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.

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