Sunday, September 28, 2008

Don't look now, but Iraq still simmers

As Senator McCain continued his chest-thumping about the "success" of the Surge, and how we're on the road to victory in Iraq, during Thursday's debate, the bombings continue, millions of Iraqis remain either in foreign exile or as refugees within their own country, and, as the story appended here relates, tensions between Arabs and Kurds are high, especially over the still unsettled issue of Kirkuk. Republican commentators seem convinced that the US has rounded the far turn and is at the top of the stretch on the road to Iraq's freedom, and the more often they hammer that point, the more likely that Mr. and Mrs. American Citizen are going to buy into it. Yes, US combat fatalities are down, but Iraqi military and police are being killed every day, at an alarming rate. And today, Marc Lynch posted at his Abu Aardvark site (which I highly recommend) a link to a report from the Iraqi Arabic press that al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to reach out to the members of the Sunni Awakening, whom the Maliki government has begun to target are who are slowly being hung out to dry by the US (despite US military commanders' protests to the contrary). Remember, the Sunni Awakening began as rejection of al-Qaeda's heavy-handedness, but the local militias that comprised it (1) accepted US help only as an alliance of convenience, and (2) harbored a deep distrust of the Shiite-dominated Maliki government, which they saw as too much a tool of the Iranian regime.

It's not at all clear that those who fought al-Qaeda as part of the Sunni Awakening are going to remain onside. They hope to be able to gain some measure of political voice when (or if) the provincial elections take place, but a lot could happen before then - and if the elections do come off (the hope seems to be for January 2009), there's no assurance that they will come off without major hitches and resulting complaints about unfairness . . . which could be more than enough to set off a new round of violence.

Sorry to be such a pessimist, but I see too many signs of what I might very inelegantly term "re-destabilization" to start breathing easy about Iraq's future. ((And now see the new essay by Peter Galbraith in the 23 Oct. 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books.)

Iraq: Kurdish politician killed in disputed region

By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press WriterSat Sep 27, 2:04 PM ET

Iraqi police fatally shot a Kurdish politician in one of Iraq's most volatile provinces Saturday, a killing that underlines the growing tensions between Kurds and Arabs in parts of the north.

Even as Iraq has seen a sharp decline in Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence, hostility is deepening between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq's north as Kurdish authorities begin to exert more authority beyond the boundaries of their autonomous region.

Riya Qahtan, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was killed Saturday morning in Jalula, a small town 80 miles (125 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad in the ethnically mixed province of Diyala, said Jabar Yawer, a spokesman for the Kurdish military, or peshmerga. Jalula has a mostly Sunni Arab population with a substantial Kurdish minority.

The incident occurred after two Sunni Arab policemen stopped three members of the Kurdish secret service at a market and demanded they show identification. They refused, and within minutes police reinforcements arrived at the scene, arrested them and took them to police headquarters, Yawer said.

Qahtan then went to the police station and persuaded officers to release the detainees, who had been working as guards for his party. But as the group was leaving, two policemen opened fire and shot Qahtan, Yawer added.

The two policemen were being investigated as suspects in the shooting, a police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Also Saturday, the U.S. military arrested five suspected Iranian-backed Shiite extremists accused in recent rocket attacks on Iraqi and American forces.

The military said it captured the five suspects in three separate locations in a largely Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, acting on intelligence information.

The extremists are suspected of links to the Hezbollah Brigades, a Shiite extremist group that the U.S. believes is backed by Iran. Tehran denies U.S. allegations that it is supporting violence in Iraq.


Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is the two-state solution in Palestine dead?

In a word . . . yes. And anyone who's been following the growth of the settler movement in the West Bank knows that this is hardly "news."

The New York Times runs a story today that spotlights first the apparent assassination attempt against Prof. Zeev Sternhell (a prominent Israeli academic and critic of the settlement movement), but then takes a more in-depth look at the messianic, violent, settler movement in the West Bank. (I've pasted the story below.) Although the Times as well as the Washington Post have published some informative (and occasionally incisive) pieces on this subject in recent years, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan have pushed stories about the situation in the Palestinian territories under the radar for most Americans. And that's a shame, because across the Middle East (and the larger Islamic world)), people have pointed to the US's acceptance of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank (which is now more than 40 years old) as one of the most blatant examples of how the US stands for prejudice and hypocrisy rather than for justice and fairness.

But, at this point, to expect Israel to dismantle its huge settlements in the West Bank is supremely unrealistic. And to expect any Israeli government to truly go after the settler movement in the West Bank - to dismantle the illegal settlements and "outposts" - is just as unrealistic.

Why? Remember that Kadima, the party that heads up the current governing coalition in Israel, cannot maintain its hold without the support (and Knesset votes) of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party whose leader, the rabbi Ovadia Yosef, stands squarely behind the settlers. If she is to succeed to the prime ministership (now that the disgraced Ehud Olmert has resigned), new Kadima leader Tzipi Livni cannot risk alienating Shas.

Furthermore, any dismantling of the outposts will require the Israeli army's active participation. Once a bastion of the secularism that Israel's socialist-inclined founding fathers avowed, the IDF now includes a substantial cadre of religious officers and soldiers, many of whom would resist orders to tear down outposts and confront (perhaps violently) their occupants. (In fact, when they were required to do so at the West Bank outpost of Amona in 2005, many soldiers found themselves very "conflicted." That would only be worse by now.)

The religious settlers are both dug in and moving on to new "frontiers" in what they see as their "Promised Land." (And tens of thousands of American Christian fundamentalist evangelicals are cheering them on.) Put simply, any sustained move by the government against the religious settlers would threaten the unity and integrity of the Israeli army, and would quite possibly plunge Israel into a civil war.

A growing number of Palestinians recognize that the two-state solution is no longer workable. That leaves, of course, only a few alternatives:
1. A truly binational state, in which all citizens (Arabs and Jews) have equal political and social rights and standing. That, of course, is the most just and fair solution. It would also mark, for too many, the end of the Zionist "dream."
2. An even more apartheid state, with a fast-growing Palestinian population subsumed as an underclass under the domination of a Jewish minority.
3. The forced transfer of Palestinians out of the West Bank (and Gaza?). A significant number of Israelis (and, for that matter, American Christian evangelicals) have been calling for this for years.

How this situation resolves itself - and how that resolution spills over into Middle Eastern and global geopolitics - are going to have huge impact for decades to come.
September 26, 2008

Radical Settlers Take On Israel

YITZHAR, West Bank — A pipe bomb that exploded late on Wednesday night outside the Jerusalem home of Zeev Sternhell, a Hebrew University professor, left him lightly wounded and created only a minor stir in a nation that routinely experiences violence on a much larger scale.

But Mr. Sternhell was noted for his impassioned critiques of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, once suggesting that Palestinians “would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements.” And the authorities found fliers near his home offering nearly $300,000 to anyone who kills a member of Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli advocacy group, leading them to suspect that militant Israeli settlers or their supporters were behind the attack.

If so, the bombing may be the latest sign that elements of Israel’s settler movement are resorting to extremist tactics to protect their homes in the occupied West Bank against not only Palestinians, but also Jews who some settlers argue are betraying them. Radical settlers say they are determined to show that their settlements and outposts cannot be dismantled, either by law or by force.

There have been bouts of settler violence for years, notably during the transfer of Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005. Now, though, the militants seem to have spawned a broader, more defined strategy of resistance designed to intimidate the state.

This aggressive doctrine, according to Akiva HaCohen, 24, who is considered to be one of its architects, calls on settlers and their supporters to respond “whenever, wherever and however” they wish to any attempt by the Israeli Army or the police to lay a finger on property in illegally built outposts scheduled by the government for removal. In settler circles the policy is called “price tag” or “mutual concern.”

Besides exacting a price for army and police actions, the policy also encourages settlers to avenge Palestinian acts of violence by taking the law into their own hands — an approach that has the potential to set the tinderbox of the West Bank ablaze.

Hard-core right-wing settlers have responded to limited army operations in recent weeks by blocking roads, rioting spontaneously, throwing stones at Palestinian vehicles and burning Palestinian orchards and fields all over the West Bank, a territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. They have also vandalized Israeli Army positions, equipment and cars.

In Jewish settlements like Yitzhar, an extremist bastion on the hilltops commanding the Palestinian city of Nablus in the northern West Bank, a local war is already being waged. One Saturday in mid-September a Palestinian from the neighboring village of Asira al Qibliya climbed the hill to Shalhevet, a neighborhood of Yitzhar, set fire to a house whose occupants were away for the weekend and stabbed a 9-year-old settler boy, the Israeli Army said.

Hours later, scores of men from Yitzhar rampaged through the Palestinian village, hurling rocks and firing guns, in what the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, described as a “pogrom.” Several Palestinians were hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

“The army was complaining that we were bothering them in their efforts to catch the terrorist,” said Ephraim Ben Shochat, 21, a resident of Shalhevet Ya, an illegal outpost consisting of three permanent houses and a trailer halfway down the slope between Yitzhar and Asira al Qibliya.

“To us, deterrence is more important than catching the specific terrorist. We’re fighting against a nation,” Mr. Ben Shochat said.

As he spoke, soldiers were in the process of reinforcing a small army post at the end of the path with concrete slabs. “We would rather fight and kill the enemy,” Mr. Ben Shochat said, adding scornfully that the army, which guards Yitzhar and its satellites from the lookout post, “would rather hide.”

Ten months ago in Annapolis, Md., Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged to make every effort to reach a historic agreement for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by the end of this year. The Palestinians further promised to dismantle all terrorist networks, and the Israelis agreed to freeze all settlement activity and immediately remove settlement outposts erected since March 2001.

In practice, only a handful of the 100 or so outposts, at least half of which were erected since 2001, have been removed, and construction in the official West Bank settlements goes on.

At the same time, the religious, ideological wing of the settlement movement has grown more radical. Those on the extremist fringe — like Mr. Ben Shochat, who belong to the so-called hilltop youth — are increasingly rejecting any allegiance to the state, backed up by an older generation of rabbis and early settler pioneers.

In Samaria, the biblical name for the northern West Bank, and in Binyamin, the central district around the Palestinian city of Ramallah, settlers recently ousted their more mainstream representatives in local council elections, voting in what they called “activist” mayors instead.

These new mayors, like the Samaria council’s Gershon Mesika, reject what they see as the more compromising policies of the Yesha council, the settler movement’s longstanding umbrella group. They are particularly incensed by the Yesha council’s willingness to negotiate with the government over the removal or relocation of some West Bank outposts in exchange for official authorization of others.

“We are taking our fate into our own hands,” Mr. Mesika said of the price tag doctrine. “We won’t go like sheep to the slaughter.” He added that the recent settler violence was something he understood, though did not support.

For many in the religious, ideological settler camp the rude awakening came with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005. Then, under the premiership of Ariel Sharon, a driving force of the settlement-building enterprise who turned more pragmatic, Israel evacuated all 21 Jewish settlements there, and razed four official settlements in the northern West Bank. Another watershed came in early 2006 when thousands of settlers clashed with Israeli police officers who had come to destroy nine houses built without government permission in Amona. Traumatized by the resistance, the government put plans for further evacuations on hold.

“Amona pretty much divided this public into two parts, the more militant activist part and the more passive part,” said Mr. HaCohen, an Orthodox hilltop youth pioneer and a founder of Shalhevet Ya. The people, he said, “have to decide whether they are on the side of the Torah or the state.”

Mr. HaCohen was speaking from a cousin’s house in Jerusalem. Identified by the Israeli security services as one of the authors of the price-tag doctrine, he has been banned by the army from entering the West Bank for four months.

Born in Monsey, N.Y., Mr. HaCohen came to Israel with his parents as a child. He dropped out of yeshiva, or religious seminary, at 16 and went to settle the hilltops, he said. He got married at 18 and has since been living in and around Yitzhar.

Representing the messianic, almost apocalyptic wing of the settler movement, Mr. HaCohen peppers his speech with talk of redemption and makes it clear that in his land of Israel, there is no place for Arabs.

Like Mr. Ben Shochat, Mr. HaCohen, who is disarmingly soft-spoken, said he was not drafted into the army because of his religious beliefs. As a member of Yitzhar’s first response security team, though, he receives regular combat training and has a personal weapon.

More than 250,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank among roughly 2.4 million Palestinians, not including East Jerusalem. The Samaria council represents 30 official settlements and 12 unauthorized outposts that it says were all founded before 2001; others, like Shalhevet Ya, have sprung up since then, at least partially on private Palestinian lands.

Local settler leaders argue that the only difference between an authorized settlement and an illegal outpost is the lack of the defense minister’s final signature on the planning papers, and that in any case, full authorization did not help the settlements razed in 2005.

They complain of government hypocrisy. Rahelim, a Samarian community of 45 families founded in 1991, has been labeled an illegal outpost even though the state Housing Ministry built 14 permanent homes here in 1998.

Avri Ran, a charismatic guru of the hilltop youth, formulated the concept of the outposts around the time that Israel started negotiating with the Palestinian leadership in the early 1990s. The idea was to populate empty spaces of the West Bank with Jews to preclude their being handed over to the Palestinians.

Mr. Ran and his wife, Sharona, started out in Itamar, a settlement just south of Nablus, and moved from hilltop to hilltop, finally establishing a private ranch more than a mile east of the mother settlement majestically named Givaot Olam, or hills of the universe.

Like many of the settlers in this area who see themselves as guardians of Joseph’s Tomb, a site sacred to Jews that lies in the heart of Nablus, the Ran family exudes a deeply religious, almost mystical attachment to the land.

The farm is said to be the largest Israeli producer of organic eggs. Mr. Ran’s son-in-law, Assaf Kidron, an artist who works in stone, says the inclement winds that used to whip around the mountain have dropped significantly since Jews came to live here, proof of a divine hand.

Outside the settlement of Har Bracha on Mount Grizim, settlers have taken over a former army lookout post on the ridge overlooking Nablus and Joseph’s Tomb, and just started operating a yeshiva to ensure a permanent presence there. Nobody has tried to remove the settlers, although there is an army position a short distance along the ridge.

In general, the relationship between the religious settlers of the area and the army is an ambiguous, if symbiotic one. Most young ideological settlers serve in the army and now make up an increasing portion of the elite combat units and the officers corps.

At the same time, two soldiers have been lightly wounded in recent settler riots.

“To go out and assault soldiers is wrong,” said David Ha’ivri, who handles foreign relations for the Samaria council. But, he said, “It is to be expected that when force is used, there will be counterforce.”

The army is appreciated when it sticks to providing security, Mr. Ha’ivri added, but, “We don’t respect them in the role of enforcing building codes.”

The army refused to comment on the effects of the price-tag doctrine, saying it was too sensitive.

A spokesman for the Israeli police, the party responsible for law enforcement among the settlers, said that in the last two months, at least half a dozen arrests had been made.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is McCain actually canceling the debate?

It's not my understanding that Obama is on board with canceling the debate - but I suppose that McCain has the option to do so unilaterally. I bet that if McCain ditches (to use fighter-pilot lingo), he may lose a few votes - especially in Oxford, Mississippi, where's put out quite a few people, especially at the university.

More importantly, I feel that McCain's decision here can be seen, not only as politically motivated and inspired, but as a seat-of-the-pants overreaction -the kind of impulsive act that McCain likes to think inspires people to admire him as a maverick, but that more realistically causes us to wonder about his judgment in a crisis. It communicates a sense of panic at a difficult time - and it contrasts markedly with the words of a great American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, when the US faced an even more daunting crisis as the Great Depression was under way, spoke of how "the only thing we have to fear is, fear itself."

In risky move, McCain cancels debate appearance

The GOP candidate wants to concentrate on getting a financial bailout through Congress, but the economy's woes have so far favored Democrats.

By Peter Grier | Staff writer / September 24, 2008 edition

Reporter Alexandra Marks talks with's Pat Murphy about reaction to Senator McCain's canceling his debate appearance in Oxford, Miss.


John McCain may be the first presidential candidate in US history to become as notable for canceling events as for holding them.

Senator McCain postponed the beginning of the Republican National Convention when hurricane Gustav threatened the Gulf Coast. Now he wants to call off the presidential debate scheduled for Friday, so that he (and rival Barack Obama) can return to Washington to focus on the nation’s financial problems.

“It has become clear that no consensus has developed to support the administration’s [bailout] proposal,” said McCain in a statement. “I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time.”

In political terms, this move could be a huge risk for the GOP nominee. He is thrusting himself into the center of an issue on which he has struggled to explain himself to voters. It only emphasizes that the economy is far and away the No. 1 issue in the election – and voters generally say that they trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle the economy well.

In addition, it’s not clear that the bailout proposal is in fact sinking with all hands on board.

It is true that lawmakers have been peppering Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke with complaints that the plan helps Wall Street, not Main Street. And the administration has already signaled that it will retreat on some issues, notably agreeing with the Democrats’ insistence that any financial bailout contain some curbs on excessive executive pay.

But congressional leaders generally have indicated that they foresee passage of some kind of plan in the reasonably near future.

“We’re moving in a productive direction,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Wednesday.

It’s also possible, though, that McCain’s move will be seen by voters as an action undertaken by a forceful leader in a crisis. A Pew Research Center poll shows that Americans back the administration’s $700 billion bailout plan by a 2-to-1 margin (although a Rasmussen Reports telephone survey showed a more even split).

It was not immediately clear whether Senator Obama had agreed to the debate’s cancellation. Obama spokesman Bill Burton said that McCain had made a unilateral statement of his intentions moments after agreeing to joint action in support of the Treasury plan.

In Oxford, Miss. where Friday’s debate was to be held, officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates were stunned.

“The university has gone all out for this and the town has gone all out,” said one debate official, who was not authorized to speak to the press . “It will be an absolute tragedy if they call it off now.”

In Washington, Senate majority leader Harry Reid also criticized the idea of candidates trying to move the process forward. “It would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “We need leadership; not a campaign photo op.”

President Bush is set to address the nation on Wednesday evening on the bailout’s importance.

If McCain, Obama, and Mr. Bush agree to some sort of joint front or conference pushing aid for the financial system, it could mark a crucial push for the plan. At the least, the move on the debates marks another twist in a campaign that has been the most unpredictable in a generation.

Make that two generations.

– Staff writer Alexandra Marks contributed to this report from Oxford, Miss.

McCain to suspend campaign; wants to postpone debate

Does this strike anyone else as a very cynical and self-serving move on McCain's part? The momentum has shifted away from him in the polls. Obama likely has a much better case to argue in the upcoming debate, especially in terms of labeling McCain as one of the worn-out "old-boys" crowd in Congress that helped put the country into this mess.

If Obama refuses or complains, McCain will try to remind us all of his self-serving war-hero oh-so-experienced country-first senator-self and accuse Obama of putting politics ahead of country.

I hope the American people will see through this garbage.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Afghan Taliban have evolved. Can the US "win"?

I link to an excellent - and very sobering - report from a top journalist who notes how the Taliban have both expanded and evolved as a political organization. She also makes the very telling point that many young men are joining the Taliban, not so much for Islamist reasons, but rather as freedom fighters who want to drive the US and NATO troops from their homeland. And the Taliban seem to have enough money and organization to give them hope that they can perhaps achieve that.

Meanwhile, Afghan president Karzai's popularity has plummeted (and his now planned meeting with Sarah Palin is not going to help him with that at all). His days are likely very numbered, and whatever days he has left, he basically has become not much more than the mayor of Kabul, who gets trotted out of his compound for the occasional command performance.

All of this, of course, begs the question: How can the US succeed in Afghanistan (or for that matter, Pakistan)? There really are very few troops available to be sent there, without a major drawdown in Iraq, the re-instituting of the draft here in the US, or other countries stepping up with more troops - none of which is going to happen. An Iraq-type "surge" is not going to work in Afghanistan (not to say that's it's really working in Iraq, in terms of achieving the ultimate goal of political reconciliation); indeed, in reading Bob Woodward's latest book, I came across a new term (one that the military brass use themselves) to describe what sending more US troops to Afghanistan would effectively be: a "troop sump." There really is no realistic path to "victory" in Afghanistan, as far as the US is concerned. Nor, for that matter, is there a simple straightforward way to define what "victory" would even be.

Catastrophe in Islamabad

Appended below is the NYT's breaking story on today's massive bombing in Islamabad. There seem to be many more dead still inside the hotel - which, by the way, is a luxury hotel, the Marriott. You know how so many Americans tend to prefer "Western"-style hotels - so I expect that a number of Americans (and Europeans) were staying there.

You also know how so many of us, when such bombings have happened, have simply shrugged our shoulders and moved on when the victims have been Arabs, Iranians, not us . . . but if Americans are killed, there are paroxysms of outrage, newspapers publish long, heart-wrenching stories about the lives of those killed, etc. And don't think for one minute that people around the world don't notice the disparity.

You can also bet that the target was chosen because it is indeed a symbol of "Western" presence and influence; and perhaps - at least to some extent - as vengeance for the many innocent people that the US has killed since 2001 via bombs and Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan. Some Western diplomats and commentators will likely jump onto this as Pakistan's 9-11, as well as demand that the Pakistani military now fully get on board in the "war on terror" - and they may insist that if they don't, then the US will have every right to arrogate to itself the prerogative of bombing and ground incursions into Pakistan as it sees fit.

But the vast majority of Pakistanis won't be buying it.

September 20, 2008

At Least 40 Killed in Huge Explosion at Pakistan Hotel

Filed at 11:29 a.m. ET

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- Police say at least 40 people have died in a massive explosion that destroyed the luxury Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital.

Senior police official Asghar Raza Gardaizi said he fears there are dozens more dead inside.

He said that the Saturday blast, which reverberated throughout Islamabad, was caused by more than a ton of explosives.

The blast left a crater some 30 feet deep in front of the main building.

Flames poured from the windows of the hotel and rescuers ferried a stream of bloodied bodies from the gutted building.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- A massive truck bomb ripped through part of the heavily guarded Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital Saturday, killing at least 11 people and wounding 25 -- a toll expected to rise significantly.

Ahmad Latif, a senior police official, said it was one of the biggest terrorist strikes in Pakistan history.

The Marriott is a favorite place for foreigners to stay and socialize in Islamabad, despite repeated militant attacks. A security guard at the scene, Mohammad Nasir, and several witnesses said a large truck had driven toward the gate before exploding.

The blast left a vast crater, some 30 feet deep in front of the main building, where flames poured from the windows and rescuers ferried a stream of bloodied bodies from the gutted building.

Mohammad Sultan, a hotel employee, said he was in the lobby when something exploded, he fell down and everything temporarily went dark.

''I don't understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished,'' he said.

An Associated Press reporter counted at least nine bodies scattered at the scene. Scores of people, including foreigners, were running out -- some of them stained with blood. At a hospital where many of the casualties were taken, official Raja Ejaz said at least two people had died and 25 were wounded.

Ambulances rushed to the area, where a fire burned, smoke hovered and the carcasses of vehicles were thrown about. Windows in buildings hundreds of yards away were shattered.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast.

But Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the war on terror, has faced a wave of militant violence in recent weeks following army-led offensives against insurgents in its border regions, though the capital has avoided most of the bloodshed.

In January 2007, a security guard blocked a suicide bomber who triggered a blast just outside the Marriott, killing the guard and wounding seven other people.


Associated Press Writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Brave Conservatives defending the national interest

The essay below from George Will is a couple of weeks old, but he sagely questions the wisdom of John McCain's having anointed Sarah Palin as his V-P candidate. Yesterday, another of the more thoughtful conservative columnists, David Brooks of the NYT, came forward with a similarly brave and honest assessment. McCain's people can assail them only at their own peril; their reputations and Republican bona fides are secure.

On the other hand, Carly Fiorina - the Hewlett Packard CEO who once was touted as a possible running mate for McCain - has for all intents and purposes been thrown under the bus for being forthright enough to say out loud that neither Sarah Palin nor John McCain (nor, for that matter, Barack Obama or Joe Biden) was qualified to run a major corporation. Seems a reasonable assertion, but McCain's people have already cast her, if not into the outer darkness, then into a limbo of temporary excommunication; certainly, no more surrogate duty for awhile.

We can expect more pressure from the McCain campaign to keep loyal Republicans on-message. On the other hand, I would hope that other, older, wiser, less-impulse-driven Republican stalwarts (Chuck Hagel? Richard Lugar? Colin Powell?) would be willing to step up and take one for the country (if, for no other reason, the interest of - dare I say it? - Homeland Security, which would be under dire threat if Ms. Palin ever acceded to the presidency) by speaking out about the governor's eminently poor qualifications to navigate the shoals of global affairs.
Impulse, Meet Experience

By George F. Will
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; A15

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The word "experience" appears 91 times in the Federalist Papers, those distillations of conservative sense and sensibility. Madison, Hamilton and Jay said that truths are "taught" and "corroborated" by experience. These writers were eager to "consult" and be "led" by experience. They spoke of "indubitable" and "unequivocal" lessons from experience, the "testimony" of experience and "the accumulated experience of ages." "Accumulating" experience is "the parent of wisdom" and a "guide" that "justifies," "confirms" and can "admonish." America's Founders were empiricists and students of history who trusted "that best oracle of wisdom, experience," which is humanity's "least fallible guide."

A telling touch, that "least fallible." The Founders represented the sober side of the Enlightenment. They knew, as conservatives do, that all guides are fallible. Hence conservatism's inclination to discern prescriptions in traditions, which are mankind's slow adjustments to the accretion of experiences.

So, Sarah Palin. The man who would be the oldest to embark on a first presidential term has chosen as his possible successor a person of negligible experience.

Any cook can run the state, said Lenin, who was wrong about that, too. America's gentle populists and other sentimental egalitarians postulate that wisdom is easily acquired and hence broadly diffused; therefore anyone with a good heart can deliver good government, which is whatever the public desires. "The people of Nebraska," said the archetypal populist William Jennings Bryan, "are for free silver, and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later."

John McCain's opponent is by far the least experienced person to receive a presidential nomination in the 75 years since the federal government became a comprehensively intrusive regulatory state and modern weaponry annihilated the protection the nation derived from time and distance. Which is why McCain's case for his candidacy could, until last Friday, be distilled into two words: Experience matters.

McCain, who at 72 is 22 years older than Alaskan statehood, is 27 years and six months older than his running mate, who was 8 when Joe Biden was elected to the Senate. But in 1856, James Buchanan, 65, was 29 years and eight months older than his running mate, John Breckinridge, who was 35. Buchanan could run with that stripling because Buchanan was the most qualified person to run for president, before or since.

At least he was if varied experience in high offices fully defines who is "qualified." But it does not.

Buchanan had been a five-term congressman, then ambassador to Russia, then a two-term senator, then secretary of state, then ambassador to Britain. Buchanan then became perhaps the worst president.

Clearly, experience is not sufficient to prove a person "qualified" for the presidency. But it is a necessary component of qualification.

So are two other attributes. One is character. Richard Nixon was qualified by his experience as congressman, senator and vice president, but disqualified by character. The second is a braided mental rope of constitutional sense and political common sense.

In his Denver speech, Barack Obama derided the "discredited Republican philosophy" that he caricatured in four words -- "you're on your own." Then he promised to "keep . . . our toys safe." Among the four candidates for national office, perhaps only Palin might give a Madisonian answer -- one cognizant of the idea that the federal government's powers are limited because they are enumerated -- if asked to identify any provision of the Constitution, other than the First Amendment, that imposes meaningful limits on congressional or executive authority to act.

If so, she would be a good influence on Washington, including McCain. But is there any evidence that she has thought about such matters? McCain's selection of her is applied McCainism -- a visceral judgment by one who is confidently righteous. But the viscera are not the seat of wisdom.

In 1912, McCain's Arizona became the 48th state. In 1959, Palin's Alaska became the 49th. Western conservatism has the libertarian cast of a region still steeped in an individualism natural to frontier spaciousness. But American conservatism depends on what it calls "fusion," the collaboration of libertarians and social conservatives concerned that liberty unleavened by restraints creates a licentious culture. Palin supposedly is fusion in one person.

Many cultural conservatives, who are much of the GOP's base, consider McCain's adherence to their persuasion perfunctory. By his selection of Palin, he got the enthusiasm of the base. But what has he got in Palin? In coming days he and we will learn from a stern teacher, experience.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

For This Result, All Those Thousands Killed?!

So, perhaps a kind of end-game is indeed taking shape in Iraq. The US went in, in 2003, for a plethora of reasons, ranging from those pesky WMDs, to setting up "liberty" and "democracy," to getting control of a wondrous reservoir of petroleum, to keeping Israel safe.

More than five years - and hundreds of thousands dead and maimed - later, Mr. Bush remains 0 for 4. No WMDs, no US control of oil, a new Iraq that still regards Israel as the enemy (witness the scorn heaped upon an Iraq politician who recently went to Israel for a conference), a new Iraq where democracy seems to be a good thing only if you're a Shiite or Kurd, and where liberty (not to mention life itself) is hardly secure.

And now, we seem to have created our own Saddam-lite (complete with burgeoning army and security forces, and shiny new weapons - maybe even F-16 fighters - on the way), except that this one is Shii, and he has the backing of Iran, and he has the muscle to turn the tables and make life miserable for any Sunni whom he deems a threat.


From the Los Angeles Times

Iraq's Nouri Maliki breaking free of U.S.

As the prime minister asserts his independence, Iran gains influence and America loses some.
By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 16, 2008

BAGHDAD — Once dependent on American support to keep his job, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has consolidated power and is asserting his independence, sharply reducing Washington's influence over the future of Iraq.

Iraq's police and army now operate virtually on their own, and with Washington's mandate from the United Nations to provide security here expiring in less than four months, Maliki is insisting on imposing severe limits on the long-term U.S. military role, including the withdrawal of American forces from all cities by June.

America's eroded leverage has left Iran, with its burgeoning trade and political ties, in a better position to affect Iraqi government policies.

It also means that whichever U.S. presidential candidate is elected -- Republican John McCain, who insists on what some see as a vaguely defined American victory in Iraq, or Democrat Barack Obama, who has long called for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops -- will have less ability to sway Baghdad than did the Bush administration.

"If the next president waits too long, our diminishing leverage will likely disappear altogether, leaving us with two strategic options: resign ourselves to 'ride the tiger' -- that is, accept that we have to simply accept what the Iraqi government does and, at most, mitigate or help buffer the consequences -- or jump off the tiger altogether," said Iraq expert Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security.

The Maliki government's assertion of power has brought an end to the aggressive approach of the U.S. during its troop buildup last year. American forces frequently intervened in warfare between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. They even challenged Maliki's Shiite-led government by striking alliances with former Sunni insurgents and arresting Shiite police and army commanders implicated in sectarian violence. Since enhancing his strength in a successful spring offensive against a rival Shiite militia, Maliki has insisted that all American troops leave by 2011, unless Iraq requests otherwise. Shiite officials give mixed signals on whether they would ask U.S. military advisors to stay.

During the summer, the prime minister shuttered a joint committee and demanded the U.S. military hand him jurisdiction over dealings with Sunni-dominated paramilitary units.

U.S. officials here acknowledge that their leverage is diminished. Active Iraqi army units came to outnumber U.S. troops in 2007 and started reporting back to Maliki directly through newly established regional command centers.

"They have more capability, so they don't have to listen to us as much as they used to," said a U.S. Embassy official who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

"We always knew this time would come," added the official, saying previous preparations to hand over power had been sabotaged by dysfunction in the Iraqi government.

The shift is largely rooted in Maliki's military victory against the radical Mahdi Army militia in the southern port city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City district. The offensive in Basra, launched against the recommendations of the U.S. military, reinvented the prime minister as a decisive commander in chief.

The turnaround came only months after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescued Maliki from political oblivion. In December, Rice met with leaders from Iraq's Kurdish bloc, the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, which had sought the tacit blessing of the White House to vote him out of power. Instead, Rice told the leaders that Maliki continued to have Bush's support, according to several Iraqi officials familiar with the meeting.

In March, Iran intervened on Maliki's behalf. Iranian leaders convinced the head of the Mahdi Army, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, to end his militia's fighting in Basra after an Iraqi delegation traveled to Iran and met with senior Iranian officials and Sadr, according to a participant, lawmaker Ali Adeeb, a leader in Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. A second trip to Tehran in May by Adeeb and others had a similar effect on Mahdi Army members fighting in Sadr City.

"Iran's help is paying off even now," Adeeb told The Times. "Sadr's speeches and announcements are more moderate than they used be."

In June, Maliki made his own visit to Tehran, a trip coinciding with a more hostile stance by the Iraqi government toward the Americans.

During that visit, Maliki's office ordered government employees not to attend a twice-yearly conference scheduled to take place in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, the same week. Iraqis had been expected to lead the majority of panels, but at least 15 Iraqi speakers skipped the event.

In August, Maliki shut down an Iraqi-American committee on basic services for security in Baghdad. "He terminated the group, saying there were too many Americans," said a Western advisor to the Iraqi government.

With more than 146,000 troops still on the ground in Iraq, the U.S. retains a sort of military veto power over any efforts to oust them before the White House is ready. America's ability to provide air power and help build an Iraqi air force also remain an enticing lure.

But Maliki and other Shiite leaders are juggling intense pressures, in part because of their close relationship with Iran. Maliki appears particularly leery of being branded an American puppet. This has been most prevalent in negotiations over the U.N. security agreement, meant to provide a legal mechanism for American troops to stay beyond this year.

"The prime minister has shown everyone he means business," said lawmaker Sami Askari, a close advisor to Maliki. "Not everything America wants, America can get."

The Iraqis are prepared to simply ask for an extension of the mandate of one year or less if Washington doesn't agree to Iraq's terms, said lawmaker Sheik Humam Hamoodi.

So far, the White House has balked at Iraq's demands for an unconditional U.S. troop withdrawal date and for Iraqi courts to have some jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers.

Asked about the prime minister's tilt, the U.S. Embassy official said Maliki was under pressure from Sadr and Iran.

"I don't think he is anti-American per se," the diplomat said. "I think he is trying to balance a variety of domestic and external pressures and he judges the American relationship from that context."

Maliki has pressed demands that the Americans had previously rebuffed, notably over the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq program, made up mainly of former Sunni insurgents. Though the program has received credit for the decrease in violence across Iraq, the Shiite-dominated government has resisted incorporating the force's members into the police and vowed to prosecute some leaders for past criminal acts.

Last week, U.S. officials announced they would hand the Iraqi government control of the estimated 54,000 fighters in Baghdad at the beginning of October. The Americans had previously shielded prominent Sunni paramilitary leaders from arrest warrants based on doubts about the charges.

Asked whether such fighters could be guaranteed a fair trial, the American diplomat said, "No, but we are in a transition period."

Some Iraqis are worried about America's deference toward Maliki.

"Unfortunately, the American government is not an active player in the Iraqi affairs as they were before. They participated previously in successful projects like national reconciliation and establishing the Sons of Iraq, but now they are only acting as spectators," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament.

At the same time, Iraqi officials complain about the United States' failure to create a lasting foundation beyond its military presence. Iran has created more than $2 billion in trade with its neighbor, including fuel and electricity exports.

"The Iranians will stay in this place forever till the Judgment Day and the Americans will withdraw," said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a senior Shiite politician. "The Americans built their status on their military and their political viewpoints. They didn't try to find shared lines of interest or common ground. . . . The Iranians dealt with this matter in a more positive way."

Monday, September 15, 2008

More evidence that the "Surge" hasn't "worked"

The New York Times reports that a major Sunni Awakening figure was assassinated in Baghdad, after he refused to stop working and preaching ( he was an imam) to encourage Shia-Sunni reconciliation. Those in the US who tout the "success" of the Surge (the McCain-Palin camp, especially) harp on the decline in fatalities (both US military and Iraqi civilian) and the supposed restoration of normalcy in Baghdad, and insist that US forces need to stay and fight on to ensure "victory." Their myopic focus on stability (and stability in and of itself, of course, is surely a good thing for the people of Iraq, who have suffered too long and so underservedly) misses the point that even General David Petraeus has insisted upon all along. Stability and protecting the population are only instruments - required steps along the way - to achieve the desired result in Iraq: political reconciliation, resulting in an Iraqi political settlement that everyone can buy into.

And that's simply not happening. Car bombings and assassinations continue; Mosul and Kirkuk are tinderboxes of continuing Arab-Kurd tensions; the Shii-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki is keeping the Sunni "Sons of Iraq" at arm's length, and is more likely to round them up and arrest and detain them than to give them jobs in the army or police; and provincial elections, already once postponed, are likely to be plagued with violence between Sunni and Shii factions, and between factions within each of those communities.

Meanwhile, even as Mr. Bush has decided to maintain US troop eevels in Iraq at levels higher than before the Surge started, the US is facing a growing crisis in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A report from Afghanistan indicates that the country is in its worst shape since 2001. And if that wasn't worrisome enough, Reuters reports that Pakistani troops yesterday fired on and drove away US Chinook helicopters that had entered Pakistani airspace and were evidently about to land US troops. Official sources from both sides deny it, but local officials and villagers insist that's what happened. And if that's indeed what happened, Mr. Bush may feel it necessary to send even more troops to Afghanistan, perhaps as his way of saying to the Pakistani government (as he so famously said early on in his "war on terror") that "what we say, goes."


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Are people going to wake up about how dangerous Palin is?

Today's papers are full of reports about Gov. Sarah Palin. The one appended below (from the New York Times) shows quite a lot of research, IMHO - enough to scare me half to death that she could possibly wind up a frail old man's heartbeat away from the Oval Office. In too many ways, she reminds me of George W. Bush - a so-called "strong Christian" who hires staff and officials on the basis of loyalty rather than competence, and tries to destroy those who don't agree with her. That so many in the Republican base refuse even to countenance any criticism of her or any thorough examination of her record tells me that American democracy is on the ropes.

I also recommend a major piece today in the Washington Post, as well as Frank Rich's essay in the Times.

September 14, 2008

Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes

This article is by Jo Becker, Peter S. Goodman and Michael Powell.

WASILLA, Alaska — Gov. Sarah Palin lives by the maxim that all politics is local, not to mention personal.

So when there was a vacancy at the top of the State Division of Agriculture, she appointed a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, to the $95,000-a-year directorship. A former real estate agent, Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the roughly $2 million agency.

Ms. Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Ms. Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages.

When Ms. Palin had to cut her first state budget, she avoided the legion of frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects.

And four months ago, a Wasilla blogger, Sherry Whitstine, who chronicles the governor’s career with an astringent eye, answered her phone to hear an assistant to the governor on the line, she said.

“You should be ashamed!” Ivy Frye, the assistant, told her. “Stop blogging. Stop blogging right now!”

Ms. Palin walks the national stage as a small-town foe of “good old boy” politics and a champion of ethics reform. The charismatic 44-year-old governor draws enthusiastic audiences and high approval ratings. And as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she points to her management experience while deriding her Democratic rivals, Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., as speechmakers who never have run anything.

But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics — she sometimes calls local opponents “haters” — contrasts with her carefully crafted public image.

Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials.

Still, Ms. Palin has many supporters. As a two-term mayor she paved roads and built an ice rink, and as governor she has pushed through higher taxes on the oil companies that dominate one-third of the state’s economy. She stirs deep emotions. In Wasilla, many residents display unflagging affection, cheering “our Sarah” and hissing at her critics.

“She is bright and has unfailing political instincts,” said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska. “She taps very directly into anxieties about the economic future.”

“But,” he added, “her governing style raises a lot of hard questions.”

Ms. Palin declined to grant an interview for this article. The McCain-Palin campaign responded to some questions on her behalf and that of her husband, while referring others to the governor’s spokespeople, who did not respond.

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell said Ms. Palin had conducted an accessible and effective administration in the public’s interest. “Everything she does is for the ordinary working people of Alaska,” he said.

In Wasilla, a builder said he complained to Mayor Palin when the city attorney put a stop-work order on his housing project. She responded, he said, by engineering the attorney’s firing.

Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (Ms. Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered.) An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process.

When Mr. Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in danger, records show.

“Their secrecy is off the charts,” Mr. Steiner said.

State legislators are investigating accusations that Ms. Palin and her husband pressured officials to fire a state trooper who had gone through a messy divorce with her sister, charges that she denies. But interviews make clear that the Palins draw few distinctions between the personal and the political.

Last summer State Representative John Harris, the Republican speaker of the House, picked up his phone and heard Mr. Palin’s voice. The governor’s husband sounded edgy. He said he was unhappy that Mr. Harris had hired John Bitney as his chief of staff, the speaker recalled. Mr. Bitney was a high school classmate of the Palins and had worked for Ms. Palin. But she fired Mr. Bitney after learning that he had fallen in love with another longtime friend.

“I understood from the call that Todd wasn’t happy with me hiring John and he’d like to see him not there,” Mr. Harris said.

“The Palin family gets upset at personal issues,” he added. “And at our level, they want to strike back.”

Through a campaign spokesman, Mr. Palin said he “did not recall” referring to Mr. Bitney in the conversation.

Hometown Mayor

Laura Chase, the campaign manager during Ms. Palin’s first run for mayor in 1996, recalled the night the two women chatted about her ambitions.

“I said, ‘You know, Sarah, within 10 years you could be governor,’ ” Ms. Chase recalled. “She replied, ‘I want to be president.’ ”

Ms. Palin grew up in Wasilla, an old fur trader’s outpost and now a fast-growing exurb of Anchorage. The town sits in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, edged by jagged mountains and birch forests. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration took farmers from the Dust Bowl area and resettled them here; their Democratic allegiances defined the valley for half a century.

In the past three decades, socially conservative Oklahomans and Texans have flocked north to the oil fields of Alaska. They filled evangelical churches around Wasilla and revived the Republican Party. Many of these working-class residents formed the electoral backbone for Ms. Palin, who ran for mayor on a platform of gun rights, opposition to abortion and the ouster of the “complacent” old guard.

After winning the mayoral election in 1996, Ms. Palin presided over a city rapidly outgrowing itself. Septic tanks had begun to pollute lakes, and residential lots were carved willy-nilly out of the woods. She passed road and sewer bonds, cut property taxes but raised the sales tax.

And, her supporters say, she cleaned out the municipal closet, firing veteran officials to make way for her own team. “She had an agenda for change and for doing things differently,” said Judy Patrick, a City Council member at the time.

But careers were turned upside down. The mayor quickly fired the town’s museum director, John Cooper. Later, she sent an aide to the museum to talk to the three remaining employees. “He told us they only wanted two,” recalled Esther West, one of the three, “and we had to pick who was going to be laid off.” The three quit as one.

Ms. Palin cited budget difficulties for the museum cuts. Mr. Cooper thought differently, saying the museum had become a microcosm of class and cultural conflicts in town. “It represented that the town was becoming more progressive, and they didn’t want that,” he said.

Days later, Mr. Cooper recalled, a vocal conservative, Steve Stoll, sidled up to him. Mr. Stoll had supported Ms. Palin and had a long-running feud with Mr. Cooper. “He said: ‘Gotcha, Cooper,’ ” Mr. Cooper said.

Mr. Stoll did not recall that conversation, although he said he supported Ms. Palin’s campaign and was pleased when she fired Mr. Cooper.

In 1997, Ms. Palin fired the longtime city attorney, Richard Deuser, after he issued the stop-work order on a home being built by Don Showers, another of her campaign supporters.

Your attorney, Mr. Showers told Ms. Palin, is costing me lots of money.

“She told me she’d like to see him fired,” Mr. Showers recalled. “But she couldn’t do it herself because the City Council hires the city attorney.” Ms. Palin told him to write the council members to complain.

Meanwhile, Ms. Palin pushed the issue from the inside. “She started the ball rolling,” said Ms. Patrick, who also favored the firing. Mr. Deuser was soon replaced by Ken Jacobus, then the State Republican Party’s general counsel.

“Professionals were either forced out or fired,” Mr. Deuser said.

Ms. Palin ordered city employees not to talk to the press. And she used city money to buy a white Suburban for the mayor’s use — employees sarcastically called it the mayor-mobile.

The new mayor also tended carefully to her evangelical base. She appointed a pastor to the town planning board. And she began to eye the library. For years, social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Ms. Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.”

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Reform Crucible

Restless ambition defined Ms. Palin in the early years of this decade. She raised money for Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from the state; finished second in the 2002 Republican primary for lieutenant governor; and sought to fill the seat of Senator Frank H. Murkowski when he ran for governor.

Mr. Murkowski appointed his daughter to the seat, but as a consolation prize, he gave Ms. Palin the $125,000-a-year chairmanship of a state commission overseeing oil and gas drilling.

Ms. Palin discovered that the state Republican leader, Randy Ruedrich, a commission member, was conducting party business on state time and favoring regulated companies. When Mr. Murkowski failed to act on her complaints, she quit and went public.

The Republican establishment shunned her. But her break with the gentlemen’s club of oil producers and political power catapulted her into the public eye.

“She was honest and forthright,” said Jay Kerttula, a former Democratic state senator from Palmer.

Ms. Palin entered the 2006 primary for governor as a formidable candidate.

In the middle of the primary, a conservative columnist in the state, Paul Jenkins, unearthed e-mail messages showing that Ms. Palin had conducted campaign business from the mayor’s office. Ms. Palin handled the crisis with a street fighter’s guile.

“I told her it looks like she did the same thing that Randy Ruedrich did,” Mr. Jenkins recalled. “And she said, ‘Yeah, what I did was wrong.’ ”

Mr. Jenkins hung up and decided to forgo writing about it. His phone rang soon after.

Mr. Jenkins said a reporter from Fairbanks, reading from a Palin news release, demanded to know why he was “smearing” her. “Now I look at her and think: ‘Man, you’re slick,’ ” he said.

Ms. Palin won the primary, and in the general election she faced Tony Knowles, the former two-term Democratic governor, and Andrew Halcro, an independent.

Not deeply versed in policy, Ms. Palin skipped some candidate forums; at others, she flipped through hand-written, color-coded index cards strategically placed behind her nameplate.

Before one forum, Mr. Halcro said he saw aides shovel reports at Ms. Palin as she crammed. Her showman’s instincts rarely failed. She put the pile of reports on the lectern. Asked what she would do about health care policy, she patted the stack and said she would find an answer in the pile of solutions.

“She was fresh, and she was tomorrow,” said Michael Carey, a former editorial page editor for The Anchorage Daily News. “She just floated along like Mary Poppins.”


Half a century after Alaska became a state, Ms. Palin was inaugurated as governor in Fairbanks and took up the reformer’s sword.

As she assembled her cabinet and made other state appointments, those with insider credentials were now on the outs. But a new pattern became clear. She surrounded herself with people she has known since grade school and members of her church.

Mr. Parnell, the lieutenant governor, praised Ms. Palin’s appointments. “The people she hires are competent, qualified, top-notch people,” he said.

Ms. Palin chose Talis Colberg, a borough assemblyman from the Matanuska valley, as her attorney general, provoking a bewildered question from the legal community: “Who?” Mr. Colberg, who did not return calls, moved from a one-room building in the valley to one of the most powerful offices in the state, supervising some 500 people.

“I called him and asked, ‘Do you know how to supervise people?’ ” said a family friend, Kathy Wells. “He said, ‘No, but I think I’ll get some help.’ ”

The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government. Ms. Palin appointed Mr. Bitney, her former junior high school band-mate, as her legislative director and chose another classmate, Joe Austerman, to manage the economic development office for $82,908 a year. Mr. Austerman had established an Alaska franchise for Mailboxes Etc.

To her supporters — and with an 80 percent approval rating, she has plenty — Ms. Palin has lifted Alaska out of a mire of corruption. She gained the passage of a bill that tightens the rules covering lobbyists. And she rewrote the tax code to capture a greater share of oil and gas sale proceeds.

“Does anybody doubt that she’s a tough negotiator?” said State Representative Carl Gatto, Republican of Palmer.

Yet recent controversy has marred Ms. Palin’s reform credentials. In addition to the trooper investigation, lawmakers in April accused her of improperly culling thousands of e-mail addresses from a state database for a mass mailing to rally support for a policy initiative.

While Ms. Palin took office promising a more open government, her administration has battled to keep information secret. Her inner circle discussed the benefit of using private e-mail addresses. An assistant told her it appeared that such e-mail messages sent to a private address on a “personal device” like a BlackBerry “would be confidential and not subject to subpoena.”

Ms. Palin and aides use their private e-mail addresses for state business. A campaign spokesman said the governor copied e-mail messages to her state account “when there was significant state business.”

On Feb. 7, Frank Bailey, a high-level aide, wrote to Ms. Palin’s state e-mail address to discuss appointments. Another aide fired back: “Frank, this is not the governor’s personal account.”

Mr. Bailey responded: “Whoops~!”

Mr. Bailey, a former midlevel manager at Alaska Airlines who worked on Ms. Palin’s campaign, has been placed on paid leave; he has emerged as a central figure in the trooper investigation.

Another confidante of Ms. Palin’s is Ms. Frye, 27. She worked as a receptionist for State Senator Lyda Green before she joined Ms. Palin’s campaign for governor. Now Ms. Frye earns $68,664 as a special assistant to the governor. Her frequent interactions with Ms. Palin’s children have prompted some lawmakers to refer to her as “the babysitter,” a title that Ms. Frye disavows.

Like Mr. Bailey, she is an effusive cheerleader for her boss.

“YOU ARE SO AWESOME!” Ms. Frye typed in an e-mail message to Ms. Palin in March.

Many lawmakers contend that Ms. Palin is overly reliant on a small inner circle that leaves her isolated. Democrats and Republicans alike describe her as often missing in action. Since taking office in 2007, Ms. Palin has spent 312 nights at her Wasilla home, some 600 miles to the north of the governor’s mansion in Juneau, records show.

During the last legislative session, some lawmakers became so frustrated with her absences that they took to wearing “Where’s Sarah?” pins.

Many politicians say they typically learn of her initiatives — and vetoes — from news releases.

Mayors across the state, from the larger cities to tiny municipalities along the southeastern fiords, are even more frustrated. Often, their letters go unanswered and their pleas ignored, records and interviews show.

Last summer, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, a Democrat, pressed Ms. Palin to meet with him because the state had failed to deliver money needed to operate city traffic lights. At one point, records show, state officials told him to just turn off a dozen of them. Ms. Palin agreed to meet with Mr. Begich when he threatened to go public with his anger, according to city officials.

At an Alaska Municipal League gathering in Juneau in January, mayors across the political spectrum swapped stories of the governor’s remoteness. How many of you, someone asked, have tried to meet with her? Every hand went up, recalled Mayor Fred Shields of Haines Borough. And how many met with her? Just a few hands rose. Ms. Palin soon walked in, delivered a few remarks and left for an anti-abortion rally.

The administration’s e-mail correspondence reveals a siege-like atmosphere. Top aides keep score, demean enemies and gloat over successes. Even some who helped engineer her rise have felt her wrath.

Dan Fagan, a prominent conservative radio host and longtime friend of Ms. Palin, urged his listeners to vote for her in 2006. But when he took her to task for raising taxes on oil companies, he said, he found himself branded a “hater.”

It is part of a pattern, Mr. Fagan said, in which Ms. Palin characterizes critics as “bad people who are anti-Alaska.”

As Ms. Palin’s star ascends, the McCain campaign, as often happens in national races, is controlling the words of those who know her well. Her mother-in-law, Faye Palin, has been asked not to speak to reporters, and aides sit in on interviews with old friends.

At a recent lunch gathering, an official with the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce asked its members to refer all calls from reporters to the governor’s office. Dianne Woodruff, a city councilwoman, shook her head.

“I was thinking, I don’t remember giving up my First Amendment rights,” Ms. Woodruff said. “Just because you’re not going gaga over Sarah doesn’t mean you can’t speak your mind.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Is the US headed for a third war?

Don't look now, but the US is perhaps heading for a third war - this one, with an ally (or so Mr. Bush has told us, and them, for 8 years): Pakistan. The head of Pakistan's army has reiterated his earlier warning to the US, that Pakistan cannot tolerate US ground and air forces (which killed another 12 people yesterday - some of them "bad guys," but some of them reportedly women and children) encroaching on Pakistan's national sovereignty with such impunity.

Are al-Qaida and Taliban elements (including, most probably, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) sheltering in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier states and launching operations from there? Yes. Do most Pakistanis therefore believe that the US has the right to send in Navy Seal teams (that happened just a few days ago) and dispatch unmanned Predator planes to bomb people in Pakistani territory to smithereens? No.

Across Pakistan (to borrow the memorable line exclaimed by the actor Peter Finch in the movie Network more than 30 years ago), people are getting mad as hell, and are not going to take it anymore. The vast majority of Pakistanis never bought into Bush's "war on Terror" as being their own fight (they see it as America's war, not Pakistan's), they resented how Bush continued to support Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf as his "guy" even while Musharraf undermined Pakistan's democratic institutions (wasn't the US committed to promoting democracy?) - and now they see the US killing people, fellow Muslims all, wantonly inside their country, after oh-so-many years of watching the US kill fellow Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, support Israel's killing of them in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon (and, for that matter, support its old ally Saddam Hussein's killing of them in Iran between 1980 and 1988), and threaten the killing of them in Iran and Syria.

And at the same time, the US has been burnishing its relationship with the country that Pakistanis have seen as their most mortal enemy and most serious existential threat for 60 years. I mean India, of course - the same India that developed and tested a nuclear weapon completely under the radar of the US intelligence community, to be followed down that road by Pakistan, which felt compelled to develop its own nuclear deterrent against its larger, wealthier, more powerful neighbor. After a several-years-long fit of pique against India, the US in recent years has rushed to embrace India as an economic and strategic partner, even to the extent of pursuing an agreement that (in direct violation of internationally recognized nuclear-proliferation agreements) will provide India with advanced nuclear technology, and that more or less signals the nuclear-weapon wannabes of the world that (as Newsweek's Michael Hirsch has put it) "You too can rejoin the international community if you wait long enough! So keep at it."

On the eve of his 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, most observers with any depth of awareness of that country's historical and ethnic complexities warned Mr. Bush that he would be opening a Pandora's box, and that US forces (like so many other invaders, from the phalanxes of Alexander the Great to the troopers sent there to maintain the British Raj in India) might be sucked into a black hole. We'll never know if the US forces that were sent to Afghanistan might have broken that string. Mr. Bush's poorly conceived and ill-fated digression, the hubristically and tragically misnamed "Operation Iraqi Freedom," torched any momentum that the US had built up along any projected pathway to stability in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration may have once believed that by 2003 it had more or less closed Pandora's box in Afghanistan. According to the ancient Greek myth, when Pandora opened her box (which was, actually, a large jar), she loosed all manner of evils into the world. But we tend to forget that she was able to clamp the lid back on quickly enough to keep one thing inside: hope. The chaos now brewing in Pakistan is surely one of the box's escapees of 2001, nurtured to deadly maturity by its fellow escapees, the evils that have befallen the region over the past seven years. Mr. Bush (or more likely, his successor) must now find a way to get the lid back on - finally, firmly, and quickly - if he is to prevent full-blown civil war (or worse - remember, Pakistan is a state with nuclear capability). Otherwise, hope - for a stable Afghanistan, or even South Asia - may already have escaped that box as well.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The failing state of American democracy

I hope that some of you got a chance to see last night's candidates' forum on service in America, which was held on the campus of Columbia U in NYC. I found Obama's comments, all in all quite, impressive, and he took no big shots at McCain. I switched the TV on too late to catch McCain's comments (he was on stage first, then followed by Obama; they shook hands, etc., as McCain left and Obama came on), but from the later re-hash, he too had some nice comments on service, nor did he make any nasty comments about Obama.

I was struck, though, by McCain's response to a question about provocative statements being made by his campaign: "It's a dirty business." Right. And American democracy, and the American people, catch all that mud right in the face. And no one has made that point better recently that does Paul Krugman in this morning's NY Times.
September 12, 2008

Blizzard of Lies

Did you hear about how Barack Obama wants to have sex education in kindergarten, and called Sarah Palin a pig? Did you hear about how Ms. Palin told Congress, “Thanks, but no thanks” when it wanted to buy Alaska a Bridge to Nowhere?

These stories have two things in common: they’re all claims recently made by the McCain campaign — and they’re all out-and-out lies.

Dishonesty is nothing new in politics. I spent much of 2000 — my first year at The Times — trying to alert readers to the blatant dishonesty of the Bush campaign’s claims about taxes, spending and Social Security.

But I can’t think of any precedent, at least in America, for the blizzard of lies since the Republican convention. The Bush campaign’s lies in 2000 were artful — you needed some grasp of arithmetic to realize that you were being conned. This year, however, the McCain campaign keeps making assertions that anyone with an Internet connection can disprove in a minute, and repeating these assertions over and over again.

Take the case of the Bridge to Nowhere, which supposedly gives Ms. Palin credentials as a reformer. Well, when campaigning for governor, Ms. Palin didn’t say “no thanks” — she was all for the bridge, even though it had already become a national scandal, insisting that she would “not allow the spinmeisters to turn this project or any other into something that’s so negative.”

Oh, and when she finally did decide to cancel the project, she didn’t righteously reject a handout from Washington: she accepted the handout, but spent it on something else. You see, long before she decided to cancel the bridge, Congress had told Alaska that it could keep the federal money originally earmarked for that project and use it elsewhere.

So the whole story of Ms. Palin’s alleged heroic stand against wasteful spending is fiction.

Or take the story of Mr. Obama’s alleged advocacy of kindergarten sex-ed. In reality, he supported legislation calling for “age and developmentally appropriate education”; in the case of young children, that would have meant guidance to help them avoid sexual predators.

And then there’s the claim that Mr. Obama’s use of the ordinary metaphor “putting lipstick on a pig” was a sexist smear, and on and on.

Why do the McCain people think they can get away with this stuff? Well, they’re probably counting on the common practice in the news media of being “balanced” at all costs. You know how it goes: If a politician says that black is white, the news report doesn’t say that he’s wrong, it reports that “some Democrats say” that he’s wrong. Or a grotesque lie from one side is paired with a trivial misstatement from the other, conveying the impression that both sides are equally dirty.

They’re probably also counting on the prevalence of horse-race reporting, so that instead of the story being “McCain campaign lies,” it becomes “Obama on defensive in face of attacks.”

Still, how upset should we be about the McCain campaign’s lies? I mean, politics ain’t beanbag, and all that.

One answer is that the muck being hurled by the McCain campaign is preventing a debate on real issues — on whether the country really wants, for example, to continue the economic policies of the last eight years.

But there’s another answer, which may be even more important: how a politician campaigns tells you a lot about how he or she would govern.

I’m not talking about the theory, often advanced as a defense of horse-race political reporting, that the skills needed to run a winning campaign are the same as those needed to run the country. The contrast between the Bush political team’s ruthless effectiveness and the heckuva job done by the Bush administration is living, breathing, bumbling, and, in the case of the emerging Interior Department scandal, coke-snorting and bed-hopping proof to the contrary.

I’m talking, instead, about the relationship between the character of a campaign and that of the administration that follows. Thus, the deceptive and dishonest 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign provided an all-too-revealing preview of things to come. In fact, my early suspicion that we were being misled about the threat from Iraq came from the way the political tactics being used to sell the war resembled the tactics that had earlier been used to sell the Bush tax cuts.

And now the team that hopes to form the next administration is running a campaign that makes Bush-Cheney 2000 look like something out of a civics class. What does that say about how that team would run the country?

What it says, I’d argue, is that the Obama campaign is wrong to suggest that a McCain-Palin administration would just be a continuation of Bush-Cheney. If the way John McCain and Sarah Palin are campaigning is any indication, it would be much, much worse.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

So now we risk war with Pakistan?!

The NYT reports today that, from here on, the US will notify Pakistan that US forces will be conducting an operation within their borders. No more asking permission. The head of Pakistan's army is on the record as declaring that Pakistan will not allow this. Maybe he's only talking tough.

But at what point is there an "incident" between US and Pakistani government forces? Then what? So fitting that the report appears on the anniversary of 9-11 . . . an event that might never have happened had the US been more prudent years ago in its involvement with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And now we learn from Gov. Palin (from Charles Gibson's interview for ABC with her) that, in her view, the US (as part of NATO) may need to go to war with Russia if Georgia and the Ukraine are admitted to NATO - and that she indeed supports admitting them, despite the warnings of countless experts (one of which she is decidedly not - a circumstance that, of course, makes her all the more likable to the Republican anti-"elite" base).

September 11, 2008

Bush Said to Give Orders Allowing Raids in Pakistan

WASHINGTON — President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, according to senior American officials.

The classified orders signal a watershed for the Bush administration after nearly seven years of trying to work with Pakistan to combat the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and after months of high-level stalemate about how to challenge the militants’ increasingly secure base in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

American officials say that they will notify Pakistan when they conduct limited ground attacks like the Special Operations raid last Wednesday in a Pakistani village near the Afghanistan border, but that they will not ask for its permission.

“The situation in the tribal areas is not tolerable,” said a senior American official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the missions. “We have to be more assertive. Orders have been issued.”

The new orders reflect concern about safe havens for Al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan, as well as an American view that Pakistan lacks the will and ability to combat militants. They also illustrate lingering distrust of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies and a belief that some American operations had been compromised once Pakistanis were advised of the details.

The Central Intelligence Agency has for several years fired missiles at militants inside Pakistan from remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But the new orders for the military’s Special Operations forces relax firm restrictions on conducting raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission.

Pakistan’s top army officer said Wednesday that his forces would not tolerate American incursions like the one that took place last week and that the army would defend the country’s sovereignty “at all costs.”

It is unclear precisely what legal authorities the United States has invoked to conduct even limited ground raids in a friendly country. A second senior American official said that the Pakistani government had privately assented to the general concept of limited ground assaults by Special Operations forces against significant militant targets, but that it did not approve each mission.

The official did not say which members of the government gave their approval.

Any new ground operations in Pakistan raise the prospect of American forces being killed or captured in the restive tribal areas — and a propaganda coup for Al Qaeda. Last week’s raid also presents a major test for Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who supports more aggressive action by his army against the militants but cannot risk being viewed as an American lap dog, as was his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

The new orders were issued after months of debate inside the Bush administration about whether to authorize a ground campaign inside Pakistan. The debate, first reported by The New York Times in late June, at times pitted some officials at the State Department against parts of the Pentagon that advocated aggressive action against Qaeda and Taliban targets inside the tribal areas.

Details about last week’s commando operation have emerged that indicate the mission was more intrusive than had previously been known.

According to two American officials briefed on the raid, it involved more than two dozen members of the Navy Seals who spent several hours on the ground and killed about two dozen suspected Qaeda fighters in what now appeared to have been a planned attack against militants who had been conducting attacks against an American forward operating base across the border in Afghanistan.

Supported by an AC-130 gunship, the Special Operations forces were whisked away by helicopters after completing the mission.

Although the senior American official who provided the most detailed description of the new presidential order would discuss it only on condition of anonymity, his account was corroborated by three other senior American officials from several government agencies, all of whom made clear that they supported the more aggressive approach.

Pakistan’s government has asserted that last week’s raid achieved little except killing civilians and stoking anti-Americanism in the tribal areas.

“Unilateral action by the American forces does not help the war against terror because it only enrages public opinion,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, during a speech on Friday. “In this particular incident, nothing was gained by the action of the troops.”

As an alternative to American ground operations, some Pakistani officials have made clear that they prefer the C.I.A.’s Predator aircraft, operating from the skies, as a method of killing Qaeda operatives. The C.I.A. for the most part has coordinated with Pakistan’s government before and after it has launched missiles from the drone. On Monday, a Predator strike in North Waziristan killed several Arab Qaeda operatives.

A new American command structure was put in place this year to better coordinate missions by the C.I.A. and members of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, made up of the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy Seals.

The move was intended to address frustration on the ground about different agencies operating under different marching orders. Under the arrangement, a senior C.I.A. official based at Bagram air base in Afghanistan was put in charge of coordinating C.I.A. and military activities in the border region.

Spokesmen for the White House, the Defense Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment on Wednesday about the new orders. Some senior Congressional officials have received briefings on the new authorities. A spokeswoman for Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who leads the Armed Services Committee, declined to comment.

American commanders in Afghanistan have complained bitterly that militants use sanctuaries in Pakistan to attack American troops in Afghanistan.

“I’m not convinced we’re winning it in Afghanistan,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “I am convinced we can.”

Toward that goal, Admiral Mullen said he had ordered a comprehensive military strategy to address the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The commando raid last week and an increasing number of recent missile strikes are part of a more aggressive overall American campaign in the border region aimed at intensifying attacks on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the waning months of the Bush administration, with less than two months to go before November elections.

State Department officials, as well as some within the National Security Council, have expressed concern about any Special Operations missions that could be carried out without the approval of the American ambassador in Islamabad.

The months-long delay in approving ground missions created intense frustration inside the military’s Special Operations community, which believed that the Bush administration was holding back as the Qaeda safe haven inside Pakistan became more secure for militants.

The stepped-up campaign inside Pakistan comes at a time when American-Pakistani relations have been fraying, and when anger is increasing within American intelligence agencies about ties between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, known as the ISI, and militants in the tribal areas.

Analysts at the C.I.A. and other American spy and security agencies believe not only that the bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July by militants was aided by ISI operatives, but also that the highest levels of Pakistan’s security apparatus — including the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — had knowledge of the plot.

“It’s very difficult to imagine he was not aware,” a senior American official said of General Kayani.

American intelligence agencies have said that senior Pakistani national security officials favor the use of militant groups to preserve Pakistan’s influence in the region, as a hedge against India and Afghanistan.

In fact, some American intelligence analysts believe that ISI operatives did not mind when their role in the July bombing in Kabul became known. “They didn’t cover their tracks very well,” a senior Defense Department official said, “and I think the embassy bombing was the ISI drawing a line in the sand.”


Blog Archive

Cluster map

Search This Blog

ICAHD - 18,000 Homes Campaign (large banner)