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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