Saturday, March 31, 2007

Elizabeth Edwards for President

Published: April 1, 2007

ELIZABETH EDWARDS’S choice to stay in the political arena despite a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about Elizabeth Edwards. People admired her before she was ill for the same reasons they admire her now. She comes across as honest, smart and unpretentious — as well as both devoted to and independent of her husband. But we have learned a great deal about the political arena from the hubbub that greeted her decision. For all the lip service Washington pays to valuing political players who are authentic and truthful, it turns out that real, honest-to-God straight talk about matters of life, death and, yes, political ambition, drives “some people” (to use Katie Couric’s locution) nuts.

If you caught Elizabeth and John Edwards in the Couric interview on “60 Minutes” or at their joint news conference in Chapel Hill, you saw a couple speaking as couples chasing the presidency rarely do. When Ms. Couric gratuitously reminded Mrs. Edwards that she was “staring at possible death,” Mrs. Edwards countered: “Aren’t we all, though?” It’s been a steady refrain of her public comments that “we’re all going to die” and that she has the right to make her own choice to fight for her husband’s candidacy even as she fights for her life. There are no euphemisms or equivocations in her language. There’s no apologizing by either Edwards for the raw political calculus of their campaign plans. There’s no sentimental public hand-wringing about the possible effect her choice might have on her children. The unpatronizing Mrs. Edwards sounds like an adult speaking to adults.

Americans understood. A CBS News poll found that by more than two to one, both women and men support the decision to move forward. So do prominent cancer survivors in the media establishment, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum: Tony Snow (before his own rehospitalization), Laura Ingraham, Cokie Roberts and Barbara Ehrenreich all cheered on Mrs. Edwards. But others who muse on politics for a living responded with bafflement and implicit moral condemnation — and I don’t mean just Rush Limbaugh, who ridiculed the Edwardses for dedicating themselves to their campaign instead of, as he would have it, “to God.”

No less ludicrous were those pundits who presumed to bestow their own wisdom upon the Edwards household as it confronted terminal illness. A Washington correspondent for Time (a man) fretted that “Edwards’s supporters, and surely many average Americans” will be wondering when his “duties as a husband and a father” will “trump his duty to his country and the cause of winning the White House.” (Oh those benighted “average” Americans!) A former Los Angeles Times reporter (a woman) who covered the 2004 Edwards campaign suggested to USA Today that “this is a time when they would want to be home together savoring every moment that they’ve got.” A Washington Post columnist, identifying herself as a fellow mother, faulted Mrs. Edwards for not being sufficiently protective of her children.

As Mrs. Edwards moves forward both to manage her cancer and to campaign for her husband, she’ll roil more of the Beltway crowd. In a political culture where nearly every act by every candidate and spouse is packaged to a fare-thee-well for the voters’ consumption, the Edwardses’ story by definition will play out unpredictably in real time, with a spontaneity that is beyond any consultant’s or media guru’s control. Here is one continuing familial crisis that cannot be scored with soothing music to serve as a Hallmark homily in an inspirational infomercial at the next election-year convention. The Edwardses’ unscripted human drama will be a novelty by the standards of our excessively stage-managed political theater and baffling to many in its permanent repertory company.

That’s one reason it will be good for the country if Mr. Edwards can stay in this race for the duration, whether you believe he merits being president or not. (For me, the jury on that question is out.) The more Elizabeth Edwards is in the spotlight, the more everyone else in the arena will have to be judged against her. Next to her stark humanity, the slick playacting that passes for being “human” and “folksy” in a campaign is tinny. Though much has been said about how she is a model to others battling cancer, she is also a model (or should be) of personal transparency to everyone else in the presidential race.

This is especially true in a campaign where the presumptive (or at least once-presumptive) front-runners in both parties have made candor their calling card: John McCain is once again riding his Straight Talk Express and Hillary Clinton is staking her image on the rubric “Let the Conversation Begin!” They want us to believe that they are speaking in a direct, unfiltered manner, but so far their straight talking, even without Elizabeth Edwards as a yardstick, seems no more natural than Cheez Whiz.

Senator McCain’s bus has skidded once more into a ditch since the Edwards news conference. He’s so desperate to find the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq that last week he told the radio jock Bill Bennett that “there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk.” Yes, if they’ve signed a suicide pact. Even as the senator spoke, daily attacks were increasing in the safest of Baghdad neighborhoods, the fortified Green Zone, one of them killing two Americans. No one can safely “walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi, without heavily armed protection,” according to the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who delivered an Iraq briefing (pdf) to the White House last week.

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign “conversations” with the public have not stooped to the level of Mr. McCain’s fictions. But they have been laced with the cautious constructions that make her stabs at spontaneity seem as contrived as her rigidly controlled Web “chats.” This explains why a 74-second parody ad placed on YouTube by a Barack Obama supporter had enough resonance to earn (so far) nearly three million views. Reworking a famous Apple Macintosh commercial from 1984, the spot recasts Mrs. Clinton as an Orwellian Big Brother by making her seemingly innocuous campaign catchphrases (“I intend to keep telling you exactly where I stand on all the issues” and “We all need to be part of the discussion”) sound like the hollow pronouncements of the Wizard of Oz rather than the invitations to honest interchange the words imply.

Since the Edwards storm broke, there have been unintended consequences for other campaigns, too. In an accident of timing, Judith Nathan picked the same day as the Edwards news conference to explain that she was only now, after six years in public life, correcting the inaccurate published record of the number of her pre-Giuliani marriages (two, not one). Juxtaposed with the Edwards headlines, the dishonesty unmasked by this confession looked even worse than it might have otherwise. In a less vulgar vein, the first major Democratic campaign event after the Edwards announcement, a forum on health care, prompted more than the usual sniping about Mr. Obama’s substance when his policy prescription lacked the specifics in Mr. Edwards’s plan.

The power of Elizabeth Edwards’s persona is such that the husband at her side will be challenged to measure up to her, too, perhaps even more so than his opponents. No one may be labeling him “the Breck girl” anymore (the subject of another popular Web video parodying his coiffure maintenance), but should his campaign prove blow-dried when he moves beyond health care, he’ll pay his own hefty political price for the inauthenticity.

Whatever Mr. Edwards’s flaws as a candidate turn out to be, he is not guilty of the most persistent charge leveled since his wife’s diagnosis. As Ms. Couric phrased it, “Even those who may be very empathetic to what you all are facing might question your ability to run the country at the same time you’re dealing with a major health crisis in your family.”

Would it be better if he instead ran the country at the same time he was clearing brush on a ranch? Polio informed rather than crippled the leadership of F.D.R.; Lincoln endured the sickness and death of a beloved 11-year-old son during the Civil War. In the wake of our congenitally insulated incumbent, who has given our troops neither proper armor nor medical care and tried to hide their coffins off camera, surely it can only be a blessing to have a president, whether Mr. Edwards or someone else, who knows intimately what it means to cope daily with the threat of mortality. It’s hard to imagine such a president smiting stem-cell research or skipping the funerals of the fallen.

Indeed, of all the reasons to applaud Elizabeth Edwards’s decision to stay in politics, the most important may be her insistence, by her very action, that we not compartmentalize the harsh reality of death and the imperatives of public policy, both at home and at war. Let the real conversation begin.

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The Hand Behind the Taliban

Published: April 1, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan

The Taliban is on the resurgence, again ruling a swath of southern Afghanistan, and President Hamid Karzai is sure of the reason: Pakistan.

In an interview in his office, Mr. Karzai was scathing in his accusations of official Pakistani duplicity. For starters, he accused the Pakistani intelligence agencies of sheltering Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

“We have solid, clear information indicating that,” he said. “And I’m sorry I cannot be silent about this. As much as our friends in Pakistan may not like my saying that.”

Mr. Karzai suggested that the Pakistani government wants the Afghan government to fail, so that it can use the Taliban to turn Afghanistan into a colony of Pakistan. Speaking in English, he said: “The point that we are trying to tell the world [is] that the Taliban was a name, that there was another power behind — a very criminally intended colonial thinking behind the Taliban movement.”

One of the central mistakes of the last few years, Mr. Karzai suggested, was that the West had tried to battle the Taliban in Afghan villages instead of focusing on preventing Pakistan from financing and sheltering the Taliban. He put it this way: “Rather than concentrating on the sources of terror, on the financiers of terror, on the trainers of terror and on the sanctuaries of terror, [we concentrated] rather heavily on going about in Afghan villages, where there was no terrorism, where there was the result of terrorism, yes, but not the roots of it, not the springboard of it.”

Last September, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan reached a deal with tribal leaders on the Pakistani side of the border and pulled troops from the area. Since then, Mr. Karzai said, terrorism had surged.

“We have almost daily reports of suicide bombers coming from there,” he said, adding: “If we had better cooperation from Pakistan, a great many of these cross-border crossings would stop.”

Mr. Karzai also suggested that extreme Taliban policies — like whipping “immodest” women — were part of a Pakistani scheme to destroy Afghan morale and render Afghanistan a helpless puppet of Pakistan.

These charges were so serious that at the end of the interview I double-checked with him. “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying,” I told him. “You’re basically saying that the Taliban was using these policies because it was part of a Pakistani colonial policy to break the will of Afghanistan. And that still is, in effect, what is going on with Pakistan’s policy.”

“Absolutely,” the president said. “Absolutely.” (I’ve posted a transcript and audio file of the interview on my blog,

My own take, after reporting on both sides of the border, is that President Musharraf today is indeed turning a blind eye to the Taliban and aims to control it rather than wipe it out. But Mr. Karzai exaggerates the degree to which Pakistan is pulling the strings of Taliban puppets — and overstates Mr. Musharraf’s ability to destroy the Taliban.

Moreover, there is plenty of blame to assign to the American and Afghan sides as well. We haven’t done nearly enough to build up the Afghan Army and police, which don’t antagonize conservative Afghans the way U.S. troops often do. We fumbled the reconstruction and aid projects needed to win hearts and minds. My vote is for a big push to battle maternal mortality, because 18,000 Afghan women die annually in childbirth — dwarfing the 4,000 Afghans who died last year in Taliban-related violence.

In addition, the Afghan government desperately needs to curb the mind-boggling corruption and narcotics trafficking by its own officials. In short, Pakistan is only one reason that southern Afghanistan is a catastrophe — but a catastrophe it is.

“Nowadays in Helmand Province, the Taliban is winning,” said Haji Mir Wali, a member of Parliament from the southern province of Helmand. “Ninety percent of the area is under the control of the Taliban, and they are imposing their strict rule again.”

Outside of the provincial capital, he said, shops in Helmand don’t dare sell music, men who trim their beards are threatened with death, and schools have closed for boys as well as girls. “It’s worse now than it was in the Taliban’s time.” he said.

Unless we hear the fire bell in the night from the Afghan south, we could end up losing not only the war in Iraq but also the war in Afghanistan we should have won five years ago.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

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Iraq Says Truck Bomb in North Killed 152

An Iraqi man with his son, who was wounded Saturday
by a blast in Hilla. Bombs also hit two other cities.

Published: April 1, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 31 — The Iraqi government on Saturday gave its first official reckoning of the truck bombing Tuesday in the northern city of Tal Afar, putting the death toll at 152 people, a number about double that in early reports.

he bombing, which left 347 other people in a poor Shiite neighborhood wounded, set off a wave of reprisals by Shiite policemen and others that left another 47 people dead and shattered the image of Tal Afar held up by American politicians last year as a model of a turbulent city turned peaceful.

When the bomb detonated, younger Shiite policemen “were motivated by emotions when they saw their parents and siblings getting killed, but this is not acceptable,” Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf said Saturday. He said that 16 policemen and 2 civilians were under arrest and would be fully prosecuted for the reprisals.

Sectarian violence continued around Iraq on Saturday, when 27 people were killed in shootings and car bombings and 10 bodies were found in Baghdad, according to the Interior Ministry. In Gabala, near Hilla, Shiite militiamen killed two people at a Sunni mosque and then burned Sunni stores in retaliation for the killing of the brother of a Mahdi Army militia leader. The Iraqi Army intervened to stop the attack on the mosque, said a member of Scorpion Brigade, a commando unit in Babil Province.

The car bombings were in the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad; in Hilla; and in the northern town of Tuzkhormato, south of Kirkuk. Also, eight civilians who worked on an Iraqi Army base in the town of Hawija, in northern Iraq, were shot to death, and in Salahiddin Province, eight policemen were killed.

In the Interior Ministry’s first news conference since the bombing, officials underscored the event’s scale and horror. “It is a very painful attack,” General Khalaf said.

If the death toll of 152 in the Tal Afar attack is correct, it was the highest total from a single bomb in the four-year-old war.

A number of causes may have contributed to the large increase in the reported deaths: some of the wounded later died; some victims were taken to hospitals outside Tal Afar and were not immediately counted; and some bodies were retrieved at the scene by family members, preventing the deaths from being recorded.

The Interior Ministry, which has been accused of bias toward Shiites and of having groups within it associated with Shiite militias and death squads, is now under a new minister, Jawad al-Bolani.

General Khalaf, who runs the Interior Ministry’s National Command Center, which tracks attacks across Iraq, said: “The prime minister and the minister of interior ordered an investigative committee to go to Tal Afar and take the proper steps and bring the guilty to justice. The committee did its work and there are 18 guilty who did kill innocent citizens and they were arrested and will be brought to justice.”

The truck bombing destroyed 100 houses and many shops in the neighborhood, which is a poor district with ramshackle construction, officials said. When the huge bomb went off, little could stand up to it. “When it exploded, it left a 23-meter crater in the ground, and that tells us that it had two tons of explosives,” General Khalaf said.

The city has about 200,000 residents, mostly Turkmen, ethnically related to the people of Turkmenistan in Central Asia. In Tal Afar, the population is split between Sunnis and Shiites, with a somewhat higher proportion of Shiites.

It is a poor area, and the suicide bomber took advantage of the city’s deprivation to lure people to his truck, which carried flour as well as explosives, officials said. The bomber also benefited from mistakes by the soldiers responsible for checking all vehicles entering the city for bombs.

“It was a truck loaded with flour,” General Khalaf said. “They had not gotten flour for some time, and when the truck came in, it was searched hurriedly by the army checkpoint, and the TNT was mixed in with the flour and the electrical circuit was sophisticated. The checkpoint troops did not have enough experience to find it.”

Also Saturday, the justice minister, Hashim al-Shibli, resigned. Mr. Shibli, a member of the secular National Democratic Party, had fallen out of favor with the Iraqi List, a party that had supported his appointment and controls the position.

A government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said that the replacement of Mr. Shibli had already been planned as part of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s reorganization of positions in the ministry.

Khalid Hassan and Hosham Hussein contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Hilla and Kirkuk.

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