The State of the Union Address

With the presidential election looming on the horizon (well, ok, technically it’s at the end of NEXT year, but you understand), tonight’s State of the Union address is a vital occasion for President Obama. In recent weeks his polls have improved and it seems he has ‘benefited’ from the shooting in Arizona. Just as in 1995, the crazies may end up saving a liberal Democrat president by making him appear to be the voice of moderation in a world gone insane. Political violence is the great spectre that risks over-shadowing the forthcoming election cycle. It remains the great taboo in American politics, but that is a matter that will have to await another occasion…

Tonight will be Obama’s chance to showcase his credentials in primetime, to an audience of millions, at home and around the world. Forget what you may think, this is quickly becoming a global presidency, with the eyes of the world focused on the Capitol Building tonight. This is not simply a speech for the chamber. Tonight really marks the start of the race for the White House in 2012. A poor speech will knock the president off track, force him onto the defensive and give impetuous to the Republicans. A strong speech will remind Americans as to why they voted for Obama, of what he stands for, what he is against and what he has done so far. If Obama has demonstrated a weakness so far, it is in providing a narrative of his time in office. This needs to change, big time and tonight needs to be all about that change. Not ‘change we can believe in,’ but change that is tangible.

Two years ago, Obama basked in the glory of election and seeming universal adulation. Tonight he stands before the American people and those of us overseas who recognise the importance of the speech, as an older, hopefully wiser chief executive. I say hopefully because so far there is not necessarily the evidence that the Obama team have learned the lessons that Clinton did in the mid 90s, but time will tell. Obama has one big advantage going into the election season: No credible challenger from within his own party or even the Republicans. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has a singular claim to fame: An apparent inability not to burst into tears at any given moment: Hardly Commander-in-Chief material. His propensity for handkerchiefs is exacerbated by the prowling lipstick–wearing Pit-Bull/Grizzly Mama Bear better known as Sarah Palin, whose shameless self-promotion and inability to take one foot out of her mouth without replacing it with the other, makes her a rather inauspicious, though highly compelling candidate: In the same way that people watch NASCAR for the impact collisions. Of vital importance is the lack of a challenger for the Democratic Party’s nomination. I say vital because of a singular, salient fact: Incumbents who do not face a battle for their party’s nomination secure re-election. Period. Those who have to fight a rearguard action lose. End of story.

Obama’s mission tonight is to emerge head and shoulders above his Republican opponents. In the past they have actually helped him in this exercise by proving equal to their lowly billing. Tonight Obama needs to set out a path to re-election that ignores the results of the 2010 midterms and focuses on the big-picture; jobs, security, prosperity and legacy issues. He needs to think about what he wants Americans to be doing in January 2013. He needs to paint a picture of that and in so doing, make it happen, just as the Gipper and Clinton proved so capable of doing.

America’s greatest presidents have been those that have given voice to America’s greatest hopes for tomorrow and found a way to communicate that vision in an articulate and accessible manner. Tonight is Obama’s opportunity to continue to wide the wave he mounted in his reaction to the Tucson shooting (expect a massive play on this).

Can he do so? Can he deliver? Can he read from his teleprompters? Time will tell…

It was 50 years ago today…….

On a bitterly cold morning, 50 years ago today, crowds gathered before the east front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to hear the inaugural address of America’s 35th president. The crowds gathered that day, squeezed in between the east front and the Library of Congress, witnessed perhaps the greatest inaugural address in history.The youngest man to deliver an inaugural address and the first born in the twentieth century, the words and images from that day continue to resonate throughout the ages.  The expectations had not been high and certainly there was little in Kennedy’s previous rhetoric to suggest that the speech would be so memorable, but drawing upon the best of his campaign speeches, JFK and his aides, including Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson drafted a speech for the ages.

The inaugural was the harbinger of things to come; a golden age of public rhetoric and soaring addresses. From the White House to Rice University, from Berlin to Fort Worth, Kennedy’s inspiring words would deliver a message of hope and unity, of ideas and ideals. Kennedy would use humour to diffuse tension and self-deprecation to lighten the tone. He appreciated the absurdities of life and used irony in an attempt to explain it away as best he could.    

50 years on the address continues to resonate. The soaring rhetoric, the delivery, the overall imagery of that day continue to capture the imaginations of millions who were not born on that cold day in January 1961. The hope and the energy that the speech conveyed continues to inspire new generations to leadership, not only in the United States, but around the globe. The glow of the fire continues to light the way for those who believe in a better tomorrow and a more perfect world. The life of President Kennedy was stilled in tragic  circumstances, but his memory, his inspiration and his words live on in those of us who hold his life as an example to follow, a charge to keep and a cause to champion…

The Presidential Moment

What distinguishes one presidency from another? What ensures that some presidents remain virtually anonymous, whilst others live on as household names? To some degree it is their ability to seize the Presidential Moment. History reveals that whilst presidents may take office they do not necessarily become embraced by the nation until later in their term since they struggle to cloak themselves in the aura of the presidency until an event forces them to do so.

Wondering what I mean by this?

The assassination attempt on Reagan brought the country behind Ronnie in a way that seems to have been unlikely had the event not occurred. The Gipperr’s survival, coming less than 20 years after the national tragedy in Dallas, transformed him into a national icon who had literally taken one for the team and come through, smiling, joking and promising a new dawn. Morning in America was very nearly America in mourning, but Reagan’s living presence become the embodiment of the 1980s and a touchstone for Republican leaders ever since. Granted, Reagan had little say in the matter, but his resilience and personality counted. What impressed the American people was the manner in which he faced the situation and his ability to deliver a few gags with his surgeons before being operated on.  (“I hope you’re all Republicans”)

Flash forward to 1995. Bill Clinton was rapidly on his way to being a one-term president. He had been elected with 43% of the popular vote, had failed to secure health care, had made a hash of the gays in the military row, had failed to get two candidates appointed Attorney General, had the White-water issue hanging over his head, was facing claims of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, claims of inappropriate behaviour by his former Arkansas state troopers and his party had just lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. The meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich even forced Clinton to explain his continued relevancy live on CNN thanks to the impertinence of Judy Woodruff. This was a president who had nowhere to go but back to Arkansas.

And then the Federal Building was attacked in Oklahoma City.

This one event galvanised Clinton and he found his Presidential Moment. In a time of national tragedy, the eyes of the nation and its collective media turned not to the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, but the President of the United States, and for the first time, Clinton proved equal to his office. His task was made somewhat easier by the ties the bombers had to right-wing militias, but his speech in Oklahoma spoke of compassion and the need to unify as a nation. It brought the nation together and in an instant transformed Bill Clinton into the living embodiment of the President of the UNITED States, not just an elected official. From that point on, his operation was smoother, his ratings improved, as he correctly assumed the mantle of the office. His capacity to do so and he benefit he would draw from it, even helped him overcome the impeachment crisis of his second term, though it would not be enough to guarantee the election of his vice president.

Gore’s defeat gave rise to another presidency that took time to assume the full powers of the office. George W. Bush took office in the aftermath of the protracted debacle in Florida and his inaugural parade was the first to be declared a National Security Event by the US Security Services. His motorcade was raced through Lafayette Park to avoid the crowds who were already protesting against Bush, arguably before his presidency had even begun. For the following eight months Bush managed to risk relations with Russia by withdrawing from the AMB Treaty, risk relations with China over a downed spy plane, and alienated much of the world by failing to endorse the Kyoto agreement.

And then came 9/11.

Interestingly, however, Bush’s initial reaction to the national tragedy was not perceived well. To ensure the safety of the office of the presidency, the Secret Service demanded that Air Force One fly from Florida to Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana and then on to the US Strategic Command centre in Offutt, Nebraska. Meanwhile, on the ground in lower Manhattan, the world’s media was focused on Ruddy Guiliani, the outgoing Mayor of New York, who was about to be christened Mayor of the World in a performance that would put the nation’s leader in the shade. Even when Bush was able to return to the White house, his performance in front of the cameras was not inspiring, as he virtually ran from the Oval Office in tears.

Yet Bush did find his Presidential Moment in the midst of the rubble of the Twin Towers when he spoke to rescue workers. Speaking through a megaphone (bullhorn) he famously told his audience (who were having trouble hearing him) “I hear you, the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will all of us soon.” In a single moment, he became THE president of the United States and brought together a grieving nation and a shocked world. Arguably, for a short time, President Bush could have done much to unify the world into a new era of peace and harmony. Beyond the individual tragedies of that day, this lost opportunity looms large as an historical blunder of epic proportions. Regardless, Bush’s ability to seize his presidential moment ensured his re-election in 2004 and allowed him to remain in office far longer than many had predicted in his initial months.

His place in the Oval Office would be taken by the first non-white president, Barack Obama, whose election was likened to a new start for America after the Bush years. Yet as Bush alienated the left, so too would Obama alienate the right, who saw him as elitist and too eager to introduced social policies that ran counter to the American can-do attitude. His right to govern was questioned by ‘birthers’ who claimed he was not an American citizen and by those who claimed he was a Muslim. With the losses incurred in the 2010 mid-term elections, many were predicting a one-term presidency for Obama.

Whilst that may still be a possibility, the assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Giffords and the president’s speech at the national memorial service appears to have been the moment that Obama seized the Presidential Moment. Even Glen Beck of Fox News, credited Obama with finding his voice and of rising to the occasion.

Not all presidencies are equal. Some presidents go their entire term in office without finding their presidential voice, or having a true presidential moment. But recent history has revealed a series of administrations were this has occurred, and in that moment, a nationally elected but still regional figure transforms. In that moment, his previous life is cast off and he becomes the President of the United States, a unifying figure capable of uniting the nation and guiding it towards a new dawn. The coming months will reveal the extent to which Obama is capable of emulating the likes of Clinton, Bush and Reagan. The rewards are there for he taking if he can do so, as is electoral oblivion if he does not… 

Political Violence and the United States

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this weekend has come as a terrible shock to the state of Arizona, to the United States and to the wider world. However, as I mentioned on Sky News this morning, perhaps the most dramatic element to this tragic event is the targeting of a young and relatively obscure female member of the lower house of congress. In the past, assassination attempts have focused on high-profile men, usually presidents or at least presidential candidates.

Barack Obama came to prominence claiming that there was no such think as red states or blue states, only the United States. Two years into his presidency, however, the U.S. is a deeply divided nation, and the divisions are only getting deeper and more pronounced. No longer is heartfelt political dialogue possible in some sections of society, as groups unite to wage political war on one another. Much has been made of the use of ‘targets’ on web sites to focus on certain districts for victory. This was not unique, not is the use of harsh rhetoric in politics. What is concerning, however, is the depth of disdain that has emerged. No longer can one merely disagree. Instead, opponents are savaged, tarred and feathered as being anti-American, and accused of dark plots, designed to radically alter the direction of the country and set it on the path to socialism.

In 2010 I was a visiting fellow at the University of North Dakota’s Centre for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. In October I received the keys to Grad Forks, the university’s hometown, having given a speech entitled The Perpetual War on Terrorism, in which I warned against the rise in political violence in the United States. What follows is an excerpt from that address:

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For the vast majority of its existence, the United States has benefited from its strategic geo-political position. With abundant natural resources, expansive land mass and weak neighbours to its north and south, the United States was able to thrive in relative and fluctuating isolation from the rest of the world. As the rest of the world suffered at the hands of one extremist group after another, the United States took great pride in having avoided any such attacks and the attending fear that such atrocities can strike into the heart of the populace. Indeed this was a primary boast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, who saw the lack of domestic political violence as a vindication of his methods and of his agency.

Just as the United States remained apparently unscathed, the European continent in particular was inundated with sporadic acts of extreme political violence. From the IRA in the UK, to the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany, from the Basque ETA group in Spain to the actions of Carlos the Jackal, few, if any, European nations were spared the horrors of terrorism in the Twentieth Century. Indeed political violence in the form of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria triggered the First World War, an event that formed part of a seven-year cycle in which anarchists assassinated President Carnot of France, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the prime minister of Spain and King Humbert of Italy. As the century progressed so the body count grew: The IRA attempted to assassinate two British Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher and John Major and succeeded in killing Lord Mountbatten and MPs Airey Neave and Ian Gow. In Italy, Premier Aldo Moro was kidnapped and shot to death in 1978 and an assassination attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II, as the nation came under the grip of ‘Red Brigade’ factions. Political violence also led to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and foreign minister Anna Lindh. Elsewhere, assassins claimed the lives of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin, Rajiv and Indira Ghandi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Anarchism aside, much of this could be explained in terms of religious or political struggles that predated the modern era. Time and again leaders were struck down by groups dedicated to the promotion of an ideology or religion that they felt were threatened by the political status quo. Indeed, what differentiated the events in Europe and the rest of the world from the United States was the manner in which such events were implemented. Political violence on the European continent was uniformly seen as the act of groups, conspiring to overthrow leaders in an attempt to implement a specific philosophy, even if that was mere anarchy, with motivations ranging from the religious to the ideological and covering both extremes of the political spectrum.

Yet the United States could not escape acts of political violence, irrespective of claims made by Director Hoover, for the history of the United States is littered with such acts. Indeed, the aforementioned anarchist movement claimed the life of President William McKinley in the first year of the Twentieth Century. This led President Theodore Roosevelt to commence the first international effort to eliminate terrorism, stating, “anarchy is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band together against the Anarchist. His crimes should be made a crime against the law of nations…declared by treaties among all civilized powers.”[i] TR’s motivations, of course, were a little cloudy, as he had ascended to the presidency as a direct result of the political violence that had claimed the life of President McKinley.

In the United States, however, political violence has almost always been explained as the deranged and misguided acts of lone madmen. From the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King or many other political leaders, such acts are rarely explained as being the result of conspiracies, but rather of disturbed, lonely young men, eager to make their mark on history, even if it is the last thing that they ever do. Little wonder, therefore, that few in Europe accept the official verdicts of such events, when they stand in stark contrast to the European experience. There are exceptions of course; the Klan and the Weather Underground amongst them, but the lone individual is the norm in America, with more recent examples including Ted Kazinski, Eric Rudolph, and John Hinckley.[ii] Also, the political origins of American political violence would appear to be from the extreme right, as opposed to the European experience of terror from the Marxist/Leninist left. American fanatics, it seems are concerned about too much government as opposed to too little!

These differences raise questions pertaining to the variances in the societal and political make-up of the two continents and their governmental structures, variances that require placement in the correct historical and political context. To do so, it is instructive to consider the actions and motivations of a successive number of administrations in order to ascertain the extent to which the United States has been waging a war against political violence and the degree to which this has succeeded to date. In so doing it is possible to ascertain patterns of behaviour and rhetoric and of repeated attempts by the United States to proffer apparently simple solutions to ancient hatreds only to be surprised when such platitudes provoke a backlash that perpetuates a new cycle of violence that has dragged the United States into an apparent nightmare of its own making.

 ________

As American mourns its dead and continues its vigil for Congresswoman Giffords, it would do well to consider the lessons that have failed to be learnt from similar events in the past and how such lessons could be applied in the aftermath of this tragedy. To ignore history is to be condemned to relive it. Right now, America is continuing in a national nightmare due to its innate inability to learn the lessons of its own history. President Obama’s responsibility now is to follow President Clinton’s efforts in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, to unite the nation in grief, and in a shared vision of tomorrow.


[i] President Theodore Roosevelt, quoted by David C. Rapaport, ‘The Fours Waves of Modern Terrorism,’ in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004, 52

[ii] Respectfully, The Unabomber, the individual who sought to disrupt the Atlanta Olympics with a pipe bomb, and President Reagan’s would-be assassin.

A Sub-Plot on the Sub-Continent

With the midterm elections out of the way, President Obama has travelled to India and Indonesia in his latest effort to show a new face of American leadership in parts of the world that have previously lacked for such attention. Much has been made of his public diplomacy and efforts to dance in particular, but there is far more at stake here than the street credibility of Barack Obama.

Cold, hard, power politics are at the heart of the trip, with the president looking to secure up to 20 individual agreements worth $10bn for American producers, including General Electric and Boeing. At stake here is the president’s domestic standing since such deals could secure up to 54,000 American jobs, vital if the U.S. economy is going to recover in time for the re-election campaign that in many respects is already underway, but which will kick off in earnest in a little over a year’s time in the snows of New Hampshire and Iowa.

The price of generating such business in India is presidential support for a proposed Indian seat on the UN Security Council. This was not quite an announcement of active support for such an eventuality, but will regardless aggravate Pakistan at a time when the U.S. is in desperate need of their support on the AfPak boarder. Similar pronouncements were made regarding Japan and Germany in the 1990s, to no avail. This latest bout of posturing to a host nation, however, is indicative of the degree to which the American president has been reduced to a travelling salesman, promoting U.S. business interests in an effort to improve his own domestic political standing.

In addition to visiting India, Obama has continued his outreach to Muslim nations in Indonesia, his home as a child. Obama’s efforts in the face of repeated ambivalence and perceived reduced American leverage in the world carry great risks, both internationally and domestically. On the world stage, few expect a rapprochement anytime soon as the outreached hand continues to be met with an iron fist. Domestically, efforts to engage with the world’s largest Muslim nations will likely inflame tensions, with a stubborn percentage clinging to the belief that their president is a Muslim and ineligible for office as a foreigner. Such fears were played out in the mid-term elections this month, which saw Obama’s Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives.

Obama’s ability to continue his outreach to foreign lands will be curtailed by this result. Although he can now highlight Republican intransigence, he will also face investigations and hearings into policy and personnel as he prepares to seek re-election. In similar circumstances, previous presidents have sought solace abroad. Obama’s salvation however, can only come from the American electorate. Irrespective of foreign popularity, he must seek to rebuild his credentials as a president for the American people if he stands any hope of becoming a global statesman in a potential second term.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Hundred Days And Counting…

So, one hundred days after the tumultuous events that followed the 2010 general election, what have we learnt about the coalition government and its approach to foreign policy?

For one thing, Cameron appears to have taken to the job like a duck to water. No apparent hesitation or diffidence has been evident. Neither have signs of self-doubt or insecurity. Whilst he clearly relishes the role of statesman, he is secure enough in his own skin to have appointed the very credible William Hague as Foreign Secretary, who has gone about breathing new life into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Key policy decisions have already been made and announced regarding Britain’s role in the world, and the direction the nation intends to take in the 5 years of this government.

Cameron’s foreign trips have proven to be a success, even when failure was forecast. No apparent problems dealing with the White House, despite the all too problematic situation concerning BP. His declarations that followed, regarding Israel and Pakistan have been rounded on (unsurprisingly) by David Milliband, and praised by our former man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer. Take your pick as to who to side with. (Here’s a hint, he wears red socks…) Intriguingly, these declarations, on the status of Gaza and of terrorism in Pakistan, came after the meeting at the White House and not before. Could this be a new strategy in the Special Relationship, of good cop (Obama), and straight talking bad cop (Cameron)? It’s too early to tell, but it is worth pondering as the weeks unfold…

With a new foreign policy initiative and a new defence policy on the horizon, Cameron has sought to revitalise UK foreign policy. With the newly inaugurated National Security Council, he has sought to restructure the decision-making process and in so doing, bring both policies and procedures into the 21st century.

One hundred days in, so far, so good…

For more on this, see my interview on Aljazeera, August 18, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will D.C. be received in DC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Would ‘W’ Do?

So here we are now, several weeks on and the BP situation is going from bad to worse. What started out as an environmental disaster is heading for something far worse. At risk now is the future of an organisation employing thousands of people around the world (including the United States) the pension funds of untold individuals whose portfolio managers have invested in the blue chip company, the immediate future of the Special Relationship and an American presidency.

Of these, the latter is worth pondering in some detail.

Some eighteen months ago, Barack Hussein Obama came to power in a barrage of good will and even better press. Gone it appeared, were the dark days of W and knee-jerk reactions to events and people. Here, it was believed, was an intelligent and thoughtful individual who would articulate wisely the thoughts and beliefs of a nation to a wider world in such a way as to reinvigorate the United States on the world stage.

Yet in this escapade, one finds the new boss, much like the old boss. With attacks coming from all sides, Obama appears to be asking only one salient question, “What would W do?”

His answer, alas, appears to be to find an easily identified foreign enemy and blast away in an effort to divert attention from American failings. In this he has been aided by a flawed response from BP that has done little if anything to help the situation. Content to put short-term domestic political considerations ahead of long-term international relationships, Obama is falling into a well laid trap that has now seen him equate the incident in the Gulf to 9/11.

All of which will be red meat to the Republicans, who can now say either that Obama is exploiting both tragedies to aid his political ends, or that in so doing, Obama reveals an ignorance of the impact that 9/11 had on the American people. And in both claims they would be absolutely correct. Keep an eye on this and see how it plays out. My guess is that you are going to be hearing this quote over and over again in attack ads in the fall. It is a major mis-calculation by the president and it could well be his undoing in the fall elections.

Obama’s willingness to say and do anything to divert attention away from any debate to do with oversight of the oil business, any discussion concerning the ownership of the platform and the casual ease with which he suggests that private individuals should be fired, is woeful behaviour that would be slammed if it were muttered by any Republican president. It would appear that Obama is still benefiting from a media-love-in that carried this untried, unqualified Senator to  the White House.

The effort to prove that this is not Obama’s Katrina is backfiring in ways that could never have been imagined. During Katrina, it simply appeared that Bush could care less about certain elements within American society and that the federal government was inept when it came to dealing with a natural disaster.

Now it appears that Obama could care less about relations with America’s oldest ally, and that the federal government continues to be inept at regulating the oil industry or at responding to environmental disasters. As each day passes, Obama is looking less and less like the great hope, and more and more like a previous Democratic president who came to know the impact that an oil crisis could have on a presidency and paid a heavy price: Jimmy Carter. Unless he is able to find the voice and the direction that propelled him to victory in 2008, Obama risks repeating Carter’s abbreviated occupation of the Oval Office.