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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trial of Former Khmer Rouge Leaders Plods Along

Covering a trial that is taking place some 8,000 miles away is not the easiest thing to do--especially when it is getting such scant coverage in the United States.

However, the trial of three former Communist Khmer Rouge leaders who helped rule Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 when an estimated 3 million Cambodians (about one-fourth of the total population) perished because of an internecine program of political and cultural "cleansing," simply cannot be ignored.

After all, had the United States not decided to widen the war in Vietnam in 1970 by invading Cambodia in an effort to interdict the safe havens Communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were retreating to, the Khmer Rouge might never have gained power.

So, it can be argued that Washington's policies during the Vietnam War were partially responsible for providing the momentum for the Khmer Rouge takeover and eventual genocide that took place in Cambodia.

I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in February-March 1975 with the Chicago Tribune when the Khmer Rouge had ringed the city and were pelting it relentlessly with Chinese-made 107mm rockets. It was a terrible experience--especially for Cambodian refugees who had flocked to the city seeking shelter.

At the time, none of us was sure just what the Khmer Rouge were planning for the people of Cambodia, but we had warning signs. The Khmer Rouge purposely targeted refugee camps with their rockets--an indication that Khmer Rouge leaders were not the benevolent liberators they claimed to be.
     Nuon Chea    Ieang Sary  Khieu Samphan

Now, with the trial underway for Nuon Chea, former Khmer Rouge chief ideologist and its No. 2 leader after Pol Pot who died in 1998; Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister; and Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state, just how brutal the regime was is about to be divulged in the testimony of some 1,000 witnesses.

As a correspondent who covered the end of the wars in both Cambodia and Vietnam, I still feel a responsibility to help set the record straight.

At a time when most Americans are concerned with the debt-ridden U.S. economy, high unemployment, the housing market collapse and myriad other fiscal concerns, it may be understandable that a trial being held some 8,000 miles away is not on the radar screen.

Nevertheless, it is the media's obligation to report it. While a handful of reporters are in Phnom Penh for the trial, their stories are getting scant play in newspapers, magazines and on television/cable news outlets.

Think about it. How many stories have you seen about the trial on CNN, FOX or MSNBC? You can forget about the networks. They have simply stopped covering anything but the most major of international stories. Newspaper coverage is almost totally absent. I have not seen one story on the tribunal in any of the three daily newspapers I read here in Southern California.

I understand that times have changed. The American public has little interest or understanding of international events--unless it directly concerns the American military. And editors and TV producers often lament the high cost of foreign news coverage. And of course, this tribunal is examining events that took place more than 30 years ago.

Yates Talking with Cambodian Refugees 1978
In the late 1970s and early 1980s I traveled often to Cambodian refugee camps and Khmer Serei (anti Khmer Rouge guerilla) outposts along the Thai-Cambodian border. I interviewed countless refugees who recounted one tale of horror after another. To its credit the Chicago Tribune gave these stories great play--even at a time when most Americans were trying to forget their nation's ill-fated involvement in Southeast Asia. 

Today, time and distance have put Cambodia far from the minds of Americans. But that still does not relieve the American media of their responsibility to cover the tribunal and thereby ignore a government that ordered hundreds of thousands of executions, instituted forced labor, authorized torture, and initiated a policy of deliberately starving the populace--all of which, it can be argued, occurred as a result of the American involvement in their country.  

The tribunal is proving to be a legal seminar in duplicity and disavowal. All three men on trial seem intent on ignoring the fact that millions of Cambodians were killed while they wielded power.

Speaking in an opening statement to the court, Khieu Samphan said he was not aware of the mass atrocities taking place throughout the country, despite being the nominal head of the movement.

His denials left some in disbelief.

Gregory Stanton, a research professor in genocide studies at George Mason University, in Virginia, called the statement “beyond belief.”

“He was the head of state,” Stanton said. “How on Earth could he not have known about it? He’s a liar. I happened to know, because we’ve looked at the documentation. He made speeches directly to people, to cadres, calling upon the cadres to exterminate all the enemies of the people. I mean, directly. He made these speeches himself in 1977 and at other times too.”

Nuon Chea, the man known as Brother No. 2 of the Khmer Rouge, is on trial for atrocity crimes, including genocide. Tuesday he addressed tribunal judges and rejected the prosecution’s charges, adding that he had only worked for the good of the nation.

“All accusations against me are wrong,” said the man who was the influential ideologue of the regime. “My position in the revolutionary resistance was for the interest of the nation and the citizens. And it was not for the killings, or the so-called genocide.”

Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, Cambodian victims and former cadre alike gathered to witness the opening salvos of the landmark trial.

Chhim Phan, a 72-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre, said he had been ordered by “top leaders” to kill a young couple who had fallen in love. The couple was beaten to death by hoes and clubs in front of others from their commune, he said.

“I’m happy to come here,” he said. “I want to show the public that we didn’t kill people by our own selves. We received orders to commit the killings.”

There is something eerily familiar about such statements, however. Didn't the world hear similar justifications at a place called Nuremberg?

(Stay Tuned....More to Come)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Khmer Rouge Trials Long Overdue

This week, after more than 30 years, a United Nations supported tribunal began the trial of the three highest ranking surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge--the Communist government responsible for Cambodia's notorious killing fields in which some 2 to 3 million Cambodian men, women and children were systematically slaughtered between 1975 and 1979.

Skulls of Cambodian Victims at Infamous S-21 Jail
  It's about time.

If there was a more internecine government in power during the past 30 years I have yet to see it.

I was in Cambodia in 1975 when Khmer Rouge guerillas were attempting to overthrow the U.S.-backed government of President Lon Nol. I watched as they indiscriminately bombarded refugee camps with 107mm Chinese rockets and attacked villages and killed anything that moved. I was evacuated from Phnom Penh in March 1975 and made my way to Vietnam to cover the end of the war there.

I made several trips to the Thai-Cambodian border between 1975 and 1979--the year the rapacious Khmer Rouge government was ousted by a Vietnamese invasion. During those trips I heard one horror story after another from Cambodians who had managed to escape the Killing Fields of their homeland. Eventually, more than a million Cambodians filled the squalid camps along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Cambodian refugees that I personally interviewed told me of rice paddies being fertilized with the bones and blood of butchered relatives and friends. They spoke of Christian churches and Buddhist temples being turned into torture chambers; of seeing children being roasted over Khmer Rouge fires; of still beating hearts being ripped from the breasts of enemies; of cities emptied of people and streets littered with bones.

As I prepared to write this blog on the trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders I went back into my files and found one woman's story that became all too familiar in the late 1970s.

Her name was Muong Sokuntherry. At the time I interviewed her in late 1979 at the Khao I-Dang refugee camp near Aranyaprathet, Thailand, she was 27. Here is what I wrote at the time:

"A few refugees are apprehensive about entering the Thai camp (Khao I-Dang): they have heard that those who enter never come out again. Trust in authority does not come easy for a people betrayed so often by governments. Indeed, Muong Sokhuntherry, a 27-year-old woman with haunting black eyes and a voice soft as velvet, is living proof of that betrayal.

"She is the last surviving member of a family of 20. In the past four years she has seen her husband, a former schoolteacher, executed; her mother, father, brothers and sisters clubbed to death in a rice paddy; and her three children--8, 7 and 2, die of starvation.

"A former typist in a small office in Phnom Penh, Muong was, like millions of other Cambodians, driven out of the capital after the Khmer Rouge takeover. Following a grueling two-week walk through the jungles to Ta Koe province west of Phnom Penh, Muong and thousands of others became slave laborers, forced to work as many as 18 hours a day constructing dikes and irrigation ditches for rice paddies.

"'They gave us food only once a day,'" she told me. "'It was a cup of very thin rice soup, mostly water. There were no vegetables, so we ate greens from the jungle and plants from the river. We boiled tree bark and ate that too. My children got weaker and weaker. And they fell to the ground one by one and died.'"

This will no doubt be an example of the kind of testimony the tribunal will hear during the next several weeks. Don't expect any redeeming statements from any of the victims who are called to testify. The Khmer Rouge government will, and should be, roundly condemned for the ugly, murderous regime that it was.

For four years a nine-member Khmer Rouge junta headed by Pol Pot and calling itself the "Organization on High" ruled Cambodia with a brutality unseen since the holocaust in Europe. Pol Pot, the nation's so called "supreme leader" and one of the architects of a policy to return Cambodia to the middle ages, died in a jungle camp in 1998 after his former comrades turned on him. 

But four others from the nine member group survived. Three of them (85-year-old Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologist and No. 2 leader; 80-year-old Khieu Samphan, an ex-head of state; and 86-year-old former foreign minister Ieng Sary, went on trial this week in Phnom Penh. 
Ieng Sary, 86, former Foreign Minister

A fourth, 79-year-old Ieng Thirith, was ruled unfit to stand trial last week because she has Alzheimer’s disease. She is Ieng Sary’s wife and was the regime’s minister for social affairs.

Some may wonder why, at this late date, the government is putting these aging Communists on trial.

A quick look at the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that claimed the lives of an estimated 2.5 million people provides an answer.

Under Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tried to take Cambodia back to a pre-industrial age, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside.  But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost, and whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.

Before Pol Pot took power in 1975 he and his Khmer Rouge henchmen lived in the country's remote north-east. There they were influenced by the surrounding hill tribes, who were self-sufficient in their communal living, had no use for money and were "untainted" by Buddhism.

When he came to power, he and his ruling clique quickly set about transforming Cambodia - now re-named Kampuchea - into what they hoped would be an agrarian utopia.

Declaring that the nation would start again at "Year Zero", Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion, and setting up rural collectives.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned to death for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language. Tens of thousands of the educated middle-classes were tortured and executed in special centers.

The most notorious of these centers was the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, where more than 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned during the regime's four years in power. 

Hundreds of thousands of others died from disease, starvation or exhaustion as members of the Khmer Rouge - often just teenagers themselves - forced people to do back-breaking work.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations. The Khmer Rouge leadership retreated to remote areas of the country, where they remained active for a while but gradually became less and less powerful.

In the years that followed, as Cambodia began the process of reopening to the international community, the full horrors of the regime became apparent. 
Survivors told their stories to shocked audiences, and in the 1980s the Hollywood movie "The Killing Fields" brought the plight of the Khmer Rouge victims to worldwide attention.

Pol Pot was denounced by his former comrades in a show trial in July 1997, and sentenced to house arrest in his jungle home. But less than a year later he was dead - denying the millions of people who were affected by this brutal regime the chance to bring him to justice.
Nuon Chea, 85, former Khmer Rouge Chief Ideologue

Now the remaining Khmer Rouge hierarchy is finally on trial and the first of the men to appear was the party's former ideologue, Nuon Chea, who opened his defense against a charge of genocide.

He said that the Khmer Rouge revolution in the 1970s was aimed at freeing Cambodia from colonialism and protecting it from invasion by Vietnam. His testimony marked the first time a leader of the Khmer Rouge has defended the motives of the ultra-communist regime.

In opening arguments Cambodian and international prosecutors said the defendants had masterminded one of the worst horrors in modern history, killing or enslaving millions of people in their creation of a "living nightmare."
International co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley told the tribunal it should not be tempted by feelings of compassion for the elderly and infirm defendants in their 80s who had "murdered, tortured and terrorized" their own people.

I can't imagine that happening--nor, I am convinced, can any of the 
Cambodian people who managed to survive the destructive rule of the Khmer Rouge.

I plan to follow this trial and will keep you posted.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

When Does a Gap Become a Canyon? (Part 2)

Accomplished wordsmith William Safire once defined a gap between the generations as "a frustrating lack of communication between young and old, or a useful stretch of time that separates cultures within a society, allowing them to develop their own character."

That's a pretty good definition. But it doesn't tell the whole story.

Generation gaps have no doubt existed on this planet since the first homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago. However, the drastic differences that the term implies were not much in evidence until the twentieth century. Before that time humans were not very mobile. Young people typically lived near their extended families, worshiped in their childhood churches and often worked on the family farm or in a family business. In the 19th Century most people lived and died without traveling more than 200 miles from where they were born.

With the advent of television and movies, adolescents were exposed to cultural influences alien to their own families and cultures. Then came the 1960s. Civil rights, women's liberation and the Vietnam War exposed a more serious chasm between young and old.

A study released recently by the Pew Research Center found younger and older Americans in 2011 see the world much differently, creating the largest generation gap since the tumultuous years of the 1960s. The study said Americans of different ages are increasingly at odds over a range of social and technological issues. That divide grew greater after the 2008 election, when 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Almost eight in 10 people believe there is a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today, according to the independent public opinion research group.

The top areas of disagreement between young and old, according to the Pew Research Study, are the use of technology and taste in music. Slightly behind these areas of difference are listed the following:

  • Work ethic
  • Moral values
  • Respect for others
  • Political views
  • Attitudes toward different races and groups
  • Religious beliefs.
    There is nothing new here. When I was a teenager Rock and Roll was considered "jungle music" and those who sang and played it were, in the minds of older Americans, little more than savages. Some radio stations wouldn't play Rock and Roll. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were considered evil influences on the youth of the day.

    The 1950s were probably the beginning of what we know today as a generation gap. Before then the closets of most teenagers resembled those of their parents. Not so in the 1950s.  That decade brought a revolution in styles that pushed the envelope and actually continue to influence fashion today.

    A lot of guys combed their hair into greasy ducktails, wore skin tight jeans and shirts with the collars turned up. It was "the look" of the day.

    Girls wore short-shorts, poodle skirts, pony tails, and, if you were lucky, did the "dirty bop" with you. (Believe me, it was tame compared what happens on the dance floor today).

    So what's the big deal about the widening generation gap of 2011 and how does it differ from the gap that existed in the 1960s?

    First, the Pew Study said, the two largest areas of difference--technology and music--are less emotionally charged than political issues. The older generation is likely to be proud of the younger generation's skill in using new technology rather than to view it as a problem. As for the musical differences, each generation wants its own style of music, and the older generation generally can relate to that desire--even if most people older than 50 probably consider rap and hip hop a form of discordant monotone chanting rather than vocal or instrumental sounds organized in some coherent sequence comprised of melody, rhythm and harmony.

    In the other areas of difference, the Pew study reported, the younger generation tends to regard the older generation as superior to their own generation--clearly a difference from the 1960s with its rallying cry of "Don't trust anyone over thirty." 

    According to the study, all generations regard older Americans as superior in moral values, work ethic and respect for others. Why are older Americans regarded as superior in moral values, work ethic and respect for others? Does it have something to do with the way many children are reared today? If parents equivocate when it comes to teaching such values to their children then it is not surprising  that a generation gap between young and old exists.

    And who is at fault for that? The younger generation? I tend to think the fault rests with parents and those charged with educating the young. By the time they are adolescents it is most likely too late to instill in them the values that are revered by older Americans.

    One common complaint I hear from older Americans about younger Americans is their reluctance to accept responsibility for their actions.

    "It's not my fault," is heard all too often from the younger generation. That, however, is a dangerous trap, said Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their 2007 book ("It's Not My Fault') because it not only keeps them from overcoming the effects of all that they can’t control—like other people, circumstances and genetics—but separates them from a solution. And when they give away the ownership of their life, they end up losing the one opportunity they have to fulfill their dreams and enjoy the best life has to offer. 

    When I was growing up my parents and grandparents simply never endorsed my attempts to use the "blame game" for my mistakes, misfortunes and misdeeds.

    "Stop making excuses," is what I heard. Eventually I did.

    I never felt there was a generation gap between my parents and me, perhaps because I respected them and they never gave me a reason not to. If there is an area that can be improved on with young people today that may be it.

    Children may be grateful in the short term when parents refuse to impose rules of behavior and inculcate discipline in them. But in the long term I believe they are thankful--even if they may never admit it.

    Learning to respect others, to honestly work for what you get in life and to live  according to some variant of the Golden Rule ("do not treat people in a way you would not wish to be treated yourself") may just be the unpretentious bridge that spans the gap between generations.

    It certainly beats plummeting into the canyon.   

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    When Does a Gap Become a Canyon? Part 1

    In the past week or so two stories caught my attention. One decried the growing wealth gap between the young and old in America. The other highlighted the growing difference between older and younger Americans on issues such as social values and morality.

    Should we be surprised by either of these stories?

    I think not.

    Let's look at the wealth gap first. I will get to the Social Values and Morality Gap in Part 2.

    A report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau said the wealth gap between younger and older Americans has increased to the widest on record, worsened by a prolonged economic downturn that has wiped out job opportunities for young adults and saddled them with housing, credit card and college debt.

    The typical U.S. household headed by a person age 65 or older has a net worth 47 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35, the report said, adding that the gap in wealth is now more than double what it was in 2005 and nearly five times the 10-to-1 disparity a quarter-century ago, after adjusting for inflation.

    Why is this?  Part of it is caused by the economic downturn, which has hit young adults particularly hard. As I saw when I was a Dean at the University of Illinois, more young people are pursuing college or advanced degrees, taking on debt as they wait for the job market to recover. Others are struggling to pay mortgage costs on homes now worth less than when they were bought in the housing boom.

    But that is not the whole story. All of us have gone through hard times at one time or another. I can recall when mortgage interest rates were 19 percent and buying a house was simply out of the question. I can recall unemployment rates running between 7 and 9 percent and double-digit inflation--none of which made life much fun.

    Perhaps it's the way many in the so-called silent and baby-boomer generations lived and spent money. Without sounding like some old geezer, I should point out that when I was in my 20s I didn't have a credit card. I did have a gasoline charge card from Standard Oil, but the thought of charging meals, groceries, vacations, car repairs, etc. on a credit card was simply not an option. Credit cards were simply not the ubiquitous snares that they are today.

    I paid cash for just about everything. I even paid back my student loan--though I was fortunate to have a large part of my college education paid for via the GI Bill.

    Today, young people are crushed under the weight of credit card debt. Why? Because for many the thought of actually saving up to buy something is simply anathema. We are in the era of instant gratification. A lot of young people want things and they want them now! So what do they do? They pull out those credit cards that aren't already maxed out and continue to accumulate more debt.

    And what about those houses that are now worth less than the mortgages? Why would a couple in their late 20s or early 30s opt to buy a $600,000 or $700,000 house with 5% down, an adjustable rate mortgage, a balloon second mortgage and monthly payments of $5,000 or $6,000?

    Why? Because they just HAD to have THAT house--even though common sense told them that home prices during the so-called "housing boom" were grossly over-inflated.

    Call me old-fashioned, but I can guarantee you that there is no way I would have done that when I was starting out. Yet that is what a lot of those Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers did. And now many are suffering because of the choices they made.

    The Census Bureau report comes just before the Nov. 23 deadline for a special congressional committee to propose $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years.

    But more importantly, it has created questions about the government safety net that has sustained older Americans on Social Security and Medicare amid cuts to education and other programs, including cash assistance for poor families.

    "It makes us wonder whether the extraordinary amount of resources we spend on retirees and their health care should be at least partially reallocated to those who are hurting worse than them," said Harry Holzer, a labor economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University who called the magnitude of the wealth gap "striking."

    Wait a minute! The money that retirees are getting from Social Security and Medicare is money that they paid into the system all their working lives. Are they supposed to feel guilty about that? Older Americans paid into a system that was set up to supplement savings and private sector retirement plans such as profit sharing, employee stock ownership plans, and savings incentive plans.

    Social Security and Medicare are NOT entitlement programs. They are NOT welfare plans for retirees. In fact, the money retirees take out of Social Security and Medicare is in essence money they have loaned the federal government. That the federal government spent that money unwisely or delved into it to fund other programs is not the fault of those who made good faith payments into the system.

    There is no doubt that the numbers contained in the Census Bureau report are striking. For example, the median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older is $170,494. That is 42 percent more than in 1984, when the Census Bureau first began measuring wealth broken down by age. 

    The median net worth for the younger-age households was $3,662, down by 68 percent from a quarter-century ago, according to the analysis by the Pew Research Center. In all, 37 percent of younger-age households have a net worth of zero or less, nearly double the share in 1984. But among households headed by a person 65 or older, the percentage in that category has been largely unchanged at 8 percent.

    Net worth includes the value of a person's home, possessions and savings accumulated over the years, including stocks, bank accounts, real estate, cars, boats or other property, minus any debt such as mortgages, college loans and credit card bills. Older Americans tend to hold more net worth because they are more likely to have paid off their mortgages and built up more savings from salary, stocks and other investments over time. The median is the midpoint, and thus refers to a typical household.

    Households headed by someone under age 35 saw their median net worth reduced by 27 percent in 2009 as a result of unsecured liabilities, mostly a combination of credit card debt, mortgages and student loans. No other age group had anywhere near that level of unsecured liability acting as a drag on net worth. The next closest was the 35-44 age group, at 10 percent.

    Among the older-age households, the share of households worth at least $250,000 rose to 20 percent from 8 percent in 1984.

    It is highly irritating and actually unfair to blame retirees for the plight of the younger generation. Unless of course, those retirees didn't do their job in rearing fiscally responsible offspring or, even worse, encouraged them to pile up credit card debt by promising them that a parental bail out was in the offing.

    Retirees worked long and hard for whatever wealth they have managed to accumulate. And, as the Census Bureau report shows, most are NOT wealthy--not when only 20 percent have a median household net worth of $250,000 or more.

    Most older Americans are working longer than their parents did. Both my parents were able to retire at 62. How many older Americans can do that today? Not many. In fact, most are working well into their late 60s and early 70s.

    Indeed, the whole concept of "retirement" has undergone a transformation today. The notion of spending the alleged "Golden Years," sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair watching squirrels and listening to birds, is simply hooey.

    So when economists lament the fact that retirees have 47-times more household net worth than Generation X-ers or Generation Y-ers, I can't help but think of that old Smith Barney TV commercial that said: "They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it."

    Amen to that.

    (NEXT:  When Does a Gap Become a Canyon? (Part 2)

    Sunday, November 6, 2011

    Is the American Empire at an End? Part III

    When President Obama scrapped the U.S. Manned Space program via Presidential fiat recently, he signaled to the world that the U.S. was ceding its leadership and expertise in space exploration to nations like China and India.

    In one of the most arrogantly oblivious declarations any president ever made he said he was ending the Constellation manned lunar landing program because "we've been there before."

    Instead of sending more Americans to the moon, he talked about possibly landing men on an asteroid in 2025 or perhaps Mars at some later date.

    Our friends the Chinese were no doubt ecstatic at this announcement.

    They have already embarked on a Lunar Exploration Program that will send both robots and men to the moon by 2025. This year, a Chinese rocket will carry a boxcar-sized module into orbit, the first building block for a Chinese space station scheduled for completion sometime in 2020--the same year that the International Space Station, which is jointly operated by the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries, is scheduled to be de-orbited.  

    In early October a Long March 3C rocket with the Chang'e-2 probe took off from Xichang launch center. The Xinhua News Agency said Chang'e-2 would circle just nine miles above the rocky terrain in order to take photographs of possible landing locations.

    It is China's second lunar probe - the first was launched in 2007. The craft stayed in space for 16 months before being intentionally crashed on to the Moon's surface. This year the Chinese began mapping the entire surface of the moon with orbiting vehicles and in 2012 it will land lunar rovers that will begin prospecting for strategic materials.

    Chinese scientists believe the moon is loaded with base metals and something called "lunar helium-3," considered a perfect fuel for nuclear fusion power plants.

    Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, the company he created over a decade ago to develop commercial space habitats using expandable (or inflatable) technology licensed from NASA, insists this is just the beginning of what he fears is an attempt by China to actually claim the moon as its own territory, locking out the United States and other nations.

    One obvious obstacle is the Outer Space Treaty, of which China is a party. That treaty prohibits nations from making territorial claims to the Moon or other celestial bodies. Bigelow suggested, though, that China could work to amend the treaty through the support of countries in Africa and Latin America where China is making major investments and who routinely vote against the United States in international bodies such as the United Nations.

    Alternatively, he said, China could simply decide to withdraw from the treaty. Public opinion, he said, won’t be factor. “There isn’t going to be World War Three over this,” he said. “There isn’t going to be a single shot fired.”

    Here is what the U.S. can expect, thanks to a myopic U.S. president: Soon, the only people walking around on the moon will be Chinese and don't expect them to share any significant base metal or lunar helium-3 finds. That is simply not the DNA of a hard-core Communist regime that controls China.

    As Bigelow said in a recent talk to the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, earlier this month: "China’s quest for prestige—to demonstrate that it is the most powerful country in the world—will inevitably drive the country to lay claim to the Moon. China already has a grand national vision. Their vision is that China wants to be indisputably number one in the world, measured any way you want to measure."

    One of the biggest advantages of the Chinese system is that they have five-year plans so they can develop well ahead, said Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane's Space Systems and Industry. 

    "They are taking a step-by-step approach, taking their time and gradually improving their capabilities," Bond said. "They are putting all the pieces together for a very capable, advanced space industry."

    Meanwhile, NASA closed out its 30-year space shuttle era in July, leaving the U.S. dependent on hitching rides to the space station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules at a cost of $56 million per passenger, rising to $63 million from 2014. The U.S. also hopes private companies will develop spacecraft to ferry cargo and crew to the space station.

    That is little solace to more than 6,000 American scientists and space experts who lost their jobs because of Obama's lack of vision.

    China is not the only country aiming high in space. Russia has talked about building a base on the moon and a possible mission to Mars but hasn't set a time frame. India, which has already achieved an unmanned orbit of the moon, is planning its first manned space flight in 2016.

    To be sure, space exploration is expensive. But to intentionally abandon leadership in an area where the U.S. has been a leader is simply misguided.

    When President Kennedy announced in 1961 that the U.S. would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade because "we choose to," it was a statement dripping with optimism that instilled pride and confidence in the American people.

    Fifty years later we have a president who chooses to eliminate manned flights to the moon and concede lunar exploration to the Chinese.

    Not a move that instills pride and confidence, let alone optimism.

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Is the American Empire at an End? (Part II)

    Most Americans, I believe, would prefer to think of China as a friendly nation with a different political and economic perspective of the world.

    While the U.S. remains committed to a free-wheeling form of capitalism and a democratic system of government where power (for the most part) is lodged with an informed (one hopes) citizenry, China remains a largely closed society with a political system ruled by an elite Communist politburo that prefers to manage the nation's economy and control access to information.

    True, both nations seem to be benefiting from two-way trade, though the Chinese are expected to have a $300 billion trade surplus with the U.S. in 2011. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers are told they are benefitting because they are buying products made in China for much less than what they would cost if made in the USA.

    The problem is, while Americans might like to think of China as a friendly nation, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so given China's recent behavior.

    I am talking about what appears to be that nation's secret cyber war against the United States. Last August, for example, the Internet security firm McAfee revealed a widespread attack against 72 organizations, including the United Nations, U.S. defense contractors and several other corporations in what a McAfee executive called "the biggest transfer of wealth in terms of intellectual property in history."

    This past week some 48 chemical and defense companies were victims of a coordinated cyber attack that has been traced to China, according to the security firm Symantec Corp.

    Computers belonging to these companies were infected with malicious software known as "Poison Ivy," which was used to steal information such as design documents, formulas and details on manufacturing processes, Symantec said this week.

    While Symantec did not identify the companies, it said they included several Fortune 100 corporations that develop compounds and advanced materials, along with businesses that help manufacture infrastructure for these industries. Most of the infected computers were located in the US and UK, and included companies that developed advanced materials used in military vehicles.

    In February, McAfee warned that hackers working in China broke into the computer systems of five multinational oil and natural gas companies to steal bidding plans and other critical proprietary information.

    Computer hackers, possibly from the Chinese military, interfered with two U.S. government satellites four times in 2007 and 2008 through a ground station in Norway, according to the Congressional Economic and Security Review Commission.

     U.S. military and intelligence agencies use satellites to communicate, collect intelligence and conduct reconnaissance. While the Commission doesn’t accuse the Chinese government of conducting or sponsoring the four attacks directly, it says the breaches are consistent with Chinese military writings that advocate disabling an enemy’s space systems, and particularly “ground-based infrastructure, such as satellite control facilities.”

    U.S. authorities for years have accused the Chinese government of orchestrating cyber attacks against adversaries and hacking into foreign computer networks to steal military and commercial secrets. Assigning definitive blame is difficult, the Commission says, because the perpetrators are adept at obscuring their involvement.

    Nevertheless, China this year “conducted and supported a range of malicious cyber activities,” the Commission's report charged. Evidence emerging this year tied the Chinese military to a cyber attack on a U.S.-based website of the Falun Gong spiritual group, among other attacks.

    Should we be surprised? Not really.

    There are tens of thousands of Chinese students at America’s best universities, doing doctorates and post-docs in computer science and information technology. When they complete their studies in the U.S. many return to China with their U.S. degrees and improved skills.

    Most of the world’s computers are made in China and it has been suggested that ‘malware’ – viruses and malicious ‘worms’ could be hardwired into the millions of computer chips being manufactured in the Far East. If so, the Chinese wouldn’t even need to use the Net to mount an attack; the enemy is sitting there already, right on your desk.

    “What’s going on is very large-scale Chinese industrial espionage,” says Richard Clarke, a former top U.S. government official who held roles in counterterrorism and cyber-security and now is chairman of Good Harbor Consulting, a security and risk-management company in Arlington, Va. "They're stealing our intellectual property. They're getting our research and development for pennies on the dollar."

    Meanwhile, American officials are reluctant to raise the subject with their counterparts in China. What message does that send to the Chinese? The answer is simple: keep stealing from us.

    Clarke and other cyber-experts say it’s time for the U.S. to start fighting back. President Obama, the urge, should “authorize action to go after the computers involved in the attack.” Clarke says the U.S. could zap malware across the Internet, “the same way the Chinese do it. You can destroy the computers involved in the attack. They can pay a price.”

    While such a move would risk escalating tension and might invite retaliation from the Chinese, Clarke says it’s better than rolling over while all your R & D and intellectual property is stolen and the U.S. does nothing about it.

    There is little doubt that the America is at risk--not from traditional armies and military machines, but from a new form of digital warfare and espionage.

    And if Americans still prefer to believe that China is nothing more than a friendly economic competitor, they had better wise up fast. We are facing a new kind of warfare and China is the primary adversary.

    It is stealing our secrets, our technology and our intellectual capital at a rate unseen in history. And if we continue to let it happen, there is little doubt that the American Empire will soon be at an end.

     (Next: Is the American Empire at an End? (Part III)

    Monday, October 31, 2011

    Is the American Empire at an End? (Part I)

    In the late 1980s most political pundits were writing off the United States as the preeminent economic power in the world.

    Japan, they insisted, had supplanted the U.S. as #1 and Americans watched as Japanese, rife with cash, bought up trophy properties from New York's Rockefeller Plaza to the fabled Pebble Beach Golf Course in Carmel, California.

    I was in the middle of his hysteria, living in Tokyo as the Chicago Tribune's Chief Asia Correspondent. I have to admit as the plethora of books and news stories about the new Japanese Super State flooded the planet, it was difficult not to buy into the credence of these arguments.

    America, the experts droned on, had lost its competitive edge. Its people were soft, lazy and inept.  The American Empire was in decline--another Great Britain, losing its status and stature around the world.

    Then along came 1990-91 and the over-inflated Japanese economic bubble, engendered by a grossly over-valued real estate market, burst. Within a few years the U.S. regained its competitive edge and its economy embarked on a decade of unprecedented growth. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy has yet to recover.

    Of course, that is not the end of the story. Today the U.S. is once again teetering at the brink of economic catastrophe and this time China is perceived as the nation poised to supplant America as the world's most powerful economy.

    Now anybody who has been to China has to be impressed with the progress that nation has made. New cities, new buildings, new roads, new industries--of these things add up to a country on the rise. No argument there.

    But travel out of the cities and you see a different China. This is a nation in which with some 150 million people are living below the United Nations poverty line of $1 (that's "one" US dollar) a day and nearly 500 million Chinese live on less than $2 a day, according to the China Development Research Foundation.

    The Foundation also reports that nearly 85% of China’s poor live in rural areas, with about 66% concentrated in the country’s west and they share less than 12% of the country’s wealth. Only about 55 million Chinese (out of a population of some 1.2 billion) are considered middle-class.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit with China has surged over the past two decades, as U.S. imports from China have grown much faster than U.S. exports to China. That deficit rose from $10 billion in 1990 to $266 billion in 2008, fell to $227 billion in 2009, and then rose to $273 billion in 2010. For 2011 the U.S. trade deficit with China is projected to hit more than $300 billion.

     According to the Congressional Research Service, during the past decade, China has been the fastest-growing market for U.S. exports. U.S. imports of low-cost goods from China greatly benefit U.S. consumers by increasing their purchasing power. U.S. firms that use China as the final point of assembly for their products, or use Chinese-made inputs for production in the United States, are able to lower costs and become more globally competitive. China’s purchases of U.S. Treasury securities (which stood at nearly $1.2 trillion at the end of 2010) help keep U.S. interest rates relatively low. 

    On the other hand, many analysts argue that growing economic ties with China have exposed U.S. manufacturing firms to greater, and what is often perceived to be “unfair” competition from low-cost Chinese firms. They argue that this has induced many U.S. production facilities to relocate to China, resulting in the loss of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Some policymakers have also raised concerns that China’s large holdings of U.S. government debt may give it leverage over the United States.

    These are all valid points, and they tend to mirror the same concerns that existed between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s--but only up to a point.

    Since the end of World War II, Japan has been an American ally--a bulwark for the projection of U.S. military might in Asia. China, on the other hand, has opposed the American military presence in the region and especially criticized U.S. support of Taiwan, which it considers a rogue province.

    Unlike China, Japan is a nation built on post-war capitalism--albeit a more managed model than the type practiced in the U.S. The government in China is still a hard core Communist regime that would like nothing more than to see the free market capitalist democracy in America fail.

    Thus, the relationship between China and the U.S., while mostly friendly since diplomatic ties were reestablished in the early 1970s, often has been strained.

    Never was that more evident than after 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre--an event that I covered for the Tribune. After the Chinese government slaughtered some 2,000 to 3,000 students and pro-democracy protesters in the heart of Beijing in June of that year, Washington finally began to take the issue of human rights violations in China seriously.

    It continues to do so, though the Chinese government sees any criticism of how it handles anti-government and anti-communist protesters as an internal issue that the U.S. has no business interfering with.

    Give China points for creating a robust, semi-capitalist economy that has been built on enticing technology transfer from places like Europe, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Give it points for refusing to buckle under to demands that it revalue its currency so its products are no longer dumped on international markets.

    And finally, give it points for looking ahead while political leaders in the U.S. seem mired in the past, content to concede space exploration to lesser nations and allow energy independence to languish while greedy Middle Eastern sheiks hold us hostage.

    While we squabble about the direction of capitalism, the redistribution of wealth and a plethora of questionable social reengineering schemes, our competitors (i.e. China) are innovating, moving forward and prospering.

    It makes you wonder.

    (Next: Is the American Empire at an End? (Part II)

    Thursday, October 6, 2011

    Don Agrella: City Editor Extraordinaire

    Don Agrella (R) & Ed "Lou Grant" Asner (Middle).
    Tribune Metro Editor Bernie Judge is on the left

    OK, right off the bat, I will tell you Don Agrella would have yelled at me if I ever called him City Editor "Extraordinaire."

    But the fact is, Agrella, who passed away at 92 Wednesday, was an extraordinary Day City Editor and newsman. For about five years he was my boss at the Chicago Tribune. Between 1969 and 1974 I worked for him as a general assignment reporter, rewrite man and assistant city editor. During those five years he provided me with a newspaper education that simply doesn't exist anymore.

    Agrella's trademark in the newsroom was to assign reporters to stories by yelling: "Hat and Coat!" as in, "Yates, hat and coat!"  

    Never mind that I or few other reporters in early 1970s ever wore a hat.

    That would be my signal to trot over to the Tribune's gray U-shaped wooden city desk where Agrella would issue my marching orders: "Go cover this (fill in the blank) speech, fire, trial, meeting, press conference, etc. and  let me know if it's worth anything."

    Only once during my incipient career as a general assignment reporter for the Tribune did I return and declare: "It wasn't worth a story."

    "Is that right?" Agrella replied. "Well then, why in the hell does the Sun-Times have a story and what about this City News copy I am holding."

    All I could do is gulp. "Sorry," I said. "I didn't think it was worth a story."

    "In the future you go cover the story, call me and I'll decide if it's worth anything," he told me. "That way, you won't have to apologize any more."

    Then, noticing that my 6'4" frame seemed to be sinking into the newsroom floor, he took pity on me.

    "Look, it's my job to decide if something is worth a story. It's your job to report. OK? Let me do my job."

    Then he smiled. "Now go and write me a 4-head." (A 4-head was a short, 3-paragraph story that usually wound up somewhere in the back of the paper).

    I went back to my desk and wrote what was (in my mind at least) the best 4-head story Agrella had ever seen.

    The Tribune newsroom in those days was alive with sound. No cubicles. No cell phones. No carpeted floors. Just a lot of noise--as in the clacking of typewriters, telephones ringing off their hooks, editors yelling at reporters and reporters yelling "copy" at copy boys (and girls). In those days yelling "copy" didn't mean go to the Copier and make a copy. It meant: "get over here and pick up this story I just finished and distribute it to all the relevant editors."

    Newsrooms 40 years ago were studies in semi-controlled mayhem. How anybody ever worked in them, let alone wrote anything of quality baffles me today. Yet, work we did and the stories produced were often damned good ones too.

    Don Agrella saw to that. He was a tough task master. He did not suffer fools nor did he tolerate sloppy reporting.

    "You sure about this, Yates?" he once asked about an exclusive story I had just put in front of him.

    "I am," I replied.

    "Would you bet your mother's life on it?"

    "I would," I said.

    "OK," he replied. "But don't forget, you only have one mother, but there are a million stories out there."

    I have to admit, that gave me pause. But I soldiered on. "Damn it, Don, it's a good story."

    "I didn't say it wasn't good...but is it accurate?" he demanded.

    Accuracy was at the top of Don Agrella's list of reportorial essentials. He might accept a poorly written story (he could always have a rewrite man or woman rework it), but God forbid that it be inaccurate.

    And one thing you learned early on in dealing with Don Agrella: you never, ever lied to him. Don wanted to trust his reporters and if he couldn't take you at your word, you were on bad paper with him. I witnessed a few reporters fall into that trap and few, if any, ever climbed out of it and into Don's good graces again.

    Between 1973 and 1974 I became a City Editor myself. I was the weekend version of Don Agrella, assigning reporters to stories on Saturday and Sunday and putting together a local report. I am sure I could never have done that job had I not had the experience of watching Don Agrella at work.

    In 1974 I was promoted to Foreign Correspondent and went off to Asia. I never worked for Don Agrella again.

    But one day in 1975, when I returned to Chicago for a few days after covering the fall of Saigon in April of that year, Don grabbed me and took me aside.

    "You did a great job covering Vietnam," he told me. "And just so you know, the Sun-Times never had a story you didn't have. Looks like you learned something in my city room after all, Yates."

    A few years later, while I was based in Los Angeles for the Tribune, I met with actor Ed Asner, who at the time was playing the part of Lou Grant, City Editor of the Los Angeles Tribune.  It was 1978 and Lou Grant was one of the top TV shows in America.

    Asner asked me if I thought his portrayal of a tough city editor was accurate. I told him he should go to Chicago and watch Don Agrella at work. He actually did do that and one day, when Don wasn't expecting it, Asner walked into the Tribune city room and yelled; "Agrella, Hat and Coat!"

    When Don retired from the Tribune in 1979 it was definitely the end of an era. He was an old school newspaperman leaving at a time when the business was on the verge of changing in ways that make many veteran hacks like myself, sad.

    Once in the 1990s a bunch of us Tribune-ites gathered at Ricardos (once a classic  Chicago hangout for news people) for lunch. Don was in town from Florida where he had retired. I had just returned to Chicago from Tokyo where I had been the paper's bureau chief.

    "Well Don," I asked. "Are you ready to come back to the Tribune city room?"
    "What city room?" he replied. "The place looks like an insurance office. I couldn't work there. There's no noise."

    I was one of the lucky ones. I got to work in a noisy newsroom for Don Agrella: a City Editor who was, without a doubt, truly "Extraordinaire."

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    European Vacation: Part III (Getting There)

    Rome Airport (Just Kidding)
    So far, in recounting my recent European vacation, I have talked about the German and Italian people, the drivers, my impressions of cities, food, etc. And the news on that front was mostly good.

    Now comes the bad news. Getting there.

    Short of teleportation (a technology that sadly is not yet perfected) the only practical way to get to Europe from California is by plane. Yes, you can book a cruise and go by boat, but that takes more than a week from this part of the world. And then I would be worried I would have to row part of the way.

    So it's the airplane or nothing.

    In my case, it was via American Airlines. Now, I am an AAdvantage member, which means I have accumulated thousands of miles--currently about 96,000 of them. When I booked my ticket almost six months before my intended departure it was with the idea that I would use my miles to upgrade from steerage to business class.

    However, I received a rude awakening. Because the tickets I purchased were very inexpensive ones, I learned that I would be at the end of a long line when it came to upgrading. Those with full fare economy tickets and a myriad other people with more perks would be allowed to leapfrog over me in the race to upgrade. Buying a business class ticket outright was not an option--not when a round trip from L.A. to Munich cost about $8,000.

    On the American Airlines AAdvantage website there is a button that reads: "Buy Upgrades." That should really read: "Buy Upgrades--Ha!" Because even with more than 111,000 miles I was not allowed to do so.

    I am 6'4" tall. So the idea of setting in the back of a plane for 10 hours like Gulliver in seats that are built for people 5'8" is tantamount to undergoing some medieval form of torture. Not only could I not find room for my knees and feet, by the time I reached London's Heathrow Airport, my knees looked like they had been beaten with rubber mallets. For most of the trip my feet were stuck in the aisle where they were continually stepped on and kicked by a parade of passengers on the way to the broom closet American Airlines calls a toilet.

    For those of you who have tuned into the new TV drama called Pan Am set in the 1960s, let me assure you that THAT was the golden age of air travel. 
    Stewardesses (that's what they called them back then) were attractive and polite; passengers actually wore shoes and normal clothing, not flip flops and dirty shorts. And there was leg room--even in the economy class cabin.

    In those halcyon days when I was a foreign correspondent, I knew people at the airlines with clout and was often upgraded automatically--no mileage expended, no begging reservation clerks or airline counter personnel. Alas, these days I am just another wandering peasant consigned to the torture chamber called economy class.

    Today, traveling by air is something akin to putting a grubby bus into a cannon and blasting it toward some far away target. Inside people are crammed together in intolerable intimacy. Flight attendants are short-tempered, passengers are petulant, the food is awful, the air is foul and sleeping (at least in steerage) requires training as a contortionist.

    Germany and Italy were wonderful once I got there. But getting there challenged my body and mind in ways I hadn't anticipated.

    First, there were the never-ending security checks. Now, I don't really mind that so much. I would rather spend a few more minutes on the ground getting patted down, x-rayed, zapped, and electronically undressed than watch helplessly as some religious or political fanatic attempts to blow up the plane at 35,000 feet.

    Having said that, it seemed there was no end to the security checks. After taking off and putting on my shoes so many times, I began to understand why there were so many passengers wearing flip flops, dirty feet and all.

    The smartest thing I did was travel with carry-on luggage only. That meant no waiting at the luggage carousel for a suitcase that may or may not arrive. I had everything I needed with me on the plane--along with a small backpack for my laptop, Kindle, I-Pod and noise-cancellation earphones (a must on long flights if you intend to get any sleep at all).

    The problem is that a lot of other people are doing the same thing. That means the ridiculously tiny overhead storage bins cannot accommodate all of that carry-on luggage and if you are one of the last people to board, you can forget finding a place for your carry-on bag.

    The most irritating thing I noticed is that people sitting in one area of the plane often put their carry-on bags in the overhead bins in other areas. Which means it is highly likely that someone who boarded before you has already taken the storage space above your seat. On one flight I watched a man angrily toss someone else's bag out of the overhead bin above his seat. That almost set off a fist fight, until a flight attendant (not a Pan Am stewardess) interceded and moved the encroaching passenger's bag to the front of the plane.

    "You can pick it up on the your way out," she said. Problem solved. Not really. Airlines are creating more problems than they are solving by jamming too many people and their bags into planes that have too many seats and not enough storage.

    Air travel today is not meant to be is meant to be efficient. Air travel 30 and 40 years ago was a relatively pleasant experience. And it was still efficient. I actually enjoyed it--unless I was flying into a war zone.

    The difference between then and now is that planes were not configured like buses  and those who traveled in them were a classier group of folks--or at least they took some pride in their appearance. Today, air travel has been reduced to the lowest common denominator--hence the great unwashed, dressed in tank tops, grimy shorts, flip flops and reeking of body odor. Not a pleasant prospect when you are confined inside a metal box for 10 or 12 hours.

    The one bright spot in my travels with American Airlines was that I was able to use miles to upgrade to business class on the final 5 hour leg of the trip home--from New York to Los Angeles.

    What a difference. I could actually stretch out my legs and I had more than enough room for my carry-on bag and small back pack. When I arrived in Los Angeles I was tired, but  my legs, feet and body didn't ache as though I had been subjected to some ancient Chinese torture device.

    I do believe there is a remedy for some of the problems I have cited here. It is quite simple. Require airline CEOs, members of the board of directors and the sadists who design airplane interiors to sit for 12-15 hours in those God-awful economy class seats next to the malodorous bathrooms and noisy galleys. Perhaps then they will learn how appallingly awful they have made air travel.

    Of course, you shouldn't hold your breath. Those are the people who always fly first class. And they don't have to use their miles to do so, either.

    So how will I get to Europe next year? I am looking into that. I plan to consult a physicist to see how far along teleportation technology is.

    If that doesn't work maybe I will have myself deeply sedated and shipped in a coffin. At least I will arrive rested, without aching knees and legs.

    Someday, I hope, I will be able to say: "Beam me to Munich, Scotty" and find myself seconds later at the Oktoberfest in a beer tent along the Wirtsbudenstrasse drinking a liter of Augustiner.  

    Now THAT'S the way to travel!

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    European Vacation: Part II

    Ron at Trevi Fountain.

    It may be apocryphal but Yogi Berra, the former N.Y. Yankee baseball player and master of malapropisms is credited with this quote about travel:

    "I took a trip around the world last week, and you know what, it hates each other."

    I think I know what he was trying to say.

    Fortunately, during my recent trip to Germany and Italy I didn't encounter that notion. In fact, I found people in both countries pleasant, helpful and generally welcoming.

    And that is saying a lot. After all, I am an American and Americans aren't the most popular people in the world these days.

    Europeans tend to blame the United States for their economic woes--something to do with the national debt crisis and its impact on markets everywhere, I believe. In Asia and Latin America, where I lived and worked as a foreign correspondent for several years, people see Americans as aggressive exploiters of cheap labor in search of profits at any cost.

    Then, of course, there are Washington's international political policies--never a popular topic of conversation no matter where you travel.

    When I was traveling around the world as a foreign correspondent, I can't tell you the number of times I would be cornered in some bar or hotel lobby by someone who always began the conversation: "You in "You Americans are always trying to impose your political system on the rest of the world...."or "You Americans think you have all the answers...." or "You Americans think you can buy friends with the all-mighty dollar."

    Today, I avoid those conversations by keeping my journalistic past a secret. That way I don't have to spend precious minutes our even hours defending or explaining Washington's policies. And what's more, the almighty dollar isn't quite as almighty as it once was. More on that later.

    When approached with such comments, I simply say: "Boy, ain't it the truth. Luckily for me I have a Southern California passport."

    During this trip not one Italian or German accosted me about America's shortcomings--perceived or real.

    Instead, they blew smoke at in cigarette smoke.

    It seemed as if everybody in Europe smokes. Non-smoking areas are essentially non-existent in many places--restaurants, bars, hotels, cafes, shops, etc. As a consequence, there is a lot of passive smoke floating around.

    It's not as if there aren't warnings about the health risks of smoking. Graphic billboards and chilling messages on cigarette packs warn of impending doom if smoking isn't given up. In Asia I once estimated that about 60-70 percent of men smoke and about 40 percent of women. In Europe it seemed as if about half the population smoked regardless of sex.

    It is always dangerous to generalize about people. Americans get that a lot, as in "Americans are this" and "Americans are that," when in fact, it is difficult to pin down any trait that can be called 100% American--unless it is a love of baseball, fast food and cars. Even then, that would be a stretch. I know a lot of people who hate baseball, never eat fast food and prefer public transportation when available.

    Having said that, I feel I must generalize a bit here. For example, Germans love their beer. And for good reason. It is damned fine stuff. Must better than the mass-produced, preservative-laden swill that Americans call beer. (Of course, I am not including the hundreds of new micro breweries that have sprung up in the United States in the past 20 years or so. Those beers are almost as good as what you will find in Germany--and some may even be as good).

    It just so happened, I was there for the opening of Oktoberfest. What an adventure that was! Perhaps a half million people crowded into Munich's Theresienwiese area--all looking for a beer tent to visit.

    Germans love their cars also--and no matter what kind of car it is, it must be a stick shift. None of those automatic transmissions in my BMW 700 series, thank you!
    Why is that? "Driving in Germany is considered a kind of sport and shifting gears reinforces that feeling," a German told me. I think I can understand that. When I was a kid I used to drag race. All of my cars had four on the floor. Automatic transmission? No way!

    Now, on to Italy and more generalizations. Italians are definitely more friendly than Germans. Not that Germans aren't friendly. It just takes a bit longer to get to know them. There is a coolness there--perhaps it is the climate.

    Or perhaps Germans are still angry about all of those Roman legions that marched from Rome into places like Gaul and Germania 2,000 years ago to subdue the barbarians. In any case, going from Berlin to Rome in a day was eye-opening.

    Maybe it was the hands. People in Italy talk with their hands in way that simply does not exist in Germany. By comparison, Germans keep their hands in their pockets. Not really, but it seems that way when you put an Italian and a German next to one another and tell them to start talking.

    I don't speak Italian. But by watching the hand signals, I felt I was learning the language. I do speak German and German is a difficult language to learn. I wonder how much easier it would be if Germans adopted the Italian way of using hand signals when they spoke?

    Italians love to hug one another and kiss each other on the cheek. I like that. It is demonstrative of affection, if not always genuine. Nevertheless, it breaks the ice faster than a cold handshake or a nod.

    Rome is a very big city. Yet, I found people there really friendly. Everybody is in a hurry, but they always had time to help out a lost American trying to figure out how to get back to the hotel or to some piazza or another.

    Of course, about half the people I encountered in Rome seemed to be tourists like me. And like me, most seemed to be constantly looking at maps or asking directions. That's OK. Rome is a great city to get lost in. No matter where you are or how far you walk, you will always come upon a wonderful outdoor cafe or some picturesque piazza where you can stop, have great meal, a coffee or a beer (and I must say, Italian beer is better than I expected).

    In fact, it doesn't really matter if you get lost in Rome.

    As Yogi Berra once said: "If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else."

    Amen, brother.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    When It Is All Said and Done, There Is No Place Like Home

    I just returned from a visit to Germany and Italy. And I must say, it is good to be home again.

    Southern Germany--specifically Bavaria--is a stunningly beautiful place, with picturesque villages nestled in mountain valleys, lots of pristine forests and great beer! Italy, with its great food, its ancient Roman ruins, wonderful coastal cities like Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano, Ravello and of course Pompei--is a treasure.

    I will no doubt go again. But when I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles after more than two weeks in Europe, I found myself really happy to be back the USA. And this is coming from someone who spent most of his journalism career working as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America--17 years, to be exact.

    Perhaps it is the fact that Europe is overcrowded. In fact, according to the guide who took a small tour group through the Vatican in Rome, the Sorrento and Bay of Naples area is the most densely populated area in Europe and second most densely populated area in the world--after New Delhi in India.

    After spending a week in Rome and Sorrento, I can believe it. In Rome people don't double park, they triple park! Streets are clogged with cars, buses and motorbikes all desperately engaged in a sluggish roadway rumba that moves agonizingly forward toward what must seem like some inaccessible goal.

    Driving in Italy is an adventure, to say the least. The motorbikes, especially, are worth watching as they dart in and out of traffic, squeezing in front of buses, trucks and taxis. There don't seem to be any rules of the road. It is highway anarchy. Horns blare, people sputter epithets out of their car windows, shake their fists and slap their foreheads in frustration.

    Pedestrians are like timid wallflowers at this chaotic motorized salsa--looking for openings to cross streets.

    In Germany things are more orderly. They have to be. People there drive really fast--in fact, on some autobahns there are no speed limits. There are rules of road and people seem to obey them. Germans are nothing, if not orderly. That is how a nation of some 80 million people that is about the size of Montana and part of Wyoming are able to co-exist.

    In both countries the only way to travel is by train. It is efficient, mostly on time and very comfortable. And you don't have the hassle of traffic jams, gridlock and people yelling at you or tendering obscene hand signals.

    The only time I experienced anything approaching chaos in Germany was opening day of the 178th Oktoberfest in Munich's Theresienwiese area. There, hordes of people from all over the world flooded into the Wiesn in search of (what else?) Das gute Deutsche Bier! Aside from the occasional plastered refugee staggering from one of the 14 beer tents along the Wirtsbudenstrasse and the general crush of humanity, things were pretty orderly. Well, that's Germany for you.

    Meanwhile, back in Italy, things are never really orderly. One wonders how the Romans conquered most of the known world during their 1,000 year reign and yet the Italians are still having problems trying to establish coherent traffic patterns along roads too narrow for most modern vehicles.

    Wait, maybe that's the problem. The Italians are still using the Via Appia, Via Cassia and Via Aurelia. Actually, they are not, but many of Italy's modern roads are not much wider than those ancient roads that were fitted with standardized ruts to accommodate chariot wheels.

    When I arrived back in L.A. what a joy it was to jump in my car and hit the L.A. freeway system. Of course, that was at about 11 p.m. when traffic was almost nonexistent--not in the a.m. when L.A.s freeways are often worse than Rome's gridlocked traffic.

    What Italy lacks in modern highway systems it makes up for in delightful outdoor cafes and food that is to die for. I can honestly say that during the 7 days I was in Italy, I never once had a bad meal. The pasta was always al dente, the wine wonderful and the settings of the cafes--be they along Rome's Via Cola di Rienzo or in Sorrento's Piazza Tasso--were charming.

    So much for the infrastructure of Germany and Italy.

    Next: The German and Italian people.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011


    I began covering China in 1972--the year President Nixon made history by flying to Beijing to meet with China's aging Communist dictator Mao Zedong. That trip established diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China and eventually opened China's heretofore closed markets to international commerce.

    In the interest of full disclosure I must say I did not accompany Nixon on his historic trip to China. I covered the event from Chicago's China Town. Sigh. At the time I had only been at the Chicago Tribune for about two years--hardly enough time to win the confidence of editors for such a major foreign assignment.

    Then, in 1974, I was posted to Tokyo as the Tribune's Far Eastern Correspondent. China and its new relationship with its nervous Asian neighbors became an ongoing story. A lot has happened since the early 1970s when China was little more than an emerging Third World backwater.

    In the late 1970s, after years of state control of all productive assets, the Chinese government inaugurated economic reform. It encouraged the formation of rural enterprises and private businesses, liberalized foreign trade and investment, relaxed state control over some prices, and invested in industrial production and the education of its workforce. By nearly all accounts, the strategy has worked spectacularly.

    China today is an economic powerhouse--overtaking Japan as Asia's top economy and second in the world behind the United States. It is also the world's fastest growing economy--averaging annual growth rates of almost 10% for the past 30 years.
    And that brings me to the current state of the U.S.-China political and economic relationship.

    That relationship is, to put it mildly, stressed--even more than it was in June 1989 when the Chinese government killed some 2,000 to 3,000 of its own citizens during the Tiananmen Square massacre--a story in China I did cover.

    Since the Tiananmen Square massacre the human rights issue in China has largely faded into obscurity. The story today has become the love/hate relationship that has developed between the world's largest remaining communist country and the world's largest capitalist nation--as well as all of the money that is being raked in, particularly by China. Human rights issues often evaporate when there is money to be made.

    The problem today is that Washington's careless and unbridled spending spree has put all of those profits in jeopardy and China is not at all pleased.

    That was evident this past Tuesday when the Chinese dictatorship attacked the U.S. government for endangering its massive dollar holdings, calling for America to rein in its out-of-control debt by slashing military spending and welfare. The regime also demanded international supervision of the dollar and even suggested the creation of a new global reserve currency.

    The attack came in the form of an editorial from Xinhua News Agency, one of the dictatorship’s official propaganda arms, following the downgrade of American debt last week by Standard & Poor's.

    China is Washington's largest single creditor, with more $1 trillion in treasuries as well as more than $1 trillion in other dollar-denominated assets. The U.S. government is officially above $14 trillion in debt, but the real figure including unfunded liabilities is estimated in the tens of trillions — possibly even hundreds of trillions. State and local governments are facing hundreds of trillions in debts and unfunded liabilities, too.

    The Chinese regime’s editorial touted the fact that its own credit-rating agency, Dagong Global, downgraded U.S. Treasuries well before S&P. It also lambasted Western commentators for their "arrogant response" when the Chinese agency announced the downgrade, saying the move by S&P had proven that it was simply telling investors “the ugly truth.”

    Dagong boss Guan Jianzhong took the opportunity to go on the attack as well. In e-mailed comments, he said the dollar was being “gradually discarded by the world” and that the “process will be irreversible.”

    You can almost hear the Chinese rubbing their hands together in glee at this prospect.

    Although China may dislike the U.S. fiscal stance, the country, as a long-term investor in and a trading partner, needs a strong American economy.

    "The US government has to come to terms with the painful fact that the good old days when it could borrow its way out of messes of its own making are finally gone," said the Xinhua editorial.

    The response from Washington? Deathly silence. While there has been strident criticism of China from US politicians who have argued that Beijing keeps its currency at an artificially low level to help its exporters, China's harsh criticism of the Obama administration and what it sees as "out of control" Washington spending has left many U.S. officials at a loss for words.

    America's biggest trade deficit is with China. Last year it reached $273 billion, the biggest deficit with a single country in US history. In 2010, the US bought goods from China worth almost four times as much as its exports to the world's most populous nation.

    It is little wonder that the International Monetary Fund recently predicted that China’s economy would surpass America’s by 2016. Despite all of the Chinese regime’s boasting and lecturing, however, countless economists believe that its economy will soon experience a spectacular crash of its own.

    I am reminded that in the 1980s, when I was covering Japan for the Tribune, there were similar predictions being made about Japan. "Japan as #1" was a huge best seller and the premise was that the U.S. was finished as the world's leading economy. We all know what happened to Japan in the early 1990s when its fragile economic bubble burst.

    The difference, of course, is that Japan had no ambitions of becoming a global political/military superpower, whereas China does.

    I am not convinced that the government in Beijing is any different than the one in power in 1989 that ordered the army to mow down democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square. Nor am I convinced that China is America's friend.

    In fact, I believe if China could figure out a way to bring down the U.S. economy without losing trillions of its own dollars that are currently tied up in U.S. debt and treasury bills, it would do it in a heartbeat.

    One can only hope that U.S. officials are smart enough to understand that. But given the Obama administration's dismal failure at managing our economy as well as international relations, I am not holding my breath.