Thursday, December 16, 2004

I'm in the movies!

This has nothing to do with politics. Just that a couple of very talented friends of mine sent me a wonderful script for a short feature and asked me to write some gags into it, and I did, and they liked most of the gags, so... that makes me involved in writing a short film for Maaron Productions! And since I've never been involved in writing a short film before... I'm very happy.

Also, off to New Mexico and a little trip to Las Vegas, I leave tomorrow. So, my infrequent blog updates due to much work at work and much other time writing jokes about giant lizards (you'll see) will probably be more infrequent until about January 4th.

Happy holidays, my friends.

I should probably close by saying that most people now think that the guy Bush nominated to the Homeland Security Post, Kerik, who withdrew because he didn't pay taxes for his illegal immigrant nanny... probably never even had a nanny. See, in New York, lots of people have illegal immigrant nannies. I know of several very successful, intelligent women "aren't quite sure" about theirs but who couldn't get by without them. So, Kerik cops to a crime that most of the people he hangs out with would shrug their shoulders at because, during the confirmation hearings all those stories about the mob gifts he took and the stalking of the woman who broke up an affair with him would have come out. Go figure. So, there's yer politics!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Big Tent, Little Tent

In the most recent issue of The New Republic, Peter Beinart makes a suggestion that I thinkeveryone should consider and reject -- he says that Democrats should basically kick people who don't understand Islamic terrorism as something akin to communism in the cold war, right out of the party. In his article, Beinart gives a history lesson about big labor and other liberal activist groups who basically purged themselves of communists and communist sympathizers during the 40s and 50s. Beinart says the tactic was politically effective and I can't disagree with him.

Problem is, it was morally suspect. Stalin might have been a genocidal madman, but Beinart wasn't talking about the man who perverted communism, he was talking about communism as an idealogy. And the point of having freedom of thought and expression in America is that you should be allowed to believe in something like communism, even if it is in conflict with the dominant, free-ish market paradigm that America has always followed.

Also, the analogy doesn't hold up. Back in the day, there were honest communist thinkers on the American left and they had some influence. I don't know anyone on the pacifist American left today, anyone who doesn't want to be at war with Islam, who is arguiung that radical Islam should replace our current system in America. If such people existed, I guess I'd have to fight them, since I don't want to live under the Koharn. But, they don't. Instead, we have people advocating what I believe is a smarter path to peace in the world -- the path of curbing our own imperialist tendencies.

Then, I have to think of our more successful opponents in the Republican party. The Republicans seem to gain voters not only from the vaunted religious right, but from economic conservatives and outright libertarians. A true libertarian would likely be pro-choice, not have a problem with Gay marriage, against the FCC fining CBS for Janet's wardrobe malfunction and entirely hostile to any sort of moral or religiously based culture war. Yet, these types tend to vote Republican. Is it for the tax cuts? Well, that's part of it, and only party. I'm going to guess it's because, as much as people on the religious right might abhor libertarian social beliefs, they aren't so stupid as to try to purge their party of a dependable voting block.

The Democrats shouldn't do that either. The difference between a pro-war Democratic candidate and anm anti-war Democratic candidate is only the difference between John Kerry and Howard Dean. And those two actually have quite a bit in common.

Strategically, one could argue that the doves have nowhere to go. They won't vote Republican just because the Democrats put up a pro-war candidate. But, let's face reality. One of the reasons Kerry seemed like an untrustworthy opportunist is that he tried to have to both ways -- he was afraid of driving pro war people to Bush and afraid of driving pacifists to Nader. HAd his party and campaign been mroe respectful of the difference of opinion among voting Democrats, he could have done better. He could have said, "Yes, I voted for the war and sometimes, I will vote for war, but you who were against it should realize that I voted with reservations and with regret. My opponent is looking for the next war. I'm looking to save us from the next war."

But, he either didn't, or couldn't say that because, while the Republicans play to the far right and win elections, the Democrats ignore the far left and lose.

That's what Beinart is advocating. And the Democrats will never win so long as they alienate the base of the party.

Friday, December 03, 2004

My CNN Interview About the UN

Hey all. I was on CNN two days ago, discussing the UN topic. Here's a transcript from my interview with Kyra Phillips, (who is a really great inteviewer):

CNN: Live From...
Dec 1st

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Critics are calling it the worst fraud in the history of the United Nations. They're talking about allegations of corruption in Iraq's Oil-For-Food Program. U.N. chief Kofi Annan is under fire. He says he's disappointed in his son, Kojo, for staying on the payroll of a company with an oil-for-food contract. Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota heads the Senate investigation of the program. He's calling for Annan to resign.

Coleman appeared on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING."


SEN. NORM COLEMAN (R), MINNESOTA: We're not going to get to the bottom of this with any kind of credibility unless the guy that was in charge step back and then let us figure out what happened. And bottom line is what happened to the billions that are out there? And are those billions being used to fund an insurgency that's taking American and coalition lives today?


PHILLIPS: "Forbes" magazine staff writer Michael Maiello has been covering the oil-for-food controversy. He joins us now live from New York.

Mike, good to see you.

MIKE MAIELLO, "FORBES" MAGAZINE: Thank you having me.

PHILLIPS: Well, when you first wrote your article, you exposed a lot of loopholes in the Oil-For-Food program. Just in a nutshell, to give our viewers an understanding of how the U.N., how it all started by the U.N. setting the prices for this oil as it began to, this program with Iraq.

MAIELLO: Right. Well, the program was not as simple, it seems, as the U.N. thought it would be. They wanted to encourage companies to buy Iraqi oil, because the oil proceeds were going to go to feed the people of Iraq. To encourage them, they set the prices through most of the program for Iraqi oil at below market rates. Of course this created an immediate opportunity for companies to profit by buying the oil, and then quickly trading it on the secondary market, trading it to other companies, trading it to other traders, sometimes individuals it seems.

In basically an unregulated market for this oil that was bought at a mandated discount...

PHILLIPS: Keyword, "unregulated." You had this trading then that wasn't monitored properly by the U.N. You didn't have enough inspectors there in Iraq and other places to monitor it. You had Saddam Hussein, who was picking the companies he wanted to deal with. OK, then comes companies companies like Cotecna, who were brought in, or it was brought in, to monitor the humanitarian aid. Here comes Kojo Annan. Now what happened with this dynamic?

MAIELLO: Well, Cotecna was a Swiss company that people would not know much about, that was contracted by the U.N. to monitor the humanitarian goods that were flowing into Iraq. It seems that Secretary-General Annan's son, Kojo, is working as a consultant for this company. They say he was working in West Africa, not in Iraq, and that he stopped working for them in 1999. This came out a while ago. This was revealed maybe about a year ago at this point, but their immediate thing was to say that Kojo had stopped working there back in '99 and there was no real problem.

Now it turns out that Kojo had a noncompete agreement with the company so the company was paying him a salary not to get into the same industry until -- up until the end of the program so...

PHILLIPS: Why would Cotecna want Kojo?

MAIELLO: Well, I mean, I guess one could speculate that if you wanted to get U.N. contracts it would be nice to have a connection with the secretary-general. I mean, that would be the most cynical explanation one could come up with. And there's an appearance problem here. I think that -- you know, whether or not that is true, whether or not that's why they hired him, that's what it looks like. And credibility was the main issue with this entire -- with the entire Oil-For-Food Program, it was one of the most important things to have. And it astounds me that the U.N. would have allowed this to go on and allow this to become an issue that basically has brought the entire institution up for question now.

PHILLIPS: And now of course you're working on another big report for "Forbes" magazine. And all of these requests from various political leaders, saying, Kofi Annan should resign. What are you hearing? And do you think that's fair? What do the people say that you're interviewing now and talking about this relationship and his job basically being at stake?

MAIELLO: Well, Mr. Annan's job is, indeed, at stake. Norm Coleman, who is running the Senate investigation, of course, has been spearheading -- just had a column in "The Wall Street Journal" today, calling for Mr. Annan's resignation. He does make one good point, which is how can we trust the U.N.'s internal investigation into this while Mr. Annan is still in charge?

It seems that -- if only for appearance's sake, Mr. Annan has to go. I think that that's right. I don't hear a lot of sympathy for Mr. Annan from anyone I'm talking to. And it's hard to have sympathy for him at this point, too because you have to remember, the Oil-For- Food Program was vitally important. It is the program that kept the peace for six years. It's the reason we weren't back at war in Iraq earlier than we wound up going. Had the program worked...

PHILLIPS: Is it scary to you that the U.N.'s reputation is at stake now?

MAIELLO: It is, to me, because I happen to believe that having a vibrant global political body is important, especially in a world where money flows so quickly, commodities flow so quickly, and people move so quickly from place to place. We have to have a global institution that we can trust. And I think this is just hurtful for the world political scene, in general.

I don't think it's good going forward. I think -- there are a lot of people in America who have always been skeptical of the United Nations. I think that even if some of these allegations are overblown, the fact that the appearances are there has given ammunition to the U.N.'s critics. And I think for people like me who really believe in having a vibrant, global body like this that it's very disappointing...

PHILLIPS: Michael Maiello...

MAIELLO: ... just get so easily attacked.

PHILLIPS: Point well made, Michael Maiello, looking for your next story in "Forbes" magazine. Thank you.

MAIELLO: Thank you.

Debate Prep and the Failure of the United Nations

Those of us who opposed the Iraq war were let down by the United Nations.

In about a half hour, I'll be a guest on NPR's Tavis Smiley show, debating a writer from The Nation about the future of the United Nations and whether or not it's Secretary General, Kofi Annan should step down in the wake of the scandals surrounding the UN's Oil for Food Program (OFP). OFP was supposed to function so that Iraqi oil could be sold in order to meet the needs of Iraq's people while we kept Saddam Hussein's government under trade sanctions in the wake of the first Gulf War. But, it wasn't so simple as it sounds.

One problem was that since Saddam's government was recognized as legitimate by the UN, and was thus sovereign, he got to pick the companies who could buy his oil and the companies who could sell humanitarian goods to Iraq. Surprise, surprise, those companies allegedly paid bribes to him for the rights to the oil and kickbacks for their contracts to sell humanitarian goods and services. The most recent estimate is that Saddam reaped $20 billion for himself over the course of the program and this explains how he was able to build more than 60 palaces for himself despite the sanctions.

I've been investigating the program for awhile and have already written one article about it. One thing to note is that the UN, for most of the program, set the price for Iraqi oil at below market rates in order to convince companies to buy the oil in the first place. Of course, made the oil a highly desirable commodity since profits were guaranteed by the price fixing and this is where things went wrong -- the prices were set low enough that a company could afford to bribe Saddam for rights to the oil and still turn a profit selling the crude on the global market.

In my article, I found that a Russian company and an American company took advantage of the program to enrich themselves and to perhaps pay kickbacks to Hussein's regime by trading Iraqi oil and moving the funds to a seceretive account in Gibraltar. What happened to the Gibraltar money? Nobody knows but the Financial Times, in a story that is basically a follow-up to mine, says that the same two companies I pinpointed helped Saddam give free oil to Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Why would Saddam want to give oil to a Russian politician? To influence Russia's votes on the UN Security Council, of course. Saddam wanted the UN to lift the sanctions and he used the Oil for Food program to buy votes and support. He bribed scores of people, according to CIA analyst Charles Duelfer, including the man who was running the Oil for Food Program at the UN.

That Saddam was gaming the system was well known throughout the program and was a frequent topc if discussion among the Security Council nations. But the UN did little to stop it.

Why is this a big deal? Well, remember the run-up to the war. Bush claimed Saddam was building Weapons of Mass Destruction. Had Oil For Food not been corrupted, it would have been easy to say, "Silly Dubya, where would he get the money to do that?" Because the program didn't work, nobody could make that argument. The guy made $20 billion in 7 years!

So, the failure of this program is a huge deal. It gave Bush the narrative he needed to argue for war.

As for Kofi Annan... turns out his son Kojo worked for Cotecna, a Swiss company charged with monitoring the humanitarian supplies flowing into Iraq. He left the firm in 1999 but continued to receive payments from them through 2003 as part of a "non-compete" contract. They say he was working in West Africa, not Iraq, so everything's on the up and up. But, should firms trying to win UN contracts be hiring the Secretary General's son? It's at worst corrupt and at best the kind of ineptitude that makes the UN seem corrupt. Either way, it's inexcusable.

Of course, the right wing of American politics hates the UN and they're jumping all over this.

But let's not forget who loaded the right-wingers' pistols here -- it was Kofi Annan, who presided over the failure of a humanitarian program that could have kept the peace and then blundered into a situation that makes the UN seem like a vehicle for fraud.

The UN has an "independent" commission looking into this that has no subpeona powers and no real legal authority. There are also committees in the House and Senate who are investigating. The UN refuses to cooperate with either the House or Senate committees or with journalists around the world, saying its independent commission will come up with the answers.

That's not good enough.

The failure of this program has hurt the UN's credibility and we know from experience that the Bush Administration will use that to justify all manner of unilateral actions, both military and diplomatic, around the world.

I like Kofi Annan. He stands up for the third world like no other Secretary General has. But... he has to go. His credibility is shot and the UN, as an institution, is just more important than Annan as a man.

Okay, will be on the radio in a few minutes. If you listen to NPR, try to tune into the Tavis Smiley show today (it airs at different times in different markets.)