Obama’s Egyptian Dilemma

Fifty-five years ago, the United States thwarted an effort by the British, French and Israelis to secure the Suez Canal and topple an Egyptian dictator. So here we are once more, face to face with the great dilemma in American foreign policy. People seek change and an end to undemocratic rule. The leadership, desperate to cling on to power, put tanks on the street and attempt to clamp down on the mass protests. Where does America stand? As a nation born of revolution against a perceived tyrannical empire, its natural inclination is to support the masses, but as a global hegemony, it has an interest in a balance of power and fears a domino effect that could have wider and longer lasting impacts than could be perceived by the protesters on the streets.

The scenes in Egypt are alarming for so many reasons. That they follow hot on the heels of the events in Tunisia indicate that in an increasingly interconnected world, the masses will be inspired to take events into their own hands if they see the potential for change. Clearly, change has come to Tunisia. For Egypt to fall to similar tensions would be a seismic shift that should send warning signals to all nations in the region. Uncertainty is the great fear of all diplomats, who seek stability and peaceful evolutionary change, if indeed change is necessary.

Ironically, of course, ‘regime change’ was the ambition of the George W. Bush Administration, but focused on Iraq, certainly not Egypt, a nation that the US sees as a major ally in the middles east, supplying it with billions of dollars in aid and military hardware. Since the Camp David Accords Egypt has been seen as the model ally in the Middle East and vitally the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel. First Sadat and then Mubarak proved to be strong leaders capable of leading Egypt with an iron fist, albeit wrapped in a velvet glove for western consumption, surviving on a mix of tourism and US aid.

America’s great fear is what comes next: The greatest fear must be a repeat of the fall of the Shah and the rise of a theocracy, either directly or as the result of knee-jerk elections. At present this appears unlikely and the benefit to the Mubarak regime is that the protests do not appear to be coalescing around a single opposition figure. For those in Washington attempting to brief the president, the logical figure may well be Elbaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Placed under house arrest this afternoon, he may well be the one figure who could be acceptable to Washington, would signify change in Egypt and prevent the rise of more radical elements that would threaten Egypt’s standing in the west.

Reports say the military and the police are clashing and may appear to be refusing to clamp down on the protests. If Mubarak looses the military, it would appear to be all over for his regime and for his hopes to be succeeded by his son. The longer the situation goes without an appearance from Mubarak, the more isolated and removed he will appear and in such a fluid situation, perception is more important than ever.

Flights into Egypt are starting to be suspended, the Internet is being restricted and the military appears to be on the brink…For the United States, for President Obama and for the Middle East, a great deal is at stake tonight. Get it right, and a new movement for democratic change could be nurtured into existence in a series of nations. Get it wrong, and the entire region could descend into a tinderbox of strife as a new generation seek to redefine the region on their own terms, with or without American approval. The risks therefore extend to the United States and to its place in the world.

The failure of the British to succeed in what became the Suez Canal Crisis ended its aspirations to a continued empire and to the downfall of a British Prime Minister. At the White House, Obama’s in initial statement was a clear example of equivocation. Unusually it is the State Department, headed by Hillary Clinton that has come out with stronger language. If Obama appears impotent or unsure, or hesitant, he will be personally damaged on the world stage. Worse, his actions or any perceived timidity risk the long-term hegemony of the United States. I wonder how all this looks from the vantage point of Beijing?

The State of the Union Address

With the presidential election looming on the horizon (well, ok, technically it’s at the end of NEXT year, but you understand), tonight’s State of the Union address is a vital occasion for President Obama. In recent weeks his polls have improved and it seems he has ‘benefited’ from the shooting in Arizona. Just as in 1995, the crazies may end up saving a liberal Democrat president by making him appear to be the voice of moderation in a world gone insane. Political violence is the great spectre that risks over-shadowing the forthcoming election cycle. It remains the great taboo in American politics, but that is a matter that will have to await another occasion…

Tonight will be Obama’s chance to showcase his credentials in primetime, to an audience of millions, at home and around the world. Forget what you may think, this is quickly becoming a global presidency, with the eyes of the world focused on the Capitol Building tonight. This is not simply a speech for the chamber. Tonight really marks the start of the race for the White House in 2012. A poor speech will knock the president off track, force him onto the defensive and give impetuous to the Republicans. A strong speech will remind Americans as to why they voted for Obama, of what he stands for, what he is against and what he has done so far. If Obama has demonstrated a weakness so far, it is in providing a narrative of his time in office. This needs to change, big time and tonight needs to be all about that change. Not ‘change we can believe in,’ but change that is tangible.

Two years ago, Obama basked in the glory of election and seeming universal adulation. Tonight he stands before the American people and those of us overseas who recognise the importance of the speech, as an older, hopefully wiser chief executive. I say hopefully because so far there is not necessarily the evidence that the Obama team have learned the lessons that Clinton did in the mid 90s, but time will tell. Obama has one big advantage going into the election season: No credible challenger from within his own party or even the Republicans. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has a singular claim to fame: An apparent inability not to burst into tears at any given moment: Hardly Commander-in-Chief material. His propensity for handkerchiefs is exacerbated by the prowling lipstick–wearing Pit-Bull/Grizzly Mama Bear better known as Sarah Palin, whose shameless self-promotion and inability to take one foot out of her mouth without replacing it with the other, makes her a rather inauspicious, though highly compelling candidate: In the same way that people watch NASCAR for the impact collisions. Of vital importance is the lack of a challenger for the Democratic Party’s nomination. I say vital because of a singular, salient fact: Incumbents who do not face a battle for their party’s nomination secure re-election. Period. Those who have to fight a rearguard action lose. End of story.

Obama’s mission tonight is to emerge head and shoulders above his Republican opponents. In the past they have actually helped him in this exercise by proving equal to their lowly billing. Tonight Obama needs to set out a path to re-election that ignores the results of the 2010 midterms and focuses on the big-picture; jobs, security, prosperity and legacy issues. He needs to think about what he wants Americans to be doing in January 2013. He needs to paint a picture of that and in so doing, make it happen, just as the Gipper and Clinton proved so capable of doing.

America’s greatest presidents have been those that have given voice to America’s greatest hopes for tomorrow and found a way to communicate that vision in an articulate and accessible manner. Tonight is Obama’s opportunity to continue to wide the wave he mounted in his reaction to the Tucson shooting (expect a massive play on this).

Can he do so? Can he deliver? Can he read from his teleprompters? Time will tell…

Keep On Tweeting in the Free World…

I have been invited to Tweet live and to the world on Sunday morning at 10.45. I will be offering my thoughts on Dermot Murnaghan’s Sky News show with his guest, President Obama’s Ambassador to the United Kingdon, Louis Susman.

The conversation is expected to cover US-China relations, the Special Relationship, Obama/Cameron, US domestic politics, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the threat posed by political violence in the run up to the presidential election  and the continuing development of relations with Iran.

So, tune into Sky News (now available in sparkling High Definition), follow me on Twitter at @jamesdboys and keep logging in to  www.jamesdboys.com for my latest views on the latest developments in US foreign and domestic policy…

Have a great one…

It was 50 years ago today…….

On a bitterly cold morning, 50 years ago today, crowds gathered before the east front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to hear the inaugural address of America’s 35th president. The crowds gathered that day, squeezed in between the east front and the Library of Congress, witnessed perhaps the greatest inaugural address in history.The youngest man to deliver an inaugural address and the first born in the twentieth century, the words and images from that day continue to resonate throughout the ages.  The expectations had not been high and certainly there was little in Kennedy’s previous rhetoric to suggest that the speech would be so memorable, but drawing upon the best of his campaign speeches, JFK and his aides, including Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson drafted a speech for the ages.

The inaugural was the harbinger of things to come; a golden age of public rhetoric and soaring addresses. From the White House to Rice University, from Berlin to Fort Worth, Kennedy’s inspiring words would deliver a message of hope and unity, of ideas and ideals. Kennedy would use humour to diffuse tension and self-deprecation to lighten the tone. He appreciated the absurdities of life and used irony in an attempt to explain it away as best he could.    

50 years on the address continues to resonate. The soaring rhetoric, the delivery, the overall imagery of that day continue to capture the imaginations of millions who were not born on that cold day in January 1961. The hope and the energy that the speech conveyed continues to inspire new generations to leadership, not only in the United States, but around the globe. The glow of the fire continues to light the way for those who believe in a better tomorrow and a more perfect world. The life of President Kennedy was stilled in tragic  circumstances, but his memory, his inspiration and his words live on in those of us who hold his life as an example to follow, a charge to keep and a cause to champion…

The Presidential Moment

What distinguishes one presidency from another? What ensures that some presidents remain virtually anonymous, whilst others live on as household names? To some degree it is their ability to seize the Presidential Moment. History reveals that whilst presidents may take office they do not necessarily become embraced by the nation until later in their term since they struggle to cloak themselves in the aura of the presidency until an event forces them to do so.

Wondering what I mean by this?

The assassination attempt on Reagan brought the country behind Ronnie in a way that seems to have been unlikely had the event not occurred. The Gipperr’s survival, coming less than 20 years after the national tragedy in Dallas, transformed him into a national icon who had literally taken one for the team and come through, smiling, joking and promising a new dawn. Morning in America was very nearly America in mourning, but Reagan’s living presence become the embodiment of the 1980s and a touchstone for Republican leaders ever since. Granted, Reagan had little say in the matter, but his resilience and personality counted. What impressed the American people was the manner in which he faced the situation and his ability to deliver a few gags with his surgeons before being operated on.  (“I hope you’re all Republicans”)

Flash forward to 1995. Bill Clinton was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president. He had been elected with 43% of the popular vote, had failed to secure health care, had made a hash of the gays in the military row, had failed to get two candidates appointed Attorney General, had the White-water issue hanging over his head, was facing claims of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, claims of inappropriate behaviour by his former Arkansas state troopers and his party had just lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich even forced Clinton to explain his continued relevancy live on CNN thanks to the impertinence of Judy Woodruff. This was a president who had nowhere to go but back to Arkansas.

And then the Federal Building was attacked in Oklahoma City.

This one event galvanised Clinton and he found his Presidential Moment. In a time of national tragedy, the eyes of the nation and its collective media turned not to the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, but the President of the United States, and for the first time, Clinton proved equal to his office. His task was made somewhat easier by the ties the bombers had to right-wing militias, but his speech in Oklahoma spoke of compassion and the need to unify as a nation. It brought the nation together and in an instant transformed Bill Clinton into the living embodiment of the President of the UNITED States, not just an elected official. From that point on, his operation was smoother, his ratings improved, as he correctly assumed the mantle of the office. His capacity to do so and he benefit he would draw from it, even helped him overcome the impeachment crisis of his second term, though it would not be enough to guarantee the election of his vice president.

Gore’s defeat gave rise to another presidency that took time to assume the full powers of the office. George W. Bush took office in the aftermath of the protracted debacle in Florida and his inaugural parade was the first to be declared a National Security Event by the US Security Services. His motorcade was raced through Lafayette Park to avoid the crowds who were already protesting against Bush, arguably before his presidency had even begun. For the following eight months Bush managed to risk relations with Russia by withdrawing from the AMB Treaty, risk relations with China over a downed spy plane, and alienated much of the world by failing to endorse the Kyoto agreement.

And then came 9/11.

Interestingly, however, Bush’s initial reaction to the national tragedy was not perceived well. To ensure the safety of the office of the presidency, the Secret Service demanded that Air Force One fly from Florida to Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana and then on to the US Strategic Command centre in Offutt, Nebraska. Meanwhile, on the ground in lower Manhattan, the world’s media was focused on Ruddy Guiliani, the outgoing Mayor of New York, who was about to be christened Mayor of the World in a performance that would put the nation’s leader in the shade. Even when Bush was able to return to the White house, his performance in front of the cameras was not inspiring, as he virtually ran from the Oval Office in tears.

Yet Bush did find his Presidential Moment in the midst of the rubble of the Twin Towers when he spoke to rescue workers. Speaking through a megaphone (bullhorn) he famously told his audience (who were having trouble hearing him) “I hear you, the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will all of us soon.” In a single moment, he became THE president of the United States and brought together a grieving nation and a shocked world. Arguably, for a short time, President Bush could have done much to unify the world into a new era of peace and harmony. Beyond the individual tragedies of that day, this lost opportunity looms large as an historical blunder of epic proportions. Regardless, Bush’s ability to seize his presidential moment ensured his re-election in 2004 and allowed him to remain in office far longer than many had predicted in his initial months.

His place in the Oval Office would be taken by the first non-white president, Barack Obama, whose election was likened to a new start for America after the Bush years. Yet as Bush alienated the left, so too would Obama alienate the right, who saw him as elitist and too eager to introduced social policies that ran counter to the American can-do attitude. His right to govern was questioned by ‘birthers’ who claimed he was not an American citizen and by those who claimed he was a Muslim. With the losses incurred in the 2010 mid-term elections, many were predicting a one-term presidency for Obama.

Whilst that may still be a possibility, the assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Giffords and the president’s speech at the national memorial service appears to have been the moment that Obama seized the Presidential Moment. Even Glen Beck of Fox News, credited Obama with finding his voice and of rising to the occasion.

Not all presidencies are equal. Some presidents go their entire term in office without finding their presidential voice, or having a true presidential moment. But recent history has revealed a series of administrations were this has occurred, and in that moment, a nationally elected but still regional figure transforms. In that moment, his previous life is cast off and he becomes the President of the United States, a unifying figure capable of uniting the nation and guiding it towards a new dawn. The coming months will reveal the extent to which Obama is capable of emulating the likes of Clinton, Bush and Reagan. The rewards are there for he taking if he can do so, as is electoral oblivion if he does not… 

Obama: Two Years In and Counting…

With the second anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration looming (January 20) Dr. Boys will be making the rounds of the world’s media to address the impact and record of America’s latest chief executive. Radio and television appearances have already been arranged for next week, including a piece with Aljazeera and Radio City FM. Expect more to follow in the coming days

Political Violence and the United States

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this weekend has come as a terrible shock to the state of Arizona, to the United States and to the wider world. However, as I mentioned on Sky News this morning, perhaps the most dramatic element to this tragic event is the targeting of a young and relatively obscure female member of the lower house of congress. In the past, assassination attempts have focused on high-profile men, usually presidents or at least presidential candidates.

Barack Obama came to prominence claiming that there was no such think as red states or blue states, only the United States. Two years into his presidency, however, the U.S. is a deeply divided nation, and the divisions are only getting deeper and more pronounced. No longer is heartfelt political dialogue possible in some sections of society, as groups unite to wage political war on one another. Much has been made of the use of ‘targets’ on web sites to focus on certain districts for victory. This was not unique, not is the use of harsh rhetoric in politics. What is concerning, however, is the depth of disdain that has emerged. No longer can one merely disagree. Instead, opponents are savaged, tarred and feathered as being anti-American, and accused of dark plots, designed to radically alter the direction of the country and set it on the path to socialism.

In 2010 I was a visiting fellow at the University of North Dakota’s Centre for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. In October I received the keys to Grad Forks, the university’s hometown, having given a speech entitled The Perpetual War on Terrorism, in which I warned against the rise in political violence in the United States. What follows is an excerpt from that address:

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For the vast majority of its existence, the United States has benefited from its strategic geo-political position. With abundant natural resources, expansive land mass and weak neighbours to its north and south, the United States was able to thrive in relative and fluctuating isolation from the rest of the world. As the rest of the world suffered at the hands of one extremist group after another, the United States took great pride in having avoided any such attacks and the attending fear that such atrocities can strike into the heart of the populace. Indeed this was a primary boast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, who saw the lack of domestic political violence as a vindication of his methods and of his agency.

Just as the United States remained apparently unscathed, the European continent in particular was inundated with sporadic acts of extreme political violence. From the IRA in the UK, to the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany, from the Basque ETA group in Spain to the actions of Carlos the Jackal, few, if any, European nations were spared the horrors of terrorism in the Twentieth Century. Indeed political violence in the form of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria triggered the First World War, an event that formed part of a seven-year cycle in which anarchists assassinated President Carnot of France, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the prime minister of Spain and King Humbert of Italy. As the century progressed so the body count grew: The IRA attempted to assassinate two British Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher and John Major and succeeded in killing Lord Mountbatten and MPs Airey Neave and Ian Gow. In Italy, Premier Aldo Moro was kidnapped and shot to death in 1978 and an assassination attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II, as the nation came under the grip of ‘Red Brigade’ factions. Political violence also led to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and foreign minister Anna Lindh. Elsewhere, assassins claimed the lives of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin, Rajiv and Indira Ghandi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Anarchism aside, much of this could be explained in terms of religious or political struggles that predated the modern era. Time and again leaders were struck down by groups dedicated to the promotion of an ideology or religion that they felt were threatened by the political status quo. Indeed, what differentiated the events in Europe and the rest of the world from the United States was the manner in which such events were implemented. Political violence on the European continent was uniformly seen as the act of groups, conspiring to overthrow leaders in an attempt to implement a specific philosophy, even if that was mere anarchy, with motivations ranging from the religious to the ideological and covering both extremes of the political spectrum.

Yet the United States could not escape acts of political violence, irrespective of claims made by Director Hoover, for the history of the United States is littered with such acts. Indeed, the aforementioned anarchist movement claimed the life of President William McKinley in the first year of the Twentieth Century. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to commence the first international effort to eliminate terrorism, stating, “anarchy is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band together against the Anarchist. His crimes should be made a crime against the law of nations…declared by treaties among all civilized powers.”[i] TR’s motivations, of course, were a little cloudy, as he had ascended to the presidency as a direct result of the political violence that had claimed the life of President McKinley.

In the United States, however, political violence has almost always been explained as the deranged and misguided acts of lone madmen. From the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King or many other political leaders, such acts are rarely explained as being the result of conspiracies, but rather of disturbed, lonely young men, eager to make their mark on history, even if it is the last thing that they ever do. Little wonder, therefore, that few in Europe accept the official verdicts of such events, when they stand in stark contrast to the European experience. There are exceptions of course; the Klan and the Weather Underground amongst them, but the lone individual is the norm in America, with more recent examples including Ted Kazinski, Eric Rudolph, and John Hinckley.[ii] Also, the political origins of American political violence would appear to be from the extreme right, as opposed to the European experience of terror from the Marxist/Leninist left. American fanatics, it seems are concerned about too much government as opposed to too little!

These differences raise questions pertaining to the variances in the societal and political make-up of the two continents and their governmental structures, variances that require placement in the correct historical and political context. To do so, it is instructive to consider the actions and motivations of a successive number of administrations in order to ascertain the extent to which the United States has been waging a war against political violence and the degree to which this has succeeded to date. In so doing it is possible to ascertain patterns of behaviour and rhetoric and of repeated attempts by the United States to proffer apparently simple solutions to ancient hatreds only to be surprised when such platitudes provoke a backlash that perpetuates a new cycle of violence that has dragged the United States into an apparent nightmare of its own making.

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As American mourns its dead and continues its vigil for Congresswoman Giffords, it would do well to consider the lessons that have failed to be learnt from similar events in the past and how such lessons could be applied in the aftermath of this tragedy. To ignore history is to be condemned to relive it. Right now, America is continuing in a national nightmare due to its innate inability to learn the lessons of its own history. President Obama’s responsibility now is to follow President Clinton’s efforts in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, to unite the nation in grief, and in a shared vision of tomorrow.


[i] President Theodore Roosevelt, quoted by David C. Rapaport, ‘The Fours Waves of Modern Terrorism,’ in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004, 52

[ii] Respectfully, The Unabomber, the individual who sought to disrupt the Atlanta Olympics with a pipe bomb, and President Reagan’s would-be assassin.