President Obama has arrived in Portugal for a two-day NATO summit focused on the Afghanistan war. The Obama administration hopes to drum up support for its military strategy in Afghanistan and its new plan to delay a non-binding withdrawal deadline to at least 2014. The summit comes as the United States is escalating military operations to the highest level of the nine-year war. The Washington Post reports the U.S. military is deploying battle tanks in Afghanistan for the first time. U.S. military commanders had long resisted introducing tanks in part due to fears they’d remind Afghans of the tank-heavy Soviet occupation. But top U.S. commander General David Petraeus ordered at least 16 M1 Abrams tanks into Helmand province last month, with more likely to follow. The deployments follow the most intense month of NATO bombardments so far, with more than 1,000 bombs and missiles fired in October. A senior U.S. military official told the Washington Post, “We’ve taken the gloves off, and it has had a huge impact.” Another official said he thinks the increased damage to Afghan property from the bombings has had a beneficial effect: by forcing Afghans to travel to their local governors’ offices to submit damage claims, the official said, “in effect, you’re connecting the [Afghan] government to the people.”
Thousands of protesters meanwhile have converged in Lisbon to protest the NATO summit. Several rallies are being held culminating in an antiwar march on Saturday. A British activist said that she traveled to Portugal to support calls for NATO to disband.
Protester: '’I feel that NATO is a threat, because I don't like at all what they’re doing. I don’t know how they still exist. The Cold War is over. NATO should have disbanded. And I’m here to tell them that it’s time, I think, that they did. They won’t listen to me, but never mind.’’
Protests against a cholera outbreak in Haiti have spread to the capital Port-au-Prince. On Thursday, demonstrators clashed with U.N. troops amidst rising public anger over the deaths of more than 1,100 people and the infection of some 17,000. Outside Haiti’s Ministry of Health, protesters called on the U.N. force to leave Haiti.
Henry Louis: “Today is an important day for us: it’s our liberation day. The United Nations is a foreign force, and we want them to leave Haiti.”
A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meanwhile warns the course of the cholera outbreak in Haiti is difficult to predict. Haitians have no preexisting immunity to cholera, and conditions are ripe for its continued spread. The U.S. Special Coordinator for Haiti, Thomas Adams, said health officials are seeking to increase public awareness in Haiti that treatment is available.
Thomas Adams: “Cholera is not very hard to prevent or treat if you get it early. But we’ve got to provide the tools to treat it and make sure the people know how to use those tools and take better care of themselves. If we’re successful, the number of severe cases will decline, we won’t — they won’t overtax the government’s treatment facilities, and the death rate will drop.”
The Obama administration is ramping up calls for Senate ratification of an arms reduction treaty with Russia amidst growing Republican opposition. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, calls for the United States and Russia to cut their deployed arsenals to 1,550 nuclear warheads and 700 missile silos and bombers each. Republicans want a ratification vote delayed until next year, when Democrats will have a harder time obtaining enough votes with a reduced Senate majority. Shortly before departing for the NATO summit in Portugal, President Obama launched a new push for Senate approval by hosting a meeting with top Republican figures including former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker.
President Obama: “This is not a matter that can be delayed. Every month that goes by without a treaty means that we are not able to verify what’s going on on the ground in Russia. And if we delay indefinitely, America’s leadership on nonproliferation and America’s national security will be weakened.”
The federal government has begun unloading its stake in the bailed-out auto giant General Motors. On Thursday, GM raised more than $20 billion on the first day of a public offering. The U.S. government rescued GM from bankruptcy with a $50 billion government bailout last year. At the White House, President Obama said the government could even turn a profit once its entire stake in GM is sold off.
President Obama: “Today, one of the toughest tales of the recession took another big step towards becoming a success story. General Motors relaunched itself as a public company, cutting the government’s stake in the company by nearly half. What’s more, American taxpayers are now positioned to recover more than my administration invested in GM.”
Despite Obama’s claims, there are doubts about how much taxpayers will be able to reclaim. The government still owns half its initial 60 percent stake in GM and must now wait six months before shedding more company stock. While shares closed at $34, the government will have to sell the remainder at $53 a share to break even.
The House Ethics Committee has voted in favor of censuring Democratic Congressmember Charles Rangel of New York for 11 counts of ethics violations related to his personal finances. A congressional panel convicted Rangel this week for acts including failing to report rental income, improperly leasing a rent-stabilized apartment, and receiving donations from people with business before Congress. The entire House membership will now take up the committee’s decision. Rangel is the first House member in nearly three decades to be recommended for censure. Appearing before the committee, Rangel admitted to “mistakes” but maintained he had not engaged in corruption.
Rep. Charles Rangel: “Charles Rangel never sought any personal gain. I’ve been overpaid in terms of the satisfaction I’ve gotten for everything that I’ve ever done. Please make certain that my name—notwithstanding the imagination that some people may have—that there’s no way to stretch this that I was a corrupted individual, that I would bring shame to my family, to my community, to this Congress, and certainly to the country.”
In other news from Washington, the Senate has advanced a long-delayed effort to overhaul the nation’s food safety system. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 74 to 25 to begin debate on a measure that would expand the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration and impose new restrictions on farmers and food companies. The bill would allow the FDA to order recalls, instead of leaving it up to corporations to voluntarily do so. The bill would also require mandatory safety plans, increase FDA oversight, and make it easier to determine the source of contamination. The House approved its version of the measure more than a year ago. More than a dozen people have died and thousands have been sickened in national outbreaks of food-borne illness due to contamination over the past several years.
New concerns are being raised over the Food and Drug Administration’s expected move to approve the sale of genetically modified salmon in the United States. The salmon, from the company Aqua Bounty Technologies, would be the first genetically modified animal on the U.S. market. A new study published in the journal Science argues that not enough testing has been done to ensure the salmon is safe.
The group Food & Water Watch meanwhile has released new figures showing top biotechnology companies have spent more than half-a-billion dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying over the last decade.
The University of California’s Board of Regents has approved a new tuition increase for the second consecutive year. On Thursday, the UC Regents voted in favor of an eight percent tuition hike following a 32 percent increase in 2009. The tuition increases as well as budget cuts have sparked massive protests over the past year.
And a Swedish court has issued an arrest warrant for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on charges of rape and sexual molestation. A Swedish prosecutor sought Assange’s arrest this week after initially dropping the case against Assange earlier this year. The order comes less than a month after WikiLeaks released a trove of classified U.S. military documents disclosing new evidence of torture and civilian deaths in the Iraq war. Assange has denied the allegations and said he is the target of a smear campaign.