Note – This might be the last update until after Thanksgiving. We’ll see.

Tribal power-politics

The political spectacle that is unfolding in Washington right now is, from the perspective of many observers, all about the apportioning of power.

Are the Clintonites getting too much of it? Where are the progressives? Is an interest in some kind of illusory bipartisanship being used to obscure the fact that the Republicans lost and the Democrats won?

In that context, here’s an incendiary idea that would drive many Obama supporters hopping mad: the possibility that the neoconservative co-founder of the Project for the New American Century could get a job in the new administration.

It isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. And if it happens, it might not — dare I say it — be a bad idea. But the reason it might be good has absolutely nothing to do with some notion that adding a bit of neocon spice to the Democratic sauce will improve its flavor.

The point is that these labels — neoconservative, liberal, progressive, realist, ideologue — serve primarily as substitutes for sharp observation and clear reflection.

Label someone a neocon and most of us instantly turn deaf. Our own thought processes become turgid.

For that reason, it would always serve us better to pay as close attention to what‘s being said as to who‘s saying it.

A case in point is the following conversation between Robert Wright and Robert Kagan. Although I’m definitely much more inclined towards Wright’s view of the world than Kagan’s, there’s no question that in this discussion (which runs for an hour instead of being one of those frustratingly short snippets) it is Kagan — not Wright — who demonstrates much more clarity in his thinking.

At the beginning, surprisingly, Kagan makes it clear that he sincerely entertains the hope that he’s going to get an appointment in the Obama administration. Has Hillary quietly suggested she might have a place for him at State? Could he conceivably have a role like Philip Zelikow had with Condoleeza Rice?

Whatever position he might get, here’s how it strikes me he could be useful: by sharpening the debate on the contesting relationship between national and international interests.

* * *

America’s hidden war in Somalia

To glimpse America’s secret war in Africa, you must bang with a rock on the iron gate of the prison in this remote port in northern Somalia. A sleepy guard will yank open a rusty deadbolt. Then, you ask to speak to an inmate named Mohamed Ali Isse.

Isse, 36, is a convicted murderer and jihadist. He is known among his fellow prisoners, with grudging awe, as “The Man with the American Thing in His Leg.”

That “thing” is a stainless steel surgical pin screwed into his bullet-shattered femur, courtesy, he says, of the U.S. Navy. How it got there — or more to the point, how Isse ended up in this crumbling, stone-walled hellhole at the uttermost end of the Earth—is a story that the U.S. government probably would prefer to remain untold.

That’s because Isse and his fancy surgery scars offer what little tangible evidence exists of a bare-knuckled war that has been waged silently, over the past five years, with the sole aim of preventing anarchic Somalia from becoming the world’s next Afghanistan. [continued…]

Battling the Somali pirates: the return of the Islamists

T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) famously compared counterinsurgency warfare to “eating soup with a knife”. The same might apply to the efforts of Western navies to protect commercial shipping from the marauding pirates of Somalia, except for the fact that soup is typically contained within a bowl — and the pirates have the freedom of a vast ocean in which to move. They recently captured a Saudi supertanker carrying $100 million in crude oil, by striking hundreds of miles away from the shipping lanes being patrolled by some of the world’s most powerful navies. But if the pirates have the wind at their backs out at sea, they got some bad news back on shore last weekend, when five armored vehicles loaded with fighters of the Islamist Shabab militia arrived in the port town of Harardhere, where the pirates who seized the Sirius Star are based. [continued…]

Saving Citi may create more fear

One bailout was not enough for Citigroup. And it may not be enough for other big banks.

While Citigroup’s second multibillion-dollar rescue from Washington hit Wall Street like a shot of adrenaline on Monday, many analysts worried that the jolt would soon wear off. Citigroup has been stabilized, but the outlook for the financial industry as a whole is bleak.

With the red ink deepening, other banks may eventually turn to the government to soak up some of their losses. Taxpayers could end up guaranteeing hundreds of billions of dollars of banks’ toxic assets. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is expected to announce a new plan on Tuesday to bolster the consumer-finance market.

“When all else fails, government does come in,” said David A. Moss, a public policy professor at Harvard Business School.

On Monday, Wall Street put aside its worries, at least for a day. Citigroup’s share price, which had plunged to a mere $3.77 on Friday, shot up to $5.95. Shares of its biggest rivals — banks which, with the government’s help, are emerging to dominate the industry — also soared. Bank of America jumped 27 percent, JPMorgan Chase leapt 21 percent and Wells Fargo gained nearly 20 percent.

In the short term, the latest effort to steady Citigroup has removed the risk that a sudden failure of the giant bank would send losses cascading through the financial industry.

But longer term, the new bailout could haunt regulators and taxpayers. The move ultimately may encourage banks to take more risks in the belief that the government will step in if they run into trouble. [continued…]

Recession could cause large increases in poverty and push millions into deep poverty

Like previous recessions, the current downturn is likely to cause significant increases both in the number of Americans who are poor and the number living in “deep poverty,” with incomes below half of the poverty line. Because this recession is likely to be deep and the government safety net for very poor families who lack jobs has weakened significantly in recent years, increases in deep poverty in this recession are likely to be severe. There are a series of steps that federal and state policymakers could take to soften the recession’s harshest impacts and limit the extent of the increases in deep poverty, destitution, and homelessness.

Goldman Sachs projects that the unemployment rate will rise to 9 percent by the fourth quarter of 2009 (the firm has increased its forecast for the unemployment rate a couple of times in the last month). If this holds true and the increase in poverty relative to the increase in unemployment is within the range of the last three recessions, the number of poor Americans will rise by 7.5-10.3 million, the number of poor children will rise by 2.6-3.3 million, and the number of children in deep poverty will climb by 1.5-2.0 million. [continued…]

US military ripe for a fight with Obama

The most intense debate in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the Untied States has been over whether Robert Gates will agree to stay on as defense secretary. Speculation on Gates’ status seems to change by the hour. “Bob wants to come back to Texas to finish his work as a university president,” a Gates friend said in the aftermath of Obama’s sweeping victory over Republican Senator John McCain. Another colleague proffers a different story: “Bob and his wife are intent to enjoy their retirement,” he says. “They have a home in the northwest, and they would like to spend some time there. He wants out of Washington.”

The speculation over Gates’ tenure has been most intense inside the Obama transition team. The team received a request from Gates that, were he to stay, he would want to retain some of his top civilian assistants. The request led to concerns among the Obama transition staff: “Gates is not a neo-con or even a hardcore Republican,” a person close to the process noted, “but the people around him sure as hell are.” A former Bill Clinton administration official who has been deployed by Obama to conduct a series of “meet and greets” with top officials at the Pentagon scoffed at the notion of a continuation of Gates’ tenure: “The [presidential] election was a clean sweep,” he says, “and that includes Bob Gates. It’s called a change in government.” [continued…]

Is America’s new declinism for real?

Texas A&M is not the obvious place to pick if you want to discuss American decline. The university sends more of its graduates straight into the military than any other civilian college in the US. Its officer training corps prowl the campus in crisply pressed uniforms and knee-high leather boots, greeting each other with brisk “howdys”. Agonised introspection and crises of confidence are not Texan traits.

But last week the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M hosted a conference designed to discuss the latest, markedly gloomy world view issued by America’s intelligence establishment. Every four years the National Intelligence Council – which oversees America’s baroque collection of intelligence agencies – releases a global trends report, which is given to the new president.

The latest report, published on November 20, has made headlines around the world. The front page of Britain’s Guardian newspaper shouted “2025: the end of US dominance”. For once, the headline is broadly accurate. As the NIC frankly notes, “the most dramatic difference” between the new report and the one issued four years ago is that it now foresees “a world in which the US plays a prominent role in global events, but the US is seen as one among many global actors”. The report issued four years ago had projected “continuing US dominance”. [continued…]

Europe is waiting to see how Obama plays Iran

Iran could now credibly claim to have produced the nuclear elements necessary to make a single atom bomb. It’s a new and accelerating situation that’s giving life to apprehension in Europe about how Barack Obama will handle trying to stop the Iranian drive.

The fact: several nuclear experts in the United States reported last week, based on information from the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make a weapon.

The reservations: doing so would require additional purification and a warhead design. Iran would also have to behave aggressively, expelling the agency’s in-country inspectors who could track the existence of a weapons application. At the same time, the experts have differing notions on the point in time when military implications would kick in. [continued…]

US puts pressure on Israel to refrain from attacks

U.S. officials have asked Israel to refrain from launching any major military action in the region during the waning days of the Bush presidency, Israeli sources have told TIME. Previously, some Israeli military officials had hinted to the media that if Israel were to carry out its threats to strike at Iranian nuclear installations, it might do so before Barack Obama enters the White House in January. But now a Defense Ministry official says, “We have been warned off.” [continued…]

Hamdan to be sent to Yemen

The U.S. military has decided to transfer Osama bin Laden’s former driver from custody at Guantanamo Bay to his home in Yemen, ending the seven-year saga of a man the Bush administration considered a dangerous terrorist but whom a military jury found to be a low-level aide.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan is expected to arrive within 48 hours in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, where he will serve out the rest of his military commission sentence, which is set to expire Dec. 27, two government officials said. The Pentagon’s decision to send Hamdan home narrowly avoids what could have been a sticky diplomatic situation, as Bush administration officials had long contended they could hold Hamdan indefinitely.

It also prevents President-elect Barack Obama from having to decide Hamdan’s fate early in his term. Obama has said he wants to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba. [continued…]

Hamas leaders abroad question group’s iron grip on Gaza

Internal Hamas correspondence intercepted by the Palestinian Authority and obtained by Haaretz reveals a deep divide between the organization’s leadership abroad and its West Bank leadership, on the one hand, and the Gaza leadership on the other. In the documents, the leadership abroad says it does not want “to control Gaza completely while losing the West Bank.”

These leaders claim that Hamas in Gaza caused the reconciliation talks with Fatah that had been slated for Cairo to fail. The leaders abroad say their Gaza counterparts thwarted the chances for a Palestinian national unity government by their unwillingness to consider giving up control of the Strip and setting “impossible” conditions. [continued…]

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