Presidential Leadership: Consistency Required

True leadership involves assuming responsibility in bad times as well as in good. As President Kennedy noted in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, widely seen as being a ‘perfect failure’ in US foreign policy, “success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Despite the abject failure of the initiative he had inherited from Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy refused to allow anyone else assume to responsibility, telling the American public that he was categorically responsible for the failings.

Kennedy’s performance should be required for all aspiring politicians. Having made an error of judgement his timely public statement on the issue and refusal to blame others for his errors won him the support of the American electorate and his approval ratings actually increased. (“It’s like Eisenhower,” he quipped, “the worse I do the more popular I am!”

Not all American presidents are so smart. Despite his public adulation for the late president, Bill Clinton appeared not to have learnt this vital lesson when his Attorney General, Janet Reno, assumed public responsibility for the Waco fiasco. In a cabinet dominated by men, it was America’s first female Attorney General who appeared the most courageous by assuming responsibility. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s dithering on the issues appeared timid at best, and did little to inspire confidence in his leadership early in his presidency.

Some twenty years later, another Clinton finds themselves at the centre of a similar storm. For several days, speculation has mounted that President Obama was seeking to allocate blame for the Benghazi tragedy firmly at the door of the State Department. The Internet has been awash with observations as to how Hillary Clinton would react to being thrown ‘under the bus.’ The popularly held belief was that she wouldn’t stand for it. However, in the hours leading up to the second presidential election, Hillary took one for the team and declared that she was responsible.

This is an admirable, though shortsighted effort on her behalf. It demonstrates a very admirable ability to assume responsibility and be seen as a team player, which of course, many have questioned in her determination and drive to become the first female president. However, it may backfire in ways that could damage both her own presidential ambitions as well as those of her boss, Barack Obama.

By taking responsibility Hillary has placed herself squarely in the firing line for the administration’s critics and ensures that if she runs in 2016 this could come back to haunt her. More immediately, her announcement, which must surely have been signed off by the White House presents the president in a poor light. In his eagerness to allocate blame ahead of his debate with Mitt Romney, Obama has ensured that he will now be covering behind Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit, hardly an inspiring sight in a would-be Commander In Chief.

The move actually increased the pressure on the president going into this week’s debate. If he had responded to Romney’s attacks on the Benghazi tragedy by blaming Hillary, he would have appeared weak. However, when asked directly who refused the extra security in Libya, Obama’s answer was retrospective and failed to address the specific question. Instead, he asserted his responsibility, which completely contradicted the statement issued by the Secretary of State. When asked directly if the buck stopped with Hillary Clinton, Obama again insisted, “she works for me, I’m the president and I’m always responsible.” In doing so President Obama merely continued the process of sending mixed signals and further muddy the water’s of responsibility on the issue.

The president needs to take a look at the lessons from the Bay of Pigs and assert unambiguous leadership, not leave questions of responsibility to be pondered in time of national tragedy.

American Politics: All Campaigning, No Governing

With just a little over a month to go until Election Day, and with the first in a series of Presidential Debates looming, the focus of the American electorate should be upon the issues at stake in the 2012 election. However, instead it finds itself thinking of events 4 years from now and more specifically, on the figure of Hillary Clinton. This week, and not for the first time, former President Bill Clinton has, in his own unique manner, revealed a singular truth about American politics. Either deliberately or otherwise, Clinton has in a stroke raised the spectre of a Hillary Clinton presidency and revealed an intrinsic flaw in the American electoral psyche: The political system is focused on campaigning, not governing.

By admitting that he had no idea whether his wife would seek the presidency in 4 years, Bill Clinton effective fired the starting pistol for the Democratic primary season of 2016, 2 months before the result of the 2012 election has even been announced. This has been exacerbated by a growing sense that this race is over; that Romney has blown whatever chance he had in a series of ill-advised statements, a lack-lustre convention and by failing to run a policy-driven campaign. Currently trailing by anything up to 7% in key, must-win, swing states, his success now rests on matters out of his control.

It has long been the case that a second term American president becomes a lame duck in some respects, almost as soon as he has been returned to office. It is in the nature in politics that power abhors a vacuum, and as soon as one election is over, eyes turn to the next. The knowledge that a second term president is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term inevitable leads to questions being asked in regard to his successor, and accordingly, a diminution of his stature as advisers begin to think of their own futures and initiate a process of seeking to ally themselves with the next potential president.

This could be seen as being the $2 billion problem at the heart of American politics.  It is too focused on campaigning and not on governing. Vast sums are being spent to sway a tiny number of undecided, Independent voters to vote on, or before, November 6. Despite the sums involved, turnout is unlikely to exceed 55%. As politics becomes more and more about gaining power and les and less about holding and using power, the electorate are becoming less and less interested.

This endless process ensures that rather than thinking about what is best for the nation or its citizens, politicians constantly have to focus upon their bid for re-election. This is bad enough in the presidency, but it is endemic within the House of Representatives, with its two-year term in office, which ensures that candidates have to fundraise for re-election from their first hours in post. This is simply no way to run a 21st century superpower. All too often in recent years, the flaws in the 17th century basis of American democracy have been exposed, be it in electoral processes, voting regulations or terms in office. The American Constitution was designed to frustrate, and in this, it is certainly succeeding, but not necessarily in the ways intended.

These inherent problems are compounded by the lack of an obvious incumbent for the Democrats in 2016 (assuming an Obama victory in November). By retaining the services of Vice President Joe Biden, Barack Obama has effectively made him the presumptive candidate in 2016. Is that really what the Democratic Party wants? By Election Day 2016, Biden will be 73 and no more ready to be president than he was in 2008. One of the great successes of this Administration to date has been securing Obama’s safety and thereby keeping Biden from the Oval Office.

Retaining Biden may have been viewed as an act of political loyalty by Obama, but it lacked any strategic vision.  An opportunity existed to bring on board a strong and credible candidate for the presidency in 2016 and give them the all-important incumbency and presumptive nomination status that would go with the position.  Instead, Obama has saddled himself and his party with a Vice President who brings nothing positive to the ticket and actually hurts the party in the lead up to the next election. Rather than being able to coalesce around an incumbent and obvious front runner, the party machine will need to endure another anxious primary season and endless speculation over the potential nominee, a process that Bill Clinton kick started this week.

If the Democrats prevail on November 6, then the Republican posturing will also begin in earnest, with serious questions to be asked as to how they managed to blow an election that was there for the taking. Issues of personality and policy need to be addressed head-on if the party is to return to the White House in 2016. Its best bet for doing so, it would appear is via Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio, a young talent who appears to epitomise much of what the American Dream has come to mean in the 21st Century. Oh, and did I mention he was from Florida? One need not still have nightmares about Election 2000 to be aware of this significance. Oh, and did I mention he was from Cuba? With America’s rapidly changing demographic the importance of this should not be underestimated.

After the fireworks of 2008, 2012 has proven to be a rather uneventful election (so far). With the personalities and politics that will doubtless dominate the next four years, it appears likely that 2016 will prove to be far more interesting and dynamic. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it already, which is, of course, exactly the problem in American’s campaign focused political system…

“The Next Vice-President of the United States…”

For those who are less than inspired by the current presidential election, I have good news; it will all be over in 6 months (well 8 if you include the wait until Inauguration Day)! The dynamics could not be more removed from those of 4 years ago. Barack Obama is far from the historic figure if ‘change’ that he positioned himself as in 2008. He has aged visibly in the role and is failing to stoke the passions as once he did. Unable to run on a platform of ‘change’ he has chosen the rather uninspired ‘Forward’ slogan, that has gone down like a lead balloon.

As a candidate he appears unwilling or unable to take credit for his 2 signature moments without them rebounding in his face: His health care reforms are being considered by the Supreme Court and could be rejected as being unconstitutional any day now, and his efforts to maximise the raid that killed bin Laden were scuttled by his inability to credit the work of those on the ground who actually carried out the raid. So all, in all, Obama is failing to cut an inspiring figure in US politics anymore. He may not be Jimmy Carter just yet, but the signs are worrying.

Facing the president is Mitt Romney. This was the governor of Massachusetts who introduced a health care system so similar to that endorsed by the White House that it was referred to as ‘Romney-care’ by his Republican critics in reference to ‘Obama-care’. This is a Republican that is acceptable in Massachusetts. He is also a Mormon, which causes suspicion amongst some and finally he is the very personification of an old school insider politician; a governor and a son of a governor. This is not exactly the candidate that the Tea Party were hoping for and it is their activism that held so much promise for a potential Republican victory this November.

If the top of the ticket is failing to generate any interest then all that leaves is the VP slot. Readers of The Commentator will no doubt be familiar with the HBO movie Game Change that aired recently and which did much to ridicule the Republican process in 2008 that resulted in the selection of Sarah Palin. Less well known is that the book this was drawn from was focused almost exclusively on the Obama-Hillary race with only a small section focused on the Republican VP process.

However, whilst the selection of Governor Palin provided career a high for Tina Fey and filled ample column inches around the world, the forgotten reality is that the Democratic choice didn’t work out too well either. The initial reaction to Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was hardly euphoric with many, myself included, asking how this choice demonstrated the much-vaunted ‘change’ that Obama had campaigned on. Here in the UK Biden was most known, if he was known at all, for plagiarizing material lifted from Neil Kinnock, aka ‘The Welsh Windbag’ and former Leader of the Labour Party who was routinely trounced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Hardy a figure to want to be imitating in order to secure the White House.

Biden, it was argued, helped to balance the ticket. Well, ok, he was white and Obama was black, he was old and Obama was not. Was the implication also meant to be that Biden was experienced and Obama was not? That was a reasonable position to take from the comparison, though hardly a flattering one for the would-be president. Biden was from Delaware and Obama from Illinois, so hardly a great North/South divide. Delaware is also a tiny state with only 3 Electoral College votes, so he didn’t exactly bring much to the party on that score. Since the election Biden has hardly covered himself in glory, committing gaffe after gaffe.

If Obama is victorious in November, his power will begin to ebb away very quickly as thoughts turn to the 2016 race and who will replace him in the White House. Does anyone seriously expect that candidate to be Joe Biden? Of course not. Which brings me to my point: What purpose does it serve to retain Biden on the ticket? He no longer serves any purpose other than to distract attention from the president and to act the fool. He is after all, such a buffoon that even bid Laden recognised the potential value of having him in the Oval Office. So, if Biden no longer helps with the ‘lack of experience’ vote, or with the racial equation, his state brings virtually no Electoral College votes and he serves only as a hindrance, why retain him? There is simply no logical argument for his place on the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Obama needs a candidate who will be his Game Changer for 2012. A candidate to excite the base of the Democratic Party. A candidate who is ready to assume the presidency should the unthinkable happen to the Commander-in-Chief. A candidate with a track record of winning campaigns. A candidate who has demonstrated an ability to be a tough and loyal ally. A candidate whose home state would bring in a large number of Electoral College votes. And finally, a candidate that has a viable chance of winning the White House in 2016. There is no one in the Democratic Party that fits these criteria better than Hillary Clinton. She has denied any interest in the role, but selecting Hillary will also aid Obama in his depiction of the Republican ‘War on Women’ in 2012 and present the Republicans with a dilemma.

The dilemma for Romany is how best to counter a decision to place Hillary on the ticket. It can hardly of escaped anyone’s attention that the Republicans had a week field of candidates this year. The heavy hitters all stayed home, clearly anticipating a clear run against a non-incumbent in 21016. They will be ill at ease with the thought of joining a ticket that, if successful would keep them from the Oval Office for at least eight years, and which if it fails, could end any chance of such a situation arising altogether.

Romney desperately needs a Game Changer of how own, but if Obama selects Hillary then Romney could be accused of playing gender politics if he names a woman as his VP candidate. Not that there is a logical Republican female candidate who brings the same strengths to the ticket as Hillary does for the Democrats. Romney must do something altogether different therefore. His one sure-fire bet is to choose Marco Rubio from Florida. Rubio would excite the Republican base, engage the Latino vote, put Florida in play (remember 2000?) and certainly make a Republican victory more of a possibility than it is at present.

The challenge for Romney is not placing the call; it will be if that call is rejected. The risks are huge on both sides however.  If Rubio refuses and Romney loses, does it get blamed on the petulant self-serving one term senator who placed self ahead of nation and party? If Rubio accepts and Romney loses does Rubio get tagged as a loser, thus running his chances in 2016? If Romney wins, then does Rubio lose all of his appeal when he eventually gets to run, which could be as late as 2020?

This is a debate that has been rumbling for some time and must surely come to a head in the coming weeks. Not everyone agrees with this analysis, which is one thing that makes politics so fascinating. However, with the polls close, the stakes so high, the lead candidates so dull, the VP-stakes could not be more important in 2012.

The Ghost of Presidents Past: Bill Clinton and the 2012 Presidential Election

Having been duly chastised for speaking his mind four years ago, Bill Clinton is now being utilised by President Obama’s re-election campaign. President Clinton is appearing in campaign commercials, lauding Obama’s prowess as Commander in Chief and hailing his ability to finish the job that Clinton himself had started in the late 1990s, the killing of Bin Laden.

In 2008 he was the staunchest supporter of Barack Obama’s archrival, Hillary Clinton. The former president was roundly and ridiculously attacked for suggesting that Obama’s candidacy was a joke and for expressing the opinion that Obama’s much vaunted opposition to the Iraq War was a fairy tale. In the process he learnt a lesson that has become apparent in Europe: “Thou Shalt Not Speak bad of Obama for fear of being misconstrued…”

It appears that in politics, if you wait long enough, you see everything and that the troubling details of reality are forgotten, with only myth surviving. In the 1992 presidential campaign both the Democrat and Republican candidates made reference to Harry Truman and attempted to cast themselves as his political standard bearer, albeit for differing reasons. In addition, wave after wave of politicians from all walks of life have attempted to benefit from the legacy of the Kennedy bothers. This election season the ghost of presidents past appears to be Bill Clinton.

Of course the link between Obama and Clinton is an interesting one. Recall that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic candidate in 2008, only to see her one shot at the presidency usurped by Barack Obama, whose career she has sought to nurture in its early stages. The Clinton’s combined sense of unease at this is understandable and forms the basis for most of the Game Change book, as opposed to the HBO movie, that chose to ignore the Democratic infighting. Equally infuriating to the Clinton’s was the way in which their supporters chose to jump ship to Obama’s banner long before it became apparent that he was guaranteed victory. No defection was more symbolic than that of the Kennedys, whom Bill had courted assiduously during his time in office. Ultimately, Hillary and many former Clinton era officials wound up working for Obama in the White House, in a move that should put pay to the debate to the actor/agency debate in international relations theory.

However, Bill Clinton is also being touted by the presumptive Republican Mitt Romney, who is contrasting Clinton’s New Democrat approach with the seemingly Old Democrat mentality of Barack Obama. Speaking in Lansing, Michigan, Romney said of the contrast between Clinton and Obama:

“President Obama chose to apply liberal ideas of the past to a 21st century America. Liberal policies didn’t work then, they haven’t worked over the last four years, and they won’t work in the future. New Democrats had abandoned those policies, but President Obama resurrected them, with predictable results.

President Clinton said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now constitutes 38% of the economy, and if Obamacare is installed, it will reach almost 50%.”

President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we knew it. President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state to all Americans, with promises of more programs, more benefits, and more spending.”

This is the same Bill Clinton that was impeached by the Republican controlled Congress; the same Bill Clinton who couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for his first budget and the same Bill Clinton who failed to receive over 50% of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996. Now, apparently, he is Mitt Romney’s poster boy for sensible government!

All things considered, one can see why Romney would contrast Clinton’s time in office with Obama’s. Consider the economic record of the United States during Clinton’s tenure and the fact that by the 2000 election, the debate was about what to do with the budget surplus! It really is remarkable that Obama has not sought to make more use of Clinton during his first term in his efforts to get the economy back on track.

Of course, Bill Clinton is the ex-president who never really went away. An adroit campaigner, Clinton has never strayed from the limelight and appears incapable of yielding the floor to a new generation of politicians and to be honest, why should he? Over ten years after leaving office, Clinton still remains the Democrat’s most potent campaigner in chief. Clinton’s abilities were often overlooked, or dismissed as being evidence of a Slick Willy mentality, but he was and remains a political mastermind, capable of guile and cunning and a far more able politician than the current occupant of the White House.

Much is made of Obama’s rhetorical capacity, but his stumbling syntax when faced by a malfunctioning TelePrompTer reveals a different story. Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1994 when he was forced to ad-lib for 20 minutes due to the wrong speech having been loaded into the TelePrompTer.

The irony in all of this is incredible. In 20912 both Republican and Democratic candidates are utilising Bill Clinton in a positive light on their campaigns. In 2000 Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore, refused to adequately utilise Clinton or even his own record in office and ended up loosing the election by a couple of hanging chads in Florida.

It will be interesting to see how Romney’s remarks play out in Republican political circles. It is likely that they will reinforce the widely held view of Romney as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and that despite Rick Santorum’s middle of the night ‘endorsement’ he remains the “worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” in 2012.

Obama Caught Dancing in the End Zone: The Commander in Chief on His Victory Lap

Presidential election adverts have the potential to set the tone for campaigns and to make their mark in history. Notable examples include Lyndon Johnson’s notorious Daisy advert from 1964 and the commercials from President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, The Bear and Morning in America.

It is unlikely that this latest effort from the Obama team entitled ‘One Chance’, will end up in this category of historically important averts, but it certainly appears that the Obama team has missed an historic opportunity to call for unity in this message. Essentially a 90 second commentary by former President Bill Clinton discussing Barack Obama’s decision to launch the mission that took out Osama bin Laden a year ago, the campaign advert has received widespread criticism.

The film goes beyond mere advocacy of the president’s decision to raise doubts as to whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call and launched the raid that killed bin Laden. It does so by use of Wolf Blitzer reading a Romney quote from several years ago, in which he questions the wisdom of “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars to catch one person.” The suggestion that the president is ‘dancing in the End Zone’ was exacerbated by Obama’s decision to address the nation from Afghanistan last night.

In previous presidential elections, candidates have repeatedly sought to portray themselves as being strongest in terms of national security. During the Cold War in particular any weakness in this area was quickly pounced upon and exploited as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the highest office in the land. Flaws in this area proved fatal for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, for George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis never overcame his disastrous tank ride in 1988. Even Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was unable to adequately exploit his escapades in Vietnam despite the contrasting positions adopted during that conflict by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Interestingly, the advert does not feature Obama making any comment upon the killing. Instead he is shown in silhouette, looking out of a window in the Green Room of the White House, in an image clearly designed to replicate George Tames’ classic portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, alone with the awesome responsibility of power.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that Obama has taken so long to play the bin Laden card and one wonders how comfortable he is in doing so? However the president feels personally about this, he and his campaign have clearly recognised that they cannot afford to be out-muscled by their Republican challenger. History reveals that Republicans have traditionally been far more effective at presenting themselves as the natural defenders of U.S. national security in contrast to their Democratic rivals.

There is a long tradition in the United States of electing Republicans in time of national security threats and Democrats in time of economic crisis. This has been referred to as the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’ reaction to challenges; ‘Daddy’ will defend you, ‘mommy’ will sort out the finances. Clearly, this is far from flattering to Democratic Party sensibilities and the validity of this charge is questionable; it was, of course, Democratic administrations that took the United States into World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. There is, therefore, something of a conservative myth of national security strength.

In 2008 Obama was a less muscular candidate and was attacked on this basis by Senator Hillary Clinton in her advert asking whom America wanted in the White House to take an emergency call at 3am. With a distinguished military record and family heritage, Senator John McCain was the national security candidate, but this was of little benefit in a time of financial crisis, which helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.

Four years later Obama needs to take advantage of his dual role as President and Commander-in-Chief to maximise his chance for re-election. To do so he is seeking to emphasize his successes, minimise his errors and exacerbate any perceived weakness in his opponent. In doing so he has the benefit of having been the president who authorised the mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden, over a decade after the assault on Washington and New York.

Some have suggested that his attempt to benefit from such an action is akin to Nixon claiming credit for the Moon landing in July 1969; an event that occurred under his watch, but which had been initiated almost a decade earlier by his fiercest political rival, President Kennedy. This, however, is disingenuous. All presidents have to take responsibility for events that occur on their watch, both good and bad. Just as President Carter was forced to run for re-election having launched the disastrous effort to recapture American hostages that resulted in the loss of life following helicopter crashes in the desert, so Obama gets to run as the president who got bin Laden. To deny him this achievement is petty.

Taking credit for operational successes during tenure in office is a time-honoured tradition. Claiming credit for engaging with the enemy has occurred in presidential addresses before and will happen in the future. President Obama is far from unusual in this regard.

However the campaign advert has missed an excellent opportunity to rally support and unify the nation. In seeking to highlight only the role played by the president in launching the operation to kill bin Laden, it has rightly been criticised for not mentioning the vital role played by the intelligence services, the military in general, SEAL Team 6 in particular and the work put in by the Bush Administration long before Obama came to office. A few words to share the accolades would have made a world of difference and actually benefited the White House by appearing to be magnanimous rather than triumphant. It has even led to criticism by the very Navy SEALS who led the operation.

This poor choice has been compounded by the un-necessary decision to raise questions as to whether Mitt Romney would have launched such an operation. Such a stance is churlish and un-becoming the office of the presidency. Strategically it makes no sense; this is a campaign message by the President of the United States and he should not need to engage his as yet un-anointed opponent in such a broadcast.

The Obama campaign’s actions have actually granted Mitt Romney the opportunity to appear gracious and generous in his response. Speaking alongside former Mayor Ruddy Giuliani in New York, the presumptive Republican candidate spoke yesterday of his admiration for ALL concerned with the raid that killed bin Laden, including President Obama, but also the SEAL Team 6, the CIA etc. Vitally he noted the strategic error that the Obama campaign had made: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said. It was, perhaps, the most presidential that Romney has sounded on the campaign so far.

With the campaign season in America about to move into high gear, we can expect to see far more of these commercials, advocating one candidate or another. The Romney campaign has proved to be the masters of attack ads during the Republican primary season. The Obama campaign would be wise to note that the best American political ads have not needed to highlight the apparent flaws in an opponent, but merely to advance the unifying qualities of their own candidate to inspire the very sense of hope and calm that is required in national leadership. The Obama campaign must devise a better, more bi-partisan way of doing this if it is to avoid falling prey to the inevitable attack ads that have so far proved to be so successful for Mitt Romney.

A version of this article first appeared on The Commentator.

I was asked to appear on Sky News to discuss the President’s activities this week, I hope you enjoy my comments:

JDB and Sky News

As some of you may have seen, I was on Sky News this morning, discussing President Obama’s trip to Europe. The conversation concentrated on his initial stop-over in Eire, where he will apparently revel in his Irish ancestry. I must admit that one doesn’t really look at Obama and immediately think of the Emerald Isle, but I guess that he is just the latest in a long line of president’s claiming Irish ancestry to bolster their domestic standing with the Irish community in the United States.

I seem to remember when Obama used to be from Kenya and Hawaii? Apparently that was soooo yesterday! I know he campaigned on a platform of ‘Change’ but I didn’t think that changing his ancestry was what he had in mind.

In London from Tuesday, Obama will hold meetings at Downing Street with the PM David Cameron to discuss Afghanistan and UK/US foreign policy. Doubtless to say questions of the Special Relationship will come up, along with issues pertaining to the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Obama will be staying as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen and will also address both houses of Parliament. A press briefing is expected at the FCO. The president will be accompanied by Secretary of State Clinton who is expected to hold meetings with her opposite number, William Hague.

Suffice to say, getting around central London may be a little tricky with the heightened security this week!

I will be returning to the airwaves through the week as the president spends his State Visit here in London, so watch this space for more news.

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?

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…