Obama takes first direct shot at Palin

Barack Obama made his first direct criticism of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin on Saturday, saying she pretends to oppose spending earmarks when she actually has embraced them.

Speaking to 800 people at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds in Terre Haute, Ind., the Democratic presidential nominee ridiculed John McCain and his running mate, the Alaska governor, for describing themselves as agents of change at this week’s GOP convention.

“Don’t be fooled,” Obama told the crowd surrounding him in a large barn. “John McCain’s party, with the help of John McCain, has been in charge” for nearly eight years.

“I know the governor of Alaska has been saying she’s change, and that’s great,” Obama said. “She’s a skillful politician. But, you know, when you’ve been taking all these earmarks when it’s convenient, and then suddenly you’re the champion anti-earmark person, that’s not change. Come on! I mean, words mean something, you can’t just make stuff up.”

Palin and McCain’s shotgun marriage

Given the actuarial odds that could make Palin our 45th president, it would be helpful to know who this mystery woman actually is. Meanwhile, two eternal axioms of our politics remain in place. Americans vote for the top of the ticket, not the bottom. And in judging the top of the ticket, voters look first at the candidates’ maiden executive decision, their selection of running mates. Whatever we do and don’t know about Palin’s character at this point, there is no ambiguity in what her ascent tells us about McCain’s character and potential presidency.

He wanted to choose the pro-abortion-rights Joe Lieberman as his vice president. If he were still a true maverick, he would have done so. But instead he chose partisanship and politics over country. “God only made one John McCain, and he is his own man,” said the shafted Lieberman in his own tedious convention speech last week. What a pathetic dupe. McCain is now the man of James Dobson and Tony Perkins. The “no surrender” warrior surrendered to the agents of intolerance not just by dumping his pal for Palin but by moving so far to the right on abortion that even Cindy McCain seemed unaware of his radical shift when being interviewed by Katie Couric last week.

That ideological sellout, unfortunately, was not the worst leadership trait the last-minute vice presidential pick revealed about McCain. His speed-dating of Palin reaffirmed a more dangerous personality tic that has dogged his entire career. His decision-making process is impetuous and, in its Bush-like preference for gut instinct over facts, potentially reckless.

McCain-Palin becoming Palin-McCain?

The banners, buttons and signs say McCain-Palin, but the crowds say something else.

“Sa-rah! Pa-lin!” came the chant at a Colorado Springs rally on Saturday moments before Republican nominee John McCain took the stage with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a woman who was virtually unknown to the nation just a week earlier. The day before, thousands screamed “Sa-rah! Sa-rah! Sa-rah!” at an amphitheater outside Detroit.

“Real change with a real woman,” read one sign at a Wisconsin rally. “Hurricane Sarah leaves liberals spinning,” cried another.

Editor’s Comment — If the McCain campaign thought it had closed the “enthusiasm gap”, it’s also ironically opened it up: the more adulation Palin gets, the less of a leader McCain looks. Come November, no one’s going to the voting booth to elect a vice president.

Palin’s true north

Long before the slogan known to 48-hour libertines — What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – became commonplace, I heard a variant of that in Alaska, and not just at closing time in fishermen’s bars.

Distance breeds isolation, and in Alaska that often means an arm’s-length code of personal privacy. The state is full of people who have left behind marriages, debts and places that simply weren’t big enough to contain their personalities.

As she showed Wednesday night with her acceptance speech, Gov. Sarah Palin fits the mold of a certain kind of Alaskan – “take it from a gal who knows,” as she said. The state has a unique political ecosystem, as quirky, odd and compelling as the big land itself.

But it is John McCain’s biggest gamble to hope that there is enough of Palin’s Last Frontier in the rest of the country to carry his ticket to the next frontier.

Watching ‘Friends’ in Gaza: a culture clash

In a dingy storefront on a noisy block in the middle of Gaza City, metal shelves bulge with dusty audiotapes extolling Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Alongside them, a pouty Jennifer Lopez beckons from the cover of a CD. DVDs are also on offer, of not-yet-officially-released movies like “Wanted,” “Hancock” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” the Adam Sandler comedy about a Mossad agent turned hairdresser in a New York City salon run by a Palestinian woman.

Amer Kihail, 32, a slender man with an elastic, hangdog face, runs the store, called New Sound. Do Gazans living under Hamas buy much Western music or many Western movies? Mr. Kihail looked baffled, and maybe even a little annoyed, by the question.

“Of course,” he said.

Ruled by Hamas, penned in by Israel, grappling with daily shortages of food and supplies, Gazans need an escape. Culture turns out to be not just an afterthought but, many say, essential to surviving here. Especially for young Gazans, what’s on satellite television and the Internet, on tapes and compact discs, is a window to the world beyond the armored checkpoints, and a link to Arab society elsewhere and, crucially, to the West.

And in what is clearly an emerging struggle within Hamas between political pragmatists, trying to consolidate their new authority, and extremists who have begun pressing a more fundamentalist agenda, culture is a central battleground for control of Gaza. A release from confinement and hardship, even mundane television becomes freighted in this context.

Editor’s Comment — Here’s the key quote: “… you cannot joke with Hamas.”

Puritans, ideologues and extremists all share the same blind spot: the inability to experience delight in ambiguity.

In this failing is contained the most profound constraint on human freedom: the failure to recognize that the world is bigger and richer than the representations through which we attempt to understand it.

Russia’s role in the Iran crisis

It is one of the rites of passage of the fall – every September, the Bush administration returns to the United Nation for another sanctions resolution against Iran. However, this time there is much consternation in Washington that Russia’s invasion of Georgia – and the subsequent chill that has descended on relations between Russia and the West – has ended any possibility of cooperation between the United States and Russia in dealing with Iran’s nuclear imbroglio. Such fears are overblown.

Russia’s assault on Georgia may produce no measurable change of its Iran policy. Indeed, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia made it clear that, despite the harsh rhetoric that has been exchanged between Moscow and Washington, Russia continues to support efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The primary reason for the continuity is that both Iran and Russia are essentially satisfied with existing US-European policy of applying incremental and largely symbolic UN sanctions on Tehran. Moscow feels that as long as the diplomatic process remains in play, America is in no position to launch a military strike that could destabilize the Middle East. At the same time, the theocratic regime has increasingly adjusted to a sanctions policy whose impact is negated by increasing oil prices.

Although Tehran would be grateful for a Russian veto of any future sanctions resolutions, it does seem content with a Russian policy that waters down UN mandates while deepening its commercial ties with Iran. On the one hand, Moscow has supported three previous Security Council injunctions against Iran, yet it has also signed lucrative trade deals and expanded its diplomatic representation in Iran. The incongruity of today’s situation is that Russia rebukes Iran for its nuclear infractions while providing technical assistance to the Bushehr plant, which is a critical component of Iran’s atomic industry.

Shimon Peres warns Israel’s hawks over Iran strike

Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, has warned the prime minister that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could provoke a broader conflict.

Peres is the first senior politician to advise Ehud Olmert against such an attack at a time of growing tension when other leading figures are threatening airstrikes unless Tehran halts its nuclear programme.

The Israeli air force has rehearsed an operation to destroy sites connected with the project.

“The military way will not solve the problem,” said Peres, the 85-year-old founder of the Jewish state’s nuclear programme, in an interview with The Sunday Times.

China calls for peaceful resolution of nuclear standoff

President Hu Jintao of China urged other nations on Saturday to negotiate a resolution to Iran’s nuclear issue during a meeting with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making clear again that China disapproves of any move by Western countries to attack Iran with military force.

Mr. Hu met with Mr. Ahmadinejad on Saturday in the Great Hall of the People here after Mr. Ahmadinejad flew into Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games, which began in the evening.

“At present, the Iran nuclear issue is faced with a rare opportunity for the resumption of talks, and we hope all parties concerned could seize the opportunity and show flexibility to push for a peaceful settlement of the issue,” Mr. Hu said in the meeting, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported.

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.

Maliki’s new line has discomforted the Americans. Some officials put on a brave face, saying it is a sign of Iraqi confidence in their own sovereignty, a development that, of course, they support as proof that the Bush administration’s strategy of rebuilding a proud country is succeeding. Others say it reflects overconfidence, even hubris, as Iraq is a long way from being able to survive without US military protection.

Zero hour for Zardari

Zardari does not immediately stand out as the person best equipped to tackle Pakistan’s myriad problems. Yet because he is expected to renege on a promise to curb the sweeping authority accumulated by Musharraf, he is set to become the country’s most powerful civilian president ever. Some see this as a high price to pay for democracy.

“Some people call Pakistan a rogue state. Now it’s going to be a rogue’s state,” said a former senior government official. “Zardari will have the power to appoint a prime minister, dissolve parliament and appoint the chief of the armed forces. He will be in charge of the nuclear command authority, which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal. His style of leadership combines arrogance with ignorance and cronyism. He has no real party platform. What we are looking at is the rise of a civilian dictator.”

So harsh a verdict, delivered before Zardari takes office, may be a trifle premature. Less impassioned observers say two factors are key to whether he will be an effective leader. One is the attitude of the US. On pragmatic grounds but also because of its ideological commitment to supporting democracy, Washington has taken a back seat so far as the political process unfolds. For his part Zardari pledged this week to maintain the US alliance and help prosecute the “war on terror”. But his reliability is questioned.

Hamid Karzai blames Britain for Taliban resurgence

The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has blamed Britain for the resurgence of the Taliban and its growing activity in large tracts of the country.

His remarks, made to Afghan MPs, follow a clash with Gordon Brown over the Kabul regime’s links with warlords and drugs barons.

Karzai claims Brown has threatened to withdraw British troops from Helmand province, where 31 of them have died this year, if the president reinstates two provincial governors sacked for alleged dealings in the heroin trade.

One of them is Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the former governor of Helmand, who was forced out under British pressure two years ago after nine tons of opium and heroin were discovered in his basement. Karzai’s plan to reinstate the governors has alarmed western diplomats in Kabul and dismayed British officials.

A leader beyond denial, as war plans flounder

In this fourth volume of his quartet of books on the Bush White House, Bob Woodward reaches a damning conclusion about the presidency of George W. Bush. “A president must be able to get a clear-eyed, unbiased assessment of the war,” he writes. “The president must lead. For years, time and again, President Bush has displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that run counter to his gut.”

“After ordering the invasion,” Mr. Woodward goes on, “the president spent three years in denial and then delegated a strategy review to his national security adviser. Bush was intolerant of confrontations and in-depth debate. There was no deadline, no hurry. The president was engaged in the war rhetorically but maintained an odd detachment from its management. He never got a full handle on it, and over these years of war, too often he failed to lead.”

In this respect, Mr. Woodward’s portrait of Mr. Bush in “The War Within” — a book Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, has called incomplete and misleading — amplifies the one he drew in his last book, “State of Denial” (2006), in which the president emerged as a passive, stubborn and intellectually incurious leader, given to an almost religious certainty about his decision making and inclined to make instinctive gut calls. It stands in striking contrast to the laudatory portrait in the first book in this series, “Bush at War” (2002), which depicted the president in Rovian terms as a strong, resolute, even visionary leader.

Doubt, distrust, delay

During the summer of 2006, from her office adjacent to the White House, deputy national security adviser Meghan O’Sullivan sent President Bush a daily top secret report cataloging the escalating bloodshed and chaos in Iraq. “Violence has acquired a momentum of its own and is now self-sustaining,” she wrote July 20, quoting from an intelligence assessment.

Her dire evaluation contradicted the upbeat assurances that President Bush was hearing from Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq. Casey and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were pushing to draw down American forces and speed the transfer of responsibility to the Iraqis. Despite months of skyrocketing violence, Casey insisted that within a year, Iraq would be mostly stable, with the bulk of American combat troops headed home.

Publicly, the president claimed the United States was winning the war, and he expressed unwavering faith in Casey, saying, “It’s his judgment that I rely upon.” Privately, he was losing confidence in the drawdown strategy. He questioned O’Sullivan that summer with increasing urgency: “What are you hearing from people in Baghdad? What are people’s daily lives like?”

“It’s hell, Mr. President,” she answered, determined not to mislead or lie to him.

‘Noise of terrorism’

A Pakistani neuroscientist and mother of three suspected of being a “fixer” for al-Qaida, moving money to support terrorist operations, has been charged with assault and attempted murder in federal court in Manhattan.

Aafia Siddiqui, 36, holds a bachelor’s degree from MIT and a doctorate from Brandeis University.

Siddiqui’s lawyers and human rights groups claim Siddiqui was abducted by intelligence agents and tortured at secret interrogation facilities for five years, until she became a cause celebre in Pakistan and authorities engineered her sudden reappearance with her eldest son, an 11-year-old, in Afghanistan this summer. It is thought she may have been held at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, an American detention facility located at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

According to the indictment, Siddiqui appeared in Ghazni on July 17 carrying a bag packed with chemicals and notes about a “mass casualty attack” involving the Empire State Building or other US landmarks. The following day, she allegedly grabbed an M-4 rifle from a US Army officer and fired it, while stating “her intent and desire to kill Americans.”

She had vanished with her children in March 2003, while the FBI sought her for questioning about suspected ties to al-Qaida and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

She is not accused of any terrorist crimes, though prosecutors say the investigation is ongoing.

“There’s all the noise of terrorism, but it’s not in the charges,” said Joanne Mariner, an attorney with Human Rights Watch in New York who has followed the case.

Legal experts say if her lawyers are right, Siddiqui, already unique for being the only woman suspected of high-level al-Qaida involvement, would be the first person to face prosecution in a US criminal court after being held in secret intelligence custody.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email