Today's Papers

Putin Provokes

The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post lead with, while the New York Times fronts, Vladimir Putin’s harsh criticism of American foreign policy at an international security conference in Munich. Speaking in front of dozens of American and European officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Putin said the U.S. “has overstepped its national borders in every way,” causing global instability and setting off a nuclear arms race. According to the LAT, which has the best coverage, “one German questioner jokingly told Putin he hoped the president had not set off ‘another world war.’”

The WP describes the tone of the speech as “more a considered lecture than a Khrushchevian dais-thumper.” Nevertheless, in 32 minutes Putin reeled off a laundry list of complaints that touched on America’s “hyper-use of military force”, the West’s support of reform movements in eastern Europe, American work on antimissile systems, NATO expansion, and Russian access to Western markets. An American congressional delegation that included John McCain and Joe Lieberman sat stone-faced in the audience.

The papers do a good job of describing the scene in Munich, but the analysis is pretty thin. The WP says Putin’s remarks “seemingly were not prompted by any particular provocation” and the LAT quotes analysts saying they “appeared timed to take advantage of the Bush administration’s weakness.” Only brief mention is given to how Russia’s energy resources have allowed Putin to adopt a more assertive foreign policy, and how many Russians are fed up with criticism from the West.

In its lead story, the NYT shows how members of Congress have already found a way around pesky new ethics rules, passed just a month ago. It’s now illegal for lobbyists to pay directly for lawmakers’ lavish vacations and expensive dinners. But they can still donate money to members’ political action committees, which, in turn, can pay for these outings as fundraising events. The NYT compiles a nifty little list of PAC fundraising events that would make Jack Abramoff jealous (though Rep. Eric Cantor really needs to get more creative).

In another political fundraising story, the WP says John McCain is embracing “some of the same political-money figures, forces and tactics” that he has made a career railing against. There seems to be an effort here to paint McCain as a hypocrite and his presidential campaign and reform efforts as mutually exclusive. But even his campaign finance reform allies understand the bind he is in. “It is apparent to us that to run a competitive presidential campaign inside a system that is still broken, that is what he has to do,” said Mary Boyle of Common Cause. Unfortunately, that quote appears in the last sentence of the story.

In other campaign news, Barack Obama shows us why presidential candidates form exploratory committees first—two days of headlines for the price of one. The WP fronts (with photo) and the NYT reefers * the formal announcement by Obama that he will be running for president. Speaking in frigid weather at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech, Obama laid out “an ambitious agenda that includes bringing an end to the Iraq war, eliminating poverty, ensuring universal health care and creating energy independence.” Yet he again emphasized that his leadership ability was more important than specific ideas. In a sober assessment, the NYT says “it seems evident that Mr. Obama’s easier days as a candidate have passed. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, or to a lesser extent Mr. Edwards, Mr. Obama has not gone through a full-scale audit.”

Elsewhere in the world, the LAT reports that Iran’s reformists believe they are being undercut by the Bush administration’s saber rattling, which only helps to prop up the faltering president. The administration may or may not agree with that assessment, but it has distributed new talking points that play down any suggestion of war planning, according to the WP. This comes amid signs that multilateral pressure on Iran might be working. That pressure got a bit more multilateral yesterday, when Vladimir Putin criticized Iran for not answering questions posed by the I.A.E.A. about its nuclear program.

On the other axis of evil front, talks with North Korea have been extended after negotiators failed to reach an agreement over the energy aid North Korea would receive as compensation for closing its main nuclear reactor.

The NYT’s “Week in Review” section is chock-full of good stuff this Sunday, including a rundown of who’s blaming who for the problems in Iraq. Also worth a look are Dick Cheney’s notes from 1975 as he considered how the Ford White House should handle an article by Seymour Hersh about a secret espionage program. The Times says the notes show Cheney “is hostile to the press and to Congress, insistent on the prerogatives of the executive branch and adamant about the importance of national security secrets.” It seems not much has changed.

Correction, Feb. 12: This article originally stated that the New York Times fronted an article on Barack Obama’s presidential announcement. Return  to the corrected sentence.