Party like it’s 2008

Almost every wrong prediction about this election cycle has come from those trying to force the round peg of this year’s campaign into the square holes of past political wars. That’s why race keeps being portrayed as dooming Mr. Obama — surely Jeremiah Wright = Willie Horton! — no matter what the voters say to the contrary. It’s why the Beltway took on faith the Clinton machine’s strategic, organization and fund-raising invincibility. It’s why some prognosticators still imagine that John McCain can spin the Iraq fiasco to his political advantage as Richard Nixon miraculously did Vietnam.

The year 2008 is far more complex — and exhilarating — than the old templates would have us believe. Of course we’re in pain. More voters think the country is on the wrong track (81 percent) than at any time in the history of New York Times/CBS News polling on that question. George W. Bush is the most unpopular president that any living American has known.

And yet, paradoxically, there is a heartening undertow: we know the page will turn. For all the anger and angst over the war and the economy, for all the campaign’s acrimony, the anticipation of ending the Bush era is palpable, countering the defeatist mood. The repressed sliver of joy beneath the national gloom can be seen in the record registration numbers of new voters and the over-the-top turnout in Democratic primaries.

Editor’s Comment — The Bush legacy may turn out to be not the one he intended or will ever lay claim to, but to be that he has transformed the way Americans view politics. He has stripped away whatever aura may have once surrounded the institution of the presidency and helped convince thousands of Americans that whatever their humble backgrounds they could do a better job of running the country. By cloaking the workings of the executive branch of government in secrecy he has demonstrated the urgent need for transparency in government. By conducting a disastrous foreign policy he has helped raise foreign affairs above its status as an arcane interest reserved for specialists, to an issue that visibly affects and should concern all Americans.

In effect, Bush has governed so badly that rather than produce a loss of faith in government, he has helped ignite a widespread desire for government of the people to be reclaimed by the people. Thanks to George Bush, more Americans than ever, understand that individually we share responsibility in determining how this country is governed.

Sadrists and Iraqi government reach truce deal

The Iraqi government and leaders of the movement of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr agreed Saturday to a truce, brokered with help from Iran, that would end more than a month of bloody fighting in the vast, crowded Sadr City section of Baghdad.

The fighting there, which has claimed several hundred lives, left many more wounded and forced residents to flee, has tested the ability of Iraq’s Shiite-led government to confront powerful Shiite militias, here in Baghdad and in Basra, to the south.

The deal would allow the sides to pull back from what was becoming a messy and unpopular showdown in the months leading up to crucial provincial elections. It is not clear who won, how long it would take for the truce to take effect or how long it would hold. But at least for now it would end the warfare among Shiite factions.

Crisis eases in Lebanon

Lebanon’s violent political crisis appeared to ease Saturday after the country’s army stepped in to freeze a pair of controversial government decrees that had set off four days of deadly clashes. The militant Hezbollah group responded by saying it would pull its fighters off the streets, a day after seizing control of half the Lebanese capital.

The army’s intervention appeared to confirm complete victory for Hezbollah, which stunned observers by routing pro-government forces and taking control of West Beirut on Friday. The attack came hours after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused the government of “declaring war” on his movement through the two cabinet decrees that have now been overturned.

Hizbollah’s show of force

After three days of street battles against pro-government fighters in Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, Hizbollah and its allies seized control of west Beirut on Friday.

The Los Angeles Times spoke to one of the Hizbollah fighters: “He held what he described as an Israeli-made M-16 assault rifle equipped with a night-vision scope and a laser sight.

“‘It was an insult for us to fight these people,’ he said of the Sunni militia loyal to the government. ‘We fight great armies.'”

Lebanon: the next step?

Fierce battles have been reported in northern Lebanon over night between rival clans after the Hizbollah-led opposition said it was ending its takeover of west Beirut.

A security official said the fighting in the city of Tripoli was between Sunni supporters of the Western-backed government and members of an Alawite sect loyal to Hizbollah. He added that one woman had been killed and thousands were fleeing the area.

Silence from our sabre rattlers as Burma’s dying cry out to be saved

What are we waiting for? Where now is liberal interventionism? More than 100,000 people are dead after a cyclone in the Irrawaddy delta and the United Nations has declared that up to 2m people, deprived of aid for a week, are at risk of death. Barely 10% are reported to have received any help. The world stands ready to save them. The warehouses of Asia are crammed with supplies. Ships and planes are on station. Nothing happens.

Anyone who has visited this exquisite part of the world will know how avoidable is further catastrophe to the delta people. They are resourceful, peaceable and hugely resilient. Like those of lowlying Bangladesh next door, they are used to extreme weather. Their agriculture is fertile and they are self-sufficient in most things. But no one can survive instant starvation and disease.

They need not wait. There are three giant C130s loaded and ready in Thailand. There are American and French ships in the area, fortuitously on a disaster relief exercise, with shelters, clothing, latrines, medicines and water decontamination equipment. Above all there are helicopters, vital in an area where roads are impassable by flooding and fallen trees.

Forget the two-state solution

There is no longer a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Forget the endless arguments about who offered what and who spurned whom and whether the Oslo peace process died when Yasser Arafat walked away from the bargaining table or whether it was Ariel Sharon’s stroll through the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem that did it in.

All that matters are the facts on the ground, of which the most important is that — after four decades of intensive Jewish settlement in the Palestinian territories it occupied during the 1967 war — Israel has irreversibly cemented its grip on the land on which a Palestinian state might have been created.

Sixty years after Israel was created and Palestine was destroyed, then, we are back to where we started: Two populations inhabiting one piece of land. And if the land cannot be divided, it must be shared. Equally.

U.S. Jews’ relationship with Israel evolves

Growing up at Congregation Olam Tikvah, Michelle Pearlstein remembers how Israel was taught at religious school: “Black and white — you can’t trust anyone, and it was a united front in support of Israel.” Today, Pearlstein, 35, is the Israel specialist at the Fairfax synagogue, where she teaches what is now the mainstream approach: “We call it ‘Israel, warts and all.’ ”

The change in curriculum is but one manifestation of the changing relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state, even as the country celebrates its 60th birthday this week.

Multiple new polls show that younger American Jews feel less of a connection to Israel than older Jews. And while there is heated debate about some of the polls’ methodologies and conclusions, most Jewish leaders are very concerned about the data. The leaders see them as a long-term byproduct of intermarriage, assimilation and controversial Israeli policies, including settlement expansion in the occupied territories.

A last chance for civilization

Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start — even for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.

It’s not just the economy. We’ve gone through swoons before. It’s that gas at $4 a gallon means we’re running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It’s that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It’s that everything is so inextricably tied together. It’s that, all of a sudden, those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the “limits to growth” suddenly seem… how best to put it, right.

All of a sudden it isn’t morning in America, it’s dusk on planet Earth.

There’s a number — a new number — that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA’s Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued — and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper — “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points — massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them — that we’ll pass if we don’t get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer’s insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

Purchases linked N. Korean to Syria

When North Korean businessman Ho Jin Yun first caught the attention of German customs police in 2002, he was on a continental buying spree with a shopping list that seemed as random as it was long.

Yun, police discovered, had been crisscrossing Central Europe, amassing a bafflingly diverse collection of materials and high-tech gadgets: gas masks, electric timers, steel pipes, vacuum pumps, transformers and aluminum tubes cut to precise dimensions.

Most of these wares Yun had shipped to his company’s offices in China and North Korea. But some of the goods, U.S. and European officials now say, were evidently intended for a secret project in Syria: a nuclear reactor that would be built with North Korean help, allegedly to produce plutonium for eventual use in nuclear weapons.

According to U.S. officials, European intelligence officials and diplomats, Yun’s firm — Namchongang Trading, known as NCG — provided the critical link between Pyongyang and Damascus, acquiring key materials from vendors in China and probably from Europe, and secretly transferring them to a desert construction site near the Syrian town of Al Kibar.

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