After America

Hello everybody, and merry Christmas. Before we start, apologies for the lack of serious blogging; my writing has moved to Prospect of late. Still, I haven’t been writing enough, and I intend to rectify this over the Christmas break and into next term (when the writing will probably be of essays and sets of notes, unfortunately). I am enjoying writing for Prospect, and it is nice to receive feedback on what I am doing, having been going along in the dark for several years. But is comforting to come home to Topical Creativity, where it all began three years ago.

Not long after I began writing journalistically, the Arab spring exploded onto the news. Its prominence continued as I really began to take interest in politics and current affairs, as we watched in awe as change swept over Egypt and Tunisia. Then the bloodshed began in the civil wars of Libya and Syria, and the spring became the world’s problem. This culminated in the chemical weapons attack by Syria’s President Assad on civilians in August. For a few weeks, it looked as if the West would finally intervene, until Russia seemingly saved the day.

Since then, the Arab spring and its aftermath have somewhat fallen off the radar. The media have relegated the Syrian crisis to third-place importance, after the economy and immigration, so that we now have to rely on reporting in specialist publications and the middle pages of broadsheet papers. How can the story which defined my immersion into politics and drastically altered the international system become old news even as Syria’s death toll exceeds 125,000?

Maybe it’s because we are, collectively, embarrassed by our inability to do anything. As I have written before intervention in Syria is both logistically difficult and politically troublesome, as both Obama and Cameron found out. Harsh facts are hindering our ability to act on our humanitarian instincts.

This is not a feeling the West is used to, especially not Americans. In the past decade, the public has become accustomed to seeing Western power brandished at their leaders’ will. Now, the West’s foreign policy wings seem to have been clipped. This links in with another prominent theme of my political life, the economic and political decline of the West. China is increasingly flexing some pretty scary muscles, and Russia’s President Putin is causing all sorts of problems in Eastern Europe by trying to create his own ‘Eurasian Union’ to rival the EU.

My first term of university has focussed on basic international relations (which, by the way, is really interesting – I still can’t decide if I am a realist or a liberal, a pessimist or an idealist). No good study of the modern world can be conducted without a serious discussion of the decline of American hegemony. As we go forward with our studies and explore the world through journalism, we should probably find an answer to the question: if we don’t want dictators to gas civilians, who is going to replace the US?

Remember the 1st Amendment?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances..

So wrote the Founding Fathers in the 1st Amendment of the US constitution,. ratified in 1791. In the 200-odd years since, the words have become part of the backbone of American democracy, hallowed and revered by journalists and citizens alike. As if the original copy of the document on display in the National Archives wasn’t enough, the words are also plastered on the elevation of Pennsylvania Avenue’s Newseum, slap bang between the White House and the Capitol. You would think they’d be hard to forget.

Alas, no. Last week a military judge found Private Bradley Manning guilty under the Espionage Act; his crime was to leak secret dossiers which detailed the US army’s abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite being acquitted of the more serious (if absurd) charge of aiding the enemy, Manning’s various convictions mean he now faces as many as 136 years in prison.

Quite how these convictions are justified is unclear. He had already pleaded guilty to the actual deed of leaking military secrets, which is rightfully a criminal act. But in leaking the documents to The New York Times he was actually using the right his own army – of which he was a part – was apparently fighting to instil in some of the harshest places in the world. He was, surely, setting an example.

It is also rather undemocratic to criminalise someone who holds an elected government to account. We are seeing this happen again to Edward Snowden, who is himself wanted under Espionage Act (seemingly the current control method of choice in America). Although it is easier to feel sympathy for Snowden because he uncovered a kind of government excess more people care about and has perfected the look of a dorky, innocent do-gooder, it is important to remember that he and Manning did the same thing: what they, and many others, thought was right. Don’t send them to jail for believing in their own constitution. Freedom of speech demands a higher level of respect than that.

It won’t be a turning point

10 months ago I wrote that a massacre in Houla, a small town in Syria, would act as a turning point in that country’s civil war. With the slaughtering of women and children, I thought, the world would not stand on the side-lines and let more deaths pile on top of these. At the time, the death toll was 19,000. Now it stands at 70,000. The world is standing on the side-lines.

In some feeble attempt at doing something, Gulf countries have been helping to arm the rebels. This has, indeed, changed the balance of power – making it more equal. But all this has done is lead to stalemate: despite rebel control of some districts of Aleppo and Damascus, the regime still holds both cities. And the shelling continues, and childen keep dying.

The West has dithered. No-one wanted to enter another Arab country in an unwinnable war. To add to worries, it became obvious that any new regime would be Islamist-dominated (as in other countries buffeted by the Arab spring), and no-one fancied being responsible for that.

But no-one could stomach not saying anything. So President Obama drew a line in the sand, which, should the regime cross it, would trigger a severe response. That line was the using of chemical weapons. Last week, news came of a nerve agent attack. The line has been crossed.

Obama reacted with a caution which, unsurprisingly, did not match the rhetoric. He commented that more intelligence was needed, but one would think that photos of blistered skin would be confirmation enough. Finally, as I have been writing, the administration announced that they would be sending the rebels ‘lethal aid’ – in other words, sophisticated weapons. This is the first time America has taken real actions.

But I’d be surprised if he went further; there’s not a lot more he could do anyway. And although lethal aid sounds minor in terms of US foreign policy, it’s far from risk-free. He is gambling that the weapons won’t fall into jihadist hands. Nevertheless, the arms won’t bring the fighters anywhere close to the regime’s artillery power. In short, the use of chemical weapons by President Assad will not mark a turning point. The war of attrition will go on.

So what’s the outlook? It is far from promising. There are two ways it could go: continuing stalemate or a sudden dramatic collapse of the regime. Either way, the conflict is likely to spill over into Lebanon and drag in Iran, while bolstering the Islamists. This does not bode well for a fragile region and a fragile world. But let’s be clear, it seems Assad can gas his people with impunity.

Questions for America

To my great relief, absolutely nothing changed after America’s election this November. However, once the post-Romney-defeat euphoria wore off, the world realised that absolutely nothing had changed. The problems of a divided government rose up out of the swamp of campaign politics – most notably the ongoing saga of the fiscal cliff. Yes, that’s right, if Washington’s politicians don’t grow up a little in the next nine days, a culmination of tax rises and spending cuts will wipe 5% off the GDP of the world’s leading economy.

Forget the implications of this for a minute. The fact that America has ended up in this situation is crazy enough as it is. In recent years the Democrats and Republicans have moved further and further apart from each other on the socio-political scale; dividing the country along with its Congress. Why has this happened? Many cite the recession, but the trend began way before the sub-prime bubble so rudely burst. I would argue that what we are seeing is a conflict of ideas about how to redefine America as it sees itself being overtaken by China, Brazil and India. The Republicans appear to be founding this ‘new’ America on its 19th century predecessor. Sometimes it seems that the Democrats are merely trying to stop them from succeeding. That may not be a bad goal.

I realised recently that I can not remain objective about American politics. I have tried and I have failed. The Republicans are simply too balmy – too socially regressive. So from now on, I am not even going to try to hide my liberal bias.

And so the markets will spend this holiday season fretting about the fiscal cliff. I am going with most commentators and hedging my bets that a deal will be done. Surely not even America’s politicians would sacrifice the world’s economy in order to ‘keep face’? But a deal won’t represent a breakthrough – bipartisanship won’t thrive. Until America is on the road to somewhere, its politics are going to remain ugly.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the shooting of twenty children in a small town in Connecticut. America’s gun laws are almost unique – in some states guns can be brought in supermarkets by showing a driving license. These are the laws which allowed a teacher in Newtown to buy the gun her son eventually shot her with, before committing the multiple murders of her former colleagues and the children they cared for.

Why do these laws still stand more than 200 years after the need to fight the imperialist British was removed? Because ‘the right to bear arms’ was enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, making it sacrosanct in the eyes of many Americans. The National Rifle Association, in a press conference held on the same day as the first funerals of the children – called for armed guards in all school, declaring that violent video games, not the ready availability of guns, were the cause of the Newtown tragedy. Many Republicans – and, indeed, some Democrats – agree with the NRA. They will have to fight with Mr Obama, who this week finally declared his intention to reform gun laws.

And so we are left to wonder: will the deaths of so many six-year-olds achieve a change in sentiment not touched by the murders at Columbine, Virginia Tech or Aurora? Perhaps, but alas, perhaps not.

Sorry, I really don’t like Mitt

It’s been a slightly hectic half term – filled with history coursework, UCAS forms and marginal cost curves. And it hasn’t just been busy for me. The American election has heated up, Syria and Turkey are sparring at their border and the party conference season bored everyone to tears.

I went on holiday to Washington, DC this week and was metaphorically sat on by the campaign. The Republican adverts on Fox News physically pained me (I bought an Obama badge to make myself feel better), and CNN didn’t mention the gun battle raging in Beruit in their hurry to analyse the pre-debate run up. The highlight for me was Obama explaining the 21st century to Romney, who he accused of having social policy from the 1950s and foreign policy from the 1980s (a political truism if ever there was one – the Governor believes Russia, not al-Qaeda, is still the biggest threat to the US).

Obama has a point here. Romney’s domestic policies are scary (banning abortion, banning gay marriage, denying healthcare to the poor – my, he’s a bundle of fun), but the idea of him running the international community is truly terrifying.

Just imagine him at any Palestine-Israel talks. He’d probably refuse to recognise the Palestinians at all, or something, as he seems to believe that all Palestinians are terrorists. Talk about making a bad situation worse. Obama, by contrast, is committed to a two state solution.

And just imagine a Ahmadinejad-Romney phone call. Or one between the Republican and Hu Jintao. You see my point. Romney is already threatening to brand China a currency manipulator, have you ever heard a more sure-fire way to rebuild East-West relationships?
If you’re still unconvinced about Romney’s inability to handle foreign policy, I remind you of the Romneyshambles. Yes, that was what his tour to Britain was dubbed by our press. The man managed to insult America’s closest ally by insulting our preparedness for the Olympics – an event, incidentally, seen world-wide as a success. If he can offended the don’t-give-a-damn Brits, his hopes with the touchier ones are slim.

And yet, as election day draws closer, Romney’s chances of becoming the world’s most powerful man are increasing. Obama’s soaring rhetoric seems a thing of the past and his promises of change have gone stale during four years in which the economic recovery has been pitiful. I would argue that the economy he inherited was simply too bad for him to repair in one term, but many see things differently. Even I am disappointed in his failure to close the detention centre at Guantanamo. But I also recognise that he has been dogged by the almost fundamentalist Republicans in Congress, who I hold mainly responsible for the debt-ceiling debacle. Maybe a more reasonable opposition would have made the balancing act envisaged in the Constitution a political reality.


Romney


Obama




For most of the summer, Obama had a comfortable lead. His poor performance in the three Presidential debates ate into this and put Romney in the lead for the first time. But the picture is more nuanced. Because of America’s electoral college system, the popular vote is not the most important measure. What matters is how many, and which, states you win. And in the so-called swing states – those actually up for grabs – Obama’s edge has narrowed less. Most are now neck-and-neck. All is still to play for.

This is the closest race for a long time. Not since the Nixon-Kennedy contest have the debates mattered so much. Romney definitely triumphed here, but may be left without a lot to say now that figures have put recent growth at 2%. He may now not be able to keep his other policies on the sidelines. One can only hope that American voters find them as unsavoury as I do.

Obama in the lead?

The recent killing of America’s ambassador to Libya after a crowd set fire to the Benghazi embassy in protest against an American film said to criticise the prophet Mohammed does not bode well for the teetering new country. But ramifications may also be felt miles away in Washington, particularly on 6th November – election day. Americans will want to know how Obama will react to what will be seen as an attack on America itself.

So far Obama has been measured in his response; promising to prosecute those criminally responsible for his ambassador’s death while staying out of the debate about the film. This is a sensible approach and one I hope the American electorate will support. In fact, this spell of trouble in the Middle East may help Obama. Americans will see that their President can stop a situation escalating and will have to accept that a Democrat will be able to exercise more soft power in the Middle East than a Republican.

But that’s not the only reason for the Obama machine to remain hopeful. History shows us that the benefits of incumbency are huge and that re-election is statistically probable. On top of this historical precedent, Mitt Romney – the Republican candidate – is not seen as a nice guy by the general population, and his own party is suspicious of his changing opinions and apparent liberalism. Indeed, as Governor of Massachusetts, he once implemented a version of Obama’s health care reforms – to which he is now vehemently opposed. He is known as a ‘flip-flopper’.

But Obama can not celebrate yet. As a Democrat supporter, I still see much cause for concern. Obama has ended up being in favour not because he has been successful, but because so many people abhor the Republican party. He has become known as a great orator who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk – four year’s later Guantanamo is still holding prisoners without charge. Some of his failings are undoubtedly of his own making, but more are down to a militant Republican Congress and a never-ending financial crisis.

As Bill Clinton knew, the key to political success is the economy. This is the case even more so when people are worried about their jobs and trying to pay their mortgage. Unless the unrest in the Middle East escalates dramatically, the economy will be the deciding factor in these elections. This is Obama’s main problem. Although voters don’t like Romney, they trust him with the economy because of his plans to cut the debt and his history in the business world. Luckily for Obama, Romney is thought to be responsible for a huge number of job losses. And jobs matter in America – more than any other economic indicator.

In a cruel coincidence of dates, the third quarter’s job figures will be released a few days before the elections. If they are good, Obama will be set to win. If they disappoint, Romney’s main fault won’t appear so important. Worryingly, the job figures are normally revised upwards a week after their original release – after the election. Obama and his supporters will be hoping that this time the statisticians get it right the first time.

Romney gears up

The withdrawal of Rick Santorum from the race to be the Republican presidential nominee came when I was cut off from the world in deepest Yorkshire. When my dad met me from the train, it was the first thing he told me (you can decide what that says about both of us). Ever since, I’ve been trying to decide whether the news is good or bad.

The good news is that America’s next president will not be an illiberal, barmy tea-partier. If you look at the political seen in the US, there was every chance he could have been. The bad news is that Santorum’s exit makes Mitt Romney the nominee. And that’s a problem because he’s almost credible.

Romney’s economics were once sound and his history as a moderate may persuade some Democratic voters, disillusioned with Barack Obama, to change their allegiances. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney implemented a very sensible plan which looks a lot like ‘Obama-care’ – the President’s now-demonised health insurance initiative. Yet the man who was once so moderate has been pushed to the right by his own party during the nomination race. The question now is: will he tack back to the centre ground, or continue to campaign for tea-party votes?

In normal political circumstances, it is always the middle which decides who wins and who loses an election. But the American political landscape is far from normal. The Republican party has become more and more dominated by its ultra-conservative wing, while a once promising Democrat in the White House has failed to set the country alight with jobs and growth. Therefore, we may see Romney become even more right-wing in order to make sure he gets the votes he should anyway. That does not bode well for America’s future.

Personally, I can only hope that swing voters have been put off by Romney’s pandering to some pretty scary people. Another glimmer of hope comes in the crude form of money: Obama has more of it. That gives his campaign an helpful advantage – especially as this time around, his image will be harder to sell.

Sell it he must. Romney may (or may not) be a moderate, but he is no liberal. He has already rallied against such things as medical care for the elderly and abortion, which raise not a peep in European countries. Maybe that sentence is telling – I want the American public to be more like me.

Americans wait to see who will be on the ballot

2012 sees the US Presidential elections – one of the biggest political events in the world. Due to the country’s unique brand of democracy, campaigning for the top job is on an almost perpetual cycle and now it is time for the two parties to choose their candidates. Fortunately, the Democrats are keeping Barack Obama as their leader, leaving the country free to concentrate on the race for the Republican nomination.

The field is crowded, with nine candidates having officially entered the race. The front runner is Mitt Romney, a former Governor of Massachusetts and son of a former Governor of Michigan. Mr Romney ran for the nomination in 2008 but lost to John McCain, having one some early primaries. This year he is once again leading the pack and seems set to stay ahead, so far at least. However, the nomination procedure puts emphasis on grass roots support, which Mr Romney does not have. This is mainly because he is a Mormon, whereas many Republicans are evangelicals and see him as belonging to a suspicious cult. Others even doubt his republicanism, mainly because, as Governor of Massachusetts, he introduced a health care bill that was almost identical to the one Mr Obama put forward this year. In Republican eyes, that is tantamount to heresy. Mitt Romney will need to do a lot of work to convince voters that he is a true Republican, but if he can do that he is well on the way to fighting Mr Obama come 2012.
The other strong candidate is the current Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. Mr Perry has the advantage of being sufficiently evangelical, but he also has a reputation for being fiscally conservative having balanced Texas’s budget books. Therefore, he encompasses the party’s two main ideals – small government and traditional Christianity. His presence in the race is putting pressure on Mr Romney to explain his past, but Mr Perry himself will face strong opposition from Michelle Bachmann, the darling of the ultra-conservative tea-party movement, whose popularity has increased now that Sarah Palin has formally announced that she is not running for the nomination. She is the most conservative of the possible victors, having tried to pass an amendment banning the state from recognising same-sex marriage during her time as a Senator in Minnesota.
Other candidates include Ron Paul, a social libertarian whose main focus is cutting all spending including the Republican’s cherished defence budget. He is unlikely to win the nomination, because he is seen to be on the fringe of Republican policy. However, he has a following of very vocal and fierce supporters who refuse to let him lose the limelight. The other candidates each have their own agendas and supporters, but are not popular with Republican grandees and have no chance of facing Obama at the polls. However their presence energises the front runners and keeps the debates going.
Although this race does not determine who will win next year, it is hugely important. The Republican’s choice of candidate will change how the election is fought and which party independent voters will support. It may have an effect on the crucial swing states. Most importantly, if the Republicans do win it will determine the next President’s policies in office. The question is whether the party will choose to put forward a typical conservative or a tea-party radical. The implications of that will be far-reaching, not least for domestic affairs and foreign policy – and that will affect the entire world not just the US.