An Apache attack helicopter pilot serving in Iraq with the Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division climbs into the backseat of his bird on Camp Taji, Sept. 23. The brigade’s Apache helicopters are used to provide security for both the U.S. military and Iraqi Security Forces across the country. Photo via U.S. Army.

In a season of staff transition at the White House—a new chief of staff, rumors of a new press secretary, talk of adviser David Axelrod leaving—President Barack Obama may have today announced the most consequential personnel decision of the second half of his first term, even before that second half begins. Standing in the Rose Garden on Friday afternoon, the president issued the unsurprising announcement that National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired Marine general, will be departing and replaced by his deputy Tom Donilon, a long-time Democratic Washington insider. (Jones' exit from Obamaland had long been expected, given that from the start he had not fit in well with the president's crowd.)

On Obama's to-do list, after fixing the economy (which may be beyond his control), the next big item in the coming year will be Afghanistan. While pouring more money and troops into the war, the president has vowed to start a drawdown in July 2011. And it's no secret—ask Bob Woodward—that the US military is not eager to bug out next summer. The current strategy in Afghanistan is focused on counterinsurgency (COIN, in military-speak), which entails not only defeating the enemy in military terms but securing contested areas by developing civil order, providing security, and winning over the local populace. For plenty of reasons, it's questionable how much success the United States can manage on all these fronts in a country dominated by tribal, ethnic, and regional rivalries and hindered by pervasive illiteracy, corruption, and poverty. Certainly, there's serious doubt that any COIN strategy can be fully and successfully implemented by July.

Which means the US military at that point will likely not be eager to salute and initiate a withdrawal. Woodward's recent book telegraphs the conflict to come. Obama is depicted as committed to at least beginning a disengagement in 10 months. The generals will be pressing for more time, more troops, and more wiggle room. A vigorous—shall we say—debate is likely to ensue. It will probably kick off with the administration's scheduled year-end review of its Afghanistan/Pakistan policy, and it will involve all the power centers of the national security establishment: the Joint Chiefs, the civilian Pentagon leaders, the State Department, the vice president's office. The fellow in charge of managing this all-important discussion will be the national security adviser. That's his Job One—coordinating the crafting of national security policy. 

For the first 21 months of his presidency, Obama has been able to keep the various national security players aboard and relatively united on Afghanistan. But the divisions are well-known. Vice President Joe Biden and his squad are not keen on COIN. (They have advocated a more narrowly targeted counterterrorism approach). And the generals wanted more troops than Obama OKed. But with Obama's July deadline nearing, the internal conflicts will not easily be contained. The debate could get ugly, as the president is presented with the tough choice of staying or going (or something in between). 

Donilon will be at the center of the policy and bureaucratic storm. In administrations past, the national security adviser has sometimes failed in this crucial role. The best example of that: Condoleezza Rice, who was unable to be an honest and effective broker between Colin Powell's State Department and the alliance of Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon and Dick Cheney's vice presidential crew. In the weeks ahead, Donilon will have to make sure all that the players are in line and Obama receives the most accurate information necessary for rendering what will be one of the most significant decisions of his presidency.

How Obama handles the Afghanistan dilemma could well shape his presidency as he heads into the 2012 campaign season. And much of that could depend on how Donilon does his job.

On Thursday, I went on MSNBC to talk about the nation's jobs crisis, and in particular the permanent, graying class of unemployed Americans, many of whom comprise the country's 6.1 million long-term unemployed workers (jobless for six months or more). The interview features Rick Rembold, 56, of Mishawaka, Ind., who was the focus of my story, "Unemployed: Stranded on the Sidelines of Jobs Crisis," about long-term unemployment and the myriad impacts it has on workers, their spouses, even their children. Here's the MSNBC clip:

Democratic operatives close to Rep. John Adler say that the New Jersey congressman's campaign recruited candidate purportedly representing the "New Jersey Tea Party" as third-party spoiler. The Courier Post reports:

Congressman John Adler's campaign and the Camden County Democratic Committee recruited "NJ Tea Party'' candidate Peter DeStefano to confuse conservative voters and hurt Adler's Republican challenger this fall, Democratic operatives say.

"The goal was to take 5 percent of (Republican Jon) Runyan's vote,'' said a Democrat with direct knowledge of the Adler campaign and CCDC operations…Adler, who is in a knife-fight with Runyan in the conservative-leaning 3rd district, is aware of the DeStefano plan, Democrats said.

Questions about DeStefano first surfaced over the summer, when it became apparent that local tea party activists had never heard of him before he announced his candidacy. This isn't the first time that Democrats have tried to use "Tea Party" candidates as spoilers this election cycle. In Michigan, the state Supreme Court invalidated a "Tea Party" Party that Democrats had set up to back third-party candidates in scores of races across the state.

Republicans have a long history of such shenanigans, typically propping up the Green Party in recent election cycles. In Arizona, a Republican operative was particularly brazen in recruiting three homeless people to run for state office. And in Texas, Republicans spent a half-million dollars in an effort to put the Texas Green Party on the ballot in the state race—backed by sketchy operatives who also tried to help Ralph Nader in the 2004 race.

Such dirty tricks obviously have a chance of backfiring, so the Democrats really shouldn't be in a rush to match the GOP in resorting to such tactics. And it looks particularly bad when the candidate himself seems to be complicit.

Hot on the heels of his letter to the Federal Election Commission, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) hosted a conference call on Thursday to discuss his request for an investigation into allegations that the US Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to pay for attack ads against progressive candidates running for office.

Franken's request is based on a recent report from the progressive blog ThinkProgress. The Chamber is a 501(c)(6) organization, a status that allows it to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its donors. It has committed a whopping $75 million towards ads attacking progressives running for office, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Virginia Democrat Rep. Tom Perriello. The Chamber also runs a number of foreign chapters, known as Business Councils or "AmChams," that represent American businesses with overseas interests.

But the group has also ramped up an aggressive campaign to raise cash from foreign companies controlled by foreign governments, who send money either directly to the Chamber or to their local AmChams. Campaign finance laws prevent foreign corporations from getting involved in American elections. When the money comes into the Chamber's coffers, ThinkProgress alleges, it is "commingled to the Chamber's 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads."

With ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Faiz Shakir and researcher Lee Fang also on the line, Franken insisted that there's enough reasonable doubt about how the pro-business lobbying group spends the membership dues it collects from foreign affiliates to warrant a thorough investigation. He was careful to point out, though, that the Chamber may not have done anything illegal.

"Let's be honest here: money is money. It's fungible," he said. "And when the Bahrain Petroleum Company sends the chamber $10,000, the $10,000 in American money the Chamber was going to use for office furniture can now go to a new attack ad on Barbara Boxer for her stand on clean energy."

But Franken also intends to hold the FEC's feet to the fire, and convince the commission to review its regulations allowing foreign companies to spend money on elections through special election committees formed by American citizens.

"Congress has got to act here by passing the DISCLOSE Act," he said, referring to the proposed law requiring funders of attack ads to identify themselves, and "close all loopholes" that allow US-based companies under foreign ownership to spend on elections.

The Chamber's spin department has been on overdrive ever since ThinkProgress' report was posted. Shakir said that it has issued statements to Politico and the Washington Post, among others, and has published a number of blog posts on its website looking "to sow some confusion amongst reporters." The basic facts, he says, show that the Chamber has funneled some $300,000 in foreign funds into election spending.

American City Business Journal's Keith Kent-Hoover pointed out that neither ThinkProgress nor the Senator have the "smoking gun" to support their allegations.

"If they're giving money to the same 501(c)(6), and that 501(c)(6) is spending money on ads, and money is fungible, it would be logical to assume that that money is being spent because it's all part of the same pool," Franken responded. The Chamber's inability to explain how it segregates foreign money from election spending, he added, merits an investigation.

Watch some clips of's rally outside the Chamber of Commerce:

U.S. Army soldiers with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment look for suspicious activity from an observation point during an area reconnaissance mission off Highway 1 in Zabul province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 1, 2010. DoD photo by Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army.

The controversy about the Republicans' ads featuring "hicky" actors in West Virginia, which were pulled this afternoon, has overshadowed the stink of desperation coming from the Manchin campaign this week.

Democratic Senate candidate and current Gov. Joe Manchin announced Wednesday that the state is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over mining rules. The timing is no small coincidence; while he was expected to cruise to an easy victory, Manchin is five points behind Republican John Raese in the most recent polls. In announcing the suit, Manchin accused the EPA of slowing down the permitting of mountaintop removal coal mining sites. "The EPA's illegal actions unfortunately will hurt the West Virginia economy," Manchin said Wednesday. "It's a shame when you have to sue your own government."

Indeed, Obama's EPA has subjected these controversial permits to more scrutiny under the Clean Water Act and granted fewer permits than it did under George W. Bush. But coal companies are still blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in valleys.

Manchin is clearly hoping that distancing himself from President Obama will help him politically—and the EPA lawsuit is just the latest in a series of similar moves, as he accused the administration of trying "to destroy our coal industry and way of life." And while he insists that the suit has been in the works since April, it's hard not to notice the timing of the announcement.

After all, getting elected in West Virginia seems to require keeping the coal industry as happy as possible, and Manchin has never been shy about his support for the industry. On the endorsement front, Manchin already has the backing of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents 90 percent of the coal producers in the state, as well as the United Mine Workers of America. The head of the association joined him at yesterday's event.

But that hasn't kept Raese from painting his opponent as anti-coal. The Republican's latest campaign ad accuses Manchin of backing the Obama administration's energy and climate policies. "Obama said he wants to tax coal, even to bankruptcy. Cap and trade's carbon taxes would destroy the coal industry," the ad's narrator says. "Manchin's already signed West Virginia's cap and trade into law. It's time we say no to rubber stamp Joe."

It was probably inevitable, of course, that the West Virginia race would become a battle of who can love coal more. Apparently Manchin is still hoping to win it.

A political endorsement is typically meant to draw a line in the sand, making a distinction between candidates as a statement of principle. But down in Florida's hotly contested Senate race, the Sierra Club has taken the unusual step of "co-endorsing" both Democrat Kendrick Meek and Independent Charlie Crist.

It's likely a boon for Crist, the former Republican who's been working hard to bolster his centrist credibility after tacking to the right during his GOP primary against Rubio. But Meek, to say the least, is not at all pleased—and has gone so far as to reject the environmental heavyweight's nod of approval:

Today's Sierra Club co-endorsement is an insult to Florida's environmental community. The Sierra Club has chosen to stand with a governor who stood on stage applauding as Sarah Palin chanted, 'Drill, Baby, Drill,' a governor who signed a law making it easier for big developers to drain the Everglades, a governor who endorsed a bill that would have allowed drilling just three miles away from Florida beaches, and a governor who used polluter talking points to attack climate change legislation...

I cannot in good conscience accept an endorsement from an organization that would stand with a governor who has consistently put developers, oil companies and the special interests first. I choose to stand with the environmental community and everyday Floridians who want clean energy jobs, clean water, and clean beaches. It's an insult to Florida's environmental community and Sierra Club members that the organization would endorse a governor who, in the organization's own words, 'sold out to developers' by 'failing to veto even the worst bills.' While I agree that Marco Rubio is an unacceptable choice for Florida's environment, Charlie Crist is also an unacceptable choice.

Meek goes on to cite various environmental bills that Crist vetoed as governor, prompting criticism from the Sierra Club itself that "our 'environmental' Governor has sold out to developers."

The Sierra Club has defended its decision by explaining that both candidates had gone through "a detailed endorsement process, including questionnaires and interviews with the candidates and careful review of the candidates’ records on environmental issues," as the St. Petersburg Times reports. One Sierra Club official added: "The Sierra Club rarely makes dual endorsements, but in this case it was particularly appropriate. Florida, the public at large, and Sierra Club members who want to see environmental leaders in Washington will all be well served by either Charlie Crist or Kendrick Meek as their representative in the US Senate."

It's an unusual decision, indeed—and gives the impression that the Sierra Club is simply hedging its bets on who will come out on top in November.

The midterm elections aren't even over, but some tea partiers are already zeroing in on their targets for 2012. Amped up by the big primary upsets this year, they're sending warning shots to a host of Republican leaders who've dared to cross the aisle to work with the other side. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, already has a conservative GOP primary opponent. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Indiana) have all drawn fire from the right wing of their party.

Their unforgivable sins? Snowe voted for the stimulus and the Senate version of the health care bill. Corker worked on the financial regulation bill with Democrats, though he ultimately voted against it. Hatch voted for TARP and also worked with Democrats on health reform, though he didn't vote for it either. All three incumbents have shifted to the right in recent months, refusing to vote for major Democratic legislation. The Journal speculates that they might already be responding to pressure from the tea party's right flank:

Five years ago, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws might as well have been a group of bible-burning terrorist skinheads. A politician who received a donation from NORML would probably return it. Sure, the occasional candidate for statewide office would seek the group's support, says NORML director Allen St. Pierre, "but not the ones who weren't bat shit crazy." 

Recently, however, it's starting to seem a lot more normal to be NORML. Two weeks ago, NORML received its first-ever request for an endorsement by a mainstream candidate for governor. Vermont Democrat Peter Shumlin wanted NORML's stamp of approval and $6,000 from its political coffers, St. Pierre says. And Shumlin is actually polling four points ahead of his Republican rival.

There must have been something in the Rice Krispies that week, because soon after, NORML got a landmark endorsement and fundraising request from a mainstream candidate for state attorney general, Democrat Stan Garnett. If elected, he'll be responsible for enforcing Colorado's marijuana laws.

"I wasn’t sure I was going to live long enough to see mainstream political candidates contact us" asking for support and money, St. Pierre says. "So I think that is a clear tea leaf that we have arrived at."

St. Pierre should probably thank another political oracle, California, where a ballot measure to legalize recreational pot, Proposition 19, is polling better than any of the state's political candidates. It might even help elect some of them. And that could be the only evidence Washington needs to classify yesterday's scourge as tomorrow's wonder drug.