Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, on the Afghanistan troop surge:
The complex challenge America faces in Afghanistan has no solution that can satisfy a divided public, and the plan President Barack Obama presented on national television ... reflects the dilemma and the division.
Despite the fervent wishes of many Americans who want to see the troops brought home immediately, Obama has little choice but to respect the advice of his top military leaders and add more manpower to the unfinished fight. As the president pointed out, an unstable Afghanistan is the central breeding ground for anti-Western terrorists and, as such, cannot be ignored. And the danger is multiplied by Afghanistan's effect on next-door Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons. ...
American forces can't go home safely until Afghanistan is under the control of a competent government. Leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq alike have demonstrated amply their willingness to rely on the U.S. military to keep order, neglecting their responsibility to develop honest, capable police and military forces. Announcing a date when the American presence will begin to shrink could be the only incentive for those leaders to develop the capacity to run their own countries.
Most Americans share a view of the ultimate goal in Afghanistan: get out. Obama's strategy, unsatisfactory as it is, could be the best approach available for reaching that goal without exposing the United States and Afghanistan to greater danger.
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Detroit Free Press, on ending standoff on insurance reform:
Partisan politics in the Michigan Legislature _ and resulting gridlock _ have hurt the entire state. And no issue has felt a heavier dose of it than sorely needed insurance reform.
Democrats and industry-allied Republicans have repeatedly proposed remedies that neither side will accept _ and then drawn a line in the gravel. The result: Insurance rates have become so unaffordable in Michigan that 17 percent of motorists drive uninsured, up from 11 percent in 1989. In many urban areas, paying $4,000 a year for auto insurance isn't unusual, and more than half of the motorists drive uninsured, putting everyone at risk.
It's time _ no, way past time _ to compromise and move forward with solutions that, while imperfect, will make insurance more affordable, especially in Michigan's cities.
In October, the Republican-controlled Senate soundly rejected legislation barring insurers from using territorial ratings to help set rates.
Democrats recently introduced a package of bills to control rates, including a ban on credit scoring and giving insurance commissioners authority to deny excessive rate increases and order refunds. The bills cleared a House committee on Thursday. The insurance industry immediately called the measures a step backward toward greater regulation and litigation, and said they ignored the real problem: high insurance costs brought on by Michigan's unique unlimited no-fault system.
Legislators must work though legitimate policy differences, understanding that remedies will take compromise. The insurance industry, for example, should be willing to give up credit scoring as a risk-indicating tool. It's a political lightning rod and opens the industry to charges of racial discrimination.
On the other hand, Democrats must examine ways to control costs, even if it means bucking the medical lobby. That means rethinking Michigan's unlimited medical coverage, and considering a fee schedule for medical treatments. No other state has such a comprehensive, and costly, system.
Other no-brainers should find universal support, such as reducing fraud and arson and encouraging drivers to shop for the best rates. Peter Kuhnmuench of the Insurance Institute of Michigan says he's interested in regional pilot programs that would provide low-cost insurance to low-income drivers. Legislators ought to work with the industry to make that happen.
Government requires people to buy insurance. It should also help control the costs. To do that, legislators will have to make compromises that ease Michigan's insurance crisis.
On the Net:
Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, on unemployment costs:
On top of already gloomy budget projections, the state could owe $2 billion to Uncle Sam by year's end and a like amount in 2010 to cover the record amount it's been shelling out in unemployment benefits.
A workable solution on how to pay it back isn't on the horizon, other than to ask Congress for a break. A second, less-viable option, raising the tax employers pay, isn't likely to gain traction.
Doing so could have a chilling effect on businesses at a time when they can least afford additional costs. With recession-related losses offsetting job growth, the tax base may continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.
While the General Assembly could raise business payroll taxes, pressure from employer organizations (will) make the odds of that happening slim to none.
Nor is raiding the state's general fund in the cards. Doing so would divert money from vital programs like education and health care.
Under normal circumstances, the nearly $1 billion in payroll tax collected this year for unemployment costs would cover benefits paid by the Employment Security Commission. However, the deep, persistent recession has taken a fearsome toll, with more people signing up for longer stays - many having no luck finding a new, decent-paying job.
The saving grace may be that North Carolina isn't alone; 24 states have borrowed large amounts of money from the federal government to help distribute jobless benefits. Even so, only five have borrowed more.
The states are legally obligated to pay unemployment benefits, but Washington sets most ground rules. Congress routinely approves extensions of state-administered benefits; however, those additional weeks are federally funded.
In line with its expanded role of trying to stimulate a lagging economy, the federal government also should help states defray persistent unemployment expenses. One way would be to free more money collected through the Federal Unemployment Tax Act.
At the state level, it would be wise in better economic times to build a reserve. Having more money on hand makes sense, should the need arise later.
Gov. Bev Perdue has said, "We'll play the hand we're dealt." In all probability, that means North Carolina and other hard-hit states will just patiently await a congressional bailout. Yet in the end, someone always has to pay the freight.
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New York Daily News, on health care costs:
A bipartisan duo in the U.S. Senate _ independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Susan Collins _ is pushing an amendment aimed solely at tightening cost control in the Senate's massive health care overhaul.
May it succeed, and may a half-dozen yet-to-be-written bills designed to contain expenses be incorporated into the legislation.
At their current inflationary rate, health care costs will bankrupt America. This is not hysterics or conjecture; it is simple math.
Health care spending now stands at 18 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Unchecked, it will rise to 33 percent in 25 years.
The Senate bill takes a few steps to confront this unsustainable trend _ chief among them, ending the tax break on high-priced insurance plans.
But even Princeton University health care economist Uwe Reinhardt, who supports the legislation, is unimpressed by what's being done to bend the cost curve:
"They are a bunch of gutless wonders," he said of Congress. "They can't cut any spending."
The Lieberman-Collins approach would give health care consumers better tools to become informed, price-conscious shoppers _ by creating a database where they could comparison-shop for doctors and research which insurance companies most frequently reject claims.
The amendment would speed a program to shift patients from paying fees for individual services to purchasing full courses of care for particular conditions, such as diabetes. And it would accelerate the timetable for creating a system of penalties for hospitals with high infection rates.
Lieberman and Collins _ Lieberman especially _ are getting savaged by some Democratic Party stalwarts for pledging to sink any bill that includes a public health insurance option. In the wake of that threat, Democrats may be tempted to tune him out entirely. That would be a terrible mistake. He and Collins have their eyes on a critical target: cost.
On the Web: http://www.nydailynews.com
The Boston Globe, on Iranian student protests:
Student protests Monday against the Iranian regime, and against the vicious representation captured in cell phone videos, bear one message for Iran's leaders and another for President Obama. The regime _ which has come to resemble a military junta more than a clerical theocracy _ continues to deny the import of the protesters' resistance. President Obama need not do the same.
Despite beatings and arrests, students in Tehran and many other Iranian cities showed that they will not be intimidated. They no longer define their movement simply as a rejection of the fraudulent re-election over the summer of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They are also repudiating Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the entire system of the Islamic Republic.
The protesters have transformed the official commemoration of Students' Day on Dec. 7. Originally, the day was used to remind people of a date in 1953 when three students were killed protesting against a visit by then-Vice President Richard Nixon, shortly after a CIA-backed coup had installed Shah Reza Pahlavi in place of the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.
The slogans that students shouted Monday deliberately evoked what their forebears shouted against the shah's regime: "God is great!" and "Death to the dictator!" In other words, they are as determined to shake off the current dictatorship as their parents and grandparents were to rid Iran of the shah.
The regime can use all the levers of coercion at its disposal, but nobody should be fooled when its leaders pretend to be assured of their legitimacy _ or their permanence. There are 3.5 million university students out of a population of 70 million in Iran, and they have always been the nation's conscience, the source for revolution. So the Islamic Republic has a debilitating weakness: It has lost the allegiance of the vanguard of the Iranian people.
Even while continuing to pursue a negotiated resolution of the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, Obama ought to express Americans' solidarity with the democratic movement in Iran. The students there, playing on the meaning of Obama's name in Persian ("he's with us"), have been chanting to him: Either you are with us or you are with them. The right choice could not be more obvious.
On the Net:
The Star Tribune, Minneapolis, on war deadline flap obscuring real goal:
Regardless of which strategic option President Obama chose to win the war in Afghanistan, it was bound to be controversial. But even among some who agreed with the president's decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops, his plan for a drawdown beginning in July 2011 has sparked more debate.
Although we disagree with Obama's decision to launch the surge, critics of the timeline are wrong. Obama is stating the obvious: America will not be in Afghanistan forever, which both our allies and adversaries already know. A timeline not only diffuses the notion that the United States will be a permanent occupying force, but it also gives the clearest indication yet to Afghans _ from President Hamid Karzai to remote villagers _ that they have to fight for their own country.
Obama's critics, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., believe that having a timetable sends the wrong signal to our NATO, Afghan and Pakistani allies and may embolden our adversaries _ Al-Qaida, the Taliban and the other insurgent groups that have seized the offensive in the region. Providing deadlines simply lets insurgents know how long they'll need to wait out NATO forces, say the critics.
"Dates for withdrawal are dictated by conditions," McCain argues. "The way you win wars is to break the enemy's will, not to announce dates that you are leaving."
But in Afghanistan, ultimately Afghan forces will need to break the will of the enemy in what still is essentially a civil war with the Afghan government getting protection and support from NATO troops. Indeed, it will take a surge by the Afghans _ through the national army or local militias _ to defeat the Taliban.
The timeline should focus and accelerate the efforts of both the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments to take charge of their own futures. In Senate testimony this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said deadlines can help "build a fire" to force the Afghans to make the war their own.
On the Net:
The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, on Tiger's fall:
"I have let my family down." With that statement this week, Tiger Woods obliquely admitted there is truth to the emerging stories of his chronic philandering. But his family isn't alone.
Mr. Woods let down an adoring public, one that might have understood a stray marital transgression. But who with a functioning moral compass can rationalize what now appears to be a pattern of calculated betrayals?
People can argue all day about whether this is a private matter, whether it's been overplayed in the media, whether his sponsorship riches should dwindle.
In the end, though, we'll never again see, the way we once did, the iconic golfer behind that monstrous drive, that exquisite chip shot, that impossible putt. Yes, Tiger Woods is human. But also, pathetic.
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The Denver Post, on the need to review child porn laws:
It's startling to think there's a movement among some federal judges to reduce punishment for those who possess child pornography.
Sexually victimizing defenseless children is one of the worst crimes a person could commit.
But as our criminal justice system has cracked down on the crime, sentencing laws have been revised nine times, and always with the result of adding more prison time.
And counseling for the offenders is spotty or nonexistent.
In the last 30 years, Congress has continuously ratcheted up the severity of punishments for the production, distribution and possession of child porn. With the advent of the Internet which has made trafficking child porn vastly more lucrative and destructive penalties have soared.
But we're not prepared to say that current penalties, even for just possessing photos or movies, are unfair. The laws, however, could use a thoughtful review.
The question for several federal judges now is whether mandatory prison time for those who are charged solely with possession of child porn is far too high and ineffective in preventing repeat abuse.
The judges are concerned about those owners of child porn who haven't been charged with actually molesting children and who experts say aren't likely to become child molesters. Current federal sentencing guidelines could easily send that class of first-time offender to prison for at least five years, and as long as 10.
This is a class of offenders who aren't using the pornography to condition potential molestation victims. Some are advocating that maybe such offenders receive probation and intensive counseling in the place of prison time.
In national hearings, including one held recently in Denver, federal judges are appealing to members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission about these so-called "lower-level" offenders. The commission is considering new sentencing guidelines, and is to complete its work in May.
Some judges aren't waiting.
On the Net:
Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo, on Iran's nuclear program:
Iran, which is suspected of developing nuclear weapons, announced plans to build 10 additional uranium enrichment facilities. Construction will start at five of the facilities within the next two months. Such behavior only amplifies the distrust of international society. ...
Iran's moves are inconsistent to say the least. In early October, it took part in negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. At the meeting, Tehran basically agreed to plans to transfer low-enrichment uranium in its possession to other countries and have it returned after it is processed into nuclear fuel. However, Iran later took a tougher line. ...
At one point, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed a willingness to compromise, apparently because of the change in attitude of Russia, which had been pro-Iran.
But when the construction of the second facility came to light, even Moscow changed its stance and leaned toward not opposing additional sanctions against Iran. ...
Iranian companies have been hard hit by the U.N. sanctions, which are also weighing down on the everyday lives of Iranian people. Iran must change its hostile attitude, which only isolates the country, and return to the path of diplomatic settlement. ...
As far as diplomacy with Iran is concerned, Japan has accumulated more experience than the United States. Japan is also a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Since Dec. 1, Yukiya Amano has served as director-general of the IAEA.
Japan must take the lead in persuading Iran to understand that the only way for Tehran to advance the use of atomic energy is to respect the Security Council resolution and thoroughly accept IAEA inspections.
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Khaleej Times, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on the United State's problem finding the elusive Osama bin Laden:
At last, a clear admission of ignorance on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden has come through from Washington: that, too, from U.S. Secretary Defense Robert Gates.
He brings vital experience to the U.S. administration from the time, post 9/11, when bin Laden became the chief target of U.S. war on terrorism. Secretary Gates has said that failure to ascertain the location of the value target has been the reason no action has been taken so far. It is both ironic and contradictory. It is ironic because to date key U.S. officials and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have been claiming Osama's presence in Pakistan's restive border with Afghanistan. At least, such claims will now be set aside till telling intelligence points otherwise.
The contradiction arises from the fact that the recent U.S. troop surge for Afghanistan is primarily to hunt down Al Qaeda. If Secretary Gates has finally decided to come clean _ to a degree _ on the actual facts, it runs counter to President Obama's war mandate. Even if Osama bin Laden is not the only target, his capture or killing remains the top goal of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. ...
This admission could actually serve U.S. interest if used to probe a larger dilemma that Washington refuses to acknowledge. What does Al Qaeda claim to stand against? The continuing injustices against Muslims and morally and politically inept policies pursued by the U.S. and its allies for decades. It is time to realize that even the elimination of Osama or Ayman al Zawahiri is not going to make Al Qaeda and dozens other such organizations go away.
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London Evening Standard, on the Copenhagen climate summit:
The Copenhagen summit on climate change is only just under way but already it is threatened by a damaging rift between the developed and developing nations.
A leaked document, drawn up by the Danish hosts together with the Americans and others, appears to sideline the role of the UN in future negotiations.
It would, moreover, make any payments to poorer nations for adapting to climate change contingent on them moving to low-carbon technologies.
Although the Danish text is only a draft, it would be depressing if this were the outcome for which richer nations are aiming.
The UN is a body where all member states feel represented; shifting the focus for negotiations elsewhere would marginalize poor countries.
Moreover, the draft suggests that rich countries would be free to produce twice as many carbon emissions as poor ones - giving the impression we wish to carry on as usual, while poorer countries suffer the brunt of climate change. As a basis for negotiation, this really will not do.
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The Globe and Mail, Toronto, on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's declaration that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases are a health risk, which will allow the EPA to restrict emissions of those gases, will probably serve as a good tactic to advance the important goal of limiting climate change, but it is a bad precedent. It diverts a regulatory power designed for a different purpose _ under the Clean Air Act _ in order to bypass the legislative process.
Too much accumulation of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere may well have disastrous results, but CO(2) is not unclean. It is not a toxin in the concentrations in which human beings encounter it; indeed, humans and other living things constantly generate it.
In an extended sense, global warming will endanger health; as the EPA says, longer heat waves, rising sea levels and droughts will cause deaths. By similar reasoning, however, environmental authorities could take over automobile safety or gun control, turning their power to make subordinate rules into a way of trumping legislation _ or the lack of it. That would no longer be government with the consent of the governed.
The Obama administration's resort to a sweeping regulatory power is understandable. Though the U.S. Congress succeeds in vividly articulating many more interests than a parliament such as Canada's, which is subject to strong party discipline, getting a bill through Congress, let alone one that makes sense, is far more difficult than in a Westminster-style legislature.
The House of Representatives has passed one unwieldy, exemption-laden cap-and-trade bill; a better bill has been launched in the Senate, but may not be voted on for many months.
It is to be hoped that the blunt instrument of the EPA's ruling, apparently timed for the Copenhagen climate-change conference, will induce Congress to act more quickly and effectively. Barack Obama and Lisa Jackson, the Administrator of the EPA, both say they would prefer legislation; they are right.
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