Return of the Benchmarks
The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times lead with Barack Obama announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hoping to clarify and narrow our goals, Obama said that the U.S. objective in the region is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." Invoking the 9/11 attacks, Obama proposed a major push to expand Afghan security forces, improve the responsiveness of the Kabul government, reduce corruption, fight drug trafficking, and combat the Taliban. (He'll also boost Pakistan's counterterror capacity and encourage détente with India.) Obama says he'll judge progress based on benchmarks related to those goals, revising the strategy as needed.
The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with mass flooding in Fargo, N.D.
The NYT's lead details the genesis of Obama's new Afghanistan policy, which is an Obama-esque compromise of the views of numerous strong-willed advisers. Ground commanders (read, "David Petraeus") requested a large, long-term commitment of troops and resources, but Robert Gates and Mike Mullen pared back their requests. Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton insisted on more anti-corruption and anti-drug-trafficking efforts, while Vice President Joe Biden warned stridently against overcommitment that would get us into to an open-ended quagmire. Obama chose a synthesis of these approaches at Camp David last weekend.
While the WP thinks Congress liked Obama's Afghanistan speech, the NYT says Congress was "skeptical." The LAT focuses on the reaction from conservatives, who are unambiguously ecstatic over what they consider to be Obama's "maximalist" approach. (Indeed, Bill Kristol was overheard praising Obama to the heavens yesterday.) Some of the papers also note complaints that Obama's plan lacks specifics.
Fargoans, aided by about 1,700 National Guard troops, have spent days building sandbag levees in subfreezing temperatures. * (The pictures are dramatic.) Now, all they can do is wait until Wednesday, when the floodwaters are supposed to recede.
All the papers flag a suicide bombing in Pakistan that killed more than 50 people in a mosque near the strategic Khyber Pass. The NYT pins the attack on Baitullah Mehsud, the local Taliban warlord who the U.S. has lately been trying to kill at the behest of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari.
The LAT fronts, and the WSJ reefers cautious optimism on Wall Street, after three straight weeks of stock market gains—combined with less-bad-than-expected economic data—have some investors thinking the market has finally hit bottom. Of course, the LAT notes, the market has already hit false bottoms multiple times since initial crash in October.
The NYT goes above the fold with what appears to be a beat-sweetener about Obama budget director Peter Orszag, containing many charming anecdotes about Orszag's dietary and exercise habits, as well as his will to succeed. (Orszag's father held him to unreasonably high standards.) Interestingly, the article hints at a major rivalry between Orszag and NEC Chairman Larry Summers.
The WP goes above the fold with a piece on the Chinese dissidents who are more equal than other Chinese dissidents—grieving parents. While they're still harassed by the police, the parents of children killed by contaminated baby formula, last year's Sichuan earthquakes, and other instances of government neglect are different. Their stories are politically potent enough that Beijing refuses to arrest them for organizing and airing their grievances.
The WP fronts a look at what it calls "financial protectionism." While the U.S. has encouraged its quasi-nationalized banks to increase domestic lending, many European governments are mandating it. That has the effect of draining capital from developing nations—private capital flows to emerging markets have dropped from $929 billion in 2007 to $165 billion this year—in a way that some fear will cripple world trade.
The NYT fronts news from Democrats' and Republicans' first big electoral test since the 2008 election—the race for former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's upstate New York congressional seat. Going into the vote Tuesday, Republicans are trying to associate Democratic candidate Scott Murphy, a venture capitalist, with AIG executives' bonuses. Democrats are firing back by tarring GOP Assemblyman James Tedisco as an obstructionist who opposes Obama's agenda. It'll be an early test of which party's message resonates.
An NYT front delves into a controversy over abortion in Brazil, where a Catholic archbishop excommunicated the doctors and the mother of a 9-year-old rape victim who aborted twins because they endangered her life. * The Vatican subsequently reversed the decision, saying it appeared "insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking mercy," but the girl's saga has focused attention on northern Brazil's widespread sexual abuse problems.
The WP goes inside with news that Obama's new North Korea envoy will be doing his job part-time—he'll continue to act as the Dean of Tufts' Fletcher School while trying to end North Korea's nuclear program on the side. Meanwhile, Japan is preparing to shoot down North Korea's upcoming missile test if it looks like it might hit Japanese territory.
The NYT also fronts a piece about how environmentally friendly compact fluorescent lightbulbs often have manufacturing defects—which is "irritating" to at least one family interviewed by the Times.
Correction, March 30, 2009: This article originally stated that temperatures in Fargo were subzero. There were subfreezing but not below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also originally stated that the 9-year-old rape victim was excommunicated for have an abortion. The girl's mother and the doctors who performed the abortion were excommunicated, but the New York Times article does not specify whether the girl was. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Barron YoungSmith is the former online editor of the New Republic.