McCain unsure how many houses he owns

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in an interview Wednesday that he was uncertain how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, own.

“I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain told Politico in Las Cruces, N.M. “It’s condominiums where — I’ll have them get to you.”

The correct answer is at least four, located in Arizona, California and Virginia, according to his staff. Newsweek estimated this summer that the couple owns at least seven properties.

Where’s Obama’s passion?

A few days before Barack Obama was to announce his choice for Vice President, he was asked at a North Carolina town meeting what qualities he wanted in a running mate. He wandered through a derisive, if desultory, critique of Dick Cheney, then switched gears. “I want somebody … who shares with me a passion to make the lives of the American people better than they are right now,” he said. “I want somebody who is mad right now that people are losing their jobs.” And I immediately thought, Uh-oh.

Memories of John Kerry in 2004 came flooding back, of how he tended to describe his feelings rather than experience them, of how he suddenly—and unconvincingly—started to say he was “angry” about this or that when his consultants told him that Howard Dean’s anger about the war in Iraq was hitting home with voters. And then, in the general election, Kerry kept repeating the word strength rather than demonstrating it. Clearly, Obama’s consultants have given him similar advice, that he was on the short end of a passion gap—that it was time for emo. A day earlier, he had said wage disparities between genders made his “blood boil.”

One of the great strengths of the Obama candidacy has been the sense that this is a guy whose blood doesn’t boil, who carefully considers the options before he reacts—and that his reaction is always measured and rational. But that’s also a weakness: sometimes the most rational response is to rip your opponent’s lungs out.

Editor’s Comment — It’s interesting to contrast these two tableaux of the candidates. On one side we have a man who’s so stinking rich he doesn’t know how many houses he owns. On the other side a whose calm and thoughtfulness seemingly constrain the all-important passion needed for connecting with the voters.

The greater liability is Obama’s — not McCain’s. Why?

Firstly, no one in America is stinking rich. It’s called success or good fortune. Secondly, McCain will (like George Bush) be judged much more by his persona than his assets and he has the universally popular image of a regular guy. (Just happens to be one of those regular guys who — aw-shucks — just happened to forget how many houses he owns. “I’ll get back to you just as soon as I’ve found my glasses.”)

His failings are as much a part of his appeal as they are potential liabilities. In a word, McCain scores points just for being himself.

Obama — and the Obama campaign — on the other hand, seem to think that the Democratic candidate lacks the same advantage. They seem to think that his appeal needs to be packaged. In other words they think his success hinges on the effectiveness of the Obama marketing campaign.

In their assuming this I would venture to say that they are completely wrong and that contrary to the conventional wisdom the marketing of Obama has been a miserable failure. If the marketing was really working, shouldn’t he be soaring ahead in the polls by now?

Obama is different. Instead of running a campaign that’s trying to convince Americans that he’s a low-risk choice, he needs to challenge voters to take a leap. And the only way he can inspire the confidence of the electorate is by showing that he has the courage to be himself. He isn’t a typical American. He should stop trying to pretend he is.

Afghanistan on fire

Washington must finally make clear to Pakistan’s leaders the mortal threat they face. The Army must turn its attention from India to the fight against the Taliban. Civilian leaders must realize that there can be no separate peace with the extremists. Sending American troops or warplanes into Pakistani territory will only feed anti-American furies. That should be the job of Pakistan’s army, with intelligence help and carefully monitored financial support from the United States.

More American ground troops will have to be sent to Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s over-reliance on airstrikes — which have led to high levels of civilian casualties — has dangerously antagonized the Afghan population. This may require an accelerated timetable for shifting American forces from Iraq, where the security situation has grown somewhat less desperate.

Editor’s Comment — One of the most under-reported stories of recent weeks is that Pakistani military action in the tribal areas has resulted in an exodus of as many as 300,000 civilians, as Bruce Loudon reports for The Australian.

If, as the New York Times editorial board and many in Washington seem to think, the key problem was the reluctance of the Pakistani government to confront extremists, then, supposedly, we are now seeing the implementation of the solution. What seems clear though is this is a “solution” destined to produce yet another generational problem.

What’s curious though is that with success in Iraq being so widely hailed, the one lesson that would seem so obviously applicable to Afghanistan and Pakistan is that the lynch pin consists of winning over support from the indigenous enemy and turning them against al Qaeda. Instead, al Qaeda and the Taliban are becoming progressively more integrated. This strategic failure derives from the kernel of insanity upon which the war on terrorism was conceived: we will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them.

Afghan numbers don’t add up

The United States plans to bolster the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan with an additional 12,000 to 15,000 troops to confront the Taliban-led insurgency. Influential European and American think-tanks, such as the Senlis Council, also favor urgent extra deployment to Afghanistan.

The nature of the war in Afghanistan is changing, though, and it is not the sheer numbers that count. NATO has approximately 45,000 troops, including 15,000 American troops, while an additional 19,000 US forces operate separately. It has also been reported that the Pentagon plans to spend US$20 billion on doubling the size of the Afghanistan National Army to 120,000 troops.

Beyond the Taliban, local alliances between warlords and former mujahideen commanders against NATO have added a fresh dimension to the insurgency, in addition to spreading resistance to many new parts of Afghanistan.

It is this extension of the battlefield that alarms NATO, and its dilemma is that if it pumps more troops into the country, they will have to be widely spread and more open to attack. The alternative is to cede territory to the resistance groups.

Musharraf not the problem, or solution

The “war on terror”, as it winds down and begins heading for the exit tunnel, has secured its fifth and, possibly final victim – Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. It is hard not to recall that the flamboyant general and president was doomed from the day he hitched his star to George W Bush’s war wagon almost seven years ago.

Equally, it must be recalled that he had no real choices in the matter. In that sense, his ultimate fate was more poignant than that of the other four political “victims” in the Bush era – Spain’s Jose-Maria Aznar, Australia’s John Howard, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Britain’s Tony Blair.

Therefore, Musharraf’s political epitaph cannot be written without recalling that if he finally found himself left with no supportive domestic civilian constituency, it was primarily because in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, including the Westernized sections of the middle class, their president was a “burnt out case”.

He demeaned Pakistan by being subservient to foreign masters and in the common perception, rightly or wrongly, he compromised the country’s sovereignty. Alas, no one remembers that each time a US aircraft fired missiles violating Pakistani territorial integrity and killed innocent Pakistani civilians, the country felt humiliated. Its national pride took a relentless beating. And no self-respecting people in any country would forgive their president for allowing that to happen.

The Afghan fire looks set to spread, but there is a way out

This is the conflict western politicians have convinced themselves is the “good war”, in contrast to the shame of Iraq. Britain’s defence secretary, Des Browne, recently declared it “the noble cause of the 21st century”. Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces a similar level of domestic opposition to the Afghan imbroglio as in Britain, insists that France is fighting for “democracy and freedom”. Barack Obama calls it the “central front” in the war on terror and, like Gordon Brown, is committed to transferring troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to bolster the fight.

That will certainly jack up the killing and suffering still further. As Zbigniew Brzezinski – the former US national security adviser who masterminded the early stages of the mujahideen war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – argues, putting more troops in is not the solution: “We run the risk that our military presence will gradually turn the Afghan population entirely against us.”

The original aims of the invasion, it will be recalled, were the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and the destruction of al-Qaida in the aftermath of 9/11. None of those aims has been achieved. Instead, the US and its friends brought back to power an alliance of brutal and corrupt warlords, gave them new identities as democrats with phoney elections, and drove the Taliban and al-Qaida leaderships over the border into Pakistan.

New guidelines would give FBI broader powers

A Justice Department plan would loosen restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow agents to open a national security or criminal investigation against someone without any clear basis for suspicion, Democratic lawmakers briefed on the details said Wednesday.

The plan, which could be made public next month, has already generated intense interest and speculation. Little is known about its precise language, but civil liberties advocates say they fear it could give the government even broader license to open terrorism investigations.

Congressional staff members got a glimpse of some of the details in closed briefings this month, and four Democratic senators told Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in a letter on Wednesday that they were troubled by what they heard.

The senators said the new guidelines would allow the F.B.I. to open an investigation of an American, conduct surveillance, pry into private records and take other investigative steps “without any basis for suspicion.” The plan “might permit an innocent American to be subjected to such intrusive surveillance based in part on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or on protected First Amendment activities,” the letter said. It was signed by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

U.N. readies ‘grand deal’ to resolve Iraq’s dispute over Kirkuk

The United Nations said Wednesday it would present a list of proposals to resolve the conflict over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other disputed regions in northern Iraq.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nation’s special representative for Iraq, said that its assistance mission for Iraq would present proposals by the end of October. The objective, he said, was “a grand deal” among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis, and other groups now passionately pressing their claims in the area.

The proposals will reflect months of research by a diverse team of 15 lawyers, negotiators, academics, diplomats and historians, some with experience in Bosnia, Israel and the Palestinian territories. They will center on Kirkuk, “the hottest issue in Iraq these days,” Mr. de Mistura said.

The strategic lessons of Georgia

The Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force has just been used effectively — and not by the U.S., which tried to prevail on the cheap with its 2003 invasion of Iraq. This time around, it might as well be rechristened the Putin Doctrine, given what the Russian military has done to Georgia over the past two weeks. In the aftermath, assorted soldiers and graybeards in the Pentagon, the National Security Council and government warrens around the world are evaluating the military lessons of Moscow’s move into the Caucasus. Just what does it mean for the way war is waged in the 21st century?

Military strategists see it as vindication for their continued calls for heavy, armor-centric warfare, while geo-strategists take it as a lesson in the dangers of a small country baiting a bigger and nearer foe when its key ally packs little more than rhetorical firepower, at least in the short term.

Despite U.S. embarrassment at the humiliation of its Georgian ally, the U.S. Army’s tankers and artillerymen at Fort Knox’s armor school have been encouraged by the success of the Russian army’s blitzkrieg. Moscow’s triumph suggests that there is wisdom behind Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ insistence that the U.S. be prepared to wage “full-spectrum operations” — not just the past five years of irregular warfare that America has been engaged in, with small units of soldiers patrolling Baghdad streets and Afghan mountains.

Editor’s Comment — Yep, there’s no doubt that Vladamir Putin must be the discreetly-toasted darling of the defense industry right now. The successful invasion of Georgia was the best news for General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, BAE, and Boeing in over a decade.

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