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November 09, 2006

Progress, or not

Both the pre-election polls and Election Day exit polls -- not to mention
the actual outcome of the election -- indicate the top concerns among voters are the war in Iraq and congressional corruption.

There was something close to instant gratification on the Iraq issue, with
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's day-after-election resignation. His
departure, of course, hardly means that all is well with U. S. policy in
Iraq. It does, though, open the door to changes in strategy and tactics that may offer a way out of the steadily worsening disaster Rumsfeld did so much to create.

The defense secretary-designee, former CIA director Robert Gates is reputed
to be more interested in solving problems than in waging ideological
battles. He serves on the Iraq Study Group, a 10-member comission created by
Congress last March to provide a fresh and forward-looking assessment of
Iraq policy. Co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former
Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, the group's report is due in December.
(The group, incidentally, has a helpful website: www.usip.org/isg.)

Whatever the recommendations, the discussions both before and after their
presentation are bound to be more productive now that Mr. Rumsfeld is gone,
along with his bureaucratic game-playing and ideological agenda. The
viewpoint of Congress, from members of both parties, will be taken more
seriously.

President Bush, of course, remains ultimately responsible for many of the
decisions to be made, just as he is ultimately responsbile for those made so
far. He is under no obligation to accept any policy changes that may be
recommended, but in naming a member of the group to replace Mr. Rumsfeld he
surely signals he's quite willing to listen. "Progress on Iraq" is breaking
out all over.

Dealing with the congressional corruption issue should be less complicated;
no executive branch to consider, no worry about the internal politics of
some Middle East country. Actually, all any member of Congress needs to do
on this one is real simple: be honest. But not all of them will be, as amply
demonstrated by the history of 220 years worth of congresses.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been pushing lobbying reform bills,
though any meaningful laws have been frustrated by the House GOP leadership.

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she'll introduce a real reform package as
soon as the new congress is sworn in. Elements: ban all gifts from lobbyists
to legislators; ban all lobbyist-funded travel by legislators; tighter and
quicker reporting of lobbyist/legislator contacts; doubling to two years the
period that must pass before former legislators and their top aides can join
industry groups; remove floor privileges to former lawmakers, if they're
working as lobbyists; and curtail "earmarks" by requiring public disclosure
of all changes to bills before they're voted on.

But even with a new majority party and the bi-partisan support for reform,
change may not be as automatic as we'd like. The problem is much easier to
define than it is to solve, given that lobbying --whatever it's distasteful
aspects -- is a legitimate activity that is constitutionally protected.
That'll provide some weasel room for members regretfully eyeing the perks
and privileges that would disappear.

Be optimistic, though. The election was the equivalent of taking a
two-by-four, whacking someone over the head with it and then saying, "Now
that I've got your attention..."

Posted by jcb at 08:18 PM | Comments (13)

November 02, 2006

Bye bye Kerry; now back to Iraq

In another too-little noticed development, the Associated Press reported this week that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has come up with a new Iraq strategy and is taking concrete steps toward accomplishing it.

Remodeling work is under way at the Pentagon to create a suite of offices for additional members of the public relations staff. The additional staffers will "develop messages" for the 24-hour news cycle, "correct the record," and coordinate "surrogates," according to a memo obtained by the AP. The memo, the AP said, "describes an operation modeled after a political campaign - such as that made famous by Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential race - calling for a 'Rapid Response' section for quickly answering opponents' assertions."

So there you have it. As spiraling violence leaves hundreds of Iraqis dead and wounded each week and U.S. deaths climbing each month, Mr. Rumsfeld is launching a public relations blitz. But forget some basic facts. The AP reported that, despite repeated requests, "Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff would not provide the exact number of people to be hired, how many would be transferred from other Pentagon jobs, or how many would be political appointees or contractors."

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is growing increasingly restive with U.S. attempts to control his government -- he recently told U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that "I am a friend of the U.S., but I am not America’s man in Iraq." Even more dramatically, al-Maliki this week demanded the removal of American checkpoints from the streets of Baghdad, checkpoints that have disrupted daily life and commerce without reducing the daily and deadly bombings and attacks that plague the city.

The American military apparently was surprised by al-Maliki's strongly worded demand, but complied. Al-Maliki is, after all, the man produced by the democracy we've insisted we're bringing to Iraq. There were elections, a constitution was written and adopted, negotiations among Iraqi political parties and ethnic groups were conducted and al-Maliki chosen as prime minister. We can hardly ignore his wishes, even though his government is having enormous problems in quelling the violence.

He is a Shiite, his prinicipal support comes from Shiite parties, critical ministries -- interior, the police, etc.-- are held by Shiites who are widely suspected of tolerating, if not directing, the death squads behind much of the spiraling violance against Sunnis, the religious minority that pretty much ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein and which now form much of the insurgency battling the government. Private militias associated with various Shiite clerics and political parties haven't been disbanded and al-Maliki is resisting U.S. suggestions that deadlines be imposed for doing so.

It is a complex and ever-more dangerous situation, one that will hardly improved by a Pentagon public relations blitz.

No wonder even Republican Congressional and Senatorial candidates, their election day outlook endangered by anti-war sentiment, are distancing themselves from Mr. Rumsfeld or calling for him to step down.

President Bush, though, insists the secretary of defense will continue in his post, which also makes it no wonder so many Republican candidates are dodging any campaign help from the president. Some of it's pretty funny. Jim Nussle, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Iowa, passed up a chance to appear with the president last week because he, wash, he said,scheduled to speak a Rotary Club meeting.

Democratic congressional candidate Leonard Boswell, in a "gesture of goodwill and bipartisanship," offered to switch Rotary speaking times with Nussle so that Nussle could be with the president. Nussle declined.

Ah, well, the president can take some comfort from the fact his 2004 opponent in the presidential race -- John Kerry -- is even more unwelcome at Democrat events than the president is at Republican ones. Kerry, in a California appearance, tried to make a joke at the president's expense but ended up insulting American soldiers.

Kerry bumbled and fumbled around before apologizing, but Democratic candidates didn't hesitate at all -- a good many of them, like congressional hopeful Bruce Braley in Iowa's First CD, instantly dis-invited Mr. Kerry from previously scheduled appearances. Republicans had a good time for a couple of days attacking the 2004 candidate, but as the ever-inept Kerry slinks off the stage with Democratic boots firmly kicking his backside, the GOP once again must with deal with the real issue -- Iraq.

Posted by jcb at 11:38 PM | Comments (7)