Archives for June 2008

FEATURES & EDITOR’S COMMENT: America needs a better Qaeda narrative

Amid policy disputes, Qaeda grows in Pakistan

Administration lawyers and State Department officials are concerned about any new authorities that would allow military missions to be launched without the approval of the American ambassador in Islamabad. With Qaeda operatives now described in intelligence reports as deeply entrenched in the tribal areas and immersed in the civilian population, there is also a view among some military and C.I.A. officials that the opportunity for decisive American action against the militants may have been lost.

Pakistani military officials, meanwhile, express growing frustration with the American pressure, and point out that Pakistan has lost more than 1,000 members of its security forces in the tribal areas since 2001, nearly double the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan.

Some architects of America’s efforts in Pakistan defend the Bush administration’s record in the tribal areas, and vigorously deny that Washington took its eye off the terrorist threat as it focused on Iraq policy. Some also question whether Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s top two leaders, are really still able to orchestrate large-scale attacks.

“I do wonder if it’s in fact the case that Al Qaeda has really reconstituted itself to a pre-9/11 capability, and in fact I would say I seriously doubt that,” said Mr. Crocker, the American ambassador to Pakistan between 2004 and 2006 and currently the ambassador to Iraq.

“Their top-level leadership is still out there, but they’re not communicating and they’re not moving around. I think they’re symbolic more than operationally effective,” Mr. Crocker said.

But while Mr. Bush vowed early on that Mr. bin Laden would be captured “dead or alive,” the moment in late 2001 when Mr. bin Laden and his followers escaped at Tora Bora was almost certainly the last time the Qaeda leader was in American sights, current and former intelligence officials say. Leading terrorism experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before a major terrorist attack planned in the mountains of Pakistan is carried out on American soil. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Why would the branch of al Qaeda based in Pakistan be wasting its resources plotting another major attack on the US? To my mind it seems more likely that they’re now operating under the principle: No need to attack them over there when we can fight them right here.

These are strategic thinkers and I doubt that they have as strong an interest in the abstract goal of destroying Western civilization as they do in the practical goal of driving the US and its allies out of Afghanistan. 9/11 was the bait intended to draw the enemy into a fight on the home turf. We swallowed the bait.

And at the same time, let’s not lose sight of the fact that even a so-called reconstituted al Qaeda with — as the NYT claims — 2,000 local and foreign fighters, is a relatively minor player in this war.

As Graham Usher makes clear in the article below, the geographically-rooted social force here is an ethnic Pashtun movement that ultimately aspires to turn its homeland into a state. “The closest analogy,” according to Khalid Aziz, a former first secretary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), “is the Maoists in Nepal.”

When Obama and the Democratic chorus use the line, “finish the job” in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, do they have the slightest clue what this means? It’s comic-book-talk — no more sophisticated than Bush’s original “smoke ’em out of their caves” line. Anyone serious about trying to dismantle al Qaeda has to reconcile themselves to the ugly fact that this will require dealing with, rather than attempting to destroy, the Taliban. That effort could have started in September 2001. The fact that it didn’t, resulted from a failure in imagination that has haunted us ever since.

Pakistan amidst the storms

Pakistan’s insurgents are not one group, but at least four, loosely allied. There is the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. There are the “Kashmiri mujahideen,” native jihadist groups once nurtured by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to fight a proxy war with India in the disputed Kashmir province but which have now cut loose from their handlers. And there is al-Qaeda and its affiliates: between 150 and 500 Arab, Uzbek and other foreign fighters who have found refuge in the FATA and use the remote tribal enclave for planning, training, rearmament and recruitment.

There are differences between the factions. The Pakistan and Afghan Taliban are still overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtun movements with a focus on Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and the jihadists have a more global reach, including targets within Pakistan, such as the bombing on June 2 of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. But all are united in the war against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. And all are committed to extending the Taliban’s territorial reach beyond the FATA to the NWFP as a whole, including Peshawar, the provincial capital. Such Talibanization “gives the Taliban more security, territory, recruits and bargaining power,” says a source. “It allows them to talk peace in Swat while waging war in Waziristan.”

The government’s response to Talibanization has been to temporize. In 2007, before her return, Bhutto spoke of devolving democratic power to the tribes while integrating the FATA into Pakistan proper, in effect doing away with its special “tribal” status. The focus of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which heads the NWFP Provincial Government, is economic: It has drawn up plans for a crash program of schools, colleges, rehabilitation centers and jobs to wean young tribesmen from an emerging Taliban polity that is well “on the way to primitive state formation with its own tax system, paid bureaucracy and dispute resolution,” says Aziz. For him — and many in the NWFP government — the Taliban represents less an Islamist movement than a “class revolt expressed in a religious idiom. The closest analogy is the Maoists in Nepal,” he says. It can only be addressed by the “transformation and integration” of a derelict tribal system.

Such a project “will take years,” says Aziz. It is also understood that no peace will hold in the NWFP without a resolution of the conflict with the Taliban in the FATA, which is under the remit of the federal government. And the PPP and Awami Nationalist Party have passed that buck to the army: an abdication frankly admitted by the government’s decision on June 25 to entrust the use of force in FATA entirely to Kayani. The army’s strategy for now is to secure localized peace deals that will keep the territorial advantage it obtained in February while playing divide-and-rule with the Taliban’s different tribal leaderships. It is “the policy of the breathing space,” says Afghanistan expert Ahmad Rashid.

In South Waziristan, this means extracting a pledge from the Taliban to end attacks on the army and government-sponsored development projects. In return, the army will release prisoners and “reposition” its units outside the cities. In Swat in the NWFP, the tradeoff is that the Taliban end attacks on government institutions, including girls’ schools, in return for implementation of Islamic law, seen principally as a means to coopt hundreds of jobless seminary students who may otherwise join the militants. “It’s an agreement,” says Aziz, “but not in the Western sense. In the FATA an agreement is an arrangement to coexist. It means shutting your eyes to many things.”

The Taliban have closed their eyes to the army camps that now nestle permanently in the mountains above them. And the army is looking away from a steady flow of guerrillas across the border, or at least is not acting overtly to intercept them. Peace in Pakistan, in other words, may translate into intensified warfare in Afghanistan. [complete article]



Threats are not the way for the US to persuade Iran to change tack

The oxymoron in a Jerusalem Post headline last week summed up the efforts of some in Israel and the United States to create the impression that military confrontation with Iran is imminent. The paper proclaimed – four days in advance – that the US military chief of staff would make a “surprise” visit, suggesting this was further evidence that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is planned before president George W Bush leaves office.

This was conjecture, of course, but we are plainly in the season for it: the Post’s report followed the New York Times claiming that Israel had flown some 100 aircraft 900 miles across the Mediterranean as a “dry run” for a strike on Iran.

As any gangster will tell you, don’t worry when your enemies are telling the world that they’re coming to kill you; the real peril comes in stealth and silence. When Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, there was no advance warning. As most sober Israeli and American commentators concluded, the Times story had been leaked to raise pressure on Tehran to abandon uranium enrichment.

How likely is a scenario in which the US or Israel strikes Iran before Bush leaves office? (Or is the Left falling for the hawks’ propaganda?)

Trita Parsi: The recent war rhetoric coming out of Israel seems more geared towards ensuring that America keeps its military option on the table, than towards signalling that Israel itself is prepared to take military action. Even if Israel does have the capability to strike Iran—which is debatable—Israel certainly does not have the capability to successfully eliminate all Iranian nuclear facilities. Would Israel initiate an attack—knowing it would fail—only to force the US to step in and utilize its military option? Possibly, but it would come at a great expense to Israel: the Jewish state’s deterrence is to a large extent based on the outside world not knowing what Israel can and cannot do. By attacking Iran and failing to destroy the Iranian facilities, Israel would reveal the limitations of its capabilities and strike a major blow against its own deterrence.

Editor’s Comment — In spite of it’s go-it-alone image, Israel is not going to act without consulting Washington. And if push came to shove, the easiest way of figuring out what Washington’s position would be is to ask: How will the American electorate react when gasoline goes from $4 to $6 or $8 a gallon? How many Americans care that much about whether Iran acquires nuclear weapons?

McCain likes to use the line, “There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option; that is a nuclear-armed Iran,” and he’s also said, “If the price of oil has to go up, then that’s a consequence we would have to suffer.”

That’s easy to say, but as is already evident, pain-at-the-pump holds the attention of most Americans much more than dire national security warnings.

Preparing the battlefield

Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.

Editor’s Comment — Time’s running out fast for Hersh to be vindicated on his perennial war-with-Iran warnings. In this case, I’d want to know what his sources meant when they used the word “conducting” — as in Special Ops forces have been conducting cross-border operations. At face value, that sounds like American troops sneaking into Iran. What it could mean is members of the MEK being given directives by Americans. The political risks involved in Iranians being caught by Iranians, is clearly much less than that of having US troops put on trial in Tehran.

In courts, Afghanistan air base may become next Guantanamo

Jawed Ahmad, a driver and assistant for reporters of a Canadian television network in Afghanistan, knew the roads to avoid, how to get interviews and which stories to pitch. Reporters trusted him, his bosses say.

Then, one day about seven months ago, the 22-year-old CTV News contractor vanished. Weeks later, reporters would learn from Ahmad’s family that he had been arrested by U.S. troops, locked up in the U.S. military prison at Bagram air base and accused of being an enemy combatant.

Lawyers representing Ahmad filed a federal lawsuit early this month challenging his detention on grounds similar to those cited in successful lawsuits on behalf of captives at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The lawyers are hoping to turn Ahmad’s case and a handful of others into the next legal battleground over the rights of terrorism suspects apprehended on foreign soil. More lawsuits are expected on behalf of Bagram detainees in coming months, the lawyers said.

The rise and fall of a Sons of Iraq warrior

A year ago, Sunni Arab fighter Abu Abed led an improbable revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq. As he killed its leaders and burned down hide-outs, he became a symbol of a new group called the Sons of Iraq — the man who dared to stand up to the extremists in Baghdad when it still ranked as a suicidal act.

Today, Abu Abed is chain-smoking cigarettes in Amman, betrayed by his best friend, on the run from a murder investigation in his homeland. He once walked the streets of Baghdad wearing wraparound sunglasses and surrounded by a posse of men in matching fatigues like something out of “Reservoir Dogs,” but now he shouts futilely for speeding taxis to halt, a slight figure in jeans and a button-down short-sleeve shirt.

Abu Abed’s rise and fall encapsulates the complexities of the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq program. Although the Shiite-led Iraqi government has regarded the Sons of Iraq as little more than a front for insurgent groups, the Sunni fighters’ war helped end the cycle of car bombings and reprisal killings by Shiite militias that had sent Baghdad headlong into civil war. America’s new friends also helped bring down the death rate of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The urge to surge

On March 19, 2003, as his shock-and-awe campaign against Iraq was being launched, George W. Bush addressed the nation. “My fellow citizens,” he began, “at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” We were entering Iraq, he insisted, “with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization and for the religious faiths they practice. We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people.”

Within weeks, of course, that “great civilization” was being looted, pillaged, and shipped abroad. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship was no more and, soon enough, the Iraqi Army of 400,000 had been officially disbanded by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority and the President’s viceroy in Baghdad. By then, ministry buildings — except for the oil and interior ministries — were just looted shells. Schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, just about everything that was national or meaningful, had been stripped bare. Meanwhile, in their new offices in Saddam’s former palaces, America’s neoconservative occupiers were already bringing in the administration’s crony corporations — Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR, Bechtel, and others — to finish off the job of looting the country under the rubric of “reconstruction.” Somehow, these “administrators” managed to “spend” $20 billion of Iraq’s oil money, already in the “Development Fund for Iraq,” even before the first year of occupation was over — and to no effect whatsoever. They also managed to create what Ed Harriman in the London Review of Books labeled “the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East.” (No small trick given the competition.)

U.S. advised Iraqi ministry on oil deals

A group of American advisers led by a small State Department team played an integral part in drawing up contracts between the Iraqi government and five major Western oil companies to develop some of the largest fields in Iraq, American officials say.

The disclosure, coming on the eve of the contracts’ announcement, is the first confirmation of direct involvement by the Bush administration in deals to open Iraq’s oil to commercial development and is likely to stoke criticism.

In their role as advisers to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, American government lawyers and private-sector consultants provided template contracts and detailed suggestions on drafting the contracts, advisers and a senior State Department official said.


NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Peshawar “could fall” to the Taliban

The Taliban’s advance threatens Pakistan

“The security situation in Peshawar is grim. Officials in the home department, who evaluate the situation on an almost daily basis, believe declaring a state of red alert is now only a matter of time,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported on Tuesday.

“With militants knocking at the gates of the capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), even the more circumspect government and police officials now grudgingly concede that Peshawar, too, could fall in a few months.

“‘Peshawar is in a state of siege and if Peshawar falls, the rest of the districts in the NWFP would fall like ninepins’, a worried senior government official told Dawn.”

Pakistan’s Daily Times noted: “These days Taliban fighters do not sneak in to Peshawar. They arrive in broad daylight on the back of pick-up trucks, brandishing automatic weapons, and threatening owners of music stores to close down. ‘They had long hair and flowing beards, and were carrying Kalashnikovs. They told me to close down the shop or face the consequences,’ said Abdul Latif, a clean-shaven 20-year-old, whose video store received a visit from the vigilantes last week. ‘I asked police for help but they said they are helpless,’ he said.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The Democratic Party national security posture has for several years been to claim that a clear-eyed Democratic president would “finish the job” that George Bush started in Afghanistan and from which he got distracted by Iraq.

In 2009, assuming Obama wins the election, the Democrats and the rest of America will be in for a rude awakening. A war in Afghanistan — originally dreamed up by Zbigniew Brzezinski as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam — is destined to become for the US more like Vietnam than even Iraq has been. But whereas Vietnam had the natural containment of Vietnamese nationalism, Afghanistan has no such boundaries.

The fantasy of a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan — the Durand Line — is the reason the war in Afghanistan is so difficult to prevent becoming a deeper regional conflict. With the Pakistani side of the “border” defended largely by the Frontier Corps, it’s not hard to understand why the NWFP and FATA provides the Taliban with a comfortable refuge. Created by the British, the FC retains a colonial structure: 80,000 soldiers drawn from the local population, commanded by officers from outside the region who apparently often “disdain the assignment.” FC soldiers are naturally ambivalent about fighting fellow Pashtuns, but the more heavy-handed the Pakistani Army becomes, the more the concept of Pakistan comes under threat.

American pressure on the Pakistan government to crackdown on the militants, risks provoking a civil war. In that event, the chances for NATO finishing the job in Afghanistan will be reduced to precisely zero.

A useful question to pose both presidential candidates might be this: Where do you anticipate American troops fighting for the longest? Iraq or Afghanistan?



Conservatives and their carnival of fraud

I wonder if, back in the rosy-fingered dawn of our conservative era, all those Adam Smith-tied evangelists of “limited government” had any idea that they were greasing the skids for a character like 22-year-old arms dealer Efraim Diveroli?

Mr. Diveroli, whose tousled, slightly confused visage recalls the perpetually stoned Jeff Spicoli from the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” was the improbable recipient of a 2007 government contract to supply ammunition to our allies in Afghanistan.

The trouble was the munitions he sold were, like, seriously bogus. Old and partially defective, the stuff apparently originated in China, which is a Pentagon no-no. Mr. Diveroli was indicted by a federal grand jury in Florida on Friday on numerous counts, including allegedly attempting to defraud the government.

How could a kid barely able to buy beer secure a nearly $300 million defense contract? It will be interesting to find out. Maybe Mr. Diveroli’s story will be the one that finally fixes public attention on the carnival of fraud, waste and profiteering that characterizes our system of government-by-contractor. Maybe it will finally persuade us to ask our politicians why it is that they hire Blackwater to do the job of the Marines and pay Kellogg Brown and Root to arrange the logistics for the Army wherever it goes.

See also, the New York Times report that got the ball rolling, a YouTube with audio of Diveroli’s arms dealing, Diveroli’s recent indictment, the ambassador who appears to be complicit in a cover-up, and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on AEY contracts with the US government chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman.

Iraqi officials outraged by U.S. raid in prime minister’s hometown

Outraged Iraqi officials demanded an investigation into an early morning U.S. military raid Friday near the birthplace of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, saying the operation violated the terms of the handover of Karbala province to Iraqi security forces.

Karbala Gov. Oqeil al Khazaali said U.S. forces killed an unarmed civilian and arrested at least one person in the raid in the southern town of Janaja. The governor’s brother, Hassanein al Khazaali, said late Friday that the Iraqi killed in the operation was a relative of the U.S.-backed prime minister.

The U.S. military command in Baghdad had no comment. Two senior aides to Maliki weren’t available for comment; one was still in a meeting with the prime minister after midnight. The governor is said to belong to the prime minister’s Dawa Party.

Iraqi MPs stall deals on Bush benchmarks

Three key US-backed measures on oil, provincial elections and the future of US troops are mired in the Iraqi parliament, raising doubts as to whether they can come into effect before George Bush leaves office.

Once listed as a crucial “benchmark” allowing the US president to claim success in Iraq, the provincial elections look likely to be delayed until next year. The oil law, which nationalist MPs blocked last summer over fears that foreign companies would take over Iraq’s major resource, is facing the same problem again.

The pact to permit US troops to remain in Iraq is equally sensitive, and was described by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, this month as being in stalemate. Intensive US-Iraqi talks on new drafts have resumed and, after meeting Bush in the White House this week, President Jalal Talabani tried to sound optimistic. “We have very good, important steps towards reaching to finalise this agreement,” he said. Many MPs complain that it will give the US excessive rights.

Israeli strike on Iran not likely – local analysts

The past week’s spate of signals that Israel might be preparing a strike against Iranian nuclear targets – an attack which would almost certainly provoke a wave of retaliation engulfing Hizbullah and Lebanon in regional conflict – amounts to nothing more than posturing to prod the West in negotiations with the Islamic Republic, a number of analysts told The Daily Star.

The New York Times reported on June 20 that Israel had carried out military maneuvers simulating a long-range bombing run and attendant rescue operations, but internal political considerations in Israel, the US and Iran’s Arab neighbors augur against such a strike, with the show of force designed instead to push the US and European to move more forcefully against Iran’s nuclear program, the analysts said.

Iran military chief says Israel can’t stop nuclear program

The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards warned Israel against launching a military strike on Iran, adding that any such attack would not halt Iran’s nuclear program given that Tehran’s nuclear capabilities are at an advanced stage.

In comments published on Saturday in the Iranian newspaper Jam-e Jam, the Guards commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said that Israel “is completely within the range of the Islamic republic’s missiles” and it cannot confront Iran’s missile power.



Political theater seen in Israeli drill

An Israeli military exercise over the Mediterranean appears to have been less a dry run for an attack on Iran than a message that Tehran must curb its nuclear ambitions, according to officials and experts.

U.S. defense officials suggested last week that the drill was a dress rehearsal for an Israeli strike. But the Greek government, which took part in the exercise, rejected that assessment. And some observers think the disclosure of the maneuvers was aimed at getting the international community to step up diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

“The exercise has no connection with Israeli ‘preparations’ for an attack on Iran, as has been inaccurately reported,” said Greek government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos. He said Israeli aircraft flew at high altitudes inconsistent with an attack, and the exercise did not simulate anti-aircraft fire.

News of the drill sent oil prices spiking. U.N. nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei warned an attack could turn the Mideast into a “ball of fire.” And Iran’s parliament speaker hinted a military strike could actually provoke the building of bombs.

Editor’s Comment — I can’t resist tooting my own trumpet on this story. While news organizations and bloggers alike were happy to run with Michael Gordon’s “attack rehearsal” Pentagon propaganda, I pointed out here and here that this was a story that shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Hamas: Continued rocket fire by Fatah armed group harms Palestinian interests

The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip lashed out at rival militants after two Qassam rockets were fired at southern Israel yesterday, causing no injuries but further straining the shaky truce between Israel and Hamas that went into effect last Thursday morning.

In view of the continued rocket fire, Israel will keep the crossings into the Gaza Strip closed today, for the third straight day.

The Fatah-affiliated group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for yesterday’s rocket fire and demanded that the cease-fire be extended into the West Bank.

Editor’s Comment — Well, it’s safe to assume that we won’t be hearing any public appeals from Ehud Olmert, Tony Blair (he is still The Quartet’s star envoy, isn’t he?), George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, or Barak Obama, calling on Mahmoud Abbas to reign in the Fatah militants. Neither will there be wider support for a ceasefire covering all the Palestinian occupied territories. I guess it’s because all the peace processors are such deep believers in true peace that they can only offer tepid support for a mere truce.

Is Obama turning out to be just another politician?

From the beginning, Barack Obama’s special appeal was his vow to remain an idealistic outsider, courageous and optimistic, and never to shift his positions for political expediency, or become captive of the Inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia, or kiss up to special interests and big money donors.

In recent weeks, though, Obama has done all those things.

He abandoned public campaign financing after years of championing it. Backed a compromise on wiretap legislation that gives telecom companies retroactive immunity for helping the government conduct spying without warrants. Dumped his controversial pastor of two decades — then his church — after saying he could no more abandon the pastor than abandon his own grandmother.

He said he wouldn’t wear the U.S. flag pin because it had become a substitute for true patriotism, then started wearing it. Ramped up his courtship of unions. Shifted from a pledge to protect working-class families from tax increases to a far more expensive promise not to raise taxes on families that earn up to $250,000 a year. Turned to longtime D.C. Democratic wise men to run his vice-presidential search and staff his foreign-policy brain trust.

Editor’s Comment — I don’t subscribe to the theory that the seemingly idealistic Obama was merely a contrivance and now the “real Obama” — a cynical political opportunist — is revealing himself. But in the name of realism and so-called political necessity, it’s easy to forget your core values.

Compromise is an incremental process whose individual steps are never too egregious when viewed in isolation. But the steps aggregate and by the time the sum of the aggregation can be clearly seen, it’s too late to reverse.

There’s nothing wrong with showing that you’re a pragmatist and that you don’t fit into an ideological box, but if it comes at the expense of defining your political bedrock, then eventually no one will know whether that foundation exists.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton liked to flatter themselves with the cute claim that they were seasoned practitioners of “principled compromise.” In the end though it became clear that they honed their skill in compromise not in conjunction with but rather at the expense of their principles.

Obama’s supreme move to the center

When the Supreme Court issues rulings on hot-button issues like gun control and the death penalty in the middle of a presidential campaign, Republicans could be excused for thinking they’ll have the perfect opportunity to paint their Democratic opponent as an out-of-touch social liberal. But while Barack Obama may be ranked as one of the Senate’s most liberal members, his reactions to this week’s controversial court decisions showed yet again how he is carefully moving to the center ahead of the fall campaign.

On Wednesday, after the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional in cases of child rape, Obama surprised some observers by siding with the hardline minority of Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. At a press conference after the decision, Obama said, “I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution.”

Iran fights scourge of addiction in plain view, stressing treatment

More than 93 percent of the opium produced for the world’s illicit narcotics markets comes from Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Iran is the main trafficking route for nearly 60 percent of the opium grown in Afghanistan.

With opium production skyrocketing in Afghanistan, some Iranian officials accuse the American military of ignoring poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, even though it is a major source of revenue for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

“We think the Americans want to keep this source of infection near us,” said Mr. Jahani, the Iranian antidrug official. “Because of the animosity between Iran and the U.S., this is the best way to keep our resources and forces occupied.”

The government grew so concerned about drug trafficking that it spent $6 billion in 2006 to build a wall 13 feet high, with barbed wire, and a trench 13 feet deep and 16 feet wide along a third of Iran’s border with Afghanistan. Iran seizes more illicit opiates than any other country, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said, and it burns tons of confiscated drugs in a ceremony every year.

West links drug war aid to Iranian nuclear impasse

Iranian forces have battled for years in the lonely canyons and deserts on the Afghan border against opium and heroin traffickers — winning rare praise from the United States and aid from Europe for the fight along one of the world’s busiest drug routes.

But now, international support for Iran’s drug agents could be threatened by the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear policies.

Western nations have told Iran that they could cut off any new help to Iran’s anti-drug units unless the Islamic regime halts uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be used to develop nuclear arms.

The warning was a small but potentially significant item tucked amid an array of trade and economic incentives seeking to sway Iranian leaders to strike a deal. Iran has not formally responded to the package, presented June 14 by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

Editor’s Comment — The refrain from the Bush administration has always been that the US is at odds with the regime and not the people of Iran. However, if the West is seen as being willing to apply political leverage through controlling the flow of opium, then it can reasonably be accused of attempting to poison Iranian society. That’s no way to win friends.

Bush rebuffs hard-liners to ease North Korean curbs

Two days ago, during an off-the-record session with a group of foreign policy experts, Vice President Dick Cheney got a question he did not want to answer. “Mr. Vice President,” asked one of them, “I understand that on Wednesday or Thursday, we are going to de-list North Korea from the terrorism blacklist. Could you please set the context for this decision?”

Mr. Cheney froze, according to four participants at the Old Executive Office Building meeting. For more than 30 minutes he had been taking and answering questions, without missing a beat. But now, for several long seconds, he stared, unsmilingly, at his questioner, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, a public policy institution. Finally, he spoke:

“I’m not going to be the one to announce this decision,” the other participants recalled Mr. Cheney saying, pointing at himself. “You need to address your interest in this to the State Department.” He then declared that he was done taking questions, and left the room.

North Korea destroys tower at nuclear site

In a gesture demonstrating its commitment to halt its nuclear weapons program, North Korea blew up the most prominent symbol of its plutonium production Friday.

The 60-foot cooling tower at the North’s main nuclear power plant collapsed in a heap of shattered concrete and twisted steel, filmed by international and regional television broadcasters invited to witness the event.

When anonymity fails, be nasty, brutish and short

Throughout the Bush presidency, he toiled in secrecy deep within the White House, a mysterious and feared presence who never stepped into the sunlight of public disclosure.

Until yesterday.

There he sat, hunched and scowling, at the witness table in front of the House Judiciary Committee: the bearded, burly form of the chief of staff and alter ego to the vice president — Cheney’s Cheney, if you will — and the man most responsible for building President Bush’s notion of an imperial presidency.

David Addington was there under subpoena. And he wasn’t happy about it.

Muslim sues over loss of security clearance

Charging violation of his constitutional rights to free speech and religion, equal protection and due process, nuclear scientist and prison imam Moniem El-Ganayni filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Department of Energy and its acting deputy secretary, Jeffrey F. Kupfer.

The action stems from the loss of Dr. El-Ganayni’s security clearance, and hence his job, at Bettis Laboratory in West Mifflin, based on unspecified grounds of “national security.” It does not seek to overturn the revocation, but rather the right to see the alleged evidence against him — he doubts any exists — and the chance to contest the decision “before a nonpolitical, neutral arbiter, as mandated by DOE regulations.”

“The government has offered no factual details in this case. All they’ve done is to parrot boilerplate language from the DOE,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is representing Dr. El-Ganayni along with lawyers from the Downtown offices of Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis.

Nuclear physicist/Muslim cleric fights to get back job, security clearance

(This is the Original Post-Gazette report on this story published in February.)

Dr. Moniem El-Ganayni is not the only imam to have served as a chaplain inside a state prison. But he may be the only one who is also a nuclear physicist working on classified U.S. military projects that require a security clearance.

At least, he used to do classified work at the Bettis Laboratory, an advanced naval nuclear propulsion technology lab in West Mifflin operated by Bechtel Bettis Inc. for the U.S. Department of Energy.

But in October, the two tracks of his life collided. His security clearance was suspended, barring him from the lab where he has worked for 18 years.


CAMPAIGN 08 EDITORIAL: Obama pays his AIPAC dues — again

Obama pays his AIPAC dues — again

Barak Obama gave a little pep talk to George Bush this week. The Washington press corps either never heard about it or possibly thought it was too thin on substance to bother reporting. My guess is they never heard. Even so, when a presidential candidate feels driven to write a letter to the president, it’s curious that his campaign would not have done a conference call (again, it’s my assumption that they didn’t) or posted his letter to the president on the campaign web site or at least issued a press release. Maybe this is another case of the Obama campaign having what they have elsewhere referred to as “a very tightly wrapped message.”

The message this time seemed to have had two target audiences: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Israeli press.

Obama’s letter to Bush was reported in Yedioth Ahronoth yesterday and the Jerusalem Post today. The letter itself has been posted on the AIPAC web site.

The Democratic candidate says:

I am deeply concerned that Israel’s security has been put at greater risk, both because of renewed threats from implacable enemies like Iran, Hizbollah, and Hamas, and because of policy choices by the United States.

Obama doesn’t spell out which particular policy choices he’s referring to and he rounds off his appeal to Bush by saying:

I close by urging you to redouble your efforts to help Israelis and Palestinians achieve success in their peace efforts; to stand up for Israel’s right of self-defense; to press the Arab states to do more to advance the peace process; and to support the Israeli-Syrian talks. All of these steps will advance the interests of the United States and the security of our ally, Israel.

Most of what he says is the kind of boilerplate that might have come straight out of Condoleezza Rice’s mouth or from Bush himself. The Bush team might have refrained from chastising friendly Middle Eastern autocratic leaders, but when Obama says, “the Arab states should support the Palestinians and prepare their own people for peace by making gestures of normalization toward Israel,” he sounds pretty disingenuous. He ignores the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and he ignores the fact that Israel continues its relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank. He doesn’t even echo the administration’s timid rebuke in saying that settlement expansion is “unhelpful.”

The subtext here — at least I assume this was what camp Obama thought AIPAC would want to hear — was that the ceasefire with Hamas constitutes a greater threat to Israel than the threat from Qassam rockets.

If the ceasefire takes hold and gets past its bumpy start, there is a real risk that Hamas could acquire some hard sought political legitimacy. The dam that’s been holding back all those unreliable European governments who’ve never had the balls to defy Bush, might finally break. So, the message to reassure AIPAC was that just because there’s going to be a new administration in a few months, everyone can be confident that it will be just as intransigent (“Israel-friendly”) as the present one.

The one small glimmer of hope comes from Obama’s nod of approval towards the Israel-Syria negotiations. Does it count for much? Not if Obama insists on continuing to make himself a tool of AIPAC.



Last chance to save the world

Twenty years ago, Dr James E Hansen, a leading expert on climate change from Nasa, testified before the US Senate that global warming had begun. This week he returned to Capitol Hill.

“Then, as now, Dr Hansen, the director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was pushing beyond what many of his colleagues in climatology were willing to say – at least publicly. His supporters say that, given how science and events appear to be catching up with his projections of two decades ago, the world had better heed his new recommendations,” Andrew Revkin wrote in The New York Times.

Dr Hansen said that 2009 may present the last chance we have to defuse what he calls the “global warming time bomb.”

Time running out for nuclear program talks, Iran warns

The powerful speaker of Iran’s parliament warned Wednesday that his nation could take drastic steps in response to economic, political and military pressure meant to halt controversial parts of its nuclear program.

Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament and a former nuclear negotiator, said there was “only a little time left” for talks before Iran would make unspecified moves that the West would regret.

Larijani, who is close to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, did not specify what Iran would do. But Tehran’s options include kicking out International Atomic Energy Agency monitors now keeping an eye on Iran’s nuclear program or stepping up its uranium enrichment program to produce weapons-grade material.

U.S. to take North Korea off terror list

North Korea took a step on Thursday toward reintegration into the world community and rapprochement with the United States by submitting for outside review a long-delayed declaration of its nuclear program.

The Bush administration almost immediately announced it was preparing to remove the country it once described as part of the “axis of evil” from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and also lifted some sanctions.

The 60-page declaration from North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and impoverished nations, was expected to describe in previously undisclosed detail its capabilities in nuclear power and nuclear weapons — meeting a major demand of the United States and other countries that consider the North a dangerous source of instability.

Ex-diplomat says US should engage with Hamas leaders

A ormer senior US diplomat described senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya as a “thoughtful politician,” saying the US administration should drop its refusal to engage with the Palestinian movement.

Richard Viets, who was US ambassador to Jordan in the early 1980s, Tuesday recounted his meeting with Haniya in Gaza earlier this month as part of a private US group’s fact-finding mission to the region.

“Haniya is a very smart, articulate, sophisticated, thoughtful politician. You have to be impressed sitting in the room with him,” Viets told a news conference.

Israel and Hezbollah ready to sign on prisoner swap deal

Israel and Hezbollah have prepared a written agreement on a prisoner exchange that the cabinet will deliberate on Sunday and possible approve. If approved, Israel will sign the deal that will then be taken to Beirut by the German mediators for Hezbollah’s signature.

The deal with Hezbollah aims to secure the release of IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured in a cross-border raid by the Lebanese guerillas in July 2006, sparking the Second Lebanon War.

Can Lebanon douse political fires?

…the formation of a new national unity government has hit an impasse. Rival politicians are squabbling over the distribution of cabinet portfolios, and tensions are building once more in flash points around the country.

Some observers also worry that Lebanon, like Iraq, could become a new battleground between Sunni and Shiite extremists. The week-long street battles in Beirut in May – between the militant Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of the Future Movement – have aggravated simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. But others suggest that these are largely local disputes.

“Differences among the Lebanese have reached the edge of suicide,” warned Michel Suleiman, the new president, at a meeting Wednesday of Lebanese spiritual leaders who convened at the presidential palace to discuss how to address the friction.



Shrunken sovereign: consumerism, globalization, and American emptiness

Two narratives bound our era and, by degrees but unmistakably, our predicament: the story of consumerism and the story of globalization. In recent years, the two have combined to produce a single and singularly corrosive narrative. Consumerism has meant the transformation of citizens into shoppers, eroding America’s sovereignty from within; globalization has meant the transformation of nation-states into secondary players on the world stage, eroding America’s sovereignty from without. In collaboration, the trends are dealing a ruinous blow to democracy—to our capacity for common judgment, citizenship, and liberty itself.

The common thread that winds through these two stories is the erosion of national autonomy—and, with it, the state’s monopoly over violence, the power to enact binding laws, and other essential aspects of sovereignty. Sovereignty, in turn, is an obvious precondition for democracy (which you cannot have without a state). When the sovereign state erodes, democracy erodes. It is that simple—and, beset from within and without, it is happening even today.

Twenty years later: tipping points near on global warming

Today I testified to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my June 23, 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.

Three strikes and we’re out

A scientific and political consensus now exists on the threat posed to our civilization by climate change. The problem is generating the political will to take the steps necessary to radically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

The present oil shock provides the answer to that problem – if our leaders have the courage to use it.

The price of oil is now at a level where it is having a seriously adverse effect on the world economy. Moreover, to fears of Middle Eastern stability are now added concerns over Russia using oil and gas supplies for geopolitical leverage.

As a result we have the best chance in a generation for Western leaders to go to their electorates and seek support for a new approach involving a willingness to make real short-term sacrifices.

A multibillionaire’s relentless quest for global influence

L ast October, Sheldon Adelson, the gaming multibillionaire, accompanied a group of Republican donors to the White House to meet with George W. Bush. They wanted to talk to the President about Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was organizing a major conference in the United States, in an effort to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and her initiative had provoked consternation among many rightward-leaning American Jews and their Christian evangelical allies. Most had seen Bush as a reliable friend of Israel, and one who had not pressured Israel to pursue the peace process. Adelson, who is seventy-four, owns two of Las Vegas’s giant casino resorts, the Venetian and the Palazzo, and is the third-richest person in the United States, according to Forbes. He is fiercely opposed to a two-state solution; and he had contributed so generously to Bush’s reëlection campaign that he qualified as a Bush Pioneer. A short, rotund man, with sparse reddish hair and a pale countenance that colors when he is angered, Adelson protested to Bush that Rice was thinking of her legacy, not the President’s, and that she would ruin him if she continued to pursue this disastrous course. Then, as Adelson later told an acquaintance, Bush put one arm around his shoulder and another around that of his wife, Miriam, who was born in Israel, and said to her, “You tell your Prime Minister that I need to know what’s right for your people—because at the end of the day it’s going to be my policy, not Condi’s. But I can’t be more Catholic than the Pope.” (The White House denies this account.)

The evolution of John McCain

Senator, what do you see as the gravest long-term threat to the U.S. economy?” That was the first question we put to John McCain when he sat down for an interview with Fortune on a sunny afternoon in June. The moment felt charged. Hillary Clinton had finally conceded to Barack Obama, and now the contest for the highest office in the land was down to two sparkling finalists – “the most impressive choice America has had for a very long time,” The Economist observed from overseas. Both were long shots when all this began. Each prevailed despite deep differences with key blocs in their party bases. Both promised change.

Already they were going at each other hard, mostly over the economy, and there was no shortage of bad news to fight about: turmoil in the markets, oil pushing toward $140 a barrel, gas at more than $4 a gallon, GM shutting down truck plants all over North America, unemployment arching higher than expected. All that was context for the question we posed. But we were asking McCain to rise above the news and look ahead to the day seven months from now when, he hopes, he’ll be sitting in the Oval Office. We wanted to know what single economic threat he perceives above all others.

McCain at first says nothing. He sits in the corner of a sofa, one black, tasseled loafer propped against a coffee table. We’re in the presidential suite on the 41st floor of the New York Hilton. McCain has come here – between a major speech on the economy in Washington, D.C., this morning and a fundraiser tonight at the 21 Club – to talk to us and to let us take his picture. He is wearing a dark suit, as he almost always does, with a blue shirt and a wine-colored tie. He’s looking not at us but into the void. His eyes are narrowed. Nine seconds of silence, ten seconds, 11. Finally he says, “Well, I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we’re in against radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America could have devastating consequences.”

Not America’s dependence on foreign oil? Not climate change? Not the crushing cost of health care? Eventually McCain gets around to mentioning all three of those. But he starts by deftly turning the economy into a national security issue – and why not? On national security McCain wins. We saw how that might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy – this according to McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an “unfortunate event,” says Black. “But his knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us.” As would, Black concedes with startling candor after we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,” says Black.

The new pariahs?

No country is wholly free of anti-immigrant prejudice, whether it is the United States, where illegal immigration was a hot-button issue in the Republican primaries, or post-apartheid South Africa, where economic migrants were recently burned to death. But in many Western European countries today, something new and insidious seems to be happening. The familiar old arguments against immigrants — that they are criminals, that their culture makes them a bad fit, that they take jobs from natives — are mutating into an anti-Islamic bias that is becoming institutionalized in the continent’s otherwise ordinary politics.

Examples abound. The Swiss People’s Party sponsors ads in which three white sheep push one black sheep off the Swiss flag — and wins 29 percent of the vote. In Belgium, the Vlaams Belang deploys a clever variation, publicly praising Jews and seeking their support against Muslims, whom it tellingly describes as “the main enemy of the moment.” Meanwhile, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture.”

Even Britain, which has afforded Muslims a more welcoming environment, has had some worrying moments. A few years back, a Labor M.P. called for an end to “the tradition of first-cousin marriages” among Pakistanis and other South Asians in Britain. The basis for her suggestion was the claim that Pakistanis in Britain were more likely than the general population to suffer from recessive autosomal genetic disorders. Of course, so are Ashkenazi Jews, but you can hardly imagine an M.P. proposing to limit Jews’ marriage choices for this reason, especially given the historic Nazi allegation of Jewish genetic inferiority.

USAF report: “Most” nuclear weapon sites in Europe do not meet US security requirements

An internal U.S. Air Force investigation has determined that “most sites” currently used for deploying nuclear weapons in Europe do not meet Department of Defense security requirements.

A summary of the investigation report was released by the Pentagon in February 2008 but omitted the details. Now a partially declassified version of the full report, recently obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, reveals a much bigger nuclear security problem in Europe than previously known.

As a result of these security problems, according to other sources, the U.S. plans to withdraw its nuclear custodial unit from at least one base and consolidate the remaining nuclear mission in Europe at fewer bases…

Specific examples of security issues discovered include conscripts with as little as nine months active duty experience being used protect nuclear weapons against theft.

German parties press U.S. to withdraw nuclear arms

Germany’s Social Democrats, who share power in the governing authority, and opposition parties are calling on the United States to remove all nuclear weapons stored in military bases here after a report found that safety standards at most sites for nuclear weapons in Europe fall well short of Pentagon requirements.

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, is scathing about the security arrangements for nuclear weapons facilities in most European countries. It has touched a raw nerve in Germany, where the pacifist tradition is strong among leftist parties. They are hunting for an issue that could dent the popularity of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative, before federal elections next year.

Niels Annen, foreign affairs expert for the Social Democrats, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, said Monday that nuclear disarmament would receive a big boost if Germany got rid of the weapons.

Violence threatens Gaza truce

Three rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have hit southern Israel, hours after Israeli forces killed two Palestinians in the West Bank.

Tuesday’s incidents cast doubt over the future of a fragile truce that has been in force in Gaza between Israel and armed Palestinian groups during the last five days.

Al-Quds, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement, took responsibility for the rocket attacks which caused some damage but no casualties in the Israeli town of Sderot.

Quiet is muck

Ggreat disaster has suddenly come upon Israel: The cease-fire has gone into effect. Cease-fire, cease-Qassams, cease-assassiations, at least for now. This good, hopeful news was received in Israel dourly, gloomily, even with hostility. As usual, politicians, the military brass and pundits went hand in hand to market the cease-fire as a negative, threatening and disastrous development.

Even from the people who forged the agreement – the prime minister and defense minister – you heard not a word about hope; just covering their backsides in case of failure. No one spoke of the opportunity, everyone spoke of the risk, which is fundamentally unfounded. Hamas will arm? Why of all times during the cease-fire? Will only Hamas arm? We won’t? Perhaps it will arm, and perhaps it will realize that it should not use armed force because of calm’s benefits.

It is hard to believe: The outbreak of war is received here with a great deal more sympathy and understanding, not to say enthusiasm, than a cease-fire. When the warmongers get started, our unified tom-toms drum out only encouraging messages; when the all-clear is sounded, when people in Sderot can sleep soundly, even if only for a short time, we are all worried. That says something about society’s sick face: Quiet is muck, war is the most important thing.

Occupations abroad always lead to the erosion of liberties at home

Before his show trial in Hungary in 1948, Robert Vogeler spent three months in a cell sleeping on a board that hovered just above two inches of water. Day and night a bright light bathed his cell, and even then someone would bang on the wall next door just to make sure he couldn’t get any sleep. “It is just a question of time before you confess,” he said afterwards. “With some it takes a little longer than others, but nobody can resist that treatment indefinitely.”

And so Vogeler, who was arrested for spying, buckled under the pressure and played his role in the gruesome farce of Stalin’s postwar purges in eastern Europe. “To judge from the way our scripts were written,” wrote Vogeler shortly after his forced confession, “it was more important to establish our allegorical identities than to establish our ‘guilt’. Each of us in his testimony was obliged to ‘unmask’ himself for the benefit of the [Soviet-led] press and radio.”

A similar script, it has long been clear, has been written at Guantánamo Bay, although this time the lines were for the prosecution rather than the defence. The point of these detentions has never been to see justice done, but rather to provide a teachable moment about the lengths and depths the American state would go to pursue its perceived interests in the war on terror. It was to find a place in which America could operate above and beyond not only international law but its own – a display of unfettered power not merely indifferent to, but openly contemptuous of, global and local norms.

In a first, court says military erred in a Guantanamo case

A federal appeals court for the first time has rejected the military’s designation of a Guantanamo detainee as an enemy combatant.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned as “invalid” a military tribunal’s conclusion that prisoner Huzaifa Parhat is an enemy combatant.

The court directed the Pentagon either to release or transfer Parhat or to hold a new tribunal hearing “consistent with the court’s opinion.”

US may open diplomatic outpost in Iran

The Bush administration is considering setting up a diplomatic outpost in Iran in what would mark a dramatic official U.S. return to the country nearly 30 years after the American embassy was overrun and the two nations severed relations.

Even as it threatens the Iranian regime with sanctions and possible military action over its nuclear program, the administration is floating the idea of opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran similar to the one the State Department runs in Havana, diplomatic and political officials told The Associated Press on Monday.

Like the one in communist Cuba, an interest section, or de facto embassy, in the Iranian capital would give the United States a presence on the ground through which it can communicate directly with students, dissidents and others without endorsing the government, one official said.

West links drug war aid to Iranian nuclear impasse

Iranian forces have battled for years in the lonely canyons and deserts on the Afghan border against opium and heroin traffickers — winning rare praise from the United States and aid from Europe for the fight along one of the world’s busiest drug routes.

But now, international support for Iran’s drug agents could be threatened by the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear policies.

Western nations have told Iran that they could cut off any new help to Iran’s anti-drug units unless the Islamic regime halts uranium enrichment, which Washington and its allies worry could be used to develop nuclear arms.

The warning was a small but potentially significant item tucked amid an array of trade and economic incentives seeking to sway Iranian leaders to strike a deal. Iran has not formally responded to the package, presented June 14 by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

A nation as yet unbuilt

Francis Fukuyama posed the basic Afghan dilemma as the supposed triumph of western invasion began to fall apart. Afghanistan has never been “modern”, he observed, chillingly. “Under the monarchy that existed until the beginning of its political troubles in the 1970s, it largely remained a tribal confederation with minimal state penetration outside Kabul”. And the subsequent years “of communist misrule and civil war eliminated everything that was left” of that feeble entity. History wasn’t dead, in short; Afghans were dead.

And now, many killing fields later, we can put that even more starkly. Afghanistan isn’t a “failed” state, because Afghanistan has never been a successful one. Afghanistan is a crossroads, a traffic island, a war zone, a drug den, an exotic doormat, and an eternal victim.

But it is not, in any coherent sense, a nation. We cannot see peace, harmony and freedom “restored” there, because such concepts have no roots in its essentially medieval past, or present. Afghanistan has always been a disaster waiting to happen, again and again.

Russia joins the war in Afghanistan

Moscow is staging an extraordinary comeback on the Afghan chessboard after a gap of two decades following the Soviet Union’s nine-year adventure that ended in the withdrawal of its last troops from Afghanistan 1989. In a curious reversal of history, this is possible only with the acquiescence of the United States. Moscow is taking advantage of the deterioration of the war in Afghanistan and the implications for regional security could be far-reaching.

A joint statement issued in Moscow over the weekend following the meeting of the United States-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism (CTWG) revealed that the two sides had reached “agreement in principle over the supply of Russian weaponry to the Afghanistan National Army” in its fight against the Taliban insurgency. The 16th session of the CTWG held in Moscow on June 19-20 was co-chaired by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.

From Afghanistan, NATO shells militants in Pakistan

NATO forces in Afghanistan shelled guerrillas in Pakistan in two separate episodes on Sunday, as escalating insurgent violence appeared to be eroding the alliance’s restraint along the border.

NATO officials said they had retaliated against rocket and artillery attacks launched by militants from sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, where they operate freely. The insurgents’ attacks, launched into Khost and Paktika Provinces, killed four Afghan civilians, at least two of them children, Afghan and NATO officials said. Casualty figures for Pakistan were not available.

The firing by NATO forces into Pakistani territory followed an American airstrike on a Pakistani border post earlier this month that killed 11 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani government denounced the strike, and the American government expressed regret, but it is still not entirely clear what happened.

Pakistan calls the shots

Since signing on for the “war on terror” in 2001, Pakistan has received approximately US$10 billion in aid from the United States. It has also been pledged $600 million in economic and security assistance and $50 million in earthquake reconstruction aid on an annual basis through to 2009.

Washington is wondering just what it has received in return for all this largesse, so much so that next month US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher is scheduled to visit Pakistan to discuss Pakistan’s role in the “war on terror”, and is expected to give final notice that if Islamabad does not raise its game, the aid will dry up.

The US has been particularly concerned since the new coalition government took power after February’s elections, as it was supposed to be US-friendly. But it has refused point-blank to adhere to earlier commitments it made for joint operations with the US in Pakistan’s tribal areas against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.


CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Rising above the politics of fear

Muslim voters detect a snub from Obama

As Senator Barack Obama courted voters in Iowa last December, Representative Keith Ellison, the country’s first Muslim congressman, stepped forward eagerly to help.

Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama’s message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation’s oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison’s Washington office to explain.

“I will never forget the quote,” Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide’s words. “He said, ‘We have a very tightly wrapped message.’ ” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — I’ve never been a fan of the word “hope” as a campaign slogan. Hope’s easy to come by — most people are able to carry at least a morsel of it all the way to their deathbed. A resource that’s in much shorter supply, yet the one that is really the only antidote to fear — especially when for so many years fear has become the political air that we’ve been compelled to breathe — is courage.

Political courage requires a certain amount of recklessness. It means reaching beyond the dictates of political tactics. If Obama really wants to end the mindset that led us to war, he needs to challenge an element that’s right at the heart of that mindset: America’s fear of Islam. So far, all he’s done is bow down to that fear.


ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Inbedded reporting

Israel is a long way from attacking Iran

Israeli leaders and officials have recently intensified their campaign against nuclearIran. The messages from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ambassador to Washington Salai Meridor and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is clear: Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Indeed Israel is very concerned by the likelihood that Iran, whose leadership has called for the Jewish state’s destruction, will be able to produce nuclear weapons.

These public statements, as well as closed talks between Israel’s leadership and leaders around the world, can be interpreted as “preparing the ground” for the possibility that Israel will attack Iran. It is also correct that all the bodies dealing with the “Iran case,” including the Mossad, Military Intelligence, Operations Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Air Force and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, are planning for the worst-case scenario. This is their professional duty. But one cannot conclude, as many have following a report in The New York Times (June 19) that an Israeli attack is certainly around the corner. Not only has such a decision not been made in any relevant forum in Israel – the question has not even been discussed. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — When an “inbedded” reporter like Michael Gordon not only performs a service for his government, but is internationally seen to be acting as a stooge, I wonder how he feels?

Last Friday, no-questions-asked, he got the Israeli-attack-on-Iran-rehearsal story out and it provoked lots of reaction. A bump in oil prices (yet another little windfall for Iran), a rebuke from the Iranian government, a threat that Mohamed ElBaradei would resign as director of the IAEA in such an event, and a carefully studied no-comment from the Israeli government. Even if this was an Israeli Air Force exercse, the consensus among Israeli commentators was that the story — courtesy of Pentagon-mouthpiece Michael Gordon — was an expression of American pressure.

The fact is, a military exercise of this nature is not really newsworthy. As Amos Harel noted in Haaretz: “There is little new in the fact that the IAF is preparing for the Iranian challenge. About six months ago, Channel 2 reported a similar exercise covering a radius that an operation against Iran would require. At the time the report received little attention.” Indeed, assuming that the IAF as an active and well-trained air force will periodically engage in major exercises, what would we expect them to be training to do? Attack France?

So why did the Pentagon/New York Times need to get the story out? The Iranians know that the Bush administration is a spent force and the antics of attention-seeking neocons are becoming increasingly easy to ignore, but mad-dog Israel — that’s always the wild card. Less than a year ago it burnished its image of unpredictability by bombing Syria. The idea that Israel is unpredictable is at this point the only thing that has any chance of keeping the Iranians on their toes.



What’s the big idea?

Obama promises to tell voters what they need to know and not what they want to know. It’s a risky strategy, and one he doesn’t always follow, but when he put it into effect in April, by attacking McCain’s proposed summer gasoline-tax holiday, he helped his campaign more than he hurt it. Last week, he denounced McCain’s latest reversal, on offshore drilling. But he needs to go further. A year ago, he likened “the tyranny of oil” to that of Fascism and Communism, saying, “The very resource that has fueled our way of life over the last hundred years now threatens to destroy it if our generation does not act now and act boldly.” This is the kind of unequivocal message that Obama needs to develop. By telling just such inconvenient truths, Al Gore has inspired a worldwide movement to arrest climate change. The next President could be its most powerful leader. Obama will not rouse voters by getting lost in a tussle with McCain over the virtues of cellulosic ethanol. He can, however, make voters part of the solution by helping them understand that the greedy oil companies, the failing auto industry, and the craven Congress will not redeem themselves until consumers demand that they do so by making some inconvenient changes of their own. A little more audacity will yield a lot more hope.

Nato has to win in Afghanistan, the Taliban only needs not to lose

Back in April, Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, dodged a bullet. A fusillade of them, actually, plus a few rocket-propelled grenades, when a ceremony he was addressing came under Taliban attack in the heart of Kabul. Nato spin-doctors immediately dismissed the incident as a case of the Taliban getting lucky. Such increased reliance on terror attacks, they insisted, were signs that the Taliban had grown desperate, having been forced onto the back foot by effective Western counterinsurgency.

Similar sentiments were expressed last week – a week in which Britain’s casualty toll for its Afghan mission passed 100 – after Taliban fighters attacked Kandahar prison and freed 400 of their comrades, and began to take control of a string of villages around the southern city that had once been their spiritual capital.

No amount of wishful thinking can hide the reality, however, that six and a half years after the US-led military intervention that scattered the Taliban, the presence of some 50,000 Nato troops has not prevented the movement from regrouping and mounting a resurgence that has sabotaged plans to rebuild the country on Western-friendly terms.

Reporters say networks put wars on back burner

Getting a story on the evening news isn’t easy for any correspondent. And for reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is especially hard, according to Lara Logan, the chief foreign correspondent for CBS News. So she has devised a solution when she is talking to the network.

“Generally what I say is, ‘I’m holding the armor-piercing R.P.G.,’ ” she said last week in an appearance on “The Daily Show,” referring to the initials for rocket-propelled grenade. “ ‘It’s aimed at the bureau chief, and if you don’t put my story on the air, I’m going to pull the trigger.’ ”

Ms. Logan let a sly just-kidding smile sneak through as she spoke, but her point was serious. Five years into the war in Iraq and nearly seven years into the war in Afghanistan, getting news of the conflicts onto television is harder than ever.

U.S., Iraqi forces meet no Sadr resistance in Amara

In recent months, Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces have fiercely battled Iraqi and US troops in Basra and Sadr City. But this time, in the southern Iraqi city of Amara, the Shiite cleric ordered a tactical retreat.

A major Iraqi-US mission to clear Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army out of one of its last supposed sanctuaries began here late last week but was met with no resistance.

Sadr – and his most trusted lieutenants, who visited Amara last week – called for restraint. He announced that an elite faction of his militia will still fight US troops while the rest would dedicate themselves to the betterment of society through peaceful means.

Routing of fighters brings anxious calm to Kandahar

Afghanistan, June 22 — A tense quiet has settled here in Afghanistan’s second-largest city, a little more than a week after hundreds of Taliban fighters mounted a dramatic prison break, then briefly took control of several villages in the area.

One of the city’s main traffic circles, Chowk-e Shahidan, was nearly empty, except for a cluster of armored vehicles manned by Afghan and Canadian soldiers. Just a few shoppers roamed nearby Herat Bazaar, Kandahar’s largest market, and a couple of dusty green pickup trucks full of Afghan police ranged the empty streets, past carts brimming with mangoes.

As Gaza cease-fire holds, Israel eases economic blockade

After three days without a single shooting violation of an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, Israel on Sunday boosted supplies of food and medicines into the Gaza Strip by about 50 percent and said it’s considering further relaxations of the months-long siege on the war-weary enclave.

For all the official playing down of the Gaza cease-fire declared Thursday between Hamas and Israel, as well as predictions of its imminent demise, the agreement may mark a break with a long-standing Israeli and American boycott of the Islamic militant organization.

Israel’s de facto recognition of Hamas’s rule in Gaza, analysts say, holds the prospect of widening international acceptance for the organization, giving it a compelling incentive to keep up its end of the bargain.


NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Refusing to end the torture debate

Inside a 9/11 mastermind’s interrogation

In a makeshift prison in the north of Poland, Al Qaeda’s engineer of mass murder faced off against his Central Intelligence Agency interrogator. It was 18 months after the 9/11 attacks, and the invasion of Iraq was giving Muslim extremists new motives for havoc. If anyone knew about the next plot, it was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The interrogator, Deuce Martinez, a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a C.I.A. offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called “knuckledraggers.”

Mr. Martinez came in after the rough stuff, the ultimate good cop with the classic skills: an unimposing presence, inexhaustible patience and a willingness to listen to the gripes and musings of a pitiless killer in rambling, imperfect English. He achieved a rapport with Mr. Mohammed that astonished his fellow C.I.A. officers.

A canny opponent, Mr. Mohammed mixed disinformation and braggadocio with details of plots, past and planned. Eventually, he grew loquacious. “They’d have long talks about religion,” comparing notes on Islam and Mr. Martinez’s Catholicism, one C.I.A. officer recalled. And, the officer added, there was one other detail no one could have predicted: “He wrote poems to Deuce’s wife.”

Mr. Martinez, who by then had interrogated at least three other high-level prisoners, would bring Mr. Mohammed snacks, usually dates. He would listen to Mr. Mohammed’s despair over the likelihood that he would never see his children again and to his catalog of complaints about his accommodations.

“He wanted a view,” the C.I.A. officer recalled.

The story of Mr. Martinez’s role in the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, including his contribution to the first capture of a major figure in Al Qaeda, provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture.

Beyond the interrogator’s successes, this account includes new details on the campaign against Al Qaeda, including the text message that led to Mr. Mohammed’s capture, the reason the C.I.A. believed his claim that he was the murderer of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the separate teams at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons of those who meted out the agony and those who asked the questions.

In the Hollywood cliché of Fox’s “24,” a torturer shouts questions at a bound terrorist while inflicting excruciating pain. The C.I.A. program worked differently. A paramilitary team put on the pressure, using cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear to force a prisoner to talk. When the prisoner signaled assent, the tormenters stepped aside. After a break that could be a day or even longer, Mr. Martinez or another interrogator took up the questioning.

Mr. Martinez’s success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate. Did it suggest that traditional methods alone might have obtained the same information or more? Or did Mr. Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured? [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — When Scott Shane refers to “the interrogation debate,” he’s already revealing an implicit position that runs as a subtle thread all the way through this article: if “it” works then it’s arguably justified.

The preponderance of the evidence he presents, suggests that the good old torture routine — which might not fit the Fox 24 cliche but falls squarely inside a long cinematic tradition where thugs and calm interrogators work hand-in-hand — really did work. And if it worked, maybe it shouldn’t be sullied with the term only critics use and be called “torture.”

Except — and this is of course where Shane egregiously misframes the debate — the heart of the debate is not whether torture can be shown to be expedient: it is whether the methods of interrogation used fit an internationally recognized definition of torture.

Since no less of a military authority than Abu Ghraib investigator, Major General Antonio Taguba, has come out and unequivocally declared that, “only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account,” one has to ask: Why is the New York Times still willing to suggest that the debate on torture has not been answered?



Now that we’ve ‘won,’ let’s come home

The Iraq war’s defenders like to bash the press for pushing the bad news and ignoring the good. Maybe they’ll be happy to hear that the bad news doesn’t rate anymore. When a bomb killed at least 51 Iraqis at a Baghdad market on Tuesday, ending an extended run of relative calm, only one of the three network newscasts (NBC’s) even bothered to mention it.

The only problem is that no news from Iraq isn’t good news — it’s no news. The night of the Baghdad bombing the CBS war correspondent Lara Logan appeared as Jon Stewart’s guest on “The Daily Show” to lament the vanishing television coverage and the even steeper falloff in viewer interest. “Tell me the last time you saw the body of a dead American soldier,” she said. After pointing out that more soldiers died in Afghanistan than Iraq last month, she asked, “Who’s paying attention to that?”

Her question was rhetorical, but there is an answer: Virtually no one. If you follow the nation’s op-ed pages and the presidential campaign, Iraq seems as contentious an issue as Vietnam was in 1968. But in the country itself, Cindy vs. Michelle, not Shiites vs. Sunnis, is the hotter battle. This isn’t the press’s fault, and it isn’t the public’s fault. It’s merely the way things are.

Haditha victims’ kin outraged as Marines go free

Khadija Hassan still shrouds her body in black, nearly three years after the deaths of her four sons. They were killed on Nov. 19, 2005, along with 20 other people in the deadliest documented case of U.S. troops killing civilians since the Vietnam War.

Eight Marines were charged in the case, but in the intervening years, criminal charges have been dismissed against six. A seventh Marine was acquitted. The residents of Haditha, after being told they could depend on U.S. justice, feel betrayed.

“We put our hopes in the law and in the courts and one after another they are found innocent,” said Yousef Aid Ahmed, the lone surviving brother in the family. “This is an organized crime.”

Was Israel’s recent major military exercise a rehearsal or a performance?

A report in The New York Times said: “Israel carried out a major military exercise earlier this month that American officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

The report contributed to a sharp increase in the price of crude oil on Friday and a warning from International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamad ElBaradei that in the event of such an Israeli attack, he would be forced to resign. “A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything possible. It would turn the region into a fireball,” he said.

The New York Times report said: “the scope of the Israeli exercise virtually guaranteed that it would be noticed by American and other foreign intelligence agencies. A senior Pentagon official who has been briefed on the exercise, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the matter, said the exercise appeared to serve multiple purposes.

“One Israeli goal, the Pentagon official said, was to practice flight tactics, aerial refueling and all other details of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and its long-range conventional missiles.

“A second, the official said, was to send a clear message to the United States and other countries that Israel was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium continued to falter.”

A report in The Wall Street Journal, however, made it clear that the US did not need to rely on intelligence to learn about the Israeli exercise.

“At the Pentagon, a senior military official said that Israel gave the US ‘advance knowledge’ of the exercise, but only in general terms. The Pentagon official said that Israel didn’t explicitly link the manoeuvres to a possible strike against Iran.”

Israel is a long way from attacking Iran

Israeli leaders and officials have recently intensified their campaign against nuclear Iran. The messages from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ambassador to Washington Salai Meridor and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is clear: Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Indeed Israel is very concerned by the likelihood that Iran, whose leadership has called for the Jewish state’s destruction, will be able to produce nuclear weapons.

These public statements, as well as closed talks between Israel’s leadership and leaders around the world, can be interpreted as “preparing the ground” for the possibility that Israel will attack Iran. It is also correct that all the bodies dealing with the “Iran case,” including the Mossad, Military Intelligence, Operations Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Air Force and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, are planning for the worst-case scenario. This is their professional duty. But one cannot conclude, as many have following a report in The New York Times (June 19) that an Israeli attack is certainly around the corner. Not only has such a decision not been made in any relevant forum in Israel – the question has not even been discussed.

The two Israels

To travel through the West Bank and Gaza these days feels like traveling through Israeli colonies.

You whiz around the West Bank on new highways that in some cases are reserved for Israeli vehicles, catching glimpses of Palestinian vehicles lined up at checkpoints.

The security system that Israel is steadily establishing is nowhere more stifling than here in Hebron, the largest city in the southern part of the West Bank. In the heart of a city with 160,000 Palestinians, Israel maintains a Jewish settlement with 800 people. To protect them, the Israeli military has established a massive system of guard posts, checkpoints and road closures since 2001.

More than 1,800 Palestinian shops have closed, in some cases the doors welded shut, and several thousand people have been driven from their homes. The once flourishing gold market is now blocked with barbed wire and choked with weeds and garbage.

What secrets is he keeping?

Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan has been living in official disgrace for more than four years, confined to his estate in Islamabad after confessing that he sold nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea. But his image as a national hero remains intact for most of his countrymen, who still regard him as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the man who brought pride to a downtrodden country.

Since the new coalition government took the reins in Pakistan this spring, momentum has been building to free Khan from house arrest and restore him to his former glory.

As an initial step, he was allowed in April to break his silence, and he has since given interviews to the Pakistani and international media. He has used the sessions to accuse President Pervez Musharraf of forcing him to confess to crimes he didn’t commit and blame Musharraf for turning Pakistan into a “banana republic.”

Israel in the season of dread

After a year of painful violence — Hamas rockets flying into Israeli communities, soldiers killed and wounded on forays into Gaza — one might have expected the start of a six-month cease-fire with Hamas to be hailed here as good news. Yet what was the front page headline in Maariv newspaper that day? “Fury and Fear.”

That says a great deal about the mood in Israel, a widely shared gloom that this nation is facing alarming threats both from without and within. Seen from far away, last week must have offered some hope that the region was finally at, or near, a turning point: the truce with Hamas, negotiated by Egypt, started on Thursday; other Palestinian-Israeli talks were taking place on numerous levels that both sides said were opening long-closed issues; there were also Turkish-mediated Israeli negotiations with Syria, and a new offer to yield territory to Lebanon along with a call for direct talks between Jerusalem and Beirut.

But it looked very different here. Most Israelis consider the truce with Hamas an admission of national failure, a victory for a radical group with a vicious ideology. As they look ahead, Israelis can’t decide which would be worse, for the truce to fall apart (as polls show most expect it to do), or for Hamas actually to make it last, thereby solidifying the movement’s authority in Palestinian politics over the more secular Fatah. Moreover, most think that Syria should not get back the Golan Heights — its ostensible aim in talking with Israel — and that the truces and negotiations amount to little without the return of captured Israeli soldiers held for the past two years.

Israel’s broad American base

Many observers attribute U.S. support for Israel to the financial and political clout of the American Jewish community. In fact that is only a small part of the story.

For the last 60 years, non-Jewish Americans have overwhelmingly sided with the Jewish state rather than its enemies. Washington’s pro-Israel stance in the Middle East reflects the wishes, above all, of American gentiles.

Israelis and American Jews seeking to drum up American support for the Jewish state are pushing on an open door; American gentiles were promoting the return of the Jews to the Holy Land long before Theodore Herzl’s 1896 book, “The Jewish State,” launched the modern Zionist movement among Jews.

3 in 10 Americans admit to race bias

As Sen. Barack Obama opens his campaign as the first African American on a major party presidential ticket, nearly half of all Americans say race relations in the country are in bad shape and three in 10 acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Lingering racial bias affects the public’s assessments of the Democrat from Illinois, but offsetting advantages and Sen. John McCain’s age could be bigger factors in determining the next occupant of the White House.

Overall, 51 percent call the current state of race relations “excellent” or “good,” about the same as said so five years ago. That is a relative thaw from more negative ratings in the 1990s, but the gap between whites and blacks on the issue is now the widest it has been in polls dating to early 1992.

President Obama? Many white supremacists are celebrating

With the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate clinched, large sections of the white supremacist movement are adopting a surprising attitude: Electing America’s first black president would be a very good thing.

It’s not that the assortment of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, anti-Semites and others who make up this country’s radical right have suddenly discovered that a man should be judged based on the content of his character, not his skin. On the contrary. A growing number of white supremacists, and even some of those who pass for intellectual leaders of their movement, think that a black man in the Oval Office would shock white America, possibly drive millions to their cause, and perhaps even set off a race war that, they hope, would ultimately end in Aryan victory.

Obama’s Chicago boys

Barack Obama waited just three days after Hillary Clinton pulled out of the race to declare, on CNBC, “Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market.”

Demonstrating that this is no mere spring fling, he has appointed 37-year-old Jason Furman to head his economic policy team. Furman is one of Wal-Mart’s most prominent defenders, anointing the company a “progressive success story.” On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged, “I won’t shop there.” For Furman, however, it’s Wal-Mart’s critics who are the real threat: the “efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits” are creating “collateral damage” that is “way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy more broadly for me to sit by idly and sing ‘Kum-Ba-Ya’ in the interests of progressive harmony.”

Obama’s love of markets and his desire for “change” are not inherently incompatible. “The market has gotten out of balance,” he says, and it most certainly has. Many trace this profound imbalance back to the ideas of Milton Friedman, who launched a counterrevolution against the New Deal from his perch at the University of Chicago economics department. And here there are more problems, because Obama–who taught law at the University of Chicago for a decade–is thoroughly embedded in the mind-set known as the Chicago School.

Lord, make me conservative, but not yet

The Republican Party is in tatters, but conservatism shares no portion of the blame. Or so former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wrote in a cheering column a few weeks ago.

The movement’s ideals of “reform” and “justice” did not fail, intoned this towering figure of virtue; conservatism just never got a proper shot in the first place. “To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton,” Mr. DeLay wrote, “conservatism has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Did Mr. DeLay’s head rotate on his shoulders, Linda Blair-like, when he wrote that line? I don’t know. But it sure made this liberal chuckle. Nothing in this world Tom DeLay has ever wanted has been left untried.

Meet the antipreneurs

Bill Goldsmith has always been a maverick. As a radio disc jockey and program director in the 1970s and ’80s, he loved creating his own mixes of modern rock and introducing listeners to cutting-edge musicians. But in the ’90s, as large corporations bought up the stations he worked for, Goldsmith began to feel increasingly choked by the demands of commercial radio. Programming was becoming too formulaic; he was given less leeway. Working in radio just wasn’t fun anymore.

In 2000, with the rise of the Internet and streaming media, Goldsmith had an idea: Why not start his own station, one that would buck the constraints of corporate radio with innovative programming and no ads? Today,, which broadcasts an eclectic mix of modern, classic, and alternative rock, is commercial-free. It’s supported entirely by donations from its listeners, 15,000 of whom are logged onto the site at any given time. Goldsmith’s company, based in Paradise, Calif., has three employees and about $1 million in annual revenues. Rebecca Goldsmith, Bill’s wife, is the CFO and new music reviewer. Says Bill: “I hate advertising. There is this kind of organic sense of community that develops here that could not happen if this radio station’s sole reason for existence was to increase shareholder value for a large corporation.”

Meet the antipreneurs. Goldsmith is one of perhaps a few thousand business owners who have won both notice and profits by being overtly or covertly anti-big business and anti-advertising. Antipreneurs frequently choose each other as suppliers because they share similar philosophies. Their marketing strategy is targeted toward consumers who have grown cynical about buying products and services from larger companies, whose methods they deem irresponsible. “Cynical consumers perceive that most of the marketplace is bad, lacking in integrity, or not trustworthy, except for a few [often small or local] companies,” says Amanda Helm, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “But once they find a company they can trust, they are very motivated to stick with [it].”



Israel’s peace efforts widen

The tentative truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is just part of a larger effort by the Jewish state to reach out to longtime adversaries. In the process, it confronts a number of difficult, domestically unpopular negotiating options.

One key issue faced by Israeli diplomats is both straightforward and highly sensitive. Syria wants the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, returned in exchange for peace.

Analysts believe that giving up the Golan Heights, regarded by Israelis as a beloved vacation spot and a crucial strategic asset, could fundamentally alter the regional equation.

The change, they say, could result in less Iranian influence over Syria; less animosity between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which receives support from Syria and Iran; and a stronger peace agreement with Hamas, whose senior leadership mostly lives in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Editor’s Comment — If you look at the aggregate of these diplomatic initiatives as a long-term political investment, it looks to me like — not withstanding all their militaristic bluster — the Israelis know that ultimately it is only political reconciliation — not an Iron Wall — that can serve their long term interests. So why would they be doing exercises in preparation for an attack on Iran? Probably just to keep up pressure on the US and Europe and to force the next president to keep Iran at the top of his agenda.

Bush may end term with Iran issue unsettled

For more than five years now, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made clear that they did not want to leave office with Iran any closer to possessing nuclear weapons than when they took office.

“The nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons,” Mr. Bush said in February 2006. The United States is prepared to use its naval power “to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region,” Mr. Cheney said in 2007 from a Navy carrier in the Persian Gulf.

But with seven months left in this administration, Iran appears ascendant, its political and economic influence growing, its historic foes in Iraq and Afghanistan weakened, and its nuclear program continuing to move forward. So the question now is: Are Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney resigned to leaving Iran more powerful than they found it when they came to office?

The evidence is mixed. For all the talk to the contrary, Bush administration officials appear to have concluded that diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions will not yield any breakthroughs this year.

Iraqi Shiite cleric opposes US ‘eternal slavery’ pact

An Iraqi Shiite cleric on Friday denounced as “eternal slavery” a proposed security deal between Baghdad and Washington that outlines the long-term military presence of American forces in the country.

“The suspect pact would be an eternal slavery for Iraq. It is against the constitution,” said Sheikh Asad al-Nasri, a member of the movement led by radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

“The government has no right to sign the pact which has been rejected by every political party,” he told worshippers at prayer in the holy town of Kufa, adding that the no Iraqi would be able to agree to it.

House passes bill on federal wiretapping powers

The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a bill overhauling the rules on the government’s wiretapping powers and conferring what amounts to legal immunity to the telephone companies that took part in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The bill cleared the House by 293 to 129, with near-unanimous support from Republicans and substantial backing from Democrats. It now goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it next week by a wide margin.

“Our intelligence officials must have the ability to monitor terrorists suspected of plotting to kill Americans and to safeguard our national security,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican minority leader. “This bill gives it to them.”

The Democratic majority leader, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, was considerably more restrained in his support of the bill, calling it the best compromise possible “in the current atmosphere.”

The loud silence of feminists

Michelle Obama has become an issue in the presidential campaign even though she isn’t running for anything. An educated, successful lawyer, devoted wife and caring mother has been labeled “angry” and unpatriotic and snidely referred to as Barack Obama’s “baby mama.”

Democrats, Republicans, independents, everyone should be offended.

And this black woman is wondering: Where are Obama’s feminist defenders?


NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: New York Times sends signal to Iran

U.S. says exercise by Israel seemed directed at Iran

Israel carried out a major military exercise earlier this month that American officials say appeared to be a rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Several American officials said the Israeli exercise appeared to be an effort to develop the military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program.

More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters participated in the maneuvers, which were carried out over the eastern Mediterranean and over Greece during the first week of June, American officials said. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Does the New York Times have a vital role to play in defending Israel from an Iranian nuclear threat? If the answer is ‘yes’, then I can understand why the paper would run a report like this. But if the paper’s primary responsibility is to report, then it has no business turning itself into an adjunct of either the US government or the Israeli government as it is doing so in this case. Performing government service here means disseminating information that no government official is willing to disseminate openly.

A senior Pentagon official who has been briefed on the exercise, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the matter, said the exercise appeared to serve multiple purposes.

One Israeli goal, the Pentagon official said, was to practice flight tactics, aerial refueling and all other details of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and its long-range conventional missiles.

A second, the official said, was to send a clear message to the United States and other countries that Israel was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium continued to falter.

“They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,” the Pentagon official said. “There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.”

But the NYT isn’t just describing the signaling — it’s part of the signaling loop. It thereby in the most insidious way inserts itself into a political process wherein it serves a role in applying pressure on all the parties involved.

Anonymous sourcing is required in a story like this, not because of — as the NYT puts it — “the political delicacy of the matter.” It’s used because journalists willing to prostitute themselves to their sources give those sources complete freedom to pick and choose which questions they want to answer. Indeed, they hand the reporter the story on a plate and then the newspaper happily gets the message out.

How would this story be approached if it was real journalism? It would dig into some of the key political question here: To what degree are the United States and Israel pursuing a coordinated political and military strategy in confronting Iran? Is the Pentagon — with a nod and a wink — helping relay Israel’s signal to Iran, or is it signaling to all concerned that Israel is a free agent whose actions might conflict with American interests?

These are the kinds of questions that don’t get answered when journalists turn themselves into the mouthpieces of anonymous sources.

How Iran would retaliate if it comes to war

Pressure is building on Iran. This week Europe agreed to new sanctions and President Bush again suggested something more serious – possible military strikes – if the Islamic Republic doesn’t bend to the will of the international community on its nuclear program.

But increasingly military analysts are warning of severe consequences if the US begins a shooting war with Iran. While Iranian forces are no match for American technology on a conventional battlefield, Iran has shown that it can bite back in unconventional ways.

Iranian networks in Iraq and Afghanistan could imperil US interests there; American forces throughout the Gulf region could be targeted by asymmetric methods and lethal rocket barrages; and Iranian partners across the region – such as Hezbollah in Lebanon – could be mobilized to engage in an anti-US fight. [complete article]



Afghanistan in an amorphous war

An incident causing major loss of life in Iraq, and an enduring pattern of low-level violence in North Africa, have created concern that the cautious sense of progress in the campaign against al-Qaida in recent months may prove more apparent than real. Even these serious events, however, are overshadowed by evidence of a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. At the same time, all these theatres of the global “war on terror” share underlying affinities that United States strategy in this war is tending to reinforce.

The Iraqi incident was a car-bomb attack on a crowded Baghdad market on 17 June 2008 which killed sixty-three people and wounded seventy-eight. This, the most destructive explosion in the city since 6 March, was all the more painful for coming at a time when a certain optimism about Iraq’s security and wider prospects was achieving traction (see “Iraq starts to fix itself” Economist, 12 June 2008). A further aspect of this was the declining number of victims, both American (in May 2008, nineteen soldiers died, the lowest monthly total than in any month since the war began in March 2003) and Iraqi (civilian casualties were also at a relatively low level in May – although still in the hundreds).

These signs of improvements had done much to support the view – expressed most vocally on the American right, but shared by others too – that the war in Iraq was, or was becoming, winnable. Those sympathetic to John McCain in the presidential campaign suggest that he should make this theme (and his broader support for the war and the US’s military “surge” strategy) a centrepiece of his contest with Barack Obama (see Charles Krauthammer, “McCain must make case for Iraq,” Newsday, 19 Jun 2008). The implication here is that Iraq is and will remain what it has been – the pivot of the entire “war on terror”, where the now-expected destruction of what is termed “al-Qaida in Iraq” is a sign of decisive progress in the war as a whole.

In Gaza and Israel, a wary quiet

An anxious calm settled over the Gaza Strip and the surrounding area of southern Israel on Thursday, as the first day of a cease-fire between the Jewish state and the armed Islamist group Hamas passed without violence.

But neither side was sure how long the planned six-month truce would last, and Hamas faced a new challenge in having to explain why, after two decades of battling the Israeli occupation, the group is suddenly ready to lay down its arms, however temporarily.

Hamas leaders on Thursday were quick to claim a victory, trumpeting Israeli concessions to Palestinians and to the broader Arab world as a vindication of the movement’s long-standing use of violence.

But at the same time, Hamas was attempting to use the moment to gain legitimacy in the West, projecting itself as a reasonable voice in Palestinian politics that is willing to compromise under the right conditions.

“We are a very pragmatic organization. The problem is that the Europeans, and the Americans especially, don’t understand us. Hamas is not al-Qaeda,” said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas foreign affairs adviser. “Some in Israel are starting to realize that Hamas is the reality, and they need to deal with Hamas.”

Hamas has also clearly decided it needs to deal with Israel.

George Bush’s latest powers, courtesy of the Democratic Congress

CQ reports (sub. req.) that “a final deal has been reached” on FISA and telecom amnesty and “the House is likely to take up the legislation Friday.” I’ve now just read a copy of the final “compromise” bill. It’s even worse than expected. When you read it, it’s actually hard to believe that the Congress is about to make this into our law. Then again, this is the same Congress that abolished habeas corpus with the Military Commissions Act, and legalized George Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program with the “Protect America Act,” so it shouldn’t be hard to believe at all. Seeing the words in print, though, adds a new dimension to appreciating just how corrupt and repugnant this is.

In with the old

It has become something of a tradition for a President to claim bipartisanship by appointing stray members of the opposing party who either have a similar outlook or are tucked into the most obscure Cabinet positions; even George W. Bush hired Norman Mineta — remember him? — as Secretary of Transportation. Obama seems intent on going beyond that. “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me,” he said. “I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.” Obama said he’d be particularly interested in having high-ranking Republicans advising him on defense and national security. “I really admire the way the elder Bush negotiated the end of the Cold War — with discipline, tough diplomacy and restraint … and I’d be very interested in having those sorts of Republicans in my Administration, especially people who can expedite a responsible and orderly conclusion to the Iraq war — and who know how to keep the hammer down on al-Qaeda.”

When I asked him specifically if he would want to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Obama said, “I’m not going to let you pin me down … but I’d certainly be interested in the sort of people who served in the first Bush Administration.” Gates was George H.W. Bush’s CIA director — and he has been a superb Secretary of Defense, as good in that post as his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, was awful.

What if Obama isn’t a game changer?

While Barack Obama remains the solid favorite on November 4, it remains unclear whether he will, as many of his supporters suggest, transform American politics, fundamentally altering the balance of power between the Democratic and Republican Parties and the composition of their respective coalitions.

All preliminary signs suggest that Obama is likely to substantially increase Democratic voter turnout, especially among young and African-American voters. But, if a large boost in voter participation is viewed as transformative, then George W. Bush qualifies: He added a striking 11,584,600 votes to win in 2004 with 62,040,610, compared to 50,456,002 in 2000. (John Kerry, in turn, received 8,028,547 more votes than Al Gore).

Douglas Rivers, a Stanford political scientist and founder of the polling firm Polimetrix, argued that Obama’s support, as reflected in match-ups against John McCain, represents a continuing trend of Democratic presidential nominees doing better among well-educated elites than among those roughly described as working class, with family incomes below $60,000 and no college.



Preface to Broken Laws, Broken Lives

This report tells the largely untold human story of what happened to detainees in our custody when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture. This story is not only written in words: It is scrawled for the rest of these individuals’ lives on their bodies and minds. Our national honor is stained by the indignity and inhumane treatment these men received from their captors.

The profiles of these eleven former detainees, none of whom were ever charged with a crime or told why they were detained, are tragic and brutal rebuttals to those who claim that torture is ever justified. Through the experiences of these men in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, we can see the full scope of the damage this illegal and unsound policy has inflicted—both on America’s institutions and our nation’s founding values, which the military, intelligence services, and our justice system are duty-bound to defend.

The report: Broken Laws, Broken Lives

Easing of laws that led to detainee abuse hatched in secret

The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn’t the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers.

It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.

The Supreme Court now has struck down many of their legal interpretations. It ruled last Thursday that preventing detainees from challenging their detention in federal courts was unconstitutional.

The quintet of lawyers, who called themselves the “War Council,” drafted legal opinions that circumvented the military’s code of justice, the federal court system and America’s international treaties in order to prevent anyone — from soldiers on the ground to the president — from being held accountable for activities that at other times have been considered war crimes.

Strengthening extremists

When Hamas won democratic elections in Gaza and then seized full power a year ago, there were no good choices for Israel and America. Hamas includes terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists and ideologues, and it has cultivated ties with Iran. It has decent governance by the region’s devalued standards — it is not particularly corrupt; it delivers social services efficiently, and the streets are safe — but it runs a police state and alarms all its neighbors.

Of all the bad choices, Israel chose perhaps the worst. Punishing everyone in Gaza radicalized the population, cast Hamas as a victim, gave its officials an excuse for economic failures and undermined the moderates who are the best hope of both Israel and the Arab world.

Editor’s Comment — The problem with this kind of analysis — notwithstanding the fact that Nicholas Kristoff did what few other commentators would do and went to Gaza to observe the situation for himself — is that he treats Hamas as a static, monolithic entity.

Back when Condoleezza Rice pushed for Hamas to be allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections, the idea was that their participation would legitimize Fatah’s victory. It neither dawned on Washington that Hamas would win nor that Hamas’s own interest in participating in a democratic process was significant.

Hamas was revealing its pragmatism and stepping out of the Islamist trend that regards democracy as a compromise of Islamic principles. Even for those observers who were thoroughly skeptical about the organization’s motives, the smart thing to have done would have been to step back and see how well — or badly — Hamas met the challenge of governance. Instead, blind external opposition to Hamas’s rule has legitimized its authoritarian approach and muted dissent. The end result is that two-and-a-half years have been wasted by not allowing Islamist governance be put to the test.

Deals with Iraq are set to bring oil giants back

Four Western oil companies are in the final stages of negotiations this month on contracts that will return them to Iraq, 36 years after losing their oil concession to nationalization as Saddam Hussein rose to power.

Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and BP — the original partners in the Iraq Petroleum Company — along with Chevron and a number of smaller oil companies, are in talks with Iraq’s Oil Ministry for no-bid contracts to service Iraq’s largest fields, according to ministry officials, oil company officials and an American diplomat.

The deals, expected to be announced on June 30, will lay the foundation for the first commercial work for the major companies in Iraq since the American invasion, and open a new and potentially lucrative country for their operations.

The no-bid contracts are unusual for the industry, and the offers prevailed over others by more than 40 companies, including companies in Russia, China and India. The contracts, which would run for one to two years and are relatively small by industry standards, would nonetheless give the companies an advantage in bidding on future contracts in a country that many experts consider to be the best hope for a large-scale increase in oil production.

The Big Pander to Big Oil

It was almost inevitable that a combination of $4-a-gallon gas, public anxiety and politicians eager to win votes or repair legacies would produce political pandering on an epic scale. So it has, the latest instance being President Bush’s decision to ask Congress to end the federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along much of America’s continental shelf.

This is worse than a dumb idea. It is cruelly misleading. It will make only a modest difference, at best, to prices at the pump, and even then the benefits will be years away. It greatly exaggerates America’s leverage over world oil prices. It is based on dubious statistics. It diverts the public from the tough decisions that need to be made about conservation.

There is no doubt that a lot of people have been discomfited and genuinely hurt by $4-a-gallon gas. But their suffering will not be relieved by drilling in restricted areas off the coasts of New Jersey or Virginia or California. The Energy Information Administration says that even if both coasts were opened, prices would not begin to drop until 2030. The only real beneficiaries will be the oil companies that are trying to lock up every last acre of public land before their friends in power — Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney — exit the political stage.

Taliban raise a storm in Kandahar

The battle for Kandahar, the city in the southern province of the same name where the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s before taking control of the rest of Afghanistan, has begun.

And while Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces are massed in the area around Arghandab, 20 kilometers north of Kandahar, the Taliban have their sights firmly set on the provincial capital.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmedi told Asia Times Online that a faction of the Taliban known as the Khalid bin Waleed group had entered Kandahar to carry out suicide attacks on strategic positions in the city. The Taliban are banking that, once the Taliban march into Kandahar, large sections of the Afghan National Army will defect and join hands with them.

US: Nuclear weapons parts missing, Pentagon says

The US military cannot locate hundreds of sensitive nuclear missile components, according to several government officials familiar with a Pentagon report on nuclear safeguards.

Robert Gates, US defence secretary, recently fired both the US Air Force chief of staff and air force secretary after an investigation blamed the air force for the inadvertent shipment of nuclear missile nose cones to Taiwan.

According to previously undisclosed details obtained by the FT, the investigation also concluded that the air force could not account for many sensitive components previously included in its nuclear inventory.

One official said the number of missing components was more than 1,000.

Are we victims of our own progress?

A debate is heating up inside Iraq — and inside Washington — that will shape America’s relationship with Iraq under the next president.

The debate is over a status of forces agreement (SOFA), a broad strategic framework that will define the long-term role of the U.S. military in Iraq. (The U.N. mandate authorizing the American presence expires at the end of 2008.)

Here’s the big irony about this debate for the Bush administration: The security gains produced by the Petraeus-Crocker strategy in Iraq are leading Iraqis to rethink America’s role.

U.S. blames Shiites for lethal blast in Baghdad

U.S. military officials on Wednesday accused a Shiite militant group of carrying out a truck bombing in northwestern Baghdad on Tuesday evening that killed at least 65 people, the deadliest attack in the capital since March.

The accusation was startling because the bombing in the Hurriyah neighborhood had the hallmarks of earlier large-scale attacks in predominantly Shiite areas that had been attributed to Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

A U.S. military spokesman said intelligence reports indicate that Haydar Mehdi Khadum al-Fawadi, the leader of a Shiite “special group,” planned the bombing in an effort to fuel animosity toward Sunnis in the largely Shiite district. The U.S. military uses the term special groups to describe what it says are smaller Iranian-backed militias.

Editor’s Comment — If the line was, “we have reason to believe,” the claim would be met with a reasonable amount of doubt. But when the line is, “intelligence reports indicate,” the claim suddenly becomes impervious to critical analysis. It’s not that we have failed to acquire a healthy level of skepticism about intelligence claims; it’s just that intelligence and transparency are inherently in conflict.

In this case, it isn’t the logic of what the military is claiming that’s hard to understand — it’s simply that we have no way of assessing the quality of their evidence. But not only that — since so much has been trumpeted about al Qaeda in Iraq now being a spent force, the US would clearly have a motive for wanting to tamp down any fears that the jihadists might already be starting to regroup.

Israeli offer of peace talks is all for show – local analysts

Israel’s Wednesday offer of direct peace talks with Lebanon amounts to little more than a ploy in domestic Israeli politics and a sop to US interests in the region without any hope for success, a number of analysts told The Daily Star. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has undertaken a flurry of diplomatic activity recently, with the disclosure last month of indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations brokered by Turkey and the announcement on Tuesday of a six-month cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, but his approval ratings have been at historic lows since Israel’s debacle in the summer 2006 war here. Olmert’s political epitaph may well have been written by the court testimony last month of an American businessman who said he loaded Olmert with cash-stuffed envelopes totaling more than $150,000 when the prime minister was mayor of Occupied Jerusalem.

With Olmert’s political fortunes nearly bankrupt, Wednesday’s invitation for direct talks with Lebanon aims partly to deflect attention from his domestic difficulties, said political analyst Simon Haddad.



Israel agrees to truce with Hamas

Israel has agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas for the Gaza area starting Thursday, officials here said Wednesday.

“Israel has accepted the Egyptian proposal,” said David Baker, a spokesman for the Israeli government. “We hope this will lead to a cessation of the constant rocket fire on Israeli towns and cities.”

Israel is expected as part of the deal to ease the economic blockade of Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamic group Hamas. Israeli government officials emphasized that sanctions would be lifted in accordance with the security situation on the ground.

The cease-fire deal / Hamas in charge

The main points of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas grant the Islamic organization a political and diplomatic achievement that will also give it a lever in its reconciliation talks with Fatah, which are slated to begin at the end of this week. According to the Egyptian-mediated proposal, Israel will no longer be able to monitor the Rafah crossing, on the Gaza-Egypt border, once it reopens, and a deal to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit will be discussed separately from the truce, as Hamas wanted.

Israel will receive quiet in the south, along with an Egyptian pledge to monitor the border closely, but Hamas will be the main party in control of the Rafah crossing. Palestinian Authority officials and European observers will be present, but both will have limited authority. Moreover, the truce gives Hamas, rather than PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the power to force a cease-fire in the West Bank: If quiet is maintained in the south, Israel will have to extend the truce to the West Bank in another six months.

In theory, the reopening of Rafah depends on progress in the Shalit deal. But Egyptian officials insisted yesterday that Rafah’s opening is independent of the Shalit swap, and neither is conditional upon the other, since freeing Shalit involves an additional element: Israel’s agreement to release a large number of Palestinian prisoners. Thus here, too, Israel will not be able to point to any achievement.

Iraq deal with US to end immunity for foreign contractors

The US has accepted that foreign contractors in Iraq will no longer have immunity from Iraqi law under a new security agreement now under negotiation, says the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

Mr Zebari, speaking to The Independent in Washington, said that if there was a further incident like the one in which 17 Iraqis were killed by workers from the Blackwater security company in Baghdad last September, the Iraqis would arrest and punish the contractors held responsible.

The American concession would have a serious effect in Iraq, where there are an estimated 160,000 foreign contractors, many of them heavily armed security personnel. The contractors, who outnumber the 145,000-strong US Army in the country, have become a vital if much-resented part of the military machine in Iraq.

Iraqi official: security pact altered

U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiating long-term security agreements have reworded a proposed White House commitment to defend Iraq against foreign aggression in an effort to avoid submitting the deal for congressional approval, Iraq’s foreign minister said yesterday.

The alternative under discussion will pledge U.S. forces to “help Iraqi security forces to defend themselves,” rather than a U.S. promise to defend Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. Although “it’s the other way around,” he said, “the meaning is the same, almost.”

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed agreement, called the change “a distinction without a difference.” Senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers have questioned whether the accord will constitute a defense treaty requiring congressional ratification and have accused the Bush administration of withholding information on the talks.

Iraq’s provincial elections: another D-day approaching

Monday 30 June 2008 could be one of those fateful dates in Iraqi politics that will remain mostly unnoticed by the outside world.

30 June is the new deadline set by Iraq’s electoral commission for forming coalitions for this autumn’s provincial elections. The deadline for registering political parties expired on 31 May; with some 500 entities having registered the main question today is whether any of these parties are capable of amalgamating into larger alliances that could mount a challenge to the established elites represented by the core components of the Maliki government. In the previous local elections in January 2005, it was mainly those elites – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the two biggest Kurdish parties – that excelled in the art of coalition building prior to the elections.

Easing of laws that led to detainee abuse hatched in secret

The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn’t the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers.

It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.

The Supreme Court now has struck down many of their legal interpretations. It ruled last Thursday that preventing detainees from challenging their detention in federal courts was unconstitutional.

U.S. hasn’t apologized to or compensated ex-detainees

To date, the U.S. government hasn’t given any former detainee financial compensation or apologized for wrongfully imprisoning him, shipping him around the world and holding him without legal recourse.

The 38 former Guantanamo detainees who’ve been found to be no longer enemy combatants by tribunal hearings — the closest the military has come to admitting that it detained some innocent men — were flown out of Cuba with nothing but the clothes on their backs and assorted items such as copies of the Quran and shampoo bottles that the U.S. military issued to them.

“It’s particularly deplorable that none of the 38 NLECs have been compensated, since the U.S. has officially recognized that they weren’t ‘enemy combatants,’ even under the broad U.S. definition,” said Joanne Mariner, the terrorism and counterterrorism program director at Human Rights Watch.

Deck stacked against detainees in legal proceedings

Guantanamo detainees appearing before the military tribunals that would decide their fate had little chance of receiving evenhanded hearings, an eight-month McClatchy investigation found. At least 40 former Guantanamo detainees of the 66 interviewed had tribunal hearings, but none was able to submit testimony from witnesses outside the detention facility.

Former detainees singled this out as the most serious flaw in the operation of the combat status review tribunals, but it was only one of many.

In its landmark ruling last Thursday, which granted detainees access to federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court said that there was “considerable risk of error” in the tribunal’s findings of fact and that detainees might be held for “a generation or more” on the basis of error.

CIA played larger role in advising Pentagon

A senior CIA lawyer advised Pentagon officials about the use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees at Guantanamo Bay in a meeting in late 2002, defending waterboarding and other methods as permissible despite U.S. and international laws banning torture, according to documents released yesterday by congressional investigators.

Torture “is basically subject to perception,” CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman told a group of military and intelligence officials gathered at the U.S.-run detention camp in Cuba on Oct. 2, 2002, according to minutes of the meeting. “If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”

The document, one of two dozen released by a Senate panel investigating how Pentagon officials developed the controversial interrogation program introduced at Guantanamo Bay in late 2002, suggests a larger CIA role in advising Defense Department interrogators than was previously known. By the time of the meeting, the CIA already had used waterboarding, which simulates drowning, on at least one terrorism suspect and was holding high-level al-Qaeda detainees in secret prisons overseas — actions that Bush administration lawyers had approved.

Seeking answers on detainee abuse

Despite years of investigation into alleged abuse and death of prisoners in U.S. custody since 9/11, the only Americans held accountable have been the low-ranking “bad apples” convicted for the worst atrocities at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. No official blame has been assigned to higher-ups for abuses at Guantanamo or in Afghanistan, much less for crimes allegedly committed by U.S. personnel in various secret CIA prisons around the world. The Senate Armed Services Committee sought to correct that on Tuesday by holding the nation’s first public hearing into who at the top should be held accountable for the abuse of detainees held by the U.S.

Candidates clash on terrorism

The campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama on Tuesday engaged in a heated exchange over the rights of terrorism suspects, with each side accusing the other of embracing a policy that would put the country at risk of more attacks in the future.

In a Tuesday morning conference call with reporters, McCain advisers criticized Obama as “naive” and “delusional” in his approach to the handling of terrorism suspects after he expressed support for last week’s Supreme Court decision granting detainees the right to seek habeas corpus hearings. Obama fired back, saying the Republicans who had led failed efforts to capture Osama bin Laden lacked the standing to criticize him on the issue.

The exchange marked the general election’s first real engagement over the campaign against terrorism and demonstrated that both sides are confident that they have a winning message on the issue.

Old ties exist between Iran and Lebanon’s Shiites

Contrary to common perceptions, Iranian involvement in Lebanon did not begin with the Islamic Revolution in 1979. First contact between Iranian Shiites and Lebanese Shiites was established at the beginning of the 16th century when some of the senior Lebanese Shiite ulama, or clergy, were invited to Iran by the newly established and powerful Safavid dynasty.

The Safavid rulers converted Iranians to Shiism and made it the official religion in Iran. They invited Shiite scholars from Oman, Yemen and Lebanon to help them construct the theoretical framework for a Shiite state in a country where Shiism had hitherto been only a minority sect. Jabal Ameli and Sadr were two senior Shiite scholars who went to Iran from Lebanon and stayed at the Safavid court for many years.

During the ensuing centuries, hundreds of Lebanese Shiite scholars and seminary students traveled to Iran to study Shiite jurisprudence. They mainly resided in the holy city of Qom, which gradually became the center for Shiite study in Iran. Many married into Iranian families. The Iranian rulers didn’t interfere with the presence of Lebanese seminary students or scholars in Qom since they never got involved in domestic Iranian politics. Indeed, it was not only in Iran that the Lebanese Shiite scholars shunned politics; the same pattern was evident in Lebanon as well. In short, the Lebanese Shiite leaders were tolerated and were financially supported both by the Iranian ulama and by the Iranian regime, all the way through the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

For blacks in France, Obama’s rise is reason to rejoice, and to hope

When Youssoupha, a black rapper here, was asked the other day what was on his mind, a grin spread across his face. “Barack Obama,” he said. “Obama tells us everything is possible.”

A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. An article in Le Monde a few days ago described how Obama is “stirring up high hopes” among blacks here. Even seeing the word “noir” (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.

Intelligence agencies undermine nuclear smuggling trial

An engineer is on trial in Germany for allegedly attempting to help Libya develop a nuclear bomb. But the network the man was allegedly part of was under surveillance by intelligency agencies, with the CIA getting involved early on. The Swiss government has even gone so far as to eliminate evidence by secretly shredding thousands of documents.

The story should really begin in Stuttgart, the southern Germany city where the case has now been on trial for the past two weeks, where defendant Gotthard Lerch, 65, can be seen on Thursdays and Fridays in Courtroom 18, and where an international smuggling ring, which sought to sell the makings of a nuclear bomb to Libya between 1997 and 2003, is acquiring a face. It’s the wrong face if you go by Lerch’s defense lawyers, but the right one, according to the federal prosecutors. The face of the defendant, at any rate, is that of an elegant older man with grey hair and an occasional smirk. He stands accused of having been part of a ring of which US President George W. Bush once said he would capture and eliminate, “each and every one.”

Oil CEOs: high prices, fat paychecks

As consumers around the world struggle to fill their gas tanks, captains of the oil industry are getting a raise.

Starting with info provided by Capital IQ (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)), BusinessWeek asked executive compensation research firm Equilar to analyze compensation of the chief executives of the 25 largest publicly traded global oil and gas companies (see the accompanying slide show for the full list of CEOs and what they were paid). Equilar’s study found that for the 12 CEOs at the largest U.S.-based, publicly traded oil companies, median total compensation increased by more than four times the rate of that of executives in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index as a whole.