President Obama visited Canada on Thursday in his first trip abroad since taking office. Obama spent seven hours in the Canadian capital of Ottawa meeting Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Obama called for a new round of talks on adding labor and environmental provisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
President Obama: "With a NAFTA agreement that has labor provisions and environmental provisions as side agreements, it strikes me, if those side agreements mean anything, then they might as well be incorporated into the main body of the agreements so that they can be effectively enforced. And I think it is important, whether we’re talking about our relationships with Canada or our relationships with Mexico, that all countries concerned are thinking about how workers are being treated."
Obama and Harper announced one initiative: a dialogue on developing clean energy. On the issue of Canada’s environmentally destructive extraction of oil from the Alberta tar sands, Obama was ambiguous. The President stressed the need to curb global warming but also noted Canada’s status as the top energy provider to the United States. On Afghanistan, Obama said he did not press Harper to reconsider Canada’s plan to withdraw its troops by 2011.
Meanwhile, the top US commander in Afghanistan says at least 60,000 American troops will remain there for at least three to four years. General David McKiernan also says at least 10,000 additional US troops will be needed on top of the 17,000 ordered by President Obama this week.
In Poland, hundreds of people demonstrated outside a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Krakow Thursday. The US has used the meeting to call for greater involvement of other NATO forces in Afghanistan. The protesters denounced the US-led occupation.
Protester: "NATO really could have stopped its existence after the Cold War. It should not exist at all. Now it’s looking for new enemies, looking for expansion, and that leads to a rise in arms deals in the world. It’s a huge waste of human resources, and it kills people in Afghanistan."
The president of Kyrgyzstan has signed into law a measure closing a US military air base. The move came hours after the Kyrgyz Parliament overwhelmingly approved the closure and ordered US forces out within six months. Despite the call, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the US is finalizing a new offer to ensure continued use. The Manas Air Base has played a central role in the US occupation of Afghanistan.
The British resident Binyam Mohamed will reportedly soon be freed from Guantanamo Bay. The Washington Post reports Mohamed will be flown to Britain next week. Mohamed’s case has drawn international controversy amidst torture allegations and a US-British row over the release of documents. Mohamed has claimed his confession to terrorism charges was given only after he had his penis sliced by a blade. The Bush administration refused to release key documents to Mohamed’s lawyers and warned British officials that trying to obtain them would jeopardize British “national security.”
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have locked up the Prime Minister’s office after winning support from another right-wing politician. On Thursday, Avigdor Lieberman said he would join a Netanyahu coalition government, giving Netanyahu a large advantage over Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima Party narrowly edged Likud in elections earlier this month. Meanwhile, Livini has ruled out joining Netanyahu’s coalition over his opposition to peace talks with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: "Sixty-five members of parliament decided to say to the Israeli president that they prefer Bibi Netanyahu as their prime minister. So this is a coalition that I cannot be part of, since I know that I believe in a peace process. I believe that any peace process should be based on two states for two peoples.”
Although Livni disagrees with Netanyahu on holding peace talks, she’s promised to seek “maximum” Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank under any peace deal.
Meanwhile, three US lawmakers have visited the Gaza Strip in the most high-level American contact with the coastal strip in over eight years. On Thursday, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, as well Congress members Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Brian Baird of Washington, toured Gaza on separate trips. The lawmakers refused to meet Hamas leaders but were shown some of the destruction from the three-week Israeli assault that ended last month. Kerry said US policy won’t change from insisting Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and respect previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority.
Sen. John Kerry: "None of us have any illusions that there is a place for terrorists at the table. People need to change their attitude. People need to change their approach. And we’re hopeful that this new opportunity will provide us with a chance to explore the possibilities of real peace."
The US position has been criticized because it refuses to demand the same conditions on Israel. The Israeli government has refused to renounce violence, recognize previous agreements, and recognize a Palestinian state, which it continues to prevent through settlement construction in the West Bank and the ongoing siege of Gaza. After their tour, Congress members Ellison and Baird expressed sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza. In a statement, Baird called the human suffering in Gaza “shocking and troubling beyond words.” Ellison said, “People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in."
A 100-vehicle, mile-long aid convoy is making its way through Europe with a stated final destination of the Gaza Strip. The group "Viva Palestina" set off from London on Saturday. Organizers plan to gather more participants as the convoy passes through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, where they hope to cross the Rafah border into Gaza. The vehicles include a fire engine and ambulances. They’re carrying goods including clothes, blankets and children’s toys.
The Telegraph of London has revealed new details on covert Israeli operations inside Iran. Intelligence sources say Israel has established a "decapitation" program to assassinate Iranian officials involved in nuclear activities. Israel has been linked to the deaths of several figures in Iran’s nuclear program, including a scientist who died under mysterious circumstances in 2007.
Here in the United States, federal agents have served civil papers to the Texas billionaire Robert Allen Stanford in the case accusing him of an $8 billion fraud. The Securities and Exchange Commission says Robert Allen Stanford used his Antigua-based bank to defraud investors by selling them phony certificates of deposit. Stanford wasn’t taken into custody, because he hasn’t been charged criminally. Like the Bernie Madoff fraud scandal, Stanford’s case has again raised questions about the SEC’s ability to regulate the securities industry. Critics say the SEC missed a series of warnings about Stanford, as they did with Madoff.
In California, the state Senate has approved a contentious $42 billion budget bill. The measure cuts $15 billion in education spending and imposes a $12 billion tax hike.
Here in New York, a group of several dozen students continue to occupy a school cafeteria at New York University. The group Take Back NYU has submitted demands including the establishment of a socially responsible investment committee, a union for graduate student teachers, a tuition freeze, a full disclosure of the school’s annual budget, and support for Palestinian students in the Gaza Strip. The students say they’ll continue their occupation despite threats of expulsion. Overnight, hundreds of supporters gathered in the streets outside the cafeteria to cheer the protest. A group of new protesters reportedly joined the sit-in after breaking through a police barricade.
Meanwhile, protests are continuing today outside the offices of the New York Post following the publication of a cartoon that critics say depicts President Obama as a chimpanzee. Amidst boycott calls from a number of civil rights activists and organizations, the Post issued an apology of sorts last night. It said in part, "To those who were offended by the image, we apologize. However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past — and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due."
And the longtime peace activist Peter DeMott has died at the age of sixty-two. Shortly before the US invasion of Iraq, DeMott and three other peace activists poured their own blood on the posters, flags and walls of a military recruiting station outside of Ithaca, New York. The activists became known as the St. Patrick’s Day Four. Demott served four months in federal prison for the action. He became a peace activist after fighting with the Marines in Vietnam.
Peter DeMott: "I arrived in Vietnam on 8th of December of 1968 and was there, for about two more weeks — I left on the 30th of November of '69, so there for about one week shy of a year. And so, I participated in that war, and I know firsthand that war only begets more war, that war is organized mass murder and that it doesn't really solve anything. It just makes the likelihood of enduring peace coming about all the more difficult. And then, so I — in the buildup to the war in Iraq, you know, my personal experience of having been in the Vietnam was very motivational for me in that it inspired me and kind of morally compelled me to speak out in a nonviolent way to say, 'No, this war must not happen, and I'm willing to put my body in the way of the war and its actualization in any nonviolent way that I can."