120 Civilians Killed by U.S. Air Strikes in Afghanistan

Afghanistan Air Strikes

Reports from the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross are confirming earlier reports that 120 civilians were killed in air strikes on villages in Afghanistan’s Farah province on May 4. According to the Red Cross, the dead included women and children.

The United States has “apologized” for the loss of life–through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–who appeared with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Washington. Clinton said that the United States will work with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan “to avoid the loss of innocent life and we deeply, deeply regret that loss.” Hamid Karzai says he plans to raise the issue when he meets with President Barack Obama.

The United States and Afghanistan are promising to investigate the incident.

However, the U.S. military is already suggesting that it may not have been air strikes that killed the civilians. General David McKiernan expressed doubts Wednesday saying that the deaths may have been the work of Taliban forces. Other military officials have indicated that they “will do everything in our power to remunerate the losses and provide assistance to the families if there is evidence of civilian casualties.”

If the death toll is confirmed, it would be one of the highest since the United States’ 2001 invasion. Deaths from air strikes have been partially responsible for a dramatic increase in civilian deaths in recent years. These deaths have contributed to growing friction between Afghan civilians and the United States’ troops occupying the country.

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Headlines: Hillary Clinton Admits Drug War a Failure; Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of War Crimes

Democracy Now Headlines: Hillary Clinton Admits Drug War a Failure; Human Rights Watch Accuses Israel of War Crimes

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Admin to Unveil New Finance Regulations

The Obama administration is expected to unveil proposals today to boost government authority over the financial system. In addition to previously announced powers to seize troubled non-banking firms, the administration’s plan would reportedly expand federal regulation for the first time to cover financial derivatives trading, large hedge funds and insurers such as AIG. Regulators would also impose uniform standards to limit the range of functions of major financial firms, including banks.

Lawmakers Trim Obama Budget

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers continue negotiations on the final version of President Obama’s budget plan. On Wednesday, the House Budget Committee voted to back the measure after trimming tens of billions dollars from the original proposal. The Senate Budget Committee is expected to vote on its version later today.

Clinton Admits U.S. Drug War Failure

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has admitted U.S. drug policy has not only been a failure but has in fact fueled Mexico’s drug war. Speaking to reporters at the outset of her trip to Mexico, Clinton said: “Clearly what we’ve been doing has not worked… I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility. Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians.” Clinton’s comments are being called the most far-reaching by a senior U.S. official in accepting responsibility for the rampant drug trade.

11 Die in U.S. Strikes in Pakistan

In Pakistan, at least eleven people have been killed in two separate U.S. drone attacks. Pakistani officials said the dead were foreign militants. Hundreds of people have died in U.S. missile strikes inside Pakistan. The Wall Street Journal reports U.S. and Pakistani officials are finalizing a new list of targets along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The cooperation comes despite U.S. accusations that Pakistan’s top intelligence agency is directly supporting Taliban fighters and other militants inside Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, U.S. officials are now accusing elements of Pakistani intelligence of directly funding and supplying Taliban commanders.

U.S., Israel Accused of Deadly Sudan Bombing

The U.S. and Israel are being accused of killing up to 39 people in a bombing attack in Sudan this past January. According to reports, U.S. or Israeli forces allegedly attacked a convoy of seventeen trucks suspected of carrying weapons intended for smuggling into the Gaza Strip. A Sudanese government minister confirmed the strike, saying a “major power” carried it out.

HRW Accuses Israel of War Crimes in Phosphorous Attacks

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of unlawfully attacking densely populated civilian areas with white phosphorous during its three-week attack on Gaza. In a new report, Human Rights Watch says the white phosphorous killed at least twelve Palestinian civilians and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property. Bill Vanesveld of Human Rights Watch says the phosphorous use likely amounts to a war crime.

Bill Vanesveld: “It looks like that evidence is consistent with war-crimes being committed. A war-crime is when there is either intent or recklessness with regard to targeting civilians, or civilian institutions. What we’ve got here is a lot of different civilian institutions being burned down. A lot of different civilians being injured and it continued to happen for no apparent justification-that’s why we’re concerned.”

Vowing to Seek “Peace”, Netanyahu Omits Mention of Palestinian State

In other news from Israel, the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to become what he called a “partner for peace” with the Palestinians.

Benjamin Netanyahu: “I think that the Palestinians should understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security and for rapid economic development of the Palestinian economy. Peace: It’s not the last goal. It’s a common and enduring goal for all Israelis and all Israeli governments–mine included, this means that I will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for peace.”

Despite vowing to work for peace, Netanyahu’s speech failed to even mention the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has consistently rejected Palestinian statehood and backed the ongoing expansion of Jewish-only Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.

Indigenous Groups Hold Global Warming Summit

In Peru, a summit of indigenous groups is gathering to discuss the environmental threats to their communities. Indigenous leader Norma Mayo says energy extraction is endangering areas across the southern hemisphere.

bq. Norma Mayo: “Those guilty of global warming are the developed nations who came to our countries to take oil and minerals and leave our forests contaminated. This has hurt our children, our families. They are poor and malnutrition is rising.”

Moon Calls for $1 Trillion Stimulus for Developing Nations

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is calling on G20 leaders to establish a $1 trillion dollar stimulus package for poorer countries threatened by the global financial meltdown. Ban told the Financial Times he’ll make a formal request at the G20 summit in London next week. Ban meanwhile helped mark an international day of observance for victims of the slave trade at the UN.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon: “Africa has yet to recover from the ravages of the slave trade, or the subsequent era of colonization. Here in the new world and in Europe and elsewhere, people of African descendants still struggle daily against entrenched prejudice that keeps them disproportionately in poverty. Despite the official abolition of slavery, racism still pollutes our world.”

Paterson, Legislators Agree on Drug Law Repeal

Here in New York, Governor David Paterson and state lawmakers have reached a deal on further undoing the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The agreement would repeal an unknown number of mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug crimes and grant judges discretion to order treatment rather than prison time. The measure also calls for a $50 million dollar expansion to drug courts and treatment programs. It’s unclear however how many prisoners would be able apply to have their sentences commuted. Paterson was once arrested for protesting the Rockefeller drug laws. But according to reports, he’s seeking to limit the number of prisoners eligible to apply for commutation.

Vermont Governor Vows to Veto Same-Sex Marriage Bill

In Vermont, Governor Jim Douglas says he’ll veto a same-sex marriage bill if one crosses his desk. Vermont’s state senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage on Monday and a House vote is expected soon. It’s unclear if supporters will have the required majority to override a veto. If the bill becomes law, Vermont will become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage without being forced by the courts to do so.

Cardin Introduces Newspaper Rescue Bill

Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland has introduced a measure aimed at rescuing the struggling newspaper industry. The Newspaper Revitalization Act would let newspaper companies become educational non-profits and operate similar to public broadcasters. Audiences would be eligible to give tax-deductible donations, while advertising and subscription revenue would become tax exempt. Cardin said: “The business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.”

IBM to Shed 5,000 Jobs

The computer giant IBM has announced plans to lay off 5,000 U.S. workers. The number amounts to around four percent of IBM’s workforce.

African-American Scholar John Hope Franklin Dies at 94

And the African-American scholar and author John Hope Franklin has died. Franklin pioneered the field of African-American studies. His book “From Slavery to Freedom” is considered a definitive work on the African-American experience. Franklin recently spoke about the significance of President Obama’s ascent to the White House.

John Hope Franklin: “It’s amazing. It’s remarkable. And it’s a vindication of the willingness as well as the ability of this country to turn a significant corner toward full political equality. I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. My mother and I used to have a game we played out in public. She would say if anyone asks you what you want to be when you grow up tell them you want to be the first negro president of the United States. Just the words were so far fetched, so incredible, that we used to have fun just saying it. I’m hesitant to talk about the obstacles. They exist. Anyone who’s lived in the United States ten minutes knows they exist. The question is does he have the capacity and the resources to overcome them. And I believe he does.”

Headlines: U.S. to Open Talks with Syria; Clinton Silent on Israeli Settlements, Gaza Blockade

Democracy Now Headlines: U.S. to Open Talks with Syria; Clinton Silent on Israeli Settlements, Gaza Blockade

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

US to Open Preliminary Talks with Syria

The Obama administration is sending two emissaries to Syria this weekend for preliminary talks with the Syrian government. The meeting would mark the highest-level US contact with Syria since the US withdrew its ambassador four years ago. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the announcement on a visit to Israel.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: “We are going to be sending two officials to Syria. There are a number of issues that we have between Syria and the United States, as well as the larger regional concerns that Syria obviously poses.”

Clinton Silent on Israeli Settlements, Gaza Blockade

Clinton was in Jerusalem meeting Israeli leaders. Appearing with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Clinton said the US will work toward a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

State Hillary Rodham Clinton: “Eventually, the inevitability of working toward a two-state solution seems inescapable. That doesn’t mean that we don’t respect the opinions of others who see it differently, but from my perspective and from the perspective of the Obama administration, time is of the essence on a number of issues, not only on the Iranian threat, and we happen to believe that moving toward the two-state solution step by step is in Israel’s best interest.”

Clinton did not voice any criticism of the ongoing Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. She also refused to publicly urge Israel to stop its blockade of Gaza and allow desperately needed humanitarian aid. Clinton also singled out Hamas rocket fire as the single biggest obstacle to peace–not the Israeli attacks that killed over 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza earlier this year. Hamas spokesperson Mushir al-Masri said the Obama administration is continuing the Bush administration approach.

Mushir al-Masri: “It is clear that there is nothing new when it comes to the policies of the new administration in this region. Repeating the Quartet’s conditions is something that has proven to have failed. It’s useless. What is wanted is for America to stop its biased policies towards the enemy and to correct their political discourse when it comes to dealing with this region.”

Clinton is in the West Bank today meeting with US-backed Fatah leaders in the Palestinian Authority.

Obama Downplays Report of Missile Program Offer

President Obama is downplaying a report he offered to back off deploying a new missile system in Eastern Europe if Russia would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons or nuclear warheads. The New York Times reported Tuesday the offer was relayed in a secret letter hand-delivered to President Dmitri Medvedev by top administration officials three weeks ago. President Obama responded at the White House.

President Obama: “What we had was a very lengthy letter talking about a whole range of issues, from nuclear proliferation to how are we going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border and terrorism. And what I said in the letter is the same thing that I’ve said publicly, which is that the missile defense that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia, but Iran.”

ICC to Issue Bashir Arrest Warrant

The International Criminal Court is expected to announce today a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region. Bashir would become the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo spoke to reporters on Tuesday.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo: “We have strong evidence against Mr. Bashir, proving how he–more than thirty different witnesses who will present how he managed to control everything. And we have strong evidence of his intention. But the judges will decide. So, yes, I never present a case without strong evidence.”

Sudan has said the charges are politically motivated and has vowed to never surrender Bashir for prosecution.

Countrywide Execs Form New Firm to Profit Off Mortgages, Bank Failures

Here in the United States, a group of executives widely blamed for playing a key role in causing the economic crisis now stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the failed mortgages they once handed out. The New York Times reports twelve former executives at Countrywide Financial have established a new company to buy up delinquent home mortgages that the government has inherited from shuttered banks. The new company, PennyMac, has bought up around $800 million in loans so far, often at rock-bottom prices. It makes its money if it can get homeowners to resume payments under more favorable terms. Countrywide became synonymous with predatory and risky loans to borrowers who either couldn’t afford them or were misled on their interest rate. PennyMac says it hopes to increase its portfolio to as much as $15 billion in the next eighteen months. It’s led by Stanford Kurland, Countrywide’s former president.

Merrill Lynch Paid $10M Bonuses to Top Execs

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has revealed new details on the high bonus payments to top employees at the bailed-out firm Merrill Lynch. Despite posting a net loss of $27.6 billion, eleven top executives were paid more than $10 million in cash and stock. Taken together, the ten highest-paid employees were paid $8 million more in 2008 than in 2007. Another 149 employees received at least $3 million. Overall, Merrill Lynch paid out over $3 billion in bonuses just before the company was sold to Bank of America in a government-backed deal.

Senate to Consider Bush Admin Abuses Probe

The Justice Department says it plans to release more secret Bush administration Justice Department memos used to boost executive power in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The memos released thus far authorized President Bush to deploy the military to carry out raids inside the US and to spy on Americans without a warrant or probable cause. The memos also backed violating constitutional press and free speech rights, all under the so-called “war on terror.” The news of further memo disclosures comes as Senate Democrats are set to hold a hearing today on Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy’s proposal to establish a “truth commission” on Bush administration abuses of power in the so-called “war on terror.” Leahy wants the commission to focus on government spying, torture, rendition and the manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Obama Restores Endangered Species Act Protections

The Obama administration has reversed a Bush administration rule gutting the Endangered Species Act. A new presidential memorandum restores a longstanding provision that requires an independent scientific review of any federal project that could affect a protected species. The rule change is expected to delay at least two pending projects: a Bureau of Land Management plan for overseeing Oregon’s forests and the White Pine coal-fired power plant in Nevada.

Obama Backs Employee Free Choice Act

President Obama has voiced support for a measure that would ease barriers for workers to join unions. On Tuesday, Obama gave a videotaped address to a gathering of AFL-CIO leaders in Miami. Obama vowed passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would stop employers from demanding secret-ballot elections and require them to recognize unions if a majority of workers consented. The Senate is expected to take up the measure in the coming weeks.

Gay, Lesbian Couples Sue for Marriage Benefits

In Massachusetts, a group of same-sex couples and gay widowers has filed a lawsuit seeking the same federal programs and benefits granted to straight married couples. The case marks the first major legal challenge to a federal law denying gay and lesbian couples access to more than 1,000 federal programs and legal protections.

Obama Picks Net Neutrality Backer for FCC Helm

And President Obama has announced his pick to head the Federal Communications Commission. Obama has tapped attorney Julius Genachowski, his top tech adviser during the presidential campaign. Genachowski worked in the FCC during the Clinton administration and at Barry Diller’s company IAC/InterActive. According to the Wall Street Journal, Genachowski authored Obama’s detailed campaign plan supporting open internet or “net neutrality” protections, media ownership rules that encourage more diversity, and expansion of affordable broadband access across the country. Net neutrality advocates have welcomed Genachowski’s nomination.

Author: Clinton, Palin Coverage Tainted by Gender Stereotyping

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were the Target of Gender Stereotyping during the 2008 campaign

On Tuesday, Kathleen Hall Jamieson–a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and author of several books on politics and the media (including Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment and unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation)–spoke at Fountain Street Church in downtown Grand Rapids on the topic of women and politics in the 2008 election. Jamieson spent the majority of her talk looking at the how the two most prominent female candidates–Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin–were portrayed in the media.

Two Candidates, Two Different Ways of Portraying a Laugh

In the beginning of her talk, Jamieson asked the audience to think of a front-running candidate in fall of 2007. A candidate who had raised substantial amounts of money. A candidate who was from New York. That candidate also had an eccentric laugh. The candidate had a tendency to laugh when asked a tough question.

Jamieson–who showed video clips to backup her claim–said that this description could have fit either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Rudy Giuliani.

However, the media only made a story out of Hillary Clinton’s laugh, dubbing it a sign of “in authenticity” and a “cackle.”

Jamieson argued that this was a result of a gender stereotype and bias in the media. The reporting drew on a lexicon of dismissive language–i.e. a “cackle” that originates with female witches–that is used in a gendered way. She cites other examples such as “shrill,” “strident,” “harpee,” and “bitch”–all of which can be used to dismiss women.

Clinton Faced Pervasive Gender Stereotyping in 2008 Campaign

Kathleen Hall Jamieson argued that Hillary Clinton faced almost constant gender stereotyping in the 2008 campaign.

She shared several video examples with the audience, among them a clip in which a John McCain supporter asks McCain “How do we beat the bitch.” Jamieson explained that the referent is assumed and that there is an underlying assumption that this is appropriate. She asked the audience to consider why it was that nobody asked if it was appropriate to refer to a Senator this way and contrasted it the national discussion that followed other instances of inappropriate language use.

This was just one example of numerous sexist lenses used to cover the campaign. Jamieson said that Clinton was subject to a double-standard of evaluation. For example, MSNBC host Chris Matthews described a speech as “charming” and said that she was only a Senator because people felt bad for her. At other times, she was portrayed as a “nagging wife” and a “scolding mother.” Jamieson said that these portrayals all went back to a “residue of past discrimination” against women.

Jamieson said that gender stereotyping had a backlash before New Hampshire when after a week that including Clinton having an emotional moment on television, being confronted by protestors yelling “Iron my Shirt”, Obama saying that Clinton was “likeable enough”, and John Edwards saying Clinton wasn’t qualified–women changed their minds and voted for her.

Sarah Palin Faced Similar Treatment

When sexism and media coverage are discussed in terms of the 2008 election, much of the discussion tends to be dominated by progressives looking at the treatment of Hillary Clinton. However, Jamieson reminded the audience that Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin was subjected to similar treatment.

Like Clinton, Palin was sexualized by the media (particularly on the Internet) and made into an object of desire rather than a serious political candidate (examples would be Photoshopped images and popular references to her as a “VPILF”). Jamieson argued that this had the practical effect of removing them from the debate as candidates.

Palin was also subjected to a host of questions about whether or not she could be both a candidate and a mother, or a vice president and a mother. Obama was never asked such questions, despite the fact that he had two kids who he would be raising in the White House.

Headlines: Obama’s First Day, Hillary Clinton Confirmed as Secretary of State

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Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Obama to Order Gitmo, Secret Prisons Closure Within 1 Year

President Obama is expected to sign executive orders today for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison and secret CIA jails overseas. The closures would take effect within a year. In addition to shuttering CIA jails, the order is also expected to rewrite the rules on interrogating prisoners. Government officials told the New York Times President Obama is expected to ban the secretive indefinite jailing of prisoners and order CIA agents to follow the same interrogation rules used by the military. But a congressional official said White House counsel Gregory Craig told lawmakers last night Obama might still allow interrogation methods other than the nineteen approved for military use. Obama has already ordered a four-month suspension of all military tribunals at Guantanamo. While human rights groups have welcomed the moves, some say the one-year closure timetable is too long. Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights said, “It only took days to put these men in Guantanamo; it shouldn’t take a year to get them out.”

Obama Restricts Lobbyists, Freezes White House Salaries

On his first full day in the Oval Office, Obama unveiled new White House ethics rules on the role of lobbyists.

President Obama: “As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history. If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president.”

Obama also announced a pay freeze for all top White House officials.

President Obama: “During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington. That’s why I am instituting a pay freeze on the salaries of my senior White House staff. Some of the people in this room will be affected by the pay freeze, and I want you to know that I appreciate your willingness to agree to it.”

No Orders Yet on Iraq Withdrawal

President Obama also met with his national security team. In discussions on Iraq, Obama did not order a withdrawal of US troops towards his campaign pledge of pulling out combat forces within sixteen months. Obama instead says he’ll first weigh concerns from military commanders. In a statement, Obama said he’s asked military leaders to draw up additional plans for what he called a “military drawdown.” Obama also said he’s ordered a review of the occupation of Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on escalating the US occupation there.

Obama Retakes Oath of Office

President Obama retook the oath of office Wednesday to allay concerns over an error during the inauguration ceremony. Chief Justice John Roberts misplaced the word “faithfully” and Obama repeated the mistake. Roberts re-administered the oath at the White House last night.

Geithner Headed for Confirmation as Treasury Sec.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner is expected to be confirmed after answering a series of questions on his own tax history. Geithner initially failed to pay some $43,000 in personal taxes before eventually paying it back. Geithner apologized before the Senate Treasury committee.

Timothy Geithner: “I have gone back and corrected these errors and paid what I owed. I want to apologize to the committee for putting you in the position of having to spend so much time on these issues when there is so much pressing business before the country.”

Geithner went on to discuss the new administration’s plans for an economic recovery.

Timothy Geithner: “A comprehensive plan to help stabilize the core of our financial system so that the banks that are so critical to our economy are able to provide the credit necessary to get recovery going again. He’s going to lay out a comprehensive plan for addressing the housing crisis in this country, which has been so central to the recession and its basic causes. And he’s going to lay out a broad set of programs for trying to directly address the constraints that are now making it harder for small businesses for students, for people who want to buy a car, for municipalities across the country, to get access to credit to make those things.”

Clinton Confirmed as Secretary of State

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Senate has confirmed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the new Secretary of State. Democratic Senator John Kerry said Clinton would help change US foreign policy.

Sen. John Kerry: “I believe that Senator Clinton is in a position to provide an historical shift in American foreign policy, where we reach out to the world with the best of our values and the best of our thinking and the best of our hopes and intentions.”

Holder Vote Delayed Following GOP Opposition

Meanwhile, Obama’s pick for attorney general, Eric Holder, is facing increasing Republican opposition. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a vote on approving Holder after Republicans voiced concerns he would prosecute intelligence officials involved in torture. At his confirmation hearing last week, Holder said he believes waterboarding is a form of torture.

Obama to Name Middle East Envoy

President Obama made some of his first calls to foreign leaders to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict. Obama called President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. He did not reach out to leaders of Hamas, who rose to power in democratic elections three years ago. Meanwhile, Obama plans to announce the selection of former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. Mitchell is expected to travel to the region within days.

2 Palestinians Wounded in Israeli Attack on Gaza Shore

Meanwhile, in the Occupied Territories, the toll from Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip continues to rise as more bodies are found beneath the rubble of destroyed homes and buildings. More than 100 corpses have been recovered since Israel declared a ceasefire on Saturday. Despite the official ceasefire, Israeli gunboats continue to shell areas of Gaza. Earlier today, a Palestinian man and girl were wounded when an Israeli gunboat shelled the shores of Gaza City. The Israeli military said it opened fire to fend off a Palestinian fishing boat that it says went too far offshore.

Israeli Supreme Court Rejects Humanitarian Plea

Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court has rejected a petition from two human rights groups seeking the evacuation of Gaza’s wounded and the immediate delivery of electricity to power Gaza’s crumbling infrastructure. Gaza’s health, water and sewage systems all suffered extensive damage in the Israeli attack after already barely functioning before the invasion. The court rejected the petitions without even waiting to hear the arguments against it by the Israeli government.

Hamas Political Leader Urges Talks, End to Boycott

The exiled political leader of Hamas is urging the US and European nations to end its boycott and negotiate. Speaking in Syria, Khaled Meshaal said, “Three years of trying to eliminate Hamas is enough. It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle.” Meshal also hinted that Hamas would still be open to a political settlement with Israel, saying, “This battle has proved that force alone will not provide security for [Israel] and that peace will not be at the expense of Palestinian rights.”

Israel to Probe Own White Phosphorus Use

The Israeli military, meanwhile, says it will probe allegations of illegal use of white phosphorus during the Gaza assault. Israel has been accused of illegally firing white phosphorus over crowded refugee camps in Gaza. Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch said he fears Israel’s probe will cover up its actions.

Bill Van Esveld: “The problem is that you can’t use it over a densely populated area in a legal way, because it continues to burn when it hits the ground. It can set buildings on fire. It can stick to the skin and burn all the way down to the bone and kill you. It can be deadly when you inhale it. And it can’t discriminate between a civilian and a military object…We’re glad the IDF is going to investigate, but we’re also concerned that this investigation not be a whitewash.”

Kennedy Withdraws Senate Bid

Here in New York, Caroline Kennedy has announced she’s withdrawing her bid to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. In a statement, Kennedy cited “personal reasons” for her decision. Caroline Kennedy’s uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last May.

Medicaid Rolls See Unprecedented Rise

And new figures show the number of Americans obtaining healthcare through Medicaid is growing at an unprecedented rate. The New York Times reports Medicaid rolls grew by five to ten percent in a number of states. In many areas, the increase was at least double the rate over last year.

Will a Democratic President Really End the War?

Over the weekend, Michigan Senator Carl Levin delivered a speech to the Michigan Policy Summit in which he said that the only way to end the Iraq War is to elect a Democrat in 2008. However, neither Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama plan to end the war.

On Saturday at the 2008 Michigan Policy Summit, Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, delivered the opening address. According to various reports of Levin’s speech, he talked about tax cuts and the Iraq War. Levin–who has often positioned himself as antiwar when the reality is more complex–said that the Iraq War has resulted in $600 billion being spent on the war rather than on social programs. Levin said that the “$10 to $12 billion a month [being spent on the Iraq War] is only going to end when one of our two Democrats gets elected.” He further told the crowd “The only practical way to end that war is to vote for a Democrat.”

However, Levin’s comments are problematic as the two Democratic Party candidates for president–Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama–are not talking seriously about ending the war. Last fall, Mediamouse.org reviewed the Iraq policies offered by the Democratic Party candidates and their voting records. At the time, Clinton and Obama, along with former Senator John Edwards, had recently stated that they would not commit to ending the Iraq War by the end of their first term (2012). Since that comment and our review, Clinton and Obama have refined their positions on Iraq, but neither of them has pledged to end the Iraq War. Instead, they offer policies and proposals that will maintain the United States occupation of Iraq via a reduced US force for an indefinite amount of time.

Hillary Clinton and the Iraq War

Hillary Clinton initially supported the Iraq War by voting to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2002. She has since come out against the war, claiming that she was mislead due to faulty intelligence. Regardless of one thinks of position at the time (plenty of people questioned the rationale for war, she certainly could have), she has now made the Iraq War an issue in the 2008 campaign. On her website, Clinton offers a plan for to “End the War in Iraq” (reviewed below). However, her website contains no information about her voting record on Iraq. Last fall, Mediamouse.org provided an overview of Clinton’s voting record on Iraq. Since that time, there have been few votes on Iraq, however, Clinton did chose not to vote on a measure calling for the redeployment of US troops from Iraq in 90 days.

Clinton’s Iraq plan, calls for the withdrawal of US troops in Iraq to begin within 60 days of her taking office. She says that one of her first actions will be convening the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council to develop a plan to withdraw combat forces at the rate of one to two brigades per month. Clinton will keep “small, elite strike forces to engage in targeted operations against al Qaeda in Iraq,” although she never says how many troops would be in these forces. Moreover, at the end of her plan it includes language broadening the mission of her smaller force by stating “She would devote the resources we need to fight terrorism and will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region.” In a speech on March 18, 2008, Clinton also said that she wants to remove private security contractors from Iraq, but offered no specifics. Clinton has not said how many troops would remain in Iraq under her plan, nor has she announced a date on which all troops–combat or not–would be withdrawn.

The second component of Clinton’s plan involves “securing stability in Iraq as we bring out troops home.” Under Clinton’s plan, this means “focusing American aid efforts during our redeployment on stabilizing Iraq, not propping up the Iraqi government.” Clinton criticizes the Iraqi government for “failing to provide” basic services to its citizens and failing to address corruption in the Iraqi political establishment. To address the political problems in Iraq, Clinton would support the appointment of a high level United Nations official to broker a peace agreement between the different factions in Iraq.

Finally, Clinton says that she would launch a new diplomatic initiative “composed of key allies, other global powers, and all of the states bordering Iraq” to come up with a strategy for stabilizing Iraq. Clinton’s plan has the goal of obtaining “non-inference” agreements from countries in the region, establishing a mediation process, and obtaining funds for reconstruction. She also says that she will seek financial contributions to address the refugee problem in Iraq.

Barack Obama and the Iraq War

Barack Obama–who is speaking in Grand Rapids on Wednesday–has positioned himself as the antiwar candidate in the 2008 election. He has repeatedly cited a 2002 speech at an antiwar rally in Chicago as proof of his antiwar credentials. At the time, Obama said:

“I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Many people also tend to forget that in the same speech in which he said he was opposed to the Iraq War, he accused Saddam Hussein of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and went to great lengths to make it clear that he is not “someone who is opposed to war in all circumstances.”

On his website, Obama identifies the Iraq War as a major issue. He has a summary of his position and a link to his plan to “immediately begin withdrawing our troops from Iraq (reviewed below).”

His website presents no information about his voting record on Iraq. While it does recount various statements he has made about the war, none of the statements are tied to his voting record making it difficult to verify the veracity of his opposition. Last fall, Mediamouse.org provided an overview of Obama’s voting record on Iraq. Since that time, there have been few votes on Iraq, however, Obama did chose not to vote on a measure calling for the redeployment of US troops from Iraq in 90 days.

Obama’s website summarizes his plan for Iraq by stating:

“Obama would immediately begin to pull out troops engaged in combat operations at a pace of one or two brigades every month, to be completed by the end of next year. He would call for a new constitutional convention in Iraq, convened with the United Nations, which would not adjourn until Iraq’s leaders reach a new accord on reconciliation. He would use presidential leadership to surge our diplomacy with all of the nations of the region on behalf of a new regional security compact. And he would take immediate steps to confront the humanitarian disaster in Iraq, and to hold accountable any perpetrators of potential war crimes.”

At the core of Obama’s plan is his pledge for a “substantial, immediate redeployment of American troops.” According to his plan, the withdrawal would include only “combat troops”–a classification that is never defined–and would happen gradually throughout 2009 (one to two brigades per month). Obama is clear that “American troops may remain in Iraq or the region” and that the troops would act to “protect American diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq, and continue striking at al Qaeda in Iraq,” although he says he will not construct permanent bases. Obama’s plan says nothing about withdrawing contractors such as Blackwater from Iraq and he has refused to rule out their continued use in Iraq. Obama has also declined to say specifically how many troops would remain in Iraq under his plan, nor has he announced a timetable for the withdrawal of all troops–combat or not–from Iraq.

Obama describes withdrawal as a means “to finally apply real pressure on the Iraqi government” to make political sacrifices. Obama’s opposition to “the Surge” is also made in terms of the Iraqi government’s “failure” to act on the gains of “the Surge” by enacting specific benchmarks such as a national oil law.

Obama does describe some of the humanitarian consequences of the war, saying, “The humanitarian crisis that President Bush says would accompany American troop withdrawals is occurring right now.” He cites the 2 million internally and 2 million externally displaced Iraqis, as well as the deaths of 1,000 Iraqi civilians per month. However, while he calls for increased aid and accountability for those committing war crimes, he says nothing about the United States taking responsibility for the situation in Iraq.

Conclusions and Opportunities

While the positions of the Democratic Party presidential candidates are disappointing for those who have campaigned against the Iraq War since the start, the particulars of the election offer opportunities for the antiwar movement (http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/032608N.shtml). With the extended campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination, candidates may be pressured and held accountable in a way that was not possible in 2004. Clinton and Obama need all of the votes they can get and strategically undertaken actions might be able to change their positions on Iraq, particularly as they look for ways to assert differences between them. Moreover, there are indications that such pressure might work, with Senator Hillary Clinton pledging to support a ban on security contractors in Iraq shortly after the issue was raised in public. Similarly, with all the talk about “change” and “hope” there may be room to pressure candidates more than there was in the stifling atmosphere of “Anybody but Bush” in 2004

Of course, any such efforts aimed at pressuring the two candidates should be undertaken with a meaningful consideration of history of US foreign policy and the likelihood that when and if the antiwar movement announces its “support” for a specific candidate, the movement will likely be betrayed. As such, it is important that the antiwar movement remain independent of individual candidates and instead focus on specific issues and the work of building a grassroots movement capable of pressuring the two candidates.

Democratic Debate Focuses on the Trivial

Last Wednesday’s Democratic Party presidential debate, featuring Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, has been criticized for focusing on trivial issues rather than more substantive policy discussions. ABC News, who hosted the debate, has come under fire for spending 45 minutes of the debate on trivial matters ranging from Obama’s patriotism and questions about his wearing a flag pin on his lapel to Clinton’s Bosnia “sniper fire” story. Some of the questions posed to the candidates included:

“CHARLES GIBSON: You got talking in California about small-town Pennsylvanians who have had tough economic times in recent years, and you said they get bitter, and they cling to guns or they cling to their religion or they cling to antipathy toward people who are not like them. Now, you’ve said you misspoke; you said you mangled what it was you wanted to say. But we’ve talked to a lot of voters. Do you understand that some people in this state find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let me pick up on this. When these comments from Senator Obama broke on Friday, Senator McCain’s campaign immediately said that it was going to be a killer issue in November.

CHARLES GIBSON: Senator Obama, since you last debated, you made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Senator, let me follow up, and let me add to that. You have said that he would not have been my pastor, and you said that you have to speak out against those kinds of remarks, and implicitly by getting up and moving, and I presume you mean out of the church. Do you honestly believe that 8,000 people should have gotten up and walked out of that church?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, two questions. Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?

Senator Clinton, we also did a poll today, and there are also questions about you raised in this poll. About six in ten voters that we talked to don’t believe you’re honest and trustworthy. And we also asked a lot of Pennsylvania voters for questions they had. A lot of them raised this honesty issue and your comments about being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

And you yourself have said she hasn’t been fully truthful about what she would do as president. Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been fully truthful about her past?

CHARLES GIBSON: It’s a question raised by a voter in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a woman by the name of Nash McCabe. Take a look.

NASH McCABE: Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don’t.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: A follow-up on this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.” An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”

Unfortunately, while this was one of the most watched debates of the campaign, it focused on the most trivial issues of all the debates. However, this is not particularly abnormal for coverage of presidential campaigns–the media tends focus on such issues rather than substantive policy distinctions.

The systemic nature of this kind of coverage in the media was explored by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) who said that even when the debate turned to more “substantive” questions it reflected a rightwing spin:

“But even when the questions turned to issues of actual substance, things hardly improved. It was not until a full three quarters of an hour into the debate that the candidates were asked the question about what Stephanopoulos acknowledged was “the No. 1 issue on Americans’ minds”– the economy.”

A focus on frivolous details in political campaigns has also been seen here in West Michigan, with the Election Watch 2004 and 2006 projects documenting numerous examples of such coverage.

Hillary Clinton and the Wal-Mart Videos

The Center for Public Integrity’sBuying of the President 2008” project has just posted a story with archival video footage of founder and former CEO of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton talking with Hillary Clinton. Wal-Mart has become the largest global employer in recent years and has been the subject of a great deal of public anger over its labor practices and destroying local economies. The mainstream news coverage of Clinton as a presidential candidate has mostly ignored her relationship to Wal-Mart:

“Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has studiously avoided discussing her five-and-a-half-year tenure as a director of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer.

Clinton, who served on the Wal-Mart board from November 1986 to May 1992, while she was First Lady of Arkansas, makes no mention of the experience in speeches, nor is it listed in her official biography or referenced anywhere on her campaign’s website. Indeed, as The New York Times put it last year, her stint as a director of Wal-Mart “remains a little known chapter in her closely scrutinized career.”

But a mammoth archive of Wal-Mart video footage that has gone all but unnoticed in the 2008 presidential campaign may shed new light into Clinton’s relationship with the company. In this segment from 1991, for example, made public here for the first time by the Center for Public Integrity, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, introduces Clinton at the grand re-opening of the company’s original store in Rogers, Arkansas. “Without any question,” he says, “You’ve added more to our board than any person we’ve ever had on that board.”

In the video, Clinton is effusive in her praise of the company that she has now all but disowned. (In 2005 her Senate re-election campaign went so far as to return a $5,000 contribution from Wal-Mart’s political action committee, citing “serious differences with current company practices.”)

“I’m so proud of this company, and everything it represents,” Clinton says in the video clip. “Anytime I travel and I tell people I’m from Arkansas . . . Wal-Mart’s on top of the list, and everybody wants me to tell them about Wal-Mart and Sam Walton and Helen Walton and all of the Wal-Mart associates. It makes me feel real good about what we’re able to do and what we can show and the sort of leadership we’re given.”

For now, the video archive–maintained by a production company that for more than two decades recorded many shareholder meetings and other Wal-Mart events–is the clearest window into Clinton’s relationship with the company. According to the Associated Press, Wal-Mart has refused to release minutes of its board meetings during the period she was a paid director of the company.”

Here’s one of the videos:

2008 Presidential Candidates’ Platforms on Criminal Justice

The Washington, DC-based organization The Sentencing Project recently published an 11-page guide on where the leading presidential candidates stand on a range of key criminal justice issues, including sentencing policy, reentry, the death penalty, and felony voter disenfranchisement. The Sentencing Project is a non-partisan organization and does not endorse candidates. However, it is important to point out that the only candidate positions in the guide are those of Senators Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama. Unfortunately, third party candidate positions are not included.

On the issue of mandatory minimum sentences, Clinton believes “Mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent crimes are appropriate, but have been applied too broadly and in ways that are unfair to minority offenders.” Obama has “proposed abolishing mandatory minimum sentences; promises to review all minimum sentences and eliminate those that are too harsh.” Senator McCain “supports mandatory sentences for selling illegal drugs.”

With regard to the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” law, Clinton supports “three-strikes” as necessary to incapacitate violent offenders. Senator Obama has not explicitly addressed “three-strikes,” but generally opposes harsh mandatory sentences, and Senator McCain did not respond to this question.

In regards to the “War on Drugs,” Senator Clinton “Supports drug courts for low-level offenders.” She also believes focus should be on treatment. Senator Obama “Supports drug courts for first time, non-violent offenders and believes focus should be on prevention and unemployment.” Senator McCain “Supports mandatory sentences for drug dealers, but believes that too many first-time drug offenders–not dealers–are in prison.”

On the issue of crack/powder cocaine disparities in sentencing, Hillary Clinton has “Previously supported decreasing disparity to 10-to-1, but is now a cosponsor of an equalization bill in the Senate. She also is opposed to guideline changes being applied retroactively.” Barack Obama “Supports eliminating disparity and applying guideline changes retroactively.” Obama is a co-sponsor of the Senate equalization bill. Senator McCain did not respond to this question.

When it comes to the death penalty Senator Clinton “Supports the death penalty, but advocates for competent defense counsel and DNA testing. She also lobbied for law expanding list of crimes subject to death penalty.” Senator Obama was “Initially opposed to the death penalty during his Senate race, but now supports it for heinous crimes. He also led support for reforms to avoid wrongful convictions.” Senator McCain simply responded by saying he “Supports the death penalty.”

On the issue of disproportionate minority representation in the criminal justice system, Clinton “Intends to have the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice to protect liberties and act on reports of abuse in criminal justice system. She also supports legislation on racial profiling.” Obama “Believes disproportionality is related to poverty and unemployment among minorities.” He promoted fair defense by passing an Illinois bill requiring videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases. Senator McCain “Opposed the Racial Justice Act, which proposed enabling prisoners to demonstrate racial discrimination using sentencing statistics in death sentence appeals.”

In regards to ex-offender re-entry into communities, Clinton,”Calls for investing in re-entry partnership grants in her Youth Opportunity Agenda. She co-sponsored the Second Chance Act to provide counseling and job opportunities for ex-offenders. Clinton also supports programs that teach non-violent offenders skills while they are in prison.” Senator Obama “Co-sponsored the Second Chance Act to provide counseling and job opportunities for ex-offenders. He promises to create a prison-to work incentive program to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.” Senator McCain “Supports programs that provide job-related skills and job placement assistance when prisoners are released.”

On the issue of felony disenfranchisement, Senator Clinton supports re-enfranchisement. She was the lead sponsor of the Count Every Vote Act to restore voting rights of ex-felons after they have repaid debt to society. Senator Obama also supports re-enfranchisement and was a co-sponsored the Count Every Vote Act. Senator McCain did not respond to this issue.

Lastly, on the issue of parole only Senator McCain responded. He supports “truth in sentencing” for violent offenders so that they serve full sentences with no chance of parole.

The Sentencing Project also provides several pages of comments and quotes from each of the three major party candidates on these issues.

The Candidates and Iran

When it comes to foreign policy, Iraq has dominated the headlines in the 2008 presidential election, despite the fact that in many cases, the major party candidates do not offer a significant departure from existing policy. While Republican Senator John McCain supports an indefinite occupation of Iraq and a more aggressive policy, the Democratic Party candidates–Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama–have not offered a policy that is much different. Their policy is one of indefinite occupation by a smaller force. This has led some–including Noam Chomsky–to state that they do not believe Iraq will be a significant issue in the campaign.

However, if Iraq is not receiving an appropriate amount of attention, US policy towards Iran is receiving less attention. In an article for Foreign Policy in Focus, Frankie Sturm recently argued that Iran is a critical issue for US foreign policy both in terms of possible military action with Iran and policy in the Middle East. Strum’s article is reprinted below:

Although Iraq and the economy tend to dominate the headlines, Iran is never far from the news cycle – or from the speeches of the leading U.S. presidential candidates. In a recent trip to the Middle East, John McCain reiterated his concern about “Iranian influence and assistance to Hezbollah as well as Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.” Iran also received the attention of President Bush when he insisted last month that Iran is developing nuclear weapons in order to “destroy people.” Implausible and unsubstantiated as this claim might be, it represents a popular thread of argument in the Iran debate.

But Iran figures in other ways in the 2008 presidential election. It is not only a matter of war and peace. The candidates’ approach to Iran reveals what U.S. engagement with the Middle East might look like in the years to come.

Similarity of Approach

Although there are significant differences between the presidential contenders, they all share certain concerns and assumptions about Iran. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain have all openly stated that Iran cannot, under any circumstances, be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons. To that end, each candidate maintains that the military option, though not preferred, remains “on the table.”

This unity is the result of a fundamental mistrust the candidates share toward the Iranian regime. For Obama, Iran is a “radical theocracy” that sponsors terrorism and “regional aggression.” According to John McCain’s website, Iran is a “dictatorship” that has “aided and abetted the violence in Iraq” and trained “the most violent Shia militias.” Hillary Clinton is largely in agreement with these statements, arguing that “Iran poses a long-term strategic challenge to the United States, our NATO allies, and Israel.” Consequently, Iran is not to be trusted with nuclear weapons.

Beyond this shared stance on Iran’s nuclear program, the three candidates also succumb to a certain sin of omission. None of them has acknowledged Iran’s legitimate security interests. While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum agree that Iran is guilty of bad behavior, many have also pointed out that Iran faces serious national security threats of its own. The United States, which has threatened to overthrow Iran’s government, has 160,000 troops in neighboring Iraq and is part of a 40,000-troop NATO force in neighboring Afghanistan. Iran shares a border with American ally Turkey, and the U.S. Navy is present in force in the Persian Gulf. In short, Iran is boxed in by a massively stronger power that has repeatedly threatened it. Furthermore, Iran also feels threatened by Israeli nuclear weapons, for which it has no effective defense.

By not publicly recognizing these issues, Obama, Clinton, and McCain fail to provide a solid explanation for Iranian behavior. How does one distinguish deterrence or self-defense from “Islamofascism” or a bid for regional hegemony? Since sponsorship of terrorism or the pursuit of nuclear weapons could be used for either hegemony or deterrence, Iran’s motivations are notoriously difficult to read. Nevertheless, a president must make those tough calls. The use or non-use of military force will rely on how the president understands Iran’s motives and actions. The candidates have failed to publicly demonstrate such an understanding.

Important Differences

In spite of these similarities, the differences between Obama, Clinton, and McCain can help us determine how willing and able each candidate will be to pursue a diplomatic course before opting for military action. Of the three, Obama is the most committed to a negotiated settlement with Iran. He has unequivocally stated that he would engage the Iranian regime “without preconditions,” offering a pledge not to invade and possible membership for Iran in the World Trade Organization. Since Iran will not stop enriching uranium as a prerequisite to talks, this is the only way to engage Iran on the nuclear issue. Obama also stands out because he, unlike Clinton and McCain, is more circumspect on whether he believes Iran actually intends to build nuclear weapons.

For example, in the latter half of 2007 each candidate published an essay on foreign policy in Foreign Affairs magazine. While McCain and Clinton openly charge that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, Obama does not. He recognizes that Iran is enriching uranium and he is clear about his opposition to an Iranian bomb, but in very careful language he avoids saying that Iran wants nuclear weapons. On his website, Obama claims that Iran “has sought” nuclear weapons – notice the past tense – but doesn’t say that Iran is currently doing so.

Obama’s discretion on the nuclear weapons issue may indicate that he recognizes more nuance in Iran’s motivation and actions than he lets on. While he, like Clinton and McCain, has not publicly acknowledged the security threats facing Iran, at least one of his advisors has. Joe Cirincione, an Obama foreign policy advisor with expertise in nuclear weapons policy and national security, has articulated an understanding of the threat environment facing Iran and how nuclear weapons could undermine Iranian security. Although ignored by the mainstream media, this line of argument is of monumental importance.

With 70 million people, vast oil wealth, and a mountainous topography, Iran does not face any serious military threat from countries in the region (unless they are supported by the U.S. military). However, other countries in the region could develop nuclear weapons if Iran obtains them first. Since no amount of conventional strength could protect Iran from a neighboring nuclear bomb, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran could actually decrease Iran’s security. A president who does not understand the relationship between Iran’s security challenges and its nuclear program will have a difficult time engaging the Iranian regime in productive negotiations. By keeping advisors like Cirincione on hand and not assuming that Iran ultimately desires nuclear weapons, Obama shows that he might have that understanding after all, public rhetoric notwithstanding.

For all of Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama regarding his supposed naïveté in foreign affairs, she has a remarkably similar position. In 2007 she said that “I would engage in negotiations with Iran, with no conditions, because we don’t really understand how Iran works.” She also believes that Iran might respond to a “carefully calibrated package of incentives.” In a speech made from the Senate floor in February 2007, Clinton declared that the president cannot take military action against Iran without congressional authorization. However, several months later she voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that designated the Revolutionary Guard of Iran as a terrorist organization. Clinton immediately found herself under fire from Senate colleagues Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama, as well as others who worried that the amendment would allow the White House to claim authority to attack Iran.

Such episodes, in addition to her authorization of the Iraq war, show that Hillary Clinton has a history of acting tough or making war without a consideration of the consequences. Particularly troubling about the juxtaposition of this approach with her willingness to pursue diplomatic means is that the difference between Clinton the dove and Clinton the hawk seems to be largely contingent on the latest opinion polls. When it was politically expedient for her to support the Iraq war and Kyl-Lieberman, she did so. When the war in Iraq became unpopular, she became an opponent of the war. Similarly, when the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, she moderated her Iran rhetoric, largely by ceasing to talk about the country.

One of Clinton’s closest foreign policy advisors, Richard Holbrooke, has shown a similar tendency. An advocate of regime change in Iraq, Holbrooke has also compared Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler, claiming that Iran is “an enormous threat to the United States, the stability in the region, and to the state of Israel.” Then, after the NIE, Holbrooke wrote in the Huffington Post that he had consistently opposed military action against Iran, even before the NIE. Still, in 2008 he has continued to argue that all options must remain “on the table.” Prudence may dictate that there is a time for diplomacy and a time for military action, but public opinion is not always the best way to decide between the two. In fact, it may not be a guide at all considering how much the presidential bully pulpit influences public opinion in matters of foreign policy. Unfortunately, Clinton’s past on Iran leaves it impossible to know when military action would take a back seat to diplomacy and vice versa.

The differences between Obama and Clinton are dwarfed by the gap between the Democratic and Republican positions on Iran. John McCain proposes isolation only, with no call for providing Iran incentives to change its behavior. If sanctions and isolation do not work, he is willing to act militarily. With the price of oil hovering around $100 a barrel, the United States bogged down in Iraq, and China and Russia reluctant to punish Iran for uranium enrichment, Iran will feel confident that it can weather whatever storm of sanctions the United States might put together. In this scenario, if he stays true to his word, the military option will be the only choice John McCain has left.

October Surprise?

Iran will continue to be an important foreign policy theme in the 2008 election. Nevertheless, it is likely to be overshadowed by the economy and Iraq. The U.S. public is accustomed to hearing bad things about Iran, so unless something out of the ordinary occurs – such as a military strike authorized by the Bush administration – it is hard to imagine Iran trumping voters’ concerns over Iraq and possible recession.

In the event that an Iranian October surprise does take place, it is difficult to predict how it would affect the election. If there is overt aggression on Iran’s part, the tough-talking John McCain will almost certainly benefit. However, an unprovoked attack on Iran might discredit Republican militarism, thereby giving the Democratic candidate a boost. What remains certain, though, is that Iran awaits the next American president. And while the identity of that person is not yet clear, the policy choices Americans will have to choose from are.

Frankie Sturm, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), is a free-lance writer based on Washington, DC. His pieces on American politics and foreign affairs have appeared in the Peoria Journal Star, the Topeka Capital-Journal, and MinutemanMedia.org.