George W. Bush’s Third Term Continues…

A year ago, at the height of a campaign for re-election, Barack Obama inadvertently crossed a line. Going off-message and beyond his own agreed upon boundaries, he muttered that chemical weapons use by Syria would represent ‘a red line’ which, if crossed, would result in ramifications.

Ever since, the administration has desperately sought to put that genie back in the bottle and has proved singularly unable to do so. For a president renowned for his rhetorical skills, Obama had once more demonstrated his lack of ability when it came to speaking off the cuff and perhaps revealed the lack of experience that many had raised when he first announced for the presidency after a little more than 2 years in the Senate.

Having made the statement, however, the White House has prevaricated on the issue ever since. Not wishing to get involved in a foreign deployment during the campaign, they hedged and weaved, even in the face of increasing atrocities. Holding statements were issued, as Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to perform semantic somersaults to continue his justification of in-action in the face of international condemnation.

Even as late as Friday night the president appeared to stake out two positions in a single interview on CNN. Insisting that ‘core national interests’ of the United States were at stake in Syria, while failing to commit to an engagement that he believed could be ‘expensive, difficult and costly…’ (Note the double reference to the financial implications of any intervention?)

The US called for UN weapons inspectors to be granted access to a variety of sites, including the location of the most recent tragedy. After days of prevarication, the Assad regime yielded over the weekend, only for the UN team to come under sniper fire as they sought to investigate the situation.

Having been denied access to the sites for days, governments in Europe and the US downplayed the decision to grant access as being too little, too late. Before the inspector’s could conduct their work, therefore, their efforts were being sullied.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, this weekend, something appears to have changed in Washington.

Secretary of State Kerry has declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons to  be ‘undeniable’ despite the apparent lack of any new evidence and the total lack of time for the UN inspectors to have reported back anything of value. Kerry has spoken of ‘real and…compelling’ evidence that the Assad regime was committing ‘a moral obscenity’ that ‘should shock the conscience of the world.’ But where is the evidence of this?

Clearly deaths have occurred, but what new evidence does the White House have today that it lacked a year ago?  Kerry has announced that President Obama will shortly ‘be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.’ Yet it was apparent a year ago that such incidents were occurring, so what has changed?

If anything, public support has declined. Polls indicate 9% of Americans support intervention, a decline from a figure of 30% only recently. Indeed, a Syrian intervention is even less popular with voters than Congress, not an easy feat to achieve. There is no domestic constituent pushing for intervention and when was the last time you heard reference to a shadowy ‘Syrian Lobby’ on Capitol Hill?

What is at stake here is the Moral Authority of President Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has proven to be a profound disappointment to liberals who felt he would restore something that had been lost between 2001 and 2009: Moral Leadership.

However, as he expanded drone use, failed to close Gitmo, expanded the war in Afghanistan and failed to respond to atrocities in Syria, he appeared to many to be merely continuing Bus’s policies. His time in office had become, in some circles, Bush’s Third Term.

However, even now, in threatening to intervene, such a parallel continues: An American president using the use of WMD as a pretext for engaging in a Middle East nation, with little to no domestic support and without the approval of the UN Security Council is a scenario all too familiar for those with memories that extend back just ten short years.

George W. Bush found himself caught between Iraq and a hard place due to his own rhetoric. Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his red-line remarks. In both cases lives have been lost as a result. All too easily we forget the power of speech and the implications of action and inaction. What happens next in Syria, will reveal the true distinction between the current and the previous occupant of the Oval Office.

US/Russian Relations: SNAFU

President Obama may well have cancelled his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin ahead of the G20 Summit this week, but that does not mean an end to diplomatic relations between the two countries. In the UK we are often guilty of placing too much focus on the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President in our endless assessment of the Special Relationship. The same mistake is arguably being made in current assessments of the US-Russian relationship. The two leaders may not be meeting, but the two countries continue to have diplomatic relations and their officials will continue to meet and liaise, despite this diplomatic tiff.

Such a situation is evidenced today with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel due to meet with their Russian counterparts. Make no mistake, Edward Snowden will be the elephant in the room, but he is unlikely to arise in conversations with the Defence Secretary. The Snowden issue may well form part of Secretary Kerry’s discussions, due to the diplomatic nature of the situation. I expect Kerry will lodge a formal complaint and make it clear that the US wants Snowden back. He will, however, be eager to move on to other matters such as the Middle East peace talks and other matters that are currently defining the US-Russian relationship.

The most challenging divide between the United States and both Russia and China, is over Syria. The inability to enact change through the UN Security Council due to diplomatic intransigence is a serious impediment on the road to an eventual solution in the region. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of the situation the US found itself in during the 1990s with regard to Bosnia, when the Russians again blocked any moves through the United Nations. It was this situation that exacerbated US moves away from the UN, and its perceived position of multilateralism, towards an embrace of NATO and allegations of unilateralism that reached an apex under President George W. Bush.

Russian and Chinese intransigence over Syria has doubtless enabled President Assad’s forces to re-group and repel rebel advances. The great challenge for the US, however, is knowing quite who the rebel forces are. It seems that whilst the West can rightly critique the Assad regime for its actions, it must be wary of merely arming rebel groups whose true intents and motivations remain a mystery. The fear of eventual Blowback is all too real in this instance. Meanwhile arms continue to flood into the region as both sides dig in for a long haul struggle. Yesterday’s assassination attempt on Assad is evidence of the increasing stakes in the country.

The disagreement with Russia over the situation in Syria is but one in a series of phantom issues that the White House has raised to mask the underlying rationale for cancelling this leadership meeting. The US State Department has insisted, “We were not at the point on our progress on a number of these issues where a summit at a presidential level was the most constructive step.” Yet the issues that have been raised are insufficient to justify the cancellation. Another excuse has been the Russian crackdown on gay propaganda, which Obama said the US has no patience for. However, the views of the Russian leadership on this matter are not new and so it is interesting that this has suddenly reared its head. Obama has hardly been a leading advocate of gay rights in the US until very recently, so it is interesting that he is suddenly attempting to prescribe social policy to Russia. The Kremlin will be aware of the administration’s position on this issue and will treat this as foreign meddling in a domestic matter. The Russian leadership will be ill prepared to take such complaints seriously from an America president bout to enter Lame Duck territory.

Ultimately, if it had not been for the Snowden incident the Obama-Putin meeting would be going ahead, however, to avoid appearing petulant, the Obama administration has raised a host of other issues upon which the White House and the Kremlin disagree. This, of course, is counterproductive. If the administration is frustrated enough with the Kremlin to cancel this meeting then it should openly announce the reasons for this and make a point of doing so. Blaming this on a variety of other issues makes the White House appear weak and vacillating.

Clearly, it is always preferable for leaders to engage in dialogue. The whole point of having meetings is to advance a dialogue on areas of disagreement. Leaders do not meet to discuss areas of agreement: That really would be a waste of time. Posturing has always been a part of diplomacy, however, in this instance the Obama administration is attempting to have things both ways: Cancelling the meeting on the one hand, but failing to be honest about the rationale on the other. This seems to be an ill thought out decision and one wonders if this is due to the changing personnel in Obama’s national security team, who are only now finding their feet at the UN and at the NSC. Today’s meetings with Kerry/Hagel and their Russian counterparts will likely be business-like and cordial, though I would not expect any great developments to emerge from them. At best they will lay the groundwork for continuing discussions on the vital issues of the day.

Obama’s Journey To The Dark Side

In the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic Party candidate was eager to exploit a speech he had made 6 years earlier in Chicago, in which he lambasted the administration of George W. Bush and its ‘armchair, weekend warriors,’ determined to ‘shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost.’ The state senator utilized a rhetorical device he had been building toward, repeatedly challenging, “You want a fight, President Bush?” before listing a series of priorities that risked being overlooked following an invasion of Iraq: the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda; the need to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to do their work; the need to find peace in the Middle East and the development of a new energy policy.  The candidate’s true stance on the war, however, might be gleaned from an unguarded moment during the 2004 Democratic National Convention at which he sprang to national prominence. As noted by Heilemann and Halperin in their 2010 text Game Change, he remarked “there’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” The longer Barack Obama is president, the more evident this remark becomes.

This week has witnessed a remarkable turn of events as the Obama administration has been forced to release a legal finding that has, quite literally, granted the president the power of life and death over seemingly all humanity. Whilst it has long been apparent that the U.S. was willing to engage in an increasingly robust use of drone strikes against an ever-increasing number of foreign-born targets, there was a sense that even Obama was bound by the Constitution that granted due process to American citizens. However, this may no longer be the case, although one imagines that the Supreme Court may well end up issuing a ruling on the subject. In a document released by the Justice Department, a key right guaranteed to Americans appears to have been removed, provoking outrage, though not necessarily from the obvious location. Remarkably, the American right, not the left, is leading protests; the Libertarians, not the ACLU, which is telling in itself.

With drones being referred to by Senator Diane Feinstein as ‘the perfect assassination tool’ it is no surprise that their use has expanded rapidly as the White House seeks to reduce cost and increase efficiency, whilst simultaneously withdrawing troops and maintaining a credible posture against her perceived enemies throughout the world.   Indeed the evolution of drones parallels the evolution of Obama: What began as a rather benign platform designed merely to offer a surveillance tool has become the latest vehicle of devastation delivering death from the skies. Similarly, the man who campaigned as the anti-Bush in 2008 now appears to be determined to out-do his predecessor and comes equipped with an equally complicit Attorney General.

Much was made of the legal rulings relating to the prosecution of the war on terror issued by the Justice Department under George W. Bush. The findings of John Yoo came in for particular scrutiny. This week, however, has seen the release of a legal ruling that goes far beyond anything that was issued whilst George W. Bush was president. In response to demands from Congress and in particular the filibuster by Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder has released a letter detailing the president’s authority to use drone strikes against American citizens, potentially on American soil. This potentially opens the way for drones to patrol American boarders, armed not only with surveillance equipment, but also with more lethal cargo designed to prevent further illegal immigration. Drones are already being used as surveillance tools so their development in this direction for domestic use is hardly a leap.

The issue speaks directly to a fundamental problem in regard to the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House. The president gets to appoint America’s chief law official, who then becomes beholden to the chief executive for his very livelihood. In the United States, officials serve at the pleasure of the president and whilst removing an Attorney General is not something a president would do lightly, it is hardly unheard of. The problems in this relationship become compounded when the president appoints a friend to the job, as is the case with Eric Holder, since it further blurs the boundaries of responsibility and accountability.

Throughout Obama’s first term, Holder was a lightening rod for opponents of the administration’s efforts to process the legal aspect of the war on terror. From closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility to holding trials for those charged with terrorist activity, Holder was required to advise the president and on issue after issue ran into serious opposition from Congress that forced the administration to capitulate. That Holder survived the first term was nothing less than miraculous. That he retuned in the second term is even more remarkable. However, whatever controversies he thought he had faced in the first term will pale into insignificance compared to the firestorm that threatens to erupt over the legal finding released this week that appear to contradict the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Holder’s subsequent efforts to walk back this position will only add to the confusion and again are reminiscent of his constant manoeuvring in the first term.

The legal wrangling affects not only American citizens but the wider international community and the attempted extension of United States’ laws into the international domain is an area for increasing concern. It has been extended to cover Canada in relation to pollution and with the expansion of drone bases in Africa, the seemingly unstoppable Americanisation of global justice continues apace. The continuation of America’s epic struggle with the forces of political violence, over a decade after 9/11, presents a whole series of challenges to international law and to the international community. The world is becoming beholden to American justice but without a say in its development in an odd twist of history: The United States came into being once citizens in the American colonies became tired of taxation without representation. Today, much of the world is beginning to feel like an American colony, beholden to U.S. policy but without any role in its development. Is it time to say, “No assassination without representation”?

Republicans are displaying their outrage at this decision and raising issues of due process. They have a valid point. But they are also partly to blame for the dénouement that they have left the administration in. Obama has been unable to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility due to Congressional resistance. The camp is politically unwelcome but neither can it be closed. Prisoners cannot now be relocated to Super-Max prisons in the United States and no other country is scrambling to accept them either. They remain in continued legal limbo. Having been placed in an effective checkmate over the whole idea of prisoners, the White House will not feel inclined to add to a list of inmates. No wonder, therefore, that the debate over Kill or Capture is being won by proponents of the former rather than the latter.

This all comes about in the same week that the Senate voted to confirm John Brennan as DCI. Brennan has spent the first term as Obama’s chief counter-terrorism tsar and has been a chief advocate of drone technology. His move to Langley could signal that the agency continues to play a large role in the use and control of such technology in the foreseeable future.

As Obama moves to secure his foreign policy team for his second term, he does so in the knowledge that he is now beyond the will of the American electorate. Never again will he be required to place his name on a ballot and seek approval for his policies or actions. Rather, it is now his legacy that is at stake, and in this turn of events, it appears that his journey to the Dark Side is Complete.

A Second Rate Team for Obama’s Second Term?

Having spent the best part of the last year working to secure his re-election, Barack Obama can now return to his day job. The lull in US involvement in the international arena ends now and is more likely to be more assertive in a second term. If the Obama team has learnt anything in its first term, it is that talk is cheap and often ignored. The historic address at Cairo University promised much, but delivered little and helped lead to a drop in US support in the region. Obama may have proved his ability to charm the American electorate, but he will be unable to apply this to the Mullah’s in Iran or to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose actions threaten to overshadow Obama’s second term in office.

With so much at stake in the world, a major decision needs to be announced as to whom Obama will appoint to lead America’s over sea’s endeavors. Any second term administration witnesses a major shake up in personnel, and this is to be expected. What is less expected is the time that is being taken to make any such announcements.

The sudden departure of General Petraeus will present the President with an un-necessary headache as he is forced to address one extra office to fill, which presumable he had not expected to need to focus upon. The fallout from this departure also threatens to cast an ill light over the new administration, its foreign policy team and raise further questions in regard to the events in Benghazi, upon which Petraeus was scheduled to testify, prior to his resignation.

The Key positions will be at the Pentagon and the State Department. At State the easy move would be to promote from within, as traditionally occurs in second term administrations. Alas, second term can also mean second rate, as the top players move on to be replaced by their underlings. The emerging consensus is that Susan Rice, currently the US representative at the UN is likely to become Secretary of State, continuing a trend that began with Madeleine Albright. Where this to occur, those reaching voting age in 2014 would have lived their entire lives without a white male Secretary of State.

With Hillary Clinton’s imminent departure, President Obama could well decide to be his own Secretary of State, especially if he elects to focus on international affairs in his remaining time in office. As such he could afford to appoint a less high profile individual to the post, although whether Susan Rice carries the credibility necessary for this office is open to speculation.

One name that is generating a great deal of attention is John Kerry. Having lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry has been openly supportive of Obama’s bid to reduce nuclear stockpiles and as such could be a strong contender for the job at the State Department. Where this to happen, the question would arise as to where Rice would move; The NSC is a possibility.

What appears unlikely is a repeat of Obama’s first term effort to appoint a series of high profile envoys to the world’s trouble spots. Despite the apparent genius of this idea, the initiative appears to have been a failure, with Senator Mitchell resigning and Dick Holbrooke managing to alienate all and sundry before passing away in post. His was a tragic case of personality impacting negatively upon his gifts and, therefore, never achieving the top positions that he and his supporters believed him capable of.

In regard to the top job at the Defense Department, President Obama would be well advised to follow the precedent set by Bill Clinton, who reached across the political aisle in his second term and appointed a Republican to the top job at the Pentagon. This would solve the problem of a rather weak bench of Democratic candidates to chose from. Where he to do so he could also earn some much needed respect from members of Congress whom he desperately needs to woo in order to get any budgetary proposals passed in a second term.

Were Obama to follow this Clinton model, the options are intriguing. Could he for example, move to appoint Colin Powell? The logic in this appears apparent, after all Powell did endorse Obama for the re-election and has a respected military background. However, Powell has already served as Secretary of State and it would be most unusual to return to a cabinet in a reduced capacity. For this reason, I believe that this option can be discounted, although a role for Powell could still be found in an Obama White House. Other Republican options include Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who may appear more likely considering Powell’s previous record of services.

Whoever gets the nod to these top positions, however, in Obama’s second term, and with a presidential legacy to be secured, there will only be one star on the team: President Barack Obama.

Changing Perspectives in American Politics

For decades there has been an accepted maxim in American politics: when the American people felt secure internationally they voted in a Mummy president who would keep any eye on the store and ensure that domestic issues were addressed. However, when they felt uneasy, insecure or altogether threatened, they would vote for a Daddy candidate who would stand tall on the world stage, face down any adversary and defend the nation, come what may. Throughout the past 40 years, Democrats have been cast as the Mummy Party and Republicans as the Daddy. It has been the Republican Party that has managed to successfully wrap itself in the flag and campaign successfully on national security issues, portraying the Democratic Party as being weak and unreliable on foreign affairs. For much of that time they were also able to portray the Democrats as being financially irresponsible and as being advocates of tax and spend approaches to government.

Events of the past two administrations have altered this perceived reality.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration did much to end the perception of the Democrats as being poor handlers of the economy, as the United States entered the 21st century with a debate over what to do with the almighty surplus that had built up in the government coffers. The administration’s handling of foreign affairs was more mixed, but essentially Bill Clinton bequeathed his successor a nation that was prosperous and at peace.

His successor, of course, was George W. Bush, who continued to invert the perceived wisdom in relation to the role of American political parties. The apparent economic prudence of former Republican administration’s was replaced by a tax cut in time of war, which saw the eradication of the surplus, as the administration sought to have guns and butter. If its economic legacy was poor, its foreign policy was worse, as it deliberately ignored previous Republican strategies that had been successfully implemented as recently as 1991.

The inversion of previous perceptions has continued under President Obama. With his team drawn largely from the former Clinton Administration, this is perhaps to be expected. However, Obama has not been able to replicate Bill Clinton’s economic polices, which saw vast reductions in the US debt. Instead, the debt level has increased substantially, to an eye-watering $16 trillion dollars. The scale of the debt is such that easy remedies appear no longer to be an option. The scale of the debt, coupled with an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above 8% should have spelt doom for the incumbent, but so far it has not.

Unusually, voters are not yet registering their overwhelming disenchantment with the Obama presidency, despite the usual maxim that people vote according to the contents of their purses or wallets; President Reagan’s question remains pertinent today: “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?”

Instead of running on his economic record, or his groundbreaking (however you view it) decision to implement healthcare reform (initiated, like the Bush tax cut, at precisely the time that it was least affordable), President Obama is instead taking the battle to his opponents, casting them as naives with insufficient experience, indifferent to the plight of normal Americans and ill-prepared for high office. Intriguingly, Four years ago, many of the same accusations were made of Senator Obama.

A key area that Obama is exploiting is the difference in terms of experience in foreign policy. Continuing to defy accepted maxims, the president is portraying himself as the steady, experienced Commander in Chief, and his Republican opponents as woefully unprepared for global leadership. The Republicans have done much to aid him in this. Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan have served in the military, or focused upon military or defence affairs during their careers in government service. Neither has a record of addressing foreign or military affairs in any manner of note. For a Republican ticket this is unheard of. A quick stroll through past tickets confirms that on all occasions either the top or bottom of the ticket had a recognised appreciation of foreign or military affairs that would be brought to bear in the White House. That is not the case in 2012.

Instead, President Obama has been able to portray himself as the man who killed bin Laden. He has successfully managed to avoid being ‘swiftboated’ on this issue so far, despite many efforts, not least of which is the new book ‘No Easy Day.’ His efforts have been aided by Mitt Romney’s recent overseas trip to Europe and Israel, where he at best did little to impress and at worst did much to reinforce a negative image of his candidacy. Developments in recent days have exacerbated this situation. Despite the potential problems that the numerous embassy storming could have posed politically for the president, Mitt Romney’s poor handling of the issue has actually eased the pressure on the administration.

With a little over 7 weeks to go until Election Day, Obama continues to lead in the polls, both nationally and in key swing states. He has noticeably opened up a lead in the key swing states following the convention. This is not over yet, and the debates could be crucial. A key blunder, an indiscretion and this could all turn on a dime. Yet, as this week’s events have demonstrated, when opportunity presents itself, Romney’s reaction has been far from beneficial to the Republican ticket, and he still has all of the heavy lifting to do if he is to have any chance of securing what at this point would looks like an unlikely victory come November.

Mitt Romney’s Previous Bad Trip

In light of this week’s visit to London, Israel and Poland by the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Willard ‘Mitt’ Romney, it is instructive to recall his recent visit to Houston to address the 103rd Annual Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), America’s oldest and largest civil rights organisation.

Considering that he will face America’s first black president, Barack Obama, in the election this November, his decision was an interesting one. The NAACP has a strong tradition of inviting presidential candidates to address their conventions and is officially non-partisan, however, an analysis of the black vote is revealing.

In 2004, only 7% of African Americans considered themselves Republican. In 2008, 95% of the African American vote went to Obama, in contrast to only 4% going to McCain that year and only 11% to President George W. Bush in 2004. That same year (2008) the black vote rose to 13% of the national total, up from 11%, but intriguingly, Obama’s take of the black vote was up only 2% from that received by Bill Clinton in 1996 and virtually tied with Jimmy Carter’s 94% in 1980.

The Republican take of the black vote has its own interesting elements: In both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush received 11% of the black vote, considerably higher than the 4% that voted for Bob Dole in 1996 or the 6% that voted for George H. W. Bush in 1992. The 1992 figure was particularly interesting considering the 21% that George H.W. Bush received in 1988 and is perhaps indicative of Bill Clinton’s ability to connect with the African American community. Prior to this, Reagan had received 12% in 1984, and a paltry 3% of the black vote in 1980.

It is possible to discern a pattern, therefore, of overwhelming black support for Democratic candidates and scant support of Republicans.

Romney’s decision to attend was hardly done in the expectation of winning the crowd over and taking the black vote in November, but he could not afford to snub the invitation. Romney faced a tough call in Houston: He could tell the audience what it wanted to hear or he could stick to his message. It has been suggested that he was booed for failing to understand what the audience wanted and for referring to the health care legislation as ObamaCare. In other words, he didn’t pander to his audience.

Irrespective of what one feels about Romney’s politics, there is something to be said about telling an audience something unpalatable rather than merely paying lip service to their desires. Clearly, any Republican seeking to gain the support of the African American community is going to have their work cut out for them. Romney’s task is made all the harder by his opposition to the health care reforms that President Obama has passed and which he plans to repeal. His speech can be viewed in full HERE.

The event has become mired in acrimony.  Romney was booed in places, and cheered in others. He has been accused on MSNBC of attending in the knowledge that he would be poorly received, in the expectation that this would drive ‘racist’ non-black voters into the Romney camp. Such interpretation is clearly incendiary and designed to stoke the passions on both sides. It is certainly far from helpful. Read a transcript of the speech HERE

Romney has also been accused of drafting attendees to the convention to deliberately cheer in key points and to be seen embracing Romney (figuratively, if not literally) after the speech. Romney undoubtedly invited members of the black community to attend this address and it would be more surprising if he had not. The degree to which a small number of invited guests could drown out a hostile crowd, however, is open to speculation. This led to a rather undignified showdown between Bill O’Riley and my old boss Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau Chief on Fox News.

Whatever one makes of Romney’s speech and the reaction to it, he did at least attend. This is more than can be said for America’s first African-American president who elected instead to send his gaffe-prone vice president, Joe Biden in his place and record a video message for his many supporters at the NAACP.

It is fascinating that this has not garnered a greater response: Romney has been critiqued for attending, for his speech and for potentially manipulating the crowd. But very little has been said in response to Obama’s ‘scheduling conflict’ that prevented him from attending the annual conference of America’s most important civil rights organisation. Had Romney offered such an excuse surely the accusation would be that he was at the very least indifferent to the black community. What the decision of America’s first black president to stay away says about his priorities heading into the November election is open to similar interpretation.

With 99 short days top go until the election, it appears that neither candidate is covering themselves in glory as they barnstorm the planet in desperate search for cash and votes. In the process they demean themselves and the office for which they year. This, alas, has become the accepted way of doing things and nothing, it seems, is about to alter that, whoever wins in November.

The United States: Still the World’s Indispensable Nation?

For many years, America’s place in the world fluctuated between a concentration on the acquisition of power and attempts to reject the responsibility of power. Such sentiment goes a long way in explaining the American dilemma of how best to engage with the rest of the world. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the United States saw an inexorable rise in its global status, as it attained the position of “the world’s indispensable nation.” As the British Empire crumbled, so America was in the ascendancy: its politics, culture and media grew, apparently at an exponential rate, to dominate the globe. Now, as America enters a summer of political conventions and a choice of directions, those who speak of an American decline routinely call her stature into question. After almost a term in office, where has President Obama positioned the United States with respect to the rest of the world?

Happily, whilst an isolationist stance is often present in America, a penchant for internationalism has always been apparent and is most evident in efforts to transplant American values around the globe. America has long seen herself as having a special mission in the world, viewing herself as innocent and virtuous in the midst of a tainted world. Indeed American isolationism does not involve American secession from the rest of the world, but rather a rejection of commitments to other states, to avoid what Jefferson referred to as “entangling alliances.” Whilst the debate between interventionists and isolationists has never been fully resolved, a cycle of behaviour appears to have emerged, with each policy taking a political generation to run its course. This is a prime example of what Arthur Schlesinger refers to as “the cycles of American history.”

Through Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and numerous other Cold War flash points, the United States viewed its position in the world through its self-proclaimed mission to “defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Not only was America faced with military engagement, but also the risks of an unstable global economic environment. As the world grew smaller, so America became dependent upon foreign trade and currency exchanges, something that is all too apparent today.

During the 1990s America’s place in the world went through a revolution all of its own, as the collapse of the USSR left America as the world’s sole super-power. However, just as the world had to readjust to the decline in power of the former Soviet republics, so it also had to consider the new role of the US as a world hyper power. It achieved this status at a precipitous moment, just as a new president was intent on forging a domestic revival rather than international expansionism. For Bill Clinton, it would be the “economy, stupid,” not the fate of the world, that would dominate.

Like President Bush before him, Bill Clinton readily accepted America’s position as the remaining super- power and sought to use his nation’s status in attempts to expand NATO. American envoys brokered deals in Haiti and Bosnia, whilst Operation Vigilant Warrior kept Kuwait free. American duality was expressed by the President himself, declaring “America cannot turn her back on the world” whilst simultaneously stating, “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Clinton had little doubt however, that the Twenty-First Century would become the second American Century.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there was reason to believe that America’s role in the world would remain essentially as it was before, with little new initiatives in foreign policy or any revolution in economic policy. As Bush was sworn in, America and the world were in a position all but unimaginable just a decade before. Rather than living on the brink of nuclear war, in a bipolar international system, Bush took power in the midst of a unipolar world, apparently free from the deadly rivalry of the Cold War. It was a period that did not long endure. The attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a seismic shift in the role America would play in the world at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

The attacks challenged President Bush to reposition America in the world. He would not be content with basking in historically high opinion ratings, or in the warmth of global sympathies. For Bush, September 11 was a clarion call to right the wrongs of the Cold War, to end the tradition of coddling tyrants as long as they sang America’s song. The nation found itself in the aftermath of the attacks of being in a position of great strength and yet also great sympathy, not a usual occurrence. In that moment it had the opportunity to do great things, to indeed herald a Second American Century. By accepting the sympathies of the world and by turning that emotion into positive action that could have bound the nations of the world together against terror, the United States could have demonstrated true benevolence and foresight. However the attacks on New York and Washington produced a wave of sympathy for the United States that the current administration has proved unable to transform into popular support for its policies. By moving into Iraq, the nation squandered its inheritance of compassion. Under Bush, the assertive multilateralism of Clinton was replaced by a determined unilateralism, cloaked by a scant “coalition of the willing.” His moves in Afghanistan appeared to be considered and met with support; his moves into Iraq, long sought by the Project for a New American Century, were less welcomed and proved contentious.

In his speeches and in his comments, President Bush painted a world of black and white, of good guys and bad guys. By establishing a clash of civilisations, Bush removed the middle ground and in a world of grey, black and white may be bold but will always be viewed as extreme. In this campaign, there is no middle ground, no possibility of disagreement on detail with the US strategy, for such disagreement would be interpreted as a betrayal of “good” ideology. As Bush declared in January 2002, “We need not be focused on one person, because we’re fighting for freedom and civilized civilization.”

The challenge that President Obama has struggled to address is of addressing the future direction of the United States. Successful leaders, whether one agreed or disagreed with their motives or intentions, presented a vision of an American future that the nation could aspire to. Whether that was an embrace of Manifest Destiny or a challenge of a New Frontier, both Republican and Democrat presidents have found a way top show Americans the next step in their national journey. Those presidents that have failed to achieve greatness have often don so due to their unwillingness to offer a vision of a better tomorrow. Thus far President Obama has struggled to define America’s place in the world or a direction that he intends to chart in a second term.

Some have sought to contrast President Obama to Jimmy Carter and it is an interesting, if not completely accurate comparison to make. Both men were honourable, honest and moral individuals who were seen to be remote and often guilty of adopting an air of moral superiority that made them hard to empathise with, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, for example. However, despite similarities, this is not 1980, Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan, and vitally, Obama has not faced an internal rival as Carter did in the form of Ted Kennedy.

Despite these differences, President Obama would be well advised to take a leaf out of Ronal Reagan’s playbook at this stage in the election and offer a vision of the future and a positive rationale for a second term. His re-e-lection is far from certain and his campaign could not suffer form the injection of some well-intended optimism. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Perhaps. But so do administrations.