It won’t end

The bombing has resumed in Gaza after what had looked like a promising cease-fire agreement broke down all too quickly. The two sides, Hamas and Israel, had repeatedly extended the reprieve as talks in Cairo, brokered by Egypt, continued. Alas, the talks came to naught. The negotiators were too far apart, with two key issues creating huge stumbling blocks: the economic blockade of Gaza, and Hamas’s armed capabilities. Hamas is demanding the end of the former, Israel the end of the latter. Each conditions their acquiescence on the prior action of the other side: Hamas will disarm if Israel ends the blockade, Israel will end the blockade when Hamas disarms.

And thus, as for the last fifty years, we have a stalemate. Even if this round of fighting and talking miraculously leads to a breakthrough (partial disarmament for a bit of economic relief, perhaps), the deadlock will just re-emerge in another form. Neither side has any incentive to make serious, painful concessions because they won’t gain anything if they do.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as real and important and heart-breaking as it is, is also a proxy war. The behind-the-scenes belligerents are America and Iran, two of the world’s most bitter foes. Their animosity fuels the activities of Hamas (supported by Iran) and funds the Israeli’s disproportionate response (America supplies the IDF). As with all Middle Eastern conflicts, everyone gets drawn in by the cobweb of geo-political, religious and downright cynical allegiances which smothers the region.

There is some sign that America’s blind support of Israel has become a little more conditional on good behaviour, but this is only likely to last as long as Obama’s presidency. In the long run, with a hawkish Republican or different kind of Democrat (read: one who relies on the money of the Jewish lobby) in the White House, Israel can trust in America to have its back, especially as it desperately tries to retain a foothold in the region now that many of its old dictator friends have fallen.

On the other hand, Iran backs Hamas as a mere pawn in its plan to dominate the Middle East and create a Shia monopoly on power and, in turn, belittle Washington  into leaving the region alone. For this to happen, Israel must be weakened.

Until these two begin to work together, there is little hope of peace in Palestine. The prospect seems unlikely, although they have recently found common cause with opposition to the Islamic State. It is doubtful that this small glimmer of shared aspiration will materialise into anything more; America and Iran are still on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, a conflict not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

The best bet is to appeal to Iran’s craving for stability, and to tweak sanctions in response to its behaviour – good or bad. In the US, it is time that politicians on all side explain that a wish to see a two-state solution in Palestine is not an abandonment of Israel. Until we end the proxy war, rounds of violence will continue to devastate Gaza. Don’t hold your breath.

Where is our Mandela?

When President Obama, speaking at the memorial of Nelson Mandela after his death earlier this month, described the former South African President as a “giant of history” he alluded to something a little uncomfortable. While the world mourns a great leader, some our questioning whether Mandela’s long road to freedom has any relevance to those of my generation; used as we are to instant gratification and the ability to do anything with minimal effort. I have even heard my fellow students ask: for people who only knew Mandela as a mild, smiling old man, does his story of resistance really mean anything?

Yes, because we need his example. South Africa’s black population is nominally free from the scourge of legal apartheid, but they do not enjoy the equality Mandela dreamed of. The same is true for many minorities all over the world – discrimination, whether on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or religion, is not a thing of the past. Half of the world’s population – its women – is subject to systemic subjugation. The injustices Mandela fought are hardly a thing of the past. We need do as he did and challenge these seemingly insurmountable problems. As Mandela showed, radical progress is indeed possible if we truly dedicate our lives to achieving it.

Yet the progress we saw in the 20th century seems to have slowed as we entered the 21st. Women’s rights and racial justice dominated the political scene for much of the past hundred years; from the Suffragettes to the civil rights movement onto women’s liberation in the 1960s and 70s and Mandela in the 90s. Now, politics is devoid of such passion. By com/arison the struggles of this century, such as those of the LGBTQA+ community, barely receive any airtime. Witness how Western governments have not taken a stand on Russia’s new anti-gay laws or how politicians, including David Cameron, fall over themselves to win favours from China, despite the regime’s dismal human rights record. Economic growth and international security have become the be all and end all of politics; humanitarian issues are a distant second.

Nothing exemplifies this so well as the current lack of widespread social movements. There isn’t a modern equivalent of the Suffragettes and the NAACP has become removed from the people it supposedly represents. Such passivity is depressing, especially from a generation which is by and large much more tolerant than its predecessors. Do today’s young people really lack the bravery and belief to stand up and shout back? Perhaps it is too easy to share a feel-good video about some issue we vaguely care about or tweet the link to a petition – all without moving from the comfort of an armchair. Such click-and-move-on attitudes have a place in spreading the word, but do not send a strong message in the same way that the thronging of hundreds of thousands of people did in Washington in 1963. There is no imperative for politicians to act when people are unwilling to do so themselves.

We need a culture in which people mobilise to achieve what they believe is right. I do not think my generation cares less than those who came before; but I do think that the selfish nature of consumerism has made them more risk averse, less willing to endanger their quality of life in order to achieve change. This is where we must learn from Mandela, a man who spent twenty-seven years on a prison island and came out just as resilient as before. We, too, must be willing to endure personal suffering in order to better the lives of others. Perhaps the reason we no longer see the protests of yesteryear is because no one is daring enough to lead them; where are this decades Pankhursts and Kings?

In mourning Mandela, the world should not look back. Instead, people everywhere should rally together and strive for the future he lit a path towards. By all means sign that petition on your way to work, but be ready to sacrifice a lot more than five minutes. That is the real lesson of Mandela’s struggle, and what makes him just as important in death as he was in life.

On Syria – a briefing

I do not remember the Rwandan genocide, nor the Bosnian war; Vietnam and Korea remain raw for many, but are history to me. Instead, I am of the Iraq/Afghanistan generation – I have grown up in a post-9/11 world where foreign policy has been dominated by the War on Terror. The lessons I have learnt warn of the dangers of an over-powerful executive (remember the scandal of Parliament’s Iraq vote?) and fabricated evidence. The military interventions I have known have been ill-defined and impossible to end, and may well have led to more civilian deaths than would have occurred if the West had stayed away. The events I have witnessed ever since I was just six years old have, naturally, made me quite sceptical about the West’s capacity to do good in the Middle East.

However, despite all the lessons that must be learnt – particularly from Iraq – it is time the spectre of that now-past era stopped inducing rash policy decisions on and hyped-up media coverage of Syria. The situation is different now, and clear thinking is needed. To do justice to the complexity of today’s events and the immense human suffering happening right now, we need to be making decisions which are not coloured by fear. And yet the events of the past two weeks have exposed the extent to which the West is still afraid.

It all started on the 28th August when news came that the Assad regime had probably crossed the ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. For the best part of a week, governments around the world scrambled to find enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the attack had indeed taken place, and that it had been perpetrated by the regime. UN weapons inspectors, already in the country investigating alleged previous chemical weapons usage, fought for and won access to the newly affected areas – rebel held suburbs of Damascus.

***

This is where things started to unravel in the West’s response. David Cameron, the British PM, rushed headlong into a parliamentary vote without waiting for either UN or US intelligence. Although this was foolish and led to a deeply embarrassing defeat, Cameron was sending a signal: that unlike Tony Blair, he respects the workings of parliamentary democracy. The defeat itself was also political rather than strategic; the proposed motion promised another vote and more evidence before any actual military action could occur, and was intended to be merely symbolic. Here, Labour was equally as foolish as the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the real problem actually came when, following their defeat, Tory cabinet members overreacted. Too quickly, Cameron et al promised that there would not be another vote on military intervention and that any British involvement in Syria was simply off the table. This, they implied, showed that they respected the voice of Parliament. In reality, they have silenced that voice on the world’s most important issue and, in the process, relegated the UK to the children’s table of global politics. When it dawned on them that this was all rather embarrassing, the government quickly employed some verbal slight-of-hand and altered its message: there would not be a second vote unless the situation changed dramatically. It is safe to say that, given the vagueness of that condition, no one actually knows whether Britain may still get involved.

Focus quickly shifted to the US, where everyone expected President Obama to announce cruise missile attacks. But he, too, decided to surprise us by asking for a Congressional vote. He, too, seems to be mindful of the image of an over-powerful executive. However, there was no need for Obama to seek approval; unlike the British PM, the Presidency is designed to control foreign policy. Indeed, Congress hasn’t declared war since the US entered WWII in 1941. So, why is he bothering? Put simply, Obama wants Congressional Republicans to share the blame if intervention goes wrong. And yet, he is taking a huge risk. If he loses the vote (many members of Congress may vote against him in light of the strength of anti-war public opinion), it is hard to see a way forward. Will he simply make use of his prerogative powers and bomb Assad anyway? This may be better than become a ‘do-nothing’ Commander-in-Chief, but would still constitute political suicide. He may take some confidence in the fact that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and effective opposition leader, has signalled his support. But it will have been a long ten days for the President when Congress finally votes tomorrow.

The future of American foreign policy, and that of the democratic, developed countries it leads, now rests in the hands of the 112th Congress. So, in fact, does the future of Syria. That is more than a little worrying.

***
 
So there’s your round up of what’s happening on the Syria question in Western politics. Now, here’s what I think.
 
I mentioned earlier that, thanks to circumstantial conditioning, I am a sceptic about intervention in the Middle East. But I am also a natural humanitarian; and I think it is time to act for three main reasons. Firstly, despite everything, I do believe that the West still has a role in imposing some basic morality, especially when it comes to preventing the mass murder of civilians by their own government.  I cannot forget the picture of a crying child among dead bodies, and I don’t think politicians should either. We have a duty to protect.
Secondly. the use of chemical weapons is against international law. In an increasingly globalised world, it is time to take such law seriously and to enforce them. There is no chance of getting Assad and his merry men to the Hague anytime soon, and so military action is the only way to do this. There is also a moral hazard problem here; if Assad is allowed to go unpunished there will be no reason for him – or any other despot – to refrain from using such nasty weapons. Do we want that to be the message we send to the regimes of North Korea or Pakistan? Just remember, 25 years after Saddam Hussein killed 5000 Kurds in a chemical attack on the town of Halabja, he was still murdering thousands of his people and unsettling the entire region.
Which leads me on to my third and last point. Letting the war rumble on as it is will increase the rate at which it spreads across the Middle East. As I have argued before, the Syrian civil war is not just a conflict between regime and rebels, but between Sunni and Shia. Already, the level of violence in Iraq is rising after years of tapering off. Tensions in Lebanon, whose civil war took place all too recently, are beginning to flair again. The once-secure monarchy of Jordan is being destabilised by huge numbers of refugees – as is Turkey, which has problems of its own to contend with. The sooner this ends, the quicker calm can be restored and a regional war avoided.
And so, against all instinct, I am advocating Western military action in Syria. To prevent the deaths of soldiers and unnecessary escalation, it is vital that politicians keep their promises and do not put boots on the ground. To prevent causing civilian deaths and even more dangerous acrimony between Islam’s many branches, it is vital that the West does not go in for regime change but instead uses targeted cruise missiles to disable Assad’s military capabilities and stop further breeches of international law. That way, it is possible to learn the lessons of Iraq and still do the right thing.
 

Western hypocrisy at its finest

I was all ready and poised to write a post heralding the beginning of a new era for Afghanistan when the Taliban set up a political office in Doha (make of that what you will, I’m still a little incredulous) and agreed to peace talks with NATO (read: the Americans). But by the time I was sitting in front of my laptop the next morning, the Afghan government itself had pulled out. The era of peace went out the window, as did my blog post.

So I found myself mentally grappling with the other main news story: Prism. Every time I watch the news or open a paper (The New York Times being my current broadsheet of choice, probably thanks to an unhealthy obsession with The West Wing – I digress) someone has thought up a new angle on the story. I covered the value of whistleblowing in this article for Prospect magazine’s website. But now Snowden is leading the American judicial system on a worldwide goose chase and exposing his country’s darker side. The US, it seems, supports freedom of speech so long as this speech does not affect its security services, its own deep state. This discrepancy will not go unnoticed by regimes which do not pay much head to human or civil rights, especially China.

In fact, the Chinese are rather enjoying the debacle. When the Prism story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, President Obama was holding a summit with the new Premier, Xi Jinping, in California. The most important point on Obama’s agenda was securing a deal to stop Chinese computer hackers – some linked to the army – stealing Americans’ intellectual property. This is actually a legitimate problem, not least because it damages rates of return and so discourages investment, but the point became harder to argue when it emerged that the US can read everyone’s emails and listen to their phone calls – and store the data, presumably forever. Intellectual property violations no longer look like such a big deal, and the fuss around them more than a little hypocritical on the side of Obama.

Such hypocrisy will not do anyone any favours – neither Americans themselves nor the citizens of the world’s more oppressive countries, which will now be able to easily ignore any moralising. Obama needs to engage in some damage control by taking responsibility; if not for Prism itself than for keeping it secret and shady. If he doesn’t, he will have to endure more snubbing of the kind seen when the Russian authorities allowed Snowden to disappear. For all America’s spying power, it no longer knows where its most famous security agent is. Now how’s that for irony?

Only questions

Sometimes there is a problem to which no one has an answer, to which there is no answer. So it seems with the Syrian crisis – the ‘worst war of our time’ as one Newsnight reporter put it yesterday. Sorry Obama, Cameron and Hollande, for all your good intentions you’ll just have to wait this one out – there’s nothing you can do.

Since last week’s White House confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s forces, the pressure to arm the rebels has grown and Obama has finally bowed to it. But he was right to express concern in doing so – there is nothing the West can do to stop any arms ending up in the hands of the jihadists who are already gaining strength and support. No one wants a repetition of what happened after we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this mind-blowingly accurate book) – the Taliban made us miss the Soviets, and missing Assad is a sickening thought. If we were going to arm the rebels, we should have got on with it 18 months ago before the Islamists took control.

Even without the Islamist element to worry about, it is hard to ignore the harsh fact that more weapons generally means more death. Let’s not forget; 93,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria, many of them women and children and non-combatants. But that is not to say that the reasons given for arming the rebels are flawed – they’re just as sensible as the ones against. Proponents of the policy point out that, with his forces pushing back rebel lines, even taking back much of Aleppo, Assad has no incentive to enter any settlement which could lead to a peaceful transfer of power. Change the situation on the ground and his political rational will have to shift, sending him running for the negotiating table.

Still, I am inclined to believe that arming the opposition cannot have a positive outcome and so the question remains: what is to be done? The humanitarian in me cannot counternance not taking any action at all. A Libya-style no-fly zone is pretty much out of the question; Syria is too big, too spread out, to be comprehensively covered, and Assad’s air-defence systems are very advanced (thanks in no small part to his dear friends the Russians). The West, then, should give up on the fanciful idea of changing the balance of power and start doing what it can to stop people dying. The enormous sums of money which could be spent on arms should be spent instead on bullet-proof vests and helmets, on food and blankets for the homeless, on doing something to make the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan more than a living hell. These are the things which can be done without any risk, solely benefiting a population which, having spent two years living in a warzone, desperately needs help.

We will feel that this is inadequate – that our only thought should be to stop the bloodshed. But we can’t; the situation is too complex for any interference to be successful. Indeed, the Syrian conflict needs to shed the veil of the Arab spring and be seen for what it is, a proxy war between Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad on one side and Iraq and the West on the other. Put simply, it is just a small, bloody episode in the never-ending Sunni-Shia war. It is spreading over boarders – tensions in Lebanon, not-long dormant after the civil war, are rising again, and Turkey and Iraq are struggling too. The unrest threatens to engulf the entire region in bloody sectarianism – this is no place for American guns.

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.

Progress?

The cause of the world’s social liberals (along with those in favour of world peace) avoided a worrisome set back with the re-election of Obama early last month. On waking to the news, one could almost feel the entire populations of Europe, South America and various other countries breath a collective sigh of relief. The only people who were disgruntled were the banks (such a shame) and Israel’s right wing.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had obviously been hoping for a Romney win. He knew that the Republicans would back him in any attack against Iran (I’m not going to open that can of worms quite yet) and would invariably favour Israel over Palestine, no matter the question. Not to mention, such strong support from America would have helped Mr Netanyahu to re-election early next year. But things did not go the way ‘Bibi’ had hoped and now he will have to work alongside the more balanced Obama.

Obviously, Israel’s government was severely shaken by such a prospect. They had been doing their very best to ignore an increase in rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas, the strip’s militant leaders. Suddenly, however, Israel decided to retaliate, killing one of Hamas’s top men in an airstrike. Tensions flared and the rocket attacks on Israel increased. No-one can deny Israel’s right to defend itself, but the government’s reaction was extreme. It recommenced the shelling of Gaza we last saw in the six-day war of 2006, killing dozens upon dozens of civilians while claiming that it was targeting ‘military bases’. Although 12 Israelis sadly died, this was clearly disproportionate. The massing of Israel’s troops along the border even raised fears of a ground offensive. Mercifully – and, it seemed, just in time – peace talks in Cairo came to fruition with a ceasefire agreement and the fighting largely stopped.

But no-one, least of all those involved, thinks that the fighting has stopped for good. Small violations of the ceasefire by both sides have shown how easily the situation could escalate again – if not now, next year, or any year after that. It is time for Obama to act and save the world another half century of bloodshed and instability in the planet’s most combustible region.

Such a disastrous situation warrants a radical and risky solution. Until Israel still gains from the settlement-building in Palestinian territory which has scuppered movement towards a two-state deal, there is no hope of talks resuming on the matter. So Israel needs an incentive to halt new building projects. I would hazard a guess that the removal of financial and military aid from America would do the trick.

On the other side, Hamas needs to do a little growing up. It has a democratic mandate to govern, but still acts as a rebel group. It gains nothing from sending ineffectual rockets into Israel and it is time that ordinary Palestinian’s held their leaders to account.

The fact of the matter, though, is that a meaningful two-state solution is a long way off. To bring it nearer, the international community needs to start treating Gaza and the West Bank like proper countries. The upgrading of the latter to ‘non-member observer’ status at the UN is a step in the right direction, but nowhere near enough. My two-penny’s worth is this: lift the economic stranglehold which Israel exercises on Palestine and support for Hamas’s violent methods will fall as it begins to have other priorities, such as health care and education. Then there may, finally, be progress.

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.