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Obama's Iraqi Gambit

By Dan Froomkin
1:43 PM ET, 04/ 7/2009


Obama greets military personnel at Camp Victory. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Obama said in an interview two weeks ago, "if you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem, I don't think anybody would have believed it."

But his unannounced visit to Baghdad today calls attention to how unfinished and unsettled the situation in Iraq remains, even as Obama proceeds with his plans to withdraw most of the 142,000 U.S. forces there in the next 17 months.

As I wrote in late February, Obama may have made a big mistake when he linked his withdrawal plan to former president George W. Bush's quite possibly unattainable goal: In Obama's words, "an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant."

Now he risks having the country literally and figuratively blow up in his face.

"You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country," Obama told cheering troops at Camp Victory, the main American military base in Baghdad. "That is an extraordinary achievement."

He continued: "It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty."

But signs are growing that the dramatic improvements in security in Iraq have not necessarily translated into long-term political stability. At some point in the future, the ethnic tensions that exploded into civil war after Saddam Hussein's overthrow may well explode again.

Foreign Policy military blogger Tom Ricks recently referred to what's going on in Iraq as "the unraveling".

Indeed, consider that, as Sudarsan Raghavan and Anthony Shadid wrote in The Washington Post last Monday: "A new and potentially worrisome fight for power and control has broken out in Baghdad as the United States prepares to pull combat troops out of Iraq next year....

"The struggle...pits two vital American allies against each other...

"Both the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni fighters, known as the Awakening, are cornerstones in the American strategy to bring stability. The Awakening, in particular, is widely viewed as a key reason violence has dramatically dropped across Iraq."

Alissa J. Rubin wrote last week in the New York Times: "As the American military prepares to withdraw from Iraqi cities, Iraqi and American security officials say that jihadi and Baath militants are rejoining the fight in areas that are largely quiet now, regrouping as a smaller but still lethal insurgency.

"There is much debate as to whether any new insurgency, at a time of relative calm in most of Iraq, could ever produce the same levels of violence as existed at the height of the fighting here. A recent series of attacks, however, like bubbles that indicate fish beneath still water, suggest the potential danger, all the more perilous now because the American troops who helped to pacify Iraq are leaving."

Deborah Haynes wrote for the Times of London over the weekend: "A mutiny in the ranks of a key Iraqi militia credited with helping US forces to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq is threatening to plunge the country back into bloody sectarian violence.

"The rebellion by some members of the Awakening Councils, a Sunni Arab paramilitary force of more than 90,000 men, could unravel the improvements in security since 2007. If left unchecked it threatens to push the country back to the brink of civil war, pitting Sunnis against the Shias."

Steven Lee Myers writes in today's New York Times: "A series of six car bombings in and near Baghdad killed at least 33 people and wounded scores on Monday, according to witnesses and the police, in a convulsion of violence that underscored the heightened tensions between Sunni fighters and Iraq's government....

"A prominent Shiite legislator, Abbas al-Bayati, suggested a link between the violence and members of the Sunni Awakening movement, made up of former insurgents who joined with American and Iraqi forces beginning in 2006. A simmering dispute over pay for the Awakening members and the arrest of an Awakening leader last month in the Fadhil neighborhood of Baghdad led to clashes between the group and Iraqi forces. He also blamed remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party for the violence."

Martin Chulov writes in today's Guardian: "The wave of attacks - the largest number of bombs in one day in almost two years - killed 34 people and wounded close to 120. The city was rocked by blasts throughout the morning, within two days of the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, which had been seen by defence officials as a potential landmark date for Sunni-linked militants and loyalists to executed president Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni.

"Yesterday's attacks follow a series of arrests of ranking members of the militias - known as Awakening Councils - whom government officials branded as outlaws. The arrests led to pitched street battles and have stirred anger among the groups, with some officials claiming they will soon be discarded despite the key role they played against al-Qaida in 2007. A spokesman for Iraq's interior ministry said Iraqi officials had an open mind about the cause of yesterday's violence but feared it might be the start of a renewed push."

Intelligence analyst John McCreary recently suggested: "The arrangement under which the US paid Sunni fighters to stop fighting US forces is breaking down because the Iran-backed al Maliki government has only hired 5,000 Sunni fighters from the 100,000 on the US payroll at 300 per fighter per month. This is a pre-cursor of the second round of the Sunni-Shia civil war to follow."

The good news for Obama about Iraq is primarily at home. As Alexander Mooney writes for CNN, "a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Americans overwhelmingly support the president's plan to remove the majority of U.S. troops from the country by August of next year.

"Just under 70 percent of Americans approve of Obama's plan to remove most troops in Iraq by next August while keeping 35,000-50,000 troops there past that date. Thirty percent of Americans oppose that plan."

But what happens if things get bloody again?

Obama Sums Things Up

By Dan Froomkin
1:16 PM ET, 04/ 7/2009

President Obama's last scheduled appearance on his overseas trip was at a town-hall style meeting with students in Turkey early this morning. It's a shame that it will inevitably be overshadowed by his unannounced visit to Iraq, because his remarks (text and video) succinctly reprised several of the trip's key themes.

There was the engagement theme: "I'm personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement. We can't afford to talk past one another, to focus only on our differences, or to let the walls of mistrust go up around us," he said. "Instead we have to listen carefully to each other. We have to focus on places where we can find common ground and respect each other's views, even when we disagree. And if we do so I believe we can bridge some of our differences and divisions that we've had in the past."

There was the lead-by-example theme: "[W]e have to make sure that our actions are responsible, so on international issues like climate change we have to take leadership. If we're producing a lot of pollution that's causing global warming, then we have to step forward and say, here's what we're willing to do, and then ask countries like China to join us.

"If we want to say to Iran, don't develop nuclear weapons because if you develop them then everybody in the region is going to want them and you'll have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that will be dangerous for everybody -- if we want to say that to Iranians, it helps if we are also saying, 'and we will reduce our own,' so that we have more moral authority in those claims."

There was the good-things-take-time theme: "I was just talking to my press team and they were amused because some of my reporter friends from the States were asking, how come you didn't solve everything on this trip? They said, well, you know, it's only been a week. These things take time and the idea is that you lay the groundwork and slowly, over time, if you make small efforts, they can add up into big efforts. And that's, I think, the approach that we want to take in promoting more peace and prosperity around the world."

There was the good-things-take-time theme meets the I'm-not-Bush theme. Responding to a questioner who accused him of embracing Bush's policies in the Middle East, he said: "I think this will be tested in time because as I said before, moving the ship of state is a slow process. States are like big tankers, they're not like speedboats. You can't just whip them around and go in a new direction. Instead you've got to slowly move it and then eventually you end up in a very different place."

And there was Obama telling the world about America -- his America: "America, like every other nation, has made mistakes and has its flaws. But for more than two centuries we have strived at great cost and sacrifice to form a more perfect union, to seek with other nations a more hopeful world....

"We're also a country of different backgrounds and races and religions that have come together around a set of shared ideals. And we are still a place where anybody has a chance to make it if they try. If that wasn't true, then somebody named Barack Hussein Obama would not be elected President of the United States of America. That's the America I want you to know....

"[I]n terms of my election, I think that what people felt good about was it affirmed the sense that America is still a land of opportunity. I was not born into wealth. I wasn't born into fame. I come from a racial minority. My name is very unusual for the United States. And so I think people saw my election as proof, as testimony, that although we are imperfect, our society has continued to improve; that racial discrimination has been reduced; that educational opportunity for all people is something that is still available....

"You know, the American people are a very hopeful people. We're an optimistic people by nature. We believe that anything is possible if we put our minds to it. And that is one of the qualities of America that I think the world appreciates."

Kevin Sullivan, Michael D. Shear and Debbi Wilgoren write for The Washington Post: "White House officials declared themselves pleased with the five-country tour despite criticism that Obama was rebuffed by European nations on extra spending to boost the global economy and sending more troops to Afghanistan.

"'Why didn't the waters part, the sun shine and all ills of the world disappear because President Obama came to Europe this week?' said David Axelrod, one of Obama's top aides. 'That wasn't our expectation....We understand...that this involves solving the problems, the difficult, thorny problems we face in the world.'

"Obama's advisers said they are satisfied that the president will return to Washington with concrete results, including agreement on economic strategies to battle the recession and a new effort with Russia to reduce nuclear warheads, as well as a less tangible, but still important, framework for improved U.S. relations with the world in the future.

"'There was a sense that America was back. So many of the leaders basically said, 'It's nice to have America back at its place,' ' said White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel."

Obama Approval Confounds Pundits

By Dan Froomkin
12:35 PM ET, 04/ 7/2009

Even Washington's pundit class is finding it has no choice but to acknowledge that, despite everything, President Obama is as popular as ever. Consider the latest data.

CBS News reports: "As President Obama concludes his well-publicized trip to Europe, Americans are more positive about the respect accorded to a U.S. president than they have been in years, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll.

"Sixty-seven percent say world leaders respect Mr. Obama, while 18 percent say they do not respect the president. That's a sharp contrast to the response when this question was asked about Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, in July 2006: Just 30 percent then said the president is respected by the leaders of other countries.

"Mr. Obama's overall approval rating, meanwhile, has hit a new high of 66 percent, up from 64 percent last month. His disapproval rating stands at 24 percent. Nearly all Democrats and most independents approve of the way the president is handling his job, while only 31 percent of Republicans approve."

Meanwhile, Alexander Mooney writes for CNN: "As he wraps up a week-long trip abroad that drew positive headlines across Europe, President Barack Obama's approval rating remains high at home, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Monday.

"Obama draws a 66 percent approval rating in the latest CNN poll, a number that has remained statistically unchanged over the last month."

In the New York Times, Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee-Brenan marvel: "These sometimes turbulent weeks — marked by new initiatives by Mr. Obama, attacks by Republicans and more than a few missteps by the White House — do not appear to have hurt the president. Americans said they approved of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy, foreign policy, Iraq and Afghanistan; fully two-thirds said they approved of his overall job performance.

"By contrast, just 31 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of the Republican Party, the lowest in the 25 years the question has been asked in New York Times/CBS News polls.

"It is not unusual for new presidents to enjoy a period of public support. Still, the durability of Mr. Obama's support contrasts with that of some of his predecessors at the same point in their terms. It is also striking at a time when anxiety has gripped households across the country and Mr. Obama has alternately sought to rally Americans' spirits and warn against economic collapse as he seeks Congressional support for his programs."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz writes: "If you read the press or watch talk TV, you've learned that Obama is trying to do too much, has ticked off his own party, mishandled AIG, thinks he can run GM, is pushing socialism, is taking over the whole economy, and by the way, Afghanistan is his Vietnam.

"Well, much of the public doesn't seem to agree."

Kurtz chalks this up to Obama's sheer "political talent" and "the power of political levitation."

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks Obama has the public bamboozled: "President Obama is the master of misdirection. His skill in using this tactic is a key to his success as a candidate and to his popularity as president. He is a great salesman, marketing his product--the liberal agenda, plus a few add-ons--in a manner that disguises what he's really up to."

What's your explanation for Obama's continued popularity? Comments are open!

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 04/ 7/2009

Bob Egelko writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The Obama administration is again invoking government secrecy in defending the Bush administration's wiretapping program, this time against a lawsuit by AT&T customers who claim federal agents illegally intercepted their phone calls and gained access to their records. Disclosure of information sought by the customers, 'which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security,' Justice Department lawyers said in papers filed Friday in San Francisco." Electronic Frontier Foundation senior attorney Kevin Bankston says in a statement: "President Obama promised the American people a new era of transparency, accountability, and respect for civil liberties. But with the Obama Justice Department continuing the Bush administration's cover-up of the National Security Agency's dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans, and insisting that the much-publicized warrantless wiretapping program is still a 'secret' that cannot be reviewed by the courts, it feels like deja vu all over again."

Lisa Myers reports on the NBC Nightly News: "Documents made public by the White House revealed that [chief White House economic adviser Larry] Summers received about $5.2 million last year from a hedge fund, DE Shaw, for what was described as a part-time job, offering advice and interacting with traders, clients and investors. Summers also pulled down $2.7 million in speaking fees from big Wall Street firms, many which have since received bailout money, including more than $200,000 from Goldman Sachs and $99,000 from Citigroup. Some analysts see a problem in Summers' close financial ties to Wall Street." Financial analyst Barry Ritholz is shown saying: "The problem is that you become captured by the Wall Street perspective, by the banks' interest and you lose the ability to give objective advice to the president."

Mike Allen writes for Politico: "President Barack Obama, after a lightning-quick start for his agenda on Capitol Hill, is bracing for a much slower pace and big changes in his proposals as early urgency and excitement give way to the more languid rhythms that are the norm for Congress."

Amit R. Paley writes in The Washington Post: "A congressional oversight committee opened an investigation yesterday into whether the Obama administration is circumventing a law that limits lavish pay for executives at firms benefiting from the $700 billion federal bailout."

Holly Bailey blogs for Newsweek on a pool report about Obama's cold. Asked how he was feeling yesterday, "Obama said he was better. 'I've had it all week...You can hear it,' the president said. 'In London, I sounded like I had acorns up my nose.'"

The Associated Press reports that North Carolina's big NCAA championship win last night -- as predicted by Obama -- helped the president finish "in the top 20 percent of the 5 million-plus people who entered ESPN.com's pool."

Vicki Hyman writes in the Newark Star-Ledger: "'House' didn't lose a doctor when Lawrence Kutner, aka Kal Penn, committed suicide on last night's episode. The White House gained an associate director in the White House office of public liaison. Lawrence Kutner's death on Fox's 'House,' in the first 10 minutes no less, shocked viewers, but it was no surprise to Penn, who wanted to leave the highly-rated show to pursue a career in politics and public service. Active in the Barack Obama campaign, the 'Harold and Kumar' star tells Entertainment Weekly that he's been thinking about the move for a long time."

Mark Shanahan and Meredith Goldstein write in the Boston Globe: "Following in the footsteps of Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama may vacation this summer on Martha's Vineyard, we're told. The White House wouldn't confirm the first family's vacation plans yesterday, but word is the Obamas have rented a house for two weeks at the end of August in the East Chop neighborhood of Oak Bluffs."

How Many Others Were Tortured?

By Dan Froomkin
10:25 AM ET, 04/ 7/2009

The International Committee of the Red Cross's blistering, confidential 2007 report on the CIA's secret prisons is now available online, Web-published by journalist Mark Danner, who last month recounted its gruesome descriptions of the brutal tactics used on detainees -- and its authoritative conclusion that their treatment amounted to torture.

News stories this morning dwell on the report's finding that medical personnel at the prisons took part in the torture of detainees, in gross violation of both their own professional ethics and international law.

But the report, which was based on interviews with the 14 "high value" detainees transferred from the secret prisons to Guantanamo in September 2006, also raises and expresses "grave concerns" about a very significant unanswered question: What happened to all the other detainees who passed through the secret CIA prisons who we still don't know about?

In 2006, President Bush himself acknowledged that "many" other detainees who were held at the CIA prisons were later returned to their home countries. The ICRC report says those detainees may well have been tortured as well -- but the ICRC doesn't know, because those detainees have have never been found.

Indeed, one of the many very serious charges the ICRC report levels against the U.S. government is that the 14 detainees they eventually interviewed had previously been "disappeared" -- deprived of any communication with their families, lawyers or the ICRC for as long as four and a half years and in direct contravention of international law. But the 14 in question at least showed up on the books once they were sent to Guantanamo in 2006. The other CIA detainees, however, were basically disappeared again.

And given how little intelligence at least some of the 14 "high value" detainees provided -- even the Bush administration's much-heralded "star witness" turned out to be of only limited value -- the image the report conjures up is of innocent people tortured by the CIA and now vanished by mutual agreement with other countries.

From the section of the report titled "Fate of other persons who passed through the CIA detention program":

"During his speech of 6 September 2006, President Bush also stated that the CIA detention program held a limited number of persons at a given time, and that a number of other persons had also been detained by the CIA in the context of the fight against terrorism. President Bush added that: 'many of them have been returned to their home countries for prosecution or detention by their governments' once the US authorities had determined that they had "little or no intelligence value".

"In subsequent discussions with various US Government departments, it was again stated to the ICRC that the majority, if not all, other detainees who went through this program have been transferred to their countries of origin....

"The ICRC has a number of legal and operational concerns about this practice. In particular, the ICRC regrets that the USG [U.S. government] has not informed the ICRC of the countries of destination so that the ICRC can seek access from the relevant authorities in order to monitor human treatment and to ensure communication with their families.

"In light of the conditions of detention and treatment of the fourteen during the period they were held in the CIA detention program, as reported above, the ICRC remains gravely concerned by the fact that a significant number of other persons have passed through this detention program and may have been subjected to similar, if not the same conditions and treatment."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald calls attention to the report's demand "that the US authorities investigate all allegations of ill-treatment and take steps to punish the perpetrators, where appropriate." Writes Greenwald: "Yet Obama's handpicked CIA Director, Leon Panetta, continues to demand that there be no investigations of any kind, let alone prosecutions."

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's: "The Red Cross does not reach quickly to an 'investigate and punish' recommendation. That happens only where the evidence of criminal conduct is manifest. And it was in this case. They use the word 'torture' repeatedly, without equivocation or qualification....

"The question...is for the Obama Administration: why has Eric Holder blocked the criminal investigation that a proper understanding of his duties would lead him to initiate?"

Joby Warrick and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post: "Medical officers who oversaw interrogations of terrorism suspects in CIA secret prisons committed gross violations of medical ethics and in some cases essentially participated in torture, the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded in a confidential report that labeled the CIA program 'inhuman.'

"Health personnel offered supervision and even assistance as suspected al-Qaeda operatives were beaten, deprived of food, exposed to temperature extremes and subjected to waterboarding, the relief agency said in the 2007 report, a copy of which was posted on a magazine Web site yesterday. The report quoted one medical official as telling a detainee: 'I look after your body only because we need you for information.'...

"In addition to widely reported methods such as waterboarding, the report alleges that several of the detainees were forced to stand for days in painful positions with their arms shackled overhead. One prisoner reported being shackled in this manner for 'two to three months, seven days of prolonged stress standing followed by two days of being able to sit or lie down.'

"In addition to the coercive methods -- which the ICRC said 'amounted to torture' and a violation of U.S. and international treaty obligations -- the report said detainees were routinely threatened with further violence against themselves and their families. Nine of the 14 prisoners said they were threatened with 'electric shocks, infection with HIV, sodomy of the detainee and...being brought close to death,' it said."

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "The report does not indicate whether the medical workers at the C.I.A. sites were physicians, other professionals or both. Other sources have said that psychologists helped design and run the C.I.A. interrogation program, that physicians' assistants and former military paramedics worked regularly in it, and that physicians were involved at times....

"In its 40-page report, the Red Cross roundly condemned the C.I.A. detention program not only for using torture and other cruel treatment, but also for holding prisoners without notice to governments or families.

"'The totality of the circumstances in which the 14 were held effectively amounted to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty and enforced disappearance, in contravention of international law,' said the report, which was provided to the C.I.A. acting general counsel, John Rizzo, in February 2007....

"The report also provided new details of the Bush administration's failure to cooperate for several years with the Red Cross's inquiries and investigations of American detention programs. Repeated inquiries and reports from the organization beginning in 2002 received no response from American officials, the report said, though the United States sent a diplomatic message addressing some inquiries in 2005."

Meanwhile, in other detainee news, Mark Seibel blogs for McClatchy Newspapers: "It's only taken seven years, but finally a federal district judge has made it clear he's had enough delay in a Guantanamo case, and he leaves no doubt that he has no faith in the Obama Justice Department to carry through on promises to release a detainee. Here's Marisa Taylor's story on the hearing, during which the judge castigates the Justice Department for hiding evidence that he said undermines its cases against several detainees.

"For a full picture of U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's rising ire, read the transcript of the hearing. The case is that of Dr. Aymen Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor seized in Afghanistan in 2002 who's been in Guantanamo since.

"The government agreed last week that Dr. Batarfi should go home.

"That's not enough for Judge Sullivan. He's openly skeptical of the government's motive for making that announcement just a week before Batarfi's habeas case was to be heard in his court. He wants to know why the government won't let him enter an order mandating Batarfi's release, since everyone agrees he shouldn't be detained any longer. He wants to know when Batarfi will go free. He calls Guantanamo a 'travesty' of American justice, 'a horror story,' he equates it to the injustice of the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:30 AM ET, 04/ 7/2009

Mike Thompson, Peter Brookes and David Fitzsimmons on Obama in Europe, Jeff Danziger on Afghanistan and NATO, Lisa Benson, John Trever, Jimmy Margulies and Ed Gamble on Obama and North Korea, and Steve Kelley on bailout spending.

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