Mideast Crisis Energizes Campaign

Pumped Up

Overnight, the Middle East crisis has turned the presidential campaign into a debate focused almost solely on foreign policy. This ought to help Al Gore, since during a foreign crisis the electorate usually rallies around the party in power. And in this instance it allows Democrats to act out their historic role as the war party, perhaps targeting Osama bin Laden or striking some symbolic site in retaliation for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. However, if the crisis is misplayed, leaving the U.S. looking weak, Bush-Cheney could cash in on a xenophobic backlash.

But the Israeli-Palestinian fighting, infused as it is with nationalistic fervor, is related to a deeper issue. And that is the policy of maintaining a Middle East police operation to assure an oil lifeline. Militarily, this country is all over the Middle East: As Thomas Ricks pointed out in The Washington Post on Sunday, a 10-ship carrier battle group is kept in the Persian Gulf and another flotilla sits in the Indian Ocean. U.S. planes patrol two “no-fly zones” over Iraq from bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Camp Doha in Kuwait is a hub where armored vehicles and choppers are stored, and a second big army base is located in Qatar. Overall, the U.S. has 20,000 troops in the region at an annual cost of $1.5 billion.

All of this in the name of protecting an oil source whose importance has mounted steadily since the Gulf War a decade ago. While one might think George W. Bush’s appeals for more domestic drilling to lessen reliance on foreign oil would resonate in today’s atmosphere, it is highly unlikely that he will alter a military policy initiated by his father. As for Gore, he enthusiastically backed the Gulf War, and currently pushes a foreign policy devoted to what the administration describes as “nation building.” Especially in the context of the Middle East, it might more properly be called national manipulation, since a key aspect of U.S. policy involves ceaselessly meddling in the internal affairs of the region’s governments, from concocting plots to overthrow Saddam Hussein, to the decades-old policy of attempting to influence Iran internally, to massive economic aid for Israel.

A cornerstone of this policy is support for backward regimes such as that run by the royal family of Saudi Arabia, whose Neanderthal behavior would be a disgusting embarrassment but for the fact that their empire sits atop a vast amount of the world’s oil. Last weekend’s hijacking of a Saudi airliner was described by much of the daily press as having been aimed at spotlighting the policies of the Saudi royal family. Perhaps more intriguingly, the hijackers also made a point of stating that they were protesting against the Western human-rights watchdog Amnesty International for underreporting the actual scope of atrocities in Saudi Arabia.

In all of the furor, it is important to remember that U.S. policies now are vulnerable from another, more unexpected direction, resulting from the reinvigoration of OPEC. Led by the bold diplomacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the cartel is striking directly at the U.S. by refusing to substantially increase production as world prices have soared. Over the weekend, an Iranian diplomat said that OPEC prices will remain high for several months because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and indications are that they could go higher in the spring.

What Draws the Faithful

Rallying Around Ralph

With Ralph Nader at 4 to 5 percent in the polls, the Green Party’s real aim is to attract voters who otherwise would sit out the election. These people do not show up in polls of “likely voters,” but they will vote for Nader in part because they can identify with him as an outsider and also because of the array of issues he gives voice to, which draw support from across the political spectrum.

Two issues have been connecting with crowds at the “super rallies.” Foreign trade separates Nader from both Gore and Bush and draws adherents from the right as well as the left, while his uncompromising stand against the death penalty strikes a chord with legions of the terminally turned off.

Gore and the lip-smacking Bush unequivocally support the death penalty, with Bush refusing to admit any errors in his Texas assembly-line system and Gore brusquely rejecting proposals for a moratorium. In contrast, Nader says resolutely, “Since I was a law student, I have been against the death penalty. It does not deter. It is severely discriminatory against minorities, especially since they’re given no competent legal counsel in many cases.”

After a series of nationwide rallies culminating with 15,000 packed into Madison Square Garden last Friday night, it looks like Nader has a shot at putting the Greens over the 5 percent hurdle needed for federal funding in 2004.

Ravenous Pols Devour ‘Surplus’

Pig-Out Time

While the candidates stump the country debating their plans for spending the much touted surplus, Congress is wildly spending it on pork-barrel projects as it rushes to adjourn. In so doing, the legislators have thrown out the spending caps which supposedly set limits on the amounts that can be allocated in various areas, according to some estimates exceeding them by $100 billion. This means that the next president will have less to set aside for big-ticket items like prescription drugs for seniors and elimination of the “marriage penalty.” John McCain told Congressional Quarterly last week that the surplus “is disappearing… It’s just unbelievable.”

Some examples of where it’s going:

Mississippi’s powerful Republican senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran want to spend $16 million to have the National Center for Physical Acoustics at the University of Mississippi develop mine-detection systems for the army and also study the use of acoustics in aquaculture research.

Alaska Republican Ted Stevens is pushing through $5.6 million to rescue the foundering Alaska SeaLife Center, which was built mostly with Exxon Valdez restitution funds from the giant oil spill. The center, which sponsors cold-water marine research, won’t make it without more money.

House Appropriations Committee chair Bill Young thinks federal law enforcement ought to have a bigger presence in St. Petersburg, Florida. He’s asking for $3.5 million to build a center to accommodate the FBI and other agencies. In doing so, Young wants to reverse a government workforce cutback that has been going on in St. Petersburg, with jobs moving across the bay to Tampa.

Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin wants $6.2 million to fund a switchgrass-research project. Switchgrass covered the Great Plains before farmers arrived and started growing crops. Iowa researchers think it can be burned to make electricity.

Lone Star Split

Asked if he meant it when he vowed to move to Paris if Bush won, film director Robert Altman told The Washington Post last week, “I really meant that if Bush is elected, I’d move to Paris, Texas, because I’d be safe in that state if he’s out of it.” Altman added that Bush “is obviously a pawn of his daddy and those Bohemian Grove people,” a reference to the annual all-male blue-blood political bondings in the California woods.

Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz, Theresa Crapanzano, and Camelia Entekhabi-Fard

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