Bernd Debusmann

Obama, Iran and Alice in Wonderland

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 11, 2010 15:02 UTC

Here we go again. That shape-shifting entity known as “the international community” has moved once more to try and stop Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. In the process, the community shrank by two countries, Turkey and Brazil.

That is the conclusion one can draw from President Barack Obama’s statements on the U.N. Security Council’s vote on June 9 to sanction Iran for failing to halt its production of nuclear fuel. The vote, Obama said, was “an unmistakable message” by the international community and showed its united view on Iran and nuclear arms.

That doesn’t quite square with the fact that Turkey and Brazil, two increasingly important players on the world scene, voted against the 15-member council’s resolution. (Lebanon abstained). But it confirmed an apparent tendency by Western leaders to draw inspiration from Alice in Wonderland (where Iran is concerned).

They echo Humpty Dumpty’s famous assertion on the use of words: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” The modern, Iran-related version: “When I talk about the international community, I mean those who are with me. Neither more nor less.”

The June 9 resolution vote was the fourth on sanctions and the first with “no” votes. In 2006 and 2007 sanctions resolutions passed unanimously. In 2008, one council member, Indonesia, abstained.

George W. Obama and immigration fantasies

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 4, 2010 13:38 UTC

In the waning days of his presidency, George W. Bush listed the failure of immigration reform as one of his biggest disappointments and deplored the tone of the immigration debate. It had, he said in December 2008, undermined “the true greatness of America which is that we welcome people who want to work”.

The way things look a year and a half into the administration of Barack Obama, he too may end his presidency deploring the failure to fix America’s dysfunctional immigration system. The tone of the debate is even more rancorous now than it was when Bush pushed reform and it features the same arguments, including the fantasy that you can fully control the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico, the world’s busiest border.

That illusory target was set in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed into law by George W. Bush on October 26 of that year. It provided a definition of the term “operational control”, one of the most frequently used buzz phrases of the debate. (The other is “securing the border”). Under the letter of the law, operational control means “the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”

Performance reviews – a global scourge

Bernd Debusmann
Jun 1, 2010 13:51 UTC

It is time to kill the annual performance review, for decades a feature of corporate life around the globe, dreaded both by those who do the reviewing and those who are reviewed.

It is a corporate sham and one of the most insidious, most damaging and yet most prevalent of corporate activities. It is a pretentious, bogus practice that produces nothing that could be called a corporate plus. It is universally despised yet few people do anything to kill it.

So says Samuel A. Culbert, a consultant and professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in a just-published book entitled, Get Rid of the Performance Review! The book grew from a 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal which, Culbert says, prompted a thousand letters to the editor and a flood of online comments, mostly in favour of his argument.

In Mexico, a drug war of choice?

Bernd Debusmann
May 21, 2010 15:17 UTC

Here is a short history of Mexico’s drug war, as told to a joint session of the U.S. Congress by President Felipe Calderon on May 20.

In 2004, a U.S. ban on the sale of assault weapons to civilians was lifted. High-powered firearms started flowing south across the 2,000-mile border. Violence increased. “One day criminals in Mexico, having gained access to these weapons, decided to challenge the authorities in my country,” he said.

Calderon did not say what happened on that “one day,” by implication the day the president had no choice but to fight back.

Obama, Karzai and an Afghan mirage

Bernd Debusmann
May 14, 2010 14:09 UTC

Last year, under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan slipped three places on a widely respected international index of corruption and became the world’s second-most corrupt country. It now ranks 179th out of 180, a place long held by Somalia.

According to a United Nations report published in January, Afghans paid $2.5 billion in bribes in 2009, roughly a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (not counting revenue from the opium trade). The survey, based on interviews with 7,600 people, said corruption was the biggest concern of Afghans.

On the military front in a war more than halfway through its ninth year, attacks on U.S. forces and their NATO allies totaled 21,000 in 2009, a 75 percent increase over 2008, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a week before Karzai’s visit to Washington. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, noted that Taliban insurgents had set up a “widespread paramilitary shadow government…in a majority of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.”

The trouble with U.S. terrorist watch lists

Bernd Debusmann
May 8, 2010 17:18 UTC

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) – What do the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, American Airlines pilot Kiernan O’Dwyer, Democratic congressman John Lewis and Sam Adams, aged 5, have in common? They have all been on one of America’s terrorist watch lists and found it easier to get on the list than off it.

That’s a trend almost certain to continue as the database grows relentlessly, resulting in a huge haystack of suspects in which to find the terrorist needle. There are no up-to-date figures on the size of that haystack but according to a report a year ago by the Justice Department’s inspector general, the “consolidated watch list” contained more than 1.1 million “known or suspected terrorist identities” by the end of 2008.

That corresponded to around 400,000 people, plus various aliases and ways of spelling names. If the growth rate of previous years is anything to go by, the database may well reach two million entries sometime before the end of this year. The government’s approach to the watch lists has fluctuated from rapidly expanding it after September 11 2001, to trying to trim it, as happened in the final year of the Bush administration.

In praise of Latin American immigrants

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 30, 2010 13:39 UTC

The United States owes Latin American immigrants a debt of gratitude. And Latin American immigrants owe a debt of gratitude to lawmakers in Arizona. How so?

Thanks largely to immigration from Latin America (both legal and illegal) and the higher birth rates of Latin immigrants, the population of the U.S. has kept growing, a demographic trend that sets it apart from the rest of the industrialized world, where numbers are shrinking. That threatens economic growth and in the case of Russia (U.N. projections see a decline from 143 million now to 112 million by 2050) undermines Moscow’s claim to Great Power status.

A country’s population starts shrinking when fertility falls below the “replacement rate” of 2.1. births over the lifetime of a woman. For white American women, that rate is around 1.8 now. For Latin American immigrants, the rate is 2.8. According to the U.S. census bureau, nearly one in six people living in the U.S. are Hispanics. By 2050, they are projected to make up almost a third of the population.

Obama, American guns and Mexican mayhem

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 27, 2010 14:12 UTC

During a visit to Mexico a year ago, President Barack Obama promised he would urge the U.S. Senate to ratify an international treaty designed to curb  the flow of weapons to Latin American drug cartels. It remains just that – a promise. Prospects for ratification are virtually zero.

Top officials in the Obama administration have called the cartels, and the extreme violence tearing apart Mexican cities on the U.S. border, threats to U.S. national security. Joining 30 other countries in the Western Hemisphere in an anti-arms smuggling accord would therefore seem a perfectly sane and logical thing to do. But logic often ends where American gun ownership begins.

The treaty in question is called the Inter-American Convention Against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials. Known as CIFTA for its Spanish acronym, it was adopted by the Organization of American States in 1997. All but four of its 35 members have ratified it. Bill Clinton signed the convention but did not get the Senate to bless it.

U.S. aid, Israel and wishful thinking

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 12, 2010 17:04 UTC

In June 1980, when an American president, Jimmy Carter, objected to Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied territories, the Israeli government responded by announcing plans for new settlements. At the time, settlers numbered fewer than 50,000.

In 2010, another American president, Barack Obama, is calling for an end to settlements he considers obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli authorities responded by announcing new ones, illegal under international law. Settlers now number close to half a million.

In the three decades between 1980 and 2010, there have been multiple U.S.-Israeli spats over the issue and they often fell into something of a pattern, spelt out in 1991 by James Baker, President George H W Bush’s secretary of state: “Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the peace process … I have been met with an announcement of new settlement activities. It substantially weakens our hand in trying to bring about a peace process.” That is as true now as it was then.

America’s season of rage and fear

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 1, 2010 15:21 UTC

Freedom in America will soon be a fading memory. American exceptionalism died on March 23, 2010. On that day, the United States started becoming just like any other country. Worse still, like a West European country. Socialism in the land of the free and the home of the brave!

In a nutshell, that’s how many conservatives see the health reform bill President Barack Obama signed into law on March 23, after a year of acrimonious debate. The language has been shrill and the superheated political temperature is reflected by worried headlines such as “The heat is on. We may get burned” (Wall Street Journal) or “Putting out the flames” (Washington Post).

Verbal venom is not restricted to radio talk shows or Internet rants that draw parallels between Obama and Hitler or Stalin. John Boehner, the leader of the Republican party in the House of Representatives, described the reform as Armageddon and a Republican congresswoman, Michelle Bachmann, voiced fears on national television for her country’s future because of the president’s “anti-American views.”