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Crime And Punishment

Two stories from Washington paint a distressing picture of today's body politic. Firstly, a Newsweek article by Evan Thomas makes a fool out of any reform-minded American planning to vote this fall. Filing a "report" of the "consensus" at a gathering of Washington tastemakers this weekend, he makes the reasonable points that Presidents Carter and Clinton were unable to accomplish their foreign occupation of Washington power culture. Will a president Obama meet the same brick wall? The old hand ruefully polls his friends:

[T]he general assumption seemed to be, of course, any new president will need to hire people who know the town, who are "wired" and get around….

[T]hey have a strong appreciation for congressional gridlock and the countervailing powers of influence peddlers. They know that money--perfectly legal money--can trump idealistic campaign promises in a city thick with more than 30,000 lobbyists.

I agree with them; I am part of that Washington world as a journalist and I have low expectations that any politician, no matter how gifted, can change it in a significant way. 

Acknowledgement of the improbability of seismic change would have been welcome, but appreciation? I won't go Olbermann here, but what a shocking abdication of responsibility. As a journalist, he ought to have named each of these glibly complacent friends of his, and the atrophied civics that allow them to actually appreciate such dysfunction. Barring that, Thomas should have kept this shaming story to himself. Obviously, the piece was published for insiders, by one. But Thomas does ponder, at one point, "what the 20,000 or so people in the crowd, most of them African Americans, would have thought of the conversation I had participated in two nights before in the living room of my well-connected friend." I think they--white-collar office parkers, middle-American homemakers, or rail-riding workers who rise to pour their own coffee before they pour yours--would have been pissed. Thanks, Newsweek!

Of course, this "news" drops at the same time that the Washington Post editorializes about the conversation between Barack Obama and the Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. Zebari rightly laments the warp-speed (16-month) withdrawal timetable that has propelled Obama to the threshold of the White House. His full commentary to the Post board--to be taken with a grain of ideological salt--is worth quoting in full:

Mr. Zebari said he told Mr. Obama that "Iraq is not an island." In other words, an American withdrawal that destabilized the country would also roil the region around it and embolden U.S. adversaries such as al-Qaeda and Iran. "We have a deadly enemy," Mr. Zebari said. "When he sees that you commit yourself to a certain timetable, he will use this to increase pressure and attacks, to make it look as though he is forcing you out. We have many actors who would love to take advantage of that opportunity." Mr. Zebari says he believes U.S. forces can and should be drawn down. His point is that reductions should be made gradually, as the Iraqi army becomes stronger.

The foreign minister said "my message" to Mr. Obama "was very clear. . . . Really, we are making progress. I hope any actions you will take will not endanger this progress." He said he was reassured by the candidate's response, which caused him to think that Mr. Obama might not differ all that much from Mr. McCain.

Iraq is not an island, but DC sure is. And here I'll inject my own pessimism: It would be political suicide for Obama to change his stance on Iraq--even though it is clearly the right thing to do. We've reached a point wherein hand-waving rigidity is lauded as righteousness (in both parties) and nuance is punished swiftly. Never mind that Obama drafted his plan for withdrawal a full 18 months ago, or that the drawdown from the surge is behind schedule, or that Maliki is emboldened by recent successes, that Bush is kicking the can down the road, or that General David Petraeus has declared that we won't know we've made progress "until we're six months past it." The pitchforked mob will have the flip-floppers, dead or alive.

What's worse, should Obama (or McCain or Petraeus, for that matter) do the evaluative, sensible thing on Iraq--of which Zebari's "reassurance" suggests Obama is capable--I anticipate the feeding frenzy to comprise cries of "betrayal!" from the left and "oho!" from the right. Or vice versa. A lucid debate over the well-being of our stature in the world and our troops in Iraq will be utter afterthoughts. This is where our punitive politics naturally leads. For goodness sake--Obama's great moment in Michigan Tuesday has been clouded by a report that aides clearcut Muslim supporters from the television cameras. Because this year, being Muslim is almost as bad as being a lobbyist, or a reporter--unless, of course, you have the ear of the White House.

--Dayo Olopade