Pinning down troop numbers is a tricky business.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
July 13 2008 6:43 AM

Counting Heads

The Washington Post leads with news that U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have given up trying to reach a comprehensive, long-term agreement on troop levels—similar to what the United States has in place with countries like Japan and South Korea—and are now working on a "bridge" document that will get U.S. forces through the end of 2009. The New York Times, however, tells a different side of the story: The Bush administration may withdraw troops from Iraq on a much more advanced timetable than previously expected, reflecting concern over rising violence in Afghanistan and the potential need for "other missions" (one guess where that might be). The Los Angeles Times leads with an analysis using Barack Obama and John McCain's similarity on a smattering of issues to illustrate a broader trend toward the middle that distinguishes this election from the polarization of 2000 and 2004.

The Post's story explains that shifting away from troop level negotiations takes the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from powerful critics who suspect Maliki of giving away Iraqi sovereignty. Regardless, it had started to look like the two countries couldn't hammer out an agreement before the Iraqi parliamentary recess begins at the end of the month, and so negotiators are scrambling for some way to arrange for U.S. troops to stay in the country at some level after their United Nations mandate expires on Dec. 31. The NYT—which must have been talking to different senior administration officials—finds that between one and three of the 15 remaining combat brigades could be gone by the time President Bush leaves office in January, leaving between 120,000 and 130,000 troops on the ground. In addition to its anonymous source, the paper quotes Defense Secretary Robert Gates praising the combat—readiness of Iraqi security forces, directly contradicting the pleas of provincial officials back on A8 who say that their soldiers are not ready to police the area without American help. If it's true, a faster drawdown would fall into the McCain column, serving to defuse anti-war sentiment and support the argument that the administration's Iraq strategy is working.

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The LAT's lead focuses on nuclear power, climate change, faith-based initiatives, stem-cell research, arms control, wiretapping, and even immigration as areas in which Obama and McCain come closer than your average general election rivals. The NYT investigates the trend on both sides of the equation: While some in the Republic of Portland and other liberal quarters are miffed by Obama's recent rightward tack, most are willing to give him a pass in the name of political expediency. And in an article based entirely on one interview with McCain, the NYT outlines a conservative strategy carried out through government means, a la Teddy Roosevelt (the former and would-be president may also be on the same level in terms of technology: "I am learning to get online myself," said McCain, "and I will have that down fairly soon.") The Post finds that the bipartisan spirit has extended to President Bush himself, as the Decider has made a series of compromises to land political victories on surveillance, war funding, and—more dubiously—an international agreement on limiting carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Post's Chris Cilizza is going for the veepstakes' daily double, favoring Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Mitt Romney to win for Obama and McCain respectively.

Diplomacy is moving slightly faster in North Korea, the NYT and WP report, as six parties agreed on the fundamentals of a plan to verify that the country is actually disabling its nuclear facilities in exchange for economic aid. But North Korea is still putting South Korea on edge, and Japan still can't get over the kidnapping of several of its citizens in the 1970s and '80s, so don't hold your breath.

The NYT and the Post both front continuing coverage of the mortgage finance debacle. Taking the forward view, the WP tells us that Freddie Mac is looking to sell off a few billion dollars worth of debt, with the government standing by in case private investors lack the confidence to do so. And looking back, the NYT pens an exegesis of how Fannie and Freddie got so bloated in the first place: Weak oversight, "artful" lobbying, and more than a little help from Wall Street friends made it a fat target for the slings and arrows of outrageous foreclosures.

All the papers run obituaries of former press secretary and TV personality Tony Snow, who died of colon cancer at the age of 53. Reporters and Republicans alike warmed to Snow: He "redefined the role of White House press secretary," the Post gushes, and Karl Rove called his appearances "like Mick Jagger at a rock concert."

In other news of passages: Dr. Michael DeBakey, pioneer of cardiac surgery, with 60,000 operations under his belt, made it to 99. And for a case with a little colder trail, the Post kicked off a 12-part series on the 2001 disappearance of 24-year-old intern Chandra Levy with splashy cover art and a cliffhanger cutoff that'll at least keep this "Today's Papers" writer coming back for more.

But all is not gloomy, for Angelina has given birth to twins! Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline were born last night and will be doing their People cover shoot this afternoon.

(Not.)

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