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President-elect Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates appear to differ on the nuclear weapons issue – realistically if countries like Iran and even Pakistan have nuclear weapons – it will be almost impossible for the US to relinquish its nuclear arsenal – for the time being.

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Picking the people was the easy part.

President-elect Obama and his new national security team will now turn to a world full of vexing, linked problems on every continent, and tricky, early choices. From the speed of withdrawal from Iraq to the speed of investment in Afghanistan, from Kashmir to Moscow, Obama will make some of his most important choices early. Here are some of the toughest.

IRAQ

The war in Iraq, and the promise of a radically different approach to it, helped make Obama president. But he will arrive in the White House with his predecessor having already negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement providing for a timeline for withdrawal from the country, the core of Obama’s campaign promise.

The agreement “points us in the right direction,” Obama told reporters in Chicago Monday.

The most rapid pace contemplated is Obama’s campaign plan to have all American combat troops out of Iraq 16 months after he was sworn-in — that is, by May of 2010. The U.S. agreement with the Iraqi government ensures American troops will be out by the end of 2011.

“The question is how much, if at all, do you deviate from the agreement that’s been negotiated and passed in Iraq,” said Anne Marie Slaughter, the dean of Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. “Does that agreement supersede what President Obama said when he was candidate Obama?”

Slaughter pointed to Obama’s decision to retain the defense secretary who played a key role in negotiating the agreement as a sign that he’s likely to conform his own policy to its timeline.

But he’ll face pressure from both sides. Iraq remains a violent and unpredictable place, with suicide bombers killing at least 31 Iraqis in two attacks Monday.

And the Status of Forces Agreement likely means that as Obama takes office, American commanders will be adjusting to a new paradigm in which they shift more of the burden to Iraqi units, allowing them to take the lead and, at times, to fail in battles with insurgents. He’s likely to face intense internal debates over how involved the United State should be on a day-to-day basis, and pressure from the Iraqi government to help in some places, and step back in others.

But Obama said repeatedly during the campaign that his 16-month timeline was realistic, and many of his supporters seen no reason to dally. What’s more, the troops and materiel are needed elsewhere.

In Chicago Monday, Obama told reporters that the Status of Forces Agreement indicates that the United States is “now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq.”

“The challenge for him is going to be determining the slope of that glide path,” said Shawn Brimley, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.”

AFGHANISTAN

General James Jones, the president-elect’s National Security Advisor, drew attention recently for stating emphatically that international forces were “not winning in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, there’s a wide consensus that the situation in the country that launched the 9/11 terror attacks is a mess: The Taliban is resurgent on the ground, corruption is rampant, and opium is the national industry. Meanwhile, the multinational force patrolling the country opposing them is adrift.

“There been no unifying strategy,” said Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation. “NATO operates its own way, every country operates its own way, the State Department and the Defense Department don’t agree.”

Part of the answer seems to be more Western troops. Obama’s advisors hope a new, pro-American mood will encourage European and other allies to send reinforcements to Afghanistan. And Obama has backed sending two or three more American brigades to the country, though the rate of that increase will be dictated by how fast Americans can leave Iraq.

Obama will also be briefed on a new Afghanistan strategy prepared by the military, the contours of which Gates outlined in a speech in Canada last week.

“All of us agree that one of our most important, and maybe the most important, objective for us in 2009 in Afghanistan is a successful election,” Gates said.

That likely means an urgent new focus on Afghanistan, to make it – at least – secure enough to hold an election at the end of next year.

But skeptics warn that Afghanistan has bled dry other occupiers, and that the U.S. should be realistic about its goals.

“Success is not going to be the creation of a secular, prosperous, and democratic Afghanistan,” said Coll, who said a new U.S. policy will likely include a massive investment in training the country’s army and police.

“That’s the ticket home – that’s the ticket to his reelection in 2012 and getting American troops out of direct action by then,” Coll said.

PAKISTAN

The potentially catastrophic aftermath of the terrorist siege in Mumbai last week could instantly jump to the top of Obama’s list of crises to deal with – depending on how India and Pakistan respond in the 50 days before he takes the oath of office.

It falls to the Bush administration – which sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region Monday – to try to keep the two South Asian rivals from moving back to the brink of war. U.S. officials so far seem to be succeeding in persuading Pakistan to fully cooperate in tracking down those responsible for the attacks – and in restraining India from responding with provocative military gestures.

But both countries will be looking for Obama to signal how he will manage what will still be, at best, a perilously tense situation. And Obama’s options, as always in South Asia, are fraught with danger. Will he push a new and fragile Pakistani government – as he suggested in the campaign – to crack down further on terrorist groups? Will he back off the Bush administration’s increasingly aggressive use of military strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban elements on Pakistani soil?

Even more important, given preliminary indications that the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba may be implicated in the Mumbai attacks, could Washington get more involved in pushing for a negotiated settlement to the long-held grievances of India and Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir?

“In order to start to get Pakistanis to focus on the insurgent groups, you need to have them start to feel less paranoid about India, and the way to do that is to start dealing with the Kashmir issue,” said Caroline Wadhams, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.

“His team has talked about the need to start working on the Kashmir issue. There’s a big debate over whether the U.S. can even play a positive role in that. They will have to decide how hard they have to push that issue.”

Look for Vice President-elect Biden to play a key role on this one – he has significant and important contacts in both countries. And if Obama needs any reminding about the potential peril posed by a Kashmir-fueled conflict between the two nuclear-armed rivals, his nominee to be secretary of State should be able to attest. Hillary Clinton’s husband once called Kashmir, “the most dangerous place on earth.”

GUANTANAMO

An easier decision for Obama is one that he widely talked about during the campaign and confirmed during his recent interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” – his intention to close the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

“I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that,” Obama said.

There is a wide bipartisan consensus that the Gitmo should be closed. And politics would be pushing Obama to make the move even if the merits of the decision were not completely compelling. Many of his initial foreign policy and national security appointments – Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and the retention of Bob Gates at the Pentagon chief among them – have caused grumbling within Obama’s base of support on the Democratic left.

But closing Gitmo could very well open a Pandora’s Box that could overwhelm both the political and diplomatic benefits that the action would doubtless bring for the new administration.

As in – where do the roughly 250 prisoners being held at Guantanamo go?

Some could be repatriated – but that likely will mean intensive diplomacy by the young administration at a time when it is tending to a number of other foreign policy brushfires. And if some countries do accept detainees – China is one example – what kind of treatment awaits them when they return?

Furthermore, if some are kept in the U.S., as they most certainly will be, can they successfully be prosecuted, given the extreme and extraordinary circumstances surrounding their incarceration at Guantanamo?

The possibility that a future terrorist act could result from a current Guantanamo detainee being freed is truly the stuff of nightmares for the new Obama national security team.

MISSILE DEFENSE

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev put his country firmly on Obama’s agenda by attacking the president-elect the day after his election.

He and Vladimir Putin have also made a specific demand: That Obama scrap plans to set up a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Obama has been a skeptic of missile defense, raising doubts primarily about whether the technology is ready. He’s also signaled that he would like to work more closely with Russia on a range of other issues, beginning with nuclear proliferation. However, he and his advisors are skeptical of Russia’s autocratic leaders.

Hawks want Obama to signal that he’s taking a tough line, and that he won’t be intimidated by Russia. Moscow would like him to put missile defense on a back burner before they arrive at the negotiating table.

Some arms control advocates see a middle ground: Obama can continue to question the system’s technical capacity, making space to negotiate.

“A decision on new deployments of strategic missile interceptors can be deferred until the system is proven effective through realistic tests and has the full support of U.S. allies,” Daryl Kimball, the president of the Arms Control Association, wrote in the Washington Times last month.

politico-logo

BERLIN, Nov. 19 — Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command used a racially demeaning term to refer to President-elect Barack Obama in a videotape released Wednesday, and said Obama’s election represented “the American people’s admission of defeat in Iraq.”

In the 11-minute video, posted on the Internet, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, repeatedly and unfavorably compared the first black U.S. president-elect to Malcolm X, the black Muslim leader and activist who was assassinated 43 years ago.

“You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like Malik al-Shabazz, or Malcolm X,” Zawahiri said, according to English subtitles of his Arabic remarks provided by al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm. “You were born to a Muslim father, but you chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims, and pray the prayer of the Jews, although you claim to be Christian, in order to climb the rungs of leadership in America.”

Zawahiri said Obama, Colin Powell and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “confirmed” Malcolm X’s definition of a “house negro,” a term the militant black leader often used to describe black leaders who were subservient to white interests.

The biting comments were the first time al-Qaeda’s leadership has reacted publicly to Obama’s election since he defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) two weeks ago. Some analysts said the delayed response reflected uncertainty within al-Qaeda’s ranks over how to respond, given that Obama is widely seen in the Muslim world as the mirror opposite of the group’s longtime archenemy, President Bush.

“Zawahiri and others in al-Qaeda recognize that Obama has a certain appeal, not just to Americans but to people in the developing world,” said Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst and senior investigator for the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation. “They feel a need to dampen this sense and enthusiasm and excitement for Obama.”

Zawahiri, 57, an Egyptian physician, is the second-ranking leader of al-Qaeda, behind only Osama bin Laden. According to U.S. intelligence officials, he is believed to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan. He has distributed dozens of video and audio recordings in recent years, eluding capture despite a $25 million reward offer posted by the U.S. government.

In Wednesday’s video recording, Zawahiri welcomed the pending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq but warned Obama not to send additional forces to Afghanistan, as the president-elect has pledged to do.

“If you still want to be stubborn about America’s failure in Afghanistan, then remember the fate of Bush and Pervez Musharraf, and the fate of the Soviets and British before them,” Zawahiri said, referring to the former president of Pakistan, who resigned under pressure this year. “And be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them.”

The video consisted of an audio recording of Zawahiri’s remarks in Arabic, with English subtitles scrolling underneath a still photo of the bespectacled doctor, dressed in white in front of a bookcase.

On the tape, Zawahiri is flanked by two separate photographs of Obama and Malcolm X. In his picture, Obama is wearing a skullcap and surrounded by Jewish leaders as he visits the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Malcolm X is shown on his knees, praying in a mosque.

washington-post_logo

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) — Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States won’t see a change in American relations with the Taliban, a senior Taliban leader in Pakistan says.

“For us, the change of America’s president — we don’t have any good faith in him,” said Muslim Khan, a grizzled Taliban spokesman who is one of the most wanted men in Pakistan, in a rare interview with CNN. “If he does anything good, it will be for himself.”

With an assault rifle on his lap, Khan answered 10 written questions, sharing his view on a range of topics from slavery to Obama’s middle name — Hussein.

He spoke in the remote Swat Valley of northwestern Pakistan, the site of frequent and fierce clashes between Pakistani troops and Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

There was no opportunity for follow-up questions.

Khan said Obama’s election may change conditions for black Americans.

“The black one knows how much the black people are discriminated against in America and Europe and other countries,” he said. “For America’s black people, it could be that there will be a change. That era is coming.”

He said he doubted Obama’s victory would lead to changes in relations between the United States and the Taliban.

Watch the Taliban spokesman on Barack Obama »

U.S. forces dislodged the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

America and its allies have battled the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan ever since, with fighting spreading across the border into Pakistan.

“American should take its army out of the country,” Khan said. “They are considered terrorists.”

Obama has minced no words in describing how he would administer U.S. policy toward the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in August, Obama pledged to “finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

And the president-elect included a blunt warning in remarks on the evening of his election victory: “To those who would tear the world down,” he said, “we will defeat you.”

Khan noted that Obama’s middle name was fairly common in the Muslim world, referring to him at times as “Hussein Barack Obama.”

“If he behaves in the way of a real Hussein, then he has become our brother,” he said. “If Barack Obama pursues the same policies as Bush and behaves like Bush … then he cannot be Hussein. He can only be Obama.”

Source: CNN

While McCain Backs Petraeus, General Sounds Notes That Harmonize With Democratic Nominee.

Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

Throughout Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, the Republican nominee has wrapped himself in the mantle of U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, proclaiming himself the leading advocate of the former commanding general in Iraq who devised last year’s controversial troop surge. Yet during a talk Wednesday about Iraq at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy organization, Petraeus repeatedly made statements that bolstered the foreign-policy proposals of Sen. Barack Obama, McCain’s Democratic rival, or cut against McCain’s own lines.

Petraeus relinquished command in Iraq last month. He assumes responsibility for U.S. Central Command later this month, putting him in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia.

As a serving military officer, Petraeus attempted to avoid any explicit political discussion. “I’m not walking into minefields now,” Petraeus said, to laughter, when asked a question that referred to Tuesday night’s presidential debate. In fact, the general averred that he didn’t watch the debate.

Yet Petraeus, whether intentionally or not, often waded into areas of dispute between Obama and McCain involving Afghanistan, negotiating with adversaries and other recent campaign controversies. Each time, the general either lent tacit support to Obama or denied tacit support to McCain.

Unbidden, Petraeus discussed whether his strategy in Iraq — protecting the population while cleaving apart the insurgency through reconciliation efforts to crush the remaining hard-core enemies — could also work in Afghanistan. The question has particular salience as Petraeus takes over U.S. Central Command, which will put him at the helm of all U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia, thereby giving him a large role in the Afghanistan war.

“Some of the concepts used in Iraq are transplantable [to Afghanistan] while others perhaps are not,” he said. “Every situation is unique.”

Petraeus pointed to efforts by Hamid Karzai’s government to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that would potentially bring some Taliban members back to power, saying that if they are “willing to reconcile,” it would be “a positive step.”

In saying that, Petraeus implicitly allied with U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Last week, McKiernan rejected the idea of replicating the blend of counterinsurgency strategy employed in Iraq. “The word that I don’t use in Afghanistan is the word ’surge,’” McKiernan said, opting against recruiting Pashtun tribal fighters to supplement Afghan security forces against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. “There are countless other differences between Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.

McCain, however, has argued that the Afghanistan war is ripe for a direct replication of Petraeus’ Iraq strategy of population-centric counterinsurgency. “Sen. Obama calls for more troops,” McCain said in the Sept. 26 debate, “but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq. It’s going to have to be employed in Afghanistan.”

McCain qualified that statement in Tuesday’s debate, but clung to it while discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Gen. Petraeus had a strategy,” McCain said, “the same strategy — very, very different, because of the conditions and the situation — but the same fundamental strategy that succeeded in Iraq. And that is to get the support of the people.”

Petraeus also came out unambiguously in his talk at Heritage for opening communications with America’s adversaries, a position McCain is attacking Obama for endorsing. Citing his Iraq experience, Petraeus said, “You have to talk to enemies.” He added that it was necessary to have a particular goal for discussion and to perform advance work to understand the motivations of his interlocutors.

All that was the subject of one of the most contentious tussles between McCain and Obama in the first presidential debate, with Obama contending that his intent to negotiate with foreign adversaries without “precondition” did not mean that he would neglect diplomatic “preparation.”

McCain, apparently perceiving an opportunity for attack, Tuesday again used Obama’s comments to attack his judgment. “Sen. Obama, without precondition, wants to sit down and negotiate with them, without preconditions,” McCain said, referring to Iran.

Yet Petraeus emphasized throughout his lecture that reaching out to insurgent groups — some “with our blood on their hands,” he said — was necessary to the ultimate goal of turning them against irreconcilable enemies like Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Petraeus favorably cited the example of one of his British deputies, who in a previous assignment had to negotiate with Martin McGuiness of the Irish Republican Army, responsible for killing some of the British commander’s troops. The British officer, Petraeus said, occasionally wanted to “reach across the table” and choke his former adversary but understood that such negotiations were key to ending a war.

Petraeus reflected at length on the need to “take away and hold the strongholds and safe havens” possessed by Al Qaeda in Iraq during 2007 and 2008, saying that without doing so, the rest of the counterinsurgency strategy “won’t work.” While he did not initially make reference to Al Qaeda’s much greater presence in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, it was hard not to hear the overtones of the current argument over Pakistan policy between Obama and McCain.

McCain has attacked Obama for explicitly stating conditions under which he would order U.S. military action against the senior leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, deriding that by saying Obama is “going to attack Pakistan,” while advocating that the Pakistanis perform the task instead of U.S. troops.

[..]

Source: Washington Independent

McCain is stuck between a rock and a hard place – his judgment is on the line with Palin – I suppose all he can hope for is that old Palin magic to come through for him – but she can’t always talk out of a teleprompter. McCain at 72 has a job to convince everyone to vote in a fool – and we have already voted in one – and the fireworks of his administration are all around us!

McCain says that he always puts country first. In this important case, that is simply not true.

Will someone please put Sarah Palin out of her agony? Is it too much to ask that she come to realize that she wants, in that wonderful phrase in American politics, “to spend more time with her family”? Having stayed in purdah for weeks, she finally agreed to a third interview. CBS’s Katie Couric questioned her in her trademark sympathetic style. It didn’t help. When asked how living in the state closest to Russia gave her foreign-policy experience, Palin responded thus:

“It’s very important when you consider even national-security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America. Where—where do they go? It’s Alaska. It’s just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to—to our state.”

There is, of course, the sheer absurdity of the premise. Two weeks ago I flew to Tokyo, crossing over the North Pole. Does that make me an expert on Santa Claus? (Thanks, Jon Stewart.) But even beyond that, read the rest of her response. “It is from Alaska that we send out those …” What does this mean? This is not an isolated example. Palin has been given a set of talking points by campaign advisers, simple ideological mantras that she repeats and repeats as long as she can. (“We mustn’t blink.”) But if forced off those rehearsed lines, what she has to say is often, quite frankly, gibberish.

Couric asked her a smart question about the proposed $700 billion bailout of the American financial sector. It was designed to see if Palin understood that the problem in this crisis is that credit and liquidity in the financial system has dried up, and that that’s why, in the estimation of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, the government needs to step in to buy up Wall Street’s most toxic liabilities. Here’s the entire exchange:

    COURIC: Why isn’t it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries; allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?

    PALIN: That’s why I say I, like every American I’m speaking with, were ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the—it’s got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we’ve got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we’ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.

This is nonsense—a vapid emptying out of every catchphrase about economics that came into her head. Some commentators, like CNN’s Campbell Brown, have argued that it’s sexist to keep Sarah Palin under wraps, as if she were a delicate flower who might wilt under the bright lights of the modern media. But the more Palin talks, the more we see that it may not be sexism but common sense that’s causing the McCain campaign to treat her like a time bomb.

Can we now admit the obvious? Sarah Palin is utterly unqualified to be vice president. She is a feisty, charismatic politician who has done some good things in Alaska. But she has never spent a day thinking about any important national or international issue, and this is a hell of a time to start. The next administration is going to face a set of challenges unlike any in recent memory. There is an ongoing military operation in Iraq that still costs $10 billion a month, a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is not going well and is not easily fixed. Iran, Russia and Venezuela present tough strategic challenges.

Domestically, the bailout and reform of the financial industry will take years and hundreds of billions of dollars. Health-care costs, unless curtailed, will bankrupt the federal government. Social Security, immigration, collapsing infrastructure and education are all going to get much worse if they are not handled soon.

And the American government is stretched to the limit. Between the Bush tax cuts, homeland-security needs, Iraq, Afghanistan and the bailout, the budget is looking bleak. Plus, within a few years, the retirement of the baby boomers begins with its massive and rising costs (in the trillions).

Obviously these are very serious challenges and constraints. In these times, for John McCain to have chosen this person to be his running mate is fundamentally irresponsible. McCain says that he always puts country first. In this important case, it is simply not true.