Thursday, December 02, 2010

Palin, I knew Reagan. You're no Reagan.Ed Rollins

Speaking of Obama and the election two years from now, Sarah Palin now says she thinks she can beat him.

Maybe she can, but 2012 is a long way off, and there is a nominating process that is intense -- and it takes more than selling a few hundred books in Iowa to win it.
Several other serious political players think they can beat her and will wage full-scale political war against her if she tries.

"Don't underestimate Palin for 2012 run"

It was not a pro-or anti-Palin but an analysis of the potential candidates for the Republican nomination in 2012.

If I were to title this one, it would be "Sarah, don't overestimate your chances!"

And quit comparing yourself to Ronald Reagan. To paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's comments to Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate: I knew Ronald Reagan, and you're no Ronald Reagan.

You're a media star and a great curiosity. You were plucked out of political obscurity because of the whim of presidential contender John McCain, who didn't know you and made you into an overnight sensation. You performed well for three weeks in the campaign, did better than expected against Joe Biden in the debate and then you self-destructed.

You clearly weren't ready for prime time, but neither was your running mate. After the election, you quit your day job as governor of Alaska with 18 months left in the term and went out and made a fortune making speeches and selling a book.

Cables Describe Scale of Afghan Corruption as Overwhelming (WHY R WE STILL THERE?)

WASHINGTON — From hundreds of diplomatic cables, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier.

Describing the likely lineup of Afghanistan’s new cabinet last January, the American Embassy noted that the agriculture minister, Asif Rahimi, “appears to be the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist.”

One Afghan official helpfully explained to diplomats the “four stages” at which his colleagues skimmed money from American development projects: “When contractors bid on a project, at application for building permits, during construction, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.” In a seeming victory against corruption, Abdul Ahad Sahibi, the mayor of Kabul, received a four-year prison sentence last year for “massive embezzlement.” But a cable from the embassy told a very different story: Mr. Sahibi was a victim of “kangaroo court justice,” it said, in what appeared to be retribution for his attempt to halt a corrupt land-distribution scheme.

It is hardly news that predatory corruption, fueled by a booming illicit narcotics industry, is rampant at every level of Afghan society. Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.

But the collection of confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of publications, offers a fresh sense of its pervasive nature, its overwhelming scale, and the dispiriting challenge it poses to American officials who have made shoring up support for the Afghan government a cornerstone of America’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The cables make it clear that American officials see the problem as beginning at the top. An August 2009 report from Kabul complains that President Hamid Karzai and his attorney general “allowed dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.” The embassy was particularly concerned that Mr. Karzai pardoned five border police officers caught with 124 kilograms (about 273 pounds) of heroin and intervened in a drug case involving the son of a wealthy supporter.

The American dilemma is perhaps best summed up in an October 2009 cable sent by Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, written after he met with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, the most powerful man in Kandahar and someone many American officials believe prospers from the drug trade.

“The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt,” Ambassador Eikenberry wrote.

American officials seem to search in vain for an honest partner. A November 2009 cable described the acting governor of Khost Province, Tahir Khan Sabari, as “a refreshing change,” an effective and trustworthy leader. But Mr. Sabari told his American admirers that he did not have “the $200,000-300,000 for a bribe” necessary to secure the job permanently.

Ahmed Zia Massoud held the post of first vice president from 2004 to 2009; the brother of the famous Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, he was discussed as a future presidential prospect. Last year, a cable reported, Mr. Massoud was caught by customs officials carrying $52 million in unexplained cash into the United Arab Emirates.

A diplomatic cable is not a criminal indictment, of course, and in an interview, Mr. Massoud denied taking any money out of Afghanistan. “It’s not true,” he said. “Fifty-two million dollars is a pile of money as big as this room.” Yet while his official salary was a few hundred dollars a month, Mr. Massoud lives in a waterfront house on Palm Jumeirah, a luxury Dubai community that is also home to other Afghan officials. When a reporter visited the dwelling earlier this year, a dark blue Rolls-Royce was parked out front.

The cables describe a country where everything is for sale. The Transportation Ministry collects $200 million a year in trucking fees, but only $30 million is turned over to the government, according to a 2009 account to diplomats by Wahidullah Shahrani, then the commerce minister. As a result, “individuals pay up to $250,000 for the post heading the office in Herat, for example, and end up owning beautiful mansions as well as making lucrative political donations,” said Mr. Shahrani, who also identified 14 of Afghanistan’s governors as “bad performers and/or corrupt.”

Then again, another cable reports “rumors” that Mr. Shahrani himself “was involved in a corrupt oil import deal.” He denied the rumors, saying that they were inventions by two rivals who were “among the most corrupt in Afghanistan,” the cable said.

Pity the diplomat who must sort out whose version of reality to believe. One cable reported the American ambassador’s attempt to size up Mr. Shahrani, who later became the minister of mines. “Ambassador Eikenberry noted Shahrani’s extravagant home, suggesting that the Afghans knew best who is corrupt,” the cable said.

The cables lay out allegations of bribes and profit-skimming in the organization of travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, or pilgrimage; in a scheme to transfer money via cellphones; in the purchase of wheat seed; in the compilation of an official list of war criminals; and in the voting in Parliament.

Dr. Sayed Fatimie, the minister of health, told American diplomats in January that members of Parliament wanted cash to confirm his appointment. “Expressing shock at the blatancy of these extortion attempts, Fatimie said MPs had offered their own votes and the votes of others they could purportedly deliver for $1,000 apiece,” a cable said.

The case of the Kabul mayor, Mr. Sahibi, shows how complicated it can be to sort out corruption charges. A Jan. 7 cable signed by Ambassador Eikenberry gave an account sharply at odds with media reports, which treated the prosecution as a landmark in the campaign for honest government.

The cable, referring to embassy interviews with Mr. Sahibi, said the charges against him were based on a decision to lease a piece of city property to shopkeepers. Three months after the lease was signed, another bidder offered $16,000 more. The “loss” of the potential additional revenue became the “massive embezzlement” described by prosecutors, the cable said.

Mr. Sahibi told the Americans he had been summoned to appear in court on Dec. 7 to be assigned a hearing date. Instead, he said, he was given a four-year sentence and a $16,000 fine.

As for the motive behind his prosecution, Mr. Sahibi said that in less than two years as mayor “he had found files for approximately 32,000 applicants who paid for nonexistent plots of land in Kabul city.” He said he halted the land program and “invalidated the illegal claims of some important people,” who took their revenge through the bogus criminal case.

The embassy cable largely supported Mr. Sahibi’s version of events, saying that the mayor’s “official decision may have antagonized powerful people who then sought the power of the state to discredit him.” Far from being a blow against corruption, the cable suggested, the case was a travesty of justice.

The widespread corruption is made possible in part by a largely unregulated banking infrastructure and the ancient hawala money transfer network that is the method of choice for politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers to move cash around the Muslim world.

Last year, a cable signed by Ambassador Eikenberry said that the hawala favored by the Afghan elite, New Ansari, “is facilitating bribes and other wide-scale illicit cash transfers for corrupt Afghan officials” and providing financial services to narco-traffickers through front companies in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates. He asked Washington to send more investigators and wiretap analysts to assist nascent Afghan task forces that were examining New Ansari.

The anticorruption task forces already faced significant obstacles. For instance, Afghanistan’s interior minister asked that the American government “take a low profile on the New Ansari case” to avoid the perception that investigations were being carried out “at the behest of the United States.”

Months later, when the New Ansari investigators carried out a predawn raid on the house of a top aide to President Karzai whom investigators heard soliciting a bribe on a wiretap, Mr. Karzai intervened to release the man from jail and threatened to take control of the anticorruption investigations. In November, the Afghan government dropped all charges against the aide.

The resulting standoff between Kabul and Washington forced the Obama administration to take stock of its strategy: was trying to root out corruption, at the risk of further alienating Mr. Karzai, really worth it? And with American troops set to begin leaving Afghanistan next summer, and the American public having long ago lost the appetite for nation-building, was trying to root out corruption a Sisyphean task?

In September, President Obama acknowledged the dilemma. “Are there going to be occasions where we look and see that some of our folks on the ground have made compromises with people who are known to have engaged in corruption?” he asked. “There may be occasions where that happens.”

A February cable described exactly such a compromise, reporting on a police chief at a border crossing in southern Afghanistan, Col. Abdul Razziq, who was reputed to be corrupt — and good at his job.

Western officials, it said, “walk a thin tightrope when working with this allegedly corrupt official who is also a major security stabilizing force.”

This article is by Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins.

Why did the Democrats falter on the tax cuts?

This post by Greg Sargent contains some wise words on the psychology of the Democrats:

At risk of overgeneralizing, the problem isn't that Dems aren't capable of winning an argument. It's that they don't think they're capable of winning a protracted political standoff, even on an issue where the public is on their side, once Republicans start going on the attack.
They seem to set their goal early on at salvaging a compromise, rather than going for the win. As a result, they tend to telegraph weakness at the outset, sending a clear message that they'll essentially give Republicans what they want as long as they can figure out a way to call it a compromise.

It's very important to realize how strong of a hand Democrats had -- and to some degree, have -- on the Bush tax cuts. Right or wrong, the Democrats' original position on this was that the tax cuts for income under $250,000 should be extended, and the tax cuts for income over $250,000 should expire. The public agrees: 49 percent share the Democrats' position, 14 percent want all the tax cuts to go, and 34 percent want to see all the tax cuts extended. Put another way, 63 percent of Americans don't want the tax cuts for the rich extended.

The GOP understood this just fine: Back in July, Rep. Dave Camp, then the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, admitted that his party couldn't hold tax cuts for the middle class hostage in order to secure tax cuts for the rich. "I'll probably vote for it myself," he said of the Democrats' proposal. In September, John Boehner joined him. "If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions," he told Bob Schieffer, "I'll vote for it."

Democrats, it seemed, had won this one. They had the popular position, the president's veto pen and control of the Congress. But they simply refused to carry the ball over the goal line. Instead, they began negotiating with themselves, talking about millionaires' brackets and short-term extensions. Republicans noticed the Democrats' disarray and lost their fatalism: "Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on Bloomberg Television he was ready to instruct GOP members to vote down legislation Democrats plan to bring to the floor that would extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts only for the middle class."

Now it looks like all the tax cuts will be extended, at least for the moment. But it's a baffling outcome. The structure of the situation favored -- and continues to favor -- the Democrats. No tax cuts pass without their support, and Republicans have previously admitted that their position isn't popular enough to prevail in a standoff. The only thing that's changed is that Republicans have realized Democrats aren't confident enough to enter a standoff. But it didn't have to be this way. Think back to early this week, when the president announced the federal pay freeze. "The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require broad sacrifice," he said. "And that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government." Here's what he could've said next:

It also must be shared by those among us who've prospered most in recent years. Even before the financial crisis, middle-class incomes had stagnated. But the incomes of the wealthiest Americans hadn't. Similarly, America's upper class has recovered from the crisis much quicker than the working class. There's nothing wrong with that: The country depends on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its most successful citizens. But in a time of high deficits and belt tightening, it makes $700 billion in tax cuts that go solely to the top 2% an unreasonable expense. Those tax cuts were passed in a time of surplus, and now we're in a time of deficits. As our situation changes, so must our policy. I will veto any bill that extends those tax breaks.

He not only could've said it, he could've stuck to it. But he didn't. Instead, Jack Lew and Tim Geithner are now supposed to negotiate out a deal, and the White House will be blamed for the inevitable concessions and disappointments it includes. I'm not against deal-making, of course, and I've regularly defended the administration's pragmatic concessions.

But there are times when you can get more at the negotiating table, and times when you can get more by declaring that there's simply nothing to negotiate. This was the latter.

CHENEY is being charged with a crime FINALLY!

Nigeria to Charge Dick Cheney in Pipeline Bribery Case

Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Nigeria will file charges against former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and officials from five foreign companies including Halliburton Co. over a $180 million bribery scandal, a prosecutor at the anti-graft agency said.

Indictments will be lodged in a Nigerian court “in the next three days,” Godwin Obla, prosecuting counsel at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said in an interview today at his office in Abuja, the capital. An arrest warrant for Cheney “will be issued and transmitted through Interpol,” the world’s biggest international police organization, he said.

Peter Long, Cheney’s spokesman, said he couldn’t immediately comment when contacted today and said he would respond later to an e-mailed request for comment.

Obla said charges will be filed against current and former chief executive officers of Halliburton, including Cheney, who was CEO from 1995 to 2000, and its former unit KBR Inc., based in Houston, Texas; Technip SA, Europe’s second-largest oilfield- services provider; Eni SpA, Italy’s biggest oil company; and Saipem Construction Co., a unit of Eni. Obla didn’t identify the former officials whom he said held office when the alleged bribes were paid.

Last week, Nigeria arrested at least 23 officials from companies including Halliburton, Saipem, Technip and a former subsidiary of Panalpina Welttransport Holding AG in connection with alleged illegal payments to Nigerian officials. Those detained were all freed on bail on Nov. 29.

Liquefied Natural Gas

Authorities in the West African nation are probing Halliburton, Saipem and Technip for the alleged payment of $180 million in bribes to win a $6 billion liquefied natural-gas contract. Panalpina is being investigated for illegal payments it allegedly made to Nigerian customs officials on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

“Eni confirms its availability to cooperate with the local authorities in the ongoing investigations, as it has done in the past with Italian and U.S. authorities,” Gianni Di Giovanni, spokesman for the company, said in an e-mailed statement today.

Christophe BĂ©lorgeot, who is listed on Technip’s website as a spokesman for the company, didn’t answer his phone when called today. No one answered the phone at Halliburton’s Nigerian office when called for comment. A person who answered a call to Halliburton’s Houston office said no one was available to comment. Teresa Wong, Halliburton’s spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Heather Browne, a spokeswoman for KBR, said by e-mail the company has no comment.

Bush’s Running Mate

Cheney, 69, left Halliburton in 2000 to become U.S. President George W. Bush’s running mate and then vice president. He formed the company’s KBR Inc. unit after acquiring Dresser Industries Inc. in 1998.

The plans to file charges against Cheney were reported earlier today in the Lagos-based Guardian newspaper. Femi Babafemi, a spokesman for the commission, confirmed the plans to file charges when contacted by phone today in Abuja. He wouldn’t comment any further.

Nigeria charged a former aide of President Olusegun Obasanjo with six counts of money-laundering on Oct. 13 in connection with the alleged payment of bribes.

KBR and Halliburton agreed to pay $579 million in February 2009 for bribery payments in Nigeria that stretched from 1994 to 2004.

‘All Potential Claims’

Technip took a charge of 245 million euros ($342 million) related to its stake in TSJK and discussed “resolution of all potential claims” with the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Paris-based company said on Feb. 12. TSJK was a group of international companies comprising Technip, Snamprogetti SpA, a unit of Eni, KBR and JGC Corp. of Japan.

Panalpina, Royal Dutch Shell and five oil-services companies agreed to pay $236.5 million to resolve a U.S. probe of overseas bribery, the Justice Department said on Nov. 4. The bribes were paid to expedite the import of goods and equipment, avoid customs duties on imported goods, extend drilling contracts and lower tax assessments, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest crude producer and the fifth- biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

Putin Responds to State Department Cables on Russia

Blunt and Blustery, Putin Responds

MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin responded Wednesday to criticism of Russia revealed in United States diplomatic cables published by the Web site WikiLeaks, warning Washington not to interfere in Russian domestic affairs.

His comments, made in an interview broadcast Wednesday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” referred to a cable that said “Russian democracy has disappeared” and that described the government as “an oligarchy run by the security services,” a statement attributed to the American defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Putin said in the interview that Mr. Gates had been “deeply misled.” Asked about a cable that described President Dmitri A. Medvedev as “playing Robin to Putin’s Batman,” he said the author had “aimed to slander one of us.”

Mr. King, whose program is carried on CNN’s channels around the world, has long had a reputation for softball questions. So Mr. Putin’s decision to appear on the program allowed his voice to be heard both in the United States and abroad while avoiding being challenged on contentious topics like his own grip on power and the limits on human rights and free speech in Russia.

In the interview, Mr. Putin also warned that Russia would develop and deploy new nuclear weapons if the United States did not accept its proposals on integrating Russian and European missile defense forces — amplifying a comment made by Mr. Medvedev in his annual state of the nation address on Tuesday.

“We’ve just put forward a proposal showing how jointly working, tackling the shared problem of security, could share responsibility between ourselves,” he said. “But if our proposals will be met with only negative answers, and if on top of that additional threats are built near our borders as this, Russia will have to ensure her own security through different means,” including “new nuclear missile technologies.”

Mr. Putin said Moscow would like to avoid this situation.

“This is no threat on our part,” he said. “We are simply saying this is what we expect to happen if we don’t agree on a joint effort there.” Last month, during a NATO-Russia summit meeting in Lisbon, the delegations discussed President Obama’s invitation for Russia to take some role in the future missile shield, perhaps through linkage between Russian facilities and the European shield.

At that meeting, Mr. Medvedev proposed “sectoral missile defense,” which would divide the missile defense shield into “zones of responsibility,” and involve deep coordination between the European and Russian sectors, said Dmitri V. Trenin, a military analyst and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. According to this plan, Russia would shoot down missiles flying over its territory toward Europe, and NATO would shoot down missiles flying over European territory toward Russia, he said.

NATO’s proposals for cooperation are less ambitious, and some members remain deeply mistrustful of Russian involvement, he said.

Mr. Putin appeared relaxed in the hourlong interview with Mr. King, who first interviewed him in 2000. He said he was “thankful” for President Obama’s softening of rhetoric toward Russia and for his revision of a planned missile defense shield in Europe.

Asked about the arrest this summer of 11 people accused of spying for Russia, Mr. Putin said the agents were not active, but would have “become pertinent in crisis periods, like when diplomatic relations were suspended or cut.”

His comment seemed to address one of the central mysteries of the summer spy scandal: why the agents were passing on information that was readily accessible without spying.

In the interview, Mr. Putin broke from the restrained response Russian leaders have so far given to the WikiLeaks cables, which have so far offered few real revelations about sensitive topics like corruption. The comments attributed to Mr. Gates, in a cable dated Feb. 8, 2010, used the harshest language made public so far.

Mr. Putin said that several American presidents had been elected through the electoral college system even though they did not win a majority of the popular vote, but that Russia did not press the point.

“When we are talking with our American friends and tell them there are systemic problems” with the electoral college system, “we hear from them: ‘Don’t interfere with our affairs. This is our tradition, and it’s going to continue like that.’ We are not interfering.

“But to our colleagues, I would also like to advise you not to interfere with the sovereign choice of the Russian people,” he said.

He played down the impact of the cables’ release, and went on to suggest that they might be fakes being circulated for obscure political purposes.

“Some experts believe that somebody is deceiving WikiLeaks, that their reputation is being undermined to use them for their own political purposes later on,” he said. “That is one of the possibilities there. That is the opinion of the experts.”