Republican, Fox Presidential Debate: Conservatives Wanted

Sunday’s debate between GOP presidential hopefuls in Orlando featured some of the testiest exchanges yet between the candidates, who also seemed to find an unlikely unifying figure in Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.

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US Iraq War Surge Splurge: Congress, Presidential Candidates Debate

After concluding two days of hearings into the progress of the US troop surge in Iraq, several prominent members of the US Congress have slammed the surge as a failure and a distraction from the growing threat of global terrorism.

General David Petraeus testified that there have been “significant” decreases in violence in Iraq since the surge commenced mid- year and that the level of security incidents are now “the lowest since June 2006.” He recommended that the US maintain current troop levels until at least next summer, when he said it may be possible to begin the withdrawal of 30,000 troops. In the longer term, he envisions a US military presence in Iraq for another decade.

Opponents of the war responded that the US needs to start winding down its presence sooner to pressure the Iraqi government to meet political reconciliation benchmarks, which are necessary to quell the sectarian violence. The Iraqis have failed to meet 15 out of 18 agreed benchmarks since the troop surge commenced, according to a recent report of the US Government Accountability Office.

At the first joint hearing on Monday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the surge had been a strategic failure: “The current escalation in our military presence in Iraq may have produced some tactical successes, but strategically, the escalation has failed. It was intended to buy time for Prime Minister Maliki and the other Iraqi political leaders to find ways to move toward the one thing that may end this terrible civil conflict – and that, of course, is a political settlement. As best we can see, that time has been utterly squandered.”

He added, “As long as American troops are doing the heavy lifting in Iraq, there is no reason – none at all – for the Iraqis themselves to step up. Military progress without political progress is meaningless.”

This is a view shared by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. He told the NewsHour on Tuesday that the Bush administration knows it can’t succeed in Iraq militarily and appears to be using the surge to buy time to pass the unpopular war onto the next US President. “I think there’s no potential for success,” he said. “We should be overseeing … We should not be in the midst of this civil war.”

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the committee’s ranking Republican, also doubts that the troop surge can succeed in the absence of political reform. “I think, in fairness, what we heard is that the national government is way, way off in the future,” he said. “The odds for a good result coming out of the surge are still not very good.”

Sen. Biden insisted that the surge could not be credited with the US military’s much-touted success in Anbar province, as claimed by Gen. Petraeus. “He was trying to conflate the notion that, because the Sunnis decided that they had enough of al Qaeda, that somehow that meant that the central purpose of the surge, to give the sectarian warring parties breathing room so that they could come up with a political accommodation for all of Iraq had worked,” said Sen. Biden.

Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) also rejected the claim that the surge had achieved a meaningful reduction in violence: “We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success. And it’s not. This continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake.”

After hearing the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, another Democratic presidential candidate, said, “I believe that you, and certainly the very capable people working with both of you, were dealt a very hard hand. And it’s a hand that is unlikely to improve, in my view.” She also told Gen. Petraeus that she thought he had become a “de facto spokesman for a failed policy”.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican presidential candidate, declared his full support for the surge. “Make no mistake, the consequences of American defeat in Iraq will be terrible and long-lasting,” he said. “Some senators would like to withdraw our troops from Iraq, so we can get back to fighting what they believe to be the real war on terror, which is taking place somewhere else. This is inaccurate. Iraq has become the central front in the global war on terror and failure there would turn Iraq into a terrorist sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East, a host for jihadists planning attacks on America.”

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also said that Iraq remains a central front in the war on terror. “The importance of a successful conclusion to Iraq must be weighed in light of the global threat of violent jihad and terror. America must continue its commitment to the strategy Gen. Petraeus is executing.”

However, other Republicans and Democrats argued that staying the course in Iraq will weaken the ability of the US to effectively deal with the threat of terrorism. Gen. Petraeus was asked repeatedly if the war in Iraq had made the US any safer, to which he responded that he did not know, because he was focused on his mission.

A clearly frustrated Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) countered, “With all due respect, these two critical leaders here in our government are not willing to seriously comment about how this relates to the larger global fight against terrorism, the allocation of resources. This is a classic example of myopia. This is the myopia of Iraq that is affecting our ability to look at this as the global challenge it is.”

Sen. Clinton said she found it unacceptable that the Bush administration continues to spend billions in Iraq while Osama bin Laden remains free to taunt Americans and al Qaeda expands its recruiting and training operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Rep. Lantos accused the Bush administration of “wrecking” the US military at the expense of counterterrorism, and bequeathing the onerous debt to the next generation of Americans: “We are wrecking our military and the enormous financial cost of this war is limiting our ability to address our global security needs. The cost of this war in Iraq will be passed along to our grandchildren and beyond.”

Sen. Lugar noted the advice of top military advisors that the war was now taking a toll that will undermine the US military’s strength for years to come. “The United States has other obligations in the world. Furthermore, some of our military people are pointing out that we have overstretched these troops and we’re lowering the qualities that we need for the recruits that are coming in. In short, this is a nation that has some potential military difficulties.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has long opposed the war in Iraq and recently announced his retirement from politics, asked: “Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we’re doing now? For what? The president said, ‘Let’s buy time.’ Buy time? For what? Every report I’ve seen, there’s been really very little, if any, political progress and that is the ultimate core issue – political reconciliation in Iraq.”

President Bush is expected to discuss his plans for the war in Iraq in a nationally televised speech on Thursday.

Oprah Winfrey Support of Barack Obama Promising

The campaign of presidential hopeful Barack Obama received a huge boost in profile on Saturday when Oprah Winfrey hosted a star-studded gala fundraiser at her sprawling ‘Promised Land’ estate in Montecino, California.

Pop musician Stevie Wonder and gospel vocalist BeBe Winans performed for 1,500 guests who paid $2,300 each to support and meet Senator Obama (D-Ill.).  Guests included Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, Forest Whitaker, Cindy Crawford, Jimmy Connors, Linda Evans and Dennis Haysbert, according to the Associated Press. Actors Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Halle Berry were also expected to attend.

Guests were instructed to leave cameras and recording devices at home and the media was barred from the event. Yet despite the media ban, photographers in helicopters buzzing overhead did their best to capture the spectacle of celebrities arriving for the event.

The gala reportedly raised $3 million for the presidential campaign of Sen. Obama. However, there is considerably more speculation surrounding the extent to which Ms Winfrey’s backing might expand Sen. Obama’s political base, especially with respect to African-American and women voters.

“It’s very hard to say,” Sen. Obama told the Chicago Tribune. “I think a presidential race is unique. The job is unique. People who might buy my book because of an appearance on Oprah are obviously going to have a much more serious and sober deliberation when it comes to deciding who the next leader of the free world is.”

A CBS Newspoll found that thirty-one percent of registered voters surveyed believe that most people they know would be more likely to support Sen. Obama’s bid for the White House because of Ms Winfrey’s endorsement. However, 63 percent said the endorsement would not make any difference, while 3 percent said that most people they know would now be less likely to vote for him.

Nevertheless, Ms Winfrey has been called “arguably the world’s most influential woman” by the American Spectator, CNN and Time.com. Her fan base is fiercely loyal owing to her down-to-earth manner and rags-to-riches story. She grew up in rural poverty in Mississippi, first caught the public’s eye in the Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple, and then became a cultural icon when her Chicago-based Oprah Winfrey Show went national in 1986.

Today, her wealth is estimated at $1.5 billion and her media empire includes a women’s television cable network, a film production company, a radio channel, a magazine and a web site that reportedly attracts 68 million page views per year.

She has previously avoided the political arena. Yet following Sen. Obama’s appearance on her show in 2004, following his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, the two became friends. They later flew together to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to view the devastation and the displacement of local residents.

“I haven’t been actively engaged before because there hasn’t been anything to be actively engaged in,” said Ms Winfrey. “But I am engaged now to make Barack Obama the next president of the United States.” She is reportedly considering appearing in television ads for Sen. Obama and speaking at public appearances.

While he remains circumspect regarding the political dividends that might result from Ms Winfrey’s endorsement, Sen. Obama acknowledges that her enormous popular appeal could well open doors to audiences he might otherwise not reach.

“Ultimately, they’ve got to be persuaded by me that I’m the right person for the job, but Oprah is somebody who has enormous reach, and that means that I may get a hearing in certain quarters,” he said.

Iraq the Big Issue in New Hampshire Democrat Debate

Democratic presidential candidates traded barbs over the Iraq war in the New Hampshire debate on Sunday night, with former senator John Edwards (N.C.) accusing Senators Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) of failing to show leadership during the recent Congressional debate over the Iraq war funding bill.

Senators Clinton and Obama voted against the bill, but did not make their intentions known until near voting time.

“Others on this stage, (Senator) Chris Dodd (Conn.), spoke out very loudly and clearly,” said Mr Edwards. “Others did not. Others were quiet. They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote. But there is a difference between leadership and legislating.”

Senator Obama fired back: “The fact is that I opposed this war from the start. So you’re about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue.” While still a US Senator, Mr Edwards voted in favor of the 2002 resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Biden stepped up to defend his vote to continue funding the war, saying, “Look, I cannot, as long as there is a single troop in Iraq that I know … if I take action by funding them, I increase the prospect they will live or not be injured, I cannot and will not vote no to fund them.”

Other candidates rejected further military funding, arguing that it only served to prolong the war.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) said the only way for Congress to end the war is to take a hard line and cut off funding. “Just say, ‘No money, the war is over’,” he said. “The money’s in the pipeline right now, enough to bring the troops home. Let’s end the war, and let’s make this a productive evening.”

Former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) said that no candidate who authorized the invasion of Iraq should be President. “Sure, it’s George Bush’s war,” he said. “But it’s the Democrats’ war also. We have killed more Americans than was done on the 11th of September. More Americans died because of their decision. That disqualifies them for President.”

When asked to explain why they had not read the National Intelligence Estimate before they voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Senator Clinton said she had been “thoroughly briefed”, while Mr Edwards maintained he had “all the information I needed” to make a decision. However, throughout his campaign, Mr Edwards has said that his vote in 2002 was a mistake, while Senator Clinton, who also now opposes the war, refuses to say that her vote was in error.

Despite their differences, Senator Clinton claimed common ground with her fellow Democratic candidates regarding the war in Iraq. “The differences between us are minor,” she said. “The differences between us and the Republicans are major.”

Mr Edwards then took issue with the term “global war on terror”, which he called a politically charged bumper-sticker slogan. “That’s all it is, all it’s ever been, was intended to do, for George Bush to use it to justify everything he does – the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture,” said Mr Edwards. “None of those things are okay. They are not the United States of America.”

Senator Clinton disagreed. “I am a senator from New York,” she said. “I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11, and I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists who are intent upon foisting their way of life and using suicide bombers and suicidal people to carry out their agenda.”

The discussion on health care opened with a question regarding the cost of providing universal coverage. Mr Edwards said his universal health care plan would cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year, which he said would be partially funded by allowing the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire. “I believe you cannot cover everybody in America, create a more efficient health care system, cover the cracks … getting rid of things like pre-existing conditions and making sure that mental health is treated the same as physical health … I don’t think you can do all those things for nothing.”

He took aim at Senator Obama’s recently announced health plan, which he said would not provide universal coverage. Senator Obama, whose plan has been estimated to cost between $50 billion to $65 billion per year, said he would make health insurance more affordable, but not mandatory. “My belief is that most families want health care but they can’t afford it,” he said.

Senator Clinton, who has long framed the cost of her plan in terms of trimming more than $100 billion per year from national health care spending, insisted that the main obstacle would not be cost but politics. “You’ve got to have the political will – a broad coalition of business and labor, doctors, nurses, hospitals – everybody standing firm when the inevitable attacks come from the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies that don’t want to change the system because they make so much money out of it,” she said.

Senator Clinton continues to lead the other main Democratic candidates in recent polls. In a CNN survey of national polls in May, she averaged 41 percent, compared to Senator Obama’s 26 percent, and Mr Edwards’ 14 percent. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found Senator Clinton leading with 42 percent while Senator Obama trailed with 27 percent, and Mr Edwards with 11 percent.

Barack Obama’s Health Care Prescription

Presidential candidate Barack Obama announced his plans on Tuesday for sweeping reforms to the US health care system which he said overcharges patients, tolerates poor quality health care, rewards waste and inefficiency, favors disease treatment over disease prevention and leaves 45 million Americans uninsured.

Speaking at the University of Iowa on Tuesday, Senator Obama (D-Ill.) said health insurance premiums have skyrocketed at a rate of nearly 90% over the past six years, four times that of wage rises. He said the bulk of health care cost increases have been due to administrative charges, insurance company profits, excessive salaries and bonuses for industry CEOs, and the growing cost of prescription drugs.

“Every year, candidates offer up detailed health care plans only to see them crushed under the weight of Washington politics and drug and insurance industry lobbying,” said Senator Obama. “Well, this cannot be one of those years.”

Citing a raft of statistics, he said health care costs impose an onerous burden on US businesses and health consumers: over half of small businesses cannot afford to insure their workers; 11 million insured Americans spend more than a quarter of their income on health care; and over half of all personal bankruptcies are now caused by medical bills.

Senator Obama also said that the US spends “almost twice as much for health care per person than other industrialized nations, and too much of it has nothing to do with patient care”.

He vowed that if elected President he would enact a universal health care plan by the end of his first term in office. He believes there is now strong support for universal health care in the US, unlike when it was first proposed by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s, because the rising costs of health care have convinced many more businesses and individual states to back reform.

Under his strategy, he said the average family’s health insurance premiums would be reduced by as much as $2,500 per year. The plan would cover all essential medical services including preventive, maternity, disease management and mental health care, and no one would be excluded because of a preexisting condition or illness.

This would cost between $50-$65 billion per year. It would be funded by providing incentives for all but the smallest businesses to participate, and by allowing the Bush administration’s temporary tax cut for the wealthiest Americans to expire.

The Obama health care proposal is based on five principles:

  1. Reduce insurance premiums for businesses and workers by subsidizing “catastrophic cases” such as cancer and heart disease
  2. Focus the health care system on preventing costly, debilitating diseases
  3. Reduce the cost of health care by improving the quality of health care – (includes providing the public with information about preventable medical errors, nurse-to-patient ratios, and hospital-acquired infections)
  4. Save billions in waste and inefficiency by moving away from a paper-based medical records system to one based on the latest information technology – (to enable ready access to patient information such as prescriptions and allergies, prevent errors and substantially reduce time spent on paperwork)
  5. “Break the stranglehold” that a small group of drug and insurance companies have on the health care market – (includes making generic drugs more easily accessible and prosecuting monopolies in the insurance industry)

Senator Obama acknowledged that there would be initial resistance to any proposal for a universal health care system in US, especially from some pharmaceutical and insurance companies, yet he said such reform is critical and long overdue.

“We have reached a point in this country where the rising cost of health care has put too many families and businesses on a collision course with financial ruin and left too many without coverage at all – a course that Democrats and Republicans, small business owners and CEOs, have come to agree is not sustainable or acceptable any longer.”

By announcing the details of his strategy, Senator Obama has weighed in more forcefully into the debate over universal health care, which has been a cornerstone of the campaigns waged by his fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

Australia PM Howard Censure Motion Over Barack Obama and Iraq

The war of words between Australian Prime Minister John Howard and US Presidential candidate Barack Obama spilled over into the Australian Parliament on Monday and culminated in a censure motion against the Prime Minister.

On the Nine Network’s Sunday program, Mr Howard slammed Senator Obama (D-Ill.) and the Democratic Party the day after Mr Obama officially announced his bid for the US Presidency and declared that, if elected, he would withdraw all US troops from Iraq.  “I think that would just encourage those who wanted completely to destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory,” said Mr Howard. “If I was running al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats.”

Senator Obama wasted no time returning fire at Mr Howard’s “cowboy rhetoric”.  “I think it’s flattering that one of George Bush’s allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced my [presidential] candidacy,” said Sen. Obama. “I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1,400. So if he is ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and send them to Iraq, otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

On Monday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer told ABC Radio, “That would be half of our army. Australia is a much smaller country than the United States and so he might like to weigh that up.” Australian Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd condemned the Prime Minister’s remarks and moved a censure (vote of no confidence) motion against Mr Howard, citing his “false statement” that terrorist network al Qaeda would be hoping for a Democratic candidate to win next year’s US presidential election.

“To accuse the Democratic Party of being the terrorist’s party of choice, this is a most serious charge,” said Mr Rudd. “To accuse the party of Roosevelt, to accuse the party of Truman, to accuse the party of Kennedy and Johnson … of being the terrorist’s party of choice?” The censure motion also took aim at Mr Howard’s “gross insensitivity” for lecturing the US on whether or not to withdraw its troops, when more than 3,000 US troops had lost their lives in Iraq. The motion, which was defeated along party lines, further accused Mr Howard of damaging the Australia-US alliance by playing partisan politics.

“Mr Howard must not allow his personal relationship with President Bush to impact on Australia’s long-term alliance relationship with the United States,” said Mr Rudd. “The alliance … has prevailed with such strength and certainty because it has always been above party politics.” Senator Obama also rejected claims that a US withdrawal would increase the threat of terrorism, noting that the Bush administration’s “own intelligence agencies have indicated that the threat of terrorism has increased as a consequence of our actions over there.”

According to an October 2006 poll conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, this is a view shared by the majority of Australians. It found that 84 per cent of Australians believe the Iraq war has done nothing to lower the threat of terrorism.  Two-thirds of respondents disagreed that the war would lead to the spread of democracy in the Middle East, and 91 per cent said they believed that the Iraq war had worsened US relations with the Muslim world.

Executive director Alan Gyngell said the poll showed a strong trend in the attitudes of Australians toward the Iraq war. Referring to the Australian public’s long-standing skepticism about intelligence used in the lead up to the US-led invasion, Mr Gyngell told ABC Radio, “The debate seems to be over about the reasons that we went into Iraq, that is 84 per cent disagree with the statement that the threat of terrorism has been reduced by Iraq. There’s pretty strong agreement that is hasn’t worked.”   He also said that, “There’s a very strong view that the US has too much influence on our foreign policy.”

These sentiments were expressed by Mr Rudd yesterday in the Australian Parliament, when he said the Howard Government had spent too long following the lead of the Bush administration. “Mr Howard and Mr Downer as well have become followers, not leaders, when it comes to international affairs. And when it came to Iraq in particular, they just followed the American lead rather than doing the responsible thing for Australia and the world,” said Mr Rudd. Prime Minister Howard is seeking a fifth term in office later this year and, like President Bush, he is beginning to experience a powerful backlash from the electorate who want a deadline set for withdrawing Australian troops. And like the November mid-term elections in the US, the unpopular Iraq war is shaping up to be a determining factor in the looming Australian federal election.

Mr Rudd, who has pledged to withdraw Australian troops from combat roles if he is elected, has said that “being a good ally … doesn’t mean that you have to comply with everything the United States says”. He added that he would not “leave our ally immediately in the lurch” and would act only following “clear-cut consultations with the Americans”. An AC Nielsen poll published on Monday gave Mr Rudd’s Labor Party a 16-point lead over the Howard (Liberal-National) Government, with Labor leading 58 per cent to 42 per cent on two-party preferred terms. Mr Rudd’s personal approval rating registered at 65 per cent – the highest by an Opposition Leader in decades.

 

Barack Obama: Official Candidate for US President

Senator Barack Obama officially launched his bid for the US Presidency on Saturday in Springfield, Illinois outside the Old State Capitol building where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic “house divided” anti-slavery speech in 1858. “I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness – a certain audacity – to this announcement,” he said. “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”

In his speech, Sen. Obama vowed to transform US politics and wrest the controls of government from “… the cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who’ve turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.” Playing his freshman senator status to his advantage, untainted by ‘the ways of Washington’, Sen. Obama also spoke of his distaste for bitterly divisive partisan politics, which will almost certainly resonate favorably with US voters.

As supporters and curious onlookers crowded the stage, Sen. Obama blamed poor leadership and political gridlock for national crises related to energy, climate change, education, health care, the plight of the working poor and the Iraq war, which he collectively called the “challenges of this millennium”. “All of us know what those challenges are today,” he said. “What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial.”

Senator Obama has one significant advantage that distinguishes him from his higher profile Democratic challengers, Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) – he has long opposed the war in Iraq and will not need to repeatedly explain why he supported the invasion but opposes the war now. When the US Congress passed the 2002 Iraq Resolution, Sen. Obama was an Illinois State Senator who publicly opposed the invasion, which he called “dumb”, and warned that the US faced a long and potentially disastrous occupation in Iraq. He now supports a phased withdrawal of US troops and opposes President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.

“America, it’s time to start bringing our troops home,” Sen. Obama told the crowd on Saturday. “Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace.” The Iraq war will be a critical issue in the lead up to the primaries and the presidential election, given that it was a determining factor at the mid-term elections, when US voters rejected the war and put Democrats in charge of both Houses of Congress.

Senator Obama’s rise from State Senator to US Presidential hopeful has been swift. Even before being elected to the US Senate, he electrified the 2004 Democratic convention with a hard-hitting, much-lauded keynote address in which he coined the phrase “the audacity of hope”. The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Sen. Obama has written two best-selling books, including an autobiography entitled Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and his more recent political tome, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, published in October 2006.

Senator Obama has a BA from Columbia University where studied political science and international relations. In 1991, he obtained his JD degree magna cum laude from Harvard, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. He has since worked as a civil rights lawyer, taught constitutional law and served for eight years in the Illinois State Legislature until his election to the US Senate in 2004.

 

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