Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 19, 2010

Morning Commentary

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by Congress yesterday, but the military says that implementing the new rules will take some time: “Under the expected procedure, the Defense Department will conduct servicewide training and education for all active duty, reserve and national guard forces, and make whatever adjustments in procedures and facilities are necessary. … A servicewide memo will be sent instructing any gay or lesbian servicemembers not to openly declare their sexual orientation because they could potentially be subject to separation from the military.”

And in the aftermath of the DADT repeal, liberals have found a surprising new hero — Joe Lieberman: “‘He’s certainly one of my heroes today,’ said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. ‘His determination, his tenacity has kept this going all year. This would have not happened without Sen. Lieberman.’”

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is planning to take full advantage of his new “temporary” power to rule by decree: “Venezuela’s lame-duck, pro-government congress has given temporary one-man rule to President Hugo Chavez, less than three weeks before a newly elected National Assembly with enough government foes to hamper some of his socialist initiatives takes office. … Speaking to supporters in a televised address Friday, Chavez left little doubt that he would use his powers to push through a range of economic and political measures that would accelerate the oil-rich country’s transformation into a socialist state.”

A soldier reflects on Time magazine’s Person of the Year: “I am not upset that [war hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner] Staff Sgt. [Salvatore] Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not ‘influential’ enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.”

Michael Moore gets burned by WikiLeaks: “[T]he memo reveals that when the film [Sicko, Moore’s fawning documentary about the Cuban health-care system,] was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so ‘disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room’. … Castro’s government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it ‘knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them.’”

Could government policies make smoking extinct? While laws and taxes have certainly reduced the number of smokers, Kyle Smith argues that the habit is never going to go away completely: “What’s striking about a little volume called ‘The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking’ (Skyhorse Publishing), an alphabetical guide to ciggie factoids, is how consistently smoking has been treated as a menace down the centuries. C-sticks were always just about to be hounded out of polite company for 400 years of largely ineffective taxes, warnings and bans. None of it worked.”

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by Congress yesterday, but the military says that implementing the new rules will take some time: “Under the expected procedure, the Defense Department will conduct servicewide training and education for all active duty, reserve and national guard forces, and make whatever adjustments in procedures and facilities are necessary. … A servicewide memo will be sent instructing any gay or lesbian servicemembers not to openly declare their sexual orientation because they could potentially be subject to separation from the military.”

And in the aftermath of the DADT repeal, liberals have found a surprising new hero — Joe Lieberman: “‘He’s certainly one of my heroes today,’ said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. ‘His determination, his tenacity has kept this going all year. This would have not happened without Sen. Lieberman.’”

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez is planning to take full advantage of his new “temporary” power to rule by decree: “Venezuela’s lame-duck, pro-government congress has given temporary one-man rule to President Hugo Chavez, less than three weeks before a newly elected National Assembly with enough government foes to hamper some of his socialist initiatives takes office. … Speaking to supporters in a televised address Friday, Chavez left little doubt that he would use his powers to push through a range of economic and political measures that would accelerate the oil-rich country’s transformation into a socialist state.”

A soldier reflects on Time magazine’s Person of the Year: “I am not upset that [war hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner] Staff Sgt. [Salvatore] Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not ‘influential’ enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.”

Michael Moore gets burned by WikiLeaks: “[T]he memo reveals that when the film [Sicko, Moore’s fawning documentary about the Cuban health-care system,] was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so ‘disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room’. … Castro’s government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it ‘knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them.’”

Could government policies make smoking extinct? While laws and taxes have certainly reduced the number of smokers, Kyle Smith argues that the habit is never going to go away completely: “What’s striking about a little volume called ‘The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking’ (Skyhorse Publishing), an alphabetical guide to ciggie factoids, is how consistently smoking has been treated as a menace down the centuries. C-sticks were always just about to be hounded out of polite company for 400 years of largely ineffective taxes, warnings and bans. None of it worked.”

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WikiLeaks Debunks History for Stupid People

Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange deserves a medal rather than prison. “He and WikiLeaks have done America a massive favour,” he writes, “by inadvertently debunking decades-old conspiracy theories about its foreign policy.”

He’s right. And I suspect Rachman’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek when he says Assange should be rewarded. If the United States wanted all that information made public, the government hardly needed his help getting it out there.

Anyway, Rachman points out that many rightists in China and Russia, and leftists in Europe and Latin America, assume that whatever American foreign-policy officials say in public is a lie. I’d add that Arabs on both the “left” and the “right” do, too. Not all of them, surely, but perhaps a majority. I’ve met people in the Middle East who actually like parts of the American rationale for the war in Iraq — that the promotion of democracy in the Arab world might leech out its toxins — they just don’t believe the U.S. was actually serious.

And let’s not forget the most ridiculous theories of all. Surely somewhere in all these leaked files there’d be references to a war for oil in Iraq if the war was, in fact, about oil. Likewise, if 9/11 was an inside job — or a joint Mossad–al-Qaeda job — there should be at least some suggestive evidence in all those classified documents. If the U.S. government lied, rather than guessed wrong, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or if NATO invaded Afghanistan to install a pipeline, this information would have to be written down somewhere. The State and Defense department bureaucracies are far too vast to have no records of what they’re up to.

Conspiracy theories, though, as someone once said, are history for stupid people. Those who actually believe this stuff — whether about American foreign policy, the president’s birth certificate, or whatever — think the historical record is part of the con job, that anyone who debunks the conspiracy is either deluded or in on it.

So Assange is accused of working for the CIA.

Rachman points out other silly theories that are debunked, or at the very least unsupported, by the leaked cables. “The Americans say, in public, that they would like to build a strong relationship with China based on mutual interests,” he writes, “but that they are worried that some Chinese economic policies are damaging American workers. This turns out to be what they are saying in private, as well. In a cable predicting a more turbulent phase in US-Chinese relations, Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador, insists: ‘We need to find ways to keep the relationship positive,’ while ensuring that American workers benefit more. Many Chinese nationalists and netizens have developed elaborate theories about American plots to thwart China’s rise. There is not a hint of this in WikiLeaks.”

Julian Assange is stridently anti-American. He is not trying to boost the government’s credibility by leaking thousands of cables, and he almost certainly would refuse a medal if one were offered. He should not have done what he did for a number of reasons, and the least rational among our species won’t be persuaded of anything by this material, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t still feel a little bit satisfied.

Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange deserves a medal rather than prison. “He and WikiLeaks have done America a massive favour,” he writes, “by inadvertently debunking decades-old conspiracy theories about its foreign policy.”

He’s right. And I suspect Rachman’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek when he says Assange should be rewarded. If the United States wanted all that information made public, the government hardly needed his help getting it out there.

Anyway, Rachman points out that many rightists in China and Russia, and leftists in Europe and Latin America, assume that whatever American foreign-policy officials say in public is a lie. I’d add that Arabs on both the “left” and the “right” do, too. Not all of them, surely, but perhaps a majority. I’ve met people in the Middle East who actually like parts of the American rationale for the war in Iraq — that the promotion of democracy in the Arab world might leech out its toxins — they just don’t believe the U.S. was actually serious.

And let’s not forget the most ridiculous theories of all. Surely somewhere in all these leaked files there’d be references to a war for oil in Iraq if the war was, in fact, about oil. Likewise, if 9/11 was an inside job — or a joint Mossad–al-Qaeda job — there should be at least some suggestive evidence in all those classified documents. If the U.S. government lied, rather than guessed wrong, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or if NATO invaded Afghanistan to install a pipeline, this information would have to be written down somewhere. The State and Defense department bureaucracies are far too vast to have no records of what they’re up to.

Conspiracy theories, though, as someone once said, are history for stupid people. Those who actually believe this stuff — whether about American foreign policy, the president’s birth certificate, or whatever — think the historical record is part of the con job, that anyone who debunks the conspiracy is either deluded or in on it.

So Assange is accused of working for the CIA.

Rachman points out other silly theories that are debunked, or at the very least unsupported, by the leaked cables. “The Americans say, in public, that they would like to build a strong relationship with China based on mutual interests,” he writes, “but that they are worried that some Chinese economic policies are damaging American workers. This turns out to be what they are saying in private, as well. In a cable predicting a more turbulent phase in US-Chinese relations, Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador, insists: ‘We need to find ways to keep the relationship positive,’ while ensuring that American workers benefit more. Many Chinese nationalists and netizens have developed elaborate theories about American plots to thwart China’s rise. There is not a hint of this in WikiLeaks.”

Julian Assange is stridently anti-American. He is not trying to boost the government’s credibility by leaking thousands of cables, and he almost certainly would refuse a medal if one were offered. He should not have done what he did for a number of reasons, and the least rational among our species won’t be persuaded of anything by this material, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t still feel a little bit satisfied.

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Scotland Recovers, and Plans to Waste, Oil for Food Kickbacks

A Glasgow-based engineering firm, Weir Group, has been fined 3 million pounds and had 13.9 million pounds of illegal profits confiscated after it admitted paying kickbacks to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. Weir Group, the BBC reports, made payments of 3.1 million pounds to the regime, plus another 1.4 million pounds to “an agent in Iraq” (regrettably not named in the judgment) in order to secure a contract worth approximately 35 million pounds. Weir Group, now under new management, fully acknowledged and apologized for its wrongdoing.

The judgment by Lord Carloway correctly describes the Oil for Food Programme as “bedeviled by corruption,” though his Lordship is charitable in stating that this was recognized “by 2004.” Actually, by 2004, the investigation into the Oil for Food fraud had not begun, and the scale of the corruption — and the extent to which individuals, companies, and UN officials were complicit in it — was certainly not fully established.

The sorry saga prompts a few reflections on Oil for Food and the problems inherent in it. The first is that doing prohibited business with dirty dictators is amazingly profitable: Weir Group made almost 14 million pounds off a contract worth 35 million. Even after making illegal payments amounting to 4.5 million pounds, that leaves about 10 million pounds of profit, about 30 percent of the value of the contact. There are very few legitimate businesses, here or abroad, that can boast that kind of return on “investment.” Other shady businesses will probably find doing deals with regimes under UN sanctions similarly profitable. Read More

A Glasgow-based engineering firm, Weir Group, has been fined 3 million pounds and had 13.9 million pounds of illegal profits confiscated after it admitted paying kickbacks to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. Weir Group, the BBC reports, made payments of 3.1 million pounds to the regime, plus another 1.4 million pounds to “an agent in Iraq” (regrettably not named in the judgment) in order to secure a contract worth approximately 35 million pounds. Weir Group, now under new management, fully acknowledged and apologized for its wrongdoing.

The judgment by Lord Carloway correctly describes the Oil for Food Programme as “bedeviled by corruption,” though his Lordship is charitable in stating that this was recognized “by 2004.” Actually, by 2004, the investigation into the Oil for Food fraud had not begun, and the scale of the corruption — and the extent to which individuals, companies, and UN officials were complicit in it — was certainly not fully established.

The sorry saga prompts a few reflections on Oil for Food and the problems inherent in it. The first is that doing prohibited business with dirty dictators is amazingly profitable: Weir Group made almost 14 million pounds off a contract worth 35 million. Even after making illegal payments amounting to 4.5 million pounds, that leaves about 10 million pounds of profit, about 30 percent of the value of the contact. There are very few legitimate businesses, here or abroad, that can boast that kind of return on “investment.” Other shady businesses will probably find doing deals with regimes under UN sanctions similarly profitable.

The second is that this judgment comes almost seven years after the illegal payments ended, and almost a decade after they began. Lord Carloway justified the imposition of the fine, in part, on the grounds that it would “deter future offenses.” Well, one can hope. But judgments that come so late after the offense are not likely to deter. Furthermore, Lord Carloway had remarkably few similar cases on which to base his decision, so, frankly, the odds of getting away with this sort of kickback scheme must still look pretty good — especially because the corruption of Oil for Food came to light only because the U.S. and its allies overthrew Saddam. One wonders if the conclusive proof of Weir Group’s payments — and they are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg of payments made round the world — will prompt any opponents of the war in Iraq to reflect that, just maybe, Saddam was not so securely “in his box” after all.

And third, there is the question of what will happen to the money recovered by the Scottish government. That may be the most depressing part of the saga. Let’s be clear about this: the illegal profits that Weir Group earned were stolen from the Iraqi people. The money should be returned to them, in full, with the fine included as interest. Instead, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has stated that some of the funds will “be put to good use through our successful cashback for communities program” — in other words, spent to fund what the government describes as “diversionary activities for young people.” The remainder — “a significant sum” — will be used to “support the Scottish government’s international development work.”

Fantastic: the fate of these millions of pounds, stolen by a corrupt government and a corrupt firm, will be to fund soccer pitches in Scotland and foreign-aid programs that have already wasted billions. Well, knowing that would certainly put me off paying bribes to Saddam. But maybe it’s an appropriate decision: money born of corruption will flow to an activity that all too frequently promotes it.

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