelection victory and that Mitt Romney can’t be elected president through an Electoral College boycott, they still refuse to acknowledge reality.
Tea partiers are still rejecting reality, and they will reject any candidate who tries to deliver reality to them. Pragmatic and clear minded Republicans are facing the Herculean task of bringing people like Sheryl Nuxoll back to reality.
The tea party mindset is the reason why congressional Republicans are saying they won’t raise taxes while demanding that Obamacare be on the table in the fiscal cliff negotiations. These people are existing in their own reality in an alternate universe. Until they join the rest of back on earth, any negotiations with them will fail and the Republican Party will continue to flounder.
To tea partiers President Romney is coming in the second week of December, and what the constitution says is just one man’s opinion. The tea party isn’t going anywhere, and that’s bad news for fans of compromise and reality everywhere.
*** this is an excellent discussion on the future of the US through the lens of the actual 1775 American revolution, what was going on then, beyond myth, and how it correlates to the present ******
Former GOP Strategist Kevin Phillips on the Roots of American Revolution and Future of U.S. Politics
from Democracy Now
Nov 28 2012
NERMEEN SHAIKH: With the Republican Party and a state of turmoil following Mitt Romney’s loss three weeks ago, we begin today’s show with a guest who was once one of the most influential Republican strategists. In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote the groundbreaking book, "The Emerging Republican Majority." Newsweek described the book as the "Political bible of the Nixon administration." Phillips helped popularize the Southern strategy that helped Republicans win the backing of white Southern voters by appealing to racism against African-Americans. Phillips later became a fierce critic of the Republican party.
AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Phillips has gone on to write a number of best-selling books including, "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich", "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century" and "Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism."
Well, he is just out with a new book. It’s called "1775: A Good Year for Revolution," which debunks the notion that 1776 was the most crucial year of the American revolution. We welcome you back to Democracy Now!
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Nice to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Kevin, it’s great to have you back. We had you on, certainly, during the Bush years as you wrote about American dynasty. You, such a significant figure in Republican politics going back to the Nixon White House and your development of the Southern strategy. But, you have certainly changed your mind over the years about what is good for democracy in the United States. And before we go back to 1775 — I mean, this book is fascinating and I think it is very much also a book about movements — your thoughts about where the Republican Party is today?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, I think the Republican Party today is not very sure of what it is. It is a little bit too interested in upper bracket America. But I think the party system as a whole has drawn away from its moorings. You have a Democratic president supporting the bailouts of banks. The history of the Democratic Party under Jefferson, Jackson and FDR was to crack down on the banks. So, I think you have both parties today don’t stand for very much aside from self interest. And they are mostly involved in hustling money from the 20 or 30 richest zip codes in the country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kevin Phillips, one of the things, to go to your book, that you say, is that one of the grandest political realignments that occurred, the emerging republican majority that is a small-r majority, occurred during the revolution. Could you elaborate on that and the significance of that for what you have said now about the political realignments both in the Democratic and Republican Party today?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the importance of 1775 was something that always tantalized me as someone who spent a lot of time on different realignments, not just in the emerging Republican majority but in other books that discuss the Republican realignments in the 1890’s and under Lincoln. And it seemed to me that if you looked at the realignments of American political parties, it was time to look at the underlying realignment of how you took colonists out of the orbit of a monarchical system and an empire and gave them a sense and a determination to become what was obviously the first power in the Western Hemisphere, but the first offshoot of Europe, so to speak, to become independent and set up on its own.
I know a fair amount about it, but as I was drawn into it, it became a fascination. What happened is that set the United States in motion in the mid 1770’s is still relevant in some ways because what it showed was that you sometimes have to have a lot of very disagreeable politics to make progress, that you don’t get anywhere by having all kinds of nice slogans and by trying to barter every difference with a cliche and pretend that all’s well and the United States is in wonderful shape. The United States is not in wonderful shape. And it needs to get back some of that spunk that it had when people were willing to talk bluntly about harsh and tough measures.
One thing I learned out of 1774 — because it actually, starting then in 1775 — was that there was a lot of tough fighting and harsh politics that underpinned the sort of happy image of the fourth of July when we all came together and became this wonderful country that never disagreed internally, was never radical, never had a harsh politics. It is time to sort of go back and think about confirming realities again.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go back, the Southern strategy — especially for young people who might not be familiar with what is that you developed, that you laid out — what it was and how it has changed and what you think needs to happen now.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, first of all, the Southern strategy is something that has become a cliche as opposed to an identification of anything that was ever flat out there. The first Southern strategy was Barry Goldwater’s in 1964, and it was basically to try to win the South by not enforcing or not even enacting the civil rights laws. The Republican strategy in 1968 was what we call to win the Outer South. The Outer South were the states that George Wallace wasn’t going to be able to take into the third party orbit. And that in fact is what happened. Once Wallace, in that particular instance, was shot in 1972, but once Wallace faded away, you basically got the South from the Republican standpoint because the psychological changes had been made. And then when there were no longer a Wallace Party, those votes went Republican in 1972.
One of the things that everybody was aware of was that you had to enforce the civil rights laws, if only for realistic politics. Not talking about the morality, but if you did not enforce the civil rights laws, the Democrats would be able to wiggle back to their old straddle, which was, well, maybe we will and maybe we won’t, and you remember us, we were the party that fought for four years for the Southern way. Republicans didn’t fight four years in the Civil War for the Southern way, the Democrats had.
So what it means today, though, in my opinion, is that the Republicans have the South most of the time. They don’t have to bid in a very hard way for it. On the other hand, as the black vote gels in certain places, a marginal state like Virginia, it is enough to make a difference. That gives the Democrats a new set of voters that did not work for them before. The black votes that they put together in the 1970’s and 1980’s and 1990’s rarely won. Now they’re more effective.
AMY GOODMAN: On election night, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly announced that the white establishment is now the minority. He made the comment during an interview before the final election results were known.
SEAN HANNITY: So what is your sense of the evening? You look at these exit polls, you look at the...
Bill O’Reilly: My sense of the evening is, if Mitt Romney loses in Ohio, the president is reelected.
MEGYN KELLY: How do you think we got to that point? I mean, President Obama’s approval rating was so low, and obviously, this is hypothetical. We do not even know who is winning right now, never mind who won. But, how do you think it got this tight?
BILL O’REILLY: Because it is a changing country. The demographics are changing. It is not a traditional America anymore. There are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And whereby 20 years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You’re going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. Women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things, and which candidate between the two is going to give them things?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill O’Reilly on Fox News and his assessment of why President Obama would win. Kevin Phillips?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I don’t think he is perhaps [Laughter] the most penetrating analyst of the American system. First of all, you have always had the Republicans talking about how the Democrats were trying to buy votes with welfare and so forth. And you always had the Democrats talking about how the electorate was changing out from under the Republican party. So, they each have their shtick they do.
Demographics are always changing. When I was first involved in politics, it was when the young people vote. That’s going to change everything. I’m sorry, it did not. Women voting in much larger numbers. Maybe it has changed, maybe it hasn’t, but not in a way you can count on. The whole welfare thing that the Republicans pulled out of the air this time, that is a very old charge. The buying of elections.
What was, to me, was so unimpressive about the Bill O’Reilly analysis was the lack of a thought process. I mean, this country is facing an enormous economic and financial crisis. The notion that you can reform the tax system to give more tax breaks to the people at the top and that is somehow going to light a fire under an economy that is weakening and a lot of places, is, I think, ridiculous.
The sense they got out of the 2010 election that this was a screaming mandate for what the Republican leaders imagine they wanted to do, which was, I think, silly. That was an anti-Obama, anti-failure of the Obama economic policies vote. It certainly wasn’t a mandate for this bring back the fat-cat tax theories. So, they just wrongly interpret it and then they get themselves in trouble and they flounder.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to "1775: A Good Year for Revolution." Why this book now, and what is it about 1775 where you say that should be the date, the year, that people know?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, why this book now; let’s be blunt here. I got to the point — and I have several times in my life — where I couldn’t face thinking about all these politicians and pretending that I thought that they had the solutions to too much. So, I decided in 2008 that I wasn’t going to sit through another sequence of analyzing the politics and worrying about that. I wanted to go back to something I thought was more substantial. And I had done a book 10 years earlier called "The Cousins’ Wars" which was about the three English speaking civil wars. So, I decided, I’m going to go back and look a the Revolutionary period. I’m going to look at the first realignment. I’m going to look at the period of American history where you really had a pretty substantial number of great men, which is not exactly overwhelming at the moment.
So why did I write this book? It was partly, frankly, as an escape hatch, so I could think about better things and better days and better people. So, I think it is an important book. I think it’ got an important message. But. I do have to say that one of the reasons I wrote it was to think about these people and not the people — I mean, just to pick on Bill O’Reilly point — how any party could have watched the Republican primaries and the clowns that ran in these races and have the sense that the world was waiting for their ideas, I can’t imagine.
AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to point out, Kevin Phillips is a major Republican political strategist. Understand where he’s coming from. Describe 1775.
KEVIN PHILLIPS: 1775 was the year in the early American Revolution were all the real groundwork was laid for independence. Not 1776, which had the Declaration of Independence, but consisted of a period where the Revolution had really been under way for quite some time and the British were counterattacking. And they were landing in New York and New Jersey in June and July 1776. What made it so important that a declaration of independence that year was so that you were independent and you could ask for aid from France and Spain and so forth because the British were going to make it impossible for New Jersey and New York to vote for the Declaration of Independence when their troops were there. But, they would before.
It’s a little cynical, but 1776 is very much overblown. It’s difficult to just sum it up in a couple of sentences, but the First Continental Congress met in 1774. The Second Continental Congress in 1775. Most of the framework of the new nation to be the federation was laid. They set up the army, they set up the Navy in July of 1775. There was a declaration from Congress, the clauses of taking up arms. And after King George got to see this, they basically said, you’re rebels. Issued the proclamation of the American colonies been in rebellion in August 1775. So, this is what was happening. This is the big period.
By the time 1775 ended, there was no longer a single fort in the 13 colonies that was held by the British except the fortifications of Boston, Boston Neck. Royal governors had fled. The colonies had little governments all over the place, whether it was provincial congresses or committees set up by the first Continental Congress in 1774 to monitor trade boycotts, the government was there. People don’t get to hear about this. They hear about this romantic sense of 1776, and was sort of a love fest. We all did not really have to rebel too much because we all did it together and we have this wonderful language and this wonderful document that at the time nobody cared about. And it’s just covered up the whole realistic thing. And that’s what I think is relevant today. You do not get realistic arguments out of these two sides with their cliches and their party’s historical positions which are not relevant to a crisis. They are things they do to get their electorate.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the things that you also say is also significant about 1775, is how that year makes clear the enormous impact of ethnicity and religion in the way in which people chose sides. Do you think that’s still relevant? Does that help us to understand how political identities in the U.S. are formed even now?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think it is still relevant. I don’t think that the religious part of it is as pervasive now as it was in 1774 and 1775 when churches were much more of a guideline to how people voted. I say that very aware of the fact that there’s some churches still trying to play that game in a big way, but they’re not the mainstream churches, basically. The mainstream churches are not as active in politics. You don’t automatically have Lutheran taking sides against German Catholics, or Anglicans against Congregationalists. You did 200 years ago. That was a very important set of yardsticks for mobilizing people. There were just endless examples of it that I could give.
Today what you have — and I did put in one little footnote in Ohio in 2006 — the Republican Party was taken over by the religious right and they were basically trying to take over the state. And the notion that this doesn’t exist today is a great mistake. But are the mainstream churches as pervasive as they were 200 years ago? Not remotely.
AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of movements in 1775 and how they might compare today, like Occupy or even the Tea Party movement?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, there was much more of an economic and cultural and political crisis that people were aware of it in 1774 and 1775. And there’s sort of has been anesthetics put over the crisis that we’re in right now. I would make a very strong argument that the United States is a declining power. I have said this in previous books. It’s one thing I didn’t want to just have to keep repeating. I think it is still true. I don’t think that the average American disbelieves it, I think they are very worried about it. But, it is not discussed. It is not raised. Pressure groups get condemned by editorial pages and so forth, and activists who are not all nicey-nice all the time get condemned. But, if you look at 1774 and 1775, these are the people who carry the ball.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before we conclude, Kevin Phillips, I wanted to ask you, one of the things that you’ve also pointed out is that the Democratic party has now shifted — I mean you’re not only critical of the Republican Party, but also of the Democratic party — that it’s shifted away. It was previously the party of the people, but that’s no longer the case. Can you account for what explains that realignment?
KEVIN PHILLIPS: I think that what you have in politics with so much depends on money is that the Republicans and Democrats both depend on big money but they depend in substantial part on different slices of it. There’s a big overlap. But, if you look, for example, at the richest zip codes in New York and Boston and Chicago and Philadelphia, L.A. and San Francisco, all very rich areas. These are democratic. The voice of the Democrats from the big cities with the major bank and financial concentrations, they’re so — Democrats are so strongly identified with these people and with certain industries that they are very much for wealthy America, too. And it is amazing to me how Obama was so able to posture as being for the middle class and against the rich. Only with a Mitt Romney in there, a Mr. I-don’t-want-to-pay-taxes and his vulture capitalism, otherwise the Democrats would have had to say, what have we done for you recently? Really, well, not a whole lot. But, we are a lot better than these people. That is what they had to say subliminally.
But, for example, the Democrats, it’s my understanding, that Obama did not carry a single County in West Virginia, which is sort of a stereotype of a poor state. Now, for the Democrats not to be able to carry that, while they’re racking up huge contributions out of the zip codes in these cities I just described, tells you about what the Democrats represent, too, which is another slice of rich America. And you’re not going to get anybody coping with this crisis who doesn’t say, and they stand up loudly and say it, and Warren Buffett says it, these people have to pay a lot more taxes. They have a lot more responsibility. The financial scandals were the most unindicted set of major scandals in American history; Democratic administration. A long way from Franklin Roosevelt there.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Kevin Phillips, for being with us. "1775: A Good Year for Revolution," is his book. This is "_Democracy Now!_ When we come back, we look at a case that continues to fester. It’s the story of the Central Park five. Five young men who were railroaded into jail served up to 13 years in prison, and have yet to be compensated 20 years after they were arrested, wrongfully imprisoned. Stay with us.
Originally published Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 4:28 AM
Egypt judges strike to protest president's decrees
In an escalation of the tug-of-war between Egypt's president and the powerful judiciary, judges in the country's top courts went on strike Wednesday to protest Mohammed Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, while Islamists rushed to complete a new constitution, the issue at the heart of the dispute.
By SARAH EL DEEB
In an escalation of the tug-of-war between Egypt's president and the powerful judiciary, judges in the country's top courts went on strike Wednesday to protest Mohammed Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, while Islamists rushed to complete a new constitution, the issue at the heart of the dispute.
The moves came a day after at least 200,000 protesters filled Cairo's central Tahrir Square to denounce the decrees Morsi issued last week, which place him above oversight of any kind, including by the courts.
Threatening to turn the dispute into violent street clashes, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Islamist Salafi Al-Nour party, called for a counter-demonstration this weekend in Tahrir Square, where Morsi's opponents have been holding a sit-in for over a week.
Morsi says the decrees are necessary to protect the "revolution" that helped drive Hosni Mubarak from office last year as well as the nation's transition to democratic rule. The constitutional declaration also provides the 100-member panel drafting a new constitution with immunity from the courts.
In a sign the dispute may take a sharp turn, the Supreme Constitutional Court said in a statement that it will go ahead with plans to rule Sunday on whether to dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.
"The court is determined to rise above its pain and continue its sacred mission until the end, wherever that takes us," Maher Sami, the high court's deputy chairman, said in a televised speech.
The expected decision on Sunday, regardless of which way it goes, would constitute a direct challenge to Morsi, who took office in June as Egypt's first freely elected president but has enraged pro-democracy activists who claim he is acting too much like the authoritarian leader he replaced.
Complicating matters, the constitutional panel was rushing to wrap up its work and some members said a final draft could be completed as early as Thursday. This would allow the president to call for a nationwide referendum on the document even before the court convenes Sunday, circumventing its decision.
In an unprecedented move, meanwhile, Egypt's highest appeal courts went on strike to protest the presidential decree. Judges with the high and lower courts of appeal said they would not return to work until Morsi rescinds his decrees, according to state TV. Many of the country's courts already had stopped functioning due to individual strikes.
The high court of appeal is led by Mohammed Mumtaz Metwali, who also chairs the Supreme Judiciary Council, which oversees the nation's court system. Members of the council met Morsi on Monday to discuss his decrees.
In a statement, judges of the high appeals court, known as the Court of Cassation, denounced Morsi's decrees as an "unprecedented" assault on the judiciary and its principles. It said the decision to halt work at all its circuits was justified by the "magnitude" of the crisis.
"This is the highest form of protest," said Nasser Amin, the head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession.
Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood have accused the judiciary of being dominated by Mubarak-era appointees who are trying to undermine the new leader, allegations the judges have rejected.
The constitutional court ruled in June to dissolve parliament's lower chamber, which is dominated by Islamists, on grounds that the law governing the elections didn't provide equal opportunities for candidates. There were warnings before the vote that such legal pitfalls might be forthcoming but the elections went ahead anyway.
The court denounced Morsi's claim that it was part of a "conspiracy" against him.
"The allegation that the (June) ruling was reached in complicity with others to bring down elected state institutions and consequently the state's collapse ... is incorrect and untrue," said Sami, the high court's deputy chairman.
In response to Tuesday's massive anti-Morsi protests, the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties announced plans to hold a rival rally on Saturday in Tahrir Square, dubbed "In support of legitimacy and Shariah (Islamic law)."
Previous rallies where Islamists and secular forces met in the square have turned violent.
The liberal opposition has said it will not enter a dialogue with the president about the country's latest political crisis until Morsi rescinds his decrees. Activists planned another massive rally on Friday.
November 28, 2012
Panel Drafting Egypt’s Constitution Vows Quick Finish
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — Leaders of the assembly drafting a new constitution said Wednesday that they would complete their work by the next morning, a move that appeared aimed at trying to sidestep a power struggle between Egypt’s president and the courts over control of the political transition.
President Mohamed Morsi set off a political crisis a week ago when he sought to declare his own decree above judicial scrutiny until the constitution was complete, saying he needed to protect the assembly from dissolution by judges appointed by the former president, Hosni Mubarak.
Completion of the draft could moot the institutional conflict. But because the constitution would be approved over the objections of the political opposition, it seemed sure to inflame an escalating battle between Mr. Morsi and his critics. On Tuesday, the opposition brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to denounce his attempt to assert a power above the courts and over the Islamist domination of the assembly drafting the national charter.
The dual battles raging with the courts and in the streets began six days ago with Mr. Morsi’s decree. But both his attempt to claim the new powers and the opposition backlash are fired by the deadline on Sunday of a court ruling that could short-circuit the writing of the constitution by breaking up the assembly. Courts have already dissolved an earlier assembly as well as the newly elected Parliament.
Mr. Morsi has said he issued the edict because he learned the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised on Sunday to strike down the current assembly, disrupting Egypt’s already chaotic transition.
While some judges on the court are esteemed as impartial, all its members were picked by Mr. Mubarak. Some are loyalists, and others have deep fears of the Islamists.
The Constitutional Assembly’s announcement of its intent to wrap up the draft constitution by Thursday could render the case irrelevant. The assembly’s charter might be sent to a referendum even if the court dissolved the chamber, unless the court nullifies the draft charter along with the assembly.
But the assembly’s rush is also prompting charges that it is letting politics cramp the drafting of a document intended as the definitive social contract. “Nonsensical,” Amr Moussa, a former diplomat under Mr. Mubarak and a former rival candidate to Mr. Morsi, told Reuters.
Many of the non-Islamists on the 100-hundred member panel — about a quarter, according to the best estimates — have already walked out, damaging hopes that the constitution might be presented as consensus document.
In recent weeks, many have complained that the Islamists running the assembly were closing off debates in an attempt to beat the court ruling.
Hossam el-Gheriani, the chief of the assembly, said Wednesday that voting would begin at 10 a.m. the next day. “Come back to us so that we welcome you and you can be our partner,” he pleaded with the boycotters.
As a practical matter, the Islamist majority in the assembly could pass the charter on its own, and probably muster the votes to pass it in a public referendum as well, which the president’s advisers said he was willing to accept.
Mr. Morsi’s own bid to expand his power for the duration of the transition suffered a blow on Wednesday when the Court of Cassation and the Cairo Appeals Court announced that they were joining a national judges strike in protest of his decree.
The two benches are the two highest appeals courts in Egypt. And unlike the Supreme Constitutional Court, their judges are selected by their peers on the basis of seniority and accomplishment, so they cannot be dismissed as Mubarak loyalists.
“It is unprecedented and could be a game changer,” said Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights group.
Together with the demonstration the night before, Mr. Bahgat said, the court’s action “dispels the myth the president is only opposed by Mubarak-appointed judges and ‘liberal whiners.’ ”
The Cassation Court’s decision to join the strike also cast doubt on what the president’s spokesman has described as an agreement about the issue that the president reached Monday night with the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, a top panel overseeing the courts.
After the council held a long meeting with Mr. Morsi, his spokesman described an understanding with the council on an interpretation of the president’s decree that narrowed its scope so that it might fit within Egyptian court precedents.
But the president of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary is also the chief of the Court of Cassation, and so the decision by the Cassation Court to join the judges’ strike suggests that the Supreme Council may not have agreed.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Constitutional Court fired back at the president in its first statement since his decree. “The Constitutional Court has been under a fierce, unjust and organized attack” since it dissolved the Parliament, Judge Maher Sami said in a televised statement.
Since then, he said, the Islamists “became under the illusion that a personal enmity exists between them and the judges of this court, and they started having bloody revenge tendencies, and the desire for retribution caused them to lose reason, conscience and morality.”
“The court will not be deterred by threats, menace or blackmail,” the statement continued.
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
November 28, 2012
U.S. Weighs Bolder Effort to Intervene in Syria’s Conflict
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power, according to government officials involved in the discussions.
While no decisions have been made, the administration is considering several alternatives, including directly providing arms to some opposition fighters.
The most urgent decision, likely to come next week, is whether NATO should deploy surface-to-air missiles in Turkey, ostensibly to protect that country from Syrian missiles that could carry chemical weapons. The State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said Wednesday that the Patriot missile system would not be “for use beyond the Turkish border.”
But some strategists and administration officials believe that Syrian Air Force pilots might fear how else the missile batteries could be used. If so, they could be intimidated from bombing the northern Syrian border towns where the rebels control considerable territory. A NATO survey team is in Turkey, examining possible sites for the batteries.
Other, more distant options include directly providing arms to opposition fighters rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so. A riskier course would be to insert C.I.A. officers or allied intelligence services on the ground in Syria, to work more closely with opposition fighters in areas that they now largely control.
Administration officials discussed all of these steps before the presidential election. But the combination of President Obama’s re-election, which has made the White House more willing to take risks, and a series of recent tactical successes by rebel forces, one senior administration official said, “has given this debate a new urgency, and a new focus.”
The outcome of the broader debate about how heavily America should intervene in another Middle Eastern conflict remains uncertain. Mr. Obama’s record in intervening in the Arab Spring has been cautious: While he joined in what began as a humanitarian effort in Libya, he refused to put American military forces on the ground and, with the exception of a C.I.A. and diplomatic presence, ended the American role as soon as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was toppled.
In the case of Syria, a far more complex conflict than Libya’s, some officials continue to worry that the risks of intervention — both in American lives and in setting off a broader conflict, potentially involving Turkey — are too great to justify action. Others argue that more aggressive steps are justified in Syria by the loss in life there, the risks that its chemical weapons could get loose, and the opportunity to deal a blow to Iran’s only ally in the region. The debate now coursing through the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the C.I.A. resembles a similar one among America’s main allies.
“Look, let’s be frank, what we’ve done over the last 18 months hasn’t been enough,” Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, said three weeks ago after visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. “The slaughter continues, the bloodshed is appalling, the bad effects it’s having on the region, the radicalization, but also the humanitarian crisis that is engulfing Syria. So let’s work together on really pushing what more we can do.” Mr. Cameron has discussed those options directly with Mr. Obama, White House officials say.
France and Britain have recognized a newly formed coalition of opposition groups, which the United States helped piece together. So far, Washington has not done so.
American officials and independent specialists on Syria said that the administration was reviewing its Syria policy in part to gain credibility and sway with opposition fighters, who have seized key Syrian military bases in recent weeks.
“The administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and specialist on the Syria military. “They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”
Another person who has been consulted and briefed on the administration’s thinking about Syria said, “The U.S. won’t be able to maintain the position where it’s been,” adding, “Whatever we do will be done in close coordination with the allies.”
Senior Congressional officials and diplomats in the region said that they had not been briefed on any impending policy shifts and expressed doubts any would be made until Mr. Obama had selected his new national security team, including new secretaries of state and defense, a new director of the C.I.A. and perhaps more. In recent months, these officials and diplomats said that the administration had kept them updated about its Syria policy.
Until now, the United States has offered only limited support to the military campaign against the Syrian government, instead providing nearly $200 million in humanitarian and other nonlethal aid. In addition, a small number of C.I.A. officers have operated secretly in southern Turkey for several months, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border would receive weapons.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition are funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries overseen mainly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, American officials said. Even that limited effort is being revamped in the wake of evidence that most arms sent to Syrian opposition fighters are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, not to the more secular opposition groups supported by the West.
American officials say the administration is now weighing whether the United States should play a more direct role in supplying the opposition fighters with weapons to help ensure that the arms reach the intended groups.
“The problem right now is that we don’t have much visibility into where these weapons are going,” one senior administration official said recently. “That’s the problem with outsourcing the issue.”
On the more immediate concern about defending Turkey, NATO is expected to act on the Patriot missile request next week. On Wednesday night, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, told an audience at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard that “we’d be very much in favor of” the Turkish request for Patriot missiles “in terms of protecting the security of our ally.” The Patriot PAC-3 is the most modern air defense system in the American and NATO arsenals.
In the case of the impending deployment to Turkey, the missiles could come from the United States, the Netherlands and Germany. While they could reach into Syrian territory, their range is limited. Turkey requested the missiles after Syrian artillery and mortar fire landed inside Turkish territory, killing several civilians.
Jessica Brandt contributed reporting from Cambridge, Mass.
November 28, 2012
Benghazi Violence Is Beyond the Control of Even the City’s Powerful Militias
By KAREEM FAHIM
BENGHAZI, Libya — The killing was not a shock here, in the city where Libyans started their quest to shake off dictatorship and now struggle, nearly two years later, to douse the simmering violence that is a legacy of the revolt.
One evening last week, a car screeched down a residential street. Three men stepped out and with startling ease gunned down Faraj Mohammed el-Drissi, the man whose job it was to ensure this city’s security.
Mr. Drissi, who had been on the job since October, was among roughly three dozen public servants killed over the last year and a half, including army officers, security agents, officials from the deposed government and the United States ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens. In all the cases, no one has been convicted, and in many, no one has even been questioned. That is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Since Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed more than a year ago, Benghazi has in many ways regained its balance, as residents build long-delayed additions to their homes and policemen direct traffic on some streets. But Mr. Drissi’s killing made it hard to ignore a darker rhythm — one that revolves around killing with impunity. The government is still weaker than the country’s militias, and neither is willing, or able to act.
“It is impossible for members of a brigade to arrest another,” said Wanis al-Sharif, the top Interior Ministry official in eastern Libya. “And it would be impossible that I give the order to arrest someone in a militia. Impossible.”
The violence was thrown into sharp relief after the September attack on the United States intelligence and diplomatic villas. Libyan and American officials accused militants associated with Libya’s ubiquitous militias, and specifically, members of Ansar al-Shariah.
“The killing of the ambassador brought back the true reality of this insecure state,” said Ali Tarhouni, a former Libyan finance minister who leads a new political party. “It was a major setback, to this city and its psyche.”
Justice itself is a dangerous notion here and throughout Libya, where a feeble government lacks the power to protect citizens or to confront criminal suspects. It barely has the means to arm its police force, let alone rein in or integrate the militias or confront former rebel fighters suspected of killings.
“Some had to do with personal grudges,” said Judge Jamal Bennor, who serves as Benghazi’s justice coordinator. But most were like the killing of Mr. Drissi. “This was a political assassination,” he said.
Adding to the feeling of lawlessness are the revelations that foreign intelligence services, like the C.I.A., are active around the country without answering to anyone, people here said. Every day, an American drone circles Benghazi, unsettling and annoying residents. Police officers share Kalashnikovs. The courts are toothless. Libyan and American investigators, faced with Benghazi’s insecurity, are forced to interview witnesses hundreds of miles away, in the capital, Tripoli.
And so the government is forced to reckon with the militias, who by virtue of their abundant weapons hold the city’s real power. Men like Wissam bin Hamid, 35, who before the revolution owned an automobile workshop, is now the leader of an umbrella group of former rebel fighters. Some groups, like Mr. Hamid’s, operate with the government’s blessing, while others are called rogue. The distinctions often seem arbitrary, but either way, the militias are effectively a law unto themselves.
Mr. Hamid and others insist that they are loyal to the state. Leading political figures said they respected Mr. Hamid but had concerns about many of the other militia leaders, among them hard-line Islamists.
The militias are called on for crucial tasks, including safeguarding elections. Mr. Hamid’s militia, a branch of a group called Libya Shield, has been called on to enforce order hundreds of miles away from Benghazi, in towns beyond the government’s reach. The militia has also worked with American officials: they escorted intelligence officers and diplomats away from the besieged villas on Sept. 11, and later, provided protection for American investigators visiting the city in search of evidence in the attack, Mr. Hamid said.
Ultimately, it could fall to Mr. Hamid and his men to confront commanders of Ansar al-Shariah, the hard-line Islamist militia that Libyan and American officials have linked to the attack, since no other government agencies seem capable of the task.
But Mr. Hamid said he would not — because he believes the militia’s leaders are innocent, but also because in Benghazi, the ties between former rebel fighters run deep. “They were with us on the front lines,” he said.
Ansar al-Shariah’s leaders have strongly denied any involvement in the attack. Mr. Hamid insisted he would act against the group, if given proof it was responsible.
Officials here seem to have no expectation that the militias will ever help solve the killings — of their top security officials, or of Mr. Stevens — if another militia may be involved.
Mr. Hamid said that a team of Americans visited his base a few weeks ago. “They were worried about Libya Shield,” he said, adding that they seemed to ask a lot of questions about one member in particular, who had appeared in an Internet video talking in front of a black jihadi flag.
Benghazi’s security problems are the backdrop to more pressing concerns, like the gap between the aspirations of a public freed from the dictatorship, and the fledgling government’s ability to fulfill them. Roads are brightened by new coffee shops and stores. Above them, all the streetlights have burned out. There is a growing anger at the centralization of power in Tripoli, from the residents of a city that have long endured neglect.
After the attack on the American facilities, Benghazi’s residents demanded order from the militias who set their own rules. Ten days after the assault, protesters attacked the headquarters of several militias, making little distinction between government-sanctioned and rogue groups. Militia leaders, apparently shocked that the city had turned on them, blamed Qaddafi loyalists for the protests.
The demonstrations also coincided with a growing anger at foreign meddling in Libya, mostly directed at Qatar, which actively supported Islamist militias with money and arms during last year’s uprising.
But the day after the protest, the leader of one of Benghazi’s army divisions, Col. Hamed Bilkhair, was kidnapped outside of his home. He was later released. Weeks later, the assassins found Mr. Drissi, the security director, who was in the midst of forming committees to better organize the city’s safety. Little, it seemed, had changed.
“We’re talking about a society filled with revolutionaries and weapons,” Judge Bennor said. “No one has been arrested. The families of the victims need to trust that there will be justice.”
The militias, still wrapping themselves in the banner of the revolution, insist they will submit only to a government, and to an army that they consider clean. They have set a dauntingly high bar for their leaders, denouncing hard-core Qaddafi loyalists, but also army officers who simply sat out the fight.
Diplomats have become wary of this city, closing it, somewhat, to the world once again.
Ansar al-Shariah, the militia accused in the attack on Mr. Stevens, has lowered its profile, but just a little. With no one reason to hide, the group is planning to open a clinic for women and children in Benghazi.
Osama al-Fitory and Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting.
Only path to Palestinian state is direct talks: Clinton
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 19:13 EST
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the only path towards a Palestinian state was through direct negotiations, on the eve of a contentious United Nations vote.
“I have said many times that the path to a two-state solution that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people is through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York,” Clinton told reporters, reiterating US opposition to the Palestinian bid to upgrade its UN status.
“We have made very clear to the Palestinian leadership that we oppose Palestinian efforts to upgrade their status at the UN outside of the framework” of direct negotiations.
The top US diplomat warned that no matter what happened on Thursday at the United Nations “it will not produce the outcome” that everyone desires.
“The only way to get a lasting solution is to commence direct negotiations,” Clinton stressed.
“And we need an environment conducive to that and we urged both parties to refrain from actions that might, in any way, make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult.”
The United States earlier Wednesday pressed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas not to seek elevated UN status, in a last-ditch bid to avert a damaging showdown at the United Nations.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Middle East envoy David Hale met with Abbas at his hotel but failed to get the Palestinian leader to withdraw his resolution or make amendments, officials said.
US officials have reaffirmed that the United States will vote against the Palestinian motion if the vote goes ahead as planned on Thursday.
Originally published November 29, 2012 at 4:56 AM | Page modified November 29, 2012 at 6:05 AM
Palestinians certain to win recognition as a state
The Palestinians are certain to win U.N. recognition as a state Thursday in a General Assembly vote that Israel and the United States warn could delay hopes of achieving an independent Palestinian homeland through peace talks with Israel.
By EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS —
The Palestinians are certain to win U.N. recognition as a state Thursday in a General Assembly vote that Israel and the United States warn could delay hopes of achieving an independent Palestinian homeland through peace talks with Israel.
The United States, Israel's closest ally, mounted an aggressive campaign to head off the General Assembly vote, which the Palestinians view as a historic step in their quest for global recognition.
With most of the 193 General Assembly member states sympathetic to the Palestinians, the vote is certain to succeed. Several key countries, including France, have recently announced they would support the move to elevate the Palestinians from the status of U.N. observer to nonmember observer state. However, a country's vote in favor of the status change does not automatically imply its individual recognition of a Palestine state, something that must be done bilaterally.
The Palestinians say they need U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the lands Israel captured in 1967, to be able to resume negotiations with Israel. The non-member observer state status could also open the way for possible war crimes charges against the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court.
In a last-ditch move Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns made a personal appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood. But the Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday the recognition of an independent state of Palestine in the U.N. General Assembly will not advance the Palestinians' quest for a homeland. He said the Palestinians will not win a state until they recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, declare an end to their conflict with the Jewish state and agree to security arrangements that protect Israel.
For Abbas, the U.N. bid is crucial if he wants to maintain his leadership and relevance, especially following the recent conflict between his Hamas rivals in Gaza and Israel. The conflict saw the Islamic militant group claim victory and raise its standing in the Arab world, while Abbas' Fatah movement was sidelined and marginalized.
The Palestinians chose the "International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People" for the vote. Before it takes place, there will be a morning of speeches by supporters focusing on the rights of the Palestinians. Abbas is scheduled to speak at that meeting, and again in the afternoon when he will present the case for Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Wednesday that the U.N. vote will not fulfill the goal of independent Palestinian and Israeli states living side by side in peace, which the U.S. strongly supports because that requires direct negotiations.
"We need an environment conducive to that," she told reporters in Washington. "And we've urged both parties to refrain from actions that might in any way make a return to meaningful negotiations that focus on getting to a resolution more difficult."
The U.S. Congress has threatened financial sanctions if the Palestinians improve their status at the United Nations.
Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch filed an amendment to a defense bill Wednesday that would eliminate funding for the United Nations if the General Assembly changes Palestine's status.
"Increasing the Palestinians' role in the United Nations is absolutely the wrong approach, especially in light of recent military developments in the Middle East," he said in a statement. "Israel is one of America's closest allies, and any movement to strengthen one of its fiercest enemies must not be tolerated."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that by going to the U.N., the Palestinians violate "both the spirit and the word of signed agreements to solve issues through negotiations," which broke down four years ago.
But Israeli officials appeared to back away from threats of drastic measures if the Palestinians get U.N. approval, with officials suggesting the government would take steps only if the Palestinians use their new status to act against Israel.
Regev, meanwhile, affirmed that Israel is willing to resume talks without preconditions.
U.N. diplomats said they will be listening closely to Abbas' speech to the General Assembly on Thursday afternoon before the vote to see if he makes an offer of fresh negotiations with no strings, which could lead to new talks. The Palestinians have been demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements as a precondition.
As a sign of the importance Israel attaches to the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman flew to New York and was scheduled to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before the vote. Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor had been scheduled to speak in the General Assembly after Abbas, but it appears Lieberman may now make Israel's case opposing the resolution.
Unlike the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly. The world body is dominated by countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and the resolution to raise its status from an observer to a nonmember observer state only requires a majority vote for approval. To date, 132 countries - over two-thirds of the U.N. member states - have recognized the state of Palestine.
The Palestinians have been courting Western nations, especially the Europeans, seen as critical to enhancing their international standing. A number have announced they will vote "yes" including France, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland. Those opposed or abstaining include the U.S., Israel, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.
A high vote could boost Abbas' standing.
"If there is a poor turnout, a poor vote, the radicals gain," said India's U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri.
The Palestinians turned to the General Assembly after the United States announced it would veto their bid last fall for full U.N. membership until there is a peace deal with Israel.
Following last year's move by the Palestinians to join the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, the United States withheld funds from the organization, which amount to 22 percent of its budget. The U.S. also withheld money from the Palestinians.
November 28, 2012
U.S. and Israel Look to Limit Impact of U.N. Vote on Palestinian Authority
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — After failing to head off a vote in the United Nations on Thursday that would upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status, the United States and Israel are looking ahead to how they can contain the damage from the approval of a resolution that even some European allies have signaled they will support.
The draft resolution calls on the United Nations General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a nonmember observer state. It is virtually certain to pass, despite the opposition of the United States and a handful of other nations.
On Wednesday, two senior American diplomats — William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, and David Hale, the special envoy to the Middle East — met at a hotel in New York with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to register American concerns.
“No one should be under any illusion that this resolution is going to produce the results that the Palestinians claim to seek, namely to have their own state living in peace next to Israel,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday. “We thought it was important to make our case one more time.”
A major concern for the Americans is that the Palestinians might use their new status to try to join the International Criminal Court. That prospect particularly worries the Israelis, who fear that the Palestinians might press for an investigation of their practices in the occupied territories.
Another worry is that the Palestinians might use the vote to seek membership in specialized agencies of the United Nations, a move that could have consequences for the financing of the international organizations as well as the Palestinian Authority itself. Congress cut off financing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member. The United States is a major contributor to many of these agencies and plays an active role on their governing boards.
“To my knowledge, there’s no legislative impact that is triggered in the same way that there was with regard to Unesco,” Ms. Nuland said on Monday. “However, as you know, we also have money pending in the Congress for the Palestinian Authority, money that they need to support their regular endeavors and to support administration of the territories. So, obviously, if they take this step, it’s going to complicate the way the Congress looks at the Palestinians.”
Anticipating approval of the resolution, Western diplomats have pushed for a Palestinian commitment not to seek membership in the International Criminal Court and United Nations specialized agencies after the vote. Another step would be an affirmation by the Palestinians that the road to statehood was through the peace process. And a third could be a Palestinian commitment to open negotiations with the Israelis.
Such assurances do not appear to have been provided.
Israeli officials, aware that a harsh reaction would only isolate their country further, have begun playing down the significance of the draft resolution, and have toned down threats of countermeasures if it is approved. Israel’s response will be “proportionate” to how the Palestinians act after the vote, said an Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, said there would be no automatic response from Israel. “We’re going to see where the Palestinians take this,” he said. “If they use it to continue confronting Israel and other U.N. bodies, there will be a firm response. If not, then there won’t.”
As the vote approached, a handful of European nations moved away from the American camp — a trend that accelerated after the cease-fire agreement between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel over Gaza, which was widely viewed as a victory for Hamas over its rival, the Palestinian Authority.
France and Spain have said they will vote for the resolution. Britain has signaled it would be prepared to support the measure if the Palestinians provided assurances that they would not join the International Criminal Court, among other steps. Germany has said that it will vote against the resolution, as, of course, will Israel.
The vote is scheduled to take place on the anniversary of the General Assembly vote in 1947 to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Only the Security Council, in which the United States holds a veto, can approve formal, voting membership.
Some Middle East experts said the administration’s determination to vote against the Palestinian Authority’s motion was self-defeating, since it would accelerate the weakening of the authority as a voice for the Palestinian people and as a partner in peace negotiations.
A better strategy, said Robert Malley, the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, would be for the United States and Israel simply to “shrug their shoulders,” recognizing it as a desperate bid for political legitimacy, not a threat to Israel or to the prospects for a peace agreement.
“He really, politically, has no choice,” Mr. Malley said of Mr. Abbas, during a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is less an act of confrontation than an act of survival.”
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
November 28, 2012
Hamas Chief Revives Talk of Reuniting With P.L.O.
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the eve of the United Nations vote on whether to declare the Palestinian Authority a nonmember state, the leader of Hamas revived a long-percolating proposal for his militant party to join the Palestine Liberation Organization, the group that, with Israel, signed the Oslo Accord, which Hamas has long derided.
Speaking at an academic conference here by video link from his new base in Doha, Qatar, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, called on Wednesday for the politically divided Palestinians to unite through new P.L.O. elections that would rebuild the organization “on a correct basis that includes all Palestinian forces.”
There are rumored discussions about giving Mr. Meshal a leadership role in the P.L.O., either through an appointment by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, or through a vote by a P.L.O. body called the Palestine Central Council, said a political analyst close to the P.L.O. and the ruling Palestinian Fatah party. The move could help heal the bitter political split between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the party that controls the P.L.O. and the West Bank.
By taking an influential role in the P.L.O., Hamas could follow allied Islamist movements that have come to power through elections in the wake of the Arab uprisings in early 2011, gaining legitimacy and assuming what it considers its rightful place in Palestinian politics.
Yet joining the P.L.O. is a difficult issue for Hamas, which pioneered suicide bombings against Israel, and for Mr. Meshal’s Islamist base of support throughout the Arab world. In his remarks, he was careful to insist that Hamas was not abandoning its uncompromising stance.
“Hamas will always be with the resistance,” he said. “Resistance is not a hotel that we can check into and out of.”
But Mr. Meshal faced skeptics at the conference, which was organized by the Al-Zaytouna Center for Studies and Consultations in Beirut. The meeting focused on empowering the movement against Israeli occupation after the collapse of pro-Western dictatorships in the region, and some presenters criticized Mr. Meshal for abandoning the cause just as it was gathering strength.
“You can be for the resistance or against the resistance,” said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political scientist who is close to the Lebanese Islamist party Hezbollah, an ally of Iran.
He said that by joining the P.L.O., Mr. Meshal would be accepting its goal of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which is at odds with Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel.
“They just don’t go together; it’s impossible,” Mr. Atrissi said, rolling his eyes as he noted that Mr. Meshal spoke against the backdrop of the Doha skyline in Qatar, a country that many in Hamas view as an errand runner for the West.
Hamas is flush over what it is billing as a victory for its armed resistance against Israel, after fighting in Gaza last week ended with a cease-fire and promises to remove some Israeli restrictions that have devastated the coastal strip’s economy. Mr. Meshal’s remarks suggested that he believed Hamas now held more cards to influence the P.L.O., and the wider Arab world, to take a tougher stance in dealings with Israel.
Although the desire to join the P.L.O. could be viewed as moderating Hamas’s position, Mr. Meshal also called on the Arab world to take a tougher stance against the West and Israel. That would more accurately reflect the wishes of populations newly empowered by the Arab Spring, he said, especially in Egypt, one of two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel.
He called the treaties “a very heavy inheritance,” and said that Arab countries should support Palestinians if not with “actual wars” then by preserving “the golden option of resistance.”
The position and language of Arab governments toward Israel and the West after the uprisings “cannot be the same,” Mr. Meshal said. “We need an Arab strategy,” he added, saying it was time for the Arab nation — he used the word ummah, indicating the Muslim community — to “come back” after a long absence on the world stage.
At the same time that Mr. Meshal was reaching out to liberal and Christian Palestinians and to Fatah, he also seemed to be trying to justify himself to his base and more radical rivals. Some have criticized him for not opposing Mr. Abbas’s appeal to the United Nations for nonmember status for a Palestine based on the 1967 borders, anathema to those who want a state that includes what is now Israel.
He explicitly addressed those who complained that he was being too accommodating by agreeing to the Gaza cease-fire and in refraining from attacks on Israeli positions in the West Bank, restraint he said was necessary for the security of Palestinians there.
“To those who view the cease-fire with suspicion,” he said, “we will be committed to the path of resistance until we liberate Palestine. But escalation and calm, this is a management decision.”
In principle, Hamas still opposes the 1993 Oslo Accord that created the Palestinian Authority to govern the territories, he said, but found it necessary to “join our role in resistance to our role in the Authority, to serve the best interests of the citizens.”
Long before its Muslim Brotherhood allies took power in Egypt and Tunisia, Hamas entered politics by running in, and winning, elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006. But it was unable to govern in the face of Western opposition and in 2007 took power in the Gaza Strip by force, deepening the political split.
Mr. Meshal said that pragmatic decisions sometimes advanced Palestinian interests.
“Resistance is a path and not a goal,” he said. “We are not fighting the Jews because they are Jews; we are fighting the Zionists, the Jews that are colonists, and we shall fight all those who oppress and plunder our land, regardless their religion, regardless of their race.”
He implied that Hamas would not settle for a symbolic role in the P.L.O. but would seek to toughen its policies. Elections would be meaningless if some parties remained “bystanders.”
He said Hamas insisted on “liberation first, then a state,” because a state based on “compromise or settlement is not a real state.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.
« Last Edit: Nov 29, 2012, 08:13 AM by Rad »
November 28, 2012
Congo Rebels, Facing Ultimatum, Begin Retreat From Seized Land
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (AP) — Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo began retreating from some of the territory they seized last week, their military leader said Wednesday, in the first concrete sign that international pressures have stemmed their advance.
Gen. Sultani Makenga, the military chief of the eight-month-old rebellion, said his fighters intended to abide by an ultimatum issued by Congo’s neighbors, which called for the rebels to retreat by Friday to 12 miles outside Goma, the major eastern city that fell to the fighters last week. He said that he had ordered his fighters to retreat to Goma from one town, and that they would leave Goma after that.
“I think that, by Friday, we will be able to complete this,” he said.
A spokesman for the Congolese government, Lambert Mende, confirmed that it had received reports of troops pulling out of the town of Masisi.
“We won’t label it a retreat until it’s over,” he said. “They have played this game with us before, where they say they are moving, and then find a reason not to.”
He added that there would be no negotiations until the rebels, known as M23, were 12 miles outside “the Goma city limit.”
In Goma, there was skepticism over the rebels’ claim as well as confusion, particularly after the leader of the rebels’ political wing insisted that the fighters were not leaving the city, which has one million people and is the economic heart of one of Congo’s mineral-rich regions.
On Wednesday, an M23 official, Theophile Ruremesha, said that President Joseph Kabila’s government needed to meet the rebels’ wide-ranging demands for them to leave the city.“Kabila has to meet our demands if we are to pull out,” he said.
While some fear M23, which has a record of carrying out killings and of forcing children into its ranks, other residents of Goma are afraid of the undisciplined Congolese Army that was pushed out of the city by the rebels on Nov. 20.
About 1,500 United Nations peacekeepers were in Goma when M23 attacked and government forces fled, but the well-armed peacekeepers did not intervene, saying they lacked a mandate. One of their main missions is to protect civilians.
Many people expressed anxiety about a possible attack by the Congolese Army, which lies in wait several dozen miles south of Goma. “This is a nerve-racking situation,” said Ernest Mugisho, a Goma resident. “It fluctuates every hour, and we cannot even plan for tomorrow.”
Eastern Congo is plagued by numerous armed groups, and on Tuesday the Rwandan government said 150 fighters from another renegade group had crossed into Rwanda, attacking a village and clashing with Rwandan troops, in the first such incursion on Rwandan soil in years.
But M23 has proved a particular threat to the Congolese government. It has a large, new cache of weapons, including heavy artillery, that were abandoned by the fleeing Congolese Army last week, according to M23’s president, Jean-Marie Runiga. Six flatbed trucks carrying crates of ammunition were seen Tuesday being driven by M23 soldiers north from Goma.
The rebel group was created by former rebels who joined and then defected from the Congolese Army. A United Nations group of experts said in a report last week that M23 is backed by neighboring Rwanda. Rwanda has strongly denied the accusation.
11/28/2012 05:28 PM
Anti-Semitism in Parliament: Hungary's Far-Right Rhetoric Reaches New Dimension
By Keno Verseck
People of Jewish heritage are a "security risk" and should be registered on a nationwide list, according to right-wing extremist Hungarian politician Márton Gyöngyösi. His comments, made in the country's parliament, have sparked widespread outrage. But the government was slow to distance itself.
Conversations with the right-wing extremist Hungarian politician Márton Gyöngyösi regularly devolve into tiring marathons of relativization. He's not an anti-Semite, he insists, but the Jews … ; he's not against the Roma, but the Gypsies … ; he's not an extremist in favor of dictatorships, but liberal democracy … has failed.
The 33-year-old economist and former tax advisor is not just some random right-winger, though. He is the deputy parliamentary floor leader for the Jobbik party, which won 17 percent of the vote in Hungary's 2010 elections. Gyöngyösi's parents work for Hungarian trade associations abroad and as he was growing up, he spent time in Egypt, Afghanistan, India and Iraq. Jobbik made him the party's foreign policy spokesman.
Gyöngyösi often chuckles in satisfaction at his evasive answers. He sees himself as something of a clever head diplomat for his party.
But on Monday evening, Gyöngyösi for once chose clarity in comments to the Hungarian parliament. During a debate over Israel's military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Gyöngyösi demanded that "all Jews living in Hungary be registered" and that "Jews, particularly those in parliament and the government, be evaluated for the potential danger they pose to Hungary." In a comment directed at Zsolt Németh, a state secretary in the Foreign Ministry, he said: "I think you owe Hungary such a compilation."
Németh, the long-serving foreign policy expert from the conservative governing party Fidesz, neither condemned nor showed any indication of dismay at the comments. "The number of Jews in Hungarian government," he said, "really has nothing to do with the serious conflict in the Middle East."
"That was pure national socialism in parliament," commented Budapest historian Krisztián Ungváry. Indeed, it was the first time Jobbik openly identified itself with the racist dogma of the Nazis. Other right-wing parties in Europe have likewise held their racial hatred cards close to their chests.
Gathering with Jewish Stars
Gyöngyösi's comments triggered indignation and disgust from representatives of Jewish organizations, politicians and civil rights activists on Tuesday. Several hundred people wearing Jewish stars gathered on Tuesday afternoon to protest "creeping Fascism" in Hungary's parliament. Slomó Köves, head of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, pledged to take legal action against Gyöngyösi. It would not be the first time the Jobbik politician found himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Last spring, Attila Mesterházy, head of the Socialist Party, filed suit against Gyöngyösi because he denied the Holocaust during an interview.
Officially, Jobbik politicians have thus far vehemently refuted any ideological proximity to neo-Nazism. But the denials have been half-hearted. On its Internet television channel N1, for example, the party once praised Adolf Hitler as one of the "greatest statesmen in the 20th century." In the spring, a Jobbik representative marked in parliament the anniversary of the alleged Jewish ritual murder of a 14-year-old Christian girl in the village of Tiszaeszlár, involving accusations against Jews in the settlement of murder, which set off weeks of pogroms in 1882-1883. In the summer, the viciously extremist and anti-Semitic European Parliamentarian Csanád Szegedi was expelled from Jobbik when it was discovered that he had Jewish ancestors.
Kristián Ungváry is not surprised by Gyöngyösi's comments. He has long been arguing that Jobbik is a neo-national socialist party in the tradition of the Arrow Cross (the national socialist, World War II-era Hungarian party) and says that the primary problem is the silence their extremism is met with by the governing coalition. "The hair-raising scandal is the limitless cowardice displayed in not reacting to such comments," Ungváry says. "There are always Nazis everywhere, particularly in Eastern Europe, and we have to live with that fact. But you have to distance yourself from them and reprimand them. And that didn't happen."
Only after Jewish groups protested did the government release a statement on Tuesday in which the governing parties sharply condemned Gyöngyösi's statements in parliament and pledged decisiveness in the fight against extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. Still, the document read like an obligatory mea culpa made necessary by State Secretary Németh's silence. Bloggers at the most widely read Hungarian Internet portal index.hu pointed out that the decisive paragraph in the statement had already been used several times almost word for word in response to similar incidents.
In reality, Fidesz has moved ever closer to the positions of the right-wing extremist Jobbik party, partly to lure voters from the right and partly out of conviction. In September, Prime Minister Victor Orbán held a blood-and-soil speech on Hungarian values that bordered on right-wing extremism in the southern Hungarian village of Ópusztaszer on the occasion of a memorial dedication. In May, Hungarian Parliamentary President László Kövér took part in a memorial for the writer József Nyírö, who was a leading cultural ideologist for the Arrow Cross. In Hungary's current national curriculum for its schools, the works of several anti-Semitic authors are listed as recommended reading.
The Jobbik party too has released a kind of correction to the comments by Gyöngyösi, in which the word "Jew" is replaced by "Israeli." He only meant Jews with dual citizenship -- those who hold both Hungarian and Israeli passports -- Gyöngyösi says in the party statement. He asked for forgiveness from his Jewish fellow citizens for the misunderstanding.
Fidesz parliamentary floor leader Antal Rogán has also initiated the introduction of fines and other penalties for future comments similar to those delivered by Gyöngyösi.
The Jobbik party appears unmoved. It is now demanding that Hungarian politicians be checked to determine if they also possess Israeli citizenship. In addition, they want a list of places in Hungary where "Israeli capital" is invested and the size of those investments.
Finally, Jobbik is demanding that a certain pact with Germany and Poland be made public. Party head Gábor Vona is convinced of the existence of the secret treaty. In it, he says, the three countries have committed themselves to providing a home "for 500,000 Jews in an emergency."
Romania: New voters lack democratic references
28 November 2012
Revista 22 Bucharest
A new generation of Romanian voters will take part in the December 9 legislative elections. But what path will these young people choose? After all, they are better acquainted with the current dire brand of politics than with the heritage of the rebellions against the regime of former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising of the workers of Braşov [November 14, 1987, in which 300 anti-Ceauşescu demonstrators were arrested] went by nearly unnoticed. Yet, Romania's current social reality should have made this event more significant. There are several reasons for this indifference to one of the most important movements of our recent history. But I would like to point out what this quasi-total forgetfulness reveals about the direction Romanian society is taking.
A quarter century after a worker's uprising should have been a good opportunity for trade unions to take action. But they, once again, showed their indifference to and their dependence on interests other than those of the "wage-earner".
The authorities in Bucharest also ignored the event, in contrast with their attitude five years ago, for the 20th anniversary, when they showed a spark of interest in history – as they did a few weeks ago when they celebrated the birthday of King Michel, who achieved the venerable age of 91.
This contrast shows to what degree this memory-loss characterises the personalities of our leaders. The 1987 rebellion is the one that, more than the revolution of 1989 which was mired in plotting, could be presented to the younger generation as the symbol of uprisings and repression typical of the Communist regime. But, because it is not presented this way, it is fair to assume that the current political class feels closer to the nomenclature than to the workers of Braşov, who rebelled in 1987 and were laid off afterwards in 1990.
These days, the media is full of corruption and scandal, and the young people who see only this, will be more easily manipulated because they lack the cultural and historic references with which to interpret these events.
In a country without political identities, where everything seems temporary, only historical experience provides the context to allow people to stop themselves being manipulated. Through whatever lens the events [surrounding the 1989 anti- Ceaușescu revolution] were seen, the lesson is that Romania has no other option but Europe.
The generation raised during the transition is different. This year, for the December 9 legislative election, those born as recently as 1994 will be eligible to vote. Looking back chronologically at the events that have shaped them, the first would be the July 2012 referendum to remove President Traian Băsescu, which along with the January and February urban demonstrations, were the most important events of the year.
It can also be noted that in December 2011, President Băsescu totalled the same number of years in power as Romania's first post-Ceaușescu president, Ion Iliescu, and that this is Băsescu's eighth year in office.
From a political perspective, these young people were born in a climate of partisan media that has influenced the interpretation of political events and is particularly distinguished by the pro- and anti-Băsescu cleavage. Even if it is cyclical, this split is all the more important for this new generation because it profoundly affected the education system.
From primary schools to high schools all the way to public and private universities, the great majority of teachers responsible for educating these youngsters felt themselves "victims" of the policies supported directly or indirectly by the president.
This type of generalisation is dangerous and there are of course exceptions. But, historically speaking and from a political perspective, it can be said that the generation raised during the transition is the first born during the rebellion against policies that, whatever their reprehensible faults, can be qualified as reformist.
The anti-Băsescu generation also wants change but its thirst for change has been diverted in favour of those who oppose change. This generation also wants "Europe" but its energy has been side-tracked by those who favour nationalist-populist rhetoric rather than a pro-European vocation.
It is only after December 9 that harsh reality will shred this web of ideas in which this generation, deeply marked by the anarchy of transition, is now entangled. But no one can foresee how they will express their future rebellion.
November 29, 2012
U.N. Court Frees Former Leader of Kosovo
By MARLISE SIMONS
PARIS — A United Nations war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted the former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, for the second time of torturing and killing Serb civilians while he was a commander of the NATO-backed Kosovo Liberation Army during its fight for independence in 1999.
Two of his comrades, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, were also acquitted, although Mr. Brahimaj has already served a six-year sentence for torture handed down in an earlier trial. The judges ordered the three men released immediately.
Supporters cheered in the courtroom’s public gallery in The Hague, where proceedings were broadcast via video stream.
The men were expected to return later in the day to Kosovo, where Mr. Haradinaj’s supporters — even before the verdict — said they hoped he would return to politics. In Serbia, which is involved in crucial talks with Kosovo, a former Serbian province before the war, the decision was expected to provoke a wave of angry reactions.
President Tomislav Nikolic of Serbia said in a statement, “Nobody will be convicted of horrible crimes against Kosovo Serbs. Such verdicts encourage separatism, hinder efforts to establish peace in the region, annul efforts to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina thus far.”
But other officials, including the Serbian prime minister, Ivica Dacic, said that talks with Kosovo would continue because they were in Serbia’s “best interest.”
Earlier this month, the tribunal enraged the Belgrade government and many Serbs, when an appeals chamber threw out the convictions of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. They led a 1995 military campaign that recaptured Serb-occupied Croatian land and drove more than 150,000 Serbs from Croatia.
The overturning of the Croatian and now the Kosovo convictions are seen as serious setbacks for the prosecution. It has said in recent days that it will seek a review of the Croatian appeals ruling, in which two of the five judges wrote unusually sharp dissents.
One judge bluntly called the acquittal of the Croatian generals “grotesque” and wrote that the findings of the majority “contradict any sense of justice.”
Inevitably, the acquittals of the Croatian generals and now the Kosovo fighters have provoked charges that the verdicts were politically inspired, given that the military men from both countries were backed by the West.
The Croatian campaign of 1995 was planned with the help of active and retired American military advisers.
The Kosovo Liberation Army was openly backed by NATO, which led the Kosovo war.
But lawyers working for the tribunal have said that the case against the Kosovo fighters was fraught from the start. Before Mr. Haradinaj’s indictment in 2005, lawyers in the prosecution office cautioned repeatedly that there was not enough evidence to build a case against him. But some prosecutors argued that the tribunal needed to try hard to include suspects from other ethnic groups in the list of overwhelmingly Serbian suspects.
Austria: A former MEP on trial for corruption
27 November 2012
Kleine Zeitung, Die Presse
“In the crosshairs of justice”, headlines Kleine Zeitung. On November 26, Ernst Strasser, former MEP and former Austrian interior minister, went on trial for corruption. During his tenure in Brussels, he was secretly filmed in 2011 by two journalists from The Sunday Times posing as lobbyists who discussed the fee Strasser would accept in exchange for trying to influence European Union legislation. The European Union deputy demanded €100,000 a year for his services. According to the Austrian prosecutor, the paper notes –
Money was more important to him than his integrity. Most of the 60 delegates approached by the two British journalists – all but Strasser, and two other MEPs, a Romanian and a Slovenian – withstood the temptation.
Strasser, however, protests his innocence. In talking about money with the journalists, his lawyer claims, he intended “to reveal a conspiracy against him, possibly by a secret service,” writes Die Presse, which calls the transcript of the conversations with Strasser published by The Sunday Times “impressive testimony to his arrogance, megalomania, haughtiness and unscrupulousness.” If convicted, Strasser faces up to 10 years in prison.
11/29/2012 01:38 PM
Letter from Berlin: Why Merkel Need Not Fear the Opposition
By Charles Hawley
Last summer, Germany's opposition Social Democrats said they were through blindly following Chancellor Merkel's euro-crisis course. But on Friday, the party is once again set to support a package of aid measures for Greece. The lack of an alternative does not bode well for the party in next year's elections.
Germany's Social Democrats have a problem. With less than a year to go before general elections, the center-left opposition party finds itself struggling to distance itself from Chancellor Angela Merkel on the election season's most important issue: the euro crisis. And that failure could weigh heavily on its chances next fall.
Should the SPD be planning to create separation, it doesn't look like it will happen this week. On Friday, yet another package of aid measures for Greece will land in front of the German parliament in Berlin. And despite a bit of public hand-wringing on Wednesday, it now looks as though the party will broadly support Merkel's euro-crisis course once again. During a test vote among SPD parliamentarians held on Thursday morning, only eight out of 146 lawmakers voted "no" and 12 abstained.
The move is not surprising. The SPD has spent much of the last two years backing Merkel as she tries to navigate the crisis while avoiding as little collateral damage to Germany as possible. Indeed, in a February vote on aid for Greece, and again in a series of summer votes on the permanent euro-zone aid package, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), SPD backing even served to cover up a potential embarrassment for Merkel: Several lawmakers in her own coalition rebelled on both occasions, but widespread support from the nominal opposition prevented a loss of face for the chancellor.
This week, to be sure, the SPD has tried hard to create the impression of dissent. "The SPD will stick to its position and fulfill its responsibility to Europe," said Peer Steinbrück, the party's chancellor candidate, on Thursday. But, he added, that doesn't mean his party supports Merkel's administration.
Avoiding Difficult Decisions
SPD foor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier struck a similar note, accusing Merkel's government of merely trying to avoid difficult decisions until after next year's elections -- before indicating, of course, that he would support exactly that course of action.
At issue, once again, is aid to Greece. On Monday night in Brussels, euro-zone finance ministers reached agreement with the International Monetary Fund on the way forward for Athens as it struggles to reduce its overall debt load. Germany's adamant opposition to a debt cut led to a host of measures -- including interest rate reductions, maturity extensions on emergency loans and a debt-buyback program -- all meant to reduce Greek sovereign debt to 124 percent of gross domestic product by 2020.
The deal means that Germany willforego some €730 million ($945 million) in revenues in 2013. But it avoids the issue of an outright debt write-down, a move that would cost German taxpayers billions. Most economists, however, believe it will ultimately be unavoidable -- and so does the SPD. On Tuesday, Steinmeier said: "The debt cut cannot be avoided."
On Wednesday, Social Democrats seemed eager to publicize possible resistance to Merkel's course. Leading parliamentarian Thomas Oppermann said that the "mood in the party is critical," adding that the party's ultimate stance was still completely up in the air. Another senior SPD member told the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that, if the vote on the document had been held Tuesday, "it would have been a 'no,'" adding that it would be difficult to round up sufficient SPD support.
Ultimately, however, a "no" on Friday would likely do the party more harm than good. For one, Steinbrück was Merkel's finance minister as the global financial crisis erupted in 2008 and 2009 and has positioned himself since then as a tough-talking, pro-Europe politician like Merkel. For another, voting against the Greece measures on Friday would put the SPD in the same camp as the far-left Left Party and create separation from their political allies, the Green Party, which plans to vote "yes" on Friday.
Approving the measures, however, is equally problematic. The party assured voters during the summer votes on the ESM that it was the last time the SPD would simply go along with Merkel's conservatives on euro-crisis measures. But lacking a euro-crisis strategy of its own, and one that differs dramatically from Merkel's, the party is having trouble distancing itself from the Chancellery. As one unnamed parliamentarian told the Süddeutsche Zeitung: "The desire for more opposition is growing."
On Thursday, SPD leaders seemed to half-heartedly foster the illusion that such opposition existed. "The package will not last," Steinmeier, the SPD floor leader, told reporters after the SPD decided to support it. He also said it was mostly designed to help Merkel's government put off tough decisions until after the elections.
According to media reports, many SPD lawmakers decided to support the Greece package so as to avoid hamstringing their chancellor candidate on the eve of the campaign.
Steinbrück himself was more circumspect and not interested in owning up to such tactical considerations. "We are continuing to do what we have always said we'd do," he said.
But it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to attract voters to his cause.
November 28, 2012
A Not-So-Firm Deadline on a New Government in Nepal
By GARDINER HARRIS
NEW DELHI — President Ram Baran Yadav of Nepal is insisting that the country’s politicians reach an agreement on a new government by Thursday afternoon.
Unless, of course, the politicians need more time. Again. Then, well, all bets are off.
“If the time is not enough to get to some sort of conclusion, most probably the president will have to extend the deadline some more days,” Rajendra Dahal, the president’s spokesman, said about the deadline that the president announced last week. “Maybe four or five days.”
And if four or five days are not enough?
“At the moment, I can only say that the process may continue for more weeks or more months,” Mr. Dahal said.
Nepal’s transition to democracy has already taken nearly five years, paralyzed by the ethnic, caste, religious, ideological and regional differences that permeate Nepalese society and have apparently made even the most basic political agreements impossible.
The move toward a representative government began in 2008 with great promise after the election of a Constituent Assembly. As numerous deadlines came and went, the assembly was unable to draw up a constitution or settle on the timing or method for holding further elections. But it did manage to agree on a Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, and a cabinet.
Since then, however, the terms of those elected in 2008 have expired, and the president has repeatedly pleaded for the assembly to reach a consensus on other important matters. In the meantime, basic civic functions are grinding to a halt.
Nepal has more than 35 major political groups, and internecine battles are common. The Communists are split into Marxists and Maoists, and the Maoists are further splintered into accommodationists and hard-liners. Cultural differences within Nepal, a country of 29 million, are vast. Nepali is the official language, but there are a dozen other major languages and scores of dialects. The average income is about $3 per day, and unemployment is above 40 percent.
The best that can be said about the present logjam is that nobody is shooting at each other. That may not sound like much, but most international observers view the current situation as a huge improvement over much of Nepal’s modern history. A 10-year civil war that ended in 2006 cost at least 13,000 lives and left the country bereft.
Some weeks ago, rumors swept Katmandu, the capital, that an exasperated Mr. Yadav would fire Mr. Bhattarai and appoint a judge or an elder statesman in his place so elections could finally be held.
But there were many problems with this notion. Nepal’s presidency is a largely ceremonial post, and Mr. Yadav had no power to take such a step. Also, the two most important players in Nepalese politics, the Nepalese Army and the Indian government, were said to have rejected the plan. At any rate, previous attempts by exasperated politicians to impose order on feuding political clans had generally ended badly.
So Mr. Dahal now insists that the president’s patience is nearly limitless.
“The president does not have other options or plans,” he said.
Some analysts believe that the recent speculation about drastic action has pushed the political parties closer to an agreement.
“I think there is a slight window of opportunity right now that they may be able to form a consensus government,” said Sridhar K. Khatri, a former executive director of the South Asia Center for Policy Studies.
Anagha Neelakantan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said some sort of resolution was possible because the paralysis carried its own risks for the major political parties, including a rise in royalist sentiments. The king surrendered power in 2006 after a disastrous crackdown led most of the country’s major parties to work together to oust him.
“If the parties don’t behave themselves, in six months a royalist resurgence is a real possibility,” Ms. Neelakantan said.
Meanwhile, Thursday’s deadline awaits. Will there be a consensus by then?
“No,” said Devendra Poudel, a spokesman for Mr. Bhattarai. “There will not be.”
Prateek Pradhan contributed reporting from Katmandu, Nepal.