Archive

September 21st, 2016

Chemical weapons watchdog continues hunt for Syria's elusive nerve agent

    When Syria disclosed its long-secret chemical weapons program in December 2013, it presented international weapons inspectors with a hard-to-swallow story: One of the regime's premier chemical weapons facilities - an underground laboratory on the outskirts of Damascus that was designed to fill Scud missiles with a lethal nerve agent - had never in fact produced Sarin.

    The inspectors decided they would have to check for themselves. In three visits to the site, known as Hafir 1, specialists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons started to believe they had caught Syria lying about the extent of its secret chemical-weapons development.

    Samples collected at the site revealed the unmistakable presence of Sarin in the equipment used to mix the banned warfare agent and pour it into Soviet-era Scud or Tochka tactical ballistic missiles. They also betrayed traces of precursors for another, even deadlier nerve agent, VX, that Syria did not initially acknowledge using at the site. More signatures of Sarin were detected in two mobile filling units parked aboveground at the complex.

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September 20th

The reason the Lehman moment still is with us

    Sept. 15 is the eighth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Not enough time has passed yet for me to recall those anxious days without getting angry.

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has used the occasion of this anniversary to suggest the next administration should "investigate and jail" those Wall Street bankers who committed crimes. Although I doubt there will be any perp walks, I do have some ideas about how to proceed.

    Before we look into the senator's suggestion, it is time for an honest appraisal of one of the lingering mysteries of the financial crisis: Why were there were no prosecutions of major executives?

    It's a fair question. I believe there were 10 areas where fraud and abuse took place. These were the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems; mortgage pools; securitization; "misplaced" mortgage notes; force-placed insurance; servicing fees; fake documents; false affidavits, perjury and robo-signing; foreclosure mills; and active military members losing homes while on duty.

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A sharper focus on North Korea

    North Korea's accelerating nuclear and missile programs, including its recent nuclear test, pose a grave and expanding threat to security, stability and peace in Asia and the rest of the world. This threat affects close U.S. allies - South Korea and Japan - and U.S. personnel and facilities in the region. In the coming months and years, it will create increasing danger for the United States. It is likely that the next president will face a North Korea that has gained the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons.

    President Barack Obama's administration has succeeded in strengthening U.S. alliances in Asia and deterring a war, but, like its predecessors, has failed to change Pyongyang's assessment that defiance is preferable to conciliation. It is clear that the next president will have to sharpen Pyongyang's choice: offer greater benefits for cooperation and promise greater costs for continued defiance.

    For the past several months, we have led a task force to assess the state of U.S. policy toward North Korea and to propose a new comprehensive strategy for the region.

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The 24/7 Sneeze Factor

    Hillary Clinton is recovering from a mild case of pneumonia. However, shortly after she collapsed at Ground Zero while part of the 15th annual memorial of 9/11, her campaign staff said she was just exhausted and suffered heat exhaustion. It took a couple of days for her to reveal the extent of her medical issue.

    Donald Trump, who had many times this past year questioned Clinton’s health and suggested she should leave politics, now tweeted he was hoping his Democratic opponent would have a quick recovery. However, the Renegade Republicans, fueled by scandal-makers of the conservative media, think Clinton is a piñata, and are hitting her hard—she has Parkinson’s disease; she suffered from a concussion; the Democratic National Committee is working on how to replace her because she is so ill; she is on her death-bed, and a body double is the one the public is seeing.

    Prior to Clinton’s bout with pneumonia, she had released a two page letter from her physician stating medical specifics about her health; he concluded Clinton is in excellent health.

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That time when 'that time when' took over the Internet

    In March, Taylor Swift posted some photos from her trip to an undisclosed tropical location with then-boyfriend Calvin Harris. One caption read, "That time we finally took a vacation." This summer, Swift went on another jaunt with a new boyfriend and a group of girlfriends. Elle covered the resulting high jinks with a piece titled, "That Time Cara Delevingne Scared he Sh*t out of Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston."

    The expressions "that time I" and "that time when" have bubbled up all over the Internet, in headlines, in promotions and on social media. Just recently, there was "That Time When Johnny Depp Looked Just Like Justin Bieber," "That Time I Stumped a Gallup Pollster," "That Time I Came Face to Face With an Anti-Semite" and "That time I tried to be a stripper . . . but pepper-sprayed myself in the face."

    It's a strange construction, one that doesn't make much sense. Why wouldn't Swift just write, "We finally took a vacation?" Why tack on an unnecessary grammatical flourish?

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Of course Clinton went to work sick. That's the American way.

    As Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton demonstrated when she nearly collapsed from the effects of walking pneumonia early this week, the benefits of running for elected office may include many things, but sick days are not among them.

    This is perhaps unavoidable in light of the fact that the job of actually being an elected official doesn't allow for much rest and recuperation, either - see, for instance, John F. Kennedy plowing ahead despite crippling back pain and Addison's disease, which he wanted to conceal from the public; and George H.W. Bush ignoring a doctor's advice in 1992 to stay in bed rather than attend a state dinner in Japan, with the result being that he vomited on the Japanese prime minister. "The president is human," Bush's physician told reporters at the time. "He gets sick."

    Going to work sick is not just a function of political work, however, or even of merely being human - it is a profoundly American behavior.

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Obama’s Trickle-Up Economics

    Only serious nerds like me eagerly await the annual Census Bureau reports on income, poverty and health insurance. But the just-released reports on 2015 justified the anticipation.

    We expected good news; but last year, it turns out, the economy partied like it was 1999. And this tells us something very important — namely, that a government that wants to can make American society more equitable, improving the quality of life for ordinary families.

    The reports showed strong progress on three fronts: rapid growth in the incomes of ordinary families — median income rose a remarkable 5.2 percent; a substantial decline in the poverty rate; and a significant further rise in health insurance coverage after 2014’s gains. It was a trifecta that we haven’t hit since, yes, 1999.

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America the Plunderer

    Because he’s being graded on a doofus curve that is unprecedented in presidential politics, Donald Trump said more than a dozen outrageous, scary or untrue things in the past 10 days and got away with all of them. But with at least one statement, marking a profound shift in how the United States would interact with the rest of the world, Trump should be shamed back to his golden throne.

    He wants the United States to become a nation that steals from its enemies. He’s called for war crimes — killing family members of terrorists, torturing suspects. He would further violate the Geneva Conventions by making thieves out of a first-class military.

    “It used to be to the victor belong the spoils,” Trump complained to the compliant Matt Lauer in the now infamous commander-in-chief forum. Oh, for the days when Goths, Vandals and Nazis were free to rape, pillage and plunder. So unfair, as Trump said on an earlier occasion, that we have “all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.”

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A basket of deplorables

    It's already earned a permanent slot in the Clintonian political lexicon, right up there with "vast right-wing conspiracy." The newest addition: "basket of deplorables."

    That's the phrase Hillary Clinton famously used to describe Donald Trump supporters at a New York fundraiser last week, trying to answer the question everyone's asking: "Since Donald Trump's so manifestly unqualified to be president, who are these people supporting him?"

    Trump immediately accused her of showing "true contempt for everyday Americans" and argues that calling them "deplorables" alone should disqualify her from the race. (Which, considering the cascade of insults he's spewed forth, is LOL.) While his running mate Mike Pence insists: "Hillary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans and they deserve your respect."

    Whatever you think of Trump supporters, Hillary only made two mistakes in calling them "deplorables." First, she shouldn't have done so in the first place. As a candidate, her job is to talk about the issues, not to denigrate anybody else's potential voters.

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Trump's foreign policy is a scary black hole

    Imagine that the first crisis facing the next president would be a seizure by China of the Scarborough Shoal, a coral atoll off the Philippines in the South China Sea.

    How would a President Donald Trump respond? Perhaps he would assemble his new generals to come up with a 30-day plan to attack China. Or maybe he'd say, "They can have him; I hate that guy," confusing the strategically situated potential Chinese Naval base with the morning television host, Joe Scarborough, with whom he has a bitter feud.

    What's remarkable is that seven weeks before election day, so little is known about the Republican presidential nominee's foreign policy. He has given only a couple of perfunctory speeches on the topic and on the stump reverts to cliches and bluster.

    From the end of World War II through the Cold War, a presidential candidate had to persuade voters that he was credible on foreign policy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreign affairs became a secondary political issue for three elections. But the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars made it important again.

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