NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: August 23-24

Last call for Change We Can Believe In

Obama should go after McCain’s supposedly biggest asset — experience — much as McCain went after Obama’s crowd-drawing celebrity.

It is, after all, not mere happenstance that so many conservative pundits — Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru — have, to McCain’s irritation, proposed that he “patriotically” declare in advance that he will selflessly serve only a single term. Whatever their lofty stated reasons for promoting this stunt, their underlying message is clear: They recognize in their heart of hearts that the shelf life of McCain’s experience has already reached its expiration date.

Is a man who is just discovering the Internet qualified to lead a restoration of America’s economic and educational infrastructures? Is the leader of a virtually all-white political party America’s best salesman and moral avatar in the age of globalization? Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe?

R.I.P., “Change We Can Believe In.” The fierce urgency of the 21st century demands Change Before It’s Too Late.

How Obama reconciles dueling views on economy

As Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic nomination this week, it is clear that the economic policies of the next president are going to be hugely important. Ever since Wall Street bankers were called back from their vacations last summer to deal with the convulsions in the mortgage market, the economy has been lurching from one crisis to the next. The International Monetary Fund has described the situation as “the largest financial shock since the Great Depression.” The details are too technical for most of us to understand. (They’re too technical for many bankers to understand, which is part of the problem.) But the root cause is simple enough. In some fundamental ways, the American economy has stopped working.

Obama fatigue? (NYT)

Racism is the only reason Obama might lose (Slate)

We tilt at windmills as world war looms

Might it be that a raging seven-year obsession with Osama Bin Laden and his tiny Al-Qaeda organisation has blinded strategists to the old verities? Wars are rarely “clashes of civilisation”, but rather clashes of interest. They are usually the result of careless policy, of misread signals and of mission creep closing options for peace.

Terrorists, wherever located and trained, can certainly capture headlines and cause overnight mayhem, but they cannot project power. They cannot conquer countries or peoples, only manipulate democratic regimes into espousing illiberal policies, as in America and Britain. By grossly overstating the significance of terrorism, western leaders have distracted foreign policy from what should be its prime concern: securing world peace by holding a balance of interest – and pride – among the great powers.

To any who lived through the cold war, recent events along Russia’s western and southern borders are deeply ominous. Moscow initially spent the 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union flirting with the West. It had been defeated and had good reason for disarming and putting out feelers to join Nato and the European Union. It took part in such proto-capitalist entities as the G8.

In the case of Nato and the EU it was arrogantly rebuffed, while its former Warsaw Pact allies were accepted. Moscow was told it would be foolish to worry about encirclement. A nation that had never enjoyed democracy should content itself with basking in its delights. Russians in the Baltic states and in Ukraine should make their peace with emerging governments. The political clutter of the cold war should be decontaminated.

Suddenly this has not worked. The world is showing alarming parallels with the 1930s. Lights are turning to red as the world again approaches depression. The credit crunch and the collapse of world trade talks are making nations introverted. Meanwhile, the defeated power of the last war, Russia, is flexing its muscles and finding them in good working order.

Georgia and the push for cold war

John McCain said it first: “In the 21st century nations don’t invade other nations.” George W. Bush said it, too: Russia’s way is not the “way to conduct foreign policy in the 21st Century”. And Condoleezza Rice on August 19 said it: “Russia is a state that is unfortunately using the one tool that it has always used whenever it wishes to deliver a message and that’s its military power. That’s not the way to deal in the 21st century.” Outside of the United States, these utterances are greeted with laughter, for they betoken a hypocrisy so ingrained it suggests insanity. The United States looks in the mirror and what do we see? Russia. And what do we say? “That is no way to do things in the 21st century!” And then we go back to reading the interview with General Petraeus on the occupation of Baghdad.

But these statements are a sideshow. The Georgia debacle started on May 4, 2006, with a longer and more considered statement, by Vice President Cheney, in Vilnius, Lithuania. Cheney there threatened Russia with a new Cold War if Russia did not capitulate to American demands of cheap oil for Russia’s pro-American neighbors. “Russia has a choice,” he said. The same curious locution, with its undertone of parental menace — the parent who stops payments and knows when to use the whip — was employed by President Bush addressing Iran in 2007. “Iran has a choice.” Has a nation ever talked to another nation in this style? But then, has there ever been a nation that sees itself as America sees itself in the 21st century? “Russia has a choice” — the language of a man with his hand on his gun, very sure of his moral as well as physical superiority. This is the language of omnipotence, barely disguised. It is ill-adapted for the purposes of social intercourse, yet finely adapted to threats that have a quality at once intimate and public; threats, indeed, part of whose function is to abort diplomacy.

What Russia’s moves on Georgia could mean for Iran

…the new Great Game, like the old one, will be a long narrative of intrigue and confrontation in which there is no sudden or decisive resolution. Realism will dictate efforts to improve relations with states on Russia’s periphery whether or not their ideologies are compatible with American democratic ideals. Another Iran scholar, Gary Sick at Columbia University, believes the policymakers remaining in the Bush administration have actually come to understand this, albeit very late. “After 9/11 their world view was that the United States had limitless power,” says Sick. “I don’t think they believe that anymore. And if you really believe you have to husband your power in ways that are more cost effective, you have to change our approach to Iran.” It won’t be easy. The Iranians are hard bargainers with regional ambitions of their own, but they are not irrational, and their primary interest is security. Oddly enough, Washington may find that the U.S. benefits by helping them feel safer, not more threatened.

Russia’s oil boom may be running on empty

The Russian oil boom, which has produced a gusher of cash, political power and an opulent elite — and has helped fuel the country’s renewed assertiveness in Georgia and elsewhere — is on shakier ground than officials in Moscow would like to admit.

Most of the oil produced after the country’s 1998 financial collapse has come from drilling and re-drilling old Soviet oil fields with more advanced equipment — squeezing more black gold out of the same ground — and efforts to develop new fields have been slow or non-existent.

After pullout, Russia envisions long-term shift

As the Russian Army withdrew most of its forces from Georgia, it was becoming ever more clear on Friday that Moscow had no intention of restoring what once was — either on the ground or diplomatically.

The West wants a return to early August, before an obscure territorial dispute on the fringes of the old Soviet empire erupted into an international crisis. But Russia’s forces are digging in and seizing ribbons of Georgian land that abut two breakaway enclaves allied with Moscow, effectively extending its zone of influence.

At the same time, the Kremlin is nearing formal recognition of the independence of the enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, possibly as early as next week.

Afghan leader assails airstrike he says killed 95 (NYT)

Rockets, guile and the lessons of history: the Taleban besiege Kabul (The Times)

Behind the Taliban surge (Time)

Pakistan turns tables on militants (The Australian)

Is the Iraq war winding down? (Time)

Iraq seeks breakup of U.S.-funded Sunni fighters (LAT)

Iraqi stance led to Bush shift on pullout (WP)

Iraq cleric Muqtada Sadr critical of draft plan on U.S. troop withdrawal (LAT)

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