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US politics live blog: Obama meets Iraqi PM; GOP rivals trade blows December 12, 2011

5.30pm: Time to wrap up for the evening. If you want to see the whole Huntsman-Gingrich gentle chat, then C-Span is showing the whole thing on delay starting at 6pm ET.

5.19pm: I’ve been watching the Huntsman-Gingrich “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate – and if this was the way that Lincoln and Douglas debated then slavery can’t have been that big a controversy. Seriously, a debate it is not.

4.47pm: Dick Cheney is on CNN, saying that the lost drone in Iran should have been destroyed by a US airstrike.

Dick’s just not happy unless America is bombing someone.

4.28pm: What of Newt Gingrich‘s economic proposals? Aside from his brilliant plan to put poor children to work as school janitors, that is.

The National Journal’s Jim Tankersley writes:

Newt Gingrich’s economic plan is not Reaganesque. It is not, as so many of his Republican presidential rivals’ claim their plans to be, inspired by Reaganomics. It is Reaganomics, cryogenically frozen in 1981, thawed 30 years later, and pumped full of Newt-style steroids in order to save the American people from slow growth. The plan features massive tax cuts (which would largely benefit businesses and the wealthy), less government spending (through the privatization of entitlement programs), interest-rate hikes, and rampant deregulation.

The Tax Policy Center runs the number over Gingrich’s tax cutting proposals and sees a big fiscal hole:

The Gingrich plan would reduce federal tax revenues dramatically. TPC estimates that on a static basis, the Gingrich plan would lower federal tax liability by $1.28 trillion in calendar year 2015 compared with current law, roughly a 35% cut in total projected revenue. Relative to a current policy baseline, the reduction in liability would be roughly $850 billion in calendar year 2015.

And this without including Newt’s plan for building a moon colony.

4pm: And in the wake of Mitt Romney‘s disasterous “$10,000 bet” gambit in the debate on Saturday night, Jon Huntsman’s campaign has launched the inevitable website: www.10kbet.com – which does sound slightly like a dodgy poker site.

3.34pm: On Gingrich’s pledge, Chris Moody at Yahoo News points out:

That would actually be the fourth time Gingrich has taken a no-adultery pledge. He took the first one in 1962 when he married Jackie Battley, and then again in 1981 when he married Marianne Ginther and made a third one to Callista Bisek (now Gingrich) in 2000.

And let’s not forget Gingrich’s explantion earlier this year about how … well, as he explains:

There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.

3.27pm: Good news! Newt Gingrich promises to remain faithful to his current wife.



Newt Gingrich and his current wife Calista when this photo was taken last month. Photograph: Randall Hill/Reuters

Yes, the thrice-married Newt Gingrich has told the conservative Family Leader in Iowa:

I also pledge to uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.

So that means Calista Gingrich is safe at least until the primaries are over.

3.08pm: And then things got nasty. Newt Gingrich – responding to Romney – went snide, saying:

If Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain that I would be glad to then listen to him. And I’ll bet you 10 dollars, not 10,000 that he won’t take the offer.

Since when has “bankrupting companies and laying off employees” been a bad thing in the Republican party? If this is a preview of the next three weeks, then tally ho.

Oh, and Romney quickly responded:

Doesn’t he understand how the economy works? In the real economy, some businesses succeed and some fail. That’s how that works…. There’s a big difference between working in the private economy and working on K Street and working as a lobbyist or working as a legislator or working to connect businesses with government. If [Gingrich] was working as a spokesman for Freddie Mac, if he was there because of his political connections and then if Freddie Mac fails, I think a fair question is asked: why did he profit if Freddie Mac failed?

2.46pm: The gloves have come off in the Romney versus Gingrich race that the Republican presidential nomination.

This morning Romney got in the first shot, speaking in New Hampshire on Fox News and criticising Gingrich for taking $1.6m in consulting fees from mortgage facilitator Freddie Mac:

Romney said the $1.6 million sum is much higher than the $300,000 figure Gingrich was asked about during a candidates’ debate last month in Michigan. Gingrich said at the time that he acted as a historian and did not lobby for Freddie Mac.

“That would make him the highest paid historian in history,” Romney said.

Nice line. Sorry, historians.

The Romney campaign also put out a statement by the chief executive of the Staples chain, Tom Stemberg, backing Romney:

After 25 years in business, Mitt Romney understands how jobs come and go, and what we need to do to get our economy back on track. If Newt Gingrich is our party’s nominee, the choice in next year’s election will be between two professional politicians, two Washington insiders, two people with no experience in the real world of job creation.

Staples was one of the companies that Romney helped piece together at Bain Capital.

2.22pm: New Zealand’s Herald on Sunday newspaper doesn’t usually unmask conservative US politicians as secret sperm donors to gay couples – but it did last Sunday:

A conservative Christian politician has a secret life as a sperm donor for lesbian couples – even though he has campaigned against gay marriage.

The man in question is Bill Johnson, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2010’s Alabama gubernatorial election. He failed, badly, winning just 1.7% of the primary vote.

The whole story is very creepy. Bill Johnson’s wife doesn’t sound happy about the whole thing, according to Alabama’s Press-Register newspaper.



Michele Bachmann with dead meat in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

2.09pm: Maybe Iowa’s place in the presidential nomination hothouse isn’t as warm as many pundits fancy? Rather than an entire state enraptured by politics, Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found little excitement at the weekend:

TV would never tell this story, but most of Iowa had something better to do Saturday. In a season when debates seem as ubiquitous as college football bowl games, the Republican presidential contenders are becoming like visiting cousins who never go home.

At a half-empty Romney rally, free pizzas outnumbered guests.

Voter Steve Pollman of Ankeny, Iowa, explained: “We see these people so much, it becomes a blur.”

Several rallies, forums and other events Saturday drew more reporters and workers than Iowa voters.

1.30pm: John McCain – remember him? he’s still around – says that US forces should have stayed in Iraq:

The meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki today cannot obscure the fact that both men have failed in their responsibilities with regard to our shared security interests. The sacrifices of both our peoples in a long and costly war, the continued needs of Iraq’s Security Forces, and the enduring US interest in a stable and democratic Iraq all demanded a continued presence of US troops beyond this year. But domestic political considerations in each country have been allowed to trump our common security interests.

McCain was saying much the same thing during the 2008 election campaign, and at one point said that he was happy if US troops stayed for 100 years. No one seemed interested then.

1.12pm: It seems that all the Nato training forces will be gone from Iraq at the same time as the US military leaves, according to this statement out today from Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen:

The North Atlantic Council has decided to undertake the permanent withdrawal of the NATO Training Mission-Iraq personnel from Iraq by 31 December 2011, when the current mandate of the mission expires. Agreement on the extension of this successful programme did not prove possible despite robust negotiations conducted over several weeks. NATO remains fully committed to our partnership and political relationship with Iraq, through our existing Structured Cooperation Framework.

1pm: Asked about remaining US-Iraqi ties, Malaki says he wants to buy airplanes from the US. That seems to be the major thing.

The last answer from Obama is on the size of the huge US embassy compound in Baghdad that will remain after the US troops leave, with Obama claiming that “the actual size of our embassy with respect to diplomats is going to be comparable to other countries that we think are important around the world”:

There are still some special security needs inside of Iraq that make the overall number larger. And we understand some questions have been raised inside of Iraq about that.

Look, we’re only a few years removed from an active war inside of Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that there are still some groups, although they are greatly weakened, that might be tempted to target US diplomats or civilians who are working to, you know, improve the performance of the power sector inside of Iraq or are working to help train agricultural specialists inside of Iraq. And as president of the United States, I want to make sure that anybody who’s out in Iraq trying to help the Iraqi people is protected.

So that’s sthat – not a lot of news coming out of the press conference, other than to highlight obvious disagreements between Iraq and the US over how to handle Syria, and Obama’s “We’ve asked for our drone back” response on Iran.

Republicans may be in the process of editing that quote for an attack ad.

12.52pm: At the tail of a long question, Obama is asked “if, on this occasion, you still think of this as a dumb war” – a reference to a remark made by the then Illinois politician Barack Obama back in 2002 at an anti-war rally.

Gamely, Obama takes the last part first, giving a sort of “history will be the judge” answer – “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq,” is indeed his first stab at it – before saying:

What’s absolutely clear is, as a consequence of the enormous sacrifices that have been made by American soldiers and civilians – American troops and civilians, as well as the courage of the Iraqi people, that what we have now achieved is an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive and that has enormous potential.

That sounds like a “no,” doesn’t it?

Here’s what Obama said back in 2002:

I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

12.46pm: Malaki says he is “very concerned” about security along the border that Iraq shares with Syria.

But Malaki’s not going out on a limb here by any means, saying that Iraq “must be very prudent” with Syria – and describing the possibility of sectarian violence in Syria as being “like a snowball”:

I believe that all the parties realize the dangers of a sectarian war in Iraq and Syria and the region because it will be like a snowball that will expand and will be difficult to control. We will try to reach a solution and I discussed the matter with his excellency the president, President Obama, and the secretary general of the Arab League, and there is agreement even from the Syrian opposition who are leading the opposition in Syria to search for a solution.

I have to say the translation here isn’t great: in reply to a question just now on whether would Iraq be “an ally of the United States or just a friend” – whatever that means – Malaki apparently replied:

Definitely, without mechanisms, will not be able to achieve anything. These mechanisms will control our continuous movement.

12.40pm: Malaki winds up what was by his terms a very brief speech and the two men shake hands.

Now the interesting part: questions from the media.

The first question is on Syria and Iran – particularly the downed drone that has fallen into Iran’s hands.

On Syria, Obama says he and Malaki discussed the repression there by the Syrian government and the Assad regime but suggests that “there are tactical disagremeents at this point” between Iraq and the US:

Even if there are tactical disagreements between Iraq and the United States at this point in how to deal with Syria, I have absolutely no doubt that these decisions are being made based on what Prime Minister Maliki believes is best for Iraq, not based on considerations of what Iran would like to see.

You know, Prime Minister Maliki has been explicit here in the United States, he’s been explicit back in Iraq in his writings and his commentary that his interest is maintaining Iraqi sovereignty and preventing meddling by anybody inside of Iraq. And I believe him. And he has shown himself to be willing to make very tough decisions in the interests of Iraqi nationalism, even if they cause problems with his neighbor.

And so, you know, we may have some different tactical views in terms of how best to transition to an inclusive, representative government inside of Syria, but every decision that I believe Prime Minister Maliki is making, he is making on the basis of what he thinks is best for the Iraqi people.

On the drone captured in Iran, Obama says he won’t comment on “intelligence matters,” but goes on to say, with droll humour:

As has already been indicated, we have asked for it back. We’ll see how the Iranians respond.

12.36pm: Nouri al-Malaki is now speaking, through a translator, and is keen to talk up Iraq’s national will and ability to stand on its own – with some US military aid:

Because we have proven success on the first mission, a unique success – nobody imagined that we would succeed in defeating terrorism and al-Qaida – we must also establish the necessary steps to succeed in our second stage, which is the dual relationship under the strategic framework agreement, in the economic atmosphere as well as in educational, commercial, cultural and legal and security fields.

Iraq now has become reliant on its own security apparatus and internal security as a result of the expertise that it gained during the confrontations and the training and equipping. But it remains reliant on cooperation with the United States of America on security, intelligence and combating terrorism, and in the training and equipping needed by the Iraqi army

12.26pm: “Mr Prime Minister, as we end this war and as Iraq faces its future, the Iraqi people must know that you will not stand alone. You have a strong and enduring partner in the United States of America,” says Obama, who talks of the ties between Iraq and the US:

We discussed how the United States could help Iraq train and equip its forces not by stationing American troops there or with U.S. bases in Iraq – those days are over – but rather, the kind of training and assistance we offer to other countries. And given the challenges we face together in a rapidly changing region, we also agreed to establish a new formal channel of communication between our national security advisers.

Obama’s statement here appears to be largely a reprise of his earlier speech touting the end of US military operations.

12.26pm: First up is the American president, who says: “After nearly 9 years our war in Iraq ends this month”:

This is a season of homecomings, and military families across America are being reunited for the holidays. In the coming days, the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq, with honor and with their heads held high.

After nearly nine years, our war in Iraq ends this month.

Today, I’m proud to welcome Prime Minister Maliki, the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant and democratic Iraq. We’re here to mark the end of this war, to honor the sacrifices of all those who made this day possible, and to turn the page, to begin a new chapter in the history between our countries, a normal relationship between sovereign nations, an equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

12.22pm: And now the two leaders are coming out to speak.

12.03pm: An important sidenote to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear challenges to the Arizona immigration laws: Justice Elena Kagan indicated that she will not participate in the case – presumably because she worked on it as solicitor general in the White House before being nominated to the Supreme Court.

11.58am: Still waiting for the Obama-Malaki press conference to start.

Later, Maliki will accompany Obama to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the US president will thank members of the military who have just returned home from serving in Iraq.

The New York Times has this to say:

In their meetings, officials said, the two leaders will cover a broad agenda intended to reinforce the new partnership. In addition to regional security issues, Mr Maliki and Mr Obama are expected to discuss trade, energy, American investment in Iraq and education.

Still, security issues will loom high on the list. The administration has left open the door to future training missions, in which Iraqi troops would take part in American exercises outside Iraq or American troops would rotate into the country for specific training exercises. Iraq has contracted to buy 18 F-16 fighter jets from the United States, and American pilots will train Iraqi pilots to fly them.

11.46am: GOP presidential hopeful Ron Paul is running hard at Newt Gingrich – with this web ad.

It hammers Gingrich as a corrupt, Washington insider who has flip-flopped across the policy spectrum. It’s long but very effective – although it may be one of those “ads” that campaigns make that never appear on actual television.

11.33am: The other big news today comes from the US Supreme Court – which has announced that it will hear arguments on the controversial Arizona immigration law known as SB1070, which forces state law enforcement officers to check immigration status.

USA Today reports:

The Obama administration had asked the high court to stay out the closely watched case at this early phase, arguing it should let lower court judges examine the constitutionality of the law first.

The justices instead have decided to review whether lower federal court judges had sufficient grounds to block enforcement of the most controversial portions of the Arizona law – which now has equivalents in several states – while a question about their constitutionality is pending.

At the core is the dispute is how far states can go to try to discourage people from illegally crossing the border without infringing on the immigration-related power of the federal government.

This means that the constitutionality of healthcare reform and immigration law will be decided next year, right in the middle of the 2012 general election campaign.

A similar law in Alabama caused international embarrassment to the state when a German Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested after a police officer caught him driving without the required documentation under strict state law.

11.19am: The Obama-Malaki press conference is scheduled to begin shortly but the White House isn’t too strict on keeping to these sorts of deadlines so it may slip.

Good morning: President Obama welcomes Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to the White House for meetings and a press conference, highlighting the end of America’s direct military involvement war in Iraq as the 2012 presidential election draws near.

Elsewhere, Mitt Romney launched an attack on his Republican presidential rival Newt Gingrich over Gingrich’s receipt of huge fees from government mortgage facilitator Freddie Mac – with Gingrich hitting back with an attack on Romney’s own business record.

And there are more polls on the state of the Republican nomination race – a new one from Iowa showing Gingrich with a double-digit lead over Romney in the Hawkeye state.


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