Friday, April 19, 2002

More news from Boston: we're exploring new frontiers in government funding.

A few years ago, the voters passed a "clean elections" initiative, which provided state funds for candidates who adhered to strict guidelines on their own fundraising. The legislature (marching, as usual, in lockstep to the drumming of Speaker Tom Finneran) has not wanted to repeal the popular law, but neither have they wanted to fund it, even in the face of court orders saying that they need to either fund the law or take it off the books. (Call this the aggressive style of doing nothing, as opposed to the more passive approach favored by the Boston City Council).

So, the latest court order in the case allows advocates for the law to seize and auction state property to make up for the funds that the legislature refuses to distribute. First up: a couple of late-model SUVs which the lottery commission bought for employees checking telecom equipment. (It's not obvious why a subcompact wouldn't do as well; it would certainly be easier to park. Maybe that's why the vehicles are in nearly new condition).

But selling a couple of Ford Explorers won't get to the heart of the problem. "Clean Elections" advocates have made it known that if the impasse continues, they will be taking a more direct approach. They're appraising the furniture in Finneran's office.

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Well, it's not a great week for defenders of Bush foreign policy.

Let's start with Venezuela, where the administration is desperately trying to spin its early support for a failed military coup against elected president Hugo Chavez. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been all over this, and particularly the close involvement of Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Otto Reich, who was dialing up the coup leaders within a day or two after, possibly within hours, depending on which administration spin you believe.

The Bush administration's corner in the blogosphere is busily spinning that the coup was a good thing, and its overthrow, and the return of the "dictatorial" Chavez a bad thing. The OAS, an organization not notably fond of Chavez's policies, gives him pretty good marks on human rights and governance issues, and endorsed his election. But this piece from the Idler, recipient of a coveted link from Instapundit, argues that Chavez is antidemocratic and his return to power is a tragedy based on such charges as

  • His warm relations with Fidel Castro (whose Cuban regime, the Idler fails to mention, is a major trading partner)
  • His warm relations with Colombian rebels. (The United States, of course, hasn't supported Latin American insurgents since, oh, maybe the '80s, when the Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran to get money for them, and there was an illegal propaganda shop being run in the State Department on their behalf by --- who'da thunk it --- Otto Reich)

For this, his democratic credentials are compared unfavorably with the abortive regime of Carmona, who came to power in a military coup, and whose first (and pretty much last) act in office was to dissolve the assembly and suspend the constitution. With "anti-Idiotarians" like these, who needs idiots?

Then there's the Powell trip to the Middle East. No one claims that it succeeded in its stated purpose of bringing about a reconciliation between the parties. Its failure, in fact, was so predictable that many Bush-philes say it wasn't supposed to succeed in its announced purpose, but was rather supposed to do other things.

One oft-heard claim is that the trip was meant to play for time, giving Sharon diplomatic cover to continue his operations in the territories. But diplomatic protests got ever more shrill, and the Israeli border with Lebanon kept on heating up. The best you can say on this score is that while Powell was in the region, no open war broke out.

Another line is that Powell was giving Arafat a last chance to be reasonable, in the expectation that he wouldn't, and that would clear the decks for some unspecified other option. But in Powell's press conference after the trip, he said that Arafat, among other things, "that he will now lead his people down a path to peace and reconciliation and let the international community help him." Hardly clearing the decks for a successor.

Already forgotten is Cheney's earlier trip, in which he was supposed to set the agenda for the upcoming war that everyone expects with Iraq --- and found the Arab governments setting the agenda for him.

There's more being written on all these topics, of course; for more on the Venezuela spin, and particularly on the nonsense which has been flying around for months in the Anglosphere press, see this piece from Narco News. See also this analysis of evidence of collaboration with the coup plotters going back months, and the hints (via Electrolite) that are beginning to appear that the violence which supposedly sparked the coup was staged by the plotters. And a special razz to Bush himself for asking Chavez to "embrace those institutions which are fundamental to democracy, including freedom of the press and freedom for the ability of the opposition to speak", even though the Venezuelan media themselves are embarassed by their own close cooperation with the abortive coup.

Remember we're talking here about the administration that was going to step back from the amateurism of the Clinton administration, with its utopian nation-building projects and meddling in the mideast. Now, in the mideast, it's engaged in continuous mideast shuttle diplomacy (Cheney, Zinni, Powell --- the cast changes but the show goes on), and nation-building in Afghanistan (which they say is something different, but the denial is as tortured as the worst of Bill Clinton). As to putting the grownups in charge, Bush at points last week was notoriously clueless about the policy and statements of his own administration. And then there's the Venezuela business, which seems more and more like the Mad Magazine version of a novel by John le Carré.

So far, this is all just embarassing. But a war with Iraq could make things worse in a hurry. Are we sure they know what they're doing?

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

More news from Boston: due to Patriot's day (yet another idiosyncratic Massachusetts monday holiday, this one commemorating the battle of Lexington and Concord), tax day was yesterday here. While the main central post office at South Station is under renovation, the tax forms, assistance, and this-day-till-midnight hand-stamped cancellation are in the main station waiting room where, for whatever reason, things seem to be just a bit lower key. There's chamber music, and not a jazz band; more regrettably, no one gives out free donuts. (Or maybe they showed up later, and I just didn't procrastinate enough).

More, perhaps, later today...

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

In the wake of September 11th, one of the first concrete responses from Congress was the passage of a bill which rescinded certain CIA regulations concerning dealings with thugs, imposed in 1995.

Administration war hawks claimed these rules prevented the CIA from making deals with bad actors which were necessary for it to do its job. In fact, the regulations in question did nothing of the sort. They still allowed the CIA to deal with anyone it liked. They just required that before initiating dealings with death squad leaders, drug dealers, and assorted murderous thugs, field agents should check with headquarters. Explaining why that was a bad idea is left as an exercise for Dick Cheney.

What brings this up now is the rumors which are swirling around the recent bizarre coup/countercoup action in Venezuela. A sampling can be found at Ethel the Blog, which quotes the usually reliable Stratfor (and also Intel Briefing, of which I know less) to the effect that the CIA was directly involved in the abortive coup. Stratfor in particular spins a bizarre tale of two separate American operations; a State department operation designed to transition back to democratic rule, and a CIA operation piggybacking on top of that, which was designed to put an old-fashioned junta in charge. It was the latter operation, so the story goes, which resulted in the coup leaders' dissolution of the National Assembly --- which, in turn, resulted in the immediate repudiation of the coup leaders by just about everyone else in the country, including the factions of the Army not under their own direct control, which quickly returned Chavez to power.

What lends this bizarre tale credibility, I'm afraid, is that the CIA is well known to have done stuff like this in Latin America in the past --- most notably and shamefully, overthrowing the government of Guatemala over a tax dispute with United Fruit (the Chiquita banana people), ushering in a succession of incredibly brutal dictatorships. It was, in fact, subsequent CIA dealings with an official in one of those Guatemalan dictatorships which lead to the imposition of the 1995 rules on accountability in thugs, after that official was found to be directly implicated in the murder of one American citizen and the spouse of another.

Getting back to Venezuela, if it was a covert op, it was clearly a failure. Which may be for the best; the coup seemed to be tending towards a military junta, and the economic record of those is ambiguous at best (the Argentine junta, for instance, started the Falklands war largely to distract the people from its economic failures), while their human rights record is uniformly dreadful.

But beyond that, the failure itself might prompt fans of the black ops to reconsider whether deniability, even at the cost of planning and review, is truly the highest virtue in covert operations...

Update: The New York Times reports hints that U.S. officials may have encouraged the coup plotters. The Washington Post reports that the administration is denying all involvement, and that at least in public, Latin American governments are claiming to believe it.

What's clear from both reports, though, is that the administration was certainly quick to embrace the coup after the fact, despite its manifestly antidemocratic nature, and both reports are clear that other OAS states, which were quick to oppose the coup (despite their distaste for Chavez himself and his policies) are rather dismayed at the American stand.

Links via Grim Amusements and Talking Points Memo.

Sunday, April 14, 2002

More news from Boston: the furies are still hovering over Bernard Cardinal Law. The Boston Herald is reporting for the second straight day that the Cardinal actually tried to tender his resignation to Rome, but was rebuffed. The earlier report said that one reason for the rebuff is that the church is afraid of starting a chain reaction which would topple all the other bishops who have sex scandals of their own to manage; one anonymous official is quoted as worrying that "Suddenly you would have an entire eastern seaboard devoid of Catholic leadership." (How that would differ from the current situation, in which the bishops have been thoroughly discredited, but remain in place, is left as an exercise for the reader).

The hierarchy, crippled by scandal, retains some supporters, but they're getting increasingly scarce; a small item in today's Globe reports that Catholic Charities paid to bus Haitian immigrant supporters, who perhaps aren't up on the news, to Law's masses.

The protesters out in front of Cardinal Law's palatial compound in Brighton with "honk if you think Law should go" signs are paying for their own transportation. But fear not that the Cardinal rests uneasy; having skipped out of his usual Sunday mass, he is reported to be praying for guidance at a secure, undisclosed location.

He has, however, released a letter to priests announcing that he will "continue to serve" as Archbishop "as long as God gives me the opportunity" --- meaning, it is widely believed, until Rome lets him quit. Even the Globe, which is not (yet) reporting the rejected resignation story, sees "the hand of Rome" in it. Whoever wrote the thing certainly is viewing the situation from a distance of some kind. A few highlights. After a pro forma salutation to his fellow priests, Law starts off with this:

The case of Father Paul Shanley is particularly troubling for us. For me personally, it has brought home with painful clarity how inadequate our record keeping has been.

It was in examining the "inadequate" records Law complains of that lawyers for Shanley's victims found, among other things, records of dozens of complaints from (we now deliver the ritual incantation, "alleged") victims, and speeches in favor of adults having sex with children.

This line about "inadequate ... record keeping" is being taken by Catholics around Boston, particularly the victims, as a personal insult. But to me, the deepest insult in the letter isn't that, but rather this:

In an effort to give a pastoral response, we have not taken into sufficient account the criminality involved in abuse. In a desire to encourage victims who might not desire to enter a criminal process to come forward to us, we did not communicate cases to public authorities.

The church settled numerous civil cases of pedophilic abuse by priests, and almost invariably they required total secrecy as a condition of the settlement. The secrecy wasn't requested by the victims; it was demanded by the church, and forced on the victims. In fact, it was a big story earlier in the year that the church, under heavy pressure to carry some openness into its dealings, had released the victims from these unwanted secrecy oaths.

But, in their desperation to keep from admitting what is obvious to everyone, that the hierarchy was (and continues to be) more concerned with shielding itself from blame than with the safety of parishoners, they twist the truth on its head.

How bad have things become? The op-ed page of today's Boston Globe has a piece by a visiting fellow at Stanford Law School expressing his dismay at the behavior of the lawyers who wrote up these secrecy agreements; there's something wrong with legal ethics, he argues in effect, if they didn't know better than to act like the priests. So passes their claim to moral leadership.