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Breaking: Osama bin Laden to Make 9/11 Video Address to U.S.

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 6:45 PM EDT

As being reported now by CNN, Osama bin Laden plans to make a video address to the United States on September 11th. This is according to information picked up by the SITE Institute, which tracks jihadist Internet chatter. The Al Qaeda leader is expected to warn of new terrorist attacks. If true, this will be Bin Laden's first video appearance since shortly before the 2004 presidential election. Looks like Petraeus might have some competition in next week's news cycle...

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Major Report on Status of Iraqi Security Forces Presented in Congress Today

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 5:00 PM EDT

Here are the findings of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq, a group of military and law enforcement men sent out by Congress to examine the status of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF):

"The Commission finds that in general, the Iraqi Security Forces, military and police, have made uneven progress, but that there should be increasing improvement in both their readiness and their capability to provide for the internal security of Iraq. With regard to external dangers, the evidence indicates that the Iraqi Security Forces will not be able to secure Iraqi borders against conventional military threats in the near term.
"While severely deficient in combat support and combat service support capabilities, the new Iraqi armed forces, especially the Army, show clear evidence of developing the baseline infrastructures that lead to the successful formation of a national defense capability…. In any event, the ISF will be unable to fulfill their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12-18 months…
"In some areas, they have been vulnerable to infiltration, and they are often outmatched in leadership, training, tactics, equipment, and weapons by the terrorists, criminals, and the militias they must combat."

The Commission presented these findings at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier today. They are the kind of lukewarm results that either party can use to their advantage. And that they did.

In questioning, Ranking Minority Member John McCain focused on the good. According to the Commission's report, the Iraqi Army's efforts to weed militias out of its ranks is "achieving some progress." It's "operational effectiveness is increasing." The Air Force is "progressing at a promising rate." The Navy is "making substantive progress." (The Ministry of Interior, the National Police, and the border security forces are subject to strong criticism in the report.)

Bono Pays Tribute to Pavarotti

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 4:29 PM EDT

Bono and Pavarotti
U2 band leader Bono has paid tribute to Luciano Pavarotti, whose collaboration with the band Bono reveals was at the opera singer's insistence. Writing on U2's official website, Bono says Pavarotti "lived the songs, his opera was a great mash of joy and sadness; surreal and earthy at the same time; a great volcano of a man who sang fire but spilled over with a love of life in all its complexity, a great and generous friend."

The U2 star details how Pavarotti pestered the band to write him a song by "continually" calling up their housekeeper until the band agreed. The collaboration would eventually result in the delicate single "Miss Sarajevo" from the Passengers album. Pavarotti also once ambushed the band in Dublin with a film crew, hoping to convince them to play his festival in Modena. Bono and Pavarotti's duet performance there is pictured above.

Pavarotti died this morning in Modena at age 71.

[update] Here's the video for "Miss Sarajevo," by the U2/Brian Eno/Pavoratti project Passengers, whose weird echoey chords owe more to Eno's Another Green World than anything else, but just try not to get shivers when Pavarotti comes in at the 2:59 mark.

Looking Past Petraeus

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 4:15 PM EDT

This morning, in the ornate (and over air-conditioned) Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building, members of the combined House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees convened a hearing called, "Beyond the September Report: What's Next for Iraq?" Testifying was former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry, retired Army Major General John Batiste, and retired Army Chief of Staff Jack Keane.

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are scheduled to appear before both committees early next week, but today's event was apparently meant as a preemptive strike against any good news they might deliver. As House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos said in his opening statement:

It would be refreshing if these two capable and dedicated men would outline a new plan that would redeploy our troops and bring them home from Iraq. But I expect instead that the September report—written not by one of our great military leaders and one of our most capable diplomats, but by Administration political operatives—will be a regurgitation of the same failed Iraq strategy. I expect this report will be replete with the same litany of requests—more troops, more money, more patience—and all in the unlikely belief that our intervention in a bloody, religiously-based civil war will bear fruit.

Lantos' statement was challenged by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who objected to the very premise of the hearing. "We should consider next steps only after we have reviewed all reports and presentations," she argued, in reference to the forthcoming Petraeus/Crocker report. Duncan Hunter, her Republican counterpart on the Armed Services Committee, agreed. "I hope the purpose of this hearing is not to discredit General Petraeus before he takes the stand," he said.

Such disagreement was no less apparent among the committees' three witnesses. Perry and Batiste, the first to testify, delivered warnings that the U.S. military is stretched beyond the breaking point and must withdraw from Iraq to save itself from catastrophic damage. Perry cautioned that it took years to rebuild the U.S. Army after Vietnam and said that, without a change in course, it might well collapse again. Batiste said the Bush Administration "has ignored the lessons of history" and suggested that the 'surge' in Baghdad "has had little effect on country-wide violence." "This is a no-win situation," he continued. "When the surge culminates, and culminate it will, the civil war will intensify."

Keane, just back from two weeks in Baghdad (seriously, who isn't these days?), took exception to these grim accountings. As one of the architects of the 'surge' strategy (see this January 2007 report he wrote with AEI's Fred Kagan), he defended the "remarkable progress" being made in Anbar province and in Baghdad. "We're on the offensive, and we have momentum," he said. "I don't know how throwing in the towel and losing the war would help us strategically in the world." He worked his way through a checklist of successes he claimed to have seen in Baghdad: schools, hospitals, markets, and cafes are open; Al Qaeda is "on the run;" and the Sunni insurgency "is rapidly fading away." Sounds familiar, right? Some of this success he attributed to the cumulative effect of Iraq's intense violence. "One of the ways you defeat an insurgency is people get exhausted," he said. "They get exhausted from the violence. This is what is happening in Iraq."

Click here and here to read my earlier posts about this week's Iraq debate in Congress.

NY Times: MTV Looking Kind of Desperate

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 4:10 PM EDT

I Don't Want My MTVBashing MTV is so commonplace that it's become a bit of a cliché. Where's the music, blah blah, yes, we know. But today's New York Times sneaks its way into the beat-up-MTV gang in an amusing way: behind a veil of presenting the supposedly innovative updates to this year's Video Music Awards. After first comparing the network's stumbles to Britney Spears' and detailing how far behind YouTube and MySpace its online numbers are, the article turns to the VMAs. Suffering an apparent 28 percent drop in viewership last year, they're making a couple changes. First, as they've bragged, it'll be televised this Sunday at 9pm, and only this Sunday at 9pm--no endless repeats the week after. But wait, really?

In a departure from MTV's practice of plastering the channel with repeat showings, programmers this year are hoping to attract interest with alternate versions. The first will be shown with running commentary from celebrities at the show who will chat about their favorite moments. The next will replace portions of the original with previously unshown performances or other moments chosen by visitors to MTV's Web site. ...MTV plans a third iteration that will highlight the strongest musical performances.

So, editing out the worst screwups makes it an "alternate version"? Well, guess the first intriguing idea turned out to be a lie. Howabout the show itself?

This year's Video Music Awards will be shown live from the Palms Casino Resort (where MTV also recorded a recent season of its reality series "The Real World") and will be substantially revamped. Instead of the usual production built on a single stage, MTV is taking a shotgun approach, scattering cameras around the hotel, with artists performing and receiving awards in decorated suites and the hotel's own concert hall.

What's so great about the Times article is that the descriptions of the show's changes are written in such sunny prose, but the ideas just sound terrible. Performances from hotel suites?! They may have found the only way to make the show seem more canned. The VMAs' glory days as a tongue-in-cheek nose-thumbing at traditional awards shows may be long gone, but the Times makes clear things sure can keep getting worse.

Huckabee vs. Paul: Video from Yesterday's Republican Debate

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 3:07 PM EDT

This is my favorite video clip from yesterday's debate.

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With World Not Tense Enough, Israel and Russia Decide to Provoke Their Neighbors

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 2:09 PM EDT

The Israeli and Russian air forces, apparently bored with the amount of violence in the world, picked today to provoke their neighbors. Eight Russian planes were "warned off" from the NATO air defense zone by British fighter jets, the BBC reported, while the New York Times reported a Syrian claim that Israeli jets had violated Syrian airspace.

Some important differences between the two incidents should be noted. The Russians never violated British airspace, and the British defense ministry said that "the re-emergence of long-range flights from Russia is something the Russians are entitled to do." The Israelis, for their part, would not comment on the Syrian allegations.

If true, however, both of these events represent unnecessary provocations in already-tense situations. Israel and Syria have been trying for months to convince each other that neither wants war, and this incident will strain already frayed nerves. And while Russia certainly has the right to fly its planes in international airspace as much as it wants, its much-hyped resumption of long-range bomber patrols should be recognized for what it is: a demonstration that, as the Economist wrote recently, "the Russian bear is back—wearing a snarl with its designer sunglasses." The world is dangerous enough. Russia and Israel should be careful to avoid making it more so.

—Nick Baumann

Fred Thompson Flubs the Facts on Tonight Show

| Thu Sep. 6, 2007 1:16 AM EDT

In response to a question from Jay Leno about why America is so disliked worldwide, new presidential candidate Fred Thompson had this to say (transcript here):

Well, part of that comes with being the strongest, most powerful, most prosperous country in the history of the world. I think that goes with the territory. We're more unpopular than we need to be. That's for sure, but our people have shed more blood for the liberty and freedom of other peoples in this country than all the other countries put together. (Applause.) And I don't feel any need to apologize for the United States of America.

First, this is silly. As the "strongest, most powerful, most prosperous country in the history of the world," we can be the most popular or least popular country around, depending on our actions. There's nothing inherent about being on top that makes people hate you.

Second, this is false. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million people in World War II, an astonishing 10-13 percent of the country's total population. The U.S. lost 418,500 in WWII, 117,465 in WWI, and roughly 60,000 in Vietnam. More on those numbers here; point is, it's not even close.

Look, I don't mean to denigrate the sacrifice of American servicemen and women through the ages. But let's not be badly, badly factually incorrect in the name of national pride.

Update: See my thoughts on why Thompson would be the GOP's worst nominee.

African Pentecostal Christians Destroying Ancient African Culture In Nigeria

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 11:25 PM EDT

Most of us have read or heard about European colonists and Christian missionaries looting the treasures of Africa. That destruction and theft occurred a long time ago, but now, a new version of it is taking place. Pentecostal Christian Nigerians are destroying ancient artifacts in order to "break the covenant" with what they call "ancestral idols." Costumes, bronzes and carvings have all been targeted.

Pentecostal Christianity has increased along with poverty in Nigeria during the last couple of decades. "Redemption camps" have sprung up in the country, attracting such famous pastors as Benny Hinn. The Rev. Dr. Uma Ukpai, a leader of the Pentecostal Church in Nigeria, is said to have told his followers that the ancient African religious artifacts represent "curses and covenants" linked to various gods.

Of course, there are forces in Nigeria that are fighting this trend. Some pieces have been sold to museums, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments is conducting a campaign to explain to Christians that "they can't detach themselves from their past, that there is a beginning to their history." The commission is also asking for stricter enforcement of a law that prohibits the export of artifacts.

Congressional Battle Over GAO's Iraq Report Continues

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 6:47 PM EDT

Building on yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, today the House of Representatives grilled U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker about the contents of a new GAO report, which concludes that the Iraqi government has achieved only 3 of 18 political, economic, and security benchmarks. Walker fought off attacks from Congressional Republicans in a morning hearing with the House Armed Services Committee and again in an afternoon appearance before the House Foreign Relations Committee.

At yesterday's event, senators from both parties grimly accepted Walker's determination that the Iraqi government is "dysfunctional." But today, Republicans seem to have gotten their talking points and came out swinging. Numerous GOP congressmen assailed the GAO's methodology, accusing Walker of downplaying recent "progress" in Iraq and complaining that his metrics for assessing the benchmarks (met, partially met, and did not meet) were insufficiently flexible to reflect accurately the difficult and fluid situation on the ground. Walker responded that his task, unlike that of similar Bush administration assessments, was to examine whether the benchmarks had been achieved, not whether progress had been made. He suggested that the Congress take both approaches into account, but warned that the forthcoming Petraeus/Crocker report would probably paint a rosier picture, as both men ultimately report to President Bush. "The GAO represents the only independent and professional assessment that the Congress will receive based on these 18 benchmarks," he said. This caused something of a stir until Walker acknowledged that both Petraeus and Crocker are "professionals." He stuck to his opinion, however, that their conclusions, whatever they may be, would not be completely independent.

The primary argument at both of today's hearings centered on Benchmark 13: "Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security." All parties are in agreement, Walker said, that militias remain the primary arbiters of local security. But, as reported in today's Washington Post, serious disagreement exists with regard to the number of recent sectarian attacks. The figures are classified, but the Pentagon insists sectarian attacks are down as a result of the 'surge,' and reportedly requested in advance of the GAO report's release that this be recognized. Walker, however, insisted that he was "not comfortable" with the military's methodology in differentiating between sectarian attacks and random violence. Jim Saxton, the ranking Republican in the House Armed Services Committee, referred to the Post article and suggested that the feeling of discomfort was mutual. Walker's response was blunt. "It's not uncommon for those being held accountable to be uncomfortable," he said, adding later, "There is still significant sectarian violence."

During the afternoon hearing, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, encouraged Walker to discuss matters outside of the GAO's mandate, such as the unequal sacrifice for the Iraq War being asked of a small portion of the population and the war's effect on the U.S. military. Walker accused the Bush Administration of passing the buck. "We're not paying for this war; we're debt-financing this war," he said. "Our children will pay it off with compound interest." He went on to describe the U.S. Army as "stressed and strained," stating that the current approach is "unsustainable." This invited the ire of Republican ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who asked, "What in the world qualifies you to say that?" She went on to thank Walker for his efforts, but expressed frustration with his conclusions. The GAO report "seems to be having a lot of credibility with the American people that I think is unwarranted," she said.

The battle will continue tomorrow with the delivery of Marine General James Jones' report on the training and capabilities of Iraq's security forces. Click here for a complete schedule of upcoming events.