Archives for March 2008


Forever Guantanamo

On February 11, 2008, the Pentagon announced that charges were being filed against six men in connection with the September 11 attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the attacks and one of al-Qaeda’s most senior members, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a leader of the Hamburg cell that included several of the September 11 pilots. It has taken nearly seven years for these men to be indicted—while more than 240 other prisoners continue to remain at Guantánamo in a state of indefinite detention without charge. In contrast, Britain, after one of the longest and most expensive trials in its history, has already convicted and sentenced four men for the failed attacks on the London subway on July 21, 2005.

Last year, British officials also arrested three other men for involvement in the deadly attacks on three London subway lines and a bus on July 7, 2005, two weeks earlier; they are scheduled to go on trial at the end of March. Spain has convicted twenty-one of twenty-eight men charged in connection with the terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004; and Indonesia has held lengthy trials and convicted four men who were accused of the terrorist attacks in Bali in October 2002, two of whom have been sentenced to death, and two to life imprisonment.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a guiding principle of the American criminal justice system. The Bush administration has ignored this principle with impunity, and America’s image abroad has suffered greatly as a result.

Iranian general played key role in Iraq cease-fire

Iraqi lawmakers traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom over the weekend to win the support of the commander of Iran’s Qods brigades in persuading Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to stop military operations, members of the Iraqi parliament said.

Sadr ordered the halt on Sunday, and his Mahdi Army militia heeded the order in Baghdad, where the Iraqi government announced it would lift a 24-hour curfew starting early Monday in most parts of the capital.

Ground is shifting beneath diplomacy with Pakistan

Not so long ago, the Bush administration could take a one-stop approach to its dealings with Pakistan. Whether Washington wanted to carry out airstrikes against Al Qaeda, trade sensitive intelligence or orchestrate the arrest of a terrorism suspect, it essentially came down to dialing the number of one man: President Pervez Musharraf.

Now all that has changed. Newly inaugurated Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani has pledged to take a hard new look at counter-terrorism, the centerpiece of Musharraf’s nearly nine-year rule. He will be backed by a Cabinet made up of former opposition figures who probably will be sworn in this week.

An assertive new parliament is vowing to wield authority that lawmakers here lacked for years, demanding oversight on matters that were previously the president’s sole purview. And the general who succeeded Musharraf as army chief four months ago has methodically removed the powerful military from politics and promised accountability to elected officials.

The longest war

This former Taliban stronghold, where Osama bin Laden spent time planning the Sept. 11 attacks, has become an American success story. The Taliban is being pushed out, and a government presence is extending into previously hostile territory. At NATO headquarters in Kabul, most of Khost has been moved out of the “red” column — at least for now.

Khost shows that, with the right combination of resources and leadership, it can be done. But Khost is not simply a good-news story. It also underscores a larger, troubling truth: The conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize. This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history, surpassing even Vietnam.

Some Republicans emerge to endorse Obama

Call them the Obamacans: They are against continuing the Iraq war and reject what they see as Mr. Bush’s unconstitutional buildup of executive power. While the conservative Republican base rejected Senator McCain in the early primaries for his push for bipartisan campaign finance regulation and amnesty for illegal immigrants, the Arizona senator’s hawkish support for the Iraq war has alienated what was once his national constituency, anti-Bush Republicans.

The Obamacans include a former senator of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee; a former senior Justice Department official under President Reagan and senior legal adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, Douglas Kmiec, and a granddaughter of President Eisenhower, Susan Eisenhower.

The Clinton firewall

Google the phrase “Clinton firewall” and you will come up with an ever-lengthening list of scenarios that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has said will stop Barack Obama’s candidacy. The New Hampshire primary, said her campaign, would be the firewall to end Obamamania. Then Super Tuesday was supposed to be the firewall. Then Texas. Now Pennsylvania and Indiana.

For four months, the political world has been hypnotized by this string-along game, not bothering to ask what this Clinton tactic really is. The “just wait until the next states” mantra has diverted our attention from the firewall’s grounding in race and democracy. But now, with only a few months until the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the firewall’s true composition is coming into focus. Whether Obama can overcome this barrier will likely decide who becomes the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

Clinton didn’t pay health insurance bills

Among the debts reported this month by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s struggling presidential campaign, the $292,000 in unpaid health insurance premiums for her campaign staff stands out.

Clinton, who is being pressured to end her campaign against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, has made her plan for universal health care a centerpiece of her agenda.



Iranians help reach Iraq cease-fire

Iranian officials helped broker a cease-fire agreement Sunday between Iraq’s government and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to Iraqi lawmakers.

The deal could help defuse a wave of violence that had threatened recent security progress in Iraq. It also may signal the growing regional influence of Iran, a country the Bush administration accuses of providing support to terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.

Cleric suspends Shiite militia’s fight in Basra

The negotiations with Mr. Sadr were seen as a serious blow for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who had vowed that he would see the Basra campaign through to a military victory and who has been harshly criticized even within his own coalition for the stalled assault.

Last week, Iraq’s defense minister, Abdul Kadir al-Obeidi, conceded that the government’s military efforts in Basra have met with far more resistance than was expected. Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki’s political capital has been severely depleted by the Basra campaign and that he is in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival, for a way out.

A civil war Iraq can’t win

Even if American and Iraqi forces are able to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, there are still three worrisome possibilities of new forms of fighting that could divide Iraq and deny the United States any form of “victory.”

One is that the Sunni tribes and militias that have been cooperating with the Americans could turn against the central government. The second is that the struggle among Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and other ethnic groups to control territory in the north could lead to fighting in Kirkuk, Mosul or other areas.

The third risk — and one that is now all too real — is that the political struggle between the dominant Shiite parties could become an armed conflict.

Mideast openings

The Bush administration is coming to a crunch point soon in the two biggest conflicts in the Middle East — the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the struggle to create a stable Iraq. In each case, we can see the limits of military power in combating the “bad guys” who the administration believes are obstructing the path to peace.

The conundrum in Palestine is how to deal with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza. By firing rockets into Israel and provoking a punishing Israeli response, Hamas has nearly torpedoed the Annapolis peace process. It is a ruthless and unyielding organization but has strong support in Gaza, and, as Israel has discovered, it has been impossible to destroy militarily.

So what to do? Last week, Vice President Cheney and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated the conventional line that Hamas is a threat to peace and that Israel should not negotiate with its representatives. But Egypt is holding talks with Hamas with the aim of negotiating a cease-fire — and I haven’t noticed either Israel or the United States demanding that the Egyptians stop their mediation.



The smart way out of a foolish war

Both Democratic presidential candidates agree that the United States should end its combat mission in Iraq within 12 to 16 months of their possible inauguration. The Republican candidate has spoken of continuing the war, even for a hundred years, until “victory.” The core issue of this campaign is thus a basic disagreement over the merits of the war and the benefits and costs of continuing it.

The case for U.S. disengagement from combat is compelling in its own right. But it must be matched by a comprehensive political and diplomatic effort to mitigate the destabilizing regional consequences of a war that the outgoing Bush administration started deliberately, justified demagogically and waged badly. (I write, of course, as a Democrat; while I prefer Sen. Barack Obama, I speak here for myself.)

The contrast between the Democratic argument for ending the war and the Republican argument for continuing is sharp and dramatic. The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for “staying the course” draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush’s and Sen. John McCain’s forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the predictions of “falling dominoes” that were used to justify continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it easier.

Shiite militias cling to swaths of Basra and stage raids

Shiite militiamen in Basra openly controlled wide swaths of the city on Saturday and staged increasingly bold raids on Iraqi government forces sent five days ago to wrest control from the gunmen, witnesses said, as Iraqi political leaders grew increasingly critical of the stalled assault.

Witnesses in Basra said members of the most powerful militia in the city, the Mahdi Army, were setting up checkpoints and controlling traffic in many places ringing the central district controlled by some of the 30,000 Iraqi Army and police forces involved in the assault. Fighters were regularly attacking the government forces, then quickly retreating.

Senior members of several political parties said the operation, ordered by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, had been poorly planned. The growing discontent adds a new level of complication to the American-led effort to demonstrate that the Iraqi government had made strides toward being able to operate a functioning country and keep the peace without thousands of American troops.

Iraqi offensive revives debate for campaigns

The heavy fighting that broke out last week as Iraqi security forces tried to oust Shiite militias from Basra is reverberating on the presidential campaign trail and posing new challenges and opportunities to the candidates, particularly Senator John McCain.

The fierce fighting — and the threat that it could undo a long-term truce that has greatly helped to reduce the level of violence in Iraq — thrust the war back into the headlines and the public consciousness just as it had been receding behind a tide of economic concerns. And it raised anew a host of politically charged questions about whether the current strategy is succeeding, how capable the Iraqis are of defending themselves and what the potential impact would be of any American troop withdrawals.

Where are the Iraqis in the Iraq war?

Five years after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, mainstream media is once more making the topic an object of intense scrutiny. The costs and implications of the war are endlessly covered from all possible angles, with one notable exception — the cost to the Iraqi people themselves.

Through all the special coverage and exclusive reports, very little is said about Iraqi casualties, who are either completely overlooked or hastily mentioned and whose numbers can only be guesstimated. Also conveniently ignored are the millions injured, internally and externally displaced, the victims of rape and kidnappings who will carry physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives.

We find ourselves stuck in a hopeless paradigm, where it feels necessary to empathise with the sensibilities of the aggressor so as not to sound “unpatriotic”, while remaining blind to the untold anguish of the victims. Some actually feel the need to go so far as to blame the Iraqis for their own misfortune. Both Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have expressed their wish for Iraqis to take responsibility for the situation in their country, with the former saying, “we cannot win their civil war. There is no military solution.”

A new diplomatic order in Pakistan

If it was not yet clear to Washington that a new political order prevailed here, the three-day visit this week by America’s chief diplomat dealing with Pakistan should put any doubt to rest.

The visit by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte turned out to be series of indignities and chilly, almost hostile, receptions as he bore the brunt of the full range of complaints that Pakistanis now feel freer to air with the end of military rule by Washington’s favored ally, President Pervez Musharraf.

Faced with a new democratic lineup that is demanding talks, not force, in the fight against terrorism, Mr. Negroponte publicly swallowed a bitter pill at his final news conference on Thursday, acknowledging that there would now be some real differences in strategy between the United States and Pakistan.

Somalia’s government teeters on collapse

The trouble started when government soldiers went to the market and, at gunpoint, began to help themselves to sacks of grain last week.

Islamist insurgents poured into the streets to defend the merchants. The government troops took heavy casualties and retreated all the way back to the presidential palace, supposedly the most secure place in the city. It, too, came under fire.

Mohamed Abdirizak, a top government official, crouched on a balcony at the palace, with bullets whizzing over his head. He had just given up a comfortable life as a development consultant in Springfield, Va. His wife thought he was crazy. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

High rice cost creating fears of Asia unrest

Rising prices and a growing fear of scarcity have prompted some of the world’s largest rice producers to announce drastic limits on the amount of rice they export.

The price of rice, a staple in the diets of nearly half the world’s population, has almost doubled on international markets in the last three months. That has pinched the budgets of millions of poor Asians and raised fears of civil unrest.

Shortages and high prices for all kinds of food have caused tensions and even violence around the world in recent months. Since January, thousands of troops have been deployed in Pakistan to guard trucks carrying wheat and flour. Protests have erupted in Indonesia over soybean shortages, and China has put price controls on cooking oil, grain, meat, milk and eggs.

Food riots have erupted in recent months in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. But the moves by rice-exporting nations over the last two days — meant to ensure scarce supplies will meet domestic needs — drove prices on the world market even higher this week.

Hillary’s St. Patrick’s Day massacre

Most politicians lie. Most people over 50, as I know all too well, misremember things. So here is the one compelling mystery still unresolved about Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia fairy tale: Why did she keep repeating this whopper for nearly three months, well after it had been publicly debunked by journalists and eyewitnesses?

In January, after Senator Clinton first inserted the threat of “sniper fire” into her stump speech, Elizabeth Sullivan of The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that the story couldn’t be true because by the time of the first lady’s visit in March 1996, “the war was over.” Meredith Vieira asked Mrs. Clinton on the “Today” show why, if she was on the front lines, she took along a U.S.O. performer like Sinbad. Earlier this month, a week before Mrs. Clinton fatefully rearmed those snipers one time too many, Sinbad himself spoke up to The Washington Post: “I think the only ‘red phone’ moment was: Do we eat here or at the next place?”

Yet Mrs. Clinton was undeterred. She dismissed Sinbad as a “comedian” and recycled her fiction once more on St. Patrick’s Day. When Michael Dobbs fact-checked it for The Post last weekend and proclaimed it worthy of “four Pinocchios,” her campaign pushed back. The Clinton camp enforcer Howard Wolfson phoned in to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC Monday and truculently quoted a sheaf of news stories that he said supported her account. Only later that day, a full week after her speech, did he start to retreat, suggesting it was “possible” she “misspoke” in the “most recent instance” of her retelling of her excellent Bosnia adventure.

Vendors resent Clinton’s unpaid bills

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s cash-strapped presidential campaign has been putting off paying hundreds of bills for months — freeing up cash for critical media buys, but also earning the campaign a reputation as something of a deadbeat in some small business circles.

A pair of Ohio companies owed more than $25,000 by Clinton for staging events for her campaign are warning others in the tight-knit event production community — and anyone else who will listen — to get their cash upfront when doing business with her. Her campaign, say representatives of the two companies, has stopped returning phone calls and e-mails seeking payment of outstanding invoices. One even got no response from a certified letter.

Their cautionary tales, combined with published reports about similar difficulties faced by a New Hampshire landlord, an Iowa office cleaner and a New York caterer highlight a less-obvious impact of Clinton’s inability to keep up with the staggering fundraising pace set by her opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.



“normalcy is returning back to Iraq,”, George Bush, March 27, 2008

U.S. armor forces join offensive in Baghdad against Sadr militia

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army’s AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.

The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. The Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite rival of Maliki, appeared to have taken the brunt of the attacks; fighting spread to many southern cities and parts of Baghdad.

Iraqi police in Basra shed their uniforms, kept their rifles and switched sides

Abu Iman barely flinched when the Iraqi Government ordered his unit of special police to move against al-Mahdi Army fighters in Basra.

His response, while swift, was not what British and US military trainers who have spent the past five years schooling the Iraqi security forces would have hoped for. He and 15 of his comrades took off their uniforms, kept their government-issued rifles and went over to the other side without a second thought.

Such turncoats are the thread that could unravel the British Army’s policy in southern Iraq. The military hoped that local forces would be able to combat extremists and allow the Army to withdraw gradually from the battle-scarred and untamed oil city that has fallen under the sway of Islamic fundamentalists, oil smugglers and petty tribal warlords. But if the British taught the police to shoot straight, they failed to instil a sense of unwavering loyalty to the State.

Iraqi leader extends date for militias to disarm

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki today extended a deadline for militiamen battling government troops to disarm as fighters show no signs of ending their standoff with Iraqi forces.

Four days after Maliki deployed Iraqi troops in the southern city of Basra to quell violence by Shiite Muslim militiamen, clashes continued. His decision to extend what had been a three-day disarmament deadline, set to expire Saturday, until April 8 was a sign of the resistance he faces from militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Warlord vs. warlord

The fighting in Basra, which has spread to parts of Baghdad, is not a clash between good and evil or between a legitimate government and an outlaw insurgency. Rather, as Anthony Cordesman, military analyst for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes, it is “a power struggle” between rival “Shiite party mafias” for control of the oil-rich south and other Shiite sections of the country.

Both sides in this struggle are essentially militias. Both sides have ties to Iran. And as for protecting “the Iraqi people,” the side backed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (and by U.S. air power) has, ironically, less support—at least in many Shiite areas, including Basra—than the side that he (and we) are attacking.

The surge is not sustainable: Augustus Richard Norton explains why

Augustus Richard Norton, a combat veteran and retired Army colonel, taught at West Point for more than 12 years and is now a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University. I spoke with Norton–who was an expert adviser to the Iraq Study Group–earlier today about the situation in Iraq. Here’s his take on the situation…

Bob Casey to endorse Obama, join bus tour

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey plans to endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president today in Pittsburgh, sending a message both to the state’s primary voters and to undecided superdelegates who might decide the close race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Dan Pfeiffer, deputy communications director for the Obama campaign, confirmed that Casey would announce his support during a rally at the Soldiers and Sailors Military Museum and Memorial and that he would then set out with the Illinois senator on part of a six-day bus trip across the state.

The endorsement comes as something of a surprise. Casey, a deliberative and cautious politician, had been adamant about remaining neutral until after the April 22 primary. He had said he wanted to help unify the party after the intensifying fight between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Flashback: Wright’s letter to NYT about Obama

Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years. You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a “Spiritual Biography” of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met.

For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run.

I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office. Your own question to me was, Didn’t I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family? I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.



Christian rage and Muslim moderation

Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vatican’s representative in Arabia, was reluctant to criticize the pope, of course, but when I reached him in Abu Dhabi Wednesday morning he clearly had reservations about the way Allam was received into the Church. He said that local Christians took him aside at Easter services and asked him “why it had to be done in such an extraordinary way on a special night.” Hinder contrasted Allam’s conversion to Catholicism with former British prime minister Tony Blair’s, which “was done in a private chapel.”

“What I cannot accept is if it is done in a triumphalistic way,” said Hinder. That is, if Allam were not declaring only his personal beliefs but intentionally demeaning the faith of Muslims. Yet it is hard to read the spectacle of his conversion otherwise, because that’s exactly the tone in which Allam writes. He has made his career portraying Islam as a religion that terrorizes. Allam says he has lived in hiding and in fear for years because of reaction to his columns in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, which regularly denounce excesses by Muslims and praise Israel. Allam converted to Catholicism, he says, as he turned away from “a past in which I imagined that there could be a moderate Islam.” Speaking as if for the pope, Allam told one interviewer in Italy, “His Holiness has launched an explicit and revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims.”

Allam claims he is hoping his public embrace of Catholicism will help other converts to speak out in public. But that hardly seems likely. The more probable scenario is that others will feel even more vulnerable, while Allam’s books, like many Muslim-bashing screeds that preceded them, climb the best-seller lists.
Unless — and this really would be news — the Muslim world just turns the page. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Take away all the trappings of sanctity and there’s no getting away from the perception that the Vatican’s answer to Dick Cheney has a devilish streak. Benedict is a shit-stirrer — you can see it in those devious eyes.


EDITORIAL: Taking the blood out of killing

Taking the blood out of killing

“If America wants to see itself clean of terrorists we also want that our villages and towns should not be bombed.”

This was the modest request issued by Nawaz Sharif after Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher went to Pakistan this week to secure the new government’s commitment on fighting terrorism. Negroponte and the rest of his State Department contingent might have received a slightly warmer response if they had not barged in on Pakistan’s celebrations at the restoration of democracy.

The New York Times reported:

The timing of the American visit was harshly criticized by the news media for creating the appearance that the United States was trying to dictate policy to a government that was not even hours old. The two American diplomats met Mr. Sharif as President Musharraf was administering the oath of office to Mr. Gillani.

“I don’t think it is a good idea for them to be here on this particular day,” said Zaffar Abbas, the editor of the respected English language newspaper Dawn, in Islamabad. “Here are the Americans, right here in Islamabad, meeting with senior politicians in the new government, trying to dictate terms.”

And the article continued:

An independent analyst on the Pakistani military, Shuja Nawaz, who lives in Washington, said he had been told by Pakistani officials that they discouraged the American diplomats from coming this week.

But the Pakistanis had been informed that Mr. Negroponte was on a trip that included other already arranged stops and Tuesday was the only possible day for him. Mr. Nawaz called the visit “ham-handed,” and said it could be interpreted as Washington wanting to continue to act as the “political godfather behind Musharraf.”

Ironically, it was the Pakistanis who needed to give the Americans a little instruction on the meaning of democracy: “We told them that since 9/11 until now the decisions were made by an individual and therefore these did not reflect the aspiration of the people. The situation has been changed now because an independent parliament has come into being and all the decisions will be made by it.”

That was how Sharif explained to Negroponte and Boucher that the US government needs to get used to dealing with a government instead of a dictator. Unfortunately, this administration like so many others before it still finds dictators easier to work with as a matter of convenience. It’s the boneheaded mafia approach to international relations: make a deal with “the man” and then let his and your minions take care of the details.

The false premise upon which Negroponte and Boucher’s unannounced visit was based was that Pakistan is not as serious as the United States when it comes to dealing with terrorism. But they would do well to consider the following remarks from an editorial in today’s edition of Pakistan’s leading English-language daily, The News:

What Washington still does not seem to have grasped is that almost everyone in Pakistan, including its political leaders, is at least as keen as they are to see an end to terror. It is, after all, Pakistani men, women and children who die when bombs explode; it is their blood that stains roadsides; their screams that fill hospital emergency rooms. The US-directed policies of the past seven years have led only to an expansion in militancy, to more violence and to more hatred. It is indeed a mystery why, in the face of these facts, Washington considers Musharraf to have been a success in battling terror. The White House and its team must now restrain themselves in further meddling in Pakistan’s affairs. Its new leaders must be allowed to devise their own strategies without attempts at long-distance dictation or remote-controlled operations. Such dictation has brought disaster in the past and is likely to do so in future as well. The people of Pakistan and their elected representatives must now be left alone to chalk out a brighter future for everyone in the country.

Unfortunately for the people of Pakistan, when it comes to confronting terrorism in the tribal areas, Democrats and Republicans are largely in agreement that the US needs to pursue a “tough” approach. Very few Americans are willing to question the idea that if an opportunity arises, then “high value targets” should be “taken out.”

But consider for a moment this frequently used phrase: take out.

Whenever a command is issued that someone or some people should be “taken out,” the words connote executive power, wielded by unbloodied hands. All the way down from the command to the deed, taking out requires a sense of detachment and a comfortable distance from the fatal event. Absent that distance, the nature of the act becomes inescapable.

When Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar, he didn’t take him out. Brutus and his fellow assassins killed Caesar. They had blood on their hands. Brutus says, “let no man abide this deed, but we the doers.” He knew what he had done and he accepted full responsibility.

When we talk about taking out terrorists, we prefer not to know what has been done and we try to disperse responsibility. We imagine that if a greater good (“defeating terrorism”) is being served, then the loss of innocent life, though regrettable will also most likely be unavoidable. What we can and do avoid considering is the carnage. We mask it with a casual phrase.

The message from the new government of Pakistan to America is quite simple: our people are worth as much as yours. Should that not be seen as an indisputable truism?


NEWS: Locals hold key in Pakistan

Moderates hold key in Pakistan

One of the most significant results of Pakistan’s elections in February was the defeat of the religious parties that ran this critical border province for the last five years. In their place, voters elected moderates from a small regional party that may now wield big influence over Pakistan’s changing strategy toward its militants.

The victory of the Awami National Party, or A.N.P., was welcomed by Western officials and Pakistanis as a clear rejection of the Taliban and the religious parties that backed them here in North-West Frontier Province. The party will now be part of the governing coalition in the national Parliament, and sees itself as critically placed to begin a dialogue with the militants, something the Bush administration has regarded warily.

Not only has this province suffered most from the militants, who are based in the adjacent tribal areas, but most of the militants are from the same Pashtun ethnic group as the A.N.P. Pashtuns populate this region, on both sides of the Afghan border. The A.N.P., a Pashtun nationalist party, and Pakistan’s militants speak the same language. [complete article]

U.S. steps up unilateral strikes in Pakistan

The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan’s new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country, according to U.S. officials.

Washington is worried that pro-Western President Pervez Musharraf, who has generally supported the U.S. strikes, will almost certainly have reduced powers in the months ahead, and so it wants to inflict as much damage as it can to al-Qaeda’s network now, the officials said.

Over the past two months, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft are known to have struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives. The moves followed a tacit understanding with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban, the officials said. [complete article]



Spinning the bloodshed in Basra

As fighting rages in Basra, the White House is unleashing a forceful spin campaign to frame the Iraqi government’s offensive there as a positive outcome of the U.S. troop surge and a symbol of better days to come.

Speaking to an invitation-only audience at an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, this morning, President Bush argued that the Basra incursion “shows the progress the Iraqi security forces have made during the surge” and “demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them. . . .

Iraqi Army’s assault on militias in Basra stalls

An assault by thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police officers to regain control of the southern port city of Basra stalled Wednesday as Shiite militiamen in the Mahdi Army fought daylong hit-and-run battles and refused to withdraw from the neighborhoods that form their base of power there.

American officials have presented the Iraqi Army’s attempts to secure the port city as an example of its ability to carry out a major operation against the insurgency on its own. A failure there would be a serious embarrassment for the Iraqi government and for the army, as well as for American forces eager to demonstrate that the Iraqi units they have trained can fight effectively on their own.

Iraqi government spokesman abducted amid Baghdad violence

Rockets and mortars rained down on Baghdad today, and a high-ranking Iraqi government spokesman was abducted from his home, as violence continued in the wake of a crackdown on Shiite Muslim militiamen.

Scores of people have died since the fighting erupted early Tuesday, including at least 51 in the southern oil port city of Basra, where the Iraqi offensive began. At least 15 people, most of them civilians, were reported killed in attacks today in Baghdad and nearby Babil province to the south. Skirmishes also continued in Basra, where a pipeline carrying oil to the city’s port was hit by a major blast that sent flames soaring into the sky.

Thousands in Baghdad protest Basra assault

In direct confrontation with the American-backed government in Iraq, thousands of supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia took to the streets of Baghdad on Thursday to protest the Iraqi Army’s assault on the southern port city of Basra, as intense fighting continued there for a third day.

In Basra, there seemed to be no breakthrough in the fighting by either side. As much as half of the city remained under militia control, hospitals in some parts of the city were reported full, and the violence continued to spread. Clashes were reported all over the city and in locations 12 miles south of Basra.

Shiite militia won’t back down in government crackdown

Defiant Shiites flexed their muscle today by sending tens of thousands of supporters into the streets of Baghdad, raining shells into the Green Zone and holding the Iraqi army at bay in the key oil city of Basra.

Amid all the turmoil, a bomb blasted a crucial oil pipeline in Basra, triggering a massive fire and threatening the country’s ability to export oil.

It was the second oil pipeline attacked in southern Iraq this week. Basra’s oil accounts for 80 percent of Iraq’s production.

The pipeline blast sent the world’s price of oil to $107 a barrel.


OPINION: Obama’s hidden asset

The strange case of Robert Malley

Of all the recent efforts to smear Barack Obama, none strikes me as stranger than the claims that one of his informal advisers on foreign affairs, Robert Malley, is anti-Israel. This, in turn, is supposed to prove that as president, Obama is liable to institute dangerous changes in U.S. policy toward Israel.

As a campaign trope, the calumny may have begun with Ed Lasky, news editor of the right-wing Web site The American Thinker, who posted a fervid attack on Malley in January. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America has taken time off from its hawkish media-bashing to post a blast at Malley on its Web site. Journalists regularly speculate on whether the Malley connection will hurt Obama among Jewish voters, though there’s no evidence of that. Meanwhile, Malley’s diplomatic colleagues — including Sandy Berger, Dennis Ross, and Martin Indyk — have issued an open letter defending him.

There’s more at work here than the usual, nearly boring, attempts to slime a liberal candidate as anti-Israel for the “sin” of supporting what Israel needs most — determined diplomatic efforts to achieve peace. Lurking in the background is another of the battles over how Israel-Palestinian history is told. In that fight, the original furious critic of Barack Obama’s adviser is former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. There’s also a lesson about Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy: Besides settling the practical questions, it requires resolving the conflicting narratives about the past. To approach this task, the next president will need not just hard work but a gift with rhetoric, with words. [complete article]


NEWS & OPINION: A war the outside world cannot see

At shuttered gateway to Tibet, unrest simmers against Chinese rule

In the back room of a Tibetan teahouse, three robed monks spoke in whispers.

One monk said his home in Luhuo County had been littered with fliers calling on Tibetans to protest. A second monk said soldiers had surrounded his monastery in Aba County. The third dialed home. After folding shut his cellphone, he said the police had killed one Tibetan protester and injured nine others in Serta County.

“Tibetans are dying for no reason,” said the Luhuo monk, as the whine of a police siren drifted through an open window. “But this is happening in remote places, and nobody knows.”

From this city of 10 million people in the middle of China, all roads leading west have been closed — except to convoys carrying soldiers and riot police officers to subdue Tibetan antigovernment protests. Chengdu has always been a gateway to the remote Tibetan plateau, but now it feels like a border outpost, tense and anxious, at the eastern edge of what several Tibetans here described as a war.

If it is a war, it is one the outside world cannot see. Police roadblocks have closed off a mountainous region about the size of France, spanning parts of the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. Foreign journalists trying to investigate reports of bloodshed are turned away or detained. Even in big cities like Chengdu, Tibetans say they are wary of police retaliation. They pass along secondhand accounts of clashes mostly on condition that their names will not appear in print. [complete article]

The last of the Tibetans

Are the Tibetans doomed to go the way of the American Indians? Will they be reduced to being little more than a tourist attraction, peddling cheap mementos of what was once a great culture? In Tibet itself, that sad fate is looking more and more likely. And the Olympic year is already soured by the way the Chinese government is trying to suppress resistance to just that fate. [complete article]


ANALYSIS: US moves towards engaging Iran

US moves towards engaging Iran

The coming few weeks are going to be critical in the standoff between the United States and Iran as the upheaval in the Middle East reaches a turning point. And all options do remain on the table, as the George W Bush administration likes to say, from military conflict to a de facto acceptance of Iran’s standing as the region’s dominant power.

One thing is clear. The time for oratorical exercises is ending. A phase of subtle, reciprocal, conceptual diplomatic actions may be beginning. An indication of this is available in the two radio interviews given by Bush last weekend and beamed into Iran, exclusively aimed at reaching out to the Iranian public on the Persian New Year Nauroz.

Significantly, ahead of Bush’s interviews, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger spoke. Kissinger, incidentally, is a foreign policy advisor to the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. For the first time, Kissinger called for unconditional talks with Iran. That is a remarkable shift in his position. Kissinger used to maintain that the legacy of the hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution in 1979 and “the messianic aspect of the Iranian regime” represented huge obstacles to diplomacy, and combining with “Persian imperial tradition” and “contemporary Islamic fervor”, a collision with the US became almost unavoidable. Interestingly, Kissinger’s call was also echoed by Dennis Ross, who used to be a key negotiator in the Middle East, and carries much respect in Israel. [complete article]


FEATURE: Taking stock of the War on Terror

Taking stock of the War on Terror

To contemplate a prewar map of Baghdad — as I do the one before me, with sectarian neighborhoods traced out in blue and red and yellow — is to look back on a lost Baghdad, a Baghdad of our dreams. My map of 2003 is colored mostly a rather neutral yellow, indicating the “mixed” neighborhoods of the city, predominant just five years ago. To take up a contemporary map after this is to be confronted by a riot of bright color: Shia blue has moved in irrevocably from the East of the Tigris; Sunni red has fled before it, as Shia militias pushed the Sunnis inexorably west toward Abu Ghraib and Anbar province, and nearly out of the capital itself. And everywhere, it seems, the pale yellow of those mixed neighborhoods is gone, obliterated in the months and years of sectarian war.

I start with those maps out of a lust for something concrete, as I grope about in the abstract, struggling to quantify the unquantifiable. How indeed to “take stock” of the War on Terror? Such a strange beast it is, like one of those mythological creatures that is part goat, part lion, part man. Let us take a moment and identify each of these parts. For if we look closely at its misshapen contours, we can see in the War on Terror:

Part anti-guerrilla mountain struggle, as in Afghanistan;

Part shooting-war-cum-occupation-cum-counterinsurgency, as in Iraq;

Part intelligence, spy v. spy covert struggle, fought quietly — “on the dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney put it shortly after 9/11 — in a vast territory stretching from the southern Philippines to the Maghreb and the Straits of Gibraltar;

And finally the War on Terror is part, perhaps its largest part, Virtual War — an ongoing, permanent struggle, and in its ongoing political utility not wholly unlike Orwell’s famous world war between Eurasia, East Asia, and Oceania that is unbounded in space and in time, never ending, always expanding. [complete article]


NEWS: Success of the surge in jeopardy

Battles wrack Basra, threatening success of U.S. surge

With Iraq’s top leaders directing the battle, Iraq’s army and national police pressed a major operation Tuesday to wrest control of the southern port city of Basra from the Shiite Mahdi Army militia. Fighting between government forces and the militia quickly spread through Iraq’s south and into Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his defense and interior ministers took charge of the 15,000 Iraqi army troops and police units, which were deployed for what aides said was to be a three-day operation against militias in the city.

The battle at the oil-rich port began before dawn Tuesday and lasted into the early evening before subsiding slightly as the Mahdi Army, headed by firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr, defended positions in several neighborhoods. In the dead of night, residents reported artillery shelling, mortar rounds and guns being fired outside their homes. [complete article]


OPINION: Ordinary evil

The ultimate casualty

You know him well. His nickname was Gilligan, and he was a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s vast prison transformed into a vast American one and then transformed again by the Bush administration into a vast national disgrace. Gilligan was deprived of sleep, forced to stand on a small box, hooded like some medieval apparition, wired like a makeshift lamp and told (falsely) that if he fell he would be electrocuted. He was later released. Wrong man. Sorry.

The story of Gilligan is recounted in a forthcoming book and movie, both titled “Standard Operating Procedure” because that is precisely what the abuse of prisoners was at Abu Ghraib. Much of the book, written by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (he made the documentary) and excerpted in last week’s New Yorker, relies on the verbatim testimony of the Americans who staffed Abu Ghraib. Some of them were the very ones who took the revolting pictures — including the iconic photo of Gilligan — that stunned the world.

What the interviews make clear is how pervasive and public the abuse of prisoners had been. Physical and mental abuse was conducted in the open. Photos were taken and passed up the chain of command. “Sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation and the imposition of physical and psychological pain,” Gourevitch and Morris write, were all permitted under the makeshift rules of the camp.

“They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules,” said an Army reservist named Megan Ambuhl. Others talked of something even more insidious: the growing tolerance for inflicting pain. This is the stuff of famous psychology experiments (Milgram, etc.), but it also reminds me — and I know this is the extreme case — of the willingness of ordinary German soldiers in World War II to spend whole days in the routine murder of civilians. [complete article]


CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Dignity promotion

The Obama Doctrine

[An] ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama [foreign policy] team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. “I don’t think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. “Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless — an affront to your sense of dignity.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Replacing democracy promotion with dignity promotion sounds good, but I would hope that an Obama administration would have the wisdom to get out the promotion business altogether — though in saying that, I’m not advocating isolationism.

America’s evangelical fervor is invariably a source of trouble. Among the most common explanation for why Americans spend extended periods overseas is either as soldiers or as missionaries. Americans have a habit of venturing into the rest of the world in order to change it.

But what many people from wealthy societies discover if they have the opportunity to delve into a Third World culture is that there is no correlation between wealth and dignity. Far from it: many of the most dignified people who grace this planet also happen to be the poorest. Their dignity invariably resides in pride in their own culture. Conversely, nothing more reliably strips people of their dignity than to feed the notion that their heritage is inferior to another.

If we want to consider dignity promotion, maybe we should focus on how to do it in our own society.

What is the impact of mass entertainment that creates a spectacle out of humiliation — the crux of so much reality TV? Does the promotion of product brands have a corrosive effect on self esteem? Who do you become when it matters so much what you wear or what you drive? Has social respect become inextricable from wealth acquisition? Have we demeaned ourselves by becoming a nation of material consumers while forgetting what it means to be a cultural producer?

A significant dimension of Obama’s appeal is that he carries himself with dignity — something sadly lacking in much of public life. While it will undoubtedly be a good thing if an appreciation of the importance of human dignity underpins American foreign policy, we would do well to consider what it takes to restore dignity to the American way of life.



With friends like these

The amount of support being shown for Israel these days is almost embarrassing. The parade of highly-placed foreign guests and the warm reception received by Israeli statesmen abroad have not been seen for quite some time. Who hasn’t come to visit lately? From the German chancellor to the leading frontrunner for the American presidency. And the secretary-general of the United Nations is on his way. A visit to Israel has become de rigueur for foreign pols. If you haven’t been here, you’re nowhere.

The visitors are taken, of course, to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the Western Wall and now to Sderot as well – the new national pilgrimage site. A few also pay a perfunctory visit to Ramallah; no one goes to the Gaza Strip, and they all have nothing but praise for Israel. Not a word of criticism on the occupation, on Israel’s violent operations in the territories, on the siege and the starving – with the exception of a few vague remarks on the need for a solution. Israel squeezes the Sderot “informational” lemon for all it’s worth.

The mix of Sderot and the Holocaust, international Islamophobia and Hamas rule in Gaza do the trick. Israel hasn’t scored this kind of foreign-policy success since the days of the Oslo Accords. To judge by the declarations of our foreign guests and our hosts abroad, no other state in the world is more loved than we. A state that imposes a siege that is almost unprecedented in the world today in terms of its cruelty, that adopts an official policy of assassination, is embraced by the family of nations, if we are to judge by the words of the many statesmen who cross our doorstep.

Why we should fear a McCain presidency

It may seem incredible to say this, given past experience, but a few years from now Europe and the world could be looking back at the Bush administration with nostalgia. This possibility will arise if the US elects Senator John McCain as president in November.

Over the years the US has inserted itself into potential flashpoints in different parts of the world. The Republican party is now about to put forward a natural incendiary as the man to deal with those flashpoints.

The problem that Mr McCain poses stems from his ideology, his policies and above all his personality. His ideology, like that of his chief advisers, is neo-conservative. In the past, Mr McCain was considered to be an old-style conservative realist. Today, the role of the realists on his team is merely decorative.

Where angels no longer fear to tread

By the standards of European scientific collaboration, €2m ($3.1m) is not a huge sum. But it might be the start of something that will challenge human perceptions of reality at least as much as the billions being spent by the European particle-physics laboratory (CERN) at Geneva. The first task of CERN’s new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to open later this year, will be to search for the Higgs boson—an object that has been dubbed, with a certain amount of hyperbole, the God particle. The €2m, by contrast, will be spent on the search for God Himself—or, rather, for the biological reasons why so many people believe in God, gods and religion in general.

“Explaining Religion”, as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines from psychology to economics. And it is merely the latest manifestation of a growing tendency for science to poke its nose into the God business.

Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

The naive armchair warriors are fighting a delusional war

The French philosopher Michel Foucault notes that in all societies discourse is controlled – imperceptibly constrained, perhaps, but constrained nonetheless. We are not free to say exactly what we like. The norms set by institutions, convention and our need to keep within the boundaries of accepted behaviour and thought limit what may be touched upon. The Archbishop of Canterbury experienced the backlash from stepping outside these conventions when he spoke about aspects of Islamic law that might be imported into British life.

Once, a man was held to be mad if he strayed from this discourse – even if his utterings were credited with revealing some hidden truth. Today, he is called “naive”, or accused of having gone “native”. Recently, the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) marshalled former senior military and intelligence experts in order to assert such limits to expression by warning us that “deference” to multiculturalism was undermining the fight against Islamic “extremism” and threatening security.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, in a recent interview with a German magazine, embellished Rusi’s complaints of naivety and “flabby thinking”. Radical Islam won’t stop, he warned, and the “virus” would only become more virulent if the US were to withdraw from Iraq.

U.S. captains bear weight of Iraq strategy

During the war in Iraq, young army and Marine captains have become American viceroys, officers with large sectors to run and near-autonomy to do it. In military parlance, they are the “ground-owners.” In practice, they are power brokers.

“They give us a chunk of land and say, ‘Fix it,’ ” said Captain Rich Thompson, 36, who controls an area east of Baghdad.

The Iraqis have learned that these captains, many still in their 20s, can call down devastating American firepower one day and approve multimillion-dollar projects the next. Some have become celebrities in their sectors, men whose names are known even to children.

Many in the military believe that these captains are the linchpins in the American strategy for success in Iraq, but as the war continues into its sixth year the military has been losing them in large numbers at a time when it says it needs thousands more.



Speech translation

While Barack Obama’s speech on race earlier this week was geared primarily toward domestic concerns, as an American of Middle Eastern origin, watching from a café in Jordan, I was struck by the possibilities it offered not only for race relations at home, but for our relationship with Arabs and Muslims abroad.

Obama declared that “the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding.” He was speaking, of course, about the legacy of slavery and segregation. But he might as well have been talking about the burgeoning anger toward America felt by millions of frustrated Muslims around the world. And the conversation Obama tried to initiate — contextualizing radicalism and seeking its source rather than merely denouncing it — is the sort of conversation that could also lay the groundwork for a long-overdue reassessment of our approach to the Middle East. [complete article]

What Muslims think

[Interview of Prof. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed — authors of, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think]

Have we learned more about Muslims than we knew in 2001?

We did a survey of Americans in 2002, asking what they knew about the beliefs and opinions of Muslims around the world. Fifty-four percent said they knew nothing or not much. We asked that same question in 2007, after we’ve had two wars and a great deal more media coverage of Muslims, and this time 57 percent said they knew nothing or not much. We are no closer to truly understanding this part of the world, even as we are more engaged with it.

Editor’s Comment — In a January interview with the French magazine, Paris Match, Obama said: “Once I’m elected, I want to organize a summit in the Muslim world, with all the heads of state, to have an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows every day between Muslims and the West.”

Sounds like a smart idea, yet none of the other candidates have supported it and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition said that they regarded the proposal as deeply troubling. Small wonder so many people say they understand less about Muslims now than they did in 2002. There are political powers that have too heavy an investment in perpetuating the ignorance of ordinary Americans.

U.S. toll in Iraq reaches 4,000

Four U.S. soldiers were killed when a bomb hit their vehicle in south Baghdad late Sunday, bringing the number of U.S. service members killed in the Iraq war to 4,000.

The grim milestone came at a time when attacks against the U.S. military are ebbing and officials have claimed significant progress against Iraq’s deadly insurgency and sectarian violence. It was reached about 10 p.m. on a day when more than 60 Iraqis were killed and dozens injured in attacks in Baghdad and north of the capital.

The Battle of Baghdad

Over the course of five years, Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, has been transformed from a metropolis into an urban desert of half-destroyed buildings and next to no public services, dotted by partially deserted, mutually hostile mini-ghettos that used to be neighborhoods, surrounded by cement barriers reminiscent of medieval fortifications. The most prominent of these ghettos is the heavily fortified city-inside-a-city dubbed the Green Zone, where Iraq’s most fearsome militia, the United States military, is headquartered. It is governed by the Americans and by the American-sponsored Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

The remaining ghettos, large and small, are governed by local militias, most of them sworn enemies of the United States and the Maliki regime. In the expanding Shia areas of the capital, the local guardians are often members of the Mahdi Army, the militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has opposed the American presence since the occupation began. In the shrinking Sunni-controlled parts of the city, the local guardians are usually members of the Sahwa forces (the “Awakening” or, in U.S. military jargon, “Concerned Local Citizens”). The Americans have ceded to them control of their cement-enclosed domains as long as they discontinue insurgent attacks elsewhere.

The U.S. Military Index

In an exclusive new index, Foreign Policy and the Center for a New American Security surveyed more than 3,400 active and retired officers at the highest levels of command about the state of the U.S. military. They see a force stretched dangerously thin and a country ill-prepared for the next fight.
Sixty percent say the U.S. military is weaker today than it was five years ago. Asked why, more than half cite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the pace of troop deployments those conflicts require. More than half the officers say the military is weaker than it was either 10 or 15 years ago. But asked whether “the demands of the war in Iraq have broken the U.S. military,” 56 percent of the officers say they disagree. That is not to say, however, that they are without concern. Nearly 90 percent say that they believe the demands of the war in Iraq have “stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin.”

Clinton backer points to Electoral College votes as new measure

Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, who backs Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, proposed another gauge Sunday by which superdelegates might judge whether to support Mrs. Clinton or Senator Barack Obama.

He suggested that they consider the electoral votes of the states that each of them has won.

“So who carried the states with the most Electoral College votes is an important factor to consider because ultimately, that’s how we choose the president of the United States,” Mr. Bayh said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
Many Democrats, including Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bayh, have opposed the Electoral College in the past, particularly after 2000, when Florida’s 25 electoral votes were awarded to George W. Bush, who became president, even though Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, had won the popular vote nationwide.

At the time, Mrs. Clinton, who had just been elected to the Senate, said, “I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

Hillary’s Balkan adventures, part II

Hillary Clinton has been regaling supporters on the campaign trail with hair-raising tales of a trip she made to Bosnia in March 1996. In her retelling, she was sent to places that her husband, President Clinton, could not go because they were “too dangerous.” When her account was challenged by one of her traveling companions, the comedian Sinbad, she upped the ante and injected even more drama into the story. In a speech earlier this week, she talked about “landing under sniper fire” and running for safety with “our heads down.”
According to Sinbad, who provided entertainment on the trip along with the singer Sheryl Crow, the “scariest” part was deciding where to eat. As he told Mary Ann Akers of The Post, “I think the only ‘red-phone’ moment was: ‘Do we eat here or at the next place.'” Sinbad questioned the premise behind the Clinton version of events. “What kind of president would say ‘Hey man, I can’t go ’cause I might get shot so I’m going to send my wife. Oh, and take a guitar player and a comedian with you.”

Obama Aide: Bill Clinton Like McCarthy

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign is trying to clarify comments by former President Clinton that seemed to question Barack Obama’s patriotism—comments an Obama aide likened to Joseph McCarthy.

Clinton’s campaign said the comments were being misinterpreted and quickly posted a clarification on its Web site. But retired Air Force Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak said he was disappointed by the comments and compared them to those of McCarthy, the 1950s communist-hunting senator.

The former president made the comments while speculating about a general election between his wife and Republican John McCain.

“I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country,” said Clinton, who was speaking to a group of veterans Friday in Charlotte, N.C. “And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.”

Story behind the story: The Clinton myth

One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.

Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates. That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party’s most reliable constituency.

Unless Clinton is able to at least win the primary popular vote — which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle — and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory. An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else.

People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.

Dick Cheney’s error

On Wednesday, reminded of the public’s disapproval of the war in Iraq, now five years old, the vice president shrugged off that fact (and thus, the people themselves) with a one-word answer: “So?”

“So,” Mr. Vice President?

Policy, Cheney went on to say, should not be tailored to fit fluctuations in the public attitudes. If there is one thing public attitudes have not been doing, however, it is fluctuating: Resistance to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy has been widespread, entrenched and consistent. Whether public opinion is right or wrong, it is not to be cavalierly dismissed.

U.S. pushed allies on Iraq, diplomat writes

In the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration threatened trade reprisals against friendly countries who withheld their support, spied on its allies, and pressed for the recall of U.N. envoys that resisted U.S. pressure to endorse the war, according to an upcoming book by a top Chilean diplomat.

The rough-and-tumble diplomatic strategy has generated lasting “bitterness” and “deep mistrust” in Washington’s relations with allies in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, Heraldo Munoz, Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations, writes in his book “A Solitary War: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lessons,” set for publication next month.

“In the aftermath of the invasion, allies loyal to the United States were rejected, mocked and even punished” for their refusal to back a U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein’s government, Munoz writes.

But the tough talk dissipated as the war situation worsened, and President Bush came to reach out to many of the same allies that he had spurned. Munoz’s account suggests that the U.S. strategy backfired in Latin America, damaging the administration’s standing in a region that has long been dubious of U.S. military intervention.

Administration puts its best spin on Iran report

Comments last week by President Bush and Vice President Cheney suggested continuing White House unhappiness at the conclusions of last December’s national intelligence estimate on Iran’s nuclear program.

Bush told U.S.-funded Radio Farda, which broadcasts into Iran in Farsi, that Iranian leaders have “declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people,” a statement that went well beyond the findings of the NIE.

Cheney, meanwhile, jousted with ABC’s Martha Raddatz when she tried to pin him down on whether he agreed with the NIE’s finding that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having several opportunities to endorse this finding, the vice president said in an interview only that “I have high confidence they have an ongoing enrichment program.”

U.S. may relent on Hamas role in talks

After ruling out talks with Hamas, the militant Islamist group, the Bush administration is using Egypt as an intermediary to open a channel between Israel and representatives of the group, in what some diplomats say could be a softening of the American stance.

While administration officials still say they do not plan to deal directly with Hamas, the United States has given tacit support to an attempt by Egyptian officials to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the mediation attempt with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo early this month, and with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, administration officials said. Egyptian civilian intelligence officials are the go-betweens, Arab diplomats said.


CAMPAIGN 08 EDITORIAL: With attention to the unseen

Words in context

Suppose Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers of American democracy had been able to see into the future. As they looked forward to the America of 2008, what would have held their attention more firmly?

That the society they helped form was to make such significant advances towards equality that two people who once would not even have been able to vote would now be vying to become president?

Or, that a momentous democratic choice might hinge on the effect of a few emotive phrases uttered by a man not even running for office?

A couple of days ago in Time magazine, Joe Klein wrote:

Whether Obama survives now will depend on the most important and overlooked part of his speech [in Philadelphia] — the final section, in which he challenged the public and, especially, the media to stow the sensationalism: “We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day … and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words,” he said. “But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election we’ll be talking about some other distraction … And nothing will change … Or, at this moment in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.'”

And that is the existential challenge of 2008: whether we will have a big election or a small one. Will we have a serious conversation about the enormous problems confronting the country — the wars, the economic crisis, the looming environmental cataclysm — or will we allow the same old carnival of swift boats and sound bites? The answer depends on the candidates, of course, and on the media — where cynicism too often passes for insight. But most of all, it depends on you.

Klein notes that Obama challenged the public “and especially the media” to turn away from the distractions that could prevent this from being “a big election,” yet he almost immediately lets the media off the hook. The existential challenge of 2008, he says, most of all “depends on you.”

Taken literally, that’s indisputable. We’re the ones who get to decide how we vote. Yet what Klein does — what everyone in the media does when their preeminent loyalty attaches to their paycheck — is to refuse to point a spotlight on the individuals who shape the news from the shadows.

In every single newsroom on every single day, commercial and political decisions are being made while cloaked under the pretense that events themselves are the overwhelming force that steers editorial judgment. But consider how little we actually know about the decision-making process that triggered what has become the most explosive story in the presidential campaign.

On Good Morning America on March 13, Brian Ross with the stealth of a terrorist who is just about to set off a bomb, uttered these seemingly innocent words: “… an ABC News review of more than a dozen sermons… ” — and we all know what followed.

What we don’t know, but what could be as illuminating as the DVDs themselves, is what led ABC News to be conducting a review of Rev Jeremiah Wright’s sermons in the first place.

For months, everyone who had been paying much attention knew that Wright’s connection with Obama had the potential to wreak political havoc. In an interview with the New York Times in March 2007, Rev Wright’s explanation for why he had been disinvited from Obama’s presidential announcement was that the senator had told him, “You can get kind of rough in the sermons, so what we’ve decided is that it’s best for you not to be out there in public.”

It was a decision that drew criticism from other black leaders because, as Al Sharpton put it, “the issue is standing by your own pastor.” A month earlier, a Rolling Stone article had identified Wright as an emblem of Obama’s “radical roots.” And a year later, Tim Russert as presidential debate moderator-cum-inquisitor had cited Wright in order to find out whether Obama was willing to denounce and reject Louis Farrakhan.

So, while every cable news channel has followed ABC News‘ lead and made Rev Wright campaign issue #1, no one has been pressing the ABC News investigative team to explain how exactly it came to set the political agenda.

Was the Good Morning America story the fruit of a tenacious piece of investigative journalism, or might it on the contrary have been an altogether lazy piece of journalism — a case of someone saying, “Here’s the ammo. All you need to do is load and fire”?

When news isn’t new then this issue of timing means that newsmaking is taking place inside the newsroom. The media has become manufacturer. Might we be allowed to become privy to the process?

For instance, it’s obvious why the ABC News editors would deem a line such as “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” as newsworthy. But how did they decide that most of what came immediately after that line was irrelevant. Would most Americans not have responded in a different way if they had then heard Wright say:

Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets terrorism. A white ambassador [Edward Peck] said that y’all, not a black militant. Not a reverend who preaches about racism. An ambassador whose eyes are wide open and who is trying to get us to wake up and move away from this dangerous precipice upon which we are now poised. The ambassador said the people we have wounded don’t have the military capability we have. But they do have individuals who are willing to die and take thousands with them. And we need to come to grips with that.

edward-peck.jpgRev Wright was telling his congregation, pay attention to this white man, Edward Peck. It’s worth listening to what he has to say. It’s worth taking into consideration the opinion of a man who had been the Deputy Director of the White House Task Force on Terrorism under President Ronald Reagan, former Deputy Coordinator, Covert Intelligence Programs at the State Department, U.S. Ambassador and Chief of Mission to Iraq (1977-1980), and a 32-year veteran of the Foreign Service. At least, as far as Rev Wright was concerned, Edward Peck was worth listening to and that’s what he told his congregation.

On October 8, 2001, on CNN, Peck was asked: “Wouldn’t this war against terrorism be a mistake if we stop at Osama bin Laden and don’t take out Saddam Hussein as well?”

Peck said it would not be a mistake because, “when you take out Saddam Hussein, the key question you have to ask then is, what happens after that? And we don’t have a clue. Nobody knows, but it’s probably going to be bad. And a lot of people are going to be very upset about that, because that really is not written into our role in this world is to decide who rules Iraq.”

Rev Wright suggested that “in the wake of the American tragedy” of 9/11, in a process of self-examination, it would really be in America’s interests to listen to people such as Edward Peck. ABC News and much of the rest of the media would rather that we pay attention to a few ill-chosen phrases.