Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.
There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.
How to evaluate the outcome of the 16 day U.S. government shutdown? Most “referees” judge that President Obama won by a knockout. “Republicans backed down,” we are told. “The President got an extension of the budget and the debt ceiling without caving in to Tea Party demands. In addition, Republicans are being blamed. No contest.”
There are, however, more losers than just the Republican Party. The image of the United States as the world leader was seriously damaged. How can the rest of the world rely on the dollar as the global currency when the Congress cannot responsibly manage its national budget and debt ceiling?
A question making the rounds during the shutdown in the U.S. asks: “What’s the difference between terrorists and the Republican Tea Party?” Answer: “At least you can negotiate with terrorists.” Having failed to overturn President Obama’s overhauling of the country’s health system, the Republicans are now threatening to have the U.S. default on all its payments on October 17. The Suicide Caucus, as it is known, failed over 40 times to pass bills to repeal Obamacare; now House Republicans are trying to defund the entire government.
Their motive is that any form of national health insurance is leading the country down the slippery slope of socialism, and obviously ruin. And from this position they will not budge. Led by a group of 80 or so members of Congress from safe districts, they are willing to not only furlough 800,000 federal government workers but on October 17 to have the government default on its debt obligations, which will send shockwaves throughout the world.
In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.
Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.
How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?
President Obama has made two decisions that are fundamentally undemocratic. No, I do not mean the potential bombing of Syria nor the request for Congress’ approval. First, President Obama has decided that his intelligence service’s analysis that President Assad has used chemical weapons is correct. Second, he has decided that he, representing the United States, speaks for the entire world. “I didn’t draw the red line, “ he said. “The international community drew the red line.”
Democracy is not just a system of voting. It is based on the recognition that others have the right to decide what an entire population should do. In a democracy, those in the minority must accept the majority’s will. The minority accepts the majority’s decision hoping that sometime in the future the roles will be reversed.
Dr. Martin Luther King's August 28, 1963, speech "I Have a Dream" has become an iconic moment. Before over 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King captured the hopes of millions of Americans for racial equality in a deeply divided country. Over time, the speech has become a rallying cry throughout the world for freedom movements, from behind the Iron Curtain to South Africa.
The three presidential debates have concluded in the United States. Millions and millions of Americans watched, 67 million for the first debate alone. Millions more watched around the world. The candidates responded to questions from two moderators and directly from an audience in a town hall type setup. Topics ranged from the economy to foreign affairs, from the record of President Obama the past four years to former Governor Romney’s performance in Massachusetts and his agenda for the future. Pundits analyzed each phrase, focus groups gave real time reactions to each sentence, each gesture. Pollsters tracked how the undecided scored the debate, how and if voters would change their choice.
Instead of asking the proverbial challengers question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” perhaps American voters should ask “Are we better informed about the candidates than we were before the debates?” What have we really learned?
In the first debate I learned that President Obama is moody. He was apathetic, distant, and almost disdainful of his opponent if not the whole process of having to debate. He appeared to be thinking of celebrating his wedding anniversary with Michelle instead of focusing on impressing voters. I learned that Governor Romney looks presidential, speaks well, and is at ease with economic statistics. He seemed confident, determined and capable as a leader in addition to being personally sympathetic when addressing the audience.
In the second debate I learned that both candidates can be petulant and testy. Neither of them was presidential in their manner, neither of them was able to raise the level of discussion beyond criticizing the other. The debate was not impressive; both candidates showed a lack of stature under pressure.
In the third debate, I learned that Mitt Romney is less at ease when discussing foreign affairs than economics. He seemed unsure of his command of the subject, although he was less petulant and frequently agreed with President Obama in contrast to his aggressiveness in the first two debates. Obama, on the other hand, was definitely in control of the subject of foreign affairs – not surprising for a sitting President – and was firm but not testy in his responses.
Do my impressions matter? First, I must admit it was tiring watching the debates in the early hours of the morning and then preparing notes to present to the media. Second, I am not sure that the debates themselves have a relationship with running the country. It all seemed about performance, about programmed responses to impress specific voters, about scoring points instead of discussing serious matters. As political historian Allan Lichtman is quoted in the International Herald Tribune of October 22, “I think there’s more of a tendency now than in the past to avoid discussion of serious problems.”
Instead of declaring Obama or Romney victorious, I would prefer to say that citizens of the United States were all losers. Neither candidate rose to the occasion. This is not to say that I have not voted. It is merely to say that the serious business of governing merits more than Super Bowl type spectacles.
October 24, 2012
"Let the games begin" is an expression usually associated with the Olympic Games. However, it might also be used for the United States primary season. The Republican primaries began on Tuesday with 6 Republicans competing in the Iowa primary to be followed on January 10 in New Hampshire. More than 1,700 local caucuses will be held on Tuesday in a state with a population of 3 million and 6 electoral votes, 1.1% of the total electoral votes.
The Arab Spring brought hope to the Middle East and North Africa. People took to the street to protest autocratic if not dictatorial rule, many using social networks with a prominent role for the young. In Athens, Madrid and London, people took to the street to protest chronic unemployment, many using social networks as well with a prominent role for the young. Where has the United States been in all of this given its similar situation of millions unemployed? The jobless rate for high school graduates now stands at over 20%.
While the protests of the late 1960's focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights, the recent populist Occupy Wall Street movement is focusing on the distribution of wealth. With official unemployment figures continuing to hover at 9%, people are protesting against the concentration of wealth associated with Wall Street's financial center. The Government bailed out large firms and banks too big to fail, but the tax money spent on them has not yet trickled down to the middle or lower classes. The TARP program has not led to increased lending or job creation while financers continue to receive huge salaries and bonuses.
What began as a small protest movement in New York three weeks ago has spread to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston and looks to be catching in other major cities as well as outside the U.S. Little formal organization is involved, with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google playing a major role. No political party is in the lead, although some labor leaders seem to be joining the movement.
It is fascinating to compare this movement with those of the 1960's. There is no clear leadership now, no Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd or Mario Savio. There is no clear organization like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or ideological statements like the Port Huron document. There are no clear objectives either such as end the war in Vietnam or desegregation. There is anger at the radical inequality in the distribution of wealth; there is anger at the failure of the government to create jobs; and there is anger at the Wall Street firms for their inability to deal with the realities of Middle America.
For the moment, neither the Republicans nor Democrats have reacted. No candidate has come forward within the two established parties like Eugene McCarthy with the Democrats; no third party movement has started. With the election of 2012 on the horizon, it is not yet clear how this grass roots movement will play into traditional two party politics. The Tea Party has become a major player moving the Republican Party to the right. Barack Obama's Democratic Party is long past being inclusive of populism. It is fascinating to see how a populist movement is developing in the United States after the Arab Spring and European demonstrations. In 1968, it was the other way around.
October 10, 2011
In his bestselling book, Senator Barack Obama describes interacting with ordinary Illinois citizens in a series of town meetings. He writes: "And sometimes someone will grab my hand and tell me that they have great hopes for me, but that they are worried that Washington is going to change me and I will end up just like all the rest of the people in power. Please stay who you are, they will say to me. Please don't disappoint us."
I'm not sure if the people of Illinois are disappointed by the performance of their Senator now President - the election in 2012 will give a clearer picture - but I am certain that the people in Palestine are disappointed by Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations. President Obama reiterated his recent position that the United States will veto any attempt to recognize Palestinian statehood in the U.N. Security Council. "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.," he said.
Were the Palestinians justified in expecting more from President Obama? Flashback to his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009: "So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." Flashback to his speech to the United Nations General Assembly of September 23, 2010: "We should reach for what's best within ourselves. If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."
The election of Barack Obama was an extraordinary moment in American history. Outside the United States as well, it raised enormous expectations. His speech in Cairo was a reaching out to the Muslim world following the divisions resulting from September 11. His message was received with the hope of those citizens in Illinois who attended his town meetings. The audacity of hope was for real change from the status quo, a real transformation from business as usual, including the realization of Palestinian statehood.
In his words and person Barack Obama led many to believe that things would be different if he were elected president. For the people of Palestine there has been no change; negotiations between Israel and the PLO have stalled and there has been no movement on the promised statehood. When Barack Obama asks us to "reach for what's best within ourselves" he should do the same. The citizens of Illinois pleaded, "Please don't disappoint us". For the people of Palestine, he has done just that.