Monthly Archives: November 2012

Carry On Levant

Another short war for Israel then, accompanied by the repetitive chimes of every ineffectual politician calling for a cessation of hostilities and a return to the negotiation table. No issue validates the name of this blog more than this particular one, as I draw a notably prolonged sigh of frustrated fatigue. I feel wearied enough but to imagine the sense of futility experienced by someone of even one generation above me, who had maybe only a few more years of exposure to this endless feud, is deeply unpleasant.

My interpretation of the situation is that the current approach is equivocal to flogging a long dead horse and I don’t want to go anywhere near the suggestions of one side doing this or the other that, or if this happened then maybe that could happen, but ultimately it has to start with putting down the guns and talking and so on, so forth. As far as I’m concerned, Israel is an ultra-conservative military state surrounded by antagonists in either Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran and they all share a sense of existential struggle free from the burdens of rational consideration. There is no solution unless there is a profound and thus improbable change in the temperament of either side.

I lament the deaths and troubles of those Israelis and Palestinians who would rather just live a semblance of a peaceful life, and don’t mean to be dismissive of the humanitarian issues that root this conflict in our minds. But no logical or reasoned approach of mine pertaining directly to this conflict is going to do any more for them than did all the simplistic jargon of Douglas Alexander MP, Shadow Defence Secretary, on Sunday Morning AM.

What we could still be talking about, of course, is Syria. There I see an attainable solution. As infuriating as it is that the news media of the world almost instantaneously forgot about the ongoing civil war in a nation removed from Israel only by the sliver of geography that is Lebanon and the Golan Heights, it still continues more violently and possibly more crucially.

There were actually some incredibly exciting developments in Syria before matters to the south started to run amok again. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was consolidated and recognised as the legitimate representative of that country by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, Arab League, Turkey, France and USA. The momentum of this event should have been allowed to surge ahead with broader recognition and the beginnings of material support, but has been stifled thanks to diverted attentions. This is rather troubling as resolution to the Syrian conflict and the establishment of a democratic rule, taken into consideration with a major shift in the Middle-East towards democratic governance, could have a much more dramatic impact on the fate of Israel than cyclical rounds of conflict and half-heartened bouts of negotiation ever could.

Think for a moment about the nations that Israel pre-emptively attacked during the Six Day War. They have all endured, or are still enduring, huge changes. Egypt is now democratically led by a Muslim Brotherhood candidate in Mohamed Morsi who has thus far dealt with the Israeli-Gaza conflict with admirable restraint although expressing reasonable condemnation. This is incidentally a neat slap in the face to those hawks across the Western world who decried his election to power. Jordan is pushing itself towards a system of constitutional monarchy and King Abdullah II seems rather more keen on a conciliatory international PR campaign than reopening old wounds. These two countries remain the only members of the Arab League beyond the Palestinian National Authority who maintain diplomatic relations with Israel.

Iraq seems to be in some sort of netherworld when it comes to news media attention and although still riddled with sectarian issues is ever so gradually stabilizing and will probably spend many years to come searching for its own identity as a democratic nation. Despite the disconcertingly developing relationship with Iran, it is no position to be overtly involved in the regional politic. And as we well know, Syria has nigh on torn itself to shreds and with the state military thoroughly attending to the slaughter of its own people will not likely be poking its nose around for some time to come.

Essentially, the old neighbouring enemies are going through a process of moderation. Iran remains a looming threat to regional security but is isolated now that Syria is consumed by internal war and Lebanon is and always has been at most a viable thorn in Israel’s side when adequately supported. But despite Israel’s patently heavy hand in Operation Pillar of Defence, not one of these nations has mobilised forces or done anything beyond vocally criticise the aggression.

With the exception of an obstinate Iran, it seems the sensible thing to place focus back onto these surrounding nations and secure and nurture this drive towards moderation. If Israel existed in a region of stable, democratic and economically secure nations with which the outside world had a working relationship, then a solution for Israel would be so much more simple. There would be an incentive for Israel to have proper political and trade relations with its neighbours which in turns gives them an incentive not rile them with unilateral aggression against the Palestinian territories.

As the region has been for decades now a hotbed of conflict and tension, it must be a relatively simply equation for the Israeli government when considering actions. They exist in a climate of hostility and so choose hostile recourse. But if we arrived at a situation where Israeli aggression was the sole example of aggression in the region then the perception would have to change. I believe this process would be best enabled at present by comprehensively dealing with Syria, which is to say enabling the Syrian opposition to achieve a quick victory against a morally dead state and rapidly rebuilding the country’s infrastructure to achieve stability.

Any reasonable alternative suggestion is welcome at this stage as frankly it becomes increasingly difficult to remain engaged with such an extended conflict as what we see between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Bear in mind one definition of madness is the repetition of the same process over and over again but expecting different results each time. That’s what the standard approach is beginning to feel like. Stop shooting at each other so you can talk until you start shooting at each other again is not the way out. I await the outcome of the current ceasefire talks in Egypt with only partially baited breath.


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Into the Wild – Republicanism

Finally, the 2012 general election in the USA is over. Even for a die hard such as myself the sheer expanse and intensity of this event is exhausting and, results aside, it’s a major relief. Our attentions can turn back to issues of importance rather than the grand and heavily disingenuous courtship between government and people that every cycle seems to get a little longer and a lot more expensive. There’s plenty to be said about the nature of the campaigns and the easily criticised system of electioneering and funding and all the rest but it would be nicer to now look forward.

Obama emerged the undisputed winner, which to myself at least was a very pleasing thing and we can only wait to see how he approaches his second term. The key interest there will be to see if he maintains his cautious approach of the first term, or rather takes the gloves off, having personally nothing to lose at this point, and aggressively pursues those unattained goals. One would hope the latter, as the cautious approach didn’t go a particularly long way the first time round.

From the start of 2009, that initial pledge to work in a bipartisan fashion was torn to shreds by a Republican opposition who rapidly adopted a mission to ensure that Obama would not see a second term in office. The first two years were a fairly stuttering affair, and though arguably the administration was successful in averting further economic catastrophe, this success wasn’t sufficiently translated into real improvements in the lives of the average American. The resulting Tea Party movement was co-opted by harder leaning Republicans who in step with Fox News went about lambasting the efforts and intentions of the president.

The result was heavy losses in the House of Representatives at the mid-terms and a further two years of legislative gridlock and increasing dissatisfaction amongst the people over the concern that government was becoming less and less a functional mechanism. Though the House was retained by the GOP, with four clear years ahead there is a strong expectation that Obama will be able to take this obstacle on in a less tender manner.

What is of greater interest to me however is the crossroads at which the Republicans now stand. Despite the spectrum of American politics being noticeably more to the right in general than in the UK, there are plenty of parallels to draw between the dire straits the Tories found themselves in during the late 90’s and where the Republicans are now. Beyond that the overall strategy has resoundingly failed, that the voting public rejected the vitriolic display of far right sentiment seen in the past four years, there are some deep and concerning factors for them.

First, the Republican party has only won the popular vote in one of six of the last elections, in 2004 when W. Bush still relatively narrowly defeated Kerry. The last convincing popular victory was in 1988 when H.W. Bush hammered Michael Dukakis in the electoral college. We should all be only too familiar with the infamous events of 2000 when W. Bush lost the popular vote to Gore and barely swung the electoral college after nefarious circumstances around the Florida recount gave that state to Bush. The problem here is that the demographics of the USA continue to shift towards more ethnic minorities who have in the past decade strongly favoured Democratic candidates. The popular vote is only going to get harder for the Republicans and there is only so much time left for the inconsistencies of the electoral college to give them a reasonable chance.

So much as Euroscepticism was the major stumbling block for the Tories, hardline xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Republican party could spell the end for them. They desperately need to find a way to appeal to those minorities through finding their moderate views again. Cameron and his compassionate conservatism did eventually see the party back from the wilderness and into power, however tenuous, and it seems clear that taking the middle ground is always the key to political success. It’s how Labour surged to victory in 1997 and it’s probably the only way forward for Republicanism.

Moderation of course shouldn’t just apply to areas like immigration. Though Romney did perform poorly amongst minorities, the other area he suffered in was with women, most likely through his party’s rather odious positions on abortion rights and other social issues like equal pay and homosexuality. These views were only reinforced by the parties collusion with the financially and socially conservative Tea Party movement which was itself over-hyped by a conservative media seeing to draw attention to any point of dissatisfaction amongst the people over the new liberal administration. This lurch to the right has patently failed.

The Democrats should have lost this election. At no point in the last 40 years has an incumbent held on to power with unemployment above 7.5% and going into the final days of this election it remained close to 8%. Romney is naturally a moderate politician, as seen in his days as governor of Massachusetts, and should in theory have been perfectly positioned to take power. But after months of a primary battle which saw him re-tailor almost every one of his natural positions in order to appeal to a more hardened base, he had very little space to manoeuvre.

In the immediate wake of the election outcome, various conservative pundits have suggested he was too moderate and this a rather scary thing. It seems far more likely that it was his shift to the right that disengaged those important voting blocks and handed a genuinely unlikely victory to Obama. With voices on the right already calling for a reaffirmation of conservative values, they seem to have entirely missed the point. Like the Tories, by rooting out or hushing up those hard elements they could conceivably find their feet.

Incidentally, aren’t we now watching the Tories lose theirs again? With a petulant little wing of the party now rearing it’s ugly anti-EU head, we can already see the extent to which it is politically hazardous. The consistency of these issues in sending conservative politics into the wilderness is startling and for the sake of a healthy state of American governance, which is important for the rest of the world, it’s about time the message was heeded.

Moderate, and quickly. It couldn’t be said with any certainty that this will happen, as with the House still under Republican control they still possibly have enough clout to, for the time being, remain an obstinate political force. But if for the next two years they remain an immovable object against what should be a determined administration, the perception of overall ineffectual governance will shift towards themselves as being the problem and they will suffer for it at the next mid-terms. Where they would go from that point is very hard to say and so all the more reason for some real introspection.

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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

The US Presidential race is polling at a hair’s breadth between the two major party candidates. Obama and Romney stand within few points of each other in most samples and taking the margin of error into account, the incumbent’s generally negligible lead is reduced to meaningless proportions. This, at least, is broadly the message of the domestic and international news media. There are important considerations to include, particularly the distinction between “registered” and “likely” voter polling and the fact that there are several third party candidates.

Of note, Romney has only led Obama in one Gallup Tracking poll of registered voters which took place 14-20 October in the aftermath of an excellent performance by Romney in the first presidential debate, and a highly competitive vice-presidential debate between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden.

Following Obama’s improved displays in the second and third debates, the polls tightened again and Romney has found primarily minor gains in exclusively likely voter polling of a two-way race, the key exceptions being another Gallup Tracking poll, 22-28 October, and one Rasmussen poll, 20-22 October, with a five and four point lead respectively beating the margin of error. This can still be countered with an astonishing, though outlying, twelve point lead for Obama in the Ipsos/Reuters poll of registered voters taken 24-28 October.

Polling for three, four or five-way races is direly insufficient but the most recent Zogby/JZAnalytics poll, 18-20 October, shows Obama holding a more likely two point lead over Romney in a five-way race involving Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, Green candidate Jill Stein and Constitution candidate Virgil Goode.

Add to this the good fortune Obama has encountered in the past week, with New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie lauding the president’s efforts in managing the Hurricane Sandy crisis and New York’s widely respected Mayor Bloomberg providing vocal support. The momentum gained by the former Massachusetts governor throughout October was starting to diminish prior to the campaign hiatus forced by the hurricane, but Obama was effectively allowed to continue by virtue of his public obligations as president. Public perception of his presidency further recovered after his soporific first debate.

The extremely encouraging figures of 171,000 new jobs posted with unemployment held fractionally below 8%, will also have Romney struggling more than polls suggest. His most acceptable case for becoming president resides in a wealth of private sector experience that could be put to good use in improving job markets. This has been his key argument, coupled with intense criticism of Obama’s efforts in this area. Beyond what was tantamount to an endorsement from one of the Republican parties likely future leaders in Christie, the numbers are a significant blow to Romney’s advocacy for change.

With New York Times pollster Nate Silver increasing the odds of an Obama victory to 80%, it seems the boost incurred by Romney’s admirable debate efforts were short lived, or more forgivingly, not enough to beat a literal force of nature and a practically perfect response from the president.

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