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DAWN - Opinion; May 24, 2006

May 24, 2006

Swing in US mid-term polls?

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


TRAVELLING through America and talking to people there and accessing the wealth of information and comment available on the American print and broadcast media has reinforced the view that the strong disapproval of President Bush and his policies worldwide is now being reflected in the US itself.

The Iraq war and the seemingly endless problems there have eroded Bush’s popularity to a point where even the support of the most conservative Republicans in the mid-term polls later this year is beginning to look doubtful. A highly publicised poll by the Washington Post-ABC News showed that Bush’s overall approval rating had fallen to 33 per cent, close to the lowest rating that any president has had since the 1940s. Among conservative Republicans his approval rating has fallen from 94 per cent in January 2005 to 76 per cent while among moderate Republicans it fell from 88 per cent to 57 per cent. Another poll showed his overall approval rating at 31 per cent with the Republicans and a drop from 48 per cent to 22 per cent among moderate independents.

These ratings relate directly to Iraq and the failure of the Bush administration to find a way out of the quagmire there. The formation of the new government under Nuri al-Maliki with the active support of ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been achieved within the constitutional deadline only by keeping vacant three of the most important cabinet posts — security, interior and defence. Furthermore, 15 Sunni members of parliament walked out before the vote for approving the cabinet. These members are reported to have links with the insurgents.

In these circumstances, there is widespread sceptism that a major step has now been taken towards bringing peace to Iraq and allowing the Americans to declare victory and leave. What has resonance is the implication in Bush’s statement that his successor may well be contending with an Iraq problem. What has resonance is a report of the office of the inspector-general for reconstruction in Iraq and which stated last year that nine billion dollars in Iraqi oil revenues had gone missing.

This year it has pointed to various shortcomings. One of these pertains to a $186 million contract to build 150 health centres. Only six of these were ready after 75 per cent of the money was spent. Another 14 will be built by the contractor while the rest will be left uncompleted. What has resonance is a congressional report that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would exceed $811 billion by 2010 assuming that troop levels are reduced from the current figure of 258,000 to 74,000. What has resonance is that in every category Iraqis are worse off than they were before the invasion.

The political consequence of Bush’s plummeting popularity is that it is affecting the fortunes of the Republican Party which since 1994 has controlled both the houses of Congress. A secondary consequence is the loss of faith in politicians generally. The Republicans hope that this will lessen, to some extent, the current disillusionment with the Bush administration and by extension the Republican Party. The Democrats are painfully aware of the loss of faith in politicians and realise that in the forthcoming elections they have to have a coherent programme that will address the people’s concerns.

They are taking into consideration the perception that on the issue of terrorism Bush still retains the approval of the majority and that terrorism continues to be a major preoccupation.

One of the issues that the Democrats feel they can use is the recent disclosure that the hitherto super-secret intelligence agency, the NSA, had been tapping phone calls (with the cooperation of telephone companies but without judicial authorisation), made by American citizens, as part of the battle against terrorism. There were calls by Democrats for the president’s impeachment for the violation of the constitution but poll figures showed that by a relatively narrow majority the American people felt that these were driven by politics rather than a genuine desire to protect the privacy of affected Americans.

It seems that the average man in the US feels that only such Americans were being targeted for tapping as were likely to have radical views — in other words, Muslims. They believe that any acknowledgment of this would invite charges of racial profiling and that was the only reason why further details were not being revealed. The fact that the head of the NSA is now having confirmation hearings for appointment as the new head of CIA and seems assured of a relatively easy passage indicates that the Democrats are not going to make this a major issue, having been satisfied by the administration’s proposal to provide detailed briefings on the tapping to a larger number of legislators.

Other issues, however, are more likely to be effective. The charges of sleaze and corruption among congressmen were highlighted by the resignation of Tom DeLay. The latter was majority leader of the house and easily one of the most powerful men in Washington until the money-laundering charges and his links with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist recently sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for corruption, came to light. Among the long list of congressmen linked to Abramoff there were also some Democrats but Republican legislators were the ones most visibly associated with him and the bills he was lobbying for. Similarly, the trial of Lewis Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, on the charge of having revealed to the press the name of a CIA operative, has highlighted, by the reckoning of the Democrats, the cavalier manner in which the Bush administration has treated the law and the extent to which an imperial presidency was being created.

Another issue is about tax cuts. These, the Republicans argue, are a necessary incentive to ensure a higher rate of investment and job creation. But it may be used by the Democrats to establish that the Republicans are a party of the rich and frame legislation to benefit only the rich. One Democrat legislator has calculated that the latest tax measure would give middle class families a tax cut of about $20 while the rich (those with an income of one million dollars) would receive a benefit of $42,000.

The Democrats will also make much of the fact that before the elections the House will have to vote for an increase in the ceiling for the national debt to raise it to $10 trillion. This will be the fifth increase since Bush came to power and will enable the Democrats to argue that the Republicans in the White House and Congress have been fiscally irresponsible. They will also point out that as much as 20 per cent of this debt is held by foreign countries, making the United States vulnerable to a financial crisis if this debt were to be called in by the countries in question. This is unlikely since the countries holding US treasury bills are those that are dependent on the American market and would not wish to create a crisis. But in political terms it could be a potent argument.

The Democrats need to win an additional 15 seats to get control of the House. They appear confident, on the basis of the polls which show that 55 per cent of the voters would prefer to see the Democrats in control of Congress, that they will secure these seats and perhaps more. Precedent is on their side. In 1994, the Republicans needed 40 seats to gain control of the house and six months before the elections there seemed to be no chance that they would even come close to getting them. They certainly did not have the favourable poll numbers that the Democrats do. All indications are that in coming days as the news from Iraq continues to be bad the poll numbers will improve further.

Perhaps as a political ploy the Democrat leadership has talked about the plan that they would follow once they secure a majority and became responsible for guiding the legislative process. Among the proposals would be raising the minimum wage and reinstating budget controls which would require that any new spending proposals be offset by tax increases or by cuts in spending elsewhere.

More importantly, it would be by initiating investigations into the energy task force which Cheney had set up in Bush’s first term and which has been the subject of considerable speculation. Another investigation would be with regard to the use of intelligence to justify the war in Iraq. The ranking Democrat in the house, Nancy Pelosi, has, however, denied the charge that she would, in the event of securing a majority, seek to impeach President Bush, but added that she could not say what would happen once the investigation she had proposed was completed.

For the Republicans, according to one analyst, there are some 42 seats that are considered to be at risk — a steep rise from the 26 that were so considered in September last year. They are hoping that there will be no further erosion in Bush’s popularity since it is generally accepted that if approval ratings fall below 30 per cent, a number of Republicans may be pulled down with him. They acknowledge that the staff changes Bush has made — a new chief of staff in the White House, a new spokesman and a new CIA director — have not improved his ratings.

In the meanwhile, the Republicans are hoping that they will be able to ensure that Republicans, even those disillusioned with Bush and the party, would turn out in large numbers. One galvanising factor is that the Republicans will want to support a ban on same-sex marriages — a proposal that is on the ballot in six states already. They are also proposing to introduce another measure for tax cuts just before the November elections.

It appears likely that the Democrats will win a majority in the House and will have a good chance of reducing the Republican majority in the Senate. This will certainly make Bush a lame-duck president for the last two years of his term even if the Republicans manage to retain control of the House albeit with a reduced majority.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Creating a library culture

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE news from the library front in Karachi will not cheer the bibliophiles. The plan for a library, that had been promised way back in 1991 by mayor Farooq Sattar who had earmarked for it a three-acre plot of land in Gulshan-i-Iqbal near the Nipa Chowrangi, has now been dropped.

A hospital is to be built there instead. Fifteen years ago, a lot of fanfare had attended the launching of this scheme that was to be designated a city library. Architects were invited to submit designs for this institution and three entries were selected for prizes worth Rs 100,000. The building plan was approved.

Then nothing happened for 13 years. Mercifully, the land was kept protected from the land grabbers and the avaricious builders and developers who pry around the city in quest of unbuilt plots of land. In January 2004, when Niamatullah Khan was the city nazim, it was announced that a library would be built on that land from the women’s councillors’ fund. It was, therefore, converted into a women’s library. The construction work started.

Now without much ado, it has been announced in December 2005 that the under-construction library complex has been dropped and a hospital will be built there instead. The nazim of Gulshan Town, Mr Wasay Jaleel, feels that the plot is too big for a library and a 100-bed trauma centre is more urgently needed. He has reassured people that he has plans to set up a modern library in every union council in Gulshan. Can one question the wisdom of this move? The nazim, we must presume, would know best what the city needs. Given the violence that has gripped Karachi since the 1980s, his priority is understandably to save lives. But is it not possible to save lives as well as encourage people to read books?

If Mr Jaleel does find the time, resources and commitment to set up a network of small libraries in the 13 councils in Gulshan Town it will be a red letter day for library and book lovers. But given our leaders’ past preferences it is not easy to feel excited and optimistic about this project which is at present no more than a pipedream. The move to drop the library project is to say the least most disheartening especially when we know it is something so achievable. Tasneem Siddiqi, the chairperson of Saiban, an NGO working for shelter and social development, would testify to that. His library support group has helped 60 school libraries in Orangi within a span of three years.

A follow-up survey found that a number of schools which were provided books could not develop a vigorous library culture in their institutions.

They felt they didn’t have the space for a library. Their need for classrooms was greater. But 20 of the schools were making excellent use of the books that had been donated while the performance of 15 others was average and would improve with some support.

Saiban has also supported some community libraries in Karachi. Neighbourhood libraries that are user-friendly are always appreciated by people who like to read. Their accessibility, especially if they are well-stocked, makes them indispensable. But that is not the only kind of library big cities like Karachi need so badly.

The importance of a city library can never be over-emphasised and anyone who has managed a library knows very well that as long as there are books, space is what a library needs most. Even in this age of electronics technology and digitalisation one cannot do without books and the printed word. And for that three acres or even more can never be too much.

If the city government is serious about focusing on the mohalla library, do we still need a city library? And why? The fact is that the mohalla library and a city library are both needed because they serve different purposes. Small libraries/reading rooms can attract random readers to spend a few leisurely hours browsing through books, magazines and newspapers to obtain information and provide nourishment to their minds. At present, Karachi has 82 libraries/reading rooms but most of them are in a rundown condition. If the various town nazims would at least take up the responsibility of making these libraries functional and centres of intellectual activities, they would render a useful service to the people of Karachi.

The city library that will by its very nature have to be a large place is designed to house a collection of books that are rare, academic and specialised. This would be a spot where researchers and scholars could assemble in their quest for information and learning.

It is a pity that the institutions that could have served as a focal point of knowledge have failed to emerge as such. Take the case of the Liaquat Memorial Library. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Sindh government’s department of culture and has a stock of 159,428 books, mostly in English. This is not a substantial holding and it does not issue books. Yet 500-600 people visit it every day.

The Liaquat Memorial Library could fill a vacuum if it is revamped and reorganised on modern lines. It has quite a lot of space and has the potential to be developed into a lending library. The Sindh government appointed a five-member advisory committee in December 2005 to improve the management of the library and arrange for the better upkeep of its books/records. It was also assigned the task of obtaining funds and procuring donations of books to start a lending section. Its first meeting was held in January. The committee suggested that the status of the library be changed from that of an attached department of the Sindh government to an autonomous institution with a governing board. Regrettably, the committee has not met again though it was to meet once a month and the change in status has yet to be effected.

There is also the proposal advanced by Liaquat Merchant, a member of the Jinnah Society, to convert the Flag Staff House into a library. If done properly and in such a way as to instil credibility in the public, an appeal could be made to people with private collections to donate their books there — posthumously if they prefer.

The Quaid-i-Azam Library in Lahore has already shown the way and has been receiving books from private collectors.

The need of the hour is to stimulate public interest in libraries. We need to make a concerted effort to launch a library movement. A beginning can be made at the school level. It could be made obligatory for every school to have a library and a compulsory library period. When children, who learn to read for pleasure from childhood and perceive the library as an enjoyable place, become adults they make reading and libraries a part of their lives in normal course.

The promotion of libraries calls for a lot of social commitment. Surprising though it may seem, the fact is that this barren sector has produced some stalwarts who have championed the cause of libraries. But to strengthen their hands there is need to underpin their efforts with a library law as all educated countries in the world have.

Sherry Rehman, the PPP MNA, has worked on a draft law which is lying before the Sindh Assembly. If adopted it would provide for the constitution of an infrastructure in the form of a directorate of public libraries, a provincial library council and local library authorities.

It would set up a provincial central library and local central libraries. Above all, it would make it obligatory for every local authority to allocate two per cent of its budget for providing a free library service to its citizens. All this it is hoped will give rise to the badly needed library movement that this country sadly lacks.

In aid of traffic police

By Hafizur Rahman


WHATEVER urban road-users in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad may say, I am going to set up the SPCTP, and whoever agrees with me and wants to become a member of this public-spirited organization set up for the aid of a much-maligned force, is welcome to join it.

SPCTP stands for Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Traffic Police. At the moment there is no membership fee, nor any other apparent benefit. However it is hoped that after some time members may become entitled to getting a certain number of traffic violations waived every month.

Before I tell you more about this, let me first apologise to the traffic police (TP) for ignoring their problems for so long. A much-maligned body (as I said earlier), the TP too are at fault in a way for they have never done anything to let their grievances be known to the compassionate public of this country which is ever ready to help the suffering humanity.

It is so compassionate that it is always prepared to forgive its national leaders for bringing the country to this pass, be he General Yahya Khan or General “Tiger” Niazi. It is even prepared to forgive Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif who continue to play on its heartstrings in a devious political manner and for their takings from he national wealth.

The word “takings” brings me back to the topic of the day. The credit for breaking the inside story of the TP goes to an Urdu newspaper of Lahore which conducted a survey some time ago to find out facts. The survey tells us that the TP are more sinned against than sinning and sadly misunderstood. Actually they are more of a social welfare body than a punitive branch of the police, and that is why all policemen, who are greatly imbued with the spirit of public service, want to go into this branch.

The survey said that members of the TP had a special grouse against women car-drivers who break traffic rules. No, they don’t throw their weight about for they never come out of their cars. The grouse is that they try to intimidate the poor TP men by speaking (wrong) English and threatening them with dire consequences. This won’t do. It is highly unfair. If we want the traffic men to improve their manners we shall have to ask our ladies to improve their English.

According to the survey, the TP are strongly in favour of booking pedestrians and cyclists for traffic offences. They don’t understand why the government should be lenient with these two types. Those who walk save valuable money on transport, while cyclists spend hardly anything on maintenance except for the cost of an occasional puncture. It is a fact that if these two groups were allowed to be prosecuted for breaking traffic rules, the TP men would be able to make up for the loss in personal income occasioned by motorists and motor-cyclists who are mean enough not to stop and thus escape the TP net.

The traffic police also want the government to reduce the number of VIPs. They say that every other law-breaker hauled up on the road turns out to be a close relation of one VIP or the other and manages to wriggle out of their grip. The TP are thus obliged to concentrate on that small section of the road-using public which is not connected with persons of influence. How can this small section meet the financial needs of such a large force whose domestic expenses are going up by the day?

The newspaper survey made out that the TP are overly exploited. It is the unwritten law that they have to share their takings with the higher-ups in the service. If they cannot please their officers they are posted at points where they can’t take French leave or where the income is a pittance. Who suffers because of this meanness? Only the small children of the TP men who have to go without Swiss chocolates and electronic toys. Imagine the psychological effect of this unjust deprivation on the sensitive minds of growing children.

The way out of this is to convert the unwritten law into a code in black and white so that every TP man, from the highest officer to the humblest foot constable, knows exactly what he is going to take home in the evening and plans life accordingly. In fact the whole system of takings should be computerised so that human level and greed at the higher level do not result in heart- burning.

There is another sad aspect to the TP men’s problems. Those interviewed in the survey came out bitterly against students who call them names that are insulting and derogatory to their self- esteem. What can one do about that? You can’t go and change the attitude of thousands of irresponsible boys. They don’t listen to anyone nowadays. Not even to their parents.

On the other hand the students told the survey that bribery had gone into the very blood of the traffic police, and unless their blood was replaced en masse (this suggestion was actually made) a transformation for the better was not possible. The TP men will of course refuse to have their blood touched. Probably they are ready (like all our political leaders) to shed the last drop of their blood for their country but are not likely to yield to a whim of youthful law-breakers who themselves want to join the TP.

After reading that newspaper story on the woes of the traffic police I was anxious to interview one or two TP men myself.I had only one question to ask: why are policemen chary of law and order duty and want always to remain in the traffic department? The reply was very interesting. “Sir jee,” a member of the force said, “there is too much contact there with politics and politicians and that goes against our conscience. In traffic there is no such dirt.” So for the first time I found out that they too have a conscience.

This was part of the case of the traffic police that has never before been presented to the public in its correct perspective. Now you should understand why I want to start the SPCTP, though I don’t know whether I am going to end up by becoming their patron saint or they’ll issue me a ticket to spend a few days in the lock-up if they don’t like this piece. I think I should keep my car off the road for some time.

New face, old evasion

AT the Senate intelligence committee hearing on Thursday on Gen. Michael V. Hayden’s nomination to head the CIA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked the nominee a simple question: Is “waterboarding” an acceptable interrogation technique?

Gen. Hayden responded: “Let me defer that to closed session, and I would be happy to discuss it in some detail.” That was the wrong answer. The right one would have been simple: No.

Last year Congress banned cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment of detainees; one of its explicit aims was to stop the CIA’s use of waterboarding, which induces an excruciating sensation of drowning and is considered by most human rights organizations to constitute torture. So why couldn’t Gen. Hayden say clearly that the technique is now off-limits?

Few issues facing the next CIA director are more important than what to do about the agency’s network of secret prisons, in which it is holding — and has been abusively interrogating — high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives. Gen. Hayden acknowledged in open session that the new law binds the CIA and made clear as well that it requires all federal agencies, including the one he is slated to lead, “to handle detainees wherever they may be located in a way that is not cruel, inhumane or degrading.”

Yet in signing the law, President Bush made clear he reserved the right to override it as part of his inherent powers as commander in chief. What’s more, his administration has quietly taken the view that waterboarding could actually be consistent with a ban on cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment.

Now Gen. Hayden refuses in public to forswear the use of such barbaric treatment.

The damage done by such silence to America’s global standing and long-term interests is incalculable.

—The Washington Post