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August 24, 2003 Opinion

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Not a good week, I suppose, depending on your point of view.
Item 1 
On Friday the 22nd the BBC carried a story that the commander of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has told the BBC the US military is hoping to release children it is holding there. 
These prisoners are now between 13 and 15 and General Geoffrey Miller who leads operations at the camp is seeking to have them released in recognition of their age and co-operation.  To quote Miller, "They have given us some very valuable intelligence. We are very close to making a recommendation on their transfer back to their home countries."   
I wonder how we extracted that valuable intelligence information from them.

The children have been kept separate from the seven hundred adults being held at the camp and of course have been held with no access to a lawyer or understanding of what will happen to them.  But Miller says the children have been given access to games, even videos, as well as an extensive education program. 
Cool.  I wonder which video they watched, and which games they played.

On the other hand our government has classified them as "enemy combatants" outside the normal legal framework, and says it cannot treat them as normal criminals because of their alleged involvement in the 11 September attacks.   It also says it cannot treat them as ordinary prisoners of war.  Normally such prisoners would be released at the end of hostilities - but the US says its war on terror is open-ended.

Then again, unless Miller is overruled by the White House or Pentagon, these almost teenagers have now been classified as just kids.  We may release them.

These people were between eleven and thirteen when they were captured.  But if you trust our government, these were very bad people.  I guess so.  I taught kids that age.  I can imagine.

Well, one of my favorite throwaway lines from Samuel Butler's novel The Way of All Flesh goes something like this: "Children have a wonderful way of adapting to circumstances, or dying."
War is tough.  One likes to think these were just kids.  But perhaps they were, even at the age of eleven, as deadly and dangerous as any madman flying a jetliner into a skyscraper, and were plotting, and carrying out, international mass murder.  
Could be.  One should not be have some sort of sentimental naiveté about the possibility.  
The upcoming presidential campaign will mean that this should be handled carefully - hidden in the foreign press lest it upset liberal, permissive parents who would be appalled at the fact we held these kids for two years, completely isolated.  Such folks vote.  Or it could be publicized as compassionate conservatism - we hate all Islamic terrorists and we'll lock them up and throw away the key, but not these poor kids who were duped into the hostilities.  Two years of isolation?  Let 'em go.  Were not unreasonable.  Middle-of-the-road Republicans would like that, and they vote.  Or we could crow that even though they were kids we held them for two years and squeezed every bit of information we could out of them - and that would please the angry right as a message that we are standing tall and not going all squishy about rooting out evil.  We mean what we say.  Mess with us and you're in more trouble than you can imagine, even if you're eleven years old.
As it is, Miller gave his interview to the BBC and not any domestic news service.  Perhaps this is an effort to show the folks in the UK we're not such bad guys, giving Tony Blair some cover this week as he testifies in the Hoon inquiry.  And when mainland Europe reads this BBC scoop perhaps they won't be so angry with us for starting the whole thing, as James Woolsey calls it, World War IV and all that.  We'll seem reasonable.  Or not. 
Item 2
On Wednesday the 20th Ted Rall wrote a piece in which he was outraged at the news that WorldCom is about to receive a nine hundred million dollar contract to build a cell phone system for occupied Iraq.  The company with the giant accounting scandal that wiped out the savings and retirement plans of most of its employees below executive level?  Those guys?  Yep, those guys. 
WorldCom's MCI division never figured out how to build a cell network in this county and ultimately gave up trying.  MCI has never built out a wireless network.  Those guys. 
Well, there are potentially two million customers for a new system in Iraq.  And the Pentagon is awarding this contract without competitive bidding.
This will keep the foreigners out.  As Rall comments:
The Pentagon's rush to protect WorldCom from a scrappy Bahraini-based competitor, Batelco, which has built cell networks in the Middle East, has exposed yet another unholy alliance between corporate America and the Bush Administration.  Demonstrating the brand of lightening-quick entrepreneurship traditionally treasured by free-market-loving Americans, Batelco raced into Iraq after the U.S. invasion and installed cell towers throughout Baghdad. With half of land lines out of service and Saddam's 1990 plan to build cell towers stymied by U.N. trade sanctions, Baghdadis welcomed the new service. But the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) shut down Batelco and threatened to confiscate its $5 million of equipment. Now the CPA is now prohibiting companies more than 10 percent owned by foreign governments from bidding on civilian cell business in U.S.-occupied Iraq. That eliminates Batelco and most other Middle East-based telecommunications companies and, according to analyst Lars Godell of Forrester Research in Amsterdam, leaves MCI with "a head start."
Companies like Vodafone, T-Mobile and NTT DoCoMo of Japan all have more experience of "setting up green field operations in developing countries [than MCI]," says Godell. He adds that the Bush Administration's decision not to seek competitive bids "confirms the worst suspicions" of European cellular companies. Fortunately for them, being American means never having to say you're sorry.
Other interesting tidbits?  As recently as June 2002, a week before the big accounting scandal broke, The Washington Post reported that WorldCom contributed $100,000 to a GOP fundraising gala featuring Bush - "enough to be listed on the program as a vice chairman of the event."  Before becoming Attorney General, John Ashcroft cashed a $10,000 WorldCom check for his losing Senate race.  (As you recall, he lost to a dead man.)
And the University of Mississippi's Trent Lott Leadership Institute, named for the GOP Senator, received one million dollars from WorldCom.
And there is the lack of experience, $5.5 billion in post-bankruptcy debt and an extensive criminal record here.  And AT&T and Moterola are pretty ticked off.  And the proposed technical standard will mean the MCI wireless telephone system will not be compatable with the systems in any of the surrounding countries. 
Well, maybe that last item a good thing.
Yeah, well.  That's what happened.
As I wrote to a friend about this, Ted here should calm down.  The world has always worked this way.  He's whining.  Like you'd expect anything different?  Get real. 
The French have long understood this is how politics work.  It is what folks over there expect.  Continental realism - or mild, well-developed, world-weary cynicism - is called for.  It something we can learn from the French.  Think ELF TotalFina and West Africa, or the business years ago with the destroyers built for Taiwan, or Chirac's years as the mayor of Paris.  Or better yet, check out the scandal this last summer with the politicians from Toulouse - and that had nasty sex too!  Ted should work on his Gallic shrug. 
This is what the folks who are elected or appointed do.  Right or left, Republican or Democrat.  But Americans are so idealistic and hopeful.  Such charming fools.  Ted going to give himself a heart attack.  
There is a reason Nixon was respected so very much in France - you could look it up.  They knew.


Item 3

From Sunday August 24th in The Observer (UK) - Farewell America - The Observer's US correspondent Ed Vulliamy returns from his years as their correspondent here.

It is incumbent upon journalists, I think, to distrust conspiracy theories. But the problem with the conspiracy theory of the machine that lifted George 'Dubya' Bush to high office is that it never lets you down; you wait for the trip wire, but walk on. This is hardly the place to recount my inspections of that mechanism but I did spend many weeks listening in Texas and days at the Securities and Exchange Commission sifting through box files, to become acquainted with its workings.

I wanted, just for instance, to find out which company bought Dresser Industries, once the world's biggest oil services company, of which Prescott Bush (Dubya's grandfather) was director and for which George Bush senior opened up the West Texas oil basin. It was Halliburton, recent beneficiary of a contract in Iraq, where Vice President Dick Cheney made his fortune after being Bush senior's Defence Secretary. And on it goes. President Bush broke all records in the history of campaign finance to get 'elected'. One of his biggest donors was 'Kenny Boy' Lay, CEO of the Enron Corporation, operator of one of the biggest company frauds ever. And among Enron's lavishly paid consultants was, inevitably, Ralph Reed, former head of the right-wing Christian Coalition, recommended to the board by Karl Rove, the Svengali figure who managed all Bush's campaigns in Texas, and is now the most powerful man in the White House.

Well, I don't like conspiracy theories.  But I'm sorrry Ed didn't get around to any of this.

Vulliamy quotes John Cale (he's Welsh) of the Velvet Underground -

My love affair with the US, which began with music, took a dive when I heard that Clear Channel Communications [a vast network of local radio stations owned by a close friend of President Bush] had forced the Dixie Chicks to withdraw their statement of criticism of the Bush regime. And with the latest power outage, the level of trust in the regime (never great?) has also nosedived. Who knew that, of the three power grids constituting the US system, one was solely for Texas!

The generosity of this once great country (of which I am now a product) is being obscured by a political fervour derived from something akin to the parody of the Communist manifesto that was around in the Sixties - "What's yours is mine, and what's mine's my own."  I see a "dauphin" in the White House while powerful figures range in the background, making resource theft a way of life... Meantime, I will stew in the poisonous atmosphere Karl Rove slides under my door each morning.  I'll write a song or two, turn up the volume and bury my dead.

That's a bummer.

As Vulliamy concludes - America was always a dichotomous, Janus nation - born of a revolution by democratic visionaries such as Tom Paine but built on genocide and enslavement. Enriched by immigration but made greedy by power and wealth. It was always a question of which America was in the ascendancy at a given time. I think that during Clinton's presidency there were elements of that democratic America to the fore. Or at least there were by contrast to a country now redefining its role as an international citizen, a country where democratic rights, enshrined in the Constitution, are eroded largely by consent.

Does it take an outsider to see this?


Item 4

Next week will be better.


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24 August 2003

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