November 28, 2007

Chasing the Phantoms of 9/11

It's unfortunate, to say the least, that the 9/11 hijackers chose a suicide route to carry out their horrific act of terrorism. This happens often in the mass murder situation: the "lone gunman" kills a lot of strangers and then in his final act of despair and madness, he turns the gun on himself. Aggrieved humanity is therefore left without a focus for their vengeance and emotional "closure." Something awful has happened and all you can say is that life's like that sometimes.

The United States might have responded differently to 9/11: to do nothing militarily, but to have explored what routes there were for standard police and counter-terrorism work. The hijackers, naturally, are all dead; you can't make them pay any greater price. But if they have living accomplices, let's see if we can track and capture them. I thought that's what Bush meant way back in 2001 when he said he was going to smoke the perps out of their holes, get 'em runnin, and bring 'em to justice. I assumed he was referring to Osama bin Laden and close henchmen, like Zawahiri and Atef, and, as we perhaps didn't know then, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the "Brain" or mastermind behind the attacks. KSM, as he's known in the 9-11 Report, was also instrumental in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The Clinton Administration apprehended and convicted his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who's now doing a life stretch at the Supermax prison in Colorado. KSM is in Guantanamo, and will never see another free day in this life. And bin Laden and Zawahiri...?

After the dust settled at the World Trade Center, a decision was made within the Bush Administration that the Great War on Terror (GWOT) should be 10% anti-terrorism and 90% show biz. Thus and always in the media age. Slowly but surely, as we reduce the world to a set of electronic images, reality loses its familiar feel and internal logic and is reduced to...11110000001100001100001001011101100111111011101100000000111100.

I've been reading "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who served as the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief during the initial year of the American occupation. By now the ideas are familiar to me, having read "Fiasco" and "Cobra II." These books tightly converge toward an inescapable conclusion that the occupation was completely botched. I was struck by one image early on in the book: in the main mess hall of Saddam's palace in the Green Zone, which had been converted to Coalition Provisional Authority use, giant murals of the Twin Towers were painted on the walls. I suppose, when they were painted, these pictures were to remind the soldiers what they were fighting for - to avenge the attacks of 9/11. I have a feeling this didn't convince many members of the military, at least not after a few months in Iraq. It might serve as an operational definition of cognitive dissonance. Eventually, even their Commander in Chief, weary of the occasional questions at his staged press conferences, simply said Saddam had "nothing" to do with the attacks of 9/11. So from that point, I guess, the murals were just to remind the soldiers of life in New York.

More than six years after 9/11 we're still fighting two military wars in Aghanistan and Iraq to avenge the crimes of 19 Arabs from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen and the UAE. The CIA tells us that the threat of terrorism has increased worldwide as a result. If you board a plane today at Chicago's O'Hare or at Los Angeles International, the chances are less than half that the poorly-paid TSA employees can spot bomb components taken on board in carry-on luggage. The ports, nuclear facilities and chemical plants in the country remain unguarded. The "security tax" added to airline tickets was not used to purchase screening devices for all cargo luggage in every major American airport, as required by legislation. The strength of the military and national guard units has deteriorated because of the unending battles. Because of the very bad ideas of gung-ho lawyers close to Bush and Cheney, the Geneva Conventions were abandoned in the treatment of detainees at Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Guantanamo, leading to the systematic commission of war crimes, including torture and murder. Congress then said that was okay, and exonerated all of it. As a result of all that, America's moral leadership in the world has taken a vicious pounding.

Ah hell -- if we had just caught the 19 Arabs in the act, as they boarded the four planes. As we could have, probably, given that the "lights were blinking red," as George Tenet said. The way we caught the German saboteurs in World War II, the ones tried in ex parte Quirin. All those lives saved, all that money not wasted.

November 27, 2007

Major Sheikh-up at Citigroup

Meet Robert Rubin's new business partner: Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, managing director of...well, Abu Dhabi. Any distinction between the political and business spheres in that richest of all the world's cities is, shall we say, chimerical (today's word, meaning "imaginary, unreal;" from the Greek "chimera," referring to a fire-breathing monster which apparently was part goat, part lion and part serpent. Sounds like something you might see with a bad ouzo hangover, if that resinates with you. No typo there, I simply demand that my readers pay attention; for example, did you miss the pun about "oxen being gored" in yesterday's installment about global warming? Stop sleeping through these things. Part of the mission statement here at the Pond includes waking Americans from their TV-induced stupor). Abu Dhabi decided to invest $7.5 billion in Citigroup on very favorable terms, guaranteeing itself an 11% return on securities convertible to stock at designated strike prices a few years down the road. Abu Dhabi immediately became Citigroup's largest investor. The second largest is an L.A. investment group, which sounds reassuring, but the third is a Saudi prince, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Thus, Citigroup got rid of one prince, Charles Prince, its CEO, but retained a much wealthier and more influential one. But I'm concerned that Alwaleed is going to get pissed off at his demotion and buy some more of America's biggest bank. If he decides to do that, money won't stop him. The United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the "capital") and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pull in a combined $1.3 billion per day from petroleum sales, and as that light, sweet crude in which they specialize nears one hundred bucks a barrel, I imagine the prince must have a setup like Scrooge McDuck; he has a tower full of gold coins and a steam shovel to move it all around.

By the way, Abu Dhabi recently bought a 7.5 % stake in the privately-held (very privately held) Carlyle Group, that mysterious and politically influential holding company which once employed George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, along with James Baker and lots of other Washington insiders. It's all pretty cozy, isn't it? Senator Charles Schumer (Turncoat,-N.Y.) thinks the Citigroup deal is just dandy. The bank needs money, Abu Dhabi has more money than God, so where's the problem? The stock market sure likes the deal; it went skyward like a Patriot missile closing on a Saudi-financed Pakistani missile. Schumer did get exercised about that "Dubai ports deal;" remember that? The very idea! We were going to turn over our port security to a country which two of the 9/11 hijackers called home! Under this logic, of course, we shouldn't let Prince Alwaleed own anything like the huge stake which he holds in America's biggest bank, since fifteen of the hijackers came from our "ally," Saudi Arabia. And didn't we recently discover that about 40% of the foreign jihadis in Iraq originate in Saudi Arabia, along with lots of money to fund their killing of American soldiers and Iraqi citizens? Why this kid-glove treatment? Oh, now I remember. Still, shouldn't someone organize a "Fair Play for Dubai" committee? Is that idea so chimerical?

It's a neat loop. Citigroup is in deep doo-doo because of all the subprime loans and worthless mortgage-backed securities on its books. It's slowly and grudgingly letting the news out, little by little, about just high deep the poop is piled. All those cheap loans were made possible by all the money invested by China, Japan and "sovereign wealth funds," such as those in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, in U.S Treasuries. All those cheap loans crapped out and Citigroup began going under. Now the "sovereign wealth funds" are back, only instead of buying U.S promises to pay at measly Treasury rates (and then enduring the devaluation of their investment because of the tanking greenback), they're cutting out the middlemen, Henry Paulson and
Ben Bernanke, and just buying the goddam bank, like they shoulda in the first place.

Well, yeah. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. aren't exactly democracies. And in that thrilling second Inaugural, Bush did promise to transform the world with the "gift of freedom," just like in Iraq. But let's get real here; we have to take on one despotic regime at a time. And man, do we need the money in the meanwhile. So while democracy spreading is a nice idea, it's a little unrealistic to slay all these lion-goat-serpent thingies all at one go. Chimerical, to say the least.

November 26, 2007

Chicken Little vs. the Pipe Smoker

I write more about legal matters than other blog subjects because my education and work life have made me more familiar with the language and concepts of law than, say, economics or neurosurgery. In the age of the blog, however, any subject seems like fair game, especially impressionistic reactions to the "state of society" or the world in general. I read many such mind farts on the blog-aggregating sites such as the Huffington Post or the Daily Kos. To generalize about the generalizations, you can break them down into the Chicken Littles and the Reassuring Realists, or The Pipe Smokers. The Pipe Smokers dislike theories of massive economic collapse or climate crises. Chicken Littles revel in apocaplyptic scenarios and conspiracy theories. One way you can resolve the "controversy" is to settle at a midpoint; each has "something to say." And yet, when you think about it, there is no reason such moderation is necessarily closer to reality when it comes to scientific subjects.

Climate crisis is probably a good case in point. The Realist viewpoint is that global warming is a problem like other human problems and that gradualist responses will work just fine without the social dislocations of a frenzied reordering of energy use in transportation and industry. I see this style epitomized in the relaxed and confident analyses of such pundits as Patrick Buchanan and George Will; they are bemused by the Chicken Littles and their hysterical raving. There is no particular reason that these journalists know a damn thing about climate science; rather, their "conservative" response has been conditioned by the success or vindication of their opinions about other fields of human activity, such as politics and the economy. These metaphors or analogies, of course, have nothing to do with Earth's atmosphere. The presence of heat-trapping gases in the troposphere and the myriad feedback processes which lead to warming of the air and oceans, acidification of the seas, and changing weather patterns are not, in any sense, related to the human psychology which affects the outcomes of political races or economic activities. They think because humans temper their irrational reactions over time and behave in predictable and cyclical patterns that the atmosphere will do the same thing; the Earth will "settle down," see what's best for it, and cooperate with human beings. At base, such thinking is flat-out stupid; it arises from an inability to distinguish factual situations from each other on the basis of their disparate elements.

As an example, if you place a small pan of water on an oven burner, and you know the BTU output of the burner, the conductivity of the the pan, the atmospheric pressure in the room, and the starting temperature and quantity of the water, you can make intelligent estimates about when the water will boil. Chicken Little has no advantage over the Pipe Smoker; there is no "Liberal" or "Conservative" position on this experiment. Multiply this experiment by the complexities of climate change and you essentially have the political situation vis-a-vis global warming. The only difference is that the variables and feedback processes are so complicated that there is room for differences of opinion; how one resolves the difference depends, I would be willing to bet, on two factors: one's natural temperament and the extent to which one is familiar with the science of the subject. Where a pundit or politician (such as Buchanan, George Will or George W. Bush) has no empirical grasp of the problem, the "conservative" attitude that all changes must be incremental and gradual is decisive (in Bush's case we have to add the element of corruption). The same thing, of course, happens on the "liberal" side; a politician or journalist who favors "progressive" positions identifies the "Chicken Little" response as the hip way to think, with or without any handle on atmospheric science.

It isn't difficult to see why climate change presents a scientific challenge distinct from the usual arcane questions posed by the scientific world. If we were dealing with a question of brain surgery, for example, Patrick Buchanan and George Will would not weigh in with the "conservative" position on the right approach to excising a tumor; nor would they inquire into the "liberal" or "conservative" biases of the neurosurgeon, as such troglodytes as James Inhofe (Cretin,-OK) routinely do about climate scientists. But adapting to the problem of greenhouse gases gores the oxen of the conservative lifestyle, which first and foremost favors comfortable affluence based upon the existing state of things. So they have to react, and since there is just enough wiggle room to hem and haw about the "pace" of change, and the relative necessity of Draconian versus gradual adaptation, the "conservative position" on climate change arises.

As I say, none of this posturing has anything whatsoever to do with the greenhouse effect. If we could, in some way, transport ourselves to a high vantage point, looking down upon Earth and its comical dominant species, and listen in on their stupid reactions as they boil themselves alive, we could get some sense of how ridiculous all of this is. Since we can't do that, we'll have to wait till 2009 and then see if the world's largest polluter, in throwing away eight critical years near the tipping point of the change, can lead the world away from the abyss.