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Rally for Myanmar

The latest reports from Myanmar say that soldiers are blockading Buddhist shrines and authorities are restricting phone and Internet access, as the military leadership appears at least temporarily to have quelled the democracy movement that has shaken the country.

The relative calm comes after sustained demonstrations led by Buddhist monks and aimed at ending nearly half a century of military control were violently repressed by the ruling junta. The violence has killed nine people and injured 31, according to an account read on official Burmese television. Exile groups say they have information suggesting that the death toll is considerably higher.

The crackdown has come despite virtual worldwide condemnation. On the diplomatic front, a special UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was expected to confer with Burma's military leaders on Sunday to urge restraint and national reconciliation.

Amnesty International has been a leader in focusing attention on the rampant human rights abuses in Myanmar. This Monday, October 1, Amnesty International members around the world are holding a series of demonstrations outside Burmese embassies and high profile public locations calling for the Myanmar authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest.

In New York City people are assembling at 12:00pm at the Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) to the United Nations at 10 East 77th Street (near 5th avenue, east side of Central Park). Check the AI website for info on rallies nationwide and other ways you can help.

John Dean: From Nixon to Bush to Giuliani

John Dean knows something about White House abuse of power. He wrote a bestseller in 2004 on the Bush White House called "Worse Than Watergate." In a recent interview I asked him what he thinks of that title now. Now, he replied, a book comparing Bush and Nixon would have to be called "Much, Much Worse."

"Look at the so-called Watergate abuses of power," he said. "Nobody died. Nobody was tortured. Millions of Americans were not subject to electronic surveillance of their communications. We're playing now in a whole different league."

And how does Bush compare with the Republicans seeking to succeed him? "If a Rudy Giuliani were to be elected," Dean said, "he would go even farther than Cheney and Bush in their worst moments."

What about the rest of the pack? "I'm very concerned about the current attitude in the Republican party," he said. "However there are candidates on the Republican side who are not quite as frightening as Giuliani." When I asked who he had in mind, he laughed and said "Ron Paul." He conceded that "there's no chance he's going to be president."

Dean's new book is "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches." It's a massively documented and thorough indictment, arguing that, over the last 30 years, Republicans have broken or ignored laws, rules, and the Constitution. He's especially critical of the growth of presidential power under Bush II, and what he calls the "corruption" of the courts by "radical conservatives."

I asked Dean to imagine the moment when Bush leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009, presumably to be replaced by a Democrat, presumably Hillary -- will it then be possible to say "our long national nightmare is over"? Dean replied with one word: "Yes."

He quickly added, "I do feel strongly that the Republicans have so abused the law and embedded so many people within the system, within the executive branch, that's it's going to take a couple of terms of Democratic presidents before you have people there who are representing the American people."

Does that mean he is supporting Hillary? "She's obviously the one the other Democrats have to beat," he said, "but I don't take any position."

How then would he describe his political position? He says in his new book that he's left his "former tribe" - does that make him a Democrat today? "It doesn't," he replied. "I carry water for nobody. My only interest is being an honest information broker about what's happening. I have no agenda other than explaining - and being shocked at my former tribe."

"I've had invitations to become involved with Democrats," he added, "and have turned them all down. I'm an independent. That happens to be the largest group of voters in the country today - we're about 40 per cent strong."

When I pressed Dean to comment on the Democratic candidates, he said he was more interested in whether any Democrats would raise what he called "process" issues - "kind of a dull-sounding word, but actually it's about the machinery of democracy. I was stunned when the Kerry campaign in 2004 totally ignored the remarkable secrecy of the Bush administration. I called the Kerry campaign after the election, and asked them why they hadn't raised this issue. The Kerry people told me, 'We didn't raise it because it's a process issue.'"

"I began making inquiries," he continued, "and found that lots of Democratic party campaign consultants believe that the candidates shouldn't mention process issues. Democrats thought it would make them look wimpy to say 'we're being excluded from the legislative process.' Kerry didn't want to raise secrecy for the same reason - he thought it would sound wimpy."

Was Kerry right about the electorate? "I found that's exactly 180 digress away from the truth," Dean replied. "Most people can't tell you what a motion to recommit is. They don't know about that kind of process. But they know when they're getting screwed. And process is designed to protect the public interest. So people get it when the game of politics is not being played fairly, when one party is using the process for their own benefit. These kinds of things are of great interest to about 20 to 30 million voters."

What about the many more who are apathetic and ignorant -- doesn't that make him pessimistic about political change? Dean conceded that "large segments of the American public are turned off and tuned out from the democratic process. They can't name their senators. They don't know who's the Chief Justice. But the reason I'm optimistic is that I think we have enough proxies in those who are interested. They are fairly representative of those who are not. When you give them the information they need, they do the right thing. That's why I'm trying to give people good information and hard facts to show people what's gone wrong."

Congress Quietly Approves Billions More for Iraq War

The Senate agreed on Thursday to increase the federal debt limit by $850 billion -- from $8.965 trillion to $9.815 trillion -- and then proceeded to approve a stop-gap spending bill that gives the Bush White House at least $9 billion in new funding for its war in Iraq.

Additionally, the administration has been given emergency authority to tap further into a $70 billion "bridge fund" to provide new infusions of money for the occupation while the Congress works on appropriations bills for the Department of Defense and other agencies.

Translation: Under the guise of a stop-gap spending bill that is simply supposed to keep the government running until a long-delayed appropriations process is completed -- probably in November -- the Congress has just approved a massive increase in war funding.

The move was backed by every senator who cast a vote, save one.

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the maverick Democrat who has led the fight to end the war and bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, was on the losing end of the 94-1 vote. (The five senators who did not vote, all presidential candidates who are more involved in campaigning than governing, were Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Republicans John McCain and Sam Brownback.)

Said Feingold, "I am disappointed that we are about to begin the 2008 fiscal year without having enacted any of the appropriations bills for that year. I am even more disappointed that we voted on a continuing resolution that provides tens of billions of dollars to continue the misguided war in Iraq but does not include any language to bring that war to a close. We need to keep the federal government operating and make sure our brave troops get all the equipment and supplies they need, but we should not be giving the President a blank check to continue a war that is hurting our national security."

In the House, the continuing resolution passed by a vote of 404 to 14, with 14 other members not voting.

The "no" votes in the House, all cast by anti-war members, came from one Republican, Ron Paul of Texas, and 13 Democrats: Oregon's Earl Blumenauer, Missouri's William Clay, Minnesota's Keith Ellison, California's Bob Filner, Massachusetts' Barney Frank, New York's Maurice Hinchey, Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, Washington's Jim McDermott, New Jersey's Donald Payne, California's Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson and Lynn Woolsey.

That means that, of the 2008 presidential candidates, only Republican Paul and Democrat Kucinich voted against giving the Bush administration a dramatic -- if not particularly well publicized -- infusion of new money for the war.

"Each year this war is getting more and more costly --- both in the amount of money spent and in the number of lives lost. Now this Congress is providing more funds so the administration can continue down a path of destruction and chaos," said Kucinich, who noted the essential role of House and Senate Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in passing the continuing resolution. "The Democratic leadership in Congress needs to take a stand against this President and say they will not give him any more money. That is the only way to end this war and bring our troops home."

Ending War for Profit

Based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard public finance lecturer Linda J. Bilmes, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) recently determined that the Iraq war costs $720 million per day, $500,000 per minute – enough to provide homes for nearly 6,500 families, or health care for 423,529 children in just one day.

AFSC is using ten, seven-foot banners displayed at legislative and congressional offices around the country to illustrate the costs of the war and the human needs that could be addressed with those same resources. The National Priorities Project (NPP) also has a new report on the Bush Administration's latest $50 billion spending request, which would bring the total cost of the Iraq War to $617 billion.

In addition to these staggering costs, we're also learning more about how this war has served as a boondoggle for defense contractors, with war profit-making gone out of control. The Nation's Jeremy Scahill was way ahead of the curve in reporting on Blackwater's role in the most radically privatized, outsourced war in history. (Last week, Jeremy was asked to testify before the Democratic Policy Committee about his work and reporting--which may well lead to some good reforms. )

The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy has done important research in this area. Here are some of the more disturbing facts: CEOs of defense contractors are paid more in four days than a general earns in a year; since September 11, CEOs at top defense contractors have received annual pay gains between 200 percent to 688 percent; between 2002 and 2006, the seven highest paid defense contractor CEOs made nearly $500 million – General Dyanmics' CEO, Nicholas Chabraja, alone was paid $97.9 million, averaging $19.6 million per year. (David Lesar of Halliburton pocketed a mere $16 million per year during that period, and Lockheed Martin's Robert Stevens has cashed in on stock options to earn over $19 million so far this year.) Many of the CEOs profitted from stock options as their companies' stock prices soared with the increased revenues from the Defense Department.

Sarah Anderson, Director of the Global Economy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Charlie Cray, Director of the Center for Corporate Policy, suggest that defense contractors' CEO pay be addressed directly by conditioning contracts on reasonable pay practices. For example, requiring that the CEO not make more than 25 times the lowest paid worker within the company or, alternatively, not more than 10 times the pay of a military general. This could be combined with other eligibility criteria such as no companies that relocated offshore, have a history of significant violations, or do business with states that sponsor terrorism. (Also, the disclosure rules for defense contractors should be broadened. Right now, privately held corporations are not required to make public their executive compensation. Thus, major players like Bechtel and Blackwater can keep their pay figures secret.) But Anderson and Cray believe that CEO pay is a symptom of a much broader problem – one that will only be addressed if we recognize that the entire defense and war contracting system is out of control.

"Companies like Halliburton/KBR and Blackwater are only the tip of the iceberg," Anderson says. "We now have contractors conducting intelligence background checks, processing Freedom of Information Act Requests, writing the President's daily brief, helping run prisons like Abu Ghraib, etc."

After years of almost zero oversight, these broader questions are finally being examined – at least to a degree. Certainly Representative Henry Waxman is doing his part as Chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, looking at Iraq reconstruction corruption. And Senators Claire McCaskill and Jim Webb introduced legislation to establish a Commission on Wartime Contracting – a Truman-like Commission – to investigate waste and fraud in contracting. (Anderson and Cray suggest that the mandate for the Commission be broadened to look at the corporatization of war, intelligence, and other inherently governmental functions.) Other common-sense pieces of legislation include: the "Transparency and Accountability in Security Contracting Act", introduced by Rep. David Price, to ensure that private security contractors like Blackwater are accountable; and two 2006 contract reform bills – Rep. Waxman's "Clean Contracting Act" and Sen. Byron Dorgan's "Honest Leadership in Government Contracting Act" – both bills would limit no-bid contracts, provide criminal sanctions for fraud, and address conflicts-of-interest, revolving door and other issues.

It is a systemic problem for a democracy to link corporate profits and war-making, and it has metastasized as this war has been increasingly privatized (there are now more contractors than soldiers in Iraq). Good small-d democrats need to keep watch on current legislation, hold our representatives accountable and and demand that they take bolder action to bring this system to an end.

Next on Jena at the New York Times?

In response to those who've written to ask whether I read Louisiana District Attorney, Reed Walters' op-ed in the New York Times. Yes I did! And I asked Alan Bean about it today on the RadioNation program that will air Sunday on Air America and across the country this week.

Bean, of the Friends of Justice, says that contrary to Walters' assertions, there is sufficient stand alone legislation on the books in Louisiana to have covered the noose-hanging incident. I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that the there were plenty of ways the local authorities could have responded to the noose-hanging, short of bringing criminal charges, that would nonetheless have sent a clear message about where the campus stood on racial equality.

Jena High needed to suspend the noose-hangers for a long enough period to make an impact (not just a couple of days. ) In addition, the principal could have convened a community meeting, held a public event, hosted a teach-in on lynching. You name it. Anything that sent a strong message to the parents, the school body and the public: this community will not tolerate hate-speech or hateful acts. Says Bean: "The principal needed to say clearly: there's no such thing as a color line on campus, no such thing as a black or a white tree." Handled firmly back in September '06, the whole incident need never have left the auspices of the school. No one needed to have gone to court; no one should ever have been beaten up.

The key facts that Walters skims over in the Times, have to do with what he, specifically, did instead, namely dismiss the incident as a harmless prank, then threaten the black families and students who protested. According to everything I've heard, that's what led to a tit for tat series of assaults in which the white students' behavior was treated more leniently than the blacks'.

Walters' paints a stark picture of the attack on Justin Barker. "How can you call that a brawl" my correspondents have shrieked. What's missing from Walters' version however are the details. Barker wasn't a random target, says James Rucker, of ColorofChange "It adds a lot of flesh to the bones of the story to know who'd played what role in the incidents leading up to the December attack."

None of these kids should have been left to fight it out -- not in the streets, in the school yard or any place else. Nor should the Times, after ignoring the case for all these months, be permitted to give the DA responsible for the mess, the first and last word on the op-ed page. How about an op-ed from Alan Bean next?

ACTION SUGGESTIONS:

Join Amnesty International's call for a Justice Department investigation.

Sign Color of Change's petition drive.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of RadionNation and the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (2007, The Penguin Press.)

Giving Back Clinton-Style

Presidents, prime ministers, CEOs and religious leaders packed the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on Thursday, Bill Clinton's third annual gathering to solve the "world's most pressing challenges." Organizers touted a wide range of "commitments" made by attendees, from over $4 billion in underwriting for renewable energy from Standard Chartered Bank, to a $5 million donation for New Orleans housing by Brad Pitt. CGI announced it has elicited over 600 such commitments in its first two years. President Clinton likes to remind attendees that they will not be invited back if they don't achieve their pledges.

For a gathering of the global elite, the conference is remarkably open and transparent. The panels and plenary speeches are available by webcast, the conference has an official blog, and the halls are dotted with credentialed bloggers. This afternoon, I've seen Matt Stoller, Dave Johnson, DailyKos diarist nyceve, Jessica Valenti and The Atlantic's blogger Matt Yglesias. The conference is also encouraging regular citizens to make their own commitments at a new grassroots portal, MyCommitment.org.

CGI has always been scheduled to piggyback on the U.N. General Assembly meetings, ensuring that plenty of international elites are available to drop by the mid-town Sheraton. But this year, the conference is clearly a draw all by itself, especially among business leaders. Companies that made new commitments this week include Merck, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Dow and Google, which will cosponsor a $300 million award-program designed to motivate innovation to address CGI's four priorities. "We're delighted to make this long-term commitment in the areas of education, energy and climate change, poverty alleviation and global health," explained Peter Diamandis, who joined Clinton on stage to announce the project today, along with Google's Larry Page and Arianna Huffington. It's backed by the X-Prize Foundation, the non-profit that spent millions to incentivize the (odd) ambition of civilian space travel.

In a sense, though, providing capital to motivate good deeds perfectly embodies Clinton's vision. He built CGI to convene an unusual arena where the rich and powerful are not judged solely by their wealth and power, but by their commitment to solving intractable global problems. Then Clinton tries to cajole, inspire and reward any attendee willing to give back.

UPDATE: If you're hungry for more CGI stats, here's an excerpt of President Clinton's remarks today:

By the end of 2007, 34 million people will be targeted for treatment by the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Disease Control's rapid-impact packages, which can control these deadly diseases for just 50 cents per person per year.

 

More than a quarter of a million HIV-infected individuals have gottencomprehensive HIV care, more than 130,000 have initiated AIDS treatment with anti-retroviral therapy just as a result of Columbia's commitment to expand its international center for AIDS care and treatment. $124,550,000 has been devoted to produce fortified foods to fight malnutrionin developing countries. 1.2 million patients through Chad, Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received emergency and primary care, including mental health services, throughout the International Medical Services in conflict-affected regions commitment.

Around the world, 8.8 million patients are receiving primary and emergency care. 850,000 children under 5 were reached in 25 countries with life-saving services. 40,000 women received maternal health services as a result of CGIcommitments. More than 120,000 infants have been vaccinated against Roto-virus, as a result of Merck's commitment to provide free doses of roto-tech to every infant born in Nicaragua through 2009.

Over 270,000 micro-finance institutions have been provided with funding. As I said yesterday, permitting access to finance for about 3 million micro-entrepreneurs. As a result 11, 260,000 are expected to get increased access to sustainable incomes. More than 1,500 students in the United States and the Middle East joined in dialogue forums to address differences of faith, culture and nationality, to overcome stereotypes and animosity. Tens of thousands engaged in activities to lobby, raise awareness, and fundraise to stop the mass atrocities in Darfur.

And interestingly enough, to this point, more than 60% of all commitments have been made, not by individual NGOs, individual philanthropists, individual business people, but through new partnerships, through people who met here, and decided to work together. That's the best indicator I have of what kinds of things that are going on here that would not have happened but for this meeting.

Democrats: 18 Year Olds Can Fight But Not Drink

One of the thornier issues in American politics is rarely, if ever, discussed at the level of presidential contention.

In many states across the country -- including the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire -- there is genuine disdain for the federal government policy that requires states to set the minimum age for purchasing and consuming alcohol at 21.

By threatening to withhold highway funds, the feds have forced states that historically have set the drinking age at 18 -- respecting the fact that if a young man or woman can be trusted to defend the nation as a member of the military, can be held responsible for his or her debts and can marry and have children, that individual should be trusted to buy a beer and drink it responsibly.

During Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate at Dartmouth, a question from a New Hampshire voter put the drinking-age question on the table.

Would any of the candidates favor ending the practice of using federal highway funds to strongarm states into setting higher drinking ages -- on the theory that it is wrong to "trust (18 year olds) to make life and death decisions in the military" but not to drink responsibly?

Delaware Senator Joe Biden called the idea "counterproductive." Translation: "No."

No one applauded.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd replied, "I agree with Joe," and then somehow veered into a discussion of smoking.

Again, no applause.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson proposed a "dual approach," which sounded good but ended up as another "No."

No applause.

New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards also indicated that they were in the camp that says an American can die for his or her country but not sip a cocktail.

No applause.

Finally, two candidates, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, answered "Yes."

Gravel said, "Anyone who will fight and die for this country should be able to drink."

Applause.

Kucinich said, "Of course they should be able to drink at age 18, and they should be able to vote at age 16."

Applause and a few laughs.

Chances are that few votes will turn on the question of 18-year-old drinking.

But, it should be noted that, in addition to military service, marriage and money, 18 years olds are also trusted with the franchise. And the illogical response of most of the leading candidates may yet drive us all to drink.

Gravel and Kucinich got it right. If you can be trusted to fight and die, and vote, for your country, you can be trusted to buy a beer.

The Monks Rebel

Updated on September 27

The situation in Myanmar (formerly Burma) continues to worsen with reports of escalating efforts by the government to violently repress ongoing nonviolent demonstrations. The protests, sparked by steep increases in fuel costs, are being led by Buddhist monks who have called for a reduction in commodity prices, the release of political prisoners, and national reconciliation. (Now that the government has decimated Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, the monks are the only organized force strong enough to challenge the junta.)

Accurate information is difficult to come by since there are few journalists currently operating inside the country. But there have been media reports of at least eight people killed, widespread use of tear gas against demonstrators, hundreds of arrests and beatings and the detention of at least 300 monks who have been active in the growing anti-government protests over the last month.

Watch this very rough video uploaded to YouTube this morning by an anonymous protester for a sense of what's going on.

Reports are also emerging of growing defiance in the face of the junta's counter-attack as tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists continue to take to the streets. As Kyi May Kaung writes at Foreign Policy in Focus, journalists estimate the number of protesting monks countrywide to be 500,000, which equals the number of soldiers in the junta's standing army. The mass demonstrations are the largest in the country since 1998, when thousands were killed as security forces employed lethal force against massive pro-democracy demonstrations.

Since then the Myanmar junta's human rights record has been deplorable. Amnesty International, which has done more work on the country than any other international organization, has documented the cases of at least 1,160 political prisoners who are being held in deteriorating prison conditions. Child soldiers and forced labor continue to be used. The use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are common, especially during interrogation and pre-trial detention.

So, yes, Myanmar is ripe for revolt and the brave monks leading the opposition seem determined to not let this current moment pass. The world community has been unanimous in its criticism of the crackdown with the EU and President Bush calling for tougher sanctions against the Myanmar government. But sanctions have been in place for years and it's unclear how this latest round of international condemnation will force the SLORC's hand.

So grassroots solidarity efforts are more important than ever. You can take action now to prevent more violence by the military government. Send a message today asking the UN Security Council to oppose this violent crackdown and do everything in its power to prevent further bloodshed. Amnesty International is also organizing a series of demonstrations outside Burmese embassies and high-profile public locations calling for the Myanmar authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest. Check its website for info, see the Voices for Burma blog for on-going reporting on the protests as well as activist ideas and watch this space for more info on how you can help.

More Skinny on Fat Cells

Here are two more interesting articles on the bane of our collective existence: body weight. First up is this New York magazine article, titled "The Scientist and the Stairmaster," which makes the provocative argument that there is very little correlation between weight loss and exercise. That's exceptionally bad news for someone who is pregnant, and required to gain at least 25 pounds.

The article is adapted from a new book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease" by Gary Taubes, who writes:

"This is not to say that there aren't excellent reasons to be physically active, as these reports invariably point out. We might just enjoy exercise. We may increase our overall fitness; we may live longer, perhaps by reducing our risk of heart disease or diabetes; we'll probably feel better about ourselves. (Of course, this may be purely a cultural phenomenon. It's hard to imagine that the French, for instance, would improve their self-esteem by spending more time at the gym.) But there's no reason to think that we will lose any significant amount of weight, and little reason to think we will prevent ourselves from gaining it."

Next is a new ad campaign by the Italian label Nolita. It features a severely anorexic actress posing naked, accompanied by the slogan, "No Anorexia." French actress Isabelle Caro weighs a little over 68 pounds, and looks simply hideous, at least to the untutored eye, though Italian medical experts claim the ad will actually encourage young girls to look more like Caro. I find that hard to believe, but take a look and decide for yourself.