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In the Loop: Long Faces Over Afghanistan

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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

President Obama is having another meeting with his national security team on Wednesday, in the super-secure White House situation room, to try to figure out what to do about Afghanistan. Judging from the team photo from last week's meeting, it doesn't promise to be much fun.

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In fact, on closer inspection, the group appears decidedly grim, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of finding a path to success. The search was made even harder when the ineffectual and corrupt (one or the other is fine, but both is a problem) Karzai administration stole last month's election.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates looks somber. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appears exhausted and a bit stricken. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel seems distracted, maybe thinking how much fun it used to be on the Hill.

The staffers along the wall to Obama's right -- outgoing National Security Council chief of staff Mark Lippert, deputy NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, press secretary Robert Gibbs, adviser David Axelrod and Vice President Biden's aide Tony Blinken -- hardly look cheery.

The only one who seems unruffled, as usual, is Obama, who appears to be commenting on something while looking at his monitor. He also is the only one with a personal monitor, which looks as if it is showing a map.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is on the video screen, and Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- this was the day before his grenade-throwing speech in London -- also participated via video link. The photo also shows a screen alerting everyone to "Mic On" -- maybe so they watch what they say. (Remember that now-former California lawmaker bragging on tape about his mistresses?)

Underneath the microphone alert, there's a notice that everything is "Top Secret SCI," which means "Sensitive Compartmented Information" and is about as high as you can get on the secret ladder. There may be higher designations, but even the names of those would be secret.

Smileys in Sudan

Speaking of bad situations, there's Sudan, where President Omar Hassan al-Bashir faces international war crimes charges for orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture and forced expulsions in Darfur. The State Department, not to mention some in the human rights community, have been much upset of late with special envoy J. Scott Gration's softer line in dealing with the ruling thugocracy, including the easing of sanctions.

Gration, a retired Air Force major general, grew up in Africa and became very close to then-Sen. Barack Obama after he escorted the lawmaker on a two-week tour of Africa and then endorsed and campaigned for him 2008.

In a recent interview, Gration explained the strategy to our colleague Stephanie McCrummen. "We've got to think about giving out cookies," said Gration, who was appointed to the job in March. "Kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement."

On the day that quote appeared in The Post, we're told, someone asked Hillary Clinton at the department's morning senior staff meeting what State was going to do about Gration's comments.

"That's not our problem," the secretary of state replied, "that's their problem," pointing toward the White House.

Smiley faces?

Regrets

We had heard that Bren Burns Simon, widow of real estate mogul and billionaire Melvin Simon, who started the country's largest shopping mall company and was co-owner of the Indiana Pacers, had been in line to be ambassador to Barbados, succeeding local auto dealer magnate spouse Mary Ourisman.

But Melvin Simon, 82, whose wealth has been estimated in excess of $1.3 billion, died a few weeks ago, and we're hearing now that his widow is not inclined to pursue the diplomatic posting. Since 1992, the Simons have contributed $3.4 million to various political campaigns, the overwhelming majority to Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Justice 2.0

The Justice Department has joined the 21st century with a snappy new Web site -- Justice.gov (you can also get there through the clunky old http://usdoj.gov address). There are fine photos and graphics, and a blog, and links to the department's Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook pages. "The Justice presence on these social networks will allow Americans to interact with the Department in entirely new ways," according to an announcement last week.

All that and, at least for now, you still have a right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used . . .

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this column.


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