Hard News by Russell Brown

Pique performance

Wow. Shades of 'Economy in Nosedive' or what? The Herald today takes a story that even NBR relegates to page three and devotes its entire front page to this: 'PM's comments death knell to trade deal: US'.

This story has already been raked over this week by the Dominion Post, among others, but the Herald's exclusive angle was an interview with an anonymous "US Government spokesman" who blamed Helen Clark's "personal attacks" on George W. Bush for the fact that a bilateral free trade deal with the US is no longer on offer - if it ever actually was.

US trade representative Robert Zoellick told the US House of Representatives this week that a trade deal with New Zealand was unlikely because of opposition from American farmers. The International Herald Tribune and NBR led with this angle, going on to note Zoellick's comment that there had been "some things done recently that would make [a trade deal] harder to carry."

The Herald's source claimed Clark's (perfectly accurate) comment in an interview that Al Gore would probably not have invaded Iraq had be been president was the "coup de grace" for the relationship between the two countries:

"When already-hoped-for co-operation isn't there and comments get increasingly more strident about 'it has to be the UN, it has to be the UN, it has to be the UN' and then the most responsible person in that Government all of a sudden comes out and sort of personally attacks the President, it's that one step beyond."

It might also be seen as an indication that Bush, in an extended fit of what USA Today called "presidential pique", has mistaken himself for America. The paper has provided a handy list of those countries whose leaders have been granted an audience with Bush since April 9: Slovakia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Colombia, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, Spain, Qatar, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea and Norway.

Few of those countries have provided anything like the practical assistance in the US-ordained war on terror that New Zealand (or, for that matter, Germany) has, but they all acknowledged which side their diplomatic bread was buttered on by endorsing the war in Iraq. Some of them don't actually have great records on little things like human rights, but you get that on the big jobs.

Before we leave trade, it's worth noting that the recent deal with Singapore (which poses no threat to heavily-protected US farming interests) was under negotiation for three years. And that one part of the fine print in Australia's prospective trade deal - inserted at the behest of big pharmaceutical companies - could mean a doubling in the price of prescription drugs. Michael Costello explained today in The Australian why he believes Australia should say no to an FTA anyway.

Meanwhile, American authorities have acted to keep America safe from the grave threat posed by French television journalists. Reason.com reports that half a dozen French journalists who had arrived to cover the big E3 video game expo in LA were subjected to body searches, handcuffed, fingerprinted, incarcerated and eventually sent back home. This pathetic, vindictive action - based on an unheard-of application of the visa waiver rules - was presumably ordained from above.

It became something of a pro-war cliche to point out that anti-war protestors in democracies would not enjoy the right to such public dissent in Saddam's Iraq. Well, they won't in Aznar's Spain either, if an astonishing proposed law makes the books.

Draft changes to the Spanish military criminal code propose that participation in public acts opposing military intervention in a situation of armed conflict could lead to prison sentences of between one and six years for the people involved, if convicted of "defeatism". Civilians could find themselves before military courts.

According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the sanction would not apply only to actions against direct Spanish military involvement, but also to actions carried out "against an Allied power". It is also proposed that the bar should be radically lowered on exactly when the law applies. The old code effectively required either a war to be declared by the Spanish Parliament, or Spain to be invaded. The new one could see public protest like that raised against Spain's support of the US action in Iraq punished by between one and six years' prison.

Christ. Remind me what we were fighting for again?

Not America's national security, according to Sen. Robert Byrd in a rare show of spine by a US Democrat. To quote from the USA Today report:

He accused the president of constructing a "house of cards, built on deceit" to justify the war.

"There is ample evidence that the horrific events of Sept. 11 have been carefully manipulated to switch public focus from Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who masterminded the Sept. 11th attacks, to Saddam Hussein, who did not," Byrd said.

The senator said that instead of weakening terror groups, "we have given them new fuel for their fury."

He accused Bush of exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam, bungling the peace and giving contracts to rebuild the country to "administration cronies."

Halliburton, an oil services company that Vice President Cheney headed for five years, could get up to $490 million for work in Iraq under an Army contract awarded without competition.

The U.S. postwar administration of Iraq is failing, the senator said. "The smiling face of the U.S. as liberator is quickly assuming the scowl of an occupier," Byrd said. "The image of the boot on the throat has replaced the beckoning hand of freedom."

It has become "painfully clear" that Iraq posed no immediate threat, he said. Searches for weapons of mass destruction have "turned up only fertilizer, vacuum cleaners, conventional weapons and the occasional buried swimming pool."

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor reports that evidence on the ground is growing that between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians may have died during the war - making it the deadliest campaign for noncombatants that US forces have fought since Vietnam. So much for "historically low casualties".

Paul Krugman dishes it out on the shambles in Iraq:

Hussein wasn't a threat to America. He had no important links to terrorism, and the main U.S. team searching for weapons of mass destruction has packed up and gone home. Meanwhile, true to form, the Bush team lost focus as soon as the TV coverage slackened off. The first result was an orgy of looting -- including looting of nuclear waste dumps that, incredibly, we failed to secure. Dirty bombs, anyone? Now, according to an article in The New Republic, armed Iraqi factions are preparing for civil war.

That leaves us facing exactly the dilemma war skeptics feared. If we leave Iraq quickly, it may well turn into a bigger, more dangerous version of Afghanistan. But if we stay for an extended period, we risk becoming, as one commentator put it, "an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land" -- just the recruiting tool al-Qaida needs. Who said that? President George H.W. Bush, explaining his decision not to go on to Baghdad back in 1991.

Meanwhile, the medical situation in Iraq is getting worse and worse.

Before they got Security Council consent for the lifting of sanctions, the US and Britain indefinitely postponed their plan to allow Iraqi opposition forces to form a national assembly and an interim government by the end of the month.

And the White House is asking Congress to boost the maximum it can borrow by nearly a trillion dollars, to avoid the government going into default. This only a year after Congress had to raise the cap by half a trillion. And, as the Washington Post points out, there is no prospect of the insane federal deficit problem improving.

They need to borrow the money, of course, for really important things like funding advertising campaigns against medical marijuana

Anyway, best wishes for the Black Caps, what with Daniel Vettori bowling like a prince of the game. Oh, and GO THE BLUES!!