Uh oh.

The excellent muckrakers of the McClatchy Washington bureau report:

As the Obama administration reconsiders its Afghanistan policy, White House officials are minimizing warnings from the intelligence community, the military and the State Department about the risks of adopting a limited strategy focused on al Qaida, U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military officials told McClatchy.

Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have found that the Taliban and other Pakistan-based groups that are fighting U.S.-led forces have much closer ties to al Qaida now than they did before 9/11, would allow the terrorist network to re-establish bases in Afghanistan and would help Osama bin Laden export his radical brand of Islam to Afghanistan's neighbors and beyond, the officials said.

McClatchy interviewed more than 15 senior and mid-level U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic officials, all of whom said they concurred with the assessments. All of them requested anonymity because the assessments are classified and the officials weren't authorized to speak publicly.

In the past few weeks, it has seemed that the White House has been looking to adopt an in-the-middle course in Afghanistan, not dumping too many more troops in, not drawing down the troops already there. And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly noted that the entire Taliban is not an extension of al Qaeda—an assertion that has tremendous strategic ramifications. If there is a difference between the two, then perhaps the United States and NATO can cut deals with some Taliban elements and isolate those Taliban slices that are in bed with al Qaeda. But if the Taliban and al Qaeda are joined at the hip—as Senator John McCain and others have claimed—then there's a better argument for a bigger military mission aimed at destroying the Taliban.

The McClatchy piece indicates that intelligence officials are pushing the one-and-the-same analysis—meaning they are increasing the pressure (either purposefully or not) for boosting the US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan. If Obama does not head in that direction, he can expect a storm of protest from hawks who will be waving news stories like this—and perhaps leaked reports—and claiming that he's ignoring the intelligence. Afghanistan—as both a political and policy concern—keeps getting messier for the latest Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

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Running the Traps

So what kind of options is President Obama getting from his military commanders regarding Afghanistan?  Here's Martha Raddatz of ABC News on the advice he's getting from Gen. Stanley McChrystal:

The three options are, option one: send no more troops to Afghanistan, considered a "high risk option;” option two: send 40,000 more troops, and option three: a major increase in troops, a number that has not been made public but that is far more than 40,000....We’re told that number is [...] well more than 60,000, but under 100,000. But this high option is not the one McChrystal favors.  He favors the middle option.

And here's the New York Times:

Officials said over the weekend that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, had prepared options that include a maximum troop increase of about 80,000, a number highly unlikely to be considered seriously by the White House. Much of the official focus has been on a lower option that the general presented, for 40,000 additional troops.

A couple of months ago Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote a piece in the Washington Post about the post-Petraeus Pentagon's focus on "a new kind of military leader," one who was "able to nimbly run the troops on the ground as well as the traps in Washington."  Stanley McChrystal was said to be just such a leader.

And apparently he is.  Nobody takes the 80,000 number seriously, and McChrystal certainly knew that would be the case.  Apparently he didn't even endorse it himself.  So why include it?  All part of nimbly running the traps in Washington, I imagine.  If you toss in a higher number, then the natural compromise figure becomes 40,000, the place he wanted to be all along.  It's one thing for Obama to eventually decide on a figure a little lower than the high-end option, but once everything has been properly leaked it's a lot harder for him to publicly defend a figure that's less than even McChrystal's pre-packaged "compromise" position.

This is all pretty obvious stuff and I don't want to make too much out of it.  But I'll repeat something I said earlier anyway: I'm not really thrilled at the idea of the Pentagon focusing its energies on promoting generals who are good Washington gameplayers.  If McChrystal truly doesn't favor the higher option, we'd all be better off if he just left it out and instead made the recommendation he really believes in.  Trying to box in the commander-in-chief may be business as usual when it comes to things like F-22 acquisitions or base closings, but I don't have to like it.  I especially don't have to like it when it comes to things a little more important than Lockheed-Martin's balance sheet.  And I don't.

I recently got a press release from the makers of Linger, an "internal feminine flavoring" that promises to keep your vagina in mint condition. Think of it as an Altoid for your lady parts or, as its website explains, "A small, naturally sweetened flavoring, free of artificial dyes, which was created to flavor the secretions of a woman when she is sexually aroused." What...the...?!

So where did the idea for this curiously wrong mint come from? Linger's website (a little NSFW) offers up a wondrous, romantic tale about the supposed discoverer of femimint hygiene, an unnamed woman who was seduced in India by a man with skin "the color of caramel." He quelled her fears of tasting bad "down there" with a mysterious, Eastern mint. "When I returned to the States, I brought the tingly sweet tasting mint with me," she writes. I've requested an interview with this mysterious entrepreneur, but have yet to speak with her. However, Linger's PR guy did send me a sample—made in exotic New Jersey. But that was just my first taste of disappointment.

While I was en route back to the US over the weekend, Washington saw what may well be a game-changer on climate legislation, as Lindsey Graham (R-SC) officially endorsed the Senate climate bill.

Well, maybe.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, Graham joined with bill author John Kerry (D-Mass.) to support passing climate legislation this year. They write:

[W]e refuse to accept the argument that the United States cannot lead the world in addressing global climate change. We are also convinced that we have found both a framework for climate legislation to pass Congress and the blueprint for a clean-energy future that will revitalize our economy, protect current jobs and create new ones, safeguard our national security and reduce pollution.
Our partnership represents a fresh attempt to find consensus that adheres to our core principles and leads to both a climate change solution and energy independence. It begins now, not months from now—with a road to 60 votes in the Senate.

Of course, the op-ed does make it clear that there are some things to be worked out, as the bill remains in draft form. Graham is a big nuclear proponent, so the extent of nuclear support in the final bill will be key. It's also key for other Republicans who are possible "yes" votes, like his close ally John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

Yanks and the Nobel

This has sure been a good year for America in the Nobel Prizes.  I don't know if this is unusual or not, but Americans and American institutions are heavily represented in every single prize except Literature this year.  Congrats to the final two, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who apparently did groundbreaking work showing that social relationships can actually affect the workings of the free market.  Who knew?

The Empire Strikes Back

AHIP, the insurance industry trade group, has apparently decided to hop off the healthcare reform bandwagon.  After months of claiming that they were on board, they released a report on Monday claiming that current proposals would raise insurance costs for middle class families by about $4,000 more than otherwise projected over the next decade.  It's a pretty standard lobbyist group effort: the report was written by an "independent" outfit (PricewaterhouseCooper, the same guys who wrote similar reports for the tobacco industry in the 90s), it makes several convenient assumptions, and in the end it comes up with a dramatic and surprisingly precise measure of financial doom for Joe Sixpack and his family.

So what's the deal?  Is AHIP really trying to kill healthcare reform?  Or is this just a shot across the bow?  There's no way to know for sure, but Jon Cohn offers up this thought in a postscript to a detailed look at the report:

A friend e-mails, asking if AHIP's motives are really as clear as they seem. As proof, the friend points to the passage in Ignani's cover letter calling for more system-wide cost control. AHIP didn't get a sweetheart side deal like the hospitals and drug industry did. And those sweetheart deals will almost surely mean less cost control. Maybe part of AHIP's agenda is simply to get more serious cost control, so they don't become scapegoats for high insurance premiums.

I have my doubts that AHIP is really all that dedicated to cost controls.  What's more, they did get a sweetheart deal of their own: in return for agreeing to various regulations on preexisting conditions, out-of-pocket caps, and so forth, they got a promise to include an individual mandate in the bill.  That mandate means more people will buy insurance and it's worth billion of dollars to the industry.

However, the Baucus bill has weakened that mandate.  So the problem may be not that they didn't get a sweetheart deal, but that they're afraid the deal is being watered down too much.  There's even a decent case to be made that they're right (i.e., that the individual mandate really ought to be stronger than it is in Baucus's markup).  I wouldn't be surprised if this report has been on the shelf for a while, with AHIP plugging in the final numbers and releasing it now as a way of warning congressional negotiators that full-scale war is coming unless their bribes are restored to the full level they thought they were getting in the first place.  If that's the plan, though, it might be backfiring.  Here's Carrie Budoff Brown at Politico:

This might be the first rift unfolding in public between an industry player and the White House and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.)....Senate Finance Committee spokesman Scott Mulhauser called it "a health insurance company hatchet job, plain and simple."

"This report is untrue, disingenuous and bought and paid for by the same health insurance companies that have been gouging too many consumers for too long as they stand in the way of reform yet again," Mulhauser said in an emailed statement. "Now that health care reform grows ever closer, these health insurers are breaking out the same, tired playbook of deception to prevent millions of Americans from getting the affordable, accessible care they need."

Stay tuned.  AHIP seems to have pissed off quite a few people with this piece of gamesmanship.  We'll know shortly which side will pay a price for this.

Just about every week, it seems, the New York Times has yet another piece that adds fuel to what I’ve called the phony intergenerational conflict over health care. Last week it was about how we lucky Medicare-eligible oldsters are scarfing up our free health care while our slightly younger compatriots (ages 50-65) can’t even get health insurance.  This week it’s even worse: We greedy old geezers, it seems, are now responsible for the deprivations faced by helpless little children. 

In an Editorial Notebook” entry this Sunday, Eduardo Porter laments the fact that a majority of people over 65 oppose health care reform efforts that would provide for the uninsured. Porter writes:

The elderly, of course, are already covered by government-run health insurance. The president’s plan offers them little. It might even trim some Medicare expenditures. But their opposition to the expansion of health insurance does make me wonder: what about the grandchildren?

So let me get this straight: The only way for the children of America to get the health care they need is for old people to give up some of ours? Never mind the insurance companies, whose useless, bloodsucking participation in the U.S. health care system raises costs by at least 20 percent. And never mind Big Pharma, who siphon another 10 percent or so directly into their runaway profit margins. Forget all about the bulging pockets of the private health care industry. The real reason little Timmy and Janey can’t afford to go to the doctor is because their selfish old granny wanted a hip replacement, and grandpa insisted on having his blood pressure meds.

But wait, that’s not all. Porter takes things a step further, suggesting that it’s old folks’ gluttony at the public trough that leaves millions of American children living in poverty:

The age gap sheds light on a deep generational inequity. In the United States, as in most industrial countries, government spending skews heavily in favor of the old. Social spending on the elderly amounted to $19,700 per person in 2000, according to one study; children got $6,380.

One might be tempted to think the spending imbalance reflects a difference in needs. After all, the elderly tend to get sick more and require expensive medical treatment. But children could do with more help too. The percentage of the elderly living under the poverty line dropped from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.7 percent last year. For those under 18, the incidence of poverty rose from 17.6 percent to 19 percent.

So let’s not talk about military spending, the Wall Street bailout, or the ridiculously low tax rates paid by the rich. Want to know the real reason why the world’s wealthiest nation can’t find money in its budget to lift nearly one in five of its children out of poverty? It’s all because of us greedy old geezers.

A last observation on Danish politics when it comes to climate and energy. The country has approved an ambitious plan to draw 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and is already pulling 17 percent of total energy consumption and 30 percent of electricity from renewables. They've also endorsed the European Union's plan to cut emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and are willing to go to 30 percent if other nations sign on.

Their plan was supported almost unanimously by the 175 members of Folketing*, the Danish parliament. On Friday we met with Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard, a member of the right-leaning Conservative People's Party. She's been the point person for the country's ambitious climate and energy plan since 2007, and represents the country in international negotiations. She was the Minister of Environment for three years before the parliament created a separate role for climate and energy. Hedegaard is essentially Denmark's Carol Browner, but with more direct influence.

Hearing her talk about why her work is evidence of her values offered a stark contrast to most American conservatives on climate and energy policy. Hedegaard made it clear that she approaches the issue from a conservative world view.

"It's at the core of conservatism to take care of the environment, to protect nature, to use resources responsibly," said Hedegaard. "I can think of nothing that's more conservative than that."

Her priority, she said, is that their policies be vehicles for economic growth. The export of clean tech increased 19 percent last year, triple what it was ten years ago. Just recently it passed pork as the country's leading export product.

Where's Salin Palin? On Twitter, that is.

Before resigning as governor of Alaska in July, Palin had become a prolific Twitterer, sending out news of her official doings to about 150,000 followers. She also shared with them quotes from Aristotle, Thomas Paine, and other big thinkers. On July 17—nine days before her resignation was to take effect—she wrote this tweet:

10 dys til less politically correct twitters fly frm my fingertps outside State site.

That seemed a promise: as soon as she left office, she would trade her official governor's Twitter account for an unofficial one and start firing off 140-character missives, telling the world what she really felt about things.

Well, it's been three months since then, and Palin has disappeared from Twitter. There's no new account for her and, thus, no "less politically correct" tweets flying from her fingertips.

What does this mean? Did she consciously decide to pull back for a while? Can she not handle tweeting while writing her book? There's been no explanation for her Twitter silence. Maybe she's too busy with Facebook.

By the way, see my most recent PoliticsDaily.com column for more on the latest Palin news—or non-news.

Daivd Corn is still on Twitter. Check out his feed to follow his latest postings and media appearances.

"Word can't describe it; this is great—it really is," said Cpl. Clinton R. Smith, a welder with Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, after embracing his 3-year-old daughter, Maddison, for the first time in more than six months. Smith, along with 88 other Marines and sailors, returned to the Combat Center Wednesday from their deployment to Ninawa province in the northwest corner of Iraq, near the Syrian border. (US Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Corey A. Blodgett.)