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In a sequence of events that neatly captures the contradictions of Barack Obama’s rise through Illinois politics, a phone call he made three months ago to urge passage of a state ethics bill indirectly contributed to the downfall of a fellow Democrat he twice supported, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Mr. Obama placed the call to his political mentor, Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate. Mr. Jones was a critic of the legislation, which sought to curb the influence of money in politics, as was Mr. Blagojevich, who had vetoed it. But after the call from Mr. Obama, the Senate overrode the veto, prompting the governor to press state contractors for campaign contributions before the law’s restrictions could take effect on Jan. 1, prosecutors say.
Tipped off to Mr. Blagojevich’s efforts, federal agents obtained wiretaps for his phones and eventually overheard what they say was scheming by the governor to profit from his appointment of a successor to the United States Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Obama. One official whose name has long been mentioned in Chicago political circles as a potential successor is Mr. Jones, a machine politician who was viewed as a roadblock to ethics reform but is friendly with Mr. Obama.
Beyond the irony of its outcome, Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.
By the time Mr. Obama intervened on the ethics measure, his relationship with Mr. Blagojevich, always defined more by political proximity than by personal chemistry, had cooled as the governor became increasingly engulfed in legal troubles. There is nothing in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday to indicate that Mr. Obama knew anything about plans to seek money and favors in exchange for his Senate seat; he has never been implicated in any other “pay to play” cases that have emerged from the long-running investigation of the Blagojevich administration.
(CNN) — President-elect Barack Obama formally announced Sunday that retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki is his pick to be secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki Sunday promised to work for veterans “each and every day.”
“There is no one more distinguished, more determined, or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next secretary of Veterans Affairs — General Eric Shinseki,” Obama said at a press conference. “No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need.”
Obama said the nation must focus on helping troops who have served their country especially during bad economic times.
“We don’t just need to better serve veterans of today’s wars. We also need to build a 21st century VA that will better serve all who have answered our nation’s call,” Obama said. “That means cutting red tape and easing transition into civilian life. And it means eliminating shortfalls, fully funding VA health care, and providing the benefits our veterans have earned.
Shinseki, who spoke after Obama, made a vow to his fellow veterans. If confirmed, he said, he will “work each and every day” to ensure the nation is serving them “as well as you have served us.”
The official announcement took place in Chicago on Sunday, the anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“When I reflect on the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans and I think about how so many veterans around the country are struggling even more than those who have not served — higher unemployment rates, higher homeless rates, higher substance abuse rates, medical care that is inadequate — it breaks my heart,” Obama said earlier in the day on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“And I think that General Shinseki is exactly the right person who’s going to be able to make sure that we honor our troops when they come home.”
“He has agreed that he is willing to be part of this administration because both he and I share a reverence for those who serve,” Obama said in the interview recorded Saturday and broadcast Sunday.
Host Tom Brokaw said Shinseki had lost his job in the Bush administration “because he said that we would need more troops in Iraq than the secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld, thought that we would need at that time.”
“He was right,” Obama replied.
Veterans groups appeared to support the selection.
“I am excited. I don’t know him personally but this is a huge move,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
For years, Shinseki, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, has been cited as an example by Pentagon critics who say the former Army chief’s sage advice was ignored in 2003, resulting in too few U.S. troops being sent to Iraq after the invasion.
Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003 that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers would be required” to pacify the country. The comment infuriated some Bush administration officials, and he retired just a few months later.
Shinseki has never spoken publicly about his testimony, which has often been cited by critics as evidence that Rumsfeld ignored the advice of one of his key generals.
But as Army chief of staff, Shinseki was not in the chain of command, and played no direct role in drawing up the war plans.
Pentagon sources say that, in fact, Shinseki never advocated higher troop levels for Iraq, in part because it was not his job to do so. And sources say that just before the invasion, when asked by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers if he agreed with the war plans, Shinseki voiced no objections.
Still, Rieckhoff said, “Shinseki is a guy who had a career putting patriotism above politics. He is a wounded veteran so he understands the plight of veterans.”
He said Shinseki would have to make key connections with the veterans community, adding, “This is a big name and it shows that he (Obama) is not going to treat the Veterans Affairs secretary as a low priority.”
John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, called the reported pick an “interesting choice.”
“I am satisfied with it,” Rowan told CNN on Saturday, adding that the choice seems to be in the Obama transition team’s pattern of “bringing in strong personalities into all the positions who aren’t going to ‘yes’ him to death.”
“When Shinseki had his disagreements with the administration, he wasn’t afraid to speak up,” Rowan said.
Veterans for Common Sense also weighed in, issuing a statement “strongly” supporting Shinseki.
“In February 2003, General Shinseki honestly and correctly assessed our nation’s military needs before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003,” the statement said. “This same level of candor and honesty will serve President-elect Obama well so he can quickly and accurately identify VA’s many challenges and then implement responsible solutions that take into consideration our veterans’ needs and concerns.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called and briefed president-elect Barack Obama on the series of attacks in Mumbai, the State Department said Friday.
“I can confirm on the record that Secretary of State Rice has called president-elect Obama twice since the attacks on Mumbai began to brief him on the situation,” said spokesman Gordon Duguid.
Duguid earlier confirmed that two Americans had been killed and two injured, although he declined to identify them.
Rice was at the presidential retreat Camp David providing updates to US President George Bush.
Indian forces were Friday still trying to hunt down the Islamic militant gunmen holed up in the city after two days of attacks which have left 130 people dead, including at least 17 foreigners.
It was not clear how many gunmen remained at large in the city, nor how many people might still be held hostage, after scores of people were released, many of them foreign tourists.
Just days before he is expected to roll out his national security team after the Thanksgiving holiday, President-elect Barack Obama condemned Wednesday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which have killed at least 101 people, wounded 287 others, and left others held hostage.
“President-elect Obama strongly condemns today’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and his thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families, and the people of India,” said Brooke Anderson, Chief National Security Spokesperson for the Obama Transition Team, in a statement released this evening.
The gunmen targeted Westerners in their assaults on luxury hotels, tourist hot-spots, and a train station in Mumbai, India’s financial capital.
“These coordinated attacks on innocent civilians demonstrate the grave and urgent threat of terrorism,” Anderson said.
A senior Obama official told ABC News that the President-elect was following the situation closely and getting regular updates from his staff, as well as updates and information from the Bush Administration.
“The United States must continue to strengthen our partnerships with India and nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks,” Anderson stated. “We stand with the people of India, whose democracy will prove far more resilient than the hateful ideology that led to these attacks.”
The Obama Transition Team has established a team to interact with the State Department and with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. An Obama aide says the Bush administration “helpfully provided regular updates through several channels.”
Source: ABC Political Punch
In Chicago today, at Obama Transition HQ, President-elect Obama surprised the Vice President-elect, who will turn 66 tomorrow.
After their weekly lunch, Mr. Obama presented Mr. Biden cupcakes, Obama aides say.
Here is a picture from the Obama Transition Team:
Obama lit the candles on the 12 cupcakes and brought them over to Biden.
“You’re 12 years old!” Obama joked, referring to the dozen cupcakes.
“Maybe in dog years!” Biden laughed.
Mr. Obama led the staff in singing him “Happy Birthday,” and then gifted his loquacious running mate with a Chicago White Sox Hat, a Chicago Bears Hat and a bucket of Garrett’s popcorn as gifts.
That whole anti-American, friend-to-the-terrorists thing about President-elect Barack Obama? Never mind.
Just a few weeks ago, at the height of the campaign, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told Chris Matthews of MSNBC that, when it came to Mr. Obama, “I’m very concerned that he may have anti-American views.”
But there she was on Wednesday, after narrowly escaping defeat because of those comments, saying she was “extremely grateful that we have an African-American who has won this year.” Ms. Bachmann, a Republican, called Mr. Obama’s victory, which included her state, “a tremendous signal we sent.”
And it was not too long ago that Senator John McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, accused Mr. Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”
But she took an entirely different tone on Thursday, when she chastised reporters for asking her questions about her war with some staff members in the McCain campaign at such a heady time. “Barack Obama has been elected president,” Ms. Palin said. “Let us, let us — let him — be able to kind of savor this moment, one, and not let the pettiness of maybe internal workings of the campaign erode any of the recognition of this historic moment that we’re in. And God bless Barack Obama and his beautiful family.”
There is a great tradition of paint-peeling political hyperbole during presidential campaign years. And there is an equally great tradition of backing off from it all afterward, though with varying degrees of deftness.
But given the intensity of some of the charges that have been made in the past few months, and the historic nature of Mr. Obama’s election, the exercise this year has been particularly whiplash-inducing, with its extreme before-and-after contrasts.
The shift in tone follows the magnanimous concession speech from Mr. McCain, of Arizona, who referred to Mr. Obama’s victory Tuesday night as “a historic election” and hailed the “special pride” it held for African-Americans. That led the vice president-elect, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., to get into the act. During the campaign, Mr. Biden said he no longer recognized Mr. McCain, an old friend. Now, he says, “We’re still friends.” President Bush, in turn, also hailed Mr. Obama’s victory, saying his arrival at the White House would be “a stirring sight.”
Whether it all heralds a new era of cooperation in Washington remains to be seen, and it may be downright doubtful. But for now, at least, it would seem to be part of an apparent rush to join what has emerged as a real moment in American history.
The presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said she was hard-pressed to find a similar moment when the tone had changed so drastically, and so quickly, among so many people of such prominence.
“I don’t think that’s happened very often,” Ms. Goodwin said. “The best answer I can give you is they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and they recognize how the country saw this election, and how people feel that they’re living in a time of great historic moment.”
Others in the professional political class were not so sure. Some wondered whether simple pragmatism was the explanation.
“My experience is, it’s less an epiphany and more a political reality,” said Chris Lehane, a former Democratic strategist who worked on the presidential campaign of Al Gore. “I’m thinking they will continue in this direction so long as the polls indicate it’s a smart place to be.”
There are notable exceptions: Rush Limbaugh has given no quarter. And while his fellow conservative radio hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have noted the significance of his victory — on Wednesday, Ms. Ingraham said “Obama did make history” and “It’s not the time to vilify him” — they seem to be in line with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Relishing his new role in the opposition camp, Mr. O’Reilly said, “The guy is still a mystery, so our oversight will be intense.”
Some lawmakers also do not appear inclined to give up the fight. Representative John A. Boehner, the House minority leader, has already criticized Mr. Obama’s choice of Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, as his chief of staff.
But other people who opposed Mr. Obama, like Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have good reason to try to make up with the winning ticket. As an ardent backer of Mr. McCain, Mr. Lieberman angered the Democrats, who in 2000 nominated him as their vice-presidential candidate. After losing a Democratic primary challenge in 2006 and then winning as an independent, he still continued to caucus with the Democrats.
Attending an event with Mr. McCain in York, Pa., in August, Mr. Lieberman said the race was “between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.”
As a speaker at the Republican National Convention, Mr. Lieberman went further than Democrats expected by criticizing Mr. Obama for “voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground.” (Mr. Obama voted for bills that included plans for withdrawal from Iraq and against others that did not.)
This week Mr. Lieberman, who has been asked by the Democratic Senate leadership to consider giving up his position as the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, released a statement congratulating Mr. Obama for “his historic and impressive victory.” It continued, “The American people are a people of extraordinary fairness.”
Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for Mr. Lieberman, said that as far as the senator was concerned, “It’s over, and it’s genuinely time to find unity and move forward behind the new president.”
And what about that whole bit about Mr. Obama not always putting his country first? “He believes that President-elect Obama — and, then, Senator Obama — is a genuine patriot and loves his country,” Mr. Wittmann said. “The only point he was making in his campaign was about partisanship.”
Mr. Obama is apparently ready to bury the hatchet with his new fans. “President-elect Obama has made it clear that he wants to put partisanship behind and work together to solve the many challenges confronting the country,” said Stephanie Cutter, a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team. “We’re pleased that others do as well.”
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who will help decide Mr. Lieberman’s committee assignment, sounded less ready to forgive, at least when it came Mr. Lieberman’s support for Mr. McCain. “Joe Lieberman has done something that I think was improper, wrong, and I’d like — if we weren’t on television, I’d use a stronger word of describing what he did,” he said on CNN Friday.