Archives for July 2008

NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 31

Obama to House Dems: If sanctions fail, Israel will likely strike Iran

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, met with House Democrats yesterday, talking about his trip abroad and his observations.

Obama told the caucus, according to an attendee, “Nobody said this to me directly but I get the feeling from my talks that if the sanctions don’t work Israel is going to strike Iran.” Others in the room recall this as well.

Editor’s Comment — So I guess Obama has decided that if he becomes president and Israel decides to attack Iran, then as president he would of course be utterly impotent — Israel being the most powerful nation on Earth. What’s an AIPAC-loyal American president to do? No doubt Benjamin Netanyahu has already taken due note. Bibi already knows that if he becomes Israel’s next prime minister he’s got carte blanche from McCain; now he just got a passive green light from Obama.

Israel after Olmert

The surprising thing about Ehud Olmert’s announcement on Wednesday was not his declared intention to resign in September as Prime Minister of Israel after just two years in office; it’s that he managed to last this long. Olmert’s handling of the botched Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 plunged his approval ratings into the single digits, and he never really recovered the confidence of the Israeli electorate. Still, he hung on, even when he became the target of a criminal investigation into corruption allegations, promising to resign in the event of an indictment. Some will see the fact that he has chosen to do so now, making clear that he will not be a candidate when his Kadima party holds a primary to choose a new leader in September, as a sign that charges may be in the offing over the case of U.S. businessman Morris Talansky, who has admitted giving Olmert large undeclared donations.

Police: Olmert quitting because he knows we have him

During the two-hour interview – which is the time alloted to the police by Olmert’s office – the investigators are expected to ask Olmert to explain a series of documents, collected by police during the past month, and which allegedly bolster the suspicions that the prime minister was aware and was party to the use of a mechanism for which he received multiple-funding for his trips abroad. Police suspect the excess funds were used to pay for dozens of flights for Olmert’s family over the years.

Police are focusing their investigation on the years when Olmert served as minister of Industry and Trade from 2003 to 2006.

Law enforcement sources suggested in recent days that the investigators may surprise Olmert with questions about other investigations being conducted against him.

But the focus will be Olmertours, and the prime minister will be asked to provide explanations on a precise list of flights for which he allegedly sought multiple funding, and the names of the institutions that funded the trips.

Hamas frees German TV’s cameraman after 5 days

The Hamas militant group released a Palestinian cameraman for German TV on Thursday, and the broadcaster said the 42-year-old man was tortured during his five days in detention.

Masked Hamas gunmen nabbed Sawah Abu Saif from his Gaza home last Saturday during a mass weekend roundup of alleged activists of the rival Fatah movement. Hamas blames Fatah for a Gaza City explosion that killed five Hamas members and a 6-year-old girl. Fatah denies the charges and the Germany broadcaster ARD denies Abu Saif has any political affiliation with either group.

ARD had shut down its Gaza City office to protest the arrest of its cameraman.

Time running out for US in Iraq

A timetable for the withdrawal of US troops has long been a priority for Iraqis – 70 percent want the United States out, according to the latest polls. This sentiment is also reflected in Parliament – the only directly elected branch of government. Two months ago, the political parties representing a majority sent a letter to Congress opposing any US-Iraq security agreement without a timetable.

The Iraqi executive branch, usually allied with the Bush administration on this issue, has joined this consensus. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insists that the agreement must “either remove US forces from the country or include a timetable for withdrawal.”

But the Bush administration continues to resist, even as the clock ticks toward Dec. 31 – when the current UN mandate expires and US troops lose their legal authority to fight and their immunity from prosecution in Iraq. We are concerned that the administration is not preparing to renew the mandate, which has been done routinely and will be necessary if negotiations do not culminate in a valid security agreement.

Afghanistan: Not a good war

Every war has a story line. World War I was “the war to end all wars.” World War II was “the war to defeat fascism.”

Iraq was sold as a war to halt weapons of mass destruction; then to overthrow Saddam Hussein, then to build democracy. In the end it was a fabrication built on a falsehood and anchored in a fraud.

But Afghanistan is the “good war,” aimed at “those who attacked us,” in the words of columnist Frank Rich. It is “the war of necessity,” asserts the New York Times, to roll back the “power of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Barack Obama is making the distinction between the “bad war” in Iraq and the “good war” in Afghanistan a centerpiece of his run for the presidency. He proposes ending the war in Iraq and redeploying U.S. military forces in order “to finish the job in Afghanistan.”

NW Pakistan clashes intensify; peace deals at risk, Taliban says

Clashes between insurgents and Pakistani troops escalated Wednesday in the country’s fractious northwest as Taliban leaders threatened to withdraw their support for peace deals brokered this year with Pakistan’s new government.

Accounts of casualties from the skirmishes in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, near the Afghan border, varied widely and could not be independently verified. A local military spokesman said that five Pakistani soldiers and at least 38 insurgents were killed, but a spokesman for a pro-Taliban group disputed that tally, saying that only three of its fighters had been slain.

It was the third consecutive day of violence between pro-Taliban extremists and government troops in the formerly serene Swat Valley. After skirmishes erupted near the town of Matta, Pakistani security forces began enforcing a 24-hour curfew in the area, a military spokesman said.

Living through the age of denial in America

If, on the evening of October 22, 1962, you had told me that, in 2008, America’s most formidable enemy would be Iran, I would have danced a jig. Well, maybe not a jig, but I’ll tell you this: I would have been flabbergasted.

On that October evening, President John F. Kennedy went before the nation — I heard him on radio — to tell us all that Soviet missile sites were just then being prepared on the island of Cuba with “a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” It was, he said, a “secret, swift and extraordinary buildup of communist missiles — in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere.” When fully operational, those nuclear-tipped weapons would reach “as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru.” I certainly knew what Hudson Bay, far to the north, meant for me.

“It shall be the policy of this nation,” Kennedy added ominously, “to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” And he ended, in part, this way: “My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred…”

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: July 30

Study questions US strategy against al-Qaida

The United States can defeat al-Qaida if it relies less on force and more on policing and intelligence to root out the terror group’s leaders, a new study contends.

“Keep in mind that terrorist groups are not eradicated overnight,” said the study [253-page PDF document] by the federally funded Rand research center, an organization that counsels the Pentagon.

Its report said that the use of military force by the United States or other countries should be reserved for quelling large, well-armed and well-organized insurgencies, and that American officials should stop using the term “war on terror” and replace it with “counterterrorism.”

Editor’s Comment — After 9/11, the US government and the American people colluded in a charade: an American conquest that would supposedly result in the eradication of terrorism and — taken to its hyperbolic height — bring about the end of evil. The idea that George Bush and Dick Cheney were going to lead the charge in bringing about an end of evil should have been met with howling, derisive laughter. Instead, the phrase “war on terrorism” slid so smoothly into everyday language that it quickly acquired social weight even while remaining conceptually as light as ether.

So, now we get word from the sober and hardcore establishment RAND Corp. that — surprise, surprise — combating terrorism is really a policing and intelligence issue.

Obama has promised to end not only “the war” (limited to Iraq) but also the mindset to took us into war. To do so will require deconstructing the concept of a war on terrorism, yet far from doing that, his campaign rhetoric merely echoes the mindset that took us to war by reinforcing the idea that the war on terrorism is a real war.

Abbas vows to dismantle PA if Israel frees Hamas prisoners for Shalit

If Israel releases Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament as part of a deal for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, PA President Mahmoud Abbas will dismantle the Palestinian Authority, Abbas warned Israel last week.

Abbas sent the warning to GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni via Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the PA’s civil affairs department, who is responsible for coordinating with Israel on anything involving the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Al-Sheikh, who told Shamni that this was a “personal message” from Abbas, stressed that the Palestinian leader did not speak merely of “resigning,” but of “dismantling the PA.”

Israel arrested dozens of Hamas politicians, including ministers and parliament members, shortly after Hamas kidnapped Shalit on June 25, 2006. Many have since been released by order of a military court, but about 40 remain in Israeli jails.

The message from Abbas was highly unusual, since publicly, he tries to portray himself as the leader of all the Palestinians – for instance, by repeatedly demanding that Israel release all its Palestinian prisoners.

Editor’s Comment — The Haaretz report says:

According to an Israeli source well-versed in what is happening in the PA, publication of Abbas’ threat to dismantle the PA if Israel releases the Hamas parliamentarians is liable to discredit him massively in the eyes of many Palestinians.

Worse than that, the more obvious it becomes that there is virtually no such thing as Palestinian solidarity, the more tenuous it becomes to sustain the idea that there is such a thing as a Palestinian cause. Palestinians face an existential threat and while that threat may have originated from Zionism and the state of Israel, the greatest danger now appears to be of self-destruction.

Neo-con Richard Perle in Kurdish oil deal?

Is neo-conservative Richard Perle — one of the most effective voices in encouraging the Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein — in talks to join a consortium of investors to drill for oil in Iraq’s Kurdistan and in Kazakhstan?

The Wall Street Journal says so in a piece this morning, pointing out that Perle has been talking to Kazakhstan’s Washington envoy, Alexander Mirtchev, and his associate, Kaloyan Dimitrov. As for the Kurds in northern Iraq, the Bush administration — and the government in Baghdad — have asked them not to issue any oil-drilling contracts until Iraq enacts a national oil bill to divvy up lucrative oil revenues. The Journal says Perle has approached the Kurds.

Barack’s European vacation

As I watched the right pour out its rain of fury on Barack Obama after his Berlin speech I couldn’t help but think of poor old Wile E. Coyote, raging impotently as the Road Runner zips through one of his carefully prepared snares.

Over the years conservatives have invested considerable capital, and enjoyed considerable success, in making “old Europe” a veritable synonym for all that is effete and snobbish and Chablis-drinking and just plain alien about liberalism. “Europe” was a bit of symbolism they thought they had tarnished beyond redemption; a well they had poisoned for good.

Remember “Freedom Fries”? Or how John Kerry was supposed to “look French”? Or how misguided Europeans were supposed to be with their national health plans and their failure to tremble before the Almighty?

CIA outlines Pakistan links with militants

A top Central Intelligence Agency official traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to American military and intelligence officials.

The C.I.A. emissary presented evidence showing that members of the spy service had deepened their ties with some militant groups that were responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan, possibly including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the officials said.

The decision to confront Pakistan with what the officials described as a new C.I.A. assessment of the spy service’s activities seemed to be the bluntest American warning to Pakistan since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks about the ties between the spy service and Islamic militants.

Good cop, bad cop: Pakistan reels

Ever since Pakistan signed onto the United States’ “war on terror” in 2001, Washington has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach in an attempt to prod its often reluctant partner.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 29

Palestinians ‘routinely torture’ rival detainees

Palestinians detained by Fatah and Hamas, the two main factions in the West Bank and Gaza, face routine abuse and torture, according to two leading human rights organisations in reports published this week.

Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian human rights group, said yesterday that more than 1,000 people have been detained by each side within the past year. An estimated 20%-30% of the detainees suffered torture, including severe beatings and being tied up in painful positions, said Al-Haq director Shawan Jabarin, citing sworn statements from 150 detainees. It said mistreatment had led to three deaths in Gaza and one in the West Bank.

Al-Haq blamed Hamas’s Executive Force and the group’s armed wing, the Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, for most of the abuses in Gaza. It said the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas’s Preventive Security Force and General Intelligence Service were the main culprits in the West Bank.

Editor’s Comment — Ever since 9/11 there has been a popular Western trend of opinion convinced that the roots of terrorism are embedded in Islam, but the domain that has received pitifully little attention is one that is exclusive to no particular culture: the institutionalization of brutality. This is something that appears to be pervasive in political cultures across the Middle East; it is embedded in the American penal system; it is an undercurrent to the glorification of military cultures; it is one of the most influential dimensions of the entertainment industry.

Fatah and Hamas may be getting ready for another bloodbath

After three deadly bombings and a string of tit-for-tat arrests, tensions between Fatah and Hamas are once again running dangerously high. The last time that the rivalry between the two groups degenerated into street violence nearly a year ago, hundreds of innocent people were killed as a result. If the leaders of both Palestinian factions fail to come to their senses and rein in their respective supporters, the streets of Gaza and/or the Occupied West Bank could soon see yet another needless bloodbath.

Hamas leaders acted rashly when they almost immediately accused Fatah of carrying out an attack in Gaza late Friday night – and then responded by rounding up almost 200 Fatah members and shutting down cultural and sports offices. Fatah upped the ante of irresponsible behavior when it retaliated to Hamas’ move by arresting 20 the Islamist group’s members in the Occupied West Bank. Both groups know what can happen when these kinds of retaliatory actions get out of hand and both groups now have an urgent responsibility to prevent that from happening again.

Our torture policy has deeper roots in Fox Television than the Constitution

The most influential legal thinker in the development of modern American interrogation policy is not a behavioral psychologist, international lawyer, or counterinsurgency expert. Reading both Jane Mayer’s stunning The Dark Side and Philippe Sands’ The Torture Team, I quickly realized that the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the star of Fox television’s 24: Jack Bauer.

This fictional counterterrorism agent—a man never at a loss for something to do with an electrode—has his fingerprints all over U.S. interrogation policy. As Sands and Mayer tell it, the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.

According to British lawyer and writer Philippe Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early “brainstorming meetings” of military officials at Guantanamo in September of 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial new interrogation techniques including water-boarding, sexual humiliation, and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer “gave people lots of ideas.” Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security chief, once gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show “reflects real life.”

Olmert: Living with 270,000 Arabs in Jerusalem means more terror

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that the situation in which Jews and Arabs live side by side in Jerusalem inevitably leads to terror attacks.

“Whoever thinks its possible to live with 270,000 Arabs in Jerusalem must take into account that there will be more bulldozers, more tractors, and more cars carrying out [terror] attacks,” Olmert said, referring to two incidents this month in which Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem deliberately plowed bulldozers into passing cars in the capital, causing casualties.

Olmert added that in light of the volatile situation in Jerusalem, it was unlikely that Israel and the Palestinians would reach an agreement on the issue by the end of the year, as is the stated goal. He said that other core issues, such as the fate of the Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state, could be agreed upon by the year-end deadline.

Editor’s Comment — Olmert’s statement is nothing more than a thinly veiled appeal for ethnic cleansing.

Pakistan plans a push into its tribal areas

Meeting a key Pentagon demand, Pakistan’s military is planning to move a major unit of its regular army into the tribal areas on its western border, a largely lawless area used as a haven by Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgents, Pakistani commanders have told U.S. military officials.

The army unit would supplement the country’s Frontier Corps, an ill-trained force frequently routed by insurgents, a senior U.S. military officer said. A fully trained and equipped army unit would represent a change, long sought by U.S. officials, in Islamabad’s stance toward the troubled region.

However, U.S. officials also question how effective or long-lasting the Pakistani push is likely to be.

Pakistani leader reproaches Bush for missile strike

A U.S. missile strike that’s believed to have killed a senior al Qaida operative in Pakistan’s tribal area roiled talks Monday between President Bush and Pakistani Prime Minister Sayed Yousaf Gilani, who reproached Bush for acting unilaterally and failing to share intelligence with Pakistani authorities.

A U.S. official defended the missile strike as a message that Washington will no longer abide Pakistan’s failure to deny al Qaida and the Taliban refuge at a time of surging cross-border attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

“If they (Pakistan) aren’t doing anything, then we are,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

Why Sunday’s bombings could help Erdogan

Sunday’s terror attack in Istanbul hit Turkey at a particularly critical juncture. The country’s highest court is expected to rule soon on the legality of the prime minister’s Islamist-rooted AKP party. But Erdogan himself stands to profit if the bloodbath leads the judges to issue a ruling that fosters national unity.

Regardless who was responsible for the bombings on Sunday evening in Istanbul, the attackers could hardly have chosen a more sensitive time to hit the country. Just a few hours after the massacre in the district of Güngören, which killed 17 people and left more than 150 injured, the Constitutional Court in Ankara convened to deliberate the case seeking to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A verdict is expected by the end of the week. It is possible that by next week the country could be without any political leadership at all.

Meanwhile another historic case was launched on Friday by a different prosecutor — for the first time former generals were indicted on charges of plotting a putsch to overthrow the government. They are accused of having formed a shadowy organization called Ergenekon along with ultranationalist commandos, far-right lawyers, well-known business leaders and journalists with radical Kemalist sympathies.

Snub for Iran eases nuclear crisis

A window of opportunity for Iran to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) seemed to have opened when on July 18 the Russian news agency quoted a source in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow hinting at such a prospect. It happened two days after Washington let it be known that a shift in its Iran policy was under way.

The unnamed Russian diplomat said the SCO foreign ministers at a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a week later would decide on whether to lift a moratorium on bringing in new states. “The moratorium has lasted for two years. We have now decided to consider the possibility of the SCO’s enlargement,” he said. It appeared that weathering US opposition, Moscow was pushing Iran’s pending request for SCO membership. Founded in 2001, the SCO currently comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran has observer status.

However, in the event, following the meeting in Dushanbe on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that the foreign ministers did not discuss the enlargement of the SCO, while finalizing the agenda of the organization’s summit meeting on August 28, and that Iran wouldn’t be able to get the status of an associate member.

California field goes from rush to reflection of global limits

In May 1899, a pair of oil prospectors wielding picks and shovels dug into a bank of the Kern River where some gooey liquid had seeped to the surface. About 45 feet down, they hit oil, and when the local newspaper printed the news, it set off an oil rush that swept up hundreds of fortune seekers, oil companies, a big railroad and even some enterprising school districts that bought up tracts in hope of turning a profit.

Today, on an arid square of land the size of Manhattan, thousands upon thousands of black derricks crowd the landscape, bobbing gently up and down and sipping crude oil from the field discovered a century ago. The wells aren’t gushers these days, but they still squeeze out a few barrels a day here, a few more there.

Chevron has injected steam into the reservoirs, coaxing the sedimentary rock into giving up millions of barrels of heavy oil that was too thick and sticky to retrieve using the technology of decades past.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 28

Gates: War with Iran would be ‘disastrous’

A war with Iran would be “disastrous on a number of levels,” according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

In an article appearing in the latest issue of Parameters, the U.S. Army War College quarterly, Gates wrote that with the army already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, “another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need” – despite the fact that Iran “supports terrorism,” is “a destabilizing force throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia and, in my judgment, is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Editor’s CommentHaaretz also notes that in another document, the Pentagon’s 2008 National Defense Strategy, Gates does not include Israel among the US’s “closest allies” — those being the “U.K., Australia, and Canada.”

This might be newsworthy but it shouldn’t be surprising. It’s easy enough to see why the US is an ally of Israel — “one in helpful association with another” — but not vice versa. Does Israel help the United States? Not in any ways that I’m aware of — but I welcome suggestions to the contrary.

End of the two-state solution

In order to try to create an exclusively Jewish state in what had been the culturally diverse land of Palestine, Israel’s founders expelled or drove into flight half of Palestine’s Muslim and Christian population and seized their land, their houses, and their property (furniture, clothing, books, personal effects, family heirlooms), in what Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948.

Even while demanding – rightly – that no one should forget the Jewish people’s history of suffering, and above all the Holocaust, Israel has insisted ever since 1948 not merely that the Palestinians must forget their own history, but that what it calls peace must be premised on that forgetting, and hence on the Palestinians’ renunciation of their rights. As Israel’s foreign minister has said, if the Palestinians want peace, they must learn to strike the word “nakba” from their lexicon.

Some must never forget, while others, clearly, must not be allowed to remember. Far from mere hypocrisy, this attitude perfectly expresses the Israeli people’s mistaken belief that they can find the security they need at the expense of the Palestinians, or that one people’s right can be secured at the cost of another’s.

Global pressures have converged to forge a new oil reality

The two events, half a world apart, went largely unheralded.

Early this month, Valero Energy in Texas got the unwelcome news that Mexico would be cutting supplies to one of the company’s Gulf Coast refineries by up to 15 percent. Mexico’s state-owned oil enterprise is one of Valero’s main sources of crude, but oil output from Mexican fields, including the giant Cantarell field, is drying up. Mexican sales of crude oil to the United States have plunged to their lowest level in more than a dozen years.

The same week, India’s Tata Motors announced it was expanding its plans to begin producing a new $2,500 “people’s car” called the Nano in the fall. The company hopes that by making automobiles affordable for people in India and elsewhere, it could eventually sell 1 million of them a year.

Although neither development made headlines, together they were emblematic of the larger forces of supply and demand that have sent world oil prices bursting through one record level after another. And while the cost of crude has surged before, this oil shock is different. There is little prospect that drivers will ever again see gas prices retreat to the levels they enjoyed for much of the last generation.

Iraq clings to a rickety calm between war and peace

The departure this month of the last of the 28,500 extra troops sent in a U.S. military buildup leaves Iraq in a rickety calm, an in-between space that is not quite war and not quite peace where ethnic and sectarian tensions bubble beneath the surface.

Politicians and U.S. officials hail the remarkable turnaround from open civil war that left 3,700 Iraqis dead during the worst month in the fall of 2006, compared with June’s toll of 490, according to Pentagon estimates.

Signs abound that normal life is starting to return. Revelers can idle away the hours at several neighborhood joints in Baghdad where the tables are buried in beers and a man can bring a girlfriend dolled up in a nice dress.

Despite the gains, the political horizon is clouded: Shiite Muslim parties are locked in dangerous rivalries across central and southern Iraq. Kurds and Arabs in the north compete for land with no resolution in sight. U.S.-backed Sunni Arab fighters who turned on the group Al Qaeda in Iraq could return to the insurgency if the government does not deliver jobs and a chance to join the political process.

The art of asymmetric warfare

A US military officer quoted in the excellent report by the International Crisis Group into Taliban propaganda operations released a few days ago says, “unfortunately, we tend to view information operations as supplementing kinetic [fighting] operations. For the Taliban, however, information objectives tend to drive kinetic operations … virtually every kinetic operation they undertake is specifically designed to influence attitudes or perceptions”.

This is strategic thought of extreme novelty, and in no small way helps explain the relative success of the Taliban so far in Afghanistan. In terms of a communication strategy it certainly goes well beyond the clumsy international coalition efforts which have remained largely focused on the international audience. Western press officers’ ability to talk to the Afghan public is hindered by their minimal language skills and the cultural gaps that separate them, and remains very limited.

Equally, the idea that military operations should be decided primarily according to their effect on populations and thus should be determined to a significant degree by the exigencies of modern media technology and by journalists is anathema to most western soldiers, most of whom see the press as a necessary evil at best.

The Taliban by contrast are quite happy to shape their military strikes according to the media demand. They know that spectacular attacks such as that on Kabul’s Serena hotel or the repeated attempts on President Karzai’s life are effective.

The military-industrial complex

Most Americans have a rough idea what the term “military-industrial complex” means when they come across it in a newspaper or hear a politician mention it. President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the idea to the public in his farewell address of January 17, 1961. “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime,” he said, “or indeed by the fighting men of World War II and Korea… We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions… We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications… We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

Although Eisenhower’s reference to the military-industrial complex is, by now, well-known, his warning against its “unwarranted influence” has, I believe, largely been ignored. Since 1961, there has been too little serious study of, or discussion of, the origins of the military-industrial complex, how it has changed over time, how governmental secrecy has hidden it from oversight by members of Congress or attentive citizens, and how it degrades our Constitutional structure of checks and balances.

From its origins in the early 1940s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was building up his “arsenal of democracy,” down to the present moment, public opinion has usually assumed that it involved more or less equitable relations — often termed a “partnership” — between the high command and civilian overlords of the United States military and privately-owned, for-profit manufacturing and service enterprises. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that, from the time they first emerged, these relations were never equitable.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 27

The Taliban’s Baghdad strategy

Faridoon stares in alarm at the two Newsweek reporters who just walked into his shop. “You guys better get out of town fast,” the 21-year-old Afghan says as quietly as possible. “There’s Taliban everywhere.” Lying in the street outside are the burned-out hulks of a gasoline tanker and a shipping-container truck that someone set ablaze two nights before, right in front of Faridoon’s motor-oil shop in Maidan Shar, the tiny, dust-blown capital of Maidan Wardak province, barely 25 miles south of Kabul. Only days earlier and a few miles farther down Highway 1, Taliban fighters ambushed and burned a 50-truck commercial convoy that was carrying fuel and supplies for the U.S. military. Even during the day, Faridoon and other townspeople warn, it’s not safe to visit the area.

Afghanistan’s insurgents have a new target—Kabul, and the belt of towns and villages surrounding the capital. “Today the Taliban are here,” says Maidan Shar’s white-smocked pharmacist Syed Mohammad, 32. “Tomorrow they may be in Kabul.” The supply convoy was attacked in his home village, a dot on the map called Pul Surkh, where he says insurgents now travel freely, packing new AK-47s and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. A series of spectacular recent terrorist incidents have shaken Kabul, a city that is all too familiar with violence. Blast walls and barbed wire have sprouted to defend against suicide bombers; residents are afraid to travel even a few miles outside the city. To some, the Afghan capital is beginning to feel like a new Baghdad.

U.S. war on terrorism loses ground in Pakistan

Although the “war on terrorism” remains a consuming focus of the U.S. government, the Bush administration appears poised to leave behind a situation not unlike the one it inherited nearly eight years ago: a resurgent Al Qaeda ensconced in South Asia, training new recruits, plotting attacks against the West, and seemingly beyond the United States’ reach.

In dozens of interviews, senior U.S. national security, intelligence and military officials described a counter-terrorism campaign in Pakistan that has lost momentum and is beset by frustration.

CIA officers pursuing Al Qaeda fighters are confined largely to a collection of crumbling bases in northwestern Pakistan. Most are on remote Pakistani military outposts, where they are kept on a short leash under an awkward arrangement with their hosts — rarely allowed to leave and often left with little to do but plead with their Pakistani counterparts to act.

Embraced overseas, but to what effect?

As Obama moved from Iraq and Afghanistan to Jordan and Israel and then to three European capitals before flying back to Chicago on Saturday night, strategists back home measured the political fallout for the senator from Illinois and for the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain on an almost hourly basis. Their consensus was that the week turned into a near-rout for Obama.

John Weaver, who once was McCain’s top political strategist, said his old boss made a big mistake by virtually daring Obama to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, only to see Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki generally embrace the Democrat’s plan for withdrawing combat forces when he went there.

“McCain lost the week badly, let’s be honest,” Weaver said in a message on Friday. “John [McCain] is still in striking distance, thanks to his own character, biography and memories of the McCain of previous election cycles. But he cannot afford another week like this one.”

Alex Castellanos, another Republican strategist, agreed that Obama had acquitted himself well overseas. ” ‘Barack goes global’ is working,” he noted. But he sounded a cautionary note, nonetheless. Obama, unlike McCain, he said, remains a work in progress who is still trying to answer the question, “Who is this guy?”

The risks of rapture

On his radio show this week, Rush Limbaugh declared of Europeans: “They love Obama because he loathes America.” Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin predicted that “the race for international popularity” might prompt Obama to undermine Israel and abandon Iraq.

Could arguments like these hurt Obama? Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, is dubious. Recent Pew surveys have found a slight increase since 2004 (from 67 percent to 71 percent) in the number of Americans who say they think the U.S. is less respected in the world than in the past–and a bigger jump in the share who consider that a major problem (56 percent, up from 43 percent). “More people see the importance of rebuilding international ties than four years ago,” Kohut says. And foreign acclaim could help Obama maintain that he is better equipped than McCain to restore those connections.

But fault lines remain. College-educated Obama supporters, when asked why they back him, nearly always insist that his election–as a mixed-race, mixed-heritage president–would transform America’s image abroad. I have almost never heard that argument from blue-collar voters, especially blue-collar men, who Pew polls show are the voting bloc least concerned about America’s international standing and most supportive of GOP arguments that the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, not diplomacy.

European cheers may strengthen Obama at Starbucks, but it remains to be seen whether they will sweeten his prospects at Dunkin’ Donuts.

What did Obama learn in Iraq?

The main complexity Obama has to confront in Iraq is the apparent success of the most recent phase of U.S. military strategy, of which the troop surge was a key part. Violence has come down from stratospheric heights. The success is relative (violence is still at 2005 levels), but the situation is far better than Obama predicted. When he voted against the surge in January 2007, he claimed on more than one occasion that it would lead to increased casualties and sectarian violence. It didn’t. How’d he get that one wrong? In January 2007, Obama claimed that the Iraqi government would make no hard choices if the United States stayed. But they have made hard choices. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched incursions into Basra and confronted cleric Muqtada Sadr, both of which helped pave the way for the Sunni faction’s return to the government. This is not enough progress to suggest Iraq is anywhere near stable, but like the drop in violence, it’s more than Obama predicted.

These are not academic questions. Some people would say the vote on the surge was one of Obama’s most important as a senator. As Obama pointed out regularly during the Democratic primaries with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, both of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war, a person’s past vote tells you something about his or her judgment. Obama has talked a lot about the clarity of his judgment in opposing the Iraq war. He also once suggested that if he’d been forced to cast an actual vote for or against the Iraq war as a senator, his view might have been complicated. On the surge, we get a chance to watch Obama grapple with similar complexities in real time. Or, at least, we should.

Editor’s Comment — How long will it be before “surge” becomes re-purposed as a marketing term? It’s become such an all-powerful signal of positive change it surely has the power to sell goods or get people elected…

How quickly we forget that it’s a matter of only a few months ago that the word was: “the surge should by now be a stunning success… if only it wasn’t for the meddlesome Iranians. It’s the Iranians who are stopping the surge from working.”

Logically, the question now — if one accepts the Pentagon’s claims from before — is not about whether the success of the surge can be acknowledged and applauded; the question should be: why has Iran decided to make life much easier for the US in Iraq? By what logic are we to understand that Iran could carry so much blame for the surge’s failure, yet accrue no credit for the surge’s success?

Arabs under siege as Israel tightens grip on Holy City

Fawzia al-Kurd’s home is nothing special. She has lived within its walls for the past quarter of a century, in the heart of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah district. The house is tidy. But at first glance, it would not appear to be worth $10m.

That is the sum that the al-Kurd family claim they were offered by Israeli buyers as an incentive to move on, a figure confirmed by their lawyer. Fawzia refused to make a deal, whatever the price. It would have hurt her ‘integrity’ to take it and leave, she said. So last week she received an eviction notice, based on an arcane legal claim to the site that her husband first called home in 1956.

If she and her family are forced to leave as a result, ultra-Orthodox Israeli settlers from a company called Nahlat Shemoun – linked to a nearby Jewish shrine – will take over half of the house. Settlers have already occupied her illegally built extension. The Kurd house may soon be draped with Israeli flags – as is another a handful of metres distant – and Arab East Jerusalem will have shrunk perceptibly once more.

‘Their objective [in trying to evict me] is political’, said Fawzia. ‘They are claiming as theirs something that is not.’

The story of Fawzia’s house reflects the larger battle for the future of Jerusalem, a city contested with an intensity and urgency unmatched anywhere else in the world. In the interminable saga of the Middle East peace process, agreement on the ‘final status’ of the Holy City remains as elusive as ever.

Tensions high in Gaza as Hamas cracks down on rival groups

Hamas security forces fanned out across a tense Gaza Strip Sunday, following a mysterious weekend car bombing that killed six people and sparked the toughest Hamas crackdown against its Fatah rivals in months.

Human rights groups said Hamas released over a dozen of the some 200 Fatah men it arrested Saturday in connection with the bombing, which killed five Hamas men and a 6-year-old girl. But Hamas police remained deployed in force around Gaza City, manning roadblocks and checking cars.

Meanwhile Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas detained 15 Hamas activists, including two officials, in the West Bank city of Tul Karm on Sunday, Palestinian security officials said. They gave no reason for the arrests.

Analysis: Salafism – the worrying process of self-radicalization

The process whereby young men become radicalized through contact with Islamist ideas via preachers or the Internet and then go on to form ad hoc terror cells has been observed in Muslim communities in Europe and further afield. So how is Salafism gaining its foothold west of the Jordan River? Through the relatively simple formula of preaching, education, the creation of groups of devotees, and the subsequent self-organization of those devotees.

In the West Bank, the removal of Hamas-affiliated imams in over 1,000 mosques has paradoxically opened the door for the rising prominence of Salafi-oriented preachers.

Some of the radical preachers are associated with the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) party. This veteran Islamist group was long regarded as a curiosity because of its failure to maintain an armed wing and its refusal to engage in active politics. However, HT has enjoyed an unprecedented rise in popularity in the West Bank over the last 18 months. Many of its imams are known to be in contact with the broader, amorphous Salafi subculture. HT itself is not a Salafi grouping. But its role as a radicalizing force and then a conduit for young men to violent activity is a key concern.

‘Compared to us, Hamas is Islamism lite’

So far, Hamas has done what it can to keep the Salafis under control. They know the ultra-radicals are just waiting to take over Hamas’ position of leadership. “They are traitors,” Abu Mustafa says of Hamas. “Compared to us, they are Islamism lite.”

Nevertheless, he’s willing to be merciful. “We will give them the chance to turn away from the false path,” he says. And what happens if they don’t take up the offer? “Then there will be confrontation,” Abu Mustafa promises, bringing his fists together. Still, he doesn’t think it likely that the Salafis will have to take up arms against Hamas. “It won’t be necessary. They will destroy themselves.”

His explanation is clear. “For many people in Gaza, Hamas embodied the promise of a good, Islamic lifestyle,” Abu Mustafa says. But once the group seized power in the Gaza Strip over a year ago, many were disappointed. Of the 10 defectors who call him everyday, many of them are Hamas fighters, he claims. “These are tough men and they have insider knowledge. They will be very useful should it come to a power struggle.”

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 26

Into no-man’s land

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are poised to conclude a bilateral “memorandum of understanding” that would authorize U.S. troops to continue military operations in Iraq. There is only one problem — the memo won’t be the binding law of the United States.

A memo isn’t a “treaty,” which requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate under Article 2 of the Constitution. It isn’t a “congressional-executive agreement,” which requires the approval of a majority of both houses of Congress under Article 1. It is just a statement of intent. According to the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor, “memo” is the term that is “common for nonbinding documents.”

The United States is moving into legal no-man’s land because the president refuses to ask the U.N. Security Council to renew the annual resolution that provides the legal foundation for the presence of our troops in Iraq. If this resolution is allowed to expire on Dec. 31, it will create a legal vacuum — a vacuum that can’t be filled by a presidential memo.

Taliban winning the war of words

In the first week of July, several people were killed in a village in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar by international forces. The US-led coalition forces described the operation as a precision air strike which had killed militants. Locals said they were civilians. Claims. Counter-claims. It seemed business as usual until investigations revealed that the air strike had in fact bombed a wedding party, killing 50, including the bride.

Though the incident was reported widely with concern for the civilian casualties, there was less attention on the other “collateral damage” it caused – the casualty of credibility.

The war of words between anti-government militants and pro-government forces has become so routine that little attention is paid to the contradictions in the claims. In the process, the anti-government insurgents are gaining, a dangerous situation when the government’s legitimacy is already under question.

The power of the militants’ propaganda is evident from a new report published by the Brussels-based independent International Crisis Group (ICG) this week. The report, “Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words“, argues that the Taliban are “successfully tapping into the strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers”. The result, it says, “is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban”.

Obama’s popularity as anti-Bush is telling

In stop after stop across the Middle East and Europe, Obama was embraced as the man whose promise of change meant a change from Bush: on Iraq, Mideast peace, the treatment of terrorism suspects, climate change, alliance relations and more.

The tour has brought into focus how world leaders already are positioning themselves for a new American president.

Obama’s debut appearance on the international stage was the most vivid demonstration yet that the world is moving beyond the Bush era, even while the White House works frantically in its last six months to salvage what it can of its foreign policy agenda.

The trip had to come as a jolt for administration officials, said Wayne White, a senior State Department intelligence official in Bush’s first term. “I’m sure it was a bit rattling for the administration to see someone treated with such deference,” he said.

Power rising, Taliban besiege Pakistani Shiites

It was once known as the Parrot’s Beak, a strategic jut of Pakistan that the American-backed mujahedeen used to carry out raids on the Russians just over the border into Afghanistan. That was during the cold war.

Now the area, around the town of Parachinar, is near the center of the new kind of struggle. The Taliban have inflamed and exploited a long-running sectarian conflict that has left the town under siege.

The Taliban, which have solidified control across Pakistan’s tribal zone and are seeking new staging grounds to attack American soldiers in Afghanistan, have sided with fellow Sunni Muslims against an enclave of Shiites settled in Parachinar for centuries. The population of about 55,000 is short of food. The fruit crop is rotting, residents say, and the cost of a 66-pound bag of flour has skyrocketed to $100.

Driver told FBI agents U.S. could have killed bin Laden

In his seventh of month of U.S. captivity, Osama bin Laden’s driver told a pair of FBI agents that it was America’s fault that the al Qaida leader was alive.

The message was, ”You had these opportunities, America. You didn’t do anything,” FBI agent George Crouch Jr. testified Friday at Salim Hamdan’s war crimes trial.

The United States could have killed bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, before he moved to Afghanistan in 1996, Hamdan told his interrogators. They could have killed him after al Qaida’s 1998 twin bombings at the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Or after the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, at the port of Aden in Yemen, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.

Instead, ”Bin Laden was emboldened.” So he struck with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, leaving nearly 3,000 dead.

Israeli leaders find generous donors in U.S.

American businessman Morris Talansky has riveted Israel with tales of bankrolling the plush lifestyle of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: the expensive cigars and five-star suites, a fine watch and an Italian vacation.

While most Israelis have been galled at the extent of the alleged corruption, no one has been surprised by the source of the funds. Politicians in Israel have long known that if they want to raise large amounts of money, for whatever reason, they’ll find it in the United States.

Foreign donations are banned for general elections, but Israeli leaders routinely get half or more of their campaign contributions for party primaries from overseas, and mostly from American donors.

Obama’s balancing act

Barack Obama’s foreign trip has been a balancing act. It is a presidential-style tour by someone who is not president. It is a campaign event that his advisers dare not acknowledge as such. It is a tour designed to leverage his popularity abroad to appeal to voters at home, but not at the cost of appearing captured by anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment.

All of those tensions came together on Thursday evening in Berlin. This was the big public event of Obama’s foreign tour, his only major speech and the moment in the trip when everything would come together to scream out “change!” to both sides of the Atlantic. Yet there was almost a mismatch between image and oratory, setting and substance.

Obama plays — or seeks to play — the game of politics at a different level than many politicians. How many others could have drawn 200,000 people to the middle of Berlin on a soft summer evening? How many would have dared try? Those realities send a distinctive message about Obama’s candidacy, but also invite distinctive scrutiny.

No. 44 has spoken

Anyone who saw Barack Obama at Berlin’s Siegessäule on Thursday could recognize that this man will become the 44th president of the United States. He is more than ambitious — he wants to lay claim to become the president of the world.

It was a ton to absorb — and what a stupendous ride through world history: the story of his own family, the Berlin Airlift, terrorists, poorly secured nuclear material, the polar caps, World War II, America’s errors, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, freedom. It’s amazing anyone could pack such a potpourri of issues into the space of a speech that lasted less than 30 minutes.

So what sticks? That Barack Obama is a passionate politician who is fixated on — and takes very seriously — his desire for a better world. That he is an impressive speaker who knows how to casually draw his audience into his image of the world — one who doesn’t have any need to resort to the kind of cheap effects that tend to prompt the uproarious applause of an audience. That he is a typical American — an idealist in the true spirit of the American success story who is now very casually making his claim to becoming something akin to the president of the world.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 24

Tough love for Israel?

On his visit to the Middle East, Barack Obama gave ritual affirmations of his support for Israeli policy, but what Israel needs from America isn’t more love, but tougher love.

Particularly at a time when Israel seems to be contemplating military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, the United States would be a better friend if it said: “That’s crazy” — while also insisting on a 100 percent freeze on settlements in the West Bank and greater Jerusalem.

Granted, not everybody sees things this way, and discussions of the Middle East usually involve each side offering up its strongest arguments to wrestle with the straw men of the other side. So let me try something different.

After I wrote a column last month from Hebron in the West Bank, my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground, was flooded with counterarguments — and plenty of challenges to address them. In the interest of a civil dialogue on the Middle East, here are excerpts from some of the readers’ defenses of Israel’s conduct in the West Bank and my responses:

Editor’s Comment — It’s always refreshing — largely because it’s all too rare — to see a columnist in the mainstream American media stick their neck out and dare to say anything critical of Israel or America’s relations with the Jewish state. On at least one point though, Kristof echoes the conventional and blinkered wisdom: In Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “Israel has its most reasonable partner ever.”

Sure, Mahmoud Abbas may well be an eminently reasonable and decent fellow, but these are not the pivotal requirements in an effective “peace partner.” Whoever the Israelis deal with needs to unambiguously be a representative of the Palestinian people – someone who embodies the will of the people. In fact, both sides need leadership that is genuinely empowered by the will of the people and this is what both sides now lack.

Obama on the brink

Barack Obama is betraying his promise of change and is in danger of becoming just another political hack.

Yes, just like former maverick John McCain, who has refashioned himself as a mindless rubber stamp for the most inane policies of the miserably failed Bush administration. Both candidates are embracing, rather than challenging, the fundamental irrationality of Bush’s “war on terror,” which substitutes hysteria for rational analysis in appraising the dangers the country faces.

Terrorism is a social pathology that needs to be excised with the surgical precision of detective work, inspired by a high level of international cooperation, the very opposite of the unilateral war metaphor that recruits new generations of terrorists in the wake of the massive armies we dispatch. At a time when we desperately need a president to remind us we have nothing to fear but fear itself, we are increasingly being treated to a presidential campaign driven by fear.

How much does John McCain really know about foreign policy?

After Barack Obama’s opening day in Iraq this week, the New York Times headline read, “For Obama, a First Step Is Not a Misstep.” The story, by Richard Oppel Jr. and Jeff Zeleny, noted, “Mr. Obama seemed to have navigated one of the riskiest parts of a weeklong international trip without a noticeable hitch.”

That was the big nail-biter: Would Obama, the first-term senator and foreign-policy newbie, utter an irrevocably damaging gaffe? The nightmare scenarios were endless. Maybe he would refer to “the Iraq-Pakistan border,” or call the Czech Republic “Czechoslovakia” (three times), or confuse Sunni with Shiite, or say that the U.S. troop surge preceded (and therefore caused) the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province.

But, of course, it was Obama’s opponent, John McCain—the war hero and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee—who uttered these eyebrow-raisers. “Czechoslovakia” was clearly a gaffe, and understandable for anyone who was sentient during the Cold War years. What about the others, though? Were they gaffes—slips of the tongue, blips of momentary fatigue? Or did they reflect lazy thinking, conceptual confusion, a mind frame clouded by clichéd abstractions?

Back to the future in Iraq and Afghanistan

Consensus is not a word usually associated with Iraq, but as security improves in the wake of the US troop surge, interested parties – the Bush administration, Iraq’s Shia-led government, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, the Arab Gulf states and Iran – all agree, to varying degrees and for different reasons, that the time has come to start planning the withdrawal of US combat troops.

The corollary of this proposition is that additional US and Nato forces should be sent to Afghanistan where, in contrast, security is deteriorating. Again, there is a surprising amount of agreement. Democrat Barack Obama argues Afghanistan, not Iraq, is the “central front in the war on terror”. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, says reinforcements will be sent “sooner rather than later”. The Republican candidate, John McCain concurs. So too does Britain’s Gordon Brown.

But the fact that everyone broadly agrees on a certain course of action does not mean it is necessarily wise or sensible. Military commanders and regional experts cite plenty of reasons why a drawdown in Iraq, whether fast or slow, risks tipping that country back into quasi-anarchy. It is likewise far from obvious that sending more troops to Afghanistan will bring “victory” over the Taliban. It could simply make matters worse.

Is Afghanistan a narco-state?

On March 1, 2006, I met Hamid Karzai for the first time. It was a clear, crisp day in Kabul. The Afghan president joined President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ambassador Ronald Neumann to dedicate the new United States Embassy. He thanked the American people for all they had done for Afghanistan. I was a senior counternarcotics official recently arrived in a country that supplied 90 percent of the world’s heroin. I took to heart Karzai’s strong statements against the Afghan drug trade. That was my first mistake.

Over the next two years I would discover how deeply the Afghan government was involved in protecting the opium trade — by shielding it from American-designed policies. While it is true that Karzai’s Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters. At the same time, some of our NATO allies have resisted the anti-opium offensive, as has our own Defense Department, which tends to see counternarcotics as other people’s business to be settled once the war-fighting is over. The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs — and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I attended an Afghanistan briefing for Anne Patterson on Dec. 1, 2005, soon after she became assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, she turned to me with her characteristic smile and said, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We had just learned that in the two previous months Afghan farmers had planted almost 60 percent more poppy than the year before, for a total of 165,000 hectares (637 square miles). The 2006 harvest would be the biggest narco-crop in history. That was the challenge we faced. Patterson — already a three-time ambassador — made me her deputy at the law-enforcement bureau, which has anti-crime programs in dozens of countries.

At the beginning of 2006, I went to the high-profile London Conference on Afghanistan. It was a grand event mired in deception, at least with respect to the drug situation. Everyone from the Afghan delegation and most in the international community knew that poppy cultivation and heroin production would increase significantly in 2006. But the delegates to the London Conference instead dwelled on the 2005 harvest, which was lower than that of 2004, principally because of poor weather and market manipulation by drug lords like Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, who had been governor of the heroin capital of the world — Helmand Province — and then a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament. So the Afghans congratulated themselves on their tremendous success in fighting drugs even as everyone knew the problem was worse than ever.

Plan would use antiterror aid in Pakistan on attack jets

The Bush administration plans to shift nearly $230 million in aid to Pakistan from counterterrorism programs to upgrading that country’s aging F-16 attack planes, which Pakistan prizes more for their contribution to its military rivalry with India than for fighting insurgents along its Afghan border.

Some members of Congress have greeted the proposal with dismay and anger, and may block the move. Lawmakers and their aides say that F-16s do not help the counterterrorism campaign and defy the administration’s urgings that Pakistan increase pressure on fighters of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in its tribal areas.

The timing of the action caught lawmakers off guard, prompting some of them to suspect that the deal was meant to curry favor with the new Pakistani prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who will meet with President Bush in Washington next week, and to ease tensions over the 11 members of the Pakistani paramilitary forces killed in an American airstrike along the Afghan border last month.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 23

Exposing Bush’s historic abuse of power

The last several years have brought a parade of dark revelations about the George W. Bush administration, from the manipulation of intelligence to torture to extrajudicial spying inside the United States. But there are growing indications that these known abuses of power may only be the tip of the iceberg. Now, in the twilight of the Bush presidency, a movement is stirring in Washington for a sweeping new inquiry into White House malfeasance that would be modeled after the famous Church Committee congressional investigation of the 1970s.

While reporting on domestic surveillance under Bush, Salon obtained a detailed memo proposing such an inquiry, and spoke with several sources involved in recent discussions around it on Capitol Hill. The memo was written by a former senior member of the original Church Committee; the discussions have included aides to top House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, and until now have not been disclosed publicly.

Salon has also uncovered further indications of far-reaching and possibly illegal surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency inside the United States under President Bush. That includes the alleged use of a top-secret, sophisticated database system for monitoring people considered to be a threat to national security. It also includes signs of the NSA’s working closely with other U.S. government agencies to track financial transactions domestically as well as globally.

US elections: Obama’s political straitjacket

Mr Obama’s schedule of meetings today also speaks volumes about the straitjacket of policy positions he has slipped into for the duration of this visit. After breakfast with the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who has burnished his hawkish credentials as a tough and unyielding defence minister, Mr Obama went on to meet another strong contender for the premiership – the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

After that, the now compulsory visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, followed by a meeting with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. The afternoon beckons with a helicopter tour of the “seam” between Israel and the West Bank, which ends in Sderot, the southern immigrant town that has born the brunt of rocket fire from Gaza.

In between these two sections of Mr Obama’s itinerary, he meets the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in his office in the Muqata in Ramallah. In other words, of the 36 hours Mr Obama has devoted to this visit, he will spend around 45 minutes talking to Palestinian spokesmen. This is one measure of Mr Obama’s concern to court Israeli opinion.

What Obama missed in the Middle East

When I and other Palestinian-Americans first knew Barack Obama in Chicago in the 1990s, he grasped the oppression faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation. He understood that an honest broker cannot simultaneously be the main cheerleader, financier and arms supplier for one side in a conflict. He often attended Palestinian-American community events and heard about the Palestinian experience from perspectives stifled in mainstream discussion.

In recent months, Obama has sought to allay persistent concerns from pro-Israel groups by recasting himself as a stalwart backer of Israel and tacking ever closer to positions espoused by the powerful, hard-line pro-Israel lobby Aipac. He distanced himself from mainstream advisers because pro-Israel groups objected to their calls for even-handedness.

Like his Republican rival, senator John McCain, Obama gave staunch backing to Israel’s 2006 bombing of Lebanon, which killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the blockade and bombardment of the Gaza Strip, calling them “self defence”.

Abizaid: “Iran is not a suicide state; deterrence will work”

Monday evening at a meeting of the Pacific Council, retired General John Abizaid, the former commander of the US Central Command for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2007, offered lots of wisdom and an impressive analysis of the Middle East. In this election season, every American, including Barack Obama and John McCain, should hear what he has to say.

ON IRAN: Although he didn’t say it outright, General Abizaid’s implicit view seemed to be that the world would not be able to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that we would have to learn to live with it. He questioned whether war with Iran to stop that eventuality would be a wise idea “at this particular time” not only because world oil flows would be shut down and turmoil would spread across the Middle East where Iran’s Shia allies hold sway, but also because the US armed forces lacked strategic flexibility, bogged down as they are in Iraq and Afghanistan with “our ground forces tapped out.”

Will deal with Iran be worked out?

Gary Sick, a longtime expert on Iran who served as the Iran officer in the National Security Councils of the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, says there is pressure on both the Iranian and U.S. governments to accept a compromise to move negotiations forward on eventually halting Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. “Neither side wants to show that it is losing face, or that it is caving in or appeasing the other side, but both sides are interested in finding a way out of this conundrum,” he says.

There was considerable anticipation in advance of Saturday’s meeting in Geneva between the Security Council permanent five plus Germany and the Iranian nuclear negotiator. There had been reports of a softening in Iran’s position, and the United States sent its third-ranking State Department official to sit in on these talks. Are we nearing some kind of breakthrough or are we just going to keep going more or less as we’ve been going?

It’s really impossible to predict, and I don’t like to make predictions about these things. It is clear that Iran is in a good bargaining position. It has been given an offer that they certainly have not rejected straight out of hand, [namely to] stop building new centrifuges and keep your production where it is and we’ll then use that as the basis to talk. Thus far, they have not bought that, but they have shown great interest in it, and there is enough domestic pressure in Iran that it is going to be hard for them to reject it outright.

Solar power from Saharan sun could provide Europe’s electricity, says EU

A tiny rectangle superimposed on the vast expanse of the Sahara captures the seductive appeal of the audacious plan to cut Europe’s carbon emissions by harnessing the fierce power of the desert sun.

Dwarfed by any of the north African nations, it represents an area slightly smaller than Wales but scientists claimed yesterday it could one day generate enough solar energy to supply all of Europe with clean electricity.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona, Arnulf Jaeger-Walden of the European commission’s Institute for Energy, said it would require the capture of just 0.3% of the light falling on the Sahara and Middle East deserts to meet all of Europe’s energy needs.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 22

All the hysteria that’s fit to print?

You’d think the once-gray lady would have learned from the Edward Luttwak debacle earlier this year, when its public editor was forced to apologize for the paper publishing an op-ed premised on utter nonsense. But no. Instead, the paper asks us to take seriously a manic rant from Israeli historian-turned-hysterian Benny Morris, warning that “Israel will almost surely attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the next four to seven months — and the leaders in Washington and even Tehran should hope that the attack will be successful enough to cause at least a significant delay in the Iranian production schedule, if not complete destruction, of that country’s nuclear program. Because if the attack fails, the Middle East will almost certainly face a nuclear war — either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb.”

For a man who once applied the historian’s method of carefully weighing evidence from a wide variety of sources to establish the complex motives at work in historical conflict, the reasoning in Morris’s rant was shockingly adolescent, and bereft of precisely the craft through which he made his name.

Israel’s slap in the face from America

Israel gives the impression that it was completely unprepared for the recent dramatic switch in American policy toward Iran. The Bush administration did not consult with Israel before deciding to add a senior American diplomat to the talks the Europeans are conducting with the Iranians, nor did Washington inform Jerusalem of its intentions to open an interests section in Tehran. The Prime Minister’s Bureau received word of America’s new policy almost at the last minute, just in order to ensure that Israel would not be taken totally by surprise. If clandestine diplomatic feelers between Washington and Tehran preceded the announcement, Israel was left completely in the dark as to their existence.

The American “detente” with Iran has one obvious consequence: As long as the diplomatic game continues, there is not the slightest chance in the world of any aggressive action being taken against Iran’s nuclear program. Which means no bombing of nuclear facilities. And no naval blockade and no prevention of commercial flights from Iran, as Israel has proposed. If even a minor-ranking American diplomat is posted in Tehran, to ostensibly “speak with the people,” the Iranian regime will enjoy total immunity.

Mideast sees more of the same if Obama is elected

For what feels like forever, Israelis and their Arab neighbors have been hopelessly deadlocked on how to resolve the Palestinian crisis. But there is one point they may now agree on: If elected president, Senator Barack Obama will not fundamentally recalibrate America’s relationship with Israel, or the Arab world.

From the religious center of Jerusalem to the rolling hills of Amman to the crowded streets of Cairo, dozens of interviews revealed a similar sentiment: the United States will ultimately support Israel over the Palestinians, no matter who the president is. That presumption promoted a degree of relief in Israel and resignation here in Jordan and in Israel’s other Arab neighbors.

“What we know is American presidents all support Israel,” said Muhammad Ibrahim, 23, a university student who works part time selling watermelons on the street in the southern part of this city. “It is hopeless. This one is like the other one. They are all the same. Nothing will change. Don’t expect change.”

McCain’s Iraq dilemma

When John McCain, out of money and plunging in the polls, staked his Presidential campaign on his support for the surge of American forces in Iraq, he no doubt did so out of a sincere belief that the policy would dramatically improve conditions on the ground. But he probably never dreamed that only a year later, conditions would have improved so dramatically that Barack Obama’s “out in 16 months” plan, drawn up as a way to extricate the U.S. as rapidly as possible from a costly fiasco, would look instead like a potentially appropriate response to American success – or that the feeling-his-oats Iraqi Prime Minister would be more or less endorsing it. Where Iraq is concerned, McCain is suddenly in the odd position of playing Winston Churchill in 1945, or George H.W. Bush in 1992 – a leader whose successes in crafting wartime policy don’t translate into electoral victory – without having ever been elected President in the first place.

Evidence against terrorism suspect barred at Guantanamo trial

The military judge overseeing the first war crimes trial against a terrorism suspect at Guantanamo Bay agreed Monday to bar some evidence against Osama bin Laden’s former driver because it was obtained in “highly coercive environments and conditions.”

On the trial’s opening day, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred denied defense appeals to exclude other statements Salim Ahmed Hamdan made during interrogation by U.S. agents in Afghanistan as well as during his more than six years’ imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The judge said he would withhold judgment on a May 2003 interrogation until the defense had time to review 600 pages of detention records, which the government did not turn over until Sunday — the night before trial.

The exclusion of evidence Allred considered coerced could set a standard for admissibility in other war crimes cases due before the tribunal in the coming months, including that of the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 21

U.S. official preparing scathing report on Israel’s West Bank policies

The United States security coordinator for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, retired general James Jones, is preparing an extremely critical report of Israel’s policies in the territories and its attitude toward the Palestinian Authority’s security services.

A few copies of the report’s executive summary (or, according to some sources, a draft of it) have been given to senior Bush Administration officials, and it is reportedly arousing considerable discomfort. In recent weeks, the administration has been debating whether to allow Jones to publish his full report, or whether to tell him to shelve it and make do with the summary, given the approaching end of President George Bush’s term.

Jones was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice following the Annapolis peace conference last November. His assignment was to draft a strategic plan to facilitate stabilization of the security situation, as a necessary accompaniment to Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations. In this context, he assessed the PA security forces in the West Bank, whose reform is being overseen by another American general, Keith Dayton. Jones has visited the region several times and met with senior Israeli government officials and army officers.

Editor’s Comment — There’s sure to be a stampede of the Washington press corps trying to get comments from the administration and the presidential candidates on this report …. Of course I jest. Chances are, we won’t hear a whisper. It would be so impolite to raise the matter. Then again, Gen Jones apparently doesn’t have his balls being squeezed in a vice, so maybe he’d be happy to do an off-the-record briefing — if only there was someone with enough guts to give him a call.

Arab world doubts US approach will change

As Barack Obama’s profile rose with each victory during the US Democratic primary race, many in the Arab world watched with a mixture of curiosity and a degree of anticipation.

Here was an African-American who had opposed the Iraq war, whose father was raised a Muslim and who represented a new, youthful and relatively unknown face to US politics. Many hoped that if his campaign were successful he might initiate a fresh stance for US policy in the Middle East and be more sympathetic towards the Arab cause. After two terms of George W. Bush’s presidency – deemed a disaster throughout much of the Arab world – the buzz among many in the region was that anybody would be better. And Mr Obama, perhaps more than other candidates, inspired thoughts of a genuine shift.

Yet as he makes his first trip to the Middle East as the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, he will find that just as questions have been mounting in the US about his credentials to be commander-in-chief, so too is he coming under greater scrutiny among Arabs, with queries about his ability to deal with the crises in their region.

Barack who? Arabs weigh in

Senator Obama’s campaign may have launched groundswells of hope, ardor, and optimism at home and in Europe. But at the start of his closely watched trip to the Middle East, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee is little known in the Arab world, and has yet to generate widespread interest or enthusiasm.

From Baghdad to Beirut, people said in recent interviews that they are unfamiliar with his policies, except for his plan to move quickly to pull US troops out of Iraq.

In general, they said they prefer Obama over the likely Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, whom they view as unsympathetic to Arabs.

But even those who like Obama’s personality are not expecting him to initiate major turnabouts on US Middle East policies, particularly on the most contentious one of all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama to Arabs is an American with Muslim middle name

…many Muslims around the world doubt the 46-year-old Illinois senator will advance their interests much and expect Obama to leave largely unchanged a U.S. foreign policy they perceive as unfairly tilted toward Israel.

Obama’s comment on Jerusalem, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was a “radical rupture with the Arab public,” said Habib Samarkandi, a professor at the University of Toulouse in France who edits a journal about North African culture. “We discovered our support was based on illusions rather than the reality of the person.”

Obama sought to clarify his position the day after his speech, saying on CNN that “obviously, it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.”

“The damage is done,” Samarkandi said, discounting the explanation.

Maliki, Obama hedge their bets on U.S. troops in Iraq

It isn’t shocking that, all else being equal, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would prefer to have American troops out of his country. But all else isn’t equal. After Maliki caused a stir last week by calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, other members of his government immediately began qualifying the statement.

The ambivalence is understandable; it reflects the ambivalence of Iraqis in general. Most are deeply suspicious of American motives and want U.S. troops out of their country. At the same time, in towns across Iraq and neighborhoods around Baghdad, U.S. soldiers and Marines are often credited with keeping sectarian tensions under control after the catastrophic violence of 2006 and 2007.

The American presence poses a special dilemma for Maliki and his government. They are loathe to be seen as puppets of the Americans, their positions guaranteed only by U.S. force. But U.S. forces have been an Maliki’s invaluable ally. His enemies — Sunni insurgents and rival Shiite militias — are their enemies.

Comment stings Iraqi leader on eve of Obama visit

In Iraq, controversy continued to reverberate between the United States and Iraqi governments over a weekend news report that Mr. Maliki had expressed support for Mr. Obama’s proposal to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months of January. The reported comments came after Mr. Bush agreed on Friday to a “general time horizon” for pulling out troops from Iraq without a specific timeline.

Diplomats from the United States Embassy in Baghdad spoke to Mr. Maliki’s advisers on Saturday, said an American official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss what he called diplomatic communications. After that, the government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, issued a statement casting doubt on the magazine’s rendering of the interview.

The statement, which was distributed to media organizations by the American military early on Sunday, said Mr. Maliki’s words had been “misunderstood and mistranslated,” but it failed to cite specifics.

“Unfortunately, Der Spiegel was not accurate,” Mr. Dabbagh said Sunday by telephone. “I have the recording of the voice of Mr. Maliki. We even listened to the translation.”

But the interpreter for the interview works for Mr. Maliki’s office, not the magazine. And in an audio recording of Mr. Maliki’s interview that Der Spiegel provided to The New York Times, Mr. Maliki seemed to state a clear affinity for Mr. Obama’s position, bringing it up on his own in an answer to a general question on troop presence.

Leaving Iraq: debate shifts to when

Republican political strategists have long said privately what Republican candidates for President only hinted at publicly. No one can win the White House in 2008 by campaigning to continue an unending war in Iraq.

“The sentence has to have the word ‘leaving’ in it,” said Grover Norquist, the influential Republican operative, at a breakfast meeting in June of 2007. “Doesn’t mean you have to leave tomorrow, doesn’t mean you have to surrender, doesn’t mean you have to cut and run, but the articulation of the policy needs to be clear to the American people that we are not staying there indefinitely, and that there is a ‘doing something’ and a ‘leaving.'”

At the time, the major Republican candidates for President, save John McCain, had already begun to dull the edges on their support for President Bush’s war policy. When asked about the war, Mike Huckabee would talk about the strain on the Arkansas National Guard. Mitt Romney would say he wanted the troops home “as soon as possible.” Rudy Giuliani speculated openly that the so-called “surge” might fail, saying “we have to be ready for that.”

Analysis: U.S. advisers could stay long after troops leave Iraq

Can Iraqi troops fight — and win — on their own?

That question has become even more urgent after President Bush, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki all spoke in recent days about setting either vague or specific time frames for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Recent evidence suggests that although the Iraqi military has made enormous progress, it is still dependent on small teams of American advisers who can rein in overly aggressive Iraqi commanders, call in U.S. airstrikes and help coordinate basic supplies such as food, rifle-cleaning kits and even printer cartridges.

The advisers could remain on the ground in Iraq long after most U.S. combat troops have left. Col. John Nagl, who resigned last month as commander of the U.S. Army’s school for military advisers, says they are “the key to our exit strategy in Iraq.”

Report: Israel willing to free Marwan Barghouti for Shalit

A Gulf newspaper reported Monday that Israel is willing to include jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti in a list of 300 Palestinian prisoners to be freed in exchange for abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit was seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006 and has been held in captivity in the Gaza Strip ever since. Unlike the soldiers who were snatched several weeks later by Hezbollah, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, several signs of life from Shalit have been released. Barghouti is serving five life sentences in Israel for his role in a series of deadly terrorist attacks during the second intifada.

The newspaper, Al-Bayan which is published in the United Arab Emirates, also said that the list would also include senior Hamas officials Hassan Salame Abdullah Barghouti and Ibrahim Hamad. But, the report says, Israel will not free the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Sadat. According to Al-Bayan, the talks on the exchange to secure Shalit’s release have seen significant progress, but Egyptian officials fear that agents in the region will try to scupper the deal.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: July 20

‘Iran is friends with Israeli people’: Ahmadinejad aide

Iran is “friends with the Israeli people”, a deputy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, in stark contrast to Tehran’s usual verbal assaults against the Jewish state, local media reported on Sunday.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, vice president in charge of tourism and one of Ahmadinejad’s closest confidants, also described the people of Iran’s arch-enemy the United States as “one of the best nations in the world”.

“Today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people. No nation in the world is our enemy, this is an honour,” Rahim Mashaie said, according to the Fars news agency and Etemad newspaper.

Editor’s Comment — For clarification, Mashaie later said: “It is preposterous to assume that any Iranian official would acknowledge the Zionist regime.” Even so, when one of the figures closest to the president in the Iranian government who is also the father of Ahmadinejad’s daughter-in-law makes a conciliatory gesture of this kind towards the Israelis, it somewhat undermines the neocons’ claim that Iran is intent on bringing about another holocaust.

When spies don’t play well with their allies

As they complete their training at “The Farm,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s base in the Virginia tidewater, young agency recruits are taught a lesson they are expected never to forget during assignments overseas: there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.

Foreign spy services, even those of America’s closest allies, will try to manipulate you. So you had better learn how to manipulate them back.

But most C.I.A. veterans agree that no relationship between the spy agency and a foreign intelligence service is quite as byzantine, or as maddening, as that between the C.I.A. and Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or I.S.I.

Poorly directed aid increases Afghanistan’s woes

It would be hard to deny the evidence that Afghanistan is at a crossroads as Democratic nominee Barack Obama yesterday met the country’s President Hamid Karzai. Despite the claims by some British officers that the Taliban is being tactically routed, no one seems to have told the Islamist insurgents. Opium production in the areas under their control – and that of other warlords – has reached new records this year. Corruption and criminality, linked often to the very heart of government, is endemic. Despite $15bn in aid that has been disbursed, Afghanistan remains mired in pervasive poverty with unemployment standing at more than 40 per cent. The country’s position as one of the world’s poorest has barely shifted since 2001.

Confronted with these multiple failures, the temptation, voiced yesterday by Obama, and by his Republican opponent John McCain already, is to throw more military forces at the problem in a replication of the Iraq ‘surge’. A parallel attraction, encouraged by Karzai, is to insist that the international community provide ever more money in the hope that some of the billions will stick. But in a country beset by rapidly increasing pessimism over the ability of the international community finally to bring to an end Afghanistan’s 30-year cycle of poverty and violence, what is needed is a large-scale rethinking of what we are doing in Afghanistan, not more violence and more largesse.

Editor’s Comment — The Observer is here endorsing/reiterating the views expressed by Rory Stewart in the latest issue of Time magazine.

Obama abroad

The rap on Barack Obama, at least in the realm of foreign policy, has been that he is a softheaded idealist who thinks that he can charm America’s enemies. John McCain and his campaign, conservative columnists and right-wing bloggers all paint a picture of a liberal dreamer who wishes away the world’s dangers. Even President Bush stepped into the fray earlier this year to condemn the Illinois senator’s willingness to meet with tyrants as naive. Some commentators have acted as if Obama, touring the Middle East and Europe this week on his first trip abroad since effectively wrapping up the nomination, is in for a rude awakening.

These critiques, however, are off the mark. Over the course of the campaign against Hillary Clinton and now McCain, Obama has elaborated more and more the ideas that would undergird his foreign policy as president. What emerges is a world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist. It is interesting to note that, at least in terms of the historical schools of foreign policy, Obama seems to be the cool conservative and McCain the exuberant idealist.

We’re quick to damn the US but slow to see our own faults

President Obama is finally coming to Europe! All right, the Americans haven’t elected him … yet. But that’s a mere technicality as far as we’re concerned. We made up our minds long ago: our President is Barack Obama.

This week, Senator Obama will be giving a speech in Berlin, the headquarters of his biggest fan-base on the old continent. The Germans are rooting for America’s Democratic nominee with a fervour they otherwise reserve for the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela, bringing a distinctly wistful glint to the eyes of German politicians. Take Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a laconic Westphalian not known for flights of emotional exuberance. Even he, speaking at Harvard, could not resist bursting into an impassioned cry of: ‘Yes, we can!’

There are excellent reasons for Europeans’ enthusiasm. Obama is a charismatic politician of formidable stature, but so is John McCain. In fact, the choice before the Americans on 4 November is what Germans call a Luxusproblem: your problems, friends, we’d like to have. And despite America’s diminished stature, the President of the USA remains the most powerful man in the world, able like none other to make decisions of global consequence. In that sense, at least, he really is President of us all.

Snubbed by Obama

Barack Obama is on his way to Europe, where an adoring public awaits. But I wonder if the reception would be quite so enthusiastic if Obama’s fans across the Atlantic knew a dirty little secret of his remarkable presidential campaign: Although Obama portrays himself as the best candidate to engage the rest of the world and restore America’s image abroad, and many Americans support him for that reason, so far he has almost completely refused to answer questions from foreign journalists. When the press plane leaves tonight for his trip, there will be, as far as I know, no foreign media aboard. The Obama campaign has refused multiple requests from international reporters to travel with the candidate.

As a German correspondent in Washington, I am accustomed to the fact that American politicians spare little of their limited time for reporters from abroad. This is understandable: Our readers, viewers and listeners cannot vote in U.S. elections. Even so, Obama’s opponents have managed to make at least a small amount of time for international journalists. John McCain has given many interviews. Hillary Clinton gave a few. President Bush regularly holds round-table interviews with media from the countries to which he travels. Only Obama dismisses us so consistently.

Are U.S.-Iran ties undergoing significant change?

Events during the past month suggest that relations between the United States and Iran may be undergoing a significant change. Each development is not dramatic on its own, but as a whole they formulate a trend.

Iran has signaled that it intends to find a way out of the nuclear impasse. This began with a clear statement by Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on foreign affairs. Velayati said that Iran should accept the “package” offered by the group of “five plus one” – the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, through the European Union official charged with foreign policy, Javier Solana.

Iran given two-week deadline to end the nuclear impasse

Iran was given a fortnight to agree to freeze its uranium enrichment programme yesterday or face further international isolation.

After a day of inconclusive talks in Geneva, a six-nation negotiating team warned the Iranian delegation that it had run out of patience and demanded a ‘yes or no’ answer to a proposal it put forward five weeks ago.

Under that offer, sponsored jointly by the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, Iran would not expand its uranium enrichment programme, while the international community refrained from imposing further sanctions. This phase would last six weeks, possibly paving the way for suspension of enrichment and more comprehensive talks.

U.S. talks with Iran exemplify Bush’s new approaches

With his moves last week involving Iraq, Iran and North Korea, President Bush accelerated a shift toward centrist foreign policies, a change that has cheered Democrats, angered some Republicans and roiled the presidential campaign.

Bush sent his first high-level emissary to sit in on nuclear talks with Iran, which ended without agreement Saturday. Also in the past two days, the president agreed for the first time to set a “time horizon” for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and authorized Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to join North Korean diplomats at six-party talks about ending that country’s nuclear weapons program.

The maneuvers underscore how much the Bush administration has changed since 2002, when the president proclaimed Iraq, Iran and North Korea to be an “axis of evil.” Now Bush is pushing forward with diplomatic gestures toward Iran and North Korea while breaking with a long-held position on troop withdrawals in the interest of harmony with the Iraqi government.

White House tips press off to Maliki interview

The White House is quick to distribute its point of view in e-mail messages with headings like “News You Can Use,” “In Case You Missed It,” and “Setting the Record Straight.” So it was a surprise on Saturday morning when the White House distributed an article by Reuters that offered an endorsement of Senator Barack Obama’s Iraq policy by the leader of Iraq.

“Iraq PM backs Obama troop exit plan,” the headline read over a story about an interview of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in the German magazine Der Spiegel, in which he expressed support for the senator’s plan to withdraw American combat brigades from Iraq over the next 16 months.

“U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months,” Mr. Maliki told Der Spiegel, Reuters reported. “That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”

Turns out it was a mistake by the White House clipping service, which had intended to distribute it internally but instead sent it to thousands signed up to receive the administration’s press releases, transcripts, statements and other documents, drawing attention to an interview that might otherwise have received less.

Editor’s CommentKevin Drum suggests that the mistake resulted from the White House being so unnerved by the news, while the New York Times would have us believe that the White House error alerted the attention of the press.

I have little doubt that the Washington press corps is well supplied with flakes, but seriously, it shouldn’t have taken an email alert to bring attention to this story – even on a Saturday – when the press is monolithically focused on Obama’s trip to the region. Neither do I find the theory that a staffer in panic mode “hit the wrong button” particularly credible. How were the internal group list and the press list named, such that they could be mixed up?

No, while goofy mistakes are often believable, in this case it’s possible that someone in the White House was cunning enough to come up with an effective strategy for creating a distraction from the story. Look how the blogosphere reacted: More attention went to the email mistake than to what Maliki said!

Sunni bloc rejoins Iraqi government, amid reconciliation hopes

Iraq’s largest Sunni political bloc rejoined the government Saturday after a nearly year-long boycott, a move that could help bridge the country’s sectarian divide.

The return of the Iraqi Accordance Front is widely seen as a victory for Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his efforts to portray himself as a nationalist leader uninfluenced by sectarian pressures.

“It means the success of the political process and the success of the security situation and of reconciliation,” said Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the bloc

Surge protector

The prospect of a long-term security arrangement between the United States and Iraq has become a lightning rod for criticism. Yet such an agreement — which the White House believes could be completed this month now that the two countries have agreed to set a “general time horizon” for reducing the number of American troops in Iraq — would be in the best interests of the governments of both countries, and of the people who live in a region of the world that urgently needs stability.

The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorizes coalition operations in Iraq expires at the end of this year. But the calendar is not the most important reason for the United States to enter into a long-term pact with Iraq. The opportunity presented by the improved situation on the ground begs to be exploited lest it disappear in the ever-shifting sands of Middle East strife.

Are the desires of the American people and the Iraqi people different? I don’t think so. During my year in command of all American forces in the Middle East, I met often with Iraqis of all walks of life. Discussions with people — from Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to clerics, governors and generals to men in the streets of Baghdad and towns and cities throughout the country — left me with several strong impressions. The top objective of both countries is security and stability in the region. Letting Iraq’s security forces assume responsibility for their country is another mutual goal. Withdrawing the vast majority of American and coalition troops from Iraq as soon as possible is a clear priority.

Gordon Brown agrees to cut British troops in Iraq

Gordon Brown, on a flying visit to Baghdad and Basra, said today he plans to reduce the remaining number of British troops in Iraq following a drop in attacks, but declined to set a timeframe for their departure.

An Iraqi Government official said he hoped British forces would exit within a year.

The British Prime Minister also agreed with Nouri al-Maliki, his Iraqi counterpart, to set up two teams, Iraqi and British, to study the technicalities of Britain’s long-term relationship with Iraq.

Editor’s Comment — Gordon Brown is to the Labour Party what John Major was to the Conservatives: someone upon whom a shadow has permanently been imprinted. Even so, there’s something perversely intriguiging about a man who can wear a dark suit and tie and flack jacket when it’s 126 degrees Fahrenheit!

Detaining Mr. Marri

The Bush administration has been a waging a fierce battle for the power to lock people up indefinitely simply on the president’s say-so. It scored a disturbing victory last week when a federal appeals court ruled that it could continue to detain Ali al-Marri, who has been held for more than five years as an enemy combatant. The decision gives the president sweeping power to deprive anyone — citizens as well as noncitizens — of their freedom. The Supreme Court should reverse this terrible ruling.

Mr. Marri, a citizen of Qatar legally residing in the United States, was initially arrested in his home in Peoria, Ill., on ordinary criminal charges, then seized and imprisoned by military authorities. The government, which says he has ties to Al Qaeda, designated him an enemy combatant, even though it never alleged that he was in an army or carried arms on a battlefield. He was held on the basis of extremely thin hearsay evidence.

It’s the economic stupidity, stupid

The best thing to happen to John McCain was for the three network anchors to leave him in the dust this week while they chase Barack Obama on his global Lollapalooza tour. Were voters forced to actually focus on Mr. McCain’s response to our spiraling economic crisis at home, the prospect of his ascension to the Oval Office could set off a panic that would make the IndyMac Bank bust in Pasadena look as merry as the Rose Bowl.

“In a time of war,” Mr. McCain said last week, “the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.” Fair enough, but he imparted this wisdom in a speech that was almost a year behind Mr. Obama in recognizing Afghanistan as the central front in the war against Al Qaeda. Given that it took the deadliest Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul since 9/11 to get Mr. McCain’s attention, you have to wonder if even General Custer’s learning curve was faster than his.

Mr. McCain still doesn’t understand that we can’t send troops to Afghanistan unless they’re shifted from Iraq. But simple math, to put it charitably, has never been his forte. When it comes to the central front of American anxiety — the economy — his learning curve has flat-lined.

Leaving Israel a different man

In 1979, at the age of 16, Samir Kuntar led an armed team by boat from Lebanon to the seaside Israeli city of Nahariya to kill and kidnap Israelis. He was in a war against the Zionist state, but he knew almost nothing about the people or the country. The only Hebrew word he knew was shalom – peace – an irony that does not escape him today. That night he made an attack and was caught and convicted of killing a policeman, a second man and his six-year-old daughter.

Thirty years later – spent entirely in Israeli prisons – the 46-year-old man speaks fluent Hebrew without a trace of an accent. He reads Israeli authors, is up-to-date on Israeli pop culture and knows more about the Holocaust and Zionism than many Israelis.

On Wednesday, Israel released Mr. Kuntar as part of a prisoner exchange. It was a tough decision for the government because Mr. Kuntar had become an icon of terror and evil for Israeli society. Yet, before he left Israel for freedom he sent his collection of Israeli books to his home in Lebanon.

None of that would probably have been public were it not for a chance meeting between Mr. Kuntar and Chen Kotas-Bar, a Jewish Israeli journalist, in the prison library in January, 2004. Their short conversation ignited her interest – and his, she says – and the two met often after that. The result was two articles in the Maariv newspaper: one in 2005 and the other published yesterday. The articles reveal a man very different from the teenager who first arrived on Israeli shores.

Putting al Qaeda on the couch

Marc Sageman has charted an unlikely path. The first scholar-in-residence at the New York City Police Department survived the Holocaust to become a psychiatrist, a sociologist and a CIA case officer. Since the publication of “Leaderless Jihad” earlier this year, Sageman has been at the center of a debate about the inner workings of Al Qaeda. Is the organization dispersed and disorganized, as Sageman suggests, or is it resurgent, as CIA analyses have reported? Sageman spoke with Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey in New York.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 19

Obama lands in Afghanistan for first tour of war zones

Senator Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan early Saturday morning, opening his first overseas trip as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, to meet with American commanders there and later in Iraq to receive an on-the-ground assessment of military operations in the two major U.S. war zones.

Mr. Obama touched down in Kabul about 11:45 a.m., according to a pool report released by his aides. In addition to attending briefings with military leaders, he hoped to meet with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan before flying to Iraq later in the weekend.

Obama going abroad with world watching

Sen. Barack Obama will make his international debut as a Democratic presidential candidate in the coming days with a weeklong tour of the Middle East and Europe designed to deepen his foreign policy credentials, confront questions at home about his readiness to be commander in chief, and signal the possibility of a new era in U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

Obama’s visit is among the most unusual ever undertaken by a presumptive White House nominee, planned with the attention to detail of a trip by a president and as heavily hyped abroad as at home. The senator from Illinois will meet with a succession of foreign leaders, make symbolically important visits and hold at least one large public event — all with an eye to how the trip is playing in the United States.

But the tour is fraught with risks. The large media contingent that will follow Obama means that any misstep or misstatement will be magnified and potentially read as evidence of his inexperience, adding to doubts about him. If he successfully navigates his itinerary, however, the political payoffs could be significant enough to affect the outcome of his race against Republican Sen. John McCain this fall.

Soldiers recount deadly attack on Afghanistan outpost

The first RPG and machine gun fire came at dawn, strategically striking the forward operating base’s mortar pit. The insurgents next sighted their RPGs on the tow truck inside the combat outpost, taking it out. That was around 4:30 a.m.

This was not a haphazard attack. The reportedly 200 insurgents fought from several positions. They aimed to overrun the new base. The U.S. soldiers knew it and fought like hell. They knew their lives were on the line.

“I just hope these guys’ wives and their children understand how courageous their husbands and dads were,” said Sgt. Jacob Walker. “They fought like warriors.”

The next target was the FOB’s observation post, where nine soldiers were positioned on a tiny hill about 50 to 75 meters from the base. Of those nine, five died, and at least three others … were wounded.

Afghanistan hit by record number of bombs

Air Force and allied warplanes are dropping a record number of bombs on Afghanistan targets.

For the first half of 2008, aircraft dropped 1,853 bombs — more than they released during all of 2006 and more than half of 2007’s total — 3,572 bombs.

Driving the increasing use of air power are fights in southern Afghanistan, where the Marine Corps arrived last winter, and battles in eastern Afghanistan, where Taliban and other insurgents use the border region with Pakistan as a safe haven.

For first time, Bush agrees to ‘time horizon’ for Iraq pullout

The United States and Iraq have agreed to a “general time horizon” for further reductions of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, the White House said Friday, the first time the Bush administration has agreed to set any kind of timeline for troop withdrawals.

The agreement appears to be a political favor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, but the White House said it wasn’t a reversal of President Bush’s long opposition to any fixed schedule for troop reductions, including the veto of bills that included timetables for withdrawal.

But Democrats — including presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama — hailed it as belated recognition of the need to hasten the end of the Iraq war.

U.S. position complicates global effort to curb illicit arms

Diplomats from the world’s governments met throughout this week on agreements to cut the global illicit trade in small arms, but their work was curtailed in part by the near-boycott of the meetings by the United States.

The tone of the meetings underscored the political complexities of gaining full support for international small-arms agreements from the United States. The American view has balanced recognition of the dangers of illegal proliferation with the government’s own arms-distribution practices and with the American gun lobby’s resistance to the United Nations’ proposals.

Since 2001, United Nations members have endorsed a broad but loosely defined initiative, called the program of action, for a collective effort against illegal arms circulation. The agreement in part encourages governments to tighten controls on manufacturing, marking, tracing, brokering, exporting and stockpiling small arms and to cooperate to restrict illicit flows, particularly to regions perennially in armed conflict. It addresses hundreds of millions of weapons, ranging from pistols to shoulder-fired rockets, that the United Nations says are in circulation worldwide.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 18

Talks signal Mideast shift

After years of escalating tensions and bloodshed, the talk in the Middle East is suddenly about talking. The shift is still relatively subtle, but hints of a new approach in the waning months of the Bush administration are fueling hopes of at least short-term stability for the first time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Much is happening, adding up not to any great diplomatic breakthrough, but to a distinct change in direction. Syria is being welcomed out of isolation by Europe and is holding indirect talks with Israel. Lebanon has formed a new government. Israel has cut deals with Hamas (a cease-fire) and Hezbollah (a prisoner exchange).

On Wednesday, the United States agreed to send a high-ranking diplomat to attend talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and was considering establishing a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time since the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis.

“The overall picture is moving in the direction of cooling the political atmosphere,” said Muhammad al-Rumaihi, a former government adviser in Kuwait and the editor of Awan, an independent daily newspaper there.

Many underlying problems, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are not on the verge of resolution. Afghanistan has recently seen a sharp spike in violence. In the Middle East, optimism can fill the void left by even a temporary lull in violence, like the recent — and still fragile — stability gains in Iraq. Nevertheless, not long ago, the fear was that Lebanon would descend into civil war and that either Israel or the United States, or both, would attack Iran. That seems less likely at the moment.

How to save Afghanistan

Many policymakers want to throw more money and troops at the problem. Both Barack Obama and John McCain say that as President, they would send additional combat brigades — from 7,000 to 15,000 troops — to tame the insurgency in Afghanistan. At a June conference in Paris, Western governments committed an additional $20 billion in aid, in the hope that this would finally bring success in counterinsurgency, counternarcotics, rule of law, governance and state-building — and eventually allow us to withdraw from Afghanistan with honor.

But just because Afghanistan has problems that need to be solved does not mean that the West can solve them all. My experience suggests that those pushing for an expansion of our military presence there are wrong. We don’t need bold new plans and billions more in aid. Instead, we need less investment — but a greater focus on what we know how to do.

The Pentagon and the hunt for black gold

For years, “oil” and “Iraq” couldn’t make it into the same sentence in mainstream coverage of the invasion and occupation of that country. Recently, that’s begun to change, but “oil” and “the Pentagon” still seldom make the news together.

Last year, for instance, according to Department of Defense (DoD) documents, the Pentagon paid more than $70 million to Hunt Refining, an oil company whose corporate affiliate, Hunt Oil, undermined U.S. policy in Iraq. Not that anyone would know it. While the hunt for oil in Iraq is now being increasingly well covered in the mainstream, the Pentagon’s hunt for oil remains a subject missing in action. Despite the staggering levels at which the Pentagon guzzles fuel, it’s a chronic blind spot in media energy coverage.

Let’s consider the Hunt Oil story in a little more detail, since it offers a striking example of the larger problem. On July 3, 2008, according to the New York Times, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that Hunt Oil had pursued “an oil deal with the regional Kurdistan government that ran counter to American policy and undercut Iraq’s central government.” Despite its officially stated policy of warning companies like Hunt Oil “that they incur risks in signing contracts until Iraq passes an oil law,” the State Department in some cases actually encouraged a deal between the “Texas oil company with close ties to President Bush” and Kurdistan that “undercut” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad.

Development: US fails to measure up on ‘human index’

Despite spending $230m (£115m) an hour on healthcare, Americans live shorter lives than citizens of almost every other developed country. And while it has the second-highest income per head in the world, the United States ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy.

These are some of the startling conclusions from a major new report which attempts to explain why the world’s number-one economy has slipped to 12th place – from 2nd in 1990- in terms of human development.

The American Human Development Report, which applies rankings of health, education and income to the US, paints a surprising picture of a country that spends well over $5bn each day on healthcare – more per person than any other country.

Warming is major threat to humans, EPA warns

Climate change will pose “substantial” threats to human health in the coming decades, the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday — issuing its warnings about heat waves, hurricanes and pathogens just days after the agency declined to regulate the pollutants blamed for warming.

In a new report, the EPA said “it is very likely” that more people will die during extremely hot periods in future years — and that the elderly, the poor and those in inner cities will be most at risk.

Other possible dangers include more powerful hurricanes, shrinking supplies of fresh water in the West, and the increased spread of diseases contracted through food and water, the agency said.

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CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Popularity breeds popularity

In Iraq, mixed feelings about Obama and his troop proposal

A tough Iraqi general, a former special operations officer with a baritone voice and a barrel chest, melted into smiles when asked about Senator Barack Obama.

“Everyone in Iraq likes him,” said the general, Nassir al-Hiti. “I like him. He’s young. Very active. We would be very happy if he was elected president.”

But mention Mr. Obama’s plan for withdrawing American soldiers, and the general stiffens.

“Very difficult,” he said, shaking his head. “Any army would love to work without any help, but let me be honest: for now, we don’t have that ability.”

Thus in a few brisk sentences, the general summed up the conflicting emotions about Mr. Obama in Iraq, the place outside America with perhaps the most riding on its relationship with him.

There was, as Mr. Obama prepared to visit here, excitement over a man who is the anti-Bush in almost every way: a Democrat who opposed a war that many Iraqis feel devastated their nation. And many in the political elite recognize that Mr. Obama shares their hope for a more rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

But his support for troop withdrawal cuts both ways, reflecting a deep internal quandary in Iraq: for many middle-class Iraqis, affection for Mr. Obama is tempered by worry that his proposal could lead to chaos in a nation already devastated by war. Many Iraqis also acknowledge that security gains in recent months were achieved partly by the buildup of American troops, which Mr. Obama opposed and his presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, supported. [complete article]

Obama faces his overseas audition

Even though the details remain sketchy, it’s clear that Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe is an audition on the world stage. But the most important critics will not be the foreign leaders who will be sizing him up as a potential member of their ranks, or the cheering throngs that are likely to greet him at every stop. The audience that matters most will be the voters back home, where many Americans have yet to be convinced that this young man of relatively little experience is the right person to fill the role of their commander-in-chief. “This,” says Ken Duberstein, who was Ronald Reagan’s White House Chief of Staff, “is an absolute opportunity to get over the acceptability threshold.”

Polling suggests that Obama still has a way to go in that regard. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey, only 48% of registered voters said Obama would make a good commander in chief, with an equal percentage saying he wouldn’t. By comparison, 72% said John McCain would be a good one.

The campaign has thus far provided only the barest outline of his itinerary. On Monday, Obama will be in Amman, Jordan; on Tuesday and Wednesday, Israel and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. Thursday, Friday and Saturday will be a sprint across Europe, with stops planned for Berlin, Paris and London. And somewhere in all this, Obama plans to make a much-anticipated visit to Iraq and Afghanistan with two Senate colleagues, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — It might sound like the most obvious of truisms, but victory in the presidential election will go to the most popular candidate. Which is to say — and let’s assume it’s Obama — the more popular he appears, the more popular he will become.

Many people who read (as opposed to simply watching) the news, probably already know that Obama is hugely popular outside America, but that’s not something that most Americans know yet. It’s conceivable that nightly news images of Obama receiving effusive greetings and being hailed by cheering crowds of foreigners might fuel the Machuria-candidate suspicions of a few Americans, but I think the more likely deduction that most people will make is that if the rest of the world likes America’s next president, that affection will also extend towards the whole nation.

Barely concealed behind America’s need to elevate itself and be seen as a “shining beacon on the hill”, America has a much simpler and more deeply-rooted need — a need that amounts to a form of national insecurity: the need to be liked.

If Obama is able to channel his own popularity into a broader image of American revival, the effect may snowball in such a way that McCain simply has no way of competing.

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NEWS, ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: A structure for dealing with Iran

Why John Bolton is right on Iran

As usual, John Bolton is absolutely right. His policy prescriptions may be reckless to the point of foolishness (”When in doubt, bomb!”), but his understanding of what is happening in Washington policy (as outlined in his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday) is unerringly accurate.

While much of the world was hyper-ventilating over the possibility that the United States (and maybe Israel) were getting ready to launch a new war against Iran, Bolton was looking at the realities and concluding that far from bombing the US was preparing to do a deal with Iran. He had noticed that over the past two years the US had completely reversed its position that originally opposed European talks with Iran. [complete article]

A test of US flexibility toward Iran

Last week, when a member of the Senate foreign relations committee repeatedly asked US undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns if Washington was considering sending a representative to international negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme this month, the veteran diplomat and newly anointed number-three US state department official took pains to equivocate in his response and not say anything beyond what his cabinet-level superiors had previously stated publicly.

“My question is, has there been any discussion within the administration about having an American representative at the next meeting?” Senator Chuck Hagel, a moderate Republican, asked Burns at the July 9 hearing.

“Senator, as I said, our position remains that secretary [of state Condoleezza] Rice herself is prepared to sit down in negotiations along with the [permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany] along the basis of the ‘suspension for suspension’ proposal,” Burns responded, referring to an international proposal under which if Iran would agree to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, the international community would agree to suspend international sanctions against it. [complete article]

US plans to station diplomats in Iran for first time since 1979

The US plans to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in 30 years as part of a remarkable turnaround in policy by President George Bush.

The Guardian has learned that an announcement will be made in the next month to establish a US interests section – a halfway house to setting up a full embassy. The move will see US diplomats stationed in the country. [complete article]

See also, US will talk to Iran (Paul Woodward, The National).

Editor’s Comment — Back in early May, during his visit to Israel, Bush told the Jerusalem Post that “before leaving office he wants a structure in place for dealing with Iran.” It was one of the clearest indications he had given that in spite of all the pro forma declarations that military action was still on the table, it was not only an option that was firmly bolted down, but Bush had a tangible alternative in mind.

Expressions of his “commitment to a diplomatic solution” have always sounded a bit flimsy — especially coming out of the mouth of a president who seems to find the diplomatic process threatening. But let’s suppose that back in May, Bush had already started toying with an idea that would be as shocking to his critics as it would be to his supporters: that the structure he had in mind to put in place for dealing with Iran was a foundation stone for diplomatic relations.

As Bush contemplated his hopes to salvage some sort of legacy, maybe he took a lesson from Nixon and concluded that his predecessor’s mistake was that he didn’t save his trip to China until close to the end of his presidency. It’s not that I anticipate seeing George Bush shaking Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hand some time in the next few months, but I do think it’s possible that Bush is angling to pull a non-explosive surprise out of his sleeve before he leaves office.

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: July 16

Rule of law

… in the years ahead our country must still come to grips with our national acquiescence to the politics of fear, which has led to the detention and abuse of hundreds of individuals. Among the necessary steps will be restoration of freedom to innocent detainees, accompanied by public apology and some monetary restitution for the years they lost to incarceration. Furthermore, Congress needs to accept responsibility for its complicity with the executive in laws that denied suspects rightful appeal. A national truth commission should be instituted to establish political accountability for the decisions, policies and statutes that placed suspects outside the protection of the law.

Congress might create a bipartisan commission in the style of the Iraq Study Group (members of both parties have criticized the detention system), or, failing Congressional action, a broad association of foundations and human rights groups could organize such an effort. A truth commission should not engage in a witch hunt, but make a serious effort to understand the subversion of the rule of law in the post-9/11 panic and to build a barrier of public opinion and professional responsibility to prevent similar failure in the future. If the nation does not make a collective effort to come to grips with the subversion of liberty in the name of security, we will leave ourselves and generations to come vulnerable to still greater violations and silent coups d’état.

Editor’s Comment — As the pendulum has swung from national support to disenchantment with the war presidency, it’s been all too easy for ordinary Americans to absolve themselves of responsibility for the mess this country is in and the damage it has inflicted on the world. Even to speak of the politics of fear is in some degree evasive.

What far too few have ever been bold enough to say is that America’s response to 9/11 was cowardly. A willingness to indulge in a form of national hysteria was the enabling factor that turned a catastrophic event into the foundation for war. Even now, the promise of a presidency of change is that we can shift our attention away from a war that is a “dangerous distraction” to the one that tackles the “real threat.” If we are at a defining moment, it is apparently not one that opens the political opportunity to challenge the assumptions that war is an effective instrument of counterterrorism or that national security should be uppermost among our concerns.

Collateral damage

With the appearance of this very fine book, Hillary Clinton can claim a belated vindication of sorts: A right-wing conspiracy does indeed exist, although she misapprehended its scope and nature. The conspiracy is not vast and does not consist of Clinton-haters. It is small, secretive and made up chiefly of lawyers contemptuous of the Constitution and the rule of law.

In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, documents some of the ugliest allegations of wrongdoing charged against the Bush administration. Her achievement lies less in bringing new revelations to light than in weaving into a comprehensive narrative a story revealed elsewhere in bits and pieces. Recast as a series of indictments, the story Mayer tells goes like this: Since embarking upon its global war on terror, the United States has blatantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions. It has imprisoned suspects, including U.S. citizens, without charge, holding them indefinitely and denying them due process. It has created an American gulag in which thousands of detainees, including many innocent of any wrongdoing, have been subjected to ritual abuse and humiliation. It has delivered suspected terrorists into the hands of foreign torturers.

Under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” it has succeeded, in Mayer’s words, in “making torture the official law of the land in all but name.” Further, it has done all these things as a direct result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of government.

How the war on terror turned into a war on American ideals,’ by Jane Mayer

“The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Justice Louis Brandeis wrote those lines 80 years ago, but as Jane Mayer’s brilliantly reported and deeply disturbing new book, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals,” more than amply illustrates, they’ve never been more relevant.

In fact, if you intend to vote in November and read only one book between now and then, this should be it. By and large, Mayer does not add any strikingly new information to what attentive readers already will know about Bush/Cheney’s adoption of torture as an instrument of American state power and of how the Central Intelligence Agency, its international accomplices and the U.S. military constructed what amounts to an American gulag to further that end. Mayer’s singular accomplishment is to fuse the years of events that have brought us to this pass into a single compelling narrative and to use her own considerable reportorial powers to fill in important connective and contextual events.

Obama’s brave (new?) world

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is the man with the plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. Presidential in tone and delivery, quoting Harry S Truman and Dean Acheson, George Kennan and George Marshall – the greatest generation – Obama, in a major foreign policy speech in Washington on Tuesday, outlined what he calls his “new overarching strategy”.

He said he would “focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century”.

To say that Obama’s plan – sketched earlier in an op-ed piece for The New York Times – is more realistic, thoughtful and sensible than that of rival Republican Senator John McCain’s “road to victory” in Iraq would be an understatement.

Palestinians reluctantly put faith in Obama

Ask many Palestinians or Israelis and they will tell you that US presidential elections are so important for their futures they should be allowed to vote.

Like Israelis, Palestinians see Washington as the most influential third-party player in their conflict. Unlike Israelis, Palestinians see that influence as mostly malign.

Both will carefully watch John McCain and Barack Obama as they try to become the leader of the world’s only superpower. And where polls show Israelis split over which senator they would support, Palestinians overwhelmingly favour Mr Obama.

Yet that support is qualified by cynicism. Palestinians have no illusions when it comes to the US position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “America,” a local restaurateur recently told me, “is irredeemably pro-Israel. I only support Obama because I think he will be good for America and good for black people. For us it will make no difference.”

US troops poised to cross Afghan border for raid on bases

US troops in Afghanistan massed close to the border yesterday for a possible attack on al-Qaeda and Taleban bases in the lawless North Waziristan tribal belt in Pakistan.

Reports from the area said that hundreds of Nato troops were airlifted across the mountains from the village of Lowara Mandi, which has been an important base for cross-border attacks in Afghanistan. Heavy artillery and armoured vehicles were also being moved into position.

The deployment followed a claim by the Afghan Government on Monday that the Pakistani Army and its spy agency had become “the world’s biggest producers of terrorism and extremism”. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry accused Kabul of creating an “artificial crisis to satisfy short-term political expediencies”.

Militants ready for a war without borders

From thinly disguised insinuations against Pakistan following the suicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul this month to outright accusations against Islamabad by the Afghan government over the unrelenting Taliban-led insurgency, the blame game has entered a critical time: a major regional battle could erupt in a matter of days.

Last week, US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen paid a sudden visit to Pakistan during which he revealed to Pakistani leaders and military officials the possibility of surgical strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda networks operating in the border regions and that coalition forces in Afghanistan would not hesitate to conduct hot-pursuit raids into Pakistan.

Mullen urged Pakistani leaders to play their part from their side. He pin-pointed the North and South Waziristan tribal areas as a focal point, along with the areas of Razmak, Shawal, Ghulam Khan and Angor Ada along the border with Afghanistan. Across the divide, Khost province is considered a likely target for carpet bombing and an offensive by the Afghan National Army.

To Iran or not to Iran

Perhaps because his American “strategic adviser” has told him that this is the way to win the approaching primaries in his Kadima Party, Israel’s former minister of defense, Shaul Mofaz, says that Israel must eliminate the “existential threat” that Iran’s nuclear program represents. Probably because he is afraid, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says that if Israel (or the U.S) attacks his country, the latter will hit back with all its might.

Israel holds maneuvers over the Mediterranean, testing its forces and probably sending a message to Tehran: Back off. Iran also holds maneuvers, testing its forces and sending a very clear message to Washington and Tel Aviv: Back off. “Senior sources” in the Pentagon say that, in view of the progress the Iranians are making, Israel must attack by the end of the year and that it got the yellow light from the U.S administration. “Senior sources” in the State Department say that their opposite numbers in the Pentagon are talking rubbish.

Nobody knows whether Israel and/or the U.S will attack Iran — after all, there are no limits to how crazy some people can be. That neither the U.S nor Israel shouldattack Iran is, to this writer at any rate, very clear indeed. Here is why.

American envoy to join Iran talks

The Bush administration will send a senior envoy this weekend to international talks with Iran about its nuclear program in what U.S. officials described as a “one-time deal” designed to demonstrate a serious desire to negotiate a solution to the impasse over Tehran’s ambitions.

In a significant departure from long-standing policy, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will join a scheduled meeting in Geneva between European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, according to a senior State Department official.

Burns, State’s third-ranking official, will not negotiate with the Iranians nor hold separate meetings, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the decision had not yet been announced. Instead, Burns will advance the White House’s position that serious negotiations can begin only after Iran suspends uranium enrichment.

The current oil shock

When will it end, this crushing rise in the price of gasoline, now averaging $4.10 a gallon at the pump? The question is uppermost in the minds of American motorists as they plan vacations or simply review their daily journeys. The short answer is simple as well: “Not soon.”

As yet there is no sign of a reversal in oil’s upward price thrust, which has more than doubled in a year, cresting recently above $146 a barrel. The current oil shock, the fourth of its kind in the past three-and-a-half decades, and the deadliest so far, shows every sign of continuing for a long, long stretch.

The previous oil shocks — in 1973-74, 1980, and 1990-91 — stemmed from specific interruptions of energy supplies from the Middle East due, respectively, to an Arab-Israeli war, the Iranian revolution, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Once peace was restored, a post-revolutionary order established, or the invader expelled, vital Middle Eastern energy supplies returned to normal. The fourth oil shock, however, belongs in a different category altogether.

Obama says New Yorker insulted Muslim Americans

Democrat Barack Obama said Tuesday that the New Yorker magazine’s satirical cover depicting him and his wife as flag-burning, fist-bumping radicals doesn’t bother him but that it was an insult to Muslim Americans.

“You know, there are wonderful Muslim Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things,” the presidential candidate told CNN’s Larry King. “And for this to be used as sort of an insult, or to raise suspicions about me, I think is unfortunate. And it’s not what America’s all about.”

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REVIEW: The Dark Side

Answering terror with terror

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

The very first Sunday after the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney descended like a cloud on “Meet the Press” to outline the Bush administration’s response. “We’ll have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies — if we are going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to achieve our objectives.”

Around the nation, one presumes, numbed heads were nodding in approval. Whatever it takes to get those bastards. The true nature of our Faustian bargain would not become clear until later, and maybe it needed a journalist as steely and tenacious as Jane Mayer to give us the full picture. “The Dark Side” is about how the war on terror became “a war on American ideals,” and Mayer gives this story all the weight and sorrow it deserves. Many books get tagged with the word “essential”; hers actually is.

Above all, it underscores one of the least remarked aspects of our nation’s counterterrorist policy: the degree to which it has been driven not by spies or generals but by pasty men in ties. “The first thing we do,” goes that crowd-pleasing line from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Readers of “The Dark Side” might be moved to add: “Before they kill you.” Almost from the moment America was attacked, Mayer writes, Cheney “saw to it that some of the sharpest and best-trained lawyers in the country, working in secret in the White House and the United States Department of Justice, came up with legal justifications for a vast expansion of the government’s power in waging war on terror. As part of that process, for the first time in history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held captives, making torture the official law of the land in all but name.” This “extralegal counterterrorism program,” contends Mayer, “presented the most dramatic, sustained, and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.” [complete article]

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NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: July 15

Want Obama in a punch line? First, find a joke

What’s so funny about Barack Obama? Apparently not very much, at least not yet.

On Monday, The New Yorker magazine tried dipping its toe into broad satire involving Senator Obama with a cover image depicting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and his wife, Michelle, as fist-bumping, flag-burning, bin Laden-loving terrorists in the Oval Office. The response from both Democrats and Republicans was explosive.

Comedy has been no easier for the phalanx of late-night television hosts who depend on skewering political leaders for a healthy quotient of their nightly monologues. Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and others have delivered a nightly stream of jokes about the Republican running for president — each one a variant on the same theme: John McCain is old.

Editor’s Comment — I guess the comedic opportunities with Obama may have to wait until he names his running mate. If he happens to choose Bill Richardson then we’re in for a treat: a cool Bud Abbot (Obama) alongside his Lou Costello (Richardson) sidekick.

The power of images

For a while, I thought only rightwingers and other Obama haters bought into the lies being spread about him. Then I got a call from Ross Perot, who was trying to plant some dirt about John McCain leaving live POWs behind in Vietnam (untrue, by the way). In the course of the conversation, it became clear that Perot thought Obama was a Muslim. When I informed him that Obama was actually a Christian, Perot was relieved. He didn’t hate Obama; he just had an instinct to believe whatever he happened to see online over what he read in reputable newspapers.

In this, alas, Ross Perot has plenty of company, and among people with a much less conspiratorial bent. Americans have become so distrustful of the mainstream media (MSM) that they instinctively disbelieve much of what they read and hear from us. But if misinformation arrives online from someone they’ve never heard of, they figure it must be true. It’s our newest form of cognitive dissonance.

Six questions for Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side

In a series of gripping articles, Jane Mayer has chronicled the Bush Administration’s grim and furtive dealings with torture and has exposed both the individuals within the administration who “made it happen” (a group that starts with Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington), the team of psychologists who put together the palette of techniques, and the Fox television program “24,” which was developed to help sell it to the American public. In a new book, The Dark Side, Mayer puts together the major conclusions from her articles and fills in a number of important gaps. Most significantly, we learn the details on the torture techniques and the drama behind the fierce and lingering struggle within the administration over torture, and we learn that many within the administration recognized the potential criminal accountability they faced over these torture tactics and moved frantically to protect themselves from possible future prosecution. I put six questions to Jane Mayer on the subject of her book, The Dark Side.

Outpost attack in Afghanistan shows major boost in militant strength

A deadly attack on a remote NATO outpost in the eastern province of Kunar is being viewed as a serious escalation in the fighting between the insurgents and the international forces stationed in Afghanistan – and a possible shift in the insurgents’ tactical capability. The high casualties sustained by international forces in recent attacks have also increased the prospects that international troops could launch cross-border strikes into Pakistan with increasing frequency.

In contrast to their traditional hit-and-run tactics and reliance on use of explosives, bombs, and suicide attacks, militants directly engaged soldiers at the outpost, in the village of Wanat, in a style that had not been seen for more than a year. A wave of insurgents attacked the outpost from multiple sides and some were able to get inside, killing nine US troops and wounding 15. The attack was the worst for US troops since June 2005, when 16 Americans were killed after their helicopter was shot down.

“The attack on Sunday was a carefully planned one, with upward of 200 insurgents, to give it weight of force,” Capt. Michael Finney, acting spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said in an interview. Captain Finney said the attack was ultimately repelled with on-the-ground fighting as well as air power.

Iraqis demand end to ‘occupation’

Iraqi opposition and resistance groups have renewed their demands for an end to all negotiations with the United States while US troops remain on Iraqi soil.

“We reject any kind of agreement that prolongs the occupation for so much as a day,” said Shamil Rassam, chairman of the Iraqi Popular Forces, an anti-occupation group with offices in Syria. “The occupation must be ended immediately and there can be no compromises until the last American soldier has left the country.”

Talks continue between the government in Baghdad and the Bush administration over a controversial status of forces agreement, a treaty that would lay out US military legal rights to remain in Iraq.

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