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Bob Dreyfuss | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Obama's National Security Team Emerging

The game of musical chairs is underway as Barack Obama narrows his choices for who he'll appoint to key Cabinet posts. Most of the speculation, naturally, focuses on key economic posts, but there's a steady trickle of leaks and inflating of trial balloons in the national security arena, too.

The New York Times suggests that Obama might want to appoint a secretary of state who is a Republican, "perhaps including Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana or Chuck Hagel of Nebraska." In what would be a far, far better choice, the AP reports that John Kerry wants that job:

Several Democrats said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who won a new six-year term on Tuesday, was angling for secretary of state. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss any private conversations.

According to McClatchy, another possibility for State is Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, who broke with the Clintons to support Obama. Like Kerry, Richardson would be wiser choice than selecting a Republican.

At Defense, besides Robert Gates, among those being floated for the job are Richard Danzig, who might have the inside track because he has been part of Obama's inner circle of advisers during the campaign, and John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense in the late 1990s and president of the center-right Center for Strategic and International Studies. Hamre,primarily a technocrat and budget expert who is perhaps too closely tied to the defense procurement effort, emerged as a choice in the Times and in The Hill, which outlined the speculation thus:

For Defense secretary, the smart money seems to be on Robert Gates staying put through the first part of the year. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), an Army veteran and current member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is another popular choice -- but not now. If Reed took the job, Rhode Island's Republican governor would choose his replacement.

John Hamre, deputy secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration, is also mentioned. Hamre is now the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Marine Gen. Jim Jones, former NATO commander, is also mentioned as a possibility. Richard Danzig, who served as Navy secretary in the Clinton administration, is apparently interested in the deputy secretary job.

And what about Rahm Emanuel? As chief of staff, he won't have a big role in foreign policy making, perhaps, but Emanuel has strong Israel connections, since his father was born in Jerusalem and served as a member of the far-right Irgun militia. In 1991, Emanuel volunteered to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces during the Gulf War, and he's seen as a strong Israel partisan.

Stop Gates

Barack Obama will be getting off on the wrong foot, to put it mildly, if he does what seems likely now: allow Robert Gates to stay on a secretary of defense.

For reasons that are unclear to me, many in Obama's inner circle seem to believe that it's important to bring so-called "moderate" Republicans into the president-elect's national security team. That is an awful idea, for two reasons: first, even though many of the names being floated -- such as Gates, Dick Lugar of Indiana, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- come from the traditional wing of the GOP, and they are not neoconservatives, they are almost guaranteed to push for an expansion of the US military budget and a bigger armed forces. And second, by doing so Obama would be conceding many critics' argument that Democrats are somehow not suited to control the national security apparatus.

Gates has reportedly already been working on the transition to an Obama administration, and he certainly hasn't done anything to damp down speculation that he is a candidate for the job under Obama.

His thumbmail bio, for those who've forgotten: Gates spent decades in the CIA as a Soviet specialist, where he consistently inflated the threat from the USSR to justify a US military buildup, especially under President Reagan; he served as a top CIA official under Reagan and Bush I, who nominated him (twice) to be CIA director. The first time, Gates was shot down in the Senate because of his ties to the Iran-contra scandal of the mid-1980s, but the second time was a charm, and he was CIA director from 1991 to 1993.

During the Bush II years, Gates took part in two commissions that helped him earn some praise as a moderate, serving with Zbigniew Brzezinski on a CFR task force on Iran that called for negotiations with Tehran, and then briefly serving as a member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group in 2006, which called for a phased withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq. (Gates left the ISG to become secretary of defense before its report was issued, so he didn't sign on to its conclusions, but it seems clear that he supported the thrust of the ISG's work.) But since then Gates has been closely identified with the post-2006 "surge" in Iraq, and he has been closely involved in planning the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the recent pattern of attacks across the border into Pakistan.

Some top Obama officials, including Richard Danzig -- a former secretary of the Navy, who is himself a candidate for secretary of defense -- have said on the record that Obama ought to retain Gates at DOD.

At least one newspaper, the Canadian National Post, is reporting that Gates "has apparently said he wants to retire."

Obama and Iraq

There's no doubt that the financial crisis, job insecurity, and fundamental economic worries are the No. 1 issue in Tuesday's vote. But that raises a critical question: If Barack Obama is elected, will he have an antiwar mandate?

The answer isn't clear.

In 2006, when Democrats reconquered the House and Senate, the election was widely seen as a referendum on the failing war in Iraq. Many Democrats, including those who had previously been supporters of the war, felt tremendous pressure from that public expression of antiwar sentiment, even if the Democratic majority in Congress was either unable either to block the so-called surge or to pass legislation halting the war. Their inability to do so was largely the result of President Bush's veto powers and the Senate minority's ability to filibuster defense spending bills and other measures.

If Obama wins, he will face enormous pressure to abandon his pledge to stop the war in Iraq. That pressure will come from some within his own circle of advisers, many of whom saw Obama's antiwar stance as good politics but bad policy. It will come from hawkish Democrats outside Obama's circle, from those elbowing their way to get in, typified by Richard Holbrooke, who found himself shut out of Obamaland after he endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. It may come from more hawkish Democrats close to Senator Biden, who voted for the Iraq war in 2002. It will certainly come from conservatives, neoconservatives, and the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. It will come from thinktanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for a New American Security, which have close ties both to Obama and to the Democratic establishment.

And most of all, the pressure on Obama will come from the US military and General Petraeus, who won't look kindly on an incoming administration that wants to change course. Early in his administration, Obama is going to have to sit down, face to face, with Petraeus -- a politically savvy general who, it is rumored, is thinking about running for office himself -- and say something like this:

"General Petraeus, I value your service to our country. But under our system, I am the commander-in-chief. I'm the boss, not you. We're getting out of Iraq, and we're doing it quickly. I want a plan on my desk in 24 hours for the withdrawal of at least one to two brigades per month, and I want the withdrawal completed by the summer of 2010 at the latest. If we can do it more quickly, tell me. Anyone who doesn't like this new policy, well, there's the door."

And he'll have to look around the room, one by one, at the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Ray Odierno, the commander of US forces in Iraq, and others.

Each one of them will know the pressure that Obama will be under from hawks and right-wingers. The constitution gives Obama the power to order them to carry out the new policy, whether they like it or not -- and they won't like it. But Obama will be a lot stronger if he goes into that room with a mandate from the Nov. 4 election.

Problem is, Iraq has receded so far in the public's consciousness that it isn't entirely clear what next Tuesday's vote will mean for Iraq.

Certainly, Obama catapulted over Hillary Clinton in the primaries because he mobilized antiwar voters against her, based on his 2002 speech opposing the war and Clinton's vote, in October, 2002, for it. Since then, however, the war has become less and less prominent, especially during the general election campaign. During the debates between Obama and John McCain, it hardly came up, although Obama did slam McCain for his poor judgment in supporting the war in 2003. Still, Obama did not aggressively put forward his plan to get out of Iraq during the debates, and he was oddly defensive whenever McCain challenged him over the "surge." Obama could have said that the surge was a fiasco and that Iraq is poised to explode in renewed civil war because there is no political agreement among Iraq's various armed factions.. He could have said:

"Senator McCain, in 2006 I called for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and so did General Casey and General Abizaid, who were commanding our troops. And so did the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. Had we done so, the war would be over now, and American troops would have long been home. But we didn't. Instead, President Bush listened to you, and to the neocons, and two years later we are still stuck in Iraq."

He could have said that, but he didn't.

It's true that, among voters, Obama is widely seen as the antiwar candidate. In the New York Times, for instance, there is a poll today that asks: "Would the candidate's policies lead to greater US military involvement in Iraq, less US military involvement, or wouldn't they have any effect on US military involvement?" According to those polled, 80 percent said that Obama would order "less US military involvement" and only 7 percent answered that he would order "more." In contrast, only 18 percent responded "less" for McCain and 56 percent said McCain would order "more US military involvement."

Still, polls across the board have shown that Iraq has dropped for fourth, fifth, or even lower among things that voters are concerned about in 2008. The Baltimore Sun reports on one such result, but there are many:

"According to a Gallup poll last December, one in three Americans surveyed felt that the war in Iraq was the most important issue facing the country, more than selected the economy and health care combined. But a Pew Research Center survey this month indicated that only one in 10 still say that Iraq is the most pressing issue. ... Both campaigns have moved on to other issues."

That will make it hard, but not impossible, for Obama to argue that he has a mandate to end the war on Nov. 5.

Obama hasn't helped his case by downplaying his opposition to war. He hasn't helped by refusing to say much about his plans for Iraq besides the withdrawal, including what a residual force might look like, i.e., how many troops might remain in Iraq after the withdrawal of the US combat brigades, and what their mission might be. (During the summer, some advisers to Obama wanted to draw a starker contrast with McCain over Iraq, and some wanted to muddy the differences. The mud advocates seem to have prevailed.) And Obama hasn't made his mandate stronger by adopting hawkish views on other, non-Iraq related issues: he supports a bigger military; he supports an expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia; he supports more troops for Afghanistan; he has called for cross-border raids into Pakistan to go after Al Qaeda officials; and, of course, he has hewed closely to orthodoxy in support of Israel.

In his most recent speech, yesterday in Sarasota, Florida, Obama didn't mention at all his plan to end the war in Iraq. He said nothing -- yes, nothing -- about withdrawing US forces. Here is the full text of what he said about Iraq in that speech:

When it comes to keeping this country safe, we don't have to choose between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq. It's time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a huge surplus. As President, I will end this war by asking the Iraqi government to step up, and I will finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. I will never hesitate to defend this nation. From day one of this campaign, I have made clear that we will increase our ground troops and our investments in the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Watching our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines fight in Iraq and Afghanistan has only deepened my commitment to invest in 21st century technologies so that our men and women have the best training and equipment when they deploy into combat and the care and benefits they have earned when they come home.

I won't stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy - especially now. The cost of this economic crisis, and the cost of the war in Iraq, means that Washington will have to tighten its belt and put off spending on things we don't need.

Let's analyze that.

First, he doesn't reiterate that he is pulling US forces out. Instead, he appears to say that the key is to get Iraq to pay for the war, to get the Iraqis to use their surplus. That may appeal to budget-conscious US voters, but -- especially with the price of oil dropping fast -- Iraq, which is a poor, Third World nation with a devastated economy, isn't going to pay for the war.

Second, he says that he wants "the Iraqi government to step up," meaning, presumably, to fight its own war. That, of course, is exactly what President Bush can been saying, namely, that the US will "stand down" when the Iraqis "stand up." Problem is, the Iraqis need to be handed an unconditional timetable that doesn't depend on what they do or don't do. Iraq doesn't need President Obama to "asking" it to step up.

Third, and most troubling, Obama says that Americans will have to tighten their belts because of the "cost of the war in Iraq." Doesn't that mean that the war will continue?

The End of International Law?

A parallel new Bush doctrine is emerging, in the last days of the soon-to-be-ancien regime, and it needs to be strangled in its crib. Like the original Bush doctrine -- the one that Sarah Palin couldn't name, which called for preventive military action against emerging threats -- this one also casts international law aside by insisting that the United States has an inherent right to cross international borders in "hot pursuit" of anyone it doesn't like.

They're already applying it to Pakistan, and this week Syria was the target. Is Iran next?

Let's take Pakistan first. Though a nominal ally, Pakistan has been the subject of at least nineteen aerial attacks by CIA-controlled drone aircraft, killing scores of Pakistanis and some Afghans in tribal areas controlled by pro-Taliban forces. The New York Times listed, and mapped, all nineteen such attacks in a recent piece describing Predator attacks across the Afghan border, all since August. The Times notes that inside the government, the U.S.Special Operations command and other advocates are pushing for a more aggressive use of such units, including efforts to kidnap and interrogate suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. Though President Bush signed an order in July allowing U.S. commando teams to move into Pakistan itself, with or without Islamabad's permission, such raids have occurred only once, on September 3.

The U.S. raid into Syria on October 26 similarly trampled on Syria's sovereignty without so much as a fare-thee-well. Though the Pentagon initially denied that the raid involved helicopters and on-the-ground commando presence, that's exactly what happened. The attack reportedly killed Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, an Iraqi facilitator who smuggled foreign fighters into Iraq through Syria. The Washington Post was ecstatic, writing in an editorial:

"If Sunday's raid, which targeted a senior al-Qaeda operative, serves only to put Mr. Assad on notice that the United States, too, is no longer prepared to respect the sovereignty of a criminal regime, it will have been worthwhile."

Is it really that easy? To say: We declare your regime criminal, and so we will attack you anytime we care to? In its news report of the attack into Syria, the Post suggests, in a report by Ann Scott Tyson and Ellen Knickmeyer, that the attack is raising cross-border hot pursuit to the level of a doctrine:

"The military's argument is that 'you can only claim sovereignty if you enforce it,' said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'When you are dealing with states that do not maintain their sovereignty and become a de facto sanctuary, the only way you have to deal with them is this kind of operation,' he said."

The Times broadens the possible targets from Pakistan and Syria to Iran, writing (in a page one story by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker):

"Administration officials declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran that have been used to train Shiite 'special groups' that have fought with the American military and Iraqi security forces."

That, of course, has been a live option, especially since the start of the surge in January, 2007, when President Bush promised to strike at Iranian supply lines in Iraq and other U.S. officials, including Vice President Cheney, pressed hard to attack sites within Iran, regardless of the consequences.

On October 24, I went to hear Mike Vickers, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, speaking at the Washington Institiute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a pro-Israeli thinktank in Washington. He spoke with pride about the vast and growing presence of these commando forces within the U.S. military, noting that their budget has doubled under the Bush administration and that, by the end of the decade, their will more than 60,000 U.S. forces in this shadowy effort. Here are some excerpts of Vickers' remarks:

"If you look at the operational core of our Special Operations Forces, and focus on the ground operators, there are some 15,000 or so of those -- give or take how you count them -- these range from our Army Special Forces or our Green Berets, our Rangers, our Seals, some classified units we have, and we recently added a Marine Corps Special Operations Command to this arsenal as well. In addition to adding the Marine component, each of these elements since 2006 and out to about 2012 or 2013 has been increasing their capacity as well as their capabilities, but their capacity by a third. This is the largest growth in Special Operations Force history. By the time we're done with that, there will be some things, some gaps we need to fix undoubtedly, but we will have the elements in place for what we believe is the Special Operations component of the global war on terrorism.

"Special Operations Forces, I think through this decade and into the next one, have been and will remain a decisive strategic instrument. ...

"There's been a very significant -- about a 40 or 50 percent increase in operational tempo and of course more intense in terms of the action since the 9/11 attacks. On any given day that we wake up, our Special Operations Forces are in some sixty countries around the world. But more than 80 percent or so of those right now are concentrated in the greater Middle East or the United States Central Command area of responsibility -- the bulk of those of course in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Notice what he said: operating in 60 countries.

Of course, the very invasion of Iraq was illegal in 2003, and it flouted international law. So some may say, these cross-border raids are small potatoes. But they're not. This is a big deal. If it becomes a standard part of U.S. military doctrine that any country can be declared "criminal" and thus lose its sovereignty, then there is no such thing as international law anymore.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about this, here's what he said, as quoted in the Post article cited earlier:

"'We will do what is necessary to protect our troops,' Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Senate testimony last month, when asked about the cross-border operations. Under questioning, Gates said that he was not an expert in international law but that he assumed the State Department had consulted such laws before the U.S. military was granted authority to make such strikes."

Not an expert in international law? He'll leave it to the State Department? And this is the guy that Barack Obama's advisers say ought to stay on at the Pentagon under an Obama administration?

Political Crisis in Israel May Boost Hawks

The former Mossad agent who leads Israel's ruling party, Kadima, failed in her effort to put together a government, but there's a chance that Tzipi Livni will never become prime minister. That's because Israel's leading uber-hawk, Bibi Netanyahu, is making strong showings in the polls in the run up to what seems likely to be an election early in 2009. A Netanyahu victory would make neoconservatives delirious with joy. For earth's human population, however, the news isn't so good.

Early polls show Livni with a small edge over Netanyahu in an Israeli election, in which voters choose parties, not personalities. One poll suggests Kadima would win 29 seats, Netanyahu's Likud 26, and Labor (which used to dominate Israel overwhelmingly) just 11. That would be a big gain for Likud, which has only 12 seats today.

Other polls give Likud as many as 30 seats, and Haaretz, the Israeli daily, suggests that Netanyahu is starting to smell victory:

"After two and a half years of warming the opposition benches with a paltry 12 seats, after the party was nearly decimated in the 2006 elections following the Kadima split, the members of Likud are starting to smell the old, familiar scent of power.

"The energy is back, the polls are flattering, the alliance with Shas has been renewed and the future seems promising. Likud is the only party that genuinely sought general elections. Plus, ever since the Second Lebanon War ended, Likud had been consistently leading in the polls."

Kadima, of course, is not really a political party with a following. It was a one-man show created by Ariel Sharon, the coma-stricken superhawk who helped found the Likud bloc way back in the days of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir of the old Herut party. When Sharon broke up Likud, he brought various right-wing and centrist politicians into Kadima. But when Sharon fell ill, his colorless successor Ehud Olmert plunged to support levels in the single digits, and Livni is not exactly charismatic. Netanyahu, a wild-eyed radical, is a charismatic former general who rocketed to fame when his brother was killed in an Israeli commando raid into Uganda in 1976. Netanyahu, who speaks flawless, elegant English and carries himself with a tough-guy swagger, finds his chief constituency among hard-right American Jews and neocons.

But violence could boost Netanyahu. Any extremist Palestinian faction with a few bombs -- think Islamic Jihad or some radical wing of Hamas -- could tilt the election in his favor by plotting a few attacks and scaring Israelis into voting for the tough guy. The AP reports that Livni's "advantage [in the polls] was narrow and could easily evaporate -- especially if new Israeli-Palestinian violence erupts."

The Israeli far right is chomping at the bit for new elections. There are, in Israel, parties even more far right than Netanyahu's already woo-woo views, such as the Yisrael Beiteinu bloc, which is pushing hard for new elections.

Needless to say, new elections in Israel would put the final nail in the coffin of the long-dead, Bush-sponsored "peace process" that has been sputtering along to nowhere. But it also will put a huge roadblock in the path of an incoming Obama administration, since Israeli politics will be chaotic for the foreseeable future:

"The peace process could be delayed up to a year,'' Uzi Baram, a political strategist and former cabinet minister from the Labor Party, said in an interview [with Bloomberg]. "We have to have elections, then a government will have to be formed and then it will take time until that government begins functioning fully.''

Incidentally, Livni's bid to create a governing coalition fell apart when she wouldn't give in to the demands of a small, religious party that Jerusalem, Israel's capital, not be divided in any deal with the Palestinians. That is an ominous portent. And settler violence is increasing, as the Israeli army takes steps here and there to reign in the most egregious illegal settlement activity in the West Bank. Many right-wing and religious parties support the settler movement.

Al Qaeda Endorses McCain

The Post today reports that Al Qaeda has endorsed John McCain for president. With seemingly impeccable logic, the cave dwellers -- actually, more likely, Quetta-squatters -- say that by electing McCain, the United States will commit itself to an extension of President Bush's blunders and thus exhaust itself militarily and financially.

Of course, Al Qaeda says that the way it can assist McCain is through a terrorist act that will rally Americans to his side.

Saying that McCain will continue the "failing march of his predecessor," Al Qaeda added:

"Al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election. ... [We] will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America."

The quotes came from an AQ-linked website called al-Hesbah and were written by Muhammad Haafid, a longtime contributor to the site.

Conspiracy theorists, along with pessimists and Cassandras on the left, will no doubt see in those words an imminent fatal blow to the Obama campaign in the form of a looming attack that would shift the electoral dynamic. I wouldn't worry. If the cave-dwellers and Quetta-squatters could attack the United States, they would have done it by now. I suppose its remotely possible that Al Qaeda types might blow something up, but there isn't a chance in the world that in the next two weeks they can do anything that could shift the election. In fact, by stepping up attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda does indeed have some actual ability to kill people, the organization will only add to Obama's arguments that the Bush-McCain policies have failed.

And that's the irony. It's actually Obama, not McCain, who is pressing an escalation of the war in Afghanistan and promising to attack Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, as foolhardy and stupid as that might be. (No one has ever accused Al Qaeda of being politically astute.)

On October 10, I attended a forum organized by the New America Foundation and the Center on Law and Security called "Al Qaeda 3.0," which brought together terrorism experts of all sorts, both sensible and not-so-sensible. Fran Townsend, the long-time adviser to the Bush administration -- who bailed out earlier this year -- spewed doom-and-gloom about AQ's new potential to attack us, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. "Imagine, then, the vulnerability," she warned.

And Bruce Hoffman, who is a lynchpin of the terrorism-industrial complex, warned darkly against complacency about Al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda has been written off before," he said, adding that the organization's "hard core" remains intact.

True enough, Al Qaeda can cause trouble, and the United States needs to be vigilant. But there is vigilance, and then there is insanity, paranoia, and, well, the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the passage of the Patriot Act. There is also the militarization of the anti-Al Qaeda effort, including the senseless and destructive war in Afghanistan. As Ray Bonner reports in the Times today, a top former British intelligence official is warning the United States that its counterterrorism strategy is wrong-headed:

"Stella Rimington, a former director general of Britain's domestic intelligence agency, said in an interview published over the weekend that she hoped the next American president 'would stop using the phrase "war on terror." She also said there had been a 'huge overreaction' to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001."

Hear, hear.

US-Iraq Deal Stalled Again

So far, at least, the only political bloc in Iraq to support the US-Iraq agreement that would allow the continuation of the American occupation are the Kurds. It doesn't look like there will be any agreement at all before November, and possibly -- as I've been predicting since last spring -- they simply won't reach an accord at all.

According to ABC, the proposed accord calls for a 2011 timetable for an American withdrawal without adding conditions, i.e., without linking the withdrawal to the security situation. ABC got ahold of the text of the accord, which so far, at least, hasn't even been shared with Congress, even though the Bush administration is lobbying Congress to support the deal. Says ABC:

The United States has agreed to a firm deadline for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq that does not set preconditions that must be met, according to a copy of an agreement reached recently and obtained by ABC News.

Doom and gloom is coming from Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Here's what he said, according to a report from AFP:

"We are clearly running out of time," said Mullen. ... "It is also clear that the Iranians are working very hard to make sure this does not pass. This should not be lost on the Iraqi people. ... It's time for the Iraqis to make a decision."

Mullen will be disappointed, however. The proposed text has been submitted to the Iraqi Cabinet, which was supposed to send it to the parliament, but now the cabinet wants more changes. Foreign Minister Zebari of Iraq said that it is "unlikely that the Iraqi parliament will approve the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] before the American presidential election on November 4."

Making the chances for a pact worse, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the pro-Iran Shiite clerical leader in Lebanon -- who has lots of connections in Iraq, and who is himself an Iraqi -- called for an immediate end of the occupation, in a fatwa, and added:

"No authority, establishment or an official or nonofficial organization has the legitimacy to impose occupation on its people, legitimize it or extend its stay in Iraq,"

Fadlallah said that any pact should call for an "unconditional withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq," and put a "fixed and imminent timetable for a complete American withdrawal from Iraq."

Iran Readies Its End-Game Iraq Strategy

The U.S. embassy and military command has once again started to raise accusations about Iranian "meddling" in Iraq. Of course, one man's meddling is another man's pursuit of national interests, but whatever you call it, there does indeed seem reason to believe that Iran has stepped up its power-play in Iraq as part of what you might call an "end-game" strategy.

Why end game? Because like everyone else, Iran has figured out that Barack Obama will be the next president, and they're positioning themselves for what will be a struggle for power and influence in Baghdad. Among other things, as I was told often during my visit to Iran last spring, Tehran sees Iraq as kind of a bargaining chip in its relations with the United States.

Tehran's main goals in Iraq have always been (1) to ensure that Iraq would remain a weak, fragmented state that cannot pose a threat to Iran, (2) to prevent the return to power of the powerfully anti-Iranian Sunni bloc, (3) to guarantee that Iran's Shiite majority would maintain a grip on the levers of power in Baghdad, and (4) that the United States not use Iraq as a launching pad for a regime-change strategy toward Iran. By now, Iran is likely confident that it has secured all of those goals. Now it can use its influence in Iraq to leverage its relations with the new Obama administration.

Earlier this week, General Ray Odierno overtly accused Iran of trying to block the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq. Said Odierno:

"Clearly, this is one they're having a full court press on to try to ensure there's never any bilateral agreement between the United States and Iraq. We know that there are many relationships with people here for many years going back to when Saddam was in charge, and I think they're utilizing those contacts to attempt to influence the outcome of the potential vote in the council of representatives."

He accused Iran of trying to "bribe" Iraq lawmakers to vote against SOFA, saying that "there are many intelligence reports [that Iranians are] coming in to pay off people to vote against it."

There can't really be any doubt that Iran is using all of its clout, behind the scenes, including cash payments, to undermine the US-Iraq accord, and probably successfully. And it starts at the top, with Prime Minister Maliki, many of whose personal security detail and the people who fly the Iraqi version of Air Force One are Iranians, according to confidential Iraqi sources.

A leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a fundamentalist Sunni party tied to the Muslim Brotherhood organization, just visited Iran to get his arm twisted. Mahmoud Mashhadani, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, visited Iran earlier this week and, according to the Tehran Times the visit focused on the "restoration of the dignity and independence of Iraq," in other words, opposition to the SOFA. A top Iranian military official, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, lambasted the SOFA during Mashhadani's visit. Said the deputy chief of Iran's armed forces:

"The Iraqi people won't be deceived by propaganda and the psychological warfare launched by the U.S. and its allies to pressure the Iraqi government to approve the security deal. Undoubtedly, the Iraqi leaders are careful of any mischief in this regard and won't allow Iraqi history be stained with such a disgrace."

Meanwhile, Iran is strengthening its on-the-ground military presence in Iraq. At CNN, Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reports that there are at least three separate paramilitary groups growing in Iraq that are directly backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. She reports:

"According to the latest assessment of U.S. intelligence, the Iranian effort has broken into three main groups: Asaib-al-Haq; Kataib Hezbollah; and a reorganized so-called 'special groups' effort, the official said.

"He noted that the first two groups represent fighters are coordinated by Iranian elements, instead of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al Sadr's group, which formerly controlled them.

"'They are now directly funded and trained by the IRGC,' the U.S. official said. It is believed the IRGC is trying to model this effort after Hezbollah in Lebanon, he said."

The "special groups" are paramilitary forces formerly associated with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, but now, apparently, completely independent of Sadr.

Over the past several months the U.S military command has reported the capture of a number of officials of Kataib Hezbollah, and a military official told me: "We believe Kata'ib Hezbollah receives support from Iran."

Starr also reports:

"The U.S. military ... recently arrested an Iraqi general who says he was paid by Iran to derail a pending agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after the end of the year.

"The general was arrested a few weeks ago at the Iranian border carrying large sums of cash, according to the source. The man has known ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the U.S. official said."

So which is it? Meddling, or pursuit of national interest. It sounds the same to me. Either way, it's real. In an interview, a top expert on Iraq told me: "Every time the United States starts to put pressure on Maliki, he goes running to Iran for support." And Iran is there for him. Maliki, who is not entirely in Iran's pocket, is heavily dependend on the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq for his political survival, and ISCI is widely known to be on Iran's payroll.

Frank Gaffney's Obama Insanity

Some pundits have intelligent things to say, even if now and then they let their emotions step all over their better judgment. Some pundits have little or nothing intelligent to say, and they bask in the spotlight that shines on provocateurs and rabble-rousers. Still other pundits are just loud-mouths, like Sean Hannity of Fox News.

But there is one pundit in class by himself. That would be Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a right-wing thinktank, and columnist for the Moonie-owned Washington Times. Gaffney might very well be insane. Want evidence? His latest column in the Times, entitled: "The Jihadist Vote."

Gaffney starts with the premise that there is a well-coordinated effort by assorted evildoers -- from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabis, jihadists of all kinds -- to take over the United States. Their vehicle? You guessed it: Barack Obama. "The next three weeks afford the American people -- and the media, the courts, and the FEC -- an opportunity to get to the bottom of Barack Obama's ties to and affinity for jihadists," he writes.

Before I get into the specifics of Gaffney's deranged charges -- charges, I should add, which are consistent with Gaffney's long history of making extremist accusations -- let me say that it is also true that Gaffney can get away with this nonsense because of the climate of fear, hatred, and racism that has been created by John McCain and Sarah Palin's despicable campaign tactics. (Note, for instance, the proliferation of signs, buttons, and other paraphernalia in McCain campaign events reading: "Obama Bin Lyin'.")

But Gaffney ventures deep into woo-woo territory.

According to Gaffney, conspirators from the Muslim Brotherhood have provided the Obama campaign with up to $100 million in clandestine donations. He writes:

"A Federal Election Commission (FEC) employee has reportedly been warning for months about evidence that the Obama campaign has received as much as $200 million almost half of his total donations, in amounts less than $200. ...

"Of the $200 million, between $30 million and $100 million are from the Mideast, Africa and other places Islamists are active. It is unclear whether - as seems likely - these funds come not only from Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood types and jihadists of other stripes but from non-U.S. citizens."

It gets better:

"There is evidence Mr. Obama was born in Kenya rather than, as he claims, Hawaii. There is also a registration document for a school in Indonesia where the would-be president studied for four years, on which he was identified not only as a Muslim but as an Indonesian."

And this:

"Its 'Arab-Americans for Obama' effort is recruiting Muslim Brotherhood elements to enhance turnout, the Obama campaign is trolling for voters in problematic places. Some are felons in prison systems long used by Islamists as centers for recruiting converts to their causes."

Are you scared yet? You'd better be, because these secretive Obama supporters -- many of whom live in "Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, the heart of what has been dubbed the 'Wahhabi corridor'" -- have plans for you, says Gaffney:

"The change his Islamist supporters have in mind is for global theocratic rule under Shariah, and the end of our constitutional, democratic government."

Uh oh.

Openings for US-Iran Deal?

The elections in Iran are nearly a year away, but it's encouraging to see the emerging possibility of a new bid for the presidency by former President Mohammad Khatami. Last week, he hinted that he's considering running against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nutball whose support lies mainly in the paramilitary Basij force and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Can Khatami ju-jitsu the all-powerful Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and his election-rigging Guardian Council? Can Khatami loom so large that even Khamenei might choose to support him over Ahmadinejad? Might Khamenei decide to back Khatami as part of a strategy to open a dialogue with the United States?

The rumors of a Khatami bid come against the backdrop of a general strike by the bazaaris, the merchant class, who closed the Tehran bazaar in protest against Ahmadinejad's failed economic policies and a new, 3% value-added tax proposal. The New York Times noted that in 1979 it was the bazaaris who sparked the revolt against the shah, adding: "This is the first time since the revolution that they have protested on such a large scale." The bazaaris reopened the market on Monday after talks with Ahmadinejad, who rescinded the tax.

Another reformist challenge to Ahmadinejad will come from Mehdi Karrubi -- like Khatami, and unlike Ahmadinejad, another cleric . Karrabi, who favors resuming ties with the United States,is the first announced candidate in the 2009 elections. According to the Tehran Times, Karrubi said that he open to dialogue with Khatami, if Khatami chooses to run, about coordinating their efforts.

On Monday, several top world leaders -- including Kofi Annan, the former head of the UN, the former prime ministers of Italy and France, and the former president of Ireland -- visited Tehran to join Khatami in a "dialogue of civilizations." Reports AP:

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and several former European leaders attended a conference on religion in Tehran on Monday, offering what some saw as a gesture of support for the moderate opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosting the gathering.

Mohammad Khatami, the moderate former Iranian president who hosted the event, has stepped up his criticism of Ahmadinejad in recent months and his Iranian supporters are pressing him to challenge the hard-line president, hoping a victory will end the country's international isolation. He has said he hasn't yet decided whether to run in the elections next June.

It's way too early to say much about what this means, but it seems to me that many Iranian leaders are looking at the likely victory by Barack Obama and they're trying to create favorable conditions for US-Iran talks. Khamenei himslef may favor such talks, and he's said in the past that he wouldn't rule out resuming US-Iranian ties. At the same time, expect Iran to drive a hard bargain.

Earlier this year, there were reports that the Bush administration was planning to open a US interests section for American diplomats in Tehran, but the plan was shelved. The latest reports say that the White House will revive the idea after the US election. Apparently, President Bush did not want to hand Obama a talking point against McCain, who opposes negotiating with or talking to Iran.

Last week, at the New America Foundation, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two former officials from the National Security Council who advocate a "Grand Bargain" with Iran, held an event to talk about their latest, an article in the Washington Monthly. Here's an excerpt:

The next U.S. president, whether it is John McCain or Barack Obama, should reorient American policy toward Iran as fundamentally as President Nixon reoriented American policy toward the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s. ...

By fundamental change, we do not mean incremental, step-by-step engagement with Tehran, or simply trying to manage the Iranian challenge in the region more adroitly than the Bush administration has done. Rather, we mean the pursuit of thoroughgoing strategic rapprochement between the United States and Iran: the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian "grand bargain." This would mean putting all of the principal bilateral differences between the United States and Iran on the table at the same time and agreeing to resolve them as a package.

At the event, I asked Leverett who's supporting the idea. he responded that he's talked about it extensively on Capitol Hill, but that for political reasons there were few overt supporters there. "In private they see the logic of it," he said. Some, including Senators Jim Webb (D.-Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) support it overtly. Steve Clemons, the indefatigable director of the foreign policy program at NAF, added that at an event he organized at the Democratic National Committee, the idea of a Grand Bargain between the US and Iran won overt backing from Greg Craig, a key member of Obama's team, and Senator John Kerry.

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