JDB and The Global Freedom Report TONIGHT

Following my ongoing work with Sky News, the BBC, LBC and Aljazeera English, I will be making a return to the American airwaves tonight.

At the kind invitation of the producers, I will be  appearing on a radio discussion panel to address the international role of the United States. I will be joined by Prof. John Mathiason of Syracuse University and by Jason Ditz of antiwar.com. The panel will be chaired by Brent Johnson, host of the Global Freedom Report on Friday, August 26 at 22.oo London time.

I anticipate a spirited and fascinating discussion of the issues at hand and the manner in which they are perceived domestically and internationally.

Focus will no doubt be on the implementation of foreign policy by President Obama compared to George W. Bush, the Special Relationship with the UK, actions in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, the degree to which the United States should be engaged in the world and how all of this will impact the forthcoming presidential election.

Click here to access the show live on the internet.

On Obama and Osama

So, after the better part of a decade the deed is done and the greatest manhunt in history is over. Finally, questions pertaining to whether bin Laden is dead or alive can cease and more substantive questions can be addressed.

How did the operation proceed? How could bin Laden have survived so long under the nose of Pakistani intelligence? What role did the Pakistani authorities play in the operation? What condition was bin Laden in when he was apprehended? Could he have been taken alive? Why the burial at sea? Expect answers to these questions in Bob Woodward’s next exposé.

No doubt the conspiracy theories will continue and be ramped up in the coming months. No doubt Donald Trump will be seeking publication Osama’s Death Certificate as he once sought Obama’s Birth Certificate.

This is a time for contemplation as to what this means on many fronts. It would be fantastic high upon which Defence Secretary Bob Gates could stand down. It does much to bolster the reputation of the US military and its Special Forces.

Domestically the timing is remarkable for President Obama. With numerous Republicans putting their toes in the water to test for a potential campaign in 2012, the timing could not have been better. This incident appears to have inoculated Obama against charges from the right that he is soft on Terrorism. How can they complain now that he has delivered what W. was unable to produce? With few Republicans focusing on domestic issues (except to overturn health care, something local courts will no doubt manage without them) there appears to be little incentive to run. As such the stage is set for a repeat of 1992, with potential opponents choosing to sit out the race in anticipation of an unbeatable incumbent. Clearly Bill Clinton proved that not to be the case, so it will be fascinating to see who chooses to enter the fray and who decides that Obama is a shoe-in.

Obama’s re-election odds are greatly helped by the news for another reason; it further removes any chance of a challenge from within his own party. The simple, salient fact is that incumbents who avoid a challenge from their own party go on to win re-election. Those who have to fight a rearguard action for their own party’s nomination, lose. What democrat could possibly challenge Obama now, having delivered Health Care and the head of Osama bin Laden? To do so would be to redefine the word ‘churlish.’

Let us be clear, however, this is not the end of the struggle against political violence. Bin Laden was the poster boy for international bad behaviour, but a bigger fish remains to be fried; Ayman alZawahiri. Incorrectly identified as bin Laden’s second in command amongst headline writers, alZawahiri’s capture would be far more detrimental to the operational capability of those who perpetuate political violence in the name of Jihad. For more on him and his place in the history of political violence, head straight to the work of Jason Burke. A potential down side to this is that with the death of bin Laden, interest in defeating proponents of political violence will wane until the next wake up call. Perhaps we should all heed the warning of history, that ‘Eternal Vigilance is the price of freedom.’

One death does not a victory make, but today’s news is a vital, symbolic step towards a goal that was established in the aftermath of the attacks of September 2001. Somewhere, George W. Bush can smile a little wider and sleep a little easier, as his legacy becomes easier to spin.

Obama’s Greatest Possible Gift: His Potential Opponents (Part One)

Ever since John McCain and his renegade running mate lost the presidential election in November 2008, vast sections of American society have been longing for redemption in the form of electoral defeat for their unloved and in their eyes un-Christian and un-American president. In the mid-term elections, the Democratic Party received a bloody nose from its opponents, losing its majority in the House of Representatives and their super filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Much attention was paid at the time to the rise of The Tea Party (as though such a single entity actually exists. It does not) and to the visceral loathing that President Obama attracts in many parts of the nation (which he does.) Parallels were rightly drawn between the mid-term election of 2008 and the mid-term election of 1994. In both cases the Democratic majority in the House was ended after the first two years of a Democratic Administration who had promoted a radical health care agenda. In 1994 that health care agenda had failed to even make it out of the committee hearings and the Republicans romped home, taking not only the House but also the Senate. For a while this made Newt Gingrich the seemingly most powerful man in Washington. His now famous Contract with America was credited with unifying the Republican Party after its defeat in 1992 and with delivering an historic result that ultimately allowed the party to impeach the president some years later.

That however, may be where the parallel ends, for what went less noticed last November was the total lack of a Gingrich-esque figure in the Republican Party. No one individual emerged to unite the party and the Tea Party Candidates as endorsed by the former Alaskan governor, former vice presidential candidate, former beauty queen, former mayor, former this, former that, failed to sweep the board as expected. Neither did the Speaker of the House-elect, John Boehner hardly inspired confidence or exhibited great signs of leadership by bursting into floods of tears at the drop of a hat.

However, given the Democrat’s thumping at the recent mid terms, you would be forgiven for thinking that a whole host of credible candidates would be lining up to challenge for the right to contest the presidency in 2012. But you would be mistaken. Instead we have a roll call of the desperate, the deluded and the downright unelectable.

This group of misfits has started inundating the good people of Iowa in the hope of gaining the all important momentum that comes following the votes that occur there and in New Hampshire in the first days of the election cycle, which of course, don’t actually occur until January 2012. This, however, is the all-important pre-game, where the campaign is arguable won or lost, where the money game is decided and where reputations are made and discarded. Front-runner status can easily handicap candidates, perceived arrogance can derail favourites and unknown politicians from unheard of locations can emerge from, well, nowhere.

So who are these singularly unimpressive individuals who seek to challenge for the presidency? You may have heard of some of them. Indeed, when you look over the list you may be forgiven for thinking that I have made some glaring error and merely replicated the list of candidates from 2008. But again, you would be mistaken. What emerges is the fact that no one has emerged in the last four years to be a credible candidate and what makes these characters think that they will fare any better this time around, having been trounced by Maverick McCain in 2008, is anyone’s guess.

But anyway, here we go with a rundown of runners and riders and the handicaps that they face on the road to eventual humiliation at the hands of the man they view as being a Kenyan Muslim Socialist/Communist usurper yellow-belly president…

Sarah Palin

A no-show in Iowa recently, apparently replying on her front-runner status to leave an announcement to the last minute. Massive problems with this. This state is all about Retail Politics, meaning you have to press the flesh and meet the voters personally else they will think they are being overlooked. Front runner status can disappear over night here, and Palin is in serious trouble of overcooking her celebrity status.

Newt Gingrich

Sure, you remember him, famously tagged as The Gingrich that stole Christmas for forcing the last government shutdown, that led to federal employees not being paid, that led to interns filling vital roles, that led to Monica delivering pizza that led to you know what, that led to “I did not have sexual relations…” that led to “Indeed I did have a relationship that was inappropriate,” that led to impeachment, that led to a Bush victory in 2000….that led to war in Iraq. Now he’s back, with his 17th wife, umming and arring about whether to run or not. Mario Cuomo was once called the Hamlet on the Hudson for his inability to decide whether to run for the White House or not. We need a new name for Newt’s level of indecision….

Mick Huckabee

Mmm, slap that bass, Mick. With his hopes of making the bass guitar a sexy instrument about as realistic as his hopes of making it all the way this time round, Huckabee’s candidacy will make life interesting if nothing else. I mean, who wouldn’t want to vote for a creationist who believes in the threat of death panels?

Tune in next time for more on this non-event. Trust me Obama is beatable on paper, it’s just in practice that he seems so much more credible than anyone who could challenge him at this stage…

Meanwhile, Somewhere in Texas…

Once upon a time there was an American president. No great diplomat, he took pleasure in calling a spade a spade and was beloved by his supporters for his plain-spoken folksiness. He called ‘em as he say ‘em and left no-one in any doubt as to what was on his mind. He was a president in time of war, indeed he faced two major conflicts, one that had widespread support, one that was contentious and would contribute to his downfall. He had no illusions about using American firepower against her enemies though he could do little to prevent a free fall in the polls that saw him leave office with opinion poll ratings in the 20s.

If you still think this is a description of W. then think again. This was Harry S. Truman, whom decades later has been extolled as a ‘near great’ American president whose actions initiated the successful policies that helped ‘win’ the Cold War.

Why is any of this relevant?

What if history is repeating itself?

Consider how the events that are occurring in North Africa right now could be considered to be George W. Bush’s legacy to the world. Recall his Freedom Agenda? What was the theory behind the invasion of Iraq? To export democracy. That removing Saddam from power would give rise to a ripple effect that could lead to a democratic and peaceful Middle East.

We are not there just yet, of course. The concept of a prevailing legacy for Bush was floated before he left office, in part by my good friends Tim Lynch and Rob Singh in their text, After Bush. Not all will agree, and again I direct you to the work of Oz Hassan and his forthcoming text on the subject.

None of this is guaranteed of course, but as I indicated on Talk Radio Europe this evening, it is based on a reading of history that reveals that the past can all too often be manipulated to a political conclusion at odds with thinking at the time. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that in years to come, people will look back at the events that occurred this year and link it all back to W. and his polices that were so reviled at the time.

George W. Bush as this generation’s Harry S. Truman? You heard it here first!

David Cameron: Blending modern conservatism with 1960s US Liberalism?

On a day when much will be said of David Cameron’s use of language and tone following his speech on radicalism and Islamic-extremism at the Munich Security Conference, it is perhaps worth considering the repeated use that the British Prime Minister makes of lines and ideas that originated in the United States of the 1960s.

Cameron is hardly the first politician to attempt to emulate a Kennedyesque picture postcard family, but he has been unusually brazen in his use of language and phrases that have their origins in the time period. Lest anyone wonder quite what I mean consider the following examples:

Long before he became Prime minister, David Cameron was referencing JFK in a speech that called for cleaner cars and lower fuel emissions. Speaking to environment leaders in June 2008, Cameron deliberately called for a Kennedy style focus on a new mission. “As John F Kennedy said of his vision of an American on the moon by 1970, a goal that at the time seemed impossible to achieve: ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.’ We need a JFK vision for clean cars today.”

Cameron’s speech of March 31, 2010 revealed the central philosophy of his public policy; the Big Society. Cameron referred to Kennedy as having asked ‘the noble question’ as posed in his inaugural address: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Quoting liberal Democrats is hardly a thing that British conservative Prime Ministers have made a habit of, but David Cameron would buck that trend . His speech also lauded the work of Barack Obama, the former community organiser turned Commander-in-Chief.

At the April 13, 2010 launch of his election manifesto, Cameron referred to Kennedy as “a great American president” and proceeded to repeat the fabled words, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” as a preface to his concept of getting people to aid their families and their community too. So, two things here; firstly the reference to JFK, a liberal Democrat as being “great,” and secondly the direct quote from Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 1961. When I was involved with the Tories in the late 1990s my efforts to consort with Democrats Abroad were forbidden. Now we have a conservative Prime Minister heaping praise on a Democrat President. I’d call that progress. This was too much to go un-noticed, of course, with the Telegraph referring to it as ‘Cameron’s Kennedy Moment.’ Missed, however, was Cameron’s distinctly American reference to “we, the people.”

The Conservative campaign manifesto document made reference to ‘the brightest and the best,’ a phrase that was identified with Kennedy’s cabinet before it was ironically inverted by David Halberstam in his Pulitzer Prize winning book on the drift to war in Vietnam. Cameron was not only paraphrasing JFK, but also being compared to him in political circles, to the detriment of Gordon Brown, of course, whose similarity to Richard Nixon could be the subject of a whole other posting!

At his first Party Conference speech as leader of the Conservative Party, Cameron deliberate made an effort to paraphrase JFK’s inaugural address, something the Observer picked upon immediately. 

Now, one need not be a particularly avid reader of American politics or history to notice that Cameron’s Big Society concept bears more than a passing resemblance to President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society.’ Designed by LBJ to complete the work of FDR’s New Deal, the Great society would ultimately come undone due toe the small but competing issue of the Vietnam War and the realisation that it really wasn’t wise to attempt to have guns and butter. At its core, however, the Great society was Johnson’s dream of reducing poverty and racial divisions. Worryingly, the American link was spotted, but incorrectly attributed. The Daily Mail was quick to suggest that Cameron was once more emulating not LBJ, but his predecessor, President Kennedy. James Chapman suggested that ‘David Cameron echoes Kennedy in crusade to empower communities.’ Nice try, but wide of the mark. I’ve always found that it helps to attribute the right polices to the right presidents. 

Lest anyone think that Cameron is ignoring his Republican cousins across the Atlantic, he is not about a Nixon reference when the occasion serves. As the general election was launched Cameron declared he was fighting for “the great ignored,” a phrase that immediately brought to mind Nixon’s Silent Majority. It will be intriguing to see which American president Cameron quotes next. I wouldn’t expect to hear many Bushism thrown in for good measure!

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 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… 

Rendition, Justice and the American Way…. (Extract from Research Paper)

The election of Barack Hussein Obama was equated to a political ablution, designed to purge the electorate of the policies that had so offended the world for the past eight years. Yet whilst the overriding sentiments of anti-Americanism have clearly subsided, this has had little to do with a change in policy. Obama may well be the world’s president of choice, but Obama has not expressly repudiated Dick Cheney’s view of the world. Indeed, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch has denounced the Obama Administration for adopting policies that “mimic the Bush Administration’s abusive approach.” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wizner has lamented that Obama “has chosen to continue the Bush administration practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture. This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course.”

President Obama may have signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques, but his administration reaffirmed the rendition program, a move deemed to be ‘Extremely disappointing,’ according to the ACLU. The high rhetoric of Obama’s campaign, his inaugural address and first orders indicated a new direction for US foreign policy, but while this initially appeared to be the case, ‘there are a growing number of reasons to suspect that Obama will not be quite as liberal on these matters as his rhetoric might have suggested, his supporters might have hoped, or Dick Cheney might have feared.’ Indeed, all indications are that the Obama administration will try to find a middle road that will protect civil liberties without leaving the nation defenceless. The political risk is that it will leave Obama, as Clinton was before, fending off criticism from both the left and the right, for doing too little to change and for doing too much.

It is the former vice president who has done much to criticise the new administration. This is perhaps, not surprising since Obama ‘was elected partly to cleanse the temple of the Cheney stain, and in his campaign speeches he promised to reverse Cheney’s efforts to seize power for the White House in the war on terror.’ The reality, however, is not one of radical change, but rather of degrees. There have been more predator drone attacks in the first years of Obama’s presidency than under Bush; the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay remains open as of September 2010. Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel who has been consulted by the new administration on these issues, says the change on rendition “is not a seismic shift in policy. Rather, it is that the United States will send individuals to other states, and, if those states have a questionable record on human rights, then we will not only seek assurances as we have in the past, but that we will be more rigorous on following up on those assurances.” It’s change you can believe in, just not the sort that many wanted.

It remains too much for Cheney, of course. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, he accused the new Administration of making “the American people less safe” by banning brutal C.I.A. interrogations of terrorism suspects that had been sanctioned by the Bush Administration. Ruling out such interrogations “is unwise in the extreme,” Cheney charged. “It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness.” It would be wrong, however, to imagine that this White House is staffed by, or under the guided by, those with an extreme liberal ideology. Many are from the tough political machine of Chicago politics, whilst others have returned to the White House having served as New Democrats under Clinton.

A prime example is DCI Leon Panetta. As the former Chief of Staff who brought a modicum of discipline to the Clinton White House, Panetta had a reputation as a leg breaker. When asked about Rendition at his confirmation hearing, he noted that suspects would no longer be kidnapped, sent overseas and tortured. However, he added, ‘Renditions where we return an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and then they exercise their right to try that individual and to prosecute him under their laws-I think that is an appropriate use of rendition.’ Clearly the Obama administration has chosen to return to a public stance on rendition that is akin to the previous model exercised by the Clinton White House, where it began, ‘in a more carefully monitored form,’ before being ‘transformed into what John Radsan, former C.I.A. lawyer, called “an abomination.”’ Panetta says the Obama Administration will take precautions to ensure that rendered suspects are treated humanely; “I’ve talked to the State Department, and our people have to make very sure that people won’t be mistreated.” The Obama administration will sharply restrict “extraordinary renditions” in which the United States sends terrorism suspects to foreign countries for detention and interrogation. Of course, the Bush Administration professed to be taking similar precautions.

These issues raise serious questions pertaining to the American sense of mission and of exceptionalism. It is hard to ascertain how they do anything but undermine such aspirations. Obama entered the Oval Office with great hopes and aspirations and with the expectation of world opinion. It is hard to see how much of this remain intact on the world stage with so few major alterations from the Bush Strategy, regardless of stated intent. This is not necessarily Obama’s fault. As president, there is, paradoxically, only so much that he can do, but the world expects so much more. There is in addition the two great double standards at work: The double standard to which great nations are always held, of either interfering too much or not often enough; and the contradictory nature of American foreign policy, of oscillating between imperial designs and latent isolationism. Solving these dilemmas will not be rectified anytime soon.

The Senate ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee plays to a domestic constituency

It was the late Tip O’Neil who famously coined the phrase, “all politics is local.’  If ever there was a need to be reminded of this fact, it is surely in conjuncture with the latest outburst from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For anyone watching the news coverage of the events surrounding the latest efforts to besmirch the name of BP, a logical question to ask is, who one Earth is Senator Robert Menendez, and how did he suddenly become the Chair of such a powerful Senate Committee?

The simple answer is that he is not. Despite media claims to the contrary, Senator Menendez is NOT the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this honour still rests with the former Democratic candidate for president, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Why then is the media misrepresenting Menendez’s role in all of this?

The Senate is made up of 2 elected officials from every state in the Union. Of these, some 19 serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, designed to oversee the foreign policy agencies of the federal government. Accordingly, these members provide oversight into the actions of the State Department, the CIA etc. However, not all members will take the same degree of interest in all activities. These senators may be examining foreign policy, but they remain domestic politicians, dependent upon a domestic constituency for their political lives and financial viability. Accordingly, members of the ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee have one eye on the globe and another on their home state. As events occur that impact their home state, they will take a special interest. And this is what has occurred in this instance. The Pan Am flight was returned to New York’s JFK airport and accordingly, it is senators from the Empire State and the Garden State of Jersey who are taking the lead on this matter.

Senators serve a fixed 6 year term in office, 2 years longer than the president and as such have a great deal of power in Washington. However, even they need to face the electorate and can only do so armed with their achievements (or otherwise) of their time in office.  Which is to say that Senator Menendez has to bring home the bacon, to become a name on the Hill and in the country at large in order to deliver for New Jersey.  This can be a very unforgiving state, as Jon Corzine recently discovered. One way to achieve these results is to jump on a bandwagon, and it would appear that this is just what the good senator from the Garden State has done.

By seemingly convincing the world’s media that he is Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has gained sudden global exposure by attempting to question Scottish and English lawmakers in relation to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the one individual convicted of blowing Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky in December 1988. By linking this decision to the plight of BP, the senator is on to a winner domestically, as few would be willing to defend the actions of the multi-national giant in the face of evidence that it helped lobby to release this terrorist in exchange for drilling rights. Menendez’s day in the sun was done initially by inviting former PM Tony Blair to testify, a decision that was VERY hastily withdrawn. The attention of the world’s media having been attained, Menendez extended his kind invitation to a series of lower level politicians, all of whom politely declined.

As I stated on the BBC and Sky News, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is very influential. Domestically. But it has no international jurisdiction. Whatsoever. No one is under any obligation to play ball with this inquiry and efforts to suggest otherwise are quite wrong. Not that it makes anyone look good. It is possible that reputations will be reduced as a result of all this. Quite what Americans must be thinking of their former hero, Tony Blair, when they see him grinning from ear to ear with Colonel Gaddafi, as BP sign their oil deal, is anyone’s guess. He is rapidly becoming all too reminiscent of the characature of himself in Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost: A politician out of power, out of luck and out of friends.

It is not often (nor indeed ever) that I find myself in complete agreement with Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, but his comments on Newsnight were on the button last night. If members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wish to come over for meetings to discuss the situation, great. But do not for one minute be under the illusion that lawmakers from Scotland or England are under any obligation to appear before their body in an official capacity. American claims of ‘stonewalling’ are amazing to hear when one considers that numerous hearings that have been held (and are still ongoing) into events that the US initiated but to which their officials have steadfastly refused to attend.

Senator Menendez has sought the spotlight to highlight to his constituents (many of whom lost loved ones on the Pan Am disaster) that he is doing all he can on their behalf. This is admirable enough, but it must be recognised for what it is: Domestic politics. Last night he raised the spectre of former security service personal being involved in oil deals and negotiations. I suspect that the whole area of secret deals involving oil, he security services etc will be an area that he will be wise to avoid. Like the international arms trade, there are some things that go one that no one wants examined, as a citizen of New Jersey, the good Senator will doubtless understand this.

The grandstanding also helps conceal the Senator’s role in helping to plan for the upcoming elections, that Democrats are expected to do poorly in. With little else to campaign on, his record is not looking so hot. By tilting at international bad guys, he can elevate himself to a whole new playing field. Who he climbs over in his efforts to secure his domestic reputation, will be another matter.

How will D.C. be received in DC?

With the new British government now having issued its much vaunted Emergency Budget, eyes will no doubt start to turn towards the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to Washington to meet President Obama. The first visit by the PM to the White House is always an important event and this will prove to be no exception.

The meeting comes at a delicate time for UK/US relations. With troops serving together in Afghanistan the room for disagreement is slender, yet focus will no doubt be concentrated upon any potential rift caused by the BP oil disaster.

The media will no doubt be looking for any sign of division caused by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, the may even go so far as to stress division where none exists. What they will miss, no doubt, is the change in fortune that the Conservatives are experiencing in Washington and the implications that this may have for the Special Relationship.

It is standard diplomatic practice for the American president to grant an audience to the Leader of the Opposition. Even Ronald Reagan extended this courtesy to Neil Kinnock despite his obvious (and stated) support for Prime Minister Thatcher. Recent events have been somewhat more problematic, however. William Hague met George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, prior to the election of 2000, but one wonders if the Texan governor thought that perhaps he was due to see former Secretary of State Al Hague?

In the years that followed the debacle of 2000 the leaders of Her Majesties’ loyal opposition were effectively given the cold shoulder in DC, so close was Bush to Blair. Michael Howard was considered persona non grata in Washington following his calls for Blair’s resignation and Ian Duncan Smith failed to make an impression in his 2002 visit.

Of course it is also true that the Conservatives have sought to gain access whilst still maintaining a low profile. David Cameron met Bush at the White House in a meeting in 2007, but images are hard to come by. Clearly there was a desire to be received in official Washington, but less of a desire to distribute images of Cameron with an unpopular president. Cameron’s visit in 2007 followed a 5 year absence from Washington for a leader of the Conservative Party, the longest since the advent of the jet engine.

When Prime Minster David Cameron returns to DC he will do so in a very different capacity and with a very different occupant of the White House. Barack Obama was the first foreign leader to congratulate Cameron upon becoming PM and the Foreign Secretary’s first overseas foray was to Washington and a meeting with Hillary Clinton.  This meeting was important as it presented the opportunity to reset official relations between London and Washington that has been waning for several years.

When Gorden Brown became PM he was eager not to become tainted by his relationship with George W. Bush, whose time in the White House was drawing to a close. Accordingly, Brown set a very different tone for the Special Relationship than had Tony Blair. However, it would appear that President Obama adopted a similar stance to Gordon Brown, not wishing to be seen as being to close to an unpopular British PM who was rightly expected to lose office at the earliest possible occasion.

With the departure of Brown and Bush and the emergence of Obama and Cameron, therefore, the slate has effectively been wiped clean, allowing for a new era in Transatlantic ties. Having met previously on Senator Obama’s trip to London in 2008, the PM will be eager to forge a new working relationship that is businesslike and balanced, avoiding the pitfalls that Blair fell into time and again for pandering to the White House with little or no derived benefit.

The Special Relationship is about far more than the chemistry between the two leaders, but when so much attention is focused upon their dealings, it has a disproportionate impact upon all other elements; politically, culturally and militarily. With this trip, the PM will be well placed to begin a new and positive era in US-UK relations and to put to rest overblown tales of Obama rejecting a bust of Churchill (which had only been lent to the Bush White House as W. was a known admirer) and of DVD gift sets. The past can be overcome. How the BP situation is dealt with, may well be another question…