Big Bird

I went out canvassing for the Democrats out in Antioch, California yesterday. There I met a woman in mid-50s perhaps who said this to me. 

I ain't voting for the other guy after he dissed Big Bird.

And rightly so.

 

No Daylight Equals a Whole Lot of Darkness

There has been a debate within the Romney camp as to whether it suits the flailing candidacy of Mitt Romney to use the turmoil in the Middle East for political advantage. Mind you, Mittens already has tried this inappropriate if not heinous comments in the wake of Ambassador Chris Stevens' death in Benghazi.You would think having being once burned, actually twice burned because he of the recent summer tour in which he managed without even to batting an eyelash to disparage friend and foe (at least from his perspective the Palestinians are foes) so unwittingly that it raised issues of mental competency, Mittens might be shy about wading into issues that have singed him in the not so distant past. But if at first you fail, then fail, fail, fail again.

Probably at the behest of John Bolton, the arch neo-conservative who served as George W. Bush's Ambassador to the United Nations and who just last week thought it appropriate to describe US foreign policy during the Obama Administration with a homophobic slur, Mitt Romney has taken to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to demonstrate how utterly unfit he is to be President of the United States.

There are numerous outright fabrications in his piece. He writes for example that "in recent years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy." By what measure and over what time frame? Because while a June 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that "global approval of President Barack Obama's policies has declined significantly since he first took office, while overall confidence in him and attitudes toward the U.S. have slipped modestly as a consequence" but nonetheless remain significantly higher than at anytime during the George W. Bush years.

Romney goes on to write "our economy is stuck in a 'recovery' that barely deserves the name. Our national debt has risen to record levels. Our military, tested by a decade of war, is facing devastating cuts thanks to the budgetary games played by the White House." Well if the economy is in a recovery that barely deserves such assignation, it is thanks to your party which in the words of Senate Majority Mitch McConnell believes that "single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" and never mind the welfare of the American people. Thus for example it was your party which just last week defeated a jobs bill that would have put some 30,000 veterans returning from serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan to work. The line about the national debt would be more believable if not for the fact that under Reagan-Bush your party tripled the national debt and under Bush the Dumber doubled it. And that line about the military facing "devastating cuts" is an outright fabrication. The Obama budget proposal called for spending $36 billion more on the Pentagon in 2017 than in 2013. Only in the mathematically challenged world of the GOP is more less.

But no line is more egregious nor more dangerous than when Romney writes that there should be "no daylight between the United States and Israel." Now think about what this means. For starters, it means jettisoning a bipartisan bedrock principle of US foreign policy as regards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Notwithstanding the fact that Israel is an ally, it has been the policy of the United States government to at least back to Nixon Administration to act as a honest broker between the two sides. Romney would have throw us this away. Let's be very clear here. Both publicly and privately, Mitt Romney has expressed a rather one-sided, if not racist, view of the Palestinians. Even when he has a former US Secretary of State expressing that there might be a pathway to a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Romney is so entrenched in his views that he fails to ask that learned, experienced voice to expound on his views. Such incurosity in a president isn't just remarkable, it is remarkably dangerous and unbelievably dismissive.

No daylight also means accepting the policies of the Likud government as our own. Those policies include an ethnic cleansing of proportions that would make Slobodan Milosevic blush, an apartheid regime unlike even that of P.W. Botha. If Mitt Romney is to believed as he suggests at the beginning of his Wall Street Journal op-ed that US foreign policy has a "human rights" component than means accepting that Palestinians are human beings with human rights. It is not clear that Mitt Romney believes this.

Accepting Mitt Romney's premise that there be "no daylight" between the United States and the Israeli Likud government means accepting a whole lot of darkness.

 

For the Nation, and for Obama, A Moment to Savor

As Nicholas Kristof notes in the New York Times, the nation's paper of record, writes in his op-ed this morning, "despite the foreign policy triumph for the United States, it isn’t the end of terrorism." Already Taliban leaders are vowing to avenge Osama bin Laden and no doubt his death does not change the fundamental situation on the ground in Afghanistan though for Pakistan hard questions must be asked.

How did the world's most wanted man live in a luxury compound in the hill resort town of Abbottabad just a 62 mile drive (35 miles as the crow flies) from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad? Moreover, the compound built in 2005 was just a stone's throw from the major Pakistani military training school. Most tellingly, the Pakistani government was not informed beforehand of the US special forces' raid. This inability to trust even the highest echelons of Pakistan's civilian-military-intelligence establishment is, in my view, the single most disturbing takeaway from this incident. It portends hard choices.

Still, it is clear that from the start President Obama and his national security team took a focused, hands-on pursuit of Osama bin Laden and a measured, cautious approach with our erstwhile ally Pakistan. US-Pakistani relations have been rocky, perhaps not yet even at a nadir, for most of the Obama Administration. The fault may not entirely lie with the Pakistanis but it is evident as the Wikileaks cables suggest that Pakistan's ISI is a rogue filled cancerous organization not to be trusted. The realists in the Obama Administration fully understand this and act accordingly. The Administration, from the President on down, may deliberate incessantly as seen from the outside but their approach is diligent, measured, effective if painstakingly time consuming. This is a results oriented Administration.

John Dickerson over at Slate points to the not so obvious but increasingly evident:

Obama's critics have said that he is a weak leader in general and in particular does not understand what must be done to combat terrorism. " They are very much giving up that center of attention and focus that's required," said former Vice President Dick Cheney in March 2009, in a typical remark. Yet what emerges from the details of Bin Laden's killing (offered, like the heroic accounts of the Bush years, entirely by officials who work for the sitting president) is that from early in his administration Obama was focused on killing Osama Bin Laden and that he was involved in the process throughout.

In June 2009, Obama directed his CIA director to "provide me within 30 days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice" Osama Bin Laden. By August 2010 intelligence officials had identified the suspicious compound where Osama lived. Thirty-five miles outside Islamabad, the walls were up to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire. The largest structure, a three-story building, had very few windows. Though the house was valued at $1 million, it had no Internet or phone service. Its residents, unlike their neighbors, burned their trash.

As he has so often been in the past, Dick "they will welcome us as liberators" and "last throes" Cheney was wrong. We may not see what's going on in the battle against terrorism but this success suggests a diligence and a laser-like focus by the Administration. It again speaks to the competence of the President himself. It is a moment to savor for Barack Obama, and for the nation, though I am sure that for him and his national security team, their focus remains on what is yet to be done, not what has been accomplished.

Osama bin Laden is Dead

Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born head of the Islamist terror group Al Qaeda, is dead and his body is in custody of US intelligence officials in Pakistan. The news is breaking at this hour with details scarce. Early reports from the Associated Press indicate that bin Laden was killed in a ground operation, not in a drone attack, in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, just 100 km, or 60 miles, north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. The President is set to address the nation with crowds gathering outside the White House in a patriotic fervor singing the Star Spangled Banner in celebration.

Geopolitically, the picture isn't likely to change much but politically for the President this is a major accomplishment for President Obama and his national security team. At the very least this should provide a lift in his poll numbers and perhaps some validation of his Afghan war strategy.

The story in the New York Times.

 

The Possibility of US Troops Remaining In Iraq Past 2011 Grows

In February 2009, President Obama flew to Camp Lejeune , a US Marine base in North Carolina, to fulfill a campaign promise, indeed the one campaign promise that had galvanized critical support for his candidacy early in 2007 when he remained largely an unknown first term US Senator. There amidst a crowd of some 6,000 Marines, the President delivered a passionate speech outlining the end of combat operations in Iraq, a war that at point had lasted over six years claiming 4,425 Americans dead, costing well over a trillion dollars while laying waste to Iraq plunging that country into a bitter sectarian civil war from which it has yet to fully emerge. Then he intoned, "Let me say this as plainly as I can - by August 31 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

Of the 142,000 US troops then in Iraq, some 92,000 were withdrawn by August 2010. The mission at that point changed, from combat to one that dealt primarily with training Iraqi forces, supporting the Iraqi government and engaging in counter-terrorism. Even if some 50,000 US troops did remain past the end of combat operations in August 2010, they would be withdrawn in toto by the end of 2011. The President's words were as clear and crisp as the weather on that February day: "Under the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility, and we will bring our troops home with the honour that they have earned."

That was then, this is now. There are currently some 47,000 US troops still stationed in Iraq, there ostensibly to train Iraqi forces and to engage in counter-terrorism. This week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, making his 13th and likely his last trip to Iraq, mentioned the possibility of an US presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. From the Army Times:

U.S. officials, including at least some top military officers, believe that Iraq has significant gaps in its defense capabilities, including a lack of air power to defend its own skies. They see this as posing a risk, in the absence of U.S. forces, that the political and security gains that have been achieved over the past eight years could unravel.

In remarks to U.S. troops at Camp Marez, Gates said that in his talks with a full range of top Iraqi officials they had indicated an interest in an extended U.S. troop presence.

“We’re open to that,” Gates said. “It obviously would be a presence that’s a fraction of the size that we have here now.”

He mentioned no numbers, but there currently are about 47,000 U.S. troops in the country.

One soldier asked Gates how much longer the U.S. would stay if asked.

“That would be part of any negotiation,” Gates replied.

He said it could be for “a finite period of time” at an agreed number of troops, or it could be a phased drawdown for two or three years beyond 2011.

Or, he said, it could be a long-term U.S. role to advise and assist Iraqi security forces “that just becomes part of the regular military-to-military relationship.” That appeared to be a reference to arrangements such as those that have existed in Japan and Korea for more than 50 years, in which U.S. troops are based there to train with local forces and act as a regional deterrent.

Speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, Secretary Gates said the United States would keep troops in Iraq beyond December 31 if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate an extension of the final withdrawal date. The takeaway from Secretary Gates' comments is that the Administration is laying the groundwork for a long-term, permanent presence in Iraq akin to our presence in Japan, Korea and Germany.

Certainly, there are segments of the Iraqi population, such as the Kurds in the north, that would welcome a continued American presence in Iraq. On the other hand, there are segments that remain diametrically opposed to any continued US military presence in Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera, Moqtada al Sadr, the prominent Iraqi Shia cleric who recently returned to the country from exile in Iran, has threatened to revive his Mehdi Army and relaunch armed resistance against continued US presence in the country. Al Jazeera correspondent Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that this time Sadr had not only warned against a continuing US troop presence but also against the contractors who prevent ordinary Iraqis from gainful employment.

Here at home, it is hard to figure how the news of an extended stay in Iraq a la Japan or a la Germany is going to play. Certainly the war hawks like Senator McCain, Senator Graham and Senator Lieberman are bound to be pleased but the move is unlikely to win President Obama any votes in his re-election campaign. In fact, it is likely to further alienate his already rather disenchanted base even if news like this is largely confined to back pages of American journalism.

One more point really needs to be made. Iraq in 2011 is not Japan or Germany 1946 nor is it Korea 1953. Iraq is Iraq, a country that remains a match stick away from going up in flames. While we certainly owe the Iraqis much, having torn their country asunder, the idea that we can garrison the globe ad infinitum is a non-starter.  In this recent budget showdown, Democrats fought for and won a $2 billion cut from the Department of Defense, knocking the military appropriation for the rest of the year down to $513 billion. Meanwhile, the Republicans won over $36 billion cuts to social programs and infrastructure plans. At some point, we on the left must engage in a full throttle defense of domestic priorities and cast aside some of our global ambitions of an empire without end.


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