News & Current Affairs

December 30, 2008

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Israel’s air assault on Gaza is “the first in several stages” of operations aimed at ending militant rocket fire, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

As bombing continued for a fourth day, another top official said Israel was ready for “long weeks of action”.

Palestinian officials say more than 360 people have been killed since Saturday. Four Israelis have died in rocket fire.

As EU officials prepared to discuss the crisis, some reports from Israel said it was considering a temporary truce.

Mr Olmert was set to discuss the idea of a 48-hour suspension, suggested by France, with his officials later in the day, the French news agency AFP said.

But Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a truce would allow militant group Hamas – which controls Gaza – “to regain strength… and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel”.

US President Bush agreed in a telephone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that for any ceasefire to be effective it had to respected by Hamas, the White House said.

A BBC reporter says Israeli tanks and troops are massed along Gaza’s border.

Correspondents say this could be a prelude to ground operations, but could also be intended to build pressure on Hamas.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the crisis in Paris.

‘Defenseless population’

On Tuesday, Israeli jets attacked more targets linked to Hamas, hitting a number of government buildings and security installations.

At least 10 people were killed and 40 said to have been wounded in the raids.

One air strike killed two sisters, the eldest aged 11, riding in a donkey cart in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, Palestinian medical sources said.

Palestinian children search the ruins of a destroyed house following an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip, 29 December 2008

The UN has called for an investigation into the attacks, which are causing heavy civilian casualties. It says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far were women and children.

Richard Falk – the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories – said the international community must put more pressure on Israel to end its assault.

“Israel is committing a shocking series of atrocities by using modern weaponry against a defenceless population – attacking a population that has been enduring a severe blockade for many months,” Mr Falk said in a BBC interview.

But Israeli officials said there was more to come.

The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action”, deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Olmert’s statement that the bombardment was “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet” was quoted from a briefing he gave to President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.

Separately, Israeli naval vessels confronted pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break the Gaza blockade by boat. The activists said one vessel rammed them; their boat made port in Lebanon with heavy damage on one side.

Rocket fire

The Egyptian-Gaza border was due to be opened to permit more trucks carrying aid to enter the territory, and for wounded Palestinians to be transported to Egyptian hospitals.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, under popular pressure to open the crossing fully, said that could not happen while Hamas, rather than the Palestinian Authority, led by its rival Fatah, controlled the border.

Demonstrators in Yemen, angered by Egypt’s co-operation with the blockade on Gaza, briefly stormed the country’s consulate in Aden, where they burned an Egyptian flag and hoisted a Palestinian one.

There have been angry protests against the Israeli offensive in many other cities across the Arab world and in several European capitals.

Hamas has pressed on with rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier in areas that have not previously suffered such fatalities.

Israeli military officials said rocket attacks landing more than 25 miles (40km) from Gaza put nearly 10% of Israel’s population of seven million within range.

Israeli political leaders have been under pressure to act against rocket fire with a general election looming in early February.

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has backed the offensive, telling the BBC that “Israel is using a fraction of its power to try to target surgically the terrorists”.

The strikes began less than a week after the expiry of a six-month-long ceasefire deal with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Correspondents say short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, it is unlikely Israel will be able to prevent rocket fire permanently.

Israel dismantled its strategic settlements and military bases in Gaza in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of the narrow coastal strip and its airspace.

GAZA VIOLENCE 27-30 DECEMBER
Map of attacks in and around Gaza

1. Ashdod: First attack so far north, Sunday. Woman killed in second rocket attack, Tuesday
2. Ashkelon: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Monday
3. Sderot: rocket attacks
4. Nevitot: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Saturday
5. Civilian family reported killed in attack on Yabna refugee camp, Sunday
6.
Israeli warplanes strike tunnels under Gaza/Egypt border, Sunday
7. Three brothers reported killed in attack on Rafah, Sunday
8. Khan Younis: Four members of Islamic Jihad and a child reported killed, Sunday. Security officer killed in air strike on Hamas police station, Tuesday
9. Deir al-Balah: Palestinians injured, houses and buildings destroyed, Sunday
10. Tel al-Hawa – Interior ministry and Islamic University badly damaged, Monday. At least three buildings in ministry compound hit, Tuesday
11. Gaza City port: naval vessels targeted, Sunday
12. Shati refugee camp: Home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya targeted, Monday
13. Intelligence building attacked, Sunday
14. Jebaliya refugee camp: several people killed in attack on mosque, Sunday 15. Beit Hanoun – two girls killed in air strike, Tuesday
16. Israeli soldier killed at unspecified military base near Nahal Oz border crossing – five other soldiers wounded in same rocket attack, Monday night.

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October 3, 2008

Biden and Palin debate

Biden and Palin debate

The two US vice-presidential candidates have traded blows on the financial crisis, climate change and foreign policy in their only TV debate.

Democrat Joe Biden sought to link Republican presidential candidate John McCain to the policies of President Bush, saying he was “no maverick”.

Republican Sarah Palin defended herself against claims of inexperience and said the McCain ticket would bring change.

Voter polls suggested Mr Biden had won but Mrs Palin did better than expected.

The debate at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, was seen as particularly crucial for Mrs Palin, whose poll ratings have fallen.

Mrs Palin played to her strengths and her image as a mother in touch with ordinary Americans.

For the most part she spoke fluently but simply about the economy, climate change and the war in Iraq, our correspondent says, and there were few of the stumbling gaffes that have become the staple of late-night comedy shows.

Two polls conducted after the debate, by US networks CNN and CBS News, judged Mr Biden the winner. However, the CNN poll found a large majority thought Mrs Palin had done better than expected.

‘Hockey moms’

Asked by moderator Gwen Ifill who was at fault for the current problems with the US banking system, Mrs Palin blamed predatory lenders and “greed and corruption” on Wall Street.

It would be a travesty if we were to quit now in Iraq
Sarah Palin
Republican VP nominee

Senator McCain would “put partisanship aside” to help resolve the crisis, she said, and had raised the alarm over mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac long ago.

She said “Joe six-packs and hockey moms across the country” – referring to middle-class voters – needed to say “never again” to Wall Street chiefs.

Mrs Palin also accused Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of seeking to raise taxes but Mr Biden rejected that claim.

He said the economic crisis was evidence that the policies of the past eight years had been “the worst we’ve ever had” and accused Mr McCain of being “out of touch” on the economy.

Senator Obama’s plan to raise taxes on households earning over $250,000 was “fairness”, Mr Biden said, unlike Mr McCain’s proposals for more tax breaks for big companies.

‘Dead wrong’

On foreign policy, Mrs Palin accused Mr Obama of refusing to acknowledge that the “surge” strategy of extra troops in Iraq had worked.

He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that people talk about around the kitchen table
Joe Biden
Democratic VP nominee

“It would be a travesty if we were to quit now in Iraq,” she said, describing Mr Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops a “white flag of surrender”.

Mr Biden countered by saying Mr McCain had been “dead wrong” on Iraq and had yet to present a plan to end the conflict.

He said the US was wasting $10bn a month in Iraq while ignoring the real front line in the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan.

In turn, Mrs Palin said Mr Obama was naive for saying he was willing to talk directly to the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba. “That is beyond bad judgment. That is dangerous,” she said.

The pair also sparred on the issue of climate change.

Mrs Palin, governor of energy-rich Alaska, said human activities were a factor in climate change but that climatic cycles were also an element. She urged US energy independence as part of the answer.

Key words used most frequently by Joe Biden in the debate

Mr Biden pointed to climate change as one of the major points on which the two campaigns differed, saying: “If you don’t understand what the cause is, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a solution.”

He said he and Mr Obama backed “clean-coal” technology and accused Mr McCain of having voted against funding for alternative energy projects and seeing only one solution: “Drill, drill, drill.”

While Mrs Palin described her party’s candidate as “the consummate maverick”, her rival argued that Mr McCain had followed the Bush administration’s policies on important issues such as Iraq.

“He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that people talk about around the kitchen table,” Mr Biden said.

Overall, commentators highlighted Mrs Palin’s frequent use of a “folksy” style, for example using expressions like “doggone it” and telling her opponent: “Aw, say it ain’t so, Joe.”

They also noted how Mr Biden appeared emotional as he talked about raising his two young sons alone after a car crash killed his first wife.

Poll shift

According to a Pew Research Center poll, two-thirds of voters planned to follow the debate, far more than in 2004.

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin at Republican convention in St Paul on 4 September 2008

Sarah Palin was a huge hit at the Republican convention last month

A new poll by the Washington Post suggests that 60% of voters now see Mrs Palin as lacking the experience to be an effective president.

One-third say they are less likely to vote for Senator McCain, as a result.

Independent voters, who are not affiliated to either political party, have the most sceptical views of the 44-year-old Alaska governor.

Another poll, for CBS News, gives Senator Barack Obama 49% to 40% for Mr McCain.

It is the latest in a series of opinion polls that have shown a significant shift in the direction of Mr Obama since the economic crisis began.

Mrs Palin, whose fiery speech at last month’s Republican convention inspired Christian conservatives, produces unusually strong feelings – both positive and negative – among voters.

Key words used most frequently by Sarah Palin in the debate

Although Mrs Palin has succeeded in mobilising conservative Republicans, her key challenge is to appeal to the swing voters who could determine who will win the battleground states, analysts say.

In particular, she needs to win over the “Wal-Mart moms” – white, working-class married women.

A recent poll of customers of discount giant Wal-Mart suggested that Mr McCain was slightly ahead with this group in Ohio and Florida, while Mr Obama was leading in Virginia and Colorado.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is scaling back its operations in another swing state, Michigan, effectively conceding the advantage to Mr Obama there.

September 27, 2008

McCain and Obama spar in first debate

McCain and Obama spar in first debate

US presidential rivals Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have attacked each other over foreign policy and the economy, in their first debate.

Mr Obama said a $700bn (£380bn) plan to rescue the US economy was the “final verdict” on years of Republican rule.

He said Mr McCain had been “wrong” on Iraq and tried to link him to President Bush. The Republican senator described his rival as too inexperienced to lead.

Neither landed a knockout blow but polls suggested Mr Obama did better.

An immediate telephone poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corp found 51% said Mr Obama had won, to 38% for Mr McCain.

A poll of uncommitted voters by CBS News found that 39% gave Mr Obama victory, 25% thought John McCain had won, and 36% thought it was a draw.

Both campaigns claimed victory, with Mr McCain’s team saying their candidate had shown a “mastery on national security issues” while Mr Obama’s aides said he had passed the commander-in-chief test “with flying colours”.
All things considered, it’s about a draw
Matthew Yglesias, Think Progress

First presidential debate scorecard
Analysis: McCain wins on points
Send us your comments
US voters’ views

Tens of millions of Americans were expected to watch the debate on TV, with only about five weeks to go before the 4 November elections.

Senator McCain said he did not need “any on-the-job training”.

“I’m ready to go at it right now,” he added.

But Senator Obama said Mr McCain had been “wrong” about invading Iraq and that the war had led the US to take its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, where it should have been pursuing al-Qaeda.

Mr McCain argued that as a result of the “surge” – which involved sending some 30,000 extra US troops to Iraq – US military strategy was succeeding.

“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” he said.

The televised debate in Oxford, Mississippi, focused largely on foreign policy but began with discussion of the economic crisis gripping the US.

Speaking about the financial bail-out plan under discussion by the US Congress, Mr Obama said: “We have to move swiftly and we have to move wisely.”
NEXT DEBATES
2 Oct – vice-presidential rivals. Topic: Domestic and foreign policy
7 Oct – presidential contenders. Topic: Any issues raised by members of the audience
15 Oct – presidential contenders. Topic: Domestic and economic policy

Mr McCain said he believed it would be a long time before the situation was resolved.

“This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis,” he said. “This is the end of the beginning if we come out with a package that will keep these institutions stable and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Mr McCain attacked Mr Obama over his record on finance, saying he had asked for millions of dollars in so-called “earmarks” – money for pet projects – as an Illinois senator.

The Republican also suggested a spending freeze in many areas apart from defence, but Mr Obama likened the proposal to using a hatchet when a scalpel was needed.

Both candidates agreed that the bail-out plan would put massive pressure on the budget of the next president and mean cuts in government spending.

‘Serious threat’

Asked about Iran, Mr McCain stressed that Tehran was a threat to the region and, through its interference in Iraq, to US troops deployed there.

He outlined a proposal for a “league of democracies” to push through painful sanctions against Tehran that were presently being blocked in bodies like the United Nations because of opposition from Russia.

He criticised Mr Obama for his previously stated willingness to hold talks with the leaders of Iran without preconditions.

Mr Obama rejected that criticism, saying he would reserve the right as president “to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe”.

However, he said he agreed with his Republican rival that “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran” and the threat that that would pose to Israel, a staunch US ally.

‘Safer today’

Mr McCain accused Mr Obama of “a little bit of naivete” in his initial response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

“Russia has now become a nation fuelled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB [former secret services name] apparatchik-run government. I looked in [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Mr Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters – a K, a G and B,” McCain said.

Speaking about the so-called war on terror, Mr McCain said he believed the nation was safer than it had been the day after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks but there was still a long way to go.

Mr Obama pointed to the spread of al-Qaeda to some 60 countries and said that the US had to do more to combat that, including improving its own image as a “beacon of light” on rights.

“One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world,” Mr Obama said.

Mr McCain sought to distance himself from President George W Bush’s administration, which has very low public approval ratings.

“I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on the way that the Iraq war was conducted,” he said.

“I have a long record and the American people know me very well… a maverick of the Senate.”

Mr McCain had earlier vowed not to attend the forum in Mississippi until Congress approved the economic bail-out plan, but he reversed his decision after some progress was made towards a deal.

September 19, 2008

Top Republican says Palin unready

Top Republican says Palin unready

Chuck Hagel

Senator Chuck Hagel could be influential with independent voters

Senior Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has voiced doubts about Sarah Palin’s qualifications for the vice-presidency.

John McCain’s running mate “doesn’t have any foreign policy credentials”, Mr Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald.

Mr Hagel was a prominent supporter of Mr McCain during his 2000 bid for the US presidency, but has declined to endorse either candidate this year.

He was opposed to the Iraq War, and recently joined Mr McCain’s rival Barack Obama on a Middle East trip.

‘Stop the nonsense’

“I think it’s a stretch to, in any way, to say that she’s got the experience to be president of the United States,” Mr Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald newspaper.

And he was dismissive of the fact that Mrs Palin, the governor of Alaska, has made few trips abroad.

“You get a passport for the first time in your life last year? I mean, I don’t know what you can say. You can’t say anything.”

This kind of thing will have an effect on independents

Mr Hagel also criticised the McCain campaign for its suggestion that the proximity of Alaska to Russia gave Mrs Palin foreign policy experience.

“I think they ought to be just honest about it and stop the nonsense about, ‘I look out my window and I see Russia and so therefore I know something about Russia’,” he said.

“That kind of thing is insulting to the American people.”

Justin Webb says Mr Hagel’s opinion of Mrs Palin will have an effect on independent voters.

A senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr Hagel was a close ally of Mr McCain, but the two men parted company over the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Mr Hagel skipped this year’s Republican National Convention in favor of a visit to Latin America.

Mr Hagel’s decision to accompany Mr Obama this summer on a trip to Iraq and Israel, as part of a US Congressional delegation, led to speculation that he would throw his support behind the Democratic nominee.

However, a spokesman for the Nebraska senator insisted in August that “Senator Hagel has no intention of getting involved in any of the campaigns and is not planning to endorse either candidate”.

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

September 14, 2008

How to be a good president

How to be a good president

Barack Obama says the most important quality is vision for the future. No, says John McCain, the key requirement is experience – or at least that’s what he said until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Ronald Reagan

A former film star, Ronald Reagan was an excellent communicator

Both want the most powerful job in the world – but neither they, nor anyone else, can agree on what, precisely, are the qualities needed to serve as president of the United States.

Indeed, there is not even a job description – only an oath of office demanding the president defend the US constitution.

What’s more, the job keeps changing, evolving constantly in the 230 years since the founding of the republic.

Still, an understanding has gradually emerged of the key qualities required of a president.

The trouble is, they are so many and various, it’s almost impossible to imagine any normal human being matching up.

Preacher and protector

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a “bully pulpit,” Americans have expected first-class rhetorical skills from their leaders.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton

Mr Obama’s camp hopes to capitalise on Bill Clinton’s lasting popularity

A president must be able to inspire, to preach, to stir the American people to greater things.

In the modern era, Roosevelt, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all had a great talent for communication; so too did Bill Clinton, though in a different style.

The presidents who have struggled – both George Bushes and Jimmy Carter come to mind – were those who lacked oratorical gifts.

But the job requires more than that. Americans look to their president as a protector, someone who will keep the country strong and ward off its enemies.

Roosevelt was a great war leader. As the former Allied commander during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower made Americans feel similarly secure.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans still revere Reagan for winning the Cold War.

Minimum mendacity

Foreign policy acumen is a related and essential element in the presidential kit of parts.

Richard Nixon meets John McCain in 1973

Nixon and John McCain could both claim foreign policy expertise

It’s why Mr McCain makes so much of his own experience in international affairs – and why the Obama camp equally emphasizes Sarah Palin’s lack of a foreign policy record.

The first George Bush’s reputation rests on his skillful handling of the post-Cold War world, while his son will have to persuade future historians that he did not make terrible blunders abroad.

Yet skill on the world stage is not enough to guarantee the respect of posterity.

Richard Nixon regarded himself as a geo-strategic sage, thanks to his opening to China, but he is still known by a single word: Watergate.

Domestic scandal trumps international accomplishments. Put that down as another lesson for those keen to learn how to be a good president: you need to be, if not saint-like in your honesty, at least not so mendacious that you get tangled up in your own deceptions.

It helps if you’re someone who can get things done. Lyndon Johnson will forever be saddled with the disaster of the Vietnam war, but he retains respect for passing a canon of social legislation – from civil rights to his war on poverty – that genuinely improved millions of lives.

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was seen as a decent but aloof president

That was largely down to his mastery of the often arcane ways of the senate, which he had once dominated as majority leader.

That hard-headed, practical ability to get results is often underestimated.

In the words of British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Johnson “pushed through so much legislation which has changed the way we think about equality, equal rights and human dignity, and I think that is a huge accolade”.

Star quality

It’s good if you’re a palpably decent man, as Jimmy Carter was – but less good if that makes you seem lofty, prissy or aloof, as Carter often seemed.

It’s good if you can keep the country at peace and the economy in rosy health – as Bill Clinton did – but less good if you let that get overshadowed by personal indiscipline, as he did.

Finally, in the modern era, the president needs a compelling personal story, great charisma and as much screen presence as a movie star.

As I discovered making “President Hollywood”, the demands of Washington DC and Tinsel Town are remarkably similar.

Which man matches up to this impossible checklist, Barack Obama or John McCain? Well, the American people will decide that on 4 November.

But they had better get used to one thing right away: the president with every one of these essential qualities simply does not exist.

September 4, 2008

Palin takes battle to Democrats

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Palin takes battle to Democrats

John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has made a stinging attack on Democratic presidential runner Barack Obama at the US Republican convention.

She gave her first major campaign speech to an enthusiastic crowd at the convention in St Paul, Minnesota.

Defending her small-town roots, she attacked Mr Obama as having talked of change, but done nothing of substance.

Mr McCain made a surprise appearance on stage, with her family, saying: “Don’t you think we made the right choice?”

The Arizona senator has been formally nominated as the party’s presidential candidate in a roll call vote by state delegations. He is expected to accept the nomination on Thursday.

I’ve learned quickly… , that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone
Sarah Palin

In a speech designed to rally the party base, she spoke of her family, including her elder son, who is about to be deployed to Iraq in the US Army, and her younger son, who has Down’s Syndrome.

The mother-of-five highlighted her background as a small-town “average hockey mom” and stressed that she was not part of the “Washington elite”.

In a salvo directed at media commentators who have questioned her qualifications, she said she was “not going to Washington to seek their good opinion” but to serve the people.

Mrs Palin praised the “determination, resolve and sheer guts” of Mr McCain and said she was honoured to help him.

Mrs Palin also attacked Mr Obama’s “change agenda” and suggested he was more interested in idealism and “high-flown speech-making” than acting for “real Americans”.

“In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,” she said.

Justin Webb
I liked the parliamentary-style jabs at Obama
BBC North America editor Justin Webb

“And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”

She also targeted Mr Obama’s experience as a community organiser and remarks he made earlier this year when he spoke of “bitter” working-class people “clinging to guns or religion”.

“I guess that a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer’, except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said.

“I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.”

Mrs Palin – who supports drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – said that while drilling “will not solve all of America’s energy problems”, that is “no excuse to do nothing at all”.

Democrats under fire

Former Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee opened the night by hailing Mr McCain and attacking the Democrats.

Mr Romney, a one-time rival of Mr McCain for the Republican nomination, used his speech to hammer the Democrats over their “liberal” agenda.

“We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington – throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

He also lauded Mr McCain’s national security credentials, saying he was the presidential contender who would defeat “evil” radical Islam.

Mr Huckabee, also a former rival of Mr McCain, joked that he had hoped to be giving the speech on Thursday night – when Mr McCain will accept the party’s nomination to run for president in November’s election.

But, he said, he was delighted to be speaking for his second choice, Mr McCain – “a man with the character and stubborn kind of integrity that we need in a president”.

He defended Mrs Palin against criticism from the media, saying its coverage had been “tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert”, and attacked the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Rudy Giuliani speaks at the Republican convention in St Paul, 3 Sept
You need to face your enemy in order to defeat them. John McCain will face this threat and bring victory to this country
Rudy Giuliani

“I am so tired of hearing about her lack of experience. She got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, than Joe Biden got running for president of the United States,” he said, referring to Mr Biden’s performance in the Democratic primaries.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani followed Mr Huckabee on stage, calling the 2008 presidential election a “turning point” for the people of the US.

He charged the Democrats with being in denial about the threat from terrorism and said Mr McCain had the foreign policy, national security and leadership experience that counted.

“The choice in this election comes down to substance over style,” he said. “John has been tested. Barack Obama has not. Tough times require strong leadership, and this is no time for on the job training.”

Vetting questions

The Alaska governor’s speech comes amid scrutiny of her record and after two days dominated by the news her daughter Bristol, 17, is pregnant.

Mrs Palin and her family, including Bristol and her boyfriend, greeted Mr McCain at the airport as he arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Ahead of her address, senior McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt issued a statement saying that media questions over how thoroughly Mrs Palin was vetted should end.

It has also been revealed that an attorney has been hired to represent Mrs Palin in an Alaska state ethics investigation involving alleged abuse of power.

Mrs Palin told US network CNBC she had “nothing to hide”. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

There have also been reports that Mrs Palin sought special financial favors for her city and state – something the McCain campaign is against.

She was elected governor of Alaska in 2006 and before that was mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Alaska.

September 3, 2008

Profile: John McCain

Profile: John McCain

McCain is a divisive figure within his own Republican
party [GALLO/GETTY]

A decorated Vietnam war hero who spent more than five years as a war prisoner, McCain’s successful bid for the Republican nomination had marked his second attempt to run for the White House.

But his success is a remarkable turnaround for the Arizona senator, who until recently was not viewed as a serious contender.

A self-proclaimed straight talker whose bluntness and at times unconventional style have both frustrated and appealed to would be voters, McCain is a divisive figure within his own party, to the extent that some have claimed they will not vote for him.

And some have pointed to both this rocky relationship and his age – at 71 he will be America’s oldest ever president –  as major obstacles on the road to the Oval Office.

Vietnam ordeal

McCain [here with Richard Nixon] spent years
in Vietnam POW camps
[Getty Images]

McCain comes from a family with a long military history – both his father and grandfather served as US navy admirals.

McCain himself joined the navy in 1958, beginning a 22-year long naval career marked most notably by his decision to volunteer for service in the Vietnam war.

It was a momentous decision. In October 1967 during a bombing mission, McCain’s plane was shot down by a missile.

He ejected but was injured in the process, breaking both his arms and his leg.

Captured by north Vietnamese soldiers, he was taken prisoner and held at several prisons for five and a half years, often enduring torture by his captors. He still bears physical scars from his ordeal.

Most notably, though he was offered an early release by the North Vietnamese, McCain declined because he did not want to be seen as receiving preferential treatment.

On his return, McCain decided to enter politics, becoming first a naval liaison for the US senate, then a congressman for Arizona before entering the senate in 1987.

Hawkish policies

“Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world”

John McCain

On foreign policy, many prospective voters were unnerved by a comment McCain made while campaigning in which he said he believed US forces should stay in Iraq for 100 years if necessary.

“I oppose a pre-emptive withdrawal strategy that has no Plan B for the aftermath of its inevitable failure and the greater problems that would ensue,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

However, McCain has criticised US military strategy in Iraq, saying that by failing to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy the US and the Iraqi people had paid a “dear price”.He is also a firm opponent of the use of torture. However, he recently voted against a senate bill which would have banned the controversial interrogation method of waterboarding widely viewed as torture.

McCain also advocates building up Israel militarily and isolating Hamas, while using every resource available “to aid moderate Muslims … who are resisting the well-financed campaign of extremism that is tearing Muslim societies apart”, he added.

On Iran, McCain is hawkish, describing the nation as the world’s “chief state sponsor of terrorism” and advocating all options, including possible military action, against the Islamic Republic should it continue with its nuclear program.

“Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world,” he wrote.

However, an embarrassing gaffe during a visit to Jordan in March, in which he wrongly accused Iran, a predominantly Shia nation, of aiding Sunni al-Qaeda fighters, led to questions about whether his foreign affairs experience was as solid as he claimed.

Polarising figure

McCain was left embittered after his 2000
nomination battle with Bush[EPA]

McCain remains a polarising figure within the Republican party.

On domestic issues McCain is known for being willing to “cross the floor” and work with Democrats, particularly on the matters of campaign finance and on immigration – co-sponsoring a bi-partisan bill which would have offered an amnesty to illegal immigrants.

This has caused suspicion amongst some of the more traditionalist members of the Republican party, who consider him too moderate on social issues such as immigration.

McCain’s response has been to aggressively tout his conservative credentials while out on the road campaigning for the nomination, attempting to strike a delicate balance by reaching out to centrists who may be wooed to vote for him while at the same time striving not to upset evangelicals or more right-wing members of the Republican party.

Past controversies

Two decades ago, McCain and four other senators were accused of trying to influence banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a savings financier later convicted of securities fraud.

The Senate Ethics Committee decided that McCain had used “poor judgment” but that his actions ‘were not improper” and did not deserve punishment.

In 2000 McCain ran against George Bush, losing after a controversial nomination race in which scurrilous accusations against him implied erroneously he had fathered an illegitimate African-American child.

The experience, he later acknowledged, left him angry – although his relationship with Bush has since thawed.

Nonetheless, sensitised by the slurs against him in the 2000 nomination campaign, McCain set up a “South Carolina truth squad’ to rebut allegations that he had “sold out” prisoners of war.

In February, he also denied a New York Times report that suggested he had a romantic relationship with a Washington lobbyist.

However, with the potential slings and arrows of a major presidential campaign, McCain may face more of the same in the future.

August 21, 2008

Gaddafi son retires from politics

Gaddafi son retires from politics

Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

Sayf al-Islam said he was not at odds with his father

The son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has announced his retirement from political life.

Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi has been a leading proponent of reform through his charity, The Gaddafi Foundation.

He said he had been obliged to intervene politically, but this was no longer necessary, as Libya now had institutions and systems it had lacked.

He has previously denied reports he was being groomed to take power and said there was no rift with his father.

He has no official role in government but in the past four years he has come into the limelight internationally because of his interventions.

The situation has changed and if I continue there will be a problem
Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi

In an hour-long televised speech, Sayf al-Islam Gaddafi took some credit for the rehabilitation of Libya’s reputation.

“I intervened extensively in everything: our foreign policy, in a lot of problems, in development, in housing. Because there were no institutions or an administrative system that were able to do so,” he told a crowd in the desert town of Sebha.

“But now the situation has changed and if I continue there will be a problem.”

He said the decision-making process should not be held in the hands of a few people and again urged the creation of more civil societies, an independent media and a judiciary enshrined in a new constitution.

These goals were the responsibility of all Libyans, he said, to a standing ovation in Sebha, where he was addressing a crowd of thousands of young supporters.

Sayf al-Islam is one of seven of Col Gaddafi’s sons.

The Libyan leader’s youngest son, Hannibal, has caused a diplomatic row with Switzerland after being charged with assaulting two of his servants last month.

Libya’s state shipping company halted oil shipments to Switzerland in protest.

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