NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: September 5

Palin’s problem

The vice president’s only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment’s notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates.

So why did McCain do it? He figured it’s a Democratic year. The Republican brand is deeply tarnished. The opposition is running on “change” in a change election. So McCain gambled that he could steal the change issue for himself — a crazy brave, characteristically reckless, inconceivably difficult maneuver — by picking an authentically independent, tough-minded reformer. With Palin, he doubles down on change.

The problem is the inherent oddity of the incumbent party running on change. Here were Republicans — the party that controlled the White House for eight years and both houses of Congress for five — wildly cheering the promise to take on Washington. I don’t mean to be impolite, but who’s controlled Washington this decade?

The resentment strategy

Can the super-rich former governor of Massachusetts — the son of a Fortune 500 C.E.O. who made a vast fortune in the leveraged-buyout business — really keep a straight face while denouncing “Eastern elites”?

Can the former mayor of New York City, a man who, as USA Today put it, “marched in gay pride parades, dressed up in drag and lived temporarily with a gay couple and their Shih Tzu” — that was between his second and third marriages — really get away with saying that Barack Obama doesn’t think small towns are sufficiently “cosmopolitan”?

Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the “Washington elite”?

Yes, they can.

Cheney backs membership in NATO for Georgia

Vice President Dick Cheney flew here on Thursday to deliver a forceful American pledge to rebuild Georgia and its economy, to preserve its sovereignty and its territory and to bring it into the NATO alliance in defiance of Russia.

Mr. Cheney spent only four and a half hours in Georgia, but the visit included a strong rebuke to Russia’s behavior and a highly symbolic visit to American troops unloading humanitarian supplies at the airport here within sight of an airplane factory that Russian bombs had damaged.

He arrived a day after the United States pledged $1 billion to help Georgia recover from its defeat by Russia’s armed forces, which continue to control two breakaway regions, as well as buffer zones in Georgia.

US navy ship steams into port where Russian troops stationed

A US navy flagship has steamed into a Georgian port where Russian troops are still stationed, stoking tensions once again in the tinderbox Caucasus region.

A previous trip by American warships was cancelled at the last minute a week ago amid fears that an armed stand off could erupt in the Black Sea port of Poti.

The arrival of the USS Mount Whitney came as Moscow accused Dick Cheney, the hawkish US vice-president, of stoking tensions during a visit to Tbilisi yesterday, in which he vowed to bring Georgia into the Nato alliance. Russia sees any such move as a blatant Western encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence.

Why Ukraine’s pro-Western coalition split

Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Ukraine Thursday to bolster its pro-Western government in the wake of the Georgia debacle, but he’s unlikely to save it from collapse. The mortal threat to the administration of President Victor Yushchenko comes not from Russia, but from Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, his arch-rival for leadership in the democratic coalition that swept to power in 2005. And whereas Yuschenko has rallied to the Georgian cause and reiterated his own desire to accelerate Ukraine’s entry into NATO, Tymoshenko is seen to be more willing to accommodate Russian concerns, and is seeking to oust the president by making common cause with the main opposition party traditionally endorsed by Moscow.

Will Israel and America spurn yet another Arab overture?

Israel and its American backers recently missed a historic opportunity when they ignored the Arab peace initiative, which offered normalized relations to the Jewish state in exchange for a withdrawal from occupied land. They would be foolish to miss another one that emerged this week at a four-way summit that gathered the French, Qatari, Turkish and Syrian leaders in Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad announced on Thursday at the close of the meeting that his country had submitted a proposal to the Israelis through Turkish mediators to launch direct peace talks with Israel, and it would be in the Jewish state’s interests to accept the offer.

Previous Syrian peace overtures have been rejected by the Jewish state as “not serious.” But if the Israelis have any lingering doubts about the soberness and earnestness with which this latest offer was made, they should step back and look at the partners who have implicitly lent their backing to the initiative. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is not only putting France’s support behind the proposal, but also that of the European Union, whose rotating presidency his country currently holds. Turkey brings to the equation diplomatic credentials that are perhaps unmatched in the region, as Ankara had shown itself to be the only state capable of straddling the divides between Russia and the United States, Arabs and Israelis and Iran and the West. The added involvement of Qatar, whose leader Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani currently heads the Gulf Cooperation Council, means that the road to peace could eventually lead to countless economic opportunities.

U.S. may step up raids in Pakistan

Even as angry protests spread in Pakistan, Pentagon officials said Thursday that the number of cross-border commando missions may grow in coming months to counter increasing violence in Afghanistan.

The developments threatened to aggravate U.S.-Pakistani tensions just before the country’s presidential election Saturday, in which attitudes toward the United States are likely to be a key issue. The U.S. raid Wednesday and its aftermath also fanned a long-standing debate within the Bush administration over how to deal with militants in Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said U.S. troops flew into South Waziristan by helicopter in the raid and that as many as 20 people were killed, many thought to be civilians. The White House, State Department and Pentagon all moved to clamp down on administration discussion of the assault, but government officials confirmed the broad details provided by the Pakistani government.

Republic of blowback

Back in the 1980s, frustrated aid workers joked that Somalia was the “graveyard of foreign aid,” a place where hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted on projects that occasionally left villagers worse off than before.

In the early 1990s, an ambitious UN peace enforcement operation set out to end a famine and promote reconciliation in war-torn Somalia, only to be drawn into the very war it was meant to stop, producing a debacle that put a quick end to hopes of a more robust UN peace enforcement capacity in the post-Cold-War era.

Thus began the schooling of the international community on the law of unintended consequences in Somalia, a country where what foreigners want and what they get rarely coincide. The latest example is U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

Maliki drops the mask

What’s up with Nouri al-Maliki? As security anxieties subside in this slowly calming city, political speculation has rarely been so intense. First, it was Maliki’s demand that all US troops leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Then came signs that his government wants to undermine the Sunni tribal militias, known as the Awakening councils, on whom the Americans have relied to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq. Now there are moves to take on the powerful Kurdish peshmerga troops and push them out of disputed areas in the strategic central province of Diyala.

Why is the prime minister doing this? Is “the puppet breaking his strings”, as one Arab newspaper put it? Or is the more appropriate metaphor “dropping the mask”? Those who knew Maliki in exile in Syria during Saddam Hussein’s time now recall that he opposed the US-led invasion. His Daawa party did not attend the eve-of-invasion conference of US- and UK-supported exiles in London, and he opposed the party’s decision six months later to join the hand-picked “governing council” set up by the first occupation overlord, Paul Bremer.

Pentagon urges extended pause in Iraq drawdown

Pentagon leaders have recommended to President Bush that the United States make no further troop reductions in Iraq this year, administration officials said yesterday.

The plan, delivered this week, calls for extending a pause in drawdowns until late January or early February — after the Bush administration has left office. At that point, up to 7,500 of the approximately 146,000 troops in Iraq could be withdrawn, depending on conditions on the ground there. The reduction would coincide with new deployments to Afghanistan, officials said.

U.S. spied on Iraqi leaders, book says

The Bush administration has conducted an extensive spying operation on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his staff and others in the Iraqi government, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward.

“We know everything he says,” according to one of multiple sources Woodward cites about the practice in “The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008,” scheduled for release Monday.

The book also says that the U.S. troop “surge” of 2007, in which President Bush sent nearly 30,000 additional U.S. combat forces and support troops to Iraq, was not the primary factor behind the steep drop in violence there during the past 16 months.

Rather, Woodward reports, “groundbreaking” new covert techniques enabled U.S. military and intelligence officials to locate, target and kill insurgent leaders and key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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