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Lebanon In Crisis; Bush, Most Democrats In Denial

A little more than a week of Israeli bombing and American neglect has created a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. In a country that just months ago was being written up in travel magazines as one of the world's next great tourist destinations, and where a fragile democracy was beginning finally to define itself as something real, hundreds of civilians now lay dead; thousands have been injured; airports, ports, bridges and roads have been destroyed; and an estimated 500,000 men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes.

Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross say they are "extremely concerned" that the situation in Lebanon is degenerating into chaos and dysfunction.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is expressing horror at what is becoming of Lebanon.

"The distress felt at the destruction not only of life but also the infrastructure so painstakingly rebuilt after years of conflict will, I know, be acute and reinforce the sense of helplessness at being caught up in a wider regional struggle," writes the archbishop in a letter to Lebanese churches. "My condemnation of this resort to violence is unequivocal."

Unfortunately, neither the International Committee of the Red Cross, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the Israeli anti-war community, which rallied several thousand critics of Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert's policies in Tel Aviv last Sunday, has sufficient international presence or authority to demand a halt to the destruction of Lebanon and of northern Israel – where the rockets of Hezbollah, which has so cynically and successfully provoked Israel, have killed civilians and done lesser but not insignificant damage to infrastructure.

President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. leaders who have that presence and authority have chosen a hands-off approach that effectively encourages the expansion of violence in the region. Their neglect of the crisis is the foreign-policy equivalent of the White House's initial response to the Katrina catastrophe of last year in New Orleans. By failing to move quickly or responsibly, they make a bad situation worse.

Most Congressional Democrats have been the president's willing accomplices in this neglect of duty. But a handful of House members, led by Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, have stepped up. A House resolution, sponsored by Kucinich and cosponsored by close to two dozen other representatives urges "the President to appeal to all sides in the current crisis in the Middle East for an immediate cessation of violence and to commit the United States diplomats to multi-party negotiations with no preconditions."

"The continuing violence in the Middle East is spiraling out of control and is on the verge of being full-out regional war in which there will be no winners," says Kucinich. "The US has a moral obligation to become immediately engaged and to try to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation. This Administration must seek an immediate cease-fire and return all sides to the negotiating table."

"The region urgently needs diplomatic assistance," the congressman adds. "The only way the US can reclaim its role, as a mediator is to speak and act like a mediator. Unfortunately, the Administration is making statements that only will contribute to escalation."

Kucinich is right. This is a testing time for members of Congress. Those who join Kucinich in calling for action to ease the conflict will be remembered as leaders – and as the true friends of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and a battered peace process. Those who fail to do so will deserve to be remembered – and vilified -- for their failure to act when a humanitarian crisis unfolded before the eyes of the world.

Iran and Gay Rights

Last year I wrote a long article on the execution of two teenage boys in Mashhad and the firestorm that erupted when they were identified by some gay activists and bloggers as "gay teenagers." Suffice to say, since homosexuality and radical Islam are irresistible topics these days, the story did not end there.

Sometime Nation contributor Doug Ireland has written often on his blog and in Gay City News about what he considers a "vicious pogrom against Iranian gays." The New Republic's Rob Anderson chirped up and attacked US gay rights groups for not taking a harder line. Britain's Peter Tatchell (who publicized the original story) has organized a global protest against Iran. He's been supported by Anderson, Ireland, Michael Petrelis and a bevy of other activists (see Ireland's blog for the full list).

Missing from this list are Paula Ettelbrick of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and Scott Long of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Division. They've both been criticized by Tatchell in an open letter for their non-endorsement. (Full disclosure: I serve on the advisory board of HRW's LGBT rights program). Some of the dispute centers, still, around whether or not the two teenagers were gay and were executed for consensual gay sex (see my piece). But in the larger sense, the controversy represents two different strategies for pursuing sexual rights in precarious and fraught locations such as Iran. As Long puts it in his response to Tatchell, "I urge people to think very carefully about what the demonstrations are meant to achieve...What happens after July 19? How are these demonstrations meant to affect the Iranian government? How are they going to be seen in Iran? Are they only about publicity, consciousness-raising, the self-purifying effect of protest? Do you have a plan for change, or just for catharsis?"

It would take me another 5,000 words (and more strong coffee, cigarettes and vodka than my stomach can handle) to describe and explicate how the story has moved since I last wrote. So instead I urge readers to make up their own mind. New Yorkers can attend the protest outside of the Iranian Mission to the UN (622 Third Avenue at 40th St.). It's happening, like, now (5PM), so start lacing up those shoes.

And when you are done there, please attend the following event at the LGBT Center.

THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY:HUMAN RIGHTS, IRAN, AND LGBT ADVOCACY

WHAT:The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Amnesty International OUTfront, Al-Fatiha and SoulforceNYC invite all interested advocates to participate in Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Human Rights, Iran, and LGBT Advocacy, a community dialogue about the persecution faced by LGBT people in Iran and how activists in the West can responsibly engage in supporting our colleagues in Iran as well as Iranian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in New York and elsewhere.

WHO:* Scott Long, Director of LGBT Rights Program, Human Rights Watch* Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of IGLHRC* Parvez Sharma, Director of the new documentary film "In the Name of Allah"* Hadi Ghaemi, Iran Researcher, Human Rights Watch* Kouross Esmaeli, Iranian filmmaker* Ayaz Ahmed, Al-Fatiha* Moderated by Hossein Alizadeh, IGLHRC

WHY:Numerous reports and stories of persecution faced by gay men and lesbians in Iran have been circulating. In particular, the executions of two young Iranian men last year on July 19 have been reported as gay-related deaths, prompting some activists to call for demonstrations in local communities to draw attention to these issues on the year anniversary of their hangings. This call raises important questions for human rights and LGBT advocates concerned about human rights violations globally, but unsure of how best to engage and respond.

* How do we situate campaigns for LGBT rights in the context of other human rights issues such as the death penalty and women's rights? * How do we respond in situations where facts are contested and documentation difficult? * What are the responsibilities--and dangers--for Western campaigners wanting to think globally and act locally? * How do we avoid reinforcing stereotypes and playing into hostilities prompted by our own government?

These are not abstract questions or ones relevant only to activists for sexual rights. While Iran will be emphasized in this discussion, the questions are relevant for all human rights advocates as we grapple with how global calls for justice can be made meaningful in the face of persecution and global hostilities.

While IGLHRC had initially offered to coordinate a public vigil to protest the use of the death penalty as a punishment for sexually-based crimes in Iran and elsewhere, conversations with colleagues have made clear that in New York City, dialogue, not demonstrations, would be the most productive way to build longer term strategies and understandings of how best to respond to human rights violations around the world.

WHEN: Wednesday, July 19, 20066:00 PM – 8:00 PM

WHERE: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center208 West 13th Street between 7th & 8th AvenuesNew York, New York

Iraqi Oil Theft Drives Up Reconstruction Costs

According to James Jeffrey of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, at $21.9 billion the Iraqi reconstruction program is "the largest since the Marshall Plan."

If only it included the PLAN part.

Assessing the Bush Administration's "2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a newly released Government Accountability Office report criticizes the Bush administration's failure to identify "which U.S. agencies are responsible for implementation" as well as "current and future costs…."

Last Tuesday, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker told a House Government Reform subcommittee of "massive corruption" and "theft" in the Iraqi oil industry – including the stealing of 10 percent of refined fuels, and 30 percent of imported fuels. Walker noted the "tremendous incentive" for theft given that subsidized gas sells for 44 cents per gallon in Iraq, compared to 90 cents per gallon elsewhere in the region. And with oil production down from prewar levels, the invasion-justification-assumption that these revenues would largely pay for reconstruction has proven wildly off target.

Joseph Christoff, GAO's director of international affairs and trade, also spoke of wasted payments to a "bloated bureaucracy" and "ghost employees."

The GAO report concludes with the staggering assertion that neither the Defense Department nor Congress "can reliably determine the costs of war, nor do they have the details on how appropriated funds are being spent or historical data useful in considering future funding needs."

The Congressional Budget Office added to the grim picture revealed last week by estimating that – even in the case of a rapid withdrawal – "an additional $166 billion would be needed… on top of $290 billion already allocated."

But the American people have been misled on the costs of this war at every stage, so why what possible reason do we have to believe that these are real numbers? Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz places the costs at $1 trillion to $2 trillion, depending on how long this madness continues.

And this is the reckless, uncharted course that the administration and its GOP accomplices (and Joe Lieberman) continue to ask our nation to follow? To use Mr. Bush's own words, unwittingly captured by a microphone at the G-8 Summit, "That seems odd."

Condi's Charade

After a week of dithering, the Bush Administration has finally decided to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Middle East. But when Condi arrives on Friday, ten days after the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah began, she won't try and push for an immediate ceasefire.

In 1993 and 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher launched a vigorous push for diplomacy that quieted fighting between the Israeli army and Lebanese militants. But today, according to the Wall Street Journal, Bush and Rice "have no intention of launching a similar round of diplomacy to end the current fighting. Visiting Damascus is out of the question. And a cease-fire isn't their most pressing aim, they say."

No, Condi's belatedly stopping by "to build support for the effective crippling of Hezbollah." An ambitious goal, but shouldn't an end to the violence come first?

As the WSJ notes, the continued Israeli bombing and recent incursion into South Lebanon will likely only strengthen the standing of Hezbollah and Iran, while weakening the fragile, anti-Syrian, government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. If Hezbollah attacks Tel Aviv and Israel responds by hitting Syria, the entire region could go up in flames.

That's why "many top officials in Europe and Arab capitals are calling for a far speedier end to the current fighting than Washington supports. Some are calling for the introduction of international peacekeeping forces into Southern Lebanon."

Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration has thus far brushed off that idea, similar to the way they belittled the Clinton Administration's peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and then did nothing to push the so-called "road map" for peace.

Their only policy towards the region seems to have been the invasion of Iraq. A world of good that's done.

Brothers in Arms

There's been much chatter about President Bush's earthy open-mic discussion of the Middle East crises with Tony Blair. But it was the joint news conference at the G8 summit between Bush and Putin that caught my attention. I'm still trying to fathom what led Bush to describe his private conversations with Russian President Putin this way: "I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world, like Iraq where there's a free press and free religion, and I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope that Russia would do the same."

Putin's rejoinder, which garnered disbelieving guffaws from the press gaggle, was: "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq, quite honestly." Then there's the fact that despite the worsening relationship between the US and Russia, Bush still claims he and Putin are friends. Perhaps this is because of the parallels in their leadership styles.

Putin has used the disastrous war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks on the homeland as the pretext for rolling back Russian civil liberties and democratic institutions. Similarly Bush has used the war in Iraq and 9/11 as ever ready excuses for his imperial presidency.

The Bush administration has spied on our library records, phone conversations, and bank records and then castigated the free press for freely reporting on it. We've just learned that he personally stopped a Justice Department inquiry into the domestic surveillance program. And of course there are the presidential signing statements, which even some conservatives consider to be unconstitutional.

Maybe what Bush saw when he looked into Putin's authoritarian soul was a reflection of himself.

Republicans Reject Ralph Reed's Hypocrisy

For those who still claim that the Jack Abramoff scandal will not "play" politically, the Republican voters of Georgia beg to differ.

Christian right leader Ralph Reed's plan to begin his climb of the American political ladder as lieutenant governor of Georgia was thwarted in Tuesday's Republican primary.

Links to convicted influence-peddler Abramoff did Reed in.

Horrified by the hypocrisy of Reed, who parlayed his association with the Christian Coalition into a lucrative political consulting gig that saw him wrapping a "moral values" cloak around the lobbyist's sleaziest clients, Georgia Republicans gave the nomination for the state's No. 2 job to Casey Cagle, a state senator who shared Reed's conservatism but not his crookedness.

With most of the votes counted, Cagle was ahead by a solid 56-44 margin.

Reed had entered the race as the clear frontrunner. His years of close association with the Christian Coalition and other religious right groups had earned him a reputation as a virtuous Republican – a reputation he hoped to ride into the lieutenant governorship, the governorship and the Republican nomination for president in 2012 or 2016.

But Reed didn't count on the lobbying career of Jack Abramoff -- his buddy from College Republican days – blowing up into one of the seediest political scandals in decades. Nor did he think that his emails to Abramoff – including one in which "Mr. Moral Values" declared, ``I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I'm counting on you to help me with some contacts." – would be made public.

Abramoff did, indeed, help Reed get the big accounts. And Reed returned the favor, aiding Abramoff by exploiting his reputation as Christian conservative to help the lobbyist defend casino gambling interests and corporations exploiting sweatshop labor.

All the sordid details came out during a primary campaign capped by the announcement that a Texas Indian tribe had filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Reed and others, claiming that Reed conspired with Abramoff to shut down the tribe's casino while hiding the fact that they were in the pay of another tribe and competing casinos.

Cagle did not hesitate to exploit those details. One television ad from the Cagle campaign detailed Reed's involvement with Abramoff's efforts to prevent passage of federal legislation that would have extended labor-law protections to women and children working in garment factories in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. "Reed worked with Abramoff to deny women and children legal protection from sweat shops in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory -- even though our government warned that women on the Islands were subjected to forced abortions and children were coerced into prostitution," the ad charged. As the words "Forced Abortions" and "Prostitution" flashed on the screen, and announcer declared: "Ralph Reed, his values are for sale."

Cagle ads, with their emphasis on the delicious irony of Reed's flexible morality, propelled the little-known state senator into a victory few would have imagined possible at the start of the campaign.

They also made Reed the first prominent political victim of the Abramoff scandal.

Reeds political ambitions are now on hold, perhaps permanently.

But the man who led the Christian Coalition and then went on to promote casino gambling and sweatshops is not without accomplishment. While he is certainly not without competition for the title, Ralph Reed is, arguably, the most prominent hypocrite in America.

Mideast News: Beyond the Mainstream

For coverage of the unfolding conflagration in Lebanon and beyond, the best English-language newspaper coverage has been that of David Hirst at The Guardian (such as his latest op-ed), and Robert Fisk at The Independent, who has won numerous awards for his reporting on the Middle East. His Elegy for Beirut, published in the July 19 Independent shows why.

My colleague Stan Alcorn helped put together a round-up of other good sources, including history professor Juan Cole's popular Informed Comment blog, which aggregates the world's reporting and offers his "informed commentary" on current events throughout the Middle East. The Truth Laid Bear is a less discriminating collection of political blogs and websites on the Middle East, and includes bloggers throughout Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. If you have Internet Explorer or Firefox 1.5, check out "map view" to see a cool interactive map featuring bloggers across the region. From an unscientific survey, the better blogs seem to include Beirut Spring and From Beirut to the Beltway. The Angry Arab News Service offers less polemical content than its name would suggest, though the especially disturbing pictures of children killed in recent bombings do inspire anger, among other emotions. Faithful reader ZERO made a good suggestion with Global Voices, which carries many interesting non-US weblogs. The Electronic Intifada is a good portal for news, commentary, analysis, and reference materials about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Palestinian perspective. Since Israel's attack on Lebanon began, the site has posted 112 articles from the ground on the conflict while continuing to keep track of simultaneous Israeli aggression in Gaza. And check out Electronic Lebanon, a new section of the site devoted exclusively to the new (but old) Israeli invasion.

I also wanted to plug an essay by Larry C. Johnson which I read at Alternet and which I think reminds us of some important facts. "Israel is not attacking the individuals who hit their soldiers. Israel is engaged in mass punishment. How did Israel respond? They bombed civilian targets and civilian infrastructure and have killed many civilians. Let's see if I have this right. The Arab "terrorists" attack military units, destroy at least one tank, and are therefore terrorists. Israel retaliates by launching aerial, naval, and artillery bombardments of civilian areas and they are engaging in self-defense."

And, of course, there's always Al Jazeera and, for a good counter-point, the excellent Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Finally, for good background, see the Nation Books' edition of Fisk's Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon and Hirst's The Gun and the Olive Branch, a classic, myth-breaking general history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Please use the comments section below to let me know what sources I should have included in this survey but didn't. I'll also soon be highlighting some concrete ways we can try to help stop the immediate violence--25 Israeli and 295 Lebanese civilians have been killed to date--and aid the innocent victims caught between Hezbollah and Israel.

EVENT NOTE:
If you happen to be in or around New York City this weekend, my friend Anthony Arnove is staging an emergency forum to discuss ways to help stop the Israeli attack on Lebanon. It's taking place this Saturday, July 22, at 5:00pm, at the Judson Memorial Church at 55 Washington Square South. Featured speakers include Arnove, Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, and Jafer Al Jaferi of the National Council of Arab Americans.

Does Bush's Lawlessness Have Any Limits?

On May 9th, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) announced it could not pursue an investigation into the role of Justice lawyers in crafting the warrantless wiretapping program. In a letter to New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey --the most dogged Congressional advocate for investigation of the spying program --H. Marshall Jarrett, OPR's Counsel, explained that he had closed Justice's probe because his office's requests for security clearances to conduct it had been denied.

"I am writing to inform you that we have been unable to make the meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," Jarrett explained in his reply to Hinchey. "Beginning in January 2006, this Office made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. On May 9, 2006, we were informed that our requests had been denied. Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation."

Who denied the requests? Who obstructed justice?

It turns out --according to Bush's very own Attorney General Alberto Gonzales- it was the President. Under sharp questioning this morning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter, Gonzales said that Bush would not grant the access required to allow the probe to move forward.

Hinchey, and others like Representatives John Lewis, Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey, who originally requested the probe should demand that Gonzales and his Department reopen the investigation. And they should also demand that President Bush explain why he obstructed a vital probe.

As Hinchey said at the time the probe was blocked, "The Bush Administration cannot simply create a Big Brother program and then refuse to answer any questions on how it came about and what it entails. We are not asking for top secret information." What becomes clearer with every revelation about this President's lawlessness is that Bush's arrogance and abuse of power must be checked.

Israel Lobby in Action

I almost never write about Israel. Someone who supports the Jewish state but opposes the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, as I do, generally gets flack from all sides. Too many on the left are reflexively anti-Israel. But too many in the so-called American mainstream are too quick to back whatever military excursion Israel undertakes--no matter how unproductive or misguided.

Nowhere is the knee-jerk support of Israel more clear than in the debate in Congress this week--or lack thereof--over the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Leaders of both parties have been quick to forcefully condemn Hamas and Hezbollah while offering unconditional support for Israel's bombing of civilian Beirut.

Just take a look at the draft copy of the resolution under consideration in the House:

"Be it resolved that the House of Representatives reaffirms its steadfast support for the state of Israel; further condemns Hamas and Hezbollah for cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields...calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Israeli soldiers held captive by Hezbollah and Hamas; (and) affirms that all governments who have provided continued support to Hamas or Hezbollah share responsibility for the hostage-taking and attacks against Israel and, as such, must be held accountable for their actions."

Only a few senior statesmen have raised an alarm about the ferocity of Israel's response. Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving Democrat in the House, called the Israeli counterattack "disproportionate and counterproductive."

"The use of force has brought about a tragic amount of civilian deaths and has weakened a promising democracy in Lebanon," Dingell said in a statement. "The United States-–as a leader of the free world--must take immediate steps to bring about a cease fire so that negotiations may begin."

Likewise, Senator John Warner, the hawkish Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has been a lone voice in holding up legislation in the Senate viewed as unnecessarily slanted toward Israel. "Our support for Israel is very strong, Mr. President, but it cannot be unconditional," Warner said on the Senate floor yesterday. "I urge the Administration to think through very carefully how Israel's extraordinary reaction could affect our operations in Iraq and our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue," he added in a statement.

Why are so few in Congress following the advice of Dingell and Warner? Perhaps it's because of the influence of what professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call "The Israel Lobby," particularly its largest player, AIPAC.

Even former Bush and Clinton Administration Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, a sharp critic of Mearsheimer and Walt, admits that AIPAC exerts a disproportionate grip on the Congress. "It's pretty clear that they are a significant force on the Hill," Ross recently told NPR, "And that shouldn't be underestimated."