Barack Obama: Cutter in Chief

If there is one simple rule that all Democrats need to abide by in an election year it is this: Thou shalt not appear weak on national security. It was a shock therefore, when President Obama announced cuts of $487 billion over ten years to the US defence budget, just eleven months before polling day.

Now, Obama doesn’t need to seek re-nomination and he can stand back and smile as the Republican go through the motions of 50 primaries to eventually select the one guy who has been the front-runner all along. However, it seems very strange for a Democrat to cut defence expenditure in election year and thereby open himself up to the easy accusation of being soft on defence and anti-military, especially when he has never served in any capacity.

The president has made references to fiscal prudence to cut federal expenditure and the national debt, currently running at eye watering levels. But this money will not be saved or used to pay of the debt; instead it will almost certainly be redistributed and spent on domestic programmes. The cuts announced so far amount to a 10-15% cut in the Army and Marine Corps personnel, on the basis that people and their families are expensive. Rather than investing in manpower, 80,000 troops will be cut over ten years, along with what is being referred to as ‘outdated air systems.’ The growth area will be in non-manned technology. That’s drones for the uninitiated.

There are international implications for all of this, since the UK is awaiting delivery of US fighter jets to launch from our as yet un-built aircraft carrier(s). If these get axed as part of the cuts, then the already laughable series of events surrounding the deployment of the UK’s carrier will only continue, as it will be an aircraft carrier with no aircraft to deploy, making it rather more difficult for Britannia to lay any claim to rule the waves.

It is vital to place these cuts in context. The US is not packing up its many tents and withdrawing to a fortress America. This is not Ron Paul’s wildest dream come true, after all. In ten years, after these cuts, the US defence budget will still be larger than that inherited by President Obama and will still be larger than the next ten largest defence spending nations combined. Thankfully (!?) the budget will increase with inflation. So that’s ok!

What is likely to be particularly contentious is the new focus of US foreign policy. Since he arrived in the White House, there has been speculation that Obama was seeking to focus on Asia and the Pacific. In the past three years we have seen his efforts to do so bear little fruit, with what appeared to be a decision to recognise the inevitable and to continue the Special Relationships America enjoys in Europe. However, this announcement makes it clear that the United States intends to refocus its efforts on the Pacific and on the challenges it faces in that region.

It is easy to forget here in Europe that the US is a Pacific power not just an Atlantic power and that it is equally clear that current threat predictions stem from the east, not the west. But this heavy-handed declaration of intent is tantamount to sabre rattling. One wonders when American leaders will wake up to the way in which they un-necessarily provoke negative reactions in other nations and their respective leaders?

There is no doubt that after a decade’s worth of increased defence expenditure caused by the attacks of September 11 a reversion to peacetime expenditure was inevitable and logical, but the timing of this announcement raises a serious question as to whether this is driven by defence needs or budgetary necessity? Also, announcing cuts whilst throwing down the gauntlet to Iran and China and presumably North Korea appears to be contradictory, and risks inflaming the situation. Targeting the Asia-Pacific region and cyber warfare is a red flag in Beijing and a direct challenge to the developing Chinese navy and their anti-ship weaponry.

The cuts also end the Pentagon’s much vaunted ‘two war concept,’ which was being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the switch to the Pacific and away from Europe, we had better hope that this is the right decision and that no historic powers decide to rearm in the face of growing austerity at home. The decision to reduce manpower is also intriguing considering the clearly stated focus on the emerging threat from China. Figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reveal that in 2010 Chinese had 2,285,00 active service personnel, 800,000 reservists and 1,500,000 paramilitary, making a total Chinese military capacity of 4,585,000. The same figures for the United States reveal 1,468,363 active servicemen, 1,458,500 reservists and 11,035 paramilitary, making a total of 2,937,899. Go do the math. The US better hope that when it comes time for a conflict in the Pacific, its much vaunted unmanned aerial technology is able to prevent China from deploying its army of over 4 and a half million.

Of course, history reveals that such cuts will be reversed if hostilities were to break out, with a massive ramp up in defence expenditure. The risk is that this would be a reflexive action that could be too little too late. The president announced the cuts in the press briefing room at the Pentagon, the first time that this has happened, whilst surrounded by his top brass. Obama is clearly determined to put his stamp in the announcement and demonstrate the support he has in the chain of command. Only time will tell if those who are saluting him today will be voting for Mitt Romney in November.

The Elephant Race Trundles On

So, 2 states down, 48 to go. That will no doubt be a disappointment to James Fenton of the Evening Standard, whose recent article of January 6 (“While Republicans flounder, the mood is turning ugly”) called for Republicans to unite ‘sooner rather than later…to call the fight off before the party hurts itself.’ What a misguided sentiment, calling apparently for a coronation rather than a competition. Thankfully the founders of the United States preferred democracy to Fenton’s suggested model and that is exactly what is going to play out across all 50 states in the coming months.

Last night’s New Hampshire Primary saw the unsurprising victory of local candidate Mitt Romney, winning with 39% of the vote, 1 % short of the magic number required before Sir Christopher Meyer promised to eat one of famous red socks. Romney’s ability to win in New Hampshire was never really in doubt; what was going to be telling was the gap between first and second and who it was that would win silver in New Hampshire. After Iowa, there was speculation that Rick Santorum would continue to surprise. Not so much. With just 9% of the vote, the former senator from Pennsylvania must be disappointed that the momentum he so required has thus far failed to materialise in a development that could prove fatal as the race heads south to the Carolinas and to Florida.

Santorum is, however, far from being the biggest loser of the night, although that honour is perhaps shared. John Huntsman bet the farm on winning New Hampshire and didn’t, coming in a distant third with 17%. Likewise Newt Gingrich needed to impress and didn’t, also taking just 9%. One wonders how Gingrich’s renowned ego will handle the fact that 91% of Republicans voted for someone else? How he must lament not running in 1996.

It was no great surprise that Rick Perry failed to improve on his shockingly low Iowa result of just 1%, which remained constant. Of course it could have been worse, his vote could have collapsed altogether. Perry is gambling on a huge showing in South Carolina, where, if truth be told, his campaign was always going to begin, but surely, even in their worst nightmares, his campaign staff can’t have imagined gaining just 1% in the opening two elections?

And finally, before I am accused of ignoring him altogether, we come to Ron Paul; Third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire. That is quite an achievement and as usual it is being quite overlooked. Why is this? I think frankly that the media recognises that he cannot possibly win. Paul is that classic character that appears in the American political arena every now and then; someone who is more interested in speaking his mind than in necessarily winning an election. As was said of Barry Goldwater, he is more interested in being right than in being president. Now, before anyone jumps up and down, I’m not comparing the politics of the two men, merely their refreshing capacity to declare boldly their opinions and to stand by them, something that is all too rare in political life.

Clearly Ron Paul’s message is striking a cord with a solid core of Republican voters and the Party should take heed. It is my view that they will ignore it in the hope that it will go away, or come home to the roost when it realises that the alternative is guaranteeing four more years of Barack Obama in the White House. This is a dangerous gambit that risks either an independent run by Ron Paul (which he has discounted, but never say never in politics) or the disillusionment of 20% of Republican voters who could simply stay at home in November. A Republican victory against the incumbent was going to be a challenge and they cannot simply dismiss a fifth of their potential electorate if they wish to win.

The reaction to Paul  is predicated on the basis that if Romney is to face a serious Republican candidate it is not going to be Ron Paul, but rather SOMEONE ELSE. I stress this, because at present it is impossible to determine who, if anyone, this will be. The results from last night indicate a major problem for the Republican Party: 61% of New Hampshire Republican Primary goers voted for someone other than Mitt Romney. If one discounts the Paul vote as one of protest, that still leaves 38% of Republicans backing candidates other than Romney, virtually the same number as support him. What does this demonstrate? Simply that the anti-Romney vote is currently being distributed around too many candidates. It is a sad thing for any candidate to have to consider dropping out after only two votes, but the alternative is to limp on to further ignominy. Democracy is a great concept, but ego threatens to lead to an unintended coronation. Santorum appears to be a spent force; as is Huntsman. Both they and Perry must surpass expectations in South Carolina and Florida if they are to have any chance of halting Romney. If these three fail to do so they should contemplate the painful option of dropping out and endorsing whoever remains, perhaps Newt Gingrich, as an alternative to Romany. To do otherwise is to continue to split the anti-Romney vote and thereby guarantee the nomination of a mediocre candidate who fails to engender excitement among his own party and who will fail to be an adequate challenger for the presidency in November.

Live Free or Die: New Hampshire Primary Day

Well here we are folks, it’s the first primary in the 2012 presidential election. In many ways, it should all begin here; after all, as John Huntsman reminded us recently, ‘they pick corn in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Cute line and only offensive to the 122,000 Republicans that may have voted for him out of 3,400,000 Iowans. Cute and sometimes true. This year things may get interesting. The press are trotting out a nice line to the effect that no Republican has won Iowa and New Hampshire and that at present, Mitt Romney is on course to do just that. Let me stress the last two words; ‘just that.’ Recall his winning margin of 8 votes in Iowa? When LBJ won an election in Texas by a similarly close margin he was tagged ‘Landslide Lyndon’ for the rest of his career (or ‘Lyin’ Lyndon in less polite society). Such is the onus on the front runner, to stay running and to stay at the front.

The problem for Mitt Romney (who appears to have been running for president since, well, forever), is that his fellow Republicans don’t appear to be convinced in any way shape or form by his candidacy. He ‘won’ the Iowa Caucus by 8 votes, and in the process gained the same amount of electors as second place Rick Santorum, who spent far less in the state and who may well have been denied victory by the stone age voting system employed in the state. (Did anyone tell them it’s now the 21st century?)

As a virtual favourite son Romney was 20 points ahead in the New Hampshire polls and a sure thing to win, thereby becoming, as the press have mentioned, the first Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire. His capacity to win both states is something of a geographical fluke in reality; having thrown money around like it was going out of fashion in Iowa and relying on his local status for victory in New Hampshire. Truth be told, you don’t get many Republicans in Massachusetts.

One of the tricks in an election is to peak on Election Day, as George W. Bush arguable did on Election Day 2004. It really doesn’t matter how popular you are the following day, just as long as more people vote for you on Election Day than anyone else. Romney may well win tonight, indeed, he probably will, but the margin of victory will be telling. Until last week he was 20 points ahead and cruising. Then came Iowa and since then his numbers began to slide and slide and slide. Romney therefore faces the problem of being more popular two weeks prior to the big day than on the day itself, which raises the challenge of what George Herbert Walker Bush called, the Big Mo, or in language adults would use, Momentum.

In coming in 8 votes clear in Iowa and with his numbers cratering in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is singularly failing to develop any momentum to carry him into the far from welcoming southern states of South Carolina and Florida. Perception is everything in politics, and the perception/truth of the matter, is that currently, anywhere between 70-75% of Republican voters are voting for someone else. Out of a weak field of candidates, Mitt Romney is constantly the least bad candidate, a point beautifully captured in the season premier of Saturday Night Live.

In many ways Romney and Obama have a similar situation; both are lucky in terms of their opponents.

If the Republican right could coalesce around an agreed upon candidate (as high ranking members of the party are meeting to arrange) then Romney’s candidacy could be doomed. However, if the 75% of Republicans who won’t vote for Romney continue to split their preference between the likes of Gingrich, Paul, Perry, huntsman and Santorum, then Romney can keep on making gaffes about (“I like firing people”) all day long, before losing in the general election to an even luckier candidate, President Barack Obama.

Today, then, is all about the final number. It would appear impossible for Romney not to win the vote tonight. It is, however, entirely possible, that just like Iowa, he could win the battle of the vote and lose the war of perception

JDB on Talk Radio Europe This Evening

I will be returning to the international airwaves this evening in discussion with Lisa Grant of Talk Radio Europe.

As 2012 draws near the political race in the United States is beginning to heat up and we will be discussing the sudden rise of Newt Gingrich, the overall political situation in the U.S and the rise of violence on the Mexican side of the border.

Tune in

JDB on London’s LBC 97.3 fm Tonight at 21:20 GMT

I will be returning to the airwaves for the second time today to be in discussion with Kevin Maguire, sitting in for Iain Dale on LBC 97.3 fm.

Not surprisingly perhaps I will be addressing the international reaction to the events that have transpired in Libya, and the expected American reaction in particular. With allegations of having ‘led from behind’ how will the White House react now that the ‘Mad Dog’ has been overthrown?

Given the historic role that the United States has played with regard to Libya what will the direction of policy be under the new regime? Will President Obama seek to exploit this event in the presidential election of 2012, coupled with his administration’s success in killing Osama bin Laden?

What will the reaction be of the European powers who were at the forefront of efforts to remove Gaddafi from power? Where will this leave the relationships between Cameron and Hague, between Downing Street and the FCO? And spare a thought for Liam Fox, forced to resign before a potential hour of glory.

These issues and more will be addressed in what will no doubt be a fascinating interview. Tune in online at:

JDB Addresses ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Movement on Talk Radio Europe

Ahead of my departure for Los Angeles I have recorded an interview with Lisa Grant of Talk Radio Europe addressing the growing unrest across the United States that is occurring under the banner of Occupy Wall Street.

With reports of unrest and disturbances on both sides how will this ply out in light of the forthcoming presidential election? Will the protestors get their way or will their very efforts undermine their aspirations for change and contribute instead to a backlash akin to the Silent Majority of the late 1960s?

Tune in on October 12 at 20:20 GMT to hear my thoughts on this.

You may also be interested in this piece by Tim Stanley in the Telegraph.

US Governmental Shutdown Looms Large Again

Earlier in the summer the threat of a government shutdown loomed large in Washington with wild predictions in some circles that President Obama would be forced to implement the 14th amendment to the Constitution to keep the government ticking over. That didn’t happen of course. Instead, as I suggested on Sky News, the politicians in DC merely kicked the problem into the long grass in the hope that the issue would be resolved. It hasn’t been and the issue is back once again as the end of the fiscal year arrived on Friday. Continuing resolutions are no way to run the United State’s government.
At a time when world markers are plummeting and investors and citizens are looking for signs of confidence in the market, politicians in Washington are doing their utmost to worsen the situation. Blame can be spread around and suggestions that this is simply a Tea Party roadblock are misleading, if for no other reason than that such a party doesn’t really exist as a single entity. Leaders from both sides of the aisle need to unite for the long term interests of the nation.
Policymakers and lawmakers need to recognise the damage that is being done not only to markets but also to the long term reputation of the United States by their actions. Critics enjoy analysing American hegemonic decline. Their work is made easier by the very individuals sent to Washington to prevent such an event.