The real-life ‘24’ of summer 2008

We know what a criminal White House looks like from “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s classic account of Richard Nixon’s unraveling. The cauldron of lies, paranoia and illegal surveillance boiled over, until it was finally every man for himself as desperate courtiers scrambled to save their reputations and, in a few patriotic instances, their country.

the dark side“The Final Days” was published in 1976, two years after Nixon abdicated in disgrace. With the Bush presidency, no journalist (or turncoat White House memoirist) is waiting for the corpse to be carted away. The latest and perhaps most chilling example arrives this week from Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, long a relentless journalist on the war-on-terror torture beat. Her book “The Dark Side” connects the dots of her own past reporting and that of her top-tier colleagues (including James Risen and Scott Shane of The New York Times) to portray a White House that, like its prototype, savaged its enemies within almost as ferociously as it did the Constitution.

Some of “The Dark Side” seems right out of “The Final Days,” minus Nixon’s operatic boozing and weeping. We learn, for instance, that in 2004 two conservative Republican Justice Department officials had become “so paranoid” that “they actually thought they might be in physical danger.” The fear of being wiretapped by their own peers drove them to speak in code.

A blind eye to Guantanamo?

A CIA analyst warned the Bush administration in 2002 that up to a third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake, but White House officials ignored the finding and insisted that all were “enemy combatants” subject to indefinite incarceration, according to a new book critical of the administration’s terrorism policies.

The CIA assessment directly challenged the administration’s claim that the detainees were all hardened terrorists — the “worst of the worst,” as then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time. But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees’ cases, author Jane Mayer writes in “The Dark Side,” scheduled for release next week.

“There will be no review,” the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. “The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

Overstating our fears

The next commander in chief should base his counterterrorism policies on the following realities:

We do not face a global jihadist “movement” but a series of disparate ethnic and religious conflicts involving Muslim populations, each of which remains fundamentally regional in nature and almost all of which long predate the existence of al-Qaeda.

Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears. Al-Qaeda is the only global jihadist organization and is the only Islamic terrorist organization that targets the U.S. homeland. Al-Qaeda remains capable of striking here and is plotting from its redoubt in Waziristan, Pakistan. The organization, however, has only a handful of individuals capable of planning, organizing and leading a terrorist operation. Al-Qaeda threatens to use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, but its capabilities are far inferior to its desires. Even the “loose nuke” threat, whose consequences would be horrific, has a very low probability. For the medium term, any attack is overwhelmingly likely to consist of creative uses of conventional explosives.

U.S., Iraq scale down negotiations over forces

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of U.S troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior U.S. officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended U.S. military presence there to the next administration.

In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a “bridge” document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic U.S. military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a U.N. mandate at the end of the year.

The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord — blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task — deals a blow to the Bush administration’s plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.

U.S. considers increasing pace of Iraq pullout

The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September, according to administration and military officials, raising the prospect of a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago.

Such a withdrawal would be a striking reversal from the nadir of the war in 2006 and 2007.

One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional American troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency and inflicted a growing number of casualties on Afghans and American-led forces there.

Despite all the sabre-rattling, it looks as if Tehran wants to talk

Despite all the posturing, Israel, for reasons both political and technical, can’t attack Iran without US permission; the US, meanwhile, remains unlikely to give that permission, or do the job itself. Among the reasons:

•Iran’s facilities are too dispersed and hardened to be sure that air strikes – which risk destroying the American project in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the region – would do any more than temporarily delay Iran’s nuclear programme.

•The Iranian response would likely imperil tens of thousands of US troops within easy range of Tehran’s missile fleet, and would almost certainly drive oil prices up to levels that would make the US recession a long-term phenomenon.

•Iran has already attained the know-how to create nuclear materiel, the prevention of which Bush has stressed was the primary objective of the campaign against Iran’s enrichment efforts. Military action can’t eliminate that know-how.

•Despite the sabre-rattling, Iran may be moving to engage with the latest US-backed negotiating position offered by the Europeans.

Close examination shows the debate in the US administration may not be between attacking Iran and engaging it, but between those who think diplomacy has a better chance of succeeding if Iran believes it could be attacked, and those who believe that such a belief would likely retard diplomacy.

Support truce with Hamas

Finally, the long-sought truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has become a reality.

Reaching this uneasy state has not been easy. For months, wise and responsible people had exhorted Israel to accept the cease-fire that the Hamas leadership in Gaza had proposed. But Israel’s government, using all kinds of pretexts, stubbornly resisted.

”A truce would weaken Palestinian President Abu Mazen,” officials claimed, as if the construction of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the refusal to dismantle previous illegal ones had not already weakened him. Or they argued that ”Hamas does not recognize the state of Israel,” as if other cease-fire agreements with the Arab states and the PLO in the last 60 years had been based on recognition of Israel rather than on a simple ethical principle that has guided Israel for many years — namely to gain, for us and our enemies, a pause in hostilities.

In the end, however, logic prevailed over escapism and hesitation. A cease-fire was signed, and we can only regret all the time that was lost and the unnecessary suffering on both sides.

The grim logic of Jerusalem

The little supermarket in the German colony of Jerusalem has a famously good meat counter; the man who has run it for the last 10 years or so is named Abed. He is a Jerusalem-born Arab, a Muslim, about 40 years old, the father of three (or is it now four?) children, whose pictures hang behind the counter. The store is a place residents of the neighborhood wander into several times a week, looking for blueberries or chestnuts. I almost always wound up speaking to Abed about this or that and eventually started coming in to talk, even if I needed nothing. I am more than a customer to him, and he is more than a clerk to me.

Abed has a quick mind, infectious smile and Zhivago-like eyes. He could have been anything he set his mind to becoming. But Jerusalem is not a place where an Arab can go into a bank, borrow money and start a business. He once told me the story of how he and his closest high school friends had hatched a plan to study the law; that a couple of them actually went to Cairo to get their degrees. But Abed had wanted to start making money and missed the boat, you know, for reasons young men later come to regret. But he did go to work — 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., every day for 20 years.

Afghan warlords, formerly backed by the CIA, now turn their guns on U.S. troops

The war in Afghanistan reached a wrenching milestone this summer: For the second month in a row, U.S. and coalition troop deaths in the country surpassed casualties in Iraq. This is driven in large part, U.S. officials point out, by simple cause and effect. Marines flowed into southern Afghanistan earlier this year to rout firmly entrenched Taliban fighters, prompting a spike in combat in territory where NATO forces previously didn’t have the manpower to send troops. “We’re doing something we haven’t done in seven years, which is go after the Taliban where they’re living,” says a U.S. official.

But amid a well-coordinated assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai and large-scale bombings last week in the capitals of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. forces are keenly aware that they are facing an increasingly complex enemy here—what U.S. military officials now call a syndicate—composed not only of Taliban fighters but also powerful warlords who were once on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency. “You could almost describe the insurgency as having two branches,” says a senior U.S. military official here. “It’s the Taliban in the south and a ‘rainbow coalition’ in the east.”

A Baghdad bookseller, bound to his country

Upstairs, the blue bedroom door of Nabil al-Hayawi’s only son was locked, sealing in the artifacts of his short life. Downstairs, the frail bookseller’s voice quivered as he recalled the car bombing that killed his son and his brother and razed his family’s bookshop on Baghdad’s storied Mutanabi Street. More than a year later, Hayawi has not entered the bedroom.

He, too, almost died that day. After five operations, he has trouble standing up. His left arm hangs limp. He takes seven pills a day to cope with aches and depression. Shrapnel is still lodged in his body, posing new threats.

But decades of dictatorship, war and international sanctions, followed by five years of occupation, insurgency and sectarian strife, have not defeated the Hayawis. “If you live with fears, how can you live?” said Hayawi, 60, seated at his desk in his spacious, book-lined home on a recent sun-dappled day.

In the long anthology of Iraq’s tragedies, the Hayawis represent the promise of the country’s future. Despite their grief, they tenaciously refuse to surrender to the current turmoil. They belong to the fading but still influential group of middle-class Iraqis who are alarmed by their society’s sectarian fissures and emerging Islamic identity and determined to preserve its cosmopolitan, secular nature.

Suspect soldiers: Did crimes in U.S. foretell violence in Iraq?

Before Army Sgt. 1st Class Randal Ruby was accused in Iraq of beating prisoners and of conspiring to plant rifles on dead civilians, he amassed a 10-year criminal record in Colordao and Washington state for assaulting his wife and in Maine for a drunken high-speed police chase, for which he remains wanted.

Before Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes stabbed an Iraqi private to death, angering the soldier’s unit of coalition soldiers, he was hospitalized after threatening suicide in high school, accused of assault, disorderly conduct and trespassing, and, in the months leading up to deployment, twice linked to drug use.

Before Army Spc. Shane Carl Gonyon was convicted of stealing a pistol at Abu Ghraib prison, he was convicted twice on felony charges and arrested four times, once for allegedly giving a 13-year-old girl marijuana in exchange for oral sex. He enlisted weeks after his release from a federal prison in Oregon.

Obama picks senators as Iraq partners

When Senator Barack Obama travels to Iraq later this summer to get a firsthand look at conditions there, he said he would be accompanied by two colleagues who have “bipartisan wisdom when it comes to foreign policy.”

Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, will join Mr. Obama on his first trip to Iraq as a presidential candidate. All three senators share similar views — critical ones –- of the administration’s Iraq policy.

Obama supporters on the far left cry foul

In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.

Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.

“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”

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