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First thoughts: Talking with the enemy

From Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Talking with the Enemy: The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council including the U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia and the +1 is Germany) meeting with Iran is going to put to the test President Obama's global engagement strategy. Those talks are already underway, started around 4:05 am ET (10a Geneva time) and will go all day, per NBC's Andrea Mitchell in Geneva.  Undersecretary of State William Burns is leading the U.S. delegation. Per a number of senior administration officials who briefed reporters in Geneva and Washington, the core of the agenda is the nuclear issue. These talks won't be fruitful if they are not about the nuclear program. Defining success wasn't something the administration was prepared to describe before the start of the talks, however, they believe by the end of today, if Iran is providing unfettered access to their secret nuclear site (unfettered is defined as access to not just the physical site, but the background info on the employees, etc.) and it's clear there is a rapid pace to the negotiations so that we know within weeks (not months) that there is real progress and the Iranians are serious. Perhaps the most interesting aspect to today, the Obama administration has agreed to allow its delegation to hold bilateral (er, formal one-on-one) talks with the Iranians if it's deemed helpful. It's worth noting that if this does happen, it will mean in the span of just TWO weeks, the Obama administration will have held direct talks with both Iran and Cuba. Remember when that concept was so controversial it ate up days of cable chatter time during the '08 campaign?

*** Let's Play One-On-One: Should the U.S. and Iran meeting one-on-one at some point today, it's truly a big change. When delegation leader Burns attended the last negotiations with Iran in July of 2008, the Bush White House only authorized him to listen, not talk. And not to hold any sidebars. The allies won important support in recent days from IAEA chief Mohammed el Baradei, who said definitively that what Iran has been doing at Qom is illegal. If Iran wants a face-saving way out of a confrontation, it could expand on its suggestion that the IAEA give it a waiver to buy low-grade enriched uranium from Russia and France for peaceful purposes. If it then agreed to give up its own enrichment, it could form the basis for an agreement. But we are a long way off from anything close to such a positive outcome. The most likely circumstance is that they will agree to meet again and soon.

*** Points for Trying? How much of today's talks are about Iran and how much of it is about China? Senior officials tell us that the U.S. has already begun three separate tracks when it comes to Iranian sanctions. Track 1: the UN (most comprehensive); Track 2: the U.S. and other int'l orgs; Track 3: A country-by-country coalition of the willing. Obviously, the U.S. pursues tracks 2 or 3 if China isn't willing to go along with tough economic sanctions via the UN.  Here's the hope of the U.S., if we're seen as extending our hand, and the Iranians appear to be waving it off, how can China argue with the U.S.'s approach? While it's obviously not a perfect analogy, it's in some respects like the administration's overtures to Republicans in that Obama seems to win points for trying. Polling has shown that despite Obama being able to get any GOP support for its domestic agenda, that Americans blame Republicans more for the partisan tone in Washington and credit the administration for trying to reach out. Point is, the Obama administration hopes to get points for trying here also from the world.

*** Chicago All-Stars: Today's biggest Chicago celebrities -- President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah – will be in Copenhagen to lobby for the 2016 Olympics. The president heads there tonight after he raises money for the Democratic Governors Association in DC, which is expected to bring in more than $500,000. He also meets with Secretary of State Clinton and Vice President Biden in the afternoon (3:30 pm ET). So what will Team Chicago bringing to tempt the IOC to reward their hometown the games besides Obama's soaring rhetoric? Cars or X-Boxes under their chairs? (C'mon this IS Oprah.) Deep-dish pizza? Mike Ditka? Jordans? A Sinatra soundtrack? Will their efforts be enough to beat out Rio (which, by the way, has brought along Pele)? And, to the bigger point, are these games even worth it? Some in Chicago don't think so.  Obama's upped the ante by going, right? What does it say now if Chicago DOESN'T get the games? Minority Leader John Boehner hit the president on his trip, calling him the president of the United States, not the mayor of Chicago. Just asking, but when Republicans attack everything, doesn't that water down the salience of the message? Doesn't it become just noise? The first lady does a lot of the early heavy lifting in Copenhagen, as she meets with the IOC president (3:30 am ET), then attends a heads of state luncheon (TBD) and then attends the IOC opening ceremony (1:00 pm ET).

*** Afghanistan, And Deliver: Yesterday's 3-hour marathon meeting between the President and his war council was significant for what was not debated: troop levels. Yesterday was about the key players giving their assessment of where things stand right now, not just from the military perspective, but from the perspectives of intelligence gathering, the diplomatic front, Pakistan's stability and cooperation, the Afghan elections, civilian side etc. We're told the president made clear at the very beginning of the meeting that this was not the time to be debating how many troops should be sent in or withdrawn. If there is one absolute that one could glean from this meeting, it's that withdrawal from the country is not an option. And there seemed to be some consensus on the need for the U.S. not to look like occupiers, but how do you do a surge of troops to help with security in major cities while somehow shrinking the military footprint? Just one of the many riddles this administration is trying to solve in terms of strategy. By the way, NSA/Gen. Jim Jones left the meeting early to brief senators about the situation in Afghanistan and the timing of the rollout of a new strategy. Sources tell us Jones assured senators that a strategic decision (translation: troop decision) would be made in "weeks, not months." The next war council meeting will take place on Wednesday and will be focused on Pakistan.

*** The Proverbial Bulls in the China Shop: Speaking of the region, it seems that when it comes to the Af-Pak U.S. special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, everyone has strong opinions about him. And it appears that some of Holbrooke's detractors are starting to make their opinions known publicly via some of his disciples. It's just a drip-drip for now, but is this something the administration has to be concerned about? For instance, Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks reported earlier this week on a deteriorating relationship in Iraq between the top U.S. commander there, Gen. Ray Odierno, and the top U.S. diplomat, Amb. Chris Hill. The piece was more critical of Hill whom Ricks described as a "Holbrooke homey." Then, today, read toward the end of the L.A. Times piece about the U.N.'s firing of Peter Galbraith, the highest level American working for the U.N. overseeing the Afghan elections. Galbraith reportedly clashed with senior U.N. official, Kai Eide over how public to make some of the vote fraud charges public. Galbraith wanted to share more information with the Afghans and make it public. The L.A. Times describes Galbraith as someone "close" to Holbrooke. Now, no one is saying these two news items are related, but the negative chatter about Holbrooke is something we've been hearing behind the scenes as well and so seeing these two articles pop up at the same time suddenly seemed less than coincidental. Now, it may simply be the usual sniping when it comes to Holbrooke's style and folks are just trying to tweak him in the media. Still, it's something to keep an eye on.

*** McChrystal's Ball: By the way, Gen. Stanley McChrystal delivered remarks this morning (6:00 am ET) on Afghanistan in London at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. McChrystal has been very public since making his request for at least 40,000 more troops and before the president decides what to do. McChrystal made a strong first impression to many in DC (of both parties) in that 60 Minutes interview, and his being out there and Republicans calling on the president to make a decision sooner rather than later certainly puts more pressure on the White House. Then again, McCrystal's high profile might be a way assuage the troop skeptics as well. Later today, NBC's Brian Williams interviews Gen. David Petraeus at The Atlantic's "First Draft of History" event (9:00 am ET). NBC's David Gregory will interview Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (10:30 am ET), and NBC's Chuck Todd interviews House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) (4:05 pm ET).

*** The Long Road for Health Reform: Nevermind the culture wars, the one thing that the abortion amendment party-line fight reminded us of is just how long the haul is for health reform. Every little aspect of these bills are being fought over and will be hotly contested. And that makes for a VERY long haul. It's one reason that Harry Reid cut Congress' Columbus Day week off to two days off. Forget the fall, at this pace, there's going to be snow on the ground before we know what the end health-reform bill will look like.

*** The End of Reason, Sign 967: Speaking of fighting over every little thing, Republicans are demanding that Rep. Alan Grayson (D) apologize for saying Republicans' health-care plan is to "die quickly." Of course, it's ludicrous for anyone to suggest that an elected official wants someone to die or legislation will cause someone to die, right? But Republicans weren't so outraged when it was many in their party, including elected officials, suggesting that there are death panels and insisting Democrats want to pull the plug on grandma or saying the Democratic plan would kill people. All Grayson did was add to the Washington noise that the public is hearing and it explains why Congress' negative ratings are going down, not up, and both parties could pay a price, with Democrats having the most to lose. By the way, unlike Joe Wilson, Grayson probably did make himself incredibly vulnerable in his swing Florida district. He was elected in a bit of an upset and in his short time in office, has acquired quite a bit of baggage courtesy of his mouth. Something tells us those folks in Orlando won't take kindly to some of the things he said.

*** Lots of Other Moving Parts: Fed Chair Ben Bernanke testifies before House Financial Services (9:00 am ET) on financial regulatory overhaul; The Senate Finance Committee continues its markup of health-care legislation (10:00 am ET); Senate Foreign Relations is dealing with Afghanistan's impact on Pakistan (10:00 am ET); Judiciary is marking up the Patriot Act extension (9:30 am ET); and House Armed Services discusses Obama's missile defense plan (9:00 am ET).

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