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.

Let’s Stop Droning On About Unmanned Arial Aircraft

Readers with memories that extend beyond the current headlines will recall the criticism that was levelled at the George W. Bush Administration for its utilisation of a variety of platforms and initiatives in its Global War on Terror. Whatever it did, whatever it tried, was a transgression too far and a violation of American principles in the eyes of organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Practises such as enhanced interrogation, rendition and the use of drones all came under attack by civil liberties groups eager to highlight the apparent disregard for the Constitution and international law by the supposed rogue regime between 2001- 2009.

And then, oh happy day, the Bush Administration was gone and America could return to its previous path of virtue and light, as embodied by the soothing tones and humble liberalism of Barack Obama, who promised ‘change we can believe in.’ No more would the United States be on the side of darkness and ill-virtue; it would revert to its earlier incarnation and adhere to the better angels of its nature.

However, as Secretary of State John Kerry flies into Europe at the start of Obama’s second term in office, certain facts have become inescapable regarding the use of practices, techniques and technologies in America’s continuing war with political violence. The most glaring of these deals with the use of unmanned aerial technology; commonly referred to as drones. In Obama’s second term, they will continue to be the weapon of choice for hunting down and eliminating those deemed to be incompatible with the common good.

This technology is not the creation of the Obama Administration. Neither, intriguingly, was it devised by the Bush Administration. Drone technology was widely utilised by the Clinton Administration, and indeed, it was hoped that bin Laden’s demise would be witnessed in real time, using drones, long before George W. Bush ever took office. Their previous use by previous administrations, however, pales into insignificance compared to their utilisation by the supposedly ‘liberal’ Obama White House.

Like an addict that has suddenly become aware of a new way to score an easy fix, the Obama White House has exploded the use of drone warfare to an extent beyond the wildest imagination of the George W. Bush Administration. In its four years in office, drones have become the weapon of choice in the continuing battle against the forces of political violence. Outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made this clear in his recent address to King’s College, London and when one considers the benefits to the United States, it is easy to see why this is the case.

Firstly, there is the financial element to consider. Drones are cheap, especially compared to the alternative. A Tomahawk Cruise missile could cost approximately $1 million to launch. A state of the art aircraft could cost tens of millions of dollars in hardware alone, in addition to which is the cost of training a pilot and compensation in the event of his or her death in action. Drones have no such overheads. Likewise, if a drone is shot down, all that is lost is the hardware, which could be programmed to self-destruct. There is no risk of providing the enemy with potential prisoners of war, or any repetition of the events that surrounded the downing of the Black Hawks in Somalia; no bodies to mutilate, desecrate and humiliate.

There is also the degree of separation from reality, as the drones are ‘piloted’ remotely with no opportunity for a last minute moral rendering by the crew, ensuring that missions are more likely to result in the delivery of their payload to its planned destination.

Like the president who has overseen their expansion, drone technology is cool and detached. Now, there is even an African connection, as it has been announced that the U.S. has secured access to a series of bases from which to operate this technology across North Africa. This comes at a time when the Congress has been particularly critical of the administration’s inability to address a rising tide of anti-American sentiment that was best expressed in the incidents in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of 4 Americans, including Ambassador Stevens. The backlash from this event caused the administration to jettison its first choice as Secretary of State. However, the eventual office holder, John Kerry, will inherit substantial plans for the expansion of drone warfare into Africa, as the administration takes the continuing battle against the forces of political violence to a whole new region. Having withdrawn from Iraq, having announced a timetable for the end of hostilities in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration has decided upon the new theatre of operations. From Senegal in the West, to Ethiopia in the East, a new front is quietly being opened in the on-going battle that exploded above the skies of Manhattan in 2001. Quite where it will end up is anyone’s guess, but the use of drone warfare is at present, Obama’s true presidential legacy. For now, the only guarantee is the further expansion of this technology as the weapon of choice in Obama’s ongoing war with an apparently growing number of dissident groups, and on the continuing silence on the issue from those organisation who where previously lamenting such actions under the Bush Administrations. How they must give thanks for having a good, old fashioned liberal in the White House to reveal the Bush Administration for the travesty that it was….

JDB Media Coverage of John Kerry’s Visit to UK

I’m happy to report that it’s been a busy day with the new U.S. Secretary of State in town. John Kerry flew into London late Sunday night ahead of breakfast meeting with Prime Minister, David Cameron, in Downing Street this morning before meeting with Foreign Office officials including the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, at lunchtime.

I have been involved in media coverage of the event throughout the day, providing comment to FM4 Radio in Austria this over breakfast, Monocle24 Radio mid-morning, BBC Radio Five Live at lunchtime and finally discussing the visit on The Brenner Brief this evening.

The new SecStat was at pains to stress the importance of the Special Relationship and declared that it was ‘no accident’ that his first overseas visit was to London, hopefully dispelling too many concerns over the notion of a Pacific Pivot by the Obama Administration. His sentiments on this issue mirror those expressed by former U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in a speech made at King’s College London in January.

Whilst the following image will not win me any extra followers, I thought it was fun, taken at the New Broadcasting House headquarters of the BBC in central London.

 photo

Obama’s Foreign Policy Team Emerges With Reputations Damaged

In November 2012, Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as President of the United States. Since then, many have been eagerly awaiting confirmation as to who he would name to the key foreign policy positions in his administration: State, Defence, NSC, CIA etc. Some of this anticipation could be explained as the idle musings of those fascinated by the revolving door of power in Washington, but more importantly, the announcements would carry weight as it is people who make policy and so the decision as to whom to appoint would say much about the president, his view of the world and his priorities for his second term.

What has emerged can safely be described as having NOT been Obama’s first choice line-up and has taken far longer than expected to emerge. These two aspects are NOT unrelated as the timing of the announcements and the individuals named have been impacted by a series of unforeseen incidents that could have long-term implications, and stretch well into Obama’s second term. In planning for his anticipated second-term, it is safe to conclude that Barack Obama anticipated naming Dr. Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and to continue with David Petraeus as DCI. The fact that neither individual will be in their anticipated position come Inauguration Day owes much to the debacle in Benghazi, a calamity that will continue to dog Obama into 2013. It will certainly be an issue for Hillary Clinton if she considers a run for the presidency in 2016. Her role as Secretary of State at the time of the incident and subsequent incapacity, which has prevented her from testifying in the subject, will doubtless be open to scrutiny in 4 years time.

The president’s inability to name Susan Rice to the State Department was based in large part on the administration’s decision to wheel her out on the Sunday morning talk shows to explain that the Benghazi uprising, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a spontaneous uprising caused by revulsion to an anti-Islamic film. Ironically, it appears certain that part of the reason for allocating this task to Ambassador Rice was an attempt to elevate her visibility and stature ahead of the nomination process in an anticipated second-term. If this was the case then it spectacularly backfired, casing senators to openly question her suitability for the role, and allowing other questions to be raised in relation to her political and personal qualities. The long-drawn out saga as to whether she remained a viable candidate for the State Department was exacerbated by the president’s overly personal attachment to the candidate, as expressed in a press conference shortly after his re-election and ended only when Rice publicly withdrew her name from consideration.

This debacle was compounded by the Love-Pentagon within the administration that centred on DCI Petraeus. Having promoted General David Petraeus out of uniform and into the top job at Langley to remove him as a potential political challenge, Obama had given no indication that he intended to replace him after such a short time in the role. Yet within days of the election came news of Petraeus’ resignation due to an affair with his biographer. It was apparent, therefore, within hours of the ballot being counted that the foundations of Obama’s anticipated foreign policy team for this second term was in tatters; hence the delay in an announcements. Now that the names have been released, what conclusions can we draw?

Dr. Susan Rice appears set to remain as Ambassador to the United Nations. She will doubtless be chastened by her experience and realise that her best hope to become America’s top diplomat has gone up in smoke. Don’t feel too sorry for her, however, as she will retain one of the top perks of any executive branch officer; a grace and favour suite on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. She will presumably remain in post until an opening emerges later in the second term that will not require a Senate confirmation hearing. Happily for her such a position is eminently possible, since it appears certain that Obama will continue to employ the services of Tom Donilon as his National Security Advisor, having been named to the post in October 2010. Few expect his to remain in this position for the duration of Obama’s second term, however, and as the role does not require senate confirmation it would be a natural fit for Dr. Rice, perhaps in 2014? It will not afford her the elevated status she would have anticipated in the Obama administration, but it would ensure her continued presence at the centre of Democratic Party national security circles, especially as eyes turn to the next presidential election.

With Dr. Rice unable to be nominated as Secretary of State, Obama has turned instead to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, best known to the outside world as the man who failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. As a steadfast and reliable member of the United States Senate since his election in 1984 and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would appear to be a safe pair of hands to take over at the State Department once Hillary Clinton departs. Like Hillary, Kerry will be a well-known public face with a long-standing record of public service, a distinguished war record in Vietnam and with an excellent appreciation of the nation, its place in the world and its foreign relations. As one would expect from a senator from Massachusetts, his voting record is generally to the left, but this is not expected to be of any great significance when he (presumably) takes office. There is speculation that he could enhance the concept of digital diplomacy, which would be a boost tot his concept. However one considers his candidacy, Kerry appears to be a man that the world can do business with, and whom Barack Obama owes a great deal, following his invitation to address the 2004 Democratic convention.

Joining Kerry around the Cabinet table will be a Republican, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hagel, whose nomination will likely be far more robust. Hagel’s nomination is Obama’s attempt at bi-partisanship, a concept that received a great deal of lip-service on the campaign trail, but which has been little evidenced in the first term or in subsequent events. As a former Republican senator, Hagel’s nomination carries echoes of Bill Clinton’s decision to name William Cohen in his second term, again following criticism of a lack of bi-partisanship in his first term. It must be galling to defence-minded Democrats that time and again, their party’s presidents name Republicans to the top job at the Pentagon! Hagel’s nomination has already been challenged by those who question his stance on Israel, Iraq and on gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration and there will be those who will be looking to repay him for this perceived betrayal of Republican principles. Likewise, his critique of the Israel/Jewish Lobby has generated a great deal of heat and this powerful cocktail of issues ensures he has opponents on both the left and the right of American politics! Whilst the veracity of many of these claims can be discounted, this combination will doubtless make for colourful confirmation hearings in coming days!

Rounding out the foreign policy team will be DCI designate, John O. Brennan, who has been a key advisor to President Obama in his first term as Counterterrorism Advisor. (Brennan’s importance to Obama is perfectly captured in Daniel Klaidman’s excellent expose Kill or Capture). Despite his importance to Obama thus far, his nomination could join Hagel’s in creating a storm of protest from both the left and the right. Republicans will doubtless recall Brennan’s appearance on Meet the Press in which he lamented their use of terrorism as a political football, whilst Democrats will recoil at his defence of rendition, drone strikes and enhanced interrogation methods. The nomination is an interesting move by Obama, who considered Brennan for the same role 4 years ago. As a key aide in the White House, Obama could find that he misses Brennan’s close counsel, whilst Brennan could well discover, as Bill Casey did, that previous service at the Agency does not guarantee a smooth ride as DCI.

Despite the controversies that surround these nominations, I anticipate that they will receive senate confirmation and take their place around the Cabinet table for the requisite photo-shoot following the Inauguration ceremonies this January. After that, it will be up to them to repay the trust that has been placed in them.

Overcooked Rice

So, after weeks of speculation it now appears certain that the next Secretary of State will…. Not be Susan Rice. In a surprise move the current US Ambassador to the United Nations has written to President Obama, asking that her name be removed from consideration for the position. Note that she has not been withdrawn from the nomination, as she had yet to be nominated for anything. For weeks she has been in a political twilight zone; a presumptive nominee, if you will. This is, therefore, a pre-emptive withdrawal in certain expectation of a disastrous Senate confirmation hearing that promised to pitch the White House against the forces of Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who is set to join the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of the nomination process. One wonders if this news was a tipping point for the White House and for Rice’s prospects.

This nomination process has been presented in some quarters as political posturing run amok, but it is vital to recall that the United States Senate has the constitutional authority and responsibility to approve presidential appointments of this nature and it is clear that Rice has serious questions to answer in key areas, not least of which is the debacle that occurred in Benghazi, for which she may well become the administration’s unwitting fall-girl.

Beyond this, however, profound doubts have been raised about Rice’s temperament. For someone on the apparent cusp of being appointed American’s chief diplomat to be thought of as ‘ un-diplomatic, aggressive and brusque’, as was recently mentioned on The Daily Beast, is far from complementary. Her decision to ‘give the finger’ to Richard Holbrooke has clearly not been forgotten, and even if the former ambassador is not around to remind anyone of this incident, in Washington, DC, memories linger of such incidents.

Rice’s letter to Obama this evening does not mean that she will not serve in a second term. She remains the US Ambassador to the UN and could remain in this position, or possibly be named National Security Adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

With Rice now no longer in the running for the State Department, the question remains as to who will fill Hillary Clinton’s pumps. The delay in naming a foreign policy team has been remarkable and it appears clear now that this was due to the refusal of key Republicans to countenance the thought of Susan Rice as Secretary of State. Second terms often get second-rate teams, and this could be the case again. Instead, it now appears likely that a white male could return to the role for the first time since Warren Christopher (remember him? No, I didn’t think so) stood down at the end of Clinton’s first term.

The smart money is on Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The problem with this is that it would necessitate a Special election to replace him until the midterms of 2014 and whilst the state is heavily Democratic, Scott Brown’s upset victory following the death of Edward Kennedy demonstrates that the Democrats can take nothing for granted (unless they can find another Kennedy to run, perhaps?)

So, the shadow of Benghazi has now crept over Obama’s second term, before it has had time to begin. The scandal did not appear to influence the election result, but it has already claimed its first victim. It is worth noting that presidential scandals have traditionally occurred in the much sought after second term, and have been caused by an event in the later stages of the first term. If alarm bells are not yet ringing in the West Wing of the White House, then they should be. The second term is about to begin…It’s about to get a whole lot more interesting folks!

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.

Women and the Right

Much has been made in recent months of the role of women in American politics. Hardly any of the coverage has been positive, especially in its portrayal of the Republican Party. Several weeks ago, Ann Romney stared from the cover of Time Magazine, representative of everything feminine about the GOP: strong, loyal, attractive, God-fearing and proud. She became this season’s GOP pin-up, but in a way far unlike earlier incarnations such as Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain. But how representative is Ann Romney of American womanhood, or even of Republican women? In short, is she really Mitt Romney’s ‘secret weapon’ or merely another prop to be wheeled out on cue to utter appropriate blandishments in regard to this year’s anointed candidate?

American politics has come a long way in a short period of time. In 1952 Nixon’s ‘Checkers speech’ was attacked as being shameless in its tone and content. It would appear, however, that ‘shameless’ has become the norm in American politics as spouses are now routinely presented to talk up the moral character of the candidate, lest there be any doubts.

Despite suggestions that she has been little more than an adornment for Mitt Romney, Ann Romney has emerged in recent months as a symbol of the Republican Party, desperate to rebut allegations that it is involved in a war on women and as a means to soften her husband’s image: Surely anyone with a wife like this can’t be all bad? This is one lady who it would be easy to dismiss as a cardboard cut-out Republican spouse, but her battle to overcome the debilitating impact of Multiple Sclerosis must give one pause for thought. Her tenacity and drive is all the more remarkable for having to overcome this ailment and to endure the tough life that comes with campaigning for the presidency.

In a debate about a war on women, what better artillery to deploy than a smart, attractive and eloquent woman to refute such allegations and present an image of her husband as seen through the eyes of the one who knows him best? Ann Romney’s elevation during the Republican National Convention is no coincidence and the decision to cancel the first planned day was also no tragedy. Over the weekend, the GOP was casting around in an attempt to re-schedule the presentations once they learned that the major networks were unlikely to carry Monday night’s feed (and Ann Romney’s speech) in full. Cancelling in the name of safety in the eye of the storm, allowed for a truncated convention in which Ann Romney would be guaranteed a prime time speaking slot in which she could attract the attention of the watching world.

Her speech was noticeable devoid of references to policy or politics, but aimed instead at the heart. At times it sounded alarmingly Palin-esque, before Mrs. Romney dovetailed into a history of her relationship with her husband and their early life together, a focus designed to appeal to ‘normal women’ not necessarily married to the son of a governor. As such this was not a speech that one can imagine Hillary Clinton having given. Ann Romey’s contribution to her husband’s life and career appears not to be as a consigliere, but rather as the steel in the spine at times of doubt.  Like Barbara Bush before her, it would appear that Ann Romney is the real power in the relationship, driving her husband’s ambition, actively supporting him in his aspiration to higher and higher political office. She is undoubtedly a great asset to her husband and his campaign. It must be asked, however, as to how much she will appeal beyond the traditional Republican base. What she said last night was unlikely to convince undecided voters that she and her husband are anything other than pleasant, moderate, successful and wealthy Americans who have been blessed with good luck and good fortune. They have made their way in the world and who now stand at the brink of political history, about to either enter a pantheon of greatness or a cupboard of also-rans.

There are clearly contradictions and areas of potential conflict. As a recipient of costly medication to treat her M/S, there are risks that Ann Romney could be drawn inevitably into any on-going debate about healthcare in the United Sates. Likewise, it will be intriguing to see how she addresses the potential for conflict that could emerge from the GOP platform document that opposes abortion but which remains conspicuously silent on issues of rape and incest. Irrespective of Governor Romney’s rejection of such a stance, this will, nevertheless be the platform that he and his fellow Republican candidates will be forced to run on and defend in debates and interviews. Even if Romney himself has declared that his potential White House will not be beholden to such a manifesto commitment, there will be plenty of Republicans who will attempt to hold him to this position, including members of congress. Would a President Romney veto a bill to overturn Roe v Wade presented to him by a Republican congress? This hypothetical situation that could all to easily become a tough reality for Ann Romney’s husband to address as President of the United Sates.

The degree to which Americans vote for a candidate on the basis of their wives is debatable. As John Kerry discovered in 2004, having a wife who was viewed unfavorably by the country can certainly be a burden. Clearly Ann Romney is no Hillary Rodham Clinton and she is certainly no Michelle Obama. What emerges from her biography is a headstrong, determined and intelligent women, dedicated to her family and determined to ensure that her husband achieves all that is possible.

Ann Romney has become the leading lady of the Republican Party this electoral cycle, a move aided by the lack of a woman on the ticket for sure, but a move designed also to draw comparisons and quell discussion of a Republican War on Women. In an election year that has seen Sandra Fluke disparaged as a whore by Republican talk show hosts for her views on access to birth control, and in which the odious topic of rape and women’s biological reaction to it has dominated debate, it is perhaps not surprising that some have suggested that the Republican Party itself is engaged in a war on women. Were the party to declare such a conflict, they would surely lose. For one thing, there are far more women than there are Republicans! Neither is it in the Republican Party’s interest to attack women. Female voters have been vital in securing the White House for Democratic candidates in 1992, 1996 and 2008. If the Republican Party could secure the long-term support of the female vote, it would have a virtual lock on the White House.

Interestingly, the Women for Mitt Romney coalition has recently launched a web site, presenting what it claims to be the priorities of American women. Absent are any references to what could be broadly termed ‘women’s issues.’ Indeed, the web site makes a distinct point that these women are Americans first and women second and the issues that are important to them are issues that should be important to all Americans, irrespective of gender.

In the United States women’s reproductive rights becomes a nation issue on an all too regular basis to the national stage, with vague threats to overturn Roe v Wade, before slinking back to the extreme wing of the Republican Party to wait for another moment to try once more to reduce women’s rights to do what they wish with their own bodies. These attempts to wage Culture Wars repeatedly backfire, as in 1992, and lead only to Democratic Party victories, fuelled by women voters.

The comments made by the Missouri Republican Party candidate for Senate, Todd Akin cast a shadow over the Romney/Ryan ticket. Not because they agree with him, they do not. They, along with members of the Tea Party, have made requests that he stand down. His refusal to do so ensures that he remains an embarrassment, not only to himself, his party but also to his nation. The Romney campaign is also forced to continue to address the statement, which diverts time and attention away from the issues that the campaign is focused on; jobs and the economy.

Women are the great-untapped resource for the Republican Party. American women have been responsible for denying the Republicans the White House on several occasions. They were singularly responsible for keeping Bill Clinton in the White House, despite his repeated indiscretions. However, as a party, the Republicans appear unable to decide how best to court their vote.

For the Republican Party to win in November it needs to consider the gender breakdown in the United States:

  • There are 157 million American women and only 151.8 million men.
  • 46.2% of American women voted in the last elections compared to 45% of men.
  • Only 43% of women voted for John McCain compared to 56% that voted for Obama in 2008.
  • Obama only carried 49% of the male vote in 2008
  • Obama appears tied with Romney for the male vote, but is ahead by up to 20% with women.

When Republicans win the female vote, they win elections, as was the case in the 2010 mid terms. The remarks by Todd Akin this week, therefore, are detrimental on a whole variety of levels. They risk identifying the Republican Party with an anti-female agenda and continuing allegations that the party is engaged in a war on women in 2012. This is exacerbated by reports that the Republican Party platform will oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The inclusion of Paul Ryan on the ticket also raises concerns. As a Catholic, Ryan has voted repeatedly for measures in Congress that have won the support of the National Right to Life Committee Group. There are also strong concerns that the Party Platform that emerges at the Convention will severely restrict access to IVF treatment in the United States.

Akin’s remarks place at risk the potential of winning the Senate seat in Missouri that seemed eminently possible until very recently. With the withdrawal of party support, his chances appear doomed. Failure to win the seat places the Republican national strategy in jeopardy and will impact the party’s hopes of retaking the Senate in November.

Akin’s remarks highlight a singular fact: Until the Republican Party learns to successfully woo the female vote, women will continue to keep the party from power. Ann Romney’s drive and support has brought her husband to the cusp of the presidency, within the margin of error in many opinion polls. The question of whether Mitt has what it takes to go the extra mile for victory and secure the female vote, will be revealed in the remaining days of this campaign…