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.

Weakened to the point of defeat?

Apologies for the lack of blogging but, in my defence, I have been busy – and writing too. I now write for The Student Journals; a few articles of mine should be appearing on their site soon, including a review of my time at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was also a nervous build up to A-level results day, but now I can safely say that I am going to the University of Warwick, my first choice. What a relief. I’ll be starting my course in Politics and International Relations in late September; despite the slight nervousness, I cannot wait.

Speaking of IR, there have been some interesting developments recently. The US’s decision to close almost all its Middle Eastern embassies and consulates, as well as to issue travel warnings to its citizens, has raised many questions. Not least, what was the nature of the threat? Most probably, seeing as al-Qaeda was involved, some sort of bombing – that’s how they work, after all. It does, however, seem odd that this information cannot be released. It is also odd that the US deemed its embassies incapable of keeping safe, especially in an area where they are almost always under some threat. This suggests that the threat was more serious than any have been for a long time.

Secondly, will the announcement that the threat was uncovered with the use of the NSA’s communication surveillance programs turn the tide of negative public opinion about Prism and XKeystone? It does prove that it does find high-level intelligence (the intercept involved al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s top operative). In a week when Obama issued new guidance which limits the scope of the NSA’s snooping, the administration will be hoping that the issue will finally be put to bed.

The episode was such good proof of the benefits of surveillance, in fact, that some have suggested that the government has overstated the level of threat in order to save face. This is probably another barmy conspiracy theory; closing embassies in the most sensitive part of the world is not a decision to take lightly.

There is also something else which makes it unlikely that the US is overstating the threat. Just a few weeks ago they declared al-Qaeda to be weakened to the point of defeat. The situation rather shows that this is not true. Al-Qaeda may have been weakened in Afghanistan and Pakistan but it is strong in Yemen and gaining affiliates in places as far away as Nigeria and Somalia. It would be folly to pretend otherwise. However, the threat it poses has changed dramatically since the 9/11 attacks which have defined the global politics of the last decade. Crucially, it now acts locally rather than targeting the West. Unfortunately, that is little comfort to the embassy staff in Sana’a or Tripoli. 

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?

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.