Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world?

For decades, the Arab states have seemed exceptions to the laws of politics and human nature. While liberty expanded in many parts of the globe, these nations were left behind, their "freedom deficit" signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies. In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question:

"Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?"

The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections. The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of revolts now, but neither will it soon forget this moment.

So a new set of questions becomes critical. What lesson will Arab regimes learn? Will they undertake the steady reforms that may bring peaceful change, or will they conclude that exiled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali erred only by failing to shoot and club enough demonstrators? And will our own government learn that dictatorships are never truly stable? For beneath the calm surface enforced by myriad security forces, the pressure for change only grows - and it may grow in extreme and violent forms when real debate and political competition are denied.

The regimes of Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak proffered the same line to Washington: It's us or the Islamists. For Tunisia, a largely secular nation with a literacy rate of 75 percent and per capita GDP of $9,500, this claim was never defensible. In fact, Ben Ali jailed moderates, human rights advocates, editors - anyone who represented what might be called "hope and change."

Mubarak took the same tack for three decades. Ruling under an endless emergency law, he has crushed the moderate opposition while the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has thrived underground and in the mosques. Mubarak in effect created a two-party system - his ruling National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood - and then defended the lack of democracy by saying a free election would bring the Islamists to power.

Of course, neither he nor we can know for sure what Egyptians really think; last fall's parliamentary election was even more corrupt than the one in 2005. And sometimes the results of a first free election will find the moderates so poorly organized that extreme groups can eke out a victory, as Hamas did when it gained a 44-to-41 percent margin in the Palestinian election of 2006. But we do know for sure that regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency. And Egypt has one now.

"Angry Friday" brought tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets all over the country, and they have remained there all weekend, demanding the end of the Mubarak regime. The huge and once-feared police forces were soon overwhelmed and the Army called in. Even if these demonstrations are crushed, Egypt has a president who will be 83 at the time of this fall's presidential election. Every day Hosni Mubarak survives in power now, he does so as dictator propped up by brute force alone. Election of his son Gamal as his successor is already a sour joke, and it is increasingly unlikely that Egypt's ruling elites, civilian and military, will wish to tie their future to Hosni Mubarak rather than seeking new faces.

Mubarak's appointment on Saturday of Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and of former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister suggests that Mubarak knows his own future is much in doubt. It also suggests that the military is already in full control of the country and preparing for the post-Mubarak period. If Suleiman and Shafiq have the full support of the Army and would promise a free election in the fall, perhaps the crowds would accept them as transitional figures once Mubarak resigns. But it may be too late for Mubarak to hand-pick his closest aides to run Egypt if he is forced out.

The three decades Hosni Mubarak and his cronies have already had in power leave Egypt with no reliable mechanisms for a transition to democratic rule. Egypt will have some of the same problems as Tunisia, where there are no strong democratic parties and where the demands of the people for rapid change may outstrip the new government's ability to achieve it. This is also certain to be true in Yemen, where a weak central government has spent all its energies and most of its resources simply staying in power.

All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's "freedom agenda" as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force. Consider what Bush said in that 2003 speech, which marked the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, an institution established by President Ronald Reagan precisely to support the expansion of freedom.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

This spirit did not always animate U.S. diplomacy in the Bush administration; plenty of officials found it unrealistic and had to be prodded or overruled to follow the president's lead. But the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right - and that the Obama administration's abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy.

U.S. officials talked to Mubarak plenty in 2009 and 2010, and even talked to the far more repressive President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but they talked about their goals for Israeli-Palestinian peace and ignored the police states outside the doors of those presidential palaces. When the Iranian regime stole the June 2009 elections and people went to the streets, the Obama administration feared that speaking out in their support might jeopardize the nuclear negotiations. The "reset" sought with Russia has been with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, not the Russian people suffering his increasingly despotic and lawless rule.

This has been the greatest failure of policy and imagination in the administration's approach: Looking at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has forgotten the millions of people suffering under and beginning to rebel against those rulers. "Engagement" has not been the problem, but rather the administration's insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them.

If the Arab regimes learn the wrong lessons and turn once again to their police and their armies, the U.S. reaction becomes even more important. President Obama's words of support for both the demonstrators and the government late Friday, after speaking with Mubarak, were too little, too late. He said Mubarak had called for "a better democracy" in Egypt, but Obama's remarks did not clearly demand democracy or free elections there. We cannot deliver democracy to the Arab states, but we can make our principles and our policies clear. Now is the time to say that the peoples of the Middle East are not "beyond the reach of liberty" and that we will assist any peaceful effort to achieve it - and oppose and condemn efforts to suppress it.

Such a statement would not elevate our ideals at the expense of our interests. It turns out, as those demonstrators are telling us, that supporting freedom is the best policy of all.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Breast implants still plagued by safety concerns

After a decade of worries over silicone, they have had a number of years without bad press. But now comes news of an increased risk of a rare cancer.

For years, Michell Anne Kimball of San Diego considered breast augmentation but worried about the health risks. Three years ago, the 47-year-old decided the time was right, consulted with a plastic surgeon and, after four more months of pondering, received silicone implants.

She loves them, she said. And she continues to agonize over them. "Are these things safe or not? Are we ever really going to know?"

Though modern breast implants have been around for decades, questions of safety continue to plague augmentation even as the artificially enhanced bosom has become common.

The latest development: On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was investigating a possible link between breast implants and an increased risk of a rare cancer called anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, or ALCL.

As many as 60 women have developed ALCL among the 5 million to 10 million worldwide with implants. That compares to the rate of breast tissue ALCL in the normal U.S. population — about 3 in 100 million. The disease arises in scar tissue that forms around the implant, either silicone or saline, and is treatable.

The cancer risk, if it exists, is miniscule, and women with implants need not undergo tests or have implants removed if they are not having problems, the FDA said. But they should be aware of the symptoms of ALCL, which include swelling, pain or lumps around the implants.

The news shouldn't be cause for panic, said Los Angeles plastic surgeon Dr. Geoffrey R. Keyes, president of the California Society of Plastic Surgeons. "But it will require substantial research to determine exactly what the risk is," he said.

The development comes at a time when breast implants have had a number of years without bad press. Indeed, breast augmentation remains the most popular elective cosmetic surgery in the U.S.: Even with a drop during the recession, the surgeries have risen 36% since 2000.

Much of the popularity involves resolution of a decadelong battle over the safety of silicone implants.

In 1992, the FDA placed a ban on silicone implants, except as part of clinical trials, because of fears that silicone leaking from the implant could trigger autoimmune disease and other health problems. The agency lifted the ban in 2006, but asked the two U.S. manufacturers, Mentor and Allergan, to continue to collect data on 40,000 women for 10 years to further monitor safety.

Today, although both silicone and saline implants are available, "virtually nobody picks the saline anymore" because the safety concerns over silicone have been alleviated and because silicone looks and feels more natural, said Santa Monica plastic surgeon Dr. Michael McGuire, former president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "Breast implants are the most studied device in the history of medicine. When you look at the magnitude of the studies around the world, there is just about no evidence to support many of the fears that arose in the '90s," he said.

But though the FDA no longer considers autoimmune disease a risk, the agency lists other complications. The main ones are the need for additional operations, pain, changes in nipple and breast sensation, capsular contracture (shrinkage of a lining of scar tissue that forms around the implant, causing pain and breast hardness), rupture, and, for silicone-gel implants, migration of silicone should a rupture occur. Implants can also make it more difficult to read mammograms.

The rate for the most common and bothersome problem, capsular contracture, is roughly 10% in the first five years for saline implants and about 30% in the first three to five years for silicone implants, according to FDA data. More data are available at

Researchers are continuing to explore the pros and cons of a growing variety of implant designs, including textured silicone-gel implants — versus the traditional smooth silicone gel — and so-called extra-high-projection implants, which are larger implants that project out further from the chest. Recent studies suggest highly textured implants may increase the rate of capsular contracture.

Manufacturers are testing a different type of implant, the cohesive gel implant, available for now only in clinical trials.

The FDA cautions that most women will need operations to correct ruptures, complications or poor cosmetic outcomes. Complication rates increase for each revision surgery. But many don't heed the warnings, Keyes said. Even when doctors explain the risks, "patients … often de-emphasize the negatives and accentuate the positives."

The market for breast implants, which have with a price tag of about $4,000, is expected to grow about 7% per year over the next four years, said Sana Siddiqui, manager of the aesthetic division at Millennium Research Group, a Toronto-based market research company. Women ages 19 to 34 are a fast-growing segment of the market.

Kimball hasn't had problems with her implants, but her mother and sister have cancer and she has skin cancer on her breast. The illnesses have renewed her worries.

"There is pressure on women in California to look a certain way. It's unfortunate," she said. "But the implants are in there. I'm not going to have mine removed."
Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times

Don’t Know Much About History - Is Michele Bachmann the new Sarah Palin?

And do we really need a new Sarah Palin? Shouldn’t the first one be made to go away before we start considering replacements?

Bachmann, the superconservative member of Congress from Minnesota, made a big splash on Tuesday night with her Tea Party response to the State of the Union address. True, the placement of the cameras made her look as if she was talking to an invisible friend, and her eye makeup had a peculiar zombie aspect to it. But the next day all the attention was on her and not the official Republican response by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman.

And the Republicans were afraid to complain! One congressman from Utah told Politico that he thought “to try to upend Paul Ryan was just wrong.” Hours later he issued a retraction — through Bachmann’s office.

On one level, Bachmann is just a third-term representative who only gets attention whenever she does something newsworthy, like claiming the Constitution says she doesn’t have to tell a census taker anything but how many people live in her home. She was passed over in a try for a minor post in House leadership.

Yet, at her invitation, Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court came trotting over to the Capitol to lecture the House freshmen this week about the true meaning of the Constitution. And she makes the leaders who snubbed her quake with terror. What if she rallies her fellow Tea Partiers into a rebellion over, say, raising the debt limit, and the economy collapses?

She does have a history of single-mindedness. Back when Bachmann was a state senator in Minnesota, her colleagues complained that they couldn’t get a budget done because she insisted on bringing everything to a screeching halt to argue about same-sex marriage. It was a controversy marked by her usual flair. “In 2005, she claimed to have been held against her will in a restaurant bathroom by two critics of an amendment banning same-sex marriage; they said they’d merely buttonholed her to talk,” reported The Minneapolis Star Tribune in a profile. “Then foes claimed that Bachmann hid behind some bushes to spy on a gay-rights rally; she said she was merely checking the turnout.”

Bushes aside, Bachmann is a much more serious person than Palin, whose response to the State of the Union address was to focus on the title, “Winning the Future.” (“There were a lot of W.T.F. moments throughout that speech.”) If Palin and Bachmann were your co-workers, Palin would be the one sneaking out early to go bowling, while Bachmann would stay late to reorganize the office seating chart to reflect her own personal opinion of who most deserves to be near the water cooler.

History is superimportant to Bachmann, who claims that she left the Democratic Party when she was a college senior, after reading “Burr,” Gore Vidal’s caustic historical novel. “He was kind of mocking the founding fathers, and I just thought ‘what a snot,’ ” Bachmann told The Star Tribune. It was, she said, a transformational moment so critical to her worldview that she can still remember what she was wearing. (“A tan trench coat, blue pin-striped shirt, like a tailored shirt, and dress slacks.”)

It’s not everybody who switches political parties over a historical novel, but Bachmann’s vision of the past is the core to her ideology. The men who created the Constitution were perfect heroes, so infallible that they fully understood the right to bear arms would someday include semiautomatic pistols capable of firing 30 bullets in 10 seconds.

Last week, Bachmann was in Iowa, setting off alarm bells about her possible presidential ambitions and delivering a speech in which she claimed that the founding fathers had “worked tirelessly” to eradicate slavery. She then cited John Quincy Adams, who was not a founding father.

Bachmann is not a zealous fact-checker, as we learned when she claimed the president’s trip to India would cost the taxpayers $200 million a day, based on an Indian newspaper report quoting an unnamed provincial official. In the real world, many founders, like Thomas Jefferson, expressed reservations about slavery but still kept hundreds of slaves, who were the basis of their personal wealth. Others, like John Adams, never owned slaves and opposed the institution but compromised on the matter of all men actually being created equal in order to bring the southern states into the union. And not a single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence envisioned in any way, shape or form a democracy in which people of Michele Bachmann’s gender would sit in the halls of Congress.

But Bachmann was speaking to the lore of the far right, which strips the founding fathers of their raw, fallible humanity and ignores the fact that, in some ways, we’re wiser.

Maybe she’ll make Sarah Palin look good.


How Meditation May Change the Brain

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.

“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.

“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.

Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.

“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.

Further study is needed, but that bodes well for me.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.


Egypt Protesters Welcome Army as It Projects Power

CAIRO (AP) — Anti-government protesters on Saturday embraced troops sent out to the streets to restore order — an outpouring of affection and faith that the soldiers are on their side.

The soldiers went along — despite a government ban on all public gatherings issued after the protests began Tuesday.

Troops allowed protesters to climb atop tanks and armored personnel carriers — an apparent attempt to show impartiality in the showdown between President Hosni Mubarak and tens of thousands of protesters demanding his ouster.

Why the soft approach?

Was the army caught between the two sides and paralyzed by uncertainty? Or simply biding its time before what could become a violent showdown with the citizens on the streets, some calling for change while others simply loot.

The army, a secretive organization that traditionally shuns media attention, offered confusing clues: treating protesters with kid gloves while issuing a single public statement warning of harsh measures against those violating a nighttime curfew or an official ban on public gatherings.

Only one thing was certain: the army remains the most powerful institution in this suddenly chaotic nation, and whatever it does next will determine the future of the Arab world's most populous country.

On Saturday, protesters jubilantly climbed atop army tanks and armored personnel carriers enforcing security in Cairo. They hugged and kissed the soldiers and posed for photographs with them. Some spray-painted the military vehicles with slogans demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

In Tahrir Square in the center of the city, protesters hoisted an army officer waving an Egyptian flag on their shoulders and chanted "The people and the army are one hand together!"

The protests drove Mubarak to appoint intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president on Saturday, clearly setting up a succession that would hand power to his close confidant, a former army general, and keep control of Egypt in the hands of military men.

There were signs that the move could exhaust demonstrators' affection for the military — many protesters said the appointment was cronyism and the government needed purging from the top.

"If he is appointed by Mubarak, then he is just one more member of the gang," 43-year-old teacher Rafaat Mubarak, no relation to the president, said in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. "We are not speaking about a branch in a tree, we are talking about the roots."

The military appeared to be going to great lengths to calm the country without appearing opposed to the protests. While there was no evidence of a large-scale fraying of soldiers' loyalty, they were taking pains not to antagonize demonstrators. At least one officer in Cairo ordered his troops to avoid even pushing them.

Egypt's 500,000-man army has long enjoyed the respect of citizens who perceive it as the country's least corrupt and most efficient public institution, particularly compared to a police force notorious for heavy handedness and corruption. It is touted as having defeated Israel in the 1973 Mideast War, and revered for that role.

The military, for its part, sees itself as the guarantor of national stability and above the political fray, loyal to both the government and what it sees as the interests of the general population.

The military has given Egypt all of its four presidents since the monarchy was toppled in 1952. The 82-year-old Mubarak is former chief of the air force.

It was not clear if the unrest still surging in Cairo and around the country would end up pushing the army to abandon either its easygoing stance toward the demonstrators, or its loyalty to the regime.

Some soldiers stood by Friday night and watched as looters sat upon supermarkets, shopping malls, police stations and nightclubs.

The army's enforcing order on the streets would risk the goodwill of some of the protesters although many fearful of disorder and looting would welcome it. A possible shift in the military was already evident on Saturday.

It warned it would deal harshly with "violators" and strongly advised against breaching the nighttime curfew or joining gatherings.

The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Anan, cut short a visit to the United States and flew back to Cairo on Friday night.

Although it has almost completely withdrawn from politics since 1952, the army has added to its strength by venturing into economic activity, playing a growing role in such key service industries as food production and construction.

It stepped in 2008 during an acute shortage of bread, Egypt's main stable, which it provided from its own bakeries. It has since opened outlets for basic food items sold as vastly discounted prices.

The army was clearly projecting an image of being the ultimate power in the country, moving swiftly to protect the state TV building, parliament, the prime minister's office and the Egyptian Museum, home to priceless artifacts dating back 5,000 years.

POLITICO Playbook summary of EGYPT coverage:

BULLETIN -- Secretary Clinton will address Egypt on all five Sunday shows. She will tape brief interviews with each anchor tomorrow morning.

--Christiane Amanpour said on "World News" that she was heading to Cairo for "This Week." ... DNC Chairman Tim Kaine no longer on "Meet" due to Egypt.

MARK WHITAKER to CNN; Antoine Sanfuentes now NBC Washington bureau chief - Keach Hagey: "Mark Whitaker, the longtime Newsweek editor who took over NBC News's Washington bureau upon the death of Tim Russert, is leaving to become executive vice president and managing editor at CNN Worldwide, a newly created position ... Whitaker will be replaced by Antoine Sanfuentes, who formerly served as deputy Washington bureau chief," and spent a lot of time in Waco as White House producer. Full memos

WOLF BLITZER, on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight": "[W]ho follows Mubarak? For all practical purposes, most of the analysts I've spoken to think it's only a matter of time before he goes. Will it be a pro-U.S., pro-western, secular regime or will it be something else -- a regime that rips up, for example, the peace treaty that's been in business for three decades with Israel, one that turns against the U.S.? ... Piers, all of us remember what happened in '78-'79 when the shah went down. As flawed as he was, he was a good U.S. ally. What followed now is three decades of an ayatollah-led regime in Iran."

--John King, appearing with Blitzer: "[T]he administration served notice today, and voices from Congress are serving even tougher notice. About $2 billion a year, just shy of that, goes to Egypt in military assistance and other economic assistance. ... [A]t the White House tonight, they believe the genie is out of the bottle in Egypt. It cannot be put back in."

Good Saturday morning. THE LATEST FROM CAIRO - AFP: "Mubarak holds crisis talks with officials at presidency ... Egypt intelligence chief sworn in as vice president" ... Reuters: "On the fifth day of unprecedented protests against Mubarak's 30-year-rule, it looked increasingly as if the army held the key to the nation's future." ... AP: "Tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out across the city ... But the curfew was largely ignored - by the looters who ran rampant, by protesters, and apparently by soldiers under orders to enforce it."

--THE NARRATIVE - BBC World: "Tunisia has released a political tsunami."

--THE BACKDROP - Freedom House, an independent watchdog, rates Egypt as "Not Free" (scale: "Free," "Partly Free," "Not Free"), and writes in "Freedom in the World 2011": "Egypt received a downward trend arrow due to extensive restrictions on opposition candidates and reform advocates during the 2010 parliamentary elections, as well as a widespread crackdown on the media that resulted in increased self-censorship." Table

--PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE - HOW WE GOT HERE: For over 10 years, U.S. administrations have told Egypt that reforms were necessary, lest ire continue to build and become explosive. The response always was: "Too many reforms, too fast, will lead to our downfall, and likely replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood." Opening up elections was their biggest fear, on the assumption that they could manage the situation through slow, strategically timed, incremental reform. But regional politics rarely tick to any one country's watch.

--N.Y. Times goes with a six-column, one line, italic banner, "Mubarak Orders Crackdown, With Revolt Sweeping Egypt." WashPost is 4.5 columns, "Cairo falls into near-anarchy." WSJ breaks format with a large photo dominating the space above the fold, and a 5-col., "Egypt's Regime on the Brink."

--The "tracks" atop the NYT's inside pages: "REGION IN REVOLT." Catches the moment a little better than the Post's groundhog-day "TURMOIL IN THE MIDDLE EAST."

--THE BIG PICTURE - Ben Smith and Laura Rozen: "The White House tiptoed gingerly toward solidarity with the protesters thronging Egyptian streets on a day of escalating rhetoric that culminated Friday evening with President Barack Obama making a televised appeal to the nation's leader, Hosni Mubarak, to halt his crackdown and reform the government. 'This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise,' Obama said, while calling on Mubarak 'to refrain from any violence against peaceful protestors.' His statement - after a half-hour call with Mubarak in the middle of Egypt's night - capped the swift progression of the U.S. position as the White House struggled to stay ahead, and on the right side of, the widening protest movement. ... Obama's careful formulation - he also called on protestors to keep the peace - embodied an administration struggling to ... reconcile the universalist idealism and foreign policy realism that Obama seeks to simultaneously embody."

--Shepard Smith, cutting away from Robert Gibbs' 49-minute briefing: "You can often get the sense of the gravity of a situation by the amount of times the person at the microphone for the White House ... reiterates previously uttered points. ... [Gibbs] said the following 13 times: We're monitoring very fluid situations in Egypt. He said SIX times: We are reviewing our assistance package to Egypt ... He said NINE times that the Egyptian government should address the grievances that have built up for years among the Egyptian people. And he said FIVE times that these problems will be solved by the people of Egypt. He said SIX times that they need to turn back on the Internet. The troops and people should refrain from violence: That was uttered SEVEN times."

--N.Y. Times' Mark Landler, in an A1er: "The announcement that the administration would review its aid was the first tangible sign that the United States was keeping Mr. Mubarak at arm's length. ... Robert Gibbs ... [said] that the American 'assistance posture' would depend on events 'now, and in the coming days.'"

--GERARLD F. SEIB analysis on A1 of The Wall Street Journal, "Moment Of Truth For U.S.": "From the day former President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists 30 years ago, with then-Vice President Mubarak at his side, the U.S. has maintained an implicit understanding with the Egyptian leader: Mr. Mubarak would be America's most stalwart Arab friend in the region and keep Islamic forces at bay at home. In return, the U.S. would occasionally prod him to open up his political system, but ultimately defer to his ability to keep things stable on the home front. That understanding disintegrated when Mr. Mubarak unleashed first his security forces and then his army on protesters, after cutting off their ability to communicate on the Internet-all despite explicit pleas from the Obama administration that he refrain from those steps."

--THE CONTEXT - "The Ambiguous Revolt," by TNR Contributing Editor Paul Berman: "The contemporary habit of endowing revolutions with charming and amusing names -- instead of with labels that are nationalist (American, French) or partisan (Bolshevik, Sandinista) -- began in the Czech Republic, where the overthrow of Soviet rule and of communism itself came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. The Velvet Revolution led, in turn, to the revolutions that were denominated Rose (Georgian), Orange (Ukrainian), Cedar (Lebanese) ... Tunisia's upheaval has been called the Jasmine Revolution." (Behind paywall)

--BERLIN ECHO ECHO - Shepard Smith on Fox News, 3:58 p.m.: "Jennifer Griffin, longtime Middle East correspondent, now our Pentagon correspondent, ... has just messaged me, and according to the words of Jennifer Griffin, 'This is the equivalent the falling of the Berlin Wall in the Middle East.'" ... KT McFarland, former Reagan national-security official, on Fox Business' "Cavuto" at 6 p.m.: "I think this could potentially be like the fall of the Berlin Wall in that part of the world." ... KT McFarland, on Fox's "Hannity," airs 9 p.m.: "[I]t's like the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have dominoes falling from Tunisia, to potentially even to Iran."

--Fox promo for tonight's "Geraldo At Large": "EGYPT UNDER SIEGE! As violence engulfs the region, churches are attacked and Christians are killed."


--NBC's "Meet the Press": Secretary Clinton; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; roundtable with NBC's Tom Brokaw, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and the WashPost's Bob Woodward

--ABC's "The Week": Secretary Clinton; former Speaker Newt Gingrich; Reagan children Ron Reagan, Michael Reagan and Patti Davis; roundtable with ABC's George Will, ABC's Cokie Roberts, ABC's Sam Donaldson and former Reagan Budget Director David Stockman

--CBS's "Face the Nation": Secretary Clinton, White House Chief of Staff William Daley

--"Fox News Sunday": Secretary Clinton, Speaker John Boehner; roundtable with Fox News' Brit Hume, FORTUNE's Nina Easton, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and the New York Post's Kirsten Powers; "Power Player of the Week" segment: National Institutes of Health - The Children's Inn CEO Kathy Russell

--CNN's "State of the Union": Secretary Clinton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Edward Walker; Sen. John McCain; Sen. Chuck Schumer; Co-Chair of the White House Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and former Sen. Alan Simpson

--C-SPAN: "The Communicators" (Sat., 6:30 p.m. ET): Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Philip Verveer and FTC Chief Technologist Edward Felten ... "Newsmakers" (Sun. 10 a.m. ET / 6 p.m. ET): Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), questioned by the Washington Post's Neil Irwin and CQ's Steven Sloan ... "Q&A" (Sun. 8 p.m. ET / 11 p.m. ET): former President George W. Bush (taped Monday) ... "Road to the White House" (Sun. 6:30 p.m. ET / 9:30 p.m. ET): Tim Pawlenty in Bedford, N.H.

ABC Nightline

ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper interviews
White House senior adviser David Axelrod, the president’s closest aide, whose last day at the White House is today.

The most news-worthy were his comments on Egypt in which Axelrod suggested President Obama has for two years “directly confronted” the Egyptian president over human rights issues in order to get ahead of growing discontent among his people – a stronger characterization of President Obama’s discussions with Mubarak than we’ve so far heard from the White House.

The relevant section of the interview is below.

TAPPER: Hosni Mubarak is not a good guy and that government tortures, is repressive, doesn’t believe in the same freedoms we do and they’re also one of our closest allies in the Middle East.

AXELROD: Obviously these are the challenges of the presidency in a very difficult world. And, but the way he’s confronted it, is he went to Cairo and talked about the need, the universal human rights of people. He’s -- on several occasions directly confronted Pres. Mubarak on it. And pushed him on the need for political reform --

TAPPER: To get ahead of this.

AXELROD: -- in his country. Exactly to get ahead of this. This is a project he’s been working on for 2 years and today the president is working hard to encourage restraint and a cessation of violence against the people of Egypt.

TAPPER: With senior administration officials very pointedly suggesting future US aid to Egypt will depend on how Egypt responds. I mean, that’s a real threat.

AXELROD: Well certainly the events of the coming weeks will be taken into consideration as those decisions are made.

TAPPER: Is it difficult going from these problems being theoretical and all of sudden you’re in the chair, or the top advisor to the man in the chair, and it’s like, “We really actually -- for the best interests of the American people-- need this country to be our ally even if in so many ways they represent everything I hate”?

AXELROD: What’s obvious is that we have to deal in the world with many different countries and not all of them conform to our standard of human rights and what we need to do is be a persistent advocate for change and reform and that’s what we’ve done here. And obviously we’re monitoring this on an hourly basis in that context.

But you know, look, the president always says no easy problems come to his desk. If the problems are easy, uncomplicated, then they don’t require the attention of the president.

And the world is a complicated place, Egypt has been helpful in the region on some issues and there’s no question about that. Right now, we strongly, strongly believe that they need to restrain their security forces and police and set in motion a process to deal with the very legitimate grievances of people there

Washington and Mr. Mubarak

Both President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, in power for three decades, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, in power for 23 years, should have seen this coming. They didn’t — or didn’t care. Both countries share similar pressures: huge numbers of young people without jobs, growing outrage over abusive security forces, corrupt leaders, repressive political systems.

Their people are right to demand more from their governments. The status quo is unsustainable and the result, perhaps inevitable, has been an explosion of protests and rioting in the streets of both countries.

Egypt, with Mr. Mubarak in charge, is an American ally and a recipient of nearly $1.5 billion in aid annually. It is the biggest country in the Arab world and was the first to make peace with Israel. Yemen is home to a dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate and has given the United States pretty much free rein to go after the extremists.

All of which leaves Washington in a quandary, trying to balance national security concerns and its moral responsibility to stand with those who have the courage to oppose authoritarian rulers. American officials must already be wondering what will happen to the fight against Al Qaeda if Mr. Saleh is deposed. And what will happen to efforts to counter Iran and promote Arab-Israeli peace if Mr. Mubarak is suddenly gone?

We won’t try to game Yemen’s politics. Even in Egypt, it’s impossible to know who might succeed Mr. Mubarak. He has made sure that there is no loyal opposition and little in the way of democratic institutions.

In the past, Washington has often pulled its punches on human rights and democracy to protect unholy security alliances with dictators, like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. There came a time when it was obvious that the Marcos tie was damaging American security interests and President Ronald Reagan — along with a people power revolution — played a role in easing him peacefully out of power.

Whether that point comes with Mr. Mubarak is now up to him. So far, he has shown arrogance and tone-deafness. He has met the spiraling protests with spiraling levels of force and repression. On Friday, in a sign more of weakness than strength, the government shut down Internet access and cellphone service. The protestors were undeterred.

Early Saturday, Mr. Mubarak ordered all of his ministers to resign and said his new government would accelerate reforms. He would be far more persuasive if he lifted the communications blackout, reeled in his security forces, allowed credible candidates to compete for president this year, and ensured a free and fair election.

Cables released by WikiLeaks show that the Obama administration has been privately pushing Mr. Mubarak to wake up, release jailed dissidents and pursue reforms. Unfortunately, those private exhortations did not get very far.

The administration struggled to get its public message right this week. On Thursday, it made clear that while Mr. Mubarak is a valuable ally, it is not taking sides but is trying to work with both the government and the protesters. By Friday, the White House said it was ready to “review” aid to Egypt — after Mr. Mubarak cut most communications, called out the army and effectively put Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition figure and former leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency, under house arrest.

Mr. Obama will have to be willing to actually cut that aid if Mr. Mubarak turns the protests into a bloodbath and fails to open up Egypt’s political system.

President Is Likely to Discuss Gun Control Soon

WASHINGTON — Administration officials say that President Obama, largely silent about gun control since the Tucson shooting carnage, will address the issue soon, potentially reopening a long-dormant debate on one of the nation’s most politically volatile issues.

The officials did not indicate what measures, if any, Mr. Obama might support; with Republicans in control of the House and many Democrats fearful of the gun lobby’s power, any legislation faces long odds for passage. Among the skeptics is the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada.

Still, Mr. Obama has come under increased pressure to speak out from gun-control advocates, including urban Democrats in Congress and liberal activists and editorial writers. They would like him to at least support a bill that would restore an expired federal ban on the sort of high-capacity ammunition magazine that was used in the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson that killed six people and injured 13, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona.

The advocates, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, were critical after Mr. Obama did not propose any measures in his State of the Union address Tuesday night to address gun violence. In interviews since, senior White House advisers have said without specifics that Mr. Obama would address the issue in coming weeks, though just how has not been decided.

“I wouldn’t rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t have a timetable or, obviously, what he would say.”

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, separately told reporters that Mr. Obama would “no doubt” speak out before long.

Mr. Bloomberg, who is co-chairman of a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said in his weekly radio address on Friday that he was newly “encouraged” because “some of the president’s staff said that he was planning a speech on the problem and on guns and what he would do, and I think that’s great if he does that.”

When several White House aides were asked about that comment, each referred to Mr. Gibbs’s earlier comment.

Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat of New York who has introduced legislation to ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, said she was hopeful that Mr. Obama would now respond to “the pressure that’s been coming out from all the different groups and almost every paper I know of.”

Such a ban was part of a broader law banning many assault weapons that was enacted in 1994 by a Democratic-controlled Congress and allowed to expire 10 years later when Republicans were in control. Many Democrats have shied from gun legislation ever since 1994, blaming the loss of their House and Senate majorities that year partly on the assault weapons ban, which enraged the gun lobby, in particular the National Rifle Association.

Ms. McCarthy, who won election in 1996 as a gun-control crusader, three years after her husband was killed and her son injured by a man who opened fire on passengers on a Long Island commuter train, said, “I don’t see how anybody could get the assault weapons ban passed in this kind of climate with the N.R.A.”

But a ban on high-capacity magazines is possible, she said, adding, “If I didn’t think I could pass something, I wouldn’t push as hard as I’ve been pushing.”

Mr. Obama supported gun-control legislation as a state senator in Illinois, and as a presidential candidate he opposed laws allowing concealed weapons and endorsed those requiring tougher background checks of gun buyers and a permanent assault weapons ban. But as president he has been a big disappointment to gun-control groups.

A year ago, one of the main groups, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, gave him an “F” for his first year in office. Its report cited, among other things, his signing of a law permitting people to carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked luggage on Amtrak trains, and his failure to name a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Not only did he not champion the cause, he actually signed bad legislation into law,” said Dennis A. Henigan, vice president of the Brady Campaign.

Mr. Obama recently nominated Andrew Traver, chief of the firearms bureau’s Chicago office, as director of the agency. Mr. Traver immediately drew N.R.A. opposition, throwing his Senate confirmation into jeopardy. And the administration recently proposed rules to require gun sellers in states bordering Mexico to report multiple sales of rifles and shotguns, to stem gun trafficking to Mexican drug cartels.

Mr. Henigan called those actions “encouraging signs.” He added, “The White House has certainly been sending signals that it realizes that it can’t go forward avoiding the word ‘gun,’ which is basically what it did for two years.”

States inspired by Arizona illegal-immigration law face tough fiscal realities

As state legislatures convene this month, lawmakers across the country who had vowed to copy Arizona's strict measure cracking down on illegal immigrants are facing a new reality.

State budget deficits, coupled with the political backlash triggered by Arizona's law and potentially expensive legal challenges from the federal government, have made passage of such statutes uncertain.

In the nine months since the Arizona measure was signed into law, a number of similar bills have stalled or died or are being reworked. Some have faced resistance from law enforcement officials who question how states or communities could afford the added cost of enforcing the laws.

And some state legislators have backed away from the most controversial parts of the Arizona law, which have been challenged in court by the federal government and others.
A federal judge has put on hold some of its provisions, including those that would allow police to check immigration status if they stop someone while enforcing other laws, allow for warrantless arrests of suspected illegal immigrants and criminalize the failure of immigrants to carry registration papers. The case is awaiting a ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

"Obviously most places were not going to pass Arizona bills," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration laws. "There's always an initial flush of enthusiasm and then the reality of politics sets in. . . . These states are bankrupt - they need to decide what battles they want to fight."

But Krikorian also said that the Arizona bill has "done what it was supposed to do" by creating a national discussion on immigration reform in the absence of federal legislation.

"I won't be surprised to see more state task forces looking more fully at this issue," said Ann Morse, program director with the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The interest level is still there, but states are looking at the implications."

Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Florida, Nebraska, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Texas and South Carolina are among the states where Arizona copycat bills have been drafted.

In Florida, an Arizona-style bill that appeared headed for passage a few months ago appears to be on life support. Even its primary Senate sponsor has expressed concern that the provision allowing police to check a person's immigration status during a traffic stop could amount to racial profiling.

In Utah, a state dominated by conservative Republicans, a couple of bills similar to Arizona's statute are in the legislative pipeline. But in November, state leaders from business, law enforcement, education and the Mormon Church urged moderation - and with some success. They drew up the "Utah Compact," which declares immigration a federal issue and urges legislators to focus resources on local crime.

Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinkley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said the compact already "has had a big impact on a number of legislators. . . . Some aren't backing down, but there are other bills floating around that are far more moderate."

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tougher immigration restrictions, said states will probably bite off the small pieces of the Arizona bill that fit their constituencies.

"There is tremendous interest . . . in emulating portions of the Arizona model," he said. "But no one size fits all."

One area in which many states are finding consensus is with "E-Verify" legislation, which requires businesses to use an Internet-based system to check the legal status of prospective employees.

But when it comes to more restrictive laws, there is less agreement.

In Texas, business leaders have publicly expressed concern that the more than three dozen strict immigration bills before the legislature will discourage business development. Among them is a measure that would allow public elementary schools to demand proof of citizenship from children.

In Mississippi, the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House are headed for a showdown over provisions in their two bills. The Senate passed an Arizona-style bill this month, but the House version deletes a provision that would allow citizens to sue law enforcement officials who fail to enforce restrictions.

Law enforcement officials there have questioned how practically they would be able to uphold all the provisions of the measure, which would require local police to become much more involved with the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.

"Many states are facing dire fiscal situations, trying to solve state budgets and create jobs," said Vivek Malhotra, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sees the Arizona law and others like it as unfair and unconstitutional. "Enforcing a restrictive immigration measure is expensive."

South Carolina might be on the fastest track, buoyed by new Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said she is committed to cracking down on illegal immigrants. Among the four bills being circulated is one that, as in Arizona's measure, would require immigrants to carry immigration documents with them at all times. Police could demand the documents during traffic stops.

Legislative leaders in South Carolina are being pressed to explain how the state will come up with the resources to pay for enforcement, but advocates say they are determined to push for new laws.

"Illegals are ruining our state. They take away our resources," said local activist Roan Garcia-Quintana, a Cuban American and executive director of the Americans Have Had Enough Coalition. "We don't care what other states do."

Arizona's Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, considered the nation's toughest anti-illegal-immigration measure, was signed into law in April. It sparked street protests, ignited a national debate over immigration issues and triggered a legal challenge from the Obama administration's Justice Department, which is arguing that federal law should preempt state immigration laws.

The controversy has also cost Arizona, which has seen conventions canceled and overall tourism decline. One study, by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, reported that boycotts could end up costing Arizona upwards of $250 million in tax revenue, wages and visitor expenditures, a figure some state and business leaders have disputed as high.

Virtually every state is considering some form of legislation affecting immigration, and last year state legislatures enacted an unprecedented number of immigration laws and resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some cases, lawmakers are advocating legislation that includes a path to citizenship and amnesty provisions for those already here, while conservatives favor more restrictive policies, including deportation.

There could be a political downside to enacting tougher laws headed into the 2012 presidential election.

At a recent conference organized by the new Hispanic Leadership Network, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), who has criticized the Arizona law, noted the importance of Latino voters.

"Hispanics will be the swing voters as they are today in the swing states." Bush said. "If you want to elect a center-right president of the United States, it seems to me you should be concerned about places like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Texas, places where but for the Hispanic vote, elections are won and lost."

Is Qaddafi Next?

-Things started looking worse for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when the troops called out to quell the fifth day of protests started to join in, inviting protesters to climb on their tanks to have their picture taken and letting protesters paint anti-Mubarak graffiti on the sides of their vehicles. The resignation of the Egyptian cabinet on Saturday, at Mubarak’s request, did little to quell the protests. Fifty thousand protesters gathered at Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo.

With Egypt in chaos, a new WikiLeaks cable threatens to stir unrest in Libya. The Daily Beast’s Philip Shenon reports on the bad behavior and lavish parties fueling Muammar Qaddafi's new PR problem. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt uprising. Plus, full coverage of the Egypt uprising.

Libya's neighbors are in turmoil. To the west is Tunisia. To the east is Egypt.

And with Libya's immediate neighbors convulsed by public protests over the brutality and kleptocracy of their ruling familes, a newly leaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Libya suggests that strongman Muammar Qaddafi has created a decadent, money-hungry family dynasty that could find itself the target of the next Arab revolution in the streets.

The latest batch of American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks includes a secret message to Washington last February from U.S. Ambassador Gene A. Cretz, who wrote that Qaddafi's family—notably, two of his especially wayward sons—had "provided enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera" and could endanger the country's stability.

The dirt, he said, included a series of alcohol-fueled New Year's Eve parties sponsored by one Qaddafi son in St. Barts—Beyoncé reportedly earned more than $1 million to perform at the party to welcome in 2010—and domestic-abuse charges against another Qaddafi son in London; he was accused of beating his wife in a London hotel suite, reportedly sending her to the hospital with a broken nose.

There are no reports of recent unrest in Libya to suggest Qaddafi might finish up like his counterparts in Tunisia—President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled into exile this month—or in Egypt, where street protests have seized in part on allegations that President Hosni Mubarak is attempting to orchestrate an undemocratic handover of power to one of his sons.

“The widening contrast between the respectable, cultured image that Saif has taken on and the spoiled, boorish image his siblings project has local audiences rallying behind Saif as the next heir to the Qaddafi throne,” Cretz wrote.

But the allegations of corrupt dynastic politics in Libya are not much different than those of Tunisia and Egypt. And diplomats and scholars suggest Libyans may be just as angry as their Arab brethren across their border about bad behavior by their first families. Qaddafi himself seems perplexed about the chaos in the region, saying last week that President Ben Ali in Tunisia was the "victim of lies" told on the Internet and that the Tunisian should have remained in power for life.

In his February 2010 cable, Cretz wrote he had been told by a well-informed source that the Qaddafi family "has been in a tailspin lately, trying to put a stop to one rumor or another in the name of defending the family's honor." The cable's title: "Qadhafi Children Scandals Spilling Over Into Politics."

The ambassador seemed to suggest that of Qaddafi's seven biological sons, only one—38-year-old Saif, an urbane, British-educated architect who has spoken publicly of the need for democracy in his homeland—offered any hope of a smooth, dynastic transition in Libya, which Qaddafi has ruled with dictatorial powers since 1968.

"The widening contrast between the respectable, cultured image that Saif has taken on and the spoiled, boorish image his siblings project has local audiences rallying behind Saif as the next heir to the Qaddafi throne," Gretz wrote. He said that while Saif was "no stranger to the playboy lifestyle," he had "wisely distanced himself from the local drama."

The leaking of the February 2010 cable is one more reason that Cretz is unlikely to return to his post in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. He was recalled to Washington weeks ago after WikiLeaks released another of his tartly written classified cables—that one dated September 2008—that described Qaddafi's erratic behavior and detailed his foreign travels with a "voluptuous blond" Ukrainian nurse.

The State Department had no comment today for The Daily Beast on questions about the latest batch of cables released by WikiLeaks or on Ambassador Cretz's predicament. "We cannot confirm the authenticity of these documents and we cannot comment on supposedly leaked classified information," said Leslie Phillips, a department spokeswoman.

After defusing Qaddafi's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and convincing Libya to accept responsibility for the 1998 bombing of Pan Am 103 , the United States and its allies have courted Libya aggressively in recent years, if only to secure continuing access to the country's vast oil fields. Cretz was sent to Libya in 2008, the first American ambassador to that country since diplomatic relations with Washington were cut off in the 1970s.

Ariana Cubillos, File / AP Photo
The 68-year-old Qaddafi, the world's longest serving head of state who is not a member of a royal family, has never disclosed his succession plans, leading to the assumption among foreign governments—and many Libyans—that he will attempt to place one of his seven biological sons in power. (His only biological daughter, a lawyer who was part of the defense team for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has demonstrated no interest in succeeding her father.)

Given the uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt against the brutal, corrupt family dynasties in those countries, diplomats and scholars with an expertise in North Africa say that Qaddafi has reason to fear for his family's future.

Charles O. Cecil, a retired American diplomat who led the American embassy in Libya as charge d'affaires in 2007, before Cretz's arrival, said in an interview that Qaddafi might have reason to be worried that Libyans might be inspired by what they were seeing go on in the streets of Tunis and Cairo.

"I suppose that anybody who has been in power for 40 years, without benefit of an election, might be concerned about what his people are thinking," said Cecil.

Before leaving Tripoli four years ago, Cecil said, "I never heard anyone allege that Qaddafi himself was corrupt or profiting financially from his role, but there are certainly a lot of people around him who benefit from being part of the regime."

No one has benefited—or misbehaved—more, it appears, than Qaddafi's offspring, notably his fourth child, son Mutassim, an army veteran who is Libya's national-security adviser, and his fifth eldest son, Hannibal, a businessman who has been tied to series of violent criminal acts across Europe.

Mutassim was the host of the infamous New Year's parties in the Caribbean. According to Cretz's cable, Mutassim "kicked off 2010 in the same way he spent 2009—with a New Year's Eve trip to St. Barts—reportedly featuring copious amounts of alcohol and a million-dollar personal concert courtesy of Beyoncé, Usher, and other musicians."

News accounts of the parties reached Libya, to the disgust of many Libyans.

"Mutassim seemed to be surprised by the fact that his party was photographed and the focus of international media attention," Cretz wrote. "His carousing and extravagance angered some locals, who viewed his activities as impious and embarrassing to the nation. Others took the events and rumors surrounding it as further argument that Mutassim—often considered to be a rival of brother Saif al-Islam to succeed his father—is not fit to be the next leader of the country."

Just a few days ahead of Mutassim's 2010 party, newspapers in London reported that brother Hannibal had beaten his wife, Aline, during a visit to London for the Christmas holidays. According to some of the reports, Hannibal broke her nose and caused other facial injuries during the couple's struggle in their $7,000-a-night suite at Claridges.

According to the cable, Aline initially fled to the U.K. after confronting Hannibal and threatening to leave the marriage. Cretz wrote he was told that "Hannibal had pursued Aline in London and the encounter ended in assault." The cable reported that family members "advised Aline to report to the police that she had been hurt in an 'accident' and not to mention anything about abuse."

The cable noted press reports in Europe that Hannibal, who does not appear to have responded formally in court to the allegations of abuse, had been allowed "to leave the U.K. discreetly, on diplomatic immunity."

Hannibal Qadaffi is a notorious hellraiser. In France, he was accused in 2004 of barreling down the Champs-Elysees in his black Porsche—in the wrong direction—at 90 miles an hour, apparently while drunk. In July 2009, he and Aline were arrested in Switzerland on charges of beating up their servants in a Geneva hotel. The allegations were dropped after a financial settlement was reached with the servants.

Philip Shenon is a bestselling author, based in Washington D.C. He was a reporter at The New York Times from 1981 until 2008.

'Granny is safe' Obama vigorously defends healthcare reform

In his most vigorous defense of the healthcare law since Republicans took control of the House, Obama fired back Friday at GOP claims that the law deprives essential care for seniors and balloons the deficit.

“You may have heard once or twice this is a job-crushing, granny-threatening, budget-busting monstrosity,” Obama said to pro-reform advocates at the Families USA annual conference in Washington. “That just doesn’t match up to the reality.”

Obama’s fired-up rhetoric comes just days after the president offered a more muted defense of the healthcare reform law in the State of the Union address.

The president was firm Friday and used the home-field advantage of a pro-healthcare reform crowd to bolster his defense of the law, which House Republicans voted to repeal only a week ago.

Obama fought back against GOP claims that the bill won’t reduce healthcare costs and would hurt the nation’s seniors while expanding the deficit.

With House Republicans using committee hearings this week to pose the reform law as bad for business, Obama touched on a report from a large business advocacy group that said the law would reduce premiums for workers.

“That’s money that business can use to grow to invest or hire. … That’s money workers won’t have to see vanish from paychecks or bonuses. That’s good for all of us,” he said.

“And I can report that granny is safe,” he added, hitting back at GOP claims that the administration wants to ration expensive care for the elderly.

Obama also rebuked Republican claims that the nonpartisan congressional scorekeeper used shaky math to determine that repealing the reform law would add $230 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years.

“They’re not just making this up,” he said about the Congressional Budget Office.
Urged Republicans to focus on improving the law instead of revoking it.

“If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you,” Obama said Tuesday night.

“What I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition,” he continued.

Obama touched on that theme Friday morning, again offering up repeal of an IRS reporting requirement as an indication of his willingness to improve the law. But he rejected the GOP’s efforts to “refight” the reform battle of the past two years.

“Anything can be improved,” he said. “As we work to implement it, there are going to be times when we say, ‘this needs a tweak’ and ‘this isn’t working exactly as we intended.’ ”

Over the past month, Democrats have been emphasizing the law’s numerous consumer protections that have already gone into effect, such as coverage for children regardless of pre-existing conditions and discounted drugs for seniors in Medicare’s coverage gap. Touting those protections, Obama made clear Friday morning that repeal was out of the question for him.

“I don’t want that for America, he said. “I don’t want that for our families. That’s not who we are, that’s not what we stand for.”