A blast from the past

As a reminder of how markedly different the tone of Obama’s presidency is to Bush’s, here’s the announcement when Saddam Hussein was captured:

What’s most alarming about this, though, is the obsequiousness of the press.

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A new direction?

How will the death of Osama Bin Laden affect US foreign policy, and therefore us? After all, Bin Laden’s death could be used by the United States to end military operations in Afghanistan sooner than expected, or more comprehensively than was previously aimed for.

A great piece in the New Yorker earlier this month highlighted that Obama does not want to expend resources and political capital on continuing US operations in Afghanistan in the long term, or indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Instead, the President is much more concerned with refocusing US foreign policy towards the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and perhaps most importantly, China. For example, Obama was reluctant to engage in efforts to remove Colonel Gadaffi in Libya and insisted on continuing a longstanding visit to Brazil while the decision was being made – highlighting to the world his foreign policy priorities.

Yet this was a symbolic display, and in practice Obama has become entangled in the Middle East: in part because of Afghanistan but also because of the Arab uprisings earlier this year. In the last year, Obama has committed significant military resources and political capital both to Afghanistan and also to the Libyan uprising.

Bin Laden’s death now provides Obama with an opportunity to remove troops from Afghanistan sooner than expected, and refocus his resources elsewhere. Perhaps it will also affect his willingness to commit troops to other parts of the region. American popular opinion was against committing troops to Libya, and also appears to be in favour of bringing forces home from Afghanistan.

What does this mean for the United Kingdom? British troops are committed in Afghanistan, indeed, numbers increased there when Obama pushed for a troop surge. The death of Bin Laden may mean the ending of American involvement in Afghanistan, and that would surely mean the end of British involvement there too.

Further, it may also affect British assistance for Arab uprisings: following the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK is heavily reliant on the United States. As Libya has shown, we can only lead when the Americans agree to follow, and it is more likely that we ask them to lead instead.

One final thought: with the US presidential election just beginning, we may not have to wait long before President Obama sets out what he intends to do next.

Did the Guardian, NYT, etc have to pay Wikileaks?

Wikileaks was set up to freely distribute information that was secret. However, it’s notable that its most recent leak of government files was only given to five newspapers (the New York Times, Le Monde, El País and De Speigel) each of which have had monopoly access in their own country to peruse the files, redact sensitive information, and then write exclusive stories about them.

This may have happened for two reasons. First, because Wikileaks identified a need to limit initial media access in order to ensure that the story had as big an impact as possible. The editorial of the Guardian mentions that the newspapers all agreed to publication dates set by Wikileaks, stating that “co-operation with WikiLeaks has been restricted to agreeing the dates on which we could cover specific regions.” Second, the limit may have been to ensure some control of information to prevent the loss of life – both the NYT and Guardian editorials stress they have shared redactions, such as the names of informers, with Wikileaks.

But why did Wikileaks decide to give the information to those five newspapers? In limiting early access to the Wikileaks documents, won’t they will be filtered through the perspective of those newspapers?

I can only speak with some knowledge about The Guardian and the New York Times but both are seen as liberal/left-wing newspapers in their countries. Did Assange give the five newspapers access because they are closest to his worldview, and in turn hopes they will put a spin on the information which he agrees with? I’ve just read a profile of the Wikileaks founder in the New Yorker, which had unprecedented access to him this summer. It indicates that Assange does take stances on the issues referenced in the information he leaks, stating that: “To be completely impartial is to be an idiot. This would mean that we would have to treat the dust in the street the same as the lives of people who have been killed.”

Or perhaps there is an alternative reason why the five newspapers gained access to the data. The New Yorker profile shows that Assange has been pursuing a number of business models in order to fund Wikileaks, such as auctioning early access to leaks. It says: “On the principle that people won’t regard something as valuable unless they pay for it, he has tried selling documents at auction to news organizations; in 2008, he attempted this with seven thousand internal e-mails from the account of a former speechwriter for Hugo Chávez. The auction failed. He is thinking about setting up a subscription service, where high-paying members would have early access to leaks.”

So was early access to the information purchased? Or was access given because Assange believed the newspapers would be the best at reporting on it?

Higher pay wouldn’t have stopped the expenses crisis

Consider this:  “According to the United Nations, the average Kenyan makes $777 a year. Yet members of Kenya’s parliament are among the highest paid in the world, with a compensation package of £145, 565 (most of it tax-free). That is 187 times more than the country’s average income and would be the equivalent of an American congressman making $8.5 million a year. And this is simply what is earned legally.”¹

What’s worse, despite earning such a high pay, Kenya is the most corruption nation in East Africa (according to a recent report by Transparency International) and one of the most corrupt nations on earth.

Back in the UK, our MPs earn around £60,000 a year, the average wage is around £30,000 a year and yet many of our parliamentarians were tempted to take more in expenses claims.  It is often argued that, if they’d have just been given a bit more money, many MPs wouldn’t have had to file such egregious claims.

High pay in Kenya doesn’t prevent corruption, so why would paying our MPs more have prevented the expenses crisis?

¹East Africa: the most corrupt country, New York Review of Books, Jan 14th 2010.

The tyranny of the majorities

Two recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic argue that losing their majorities could boost the leadership of the US President and our Prime Minister.

This week’s New York Times magazine has an interesting feature on how losing his Senate majority could actually boost Barack Obama and help him to appear more statesmanlike – brokering deals rather than being expected to ram his aims through Congress at the speed of sound. He’ll benefit from reduced expectations and not be held to ransom by his own party, drunk on its own power. Indeed, the writer says that “a dialogue between Obama and a more powerful Republican minority on health care, for instance, might yield a bill that included deeper cost cuts and some kind of meaningful malpractice reform. And if a bill like that received more support from independent voters, moderate Republicans would be reluctant to oppose it.”

Back in the UK there’s a story in the Sunday Times that says that losing the next election could boost the Brownites’ hold over the Labour party. I remember reading not so long ago an interesting blog post by Harvard prof Pippa Norris who noted that when a party is defeated, it becomes less electable because it often loses its centre-ground representatives and keeps the hardliners in the safer seats – who are less able to identify what’s popular with the electorate¹. If Labour lose the next general election, Blairite rivals would be weakened because the party would swing towards its core base. Couple this with the fact that many of Brown’s rivals are standing down at the election and it’s perfectly plausible that Brownites could retain hold over their party.

¹ Near the bottom, she says: “The recent obdurate behavior of the GOP over the stimulus bill is extremely similar to that of the British Conservative party when it experienced a resounding defeat, following Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. Blair, like President Obama’s search for bipartisan solutions, sought to govern by straddling the middle ground. The Conservatives had been in power for eighteen years, and they had become increasingly out of touch with public opinion, which progressively shifted away from a Thatcherite philosophy of ever more tax cuts towards favoring management of better public services. Moreover the 1997 and 2001 elections led to the loss of the more moderate Conservatives, holding marginal seats, reducing the party to a rump of ideological true believers.

Downsian theory assumes that major opposition parties with ambitions for government will move towards the median voter in the pursuit of votes and therefore office. But any successful strategy of casting for votes requires that politicians can identify where these are located. The Conservatives thought that they were articulating popular polices against Blair, but they were stranded far from reality due to errors of selective perception. It took the experience of several resounding election defeats to bring new blood into the opposition party, moving the Conservatives in a more moderate direction under fresh leadership, and bringing a restoration in their viability in the opinion polls.”

“Brazenly elitist”: when soundbites go wrong?

Tomorrow’s Telegraph will lead with the news that David Cameron is to announce plans to make the selection of teachers more rigorous and increase the standard of grades required to train. It’s an appealing idea, but the soundbite he’s chosen to sell it isn’t.

Mr Cameron will promise a “brazenly elitist” approach, which brings up all the wrong associations for the former Etonian. The Conservative leader dislikes his background being used as an attack against him yet for some reason has chosen here to bring it up in the minds of those who hear his soundbite.

Of course it’s hugely unlikely that Team Cameron wouldn’t have thought of that. Perhaps this is their attempt to neutralise the term and give Tory elitism a new spin. Tory staffers will have been analysing the ’08 US election campaign in the run up to the general election later this year – Barack Obama suffered from being labelled elitist first by Hilary Clinton and then by Sarah Palin. This wasn’t because of his background but because he was keen to utilise as much academic opinion in formulating his policies, a stark contrast to the previous regime and something alien to those Americans concerned with God and guns, who perhaps would have preferred policy formulated on the basis of gut instinct not empirical data. Ivy League elitism is something the Tories would have no problem being associated with.

Yet elitism draws attention to the British elite, and given that we have a monarchy, our elite therefore isn’t that of the Ivy League and academic Ivory towers but of fox hunting, private school educated aristocrats. It’s odd that David Cameron would use the image, especially in relation to schools, and I don’t think it works. Do you?

Calling the BNP “far right” or “far left” ignores its real nature

Every month or so, someone on the right will protest that the BNP aren’t a “far right” party, they’re a “far left” party. This isn’t wrong, sometimes the BNP are a far left party but it’s rather beside the point. They flit between the ideological spectrum because they only have one firm belief: racism.

The BNP are deemed to be on the right wing because right wing parties generally hold ideas of nationhood as important, whereas the left traditionally identify more with class and particular groups which are discriminated against. The BNP’s form of nationalism – discriminating against those who it spuriously defines as “unBritish” (such as English footballer Ashley Cole) – is too extreme to warrant it being called a right wing party like the Conservatives so they are dubbed “far right”.  To call both merely right-wing would be akin to grouping the IRA with Westminster Cathedral Choir School as faith groups.

Yet calling the BNP “far right” still irritates conservatives because it still associates them with the virulent racism of the BNP. They seek to distance themselves from the BNP by calling them a “far left” group, which if you look solely at the socialist element of the BNP’s national socialism, also applies.

We reach a problem that, mostly because of political point scoring, we can’t identify the BNP without irritating upstanding people on either the left or the right. There is an answer: call them “extremist” instead.  To do otherwise tries to pin the BNP down into a spectrum only useful when examining more regular political groupings.

Labelling the BNP on anything other than their racism is a misnomer as they frequently change and adapt their other policy positions to whatever they think is most politically expedient. Only their racism is a constant, and so only a label such as extremist applies. Anything else is beside the point.