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Thursday, September 29, 2011

2012: A STARTING POINT

Politics harbors much "conventional wisdom" and a small sample contains variations of the thought that " fourteen months (more or less) is a lifetime in presidential politics".  This is especially true if the fourteen months occur just prior to the first votes being counted.  However, in spite of the "anything can happen" truth during the period in question, outcomes are framed within a context of a factual starting point; not a fixed point but a moving  trend. 

The Gallup Poll has recently (9-22) found that 44% of Democrats are less enthusiastic about voting in the 2012 presidential election than in previous presidential elections.  This enthusiasm plunge, from a figure of just 15% in 2008, which evokes images of Mexican cliff divers, is made more stark by the flip side of the poll that showed 58% of Republican voters are more enthusiastic about voting in the next presidential election than the previous (2008) event.

One can hardly blame the Democrats for their funk. The possible reasons for their “malaise” are numerous and make the context of the evolving campaign more clear.  President Obama’s job approval is down to 39% with 51% disapproval. Approval amongst core groups is also in decline.  Approval among Jewish voters, small in number but concentrated in important electoral college states, is down from 83% in 2009 to just 54% currently.  The Gallup measure of “economic confidence” is currently minus 52 out of a possible positive 100.  The more general “state of the nation” index is just positive, 11% and negative 88%.  In spite of two and a half years of “Bush did it” by Obama and Democrat politicians and media sympathizers, a majority (53%) now blame Obama for the state of the U.S. economy with 56% saying Obama is the same or worse than Bush.  Among the all important Independent voters, 67% make the same judgment. 

As the seemingly endless supply of Democratic “strategists” populating cable talk shows reach for their Prozac, it just gets worse.  A September 22 Gallup poll of registered voters finds that while 54% of those polled would “definitely or might consider” voting for Obama in 2012, 45% would “definitely not” consider voting for him.  At the same time 62% said they would “definitely or consider” voting for Mitt Romney with only 35% in the negative category.  Rick Perry comes in virtually tied with Obama at 53% for and 44% against.  This is a dangerous statistic for Obama since neither Romney or Perry is the Republican candidate as yet and being tied or behind both of the top two possible candidates of the opposing party is a terrible place to be so early in the campaign.

Poll numbers from vital “swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania are equally threatening.  A recent Quinnipac University poll finds that in Ohio 51% of voters specifically believe that Obama “doesn’t deserve reelection” including 53% of Independents.  In Pennsylvania the numbers are 51% to 44% against reelection with Independents registering 49% to 44% against.

In the wider context of issues of some importance to the voting public, immigration continues to simmer in the background as shown by Rick Perry’s struggle to define and then redefine his opposition to a border fence and support for tuition breaks for illegal immigrant students.  Obama and the Democrats continue to avoid the issue but are solidly in the liberalized enforcement camp opposed by a majority of Americans.  A federal judge in Alabama recently upheld most of the provisions of a tough Alabama law dealing with illegal immigrants which the Obama Justice Department will almost certainly appeal, thus reemphasizing it as a campaign issue.

The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) has also regained prominence as an election issue.  Federal District Courts and Circuit Courts of Appeal have issued contradictory opinions regarding the constitutionality of the most import part of the law which requires all citizens to buy health insurance or pay a penalty.  The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to decide the case without further appeals to the Circuit Courts.  This is the Obama Administration’s signature legislative achievement to which he devoted the first eighteen months of his time in office.  It will now be a high visibility issue in the presidential campaign and with no less than 56 % of the population wanting the Congress to repeal it, even mentioning it, much less campaigning on it as a success will be difficult.

Nothing else seems to be going well for Obama.  Federal Reserve policy and the financial crisis in the European Union keep the stock market gyrating with enormous swings almost on a weekly basis which emphasize the uncertainty and instability of the economy.  The “promise” of the “Arab Spring” with its overthrow of dictators has so far produced political instability in each nation, the possibility of Islamist governments and a deterioration of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Obama has managed to alienate himself from the Israeli government and will shortly alienate himself from Arab governments with a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood in the UN Security Council.  Violence is on the upswing in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq even as U.S. forces begin withdrawal.

Certainly not all of this is in the control of Obama or any other President but taken all together, along with U.S. unemployment seemingly fixed at 9%, the impression more and more voters are getting is one of a President out of his depth and an Administration in disarray. 

What does all this mean?  Essentially, it is the task of the Republican candidates to project an image of capability and confidence and contrast it with the fits, starts and failures of the Obama Administration.  Once the Republican candidate becomes obvious, Republican voters must rally behind whoever it is and present a unified front in spite of their differences and preferences.  It will then be up to the candidate to perform well in the presidential debates, something Republican primary voters should keep in mind.   Candidate Reagan’s question to voters during his debate with President Carter is even more powerful today:  “Are you better off today than you were four  years ago?”
How many could say yes?  Still, the powers of incumbency are significant; the Obama campaign will have close to a billion dollars to spend, and the far Left organizers, media and special interest groups who control the Democratic Party will be in desperation mode. But if current trends continue it will be the Republican voter's and the selected candidate’s election to lose.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

PALIN IN COWBOY BOOTS?

September is quickly winding down and not surprisingly nothing has been heard from the ex-Alaskan governess about jumping into the Republican presidential nomination race.  This is not surprising because she has never taken the usual organizational steps required for raising money and operating a multi-state campaign.  It is also not surprising because she has never followed the advice of Republican strategists since her defeat as McCain's tag-a-long in the 2008 presidential campaign which was to go home and attempt to achieve some breadth and depth in the basic economics, national politics and international relations areas.  Instead she chose the paid celebrity route with substance free books about herself, highly paid speaking engagements, a Fox News "contributor" contract, and a self-promoting biographical movie.  Of course she could still "jump", or fall, into the race just to keep her name in the news but it seems unlikely given the rise, fall, and continued presence of her evangelical and ideological twin, Michele Bachmann. 

Still, in a sense she might be already in the contest, at least in spirit, and not in the form of the Representative from Minnesota.  The current front runner in the polls is Rick Perry who is appearing more and more to be Palin in cowboy boots.  In a few short weeks he has managed to change his image from a tough talking, get things done, jobs creator to a substance challenged Palin-like, anti-government cheerleader.

Consider the other image making (or breaking) similarities.  Both are from states with a vigorous "frontier" image and culture of independence.  Both seek to bolster this image with strong firearms advocacy; she shoots wolves from helicopters; he shoots coyotes from jogging shorts.  Both celebrate the rejection of the last two hundred years of biological and geological science by affirming their belief in creationism and their desire for God to take over the tough decisions and fix the economy.  Both display a disdain for intellectual breadth and academic success.  She took five years at four different colleges to earn a degree in sports journalism.  He brags about being "in the top ten of his high school graduating class of thirteen” and flunking college chemistry in a failed attempt to become a veterinarian; instead settling for a degree in animal husbandry.  Despite a high volume of political rhetoric, neither have offered much in the way of policy preferences, instead just contributing to the anti-Washington, anti-Obama windstorm which seems to appeal to large conservative crowds. This stance of course makes both favorites in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. 

There are important differences in the two, however, to those Republicans who can look past the nomination battle to the general election and are hopeful of replacing Obama in 2012 the similarities can be scary. 

Perry has the advantage of being a politically successful governor of the second biggest state (behind Alaska but with thirty-six times its population).  He has held that position for over ten years and never lost an election.  She was elected with less than a majority vote in a multi-party election and resigned after two years for the money and bright lights of the lower forty-eight states.  He served on active duty as an Air Force pilot and presumably knows something about the military.  She spent three days visiting troops in Kuwait and Iraq.

It is becoming clear that many in the Republican establishment (big donors, members of Congress, state officials) have serious doubts that Perry could win the general election although he might well win the nomination on the strength of his Tea Party and evangelical support.  Just as “the stars were aligned” to elect a remarkably unqualified and unprepared Democrat in 2008, the political/economic environment seems to be creating a strong possibility to unseat him.  This might be the Republican party’s election to lose and the critical constituency which the Republican candidate must win back from Obama are Independents who play no role in the selection of the nominee.  (Some primaries are “open” and allow anyone to vote in them but most are not).

So far Perry has done little to attract these voters.  His rash statements about Social Security, constant references to his fundamentalist religious views, and abortion, were/are unnecessary and divisive.  Perry still has plenty of time to change his image but so far has shown little inclination to abandon his harsh tone and anti- everything Washington views.  With the economy being the central election issue, a few credible policy ideas along with an upbeat vision of the nation’s future under his leadership would help him immensely with voters who are disillusioned  with Obama but wary of ideological rigidity and partisan gridlock. 

If Perry is to be successful in convincing general election voters that he has better ideas and leadership skills than Mitt Romney and Obama,  he has to abandon the Palin like superficiality and attract voters in the swing states of the mid-west.   Iowa, Texas and the South will not be enough.  Of course the whole problem disappears if Mitt Romney can convince primary voters that he can defeat Obama and Perry can’t, or simply that his more moderate views and business success make him better qualified for the office.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THE UNITED NATIONS AND A PALESTINIAN STATE

While the state of the U.S. economy continues to dominate discussion among the politicians in Washington D.C. and the general public, and attention has been recently diverted with 9-11 remembrances, the President's jobs speech and the debates between Republican presidential candidates, an issue of significant international importance is fast approaching.   The United Nations opens its annual assembly on September 13th at its headquarters in New York City and at this meeting the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas may ask for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood and full UN membership.   However, there are last minute discussions among international leaders which might lead Abbas to seek only General Assembly approval for permanent "observer" status which would allow it to join a number of international organizations which would be an upgrade from its present status.

Either way, his move is in response to decades of failed negotiations with Israel on the final status of Palestine.  It will, in all probability be approved in the 193 member UN General Assembly but at this point in time a petition to the UN Security Council for full membership and recognition as a state will fail based on a veto by the United States.  President Obama has stated his intention to carry out this veto and has been lobbying several other Security Council member states, some with veto power (Great Britain, France) and some without (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Portugal) to vote against any such proposal.  Obama is anxious for the U.S. not to be seen as the lone obstacle to Palestinian statehood in the UN.  The position of the U.S. and several other European Union states is that a Palestinian state must be created through direct negotiations with Israel and with assistance from the so called "Quartet" nations (U.S., EU, Russia and UN).

The importance of any effort to achieve statehood or quasi-statehood by simple declaration in the UN rests more on the consequences of denial than on the process itself.  The changes wrought by the "Arab Spring" have created much instability and uncertainty in the region, not the least of which is the relationship of Israel with the evolving governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen.  Less cooperation and more hostility seems likely.  These new orientations could, and indeed will, likely overlap onto Israel's major supporter, the United States.  So the important question with respect to Abbas' UN initiative is "What will be the ramifications of a U.S. veto of Palestinian statehood in the Security Council or U.S. lobbying efforts against enhanced observer status in the General Assembly?"

Former Saudi Arabian Intelligence Chief and former Ambassador to the U.S. Turk al-Faisal has stated that the U.S. already ". . . has little credibility in the Arab world" and thus must support the Palestinian effort or lose what "credibility remains".  Public opinion polls in the region support his contention in spite of Obama's "outreach" to the Muslim world.  However, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have much to do with this.  Nonetheless, al-Faisal sees a diminution of Israeli security and enhanced Iranian power leading to increased chances of another regional war.  He overstates the immediate consequences of the U.S. position however.  American credibility/influence will be more affected by its financial support for the new Arab governments than the Palestinian issue, which because of six decades of U.S. support for Israel is in this instance is largely symbolic as it leaves the critical issues with respect to Israel unresolved.  The U.S. has made clear its support for Palestinian statehood.  It is the process used to achieve this that is the subject of debate.

Saudi Arabia is more focused on Iran than on the Palestinian people.  They have for a long time been a religious (Sunni vs. Shia) and political counterweight to Iran in terms of its regional ambitions.  Turk al-Faisal is thus positioning the Saudi government in this episode as a reliable Arab  supporter of the Palestinians.  He claims that if the U.S. exercises its veto in the Security Council, the U.S./Saudi relationship will suffer as Saudi leaders "are forced to adopt a more independent and assertive foreign policy vis a' vis the U.S.  While not entirely an empty threat, it does seem exaggerated.  Another reliable anti-Iranian partner of any significance is not on the scene.  The U.S. has a well established military presence in the Mid-East with its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and is the major supplier of Saudi arms.  The 2010 announcement of a multi-year deal worth $60.5 billion underlies that relationship.

However, the clear impracticality and inadvisability of a "state by vote" in the case of Palestine should be clear.  First, UN membership is open only to "sovereign states" which under international law are commonly defined as states which through a legitimate government exercise exclusive control of domestic and foreign affairs in an area of clearly defined and internationally accepted geographical boundaries. The Palestinian territories are made up of the West Bank and Gaza which are not contiguous.  The Palestinian Authority governs only the West Bank.  Gaza is controlled by Hamas, a political party, armed militia and terrorist organization.  The Palestinian Authority does not even control the entire territory of the West Bank since the major obstacle to creating a Palestinian state is the existence of 120 Israeli settlements and 102 "outposts", or minor settlements, in the West Bank as well as 12 settlements in East Jerusalem which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim as their capital.  These settlements/outposts are populated by approximately 400 thousand Israeli citizens and are under the protection of the Israeli military.

The ultimate solution to the geography of a future Palestinian state will have to be "land swaps" in which some of the settlements close to the original 1967 border become part of Israel and other lands currently part of Israel are ceded to the new Palestinian state.  This will be a long and arduous negotiating process but it currently makes "statehood" under any common sense or legal definition a practical impossibility at this time.

The unresolved issues in their totality simply don't fit into the "state to state" negotiation scheme supported by the Saudi and numerous other governments sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.  Who would govern the new state and thus negotiate with Israel as the new Authority?  A long time impediment to negotiations with Israel has been Hamas which advocates the destruction of Israel and carries out terrorist and rocket attacks on Israeli territory.  Would such behavior be the "foreign policy" of a new Palestinian state.  If so it would be an act of war.  Can a state share a capital with another state?  Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital.  The Palestinian Authority claims East Jerusalem, including the Israeli settlements, at their capital.

An on going issue in all negotiations has been the so called "right of return" of Palestinians and their descendants to their former property and locations in Israel prior to the 1948 war of independence.  Can a state demand that its citizens have a right to move to another state that doesn't want them?

Clearly statehood or quasi-statehood is premature to the resolution of all these issues through negotiation no matter how prolonged or painful.  The Obama Administration should not, and almost certainly will not, give in to pressure, most of which comes from states which represent unreliable relationships with the U.S., and U.S. foreign policy should not be constructed around public opinion polls, especially in foreign nations. 











Friday, September 2, 2011

"ARAB SPRING": QUESTIONS REMAIN

With the "Arab Spring" turning to the "Arab Fall" it's time to take another look.  While it is universally agreed that these social/political revolutions are of immense importance because of the changes they will bring to the region, the nature of those changes is not yet clear.  The Obama Administration has been properly supportive of these movements but its response has been inconsistent.  To a degree, this is also the correct posture since there should be no "one size fits all" foreign policy but consistency and execution are also important, both domestically and on the international stage. 

Interested parties will remember that the regional political tsunami began in Tunisia on January 11th, with the self-immolation of a frustrated fruit vendor whose business was taken from him by Tunisian authorities.  The uprising which followed resulted in the end of the regime of the country's long time dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.  The major issue with the mostly young protestors was rampant and chronic unemployment (@16%) and a general lack of economic opportunity even for college graduates, all made intolerable by a harsh and repressive dictatorship.

 It would seem that by comparison the Tunisian transition would be well placed to achieve liberal reforms and democratic political institutions.  The country has a small homogeneous population (10.5 million; 90% Sunni Muslim).  As a former French colony, most of the population is bi-lingual and 90% literate.  As a Mediterranean  coastal nation, Tunisia has significant ties to Southern Europe.  Still, reforms, especially economic in nature have moved slowly, if at all, and even in this semi-modern and relatively secular society, conditions which were largely imposed by the former authoritarian government, the future of modernization is not secure. 

As is commonly the case with the first exposure to an open electoral system, the political environment has been fractured into numerous special interests.  More than ninety new political parties have been registered for the creation of a constitutional assembly. This is important and instructive with respect to the other political revolts in more important regional states.  In Tunisia there exists an Islamist Party, Al Nahda which by some estimates is expected to win 20%-30% of the seats in the assembly in October.  The platform of Al Nahda is ominous.  It would establish an Islamic republic and ban normalization of relations with Israel.   It would change the  laws that forbid polygamy and which provide for judicial procedures for divorce in favor of Islamic law and indeed would define the status of women in terms of Sharia law.  Such changes would not come without a struggle but with the more liberal political forces fragmented into numerous parties, Al Nahda could find itself with a governing plurality or at least a dominant political position. 

Egypt is the largest and most important Arab state and the outcome of it’s revolution is critical to regional stability.  There is currently a struggle over the nature and electoral approval of a draft constitution.  Although a March referendum approved proposed constitutional amendments with 77.27% of the vote,  the election of a new parliament could be delayed until December or early 2012.  Egypt is currently ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which is anxious to deliver governance to a civilian authority.  The problem with a rapid election is that like Tunisia, the more liberal elements of the electorate are divided into dozens of new political parties.  That makes the two dominant parties, the supposedly reformed National Democratic Party of the former president Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Muslim Brotherhood has gone through several public transformations since its founding as a strict, conservative Muslim movement in 1928.  Its true nature is still the subject of debate.  Egyptian military/political leaders outlawed it as a political party for most of its existence since Egyptian independence.  One of its theorists Sayyid Qutb who was prominent in the 1950s and 1960s specifically advocated “jihad” against Israel and the West.  Today the Muslim Brotherhood claims to support “reform, democracy, and the basic freedoms Americans are familiar with as First Amendment rights.  Since the Egyptian revolution they have established the Freedom and Justice Party to run candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections and the Chairman of the FJP has said that Islamist conservatives could win 40% of the parliamentary seats.

In spite of the moderation of the Brotherhood in recent times some of its positions remain troublesome.  The Secretary General of the FJP has said that “The real threat to the region is Israel. . .” and the party’s Chairman has demanded that the Camp David Accords, the peace treaty with Israel, be “revised”.  Recent popular demonstrations have demanded the establishment of an Islamic Republic and the termination of the peace treaty, and Egypt has recently experienced conflict between Islamists and Egypt’s Coptic Christians with two Christian churches being burned. The platform of the FJP states that the government and laws be based on Islamic law and that women and Christians are “unsuitable for the presidency.”

Included in the Egyptian Islamist spectrum are Salafist groups which by comparison make the Muslim Brotherhood look like liberals.  Salafism is sect which is believes Islam should be practiced by 7th and 8th century standards, that is, a strict interpretation of the Koran which rejects subsequent interpretations.  The Egyptian Salafists have a general disdain for the democratic political process, but they have a political party called Al Nour (The Light).  Their platform includes  an Islamic state guided by Sharia law and they have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being “too focused on politics at the expense of religion.”

President Obama made an early promise of $2 billion  in debt forgiveness and loan guarantees to Egypt without regard to what kind of government emerges from the upcoming parliamentary and presidential election.  The U.S. already provides about $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt with about one half going to Egypt’s military.  This aid should provide enormous leverage in relations with the new Egyptian government with respect to the continuation of the peace treaty with Israel and the pursuit of a moderate regional foreign policy.  A revocation of the peace treaty upon which the annual aid is based should result in an automatic cancellation of that aid and this should be made clear through back channels as soon as possible. 

While political unrest and uprisings have also occurred in Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen the current conflicts in Libya and Syria demand the most attention and political skills on the part of the Obama Administration.  President Obama was reluctant to intervene in the Libyan revolt against long time dictator Moammar Gaddafi.  This position was undoubtedly influenced by the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Administration's reluctance to enter “another conflict in a Muslim nation“.  Conservatives in the U.S. were split over the issue, with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham urging a forceful intervention on behalf of the insurgents, and more isolationist Republicans saying the U.S. had no vital interests in the struggle and therefore should stay out.  Democrats wanted to intervene but in a less vigorous manner than McCain and Graham.  Obama chose to "lead from behind", an oxymoronic statement which essentially meant logistic, intelligence and maritime support for a NATO effort originally tasked with "protecting civilians" from Gaddafi’s military and mercenaries. 

Supported by a NATO "lite" force of British and French attack aircraft (NATO has 28 member nations), the insurgents are currently on the verge of defeating Gaddafi forces and taking control of the country.  Democrats are portraying this as a validation of Obama's policy of indirect support.  Republican critics say a more robust U.S. role would have ended the conflict much earlier.  But "nothing succeeds like success" and the issue now turns to what kind of government will be installed and how soon?  How will the disparate interests in this nation which is "armed to the teeth" be reconciled? Libya has a history of being the source of Islamic jihadists, some with ties to al Qaida.  The Obama Administration should be cautious in its support for newly organized political forces in the post Gaddafi era. 

The situation in Syria is moving slowly with respect to regime change.  The Obama administration has indeed been cautious in its response to the conflict which is mostly characterized by peaceful protest and harsh military response on the part of the regime led by Bashar al-Assad.  U.S. and Western response has been a gradual escalation of economic sanctions against the Syrian leadership.
Assad is a true dictator and an ally of Iran.  He and his father before him have been devout enemies of Israel with whom they share a small but strategically important border.  However, Assad has not used the border dispute over the Golan Heights as an excuse for military conflict since it was occupied by Israel in 1967. 

Thus, as in Egypt and Libya, the Obama Administration and the governments of other Western nations must carefully manage their policies toward emerging political authorities with a view towards regional stability, national interests and on-going commitments to the security of Israel.  A policy of simply "reaching out" to Muslim governments which Obama pledged to do after his election in 2008 is simplistic and has so far not surprisingly been unproductive.
                                                                                                                                                      

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