Obama’s new Middle East? Don’t hold your breath

Barack Obama’s stunning election victory represented a profound revolution in America’s self-identity, but many abroad seem to have mistaken it for a portent of profound changes in the foreign posture of the US. I was flabbergasted, for example, by an e-mail from a South African friend wondering if Obama would free the five Cubans currently serving long prison terms for spying on the US (in fact, he probably won’t even end the US embargo of Cuba).

Obama was propelled to victory by a broad popular antiwar movement, and that sense of the consummate outsider (a black man) running an insurgent campaign against the political establishment (John McCain and, before him, Hillary Clinton) that had backed the Iraq war has encouraged people to project all sorts of fantasies on to a man whose own stated policy positions are decidedly centrist.

Obama’s first appointment helped to douse fevered expectations of any revolutionary change, You could hear the collective groan of anguish from the Middle East when Obama named Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Emanuel’s father was a member of Israel’s Irgun militia in the 1940s, and he himself served as a volunteer on an Israeli military base in 1991. Moreover, as a Congressman, Emanuel had written letters to the Bush Administration accusing it of being too tough on Israel (a view not widely shared in the Middle East). In Washington, his appointment drew wry comments from Republicans, who noted that the legendary political brawler hardly epitomised the new politics of civility promised in Obama’s “change” rhetoric. The response from an Obama insider is worth noting: “Obama is the change,” the official said, referring to his being the first black President. “Right now what America is looking for in a cabinet is competence, expertise and credibility.” In other words, continuity.

And continuity is exactly what the Middle East should expect from a President Obama, at least initially. Asked about Iran during his first press conference as President-elect, he reiterated US talking points about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and demanding that it end support for terrorism. For the rest, he’ll wait to formulate a new approach – presumably until after next year’s Iranian presidential election. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — In assessing the significance of Rahm Emanuel’s appointment as chief of staff, what is likely to count for more? The fact that he served in the IDF and his father was in Irgun, or the fact that he and Obama are close friends, know each other from Chicago and that he has a lot of power in Congress? (That’s meant to be a rhetorical question.)

When it comes to predicting how Obama’s Middle East approach is likely to shape up, we should be paying more attention to whether he appoints a Middle East envoy, who that is, and how much authority he is given. With the right pick, with sufficient authority and a clear mission, it could turn out that the fact that Obama had already placed an Israeli (Emanuel) in such an influential position inside the White House is a way of buttressing the president from attacks from the Israel lobby. Rather than Emanuel being the Israel lobby’s Trojan Horse inside the White House, he may turn out to be Obama’s envoy inside the lobby.

Most of all, despite the extent to which Obama will be hemmed in by circumstances and despite his mild manner, I have no doubt that he will assume a role that for President Bush was more of a posture: he will be the decider. As a decision-maker who has availed himself of all the facts and who has the intellect required for making sound judgments, he understands that as president he will be fully accountable. But among all those whose support for him was contingent upon the expectation that he would emphatically stand behind their particular agenda, the fact that he is someone who does not like “ideology overriding fact,” will no doubt be cause for a string of disappointments.

‘He tried his best to veil it, but Obama is an intellectual’

On Tuesday, dodging the hubbub of election parties, I watched the results come in with two close friends and my teenage daughter. We might have been patients showing up at a hospital for a surgical procedure, nervously joking over the early returns from Vermont (predictably, Barack Obama) and Kentucky (predictably, John McCain). When, at 8:01pm, Pacific time, CNN called the race for Obama, we collapsed in one another’s arms. Even my dry tear ducts did their job, and, for a few moments, the room swam out of focus. The champagne, whose presence in the fridge I had thought to be ominously bad karma, was opened. No toast. Just “Thank God, thank God, thank God”, spoken by four devout atheists. There was little triumph in our emotion, only an overpowering wave of relief that, after eight years of manic derangement, America had at last come to its senses.

Inevitably, Wednesday’s headlines were all about Obama’s skin colour and the historic milestone of the first black presidency. For the United States and the rest of the world, that is a fact of huge symbolic importance, but it is the least of Obama’s true credentials. What America has succeeded in doing, against all the odds, and why we cried when it happened, is to elect the most intelligent, canny and imaginative candidate to the presidential office in modern times – someone who’ll bring to the White House an extraordinary clarity of thought and temperate judgment. [continued…]

Obama adviser: No commitment on defense shield

US President-elect Barack Obama has made “no commitment” to plans for a missile defense program in eastern Europe, despite a report on the Polish president’s Web site, an Obama adviser said Saturday.

Obama spoke to President Lech Kaczynski over the phone about continuing military and political cooperation between the two countries and possibly meeting in person soon, both sides said.

Obama “had a good conversation with the Polish president and the Polish prime minister about the important U.S.-Poland alliance,” said Denis McDonough, Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser.

However, Kaczynski’s office says on its Web site that during the same conversation, Obama told Kaczynski that he intends to continue plans for a missile shield in eastern Europe.

Obama’s adviser denied the report.

“President Kaczynski raised missile defense, but President-elect Obama made no commitment on it. His position is as it was throughout the campaign: that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable,” McDonough said. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — If Obama wants to really grasp what should be a budgetary imperative — scrapping a defense program that has amounted to one of the grossest waste of tax dollars in history — the first step is to underline what the Bush administration has always been eager to obscure: that missile defense technology has yet to convincingly demonstrate it can work.

Just suppose that three decades after Kennedy had announced his mission to land a man on the Moon, it hadn’t happened and NASA was saying, “we’re working on it and we’re making great strides — we just need a few billion more dollars.” The program would rightly be seen as a farce and be cut back or suspended.

Missile defense deserves no more credibility, but shifting the narrative from “indispensable” to “white elephant”, merely requires stating the obvious: it doesn’t work. But not only that, even if all the technical obstacles could be overcome, the risk of nuclear weapons being delivered by missiles should really be among the least of our fears.

Obama is not about to make a bold move but at least he seems to be inching in the right direction.

Obama positioned to quickly reverse Bush actions

Transition advisers to President-elect Barack Obama have compiled a list of about 200 Bush administration actions and executive orders that could be swiftly undone to reverse White House policies on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues, according to congressional Democrats, campaign aides and experts working with the transition team.

A team of four dozen advisers, working for months in virtual solitude, set out to identify regulatory and policy changes Obama could implement soon after his inauguration. The team is now consulting with liberal advocacy groups, Capitol Hill staffers and potential agency chiefs to prioritize those they regard as the most onerous or ideologically offensive, said a top transition official who was not permitted to speak on the record about the inner workings of the transition.

In some instances, Obama would be quickly delivering on promises he made during his two-year campaign, while in others he would be embracing Clinton-era policies upended by President Bush during his eight years in office. [continued…]

‘Do what you got elected to do’

Asked what Barack Obama was elected to do, and what legislation he’s likely to find on his Oval Office desk soonest, Mr. Emanuel didn’t hesitate. “Bucket one would have children’s health care, Schip,” he said. “It has bipartisan agreement in the House and Senate. It’s something President-elect Obama expects to see. Second would be [ending current restrictions on federally funded] stem-cell research. And third would be an economic recovery package focused on the two principles of job creation and tax relief for middle-class families.”

The last time a Democratic president’s party also ran Congress was 1992. Just two years later, however, voters changed their mind about that arrangement and gave the GOP control of the House and Senate. Mr. Emanuel said he’s not at all concerned that the party will overplay its hand this time. He insisted that his caucus is mindful of what happened to Democrats in 1994 and the Republican Congress in 2006.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Emanuel defended President Clinton’s decision to push through a tax increase in 1993 — “a tough call” — after having campaigned on a middle-class tax cut. He also denied that it had much impact in the midterm elections a year later. Instead, he cited issues like “gays in the military” as more damaging politically. “It’s not what we campaigned on,” said Mr. Emanuel. And as an example of Republicans losing their way, he cited the Terri Schiavo episode in 2005, where President Bush and the Republican-controlled congress intervened in a case involving a brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube.

In both instances, “the lesson is to do what you got elected to do,” said Mr. Emanuel. “Do what you talked about on the campaign. If you got elected, that’s what people expect. Don’t go off on tangents where part of your party is demanding an ideological litmus test. Neither of those things was part of the campaign.” [continued…]

CEO in chief

Americans like to put governors in the White House – Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush. Unlike U.S. Senators, governors have experience running large, complex organizations. The only major organization Obama has ever run is his own campaign.

By all accounts it was an impressive enterprise – consistent yet innovative, disciplined yet nimble, and strung together with one overriding rule: No jerks allowed. With egos expected to be checked at the door, there was little of the dissension and drama that typically dog presidential campaigns. Senior aides who helped the candidate craft all those policy proposals he campaigned on say he likes to hear from a range of experts before reaching a decision.

“He really questions his advisors aggressively,” says Harvard’s Liebman. “He wants to see disagreements aired in front of him. He likes to have the actual experts in the room.”

Obama told Fortune last June, “I don’t like ideology overriding fact. I like facts, then determining what we need to do. I believe in a strong feedback loop. Companies that are successful do that.” Obama has said the one book, besides the Bible, that would be a staple of his White House is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. The book chronicles President Lincoln’s decision to include political opponents on his White House team, the better to keep his enemies close and eavesdrop on the sound of dissenting voices. [continued…]

The U.S. has power. What it needs is authority.

Moral authority.

What is it? Do you have any? Would you like to lend some to the U.S. government?

Because that will be the holy grail for President Barack Obama: Finding moral authority — the quicker, the better.

The rap against the United States is well known by now: Over the past eight years, we have embraced a reckless unilateral posture of action over analysis, discarding the “good process” of prudent, evidence-based policy debate in favor of the Nike Doctrine — just do it, and clean up the mess later.

But seven years later, glorious victories, from Iraq to Afghanistan, have been slow in coming. Secret prisons, torture, putting U.S. citizens and foreigners under surveillance — or sending armies into civilian populations to tease out friend from foe at the muzzle of a gun — don’t work very well. That’s why, over the centuries, they’ve been discarded one by one.

But what happens next? If ever there were a president who could credibly claim to signify a clean break from his predecessor, that commander in chief is Obama. But the United States also needs a plan that shows that what’s coming won’t be business as usual.

The core conundrum: How does a nation with so much power, both military and economic, go about restoring moral energy, the source of true clout in the world? [continued…]

‘Muts like me’

It was surely meant as a wry aside when, speaking about his daughters’ search for a puppy, Barack Obama observed that most shelter dogs are “mutts like me.” My first thought, however, was: “Ain’t I a mutt, too?”

In fact, of course, we’re all mutts. As humans, we’re all descended from a common African ancestor, and have been mixing it up ever since. And as Americans, we’ve been mixing it up faster and more thoroughly than anyplace on earth. At the same time, we live in a state of tremendous denial about the rambunctiousness of our recent lineage. The language by which we assign racial category narrows or expands our perception of who is more like whom, tells us who can be considered marriageable or untouchable. [continued…]

U.S. acknowledges 37 Afghan civilians killed in fighting last week

The U.S. military acknowledged Saturday that 37 civilians were killed and 35 injured during fighting last week in Kandahar province between insurgents and coalition forces.

Although the American statement stopped short of taking direct blame for civilian casualties in a southern province that is one of the country’s most active battlefields, it demonstrated an unusually swift public response to claims of mass casualties made by Afghan officials.

The finding came just three days after provincial officials and the Afghan president’s office asserted that three dozen people had died in an errant U.S. airstrike on a wedding party in a village outside the city of Kandahar. [continued…]

Israeli spies linked to murder of Hezbollah chief

Two brothers held in Lebanon as Israeli spies are linked to a team responsible for the assassination of a notorious terrorist leader, Lebanese security sources have claimed.

Ali Jarrah, 50, a Lebanese citizen, and his brother Youssef, from Marj in the Bekaa valley, were arrested last week by the Lebanese army, which charged them with espionage. A third suspect has also been held, sources close to the investigation said. All three face the death penalty.

The spy ring has been linked to the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a leading figure in Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia, who was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus in February. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, blamed Israel for the attack and vowed to take revenge. [continued…]

Georgia claims on Russia war called into question

Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.

Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia’s insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion.

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia has characterized the attack as a precise and defensive act. But according to observations of the monitors, documented Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions, and within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area. The monitors have also said they were unable to verify that ethnic Georgian villages were under heavy bombardment that evening, calling to question one of Mr. Saakashvili’s main justifications for the attack. [continued…]

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